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Bond III: Intermezzo

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10,000 Years Ago:

She ran through the darkness of the everlasting night with the lightness of one who knew every crooked path by heart. She had never known this place when it was beautiful and light, she’d only heard stories that she quite frankly didn’t believe, and her paws were sure and quick as they picked through burnt out ruin with an intimate familiarity.

She stopped at the edge of the Bronze pack’s territory, turning up her nose and letting out a howl to announce her presence. Technically she didn’t have to do that, her father was a Bronze, but since she was also half Iron she felt it was the polite thing to do.

She kept on running then, other howls sounding in the distance to acknowledge her approach and welcome her. The gnarled, twisting thorns of the dead, dark forestscape opened up into the agate fen where two females and a male fell into step beside her. Their coats shone in the dim light of the world’s three moons, suspended in a starless sky. The protective scales of her underbelly and her claws shimmered the same, as did the patch of color that ran down her back and tail. The rest of her was the matte black of an Iron, painting her a partial outsider even though most of this pack were friendly to her.

“What’s going on?” One of the females, a bit younger than her, asked as they ran. “We saw the light on the horizon, did something happen?”

“Only if you count Guardians being bigger dumbasses than usual as something,” she answered breathlessly. “A group of them crossed the barrier.”

“When will they learn?” The male asked furiously. “Isn’t it enough they drove us to the fringes and destroyed the Nether? Isn’t having the whole quintessence field to themselves enough?”

“Apparently not, because now they’re reality hopping,” she answered. “Where’s the pack leader?”

“Here,” a large female answered, rising from where she lay with her mate as the small group approached. “What’s wrong? Who’s reality hopping?”

She came to a stop, trying to catch her breath.

“I was out in the marshes,” she said, gesturing the way she’d come with her nose. “A group of five Guardians came tromping through, one from each of the prides. They were on their way to cross the barrier, they were hunting down a comet they’d calculated would come through.”

“Was that the flash?” The other small female asked worriedly. “We thought it was a netherstorm brewing.”

“No, it was definitely a comet,” the half-Iron answered. “I followed them to where it came through, it tore a hole in the border. Big enough that the damage isn’t closing. Your pack has to be careful, it’s right on the edge of your territory.”

“We’ll have to move,” the pack leader’s mate said, looking at her as he sat up. “That hole will draw Formless.”

The half-Iron shuddered at the mere mention, as did the other young ones. Guardians were such power-hungry creatures, there would always be those of them who sought it out and tried to elevate themselves above the others. Every now and then one of them succeeded, mastering all of the elements and learning Light as well, becoming what they called “White Ones.” But only a small handful had managed that since existence had begun.

Mostly, they were just corrupted and became Formless. Dark creatures that roamed these lands, picking off her people when they got a chance. They were drawn to the holes in reality that naturally opened here in the Nether, feeding off the life energy that leaked in from the other side. Guardians had sapped the life out of the edges of the quintessence field in the development of their magics, leaving them a barren wasteland trapped in infinite night.

The Nether would never be the same again thanks to their carelessness and indifference, and still they continued to make life hell for the packs that survived out here.

“I’ll let the Iron pack know too,” the half-Iron promised, looking toward the horizon. “I can’t stay, I have get to them fast.”

“We’ll send word to the Steel pack, they’ll let the Gold and Silver packs know,” the leader assured her. “Everyone should be aware to be on their toes. Be careful.”

The half-Iron said her goodbyes and turned back the way she’d come, plunging back into the darkened forest and heading on to the smoldering caldera of the Iron pack.

* * * * *

Ten decaphoebs later:

The half-Iron sat at the edge of the marshes, straight and tall. To her right sat one of the bigger Bronzes, to her left a small Iron. She was right in the middle, being mixed, but older than both and so the one in charge here.

“There,” she tilted her head, one pointed ear twitching. “Do you hear it?”

Both the Iron and Bronze listened, looking uncomfortable.

“Yes,” the Iron said finally. “What is it?”

“The things that live on the other side, I think,” the half-Iron said. “They’ve been calling for a while now.”

“They’re going to bring every Formless in the Nether through that hole if they don’t shut up,” the Bronze noted. “And those things can survive over there long enough to cause a lot of damage. Mortals don’t seem very smart.”

“It might just be the one,” the half-Iron corrected herself. “It’s using Guardian magic, I do know that. Every now and then I can feel a vibration go through this whole area’s quintessence.”

“Ho…Honerv…a? Honerva?” The Iron said, listening carefully. It was the same message over and over again, someone or something trying to reach across the side and make contact they were never meant to make. “What does that mean?”

“It says that “it is,” the Bronze answered, listening again as well. “Maybe Honerva is what its pack is called.”

“It’s been getting louder as time goes on,” the half-Iron lamented. “I’ve had to chase off ten smaller Formless so far, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to take one of the bigger ones. Somebody’s going to have to answer it eventually and tell it that it’s in danger.”

“Not our job,” the Iron answered. “It’s using Guardian magic, it deserves whatever it gets.”

“Yeah, I can’t disagree,” the Bronze said. “They’re tapping massive amounts of quintessence over there, that stupid White One that disappeared a while back is probably over there teaching them how to do it. Let it be his problem.”

“I don’t care about them, I care about us,” the half-Iron defended. “We’ve already been pushed to the far edges, if the bigger Formless start to swarm this corner of the Nether we’re going to lose a big chunk of what little we have left. I couldn’t care less if they all went through and ate the whole damn universe over there, but I hate when those gangly soul suckers try to claim our space.”

“Then leave it up to the pack leaders,” the Iron answered, turning to slink away from the hole through the tall grass. “If they decide we shouldn’t get involved, then we shouldn’t. If they decide we should, let one of them do it.”

The Bronze followed her, leaving the half-Iron standing alone. She sniffed the air, checking for the awful scent of Formless to make sure there were none nearby to be dealt with. When she was certain there were none at the moment she turned and followed the others, leaving the curious entreaty of the mortals on the other side of the rift behind.

Chapter Text

Eight Months Ago:

Red lay quietly at the edge of the cliff, her eyes closed in the closest thing to relaxation she ever managed to achieve. The pink sky overhead was dotted here and there with stars, but most had disappeared behind the light cast by the endless fire of the eternal sunrise ahead. The light reflected across the ground below, crystalline flowers and trees painting the surface with a rainbow of red and orange instead of with darkened shade.

To the north lay the shadows of Black’s infinite twilight, and beyond that the dark of Green’s forever night. To the south sprawled Yellow’s unending day, and the depths of Blue’s gemstone sea.

Once, they had all shared the same stretch of ether, an expanse of the astral plane they had marked for their small pride. But ten thousand years of solitude had splintered their connection, separating their retreat into these small, individual realms. Coming back together had closed much of the space, brought them together into a little kingdom of varying lands, but occasionally Red still preferred to hide here and be away from the others.

She wasn’t alone in this today. Not a word had been exchanged between any of the Guardians in the last two days, each resting alone in the quiet so as not to ruin each other’s concentration.

The form around which Red’s burnt paw now curled was weak, unable to keep a connection to the physical world on its own. It had been through a lot in the last few days, its body battered and beaten and its emotions torn to shreds. To the north and south, Blue and Green nursed their similarly exhausted Paladins, stepping in to keep them bound to the physical plane at a time when they were unable to do it themselves.

Black and Yellow kept an eye on theirs, ready to step in at the first signs of trouble. Their Paladins were conscious, more actively able to be strong, but they were still physically weak as well. All five Guardians remained on watch, patiently protecting the essences so the bodies were free to heal.

The presence made itself known as a faint tickle to the senses, brushing the border of Red’s quiet haven as more of an announcement than a request for invitation. It was literally the last entity in all of existence that she really wanted to see, and she didn’t bother to look up when the light feeling shifted into audible footfalls.

“Oh good, you’ve come out from under your rock,” Red mumbled, scowling at the sunrise. “I was so worried I wasn’t going to end up being forced to put up with you at some point.”

The footfalls came to a stop beside her, and their owner laid down at the cliff edge at her side. The white male was not terribly impressive and certainly didn’t do any of the stories justice, but Red had always known that. He was just slightly smaller than Blue, and only even remotely regal to anybody who didn’t know him.

“You sound like Mom.”

“You probably don’t even remember what Mom sounds like,” Red muttered. “What do you want?”

“Oh, come on. Is that any way to thank me for saving you and your little friends?” White asked. His needling tone set her teeth on edge, and if she weren’t cradling Lance she would have reached over to try and bite him.

“You didn’t save us, we had it under control. You popped up to be an attention whore as always, that’s all you did. Where did you even come from?”

“Hitched a ride on a princess,” White answered. “Ten thousand years is a long time to sit around with nothing to do, and it’s not like many more alchemists were going to come my way. It seems to be a dying industry.”

“Oh, so you’re here because you were bored,” Red said with fake epiphany. “Too bad, for a second I thought you were here to help clean up the mess you started by coming into this universe in the first place.”

“First of all, you’re the one who bounced through the reality barrier with your merry little gaggle—"

“Only to make sure they didn’t get into too much trouble!” Red defended.

“—completely unprepared for how different it is from the quintessence field and barely knowing what you’re doing—”

“We’ve been here ten thousand years already, we’ve kind of figured out how it works.”

“—and then you almost get yourselves straight up murdered by a machine that literally sucks the quintessence out of things and could have decimated you all—”

“You got smacked around by it too, genius, don’t think I didn’t notice!”

“—so now I have to drop everything I was doing to come and babysit a bunch of cubs who shouldn’t even be here at all.”

“Oh, no,” Red shook her head vehemently. “No. You are not hanging out with us, go back to your stupid temple. In fact, go now. I don’t even want them to find out you were here.”

Ten thousand years here in this universe and uncountable eons at home had passed since she’d last seen her brother, back when he sported sparkling ruby scales and fur of crimson fire. Before he had followed in their father’s pawprints and gone looking for power, and then never bothered with his mother or sister again once he had found it. There was a reason Red had known immediately that Black’s jaunt into this reality was to search for the White One, and it was because she knew their type only too well.

White didn’t respond to her demand that he leave, if anything he made himself more comfortable. She wasn’t powerful enough to make him go if he didn’t want to and he knew it, no matter how much she fantasized about kicking him off the cliff.

“How is he?” White asked instead, looking down at the small body. Red wrapped her paws tighter around Lance, carefully pulling him closer to her and blocking him from his view. “It’s just polite conversation, I’m not going to eat your bonded.”

“He’s not a bonded, I wouldn’t do that to him,” Red answered in a clipped tone. “The Lion ships are our avatars right now. And he’s fine.”

“He looks kind of…dead.”

“He’s not, he’s fine.”

“No, no, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him dead before,” White answered. “It was that electric shock, I think, the one that rattled your brain for a good ten minutes.”

Red’s claws came out, curling into the soft earth under her paws. That had happened after Oriande, if he really had hitched a ride on Allura he was insinuating he was the one who had saved Lance while Red was temporarily tapped out. She did not like mentions of her failings, or his attitude toward any of this.

“So not only were you hanging around since Allura picked you up, but you were conscious and paying attention,” Red noted. “And doing absolutely nothing helpful or of use. Which is very much like you, honestly. I was more shocked than anything that you did step in during this fight…I know how much you enjoy being worshiped while avoiding doing anything to deserve it.”

“I didn’t have an avatar,” White shot back. “I did what I could, when I could do it. How am I supposed to work without hands to guide? I had no connection with Allura, I had to wait for her to act of her own free will and then help her along when she did.”

“And you’ve found an avatar now?”

“More of a puppet at the moment, but it actually seems very promising. And luckily for all of you I’m strong enough to handle a ship that dwarfs all five of yours…you obviously need somebody watching your back.”

The sound of pebbles skittering across the ground drew their attention to the path slightly behind them, and to the guest who had crept up on them unnoticed. Blue stood frozen in place, her eyes flicking first left then right in search of escape before she gave the most innocent smile she could muster.

“Uh, I’ll just come back later.”

“No, it’s fine,” Red sniffed, turning her gaze back toward the sunrise. “Someone was just leaving.”

“I’m assuming I’m someone,” White answered, giving Blue a charming smile. “And you are?”

Red shifted to her side just far enough to kick him. “No. Do not do that. Leave.”

White gave a low, rumbling laugh and got to his feet.

“Don’t be a stranger, sis,” he said as he walked away, making sure he stepped on her tail with at least two paws as he went. She snarled at him, but he knew Lance was keeping her from getting up, otherwise he wouldn’t have so blatantly risked her ire. He slowed down as he passed Blue, and Red kicked dirt in his direction.

“Keep going!” Red commanded. “She’s not interested!”

White seemed to think that was funny, giving Blue another charming smile as he trotted away. Blue watched him go, then whipped around to look at Red with wide eyes.

“Don’t say it,” Red warned.

“Black is going to blow a dynatherm!” Blue squealed. “The White One was right here and he missed it!”

“He should count himself lucky,” Red answered grimly.

“The White One is your brother!” Blue continued, oblivious to her irritation. “You know him!”

“It’s my understanding that knowing is a side effect of siblinghood, yes.”

“Oh! OH!” Blue got so excited she was ready to burst, running around in a tight circle for lack of anything else she could possibly do with herself. “Oh, he’s going to be so mad, I love it!”

It was a testament to how pretentious Black sometimes got that even Blue, who loved and tolerated everyone with only a few exceptions, enjoyed seeing him in a dither. He was smart, sure, and very talented, and Red would never say so out loud but he wasn’t terrible to look at either. But being a Black and coming from a pride that was steeped in magics more than the others he sometimes forgot that the rest of them were just as smart and talented.

“How about we just don’t tell him?” Red suggested. “They’re horrible apart, they’d be insufferable together.”

“The White One was born a Red!” Blue was still going, no longer spinning but now practically hopping up and down. “I hope he’s so shocked he swallows his tongue! Always going on about how it’s always Blacks that ascend!”

“Blue!”

She finally stopped, but it clearly took immense effort. Blue cleared her throat and sat down, attempting to look calm and at least slightly proper.

“So…is he seeing anybody?”

“I don’t…why would I know that?” Red asked. “Why would I care? And even if I did I wouldn’t tell you, you and him in the same space would be just as bad as Black and him. Worse, possibly. Did you want something? I’m assuming from the fact that you’re happy that Allura is okay.”

“She’s all right. She woke up a little bit ago.”

Blue got up and padded forward to sit back down closer to Red, looking out over the view of her little sanctuary. Her happy air faded some, and Red tamped down on her attitude. She looked over at her friend sympathetically.

“No luck?” Red asked.

“He’s not here,” Blue said dully, flopping down to lay beside her. “They’re saying he died.”

“You’d know if he died.”

“I know. But wherever he is, he’s so far away,” Blue lamented. “He’s felt sad for a long time now. Sad, scared, hurt. But I can’t pinpoint him over Allura, I thought he was here. I thought that we’d get here and I’d find him and make it better.”

Red looked down at the fragile form resting in her paws and wished she could do something to alleviate Blue’s distress. She had been upset about leaving her Paladin behind ever since the decision had to be made to get the others away from Earth before the Galra arrived. Although Green was the cleverest of them all, it didn’t take a scholar to know Blue probably blamed herself for not protecting him.

She would certainly have felt that way if it were Lance that was missing under the same circumstances.

“You’ll find him, Blue,” Red tried to be reassuring. “The others will figure it out eventually, they’ll look for him.”

“Yeah,” Blue said noncommittally, looking out at the sunrise frozen in the distance. “Eventually.”

* * * * *

Two months ago:

“How long have you known?” Black hissed, doing his best to be quiet. He was not good at it, given that Blue and Yellow barely came up to his shoulder and Green and Red were smaller still, the four of them standing just tall enough for their ears to be at the perfect level to hear everything out of his mouth. “When were you going to say something?”

“If this is about that detective show, I told you. Lance downloads an illegal copy off the internet every week so he can watch it before everybody else,” Red answered without looking up at him. “Just make Keith stop accepting his bets on what’s going to happen.”

She knew Black was talking about White, who stood before them in all of his stupid, obnoxious, not-quite-glory, but she wasn’t in the mood to answer questions about him. She was sore, she was tired, and she was wary.

The Lions had only just been retrieved, having been left where they’d landed as the Atlas crew worked throughout the night so they would naturally charge up enough to be flown to the hangar. She was going to have to start repairs soon if she didn’t want the mortals touching things and mucking them up.

“You are the worst girlfriend in the entire quintessence field,” Green tsked dryly, knowing very well she was sidestepping questions. “Holding out on Black about his hero.”

“I’m not his girlfriend!” Red protested.

“Since when?” Black asked, slightly taken aback. He frowned slightly, giving her a speculative look. “Is Lance hungry? You always get randomly angry at me when he’s hungry.”

“I don’t think you know what “random” means,” White commented. “It’s good that you’re pretty.”

“Hey, don’t be mean to him,” Red warned in Black’s defense, stepping in front of him slightly. “He’s tired. We’re all tired. And if it wasn’t for that Reaper this whole system could have collapsed, so we’re all a bit on edge.”

“The Reaper?” White repeated, looking offended. “That was me. I did that, thank you very much, Reapers don’t have magic.”

“But to be fair, if the Reaper hadn’t been there nobody else would have known to get you close enough,” Yellow said tactfully. “I think Red’s point is just that we need to discuss why it’s here.”

“Reapers have always been known to come and go from the edges of the realities,” Green piped up. “They’re more physical-bodied than we are, that’s why they live way out in the Nether and not deeper in the quintessence field where everything is pure energy.”

“Somehow, I don’t think it’s just here for a vacation,” Black answered. “It hitched a ride on a mortal, and it’s really far from any access points to get back. I wonder if there are others.”

“We probably won’t know until they make themselves known,” Red said. “You know how sneaky they are, and they’re next to impossible to sense if you don’t already know to try.”

“Well that’s great, considering they hate our guts,” Yellow lamented. “I got bitten by one when I was a cub, they’re nasty.”

“Why were you close enough to the Nether to get bitten by a Reaper?” White asked. “That’s their space, you shouldn’t have been in it. Reapers aren’t terrible if you leave them alone, they just have a bad attitude toward outsiders.”

“Yeah, they hate our guts,” Yellow repeated. He paused. “Where’s Blue?”

“In her cove,” Red answered. “Now that everything is quiet, she’s with her Paladin. I don’t think she really cares what else is going on right now.”

“Not even the Lizard Problem?” Yellow asked, gesturing back over his shoulder with his head.

The Lizard Problem, as Yellow put it, was the group of three Sentinels lounging in their common ether space like they owned the place. About one and a half times the size of Black, the dragon-like creatures generally lived at high altitudes and usually left the more ground-dwelling Guardians alone, so it was rare to have to deal with them.

“Do you think they bite?” Yellow asked.

“Usually? No,” White answered, taking a few steps backward as the leader, a pinkish one with an iridescent sheen, started to stir awake. “But biting’s not what you have to watch out for.”

“Can I just say that for being in a mortal universe it’s getting very crowded with quintessence field creatures?” Red asked. “Five Guardians, one idiot— “

“Hey!” White protested. Red ignored him.

“—three Sentinels, at least one Reaper, and that…that Formless witch that tried to take Lance from me.”

“Don’t forget the lesser Formless that are running around,” Green reminded her. “And we have no way of knowing how many there are, they’re hard to sense when they’re attached to a mortal body too.”

“Well, Sentinels aren’t the smartest creatures, but they’re fast and strong and they don’t like Formless or Reapers any more than we do,” Black said. “So, these three are at least allies. They’ve already proven they can hold their own in a fight, and they’ve clearly taken a shine to Allura and her two friends.”

“Good, because until they get that Reaper out of Lance, and Blue’s pilot is up and around, we’re down one giant war robot,” Green sighed. “We might need them for a little while.”

Red frowned, glancing in the general direction of where the Sentinels were beginning to stir from their nap, but mostly looking past them to the horizon. Things had never been meant to go this far, she had never thought they’d even manage to catch a comet. Now here they were, ten thousand years later, on the front lines of a war their friends and families didn’t even know was brewing. The entire quintessence field, and every reality it fed into, was in danger.

They couldn’t have just gone home even if they’d wanted to. Which they didn’t, they’d become far too attached to their respective Paladins. None of them would say it out loud, but they had long since started down a path that would eventually leave their fates fully intertwined with those of their pilots, and they had become too invested in this universe to regret it.

Red stepped away from Black, coming to stand beside White.

“So, what are you getting out of being in the middle of this?” She asked, turning away from the others for some semblance of privacy. “You’ve never been interested in anything but acquiring new magic.”

“I don’t have any noble intentions,” White admitted. “Even unchecked, the Formless would take a very long time to suck the life out of enough universes to become a problem for me. But your little band of misfits aren’t the only ones who have waited ten thousand years for someone who’s passed to show up again.”

“Alfor is spoken for,” Red bristled. The only mortals White could have come across in a very long time were those who had travelled to Oriande.

“I’m not interested in Lance,” White assured her. “Alfor was too good. Too stuck on the idea of good and evil for most of his life, too convinced that people were one or the other. War is dirty. It’s gray and the lines are blurry. It’s easy to be “good” when you’ve never had the line at your feet and a reason to cross it in front of you. If I have to take that final step and bond to win this, then I want it to be with somebody who has every reason to take the dark but still chose the light instead.”

Red didn’t like that kind of talk. Her brother had always been that way, had always seen the world through very different eyes than she had. He forgave much more than she and the other Guardians here did, or at least most of them. Black and White really did have a lot in common, even what kind of mistakes they’d tolerate.

“You’re talking about Shiro,” Red deduced. “You know he’s compromised, I hope.  He piloted Black for a spell…the Paladins think we accepted mixed up pilots in the beginning because things were confused. Really, Blue wouldn’t give up Lance because she didn’t want to end up with Shiro. Black was the only one who would take him.”

“Blue dealt with him well enough for the past day or so,” White noted.

“For her Paladin’s sake,” Red snorted. “And she won’t do it again.”

“That’s fine, she won’t have to.”

Red didn’t like it. Shiro was nice enough, sure, and ten thousand years was a very long time for mortals. He had several lifetimes between him and his past and she knew from being in their heads that both Keith and Lance cared about him and trusted him. But she wasn’t comfortable with this.

“You need to be careful,” she warned. “Some marks never go away, this could end very badly.”

“I’m well aware of everything you think you know and more,” White said, shrugging off her concerns. “Don’t worry about it. You can call me an idiot from now until every reality burns out, but I didn’t get where I am by making uninformed choices. I can see a much bigger picture right now than you ca—whoa!”

Red and White turned their heads at the same time as movement caught their eyes, only to find themselves looking right into a glittering pink face with large, slit eyes. Red screamed, and White jumped and scrambled over her to put her between him and it.

“Oh, thanks a lot, brave warrior!” Red complained, trying to back away.

“Kitty,” Opal crooned.

“Oh no,” White said immediately. “No, I am not doing this again. Sorry, Red, you’re gonna have to take one for the team.”

White gave her a shove, sending her stumbling forward to where Opal could loom over her. The thing made even Black look small, she was only a fraction of its size, and she didn’t like the look it was giving her. It leaned down, one clawed foot reaching for her, and she dropped down low with her ears flat and her eyes squeezed closed.

“Kitty,” Opal repeated, patting her roughly on the head. It was hard enough to rattle her brain in her skull. “Red kitty.”

“Kitty,” another serpentine voice chimed in as Red peeked up to see Jade’s aqua-colored face appear to Opal’s right, followed by Carnelian’s orange scales to the left. “Kitty! Kitty.”

Red tried to make an escape, but one of them caught her by her tail and dragged her back, her claws leaving furrows in the astral plane’s glossy ground that closed over their own accord. Spindly fingers hooked her under her front legs, lifting her off the ground.

“W…what are they doing!?” Red screeched. “No! NO! Oh, stars, you’re rubbing the fur the wrong way!”

“Remember when I said the biting’s not what you have to worry about?” White asked, backing away.

Red tried to fight herself free, but she was hanging in the grip of one of the Sentinels, her back feet flailing at empty space, while the other two continued to pet her roughly. A steady chorus of happy “Kitty!” continued to echo.

“Oh, man, I’m out of here,” Yellow declared, blatantly turning tail and running. White was right behind him.

“I, uh, I think I left a quiche in the oven,” Green stammered, quickly following them.

“Black!” Red squealed as whichever Sentinel was holding her hugged her tightly.

“Sorry, you broke up with me again five minutes ago!” Black backed away, panic painting his face as the Sentinels caught sight of him as well. “Call me when you’re available!”

He bolted after the others. Red watched him go, furious, as the lizard trio continued to muss up her beautiful fur.

“Don’t think I’ll forget this, you traitors!” She yelled after the other Guardians. “I know where you all sleep!”

* * * * * * * * * *

Current Day:

The Quarantine sector medical bay was empty and quiet, the Galaxy Garrison having no great need of it while Earth wasn’t actively at war. It took an insane level of clearance to access this room, and the number of active security measures in place was ridiculous for one sick man who was asleep in a healing pod.

Shiro knew they took the measures for good reason. He knew he had to be impartial about it. But the fact that it was Adam here, that the only thing keeping Garrison scientists who answered practically to no-one from doing whatever they wanted was a piece of paper filed by the Atlas chaplain…it made him very unhappy.

He had allowed Adam to be removed from the pod a few times, always sedated to keep him asleep, for MRIs and x-rays. Shiro had allowed only one very minor invasion, a small incision in Adam’s scalp to access a tiny port that was likely built into his eye hardware to make software updates and diagnostics easier. Just enough for them to get a look at the programming, which he insisted they give a copy of to Pidge.

The bare minimum for threat assessment. Aside from that, he allowed nothing. Adam would be apoplectic if he found out the military that had left him to die, that had abandoned him as a prisoner of war, was now trying to inspect him because he was newly of interest. Shiro was not going to let that happen.

It was Saturday and he was off, which was the only reason he was on the Garrison base in a pair of jeans and a sweater. He was literally draped across Adam’s healing pod on his stomach, scrolling his news feed on his own phone. Adam’s phone lay beside him, the speaker resting against the cover of the pod and one of his playlists set to random. He didn’t know if Adam could hear what was going on around him, but he tried to come in here and make the atmosphere more pleasant whenever he could, just in case.

Shiro spent a lot of time in here, and it showed. This sector was never really used, it had been built to hold alien enemy prisoners who regular cell blocks wouldn’t hold, so nobody ever bothered him or complained that he was here. His little camp that had slowly accrued over the last two months went unbothered by cleaning staff, the sleeping bag laid out on the floor since chairs weren’t as comfortable and a small array of his belongings scattered over it.

He probably could have slept here and nobody would have cared. He was beginning to consider doing so if this went on much longer.

Shiro had no idea how long Adam was going to be in here. He never saw Kuro anymore, the other man avoided everyone like the plague and never left the confines of the Lorelia. Shiro got his information about Adam’s condition through emails forwarded from the ship, and any attempts anyone made to stop by and visit were stopped cold by the Altean diplomats also staying there.

They were wary of outsiders, which he supposed he understood, and they didn’t allow anyone to set foot on the ship except Romelle. She didn’t even bother, since she didn’t know the three there very well.

Shiro checked his email, opening the last message from Kuro. There was very little there that he understood, it was a lot of vital readings and medical language that didn’t even exist in Earth vernacular. Shiro’s response, which thanked him for the update and asked Kuro how he was, had not received a reply.

“I guess if everybody’s first reaction to me was “ugh, a clone,” I wouldn’t want anything to do with any of us either,” Shiro said out loud to Adam, returning to his news feed. “You’re the only one who gets visits.”

As far as anyone knew, Kuro had never set foot in this room. He worked over relay, controlling the pod through the Lorelia’s computer system, or so that was the common belief. But Shiro spent enough time in here to know that some days when he came in things were physically different, and that somebody had been here during the night. How Kuro came and went, how he managed to get past some of Earth’s most advanced security measures, he didn’t know. But Kuro was clearly very active in treating his patient.

“Oh, this is going to make you really mad, but apparently Petrov plays for the Coyotes now,” he said conversationally, scanning the story. He talked to Adam a lot as well, in addition to playing his music. “He scored a hat trick in last night’s game and before you ask, no, nobody beat him in the face with his own stick. The NHL’s kind of condensed right now while things rebuild, there are only six teams and he’s one of the few players left. Everybody’s putting up with him. Sorry.”

It wasn’t difficult for him to imagine what Adam’s answer would have been if he were awake. Pearl-clutching levels of distress, claims that he was going to have to burn his Coyotes jerseys. Research into exactly how illegal it was to go to a game just to throw something at a player.

But Adam didn’t answer, and Shiro kept scrolling through the news, giving him updates on the things he knew Adam would care about. New York Fashion Week would be cancelled for the coming year, but the event in Paris wouldn’t be. Porsche, long since defunct when it came to luxury cars and now a maker of rugged, all-terrain vehicles had just introduced a more powerful engine in their off-roaders. General Mills was going to reintroduce Franken Berry cereal next Halloween after they’d stopped making it ten years prior.

Shiro yawned halfway through a sentence, feeling the strain. He hadn’t slept very well last night, his rest disturbed several times through the night by strange dreams he immediately forgot upon waking. It was something that had happened off and on ever since the battle over Colony One, but it was steadily growing more frequent as time wore on.

He put down the phone and turned up the music a little, resting his head on his folded arms. He knew a big part of what was bothering him was the memory that had resurfaced during what everyone involved now simply called The Plateau Incident. As much as he tried, Shiro was unable to conjure up any further context or memories. He remembered the feelings of devastation and anger. He remembered losing his temper…or rather, her temper, if the memory was accurate.

Shiro knew nothing about alchemy and had no skill in it in this lifetime, but he remembered flexing abilities he’d once had, reaching out to try and destroy. He remembered Honerva’s face, impassive and indifferent after just having committed murder, and the fire that lit in his chest at the time.

But that was all. He didn’t know the end result. He didn’t know what he’d actually done. He didn’t know what had happened to Blaytz’s body or if it had ever even been retrieved. He didn’t know anything that had happened after, or anything leading up to the event.

Just those few moments. And probably only because of how disturbingly similar the past and present events had been.

Shiro lay in the quiet, listening to the music play for about an hour until his phone rang. He sat up and glanced at the caller ID, sighing as he answered it.

“Still Tuesday, Lance.”

“You’re sure?” Lance didn’t even greet him anymore, he called so often in the last week it was as if the conversation had never ended and didn’t need it.

“I’m sure,” Shiro assured him. “I haven’t heard anything today about it being extended.”

He didn’t mention that he doubted Keith would ever extend the trip he was on anyway. Keith hadn’t been quite as bad as Shiro was being, but he’d been borderline insufferable in bothering Allura about Lance for the month after the battle. It had finally been suggested that he distract himself by joining Krolia and Kolivan on a trip to salvage Blade tech and weaponry from hidden bases in Galra territory, something that would both keep him very busy and ensure that he wasn’t able to contact Allura every five minutes.

Ironically, Allura’s breakthrough in removing the entity from Lance had come only a few days after Keith had left, and ever since then it had been Lance bothering Shiro about his return.

“So do you think it will be in the morning or in the afternoon?” Lance persisted.

“I wish I had an answer for you, but I honestly don’t know.” Shiro answered. “They all prefer arriving early, but with the snow coming they might have to stay in orbit a few hours until it passes.”

“Ugh, that sucks!” Lance complained. “I wanted to be there for their landing.”

“I’ll get you a day pass, will that help?” Shiro asked. “Then you won’t need the time window.”

After waking, Lance had been bound here in the Quarantine sector for two weeks until satisfactory evaluation had been done and he’d been released into his family’s custody. He had a hearing coming up this week for reinstatement, a hearing Shiro fully expected would go perfectly smoothly. The Garrison was not going to try to deny access to a Paladin, but i’s had to be dotted and t’s had to be crossed.

In the meantime though, he’d been stripped of his clearance. He could only visit the base by arriving during visiting hours and requesting a two-hour pass, which he had been doing to join the rest of the team for lunch every day. They had to go to the civilian cafeteria because of his restrictions.

“Can you?” Lance asked hopefully. “Just this once?”

“Yes, definitely,” Shiro assured him, absently repositioning Adam’s phone to make sure the speaker was pressed fully against the pod cover. “Just go to the visitor desk on Tuesday, I’ll make sure you’re listed.”

Lance started to thank him, but the door at the far end of the medical bay opened and drew Shiro’s attention away from the conversation. He reached over to silence the music as Admiral Iverson appeared, a rarity in this far off corner of the base.

“Lance, I’ll have to talk to you later,” Shiro interrupted. “I promise, I’ll let you know if anything changes with Keith’s schedule.”

He hung up the phone as Iverson approached, not in his full uniform since it was the weekend, but still in military fatigues. He had likely been doing some extra work in his office.

“I thought I’d find you here,” Iverson greeted, looking down at the folded-up sleeping bag with the little pile of books and magazines on it. “I think I’d be more shocked if I didn’t, these days.”

It was a little bit obsessive to spend so much time here, and Shiro knew it. From Adam’s perspective they hadn’t even spoken for around six years, and there was no real relationship here. Shiro was just his overly attached ex, and his behavior was probably considered cringeworthy by some at the Garrison. But knowing that he was acting bizarre didn’t make it any easier to stop.

“Just killing some time,” Shiro lied. “It’s too quiet at home without Keith there. What’s the emergency?”

“For me? Nothing,” Iverson answered, offering one of the two folders he carried. “But I thought you might want to know that the threat assessment on Dr. Wolfe is finished. There’s nothing out of place in his prosthetic and no hidden “features” in its programming.”

“In short, he’s not a threat,” Shiro answered, opening the file and flipping through it. “You and I both knew that already.”

“Red tape,” Iverson replied. “The Secretary of Defense is very fond of it. Everyone involved is fortunate the assessment happened while he was unconscious, you and I both know he would have been a lot more threatening if he was awake.”

“So you do remember his last hospital stay,” Shiro mused.

“Everybody on this base remembers his last hospital stay,” Iverson snorted. “It’s part of the medical staff training manual now.”

Shiro smiled despite himself, closing the file up. This was a patient copy, given for Adam’s records.

“So does this mean no more Quarantine Sector?” Shiro asked. “What about Griffin?”

James Griffin had not been fortunate enough to be unconscious for the last two months, but he had been unfortunate enough to also require an assessment. Unlike Lance, who had only gone through psychological screenings, Griffin had a full leg of delicate machinery with a huge amount of programming. He was currently in the Quarantine Sector’s holding area, and was being a surprisingly good sport about it.

A side effect of having one’s life be entirely about the military, Shiro supposed.

“He was released as soon as the clearing paperwork hit my desk this morning,” Iverson answered. “There was a lot more code to go through for him than Dr. Wolfe, but Dr. Holt made it his priority and helped speed things along.”

That was good to hear. Nadia, Ryan, and Ina had been all over him ever since James had voluntarily surrendered into custody, Shiro was constantly bringing him treats and books and games on their behalf. He had not been treated badly, the staff here had tried to make him as comfortable as possible, but they were still up in arms that he was being held at all.

“Dr. Wolfe’s pod is going to be transferred out of the high security sector and into the active medical bay,” Iverson continued. “They’ll likely move him within the hour. Your…friend will have access there.”

He obviously meant Kuro. It wasn’t hard to tell Iverson didn’t really know what to make of him, and Kuro had a very distinct personality that didn’t make him easy to pin down.

“I’ll let him know,” Shiro promised. “If I see him. He doesn’t leave the consulate grounds.”

“Immigration is finally certain how they want to handle a case like his,” Iverson answered. “Non-human aliens have a process, but that obviously doesn’t cover all aliens. He’s the first time we’ve come across this. They’ve decided that until there are substantial non-Earth human colonies, all humans will be considered Earth native. Word’s been sent to Lotor that Kuro’s being issued a visa, but he’s going to have to choose a country and apply for specific citizenship.”

“What about the fact that he’s a clone?” Shiro wondered.

“What about it?” Iverson asked. “So was that one sheep. So are tons of animals. So are you now. This isn’t the twenty-first century, Shiro. Human cloning may be considered unethical and illegal, but it isn’t some newfangled idea. It doesn’t mean there’s any law against being one. All it means is that he’s considered an orphan without documents on his citizenship applications.”

That was very good news. Blanket Earth native status would mean Kuro was covered by human rights conventions, and a visa gave him safe quarter away from the Lorelia. He would be free to venture out and for the first time have a whole, safe planet to explore.

“He’s a very good doctor,” Shiro hinted. “He’s had access to training that Earth doctors could only dream of…he could be a very valuable teacher in the med bay.”

“You’re not responsible for finding him a job and getting him settled in. He’s a grown man who’s taken care of himself this long, he can manage. Don’t feel like you have to baby him.”

“I can’t help it,” Shiro admitted. “I barely know him, but I know there’s a lot of common experience. Some common memories, even. I don’t have a lot of family left, but we have the same blood. After Keith, he’s the closest thing to a brother I have.”

“You don’t have to explain it to me,” Iverson assured him. “If you really want to try and look out for him here, then do it. I just don’t want you feeling like you’re responsible for something somebody else made.”

He held up the other folder he was holding, offering it with a raised eyebrow.

“This is also yours.”

“What is it?” It was thick, and a little bit heavy as Shiro took it.

“Your benefits adjustment paperwork,” Iverson answered dryly. “In case you want to add your new spouse. Open enrollment happens when somebody gets married, and since Dr. Wolfe isn’t currently an enlisted service member he can be added to his new husband’s health benefits. Congratulations, by the way.”

Shiro winced. Although most people were like Curtis, under the impression Adam had gotten his money from a wrongful death lawsuit concerning his parents, Iverson was one of the few who had a suspicion Adam was far wealthier than he let on. They both knew Adam could and would sign up for far better health insurance than the Garrison offered once he was awake, he was not here bringing this paperwork because he really thought Adam needed to be signed up.

“Thank you,” Shiro said awkwardly, not sure how to back out of that one. He was trying to keep it secret, but obviously Iverson would find out since Shiro had been using spousal privilege to access this room. “It…it was pretty spur of the moment, but it was a long time in coming.”

“I’m not congratulating you on getting married,” Iverson said gruffly. “I’m congratulating you on finally finding something in the universe that can actually kill you. Which I’ve known you both long enough to know is exactly what’s going to happen when he wakes up. There’s no way Wolfe signed off on this.”

Shiro looked down at the paperwork in his hands. He suddenly felt like a cadet again, being dressed down for something dumb he’d done and gotten caught for. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, trying not to look guilty even though he stood a few inches taller than Iverson now.

“Technically, if you look at the certificate, he did sign it,” Shiro said carefully.

Iverson shook his head and sighed. Shiro gestured between himself and Adam’s sleeping form lying beside them.

“Come on, he’s done dumber things than marry me!” He defended. “Remember when he snorted half a dozen Pixie Stix and had to spend a night in the infirmary? Or when he bought the pangolin off a guy in an alley? This is the guy who licked a cactus, why is it so hard to believe he’d sign a marriage certificate?”

“Because licking a cactus doesn’t require forgiveness,” Iverson answered. “Which is something Wolfe has always been very stingy with.”

He took a deep breath and looked down at Adam, folding his hands behind his back. Something akin to regret flashed across his face, and for once he looked every bit his age. Sometimes it was easy to forget that Iverson had been a seasoned soldier even before Shiro had become a cadet.

“This is going to be difficult.”

“Sir?” Shiro frowned, moving Adam’s phone off the pod cover to look down as well.

“Do you remember eight months ago, what I said to you when you were sitting on the bridge of the Atlas just after the Paladins had been taken into surgery?”

As much as he hated to remember, Shiro thought back to that day. He remembered very clearly, the feelings of dread and loss as he sat at Coran’s darkened console waiting to be told that one or more members of his small, found family had died. He hated the memory of that day, but he didn’t think it would ever go away.

“You said…it doesn’t get any easier,” Shiro answered, looking up at Iverson. “Watching young people risk their lives.”

“And sometimes not coming back,” Iverson finished for him. “It’s always been hard, knowing the pilots in the first wave lost their lives for what amounts to nothing. But I think it’s going to be even harder to look one of those young people in the eye after he’s survived, knowing in hindsight I made the wrong decision.”

He stepped away from the healing pod, turning to head back to the door.

“Staff from the main medical facility will be in soon to transfer him there,” Iverson reminded him. “Make sure you don’t forget any of your things, clearance for this room gets revoked once it’s not in use.”

Shiro watched him go, then looked back down at Adam. Iverson was right, Adam had never been a person to forgive easily. He held onto his grudges like they were his personal hoard of treasure. He didn’t act on them as often once he was no longer in  school and had relaxed a lot, but he could still be practically wicked about them if he wanted to be.

The sleeping bag had been folded and the small scattering of things packed into the backpack they’d come in when three soldiers arrived to transport the healing pod to the main infirmary. Shiro knew this was where things were going to get tough, but even after two months he still wasn’t sure what to do about it.

Nobody knew Adam was here. He and Lance had been brought off the Atlas under cover of night, and since both were in Quarantine they officially were not here. Now that Adam had passed the threat assessment he was moving into a much more common area, where people were going to notice. Medical staff were going to talk, people were going to find out.

There was going to be a lot of noise soon, when the world found out a Garrison POW had returned home. Especially one who had braved going out against the Galra in the first wave. One whose face was on the very well-known war memorial.

Adam was going to hate it.

Chapter Text

The snow started early on Sunday, heavy enough to coat everything in a dusting of white by the time James left his apartment even though the weather report had said they wouldn’t get a lot. The sky was gray and the wind was biting as he called out to his roommate that he was leaving, getting only a noise of acknowledgement in return.

Ryan Kinkade wasn’t a morning person by any stretch of the imagination. He would undoubtedly liven up this afternoon, when they went to meet Nadia and Ina at the nearby tavern for drinks and dinner to celebrate his release now that he’d had a day to recover.

The cold had never bothered James, he had been born in Wisconsin and spent much of his early life in the northern Midwest before his father had been stationed at the New Mexico Garrison base. This little bit of snow was nothing, but he knew as he got into his car that he’d still have to be careful. The natives of this state always acted like they’d never seen snow before when there was a storm.

He had been away from his life for two months. Suspension from duty with pay, at least, so he wasn’t looking at any financial disasters. Ryan had taken care of his cat, not that Dump Truck wasn’t mostly self-sufficient anyway, and had handled his part of the bills for him online. And while the last two months had been mostly boring, he hadn’t been mistreated.

Movies and TV shows always portrayed the military so terribly. Sure, there were a couple bad ones that sometimes ended up in charge, like Sanda or Morris, but far more of them were like Iverson and Shiro and Duchesne. James had voluntarily turned himself in for threat assessment because he trusted the system itself, and things had worked out okay.

He’d spent Saturday doing chores that had been two months waiting, and doing grocery shopping since most of his food had expired and been thrown away. Shiro had contacted him the previous evening to see if he wanted to take a little bit of time off to recuperate, but James was looking forward to getting back to work.

He would have left the house earlier, but visiting hours at the long term care center didn’t start until ten. He made a stop at the florist, intending to kill only a little bit of time, but got so wrapped up in the variety of Christmas flowers that he’d been putting together his purchase for over an hour before he realized it. He had the flowers put in a cheerful holiday vase and made the trip to the other side of the city, glad to see that a lot of people had simply stayed home due to the weather.

“It’s been a while!” The receptionist chirped when he stopped at her desk to get a pass. She paged through the visitor’s log and handed it over as she went to print the pass. “Oh, looks like somebody beat you to it today.”

James wasn’t sure what she meant until he went to sign in as a visitor to his mother’s room. For the last eight months the only name listed on this log was his, until today. Somebody else had signed in only a few minutes prior, and it was one of the last signatures James had ever expected to see on this particular log.

Lance McClain.

James had all but forgotten he’d even mentioned his mother’s state to Lance and Keith. When he had, he had only been speaking facts, not looking for sympathy or expecting them to remember. He signed the book and took his pass, heading upstairs to where his mother had lain unconscious since transferring here from the Garrison hospital eight months ago.

The signature was at least a heads up, so when he stepped into the room and found Lance standing at the foot of the bed with his hands in his pockets he wasn’t caught by surprised. He was confused by the visit still, but most of the things the Paladins did were confusing. None of them acted like actual soldiers, ever.

“I thought you were under house arrest,” James broke the quiet in the room, moving to set the vase of flowers on the table by his mother’s head. “Are you allowed to be here?”

“Sure, I just have a curfew I have to follow until my hearing,” Lance answered. “I heard last night that they let you out yesterday. Everything good?”

“Yeah,” James wasn’t really used to small talk with Lance. He didn’t mind him when Keith wasn’t around but he still didn’t know him very well. “All clear, I go back to work tomorrow. I’m guessing once you’re reinstated you’re going to be transferred back to Kogane’s unit and won’t be flying an MFE anymore.”

“I’m more useful in a Lion than in a fighter jet,” Lance supposed. “She won’t let anyone else pilot even if I did decide to stay.”

“Too bad, you were kind of decent,” James allowed, making sure the vase was steady before lowering himself into the chair by his mother’s bed. He glanced over at Lance, who as always lately was doing everything in his power to look nothing like he had any Altean in him. If it wasn’t for the iridescent shine to his eyes he wouldn’t look any different now than he had half a year ago. “So what spurred this visit? This isn’t exactly the most cheerful place to be.”

There was another chair in the room, but Lance remained standing. He leaned against the end of the bed, letting out a sigh.

“Back when all this first started happening, when I was on the Lorelia learning some things from Camille, I decided I didn’t want anything to do with this,” Lance admitted. “But listening to the stories, listening to everybody talking about the aftermath, I’m not really as sure as I was. There were a lot of people out digging through that colony rubble. Crew from the Atlas, Altean guards who had spent years locked up, innocent civilians who were seeing open sky for the first time in years...all out there trying to save people the best way they could. Most of them probably would’ve given their left arm to be able to heal the people they were helping.”

James only nodded. Lance had made it no secret he didn’t want to be referred to as Altean, and that he wasn’t interested in using his newfound abilities. It wasn’t the route James would have taken himself, but he understood where Lance was coming from. He didn’t want who he had always been to suddenly be erased, he didn’t want to suddenly become a whole new person.

“I’ve had time since then to think about it,” Lance continued. “And I guess I realized that adding something new doesn’t have to take away from the old. I can keep being me, just with more tools to use. Being able to help somebody who’s hurt isn’t going to stop me from being the team sharpshooter.”

He nodded toward the woman sleeping in the bed.

“She’s been like this the whole time?”

“Pretty much,” James looked over at his mother. “She had full body burns, they treated her the best they could at the Garrison during the occupation. The skin grafts went okay, but when it came to anything else all they could do was keep her unconscious. There was a lot of internal damage.”

“She’s not on life support,” Lance noted.

“No. I would never force her to survive under the conditions we were facing,” James answered. “She’s still alive under her own power. She’s still here because she wants to be. One of her doctors said it might be because I keep coming to visit and she knows I’m here.”

Lance pushed away from the end of the bed and moved around to the other side. He regarded her thoughtfully for a few moments before reaching down to rest a hand on her abdomen, closing his eyes. Nothing happened at first. But James stiffened when he saw the beginnings of a blue glow.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to help. I think you deserve a little bit of that.”

James inched forward to sit on the edge of his chair, watching them both with a frown. Neither moved, nothing changed, the only thing indicating the scene wasn’t frozen in time was the steady fluctuation of the glow. He didn’t really know what to think, he hadn’t really spent a lot of time around the practicing Alteans, but he didn’t want to risk saying anything and distracting Lance from whatever he was doing.

If he could help, even a little, James would take it.

After a few very long minutes the light subsided and Lance opened his eyes. There was no change that James could see, but Lance swayed on his feet a little, clearly not used to this kind of exertion. James started to get up, but Lance motioned for him not to bother.

“I’m fine,” he insisted. “Just new to this, I didn’t really know what to expect.”

“You should sit down,” James suggested. He was looking a little bit pale even though he was regaining his balance. Whatever he had been trying to do hadn’t worked, and James found he was pretty disappointed by that, but at least Lance had tried. “I can grab you some water.”

“Nah, I’m good,” Lance shook his head. “Nothing going back home for a short nap won’t fix.”

James walked him to the door, and watched him head down the hallway toward the elevator. He seemed to get better as he went, and by the time he disappeared behind the closing elevator doors he looked like he was fine. Once he was gone the floor was quiet again, no noise save for the soft sounds of nurses checking in on patients. From where he leaned in the doorway he could see one of the regular nurses doing her rounds with medications.

“James?”

The voice was so soft he thought he’d imagined it at first, but when his name came again he whipped around to look back into the room. His mother was awake, trying weakly to sit up.

James was glued to the spot until two nurses arrived to nudge him out of the way, called to the room by the monitors attached to their patient. It was only when he was almost pushed over that he started to move, joining them at the side of the bed.

Outside, the snow was still falling, painting the world the pure, clean white of new beginnings.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Lorelia was a simple runner, not a war ship or a high security facility. Even so, it was keyed to open only to Alteans, or presumably with a passcode that had likely been given to Kuro.

Curtis had spent many years learning how to get into places that were built specifically to keep people out. Everyone always assumed these kinds of missions were highly sophisticated and used tons of advanced technology to circumvent security, but the reality usually turned out to be much more mundane. Older, more primitive methods worked just as often, if not more so, and were a lot easier to use.

The Lorelia, for instance. Most civilians would assume that breaking into an Altean consulate ship would require months of planning and a dark night. Curtis could have done all of that, right down to the SWAT-style armor and the night vision goggles, but one of the first things he’d learned was that time and energy were expensive. The best way to do something was the easiest.

The easiest way was to wait until one-thirty, which was when the three Alteans left to go to lunch. Although they didn’t like outsiders on their ship they were sociable enough otherwise, and preferred going to one of the Garrison cafeterias to eat and spend time with their hosts. It was the same thing every day, the two women and one man left the ship and locked it down before heading across the strip of land between it and the Garrison property.

The Lorelia had entrances on both sides, so although the one that was mainly used faced the Garrison and could be seen, it wasn’t difficult to come up from behind. It wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, there was an industrial park behind it, so parking in a lot there and walking up wasn’t difficult.

Curtis had no way of figuring out what kind of pass code Kuro would be using. He didn’t speak Altean or Galra, so he didn’t understand the interface on the ship. It looked similar to a lot of the Atlas systems though, which was enough to let him at least guess at some of the functions. But without a passcode, he had to be Altean to enter.

Curtis had also solved this problem in a very simple way. When he pressed his hand to the control panel, he did so with a small sliver chipped from one of the Atlas’ jump crystals in his palm. The crystals, which stored Allura’s energy, read as Altean and the door slid open.

He had been doing this for almost two months, so he knew the patterns of the ship. When the Alteans left, Kuro took advantage of their absence to leave the ship as well. Everyone else was under the impression he always stayed locked up in here, but Curtis had watched enough to know better. He didn’t know where Kuro went, only that he took Hoshi and did, even though he had been warned about potential issues. He likely waited until the Alteans were gone because he hated being told not to do things.

Curtis was quiet just in case, but walked through the ship with confidence as he headed toward the common room at the back of the vessel that he knew from his little day trips had been in use by Kuro as a lab. True to his expectations, he came across no one, and the whole ship remained quiet.

Since it had originally been a common room, Kuro’s lab didn’t have a lock. Curtis let himself in with the sliver of jump crystal, wandering slowly around the room to poke at things. The lab matched Kuro’s personality; it was a jumble of stuff thrown around seemingly at random, serious medical paraphernalia interspersed with brightly colored baubles and childlike amusements.

Kuro was not a neat person, at best Curtis would describe the lab as organized chaos, but it was clean and he wasn’t worried about accidentally touching anything he could hurt himself on. Dangerous things were all safely sealed and stored up high, likely to keep Hoshi from indulging in her favorite pastime of chewing on them.

As far as Curtis could tell, Kuro had been studying Earth medicine and healthcare standards. There were printed copies of highly respected research papers on the desk, and as he flipped through them he found a lot of things crossed out and notations added in, notations he had to assume were corrections since he didn’t read Altean.

Next to the research papers, which gave Curtis a headache just looking at them with all the complicated jargon, were tossed a Rubik’s Cube and one of those adult coloring books with some colored pencils. On another table there was a small pile of textbooks and a notepad. Geometry, Algebra, Calculus. JavaScript, Python, C#. The receipt for them was dated three days ago, which was interesting since as far as the rest of them knew Kuro had no source of income.

Then again, he’d spent fifteen years bartering services for currency to buy supplies, there was no reason to believe he wasn’t doing the same here. Curtis picked up the notepad and flipped through it, knowing he would have no idea what he was looking at. He just liked looking at Kuro’s handwriting, it was flowy and neat and the fact that he didn’t recognize the Galra and Altean characters made it seem almost like fantasy Elvish writing.

The first few pages were simple equations that even Curtis remembered from high school. After that things started to get very complicated very quickly, and about ten pages in he realized he was looking at some kind of algorithm being developed from scratch. From basic math to advanced equations in only three days.

Kuro was almost disturbingly intelligent. It wasn’t that he was some kind of savant, he still had to read and think about things and learn them just like everyone else. He didn’t get flashes of brilliant invention, and he didn’t magically have answers for everything without research. But he was currently creating something that looked like it should have come from Sam or Matt after only apparently three days of studying, and he was coming up on a deadline of only two months to rebuild an entire human organ system from the cellular level with no indication that he was behind schedule.

Three days. Two months. To discover things that humanity collectively hadn’t come up with in all their years of advancement.

The team wanted to test him and Shiro both soon, once Adam was awake and Shiro was willing to spend some of his free time on something besides talking to a healing pod. They had two live Kuron Project subjects right here at the Garrison, and with Honerva apparently poised to create more they wanted to figure out what they would be up against.

Curtis put the notepad down exactly as he’d found it and moved along. He stopped at his favorite part of the lab, a shelf lined with origami flowers and animals Kuro had made out of bits of materials left over from his other projects. There were some small cranes made out of chemical-stained paper, a simple cat made out of a torn bill of some foreign currency he’d found somewhere, a lily made from a scrap of wrapping paper he’d somehow acquired.

Curtis’ favorite was the small glass jar, half-filled with tiny stars. Some of them were made out of paper, some from bits of ribbon. He could see the neon colors of taped-together Post-Its, the red-marked sign of receipt paper, and a bit of tan graph paper with blue lines.

He picked up the little jar and swirled the contents a bit, holding it up so he could see the iridescent colors of pastel ribbon mixed in with the many kinds of paper. They were so small and delicate, easy to flatten and ruin, made by a man over six feet tall who could be thrown into a brick wall by an Altean and walk away on his own. All that strength, all that brain power, specifically tailored for subjugating the universe but instead turned toward math problems and tiny origami stars.

Curtis put the jar back and moved over to the desk at the back of the room. He took the envelope and small box out of his jacket pocket and set it next to the computer console, then turned to leave.

When he did, he found a knife pressed up against his throat by an assailant he never heard coming.

“Somebody is where he doesn’t belong,” Kuro noted. “I was wondering who was coming in here and leaving things.”

“No you weren’t.” Curtis didn’t think for a moment that Kuro would actually hurt him. He did look irritated to find him here, an expression that was very out of place on his normally cheerful face, but he wasn’t the type to commit murder. “Who else would?”

“I was trying to spare your feelings and let you think you were sneaky.”

“That’s thoughtful, I appreciate it.”

Curtis dropped down and used a leg to sweep Kuro’s feet out from under him, hitting the back of his hand as he fell to make him drop the knife. The element of surprise was on his side, allowing him to grab both of Kuro’s wrists and slam them down to the floor with both hands, leaning down on them with all of his weight to keep him from being able to find get the leverage he’d need to use his greater strength.

“For the record, I’m not trying to touch you without permission. It’s just really hard to practice self-defense without using your hands.”

“Oh, I understand completely,” Kuro agreed. “Hands are kind of the backbone of self-defense. But for the record…”

Curtis was not ready for Kuro to twist his lower body the way he did, or for him to be able to lift his hips up off the floor high enough to kick a leg up over his head. He was more than a little bit surprised when Kuro flipped them over completely using only his legs, leaving him lying flat on his back with his head held firmly between Kuro’s knees.

He was so much more bendy than should be humanly possible.

“…it can be done,” Kuro finished, holding up his empty hands in illustration. “Also for the record, I can exert enough pressure per square inch to crack your skull with just my legs. Not a threat, just an interesting fact.”

It took Curtis a few seconds to recover. He was a highly trained combat veteran, he’d run ground missions into Galra territory during the occupation and had done well enough to walk away alive from every encounter he’d had. Getting taken down so quickly was more than a little bit of a shock; he’d been working on the assumption that the guards Kuro had taken down where out of practice or something.

It was definitely a humbling experience. The realizations that followed, first that Kuro could crush his skull with his thighs, then that Kuro was wearing leather pants and a long-sleeve Nightmare Before Christmas shirt instead of the usual Altean garb, were a whole different kind of experience.

“You’re getting flush,” Kuro noted, loosening his hold. Before Curtis could try to push him off he was reaching down to check his pulse. “Your heart’s beating pretty fast. Are you in good enough condition to be sparring? When was your last physical?”

“Do you always do consults for people when you’re done holding them at knife point?” Curtis asked, trying not to sound strained. He really needed Kuro to not be sitting on his chest right now if he wanted to walk out of here with any of his dignity intact.

“I don’t know, you’re the first person I’ve ever held at knife point.”

Kuro stood up with an almost annoying ease, not needing to use his hands to do so. He scooped up the knife from the floor and threw it across the room, where it stuck in the cork board hanging there.

Apparently Kuro had also been practicing with knives. From what Curtis remembered from their jaunt to save Adam, blades of any kind had not been his forte.

“Why are you sneaking around on the Lorelia?” Kuro asked, hopping up to sit on the work table. “An Earth spy poking around somewhere designated as sovereign Altean soil…Lotor would skin you alive if he found you here.”

Kuro wasn’t very welcoming. He wasn’t being mean, but he was definitely distant considering how warm and open he’d been after only knowing them for five minutes. The somewhat tepid reception was more than a little bit disappointing.

“I was dropping something off,” Curtis answered, dusting himself off as he got up. “I thought you might enjoy it. Same as all the other times.”

“You need to stop,” Kuro warned. “I’m perfectly capable of going out and getting my own things to enjoy, and that doesn’t involve somebody getting murdered for treason for being caught where he’s not supposed to be.”

“You’re really in a mood today, aren’t you?” Curtis frowned, retrieving the box and the envelope.

He hadn’t seen Kuro in two months. Nobody had, he was avoiding them all like they had some kind of communicable disease. A month ago he’d stopped replying to most emails, and even when he did it was only with direct answers to any medical questions. He ignored the parts where people asked how he was doing, and had yet to respond to any of Shiro’s attempts to reach out. Whatever had happened a month ago, it had thrown up a wall between him and everyone else.

“Am I supposed to be thrilled that you’ve been breaking and entering to put your hands all over my things without me knowing?” Kuro asked. “Is it customary here to leave unsolicited gifts with no hint of the sender in somebody’s personal space and expect them to be delighted instead of spending the next three days wondering if it’s possible to change a ship’s locks?”

“Okay, when you say it out loud…it sounds very creepy and stalker-ish and not at all cute,” Curtis said awkwardly, scratching the back of his head. “It all went kind of differently in my head.”

“If I didn’t already know it was you I would have contacted the Garrison authorities,” Kuro answered. “Please think before you play dumb games.”

“I’m French,” Curtis replied, trying not to sound too defensive. "We like a certain level of game.”

Clearly there was a cultural divide here that was a bit wider than even what he’d encountered with American men. The point in not hiding who had been leaving the gifts, even if he hadn’t explicitly left some kind of calling card, was so that it didn’t come off as creepy and the receiver could easily request that it stop if they didn’t like it. That was the basic understanding anyone from Earth would take away, that if it annoyed him he could reach out and put an end to it.

He opened up the envelope and took out the paperwork that was inside, unfolding it and offering it.

“Admiral Iverson informed Lotor ten days ago that you were being issued a visa to stay legally in the United States until you applied for citizenship. He’s been waiting for a signed copy of the paperwork from you so he can forward it on and they can get you set up for a picture for your ID card. I’m guessing Lotor’s been too busy to forward the documents to you.”

Kuro looked at the papers in Curtis hand, but made no move to take them.

“Lotor sent them,” he answered.

“You should sign them then,” Curtis requested. “I can take them with me and get them submitted. The sooner you do, the sooner you can leave the ship without worrying about consequences.”

“I’m not filing them,” Kuro replied. “I’m not accepting a visa, or applying for citizenship.”

That was a surprise. Everyone, Curtis included, had been under the assumption Kuro would jump at the chance to finally have a designated home planet. The rest of his species was here and the Alteans didn’t really accept outsiders more than temporarily at this point, and since humans were enemies to the Galra it wasn’t like there were a ton of safe harbors out there. Earth was the pretty obvious choice.

“You can’t be serious,” Curtis said it before he could stop himself. “What are you going to do, live on a consulate ship for the rest of your life?”

Kuro didn’t look at him. He looked around the lab instead, absently playing with an obsidian bead bracelet he wore. That had been one of the things Curtis had left for him over the last two months, so clearly he wasn’t as bothered about it as he was posturing.

“When Lotor leaves for Colony Two, I’m going to go with him,” he answered. “The supply ship from Earth is going to meet up with support vessels from the rest of the Coalition, there’s bound to be at least one independent ship that could use a medic.”

“Wait, you’re going to leave here to go…what? Hitchhike across space?” Curtis asked in disbelief. “If you want to travel, having a home planet isn’t going to stop you. You were so excited to be here when we first landed, what changed?”

Kuro shrugged in a way that reminded Curtis of a teenager who was hiding something. Maybe he wasn’t a teacher, but he dealt with academy cadets enough to know the signs of somebody who wasn’t used to lying trying to be a liar.

“Kuro, if you’re still upset about the way the Paladins reacted when they first saw you, they really didn’t mean it that way,” Curtis tried. “They’re kids, they’d been through a lot, and Honerva used a clone against them in a way that left them scared. None of that was personal.”

“I know. It’s fine,” Kuro shrugged again. “I just don’t belong here. I wasn’t born here, I wasn’t raised here, I only vaguely know about the customs and the culture from weak memories that belong to somebody else. So I look like the people here…that doesn’t mean I’m human or that I have a right to be here. Genetically, I could belong on almost fifty different planets.

“I have no idea what a lot of the DNA in me comes from or does. Did you know I’m physically almost forty? Do you know what telomeres are? They’re little caps on the end of DNA that stop it from unraveling and keep it viable. As they get shorter the DNA doesn’t reproduce as well and it causes human beings to age. My telomeres don’t change anymore, this is how I’m going to look for a very long time. Maybe Honerva made sure they’d never change and I’d stay this way forever. What’s the point in settling down in a place where everything around me is going to get old while I might not?”

As a reason, it was more than valid. Curtis heard him loud and clear, and he understood his fear. For somebody who had been alone for so long, it must seem like the universe’s cruelest joke to offer a home and a people only for the catch to be that Kuro might have to eventually watch them all die. That in and of itself was terrible enough.

But he also got the feeling there was more. Kuro wouldn’t look at him while he was talking, as if afraid his face might give something away or that he might say more than he meant to. There was something else going on.

Curtis had his suspicions. He’d had suspicions for two months, that was part of the reason he was keeping such close watch in the first place. But he wanted the truth about that to come from Kuro’s own mouth before he did anything about it.

“You don’t know if your life span will really be that much longer than the rest of us,” he pointed out instead. “That’s part of the reason the Paladins want to get a good look at you and Shiro, to really document what you guys have going on. And what if both of you are going to live longer than the rest of us? Shiro’s not going to go anywhere. He’ll stay right here, even if it means he has to bury Adam and Keith someday.”

Curtis moved a pile of papers out of the way and pulled himself up to sit on the table next to Kuro.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the future,” he said gently. “For all you know these telomeres or whatever are just changing more slowly than they should, or that your DNA just works differently and you’ll still age with the rest of us. Believe me, a lot of people feel like they’re going to live for a really long time, then find out way too late that it’s not the case.”

He offered the visa paperwork again.

“Lotor’s not leaving until after New Year. Between then and now, there’s a winter dance at the Garrison academy and Christmas. If you’re really going to leave, at least let yourself have a little bit of fun before you do.”

Kuro hesitated. Curtis could tell he wanted to sign them, he pressed his luck and moved them a little closer. After a few more moments of reluctance Kuro sighed and took the papers, leaning back to dig a pen out of the nearby mess.

“You might also want to know that they moved Adam’s healing pod to the main medical bay yesterday,” Curtis added when Kuro handed the papers back. “Which means you can have direct access to it now. If…you’re not doing anything, I can escort you onto the base and get you set up.”

Kuro sighed again, heavily, his head rolling back in something akin to exasperation, as if he were frustrated with his failure to keep his distance.

“Sure,” it was like a child being told it was time to go to school when he didn’t want to. He slid off the table and gestured toward the door with wide-open arms. “Escort me.”

Curtis rolled his eyes at the unnecessary theatrics. If even half of what Adam had told him over the years was true, he really was very much like Shiro.

“Come on. If we walk quickly enough you won’t need a coat.”

They made their way back through the Lorelia and out the main entrance this time, starting across the open ground toward the base. Wherever Kuro had been hiding when Curtis had first arrived he apparently hadn’t been off the ship yet today, as soon as they stepped outside he became entranced by the falling snow. The feigned irritation fell away immediately, and he was shameless in showing his absolute delight.

Curtis had just caught him by the back of the shirt to stop him from veering off toward where some students were building a snowman when they were approached from the other direction.

“Commander Duchesne!” A woman’s voice called, setting Curtis’ teeth on edge. “Captain…Shirogane?”

Kuro turned toward the new arrival, giving the woman a curious look as he brushed away the snow that was piling up in his hair. She eyed him right back.

“You dyed your hair, I see. Was it making you feel old?”

The faint edge in Montgomery’s voice visibly rubbed Kuro the wrong way. He obviously didn’t know her and didn’t like the sound of her, but he glanced at Curtis and took his look of warning to heart.

“No, I had a wedding back in Japan and didn’t want to stand out in the photos. It washes out.”

“I see. Get a little cosmetic surgery for that scar, then?”

“It’s concealer. You might want to take a good look in the mirror and be a little more worried about your herpes than my looks, though.”

Curtis bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from reacting to that, lightly pulling Kuro back away from Montgomery and moving forward a bit to get between them.

“Did you want something?” He asked her. “You’re legally not allowed within fifty feet of the Garrison, this could be counted as harassment of staff.”

“Can’t I just want to talk to old friends?” Montgomery asked, smiling innocently. He looked down at the large envelope in her hands.

“What do you want?” He repeated.

She heaved an exaggerated sigh and opened the envelope, pulling out some pictures and offering them. He took them, frowning at the images of himself, Shiro, Matt, and Sam accompanying the healing pods containing Adam and Lance out of the Atlas. It was taken from a distance most likely, with a very high powered camera.

“I was just wondering if you wanted to comment on who was in those,” Montgomery said. “I’m assuming one of the Paladins. One of Earth’s newest defenders being brought back in that kind of state is certainly news. Almost makes it look like the planet might be at war soon.”

Kuro reached over and took the photos. Curtis let him, giving Montgomery and annoyed look.

“I promise you, all of the Paladins are here safe and sound. The Atlas went out on a routine training exercise, those pods were just being offloaded to have some maintenance done to them.”

“How did you take these if you’re not allowed within fifty feet of the Garrison?” Kuro asked. “And why were you taking photos of a military ship crew in the dead of night?”

“I’m an artist, my methods contribute to my art,” Montgomery answered.

“She’s a disgraced teacher,” Curtis corrected. “One who got fired for leaking information about staff and students to the local gossip rag, and who now works for one of them.”

“You know, nobody had any problem with me “leaking” information when it ended up with Wonder Boy’s picture being plastered all over,” Montgomery shot back, nodding toward Kuro. “The only reason he made it into half the articles he did was because I tipped off reporters.”

“You sold stories,” Curtis answered, trying to keep his anger in check and his voice level. “You’re the reason the whole world knew about the Kerberos crash before we had time to notify families. You’re the one who tipped off the local papers that Captain Wolfe spent a lot of time with Lance McClain when they were looking for him after the Paladins first disappeared. Do you have any idea how close you came to completely ruining his reputation? He almost got arrested for a kidnapping that never happened.”

“I never told anyone anything that people weren’t going to find out eventually anyway,” Montgomery said hotly. “I might as well have made a few bucks off of it. Just like with those pictures…I can sell them without saying anything, but those soldiers accompanying the pods are being very deferential. You may as well tell me who’s in them and save me the trouble of guessing wrong when I go to print. I’ll cut you a deal and give you twenty percent of what I sell them for.”

“You can’t sell these.”

Curtis looked back at Kuro, who was tearing the pictures in half. Montgomery snorted.

“Go ahead and destroy them, it’s not like I don’t have more copies.”

“No, I mean you legally can’t sell these,” Kuro answered. “A healing pod is used in extreme situations when other medical care either fails or isn’t sufficient. Distributing photos of one in use is illegal, especially if you attach an identity to the person in it. The Medical Privacy Act that went into effect twelve years ago covers all personal medical information, that includes the treatment a person receives and a healing pod is a treatment. You’ve broken a handful of laws just by taking pictures, that’s the same as looking into a person’s private medical file. I’ll keep these pieces though, just in case those pictures do turn up. The police can probably trace the paper and ink to the printer to fine or jail the people involved in releasing them.”

“Oh come on, you can’t do that!” Montgomery said angrily. “It’s just pictures of a pod, there are no faces! It’s not illegal to release pictures of medical equipment, and any name I attached would just be a random guess!”

“You literally just asked me who was in them,” Curtis pointed out. “You offered me money for that information, in front of a witness. Go home, Montgomery.”

He nodded toward the base property line, motioning for Kuro to follow him as he stepped around her and kept walking. Kuro did so, glancing back at her once before falling into step beside Curtis as they crossed onto the base proper.

“She used to be a teacher here? What did she get fired for?” Kuro asked curiously, folding up the pieces of the pictures.

“It’s complicated,” Curtis sighed.

“Try me.”

Curtis glanced back to make sure Montgomery wasn’t going to brave breaking the restrictive order. When he was sure their words were private he slowed down a little.

“If I give you the details you have to promise me you won’t tell anyone, no matter what.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Curtis looked at him solemnly, raising a hand and offering his pinky finger. Kuro stared at it for a moment and Curtis thought maybe he didn’t know what that meant, but finally he reached up to shake it with his own finger. Curtis chuckled a little bit at how they must look, two grown men standing here pinky-swearing while snow piled up on their heads and shoulders. For the first time today Kuro cracked a little smile as well, though he looked like he was trying hard to fight it back.

“When Adam was a teacher here, he took his job very seriously,” Curtis told him as they turned toward the entrance across the quad. “He didn’t mess around where the kids were concerned. One afternoon he caught a part-time instructor alone in an empty classroom with a female student who was only fourteen, and he didn’t take it well. But the guy was…a very high ranking officer’s nephew.

“The girl was so traumatized by the assault she transferred out of the academy, and Adam wanted the guy in jail. His aunt stepped in and swept it under the rug, and instead transferred him over to the base where he wouldn’t have direct contact with any of the minors anymore. Montgomery was dating the guy at the time, even though the allegations got covered up and never made it out she still heard about them and she was pissed. She felt like Adam was attacking her boyfriend or something I guess, who knows.

“When Lance, Hunk, and Pidge left Earth in the Blue Lion with Shiro and Keith, they were reported missing by the Garrison. Montgomery leaked to a gossip writer that Adam had been in relationships with men before and that he was “disturbingly close” with Lance. The cops found signs on Adam’s Jeep that he went out in the desert regularly, which he did. He never told anybody, but he went out to check up on Keith. He also went rock climbing out there. So when the police found Keith’s shack, and evidence that the kids had been there, plus evidence that the kids had been in the vicinity of the cliffs…”

Curtis shook his head in annoyance as they reached the front doors, opening one and holding it for Kuro. They stepped inside, brushing the snow off themselves.

“He was taken into police custody and almost indicted. He could have afforded his own lawyer, but Adam is Adam. He decided to see whose junk was bigger by letting the Garrison brass know that if they didn’t want the sex scandal cover up blown they would work very hard to get him out of legal trouble. He won that contest. I guess he never thought someone might decide to eventually keep him quiet for good by letting the Galra take him down.”

Kuro frowned as they stepped further into the lobby, following Curtis past the reception desk and down the hall toward the medical bay.

“What about the guy who he caught?” Kuro asked. “Is he still around.”

“Oh, yeah, he’s a general now,” Curtis answered, trying not to let the disdain show on his face. They reached a double doors and he swiped his card for access, pushing it open when it beeped with clearance. “So you can see why we might want to continue keeping it a secret that Adam is alive, and that he’s here.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Shiro stood as patient as quiet as he could, his hands folded in front of him, doing everything in his power not to open his mouth. It was the first time he was in the same room as Kuro in two months, and he didn’t want to push his buttons by nagging the way he had back on the night of the colony battle.

Kuro was in front of Adam’s healing pod, which now stood upright next to the others in the Garrison medical bay. He was pacing slowly, twirling a stylus in his fingers as he moved back and forth, scanning readings that came up on the tablet in his other hand as the pod uploaded information.

“So if none of the doctors had access to the pod, and Shiro’s the only visitor he’s had, how has he been getting luferin?” Curtis spoke up since Shiro was trying not to.

“I gave him a daily shot,” Kuro answered, setting the tablet down. He hit some buttons on the pod, lowering it down to a horizontal position and opening the cover.

“And you did that…how?” Curtis asked, still looking confused.

“I’m magical,” Kuro answered, pressing the back of his hand to Adam’s cheek to do a quick check of temperature. “I have a teleporting dog, Curt. I go wherever I want.”

“He goes wherever he wants, Curt,” Shiro repeated softly to the man standing next to him, unable to fight the urge to make fun of how familiar Kuro was beginning to treat Curtis. Of course, he still had pictures of a bed-headed Kuro wearing Curtis’ crew gym uniform, he could only imagine how much more familiar things could get.

He was still grinning when he looked back over at Kuro, who had apparently heard him and was giving him an unimpressed stare. Shiro’s grin faded and he cleared his throat.

“Sorry.”

“Not as sorry as you’re gonna be,” Kuro answered, flicking a small ball of gauze at him. “Quit being a jerk over there, Anderson Cooper.”

“Okay, okay. Calm down, Hot Topic.”

Kuro flicked another ball of gauze then grabbed some rubber gloves and pulled them on, leaning over the open healing pod. He manually took Adam’s pulse even though the readout was right there and started checking him over.

“His weight is back up to a healthy level,” Kuro told them, pointing to the readouts. “Blood pressure is back to normal, brain activity is strong. These eye implants are designed for people who spend a lot of time in space, where it’s always dark. They’re meant for having excellent night sight, but they’re not so good on planets with daylight. I adjusted them some, but there’s really only so much I can do and I won’t know how much of an effect it had until he’s awake.”

He moved up to Adam’s head, gently opening his mouth and raising his lip to point to his canines.

“He was filing down his teeth,” Kuro pointed out. “If you look at Lotor’s information on Nixa, you’ll see they have very long, sharp canine teeth for ripping and tearing at raw meat. They wouldn’t have shown up unless Honerva removed his human ones…aquatic predators are usually set up to replace teeth very quickly in that case. Of course, that just means filing doesn’t work either, if he damaged them enough they probably fell out and were replaced every time he filed them down. But here.”

He moved his head a little so his shadow wasn’t blocking the light, and they could see that Adam now had a very normal, human-looking bite.

“Switch off the right genes, and they stop doing that. I gave him some implants, nobody will know the difference. There’s some really bad scarring here,” he motioned to Adam’s abdomen. “It looks like a really bad stomach wound.”

“It’s an arena injury,” Shiro told him. He still hadn’t seen the video, Keith wouldn’t let him and had told Kolivan not to share certain things with him, but he knew the basics. “It was a straight-through blade wound.”

“It was nasty, was what it was,” Kuro answered. “There’s lots of other smaller scars, but that’s the only major thing. All of his other readings are back in normal ranges, he’s a healthy man in his late twenties.”

“So are we still looking at the two month timeline for his hormone system to be fixed?” Shiro asked hopefully.

“Oh, no,” Kuro waved that off absently as he rested his other hand lightly on Adam’s chest to feel his breathing patterns. “That’s been done with. He’s been making his own luferin for about two weeks now.”

“Wait, and you didn’t tell me?”

“Why? He was still under Quarantine,” Kuro answered. “If he wasn’t in the pod he’d have to be in a cell.”

That was true. It was annoying that Kuro was right, but it was true. Shiro leaned over the top of the pod, looking at Adam’s sleeping face upside down.

He looked good. It was easier to see without the glass in place, but Kuro was right. He no longer looked too thin, his color was good, his breathing was deep and unhindered. He looked like he was simply asleep because he was. He wasn’t sick or dying anymore, he was just finally getting some rest.

“You found a way to fix an entire organ system in six weeks?” Curtis asked Kuro. Shiro glanced up and tried not to roll his eyes at how absolutely moonstruck the taller man looked right now. It was like watching a grade schooler with a huge crush on a very oblivious fellow student.

“No, I just looked at the DNA structure and figured out what she did,” Kuro answered with a slight shrug. “Then I undid it.”

He reached over and gently pushed Shiro out of the way, pulling the cover back down and closing up the pod before Adam woke up. Shiro was disappointed, when he’d heard Adam was okay he’d hoped that meant they could wake him up today.

“You should get him a room,” Kuro advised, picking up Adam’s chart and writing something on it. “He’s not going to wake up gently. Remember, the last thing he can recall right now is being slammed around alone on that plateau by Honerva. He’s probably going to think he’s a prisoner again, and he might not believe this isn’t all one of her illusions. He should have only people he knows around when he wakes up, and there should probably be a psychologist nearby. Specifically, one that deals with war trauma.”

“But once I have him somewhere quiet set up, he can be moved to a bed and left to wake up?” Shiro asked.

“There’s no reasons left not to,” Kuro supposed, dropping the chart into the holder on the wall by the pod. “If he complains of any abdominal pain once he’s awake let me know, but aside from that I don’t think he needs me anymore.”

Shiro looked up at the pod as it moved back into its standing position, feeling a wave of relief wash over him. They were finally here, at the point where Adam was going to be okay.

He followed Kuro and Curtis to the door of the main lobby, where they stopped so Curtis could take something out of his pocket. It was a small box, which he offered to Kuro.

“I can return this if you really don’t want it,” he offered.

Shiro was curious about what was in it. It was a curiosity Kuro seemed to share, since he ended up accepting it after a short moment of reluctance. He opened it up and fished out the black leather bracelet, holding it up. It was nothing fancy, just a plain cuff about an inch wide that closed with a snap. One section of it was made out of four separate, smaller strips, one in black, gray, white, and purple.

“If you don’t like it or you don’t think it fits, I can return it,” Curtis offered, looking slightly embarrassed. “Shiro mentioned…so when I saw it I thought…it’s just, you know, the flag.”

“I know what it is,” Kuro assured him, giving Shiro a sideways glance. Shiro wasn’t entirely sure what he had said or when, but he knew he probably had to go look up those flag colors to figure it out. “I have access to the internet.”

He put the cuff on his wrist, opposite the one that had a beaded bracelet, snapping it into place. Kuro smiled a little, reaching up to lightly touch Curtis’ cheek.

“You’re sweet. Thank you.”

He let him go and headed back across the lobby, leaving the base to go back to the Lorelia until Iverson got his visa paperwork and immigration issued him the picture card. Shiro watched him go, shaking his head and looking over at Curtis.

Curtis was standing with his hands in his pockets, watching Kuro until he disappeared outside. Then he let out a stupidly lovestruck sigh and turned to go back the way they’d come…

…slamming face-first into the closed doors.

He knocked himself clear onto the ground, where he lay for a moment trying to collect himself. Shiro covered his mouth very firmly with a hand, physically fighting the urge to burst out laughing. Curtis finally managed to get up and smooth his jacket, his face bright red as he excused himself and stepped through the doors.

By the time he disappeared around a corner, Shiro was practically in tears from wanting so badly to laugh.

Chapter Text

The winter storm that had rolled into northern New Mexico made visibility bad enough that a small ship couldn’t safely land, leaving the private vessel Delvar no choice but to remain in orbit until it passed. Keith only lasted an hour before he grew bored and Kosmo began to grow stir crazy, finally pushing Kolivan to hail the Altean-claimed Galra cruiser and request to dock.

They only needed to be there long enough for Keith to call Black, the Lion’s sheer size made the simple Earth storm easy to navigate. Lotor granted them permission to stow the ship on the cruiser and hitched a ride with them down to the surface.

Keith still didn’t know a lot about Lotor, not like the others. He had spent so much time away with the Blade, he hadn’t been around to get to know him. Even the fight in the quintessence field hadn’t begun while Keith was present, he only had second-hand accounts from the others about what had happened.

He didn’t blame his friends in the least. But he was also in a unique position that made it easier for him to not blame Lotor either now that the truth was out. Just like he didn’t blame himself or Romelle for the parts they had played, it was simply a bad series of circumstances all around.

As Lance would have said, yeah, they’d messed up, but now they were going to fix it.

When the Delvar docked and the three Blades disembarked, Lotor was waiting. Acxa stood next to him, looking somber, and the little girl named Linelle stood back a few yards hugging the side of another Altean woman.

To say it had been a surprise to find out that the tiny Altean was the catalyst for all of this would have been an understatement. He hadn’t understood why Acxa would go to the lengths she had instead of just telling them the truth, he had believed things would have been easier if she’d just asked for help.

It had been his mother who had explained to him that, more often than not, a woman fighting for her people was seen as a warrior while a woman fighting for her child was seen as too emotional to be trusted. And he had realized that she was right.

In hindsight, rescuing Lotor and getting his help in saving the colony had been the right move. The presence of many in the narrative had been a complete necessity…without Lance, Adam wouldn’t have ventured off the outpost and would have been lost, and without James’ insight the sheer number of people still down in those mines might not have been discovered for some time. The presence of Lance and James both had been instrumental in rescuing the handful of Altean child soldiers who were trained to pilot Honerva’s mech’s. Lotor’s and Adam’s presence had triggered Kuro to come out. Everyone involved had played a part in revealing that Honerva was implanting rift creatures in physical bodies.

Everything that had happened over those few weeks had absolutely needed to happen, in exactly the order it had occurred, for so many lives to be saved and for them to have the important information they currently had.

But if Acxa had come to him and asked him to endanger his people, without a plan that might have taken weeks longer to develop, because she needed to get to her daughter…he would have told her she wasn’t thinking clearly.

Acxa appeared to be ready to accompany Lotor. Keith reached out to Black, waking him from where he rested in his hangar and calling him up to the ship, and regarded them both with unease.

“Are you sure that’s smart?” He asked when they told him she was coming. “I don’t think she’s very welcome on Earth right now.”

“We’re not making a social visit,” Lotor answered, frowning down at Acxa. “Against my advice and request, Acxa intends to turn herself in to answer for her actions.”

“Why bother?” Keith asked, looking between them. “In about a month this ship is going to meet up with Sincline and supply ships and jump to the Colony Two system. You’re going to have the technology to fuel the colony’s terraformer, and Allura knows how to work it. You can disappear onto your new home planet and never bother with Earth again.”

“I won’t allow our new home’s first interaction with Earth allies to be shielding someone from prosecution,” Acxa answered. “And I won’t teach Linelle that there’s any excuse to ignore personal responsibility.”

Keith looked up at his mother, but Krolia only responded to his glance with an “it’s her choice” one of her own. Personally, he thought it was a dumb move. Things had turned out well, the fact that anybody got hurt at all should be lesson enough.

He didn’t think even Lance or James, both of whom had been very physically hurt, would be willing to speak out against her in a trial. James was a soldier through and through, and Lance undoubtedly saw this as his penance for the trouble the Paladins had caused in the first place.

Keith didn’t bother trying to talk her out of it further. His mother was right, it was Acxa’s choice. Even if any charges were brought, the result would likely be a slap on the wrist when nobody would step forward to corroborate her claim that she hadn’t been acting under Honerva’s influence.

Black arrived and docked with the hangar, allowing the five of them to board. The winter winds that made the air too choppy for the smaller ship to land were nothing against the massive Lion’s heavy hull, and with his speed they were making entry over New Mexico in only a few minutes. Keith took it gently for the sake of his passengers, and to give ground control time to okay them to land.

As he neared the hangar and touched down, he was pleased to see the other Paladins running out to meet him. And even more pleased when he saw that Lance was with them, looking fit and healthy.

“What is the white substance covering everything?”

Keith glanced back at the others when Lotor asked about the snow and realized all four of them were staring at the viewscreen in varying states of confusion. It reminded him that all of them had only been here on a full-time basis since April, and his mother had lived much farther south in the state where it was possible to go years without it. This was their first time seeing this.

“It’s snow,” Keith answered, rising from the pilot seat. “Like the rain that fell on Colony One. Remember, this planet has seasons. We’re in winter now, that means it gets cold enough for the rain to freeze and crystalize before it falls.”

He had never thought he’d be explaining snow to someone, it was kind of wild.

“It can be piled and packed,” he warned as an afterthought, remembering exactly who was out on the tarmac. “It’s customary to throw it at friends, watch yourself.”

Acxa and Lotor looked at each other with unease in their eyes as Keith lowered Black’s head and loading ramp. He stepped off first, unable to hold back a smile when he saw that Hunk was holding a plate of cookies and Pidge was passing out candy canes. As Keith got closer, Lance grinned and unfolded the poster board he had, holding it high so the excessive glitter and rhinestones caught the light.

Welcome Back From Rehab

“Real nice,” Keith wrinkled his nose, trying his best to feign disdain as he reached for the poster. “Come on man, my mom is here.”

“You didn’t even tell your mom you were going to rehab?” Pidge asked. “Rude.”

Keith pulled the poster out of Lance’s hands and shook it over Pidge’s head, making her squeal as a rain of glitter fell on her. Allura was standing with them but chose that moment to excuse herself and make her way over to greet Lotor. Keith watched her go, noting that she was beginning to get a little less stiff.

He understood she was going through a lot with this. She thought she’d found a kindred spirit who’d turned around and stabbed her in the back. The circumstances of her and Lotor coming back together weren’t exactly ideal, but at least they had a second chance.

If they ever stopped tiptoeing around each other and just went out to dinner or something.

Keith’s attention was drawn back to the others as Lance tossed an arm around his shoulders. He smiled and was about to ask him how he felt when he realized, too late, the attack the motion had been meant to hide. The cold tickle of water running down his back made him stiffen as the snow Lance had dropped down the back of his collar quickly started to melt.

“Welcome home,” Lance said cheerfully, squeezing him in a brief hug before pulling away and attempting to make a run for it.

He got about three steps before he slipped, his long legs making him look like a deer on ice as he went down. Keith tossed the poster in his hands to Pidge and made a dive, grabbing Lance’s ankle as he started to get up and pulling him back down. Lance was laughing even as he was dragged back, thrashing and trying to get away.

“Hey, come here, I just want to talk,” Keith requested, dragging him back with one hand and scooping up a heaping handful of snow with the other. “Just looking for a little bit of conversation.”

“No!” Lance protested in between giggles as Keith shoved the snow down his jacket in retribution. “Hunk! Help!”

“Lance, buddy, you know I can’t take sides,” Hunk said reasonably. “You’re both my friends, I couldn’t possibly help one and not the other.”

He gave Pidge a look that gave Keith pause. He realized too late what was about to happen as Hunk put down the cookies and he and Pidge both started scooping up snow. He barely had time to throw up his shield before he and Lance were both being bombarded with snowballs.

“Traitors!” Lance exclaimed, ducking behind Keith and his shield. “I see how it is!”

“I’ve got you covered, take them down!” Keith ordered, blocking another volley.

The snowball fight began in earnest then. The others were in winter clothes instead of armor, so Pidge used the poster as a shield at first, protecting Hunk while he and Lance kept the projectiles flying. Eventually the poster got soggy and had to be abandoned, leaving the cookies an unfortunate casualty when she was forced to grab the plate they were on.

Lance slipped during a throw, missing his shot, and Keith took advantage of Hunk’s distraction to grab a handful of snow and throw it at his head. Hunk saw it at the last minute and ducked, and the hunk of slush sailed over him to hit Allura right in the back of the head.

She let out a screech as it started running down the inside of her coat. Lotor looked like he didn’t know what to do, the way he pursed his lips a clear giveaway that he wanted to laugh but knew better. He stared with wide eyes as Allura tried to shake the snow out of her coat,

She whirled to face them, leaning down to scoop up a handful of snow as she did, and both Keith and Pidge threw up their respective shields as she returned the assault. Lance grabbed another snowball and tried to take her down, but it missed and hit Lotor in the face.

Everyone froze except Allura, who looked back at his wide-eyed expression and crossed her arms.

“Not so funny now, is it?” She asked as a chunk of snow slid down his cheek and fell to hit his chest.

Lotor looked at her, then back at the others, then down at the snow on the ground. Keith knew what he was thinking as soon as he saw the slight narrowing of his eyes. He grabbed Lance and made a dive for a nearby Garrison rover, trying to get behind it before they were hit. Lotor decided to go for the unmoving targets instead, hitting Pidge square in the side of the head before she could defend.

Hunk grabbed Pidge and bolted behind a pile of supply crates even as Lotor was dragging Allura to the dubious safety of behind one of Black’s paws. The volley of snowballs became fast and furious then, with three teams of two trying to take the others down.

At some point Keith remembered that his mother and Kolivan had been there, but he realized they must have gone before the real fight started. Probably to escort Acxa to speak to Shiro and Iverson.

While he was looking for them, Pidge managed to sprint from her hiding place to behind the rover, jumping them from behind and shoving handfuls of snow down Lance’s shirt. Keith tried to help fight her off while still avoiding the projectiles coming from Allura and Lotor, but that only gave Hunk a chance to run over and join her.

As the four of them struggled, thrashing around on the ground in the snow, they didn’t notice the slowing of their other opponents’ attacks until Allura and Lotor appeared from around either side of the rover, pelting all four of them directly while they were unable to protect themselves.

Hunk and Lance were squawking and trying to block their faces. Keith saw Pidge crawling away and grabbed her leg, dragging her back and picking her up clear off her feet. She screamed in protest as he held her up as a human shield.

At length everything died down as they all hit their limits, leaving the group of them panting for breath. Keith let go of his flailing prisoner to drop down and sit in the snow, looking around at the aftermath.

Lance was lying on his back, his torso and head completely covered and invisible. Hunk was laying across his legs on his stomach, raising his head from where he’d been shielding it with his arms. Allura and Lotor were sitting on the bumper of the rover.

Everyone was a mess. They were all soaked, with hair sticking up in all directions and clothing askew, but it was when Keith looked down at Pidge that he burst out laughing.

Her hair was always a bit of a mess, but now it was wet enough to be sticking straight up. At some point in the struggle he had pulled her coat clear up over her head, so it was hanging in front of her with only her arms in the sleeves. She looked like she’d been beaten up and robbed.

Lance started giggling next even though he was beneath the snow, which set off Hunk. Pidge finally started laughing when Lance sat up, rising out of the snow like a zombie with a pile of it still on his head. Allura and Lotor started laughing as well, but it was also because apparently his hair was tangled around the back latch of the rover and he was stuck, needing her to attempt to untie him with wet, gloved hands.

“Okay, I think it’s hot chocolate time,” Hunk suggested, climbing to his feet and pulling Lance up after him while Keith tried to help Pidge back into her coat. “We should get changed and see if we can pry Shiro out of the medical bay.”

“I’ll go grab Shiro,” Keith offered, smoothing down his messy hair. “What’s he doing there?”

“Adam passed threat assessment and got moved there on Saturday,” Lance answered, scooping snow out of his coat pockets. “Come on, I’ll come with you.”

Lotor parted ways with them to go and see what was going on with Acxa, but not before the evident disappointment on Allura’s face made him promise he’d come join them when he was finished. They agreed on a small diner down the road from the Garrison for a late breakfast, then Keith and Lance hiked their way across the quad toward the base’s main entrance.

When they stepped into the lobby Keith felt Lance’s hand brush his and automatically moved out of the way, not really paying attention as he walked until Lance finally managed to grab him by the wrist.

“Stop swinging your arm and hold my hand, loser,” Lance commanded. “I swear to God, you’re so oblivious to everything around you. How are you still alive?”

“Dumb luck, mostly,” Keith answered, letting Lance lace their fingers together. His hand was warm despite the cold from outside.

He could feel his face getting warm and could see the blush creeping up Lance’s neck as they started walking again as well. Without a dire, imminent threat looming over their heads to distract, Keith felt like he was back at the shopping mall just stepping out of the movie theater.

It had been about two and a half months since that movie. That was two and a half months of lost time and lost momentum, basically dropping them back to square one. And honestly, that was okay with him. Keith was kind of looking forward to getting a fresh start. He was just fine with not having to rush things in response to possible impending death.

“So has Shiro been staying in the med bay since they moved Adam?” Keith asked, glancing over at Lance. He could see now that there was a distinct difference from two months ago; Lance had put on at least an inch. This was probably the beginning of the end of Keith’s size advantage.

“Only since yesterday,” Lance answered, absently swinging their hands between them. “A student visiting the nurse for a broken wrist or something saw Adam in the pod yesterday morning, by last night the entire Garrison knew he was here. They’re arranging for people he knows to get together this afternoon and they’re going to finally wake him up in a private room.”

They reached the medical bay doors and Keith swiped his ID card since Lance was still technically on suspension, only to be met with the sight of three medical techs lifting Adam out of his open pod to lay him out on a gurney. Shiro was nowhere to be seen.

“What’s going on?” Keith asked a nearby nurse, who was on the phone. She glanced up, looking over at the group by the pod.

“He’s being transferred over to the civilian hospital on base,” she answered, holding the phone against her chest. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of Captain Shirogane or Admiral Iverson, but the secretary says they’re both in a meeting and won’t put me through.”

Meeting. She meant with Acxa. Still, it was strange that the secretary wouldn’t have been instructed to put through any calls that came from the medical bay.

“Wait, he can’t go to the other hospital,” Lance protested, planting his feet and gripping one end of the gurney to bring it to a halt. “He needs to wake up under controlled conditions, you can’t have civilian doctors and nurses around him when he does.”

“General Laurentia’s orders,” one of the techs said with a shrug. “Too many people know he’s here, this is for his own privacy.”

“Who gave General Laurentia permission to give orders about anything?” Lance asked, shoving back against the gurney again when the techs tried to push past him with it. He was stronger than all three of them. “Adam’s here under Admiral Iverson’s orders, last I checked Laurentia answered to him.”

“Unfortunately, until I can get Admiral Iverson on the phone I have to answer to General Laurentia,” the nurse answered, gently pulling Lance out of the way. “So does everyone else here.”

Keith didn’t like this. There was no reason to be moving Adam out of here, and he saw no reason for any general to be inserting themselves into what was basically Paladin business. Clearly, they hadn’t learned their lesson with Miller.

“This isn’t good,” Lance leaned in to murmur to him so the others wouldn’t hear. “Kuro said there’s a really high chance Adam would freak out when he woke up. He might not understand he’s safe and that it isn’t some set up by Honerva. And I don’t know why General Laurentia would even care about somebody else’s privacy.”

“Who is he?” Keith asked, watching the gurney wheel out the door. “The name sounds familiar but I can’t place it.”

“Remember that rumor that went around a few months before you were expelled that a female student got assaulted by a part time instructor?” Lance asked. Keith did, vaguely. But there was always some rumor or other going around about teachers and students, sometimes willing and sometimes not. They never turned out to be true. “That was Krista Lerner, she was in ninth grade. It really happened, and the instructor was Major Laurentia. A couple teachers and all of her friends were trying to get her to press charges, but she was so scared she just transferred out of the Garrison and went off the radar.”

“So they let him stay?” Keith asked, finding that hard to believe. As bad of a time as he personally had gone through here at the Garrison, the teachers and staff didn’t strike him as the sort of people to have let that go on.

“Yeah, well, Laurentia’s mother was Emily Sanda,” Lance snorted. “Sister of the not-so-lovely Ellen.”

Oh good, so the entire family was unpleasant. And they all seemed to be dead set on making Adam’s life hell, given that Sanda had—

Keith grabbed Lance’s arm, pulling him along as he started running after the departed techs.

“The not-so-lovely Ellen who left the first wave pilots out in the air to die, Griffin said,” Keith remembered. “If Adam hurts somebody right after being transferred out of Quarantine that’s grounds for putting him back in. Maybe indefinitely, depending on how much damage he does.”

“And stopping him from telling anybody what Sanda did,” Lance caught on. He pulled his arm out of Keith’s grip and started to back away. “Follow that gurney, don’t let any civilians get near him. I’m going to go get Shiro.”

“I can get Shiro,” Keith protested. “If Adam wakes up it’s better for you to be there.”

“I’m faster!” Lance called, already taking off running. “And Keith, be careful! He’s day blind, he can’t see in bright light!”

It was true that Lance was faster, as much as he hated to admit it. Keith gave a huff and ran after the gurney, just barely slipping into the elevator along with it as the doors closed. The techs looked at him strangely but didn’t try to stop him from following as they stepped out into the lobby.

They had Adam sedated, he could see some kind of blue medication in his IV drip, so Keith didn’t stick around to wait for them to put him into the ambulance that would take him across the base. He went the opposite way from the loading area, sprinting across the lobby and down the hall that would take him out to the base staff parking lot. His bike was still there, parked right where he’d left it when he’d rode it in the day he’d left. He tore the cover off it and shoved it in the bag, tearing out of the parking lot toward the road that led across the base.

There was housing between there and here for military families, not a lot of publicly used roads, so traffic was nonexistent. Keith had already parked his bike and was waiting when the ambulance arrived and unloaded their charge, doing a double take when they found him standing at the curb. None of them tried to stop him as he continued to follow them into the hospital, or when he insisted on accompanying the gurney up to the assigned room.

He paced as they moved Adam over into the bed, chewing on a lock of hair that had grown long enough to reach his mouth. The whole trip over here and up to the room had been less than ten minutes even with the snowy conditions, they really weren’t far at all. He just hoped that meant Lance would get Shiro here quickly. Waiting to hear from them felt like it lasted hours, like every second that ticked by lasted forever.

“Wait, no, don’t do that,” Keith pulled himself away from quietly counting the time when a nurse came in and started to take the sedative drip out of Adam’s arm. “You have to leave that in.”

“I can’t leave it in, this drug is a mild form of anesthesia,” the nurse answered, ignoring his request. “Using more than absolutely necessary can cause complications. Any more than what was okayed to bring him over needs to be overseen by an anesthesiologist.”

“Great,” Keith muttered to himself, trying to will the woman to finish up quickly and get away from the bed.

She busied herself doing nurse-type things, like adjusting the bed and putting the blankets over him. Finally Keith snapped and crossed the room, maneuvering himself between her and Adam and using his whole body to push her out the door.

“Okay, great, that’s fine. Thank you,” he said through grit teeth, unmoved by her indignant expression. She looked like he might put up a fight, which was fine with him. As long as he didn’t get kicked out before the others got here.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was always something around here, they could just never get a break. All Lance wanted to do was put on some dry socks and join the others for waffles and hot chocolate. There were some bad things lurking on the horizon, sure, but Honerva had been quiet and impossible to find for the last two months. Everyone was rested. Christmas was coming, people were happy. Keith had come home this morning, Adam was supposed to wake up this afternoon.

Somebody was getting Lance’s foot up their ass today. And probably both of Shiro’s.

Nobody tried to stop him even though he was on suspension, he was past the point of needing a clearance card already thanks to Keith taking him into the med bay, and it wasn’t like everyone on base knew he was in trouble. They mostly just stared at him or tried to scramble out of his way as he ran full tilt through the halls.

“Excuse me!” He exclaimed, accidentally pushing a Lieutenant a little too hard as he passed and sending him into the wall. “Sorry! Excuse me!”

He wove his way through the crowd, cutting through the common areas to the wing where Shiro had his office. He darted across the small lobby here, up the stairs to the second floor. Normally a nice Lieutenant named Lily worked the desk here, but as Lance reached the top of the steps he found a man in her usual spot. He caught sight of Lance, getting up and stepping in his path before he could go running down the hall.

“Excuse me, you can’t go down there,” he said sternly. “There’s a meeting going on right now, and Admiral Iverson is in attendance.”

“Yeah, I’m aware, that’s why I’m going down there,” Lance answered, moving to step around him. “I need to talk to him.”

The man moved with him, continuing to block his way.

“I’m sorry, but if you want to speak to the Admiral you have to make an appointment.”

“Who even are you?” Lance huffed, falling back on his heels with his hands on his hips. “I know Lily usually works this hall, and Iverson has his own secretary. You’re not it.”

“Lieutenant Sutherland is off today,” the man answered. “And regardless of what you know, I can’t let you go down there.”

“Listen up…” Lance leaned in, pressing a finger to the man’s chest and looking at his name tag. “Dos Santos. I don’t need your permission for anything. There’s a standing order from Captain Shirogane to contact him if there’s any problem in the medical bay, no matter what he’s doing at the time. The fact that you don’t know that’s part of your job as the secretary stand-in isn’t my problem.”

He physically moved Dos Santos out of his way and jogged down the hall, past Keith’s closed office and down to Shiro’s door. It was locked when he tried the handle, so he started pounding on it even as Dos Santos caught up to him and tried to pull him away from it.

“Shiro!” Lance called, leaning forward against the other man’s hold even as he was being hauled back. “Open your door before I put this guy’s head through it!”

He dug in with his feet and pulled forward, hard, just as the door unexpectedly opened. Instead of slamming into it, as he’d planned, he ended up falling forward and pulling Dos Santos down on top of him. He pushed up onto all fours, shoving the older man off him and sitting up to look at a very stunned Iverson, Acxa, Kolivan, Krolia, and Lotor. Shiro stood over him, having just opened the door, looking confused.

“Emergency!” Lance exclaimed, scrambling to his feet. “Not good! They moved Adam out of the medical bay, they’re transferring him!”

“What?” Iverson and Shiro spoke at the same time, even as they looked over to see if the other had ordered the change.

“Some techs were taking him out when Keith and I got there,” Lance leaned against the back of Krolia’s chair, trying to keep talking around being out of breath. “General Laurentia transferred him over to the civilian hospital, supposedly for his “privacy,” but honestly it sounds like a load of bull.”

“Why didn’t somebody call?” Shiro asked sharply moving to grab his keys and coat.

“The nurse in charge tried! Numbskull here wouldn’t put the call through!” Lance answered, jerking a thumb at Dos Santos.

“Why would General Laurentia even get involved?” Iverson wondered, closing the folder he had in front of him. “And how did he manage to pick the one hour when Shiro wasn’t hovering in the medical bay?”

“General Laurentia was the first person I spoke to regarding meeting concerning Acxa,” Lotor said with a slight frown. “He helped me arrange the appointment.”

“Don’t you work over in Laurentia’s office?” Shiro asked Dos Santos.

“Normally,” Dos Santos answered. “I was sent over here to cover today, and that the Admiral had a meeting that was not to be disturbed.”

“I think it might be your ass both of his feet are going up,” Lance muttered to him as he followed Shiro out of the office.

Shiro was already calling Keith’s phone as they walked briskly down the hallway, trying his best to hold the phone and pull his coat on at the same time.

“Keith!” He exclaimed when he finally got an answer, putting it on speaker and handing the phone over to Lance to free his hands. “Took you long enough to answer. What’s going on?”

“We’re over at the hospital across the base,” Keith answered. “They wouldn’t let me answer my cell phone in Adam’s room, I had to run down the hall to this little lobby place. He’s in room 317, you need to get here quick. They can’t keep him sedated and I can’t keep nurses from going in there.”

“Okay, I’m on my way,” Shiro promised. “Lance and I both. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Good, because I don’t know how long I can—” There was a strangled sound in the background that made Keith break off. “Yeah, okay, somebody’s screaming. Not good, I have to go. Hurry!”

Keith hung up. Lance turned off the phone screen and started to hand it to Shiro, when the whole hallway felt like it vibrated under the force of a very angry sounding roar. Lance could feel the discontent wash out, passed on to him through Red as a warning. The two men looked at each other.

“I think that was Blue,” Lance said. “Red says she’s not happy.”

“Great. This was not the way I wanted to announce there was a new Paladin.”

Shiro took off running down the hall, and even Lance had a hard time keeping up. They hit the stairs and Lance had to slow down enough to take them two and three at a time, but Shiro took the whole staircase in two jumps and landed in a brief crouch before rocketing to his feet and being off again. Being the Captain of a ship instead of piloting a Lion had not slowed him down in the least.

Lance caught up to him in the officers parking lot near the offices, sliding into the passenger side of his car just as Shiro started it up and backed out.

“How likely is Keith to end up punched in the face, do you think?” Lance asked, scrambling to put on his seatbelt.

“Um, he’s a half-Galra, dealing with a trained soldier who spent more than a year being held prisoner by Galra,” Shiro answered, trying to concentrate on not hitting any of the other cars driving through the parking lot. “Let’s just say this is probably the one time in my life when I’m wishing Adam wasn’t so good at defending himself.”

* * * * * * * * * *

The world was a swirling buzz of unidentifiable sound and blinding light. Adam wasn’t sure where he was, only that he was no longer outside. The air smelled of sterile chemicals and antiseptic, a smell that made his skin crawl and brought back a flood of memories of being poked at and prodded.

He had tried to open his eyes and found them very heavy, and even when he did manage to take a brief look around he was immediately blinded by the brightness. His limbs felt heavy too, and it was difficult to think, as if he were in a medicated fog.

The thick cloud in his head was the worst of it, it left him feeling exposed and vulnerable. He had handled himself while blind before and he could do it again, but he needed to be able to think clearly to do that.

Somebody was speaking. Not to him, just in general. The voice sounded feminine, and it was near. Another voice answered, masculine. The words were familiar but not, Adam couldn’t hear clearly enough to identify what they were saying, everything sounded muffled.

He was laying down on something softer than the surgery tables he was used to, and he wasn’t strapped down. He probably wasn’t at another Galra outpost then, they didn’t care much for comfort. But Honerva was also done with the Galra, so he could be in an Altean lab.

A sharp prick in his hand gave him something to focus on, more of a hard pinch than any terrible pain but still enough to make him aware that a needle was being put in. More sedative, maybe. Maybe something worse.

He reacted the only way he could, pulling his hand back in the opposite direction of the needle to stop it from piercing his skin all the way. The feminine voice got louder, more excited and somebody grabbed his arm to try and keep it still.

Adam fought against the hold as everything got louder. Somebody put hands on his shoulders to hold him down, because apparently simply pulling away was too subtle for his captors to understand.

The problem with not being able to see, and with not being able to think clearly, was that he couldn’t identify who was trying to restrain him. Often the Galra had used other prisoners as slave labor, and Adam didn’t want to hurt another captive who was simply doing what they were told if the Alteans did the same. But he couldn’t let them decide to strap him down now that he was awake, either.

He worked his free arm up to hook his hand on the back of the neck of the man who was trying to hold down his shoulders, curling up suddenly in a way that let him push his assailant’s head down far enough to slam his knee into the side of it. Not hard enough to break anything but definitely enough to rattle a skull, and enough to make him let go.

With one hand free he rolled over on his side, bracing his legs against what felt like a rail on the side of the bed he was on. It gave him the leverage to yank his arm back and pull the needle all the way out. Adam quickly twisted the tube around his hand and pulled it free of whatever it was hooked to, using the tubing as a sort of handle to give him a better grip in the needle itself.

A roll to the side, off the end of the bed, landing on his feet on what felt like a tile floor. He grabbed the man who’d been trying to hold him down as he got up, holding him tightly and pressing the needle to his neck.

Somebody screamed, and then several people were talking loudly at once. Now that Adam was on his feet his head was starting to clear, but more people seemed to be arriving.

He was able to pick out words now, English words. Not necessarily sentences, because nobody wanted to let anybody else talk and apparently they all felt that yelling at once was a viable communication option. Adam didn’t even know if anybody here was really speaking an Earth language, Honerva could replicate anything she found in his head.

The man he was holding struggled, and Adam tightened his grip. He could feel that he was taller, and likely bigger, and could feel that he was stronger. The other man didn’t feel like very much of a fighter either, but that didn’t really mean anything since he wasn’t alone.

“Adam, stop, it’s just a nurse!”

Those words stood out from the rest of the cacophony, not because they were louder but because they were spoken in Galran. He knew the voice as well, though it was deeper than the last time he’d heard it.

“Everybody get out of the room,” Keith demanded in English now. There were sounds of shuffling and slight struggle, as if others were being pushed out the door.

Adam had no reason to believe Keith was actually present, or to believe he was anywhere Keith would even be. He didn’t relinquish his hostage, and he kept the needle pressed against his neck. When he heard footsteps coming toward him Adam backed up quickly until his back hit the wall, pressing the needle warningly into the skin under his fingers and eliciting a hiss of pain.

“Okay,” Keith stopped moving. “I’m not coming any closer to you, I promise. I’m just going to cross the room, all right? Lance said you have a problem with the light, I’m just going to close the blinds so you can see.”

The footsteps moved again, slower. Adam tried to push the last of the fog out of his head, to listen carefully to where they went and whether they got too close to him. His heart was beating hard in his chest, and he was trying to track the other person in the room while at the same time figuring out the location of the door everyone else had left through.

The footsteps stopped again, and he heard the sounds of plastic being moved. The room got darker.

“I’m going back the other way to turn off the lights now,” Keith announced before moving again.

Adam heard him go back across the room, and then the click of what sounded like a light switch. He didn’t relax or let down his guard as the room darkened, letting him open his eyes without being blinded.

The room was familiar. Smooth, modern lines, but also a lot of plastic, very different from the sleek metal preferred by the Galra or Alteans. It was more about function and less about aesthetic, and primitive. No healing pods, no advanced machinery. It was a human room in a human hospital.

The man he was holding was wearing scrubs and wasn’t armed. The nurse was calm, hands held up in surrender and not fighting against Adam’s hold, doing his best to not agitate him further.

“The needle in your hand is from a plain old saline IV,” Keith said from over by the light switch. “You just came out of a healing pod, you’ve been in there for two months. You were sedated on the trip from there to here, they just wanted to make sure the stuff they gave you didn’t dehydrate you.”

The Keith standing in front of him was very different from the one he remembered. Taller, bigger. Still smaller than Adam himself but definitely older. Very visibly Galra, both in the coloring of his features and in the shape of his more filled-out figure.

Adam didn’t like it. He didn’t like any of this, it didn’t make sense to him.

“The sedative they gave you should be wearing off,” Keith said calmly. “But if you’re head’s still not clear that’s why. You’re on Earth, at the civilian hospital on the Garrison base. Kuro’s been taking care of you. You woke up a little earlier than scheduled, but Lance is on his way with Shiro. I need you to let the nurse go,”

Adam looked around the room again, at all the little details. Even in his muddled state he knew that a lot of it would be very hard to fake. If Honerva was playing with his head most of it would be blurry or fade into the background. It would be easier to make him think he was on the Lorelia, or on the Altean colony, somewhere he wasn’t familiar with and didn’t need as much true to life detail.

He wanted to believe it. He wanted to be able to accept that he was safe. But that was very difficult to do.

“I’m going to take the needle out of your hand,” Keith said when Adam didn’t answer. He held both of his hands up to show that he had nothing in them, which meant nothing to Adam since Keith was wearing armor and clearly had that knife of his at his hip.

Adam tensed up again as Keith reached forward, debating. It was a terrifying moment, worse than anything leading up to this point, because he knew that if he trusted what he was seeing and was wrong he would be giving up his only defense. He had no reason to really believe that any of what was in front of him was true,

The hand reaching out for him lightly touched his. Fingers closed around the needle, slowly pulling it out of his grip.

Adam let it go.

He didn’t know immediately if it was the right decision or not. He only knew that all Honerva needed was a few seconds in his head to know that Keith Kogane was the last face even a crazy space witch would use to try and talk him down.

“Okay,” Keith let out a breath, tossing the needle over onto a tray. He reached forward to grip the nurse’s arm and pull him away, and Adam let him go too. “Okay, good.”

Adam didn’t feel like it was good. He didn’t feel like anything was good. He leaned back against the wall and let himself slide down to sit on the floor, putting his face in his hands and trying to clear his head.

The last thing he remembered was lying on the ground, so close to all of this finally being over. He’d felt his heart slowing, felt his lungs shutting down, and had been resigned to his end. Then Honerva had gotten back up, that image he would see in his nightmares for as long as he lived, and now he was sitting here.

“Hey.” A hand touched his arm hesitantly as Keith crouched down in front of him. “It’s going to be okay. I know everything probably looks crazy, but it’s going to be okay.”

“Keith!”

Adam would know Lance’s voice anywhere. It echoed down the hall outside, accompanied by the sounds of someone stumbling out of the elevator. Keith got up and went to the door.

“Here!”

Breathless voices trying to whisper and being terrible about it. Adam put his hands over his ears and pulled up one knee, hiding his face against it.

He didn’t know what he felt. He didn’t know what he wanted right now. He didn’t know where he wanted to be, just that he didn’t want it to be here. He knew he didn’t want to be in this situation, he didn’t want to be sitting on a floor confused and afraid.

He was tired of being scared. He was tired of being homesick. He was tired of having no choice but to keep it himself together if he didn’t want to die in front of an audience. He was tired of being kept in a dark cell block and only allowed to roam as far as an electrified collar would let him.

He was so, so tired of having no control over what was going on around him, he just wanted it to not be happening anymore.

A hand gently touched the top of his head, then he felt someone sit down beside him. Adam didn’t need to look up, there was a soft scent on the air that he knew no hallucination could ever mimic. He knew the smell of that cologne better than almost anything, he had spent months trying to preserve the faint traces clinging to clothing left behind by their supposedly dead owner.

The scent was linked so inextricably to memory. For a split-second Adam was standing out in the desert on a freezing winter morning, his chest constricting as he pulled off Shiro’s coat and tossed it onto a rocking chair outside a falling down shack. Dying inside to have to part with it but knowing Keith needed the warmth and comfort it could bring more than he did, wanting to cling to this last tiny piece of the man he’d lost but giving it up nonetheless.

That was it. That was what finally made him break.

It wasn’t being betrayed by Sanda, or being dragged through a Galra ship to face Sendak. It wasn’t losing his eyesight, or the implants that had been such a nightmare before they were correctly adjusted. It wasn’t being locked in a cell, or spending his nights sleeping on a metal floor, or being forced out into the glaring light of the fighting arena every day whether he was healthy or sick. It wasn’t watching Lance get twisted into something he wasn’t, or learning he’d been forgotten by Earth, or facing down Honerva knowing he didn’t have long left to live.

All these things had been accounted for, cracks in the wall that had been mortared over, loose bricks that had been reinforced. He had refused to let any of that weaken the overall structure, refused to let it hurt him in any way that would slow him down.

And now it all came crashing down, exposed for the fragile house of cards it really was, completely destroyed by the tiniest trace of Takashi’s cologne.

* * * * * * * * * *

To Shiro’s knowledge, Adam had only really cried twice in his life. Once as a cadet, under the extreme influence of drugs, and Adam himself didn’t even remember that incident. And once in their old apartment, the night before Shiro had left for Kerberos.

Both times, he had been the cause. Nothing in the world, in the universe even, could break down Adam’s defenses enough that he would allow himself to be see shedding tears…except Shiro. And it almost seemed as if that were the case for a third time.

He was quiet when Shiro arrived, sitting in the corner on the floor with his hands over his ears and his face hidden, curled up almost impossibly small for a man of his size. Keith had done what he could, but of course he and Adam weren’t close, and he was afraid of saying or doing something wrong. Lance sat on the edge of the bed and Keith dropped down in the chair beside him as Shiro lightly touched Adam’s hair to let him know somebody was there before lowering himself to sit on the floor beside him.

Shiro didn’t say anything, not entirely sure what to say. He wasn’t ready, Adam wasn’t supposed to be awake for another few hours. Matt was supposed to be here, with Kuro, and with Curtis and some of their friends who Adam had finally let himself get close to before the invasion. He was supposed to have time to figure out what to say.

But he didn’t get the chance to say anything. He knew it was over when Adam sucked in a ragged breath of air, the strangled sound of a man who couldn’t swim anymore and was finally drowning. He had heard that sound before, he knew exactly what was coming.

“Hey,” he whispered, twisting around where he sat to hook an arm across Adam’s chest, tugging him up out of his curled position. There was no hesitation at that point, at all, Adam leaned over to bury his face against Shiro’s chest and started to cry so hard he was shaking.

Shiro wrapped both arms around him, hugging him as tightly as he dared, wishing he knew what to say to make it better but at the same time feeling an almost indescribable wave of happiness. Yes, this was a mess, and no, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go, but at least Adam was here. Alive and able to cry.

“I know. I know,” Shiro murmured, dropping his head down to lean against Adam’s shoulder, rubbing his back slowly with one hand. “I really, really do know. It’s okay now, you’re safe. You’re home.”

The sounds were muffled against his uniform jacket, but Adam was crying so hard Shiro could tell he could barely breathe. Lance and Keith looked like they didn’t know what to do, looking at each other awkwardly.

Go get Curtis,” Shiro mouthed to them. They both immediately sprang to their feet, relieved at having something to do. Everyone who had been scheduled to meet up this afternoon needed to be told what happened.

They scrambled out of the room, pulling the door closed behind them and leaving Shiro and Adam in the quiet dark alone. The mid-morning light reflecting off the snow outside shone brightly around the edges of the closed blinds, but not seemingly enough to cause a problem.

Shiro remained sitting on the floor, letting Adam work through his well-deserved breakdown in his own time. He didn’t move until the sobs had died down to sniffles and the occasional hiccup.

He didn’t want to keep Adam on the floor for too much longer, the tile was cold even with the heat on in the room. Shiro was debating on what to do about it when he remembered the brief security video from the Atlas, of Kuro pushing the security door open with his bare hands.

As a soldier, Shiro had always known his limits and he didn’t push himself past them. But the down side to that was that once he had been given this new body he had never even thought to test those limits further.

Carefully, he held Adam against him with one hand and hooked the other arm under his knees, lifting him as he got slowly to his feet. Adam was taller, which would have made this awkward and difficult before, but now it didn’t feel like it made a difference. He could feel that Adam was almost two hundred pounds, that sense of proportion wasn’t gone or different, but at the same time that weight simply wasn’t heavy anymore.

He carried Adam over to the bed, to the side that didn’t have the rail pulled up. It was difficult to put him down because Adam didn’t want to let go of his jacket, and honestly Shiro didn’t blame him in the least. It was almost physically painful to pull away so he could shrug off the jacket and toss it over the chair, kicking off his boots and stretching out on the bed next to him. Nurses were probably going to be displeased, but this was an extenuating circumstance.

He pulled Adam back over, letting him bury his face against him again, pulling the thin blanket up over him to shield him from what light there still was in the room. The two of them were still there when Lance and Keith came back with Curtis. Shiro sent the two younger men away to join the other Paladins, knowing they would both feel better if they weren’t here for this and that Adam would feel better if Lance didn’t see him this way.

He briefly told Curtis what happened and asked him to report what was going on to Iverson. Curtis retrieved a heavier blanket from the nurse’s station and left them alone, to do as asked and then let the others know to come here this afternoon instead.

When they were alone again, Shiro opened the new blanket and draped it over Adam. He had always liked soft things, and the weight of blankets had often made him feel better when he was feeling under the weather.

Shiro was feeling a lot of things at once. He knew that this moment wasn’t going to last, that Adam just desperately needed support right now and would likely pull away soon in favor of others as they arrived. People who had stayed, who had been at his side after Shiro had left him behind. Lance, Curtis, his friends Gail and Raina. Even the MFE pilots, who had he had helped train. Shiro had wanted him to move on when he’d left and eventually Adam had, and he knew he needed to respect that.

It was bittersweet, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t bask in this moment while he had it. The feeling of Adam curled up against him, the beating of his heart and his steady breathing, it lifted a weight off Shiro’s chest that had been sitting there for so long he almost hadn’t realized how suffocating it had become. Maybe this wouldn’t last for long, but he had been given the chance to hold something that he’d wanted to have back in his arms for years. He had needed this, so very badly, badly enough that he had to close his eyes against the sting before he started crying as well.

And for now, he felt needed back. Needed in a way he hadn’t felt in a very long time. They’d been apart so long that their relationship was likely in tatters, if it even still existed at all, but this moment was a reminder of what had been before Kerberos. Laying in the quiet with Adam nestled against him was almost blissful regardless of the circumstances.

He wanted this again. He knew he would have to work for it, if anybody knew what kind of damage a person leaving could do to Adam it was Shiro, but that was okay. He would put in the time, he would do whatever it took.

If he got his way he was never going to leave Adam behind again, and nobody—absolutely nobody—was ever going to lay a hand on him again.

Chapter Text

“I would love nothing more than to throw General Laurentia out with the garbage, but unfortunately that’s easier said than done. He covered himself very well.”

Lance crossed his arms, sliding down in his chair a little and absently kicking his leg. He was agitated, and he had no outlet for it. Keith scoffed, Pidge grumbled, and even Hunk looked as if this situation was intolerable. This little meeting in Iverson’s office wasn’t helping Curtis’ mood, nor did it appear to be helping the Paladins’.

 “What do you mean he covered himself too well?” Keith asked. “He blatantly ordered to have Adam moved, his name is all over this.”

“He did give that order,” Iverson agreed gruffly. “But unfortunately, students have been trying to sneak into the medical bay since last night to see if the rumors that Adam was here were true. About an hour before Laurentia gave the order, a nurse put in a request to have guards put on duty because of how delicate his mental state was assumed to be, to ensure no kids messed with the pod.”

“His claim that he did it for safety and for Adam’s privacy holds water,” Curtis translated. There were always fine lines that needed to be walked, red tape blocking things. He had heard what Iverson was about to say before. “Even if we know it’s not the case, an outsider could easily believe that Laurentia felt a “delicate mental state” could be helped by moving Adam away from a student-heavy area and over to the private hospital.”

“I presume the fact that the General was aware we were in an important meeting is also the perfect defense for why he acted without interrupting to ask permission,” Lotor guessed.

“You presume correctly,” Iverson answered.

“What about the grudge he’s got against Adam?” Lance asked, sitting up a little. “Adam was trying to get him put in jail. He had his stupid girlfriend try to set Adam up for kidnapping.”

“No formal complaint was ever brought by the victim,” Iverson sighed, folding his hands on the desk. “What you learned about from rumor never reached public ears, there was only a small pool of people aware of the facts. Even I didn’t know about the accusations against General Laurentia until you told me, most of the people who did know likely died fighting during the invasion. And the official record was “lost” over the course of the occupation.”

“You mean Sanda tossed it,” Keith corrected.

Iverson made a faint gesture with his hands, an acknowledgement that Keith was correct but that Iverson himself had to be careful what he said out loud.

“So he just walks away?” Allura asked, frowning hard. “That doesn’t sound like justice to me.”

“The system is built so that innocent people don’t get railroaded,” Iverson told her. “In the military, sometimes there are people who will climb to the top any way they can, and they do it by discrediting upstanding soldiers who stand in their way. It isn’t a perfect system, sometimes it lets one of the bad guys through, but it serves its purpose. Laurentia will do something else stupid, and he will get caught. We just have to wait for him to do it.”

“He might not live to do anything else stupid if Shiro gets to him,” Keith grumbled. “And I certainly won’t stop him from solving the problem.”

Shiro needs to not do anything stupid to get himself into trouble,” Iverson warned. “We’re fortunate that the hospital isn’t reporting what happened as an incident. The nurse Adam threatened is experienced with unstable patients and understands the situation.”

“So what about Dr. Wolfe?” Pidge asked. “Is Laurentia going to be able to do anything else to him? He’s not going to be a direct superior, is he?”

“Adam is no longer an active member of the military,” Iverson answered. “His tour ended a little before the Last Stand, and I doubt he’ll choose to reenlist. But even if he did, he would likely enlist in the space exploration branch with the rest of you and not be subject to Laurentia’s authority.”

“So at least the next stupid thing this guy does probably won’t involve any of us,” Hunk said in relief. “I’m used to having Galra try to kill me, I’d really not have to worry about my own military too.”

Iverson closed the folder on his desk and dropped it in his desk drawer, looking around the room at the collection of irritated faces.

“You all may as well go find something to do with your afternoon. As interested as some of you are in seeing Dr. Wolfe, the very competent doctors and nurses at the hospital have suggested he be given the night to recover and process before visitors start flooding in.”

Nobody was happy, but there wasn’t much they could do. As Iverson said, the system was set up the way it was for a reason. Even Curtis had been around long enough to see more innocent people exonerated by it than guilty. He moved to open the door, stepping out into the hallway to put the stopper on to prop it open. Kosmo startled him a bit, a looming black presence sitting patiently in the hall waiting for Keith.

“And Commander Duchesne?”

“Sir?” Curtis looked back into the room, around the angry young people who were beginning to shuffle out.

“Please wrangle our newest legal resident. He’s down the hall picking up his new visa card, I do not want him deciding nobody has the ability to stop him from marching into Laurentia’s office.”

“Yes, sir.”

No names were needed, everyone knew who Iverson meant. Kuro wasn’t lying, he really did go wherever he wanted, as he had shown this morning. He hadn’t felt like taking the extra steps of signing in to get a visitor pass so he could go pick up the expedited visa card overnighted by the immigration office, so he’d simply used Hoshi to go right past all the security checkpoints. Curtis had tried to warn everyone that Kuro had a strict personal policy against following commands and didn’t recognize that authority was a thing, but that hadn’t prepared the poor secretary who’d almost had a heart attack when he appeared.

Personally, Curtis was all for letting Kuro loose on the base in this case. Laurentia would never know what hit him.

Curtis fell into step with Lotor, who was headed down the hall to where Acxa sat waiting with Kolivan and Krolia. The meeting regarding her fate had been interrupted, but from what Curtis had heard there really hadn’t been too much to it anyway. Charges had to be filed before Acxa could turn herself in for anything, which had to wait for Lance and James to be interviewed regarding the facts of their disappearance. Lance wouldn’t be available until after his suspension was lifted, and James had only just been released from Quarantine over the weekend.

“I guess Shiro’s spending the night over in the hospital,” Curtis heard Lance say from behind him. “I don’t see him leaving Adam alone anywhere any time soon.”

He glanced back to where Lance was walking next to Keith, the two of them trying to be subtle and failing. They were walking very close, their shoulders bumping lightly as they moved and their hands occasionally brushing. Curtis wasn’t privy to the younger group’s gossip, but even he could tell there was something going on there.

“Definitely,” Curtis agreed with Lance’s assessment, slowing down when they reached the door to the office where Kuro was picking up his visa card and starting citizenship paperwork. “But he probably won’t mind if you stop by. You can go over if you want, I don’t think the whole “wait until tomorrow” thing really applies to you any more than it applies to Shiro.”

“No, I think I’d rather leave them alone,” Lance answered. “Adam hasn’t seen him in years, and he’s been through a lot. Let him have a quiet night.”

Before Curtis could step into the office, Kosmo shoved passed Keith and him to barge in first, undoubtedly drawn to the fluffy white wolf inside. Hoshi was standing up with her front paws on the office desk so one of the workers could coo over her and pet her. Kuro was beside her, looking disgusted as a second worker pressed his fingers onto an ink pad.

“I just don’t see the point,” Kuro was arguing. “You already have my fingerprints, they’re the same as Takashi Shirogane’s. Just copy them.”

“We can’t just copy them,” the harried office worker was trying to remain patient as he pressed Kuro’s fingertips onto a scan card. “That’s private information, the system doesn’t allow it to be viewed or copied. When starting a new file, we have to input new prints. Do you want staff access or not?”

“It feels weird,” Kuro complained. “And your ink smells like something that died.”

He was arguing just to argue, that wasn’t exactly difficult to see. All those years alone had left him somewhat devoid of manners, it was going to take a bit of teaching to fix it.

“Oh, hello there,” Kuro’s tone changed immediately when Kosmo came over, standing up on his own back paws and making Hoshi look small in comparison as he sniffed around to see what she was looking at up there. “I didn’t know they came in your size.”

“Is there any chance she’s fixed?” Keith asked, looking critically between Kosmo and Hoshi.

“Yeah, I managed to find the one vet with an office in the middle of the Quantum Abyss that specializes in restraining teleporting wolves long enough for elective surgery,” Kuro answered.

Keith opened his mouth, and Curtis knew something stupid was going to come out of it. He just had that look in his eye, that confident look both he and Lance got right before they were about to say some of the dumbest shit imaginable. Lance must have been holding the brain cell today, he noticed and lightly poked Keith with his elbow to stop him.

 “…right,” Keith said after a short pause. “That was sarcasm.”

Kuro gave a very Shiro-like smile and wiped the ink off his fingers and onto his pants. He was wearing jeans today, along with combat boots and a leather jacket. The only bad part of his ensemble was the tacky shirt he was wearing that said “Where My Ho’s At” with a Santa face wearing sunglasses. Curtis had no idea where this man was getting his Earth clothes, but he personally wanted to thank whoever had helped him pick the cut of the jeans.

The office worker gave him the all clear to go and Kuro stepped out of the small office, calling Hoshi with him. Kosmo followed, out to where Hoshi began investigating the other Paladins that were there, checking to see if they had any treats or were willing to scratch her behind the ears. She wasn’t bothered by Kosmo following her around, but she didn’t seem excessively interested in him either.

“Well, you have your visa,” Curtis said to Kuro, shifting a little uncomfortably from foot to foot. “I told you everything was ready and that it wouldn’t take long. I guess you can come and go as you please now.”

“Good, that means I can go farther than I have been,” Kuro said absently, trying to work the new ID card into a wallet that was stiff from being new. “I never thought about it before Romelle and Veronica mentioned it, but I think I want to go get a tattoo.”

“A tattoo,” Curtis repeated, trying to imagine a tattoo artist attempting to put up with Kuro. Something about expecting him to sit still for long enough to excessively stab him with a needle just didn’t seem easy. “Of?”

“Some kind of fancy flower design,” Kuro got the card into the wallet and slid the whole thing into his back pocket. He turned slightly and pulled up the bottom of his shirt and jacket to run a finger along a spot on his exposed lower back. “Right here, I think.”

Oh God, he wants a tramp stamp, Curtis realized, internally panicking at the thought of what Shiro would do to him if he let Kuro get any such thing.

“I don’t…I don’t think that’s really a great place for a tattoo,” Curtis tried weakly. “How about your forearm? At least if you get it on your arm people can see it.”

“Oh, no, plenty of people would see it,” Kuro answered, dropping his shirt. “I spend a lot of time on my hands and knees.”

“…do you,” was all Curtis could respond to that. The image it brought up was not one that was appropriate to even be thinking while in a hallway filled with teenagers.

“Yeah, science involves a surprising amount of crawling around,” Kuro said. “Medicinal plants grow in weird places, animal specimens like to hide. You should see my knees after what I consider a good night.”

“That’s actually not the first time I’ve heard that sentence,” Curtis took a deep breath to clear his head. “Never say it again.”

He steered the conversation back onto safer ground, away from imagery of lower back tattoos and time spent on knees. He did not need the stress this subject matter was giving him.

“What I meant was, the Garrison is having that winter ball I told you about next weekend. It’s a formal, the academy students get the chance to meet the soldiers and officers. So pretty much everyone will be there, if you wanted to like. Go and hang out. I mean, you’re not a service member, but I have a plus one. If you want it.”

That entire offer sounded pathetic even to him. He was tripping over his words like a nervous twelve-year-old and it was embarrassing, especially for a man who had never had any problem picking up strangers at a bar.

“Sure, I guess it couldn’t hurt,” Kuro answered. Not exactly enthusiasm, but it was a yes nonetheless. “I should have time to find something formal to wear.”

“Okay, good. Um. Should I come pick you up, or…?”

Kuro looked at him as if trying to decide if he was joking.

“I live on a ship,” he reminded him. “Right across the field from here.”

“…right.” Curtis wanted to smack himself. Keith, Lance, and Allura were now looking at them, critical expressions on their faces. He decided he needed to make his escape now, before he made an even bigger idiot of himself. “I’ll just get back to you with the time then, and, um, meet you here. I mean, unless you wanted to go out and grab dinner some night this week and…talk about it then.”

“Sure.”

Curtis wasn’t sure he’d heard right. Or maybe he did, and Kuro didn’t understand what he was being asked.

“Sure?” He repeated, just to verify. “To dinner? Like, tomorrow?”

“Yes.” Kuro cocked his head to the side slightly. “You’re getting flushed again.”

“It’s just warm in here,” Curtis sputtered, backing away. He hit the water fountain a few yards down, leaving a stinging spot on his side that would probably bruise, and stumbled his way down the hall. “I have to go and…I have to go. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

He headed quickly down the hall, wishing there was an open office to duck into so he could knock himself unconscious beating his head against the wall.

* * * * * * * * * *

“You almost killed him,” Lance observed, watching Curtis push the door at the end of the hall that clearly said “pull” twice before he managed to get it open and leave. “We might need to have a talk about Earth speech, I don’t think you understand half of the things you implied in that conversation.”

“I know exactly what I said, I’m not a child,” Kuro answered, looking back at them. “What passes for formal here?”

“Suits,” Keith answered, then helpfully failed to elaborate.

He wasn’t stiff and wary around Kuro anymore, at least not as much as he had been in the beginning. Lance thought it might be because Kuro didn’t try to pretend to be Shiro, it helped them all think of him as a regular person and not a clone.

A slightly weird regular person, but a regular person.

“There’s a shopping mall across town,” Allura piped up from behind them. “A lot of the commercial streets haven’t been repaired or rebuilt yet, so most of the stores in the area are in or around the mall. I can take a trip with you, if you like. I need to find something to wear as well.”

“Do you have a date yet?” Lance asked curiously, looking back at her. He glanced down the hallway to where Lotor was talking to the others, then back to Allura. She started to blush.

“No, I don’t think I’m going to take anybody,” she answered. “Surely I won’t be the only one there alone. Right, Pidge?”

“Actually, I have someone,” Pidge answered. “Not a date, but Dad got Ariella clearance to come down for the weekend.”

“Ariella?” Keith repeated, looking confused. “Altean Ariella?”

“Don’t sound so shocked,” Pidge defended. “She’s a mech pilot, remember? And one of their youngest, she’s a tech wiz. I’ve been visiting the cruiser since we got back so she could give me a better breakdown of the Altean tech that was developed after Allura was put into cryo. She’s going to come down and spend the weekend giving Dad, Matt and me a crash course in the Altean mechs. And I think she wants to see Adam.”

“She’s actually a really sweet girl,” Lance added, backing Pidge up. “Her and the other young kids kind of attached themselves to Adam while he was with us.”

“Plus, since she’s gifted, she might be able to tell us more about the entities that came out of Lance and the other kids,” Pidge added.

“What happened with that?” Kuro asked, frowning. “Where did it go once it was taken out?”

“Oh, Allura’s got them down in the labs,” Lance answered. “They can’t keep that kind of stuff here on the main base, too dangerous. The basement and subbasements under the Atlas hangar are high security laboratories, it’s where we keep stuff like that and the pieces of the Altean mechs.”

They now had three mechs in Coalition custody. They had the pieces of Ariella’s, which were almost done being put back together. They had Haran’s nearly pristine mech that had been taken after he’d passed out in the quintessence field. And they had tracked down the other half of Natille’s and were in the process of repairing that one as well.

If Honerva came at them with the mechs remaining in her arsenal, they were going to need some of their own. And luckily, they already had trained Altean pilots.

“Is Ariella going to train Farla and Tiselle?” Lance asked glancing over at Allura.

“Yeah. Then I think Lotor’s going to find them somewhere safe to practice,” Pidge answered, following his gaze. Keith and Kuro did the same.

Allura was looking down the hall, watching Lotor talk to Kolivan, Krolia, and Acxa. She had all but forgotten that she was part of a conversation, and Lance knew a pining expression when he saw one.

“Why don’t you just ask him?” Kuro interrupted her staring, blunt as always. Allura looked around at them, startled, and started to blush. “He’s more scared of you than you are of him.”

“No, I’d rather not,” she answered. Lance wasn’t sure if it was just his imagination, or if she sounded nervous. “He’s undoubtedly busy, with planning the jump to Colony Two and taking care of everyone on the cruiser. I wouldn’t want to pull him away for the weekend for something so silly.”

Lance raised his eyebrows and looked over at Keith. Mullet’s face was exactly what he imagined his own looked like, neither of them believed her.

“You’re making excuses,” Kuro accused.

“No, I am not,” Allura pulled herself up to her full height, which was still far shorter than Kuro. “I just don’t think I should be distracting him from important work with something so trivial.”

Kuro looked at her and she gazed right back, a short staring contest ensuing. Lance was beginning to think that Allura was going win, but then Kuro turned and started to go down the hall.

“Lotor!”

“No!” Allura hissed, grabbing his arm and bracing herself. “Don’t you dare!”

It looked at first like an impressive tug-of-war, Kuro’s strength against Allura’s, but power seemed to be proportional to size. Lance could see from the way Kuro shifted one of his feet that he was letting her win and hold him back. He put up only a nominal fight when she covered his mouth with one hand to stop him from yelling but continued to wave wildly with his free arm.

Lotor had excused himself and made his way back down to them, stopping just far enough away to keep from getting hit with the flailing.

“I’m not surprised you’re finally murdering him,” he said dryly. “I’m only surprised it took this long for someone to try.”

Kuro stopped struggling. A moment later Allura made a noise of disgust and let go of his mouth, wiping her hand on his jacket from where he’d licked her.

“They’re having a formal event here this weekend,” Kuro ignored that Allura was still partially holding him back. “Find something fancy to wear so you can go.”

“I’m sorry?” Lotor raised an eyebrow, looking at Lance to elaborate since he was standing the closest.

“Winter ball,” Lance clarified. “Formal dance. He’s asking you to go.”

“I see,” Lotor looked a little uncomfortable, like he wasn’t sure what to say. “That’s…very flattering.”

“Not with me, you bent paperclip,” Kuro answered, exasperated.

“Yeah, no, he already has a date,” Keith said.

He has a date?” Lotor repeated in disbelief.

“This isn’t about me!” Kuro said loudly. “I specifically made this about you, don’t make it about me.”

He leaned back and stepped heavily on Allura’s foot, shooting her a look.

“I have a plus one,” she blurted out, her face going red. “And it really would be very nice if you would come and help keep Kuro in line.”

“I just said don’t make it about me.”

“Oh.” Galra coloring was a bit hard to see against, but Lance thought Lotor might be blushing a little as well. “Well, if that’s the case, I’m sure nobody would miss me if I took an evening off.”

Kuro was still stuck between them. He tugged his arm to free it from Allura’s grip and slipped away, whistling for Hoshi.

“I’d love to stay and see where this goes, but it will probably get gross,” he muttered as he passed.

Lance watched him go, then glanced back at Allura and Lotor. Even though they weren’t together, Lance felt a pang of annoyance at having to witness their bashful flirting. He nudged Keith with his elbow, and the two of them wrangled Kosmo and went in the opposite direction.

“So, what do you really think?” He asked as they left the office hallway behind and headed toward the exit.

“About?” Keith answered.

“Adam being a Paladin,” Lance clarified. “It was just an idea before, but now he’s alive and he’s here. Blue reacted to him freaking out. This is a real, solid thing now, how are you going to handle it?”

“Like a mature and responsible adult.”

Lance snorted, and Keith gave him a sideways look. They both knew there was no such thing as a mature and responsible adult among the Lion pilots. There hadn’t been ever since Shiro stopped piloting.

“No, for real.”

“I don’t know,” Keith admitted, sounding frustrated already. “I know you’re close to him and all, but I don’t like him and he doesn’t like me. We can probably both manage, for your sake and for Shiro’s, but I can’t promise things won’t boil over eventually.”

“You guys are a lot alike,” Lance answered, bumping Keith with his hip as they reached the double doors that would let them out into the parking lot. “Maybe that’s the problem, you’re too much alike.”

“We’re nothing alike.”

“I dunno, man. Half aliens, grew up without parents, act annoyed with everything in existence but nowhere near as bad when you’re around people you know,” Lance listed off. “You both like to think you’re mean, but you’re not.”

“I can be mean if I want to,” Keith frowned.

“Maybe. But you don’t want to,” Lance answered.

Keith was a little distant sometimes, and abrasive now and then, but he wasn’t mean. He’d had some walls up in the beginning but those were steadily coming down, now his main issue was just that he was awkward talking to people. He’d never been social enough to learn before getting comfortable with the team, but he was getting the hang of it.

Adam wasn’t mean either. He did the same thing Keith used to do, got defensive until he was backed into a corner then lashed out rather than backing down. Watching him burst into tears in that hospital room had only solidified Lance’s belief that he was still the same man he had been before. People who didn’t have very real feelings usually weren’t prone to crying.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Keith interrupted his thoughts as they reached the spot where his motorcycle was parked, next to Lance’s car. The snow had stopped earlier, so thankfully he didn’t have to get out the scraper.

“A whole lot of nothing,” Lance answered, trying to smile as if it was nice to have the time off. Really, he was tired of being on suspension. “Gonna hang out with Hunk and Pidge in the morning, we need to dig out our formal uniforms and make sure nothing needs to be refitted before the weekend.”

Keith got to the car first and opened the driver door for him. Lance slid in to start up the car and get the heat going, while Keith leaned on the top of the door and looked at him over it.

“I still owe you coffee.”

“You absolutely do,” Lance agreed.

“Tomorrow afternoon?” Keith offered.

Lance tried to look as if he was thinking about it, but it was impossible to keep back the grin that wanted to flare up.

“Are you going to dress up nice and everything?” He teased.

“It’s not really a first date if I don’t,” Keith pointed out. “Is around three okay?”

“Perfect, actually,” Lance grabbed his phone to text his mother. Keith was the only one in the group so far that hadn’t been to his house at some point. She was always nagging him about bringing his friends over more. “It means you can come over for dinner after coffee.”

“Dinner?” Keith’s eyes got a little bit wider at the unexpected turn of events. “Like, with your family?”

“No, I’ll eat with my family while you eat in the yard,” Lance reached up and lightly flicked him in the forehead. “Yes, with my family. They keep asking me why you’re the only one who doesn’t come over. Especially since my brothers and sisters met you at the bar and learned you were normal. Just try to be, um, subtle.”

He didn’t want to outright say “try not to out me to my parents” because he didn’t want Keith to feel like there was anything wrong with the way he was. Lance just hadn’t had the chance to feel out how his parents would react to him dating a guy yet.

“I can manage subtle,” Keith supposed, finally letting go of Lance’s door so he could close it and backing toward his motorcycle. “All right. Coffee at three, then dinner at your house.”

Lance didn’t know how he could ride that motorcycle in the dead of winter, but Keith didn’t seem to have a problem with the cold. He climbed on the bike and tore out of the parking lot with no real protection but his helmet and a jacket. Kosmo wagged his tail and bounded off after him, disappearing out of sight with a soft “pop.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Kuro didn’t even make it to the lobby before he had to stop. There was a supply closet a few doors away from this hallway’s exit, he made sure nobody was around before he stepped in and closed the door behind him, leaning back heavily against it in the dark.

His legs gave out and he slid down to the floor, giving up on trying to pretend everything was fine, panting slightly to brace against the annoying pains that kept going down his spine. A cool nose nudged him worriedly, and he reached up to run his fingers through Hoshi’s fur.

“I’m okay,” he assured her. “I just need a minute, I’ll be fine.”

These waves of weakness were coming more and more frequently. He wasn’t getting what he needed to sustain himself, and with Earth civilization being so primitive there were no safe quintessence sources that weren’t alive. Kuro had thought he’d be gone by now when Lotor announced preparations to go to Colony Two, but the departure date had been set so far off.

Kuro couldn’t fault the logic. Honerva wasn’t going to just leave them alone, the Alchemists could damage her little minions if trained correctly. She was likely keeping tabs on them somehow, and the moment they jumped into Colony Two’s space they would be alerting her as to where to find the potential thorns in her side.

“A few more weeks,” Kuro said out loud, trying to reassure both Hoshi and himself. “Once we’re out of Earth airspace we’re good.”

He knew he could get himself a ship of his own. He had acquired the striker after all, and there were plenty more of those out in the universe. Once he had that he could get back to the Abyss, find somewhere to hide out until he was strong again. Somewhere out there was bound to be a planet that was close to a weak point in the reality border, somewhere he could settle down safely.

“I’m sorry, I know I ask for a lot,” he apologized to Hoshi, leaning over to rest his head against hers in the dark. “But do you feel up for a little trip? I know it’s a risk, but it’s been too long.”

Hoshi licked his face and Kuro smiled a little, using her to get to his feet. He swayed a bit but managed to catch his balance, taking a deep breath and resting a hand on her back.

“Okay. Ready when you are.”

Kuro didn’t really like the teleporting, but that was only because he understood the risks better than anyone who had been dealing only with Kosmo. The wolves did much the same thing Sincline did, punching a hole in space time and dropping through it to come out at another point. They were much smaller than the mech and the holes they made were so tiny they closed immediately, but the hole itself wasn’t the problem.

Hoshi didn’t dip into the shallows of the quintessence field. Her kind bypassed the Nether, the stretch near the edges where Kuro’s kind could survive. She flitted through the depths, out in Guardian territory. And like a sea bird diving a few feet into the ocean to catch a fish, the wolves—and anyone with them—were just as vulnerable if predators were watching.

Which would at least be a quick death. If Kuro happened to let go at the wrong time, he could also get left behind in the deepest stretches of the quintessence field. Death came in that situation as well, but it came very, very slowly.

This trip was uneventful, as was every other one before it. A series of short-range jumps with planned stops in places that had already been checked and were found to be safe. Another closet on the other side of the med bay, an old classroom that was only being used for storage and was always locked up, a bathroom that was rarely used simply because it was at the end of a long hall of offices.

The final jump was the one that left him where he needed to be: the engine room of the Atlas.

This was where the trip got risky. Sometimes the room was empty. Sometimes, like today, it wasn’t. Kuro heard the footsteps coming toward him a few seconds after he arrived, knowing they were on their way to investigate the sound of them arriving. It was with no great shock that he saw Sam Holt coming around a row of machinery, looking surprised to see him there.

“Kuro…I wasn’t expecting any visitors. You know you’re really not supposed to be in here, you can just page Slav and he’ll come to you.”

“Oh, I know, I just thought I’d surprise him,” Kuro put on a cheerful face, the one that made everyone think he was innocent and oblivious. “Is he here?”

“Not today,” Sam sighed and stepped back, motioning for Kuro to go past him. “Come on, you can’t be in here. I’ll call him and let him know you’re looking for him.”

“Thank you,” Kuro said sweetly, moving to go past him.

He stopped when Sam was close, reaching up to put a hand over his eyes. There was a split second of instinctual struggle, but then the older man went slack.

Kuro caught him, lifting him easily and carrying him through the engine room to the console where he knew Sam usually did most of his work. He was the only one here on days when the Atlas wasn’t crewed, running diagnostics and doing basic maintenance, and that was thankfully the case today. He set Sam down in his chair with his head leaning back, so he’d wake up and assume he’d fallen asleep.

Flexing his fingers, Kuro brought out the glimmering, translucent claws and sank one slowly into Sam’s exposed forehead. Nothing physical was harmed, they passed through the solid matter without doing any damage as Kuro focused on slicing away the last minute or so of Sam’s memory. When he lifted the claw free it was wrapped in the silvery mist that quintessence appeared to be when it was released into a reality in this form.

He flicked it off, letting it dissipate. Sam would never remember he was here.

Hoshi joined him as he passed through the engine room, ignoring all the active machinery. His goal was the storage room in the back, the place where they’d normally keep tools and spare parts for long-term journeys. What was there now, as Kuro stepped inside, were the two remaining balmera crystals that had been powering the Atlas now that its Infinite Zero core was back in place.

Kuro couldn’t get to that, it was just too dangerous. Already, he knew, he was on camera being somewhere he didn’t need to be, and he was relying on Sam not remembering anyone was here so the footage remained unchecked. Kuro could get to the bridge, but the second he opened that crystal storage his presence would be logged by the ship.

The balmera crystals were the next best thing. Kuro closed his eyes and leaned up against one, feeling the energy making his skin tingle as it ran over him. Most people wouldn’t notice anything if they handled a balmera crystal, but for Kuro it was a case of high concentration running into low. He functioned on a similar wavelength to these things, the fact that he was running near empty started the energy siphoning out of it and into him without him having to really do anything.

It wasn’t ideal. Balmera crystals didn’t give off pure quintessence, they processed it into a form of power ships had been built to use. All this would do was keep him running for a few more days until he had to come back again, it gave him the bare minimum. And even that took far too long to achieve.

This was why he couldn’t simply use the crystal in the Lorelia. It was so much smaller, it would do next to nothing for him.

He was there for about half an hour and knew that Sam would be waking soon, but for now that would have to be enough. Kuro pushed away from the crystal and stretched a little, not feeling in top form these days but at least now feeling better than he did.

“I have to make one more stop,” he told Hoshi. “Is that okay? Lance said there are labs down under this hangar, it sounds like that’s where they’re keeping it.”

Hoshi yawned and got up from where she was laying, padding over. Kuro reached over and dug his claws into the side of the balmera crystal, this time cutting away a chunk of the crystal itself. It was usually useless to do; the energy would bleed out of it within a few hours so it wasn’t like he could stock pieces in the Lorelia to feed on later. But it might be useful to him now.

“Okay. Let’s go right outside the Atlas for now,” he instructed Hoshi. “We’ll figure out the way from there.”

* * * * *

Ten thousand years ago:

The half-Iron ran at full speed, flying across the shadowy marshes with anger in her step and her blood near boiling. A howl went up to her left, the battle cry of one of her brethren about to sink their teeth into enemy flesh. Ahead of her a Bronze rammed into a charging Formless at full speed, both falling to the ground as legs tangled and footing was lost.

She jumped over the fighting pair and continued on, refusing to let anything stop her.

The Nether was falling apart, its already frayed edges coming undone as more of what made it was siphoned off. The half-Iron had always thought she’d been born into a dead world, but now she was finding that the lands in which she lived still had some dying left to do. The hole caused by the comet decaphoebs go still hadn’t closed, and the packs had been forced to move away from it as it drew hoards of the disgusting parasites.

But there was only so far the Reapers could go. They lived on the edges of the quintessence field because they had to, they couldn’t survive farther out. So many of the borderlands had already been destroyed, contact with the farthest edges had been lost long before she had even existed. The half-Iron didn’t even know if there were any other Reaper packs out there, or if they were the last.

They were being forced into extinction, and of course the self-proclaimed “Guardians” who caused it were nowhere to be found.

She was almost there when a large Formless loomed up out of the marsh, leaning forward to make a grab for her. On her left the Silver that was part of the running party leapt forward, putting himself between her and it to guard her passage.

He was the last one who had been almost keeping pace with her. The half-Iron was the fastest, the power of a Bronze packed into the smaller, lighter form of an Iron, and now it was her turn to do her job. The others had guarded her flanks this far, helped to wedge her into the lost territory. Now she had been delivered and the rest was up to her.

She was the only one who could make this journey and she knew it. Her youth spent exploring the tattered remains of these wetlands helped guide her steps, her many trips to the edge of the comet’s entry point gave her the knowledge she needed to get there now.

This was their last-ditch effort to survive, their last fighting chance. The only way this hole was still open, still drawing massive amounts of the quintessence that was the very foundation the Nether was built on, was if the people on the other side weren’t letting it close. It had to be stopped, for the good of everyone involved, before it spiraled out of control.

The ground was less steady as she got closer to her mark, a sign that she was almost there. The Nether was unstable here, the threads that held it together beginning to unravel. This entire stretch of deteriorating ground was a no man’s land for them, completely infested with the gaunt, twisted visages of the Formless.

It was difficult for her to keep running. As much as she didn’t like to hurt anything she was still a fighter, the urge to skid to a stop and begin tearing into the gangly monsters around her was strong. It would be easier to stay here and fight than to try to cross over, easier than being the one on whom this entire last chance rested.

She had crossed the boundary before. Most Reapers had, they existed in a sort of suspended state halfway between the physical and the not. It was why they existed, their place in this ecosystem. When a universe collapsed and died it was the Reapers that moved into the space, feeding on the remains and leaving only emptiness, a blank slate where a new universe could be born.

But this was very different. This was a living universe, teeming with life. She knew she had to be careful, she had never interacted with a living thing on the other side before. There was so much damage she could do, so many problems she could unintentionally cause.

But if five stupid Guardians could reality hop on a comet, she could go just to the other side of the rift and try to warn the inhabitants that they needed to close the connection.

 The call of the mortals still sounded all around her, an entreaty for communication. Most of the Formless were too far gone to recognize where the sound was coming from or that it was words, that was really the only reason they hadn’t begun to flood through already.

She hit the point of no return and poured on speed, barely managing to get past a group of five large Formless milling around the rift. They made a grab for her, one of them clawing her side, but her thick fur and stomach scales protected her from too much damage.

The half-Iron ran on, following Honerva’s call.

* * * * * * * * * *

Current day:

It took some time to find the lab that Lance was talking about, since Kuro wasn’t familiar with the area under the Atlas’ berth. He and Hoshi couldn’t just blink in until he knew what kind of security and layout they were dealing with, so they had to go in on foot.

“I just hope Allura’s still busy with Lotor,” he murmured to Hoshi as he flattened himself against the wall next to a locked door and tried to get a sense for what was on the other side. “I wish they’d just date already, I need him to keep her distracted until I’m gone.”

He couldn’t work magic like an alchemist, so his abilities were limited. All he really knew was that he didn’t sense anything edible immediately on the other side of the door, which meant there was nothing alive there.

He knew he could probably access the door with a handprint or eye scan, because Takashi would probably have access. But it would also log his entry, and as soon as Takashi said he hadn’t been here everyone would know who had been. So Hoshi blinked him to the other side of the door, and the two of them nosed around until they found what they were looking for.

It was two labs down. Kuro was almost caught twice by people coming and going out of the other labs, but the fact that they didn’t expect anybody to be sneaking around down here worked in his favor. He just flattened himself against the wall and stayed very still, and people came out of one room and went into another without even looking up.

He did have to crawl on all fours, proving he hadn’t really been just teasing Curtis earlier, to get past what looked like a break room. There were a handful of researchers in there having coffee or a snack, and he and Hoshi had to crawl by to avoid being seen.

But Kuro knew the door they needed to go through before he even reached it. He could feel what was on the other side, the things that made his skin crawl and the thing that almost seemed to sing.

This time he had Hoshi blink him directly to the other side of the door. He stayed there, pressed back against it, sweeping the room with his eyes for security cameras or alarms. There was nothing here, probably because the room content was too classified to record. At least, nothing he could see. But he had to be here, he would have to worry about the possibility of being caught later.

Kuro took a few steps into the room, jumping at the loud thump that sounded to his right as the contents of what looked like a storage pod slammed itself against the glass. The thing inside did it a few more times, posturing and threatening, its shape twisting and morphing to make itself look bigger.

He walked over to it, standing in front of the pod, watching the creature inside get angrier and angrier. It didn’t like him, it wanted a chance to get at him. It was joined by three more, all of them throwing themselves against the sides of their enclosures.

Kuro watched for a moment longer, in silence. When he grew tired of the display, he suddenly took a swing and slammed his fist into the glass in front of him, not hard enough to break it but with enough force to make the whole container vibrate. He opened his hand then, letting his claws flick out, phasing them through the glass.

The Formless inside quickly shrank back. Strangely enough it didn’t seem so brave anymore, and the high-pitched shriek it let out caused the others to still as well.

“That’s what I thought,” Kuro snorted, flicking the claws away again. “Disgusting little parasites.”

He walked further into the room, past the other containers. The Formless inside flitted up to the top of their pods as if to get out of his reach, like he couldn’t dismantle their meager protection if he wanted to. But he wasn’t interested in them.

He was interested in the last container. The one holding the metallic creature that floated lethargically within, larger than the others and with far less strength. Kuro went straight to this container, pulling the piece of balmera crystal out of his coat pocket and pressing it to the glass.

He immediately got an uncomfortable shock. Not from electricity, but there was some kind of electromagnetic field around the glass that he was sensitive to. Probably the same field that was keeping everyone contained. Kuro pressed the crystal against the glass again, this time being careful to only use his fingertips and not touch the pod’s surface.

“I’m sorry. I knew you were here somewhere, but I couldn’t find you. Here…it isn’t much, but I know they haven’t been giving you anything and this is better than nothing.”

It didn’t move at first, but after a moment it sensed the energy in the crystal and slowly floated over closer. It was careful not to touch the glass either but got as close as it could, probably relieved to have its first meal in months.

“You’re a Gold,” Kuro observed. Male, and from his size probably only a little older. “I’ve never met a Gold, but I know a lot of Bronzes...or at least, I did. But you just came over? You hitched a ride on Lance? So there must still be some of the Nether left. And some Reaper packs must still be around…right?”

The Gold spun lazily, the light reflecting prettily off his dazzling fractals in the otherwise sterile lab. He was very impressive even after a phase shift, Kuro could only imagine how lovely he must look in his full splendor.

He made some noises that weren’t really noises, more like fluctuations in wavelengths since Reapers didn’t talk in the way mortals understood it. But it was hard to decipher, almost a mish-mash of unfamiliar declarations.

“Wait, slow down,” Kuro requested. “I’m sorry, this brain can’t really process what you’re saying.”

Something about a Silver, Kuro could discern that much. Stolen…a stolen Silver? What did that even mean?

Hoshi let out a whine in warning that somebody was in the hall. Kuro froze, listening, as voices stopped right outside the door.

Allura and Lotor. One of them, most likely Allura, started punching in a code on the door.

“I have to go!” Kuro whispered to the gold, looking around frantically. He saw that the platform the container sat in had a small ledge, braving another shock as he reached around to balance the crystal back behind the pod where the Gold could still reach it to feed. “I’m sorry, I know I’ve only been here for a minute. I’ll be back, I promise. I’m leaving here in a few weeks, I’ll find a way to take you with me.”

He drew his hand back, spitting out a soft swear when the leather bracelet he was wearing caught on something. He didn’t want to ruin Curtis’ gift but he didn’t have a choice, ripping it free and grabbing Hoshi just as the door was opening.

There was a brief flash of cold, and then he was down the hall on the other side of the door that led to the labs. Still not somewhere he was supposed to be, but much safer.

He didn’t want to tire Hoshi out too badly, so he bound up the stairs with her following, creeping around the edge of the Atlas hangar by keeping behind crates and storage containers until he reached the far wall. One more blink from Hoshi and they were standing outside in the light of day, safely out of any classified area.

“That was close,” he murmured, reaching down to stroke Hoshi’s head affectionately. “Good girl. What would I do without you?”

They made the trek around the building and across the field to the Lorelia. It was a small relieve to be in guaranteed safety, back in his tiny little room where he could lock the door. He let Hoshi go in first then sealed the door up tightly, leaning back against it.

“This complicates our escape,” he told Hoshi. “I mean, I knew it would, once we found him. It’s what I’ve been preparing for. But I didn’t count on him being held somewhere so far from where we’d probably be taking off.”

He sighed an pulled off his jacket, tossing it on the bed and flopping down next to it to examine his bracelet. It was broken but not ruined, just a sewn seam around the edge that could be fixed. Kuro picked at it, pulling out the whole strand of thread to see the length he would need to re-sew it.

On the other side of the bracelet, right near the snap, there was a tiny square nestled in between the layers of leather. Kuro frowned and pulled it out, holding it up to the light.

It was a microchip. A GPS tracker, from the look of it.

“Son of a…”

Kuro launched himself off the bed, over to his little closet. He pulled out the small box where he kept all the little trinkets Curtis had been leaving him over the last two months. They were all wearables, things like bracelets and pendants and pins. He dumped them all out on the bed and grabbed his tool kit, setting to work.

One after another he opened up everything. The backs came off pins, pendants were pried out of their frames, clasps of bracelets were opened. In every single one of them he found a GPS tracking chip, all of them with a small green light showing they were actively giving off a signal. Only the one from the leather bracelet was different, this one’s little light was red, but Kuro didn’t know what the difference was.

All he knew was that he had been stupidly wearing the gifts, broadcasting his location every time he snuck in somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be.

“That little weasel! I’m the one who’s not supposed to be as innocent as he looks here!” Kuro huffed, grabbing the chips and taking them out of his room, down the ship and back into his little lab space. He laid them out on the table, all but one, and slammed them with a hammer until all that was left was a pile of tiny pieces.

“I’ve never killed anyone before,” Kuro told Hoshi as she came padding in after him curiously, “but I swear this man wants me to make an exception to that rule.”

Chapter Text

The snow had stopped, or so he gathered from the bits of conversation he could hear going on out in the hall. He couldn’t look to see himself, the glare off the coating of white outside made his nictitating membranes close and left him blind until he stumbled somewhere darker.

Darker, like the room he sat in now. It was a comfortable enough room, though it could stand to be a little warmer. Adam had never understood people who liked the cold, he was a warm weather person. He could stand very low temperatures when he had to, they didn’t slow him down, he just didn’t like them.

He was wearing jeans this morning, which felt very weird to him. The looseness of the fabric was an oddity after so long in the tighter, ill-fitting drape of a prisoner’s uniform, and even the Altean flight suit he’d used was more snug than these. A pair of his jeans, one of his heavy sweaters, his sneakers.

His clothes. His own clothes. He didn’t know yet how he felt about it.

He knew he was supposed to be happy, that was a no brainer. But for some reason it felt like there was a wall there, like he knew what he should feel but he couldn’t quite reach it. It was there, just…not.

The door opened a crack and a woman squeezed in, careful not to open it too wide to let too much light flood in. The room wasn’t completely dark but it was dim, and she was careful as she crossed it to sit in the chair across from him. Adam had been laying sideways in this armchair for about ten minutes, not a terribly long wait. He’d mostly just let his mind drift to nowhere in particular and listened to the sounds of people talking as they passed in the hallway.

“Good morning,” Dr. Solarin said amiably as she settled in. She was a very pretty woman, her dark, nearly black skin letting her metallic makeup shine in a way that made her look regal. She wore a purple head wrap that matched her fitted suit, and dangling gold earrings that caught the light. “How are you feeling today? Any better?”

Adam liked her voice. It was throaty and warm, with the faintest traces of an accent on some words.

He didn’t answer her.

“Are we still not talking?” She asked the question, not expecting a reply, as she opened up the leather bag she’d brought with her and took out some files and a notepad. “That’s all right. There’s no rush, you’ll talk when you’re ready.”

Dr. Solarin had been brought into his hospital room to see him last night, to introduce herself and probably to give an initial assessment. By then it had been dark. Adam had sat in the window, looking out at the moonlight reflecting off the snow, while Takashi and Curtis had answered her questions. She seemed nice.

“You know, a lot of people become nonverbal for a little while after a trauma,” she said conversationally. “Usually children, but it can happen to anyone who needs a little bit of help processing what they’ve been through. Usually once the underlying problem is worked through, people can…you think that’s funny.”

She was commenting on the fact that he was smiling. Adam didn’t look up from picking at his nails, nor did he make any attempt to change his expression.

“Because you don’t have any problem talking,” Solarin deduced. “You just don’t want to.”

His gaze flicked up to her, then back down to his nails.

“All right. Then you can just listen for now,” she supposed.

She took a moment to get more comfortably settled in her chair, opening up the file she’d taken out. Adam already knew what was in it, it was his file from his previous therapist. He knew from listening to her talk to Curtis and Takashi that the therapist he’d kept on retainer had died during the occupation. Dr. Solarin wasn’t completely alien to him, she’d worked at the same office and he had exchanged pleasantries with her on occasion while waiting for his appointments.

It was kind of nice, that Curtis knew him well enough to bypass the doctors available from the Garrison and get someone he was familiar with.

“You already know the ground rules,” Solarin said. “Nothing you tell me leaves this room in most cases, but I am a mandatory reporter and I do have to act if I come to believe you intend to hurt yourself or others. But nothing in this file gives me any indication that either of those will be an issue.”

That was standard. He’d been to enough therapy to know all of that already. Solarin started paging through is file.

“Adam Jacinto Wolfe. Twenty-nine years old, 6’3”, 185 pounds…that’s very good, considering. Fighter pilot, Air Force Captain, leader of squad Alpha-6. Recipient of the Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Combat Readiness Medal, Aerial Achievement Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Air Force Cross. Posthumous recipient of the Air Force Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart, both to be re-presented. Officially nominated for the Prisoner of War medal as of…yesterday.”

Again, he said nothing.

“You don’t care about any of those,” she read his posture. “Do you even know where any of your medals are?”

Adam slowly raised his hands and opened them, palm up, spreading them wide in an exaggerated shrug that he hoped conveyed his feelings on the matter: I don’t know, and I don’t give a shit.

Solarin got the hint.

“Dual bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Mathematics,” she continued. “Certificates in Early Childhood Education and Computer Programming. Doctorate in Astronautical Engineering. Lifeguard training, first responder training. Fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, English, American Sign Language, and Ticuna.”

“And Galran.”

Solarin glanced up at him when he finally spoke, his first words since waking up on Earth. She didn’t make a big deal out of it, looking back down at the file.

“And Galran. Proficient in small arms, rifles, archery, hand-to-hand combat, knife combat, and bo staff. And you even play acoustic guitar. Your resume is very impressive.”

“I know. Guitar is very difficult for a lot of people to learn.”

“Mother, Janet Lobo,” Solarin continued, smiling a little. “Father unknown, two half-siblings: Sophia and Enzo. Brother-in-law, Joseph, sister-in-law, Katerina. Nephew, Gabriel.”

She took a moment to read his previous doctor’s notes. He already knew what she would focus in on first, it was the same thing therapists always focused on when they were trying to get a feel for him.

“Tell me about your family, Adam.”

“They’re relatives,” Adam gave her the same answer he had given his previous doctor. “Not my family.”

“All right, then tell me about your relatives.”

She didn’t skip a beat, unfazed by his distance. Adam’s first instinct was to go quiet again and let her figure out that it was none of her business, but he knew better. He had spent years learning how to talk about things, even the things he found unpleasant. Keeping them all inside had never helped when he was younger, it wasn’t going to help him now.

“Do you want the version I grew up with, or the version I know is true now?” He asked, still picking at his nails.

“Let’s go with the current version.”

“All right. Janet was born to a lower class couple. My grandfather was an archaeologist and my grandmother was Ticuna, one of the indigenous peoples of Brazil. They lived a simple life, Janet clawed her way out of that by working hard and learning about investing early on in college. By the time my older brother was born she was making really good money in real estate investing and dabbling in politics.

“She’s ambitious, she doesn’t slow down. She knows what she wants and she goes after it, she doesn’t let anything stop her. It only took her a few more years before she owned her own firm and was running in circles with governors and presidential candidates. Then she got raped by an alien and almost lost her good name and everything that came with it because some bottom-feeding animal that should have been extinct arbitrarily decided she was the one whose life he was going to fuck up. She carried me to term and gave birth even though she didn’t have to, and left me with my grandparents instead of putting me up for adoption. She can barely stand to even look at me, but she made sure I was taken care of from a distance.”

“What makes you think your conception wasn’t consensual?”

“I can get people to do what I want them to without them realizing it, and I’m only a half breed,” Adam answered. “My sperm donor can do worse. Janet’s not the kind of woman who does anything to throw a wrench in her picture perfect image if she can help it.”

Solarin was writing something. He stopped there and let her, waiting for further prompting. He expected her to ask about the alien part, but instead she stayed a little closer to home.

“What about your half-siblings? Enzo and Sophia?”

“Enzo resents that I exist,” Adam said. “He went most of his life without knowing, finding out threw him for a loop. He pretends to give a damn for Sophia’s sake since she’s the baby of the family, but if I really was dead he wouldn’t care.”

“How did he find out about you?” Solarin prompted.

“I took one of those heritage DNA tests to see if I could find out anything about my father’s family,” Adam answered. “It came back inconclusive, obviously. But Sophia got into genealogy when she started high school, she took one too. We used the same big-name company, they informed her that there was a genetic match that was a sibling. She went to our grandparents and found out about me, showed up at my graduation from the Academy without any warning.”

“And how did your mother react to that?”

“Janet isn’t my mother, I don’t have a mother.”

“Okay. How did Janet react to that?”

“Furiously,” Adam answered. “She called me up and told me never to contact the other kids again, like it was somehow my fault in the first place. But Sophia kept pushing, and Janet adores her. She gave in and gave me permission to visit on holidays, but I had to give advance notice and I had to pretend I was a family friend. Nobody could know I was related. I didn’t even really want to, I just did it for Sophia’s sake. She wanted me to be part of the family, and she fought for it. That went on for a couple years, until I fucked it up.”

“How so?”

“I started sleeping with a man. Janet converted to Catholicism when she got married, she takes it very seriously. Sophia doesn’t care, she keeps trying to pull everyone together…especially since she had the baby. I guess I just don’t have it in me to straight out tell her to stop trying for everyone’s sake. Enzo’s disgusted, but he’s convinced I can make everything right if I find an acceptable woman and join the Church.”

“I see. And what about you? Before you came to the Garrison you attended a private Catholic boarding school. What’s your relationship with faith like? Do you believe in God?”

“I believe that if He exists, He can keep doing His own thing and keep leaving me to do mine,” Adam answered flatly. “I don’t have any faith to speak of.”

“So you’re atheist?”

“Agnostic.”

“Do you ever pray?”

“Not anymore.” He thought that should have been obvious from his previous answer. Then again, he had seen atheist scientists give up prayers to their own personal superstitions plenty of times, so maybe it wasn’t a dumb question.

“Did you ever pray during your captivity?”

So that’s where this was leading. Adam had wondered how she would get around to introducing the topic, since that was the big issue she was here to address.

“You know, you could have just walked in here and asked me to tell you about what I went through,” he told her. “I’m not delicate, you can be blunt.”

“I don’t want you to hit bullet points, I’m not here to go through a checklist of questions,” Solarin answered gently. “I don’t want to hear the outside facts of what happened, I want to hear what you personally went through.”

Adam sighed and kicked his legs down, sitting upright in the chair. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, toying with the cuff of one sleeve.

“I prayed in the beginning,” he admitted. “It didn’t take very long to realize nobody was listening.”

“How did being a prisoner make you feel?” Solarin asked. “I know it was bad, I know you didn’t like it. But if you can tell me, I want to know what went through your head. How you felt.”

Adam went quiet for a minute, tugging at a loose thread on his sleeve cuff. He’d gotten pretty numb to most things as time went on, but he didn’t think he’d ever forget that first month or so.

“Not good, I guess,” he admitted. “Lost. Alone. Scared. I didn’t fight in the beginning because I was brave or strong, I did it because I was desperate.”

“And then later?”

“Because I was angry,” Adam answered.

“Angry at the Galra?”

Solarin was looking at him for the most part, actively listening, only taking little notes here and there. Adam wanted to snap at her that of course he was angry at the Galra, but he took a moment to reel that in. She wasn’t asking questions because she didn’t know the answers, she was asking questions she wanted him to think about. He had gone through the same thing with Dr. Tremain, she was building a blueprint for where they had to go in the future.

“Angry at the Galra,” he confirmed.

He halted abruptly there, not sure what he wanted to say. Saying things made them real, saying them to someone else opened him up to having to explore them deeper.

“And?” Solarin pressed after his silence had gone on for several moments.

“And angry at a lot of people,” Adam supposed. “Angry at myself for enlisting in the first place. Angry at Admiral Sanda for leaving us out there. Angry at the rest of my unit for dying and not having to go through what I was going through.”

He took a deep breath and let his head hang forward, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“Angry at Iverson for not overriding Sanda while he still could, angry at Sam Holt and Curtis Duchesne for bringing the Galra to our door with their broadcasts. Angry at Lance McClain and Katie Holt and Hunk Garrett and Keith Kogane for stirring up a war they had the weapons to fight in then disappearing and leaving the rest of the universe to fend for ourselves. Angry at Takashi Shirogane for fucking me over yet again by being the reason I was there.

“Just angry. Angry at everything, angry at everyone. I didn’t keep going because I hoped anything would change, I kept going because I was just that pissed off at everything. There were plenty of times it would have been easier to give up and die, but I didn’t want to give anyone that satisfaction.”

“Are you still angry?” Solarin didn’t sound the least bit surprised by his admission. More like he’d just confirmed something she thought than that he’d made any real revelations.

“I’m—“ Adam stopped, raising his head. He looked around the room, at the bookshelves filled with books and the neat, simple desk, and the window with the morning light trying to sneak in around the edges of the curtains. “I’m tired. Really tired.”

“Too tired to be angry?”

“Tired of being angry,” Adam answered. “I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t help me, it doesn’t get me anywhere.”

“Is that why you don’t want to speak to anyone?” Solarin prodded. “The way you feel about them makes you tired?”

“I don’t want to talk to them because I don’t know what to say,” Adam said with a humorless snort as he let himself fall back into the chair. “How do you come back from where I’ve been and talk to people like everything is normal? What do you say? “Hey, how have you all been, just for reference I hate every one of you?” That sounds like a pleasant conversation.”

“Do you hate them all?”

Adam didn’t answer. He slid down into a deep slouch until he was practically hanging off the edge of the chair, absently scratching at the fabric of the armrests with his nails.

“No,” he said finally, his chest feeling heavy.

“Then why would you tell them you do?”

“It’s easier than waiting for them to decide they hate me, I guess.”

It was a coward’s way out, but so what? It wasn’t like Adam really had anything else to lose. Why wait the days, or maybe weeks, it might take for everyone to realize he wasn’t the same? Might as well be efficient about it and get it all out of the way.

“What do they have to hate you for?” Solarin asked curiously.

“I’m sure somebody somewhere wrote up a report about what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half already.”

“Vaguely,” Solarin confirmed, lifting one of the pages in front of her to read notes underneath. “James Griffin noted in his questioning that you were kept as a sport fighter, and he gave a description of the outpost arena. Takashi Shirogane confirmed the details of what those prisoners go through, and Keith Kogane provided Galran video footage. But none of that answers my question.”

“What do you think that does to a person?” Adam asked irritably. “What do you think a person turns into when they walk into a fight they have to kill to get out of every day? I haven’t been away on a retreat, I’ve been committing murder for a year and a half. Sometimes it was just some kind of animal on days when they couldn’t get prisoners, but most of the time it was people.”

“You don’t think self-defense mitigates any of that?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you try asking the families of the couple hundred people who will never come home again because I killed them?”

“Do you—“

“I’m done talking about it,” Adam said abruptly, interrupting her question.

He didn’t want to go into it any further, he didn’t want to think about it. He just wanted to hate himself in peace, he didn’t want compassion or understanding.

“All right,” Dr. Solarin said agreeably. “We can stop for now. Will you agree to come to my office if I schedule you for an appointment on Friday?”

“Do I have a choice?” Adam asked.

“Absolutely.”

He rolled over in the chair, kicking his legs back up over the arm and turning to rest his head against the chair back. He could be spiteful and tell her no, it wasn’t like anybody could make him go see her.

“Fine,” he answered.

“Then I’ll have you come in for an hour on Friday morning. Ten o’clock. Commander Duchesne is arranging for you to stay with him until you get settled back in here, is that okay with you?”

Adam shrugged. It didn’t really make any difference to him where he stayed as long as it wasn’t on the Garrison base. Dr. Solarin reached into her bag again, this time withdrawing a business card. She handed it over so he would have the address and started packing away her file and notepad.

“I think you’re fine to be discharged,” she told him. “I’ll go get my recommendation submitted, everything will probably be ready for you to go in about an hour. In the meantime, I think you have some visitors waiting for you.”

Adam didn’t answer. He kept his face buried in the fabric of the chair, listening silently as she packed everything up and left. He stayed there for probably about ten more minutes, until the cheerful nurse who had brought him to this office in the first place came back to collect him.

He followed her back through the quiet halls of the hospital, back to room 317 where the shades were drawn and the lights were turned off. It wasn’t completely dark, but even if it was he would be able to see the bodies in the room.

Gail launched herself out of her chair as soon as she saw him, throwing her arms around his middle because she was too short to reach his neck while he was standing. Curtis stayed seated in his chair, and James, Ina and Ryan stayed standing back on the other side of the room. Nadia followed Gail’s example, darting over and hugging him tightly. Raina got up slowly from where she’d been sitting on the edge of the bed, but she gave him some space. Matt was leaning against a wall, Romelle was standing next to him.

The room was filled with people, all people he knew and cared about, and all of them looked happy to see him. He hugged Gail and Nadia tightly, feeling like a horrible liar. He wasn’t a good person, he didn’t deserve for so many people to be here to welcome him home. It wasn’t like he was some long lost hero, he was a guy who had been out in the middle of space killing people for a year.

They let him go long enough for him to go over and sit on the bed, which was when he saw the flowers. There were at least six vases, and even as he sat down an orderly brought in a seventh. From students and faculty, according to the tags, and even from other pilots who had survived the occupation.

Adam still didn’t talk. He still didn’t know what to say, it was easier to say nothing at all. The women filled the silence for him, with the men chiming in now and then, broken up only by the occasional arrival of more flowers. It didn’t escape his notice that they all carefully avoided talking about the war, probably warned by Dr. Solarin that it was sensitive territory.

They told him about the rebuilding efforts. About the recent reestablishment of worldwide communication. About Raina’s recent top surgery—which he had most definitely noticed, she had picked an excellent surgeon—and about Gail’s wedding last month.

Nice things. Peaceful things. Happy things. The kind of things his life had been sorely lacking for too long. He didn’t say anything in response or offer anything to the conversation but he did listen. And for a little while, the universe wasn’t quite so dark and depressing.

 * * * * * * * * * *

Years Ago:

Takashi was being annoying.

He was always annoying, of course, but lately he was being annoying in a whole new way. He was leaving the dorm early and coming back late, spending time over in other cadets’ rooms after class and generally avoiding being in Adam’s presence.

It shouldn’t have bothered him. It wasn’t like they were close, technically they weren’t even friends. Forced allies turned roommates that tolerated each other, at most. But it did bother him.

This had been going on for four days now. Today was the last day before Christmas break, and Adam still didn’t know what was up. He should have been glad Takashi wasn’t randomly inserting himself into everything he was doing like usual, but instead life just seemed weirdly quiet.

The bell rang to signal the end of class and Adam packed up his things, scrolling through his social media as he left his math class. Everyone was posting about their holiday plans, he was behind the curve.

He went out of his way to stop in the front lobby, to take a selfie of himself in front of the Garrison Christmas tree, then mused over a clever caption to add on his way to the cafeteria. Nothing particularly entertaining came to mind so he settled for a generic “Happy Holidays” and posted it, falling into line with the other students.

The Garrison academy had pretty decent food compared to what students at other schools said they got, but Adam couldn’t really judge. He bypassed all the actual food, grabbing three sodas, a Red Bull, and a bag of Doritos before scouting out the tables.

He spotted his friends sitting over by the window and started toward their table, but halfway there he caught sight of Takashi leaving the food line and crossing the room. Adam wanted to ignore him, just like he had been ignored lately, but it was hard.

Most people liked Adam. Most people fawned over him and ate up his charming behavior, most people let him get away with murder. Takashi wasn’t one of those people, and for some reason that drove Adam crazy.

He didn’t know why. It wasn’t like there was anything particularly special about Takashi Shirogane that made his attention something to be coveted. He was one of those irritating people who was naturally athletic and smart, who overachieved at everything. One of those people Adam enjoyed taking down a few notches, simply because they got used to being up on a pedestal and it was fun to see them get shocked when they were knocked off.

It wasn’t about academics, Adam was sure of that. Yes, he had to put in a decent amount of work to match Takashi’s achievements, but he wasn’t a person who thrived on that kind of recognition. So what bothered him wasn’t the idea of not being taken seriously as an academic rival.

It wasn’t about piloting, either. Takashi could outmaneuver him any day, sure, but Adam could out-strategize him. And Adam wasn’t out to break records like Takashi was, he could have it.

Adam had plenty of people who wanted to socialize with him, plenty of people who invited him places, plenty of people who wanted to hang out with him. So Takashi’s attention meant literally nothing in that regard.

And yet, being ignored was still driving Adam up a wall.

He changed course halfway across the cafeteria, following Takashi to a table over in the corner. He reached it a moment after Takashi sat down, and dropped his tray loudly on the table across from him.

“Shiro.”

It was about as friendly of a greeting as Adam ever gave him, really. Takashi looked up at him as he sat down, eyebrows raised, then wordlessly went back to digging in his backpack. Not a greeting, not an insult, barely even an acknowledgement.

“Okay, fine, if you insist on being high maintenance,” Adam gave in, rolling his eyes as he opened his Red Bull. “What did I do?”

“What did you do?” Takashi repeated, still not looking at him.

“Yes, what did I do. You’ve been ignoring me for four days.”

“Have I?” Takashi asked airily, starting to arrange his food on his plate the way he liked it. “Huh. So you know exactly when I started ignoring you, but aren’t smart enough to pinpoint what you did.”

“Because I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything,” Adam answered. “I’m just trying to figure out what you imagined I did.”

“Hm.”

Takashi closed his backpack and rose, tossing the strap over his shoulder. He grabbed his tray and started to walk away from the table, leaving Adam scrambling to grab his things and follow.

“Oh, come on!” Adam complained, nearly tripping over another student’s book bag as he tried to catch up. “How am I supposed to know why the hell you’re mad at me if you won’t tell me?”

“Okay,” Takashi stopped and turned to face him. “Why don’t you try thinking about the last conversation we had, genius?”

Adam squinted thoughtfully for a moment, trying to recall.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he admitted, giving up after a few seconds. “I like hearing you talk because you do have a nice voice, but I never actually listen to any of the words unless they’re about me.”

Takashi rolled his eyes in annoyance and turned to walk away again. Adam balanced his tray on one hand, grabbing Takashi’s backpack with the other.

“Wait! Okay, fine! It was…I don’t know. For fuck’s sake, it was four days ago. Something about that picture of you in the stupid Korean skirt.”

Takashi whirled around, hitting him with a surprisingly sharp glare. Before Adam could say anything else, Takashi took the bowl of mac and cheese off his tray and flipped it over on top of his head. Adam stiffened as macaroni slid down his face and fell into his uniform collar, warm cheese sauce running through his hair.

As if that wasn’t unexpected enough, Takashi grabbed him by his collar and yanked him in close.

“You know goddamned well it’s called a kimono,” he said in a low voice, ignoring the people who were starting to stare. “You know it’s not Korean. You know it’s a picture from a festival in Tokamachi.

“I’m Japanese. I’m not Chinese, I’m not Vietnamese, I’m not Taiwanese, I’m not Korean, I’m not Thai. Saying shit like “ching-chong-chang” to imitate me when I’m speaking on the phone in my native language is not fucking funny. Rolling up every Asian nationality in the Pacific into one and referring to me by the wrong one isn’t clever. Your arrogance is not cute. I know I’m not the only one you hurl your racist bullshit at, but I’m the one who’s not going to keep putting up with it.”

Takashi let him go, giving him a shove back that almost made him drop his tray.

“You know what your problem is, Adam?” He asked, adjusting the backpack that had slid down off his arm. “You don’t know where you come from. Everyone else here has a history and you don’t, and if you can’t have something you like to ruin it for everybody. That’s just the kind of shitty person you are. It makes you feel better about yourself if you can make everyone else feel bad about who they are, just like you feel bad about who you are. I don’t need people like you in my life. You keep your distance, I’ll keep mine, and when the holiday break is over I’m going to request a room change.”

He turned and walked away, leaving Adam standing in the middle of the cafeteria not knowing what to do.

* * * * * * * * * *

Current Day:

“This isn’t a mission into enemy territory, Keith. Nobody is going to die if you pick the wrong shirt.”

Shiro had never seen Keith as worked up as he’d currently gotten himself, which was really saying something since the kid could get pretty wired. He was leaning in the doorway of his little brother’s room, watching him pull literally everything out of his drawers and hold it up in front of the mirror before discarding it on the floor.

Keith’s room was a mess. Which was another novelty, he usually liked keeping things relatively neat so he knew where everything was.

“He wants me to go to his house for dinner, Shiro,” Keith was steadily growing more panicked as he held a black button-up shirt in front of him, deciding it was no good. “But he wants me to be subtle. How do I dress nice for a date but not look like I dressed nice for a date?”

“I think what he meant by “be subtle” was to not walk into the house wearing rainbow face paint and kiss him in front of his parents,” Shiro said reasonably. “Dressing decently isn’t inherently gay, that’s just an excuse lazy straight guys use so they don’t have to look nice for their girlfriends.”

“I know that, I’ve seen the way you and Kuro dress.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Shiro asked, looking down at his clothes. Keith stopped digging frantically through the pile of shirts on the bed to look at him before shaking his head and going back to searching.

“…nothing.”

You asked me for help, you little shit.”

Shiro had spent the night at the hospital, finally relinquishing Adam to the care of the staff when they wanted to get him ready for therapy. He had come home to grab a shower and change, only to be accosted by Keith. The younger Paladin was panicking over finally having a date.

Well, not the date part, but the part where he was going to have dinner with Lance’s family. Which was something that literally every other Paladin, including Shiro, had done at some point over the last six months. Shiro had actually been invited over as one of Allura’s friends rather than Lance’s, since she’d pretty much been adopted by the McClains.

“Mr. and Mrs. McClain are very nice people,” he sighed, ducking a tossed pair of slacks. “They’re very accepting people. A decent shirt and one of your newer pairs of jeans will be fine for both coffee and dinner.”

“What if I’m wearing jeans, and Lance ends up wearing like…a dinner jacket?” Keith asked, trying to separate his Earth clothes from a pile of Galra ones.

“I want you to repeat what you just said, slowly,” Shiro requested. “Lance doesn’t even know what a dinner jacket is.”

The phone was ringing, a welcome reason to step out of the room and leave behind the clothing-induced panic. He grabbed it off the counter, feeling a brief flash of fear when he saw it was Curtis’ number.

“What’s wrong?” He asked as soon as he picked up, completely bypassing a greeting. “Is Adam okay?”

“He’s fine, calm down,” Curtis answered. “He spent about an hour with the new therapist and she says he seems fine to be around people.”

“Is he still not talking?” Shiro asked.

“Not a word,” Curtis confirmed. “But he’s not zoned out or anything, I think he just doesn’t want to talk yet. Either way, the hospital is discharging him. I have the spare room at my place ready, but I have somewhere to go tonight. I don’t want to leave him alone so soon even if he is fine.”

“Yeah, no, I understand,” Shiro was already looking frantically around the apartment, starting to grab empty water bottles and soda cans in a quick clean up. “You can bring him to my place. Keith’s going out, it will be quiet here. I have his stuff that Hunk found in storage too, he can go through it instead of waiting for it to be brought over to your place.”

“He got a lot of flowers, so we’re going to stop at the house first to drop them all off,” Curtis answered. “But we’ll be there in about an hour.”

Shiro made sure he had the right address and directions, then hung up and went back to Keith’s room. His brother had settled on a dark red shirt—the exact same shirt he’d first pulled out of his drawer an hour ago—and was looking at himself critically in the mirror.

“Comb your hair,” Shiro commanded. “Adam is going to be here while you’re gone. Is that all right with you? Curtis has something to do.”

“Is “something” what we’re calling Kuro now?” Keith snorted, glancing up from buttoning the shirt. Shiro’s lack of understanding must have shown on his face. “Curtis has a date with Kuro tonight. He asked him out to dinner yesterday afternoon after the meeting with Iverson.”

He left the bedroom, heading for the bathroom. Shiro stopped him in the hall.

“I’m sorry. Back up. Disaster Man asked out Tim Burton? And I missed it?”

“Yeah, it was like watching a wildlife documentary,” Keith answered as Shiro followed him to the bathroom, leaning in the doorway while he started trying to tame his hair. “Are you sure that guy is special forces?”

“Ninety-nine percent sure,” Shiro said.

“That’s scary, considering he almost broke his own face on the door. First he walked into the water fountain, then he couldn’t get the door open because he was pushing it. Then when he pulled it, he almost hit himself in the face.”

“What about Kuro?”

“Kuro was yanking his chain really bad and intentionally making it worse,” Keith answered. “So…pretty much exactly what you’d do. But he agreed to go. He also said he’d go to the Garrison ball with him.”

“Hold on, Kuro’s been on Earth for two months and has been hidden away for most of it, and he’s already got a date tonight and one for a formal?” Shiro asked. He put his hands on his hips, considering the unfairness of it all. “I went six months with nothing.”

“You went six months with an obvious hang up on your late ex,” Keith replied. “Men talked to you once and assumed you’re the kind of guy who cries after sex. But it all worked out for you, so maybe you shouldn’t complain.”

He opened the medicine cabinet, tilting the mirror so he could see Shiro’s face in it and giving him an angelic smile.

“Speaking of boning—and believe me, I really do not want to—should I be not coming home tonight?”

“He just got out of the hospital, Keith. We haven’t even had a conversation yet, I don’t think you have to worry about walking in on anything unsavory.”

“Hey, like you said, you went six months,” Keith answered, flicking the mirror closed. “Eight, if you count the last two. And that’s only if we’re considering your time on Earth, if we take space into account…”

He started counting on his fingers.

“Three and a half years. And you were kind of having a break up when you left, so I’m going to assume I can tack another month or so on top of that…”

“You can feel free to stop at any time,” Shiro assured him. “Believe me, I’m acutely aware of every second that’s passed. I don’t need your help keeping track, Alexa. And no, you don’t have to stay out all night, we just don’t want to leave him alone. You can lock your door if you want, but I really don’t think you have to worry about him poking around in there.”

He left Keith to get ready, doing a sweep of the apartment to tidy it up. It wasn’t too terrible, they weren’t slobs, it just wasn’t as neat as it would have been if Shiro had known he was bringing a man home. This man in particular.

He put all the throw pillows back on the sofa, folded up the lap blanket, and made sure any dirty dishes were in the dishwasher. His bed was made, a quick check of the bathroom after Keith left made sure there was no toothpaste in the sink or trash on the floor. Anything that had a place was put away, and the place was decent after about half an hour.

There were some boxes, three of them holding Adam’s belongings. They were the boxes Hunk had found, when he’d realized there had been no family to claim Adam’s things and they hadn’t been completely disposed of yet. Two other boxes were Christmas decorations.

He and Keith weren’t decorators. They liked it, but this was really Keith’s first year at home with a family and he just wasn’t used to doing that kind of thing on holidays. Shiro had never really put up decorations himself, that had always been Adam’s thing. But he had bought these because he wanted to try, knowing that Adam would be awake soon and wanting to try and do the holidays right.

He checked the time and grabbed his keys, heading out to make a quick run to the grocery store. Just because he and Keith normally lived like animals and didn’t know how to keep food in the house didn’t mean Adam had to know.

* * * * * * * * * *

Years ago:

The ring of the doorbell was unexpected. Any ring of the doorbell was unexpected, nobody ever rang. That would require that somebody be visiting, and Adam didn’t invite people over.

Not that he would ever admit it to anyone, but he was embarrassed by the way he lived.

The apartment was nice, on the third floor of a building most people couldn’t even afford to walk through the lobby of. It was spacious, decorated in light colors and expensive fabrics, set up with all the latest gadgets and electronics. It came with a private parking stall down in the garage, where his Audi was currently parked.

He hated it. It wasn’t “clean,” it was sterile. It wasn’t “minimalist,” it was empty. It wasn’t “luxury,” it was too many expensive materials squished into too small of a space for a maximum price tag. It had a big kitchen, a sixty-inch television, a balcony, access to a club swimming pool, two spacious bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and a separate dining room.

Adam didn’t know what the hell he was actually supposed to do with any of it. He was one person, and he was only here when the Garrison academy was closed over summers and holidays. The only room he really made use of was the kitchen, which was where he was now.

Christmas music was playing on the radio, and Adam sang along quietly while he sat cross-legged on the kitchen island, watching the volume of the butter in the whipping stand mixer slowly rise. He was in his jogging sweatpants and a t-shirt he’d stolen from Takashi just because he could, one of his roommate’s NASA shirts that had been left unattended on a chair after laundry day. They were about the same height but Takashi was a bit bigger overall, and the shirt was a little too loose to fit properly.

He assumed that the doorbell heralded the arrival of one of the building security guards, probably coming to ask him to turn his music down on behalf of one of the prissy old people who lived above or below him. Which would be annoying, he had been under the impression both households were traveling abroad for Christmas.

He slid off the counter and stretched on his way to the door, pulling it open lazily and prepared to give an annoyed “what!?” to his visitor. But the word came out as something akin to a strangled gurgle when he found himself faced with Takashi.

Adam immediately closed the door in his face. Takashi rang the doorbell again.

Shit. What the fuck. What the fuuuuuuuuck, was what went through Adam’s head as he looked around for some piece of clothing that wasn’t his roommate’s shirt, finding nothing. Takashi started pushing the doorbell repeatedly, until Adam finally pretended he was calm and pulled the door open again.

“What?”

“Is that my missing shirt?”

Not the most conventional of greetings, but probably fitting considering it was the two of them.

“Unless you want to fight me for it, it’s my shirt,” Adam answered. “Thank you, goodbye.”

He started to close the door again but Takashi caught it with one hand, easily holding it open.

“What’s all over you?”

Adam looked down, realizing now he was covered in flour. It was spotting the black shirt and pants, and he had a thin layer of it on his arms. He could only imagine what his face and hair looked like.

“…cocaine,” he said. He was not about to admit he had spent the morning making cake and cookies.

“What’s that noise from the kitchen?” Takashi asked, raising his eyebrow. The mixer was still going.

“That’s the…thing. That I use to…you know. Use the cocaine.”

“You have no idea how actual hard drug work, do you?” Takashi accused.

He pushed the door open more and stepped inside, not waiting for an invitation. Adam rolled his eyes heavenward and kicked the door closed behind him, shoving Takashi out of his way when the other boy stopped to look around at the apartment like a slack-jawed idiot.

“Come on in, make yourself comfortable,” he muttered on his way past. “It’s not creepy at all that you somehow have my address.”

“I hacked the LoJack on your car,” Takashi answered, a little too comfortable with admitting that fact. “You’re not exactly Carmen Sandiego.”

He walked off, seeing no problem with wandering through somebody else’s home with no permission or invitation. Adam let him go, figuring that if he accidentally killed himself somewhere it was bound to be covered somehow by the renter’s insurance. He went back to the kitchen to finish his buttercream frosting.

He was just adding in a little more of the red gel food coloring when Takashi came into the kitchen a little while later, looking unimpressed.

“I don’t like it,” he openly criticized. “It’s too big and there’s nothing in it.”

“Your head?” Adam asked. “I know. But you’re pretty, so people put up with you anyway.”

He turned off the mixer and moved it away from the breakfast bar, scooting over to the other side of the island where the layers to his cake were cooling. Takashi flopped down in one of the stools and took a cookie off the plate Adam kicked over.

“I came by so you could apologize,” he declared, finally getting to the point of his visit.

“That’s kind of you,” Adam answered. “Did you write an apology for me to read out loud to you, too?”

Takashi reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a large white envelope that was sticking out of it, folded in half. He opened it and started taking things out, laying them flat across the counter. They were pictures.

“These are some of my grandparents,” he said, touching the first picture. It was black and white, clearly very old. The couple in it were probably in their mid-twenties, and were standing near what looked like a barbed-wire fence. “I don’t know how many ‘greats’ are between them and me, I lost count. They were both second generation American citizens. In 1938, they owned a diner in a small city in northern California. This is them in 1943, a year after they were taken by the FBI and put into an internment camp.

“They lost their business while they were gone,” Takashi said solemnly. “They lost their health, she got sick there and almost died. They lived in buildings that could barely be called buildings, with no access to indoor plumbing or any way to cook their own food. They didn’t have privacy, they slept in barracks-style rooms that were overcrowded. No access to decent medicine, no right to a day in court, no access to legal counsel.

“They weren’t criminals,” he added. “They were taken away from their lives just because they looked like me. Because their names sounded like mine. Not only was it legal, but it was an order signed by the President of the United States. When they did finally get out, after the war, they were so hurt by what the country they called home did to them they repatriated to Japan.”

He picked up one of the other photos and put it on top of the photo of the couple. This one was of a young man, standing tall and saluting. He looked eerily like Takashi.

“My grandfather? This is his cousin. This is the last photograph my family has of him…he was an actual kamikaze in the war. Here, take a look.”

He slid the photo across the counter, closer, so Adam could see it better.

“He was twenty-three in this picture, for a long time he was assumed to have died in the Pacific Theater. He climbed into that plane knowing he was on his way to die, because it was what his country asked of him. Just like FBI agents rounded up American citizens to lock them in concentration camps, because it was what their country asked of them.”

He picked up a third picture, this one in color, and put it on top of the others. It was of a woman in her late thirties.

“This is my great-great aunt, two years before World War III. She was a neurosurgeon in Ohio, until she stopped for gas on the way home from the hospital one night. Three men attacked and beat her, because they believed the conspiracy theory that the Chinese were behind the Tribune Tower bombing the year before. They didn’t care that she was American, or that she wasn’t even Chinese, just that she looked “slanty-eyed” enough for them to be satisfied. She was wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life because of a broken spine.”

He picked up the final one and put it on top. It was the same picture he had shown Adam last week, of himself at around ten years old wearing a traditional men’s kimono and holding a lantern. The woman next to him was wearing one as well, brightly colored, with her hair pulled up in a traditional style.

“This is my mother. She moved to Seattle from Osaka with my father before I was born. She has Huntingdon’s Disease, and this will probably be her last Christmas. She was misdiagnosed twice over the span of ten years, her doctors dismissed her because her English wasn’t so great. My dad wasn’t around anymore to translate, and they weren’t interested in dealing with “lazy immigrants who won’t speak English.”

Adam knew Takashi was looking at him, but he wouldn’t look up from the counter. He didn’t want to look him in the eye, he didn’t want to see whatever was there right now.

“Those grandparents opened a new business when they came back to Japan, they started from scratch and rebuilt their life,” Takashi continued. “That cousin of theirs landed his plane on a beach and surrendered to Allied forces. He would have been shunned if he returned home alive and considered a shame to his family, but he was a pacifist and was willing to live out the rest of his life in Canada.

“My great-great-aunt kept performing top-level neurosurgery from a wheelchair, until she retired at sixty to teach and do medical research. And my mother has spent my whole life standing tall and not backing down, no matter how much people try to ignore her when they don’t feel she speaks ‘clearly’ enough for them.”

He picked up the pictures and put them back in the envelope. When they were no longer there to look at, Adam turned his eyes to the cookie platter nearby instead.

“I’m proud of who I am and where I come from,” Takashi said. “I’m proud of these people, I’m proud to be descended from them. Every time you make a shitty comment about my culture, or my language, or my ethnicity, you’re not just attacking me. You’re attacking everyone like me, and everyone like them.

“And the worst part of it is that even though you’re a horrible human being, you’re popular. Your skin and hair are light enough for you to get a pass, you’re attractive enough with Western enough features for people to overlook that you’re not white. People listen to you, they internalize the things you say. When you imply that who I am isn’t worth respecting, they hear you and they believe you. And it gets a little easier for them to think I don’t deserve to be treated decently.”

He folded the envelope again and got up, returning it to his back pocket. Adam still didn’t look at him. He picked at some stray icing on the side of the bowl and didn’t say anything, because what was he even supposed to say?

But Takashi was definitely waiting for him to say something. He was standing in silence, and Adam could feel the eyes on him. He did his best to ignore them, picking the icing from under his nails and keeping his gaze downward. After a few moments, he heard Takashi give a hiss of disgust. He turned and walked out of the kitchen.

Adam heard the front door open and close. He wanted to just let him go, pretend the exchange had never happened, but a few seconds later he was sliding off the counter and following.

The truth was that for whatever reason, whether it made sense or not, Takashi’s opinion of him did matter. It mattered a lot, he cared what Takashi thought in a way he didn’t about others. It was important. He had long since become numb to Janet’s complaints, but hearing Takashi outright say that he was a horrible human being stung.

He caught up with Takashi in the elevator, managing to squeeze through the closing doors just in time as it started to go down. Takashi stared angrily at the changing numbers above and didn’t look at him, and Adam tried to think of something to say.

There were several false starts, which didn’t usually happen. Adam had always been able to tell people what they wanted to hear, but he couldn’t do that here. Something about this was fundamentally different, hollow platitudes were not going to be sufficient. This wasn’t about stealing a t-shirt or making light of a picture, this was a clash of who they were as people.

It wasn’t like he had a long time to come up with something to say, either. They were only on the third floor, the trip down was short. Adam was struggling. He wasn’t used to people talking to him and expecting real answers, they talked at him or above him.

At the last minute, Takashi hit the button for the second floor. The elevator came to a stop and opened its doors to a silent, empty hall, and he put his foot in the way to stop it from closing again. He didn’t look at Adam.

“When I first got stuck with you, I couldn’t stand you,” Takashi spoke out toward the hall instead of facing him, and Adam couldn’t bring himself to look up at the other boy anyway. “But living in such close quarters, it’s not hard to see there’s something wrong there. I don’t know if what I said the other day is true. Maybe it really does hurt you that everybody else has a past they can connect to and you don’t. Maybe Janet says and does things that hurt you and you deflect it out on other people. But it’s very weird to me that a guy who would physically put himself in harm’s way for other people would turn around and intentionally treat those people like garbage.”

Takashi finally looked at him. Adam could tell by the way his stance shifted and the way his body turned, but he couldn’t make himself look up from the floor.

“There’s one more semester left before graduation,” Takashi said. “I have things I need to concentrate on If I want to be a top grade pilot. I don’t have time to spend on people who don’t think I’m worth basic decency and respect. So since for once you don’t seem to be able to run your mouth non-stop, at least tell me if you really mean the things you say about me.”

This was very uncomfortable, Adam didn’t really know what to do. This was not the kind of confrontation he was used to, and he especially wasn’t used to wanting to be the one to back down. Going up against Takashi was very different from going up against a stranger he could say anything to without caring.

“No.” Adam managed that much. He wasn’t really proud of how quiet and meek he sounded right now, but at least it was an answer.

“Then why do you say them?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s not good enough.”

Takashi leaned against the open elevator door as if he were tired, pinching the bridge of his nose when Adam braved raising his eyes high enough to look. Everything about him screamed that he was frustrated, and Adam surprised himself by realizing he cared that he was at fault for it.

He was genuinely sorry. It wasn’t something he felt very often, and he didn’t know what to do about it.

“Look, you’re not really a terrible person,” Takashi sighed, still not opening his eyes. “Maybe you don’t even realize you’re not, I don’t know, I don’t know what goes through that empty skull of yours. But you’re on a really dangerous ledge right now, Adam. Cutting down anyone who gets even remotely close isn’t going to hurt her.”

The elevator started to buzz because the door had been open for so long. Takashi put a hand on Adam’s shoulder and pulled him out into the hallway, down a few yards to a door and out into the stairwell. It was carpeted in here, the stairwell was just as nice as the rest of the building, so nothing echoed loudly.

“Janet doesn’t care if you end up alone in life,” Takashi said sharply. “Being…this isn’t some kind of revenge, it’s not going to affect her. She’s not going to wake up one morning with the sudden urge to be your mother, you’re never going to get whatever “look what you did to me” moment you think is coming. All that’s going to happen is that time will pass and you’ll still be this.

“There aren’t a lot of people who can keep up with me. You’re literally the only one who’s been able to do it year after year. It’s not easy, it takes a lot but you have that skill. If you could just stop putting your energy into being a raging asshole and start putting it into making something of yourself, you could be amazing.”

He shook his head and started to walk away, leaving Adam behind as he went down the stairs.

“You have five months until graduation. At that point you’re going to have to decide if you’re going to enlist or if you’re going to college, or both, or none, or whatever. But you’re not going to have any idea what to do with your life if you don’t decide now what kind of person you really want to be. You can keep being a jackass if you want, that’s fine, we’ll all get over it and forget you even existed in a couple years. Or you can get your shit together and build a life for yourself outside the shit one you were given. Either way, you have to make a choice and get back to me. I need to know if I should just find somebody else to train with now.”

He went down the last few steps and left the stairwell on the ground floor, leaving Adam standing behind alone.

* * * * * * * * * *

Current Day:

Kosmo was up and bounding through the apartment before anybody even knocked on the door. Shiro didn’t know what was wrong until the doorbell rang, at which point the Kosmo had already disappeared from view. Shiro found him again when he opened the door to find Curtis standing on front of it, trying to keep the wolf from jumping up on him. Kosmo’s tail was wagging and he was sniffing excitedly at Curtis’ hands.

“I was petting Hoshi earlier,” Curtis sighed as Shiro helped pull Kosmo away. “I know their noses are good, but jeez.”

Kosmo quickly got the hint that Curtis hadn’t brought his little girlfriend with him and gave up on him, instead turning his attention to Adam. It was funny, between Curtis’ height and Kosmo’s size Adam almost looked small.

Shiro wished he had thought to try and leash Kosmo somehow, but it was too late for that now. He winced when the huge wolf reared up and slapped his paws on Adam’s shoulders so he could sniff at his face, nearly bowling him over. Adam looked alarmed for a moment but recovered, scratching Kosmo behind the ears until the wolf dropped back down to the ground.

“Sorry…there’s no way to restrain him,” Shiro said apologetically. “He just teleports right out of it.”

He and Curtis both looked to Adam, but there was no answer. He was still petting Kosmo’s head, it was hard to tell if he just wasn’t talking or if he was ignoring them entirely.

“So you’ve got a date?” Shiro turned on Curtis, moving to the side as Kosmo decided to go back into the apartment.

Adam followed him as far as the doorway, leaning in a little bit just to look around. Shiro was still looking at Curtis but he reached out, lightly hooking an arm across Adam’s middle as he spoke. It was an instinctive reaction when he came close, the urge to touch rather than any attempt to keep him from going inside.

“Sort of,” Curtis answered, blatantly not looking at him. His eyes slid to the side, looking at the decorations on the next door neighbor’s window rather than meeting Shiro’s gaze. “It’s just, you know, dinner.”

“Uh huh,” Shiro felt a surge of almost evil glee at Curtis’ discomfort, but he kept a straight face. “I don’t need to tell you what I’m going to do to you if you lay so much as a finger on him, do I?”

Curtis’ eyes went wide, snapping over to him.

“No, sir,” he said obediently.

“Good,” Shiro answered, leveling a stern look at him. “Hands to yourself at all times. No fooling around. Don’t even flirt wphmfm.”

The end of his sentence was muffled by Adam’s hand as he stepped in to rescue Curtis, effectively distracting Shiro by leaning against him and resting his head on his shoulder. Shiro gave in, waving Curtis away, but not before he gave a threatening motion warning him that he was watching him.

Shiro closed the door against the cold winter air, looking over at Adam.

“Too much?”

Adam wrinkled his nose. Too much. Oh well, he’d let Curtis know he could relax the next time he saw him. If Kuro didn’t straight out tell Curtis tonight to ignore anything that ever came out of Shiro’s mouth.

Shiro let his arm fall away from Adam’s stomach, turning to rest a hand lightly on his lower back and urge him farther into the apartment instead. Adam started to walk out into the living room but paused, kicking off his sneakers before padding across the carpet. Shiro let him go and stood back, watching him.

It was difficult to see what, if anything, Adam was thinking. He stopped in the middle of the living room and looked around without making a sound, taking in the paint color and the décor. After a moment he moved over to the counter separating the living room from the kitchen, leaning over it to peek into the kitchen. He glanced down the hall that led to the bedrooms and bathroom, undoubtedly curious, but didn’t cross the threshold to leave the living room. After a few more moments, Shiro wandered slowly over, looking around.

“So what’s the verdict?” He asked.

Adam scrunched his nose up a little bit, raising a hand to wave it a little bit in a “so-so” gesture.

“I know, you don’t like dark paint,” Shiro recalled. “We only had three days to paint before we moved in and Keith wouldn’t pick any colors, I panicked.”

He leaned over and moved the throw blanket out of the way, digging the remote out of the magazine holder next to the couch.

“Here, sit down,” he offered, already heading past him into the kitchen. “Curtis said on the phone you haven’t eaten anything all day. I know you like going a couple days between heavy meals, but you should try to have something. How do pancakes sound? Sorry, I’m still not great at cooking a lot.”

He was pulling things out while he talked, reading the back of the pancake mix box. Shiro had never realized how ridiculously behind the curve he’d let himself get as far as preparing food, all this time basically on his own and he still only made things that came out of boxes and could be popped right into the oven or microwave.

“I have some of your stuff there,” he called over his shoulder. “They cleaned out your place in the barracks, everything’s been boxed up in storage. I think I got it all.”

He didn’t need an answer, he could hear Adam get up and open one of the cardboard boxes.

It was strange, to be standing in the kitchen of his home with Adam right over in the next room. Shiro had gone through a pretty strong stretch of mourning after the dust of the Last Stand had settled, and even after having two months to adjust to the idea of Adam being alive it still felt almost like a strange dream.

He heard music start to play softly, Adam had found the radio. Shiro listened to the sounds of him flipping through stations until he found Christmas music, trying to concentrate and not get distracted long enough to at least manage pancakes. They were one of the simplest things to make, but his attention kept wandering.

He was unhappily poking at some batter in the pan when he looked over at his small mess on the counter and realized he hadn’t added the eggs. Which would explain why this all looked terrible.

Shiro gave up. Today just wasn’t the day to focus on following directions.

“Know what? Let’s just order Indian,” he suggested, pulling the pan off the stove and putting it into the sink, running some water into it. He didn’t bother to clean up the whole mess, dumping the batter into the garbage and leaving the dishes in the sink.

He came back out of the kitchen, stopping to lean in the doorway and look at the scene in front of him. Adam hadn’t opened one of the boxes with his things, he’d opened a box of decorations. He was cross-legged on the floor, pausing to look over each of the ornaments he took out. There were some lengths of garland he’d unwound from their packaging, wrapped around both himself and Kosmo, who was lying beside this new human and curiously watching him play with shiny objects.

It was…surreal. The Christmas music, the shine of the garland, the blinking of a strand of lights he’d plugged in at some point and absently draped over his shoulders, the ornaments piled around him. The fact that Adam was sitting there playing with Kosmo at all, perfectly content in the quiet.

Adam kept bringing things closer to his face and squinting, which was when Shiro realized he was inspecting everything so carefully because he couldn’t see it. The living room’s one bay window had the curtains wide open, and the light levels seemed to be just on the border of being too much.

Shiro left Adam there for a moment, heading back into his room. He had to dig around for the jacket he’d been wearing a month ago when he’d made his purchase, to find the box he’d completely forgotten was settled in the pocket. He had felt a little bit stupid presuming the gift would even be wanted at the time, but now he was glad he’d ordered it.

He came back out into the living room and turned off the lights, making the room dark. He then made his way over to sit down next to Adam, carefully avoiding breaking any of the decorations he’d laid out. Shiro held out the box for him to take.

“A Christmas present,” he said when Adam looked at him curiously.

Adam took the little case, looking a bit uncertain as he opened it and carefully took out its contents. He lifted the glasses up to look at them better, opening them and turning them over in his hands. They were the same style Shiro knew he liked, the angular diamond shape he preferred over boring square or round, with rose gold frames.

Adam looked up at him, his face a clear battle between appreciation and exasperation. Obviously since his eyes were mechanical he no longer needed any kind of glare protection or magnification, but he didn’t want to spurn the gift.

“Put them on,” Shiro advised, getting to his feet and offering Adam a hand. “And come here.”

Adam did as he was told, letting himself be pulled up and over to the window. He slid the glasses on his face just as Shiro pulled up the blinds the rest of the way and threw the curtains open wider. The light in the room itself brightened, but the late afternoon sun reflecting off what was left of the snow was glaring.

He saw Adam instinctively wince, but this time he wasn’t blinded. The lenses reacted to the light, darkening to protect against the brightness. Adam blinked, unaccustomed to seeing in clear daylight, and leaned a little farther out into the bay window to look up and down the road.

There was something about seeing him in glasses, a simple accessory that softened his entire image, that made Shiro’s heart ache. The glasses, the sweater, the jeans, the garland that was still wrapped messily around him…it was a picture right out of their previous life, from a time before illness and war and captivity.

He liked the glasses, Shiro could tell by his face when he turned away from the window again. Adam had always liked wearing glasses, not just for the protection but because he thought they were a nice look. And he was right, he looked adorable in them.

“Better?” Shiro asked. “I made sure they were Michael Kors, to replace the ones you lost in the Blue Lion’s cavern.”

Adam didn’t look at all surprised or confused at the mention of Blue; he knew what Shiro was talking about even though he had yet to be taken to the hangars. Then again, Shiro doubted it was very easy to forget sitting in the cockpit of one of the Lions, no matter how much time had passed.

He let himself fall lazily forward, resting his head against Shiro’s shoulder again. Shiro put an arm around him and gave in to the urge to kiss the top of his head, nuzzling him softly and breathing him in. Adam’s hair still smelled faintly of the hospital, of antiseptic cleaners and sterile medical materials, but it was still just as soft as he remembered it being.

He had been afraid of a much colder reception. For every hour Shiro had spent in the Quarantine area watching over Adam while he slept, there was an hour spent lying awake in bed preparing himself for complete rejection. There had been no way of knowing what kind of person Adam would be when he woke up, no way of knowing if Lance’s read on him was real or just a pretense Adam had temporarily put up because he’d expected to be dead soon. There was no telling if he’d welcome the company of people he knew or if he wouldn’t want to be anywhere near them.

The open affection was a dream come true. Shiro couldn’t even remember the last time something had made him this happy, it had been a very long time since life hadn’t felt mostly dark and dreary.

Adam pulled away after a moment and returned to his seat on the floor by the boxes. Shiro fished out the menu for the Indian takeout restaurant and put in an order for delivery before joining him.

He decided to push his luck this time, dropping down to sit behind Adam while he picked through the boxes. He put his arms around the other man’s middle and rested his chin on one shoulder, watching what he was doing.

There was no resistance. No stiffness, no signs that the touch was unwelcome. Adam glanced back at him and continued what he was doing, setting aside the last box of tree ornaments after inspection and poking around at what was left in the bottom of the box. He took out a bag of gift bows, poking a small hole in the side and pulling one out.

He peeled the backing from the sticky underside and shifted around a little, reaching back to press the bow to Shiro’s forehead.

Shiro chuckled a little, leaving the bow right where it had been put. It drew a little smile from Adam, who set aside the mostly empty box and reached for the next closest one. This one was the box Hunk had brought up from storage, the one with the smaller items from Adam’s bunk and office.

He opened it up and started going through it, taking his time and examining everything he took out as if searching for any damage that had been done in storage. His mug was checked for cracks before it was set aside, his degree frames were inspected for any dents or mishandling. He pulled out a small black case and opened it, lifting out its contents and holding it up for Shiro to see.

“You still have the pen?” Shiro asked, unable to not smile as he reached up to take it.

It was one of the earliest gifts he’d given Adam, back when they’d just been starting out. They’d never really had money problems since Adam had insisted on paying the lion’s share of the expenses, but actual salaries still weren’t high for new soldiers. Shiro had hated that he couldn’t afford something flashy and expensive, he had wanted to give Adam a gift in the price range he was used to living in.

The pen had been a last resort. There were no watches, cuff links, clothes, or electronics that Adam didn’t already own much more luxurious versions of than Shiro could afford, a pen was literally the only item he knew Adam didn’t have. He hadn’t even known if it would be useful, he’d just hoped that it would be good enough.

He had also assumed that it would get thrown away after a few months, or would end up lost from not being used. But here it was, years later, the barrel marked with old ink stains that hinted at extensive use.

He let Adam take the pen back and put it in its case, which was dinged and dented from being constantly carried around on his person. He set it aside and dug out another box, one that made Shiro’s stomach drop when he saw it.

It was the ring box. Shiro had pushed it all the way down to the bottom and hadn’t looked at it again since he’d first found out, he’d all but forgotten about it. Adam made no attempts to hide it or pretend he didn’t have it, opening it to make sure the ring was still in one piece.

Shiro hadn’t gotten a good look at it when he’d first opened the box, he had only glanced at it long enough to verify that there was indeed a ring inside. Now that he could see it, he was reminded once again that Adam had wonderful taste. It looked like some kind of wood material with a high shine polish, the edges and inside finished with platinum. He thought he saw a small diamond in the center, just enough to add a tiny bit of sparkle, but the box closed again before he could get a closer look.

Adam set it aside and continued on, pulling out a key ring and a wallet. He checked the former to make sure all of his keys were there, and then opened the latter to inspect the credit and debit cards inside. The cash was still there, Adam pulled out two twenties and held them up for Shiro to take.

“You’re buying me dinner?” Shiro teased.

He took the bills without arguing, knowing how Adam felt about having money refused. He took it as a personal insult for some reason, and Shiro had long since learned to just let him pay for what he wanted to pay for.

He was twisting a little to put the money in his back pocket when he saw Kosmo chewing on something, and had to brave putting his hand in the huge wolf’s mouth to take it away before he choked. It was a sprig of green from one of the garlands still wrapped around his neck, Shiro took it away and unwound the garland.

Adam reached over to help him untangle Kosmo from his bindings, and Shiro held up the little bit of green. He raised it up over his head.

“Am I pushing too far if I ask for a mistletoe kiss?” He teased.

Adam raised his eyebrows, reaching up to take the little leaf bundle out of his hand. He held it up at eye level, giving Shiro a look.

“This is holly, dumbass,” he said softly.

Shiro looked at it, honestly unable to tell the difference. It was fake, it was green, it had gold glitter on it, it was Christmas-y. More important in the big picture was that Adam had finally spoken, but he had a feeling that if he made a big deal about it he would go quiet again.

“Isn’t holly just discount mistletoe?” He asked instead of commenting.

Adam put the little holly bundle back in the box, out of Kosmo’s reach. He twisted himself around so he was sideways, his legs resting over one of Shiro’s, and reached up to lightly cup Shiro’s face in his hands. The mistletoe question hadn’t been serious, it was just a tease, he hadn’t been expecting any real reaction.

When Adam’s lips lightly brushed his scar, Shiro practically melted. He closed his eyes and leaned into the contact, feeling the faint caress of thumbs across his cheeks. The hands were more calloused than he remembered, likely from so many months of wielding a weapon, but the touch was gentle and warm.

One hand fell away and he felt another kiss on his cheek, the light tickle of eyelashes against his temple. He opened his eyes as Adam’s weight settled more heavily against him, putting his arms around the man sitting across his lap. Up close, the metal irises set in pearlescent spheres framed a faint glow of reflected light, like something out of a jewel box. They were perfect in form as well as function, their origins easy to forget if not for the scarring that marred the skin around them and one side of Adam’s face.

“I really wish you were already dating somebody else,” Adam’s voice was quiet. “I’m going to be an absolute mess for a long time, I don’t want to drag you through the shit show it’s going to be. It’s going to be bad, Takashi.”

“Hey,” Shiro answered, lightly brushing back some of the hair from Adam’s face with his free hand. “When have you ever not been a shit show? It’s part of your charm, I can handle it.”

“You can handle a lot, but I don’t know if you can handle this.”

Shiro got up, hooking Adam under the legs and lifting him along. The motion drew a surprised squeak as Adam grabbed onto him to keep from being dropped, which made Shiro smile a little as he picked his way around the decorations on the floor and sat him down on the couch. He knelt down in front of Adam, taking both of his hands in his own.

“Listen to me,” he requested. “Full seriousness for a minute. I know you, okay? I know you. And more, I know what you went through. Better than anybody else, so I know what’s going through your head. I know what it feels like to spend months in the dark, doing things you would never do if you had a choice. I know what it’s like when you finally step out into the daylight. That first time you look at yourself in a mirror, it’s a nightmare.

“I also know you never really got over things between you and Janet, and I know what that witch did. Everything you went through was a perfect storm, and honestly? I’m thankful you’re even sitting in front of me right now.  You could’ve given up at any time, most people would have. I think there were probably some times when you thought about it. But what you did do says so much about you, Okako. For as long as I’ve known you, every time you were given a choice you’ve always chosen to be a good person. Because that’s just what you are.”

He got up to sit on the edge of the sofa next to Adam, letting go with one hand to lightly rub his back.

“I’ve been waiting to see your face again from the minute the Kerberos shuttle launched,” he admitted. “I’m proud of you. I’ve always been proud of you. I always knew that you could be amazing and you are, and there’s nothing that’s going to make me think otherwise. Especially now, after everything you’ve been through and everything you did to help as many people as you could. So it doesn’t matter how bad it’s going to get, or how many fits you have to throw, or how many freak outs you need to have. I’ll handle it.”

Adam turned a little where he sat, sliding his arms around Shiro’s neck and hugging him tightly. Shiro held onto him, lightly kissing his shoulder. After a few moments Adam pulled back slightly, resting his forehead against Shiro’s.

There was a crinkling sound as the bow that was still stuck to Shiro was squished between them, eliciting little smiles from both.

“All I did was ask myself what my hero would do, and then do that,” Adam said fondly. “And the answer to that question is always the same…you do whatever you have to, to help whoever you can.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Years ago:

The week between Christmas and New Year was a little bit lonely this year, but there was really nothing for it. Shiro’s mother had returned to Osaka for the months of December and January, for what would likely be her last visit to her home country and the family she had there. Shiro was seventeen, soon to be eighteen in February, so staying in a hostel in town for the week instead of going back to Seattle wasn’t a terrible experience.

There were a few other Garrison students who were doing so, mostly foreign resident students who didn’t have family here in the US. It was a nice place with friendly owners and he knew the area, he couldn’t really ask for more. But there was another feature of staying at the hostel he hadn’t known about before since this was his first time: tonight was Christmas Eve, and the students were all going to a bonfire in the desert.

He was having a good time so far, and he was excited to go out to the bonfire. When the time came, he grabbed the cooler he was in charge of and flooded out into the chilly winter air with the others, heading for the two cars they would be piling into for the trip. When he got there, he found a third car also waiting. Its driver was leaning against the side, arms crossed, patiently waiting.

Outside of the unflattering Garrison uniform—and also apparently Shiro’s stolen clothes—Adam looked like he could be a model in an advertisement. Expensive jeans, designer boots, coat right off some overpriced designer’s catwalk show…and nobody but Shiro seemed to realize he hated most of it.

It was actually kind of sad. The guy could buy anything he wanted, but he never really liked anything he bought. Shiro didn’t think Adam really understood where his disconnect was coming from, but he had always had his suspicions. Seeing the apartment where the other boy was staying had confirmed some of those.

The one thing Shiro had always been curious about was who watched Adam when he wasn’t at school. This was Shiro’s first time being allowed to stay in New Mexico without direct supervision, if he had been younger he would have had to return to Seattle for the week where a neighbor could babysit him. He had never spent a school holiday on his own, and most other kids hadn’t either. So the question was who had been supervising Adam all this time.

The answer, Shiro now knew, was nobody. He knew Adam had been staying in the same apartment since he’d started at the Garrison, because while he’d been nosing around he’d poked his head into the room that was apparently Adam’s and saw plenty of things on the walls that spanned all of his years at school. The other bedroom, however, was completely empty. One of the dressers still had a bag of extra parts in the top drawer, and the bedspread still had a forgotten tag in one corner. Nobody had ever stayed in that room temporarily let alone lived in it permanently.

It was probably a little bit hard to be happy about anything, ever, when all that was waiting for you at home was a radio and a stand mixer.

What really stood out to Shiro, though, was that there were no signs of anything troubling in the apartment. He knew Adam drank sometimes when they went out with other cadets, so did Shiro and everyone else. Adam’s comment about being covered with cocaine when he had arrived had put Shiro on alert because honestly, that was the kind of thing he had really expected to find. Rich kid, unhappy, no supervision…that usually led to some pretty nasty drug use. Some kind of drug addiction would also explain the weird way he always behaved and his really odd habit of surviving off of pure caffeine for several days between actually sitting down for a meals.

But there had been nothing. There weren’t even any signs that there was any alcohol in the apartment, which almost any other kid would have had under those circumstances.

Cake and gingerbread cookies. That was all that was there. Even the glass on the counter where Adam had been working had appeared to only be orange juice.

All of that together had been what spurred Shiro to give him another chance. He had initially been prepared to show up, speak his mind, demand an apology, and leave if he didn’t get one. He’d expected to find him smugly lounging around, being catered to by a live-in maid who kept an eye on him, pretty much being the asshole he acted like the rest of the time. When Shiro had seen he lived alone, his expectations had switched over to finding out he was high or drunk or something.

But…genuinely bad people didn’t sit in the kitchen making cookies to Christmas music when they were left to their own devices. They didn’t look like they’d been slapped in the face when they were confronted, and they didn’t follow when someone walked out on them. They didn’t stand in an elevator making pathetic noises while they tried to come up with something to say, and they didn’t shrink away from making eye contact out of shame.

All things considered, for having nobody to answer to and nobody to encourage him to do well, Adam was doing pretty damn good. He was still a raging dickhead, but maybe there was still a chance to break him of that habit.

Shiro put the cooler in one of the other girls’ cars and made his way over to Adam’s car. He glanced back at the others, then back to his roommate. Adam’s face was unreadable.

“Are you here to talk, or to stare?” Shiro asked.

Adam looked past him at the other students putting things in the car, then back to Shiro. He pushed away from the car and walked over, which was when Shiro saw that there were dark circles under his eyes. That was unusual. He stopped right in front of Shiro, not looking at him at first, seeming to actually think about his words before he said them for once.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said, raising his eyes up to meet Shiro’s. “For all the dumb shit I did and said. Making fun of you when you’re talking to your mom, calling you Chinese all the time…all of that.”

“Are you sorry for doing it, or are you sorry you have to answer for it?” Shiro wondered.

“For doing it,” Adam answered. “I guess I never realized what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that kind of thing, because…you’re right. I don’t understand what it’s like to know where you come from. I don’t have an identity that’s important to me like you do.”

He sounded sincere. It was probably the first full statement Adam had ever made that didn’t include at least three swears as far as Shiro knew, which made it sound all the more serious.

“You don’t need to have the same kind of background as anyone else to just be a decent person, Adam,” Shiro pointed out. “I know you have it in you, I guess I just don’t get why it’s so hard for you to show it.”

“What even makes a decent person?” Adam asked, giving a soft, derisive snort. “Is there a list somewhere? How am I magically supposed to know what I should and shouldn’t say?”

Shiro thought at first that it was sarcasm, only Adam’s honestly upset expression made it clear that it was frustration. That was when Shiro realized just how deep the problem went.

Nobody had ever taught him how to not be an asshole. Adam had been put into boarding schools from the time he was old enough to be accepted, all he knew was what he was taught by his peers. Shiro and the other Garrison students had been privileged enough to grow up with parents who acted as role models, some constant adults in their lives who they always had to look up to.

All Adam had to base his behavior on was Janet.

Shiro crossed his arms, regarding Adam with a frown. He was met with the same look right back, almost challenging him to say something else. Even when apologizing and meaning it, Adam was standoffish…but he was also sincere. Shiro let out a breath through his nose and looked away first.

“Look…I don’t want to give up on you,” he admitted. “I feel like you want to be a good person, and you want to be successful, but it’s hard for you. It’s not an excuse and it’s not a free pass, it’s just a fact. But you’re seventeen, you’re going to be eighteen soon. You’re almost an adult, you’re way past the point of somebody holding your hand. I want you to be my partner in the next semester, between the two of us we could fly circles around everyone else. We could be a really great team if you can get your act together. It’s not going to be easy for you to change, but you have to at least want to try. You have to want to care about things.”

 “You’re right, that’s not easy,” Adam answered dully.

“But do you want to try?” Shiro asked. “Because that’s what makes all the difference.”

Adam didn’t answer him. He looked past him, at the kids getting ready to pile into the cars. Shiro was afraid that his answer would be no, that he would decide to take the easy way out and just let himself continue on a downward spiral. Shiro didn’t want that, he wanted Adam to put in at least a little bit of effort, he wanted to see if Adam could become the person Shiro thought he could be.

It was an almost painfully long time before Adam looked back up at him, looking exhausted and almost…sad.

“Yeah,” he said tiredly, looking away again almost as if he was embarrassed to admit it. “I guess I want to try.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Current day:

Adam lay on Shiro’s chest, only half-paying attention to the movie on TV. He was more preoccupied with the heartbeat under his head, the steady rise and fall of even breathing making him feel comfortable and relaxed.

They were stretched out on the sofa, their leg tangled together and Shiro dozing lightly even though he had actually picked whatever was on the TV. One of Shiro’s hands was resting on his lower back, and every now and then when he would wake up he would rub it lightly before he dozed off again and his fingers would once again still.

Adam wanted to put a word to how he felt at the moment. The word he wanted was “happy,” because he knew that’s what he should feel. And that feeling was starting to finally creep up a little bit, blooming in his own chest in the form of contentment. He had never thought he would see this man again, let alone be welcomed back into his arms after what he’d done and what Honerva had made him into. He’d never thought he would see home again, or lay in warm comfort, or eat food he liked again.

But there were empty dishes from the Indian takeout in the dishwasher, a blanket draped over him, and Takashi’s strong arms hugging him close. Happiness was there even if he couldn’t feel it yet, but this wasn’t the first time he had experienced a wall between himself and his emotions. He had gotten through it once before, when he was younger, he was going to have to work to get through it again.

Takashi’s phone rang, startling him into full wakefulness, and he fished it out from where it had been shoved between the couch cushions. He didn’t appear to recognize the number, but he hit the button to answer it anyway.

“Hello? Yeah. Yeah, he’s fine, what do you need? …..are you kidding me right now? What did I say to you before you left? All right, we’ll be down there in a little bit. Just try not to do anything else stupid, please.”

He hung up the phone and sighed, dropping it down to the floor. Adam felt Takashi’s arms close around him tighter again, and then he felt Takashi burying his face against his hair.

“We have to go out for a little bit,” he said apologetically.

“What for?”

“We have to go pick up Curtis and Kuro. There’s been an incident.”

Chapter Text

Contrary to what he would have liked everyone to believe, dates were not Lance’s specialty. The last one he’d been on had been a lot simpler, since it had been back before they’d left Earth for Arus. Back before he could drive, before he was enlisted, before he had a paycheck, before he had no real curfew.

Hopping the bus into town to see a movie and have some pizza with a girl at sixteen was a lot different from being an adult and going on a date with another adult. Even if both of you, while technically adults, were mentally twelve years old.

He met Keith at the café since he’d been busy that morning, searching the signs for the right place as he pulled into a parking spot in front of a row of new store fronts. If Lance remembered correctly there had once been a supermarket and liquor store here, but the whole area had been so flattened in the invasion the development company that had bought it had just completely rebuilt.

The café was on the corner, tall glass windows letting him see inside as he got out of the car. It wasn’t dark but the lighting wasn’t bright either, the place had a casual air as he headed inside.

La Lune was a nice enough place. The walls that weren’t windows were brick, and the dark blue ceiling had net lights hanging from it like a veil of stars. There was a lot of distressed wood in the place, in the form of signs and display tables. There were small, laminated menu sheets lying out on tables, listing out available drinks and pastries.

It was comfortably warm and there were a lot of plants. It was nice.

Lance didn’t have to search too much to spot Keith, already seated in the back corner reading something on his phone. There were a couple sofas and chairs in the back, with coffee tables made out of sanded, stacked pallets and old crates. Keith was sitting on one, leaning back comfortably with his feet up on one of those crates. It was three o’clock on a week day so it wasn’t terribly crowded either, which was nice.

He took a moment to really look at Keith while he took off his coat. It was kind of funny that everyone always identified Keith as the immediate threat in the group even though in reality he was the biggest kitten. Dangerous, sure, and he didn’t always think things through, but he wasn’t outright malicious the way the rest of them could be. Hunk, the team cinnamon roll, was the only one who had a milder temperament.

Like a kitten, Keith really only had two settings: Love Me and Leave Me Alone.  The pointy parts only came out when the signals were ignored, which Lance couldn’t remember witnessing since back when they’d been lost in space. Even during the Last Stand he had been reactionary rather than aggressive, only taking initiative when he had verbal support from the others. Lance wondered if he was the only one who realized that Keith didn’t want to be a leader.

Like, at all.

Shiro kept pushing it. Kolivan kept pushing it. Hunk, Pidge, and Allura just accepted it to be fact. Lance knew that he was guilty of it too, and he always felt bad about it. Back when Shiro had been gone everyone had felt lost, and they’d all piled their insecurities on Keith’s shoulders just because the Black Lion had chosen him as a pilot. Lance had seen how much Keith pushed back, how uncomfortable he was with leadership, but they hadn’t been in a position to pick and choose.

It was different now that they were back on Earth. Shiro was okay, and on top of being Captain of the Atlas he’d slowly fallen back into leading the Paladins whether he knew it or not. Keith had manipulated him there, starting slow by turning to him here and there with concerns and then just gradually letting him take over. Keith was more like an assistant manager, keeping the rest of them in line but leaving the big picture to his mother and Kolivan and Shiro.

Even Allura seemed to have more pull again now that she wasn’t crammed into an unnatural hierarchy by being a Lion pilot. Maybe that’s just what the Voltron Paladins were meant to be in this lifetime: knights helping to fight the battles for leaders who knew better.

Which was fine with Lance. The relaxed picture Keith painted right now was one of a man who wasn’t carrying the world on his back anymore. Lance made his way over to the corner, tossing his coat into the empty chair on top of Keith’s and throwing himself down sideways on the sofa to drop his head into the other pilot’s lap.

“I’m here,” he announced. “Pat my head and tell me I’m pretty.”

Keith was startled, having been engrossed in whatever he was reading. He raised his phone out of the way and patted Lance’s head with his free hand, intentionally rubbing the hair the wrong way.

“You’re pretty,” he said obediently, before adding, “…heavy for a guy your size. What do you eat for breakfast, bricks?”

“Cement,” Lance answered easily, flexing one arm. “It’s how I get these rock-hard muscles.”

Keith snorted, setting his phone aside. He bent his knees and braced his feet against the crate table in front of him, giving Lance’s head and shoulders a bit more support.

“How was your uniform check?”

“A disaster,” Lance groaned, stretching out his arm to grab the little menu off the table. “Pidge decided she didn’t want to wear the dress uniform, she wanted to wear an actual dress. But then she doesn’t have a lot of dressy stuff at home, because most of her older clothes got ruined when her house was trashed in the Galra attack. So, we had to go shopping.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Keith answered. “I’ve been shopping with Pidge, she’s not a nightmare about it.”

“No, she’s not…but then Hunk found out Balmerans don’t really do dresses in their culture, so we had to take Shay.”

“Okay,” Keith nodded. He had that intense stare going on, the one he usually did to show he was listening. It was borderline creepy because he didn’t blink, because at some point he had gotten it into his head that this was the correct way to show he was paying attention. It made him look like the subject of dresses was the most important thing on the planet right now. “Shay doesn’t seem like she’s that terrible either.”

“She’s not,” Lance conceded. “But then Mrs. Holt found out Ariella didn’t have any dresses and would just be wearing armor because it’s the most formal thing they have on the cruiser, so she had to get Ariella’s measurements and then she had to come along with us to make sure we picked out something nice for the kid to wear.”

“Oh,” Keith seemed to get where he was going.

“Yeah, oh. So now Hunk and I have suits,” Lance lamented. “Mine has a bowtie. It’s not even a clip-on. I don’t know how to tie a bowtie.”

“Great, now I have to go shop,” Keith sighed. “I can’t be the only one in the group wearing a uniform if the rest of you aren’t.”

“Isn’t Shiro just wearing a dress uniform?”

“Shiro’s a ranking officer, his dress uniform is impressive, ours are just slightly fancier than usual.”

“Blink, Keith.”

Keith finally did so, more out of confusion at being told to do it than anything. Lance sat up, shifting around so he could toss an arm lazily around Keith’s shoulders and put his own feet up on the crates. He held up the little menu with his free hand, intentionally trying to keep this casual. He had been pretending he didn’t remember most of their interactions before Colony One, and specifically pretending he didn’t remember Keith’s love admission.

He had a feeling, though, that Keith knew he was just pretending not to remember and was happy to play along.

He liked to think he knew Keith well enough to know that it had been said out of desperation. Keith Kogane, the man who was still in the process of knocking down the thousands of walls he had up, was not going to really be ready to say those words after a couple kisses and only a few hours of private time scrounged up over the course of a battle. The fact that he hadn’t repeated the words since was proof enough of that.

They both deserved a chance to start over and work their way up to that.

In fact, as much as Lance wanted to have a serious discussion about some things that had happened since Arus, this was their first time really hanging out in a very long time and he really preferred to use the time to do just that: hang out. In their own way.

“So, I was thinking on the way here,” Lance said.

“You were thinking?” Keith returned.

“I know. It hurts sometimes, but I do it,” Lance spotted a vanilla latte on the menu and decided that’s what he wanted. It would be nice, too, after the cold of outside. “Curtis is supposed to be busy tonight.”

“Okay?” Cue that confused look that was so wide-eyed and adorable.

“So, we’ve been watching Curtis for any signs that he might be Merla, right?” Lance reminded him. “Maybe after coffee we should go grab the others and use his night of distraction to break into his office.”

“Oh.” Realization hit Keith like a falling anvil. He straightened up a bit, that little ‘mission acquired’ part of his brain probably lighting up like the Fourth of July. “You’re right. We don’t know when we’ll be able to predict where he is next. Tonight is perfect.”

“So…coffee, then a little white lie to my parents to say we’ll be late to dinner because of important Paladin Business?” Lance offered.

“Absolutely.”

Technically, Lance shouldn’t have been setting foot on the base until after his hearing. If he got caught he was in bigger trouble than the others, especially considering that Curtis was a high-ranking military officer who probably had the pull to get him suspended even longer.

Danger and rule breaking. That was more their kind of date.

* * * * *

“Okay, so this is how it works,” Pidge whispered, turning her computer screen so the others could see it. “If Ina couldn’t get in without being caught, Commander Duchesne probably has security software even we’re not familiar with. What we need to do is interact with his system without setting off any alarms, which means we need his system to make the first contact.”

“And we’re doing that by…?” Lance asked.

“Pidge wrote a crappy virus,” Hunk answered, typing away on his own laptop. “She’s going to pretend to be a bot and hit his computer, and when his system neutralizes it a secondary virus is going to create a back door at the same time.”

“Since it won’t look like anyone actively hacking in, he shouldn’t get any notifications,” Pidge added. Everyone ready?

“Yeah, go for it,” Keith nodded.

They had gotten into Curtis’ office easily enough, thanks to Pidge lifting her father’s ID card to get here and then hacking the door lock with the same program Curtis himself had installed on the door of the communications room to trap Admiral Miller. She was confident she could get into his computer as well but was being careful just in case. Ina wasn’t as good as she was, but she wasn’t terrible either. Something was on this computer.

It didn’t look like much. Pidge had inspected it after booting up, as far as she could see there were no special security features or firewalls. But that in and of itself was curious…a Commander’s computer shouldn’t be completely unprotected.

“What do you think is in these?” Lance asked from where he was poking through some file boxes. He had picked the lock on the closet to go through it and found them and was now checking them out. He took the lid off one and pulled out a folder, flipping through the contents. “Huh.”

“What’s up?” Hunk asked, glancing up. Lance frowned and put the folder back, taking out another one. He flipped through it and returned it, taking a third and doing the same.

“These aren’t files.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean they look like files, but they’re not files,” Lance answered. He moved on to another box. “It’s random papers and printouts. Nothing matches.”

Keith joined him, picking up one of the folders and frowning as he went through it.

“What’s the point of having boxes of files that aren’t real?”

Lance leaned over, starting to page through all the folders in the box. He stopped about halfway through, straightening up and looking at the outside of it. Then he looked back inside.

“This isn’t right either. I think there’s a fake bottom.”

He started pulling files out and handing them to Keith. A few moments later Pidge heard a sound of victory as he pulled up the false bottom of the box and withdrew several of what looked like passports.

“Ahmed Elhari, Morocco,” he opened one and read, moving on to the next. “Felix Charles, Canada. Marcus Seranglio, Syria. He’s got like ten passports here.”

A red warning flashed on Pidge’s screen, calling her attention. There was indeed invisible security on Curtis’ computer, and it had taken the bait. It started shutting down her initial virus, and in the process opened itself up to her undercover attack. She started downloading the code for the security program.

“There’s about a dozen different kinds of currency in this one,” Keith had pulled the bottom out of another box. “I guess he really is special forces. Kind of risky to keep all of this here on base, though.”

“Maybe his house isn’t secured yet,” Hunk suggested, glancing up from where he was backing up Pidge. “He only just moved back in off base about a month ago, he probably hasn’t had a chance to make sure it’s safe for this stuff. Plus, I doubt he was expecting us to be going through his closet.”

“Do you think he’ll know we went through it?” Lance asked, looking down at the passports in his hands. “Like, maybe he had everything arranged a certain way and now he’ll know to dust for fingerprints?”

“Why would he dust for fingerprints when he can just pull the security video from outside the door?” Keith asked. “It’s not like we’re hard to identify.”

“Oh, right.”

“I don’t think he’s that paranoid,” Hunk said helpfully. “If he was, he’d have everything in a safe deposit box at the bank or something instead of here. Hey, Pidge? This code looks kind of like your dad’s work.”

Pidge pulled her attention away from Lance and Keith, who were now trying to put the passports and money back into the boxes a certain way, to look down at her screen. She slowed the code from flying past, paging through it to take a look.

“I think it is my dad’s,” she frowned. And she would know, much of her own code was based on things her father had taught her about programming growing up. “But it’s not pure. There’s Galra code mixed in this.”

“Why would your dad’s code have Galra mixed in?” Lance asked, looking up. “How would it even get in there?”

“Let me see,” Keith requested, coming to hang over her shoulder. Pidge tilted the screen up. “Okay, I don’t understand what I’m looking at, nevermind. Any idea what the Galra code does?”

“No clue. Honestly? It looks dormant,” Hunk answered. “None of it is actively doing anything. It’s Sam’s code that’s locking down the computer.”

“Which means I can definitely get past it without getting caught,” Pidge declared, already getting to work. “Just give me a few minutes. This isn’t anything he’s ever taught here at the Garrison, it’s no wonder Ina got caught by it.”

The code had changes here and there, things Pidge didn’t think her father had done. Sam Holt liked a certain cleanliness to his code, a clutter-free simplicity. The additions here were in a flashy sort of style, almost flamboyant in comparison, and clearly stood out to anyone familiar with her father’s programming.

The question was what it all did. It was difficult to translate, even for her, and whoever had made the changes had to know some of her father’s advanced programming work if they were able to make additions without breaking the initial code. Someone high up in military intelligence probably, which was likely how Curtis had ended up with it.

“We’re in,” Pidge chirped, the computer’s hard drive coming up on her laptop. She was looking at it from the back end rather than as a user, so the fact that Curtis had a false desktop was obvious to her in a way it wouldn’t be to somebody casually nosing around. “What are we looking for?”

“Anything that has to do with Adam,” Keith answered. “Or anything that might indicate he’s overly interested in Adam in general.”

“Why would he be looking into Dr. Wolfe?” Pidge asked. “I thought they were friends or something.”

“Yeah, but we think Curtis might be carrying Merla’s core, and since Merla was married to Blaytz we want to make sure he’s not planning on making any moves on Shiro’s man,” Lance admitted blithely. Keith shot him a look.

“Dude,” he hissed. “It’s supposed to be between me and you. Not me, you, and everyone else.”

“It’s Hunk and Pidge, they’re not going to tell anyone,” Lance defended.

“Am I the only one who saw Curtis get into a fight with the door and almost lose after Kuro worked him up yesterday?” Hunk asked. “I don’t think it’s Dr. Wolfe he’s interested in.”

“Not right now,” Keith agreed. “But he might just not have a complete memory. Somebody transformed the Atlas using alchemy, and that’s not something we can ignore just because it hasn’t happened since. I’m not only worried that he’ll start to take an interest in Adam, if he can unconsciously do alchemy like that somehow we need to know. Especially if it might be a problem later.”

“Okay, but how would it be a problem?” Hunk insisted.

“I don’t know, it just might!”

“Hey guys?” Pidge interrupted. “You might be interested in this.”

She hadn’t been looking for anything in particular, just nosing around in files to see if there was anything that wasn’t strictly work-related, and it had been hard to ignore the folders that were buried several levels down. The one she’d opened was entitled “MIL-DOCS” and had some very interesting contents.

“Isn’t that the bank statement the Garrison released when they announced Admiral Miller was arrested for embezzling money from that charity?” Keith frowned.

“It looks like it,” Pidge answered. “But look at this.”

She switched through other files. There was blank copy of the bank’s statement paper, and several copies of business paperwork that showed progressive changes as they went on.

“I don’t know what that is,” Lance admitted. “What am I looking for?”

“Uh, it looks like Admiral Miller was set up to take the fall for embezzling money he never embezzled out of a charity he didn’t even actually create,” Hunk translated. “If these are the templates for the evidence that was submitted, it was all edited and he was framed.”

“There are other files,” Pidge pointed out, closing that one and opening another.

This one was former Commander Chance Davenport, and it held similar documents showing the creation of photo evidence that had been used to convict him of selling secrets to the Galra during the occupation.

There were others, three more. The final one was entitled “SAN-DOCS” and held various copies of documents signed by Admiral Sanda. Curtis had been in the process of lifting her signature when he’d stopped, leaving this project incomplete.

Probably when she’d died, leaving it pointless to continue.

“Forget whether Curtis is Merla,” Pidge said. “He’s been taking out other Garrison officers.”

“Yeah, but why?” Lance asked, making a face. “He’s not exactly the kind of guy who gets excited about moving up, why would he be knocking out competition?”

“I don’t think that’s what he’s doing,” Keith answered. “Pidge, go back. There, stop.”

She was in the parent folder. Keith leaned over and pointed to a thumbnail, which was previewing what it was: a photo.

“Before you even open that, I’m going to guess it’s a video still from the communications room,” Keith bet. “Just from the shading I can tell that orange blob is the screen behind where the officer in charge would be standing.”

Pidge opened the image, bringing up the full view. Keith was right, it was a surveillance shot from the communications room. Curtis was visible in the lower right corner, staring wide-eyed at as screen in front of him. Iverson was standing over his shoulder, looking a little higher at a main screen. He appeared shocked.

Back behind them, Admiral Sanda stood on the officers’ dais. She was stone-faced, as were the four other officers standing around her.

“That’s Miller,” Keith pointed out. “Sanda. Davenport. And there’s Sam Holt over there, so we know this was after he returned to Earth. From the look on his face, this is not good.”

“This must be from the First Wave,” Pidge guessed. That was the only reason her father would be looking like that, so devastated and shocked. “This is a surveillance photo of the room after the pilots were all killed.”

“I think that picture’s a hit list,” Hunk chimed in. “Everyone standing on that officers’ dais is in jail on some kind of treason charges. Or dead, in Sanda’s case.”

“In her case, nobody ever had to make up fake treason charges,” Pidge said darkly.

She would never feel bad that Sanda had gotten what she deserved. Ever.

“So Curtis has been playing everyone for more than a year,” Keith deduced. “He’s been getting rid of people he doesn’t like and moving others into their places.”

“Iverson is Admiral now,” Lance counted off. “Shiro’s basically moved into Davenport’s slot. Sam’s up on the level Miller was on when this all happened. Curtis is a Commander, but I think that was probably an accident and he didn’t mean to put himself there. Coran and Veronica are lined up pretty well there, though.”

“Well we know he’s not planning anything terrible, because we personally know every one of them is a good person,” Hunk reasoned.

“Why do I have to point this out?” Keith asked. “He’s probably not planning anything with this. It’s just revenge, plain and simple.”

“For…?” Pidge asked.

“Griffin told Lance and me that Curtis was pretty close with Adam,” Keith answered. “He also mentioned that Adam was close to his father, enough that he sometimes came over to the house for dinner. It’s not a stretch to say Curtis was probably good friends with James’ dad too. Which means he was probably also good friends with a lot of the men and women that died that day.”

He leaned over and spun around Pidge’s laptop, so it was facing them all better.

“Look at this picture. Look at Curtis’ face, and Iverson’s and Sam’s. They’re in shock. Now look at the officers back here. None of them are surprised, they all expected the pilots to die. They knew going in that those pilots wouldn’t be called back, the question is why.”

“Because teachers,” Lance said suddenly.

“…teachers,” Hunk repeated, his eyes going wide.

“Teachers?” Pidge asked, looking up at Keith, bewildered. He shrugged in response, not understanding either.

“Pull up the list of pilots that died in the First Wave!” Lance commanded, grabbing the rolling chair that had been moved out of the way and flopping into it, rolling over. “Look at who they are.”

“Teachers!” Pidge exclaimed, starting to get an idea of what he was getting at as she pulled up the list. “Seven of the ten pilots were also teachers.”

“So?” Keith frowned.

“So when there were complaints against a part-time instructor about improper relations with a student, it was a handful of teachers that were pushing for him to be arrested,” Lance answered. “The only teachers at the Garrison who are tenured are enlisted officers, so the only teachers who couldn’t be kept quiet by firing them…”

“…were also pilots,” Keith realized.

“Bingo,” Lance chirped, leaning over to point to the picture. There was another man standing on the officers’ dais, but he was off to the side and half cut off, difficult to see at first. “I dunno about you all, but I’m thinking this guy is Curtis’ final target.”

“General Laurentia,” Pidge squinted, barely making out the split image. “Well, Major Laurentia back then.”

“So Sanda wiped her nephew’s slate clean by letting the Galra get rid of the people who wanted him exposed, and a group of other high-ranking officers closed ranks to let it happen,” Keith surmised. “I’m guessing she either had dirt on them all or she promised them promotions to help her cover her tracks. But Sanda’s no idiot, she had to know somebody was coming for them when they started getting framed. How did Curtis stay under her radar?”

“He didn’t just stay under her radar, he was a decorated officer by the time we came back to Earth,” Hunk pointed out. “How did he keep her from figuring him out for a whole year?”

Pidge was already out of the file, logging into the Garrison system with her own credentials. She had access to a lot, and what she didn’t have access to she had long since hacked back doors into. Now she went through the officer rolls, curious herself about just how far Commander Duchesne’s reach was.

“He doesn’t have a file,” she announced after a moment. “Well, he does, but it’s not a real file. It’s basically just a glorified employment record, there are no notes from superiors or any exceptional inclusions. You’d think from looking at it he was just a desk jockey who only got promoted because he put in his time. It doesn’t even have much about his Atlas assignment.”

“Oh.”

Hunk sounded nervous, to put it mildly. Which wasn’t really strange for Hunk, Pidge heard him use that tone of voice for everything from being truly horrified to being slightly inconvenienced.

“Oh?” She asked.

“I’m looking at the file you have open,” Hunk answered. “Does anybody else notice that it doesn’t say here that he was ever officially hired by the Garrison? Or transferred here?”

Pidge looked back at the record. Hunk was right, the entire file seemed like it was just a placeholder. There was nothing in here because it didn’t look like he even had a clearly defined superior.

“Wait, he doesn’t even work for the Garrison?” Lance asked.

“That’s why he has fake files,” Keith realized, looking over at the boxes. “That’s why there’s nothing really here. This is an office for Commander Duchesne, and he’s not Commander Duchesne.”

“Who is he, then?” Lance asked, looking even more confused. This kind of thing was not his forte.

“No, he’s Curtis Duchesne, but he’s not Commander Duchesne of the Galaxy Garrison,” Pidge explained to him. “It’s a fake job title, with a fake office. It’s one of his fake identities.”

“And if he’s been put this high up in a military as powerful as the Galaxy Garrison…” Keith reasoned.

“…. then his superiors are even higher up,” Pidge finished for him. “The US Government?”

“Maybe,” Keith supposed. “Maybe international. Even Shiro doesn’t know a lot about the group he thinks Curtis is part of. But the guy knows an awful lot of languages even for a Communications officer. Iverson’s got to know, now that he’s Admiral. Even if he doesn’t know exactly what Curtis is doing, he probably at least knows who he’s working with. No government agency is going to risk the backlash of planting an agent without authorization, not when they all have to cooperate against potential alien threats.”

Pidge had closed out of Curtis’ file, that was something she could access any time through the Garrison servers. She also didn’t want to have it open too long, just in case it was being monitored by whatever group it was Curtis worked for. There were several different suspects, but most of those spy networks had been decimated by the Galra invasion.

Instead she went back to Curtis’ computer, to the other files on his hard drive. There wasn’t much, which meant he either used a handheld device he kept on him or he carried most of his files on a flash drive.

There were still a few things, though, if she dug down. Files that were hidden, not just within other folders but in a separate part of the hard drive that was completely disguised as empty space. Curtis did not want the wrong people finding what he had on this computer.

As she opened one of the files she found, she understood why.

“Hunk!” She exclaimed.

“What?”

“No!” Pidge tilted her screen so they could all see Hunk’s Garrison staff photo. “Hunk!”

There were other photos in it, his yearly school photo from the Academy and a few pictures from the year books. There were also photos of the Yellow Lion, and of him in his armor. The whole thing looked like it was an intelligence dossier on Hunk Garrett, but Pidge couldn’t tell to what end.

“He wrote them in Arabic,” she noted, exiting the folder. She started going through the other ones. “Allura. Keith Kogane. Katie Holt. Lance McClain. We’re all here…and from the time stamps in the metadata, these ones for Romelle, Veronica, and Dr. Wolfe were created in the last two months.”

“Do you think that’s why he’s working at the Garrison?” Lance frowned. “To get information on us for somebody else?”

“Maybe. But what for?” Keith asked. “We don’t exactly keep secrets. Our faces are all over the planet, we spent two months after the Last Stand doing TV interviews. That annoying ex-Instructor woman has our faces plastered on gossip magazines at least every other week. We’re practically public property.”

“Don’t Google yourselves, you won’t like the fanart,” Hunk warned. “Especially if you add in Shiro’s name, it gets really gross then.”

“Won’t like the what now,” Keith asked, looking concerned.

“We avoid the internet,” Lance said contentedly, crossing his arms and leaning back in the chair. “It’s just math in visual form.”

“You run a meme page,” Hunk said flatly. “Keith has a cryptids wiki.”

“Irrelevant.”

Hunk looked like he was about to argue with Lance, which Pidge already knew was completely pointless. So did Hunk, but he still managed to let himself get drawn into the pointless fights. Lance liked to argue just to argue sometimes.

“The point is, Curtis has dossiers on all of us,” Pidge interrupted them before Hunk could start explaining to Lance in small words that the internet powered his meme page. She continued to browse through what was there. “There’s one on Shiro, there’s one on Matt, there’s one on Kuro— “

“Is that one just a bunch of creepy long-distance photos with hearts drawn around Kuro’s face?” Hunk asked.

“I’m not looking in it, because I don’t want to know,” Pidge made a face.

“Keith’s file has pictures of his house,” Hunk noted. He was still going through them even though they couldn’t understand the text. “Which is…weird. That means he was being watched before he was a Paladin, otherwise it would only have his school pictures.”

Keith leaned over Hunk’s laptop to see, and Pidge joined him. Sure enough, there were photos of him coming and going from his desert shack. There were two more pictures of the shack in a section below it, but these didn’t have Keith in the frame.

“That’s Dr. Wolfe,” Hunk noted.

The photo was taken from a distance, but it did indeed look like Dr. Wolfe. He wasn’t wearing his Garrison uniform but he was leaning against a familiar Jeep Pidge had seen around the grounds while she’d been in school. In one he was looking backward, as if sensing there was somebody nearby with a camera and not happy about it.

Hunk clicked on it to make the image larger. What it did instead was open Dr. Wolfe’s file, where there were more photos of him watching Keith’s place from a distance. The changing clothing showed that he had made more than one visit.

“Why was he watching my house?” Keith asked grumpily.

“He was probably watching you,” Lance pointed out. He was the only one that didn’t seem perplexed. “You’re Shiro’s little brother, and you were back then too. I know you don’t like him, but he wasn’t the kind of guy who’d just leave a kid out in the middle of nowhere without checking in.”

“Somebody else was checking in too, or there wouldn’t be pictures,” Pidge said. Unfortunately, Adam’s file was in Arabic just like the rest of them. “What’s that notation there? Under the last photo? Is that a link?”

Hunk clicked it, and it opened another file. This one looked completely different and was written in French.

“Oh! I can do this!” Hunk said excitedly. “I took French as my language elective. The title says…Project Starlight, I think. It’s just a bunch of pictures of people though.”

That’s all that was in the file. Pages of photos, six to a page in a grid. They were in sets of three, years apart, most of them with two different people. The third square was often blank, or had a fuzzy, long distance image that was hard to really see. There were a few lines of writing on each page, but not much.

“That’s Adam,” Lance stopped Hunk’s scrolling, pointing to a picture of a small child half asleep in someone’s arms in public.

Below it was Dr. Wolfe’s enlistment photograph of him in full uniform. The images next to them were of a woman, also taken many years apart. In the top she was leaning over a stroller, in the bottom one addressing an auditorium of people in some kind of business meeting. The final picture on the top was of what looked like a tall man facing away from whoever was taking the picture. The bottom square was blank.

“Subject, Adão Jacinto Chaira Lobo,” Hunk translated the lines at the bottom. “Also known as Adam Jacinto Wolfe, Captain Adam Wolfe, Dr. Adam Wolfe. Species, unknown. Previous status, assumed dead. Current status, safe.

“Second pictures…Subject, Jacinta Sofia Chaira Lobo. Also known as Janet Lobo. Status, safe. Third picture: Subject, unknown. Also known as, unknown. Species, unknown. Status, unknown.”

“Species unknown?” Keith asked, and Hunk nodded to verify. “Well that doesn’t sound suspicious at all.”

That was all that was on the page. Hunk kept scrolling through, until he hit another page that made him stop.

Keith’s picture was there. Pidge wouldn’t have known it from the first one, which was a picture of an infant being carried by a man, but in the second row was a school photo from the year he’d been kicked out of the Garrison. The top row had a picture of a man in the middle while the middle square of the bottom row was empty. The curious part was the third picture in each row.

They were of Krolia. One where she looked much younger, likely around the time of Keith’s birth, and a second that was clearly taken after the Last Stand.

“Subject, Keith Kogane,” Hunk read, although by now they all knew what the French labels in front of the names meant. “Also known as: Keith Yun Kogane, Lieutenant Keith Kogane. Species, Galra. Status, safe.

“Subject, Seth Kogane. Also known as: Seth Yun, Huan Yun. Status, deceased. Subject, Krolia Kogane. Also known as, unknown. Species, Galra. Status, safe.”

“Okay, I’m not the smartest one in this room by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m going to go ahead and say this thing sounds like a list of human-alien hybrids,” Lance said. “But those pictures…this means somebody knew aliens were visiting at least as far back as when Adam was born.”

“Farther,” Hunk corrected, scrolling some more. “Look at some of these. The quality gets steadily worse, like the images go back decades. And some of these captions…status, unknown. Status, safe. Status, taken. Status, located. But after a certain point, all the statuses say deceased.”

“What does it mean if the status says they’re located or taken?” Pidge wondered.

“I have no idea. Pidge, you said you were about thirteen percent Olkari,” Keith was leaning over Hunk now, scrolling through the file over his shoulder. “That means you’re only two or three generations out. Check the file, see if you can find a grandparent or great-grandparent.”

“You should too, Hunk,” Lance advised. “Didn’t you tell me you were nine or ten percent? That’s around the same.”

Pidge opened the file on her own laptop and started to scan. There was no real order to the pages, just the pattern of the pictures getting older the further through she went. She was scrolling so fast she almost missed it when she saw it and had to go back.

“Here!” She exclaimed. “This is my grandmother and her father! And there’s a picture of the Olkari who must have been her mother!”

It was an exhilarating thing to see, photographic evidence of her alien ancestry. The picture was taken from a distance, as if meant not to startle the subject while she was with her daughter. In the second picture she was much older, sitting calmly on a porch with a human man.

“I don’t understand,” Hunk frowned, looking at his screen. “I think this is my great grandfather, I definitely recognize the name. But what’s the point of this? The pictures are taken years apart, but it doesn’t look like anybody’s bothered them in between.”

“Pidge, make me a copy of that file,” Keith requested, pulling the flash drive he always wore around his neck these days off and tossing it to her. “I want to get a closer look at this.”

Pidge plugged the drive in and started to copy the information. No sooner had the file begun to copy when her screen started flashing.

“Uh oh,” Hunk looked startled. “Something’s happening to my computer.”

“Mine too,” Pidge tried to get the machine to respond to her but it didn’t. As she watched, a prompt came up informing her that copying was in process. But it wasn’t the file she wanted. “No, no, no! We tripped something, his system is copying and wiping my hard drive!”

“Oh, come on!” Hunk groaned, his fingers tapping away at his keys. “Don’t do this to me, I have important stuff on here!”

Pidge tried everything she could think of to stop it, but she was connected wirelessly and couldn’t break it. As she watched, helpless, her laptop was rendered useless. It didn’t take long, within less than a minute her screen was black and Curtis’ computer automatically killed the connection and shut itself down.

“…great,” Pidge groaned. “I’m guessing that’s what was hidden in the Galra code.”

She sighed and started to close the laptop, but then words flashed across her screen in white.

Unauthorized entry. Contacting Security.

“Aw man, I was hoping I’d never have to run from the guards again now that Lance had to be a responsible adult,” Hunk complained.

“Again?” Keith asked worriedly.

“Less talking, more booking it,” Lance commanded, reaching over and slamming Pidge’s laptop shut.

With the practiced ease of somebody who’d clearly run from the authorities way too many times in his life, Lance pulled the laptop out of her hands and crammed it into its case. Pidge reached for it, trying to make sure he didn’t break it, but her protest died on her lips as Hunk literally scooped her up and tossed her over his shoulder.

She got the briefest glance of Lance doing the same to a squawking, startled Keith before Hunk took Lance’s directions to heart and started running, and she had bigger things to worry about.

“Hey! Stop!”

Pidge didn’t recognize the voice, but she was pretty sure it was a security guard. She had a sudden flashback of their trip to the space mall, of trying to escape that mall cop, as Hunk and Lance started running faster.

“Get to my car!” Lance ordered, dropping Keith only to grab his arm and literally drag him along. Keith tripped twice before he got his footing and started running himself.

“Hunk, I can run by myself!” Pidge squealed, trying to keep his shoulder from turning her internal organs into mush. “Put me down!”

“No you can’t, you’re like two feet tall!” Lance answered. “And we can’t lose you, we need you to use my computer at home to hack the security footage so they can’t prove we were the ones who were here!”

It was very difficult to see what was going on as the boys sprinted across the lobby with her, out into the cold dark of the winter night. She did catch sight of two more security guards joining the first, making three witnesses. She groaned as they reached Lance’s car and Hunk shoved her unceremoniously into the back.

“You three dingbats do realize that everyone on this base recognizes us, right?” She asked as Lance threw the car into gear and slammed the gas pedal, peeling out. She and Hunk were both scrambling to pull on seat belts. “There’s no way those guards don’t know who we are!”

“They can know all they want, if they don’t have proof it’s our word against theirs!” Lance answered.

He drove across the parking lot far too fast, and Pidge thanked heaven it was after dark and the lot was mostly empty. There at least wasn’t anyone for them to hit as he rushed off the base, past the entry checkpoint before anyone could call up and have them blocked in.

“So now we have to have Pidge clear that footage before anyone contacts Curtis,” Keith panted from the front seat, wincing a little at having landed wrong on his ankle when Lance had roughly dropped him. “Then we call Shiro and tell him what we found. Then I call my mom and tell her we’re on some kind of government list.”

“Welcome to my world,” Lance muttered. “Totally different list, though.”

“I still don’t see the point of the list even is,” Hunk frowned. “Nothing ever happened to my grandfather or great-grandfather. They just lived normal lives and passed away from natural causes.”

“My grandmother is still alive,” Pidge agreed. “She’s never said anything about anybody bothering her. Of course, she never mentioned being half alien, either.”

“Pidge, you put together that communications equipment back when we were in school that could pick up alien chatter all the way out at the edge of the solar system,” Lance remembered. “And remember, we found out way after the fact that the Garrison had a Galra transmission from the day Shiro, Sam, and Matt were taken. It’s not a stretch to say some government has known about aliens for a while and has been keeping tabs.”

“Oh! Oh! Like Area 51!” Hunk exclaimed. “That old bunker in Nevada that was hiding evidence of alien visits back in the 1950s!”

“Area 51 isn’t real, Hunk. It’s just an urban legend.”

“Hey, so were the Olkari until a year ago, Pidge,” Lance pointed out, turning to look back at them. “But we just sat in an office looking at pictures of abuela Holt and her space mom.”

“Lance, the road!” Pidge squealed, pointing past him desperately as the light they were approaching turned red.

Keith was already smacking his arm and Hunk was wordlessly pointing as they all saw the danger before Lance did. Lance spun around and saw the two cars coming through the intersection, hitting the gas instead of the break. The car sped through, just barely missed by the other vehicles, both drivers of whom leaned on their horns angrily.

To their right, red and blue lights flashed on as a police car pulled out of a nearby parking lot, and Lance groaned as he pulled over.

“Oh my God, we let him fly space ships!” Pidge whimpered, checking herself to make sure she was all in one piece.

“Everybody stay calm, this isn’t the first time I’ve been pulled over,” Lance assured them, putting his window down as the police officer got out of the car and approached. “Good evening, officer. I know that looked really bad back there, but it wasn’t my fault. See, I knocked over my water bottle and it fell back behind my brake—”

“License and registration,” the officer said tiredly.

His face said it all. He was used to dealing with miscreant teenagers from the Garrison, and he’d much rather be home than dealing with them this late in the cold.

“Of course!” Lance answered politely, leaning over and opening the glove compartment. “Guys, uh…I don’t have my license.”

“What do you mean you don’t have your license?” Hunk hissed.

“I left it at Pidge’s house!” Lance answered. “Remember when we were discussing how it wasn’t a good idea to bring picture ID to a breaking and entry?”

Pidge saw the whole thing in slow motion. Lance reached for the glove compartment, Keith went stiff. The compartment opened, the dome light of the car clearly illuminating the gun and knife there. For once in his life Lance read the situation correctly, immediately raising his hands and putting them out his window where they were visible as the officer stepped back and drew his own gun.

Pidge immediately did the same with hers, and Hunk leaned over to put his hands up out his own window and over the top of the car in an awkward stretch. Keith was the only one who had apparently never been in a run-in with police before.

“Put your hands out where he can see them!” All three of them warned him in unison.

“How often have you people had guns aimed at you by cops?” Keith asked, scrambling to obey.

“Only like three times,” Lance answered.

“Four,” Hunk corrected.

“Right, right…that one time I was sick and you two abandoned me at home,” Lance accused.

“Of course, we probably could have avoided it this time if somebody didn’t secretly stick a weapon in the glove compartment,” Pidge pointed out. She kicked the back of Keith’s seat. She wasn’t out in space without parental supervision anymore, she was going to be in a lot of trouble. “My mom is going to make sure Krolia grounds you for life.”

“The last time I went out with Lance he made me put it in the glove compartment!” Keith complained. “I was trying to be thoughtful!”

“Yeah, well, get ready to show your permit,” Lance warned. Outside, the officer was still several steps back with his gun leveled at the car, but he had already used his radio and was probably just waiting for backup. “Does anybody have their military ID?”

“No, we all left our stuff at Pidge’s house just like you,” Hunk lamented.

“Yeah, and that’s were my permit to carry is too,” Keith grumbled.

“You don’t have your permit for that on you?” Lance asked, horrified.

“For your next three lives,” Pidge amended her previous statement, kicking the back of Keith’s seat again.

A second and third police car pulled up, one stopping up ahead of Lance’s car and the other stopping back behind. The police inside took up positions and the officer standing by Lance’s door motioned to him.

“Reach out and open the door from the outside,” he instructed. “All of you. Get out of the car slowly, keep your hands visible.”

They all did as they were told, Pidge moving to put her hands on the trunk next to Hunk while Lance and Keith were directed to the hood. Officers closed in and patted them down, then removed Keith’s gun from the car.

They were asked for ID, which none of them had. Keith was asked for his permit for the gun, which he also didn’t have. They were asked for proof that the car was Lance’s, which he didn’t have. They were asked for proof of their claim that they were military, which none of them had.

Pidge already knew how it was going to end, she was just irritated it took so long to put them into the back of the police cars.

“About time, it’s freezing out there,” she huffed as the back door of the cruiser was closed on her and Hunk. “I just want to get this over with.”

“Do you think this will go on our permanent records now that we’re over eighteen?” Hunk asked worriedly.

“I think it will be a—HEY!” Pidge let out a screech as she saw the officers manhandling her laptop on the trunk of Lance’s car. “THAT’S EXPENSIVE, BE CAREFUL!”

“I’m just wondering, because I really don’t want to be the family bad influence on my nieces and nephews, you know?” Hunk mused. “I was always the good kid, I don’t want to mess that up.”

“Of course you can’t turn it on, it’s got a virus!” Pidge yelled, knowing her voice was muffled by the glass. She kicked the door a few times since she was wearing handcuffs and couldn’t use her hands, trying to stop the officers from messing with it. God, they were just going to make whatever Curtis had done to it worse. “It’s not like it’s some kind of bomb, genius!”

The officers seemed to hear that part. Heads swiveled to look at her, and she realized too late that she probably shouldn’t have yelled that particular word.

“So do you think we’ll be able to do our jail time in the Garrison brig, or will we have to go right to prison?” Hunk wondered as the officers backed away from Pidge’s laptop and started radioing in for further support.

“Pidge, what the hell!” Lance was yelling from where he was currently being put into another car. “We talked about this!”

“How many times has this happened that you had to talk about it?” Keith asked shrilly as he was shoved in after Lance.

“Maybe we’ll just get ankle bracelets and parole officers,” Hunk frowned. “Do you think a PO would make an exception for having to leave the solar system on Paladin business?”

Pidge groaned and slid down further in her seat, glaring at the red and blue flashing on the police car ceiling. She didn’t have to worry about going to jail, her mother was going to murder her.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Well, we didn’t get shot,” Lance pointed out. “I guess that’s a plus.”

“It usually is,” Keith agreed. He looked around the inside of the police cruiser with a mild curiosity rather than nervousness, already accepting the fact that he was going to be torn to shreds by his mother, Mrs. Holt, and Shiro in no particular order. Maybe even Kolivan, if there was anything left of him when Krolia was finished. “They didn’t have to put these cuffs on so tight, though. I’m losing feeling in my left hand.”

“It feels so weird to be cuffed without armor,” Lance frowned. “Like, on one hand I have this horrible urge to fight my way out of here. But on the other, they’re just cops doing their jobs. Plus, I really need to go to jail…it’s the only place Mom won’t be able to reach me.”

He pulled his legs up and Keith had to squirm out of the way to avoid being kicked, pressing himself up against his door as Lance worked his arms down under his legs and then up in front of him. He scowled at the handcuffs in the faint light of the cruiser, giving a yank of irritation.

The chain broke. Lance’s eyes went wide.

“Crap,” he whispered, realizing what he’d done. “Do you think they’ll make me pay for these? How much do you think they cost? Aw man, they’re going to think I was trying to escape on top of everything else.”

“I’ll pay for it,” Keith offered. “Technically you’re only wearing them in the first place because I didn’t bring my permit. Even though you did blow a red light at Mach 3 and almost kill us all.”

“You’re not allowed to comment,” Lance warned. “You drove us all off a cliff the night we saved Shiro.”

“Are you still mad about that?”

“A cliff, Keith. The phrase “we ride together, we die together” isn’t meant to be taken literally.”

Keith smiled slightly in the dark, glancing over at the other car. Hunk had the look of a man doomed to the electric chair, and Pidge was watching with an annoyed sort of horror as her laptop was manhandled. He could relate, his flash drive was still stuck in it, and he didn’t know if it had been fried along with the computer. He kept a lot of important stuff on there.

Some kind of specialist came out and checked Pidge’s computer. Keith could tell none of the officers really thought it was a bomb, but they needed to follow through in case it was set to trigger one. He hoped all of this would get sorted out once they got their IDs and proved they hadn’t done anything wrong.

Well, not counting breaking into an office.

“I’m glad you didn’t do it.”

Keith pulled his attention away from the window, looking over at Lance. He was mostly in shadow except for the bit of street light filtering in.

“Naxzela,” Lance clarified when he saw Keith’s confusion. “I know we’re not all really supposed to know, but I overheard Matt giving Shiro the details.”

“I had to do what I had to do,” Keith answered, looking away again. He tried not to sound as defensive as he felt, but this really wasn’t a subject he liked talking about. He was tired of having it shoved down his throat that he’d been irresponsible and reckless. “That planet was going to explode and take all of you with it, we didn’t have any other way of bringing down that shield.”

“It’s okay, I understand.”

Those weren’t the words Keith was expecting. They certainly weren’t the words Matt had used, or the ones Shiro had used. Lance’s tone, surprisingly gentle, wasn’t the tone of voice either of them had used either.

“I get it,” Lance said somberly. “Sometimes, you’re just in a position when you have to choose between yourself and somebody else. And when it’s a friend or an ally, it’s a surprisingly easy choice.”

There were times, rare as those might be, when Keith was reminded of just how much he and Lance really did have in common. Their personalities were literally fire and ice, but their similarities ran shockingly deep.

“Yeah,” Keith agreed, letting out a breath and sinking down a bit in the seat. “And if I had to do it over again, I’d make the same choice. I’m sorry if that isn’t what you want to hear.”

“I know you would, because it’s the same choice I would make,” Lance said with a slight shrug. “I’m not going to yell at you about it or anything, I just want you to know that we know about it. Coming that close to dying can get heavy after a while, I don’t want you to think it’s a secret you can’t talk about if you ever need to. I don’t want you to feel guilty about it either, I’m only letting you know that I’m glad you’re still here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…we’re a good team, and we can’t be a team if one of us is gone.”

It was a very reassuring thing to hear. Keith already knew that laying down his life was a decision that wasn’t to be made lightly. Nearly doing so hadn’t meant that he was suicidal or didn’t value his own life, like Shiro and Matt had seemed to think. He had simply valued the lives of his friends—the lives of a family he had found in the middle of space—more.

He smiled again, but then what Lance said really sank in and that smile faded.

“You little jerk,” he accused, glaring hard at Lance in the shadows. “You do remember the bonding moment.”

Lance’s eyes widened as he realized what he’d admitted to. He gave a nervous sort of smile then suddenly pulled away, scooting all the way to the far side of the cruiser and banging on the window.

“Officer? Officer! Can we wrap this up? I really need to be safe in jail right now!”

Chapter Text

Ten thousand years ago:

She wasn’t certain how long she had been here, the measurement of time in this space was unfamiliar. It couldn’t have been a very long time, she knew that much, she had yet to begin losing strength as she always did after crossing the boundary.

Still, the half-Iron felt as if it had been forever. In spite of the constant messages begging for contact, the mortals in this realm were primitive at best and didn’t understand what she was trying to convey.

There had been no rest since she’d arrived, constant vigilance had been necessary to stay safe. The one smart thing the mortals had done was build a containment facility around their side of the rift, it had trapped the stray Formless that managed to stumble blindly to this side long enough for her to destroy them so they couldn’t become a problem. But she always had to be wary for larger, older ones that this pitiful laboratory equipment would not contain.

Because the rift still remained open, kept that way by these…people.

She flitted lazily in the glass container that held her, missing her shining scales and soft pelt. She missed running on four legs, calling out to her brothers and sisters as she passed through their territory on her rounds. She missed racing the younger Reapers through the moors, teasing them when they couldn’t keep up.

She wondered if the moors were even still there. The mortals here, they used Guardian magic. They were pulling it from the rift in large amounts, most likely continuing to decimate the lands around this river of quintessence’s delta.

“…and the ore from the comet practically engineers itself,” one of the mortals nearby said, calling her attention away from the rift. “It’s frightening, in a way.”

The ore from the comet. So those stupid cats were probably nearby, doing nothing to solve the problem their little joyride had created.

The language these people used was very different from the ones she knew. What she picked up from the three standing nearby wasn’t really words, it was more like she picked up the vibrations in the energy fields that their thoughts sent out, ripples in reality caused by all living thing. She understood what they said as concepts, absorbing the ideas right out of the air around them, whereas they seemed to communicate with each other by using vibrations in the gaseous elements of this place’s atmosphere.

It was not a terribly efficient system of communication, that was for certain.

“Endlessly powerful ships for the Galra empire,” the tall one declared.

“And an endless source of clean energy for the entire system,” a smaller one corrected.

“Of course.”

She got the feeling the tall one did not really mean that “of course.” He had conquest on his mind, she could feel it rippling outward. It had a touch of darkness to it, as did the life forces of all of the mortals who worked daily with the rift. This close to the edge, with the shadowy energy leaking off what was undoubtedly thousands of Formless on the other side, they were all becoming tainted.

But not the small male. He was different, she could feel that. He was clean. He reeked of Guardian magic, but he was untouched by the rift.

She darted around the container, trying to draw attention. The small female who was here, the one called Honerva, often sat and watched her but remained deaf to her warnings. The longer she worked with the rift the more tainted with sickness she became, a sickness these people were not advanced enough to recognize. Her core, her very life force, was at risk and the half-Iron could not get her to understand.

“What is that?” The small male asked, coming over to the glass.

“I sent some signals into the neighboring reality,” Honerva answered. “And this creature answered the call.”

Creature! She puffed out, insulted. Like I’m some mindless animal! Oh, you dull-witted little thing, you have no idea what you’re talking about!

“Nothing from our universe has been able to survive the passage through the rift,” she added. “But somehow, he arrived unharmed.”

Of course nothing from here can survive passage, she spat, flaring. It’s nothing but particles! You can’t expect particles to survive in a world of waves if they can’t phase shift! This is not difficult for anything that doesn’t have a tiny, useless little brain!

They couldn’t even tell that she was a she. How absolutely dense did these things have to be? She had tried so many different ways to communicate, from complicated gestures down to patterns of pulses that should have been translatable by any species with an understanding of baseline existentiary mathematics. These people just weren’t advanced enough.

“I thought we discussed this,” the male protested. “We must exercise caution. We have no idea what’s out there.”

Yes! The half-Iron flitted up to the glass surface, ignoring Honerva’s palm pressed to it and darting around over her head to get a better view of the male. Yes, you need to be careful! You have no idea how careful you need to be!

Something stirred in the rift, adding to her agitation and making her still. Something dark that she had never felt before, something foreboding that made every atom of her current form shudder with revulsion. It was dangerous, whatever it was, and it was huge. She could not fight this one off like she could the smaller Formless that had wandered through.

“The ancients thought that lightning was shot from the bows of the gods until science proved otherwise,” Honerva protested. “We must always push into dangerous territory in pursuit of knowledge.”

She spoke calmly, completely unaware of what was coming. None of the Guardian magic they used would be helpful against this thing if they couldn’t even sense it looming, and how pitifully insignificant their senses were if they weren’t already on their guard. This thing was danger, in every sense of the word, and it was coming.

The half-Iron did the only thing she could do, the briefest of phase shifts that would let her interact with the world on their terms. It wasn’t a form she could hold for more than a tick, she needed a physical body to wear for that, but a tick would have to do. A split second when she was able to let out a wordless scream of warning, a wave of sound that even their inadequate sensory organs could pick up.

That was all she was able to do before the world exploded.

* * * * * * * * * *

Current day:

“I swear to God, she’d be late to her own funeral!” Estelle fumed as she flew past, very nearly taking out Curtis’ foot with her wheelchair. “We’ve already put this off three days for her, where is she?”

“Should have told her two o’clock instead of three,” Curtis answered, continuing to pour the wine his sister had almost made him spill. “Then she might have been here by four.”

“She drives me insane!” Estelle complained from the foyer.

“It’s a very short drive,” Curtis murmured, looking at the bottle. “Maybe she’s avoiding your wine choices, you keep refusing to develop taste.”

“Don’t be a snob!” Estelle came back through the living room, punching him in the thigh as she passed. “Try to stop channeling a Real Housewife of New York for just one afternoon, please.”

“That’s so offensive…I’m a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills,” Curtis answered, leaning back to glance out one of the slim windows by the door as he saw a car pull up outside. “Roxy’s here.”

Estelle was already in the kitchen. Before she could turn around and come back the front door opened and Roxanne strutted in, her six-inch heels clicking on the tile as she dropped her suitcase.

“The traffic here is terrible,” she complained loudly in their native French, taking the wine glass right out of Curtis’ hand and ignoring his offended expression as she hooked her carry-on over his arm instead. “Does nobody in New Mexico know how to not clog up the streets?”

“Were you driving on the wrong side of the road again?” Curtis asked. Roxanne paused in draining the wine glass to tilt her head toward him, tipping down the dark sunglasses she was still wearing.

“Were you driving on the wrong side of the road again?” She repeated mockingly. “Christ, I do that one time and you never let me forget it. Know what? Don’t even talk to me until your tie matches your vest you little disaster.”

“You’re late!” Estelle accused their sister as she came back into the room. “You were supposed to be here by three!”

“The planet is a circle,” Roxanne answered with a snort. “It’s three o’clock somewhere. Two somewheres, actually. Where did you get that horrendous sweater?”

“See? I told you it was ugly,” Curtis turned on Estelle now that he had backup. As he did he picked up a fresh glass and filled it for his other sister. “Do you go into court dressed like that?”

“There is nothing wrong with my sweater,” Estelle sat up straight in her chair, glaring at both of her younger siblings. “And of course I don’t dress like this in court, I wear suits. What kind of lawyer wears a sweater into court?”

“You would,” Curtis and Roxanne answered in unison.

“I’ve sent you so many cute things, why won’t you ever wear any of them?” Roxanne huffed. “Maybe if you didn’t dress so frumpy you’d get more dates.”

“Have you looked at the things you’ve sent me?” Estelle asked, not even bothering to hide her horror as Curtis passed her the filled wine glass. “I can’t go into a courtroom with my boobs hanging out!”

“It’s called cleavage, honey,” Roxanne returned. “And none of those clothes go any lower than your collar bones, stop being afraid of looking good.”

“She owns a literal international fashion line,” Curtis pointed out. “I’m pretty sure plenty of lawyers wear her stuff. Burn that sweater.”

“Dad gave me this sweater,” Estelle said defensively.

“Oh, in that case, burn it and bury the ashes,” Curtis corrected himself. “Just in case it’s cursed the rest of your wardrobe.”

“Dad sent me a picture of him and Mom yesterday, and he’s wearing cargo shorts and Crocs,” Roxanne said, looking pained. “In the Maldives! I know they say mental illness runs in families—“

“Roxy’s the poster child for that,” Curtis murmured into his wine glass.

“—but try, just once in your life, wearing silk. For me.”

“My tie does match my vest,” Curtis realized, only now processing what his sister had said on arrival. “They’re supposed to be different shades, I’d look like a five-year-old Mom dressed up for Easter if they were exactly the same.”

“I want you to know that, with all my heart,” Estelle told them, placing her hands over her heart, “I hate you both equally. From a special place, deep down. Leave my sweater alone and don’t make fun of people who are mentally ill, it’s not right. Let’s go get started. Curt has a date, you can go unpack after he leaves.”

“Oooh,” Roxanne rounded on him, leaving Estelle alone in favor of turning on her baby brother. “It’s been a while. Is he cute? Is he from Earth? What was he arrested for?”

“I’m thirty-five, I don’t call grown men “cute,” Curtis sighed. “He’s human as far as I can tell and he hasn’t been arrested for anything. He’s a doctor.”

Roxanne stopped sipping from her glass, lowering it to stare at him in disbelief. Estelle slowly wheeled backward, back into the room. At first he thought one of them might have caught the fact that he’d avoided saying Kuro was from Earth.

“Oh my God,” Roxanne put a hand over her heart, looking like she was going to faint. “A doctor? As in, an actual law abiding citizen, or someone side-dealing meth to patients who just hasn’t been caught yet?”

“Oh, come on! My track record isn’t that bad!” Curtis defended.

“Where did you meet him?” Roxanne asked.

“On the job,” Curtis answered evasively, busying himself with refilling her wine glass.

“Which job?”

“My secret agent job,” Curtis answered sarcastically. “Which job do you think?”

“You wish you were a secret agent,” Roxanne rolled her eyes. “At least then I wouldn’t have to tell people all my baby brother does in the military is interpret for finance meetings. I meant on which assignment, where is he from?”

“He’s a resident alien here, his family is from Japan.”

Curtis put the refilled glass in her hand and guided Roxanne firmly through the living room, out to the large formal dining room of their parents’ second house. Everyone was gathering here for Christmas, like they did every year since the children of the family had settled into lives in the United States.

Some of the place was still under construction. It had taken damage in the invasion, but six months of repairs were paying off. If it were a smaller house it would have been done by now, but getting their parents to just sell it was impossible. They insisted on keeping it, sure it would be lovely again once the Association finished restoring the golf course that ran behind the nearby properties.

“I think you should be worrying less about me, and more about Fashion Week,” he advised, knowing his sister’s attention could be easily diverted. “I heard they cancelled for New York, but not Paris. Aren’t you going to that one after party they always have?”

“Oh, yes, and it is going to be huge,” Roxanne’s eyes lit up as she got to turn the conversation to her favorite topic: herself and her work.

Which might have been why she was on her third divorce. Good, Curtis hated her current husband almost as much as he’d hated the first two.

Roxanne prattled on about things Curtis had already heard from Estelle and their mother, news traveled fast in their family. He didn’t feel bad about barely paying attention, his mind was on other things. He nodded where appropriate and made just enough noises to encourage her to continue, until Estelle announced that their parents were calling and put them up on the video screen.

Curtis brought the prettily arranged advent wreathe out from the living room, laying it out on the table, while Roxanne carefully retrieved the display case containing Bridgette Duchesne’s retired police badge.

They were a family that believed in service. Estelle was the only one who hadn’t been in the military due to being born with a problem in her spine that left her unable to walk, but her work in human rights law took her all over the world and often to the poorest of places.

Curtis had followed in their mother’s footsteps, she had been a career military woman up until retiring early due to an unrelated injury. He still remained in the military but had gone into real estate investment with her some years ago, so he didn’t have to rely on his family’s assets for the comforts he enjoyed. Their father and Roxanne had been enlisted at one point, though they’d each only done a single tour of duty before moving on into the arts. Their father was now an architect of multi-million dollar buildings and Roxanne owned a designer brand.

But statistically, with the number of them tempting fate with enlistment, they were bound to lose one of their own eventually.

This was their third Christmas without Curtis’ oldest sister, not counting the year of the occupation. As much as Roxanne joked about his job as an interpreter being boring he knew she was nervous about him being on the Atlas, and she had worried about him ever since Bridgette had taken a bullet to the chest on a routine domestic violence call.  It was a good thing they weren’t allowed to know what he really did. None of his family would take it very well if they found out.

The first candle on the advent wreathe had always been Bridgette’s. They went in age order, each lighting one of the four colored candles as the Sundays of Advent passed, until their parents lit the final, white candle on Christmas Eve.

The lighting of the first candle in their sister’s honor had been put off because Roxanne still lived back in France and hadn’t been able to make it back. It was a family affair, and although their parents were fine with participating through video chat they preferred their children to all be physically present. And honestly, as much as the Duchesne siblings fought they all preferred to be together for it as well.

Time had dulled the pain, though it would never erase it. The candle lighting had a more celebratory tone to it this year, a happier air. The suffocating threat of the Galra was gone and it was their first Christmas back together, having been separated during the occupation. The Duchesne family had survived it without losing anyone else, something that couldn’t be said for many of the families they knew.

[ [ T W ] ]

Part of it was that they were all military-trained. Part of it was that they’d had resources poorer families hadn’t. Either way, Curtis was thankful that he hadn’t lost anyone else. He still hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell them how badly his own illness was progressing, not wanting to upset them all until after the holiday. He did not want Christmas to be forever associated with him dying.

[ [ / T W ] ]

The candle lighting took about an hour. Curtis had never been very religious but he went through the motions out of tradition. Belief was harmless, helpful even for dealing with loss, and he would never attack anyone for faith. The prayers and practices could be lovely, even, when they carried good intentions. He did his part in the Advent prayers and lingered for a little while after his parents finally hung up, but eventually extricated himself from his sisters’ nosy questions to head out for the evening.

He had a personal problem he needed to deal with, preferably sooner than later.

Curtis wasn’t angry, he was just disappointed. Of course, the night was still young so there was plenty of time to get angry, but whether that happened or not depended entirely on what came out of Kuro’s mouth over the next several hours. The fact that his mood relied on Kuro’s behavior tonight didn’t really bode well, since that was akin to letting a toddler decide whether or not to launch nuclear missiles, but life couldn’t go perfectly well all the time.

[ [ T W ] ]

The chemo wasn’t helping, it left him tired and kind of nauseous. He didn’t really want to eat anything and what he did eat often came back up, so the thought of sitting through dinner had him feeling vaguely uncomfortable before he had even been fully dressed and out the door. But illness was no excuse to look like garbage, so he’d forced himself to go through his usual date night routine without skipping anything.

[ [ / T W ] ]

He checked his phone on the way out to his car to see if there was anything from Shiro, but everything was quiet on that front.  Curtis hoped that meant Adam was calmly relaxing, and not that he’d murdered everyone in the apartment complex and run off into the desert. Which was something that could have been expected of him just as much before his imprisonment as now.

Curtis’ friendship with Adam had been superficial at first, based solely on the fact that they were both well-to-do. Curtis had seen warning signs in him early, having seen other financially gifted children grow up without the same loving support his own family had, but he had graduated several years before Adam and had been recruited shortly after. What little time he had spent on base in New Mexico had only been enough to stop the kid from spiraling further downward, not enough to do anything to actively fix it.

Shiro had been a godsend in that regard. The change in Adam had been immediate, though it had taken some years for him to improve. Curtis still didn’t know what had happened in their final year that had resulted in the complete turnaround, but he was thankful for it.

And he was thankful that Shiro was here now, and willing to be involved. Adam had friends, and he’d definitely need them right now, but Shiro had been to the same hell and back and really understood what Adam had been through.

Curtis had never given Takashi Shirogane much thought, except as an abstract that Adam would talk about. He’d only begun to understand what his friend had seen in the man after he’d become part of the bridge crew of the Atlas, Shiro certainly wasn’t his type but he could see why he was Adam’s. He was one of those men who somehow managed to be whip smart one moment but a beautiful moron the next, which was exactly what Adam liked.

It was almost ironic that Curtis had spent six months being completely indifferent to the man he technically worked for only to be basically hit by a truck when a copy walked into the picture. No warning, no time to prepare, just a fearless idiot strolling up to three other idiots, completely ignoring the guns aimed at his face.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was pretty. More attractive than Shiro, to Curtis anyway, which was funny since they were clones. And no, Curtis would never call a grown man “cute,” but Kuro could be borderline adorable when the ruthless little conniver wanted to be.

It felt a little bit odd to drive right up to the lot near the Lorelia and approach the ship from the front, he’d spent so long sneaking in the back that it left him out of sorts to use the intercom and announce his presence. It was even odder when one of the Alteans appeared to let him into the airlock, letting him know Kuro would be out shortly before disappearing herself and leaving him standing there.

It was hard to pretend he wasn’t already painfully familiar with everything in here. Curtis poked absently at a control panel on the wall that wouldn’t respond to him now that he wasn’t carrying his piece of jump crystal, waiting.

There was no grand entrance, he could see Kuro coming down the narrow main hallway of the ship as soon as he stepped out of his quarters. But that didn’t help Curtis process the sheer amount of straps and studs and sections of laced-up fabric and holy hell, was that mesh and metallic black shirt painted on?

“Nice vest,” Kuro commented as he reached the airlock, pulling on a leather jacket that was much more plain than what was underneath. He reached up to smooth down Curtis’ collar, which had likely been ruffled when he’d come into the warmth of the ship and opened his coat. “But I pictured you as more of a cravat person than a tie man.”

As he said it his expression remained innocent, but he started pulling the tie Curtis wore tighter.

“No, I only wear those at home,” Curtis answered, trying not to snort at the insinuation that he would even own anything that terrible. “With my smoking jacket and cigarette holder.”

“Exactly the kind of taste I’d expect from a man in a vest.”

Kuro was sniping. That answered Curtis’ question as to what kind of night this was going to be right out of the gate. Curtis reached up and caught Kuro’s hand, prying it away from the tie knot he was slowly being strangled with. For a brief moment Kuro didn’t let go, and Curtis wasn’t strong enough to force the fingers loose.

A very ballsy reminder of what he was capable of, and undoubtedly a warning that he wasn’t happy right now. Curtis didn’t know what Kuro had to be pissy about, if anybody should have been angry it was him, but he had a feeling he was going to find out.

“It’s Kevlar,” he answered, matching Kuro’s polite tone when the fingers finally loosened and he could breathe again. “Fashion choice of anyone who spends time with your family.”

Kuro had released the tie knot but he was still holding the tie itself with his other hand. He wrapped it around his hand twice and used it to forcibly pull Curtis down until they were face to face, their lips only barely not touching.

“It’s argyle,” Kuro said flatly. “Fashion choice of nerds.”

“Strong words from the man who can’t keep his hands off the matching tie,” Curtis answered, refusing to back down. “If you want to intimidate me, get taller.

They glared at each other for the span of a few heartbeats, during which Curtis prayed Kuro didn’t call his bluff. This wasn’t the first time he’d stared down death, but he had to admit that even he didn’t want to die in an argyle vest. At least, not before he got in the last word, and he still had a whole slew of last words he was ready to unload on this little miscreant.

Kuro made an annoyed noise and finally let him go, and Curtis straightened up. He smoothed down his suit jacket, loosening his tie back to a more comfortable tension.

“Are we going to have a fight in the middle of the airlock?” He asked tersely. “Because if that’s what you want, far be it from me to not deliver.”

“No, you promised me dinner,” Kuro answered, punching in his code and shoving Curtis out the door when it opened. “Deliver that, and then I’ll decide if I’m going to deliver you back home with two broken legs or not.”

It was hard to keep his dignity when Kuro could push with all the leverage of a wrecking ball. Curtis was lucky he even managed to keep his feet, standing back up and sarcastically bowing Kuro toward his car.

“Front seat, or trunk?” He shot back.

“I’m going to pour sugar in your gas tank if you keep it up,” Kuro warned.

Curtis debated pushing his luck, but decided against it. He could handle the threats against his life, but he really didn’t want Kuro damaging his car. Kuro looked smug when Curtis bit his tongue, walking around the car to the passenger side.

“Who did you borrow this from?” He asked, still being pretty snippy for somebody who allegedly didn’t want to fight right now. “I didn’t think they let people with your haircut drive Corvettes.”

“They don’t approve people with your haircut for mortgages, get in the damn car.”

Kuro was still smirking when he climbed in, knowing he was getting under Curtis’ skin. It was tempting to ‘help’ him with his seat belt and make sure it was wrapped around his mouth. He started the car and turned up the heat a bit, even though he hadn’t been in the Lorelia long enough for it to really get cold in here.

“Is that all right, or do you want it turned up?”

Kuro rolled his head to the side to look at him, slouched in his seat with his arm crossed. He pointedly pulled a booted foot up and put it on the meticulously polished dashboard instead of answering, and Curtis had to force himself not to comment. He refused to give Kuro the satisfaction of knowing how badly that got to him.

“Is this how you’re going to be?” He asked as he pulled out of the lot. “Silent treatment and glaring?”

Kuro looked him dead in the eye, then licked one of his fingers and dragged it along the passenger window without breaking eye contact. It left a visible streak on the otherwise clean glass, and Curtis debated kicking him out onto the street once the car was going over fifty.

He didn’t know what he’d done to piss Kuro off, but he was obviously in full brat mode and Curtis didn’t like it. It was an internal struggle to not be fully pulled in, and there was still a huge issue that needed to be addressed before anybody killed anyone else.

Curtis disengaged entirely, dealing with Kuro the way one would discipline a cat. He ignored the childish actions and concentrated on driving instead, gritting his teeth and keeping his eyes on the road when Kuro started deprogramming his radio stations one by one. He was not going to reward this behavior with a reaction. He had to ignore all of those little annoyances for the full half hour it took to cross the stretch of desert separating the Garrison from the next town over.

By the time he pulled up in front of the restaurant he’d chosen, he was one seat belt click away from committing a murder. The cold air was a relief as he slid out of the driver seat and handed the keys over to the valet. Another valet on the other side opened the passenger door, doing a double take when Kuro stepped out and shooting his older colleague a look as if to ask what he should do.

Five star French restaurants didn’t generally cater to men who looked like they’d just robbed a motorcycle gang. Kuro started to walk toward the front door but the valet stopped him, and a second later was joined by a second man.

“I’m sorry sir, but there’s a dress code,” the older one said apologetically as Curtis popped the trunk. He took out the bag there and closed it up, walking around the car.

“It’s a restaurant, not a business meeting,” Kuro said crossly. “You cannot be serious right now.”

“Sir, this is a Michelin star restaurant, not a Wendy’s,” the older valet was clearly offended. “There’s a certain expectation in attire.”

“Why is a tire company giving stars to a restaur—”

Kuro cut off as Curtis grabbed the back of his leather jacket with both hands, yanking it down and off before he had a chance to fight him about it. He folded it in half and put it on the car roof, opening the bag and pulling out a black dinner jacket. He held it up and Kuro did exactly as expected, looking at it as if it had personally murdered his dog.

“Two hours in a dinner jacket is not going to kill you.” Curtis snapped the fabric expectantly.

“It might kill you,” Kuro muttered, giving in and sliding his arms into the waiting sleeves. Curtis pulled it all the way up and made sure it lay correctly, Kuro let his head fall back and immediately started to whine. “Oh my God, I can feel myself turning into a loser already.”

“As opposed to a guy on his way to work a stripper pole for the night,” Curtis returned. “I don’t even need you to tell me which one offends you more.”

He shoved Kuro’s leather jacket into the bag and tossed it in the back seat of the car, then pushed Kuro forward past the valets before they could reconvene and decide that wasn’t good enough. The place’s code had only specified that shoes and a dinner jacket were required, assuming that guests would dress to higher standards without needing to be told but effectively leaving open a giant, Shiro-clone-sized loophole.

The hostess raised her eyebrows at Kuro when Curtis dragged him forward and gave his name for their reservation, but she didn’t kick up a fuss. She led them back to a small table in the middle of the dining room, where it was dimly lit for ambiance and nobody would notice what Kuro was wearing anyway.

Curtis pulled out Kuro’s chair for him, though at that point it was only because his mother had raised him right. He had a powerful urge to yank it back at the last minute and let him fall on the floor, but he was pretty sure Kuro would have no qualms about starting a physical fight in the middle of a restaurant.

He didn’t want to have to defend himself until he had a solid idea of what they were fighting about, and could predict how far Kuro would go.

They didn’t wait long, Curtis was only just sitting down himself when a waiter appeared with a bottle of the night’s house red.

“Wine?” He prompted, fully expecting an affirmative. This was not the kind of restaurant where people didn’t drink wine with their dinner. Curtis looked across the table at Kuro, then back to the waiter.

“I don’t suppose you have Everclear?” He asked hopefully.

“Er, no, sir.”

“Whiskey, then. No ice. And leave that bottle, I’m going to need it.”

“…sure.” The waiter completely dropped any pretense of elegance, probably sensing that he didn’t get paid enough to deal with what he was about to deal with. He set the bottle down and looked to Kuro. “And you, sir?”

“I’m fine,” Kuro said curtly.

“He’ll take champagne,” Curtis picked the lightest thing he could think of, before Kuro decided halfway through dinner to order for himself and get something too strong. “Whatever you have that’s fizzy.”

“Whiskey and champagne. Can I get you an appetizer while you’re looking at the menu?”

“I’ll have the deviled eggs with crab, please,” Curtis requested, defensively ordering something with animal protein to head off Kuro from having any excuse to even touch his plate.

“I’m fine,” Kuro said again when the waiter turned to him.

The waiter looked back to Curtis to see if he was going to intervene on that too, but he didn’t. The young man made his escape, leaving the bottle of wine behind as instructed, and Curtis poured himself a glass. He poured a small amount for Kuro as well, but that was solely for his own amusement.

Kuro watched him sip from his glass then looked at his own, and Curtis could see he was debating. Whatever he was mad about it had him good and worked up, but he had to work to keep himself that way. His curiosity was slowly eroding his stony air.

He gave in and picked up his own. After one sip he made a choking sound, spitting the wine back into glass and looking betrayed.

“Dry reds are an acquired taste,” Curtis advised, smirking behind his own glass. He had sincerely doubted alcohol was something Kuro had access to back at the facility.

The waiter returned, setting the glass of whiskey in front of Curtis and the champagne flute in front of Kuro. He disappeared again, leaving them as quickly as he’d come, and Curtis abandoned his wine in favor of the stronger drink.

It made his stomach churn, but he already knew he needed it.

“Try it,” he encouraged as Kuro looked suspiciously at the champagne. “You’ll like that one, I promise.”

“Too bad your promises are probably worthless,” Kuro answered. “I don’t trust anything that comes out of your mouth.”

“Really?” So there it was, Kuro had apparently figured out one of the lies he’d been told. Well, he wasn’t stupid, he was bound to pick up on something eventually. “That’s pretty judgmental, considering. Are you going to actually look at the menu?”

“You are such an asshole,” Kuro accused, finally cracking. “Your stalker crap isn’t cute, it’s creepy and weird. I don’t care about the menu, I’m not here to eat anything.”

He pushed up his sleeve and took off the leather bracelet Curtis had given him, peeling back the edge and pulling something out. He threw it across the table just as Curtis was taking a sip of his whiskey, the little chip bouncing off his forehead and landing in his glass.

“I’m only here so I can tell you in a public place to stay away from me, you psycho.”

Curtis raised his eyebrows and fished the little tracking chip out of his drink, holding it up and watching the light slowly die as the alcohol got into its circuits. They weren’t exactly top of the line.

“This could belong to anyone,” he defended. “Maybe it was there when I bought it.”

In response Kuro reached into his pocket, which was a wonder in and of itself considering how tight the pants were, and leaned over to drop a handful of other tracking chips into the whiskey glass. It looked like he’d pried every one that had been planted out of their hiding places.

“…okay, so maybe I shouldn’t buy gifts off that guy anymore,” Curtis tried.

Kuro pushed away from the table, starting to get up. Hoshi wasn’t here right now but for all Curtis knew she was on call, and he knew if he let Kuro walk away he now had no way of knowing where he was in the future.

“Wait! Come on, sit down,” he requested.

“I don’t want to sit down,” Kuro said loudly.

People were starting to look at them. Curtis wasn’t embarrassed, just annoyed that others were paying attention to his business. He preferred to argue in peace.

“Fine,” he allowed, “then let’s at least take this conversation somewhere more private.”

Kuro gave him the Look, which Curtis had only seen twice before and never aimed at him. It was the nonverbal equivalent of “I’m about to beat the audacity out of you,” and it made Curtis reach over and move the champagne and wine glasses out of Kuro’s reach.

But Kuro didn’t go for the glasses. Instead he suddenly disappeared, and the next thing Curtis knew he was being yanked down out of his chair. He barely had time to lean his head back to keep from slamming his face on the edge of the table before he was sitting on the floor under it.

“This is as private as you’re getting,” Kuro announced, crossing his arms.

“I’m not staying on the floor!” Curtis complained.

“Well I’m not going anywhere alone with you!” Kuro shot back, taking a nice deep breath for a tirade Curtis knew he wasn’t going to enjoy. He sighed and pulled his phone out of his inner jacket pocket. “You’ve broken into the Lorelia—on Altean sovereign soil—and done God only knows how much snooping around in a ship that’s none of your business. That’s an international incident right there, and that’s before we even get into your personal habits.

“You spied on me to figure out the best times to break in, you spent time in my personal lab without my permission…for all I know you’ve been in my room! You invaded my privacy, you touched my things, and then I find out you’re tracking me on top of it? Listen buddy, I don’t know how many people you’ve murdered and buried in your basement, but I’m not going to be the next one. You have no idea how lucky you are I didn’t just break you in half on sight when you showed up!”

The white tablecloth that was hanging down over the table was pulled aside, showing the concerned face of their waiter.

“Is…is everything okay…?” He asked, clearly confused as he tried not to drop the plate in his hand.

“It’s fine, I’m just afraid of thunder,” Curtis answered, not even looking up from his phone.

“There is no thunder…?”

“It’s a very big planet, there’s always thunder somewhere,” Curtis replied, taking a page out of Roxanne’s book as he glanced up. “Is that ours? Thank you.”

He took the plate out of the waiter’s hand and set it on the floor next to him, yanking the table cloth back down again. Then he rounded on Kuro.

“Are you done?”

“No, I’m only just getting started, believe me.”

“Well save it,” Curtis advised. He held up his phone so Kuro could see it, showing the surveillance video from one of Allura’s specialty cameras set up in her containment lab. “This is from the viewing system that had to be set up down in the labs because the regular security cameras kept getting scrambled by the electromagnetic fields in the room. They’re small, they’re portable, and they’re very hard to see, but they take a damn good picture. All that’s missing is you smiling for the camera.”

He let the video play, showing clear as day as Kuro punched one of the containment tubes to threaten the black creature floating around in it before moving on to the larger tube in the middle of the room.

“Hold on, let’s play that back,” Curtis said lightly, rewinding the video. He let it go through again, this time pausing it on a frame showing the vivid purple glow extending sharply out of Kuro’s fingertips. He used two fingers to zoom in, on the irritated expression framing pitch black eyes. “Now that is very interesting, I think.”

Kuro watched the playback with narrowed eyes. Curtis knew confronting him was a gamble, and a very big one. He had seen what Honerva’s druids could do and he had no reason to believe Kuro couldn’t do the same, but he was hoping his read on Kuro’s personality was correct and that nobody in this restaurant was in danger.

“That could be anyone,” Kuro threw Curtis’ words right back in his face. “It could be Takashi.”

“Yeah, I can see the resemblance, but I’m going to have to call bullshit,” Curtis answered.

“You can’t prove that’s me,” Kuro said confidently, crossing his arms again. “You’re putting tracking chips on people, I have a feeling you know how to doctor a video.”

“But I didn’t doctor this one, and we both know I didn’t doctor this one. So you might want to start explaining.”

“I don’t have to explain anything!” Kuro said furiously. “Least of all to you! I’m not saying anything to anyone who sneaks around and violates me for months!”

He picked up a bit of green from the deviled egg plate and bit into it, crunching it twice before making a disgusted face.

“Oh my God, this is so gross.”

“Well, it’s a piece of pine tree twig being used as garnish. So.”

Kuro leaned over and spit out the chewed greenery onto the plate, making no attempt to avoid the actual food. If Curtis’ stomach hadn’t already been disagreeing with him before, the image certainly would have helped him along.

“Don’t talk to me,” Kuro said flatly once he’d managed to spit out all the pine needles. He crawled out from under the table, leaving Curtis scurrying to follow. “Don’t talk to me, don’t follow me around, don’t even look at me ever again. Oh, and your video?”

He turned back and plucked the phone out of Curtis’ hand, dropping it into the whiskey glass along with the tracking chips. He tipped the wine glasses and champagne into it to fill it to the brim, covering the most sensitive parts of the device.

“We both know you deleted the original when you made the copy. You wouldn’t be showing me if anyone else had a chance of finding it first. So whatever you’re looking to blackmail out of me…get bent.”

Kuro grabbed Curtis’ key tag while he was trying to fish the ruined phone out of the glass, leaving Curtis to grab his coat and the dripping phone and follow him through the restaurant. He ignored the curious stares, just trying to keep up, but Kuro was fast when he was mad.

“Where do you think you’re going with that?” Curtis demanded as they passed the hostess podium. “Don’t even think about touching my car.”

“I’m going somewhere else. Take a cab,” Kuro answered, stopping at the register to the side where their waiter was running somebody’s credit card.

He took a wallet out of his back pocket, pulling out two hundred dollar bills and dropping them on the register. Far more than what the drinks and appetizer cost, but Curtis had a feeling Kuro didn’t fully understand American money and prices just yet.

“Where did you get that?” He demanded, moving to block Kuro from leaving the building. “Seriously, where are you getting this stuff? The clothes, the money?”

“It’s called being a grown up, not that you’d know anything about that,” Kuro hissed, giving Curtis a light shove. “Somebody who sneaks into other peoples’ private spaces wouldn’t know, but grown ups do things like trade services for money and then buy things.”

Curtis was well aware that his mind had a tendency to stray into the gutter, but he outdid himself when Kuro said the words “trade services for money” and he felt his gaze drop down to the tight pants before he even registered he was doing it. Kuro was clearly also aware that he was a terrible person, he reached up and grabbed Curtis’ chin before his head could go all the way down and forced it back upwards.

“Don’t even finish that thought or I’ll break your neck,” he threatened.

“In my defense, there’s really no thought involved,” Curtis offered, pulling free from his grip. “You didn’t really answer my question.”

“What’s wrong? Do you think I’m stealing?” Kuro asked defensively.

“Well you’ve definitely been lying,” Curtis answered. “I don’t need a video to tell me that. I saw your back, Kuro. On the Atlas, when you tilted your head forward after I tried to dry your hair.”

Kuro didn’t say anything at first. His eyes narrowed and he glared, but he wasn’t terribly experienced in the art of threatening facial expressions. He mostly just looked like a pissed off kitten.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he ground out when it became obvious an answer was expected.

“No? Are you sure?” Curtis pressed. “That mark, running from the back of your neck down your spine? The reddish one that looked an awful lot like the one Hira showed us on that little girl?”

Kuro tried to stare him down, but it wasn’t working. If he was going to react violently he would have done so by now, and Curtis wasn’t afraid of what he was going to do. That didn’t mean Kuro was predictable, though, so Curtis was thrown off kilter when Kuro suddenly stepped back and shrugged off the suit jacket. Before anyone could do anything he reached back and pulled up the back of his shirt, tugging the whole thing off and leaving himself shirtless.

“What mark would that be, Curt?”

Curtis knew before he looked that he had been outmaneuvered, just from Kuro’s tone. He put a hand on his shoulder to spin him around, a wave of annoyance washing over him when he saw the other man’s back.

There was a gradient of color running down his spine, from black at the top down to a rusty gold, the stars and cosmic dust patterns of a galaxy going from the back of his neck to just down below the hem of his pants. The overall shape was of two koi in a watercolor style, one swimming downward and the other upward, meeting at the middle over a background of red and gold paint splatters. It was a beautiful tattoo, clearly very skilled work, thin and elegant in a way that looked like a decoration rather than a huge piece of art in and of itself.

It was also fully healed, which was a red flag. This tattoo had not been there yesterday when Kuro had pulled up the edge of his shirt, it had been done either last night or this morning. Curtis knew from experience that tattoos took some time to heal to this point…unless someone healed the way Honerva did.

The tattoo also completely covered the mark that had been running down Kuro’s back, effectively wiping away the evidence Curtis had thought he had.

“Right, that’s what I thought,” Kuro responded to Curtis’ silence, scooping his shirt up off the floor and pushing past him to go out the door.

By now there was a fairly decent sized crowd of diners and people waiting for tables watching them, but Curtis had been seen in public with Roxanne and Estelle too many times to be easily embarrassed by some bratty behavior. He took a moment to recover from the argument itself, then grabbed the discarded dinner jacket from the floor and fighting through the gathered gawkers to follow.

The valet was just getting out of his car as Curtis made it outside. Kuro pulled his shirt back on and then got in, giving him just enough time to reach the car and slide into the passenger side before he could lock the doors.

“Get out of the car,” Kuro demanded.

“No, it’s my car. You get out,” Curtis returned.

“Fine, we’ll do this your way.”

* * * * *

He was panicking.  So far he thought he was doing an okay job of not showing it, but the way he was handling things wasn’t exactly top tier.

Kuro had thought he could just go to whatever stupid place Curtis had picked, tell him he was being a creepy weirdo and to back off where he would be safely surrounded by people, then leave and never have to see him again. But what he’d believed was just going to be a quick tell-off and a return home was not turning out that way.

In spite of his words, Kuro knew he hadn’t destroyed all evidence of what he’d done. The piece of balmera crystal was probably still in the containment lab with his fingerprints all over it for one, he hadn’t had a chance to go back and retrieve it yet. For another, there was no way Curtis would have the only copy of the surveillance video on a phone where Kuro could get it. He wasn’t completely confident in his guess that Curtis had deleted the original when he’d made a personal copy, either.

It was possible Allura and Lotor could still decide to watch the footage and see him there. Maybe they already had, and they’d decided to let Curtis approach him first for some reason. Kuro didn’t know why they would, but anything was possible.

The most likely scenario was that the original footage was deleted, though. The only reason Curtis would come to him with it instead of his superiors was if he wanted something he thought he could get in return for it, and that would require being the only person to have access to the blackmail material.

He felt betrayed. Obviously he had been lying to everyone, that much was undeniable. But he had only been lying and sneaking around for his own personal well-being—well, and the well-being of the Gold that was in captivity—not to hurt anyone or do any damage. But Curtis wouldn’t have been keeping such eerily close tabs on him if he didn’t think he had a reason, and that reason was most likely that he thought Kuro was dangerous.

He hated that. Everyone had been nice enough, but out of them all Curtis had been the most kind. Kuro had trusted him, Curtis was the only person Kuro hadn’t been completely wary of. Even with the sneaking in and leaving things, which was admittedly very invasive, Kuro had given him the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was some bit of Earth culture he just didn’t understand.

Now Kuro just felt like the naïve idiot everyone already thought he was.

And it was his own fault for not taking more care. He’d been so intent on finding the Gold, had relied on nobody paying attention. All the risks he’d taken had seen so minor at the time, but now his assumption that there wasn’t much security inside the containment room was biting him in the ass.

There was no way for him to really know the extent of what was going on, either. For all he knew, Lotor had been informed and there would be Alchemists waiting at the Lorelia to take him prisoner. Maybe Allura had been told and she was waiting there to see to him personally. Maybe there were just Garrison soldiers ready to grab him before he stepped onto the ship and had to be extradited…not that it would take long, Lotor would probably hand him right over.

This was all too soon, he wasn’t prepared. He’d just needed one more month, and then he would have been gone.

“Where exactly are we going?” Curtis asked from beside him.

Kuro ignored him and leaned on the gas, edging the car up from 70 to 80. He didn’t know 70 or 80 what, he was just able to tell from context that the numbers on the console in front of him were correlated to how fast the car was moving.

He didn’t really know much about cars. There was a train that went between towns, he liked to take that when he left the ship at night so he could relax during the ride and look up at the stars. But sometimes he made deals with people for rides, so he knew the basics from watching.

One pedal made the car go faster, the other made it go slower. The wheel guided its direction, obviously. That was about all he knew. Well, that and that the other people on the highway were very, very slow and that having to weave in and out of them was annoying.

“Do you actually know where we’re going?” Curtis insisted.

“Yes,” Kuro snapped. He really wished the other man would be quiet and let him concentrate so they didn’t die in a fiery wreck. “You wouldn’t have to keep asking me that if you’d just left me alone and stayed out of the car.”

Curtis sighed. Kuro pushed the gas pedal again, until the numbers on the console crept up past 100. The sooner he reached his destination, the sooner he could throw the keys back in Curtis’ face and part ways. Hopefully forever, if Kuro could find a way to disappear into the general population until he was ready to leave the planet.

“Please use the turn signal before you cut off other drivers,” Curtis requested. “It’s the little switch to the left of the steering wheel. Down for left, up for right.”

Kuro glanced down at the controls, at the switches on either side of the wheel. He experimentally pushed the left one down, and a little green arrow started to flash on the console. He assumed the car had a signal on the outside for other drivers as well. That was convenient.

“So you know where you’re going, even though we were across the desert in the next town over,” Curtis seemed incapable of shutting up tonight. “So I’m guessing you’ve been wandering farther than I thought.”

“It’s none of your business.”

“It’s my car, it’s definitely my business.”

Lights flashed in the rear view mirror, red and blue. Kuro knew enough to know that those were trouble, the local police force used those lights.

“You need to pull over,” Curtis said.

He was calm. So annoyingly calm, while Kuro was screaming internally and not thinking clearly in panic. It was infuriating. Kuro gripped the wheel tighter.

“Don’t do it,” Curtis warned.

Kuro slammed down the accelerator. He thought he heard Curtis swear softly, but the other man still remained perfectly calm even as the numbers on the dashboard started to climb.

  1. 120. 130. Kuro didn’t know how high they could actually go, but he would find out if he had to. He was not in any mood to deal with human authorities, not without Hoshi here to have his back. It wasn’t like he could trust Curtis, after all.

The traffic had thinned in the desert, but it was beginning to pick up again as they moved closer to the Garrison. Past that would be the city streets, the maze of destruction and confusion where some things were rebuilt and others weren’t.

“That’s a state trooper,” Curtis groaned, rubbing his temple. “You really want to pull over.”

“No, I really don’t.”

The exit for the Garrison came and went in a blur, and traffic started to thicken. Kuro only slowed down because he was forced to, swerving around a slower car in front of him to drive along the shoulder. He drove around a bright orange blockade at the next exit, barely squeezing between it and the divider.

“That sign means this ramp is under construction,” Curtis warned.

“No it doesn’t.”

“Yes it do—“

I’m not an idiot,” Kuro cut him off sharply, finally hitting the brake.

He only did so to swerve the car around sending it skidding to a stop behind a high stack of cement blocks. He backed up further, until the car was completely in the shadows, and turned off the headlights.

The police car followed about a minute later, going much slower and taking more care. It went past them while the officer inside aimed a flashlight left and right until he got to the end of the ramp. The light just missed Curtis’ car, and the officer sat at the base of the ramp for about five minutes.

Kuro sat in the dark, saying nothing, and for once Curtis managed to be quiet. Kuro kept waiting for him to get out and flag the trooper down, maybe report that his car was being stolen or that he had somebody he needed help taking in to the Garrison base, but all he did was absently pick at his fingernails in the faint moonlight from above.

The trooper finally turned around and went back the way he’d come. Kuro waited another full minute before he got out of the car, opening the back seat and grabbing his leather jacket out of the bag there. He threw the keys over the roof at Curtis, who had also climbed out, and started walking down the ramp.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Curtis asked, his voice tinged in disbelief. “This is the middle of a rebuild zone, it’s dangerous. Get back in the car.”

“Go home,” Kuro commanded, speeding up. “Leave me alone and don’t talk to me again.”

The barricade had indeed been there for a reason, but Kuro had been here before. He already knew that the exit ramp itself was still mostly in one piece just like he knew that if he went right there was dark, open road and if he went left there was nothing but rubble.

He went left, jumping up to pull himself up onto a twisted hunk of cement and rebar. He could have gone the other way, but taking the path of least resistance to his destination would take at least another twenty minutes. This route was quicker, and he could ditch Curtis.

Or so he’d thought. He had reached the end of the mess he was balancing on and hopped onto the remains of a crumbling wall when he glanced back and saw that Curtis had pulled himself up and was following.

Great.

Kuro sped up, maneuvering across the minefield of debris in the cold, semi-darkness. It wasn’t terribly different from climbing across lab tables at the facility as far as he was concerned, aside from it being a bit chilly out here he almost enjoyed it. But his hopes of leaving Curtis behind were only short lived; no matter which way Kuro went Curtis continued to follow.

He hated to admit it, but he was kind of impressed. Curtis was faster and stronger than he looked, and if he wasn’t such a backstabbing little liar Kuro probably would have stopped to admire him.

The end of the destroyed street came suddenly, with the skeleton of a collapsed apartment building. Kuro climbed up a few yards to a broken, glassless window and carefully maneuvered through, dropping down to the clear street below. This was a rougher part of town at night, thanks to being cut off from direct main road access, but by day it was just a quiet neighborhood.

Kuro headed down the familiar street he’d initially found during curious wanderings, lined on both sides by very unprofessional repairs. Buildings and storefronts had been fixed by hand by poorer residents, because life couldn’t stop while people waited for official reconstruction to reach them and not everyone could afford to just pick up and move. Walls were patched with different materials, from plaster to brick to plywood, and windows were covered in multicolored plastics and soldered pieces of mismatched glass.

He could tell by the footsteps behind him that Curtis was still following, which was frustrating. The man was in dress shoes and a suit jacket, he shouldn’t have been able to keep up.

“Well, I see where your clothes have been coming from, anyway.”

Kuro glanced back and tried to decide if he heard anything derogatory in Curtis’ tone. He couldn’t be sure, so he only shrugged as they walked past the small leather shop and bypassed the little t-shirt store. It was easier to come to these out of the way places to buy things than risk getting spotted at the local mall, and at least he was supporting the people here instead of the corporations that had been rich enough to rebuild so quickly.

Curtis finally caught up to him, passing him and then stepping into his path to bring him to a halt.

“Move,” Kuro demanded.

“No. You owe me an explanation.”

“I don’t owe anyone anything,” Kuro answered. Clearly his smaller displays of strength just weren’t doing the job. This time he gripped Curtis’ waist and lifted him clear off his feet, setting him down to the side and out of his way so he could keep walking.

He was only half a block away from freedom and he sped up, moving toward a puddle of golden light spilling out of an open doorway along with rock music. Two large men stood just outside having a smoke, nodding to him as he approached.

“Will you stop?” Curtis called from behind him, clearly still not fased. Kuro saw him make a grab for his wrist out of the corner of his eye and moved out of his way, just barely keeping from being caught. He went up the stairs of the dimly lit bar and past the two leather-clad men, one of whom nodded to him before looking to Curtis.

“This guy bothering you, Doc?”

“Yes,” Kuro answered, not even bothering to glance back. “He’s not a cop but he’s military, so close enough.”

“Say no more.”

Kuro stepped inside out of the cold and the two men moved to block Curtis’ path. He finally slowed down now that he was safely in a familiar place, moving down to drop heavily onto one of the stools by the bar. The bartender nodded at him and brought him a bottle of water, which was all he ever drank when he was here. It was all he drank in general, he’d been too busy in the last month to experiment with the different things Earth offered, and after that gross wine earlier he was in no mood to be adventurous today either.

He could see Curtis trying to talk the bouncers into letting him in, which wasn’t going to happen. This place was pretty much filled with illegal activity on a slow day, which made it an excellent place to be. Criminals didn’t make a habit of looking too closely at anyone or asking too many questions, and that was just how Kuro liked it. But they weren’t too fond of police or military people either.

He opened his water bottle and took a few sips automatically, for lack of anything else to do with his hands. Kuro wasn’t sure what he was going to do, he’d have to wait until Curtis finally went away and then make a run for it. He couldn’t go back for Hoshi but she would hopefully track him down eventually, and he had enough money on him to buy necessities since he couldn’t go back to the ship for anything.

Starting all over again from scratch wasn’t an attractive option, but he’d known it might be the only one at some point. This universe wasn’t friendly to people like him, there were going to be times when he’d have to drop everything and go. He just hadn’t thought it would be so soon.

There was a noise from the doorway and Kuro looked over to find one of the bouncers on the ground. Curtis dropped down and swept the feet out from under the other, dropping him down as well before reaching back into his waistband and pulling out a pistol Kuro hadn’t realized he had. He stepped on the chest of one bouncer and aimed the gun down at the other.

“Stay down, please,” he requested.

Oh, you have got to be kidding me, Kuro groaned internally as Curtis walked past them, sliding the gun back into the hidden holster as he came over to the bar.

“Hope you got a permit for that,” the bartender drawled, barely looking up from wiping down behind the bar. “We don’t like anything illegal going on in here.”

The look Curtis gave her would have been comical Kuro wasn’t already upset. He pulled out his wallet and flashed her something that made her purse her lips and turn away. Some kind of law enforcement badge, the initials on it said “FBI.”

“Aren’t fake law credentials also illegal?” Kuro asked as Curtis pulled up a stool. “How many times do I have to tell you to go away?”

“Okay, lets get a few things straight here,” Curtis said, keeping his voice low as if anybody else was actually paying attention to him over the music. “Nobody on this base is sneakier than I am. You aren’t sneakier than I am, the four idiots in my office right now aren’t sneakier than I am. So you can throw as much of a fit as you want, but you’re not fooling me. Your special little brand of curated crazy may make everyone else think they’re going nuts and back off, but I am very aware that you’ve spent this whole night so far deflecting from the fact that you’re an alien wearing a human suit.

“So you can drag me under a table, and you can whip off your shirt in a restaurant, and you can steal my car and run from cops, but I’m more than aware that you’re perfectly sane and rational. Enough to understand that yes, you do owe an explanation for what you are. And you owe an explanation for breaking into a secure laboratory where you aren’t supposed to be. And if I really start feeling productive and pulling security footage from the whole base for the time when you were playing spy, you might owe explanations for being in other places too.”

A young man Kuro recognized, but whose name he couldn’t remember, appeared at his side. He was leaning on one of the bar’s pool cues.

“Hey, are you playing tonight?”

“No,” Kuro answered, glaring at Curtis.

“Not at all? I have four hundred,” the young man offered.

“Not at all unless you have eight,” Kuro answered curtly. “Play one of the others or come back tomorrow.”

The man got the message. He sighed and wandered away, over toward the group of men at the tables. Curtis watched him go and then turned back to Kuro with an almost annoyed look.

“You’re hustling at pool? Is that how you’re making your money?”

“It’s not hustling,” Kuro defended. “They know how well I play. And if anybody ever actually beats me they’ll win double their bet, so it’s not like I’m not offering anything.”

“Do they know you’re an alien and have unfair advantages?”

“Stop saying that!” Kuro ground out. He had to fight to keep himself from splashing his bottle of water in Curtis’ face. “Stop talking about me like I’m suddenly different than I was last week!”

“Then stop running away and tell me your side of the story while you have a chance!” Curtis returned. “If this was how I wanted everything to turn out I wouldn’t have asked you out to dinner. You’re the one making everything worse than it should be, I just want to hear what’s going on directly from your mouth.”

Kuro didn’t know what a headache felt like since he didn’t get them, but he was sure what he was feeling now was as close as he was ever going to get. It was a pressure behind his temples that was definitely from stress, the leftovers of the panic that was fading away now that he was on what he considered to be his own turf.

“Cops!” Someone yelled as they burst through the front door, followed by the two bouncers. The two bigger men slammed the door closed and grabbed the jukebox, sliding it over in front of it.

Kuro grabbed his water bottle, quickly wiping down the mouth of it on his shirt before throwing it over the bar into the trash can there. He pulled his sleeve down over one hand and ran it along the bar where he’d been sitting with his arms resting, cleaning away any prints that might have been left behind. Around them other people were doing similar, cleaning way as much evidence as possible before making their escape.

“What’s going on?” Curtis asked sternly, blocking him from going around him to head to the back door.

“They’re probably doing a raid on the marijuana business that operates in the back,” Kuro supposed. It was a stupid thing to worry about since it wasn’t exactly a dangerous plant, especially when resources could be devoted to getting more of these neighborhoods rebuilt faster, but it had been his experience that this sort of behavior was common in most humanoid species. Keep the lower classes in check by making stupid things illegal and then waste money that could be used bettering those people on imprisoning them instead. “So you might want to consider not being in here when they get in.”

He stepped around Curtis and started following the bartender and the last few other patrons through the doorway into the back but slowed to a stop and sighed. Cursing himself for being nice—or rather, for being so goddamn stupid—he went back and grabbed Curtis’ arm.

“Come on,” he muttered, dragging him along.

“Great, Roxanne will be happy to know you’re hanging around with pot dealers instead of cooking meth,” he heard Curtis grumble as he pulled him through to the back, where a handful of men and women were shoving as much of their product into backpacks as they could.

Kuro ignored them and went down the hall, out the back door. He didn’t condone breaking the law, but sometimes laws were dumb. In this case he simply remained neutral and uninvolved, making himself scarce when there was an issue.

The bar was in an old rowhouse, it had a small yard that backed up against another, a chain link fence separating the two. Kuro went up and over, dropping down into the overgrown yard of the abandoned house behind it, following the beaten trail through the weeds in the winter dark. Everyone else had taken off at a run or darted off through rubble-blocked alleys but he was only walking, leaving them mostly alone. Everything was quiet except the far off noises of people spilling out onto the back street.

“How often do you do this?” Curtis asked incredulously from behind him as they stepped into the mustier darkness of the battered old house. “Is this seriously what you do in your spare time? Play pool with criminals and run from the police?”

“Beats golf and prissy restaurants,” Kuro answered. “Watch out for the floor over there, there’s a hole. You’ll end up in the basement.”

They were moving through the kitchen, most of its metal components long since stripped to be reused elsewhere. There was a hallway he knew led up to the now-empty living room where the front door was, and he headed in that direction.

He and Curtis were just stepping out of the hallway and onto the water-damaged wood floor of the front room when it was flooded with light from two flashlights. Kuro started to back away but Curtis wasn’t fast enough and he hit him, making them both stumble as the police officers coming into the building drew their firearms.

Outside he could see more lights, as other police rounded up drunken bar patrons who’d made a less-than-clean escape.

“Hands up,” the officers ordered. “Step forward, keep your hands where I can see them.”

“I’m armed,” Curtis announced, making Kuro wince. He didn’t really feel like that was something you yelled in the dark when there were guns aimed at you. “It’s a government issue pistol in a holster on my lower back.”

One of the police stepped forward, gun still raised, and Kuro tensed. His gaze swept the room, then briefly touched on the police who he could see outside through the slats of the wood over the window. Behind them he could hear the last few workers of the bar coming through, and then their noises of surprise as other police closed in from where they’d been waiting in the dark.

It would be a challenge without light, but Kuro could take them. He might not be able to leave them all alive like he had with the Atlas guards, the police were jumpy and might try to use lethal force. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, but he wasn’t going to end up locked up somewhere just because he’d had a bad night when he was so close to walking away.

“Kuro, do not even think about it.”

Kuro tilted his head slightly, glancing back at Curtis. Just like in the car, he was perfectly calm. He was looking at the police officers rather than him, but there was something in his voice that said he wasn’t going to be argued with. He wasn’t playing around this time, it wasn’t a suggestion or a request. He wasn’t asking permission for anything or asking to please be obeyed.

“Put your hands up, let them pat you down and cuff you, and get in the car without a fight. Don’t answer any questions, don’t say anything.”

Kuro grit his teeth at the very thought of letting them do any of that, but that tone wasn’t really one he wanted to argue with. Curtis’ whole demeanor was very different right now, he wasn’t just talking for his own health.

Sighing heavily, Kuro forced himself to relax and raised his hands above his head, glaring as an officer came forward and pushed him against the wall. Curtis was shoved over next to him and disarmed, and Kuro managed to keep himself from kicking the woman who checked him for weapons in the face. He still checked her badge as he was cuffed and led out the door, just in case he wanted to kick her ass later.

He was shoved into the back of a police car, Curtis piled in after him, and the door was slammed closed to leave them waiting until the driver of this squad car was ready to leave the scene. Kuro looked around at all the flashing lights and closed his eyes, wishing Hoshi was nearby. He hoped he hadn’t made a mistake by not putting up a fight, but he wouldn’t know that for a little while yet.

“For the record,” he grumbled, sinking down into the seat, “this is the worst date I have ever been on.”

“Really?” Curtis asked. He tested his handcuffs, seeming indifferent to the fact that they were too tight to escape from and glancing around at the scene. “For me this is pretty much just Wednesday.”

Chapter Text

Adam watched the world whip by, a nauseous feeling settling in the pit of his stomach. He sat in the passenger seat of Takashi’s car, his sight blinking from normal to night vision in turns as they passed from sections where street lights had been repaired into spots that were still dark piles of rubble.

His planet, his home, was in ruins. Out there in the shadows, under skeletons of collapsed buildings, were bodies of people who had died and hadn’t yet been found in excavation. There were classrooms with teachers buried in the destruction, shopkeepers entombed in their fallen stores, pedestrians trapped as streets folded inward.

It was a modern day Pompeii in the city centers of the world, desolate and melancholy.

“Are you okay?”

Takashi’s voice was soft and gentle from the driver’s seat, almost tentative, as if he were afraid of setting him off. Adam forced himself to look away from the window, putting his head back against the headrest and closing his eyes so he wouldn’t be able to see the heartbreaking detail out in the dark.

“There were eleven billion people on this planet two years ago,” he answered. “Now there are five billion. And that’s only the Garrison estimate, there could be less. So many people died in the first days, and God only knows how many more are still dying every day. Stagnant water, damaged pipes poisoning what is available, lack of medicine. Rats and fleas unchecked. We could be looking at the final days before a fresh wave of Plague, or worse. And the full generations of people who are going to be lost as far as education and skills—”

“We’re rebuilding,” Takashi cut him off, lightly touching his arm. “I know it looks bad, and we know what we’re up against, but we’re not alone in this. The Coalition is doing what it can to help, hundreds of planets are sending aid and rescue workers. The years after a Galra occupation ends are never easy, but I’ve seen planets come back to life with my own eyes. I know Earth will do the same.”

“It feels like…not enough,” Adam answered dully, cracking his eyes open again and turning back to the window. As much as he didn’t want to look, he felt compelled to. “I feel like I’m going to go home with Curt to a comfortable house while there are people out there who are going to freeze or are sick.”

“We have emergency camps out in the rebuild zones,” Takashi answered. “The state temporarily took control of any hotels or empty apartment complexes that were fit for habitation and converted them into shelters for five years from the end of occupation. We’ve moved as many people as we can into them and we do sweeps to try and make sure we point anyone on the streets to a safe place to sleep. The camps have food and water, and medical personnel. Some people are going to choose not to leave the zones, for whatever reasons, but we’re doing what we can to make sure they don’t suffer. You not taking advantage of a warm place to live isn’t going to change anything.”

Adam knew the reality was that there was nothing he could do, but that didn’t make it any easier. This barren expanse of urban destruction was what was left of a city it had been his job to protect. He had not only failed to do that, but he’d also lost nine good men and women in the process of failing.

He knew this feeling of not having done enough was something he’d have to work through with his new therapist, he’d been through it before after the Kerberos crash. The helplessness, the guilt, they were things he knew he shouldn’t feel and that he would get through eventually.

He just wished he knew how to not feel them at all.

It was soon enough that they were pulling up by the local precinct. Takashi found a parking spot about a block down and locked up the car once they were out, and they started the slow stroll through the cold night together.

Adam hesitated at first, but as they walked he dared to reach for Takashi’s hand. Takashi glanced over at him when he felt their fingers brush and Adam held his breath and waited for him to pull away.

But he didn’t. Takashi’s fingers closed around his, and he pulled Adam a little closer so he could put both their hands into the warmth of his coat pocket. His hands were warm, more calloused than Adam remembered but just as strong. He was the young, healthy man Adam remembered from their earlier days, the man Adam had thought was long gone.

They reached the doors of the police station as a familiar face was approaching from the opposite direction. Lotor, accompanied by a woman Adam did not need introductions to know was related somehow to Lance.

“Veronica,” there was a tinge of surprise to Takashi’s voice. “What are you two doing here?”

“Bailing out Allura and Romelle,” Veronica answered, pausing to look Adam over with a gaze many people might have found almost predatory. Adam just thought she looked…short. “Hello. Is this the one who was hidden away in that healing pod?”

“What do you mean bailing out Allura and Romelle?” Takashi asked in shock. “Bailing them out for what?”

“Adam,” he introduced himself since Takashi didn’t seem capable at the moment, offering Veronica the hand that wasn’t currently tucked away in his ex’s pocket. “You’re Lance’s sister, I assume.”

“We were working on the mechs at the base,” Lotor spoke to Takashi over Veronica’s head. “We decided to go to that little restaurant nearby afterward, but there was a very annoying woman who accosted us with a camera outside of the diner.”

“Oh God,” Takashi groaned, his head rolling back. “Montgomery.”

“Montgomery?” Adam repeated, uncertain he’d heard correctly. “As in, the English teacher from the academy?”

“She’s not a teacher anymore,” Takashi answered, raising his head back up tiredly. “She was fired for leaking personnel secrets to gossip newspapers, and now she writes a column for one. The Paladins are like new royalty to these people, and Allura…well, Allura and Lotor are actual space royalty. So as a group, they’re her favorite targets lately.”

“Bullshit reporter,” Adam mused, remembering Montgomery. They weren’t friends, but they were on as good of terms as coworkers could generally be. “At least she’s still putting the English degree to work, I guess. Who was she leaking secrets about?”

“…I’m gonna tell him,” Veronica piped up, looking at Takashi. He gave her a look of warning in return.

“Tell me what?” Adam asked suspiciously. He didn’t like the look on her face.

“Not now,” Takashi said firmly. “What did Allura and Romelle do that they need to be bailed out?”

“Well, Montgomery was sticking the camera in Lotor’s face and asking the usual invasive questions,” Veronica answered, motioning toward a police car currently arriving that they’d beaten to the station. “He politely asked her to stop but she didn’t. Allura asked her a lot less politely to stop, Montgomery said something a lot less polite than that back.

“There was some back and forth, and Montgomery’s camera got knocked out of her hand. Romelle got to it first and deleted all the photos off the memory card, which pissed off Montgomery and made her key my car. So…Allura and Romelle took hers apart.”

“Took it apart?” Takashi asked, looking between her and Lotor, then glanced back to where Allura and Romelle were being taken out of the police car.

“Oh, yeah. Ripped the doors right off, it was amazing,” Veronica gushed.

“Why didn’t you stop them?” Takashi rounded on Lotor, looking a pained mixture of frustration and exasperation. “Aren’t you about as strong as Allura?”

“I would have, but I was otherwise occupied.”

“Doing what?”

“Holding their purses while they took the car apart,” Lotor answered, not even bothering to not look smug. He turned to Adam then. “You’re looking awake and well again, delinquent.”

“You’re looking as effeminate as always, Lawrence,” Adam returned the greeting.

He stepped back next to Takashi as the two girls were brought past. Romelle smiled brightly.

“Hi!” She chirped. “Are you feeling better?”

“A lot better,” Adam couldn’t help the twinge of amusement at how indifferent Romelle appeared to be at being arrested. It was probably some kind of novelty for her, he wondered if she was aware she could get a copy of her mug shot. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Princess Allura!” Romelle answered as they were marched passed. “Allura, this is Shiro’s boyfriend Adam.”

“Nice to meet you,” Allura called as the two of them disappeared into the police station. “I apologize, I’m usually introduced under better circumstances!”

“She seems nice,” Adam commented, glancing back over at the curb as another woman was taken out of another car.

Montgomery wasn’t paying much attention to them, until she passed and caught sight of Adam. He was going to greet her, but she stopped dead and stared at him like he was some kind of ghost.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

“Hello to you, too,” Adam snorted. He felt a tug on his hand, and Takashi pulled him backward and then stepped between them.

“Keep walking,” Takashi told her coldly. “We’ll deal with you later.”

Adam watched the exchange with more than a little bit of confusion. He was out of the loop on a lot of things, he knew that, but as far as he could remember there had never been any bad blood between Takashi and Montgomery. Takashi didn’t even really know her at all since he wasn’t a teacher, and he’d gone to Kerberos without ever formally meeting her as far as Adam knew.

Something that had happened since Takashi’s return, maybe. Her tenacity in getting pictures for what were undoubtedly unfounded rumors to publish was probably rubbing them all the wrong way. It honestly wasn’t a line of work he had ever pictured her in.

Down at the curb, another police car had pulled up. Adam wasn’t really paying attention to it, until he saw a familiar brunette being pulled out.

“Yeah, I broke the handcuffs,” Lance was saying sheepishly, holding up his arms to show the broken chain hanging off the metal rings around his wrists. “It was completely by accident though, I swear.”

Keith Kogane was pulled out of the other side of the car, and Adam elbowed Takashi hard in the side. He could see both boys practically melt when they caught sight of the older pilot.

Takashi finally let go of Adam’s hand, taking a few steps forward and gesturing widely to both them and a second police car, where two other students Adam recognized as Katie Holt and Hunk Garrett were being removed.

“What the hell is going on tonight?” Takashi asked in disbelief. “Is it a full moon? Is Planet Idiot in retrograde?’

Adam stepped forward to lightly rub his back, between his shoulder blades, but otherwise said nothing. This was not his little flock to deal with. Except for one of them, to an extent.

“Hey, you’re up and out,” Lance said happily when he saw him, momentarily forgetting about his own predicament. “How are you doing? Veronica, this is Adam.”

“We’ve sort of met,” Veronica said dryly.

“How did you guys get here already? We didn’t even call anyone yet,” Keith asked with a frown.

“Forget why we’re here,” Takashi said sternly. “Why are you here?”

“We got pulled over and I didn’t have my gun permit,” Keith mumbled.

“Why would you not—know what? No. I don’t care,” Takashi ran both hands through his hair. “We’ll talk about it after you’re processed. Just go. Go go go.”

The kids were marched inside, and Adam wondered if Takashi was going to have a fit. He was certainly a little bit stressed, that was pretty easy to see, and it was almost comical. Takashi had never been a teacher, and clearly whatever he’d been doing for the last few years didn’t inoculate against teen idiocy the same way.

“Let’s just get everyone out, then you can address the reasons for this whole court jester convention in private,” Adam advised. “That way there’s no witnesses if you kick anyone’s ass.”

Takashi smiled a little and they went inside, with Lotor and Veronica in tow. The station wasn’t terribly busy at first glance, it looked like the police’s main source of grief tonight was Garrison staff. Still, it was louder than Adam was ready to deal with, he fell back behind Takashi and buried his face against the back of the other man’s shoulder when he stopped at the desk.

“Oh good, it’s Mr. and Mr. I Don’t Speak English,” A gruff voice said from the side. Adam peeked up to see a familiar face approaching the desk. “Just what I needed on top of everything else tonight.”

He was much older, and a little bit scarred from the occupation, but he was apparently still the same Captain Benton who’d booked him and Takashi multiple times when they were younger.

“I still don’t speak English,” Adam answered, not even bothering to put in the effort to make the lie believable. Takashi reached back and lightly ruffled his hair.

“We’re here for Curtis Duchesne and Ryou Kurogane,” he said almost apologetically, then glanced back at Lotor and Veronica. “Also Allura Sil-Alfor and Romelle Vanquenxa. And…Keith Kogane, Lance McClain, Katie Holt, and Hunk Garrett.”

“Well that’s quite the collection,” the female officer who was working the desk murmured as she pulled up the record. Benton grunted in annoyance at the sheer number of hoodlums they were picking up, crossing his arms and looking at the computer over her shoulder. “There are only two who have been processed so far. And…um…”

Benton looked at what she’d pulled up and rolled his eyes so hard Adam thought they might fall out.

Those two,” he muttered. “God, get them out of my station, please.”

“As soon as I can,” Takashi promised. He pulled out his wallet, taking out his military ID. “For the four kids…they’re in on charges of having a weapon without a permit?”

“And driving without a license or registration,” the woman confirmed.

“I can have a copy of the gun’s registration and the permit faxed over here within fifteen minutes, and copies of their IDs. It’s entirely legal, there’s no reason to process them into the system.”

“Ten minutes,” Benton said flatly.

“And the two women,” Takashi sighed, Adam felt his whole body shift with the weight of it. “Is there any way to get their arrest record transferred over to the Garrison and let us take it from there? I’m their C.O., I’ll personally make sure this is handled.”

“Their lawyers are Chantilly & Rathburn,” Adam spoke up, even though he really didn’t want to. He was only along for the ride and didn’t want to be involved in this exchange at all, but Takashi didn’t know how to effectively throw weight around. “I think you’ve met.”

The lawyers from the firm in question were absolute vipers, the kind of defenders that were very expensive and that District Attorney offices hated going up against. They were the kind of people it really wasn’t worth wasting tax money to challenge, because they were going to win. Adam knew that from personal experience, after he’d been arrested for Lance’s disappearance.

“Don’t you still have an active warrant in Utah?” Benton squinted at him.

“No, he’s banned from Utah,” Takashi answered for him. “And Arkansas and Iowa. The active warrant is from Nevada.”

“Allegedly,” Adam corrected. He hugged Takashi from behind, letting his head rest against his shoulder again. He wasn’t in any mood for a pissing contest with an insecure cop. “And only for…seven more months, I think.”

“Hey, do I really have to sit in the back?” Kuro leaned across the desk from the side then, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and scaring the hell out of the woman at the computer. “It’s—ow, don’t hit! It’s loud back there.”

“How the hell did you get out of your cell?” Benton asked in frustration, his face turning a dangerous shade of pink.

“I just pulled it open,” Kuro looked annoyed himself, as if that was the stupidest question he’d heard all night.

“You just… pulled it…”

“Open, yes,” Kuro finished. “Grabbed it, pulled it, slid it open. It’s a glorified drunk tank, not a high security prison. But I don’t want to sit back there anymore, there are criminals here.”

“There you are!” Curtis appeared from the back, spotting Kuro.

“And you locked me in with him,” Kuro said darkly. “Can I file a stalking complaint?”

“This is like trying to keep Bugs fucking Bunny in lockup,” Benton muttered.

“You can’t just break the cell doors!” Curtis complained, motioning back the way they’d come. “Tax dollars have to repair those!”

“Or maybe they’ll just have to stop locking people up for stupid things,” Kuro countered. “Why, exactly, is prostitution illegal instead of safety-regulated?”

“Okay, wow, this was not a conversation I was prepared to have,” Takashi murmured. “Look, Captain Benton, he’s got to be here with me as long as it takes for me to get the others, so if you could just let me—“

“Just go,” Benton said impatiently, throwing up both hands to stop him from talking. “Take your pack of delinquents and this…whatever the hell he is, and go.”

Kuro looked so very offended, and Takashi had to pull out of Adam’s hold and hook an arm around him to pull him away before he said something they would all regret. The woman at the desk printed out copies of what would be forwarded to the Garrison and gave it to Adam while Takashi went to go wrangle the kids, and they all met up outside.

“What were you people thinking?” Takashi was giving them all a dressing down out by the curb when Adam came out with Veronica and Lotor. “Were you even thinking at all? Lance, where’s your driver’s license? And Keith, where the hell is your gun permit? You know better!”

“Speeding,” Adam read off one of the papers in surprise as he came to stand beside Takashi. He put on his teacher face and tone, so that there was at least one other adult here. “Going…a hundred and sixty in a fifty-five zone? Curt, have you lost your mind?”

He didn’t know Kuro quite as well as some of the others did by now, but as Adam looked up he appeared uncomfortable. He wouldn’t look at Takashi, crossing his arms and pursing his lips and looking off to the side away from the rest of them.

Curtis, though, Adam knew him very well. He took a deep breath and crossed his own arms, casting a brief glance at Kuro before looking back at the rest of them. He looked guilty.

“I was trying to show him how fast the Corvette could go,” he admitted. “Just being stupid and showing off.”

“You needed to go a hundred and sixty in a fifty-five zone to show off?” Adam asked incredulously. What the hell had been going through Curtis’ head? “Somebody could’ve gotten hurt, you idiot! And this…public indecency?”

“I talked him into showing me his tattoo at the restaurant,” Curtis muttered. “He didn’t know any better.”

“Tattoo?” Takashi shot Kuro a look, and Adam had to admit that he was also curious about that one. “Since when do you actually have a tattoo?”

“I dunno, what day is today?”

“Wh…” Takashi’s voice cracked a little, like it always did when he was reaching the limit of his patience. Adam started rubbing his back again in slow circles.

“Trespassing in a condemned property,” he noted, the last charge on the sheet.

“We were leaving a bar that was being busted for distributing pot,” Curtis answered. “Down in the southern rebuild zone.”

“You were…are you insane?” Takashi demanded. “Why the would you take him down there at all? And to a bar? After dark? What the hell is wrong with you, Duchesne?”

“Hey back off, all right?” Curtis shot back. “It’s after hours and you’re not technically my boss when I’m off the clock. You’re not actually here to do anything but pick us up because my car isn’t here, and you could have felt free to say no to that.”

“I’m your commanding officer at all times,” Takashi returned. “Especially when you’re doing dumb shit like taking Kuro into the rebuilds at night!”

Adam flipped the packet of papers closed and stepped forward, getting between them and pushing them farther apart as they started to get heated. He didn’t know what was up with Curtis tonight but the guy was in a goddamned mood.

“Are you really his commanding officer?” Keith asked, coming to stand next to Shiro.

“According to Garrison records, he doesn’t have one of those,” Katie said. “He never actually transferred onto the Atlas.”

“Oh good, Team Rocket is getting involved,” Curtis commented.

“Why are you looking at peoples’ Garrison records?” Allura asked, glancing around at everyone. “Aren’t those confidential?”

“Well…we hacked them,” Katie admitted, looking down at her feet.

“Pidge!” Takashi groaned. “We went over this with the medical records! You can’t go looking at personal information just because you feel like it!”

“It wasn’t just because we felt like it, it was because we found really suspicious files on his computer!” Keith defended.

“You did what?” Takashi exclaimed.

“You probably shouldn’t have said that yet,” Lance murmured, lightly elbowing Keith. “We’re still standing at the police station, it’s a little too soon.”

“We were looking through his stuff,” Hunk broke down and came clean, everything coming out in a rush now that the secret was out. “We found a bunch of files on all of us and a weird record of human-alien hybrids that goes way, way back. Something on his computer fried mine and Pidge’s. It had some kind of super top level security on it that looked like it was copied from Sam Holt’s work and had some Galra added in.”

Adam looked over at Curtis, raising his eyebrows. Curtis sighed heavily and gave him a ‘sorry’ shrug, and Adam felt a pang of annoyance.

“Copied your hard drives and then reformatted and erased your computers?” Adam asked, looking at Hunk.

“Yeah.”

“That’s not high level anything, I wrote that. It’s prank software.”

“No, this is really serious code!” Katie protested. “It completely locked me out, I couldn’t get around it, it deleted everything. It was definitely Galra coding, I’ve seen similar language in their tech.”

“Yes, it’s modified code from Galra self-destruct protocols,” Adam answered. “It locks down the computer it’s on so the user can’t do anything while it goes through its program. Then it opens and closes random files on the computer for thirty seconds so it looks like it’s going through the hard drive copying and deleting everything, and defaults to a black screen. It’s embedded in some security code Sam Holt used to teach at the university level, we would load it up on a secure Garrison computer and challenge the Engineering students to hack into it. We’d tell them anyone who could do it would get an A for the semester.”

“Where did you get Galra self-destruct protocols?” Takashi asked.

“From the ship you crashed in. Once I was on the teams working on the Atlas and the MFEs I had access to it. I built a translation framework for it to work on Earth computers while still being written in Galra format so no existing workarounds could be used to stop it from running. It’s a lot funnier when people who can crack advanced code have to sit there and stare in horror while they think their hard drive is being erased.”

“So my computer’s okay?” Hunk asked hopefully. “All of my stuff is still there?”

“Yeah, you just need the right access commands to shut down the program,” Adam answered. He paused, regarding the kids in front of him. “If you can get the OK from your commanding officers, since you were breaking into somebody’s military computer.”

“Were you not listening?” Keith said sharply. “He has files on all of us. You included. And a whole list of people with alien parents. I’m on it, you’re on it.”

Adam had heard him the first time, but he still didn’t address it this time. He was not in the military anymore, what was on Curtis’ computer wasn’t his business. Given what Adam already knew about his friend, he wasn’t worried about anything he had. That didn’t seem to be the case for the rest of them though.

“I would certainly like to know why somebody has files on the Paladins,” Allura said carefully. “If these files are beyond what the Garrison already has in its databases.”

“Way beyond,” Lance confirmed.

Takashi turned to question Curtis, who raised both hands to stop him before he even started.

“You have to get clearance from Iverson first,” he warned.

“Iverson knows you have files on everyone?” Takashi asked.

“No. Iverson knows I’m here and why,” Curtis clarified. “Since he’s a major point of contact between Earth and the Coalition, I’m allowed to give details if Iverson decides a situation warrants further information.”

“Okay,” Takashi ran a hand through his hair tiredly, checking his watch. Adam glanced at his own, it was almost nine at night. “Everybody…go back to the Garrison. To the meeting room down the hall from my office. I’m going to call Iverson, we’ll get all of this cleared up. Then I’ll decide what to do about you guys breaking into an office. Allura, Romelle, you’re with Lotor and Veronica. Curtis, Ryou, you’re with Adam and me. You four trouble makers, take a cab.”

Kuro had been very quiet during the whole exchange. He stayed off to the side, leaning against a street light and looking away from them. From the few days he had spent with him in the Abyss Adam had gotten the impression he was energetic and talkative, but that didn’t wasn’t the case tonight. He glanced up when Takashi called him Ryou, but only briefly.

Takashi pulled the kids aside to give Keith money for a cab back to Lance’s car, and Adam fell into step next to Kuro to lead him and Curtis back to the car. Kuro glanced over at him, giving him a brief onceover.

“You look better.”

“Yeah, nobody’s stabbed me in the back with an animal tranquilizer lately,” Adam answered.

“No? Well, you’re very obnoxious, give it time.”

Adam smiled a little. He glanced at Curtis, who was several steps ahead of them, then back at Kuro.

“Are you okay?”

“No.”

“Do you want to talk about it or anything?”

“Also no.”

“Okay, cool.” Adam didn’t push it, that was a sure way to get somebody to clam up even more. Kuro was not Takashi, expecting Kuro to treat him like they were friends just because the two shared DNA wasn’t the way to go.

A flash went off to his right, making his vision go haywire for the span of a second since his new glasses were currently pushed up into his hair. Adam pulled them down and was thankful that although they didn’t darken since it was night they still helped mitigate the glare of a second flash, and stopped it from sending him reeling.

Montgomery was over by a car, snapping pictures of them with her phone. When he and Kuro turned to look at her she passed it off to a man who had come to pick her up, and he gave her the spare camera he’d brought.

Adam thought the guy’s name might be Dos Santos. He was one of those mediocre soldiers who would probably be working in an office his entire life because he didn’t have the drive to learn how to do anything else.

Kuro extended on arm and gave them a sideways middle finger. It wasn’t exceptionally enthusiastic, but it conveyed his mood pretty well.

“Don’t do that,” Curtis chastised, pushing his arm down. “They’re just going to print it anyway, and you’ll end up looking bad. Where did you even learn that?”

Kuro looked up at Curtis, then raised his free hand up into the taller man’s face and flipped him the other middle finger at close range.

“Nice. Real nice,” Curtis grumbled.

Adam chose to do nothing. It wasn’t like he was famous, she wasn’t going to make anything off pictures of him. He really just wanted the flashing to stop.

“Okay, knock it off,” Takashi appeared, stepping between them and Montgomery.

“I knew something was weird about the hair and missing scar,” Montgomery said in triumph. “What’s going on, Shirogane? Everyone always said you were an only child. Long lost brother? Cousin? Did the Garrison clone their star pilot before they sent you to Kerberos?”

The last comment was obviously a joke, but it hit close to home. Takashi bristled, and Curtis rolled his eyes and moved forward a bit. He and Takashi physically blocked the camera’s line of sight to him and Kuro, and Takashi urged the whole group to keep walking.

“She’s got a lot of nerve to get this close after what she did,” Kuro noted. “Adam’s at least twice her size.”

Adam was reminded of Veronica’s earlier statement, and when Kuro said that he saw both Curtis and Takashi tense.

“What did she do?” Adam asked, slowing to a stop.

“Can we talk about it later?” Takashi asked. Adam felt him put a hand on his back and try to urge him forward. “This really isn’t a good time.”

“She turned you into the cops as a suspect when those kids disappeared,” Kuro steamrolled right over Takashi’s attempts to put him off. “Sorry, but he has a right to know.”

“She did what?” Adam swiveled around and started to walk toward Montgomery, who backed up a few steps while still taking pictures. He was stopped by an arm across his middle as Takashi held him back. “You were the one who called the cops on me? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“She was dating Laurentia,” Curtis said tiredly, moving to block his view of Montgomery, probably hoping to dissuade him from launching himself at her.

“Are you serious right now?” Adam tried to see around him to Montgomery, anger bubbling up in his chest. “You seriously called the cops on me because you were dating a piece of shit?”

“Do you have any idea what you did to him?” Montgomery demanded. “You cost him a full promotion!”

“He’s a rapist,” Adam shot back. “I’m going to cost him both his goddamn kneecaps if I ever see him in person again!”

“Do you want me to break her camera and lock them in their car trunk?” Kuro offered.

“Stop helping!” Takashi ordered. “Ryou, Curtis, get in the car. Adam, calm down.”

“I am calm,” Adam answered, trying to pull free. “I can beat her ass and still be calm.”

Takashi moved behind him and a second arm went around him, and before Adam could protest he was lifted clear off his feet. Takashi carried him over to the car and sat him down, opening the back door and blocking him so all he could do was get inside.

Adam did so, not at all happy about it. Kuro was already in the back seat, and Curtis took the front passenger as Takashi slid into the driver’s. He took a deep breath, then glanced back at them.

“Thank you, Ryou,” he said sarcastically.

“You’re welcome,” Kuro matched his tone, and Takashi looked back and forth between him and Curtis.

“What is with you two tonight? Why are you both being such little shits?”

“I’m being no such thing,” Kuro sniffed. “I just think that if you actually give a damn about somebody as a person you shouldn’t be a liar.”

He kicked the back of Curtis’ seat when he said it. Curtis just shook his head in annoyance, keeping his gaze out the window. Adam looked between them then met Takashi’s gaze in the rear view mirror as the car started to move. He shrugged to indicate he didn’t know what was up with them either.

Adam closed his eyes let his head fall back, taking a deep breath and holding it. He counted to ten and let it out, feeling his body relax.

He told himself that Montgomery wasn’t worth the aggravation. No charges had been filed in his arrest, he hadn’t gone to jail, Lance was alive and well and back with his family. An entire alien invasion and occupation had happened, and a year and a half in captivity had passed. Even Laurentia was no longer his issue, let the man’s superiors deal with the scandal when he was finally publicly accused by his own victims, if they hadn’t wanted to listen to him or the others.

He let his head lean against the window, looking out into the dark at everything they passed. He felt clingy, he wanted to be in the front seat next to Takashi instead of back here so these two could be kept separate, but he knew the fifteen minute ride wouldn’t kill him. He let his eyes trail over the dark shapes out the window, counting the streetlights they passed.

* * * * * * * * * *

The few lore books he’d found had spoken very highly of Altea’s warrior women, queens and princesses and ladies of noble houses who grew up learning the ways of warfare in the event they had to lead their people into battle. All royalty learned such things of course, but the art that sprang from the close-knit sisterhood of female soldiers was legendary in and of itself.

From the decorative shields that small units created to the grand competitions of battle in formal dress, the women of Altea were proud of their skills and discipline and did not hide the fact.

Lotor’s favorite picture from one of the books was of two women, the caption said they were sisters Leticia and Marinne Sil-Taril, bruised and bloodied after a tournament of arms. They stood arm in arm, smiling and laughing for the camera, their fair hair askew and their tabards torn and stained. Like Galra girls, Altean women were not afraid of getting hurt.

Most Earth women didn’t have that fortitude. The Montgomery woman had proven that, showing that she had no honorable combat skills and instead hitting low by damaging the other women’s’ property. She had only gotten what she’d deserved, and Lotor was rather proud of Allura and Romelle for delivering it.

Here on Earth, the word “princess” seemed to have a delicate, almost negative connotation to it. He supposed they were going to have to learn the hard way.

It was about ten o’clock Earth time when Iverson and Duchesne returned to the meeting room, having left together for a private conversation. Lotor assumed that Duchesne had been giving Iverson an overview of the information he had, so the Admiral could decide if it needed to be shared.

The four younger Paladins were chomping at the bit to ask questions, he could hear them over on their end of the horseshoe-shaped table sharing conspiracy theories. Shiro was leaning back in his chair with his arm around Adam, who had promptly put his head on Shiro’s shoulder once they were all seated and fallen asleep. Veronica, Romelle, and Allura were discussing some of the very rude questions Montgomery had been asking earlier.

For the most part, Lotor had spent the wait watching them, and being a very uninvolved part of the conversation. His job was to nod in agreement when one of them rhetorically asked him something, and he was becoming good at it.

Kuro was sitting on his other side, his head resting on his folded arms. He had been uncharacteristically quiet this whole time, keeping as much space as possible between himself and all the others.

Lotor had thought that he would be happy to be on Earth, that being surrounded by his own kind would be a good thing. Clearly Kuro did not share that belief. And having his space invaded by one of his own kind in particular was certainly leaving him bothered.

“Do you want me to have him killed?” Lotor offered, nudging Kuro lightly. “How long do unaugmented humans live? Surely he’s on his way out soon enough anyway, nobody will notice.”

“That’s nice of you to offer, but no thank you,” Kuro answered, his voice muffled by his arms. “I can kill him myself if I have to.”

“If you insist. Let me know if you change your mind,” Lotor said, awkwardly patting Kuro’s shoulder in what he hoped was an encouraging manner.

The whole “having friends who aren’t your subordinates” thing was still very new, even after all the months spent with the Paladins he was still getting the hang of it.

Iverson and Duchesne moved to the front of the room, and Shiro gently nudged Adam awake. Duchesne set down a laptop he was carrying and sat at the end of the table near Shiro and Adam. Iverson took a chair at the back of the room, separate from the table entirely. There were no other officers present.

“First of all, let me be perfectly clear,” Duchesne looked at the Paladins when he spoke. “There was nothing that was found tonight that’s above the clearance level of anyone here. The files on the computer in my office here are only if I have to access the information in an emergency, I don’t keep anything important anywhere that you four would even be able to find it.”

There was a pop sound and Hoshi appeared, probably having decided that Kuro was gone for far too long. She ignored all the rest of them and wandered over to where he sat, seemingly unaware that she was not the size of a poodle and attempting clamber up into his lap. Duchesne scowled at the sounds of him trying not to be smothered, refusing to even look in Kuro’s direction.

“Contrary to what you seem to think, I do work for the Galaxy Garrison,” Duchesne said sternly. “As the country’s overall military force, the Garrison has several divisions. It started out as NASA and became the Galaxy Garrison after it was militarized and merged with the Air Force. Currently, it has a land division, a sea division, an air division, and a space division. It also has an international terror division.”

“Since when?” Keith piped up, leaning forward in his chair. “What’s even the point? There hasn’t been an active terror group on Earth since World War III.”

“Since World War III,” Duchesne answered. “And the THEMIS division is the only reason there hasn’t been a World War IV.”

“Never heard of it,” Lance declared.

“Nobody has, we’re not supposed to have heard of them,” Shiro said. “We’ve always just referred to them as Ghosts and talked about them like they were strictly hypothetical.”

“So what exactly is THEMIS?” Lotor asked, still not certain where this was going. He wanted to know why one division of the Galaxy Garrison would be spying on members of another. A military that spied on its own members was one he wanted to be very careful making deals with.

“It stands for Tactical Hostage Extraction, Material Intelligence, and Surveillance,” Duchesne answered. “It can also stand for Tag, Home, Engage, Move, Integrate, Supervise, which is the basic process for what we do with important targets. It’s an international effort by most countries in the world, pretty much every military contributes members. Terrorist groups rise to prominence through acts of violence meant to put them in the public eye. We track these groups as they start, identify their targets, keep those targets safe, and then squash those terror groups while they’re still small.

“I’m a protection officer. My job is to identify these assets, or tag them, home in, or track them down and extract them from danger if necessary, and engage with them to keep them safe. If absolutely necessary I move them to a new location, integrate them into a new life under a different name, and supervise their progress to make sure they aren’t found.

“Before the Galra invasion that meant going into hostile areas to extract people who might be made martyrs, during the occupation it meant going into Galra held territory to sabotage production camps and free prisoners.”

“And now?” Allura asked.

“Now my job is to keep an eye on the world’s most high profile targets and make sure none of them take a bullet to the skull,” Duchesne answered.

He connected the laptop to the larger screen and opened what looked like one of the files the Paladins had been talking about. It had Shiro’s picture and was written in a flowing alphabet Lotor didn’t understand. He didn’t understand most Earth writing unless he had his translation technology handy, which he currently did not. Duchesne did something with the file and it converted to what Lotor recognized as English, though he wasn’t quite as adept at it as he was in other languages yet.

“This is what we call a beacon dossier,” Duchesne told them. “It tells me Shiro’s current address, any addresses he’s had in the last ten years, any criminal history he has, his family history, his medical history, his blood type, his office hours and location, and his military record. It’s got the routes he takes to work most often, his car VIN number, his license plate number. I have a copy of his license, his credit cards, his bank accounts, access to his phone records. And I know that looks very suspicious, but the file is only to be used if he goes missing or if he’s injured. It helps us react much faster to an emergency.”

He closed out Shiro’s file and opened another, this one Lance’s. He translated this one as well and flipped through it very briefly, letting everyone see pictures but not pausing long enough for anyone to get a clear look at any of the personal information in it.

“The first twenty-four hours when an asset goes missing are the most important,” Duchesne said. “Asset” is just our standard word for a person of interest, it doesn’t necessarily mean that person is worth more or less than anyone else. After that initial period, the likelihood of them being found alive and well drops drastically as time goes on.

“If we hadn’t figured out so quickly that Lance was on that shuttle leaving Earth, the moment he was reported missing this file would have been distributed to other THEMIS officers. They would be pinging traffic cameras for images of his car, running his passport image against facial recognition software in airports, and tracking his credit cards and bank accounts for any activity.

“After the tenth hour, when it became less likely that Lance would come back in one piece, a military medical unit was convened in a secure location near the base. Enough units of his blood type to cover emergency surgery and transfusion were acquired and held on stand-by, and a doctor tried to prepare for any state he might be brought back in. That doctor went over this file to familiarize themselves with any allergies or conditions he had. That includes his recent history of seizures.”

Duchesne closed the file and looked over at the Paladins.

“It wasn’t a coincidence that you survived the Last Stand, that the Atlas had everything it needed to treat you after the fight. During the quick physical you all went through when you got back, your blood types were taken and you were scanned for any abnormalities that might complicate battlefield treatment.

“Surgical procedures for high-level impact injuries were drawn up by a THEMIS doctor the night before you all went for your Lions and distributed based on who was injured. We were specifically prepared to treat the four MFE pilots and the five Paladins for the types of injuries that you would have from a high-velocity fight in your vehicles. Units of human blood were prepared and Romelle was identified as a universal Altean donor in case Allura was injured, with Coran as an emergency backup because he isn’t quite a match. We also identified two of our Galra prisoners as potential donors for Keith.”

“You have Galra prisoners of war?” Shiro asked, surprised.

“We did,” Duchesne confirmed. “We already knew no intel they gave us could be trusted, but they gave us a lot of medical information, like what pathogens the Galra might be susceptible to.”

“You were researching biological weapons,” Hunk translated.

“Yes.”

“So what happened to the Galra prisoners?” Keith asked. “You said you “had” some. And where is this bio weapon research now?”

“THEMIS turned all remaining prisoners over to Kolivan and his people, to be dealt with under Galra laws.” Duchesne answered. “Viral weapons in development were destroyed, along with all relevant research.”

“Kolivan?” Keith repeated, looking almost betrayed. “Kolivan knows about your work? He never said anything about any of this!”

“More than 180 countries contribute manpower and resources to THEMIS to keep planet-wide peace and stability,” Duchesne replied. “It only made sense to include alien allies who might be spending a lot of time in our neighborhood. Kolivan took the same oath of secrecy the rest of us took.”

“And you destroyed the research?” Pidge asked suspiciously. “Military, anti-Galra research? Why?”

“As the only division officer here on the base where it was being conducted, I destroyed all samples and files personally,” Duchesne confirmed. “The occupation had ended. Bio weapons would be forgiven as an absolute last resort to save the human race, but with Earth free and the threat not imminent they go against the Jericho Conventions. We will not become our enemies.”

It was a powerful statement, if naïve. Lotor had often said the same thing of himself, but as time went on it became more and more difficult not to stoop to the same level as the rest of the Galra empire.

“I’m just having a little bit of trouble believing in your altruism, considering  you also framed a bunch of officers to put them in jail,” Keith commented.

“You mean Miller,” Duchesne acknowledged. “Carleton, Sanda and the rest.”

“Yeah.”

“They committed a war crime when they intentionally sent ten pilots out to die to cover up a predator in their group.”

“Wait, what?” Adam, who had been mostly unreadable through the exchange, suddenly sat up straighter. “She did what?”

“There was plenty of evidence to convict them all of that,” Duchesne continued to address Keith, ignoring the outburst. “The penalty would have been state-sanctioned execution. As it stands, instead they’ve been convicted of minor treason and can spend the rest of their lives in a cell. Legally, what I did saved their asses.”

Legally. Lotor wasn’t familiar with the ins and outs of human military law, but where he came from spending the rest of one’s life in a jail cell was quite a bit worse than death. From Duchesne’s demeanor, he felt the same way. He might have saved their asses legally, but objectively he’d condemned them to far worse.

“I don’t feel sorry for them,” Lance spoke up, leaning back in his seat and putting his feet up on the table. “I think they got what they deserved.”

“Can we back up for a minute please?” Adam asked, rising from his chair. “To the “intentionally sent pilots out to die” part?”

Shiro tried to soothe him, looking just as distraught and confused. Lotor assumed that this was news to him as well since he didn’t seem to know what to do. Lance, however, scrambled to get up and move around the table. After a few moments of almost a very loud exchange in a language Lotor didn’t recognize, Lance pulled Adam out of the room. Shiro and Keith both looked torn between going and staying, but both decided to stay.

Kuro, however, nudged Hoshi off of him and followed, with the wolf padding curiously out of the room behind him.

“Under normal circumstances, justice would have taken its course,” Duchesne said. “But Sanda and her subordinates were not what was good for this planet under the occupation. She was narrow-minded, slow to adapt, and more interested in making sure they had a place at the top in the fortified Garrison than taking any risks to save Earth. I did get some personal satisfaction in seeing them all go down, but it wasn’t just a personal vendetta. My superiors also wanted them gone.

“Dr. Holt and then-Commander Iverson were the ones they wanted in charge. Shiro had already been tapped early on to be moved into a leadership position, but he was presumed dead after Kerberos. When he came back, along with the Paladins, he was put back on the list.”

“This seems kind of…shady,” Shiro said with a frown. “Who exactly are your superiors to be deciding who gets to be in charge?”

“The Galaxy Garrison is the most powerful military organization in the world,” Duchesne told him. “It has a huge amount of weight to throw around, and it’s run by one country. My superiors are citizens from all over the world who believe that whoever’s in charge should have the good of the entire planet in mind, not just their own country.

“Like I said, we deal in terrorism and keeping the peace, we don’t deal in politics. Sanda and her people proved to be detrimental to the point of being terroristic when they had too much power, and we removed them. I don’t foresee that being a problem with Iverson…do you?”

Lotor glanced back at Iverson, but he gave no indication of what he thought about all this. His hands were folded on he desk he sat at, and he looked at nobody in particular as he listened to the meeting.

“So, basically what you’re telling us is that you’ve been shadowing us to prepare for any emergencies that arise involving us?” Allura asked. “In case somebody here on Earth tried to hurt any of us?”

“Yes. In the beginning, just the MFE pilots and the five Paladins. But in the last two months the list has expanded to cover Romelle and Veronica as Sincline pilots and Adam as a new Paladin.”

“Who decides who goes on that list?” Pidge asked.

“I do,” Duchesne answered. “Part of my job is assessing who’s high profile enough to be watched out for.”

“Okay, assuming all of that is true,” Hunk frowned, glancing around the room. “Who would you even be protecting us from? Who would want to hurt any of us?”

“Have you ever heard of Babel?”

“Yeah, they were that group of religious zealots that were in the paper about ten years ago,” Hunk recalled. “They went underground or something and disappeared.”

“In the US, yes,” Duchesne cleared Lance’s file from the screen. “But if you pay attention to foreign local news reports, which American’s generally don’t do, you’d know they were alive and well all over the world. The Galra occupation was a godsend for them.”

“Why would a Galra occupation be good for anyone?” Romelle asked in disgust. “They’re horrible!”

“Because Babel is a political group masquerading as a religious one,” Duchesne answered. “Their claim to fame is that they believe everyone in the world can live in peace…but only as long as they’re segregated. Races shouldn’t mix, countries should have defended borders, migration should stop. That’s how they’ve managed to stay around so long, they can play the field and don’t have to stick to one social group. They have hardline supporters from all different religious and ethnic groups, and they keep them all in line with bastardized religious teachings. They claim that mixing together only encourages advancement, which is hubris in the eyes of God.”

“The Tower of Babel is a religious story,” Shiro volunteered when he saw Lotor, Romelle, and Allura’s confusion. “A long time ago, humanity came together to build a tower high enough to reach Heaven. When God saw them he got angry and split them into groups, making them all speak different languages so they couldn’t understand each other to continue.”

“Babel is basically a worldwide crime syndicate,” Duchesne continued. “They prey on ignorance and lack of education, and use peoples’ fear of the unknown to keep them in line by claiming obedience is the only way into a good afterlife. They encourage violence as a way to scare people into following their edicts, specifically physical violence against anyone who won’t conform to their strict segregation ideals.”

“I don’t understand,” Lotor spoke up. “What do they gain from keeping people separated that way?”

“Different social groups have different beliefs,” Duchesne explained. “If you weed out the outside opinions, you get a group of likeminded people who can be controlled by those beliefs. The first thing somebody looking to grab power does is remove any voices of dissent.”

“So how does the arrival of the Galra help them, exactly?” Hunk wondered.

“It’s proof that alien life is hostile, and should be eradicated. Any alien species that are advanced enough to come to Earth are advanced enough to prove Babel’s claim that education and technology are bad is wrong. In fact, we’ve recently learned that one small subset of Babel has been hunting down alien life on Earth since back before the internet was even a thing.”

“Project Starlight,” Pidge said suddenly. “That list of human-alien hybrids is a hit list?”

Duchesne did something on his computer, opening up another foreign-looking file. He translated this one as well, and the title at the top did indeed read Project Starlight.

“This was forwarded to me last month,” Duchesne told everyone, scrolling through the pages. “It comes from a much bigger file that THEMIS operatives found about twenty years ago while taking down a Babel cell in Argentina.

“World governments have known for decades that alien life exists. But this isn’t the movies…nobody wants to hunt these people down and turn them into experiments. Given the sheer number of different species that have visited our planet, it’s long been assumed that there was a large number of exoplanets hosting lifeforms that were in contact with each other. Earth authorities did not want to get on the wrong side of alien life by exterminating any visitors or being aggressive when they weren’t sure if Earth could defend itself in a fight.

“I was not personally aware of anything having to do with this,” Duchesne stressed. “Until I was given this file last month, I didn’t know anything about it. It was only passed on to me after our defense satellite system helped reconnect worldwide communication. That’s when news and photographs of the Paladins started really circulating outside of the US, and when they thought I should know some of my charges were on the Babel list.”

“So what exactly is Project Starlight?” Shiro asked. He was leaning forward in his chair, frowning at the screen as Curtis set it to continue slowly scrolling through, showing various pictures and names.

“Babel was tracking as many alien visitors as it could,” Duchesne answered. “The original is Project Falling Star, it was their project to dispose of any intelligent visiting life they found and benefit privately from their technology without letting their “flocks” of followers know they had it. A lot of them were killed easily enough, but then there were ones who found human mates and had children.

“Human parents and spouses tend to be surprisingly hard to get through. They know the planet, they know the culture, they know how to take their children and wives or husbands and disappear. Project Falling Star was exactly like Pidge said, a hit list. When THEMIS got their hands on it they started Project Starlight, which was meant to find these hybrid children and their parents before Babel did and move them somewhere safe.”

“That’s why some of these say status: safe,” Keith mused. “So the statuses that say located or taken…?”

“Located means we’ve found them, but either haven’t been able to approach them or there hasn’t been a need to yet. Taken means that Babel’s found them first, and we don’t know where they are or if they’re alive.”

“So all those pictures you have of my place out in the desert…one of your agents was watching me?”

“Watching you and Adam, yes,” Duchesne gave a faint nod. “The United States is a very safe place for hybrids, the invasion notwithstanding. We’re very secular and very mixed, Babel cells haven’t been able to take hold here. Most of the people we locate get moved here somehow…they get new names, they get new lives. In cases where the family stays behind, the children and alien parents are unfortunately forced to try and cut off all contact. Over the years, a lot of them and their descendants have been filtered through Garrison schools, it helps us track them better if they enlist.”

“So…wait,” Hunk blinked, looking as if he’d just had an epiphany. “I got recruited to come here because I had alien in my family tree?”

“You got recruited to come here because you’re bright and had potential,” Duchesne answered. “But…yes, you were recruited to come to the US for school in general because of your ancestry. Just like Sam Holt was recruited to the Garrison academy for his, and why he was encouraged to have his children apply. It’s also why Keith got so many chances before he was finally let go.”

“Who was in charge of this before you got it?” Shiro asked.

“I don’t know,” Duchesne admitted. “None of us know any other agents outside of our own cells. There are four at the Garrison who survived the invasion, including me, we all work together. We’re stationed here, but there are other cells that are more free to move around and aren’t attached to any particular base. I’m assuming it was one of those cells, and that they got wiped out in the occupation.”

“Were you ever going to share this list?” Shiro was trying not to sound accusing, but it came out that way anyway. If Duchesne noticed, he didn’t comment.

“Once I was finished assessing the threat, yes,” Duchesne answered. “I’ve been tipped off by my superiors that in the coming weeks the Paladins are going to be asked to travel to other countries to meet with world leaders, to assure everyone that Voltron isn’t strictly a US military weapon. I’ve been going over the reports from the countries they’ll be asked to go to, you would have gotten all of this information in the week before anybody left.”

He reached up and closed the laptop.

“I’m pretty sure that covers everything. You’ll all get a copy of the project report and threat assessment once it’s ready, just as planned. If you have any other questions, they can be directed to Admiral Iverson.”

He rose, putting the laptop into its case, but paused to look around the room.

“I wasn’t hiding anything from anybody,” he said apologetically. “You have to understand, my ability to do my job hinges on nobody knowing what that job really is. Any information I have on you is strictly facts that I’ve found out and filed away. I’m not spying on any of you, or reporting on you to anybody.”

He closed up the laptop case and left. Behind them, Iverson let out a sigh and finally spoke.

“That’s it for tonight, everyone head home. Like he said, if any more questions arise you can bring them to me and I’ll see if I can get answers. In the meantime, we can move on to what to do about soldiers breaking into a superior officer’s office, and others destroying personal property and borderline committing assault.”

“I’d like to be the one to handle that, sir,” Shiro requested, looking at the Paladins. “The Atlas hull could always use some scrubbing.”

They all groaned and Iverson nodded, rising and checking his watch. Lotor glanced at the clock on the wall, it was nearly midnight. Everyone stood as Iverson left the room first, then relaxed and slowly began filtering out.

“Guys, grab Lance and then crash at our place tonight,” Shiro called over the talking as everyone left. “No point in waking up your parents going home. We’ll discuss punishments in the morning.”

Lotor was one of the last out of the room, following Allura. He had a striker out on the runway he would be using to return to the cruiser, there was no need for him to be in any hurry since he had no curfew or rules to follow other than his own.

“Lotor. Can I talk to you for a minute? In private?”

Lotor was surprised to find Keith waiting for him in the hall, staying back as his friends kept walking. He motioned for him to wait then took a moment to bid the women good night, and after they had left he turned to the other half-Galra.

“If you’d like to accompany me,” Lotor motioned in the direction of the airfield, and Keith fell into step beside him. “How can I be of assistance?”

Keith was fairly indifferent toward him most of them time, but not necessarily in a negative way. The other Paladins all clearly felt some level of guilt, sometimes it made them wary around him sometimes it made them defensive. Keith had not been around long enough to form many opinions, it would seem, and as a Blade of Marmora he was far more prone to forgiving past trespasses if it meant someone was useful in the present.

“I was thinking about back on the colony,” Keith said as they walked, looking straight ahead and not at him. “When we were on the genesis platform, what you said about messing with Quintessence.”

“That you shouldn’t do it,” Lotor recalled. “And I stand by that statement. You should stop while you’re ahead.”

“I know,” Keith admitted. “For the last month, while I was with my mom and Kolivan, I was always too busy to even think about my Lion. I didn’t have any way or reason to tap into the quintessence field, I guess I went through a kind of detox. Then when I came back and I went for a quick run in Black it just hit me in a rush…”

He trailed off, sounding mildly distraught. Very different from some Lotor had come across over the years, the gifted Alteans who had come into contact with the rift while working on the gate and had been thrilled by every hit they got. Keith was clearly developing a quintessence problem, but he was at least far more aware of it than some.

“The worst part about cleaning up is falling back into the habit,” Lotor confirmed. “Which will happen every time you come into contact with quintessence. Unfortunately, this isn’t something you can avoid since your Lion powers itself most efficiently by having a living pilot pull quintessence through the trans-reality metal.”

“I know I can’t avoid it, I was just wondering if maybe I could…not like it as much,” Keith said tentatively. “That treatment you take, the one that stops you from getting any high from contact, does it work?”

Lotor came to a stop as they reached the doors that would lead out to the airfield, turning to face Keith. He thought about it for a moment, then nodded.

“It does,” he answered. “I get very little out of using quintessence. But on the other hand, because there are some alchemists here now it’s not necessary for me to tap it very often either. I can’t attest to how effective it would be if I were working with it as much as the others.”

“Could you attest to how effective it would be on somebody that wasn’t you?” Keith asked. “I mean, I know you said it wouldn’t work on other Alteans because their magic is different. But…I’m not Altean…”

“And you want to know if it will work on you,” Lotor finished for him.

He took a moment, thinking about the treatment itself and what went into it. Unfortunately, he found he had no answer.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “The treatment itself is focused on Altean DNA.”

“Pidge showed us some of that. And she showed us some Galra, they both looked like they were built for quintessence sensitivity,” Keith said. “Maybe it’s stupid, but…I don’t know. I guess I thought that maybe there might be gifted Galra the same way there are gifted Alteans. And that maybe there were no Galra alchemists because the gift affects them differently, like you.”

“It’s not stupid. It’s an idea I have also entertained.”

Lotor opened the door and stepped out into the cold, holding it open for Keith. They started across the airfield in the dark, heading for the striker under the clear winter sky.

“One of the entities Allura has in her lab is different from the others,” Lotor said as they walked, looking up at the stars. “Sometimes, between treatments, I can feel something coming off of it that I would describe similarly to the way Allura describes the feeling of the Lions. I’ve wondered if they’re simply different sides of the same coin, if there are two different ways of manipulating the power of quintessence. The alchemy of the Alteans and the druidism of the Galra. It’s entirely possible that the latter exists, but was never cultivated because the Galra as a culture believe in physical strength and not magic.

“Unfortunately I have no way of knowing the answer to that question,” he added. “That’s the kind of knowledge that comes from studying a large number of Galra, and I don’t exactly have an army of those clamoring to be of assistance. But, if what you’re trying to ask me is if you can try the treatment and see if it helps, you’re more than welcome. But I’d need to run some blood tests on you to make sure I’m not potentially giving you a vial of poison to shoot into your veins.”

The last thing he needed was to accidentally murder a Paladin. He was only now getting out of the doghouse for picking that fight in the Sincline.

“Okay. I guess that’s fair,” Keith agreed. “If you’re willing to do that, then I’d like to try it. But I’d really rather nobody else know about it.”

Only natural. Lotor had a feeling Keith was lying to his friends about how bad his addiction got sometimes. He had been there, after all.

“Of course. It’s not my job to spread anyone else’s business around.”

They reached the striker, which wasn’t very far from the building, and Lotor opened the airlock. He stepped up inside, leaning in the doorway and crossing his arms.

“Your best bet is to come up to the cruiser, I can customize the treatment for you in my lab there if it looks like it will work,” he advised. “Whenever you’re done scrubbing the Atlas, of course.”

Keith cringed. Lotor couldn’t feel entirely sorry for him, he was a Blade of Marmora and shouldn’t have gotten caught. Humans who had been out in the battle with other species seemed to get complacent around other humans, unconsciously deeming them safer than other, outside threats.

“Yeah, it will probably be a few days,” Keith supposed, stepping back away from the striker. “I’ll let you know when I’m free.”

Lotor nodded and backed inside, leaving it at that as he closed the airlock. It was too cold for further conversation and there really wasn’t much more to say. He did wait until Keith was safely back inside the building, not necessarily because he thought there was any danger anywhere but because his life had taught him to take precautions even when things were safe. Once the doors were closed and locked with nobody following behind, he started up the striker and taxied down the runway.

* * * * * * * * * *

Lance had pointed him in the right direction, leaving Shiro in a rush to get across the quad to where Adam had gone. It was stupid, to be so worried about somebody who was physically fine and could certainly take care of himself, but he couldn’t help it. There was a part of Shiro’s brain that couldn’t not think of Adam as delicate and needing care, whether it was the truth or not.

It was another hard lesson that he’d learned over the last two days, that worrying and trying to take care of somebody didn’t necessarily mean one thought less of them. He remembered all too clearly how he’d felt when Adam had tried to take care of him more than he’d wanted, the feelings of inadequacy and the resentment that often bubbled up at being treated like an invalid.

Now he was on the other side, and he was sorry for every time he’d ever snapped at somebody asking him if he was okay, every time he’d gotten angry at Adam or their friends for worrying about his health. The worry he felt right now put everything into perspective.

He stopped outside of the memorial to take a deep breath, hoping maybe he could pretend he hadn’t just run across the base. It was a difficult thing to pretend since Kuro was next to the doors, laying back against Hoshi who was curled around him as a buffer against the cold. He had a phone, though where he had gotten it Shiro had no idea, and glanced up from whatever he was doing to watch Shiro pant like an out-of-shape high schooler being forced to run the pacer test.

“Is he all right?” Shiro asked, leaning against the wall.

“I dunno, I guess,” Kuro answered unhelpfully, shrugging. “He’s not going to tell me, he barely knows me. He’s not hysterical or anything, if that’s what you mean. Mad, though.”

“Good enough,” Shiro supposed, pulling open the door and stepping inside.

The memorial wasn’t outside, but it wasn’t really inside either. It was enclosed and had a door at either end, but it wasn’t heated in the winter or cooled in the summer. It was simply a long room, protecting the long, walkway channel that ran through two stone walls depicting events of the invasion and occupation. In the middle, at the deepest point, was the half-moon wall displaying the names and pictures of the soldiers who had died during it in combat.

It was chilly in here, but the walls and doors stopped the wind and kept it dry. The walls were dark this late, the lights all off. Up ahead he could see the flickering of the eternal flames, the two torches that were lit at all times. He could hear the tinny sound of a voice over a speaker as he got closer, echoing around the opening up ahead.

“—ot known when the Captain was returned to Earth, but some sources say it could have been as long as two months ago when the Atlas was absent on a week-long trip some suspect was a rescue miss—”

“—nly the fourth known surviving off-world Galra prisoner of war. The other three are well-known Kerberos mission survivors Captain Takashi Shirogane, Dr. Samuel Holt, and Major Matthew Holt, though the circumstances of Captain Wolfe’s return are still unclear—”

“—eached out to the Galaxy Garrison for comment, but Admiral Mitch Iverson declined to give a public response. Students who were interviewed say they only learned of Wolfe’s return the day before yesterday, when he was moved into the less secure medical bay. Speculation about the extent of his injuries—”

Shiro reached the middle of the channel, where it opened up into the circular space where visitors could see the faces and names of the men and women who had given their lives to save their planet, and found Adam sitting on the floor by the section where the plaques for the First Wave pilots were placed.

His glasses were hooked on the front of his shirt, his hair sticking out all over the place as if he’d run his hands through it repeatedly. On the phone in his hand, likely borrowed from Lance, he advanced to the next video in the news feed without waiting for the previous one to finish. Shiro approached him slowly, stopping a few feet away. He couldn’t see Adam’s face, and didn’t know what might be going through his head.

“Are you okay?”

Adam paused the video he was on, still looking down at the phone. There was a long pause before he said anything.

“Thirty hours.”

Shiro frowned, slowly crouching down and resting his arms on his knees. He tilted his head a little to try and see Adam’s face but Adam finally looked up at him.

To say he looked unamused wouldn’t be quite right. “Stressed” was probably more accurate, or maybe “just completely fucking done.” It was the look Shiro knew came out when Adam was at the end of his rope, when his patience ran out and he began to revert to the near-psychopathic brat he had been as a teenager.

“I’ve been awake on Earth for thirty hours,” Adam said. His tone of voice was flat, void of emotion, as if getting excited over it was just more energy than he was willing to expend right now. “I had a General try to get me committed right after I woke up. I had to get a new therapist because the one I liked had to have a closed casket funeral after a building fell on him. I found out my commanding officers were trying to murder me. I had pictures taken of me that I’ve just found out are probably going to be sold for thousands of dollars because, as it turns out, I’m all over all the news. And I had to go along to pick up the crack team of small, underdeveloped people who the universe apparently relies on for safety from the police station. None of whom are the least bit apologetic about being arrested because they all know nothing’s really going to happen to them over it.”

“Adam, I—” Shiro started to speak, but then Adam reached up and fisted his hand in the front of his shirt, pulling him forward threateningly.

“Get your shit together, Takashi. There’s not enough caffeine on this planet to help me survive being the only serious Dean of this intergalactic clown college.”

“Yes sir,” Shiro answered immediately, knowing better than to argue. He might have been the one with all the broken records and early high ranks, but behind closed doors he was not the one in charge. “If it makes you feel any better, they’re all going to be on cleaning duty for the next week.”

“It’s a start.”

Adam let him go and finally turned off the video playing on the phone, rubbing his eyes tiredly. He was upset, Shiro knew him well enough to know that, seeing his own face on a memorial for the dead certainly couldn’t be easy. Neither could seeing the faces of his fellow pilots who’d lost their lives. But he was calm, surprisingly so given that he was correct that so much had happened in just the very short time he’d been awake.

“Come here,” Shiro requested, getting up and offering both hands. He pulled Adam up to his feet, noticing that his fingers were practically frozen. Shiro held both of them between his own, rubbing them gently to warm them up. “I know it’s a lot, in a really short time. Especially after everything you went through right before you went to sleep. I was trying to space everything out so you wouldn’t get hit with it all at once, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your job to space out my run-ins with the real world, I’m an adult,” Adam answered. “It sucks balls, but that’s life. I guess it’s better to get it all out of the way now before it sneaks up on me…I missed the rest of your meeting.”

“It’s okay, I’m betting you’re going to grill Curtis on the way home,” Shiro said, holding Adam’s hands in one of his own and putting his other on Adam’s back, steering him slowly back along the channel toward the doors. He avoided commenting on the brush-off of him having responsibilities here, guessing it would lead to an argument about whether Adam needed to be babysat or not. “Which you should leave for soon, it’s pretty late.”

Adam looked more than happy to completely forget about everything that happened today, at least temporarily. He was probably going to go back to Curtis’ place, have a drink for the first time in more than a year, and probably have a hot soak before sleeping in a comfortable bed. All of those were things he was undoubtedly looking forward to, which meant Shiro had at least a day to prepare for him to recover enough to finally get really pissed off about everything.

Shiro stopped him just before they reached the door. He’d had something on his mind that he’d hoped to talk about, before class at their so-called “clown college” had been called into session.

“So, the winter dance is this weekend,” Shiro broached the subject carefully. “I know you probably hate everything to do with the Garrison right now, but—”

“Oh God, no,” Adam groaned. “Are they going to try to make me go?”

“They were,” Shiro admitted, smiling a little. “I told Iverson you wouldn’t appreciate it, and he seemed to agree. So no, nobody’s making you. But I was wondering if you might want to go anyway.”

He paused, waiting for an answer. Adam stared at him for a moment, then his gaze flicked around awkwardly before coming back to Shiro’s face. He had that look, the one that said he was trying to find the politest way possible to decline while still using profanity.

“…with me,” Shiro clarified. “As my date. Not like, just in general to go hang out with people you hate for no reason.”

Oh,” Understanding flooded Adam’s features and he looked relieved. “Oh, thank God, I thought I was going to have to punch you in the face.”

“Okay, first of all, don’t act like you wouldn’t enjoy that,” Shiro requested. “Second…I’d really like it if you would come with me. I know we’re not really together or anything and that we’re probably going to have to take a day to have a very long talk sometime soon, but I haven’t been to a Garrison winter ball since I graduated without having you there with me, and I’d like to keep up the tradition. And…regardless of how you feel about the staff and the officers, a lot of your students will be there and they’ll be really happy to see with their own eyes that you’re okay.”

Adam took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh, and Shiro knew he’d won. Adam wasn’t a fan of too much attention and he’d undoubtedly be the center of it at any function for a while, but he genuinely cared about his students. He probably missed most of them quite a bit.

After the ball…that was when Shiro would sit Adam down and explain to him that he was a Paladin, and that he would be working in a group with these clowns. Maybe after getting a few glasses of wine into him.

“Fine,” Adam lamented, scrunching his nose up. “I guess I can survive one base dance. I’ll have to go get a suit or something.”

“Kuro needs one, and I think Allura needs a dress,” Shiro volunteered. “Kuro was supposed to be going with Curtis, but it doesn’t look like that’s happening. I’m still going to try to talk him into going though, he’s been avoiding everyone and I want him to feel welcome. You can go suit-searching with him.”

“What makes you think he’s going to want to be stuck with me for hours?” Adam asked. “Have you seen him bounce around? You know how long I can take in a clothes store, he’d hate shopping with me.”

“He’s been laying outside on the ground in the cold so you weren’t left alone here,” Shiro answered. “I think he likes you, in his own way. And be honest, you’d probably enjoy watching him torment the sales clerks.”

“I would,” Adam admitted without shame. “I love when other people are bigger train wrecks than I am.”

Shiro opened the door and held it for Adam, glancing to the side as they stepped out, but Kuro and Hoshi were already gone. Back to the Lorelia most likely, Shiro would have to reach out to him tomorrow to try and talk him into attending. Dances were kind of childish things, but it was an excuse for the entire group to be together socially, without some kind of official emergency.

Curtis was waiting at the doors of the base when they arrived, tipped off to where they were by Lance. Shiro hated passing Adam off to him; about twenty-four of the thirty hours Adam had spent awake had been spent in Shiro’s company, but it didn’t feel like enough. It didn’t make up for the time spent apart, it didn’t leave him even remotely satisfied. He hated walking them to Curtis’ car and he hated closing the door behind Adam after he climbed in.

Their good-bye was gentle, but a little uncomfortable. Shiro was now stepping back and letting Adam leave the base to go settle into a life outside of the Garrison. He was a civilian for now, unless he changed his mind after learning everything about Voltron, and not under anyone else’s care.

He could move out of Curtis’ house and into his own place tomorrow, if he wanted. He could get his own car, go where he wanted, do what he pleased. There was no specific promise of when, specifically, Shiro was going to see him again because they weren’t coming home to the same place and sleeping in the same bed now.

Shiro hated that most of all. Adam had not existed as a person completely separate from him since before they’d graduated from the academy. When he had gone to Kerberos, he had left Adam’s company and gotten on a ship. He had not had to spend any great amount of time on Earth living within travel distance without having access rights.

He understood perfectly. He knew he’d fucked up. He was still making it up to Keith and it would be a while before he could make it up to Adam, he knew that. So he didn’t ask if he could call, or if he could visit, as he said goodbye and stepped back to let the car pull away. He understood perfectly well, as he watched the Corvette leave the Garrison parking lot, that emotions were complicated things and that time and effort were necessary. He knew that.

But he didn’t have to like it.

 

Chapter Text

Nothing left. Nothing but wisps of tiny crystals glinting in the light of a sun that had once caused sapphire seas to shimmer. Chunks of jagged rock, featureless, burned clean by the raging heat of the planet’s fast-spreading destruction.

The oceans, Nalquod’s beautiful oceans, vaporized in the assault and desublimated into a faceted cloud, wrapped around the remaining pieces as if holding them close in mourning.

She was a mess inside but her face was a blank slate, matching the expression of her husband as they stood shoulder to shoulder and listened to the two surviving officers addressing the handful of soldiers on the deck. The INS Slayrk, the small royal flagship, the only vessel to remain after the unprecedented attack by the Galra. The only ship to escape the atmosphere before the superheated cataclysm began thanks to the sacrifice of the three guard ships that had intentionally taken all the laserfire.

Forty doboshes. Had it really only been forty doboshes? Just a handful of sand grains fallen in the timeglass between her accepting a flower from a little girl outside the palace and her standing here on deck.

She could feel the blood running down the side of her face, the slight chill of the cooled, recycled air against her skin where her clothing was torn. Her hands felt uncomfortable, her fingernails still cluttered with the grime from raking them defensively across a Galra soldier’s face.

Most of it was a blur. There was fire. Screaming. She had been pulled in all directions, sometimes by her royal guard and sometimes by the enemy raiders who had been welcomed upon their arrival and recognized as friends. Enemy raiders who had preyed upon their trust, betrayed them, overrun them and ultimately destroyed them.

All of them. All but this…twenty-two Nalquodae and their hapless Altean queen.

“The ships are moving,” a young woman announced from her seat at the communications console. “We need to go or they’ll find us. This debris won’t hide us forever.”

They were running silent, the tiny ship floating quietly amongst the rubble to avoid detection. Now the Galra ships were moving away from what had once been her home, their home.

“They’re heading inward. Have our warnings gone through?”

“No. All communications have been blocked, the others don’t know what’s coming.”

“Set a course for Altea, they need to get the Castle of Lions airborne.”

Somebody put an arm around her, guided her through the group toward the cockpit of the ship. It took her a moment to break out of the daze she hadn’t realized she’d fallen into, to recognize her husband’s familiar embrace. The senselessness of it all, the shock of it all…there was no rhyme or reason to anything that had just happened, she couldn’t even believe yet that it was real.

But she did recognize that word, that one word that began snapping things into place even if she didn’t yet have the full picture.

“The Lions,” she murmured. “They wiped us all out, now they’ll be looking for the Blue Lion.”

That was the only thing that made sense, wasn’t it? They had floated here after the explosion, waited with shields up, likely expecting the Blue Lion. Ready to take it when it came, a full Galra fleet to kill its pilot and take this super weapon for their own.

“We don’t know what they’re looking for,” he answered soothingly, one hand smoothing down her hair. She knew it was a lie, she could see it on his face; the strain of failing so many people, of losing so many souls. And guilt, the suspicion that it had all been simply to take him and his ship.

“We know exactly what they’re looking for. You need to take her and hide.” She gripped his jerkin tightly, trying to slow his walk and make him look at her. She couldn’t let them catch him over some stupid robot. She wouldn’t. “Send the Slayrk to Altea, but don’t go yourself. Please, don’t.”

“I’m not going to Altea,” he said gently, carefully removing her hands from his clothes. He smiled and kissed the top of her head, leaning down to briefly rest their foreheads together. “Don’t worry about me, okay? I need you to worry about your people now. I need you to get to Altea and prepare them, this is going to be a fight for their lives.”

He pulled away and opened the door to the small common area just before the cockpit, motioning for her to go in ahead of him.

“Sit down for a bit, okay? Take a few doboshes for yourself. It will be half a varga at least before you’re there.”

“You’re going to leave?” She pressed. “You’re going to hide?”

“I’m going to leave,” he confirmed. “You’re right, Blue and I have to separate from you. But I’ll see you when this is all over, okay?”

“Okay.”

She let him nudge her inside, into the private chamber reserved for the royal family. She started to sit, briefly looking forward to a few doboshes to collect herself. Until she heard the lock pad.

She got up quickly and went to the door, found it wouldn’t open. The pad wouldn’t respond to her from the inside, it was locked from out in the hall.

“Get this ship to Altea,” she could hear him calling to the approaching officer. “Do not release Merla until you safely arrive. I need to get to the Dalterion Belt ahead of those ships to warn Trigel and Gyrgan.”

No…he wasn’t leaving to hide, he was leaving to directly engage. Three Lions against the entirety of the Galra military? Legions of enemy warships, now powered by the new quintessence engines Honerva had created? He was walking into slaughter.

She pounded on the door, threw herself against it, screamed for them to let her out. She tried threatening, cajoling, ordering them as their queen, but to no avail.

He was sending this ship to Altea because he thought he was hiding her. He thought he was protecting her. He thought he could do something to slow the enemy advance long enough for Altea to raise defenses and keep her safe.

She slid down to the floor and rested her head on her knees, silently praying to the Ancients for the strength the coming hours would require.

* * * * *

From a distance the rain of fluttering ash could have been driven snow, falling to hide the horror before her in a quiet blanket of white. But up close the truth was all too apparent, the planet’s surface engulfed in flames as far as the eye could see. The glorious plains settlement that was the seat of Rygnirathi power was little more than a vast field of death.

She was running as soon as the Red Lion’s mouth opened, ripping free of Orla’s protective hold and leaping out before the loading ramp had even lowered. She dropped directly to the ground, stumbled, caught herself and tore off, sprinting toward the glowing nets of blue, green, and gold in the distance.

The particle barriers are just up as a safety precaution, she told herself. They’re fine, they’re all fine. They have to be fine.

She already knew the foolishness of those thoughts but refused to entertain it, insisted on keeping her rosy fantasy as she ignored the shouts behind her and flew across the battlefield. A few remaining pockets of resistance attempted to fight off the invading forces but she ignored them, ducking into the shell of a house to avoid stray laserfire.

She climbed and scampered across the sea of desolation and debris, toward the beautiful clay keep that was Gyrgan’s home. Surely it was still standing, surely it was well-defended. Undoubtedly they would be gathered there, planning their next move.

She broke into the square that separated the small keep from the town proper, fighting through the smoke into open air. Stumbled unwittingly into the midst of a group of Galra soldiers surrounding familiar bodies clad in white armor. She saw him there, lying on the ground, limp and staring at nothing as he hung in a cloaked woman’s hold.

She felt her control break, the fragile wall she’d built against temptation crumbling along with her willpower. Once, she had stood at the gates of Oriande and refused to go any farther, and this was why. The intimate knowledge of how weak she truly was, of how good and pure she truly was not.

But not knowing all the secrets of life didn’t mean she couldn’t still manipulate it to an extent, didn’t mean she couldn’t reach out and rip the power out of the planet around her. She was more than capable of that, more than capable of forcing it outward, bastardizing its intent with her anger.

Somebody was screaming for her to stop, fighting toward her, but she ignored them and focused her rage on those around her. This power could bring warmth in the cold, but it could also boil blood in veins. It could soothe away disease, but it could also turn a body’s defenses against themselves. It could create life out of nothing, and it could tear living tissue apart on the cellular level. She did all of this, stilling every heartbeat she could touch and striking down every body within distance with as much agony as she could force.

And when she felt it, the tiny spark of unborn life that Honerva cradled herself around, she reached for that with furious focus. Just a little light flickering there in the distance, and she poured every ounce of her will into ripping it away and smothering it out. Her sister had stolen everything she loved, everything she cherished, and she would be damned if she would leave Honerva anything but barren emptiness in return.

What ran through her was hot and cold at the same time, rage and anguish and other emotions so strong they didn’t even have names. She saw nothing but her target, heard nothing but her own heart pounding in her ears, and as someone grabbed her from behind and pulled her back her vision flooded with white.

The sound of her heart slowed and softened, the scent of blood and fire floated away like the faint smoke from a candle. The hands let her go and her eyes came into focus, the glaring light faded.

The sky above was gone, replaced by a soaring, white cathedral ceiling, the light outside so bright it was nearly impossible to discern what images the stained glass windows high up above portrayed. It was held up by grand pillars that reached down to the glossy white floor and exploded in twisting roots, white marble tree trunks painted in vines whose leaves shimmered and sparkled in brilliant pastel colors. There were no pews, only wide open space, and in the apse a snow-white statue of a woman in flowing robes.

Shiro slowly walked closer, feeling like he’d seen this image before, but unable to clearly see the features of the towering silhouette that rose above him like a small skyscraper. He stopped when he reached its base, feeling as if he were seeing some long lost treasure, wondering if this was how old human explorers felt when they arrived at the feet of the Colossus of Rhodes.

A soft footstep came from behind, the faintest whisper of sound, and he turned to gape at the visitor. He was huge, a foreboding behemoth made of liquid sunlight, pearlescent scales protecting his throat and underbelly and a flickering tongue of pale flame at the tip of his long tail. His mane was translucent and sparkling, more like the elegant rings of a planet than any solid fur, and his eyes looked like inset diamonds.

He wasn’t a lion, there was no Earth animal that fit this exact shape, but a lion was the closest thing Shiro’s human experience could bring to mind.

Something so large should have made the ground tremble but he moved with a quiet grace, giving the strange sensation of taking up so very much space yet at the same time none at all. A trick of the mind maybe, of the limited capabilities of a human being’s understanding.

Shiro knew this was the White Lion. He was familiar, Shiro had felt his presence since the day Allura had removed him from where he’d been tucked away in Black. The feeling had only grown stronger when Allura’s gem had been put into his first new prosthetic, and although it had been missing after Lance had taken the Infinite Zero core it had been present ever since it had been returned.

Now, though, Shiro didn’t sense the presence in the crystal on the Atlas, he often felt it in the stone embedded directly into his hand.

This was who had transformed the Atlas during the Last stand, who had let him see its inner workings and given him the understanding to pilot it in that form. This was who had shown him Honerva back on the plateau, who had let him briefly see the world in an entirely different way and identify her weak spot.

The question was why. Shiro had secretly hoped in the beginning that he would be able to return to piloting a Lion, that the Black Lion would accept him back after Haggar’s control over his clone had been removed. He had fought hard to wrestle control away from Zarkon’s lich, he’d given up so much to win that fight and take out the murderous emperor. But it wasn’t enough to prove he was worthy to continue piloting.

So he wondered why the White Lion would have any interest in him if none of the others did.

Shiro looked back up at the grand statue, then around at this towering temple. He knew he wasn’t really here, this was simply the White Lion’s version of the astral plane where Black had kept him safely hidden away. He wondered why he’d been brought here, pulled away from his nightmare into this quiet pool of tranquility.

Nightmare. Was that really a nightmare? Or was it a memory?

“I attacked Lotor,” Shiro said out loud, running back over the last few moments before he’d been brought here. “Before he was even born.”

The giant beast moved, taking a few steps forward. As he did his entire form dissipated into a shower of tiny glittering lights, spilling down to the floor to reconvene in a smaller, more solid shape. The man that came to stand beside Shiro was taller by at least a few feet, his skin a golden brown and his short white hair streaked through with thin strips of flaming russet. 

He looked almost like he could be Altean, but the white marks on his face were very different and the armor he wore looked like it was white hot fire in solid form.

“You almost killed Lotor,” he corrected. His voice reminded Shiro of far off thunder on a rainy day in summer. “In the process, you damaged yourself and your husband’s child. Completely by accident of course, you weren’t aware she existed at the time, but I’m afraid Blue and her friends can hold a grudge for far longer than a measly ten thousand years.”

“Blaytz and Merla were expecting?” That was a surprise. Also the kind of thing Shiro imagined Lance would have practically exploded from holding back if he remembered, given how suspicious he and Keith were of Curtis at the moment.

“You have to be aware in order to expect, so yes in one respect and no in another.” White crossed his arms and leaned back against the base of the statue, the two swords he wore at his hips clinking lightly against the marble. “You never actually knew, and in my personal opinion you were never far along enough for it to even matter, but some people around here insist on seeing everything as black and white.”

“It shouldn’t matter because I’m not her,” Shiro said defensively. “Ten thousand years…there’s got to be whole lifetimes between then and now. How is anyone holding something dumb I did millennia ago as someone else against me now?”

“Some things don’t change,” White answered with a faint shrug. “Some people don’t change. Some people are dark deep into their core, and some people are tied to darkness by their core.”

Shiro gave that about two seconds of thought before he decided that he wasn’t interested in trying to wade through those intentionally vague sentences to try and figure out what he meant.

“Small words,” he requested. “Or big words, if you really want, but plain language. And if you don’t want to do that then let me wake up, I’m way too stressed to play Riddle of the Sphinx.”

White sighed. “Man, godlike special effects really are lost on you.”

“I was dead and stuck in the astral plane for months, I’d be more impressed if you had a margarita up your sleeve.”

He wouldn’t have dared to be so flippant if White’s presence didn’t feel so at ease and unpretentious. He gave Shiro the impression of an overworked leader, someone trying to do twenty-thousand things at once with more being piled on him every day. Shiro could sympathize.

“Margaritas aren’t something I can do, I’m more of a cheap-vodka-right-out-of-the-bottle type of guy,” White answered, pushing away from the statue. “But I can do small words.”

He made a motion with his hand and a few yards away a small ball of light melted up out of the floor. It hovered several feet in the air, pulsing gently.

“Cores—souls, whatever you want to call them—aren’t static things. They grow, they change, they evolve. Some, like your clone friend, are young and new. Some, like Allura, are ancient beyond even your most gracious estimates. Most stay intact and grow on their own over time, but some…don’t.”

The ball of light split into two, the halves twisting and spinning into abstract shapes twirling gently in opposite directions. They stayed joined by an unbroken thread of light even as they moved farther apart.

“Have you ever heard stories of siblings who felt each others’ presence?” White asked as the shapes changed into two infants, slowly crawling away from each other. After a moment they rose to their feet, growing into little girls, moving farther apart as they stretched up taller into teenagers. All the while they remained connected by the thread. “A young woman who senses her brother is in danger? A boy who feels his sister’s distress?”

“You’re talking about twins,” Shiro guessed. “Honerva and Merla were twins?”

“Fraternal,” White confirmed. “As different as night and day. But the thing about twins who share a split core is that they stay linked until something actively breaks that link. And as long as they’re linked, what one dabbles in will stain the other.”

A black cloud swirled up around one of the silhouettes, dissipating through the light like ink through water when it touched its surface. The black flooded through the whole shape, and began bleeding through the thread between them.

“Honerva should have died a long time ago, she should have become a lich like Zarkon’s body. But the creature that uses her won’t allow it. It keeps her alive because it feeds off her core, a core that doesn’t completely diminish or weaken. It remains viable because it draws strength through its connection to another, one that’s clean and able to replenish what it loses through that bond.”

A breeze blew through the cathedral, whipping up into a wind that made Shiro shield his eyes. When it died down and he looked again they were outside, standing at the foot of a temple under a sky painted in jewel tone pinks and purples.

“Oriande,” White told him, looking up at the building. “I made my home here, on a weak point in the barrier. The white hole is a natural fountain that pulls and expels energy from the quintessence field, I was able to exist there comfortably without needing a physical avatar. I called students to me from here by sending out signals to those who were sensitive, these Old Alteans came and built my temple here.

“You came here once. Merla and Alfor made it through all of the tests, but when it came time to accept my teachings she retreated. She was aware of her tie to her sister, even if she didn’t know the full truth of it. She knew she was just as much at risk of addiction to darkness as Honerva. It was this link that did that, everything Honerva steeped herself in bled through to Merla in some way.”

“So we’re linked,” Shiro repeated numbly, resting a hand lightly on his own chest as he looked up at the huge edifice.  “Honerva is still alive because of me? I’m keeping her that way?”

“Yes. Isn’t that good news?” White asked, clapping his hands together once as he walked toward the temple. Shiro wasn’t used to moving beside someone so tall, he had to practically jog. Suddenly he felt empathy for Pidge.

“How the hell is that good news?” He asked. “The biggest crazy in the universe has been alive for ten-thousand years because of me, that’s the opposite of good news!”

“Oh, if it had been able to drain Honerva and move on it would just be some different person being the biggest crazy in existence, it’s not like you’re single-handedly keeping this particular nasty around,” White answered, waving a hand dismissively. “But he’s not like me, he can’t do true alchemy and he doesn’t understand the significance of these bonds.”

They reached the door of the temple and White pulled it open. Shiro slowed down to a stop behind him.

“Which is…?” He prodded. Aside from keeping one of his team’s worst enemies alive, he didn’t see any special significance to this link at all. White turned to look at him, leaning in the doorway.

“Honerva’s been very quiet lately?”

Shiro nodded slowly.

“And you don’t have any clue where she is, or any idea when she’s going to strike?”

“No, we don’t.”

White crooked a finger, beckoning Shiro closer and fake-whispering when he leaned in.

“Then track what she’s doing through the link.”

“And how am I supposed to do that exactly?” Shiro demanded when he backed away.

“Well I can’t explain that to you, it’s like trying to teach somebody how to flex a muscle,” White answered. “You just have to…you know.”

He motioned vaguely.

“No, I don’t know.”

“Just…you know,” White repeated, gesturing vaguely again. “Practice. Look, if I told you that you had to slightly loosen your flow choke on your fifth sensory valve while simultaneously adjusting your inward flux partitions to filter out the higher rate of irrelevant variables would you understand anything I was talking about? No, you wouldn’t. So just practice.”

He started to close the temple door in Shiro’s surprised face but stopped, pulling it all the way open again and looking down at him critically.

“Are you going to remember any of that this time?” He asked. “Because we’ve already had this conversation four times before.”

Shiro blinked, startled by that revelation. It would explain why this strange creature was so cavalier and casual, but he had no memory of any such thing happening.

“I’ve never spoken to you in my life,” he blurted out. White sighed, rubbing his temple with one hand and looking mildly annoyed.

“These tiny mortal brains are getting so frustrating,” he muttered. “Okay, let’s try something different this time.”

He dropped his hand away from his own temple and pressed his fingers to Shiro’s. The touch was cool, a sensation that spread from his temple down his neck and then across his whole body. Shiro felt heavy, sleepy, like it was impossible to stay awake. His eyelids drooped and he felt himself fall forward, the entire feeling suddenly jarred away by the startling flash of falling that shot through his stomach and chest.

Shiro jerked awake, sleep-muddled and confused. Thoughts flitted through his head, half-formed, already escaping as his brain forgot his dreams in favor of wakefulness. He reached to his right for his bed stand, feverishly looking for something to scribble on before the memory was completely gone.

Except his nightstand wasn’t there, because he was standing in the kitchen of his apartment. His arms were also very heavy, and as he blinked away the last vestiges of sleep he found it was because they were being held onto.

Keith was on his right, Allura on his left. Both were in pajamas, Allura still in a jacket and looking like she’d just arrived. One table lamp was on in the living room, but beyond that he could see out the bay window that it was still the dark, early morning hours.

“What are you doing here?” He asked Allura, feeling as confused as she looked.

“I called her,” Keith answered. “You don’t remember?”

“If I remembered, would I be asking her what she was doing here?” Shiro asked reasonably.

He couldn’t remember anything after laying down in bed last night, or rather this morning. Judging by the darkness it had only been a few hours ago, and he still felt exhausted. He’d spent most of yesterday cleaning up the messes from everyone getting arrested, on top of his own work, which meant he’d worked late and gotten home late.

He did remember he hadn’t seen Adam or Curtis yesterday, Adam had spent the whole day in the house and Curtis had taken the day off to spend some time with him, according to the update text he’d sent. That was really the only important aspect of the day.

Allura was snapping her fingers in front of his face, making him blink in startlement. She stood on her toes and leaned in close, scowling in concentration as she studied his face.

“Okay, what’s going on?” Shiro asked. “Why did he call you? Was I sleepwalking? Is that how I got in here?”

“Oh, yeah, a little bit,” Keith answered sarcastically. “You banged on my door, demanded a “writing utensil” when I answered, then high fived me and came in here. Oh, and let’s not forget that your eyes were white and you looked creepy as hell. I had to call either Allura or an exorcist, and I don’t have the number for a church on speed dial.”

“It was certainly something,” Allura agreed. “Keith said it was just like when the entity was controlling Lance. When I got here you were very pleasant but you weren’t…you.”

“What did I say?” Shiro wondered, his stomach dropping. His dream floated back to him, vague memories of craning his neck up to talk to a tall man who towered over him. One who seemed kind of irreverent, like he would say something that would end up with sensitivity training being a required punishment.

“Not much,” Allura admitted. “You spoke to me in my dialect of Altean, a greeting and you complimented my hair. And then you did that.”

She pointed past him and Shiro turned to look behind him. The refrigerator was covered in symbols that looked vaguely like Altean writing, a rainbow of colors using the artists markers that were laid out across the counter. It was a mess of signs and sigils that he didn’t understand, and most certainly did not remember writing.

“What does it say?” He asked, staring at the writing and feeling lost.

“It says…listen. Listen through the link? I think. I’m not sure, this writing was ancient even when I was born, I’ve only learned some of it through my father’s journals. Listen through the link, that doesn’t make much sense in any language, does it? It can’t be right. And this.”

Allura pointed to another set of writing, down toward the bottom, separated from the other phrase with a scribbled line.

“Drink two,” Allura translated, pointing to the beginning before moving to the end. “In place of…companion, I believe. That’s the literal translation, but it might be some kind of old colloquialism. I don’t know this word in the middle, I’ve never seen these two symbols together. Maka reda.”

Shiro snorted, a slight irritation returning. Those words brought back some of his dream, but not much…the tall man whose face he couldn’t picture, pale clothes, frustrating words. One very short exchange bubbled up to the surface when she read that.

“It means,” Shiro sighed, leaning back against the counter and wondering how he was going to explain a dream he could barely remember and describe an entity who no one would believe was that casual, “have a margarita for me.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Kuro turned up the volume on his headphones, adjusting the single earbud he was wearing to filter out the sounds around him. So far he hadn’t heard anything interesting today, or at least nothing of interest that had anything to do with him.

The laptop computer in front of him was running the program he’d been working on for a month, the first real test of the Trojan Horse that gave him access to pretty much everything the Garrison had to offer. For two months he had been set up to work on Adam from a distance, patching into the Atlas healing pod that had been stationed in the Quarantine sector via computer.

He’d ignored that and did no such thing of course, using Hoshi to get in at night and do what he needed to do in person. But that linkup, the way the pod communicated with the Lorelia, was a giant, glowing invitation.

The Garrison specialists assumed they were safe because the base used human technology only. Technology that the cruiser housing the rescued colonists didn’t have, and that the Altean Lorelia didn’t have. Technology that just didn’t mesh, protocols that just didn’t work together with alien ones. There was no way anybody from either ship could waltz in, copy anything, and upload it to their own databases because the languages just weren’t compatible.

It had been one of the reasons the Galra hadn’t been able to bring down the Garrison, their high-level human security hadn’t been common knowledge to the rest of the world and Galra tech wasn’t compatible enough to crack it by the time the occupation had ended. Everyone here was assuming that meant they were safe, that if the Galra hadn’t been able to get in then nobody else could either.

And they were sort of right. Except for the healing pod.

That innocuous, innocent piece of medical equipment that held no security secrets and had no extensive storage space to keep anything classified or important. It was a throwaway machine, no more important than a stethoscope or x-ray machine in the grand scheme of security. Nobody cared about it, nobody gave it a second thought.

For Kuro, it was an adaptor. The base ran on human technology. The Lorelia ran on Altean. The IGF Atlas, and by association its healing pods, ran on a mix of both.

There was no programming he could run in Altean computer languages that would do jack shit against human technology of course, but Kuro had been studying up on human computer languages. He had written his code and uploaded it remotely to the healing pod, hidden in the mix of medical readings going back and forth for him to track Adam’s progress. Then, Adam had been moved to the main medical bay and the pod had been hooked up there for manual usage.

Hooked right into the Garrison computer systems, where it was identified as Atlas tech and allowed to link up with absolutely no security blockades. Where it began to exchange information freely with the Garrison servers, where it quietly delivered Kuro’s program into the literal brain of Earth’s security without so much as a peep of resistance.

Every computer that hooked into the Garrison servers handed Kuro access to its microphone and camera. Every security feed was available for him to watch. He could change the radio station in the break rooms if he wanted to, could disable the fire suppression systems and lock down the doors. He could turn off their communications, broadcast to every screen in very building, delete any file on any desktop.

But all he was really interested in were the security feeds. He needed to find and edit the video from the Atlas’ engine room to hide that he was ever there, now that Curtis was poking around. He needed to see if Allura’s cameras were hooked into the Garrison servers, whether or not there really was anything to be deleted there.

He was listening to the chatter in one of the break rooms, where two Lieutenants were talking about Takashi, while he dug through the systems he had access to. He was hoping to hear something about his history at the Garrison, some common-knowledge facts about his tenure on the Atlas maybe. Kuro didn’t want to dig into the other man’s Garrison profile or pull his medical file, that was a serious breach of privacy, he was just curious about what other people knew.

But all they were talking about were his abs, and his shoulders, and the “silver fox” hair he had going on.

Kuro made a gagging sound and turned down the volume. That was so gross, he really didn’t want to hear it. Instead he flipped around from break room to break room, finding nothing before he started checking microphones on hallway cameras. He found one where they were talking about Adam, a couple older students telling a younger one about the newly awakened arrival. This was the kind of thing Kuro was interested in hearing, common things about other peoples’ lives before he’d met them.

While he listened he kept perusing the databases, but he quickly got distracted from looking for saved security feeds when he found something better: the Garrison defense systems.

“Oh, you have missiles,” Kuro noted, running through the list of silos. “I hope none of those are nuclear, or you sneaky little shits are in violation of your own treaties.”

Not that it mattered, these kinds of weapons would probably be decommissioned all over the world soon, they were useless in the face of new Coalition technology. Which Kuro was pleased to find he had access to as well.

The wind blew, making him curl up a little bit but otherwise not bothering him terribly. He was currently up on the roof of one of the two-story office wings, across the airfield from the Lion hangar, so there really wasn’t anything to protect him from the environment. But winter itself was still a novelty after so long in the Abyss, and it had only just started getting cold in the last couple weeks. The sharp chill on the air wasn’t a common enough experience for him to learn to dislike it yet.

He pulled up the control system for the net of satellites that were currently hidden in the sky above by the light of day, running through the security protocols. He had access to them, yes, but if he tried to activate them it looked like he would be pinpointed and locked out. Even being able to get to them, he still needed high level clearance to make them or the zaiforge cannon above do anything.

They had been the initial reason for his code in the first place. Before Lotor and Allura had announced their schedule to leave, Kuro had been trying to plan his escape from this planet. Finding a ship he could take would have been difficult, as would getting out of the atmosphere fast enough to avoid being stopped by a Coalition watch for avoiding the takeoff and leaving checkpoints. But this shield would have made it impossible to get even that far, and he had been working on getting himself access to disable it when he was ready to leave.

He didn’t need it now, not with a valid reason to go and a seat on an authorized ship, but it was still interesting to get a look inside the workings of the Garrison defenses.

There also might still be a need at some point, if going through proper channels simply wasn’t an option. He was planning on taking the Gold with him and would basically be robbing Allura’s lab, if he didn’t find a way to keep that secret until the cruiser left Earth’s solar system and he could ditch it he might still have to get away from the planet alone.

He heard the door open behind him, a definite surprise since he’d checked it and found it pretty solidly locked, and quickly hit his kill switch while thanking any gods that existed that he was only wearing one earbud. The blueprint for the defense satellites disappeared, replaced by a video game he had been running in the background.

Kuro pretending to be engrossed in hacking apart grawls, casting a sideways glance at the feet that came to a stop next to him by the roof edge. Standard issue Atlas uniform boots, with a small nick in the right one where a letter opener had been dropped a few days ago.

Takashi.

“Do you ever sit and wonder what went through the head of the guy who decided you were going to wear tights to work?” Kuro asked, not glancing up from the game. “How do you take a warship crew seriously when they look like they’re wearing a belted shirt dress over stockings?”

“It’s a pressurized thermal liner for potential decompression if any of the life support systems fail in space,” Takashi answered. “It’s designed specifically for a space crew.”

“Still looks like a 1920s flapper in pantyhose,” Kuro answered. “Good thing y’all have nice legs. How did you know I was up here?”

“I can see you from my office,” Takashi answered. “It’s in the building across the airfield. Second floor, fifth window down. How did you get up here? I had to get a maintenance guy to unlock the door for me, and I know Hoshi’s been messing with Keith and Kosmo all day.”

“Yeah, she knows we’re leaving soon. She’s decided she’s got to party now while she has a chance.”

“Okay, well you might want to keep a little better control of your wolf since Kosmo isn’t fixed either,” Takashi suggested, lowering himself to sit down on the roof beside him.

“She’s not mine,” Kuro answered. He finally gave in and shut down the game, since it didn’t look like Takashi was leaving anytime soon. He closed the laptop and tucked it away in its case, along with any evidence that he’d been poking around where he didn’t belong. “She’s the one in charge, not me.”

He wondered how many more times he was going to have to say that before anybody took him seriously.

“So you’re really going, huh?” Takashi asked. “Just leaving without even giving Earth a try?”

“I don’t belong on Earth, I just look like I do,” Kuro closed up the laptop case and leaned back on his hands, looking out over the airfield. He was still in a mood from yesterday and last night and not really interested in company, but he didn’t want to take it out on Takashi.

“Okay.” Takashi’s response took him by surprise, he had expected some kind of argument.

“Okay.”

“So we’re leaving after New Year?” Takashi asked, looking up at the sky. “That’s just long enough for me to give my notice and get my things together, I guess.”

Kuro looked over at him, not sure what he was talking about. Takashi shrugged as if there was nothing for it.

“If you don’t belong on Earth, neither do I,” he said logically. “We’re identical on the cellular level. Everything that’s alien about you is alien about me. The only difference between us is that I was implanted into this body and yours is original.”

“It’s not the same,” Kuro protested. “You were born and raised here, you’re from here.”

“No, I was from here,” Takashi corrected. “I saw the Kuron Project files. I used to be human, now I’m human and Altean and Galra and Darklassian and Taori…same as you.”

“Don’t do this,” Kuro groaned, rubbing his face with both hands. “Seriously, don’t start.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Yes you are,” Kuro protested. “You adopt poor little orphans with nowhere to go, that’s your thing. Takashi Shirogane, the man who takes care of everyone, whether they want him to or not. Well I’m not one of those poor little orphans with nowhere to go, I’m a grown man with my own skill set and I can do just fine on my own. I don’t need you trying to take responsibility for me out of some misplaced feeling of guilt.”

“Are you and Iverson sharing a script?” Takashi asked. “He said the same thing, in slightly nicer words.”

“Because it’s true. I’ve taken care of myself for this long, I can keep doing it. I’m built just as tough as you are.”

“Are you wearing a dog collar?”

“My choice of accessories has nothing to do with whether or not I can defend myself or meet my own needs,” Kuro rolled his eyes. “But if you’re practicing for being a father someday, congratulations, you’re great at sounding old and out of touch.”

Takashi reached up and hooked a finger in the metal loop of the collar, yanking it forward. Kuro was sitting cross-legged on the roof, and the motion bent him in half and slammed his head on his own knee.

“Sorry, I thought you could defend yourself,” he said innocently as Kuro winced and rubbed his head.

“Do you really want to play this game?” Kuro asked, narrowing his eyes. “Because I will beat your as—“

Takashi yanked him down and smacked his face on his knee again.

“Stop doing that!” Kuro sputtered, trying to fight Takashi’s hand away from his neck. “You’re such a jerk!”

He planted one foot on the roof and used the leverage to bring the other one up quickly, trying to kick Takashi in the head lightly and knock him off. But the other man ducked and grabbed his leg instead, standing up suddenly and lifting him up so he was hanging upside down by his ankles.

The hooded sweatshirt Kuro was wearing fell down over his face, and Takashi held him up high enough that his hands could only brush the roof and he didn’t have anything to push off of.

“…I know you think you’ve won, but this means nothing,” Kuro grumbled into his shirt.

Takashi gave him a little shake, and he could hear some of the change fall out of his pockets and bounce off the roof. It was very undignified, even for someone who cared as little about dignity as Kuro.

He bent backward and grabbed Takashi’s ankles, yanking one foot forward to pull him off balance. They both went down in a heap on the roof and a struggle ensued as each tried to get the best of the other. In the end Takashi got a good hold on him from behind and grabbed one of his wrists with that damned Altean prosthetic.

Kuro could match the alchemically made arm’s strength if he really had to, but doing so would require he use druidism and out himself. He couldn’t do that, so he was resigned to shrieking in frustration as Takashi slapped him in the face twice with his own hand.

The rooftop door opened and a soldier appeared, making them freeze. Their limbs were tangled together and their clothes were askew, and from a look at Takashi’s head Kuro could only imagine what his own hair looked like.

“Is…is everything all right, sir?” The soldier asked uncertainly. “We heard some noise.”

Takashi smacked Kuro in the head with his own hand again.

“Stop hitting yourself,” he whispered triumphantly before letting Kuro go. “Everything’s fine, Private, we’re just having a conversation.”

Kuro grabbed a handful of slush from the edge of the roof and slopped it on top of Takashi’s head as he got up, forcing him to smile pleasantly as cold water dripped down the back of his collar, until the soldier disappeared back through the door and they were alone again. He made a noise of disgust and had to unfasten his belt so he could shake the melting ice bits out of his uniform jacket.

“Just so we’re clear, I’m not joking about leaving,” Takashi insisted. “Unless I get a promise from you that you’ll come back, I’m going to stick with you.”

“You and I both know you wouldn’t leave Adam,” Kuro scoffed.

“No, I wouldn’t,” Takashi agreed. “But I honestly think he would follow me. So would Keith, and Lance goes where Keith goes. Hunk and Pidge aren’t going to let their fearless leader go off without them, either. The fact is, the Lions can be called from anywhere, and they’ll come. The Paladins don’t need to be physically with them, if you leave here with no intentions of coming back you’re going to have a small crew of idiots with you.”

“Do you honestly think I can’t ditch all of you and disappear if I want to?”

“You can try. You might even succeed for a little bit, but not forever.” Takashi refastened his belt and crossed his arms, his face turning serious. “I’m not trying to stop you from going anywhere if you feel like that’s what you need to do, I just want you to promise to come back eventually.”

“Takashi…”

“No, let me finish. I don’t adopt poor little orphans with nowhere to go. I’ve just seen some things growing up that showed me your family isn’t only people you grew up with or who are related by blood. You can build a family from spare people running around, and when you do things that way you can always make room for everyone. It just so happens that poor orphans with nowhere to go are more likely to take me up on the offer.

“I’m not trying to make a place in my mismatched family for you because I feel like it’s my job. I’m doing it because you’re the kind of person I want there, and I think you belong there. So go if you really have to, but…call. Write. Visit. And maybe come home when you’re done.”

“Would you know I was lying if I promised and didn’t mean it?” Kuro asked.

“No.”

“Then what’s the point of making me promise?”

“Because I don’t believe you’re a liar,” Takashi answered. “But if you are, it says more about you than it does about me for believing you.”

Kuro grabbed his laptop bag and the coat he’d been sitting on, and followed Takashi back to the roof door. The change in temperature smacked him in the face, the sudden shift from an extended time out in the cold to the heavy warmth of the building.

“Whatever’s going on between you and Curtis is none of my business, but I have to ask,” Takashi said, closing the door behind tightly behind them as they started down the echoing stairwell. “Are you still coming to the dance on Saturday?”

“That’s a military thing,” Kuro answered, scrunching up his nose. “And a student thing. I’m not exactly either. I’m probably going to go hang out with Slav or something.”

He didn’t think he’d be able to make it through an entire dance without picking a fight, and he didn’t want to be That Guy. Normally he’d just be able to ignore everything that happened and  not speak to the perpetrator, but it bothered him more than he wanted to admit that the perpetrator this time was Curtis. The smart thing to do would be to just not speak to him, but Kuro didn’t think he’d be able to resist the urge to get nasty in this case.

“Slav is Atlas crew, he’s going to be at the party,” Takashi answered.

His eye twitched slightly when he said it, which Kuro didn’t understand. He found Slav perfectly delightful, if a little hard to follow sometimes. Last time Kuro had gone to see him they had spent an hour making sure the paper stacks in the break room printer’s four trays were lined up so the sides were perfectly smooth…he still didn’t know why they’d done that, exactly, but it was a nice, quiet activity.

Takashi stopped suddenly, halfway between the first and second floor.

“How did you get on the roof?”

“I climbed the wall,” Kuro answered.

“You…” Takashi did that thing where his eyebrows went up, that weird face he made when he wasn’t sure he’d heard something right even though the speaker had obviously been very clear and concise. Usually the speaker in those cases was Kuro.

“Climbed the wall,” he repeated. He wasn’t sure what was so difficult to understand about that. “The windows are six feet high, and the protrusions at the top and bottom are six feet apart. How would you get up there if the door was locked and your teleporting buddy was busy flirting it up somewhere else?”

“I’d go sit in the library like a normal person,” Takashi answered, rubbing his face. “Please don’t climb walls anymore, just ask the maintenance guy to open the door.

“Look, I don’t want to nag you about going to this dance if you really don’t want to go, but Adam agreed to go along with me and he’s going to go shopping for a suit,” he added. “And I really, really need somebody to go with him.”

“He’s also a grown man, I think he’ll be fine shopping for a suit.”

“It’s not the suit, it’s the city,” Takashi clarified. “He saw some of the destruction last night, but even with his eyes he was in a moving car so he didn’t get details. I’m not going to ask him to stay locked up in a house, but I’d like somebody to be there with him when he gets hit with the reality of what happened.”

That, Kuro couldn’t contest. It was a valid concern, they wouldn’t even be hitting a full 48 hours with Adam awake until after noon, he’d been calm so far but it was possible that was only because he’d been processing so much that it hadn’t really caught up with him yet. Kuro severely doubted Adam would have a full meltdown in the middle of the shopping district, but that didn’t mean it would be great to leave him alone there.

Kuro had also been trying to come up with an excuse for why he couldn’t go shopping with Allura, who wanted to go look for a dress this afternoon. If he got the two of them together, then he could do Takashi this favor and then have Adam keep her distracted. He wouldn’t have to make anyone more suspicious than they already were by completely avoiding her.

“I guess I can go,” he supposed. “I can’t promise I’ll show up on Saturday, though.”

“That really is a shame.” Takashi opened the door to the stairwell and they stepped out onto the first floor, into a hallway lined with offices. “The best way to get back at Curtis would probably be to show up looking good and then only talk to Slav and Bandor all night.”

Kuro stopped when they reached the front door, frowning as he adjusted the strap for his laptop bag. He wasn’t so sure about that, Curtis’ whole cute and flustered act had probably been just that: an act to sell him on wearing the tracker gifts. The man knew he was an alien, or at least thought he knew the full truth about that, it probably wasn’t a stretch to say learning that would have made Kuro a far less attractive option.

“It would probably drive him nuts,” Takashi said conversationally, opening the front door. “He acts pretty cool and collected most of the time but he’s just as much of a dumbass as the rest of us. Pretty easy to get worked up if you know how.”

Yeah, Kuro thought. Do a little harmless poking around, he gets worked up as much as if you’d committed a mass murder.

“I’ll go with him to get a suit,” Kuro said out loud. “And probably bring Allura too. But I’m not promising anything as far as Saturday goes.”

“Okay, fine, I just thought I’d try,” Takashi answered. He reached up and straightened the collar around Kuro’s neck, which must have gotten twisted around during their tussle. “And…try not to wear any of this when you go. I don’t want him getting ideas for me.”

“Don’t be stupid, you can’t pull off anything I wear,” Kuro said bluntly. “You’re twenty-something going on sixty, you should be wearing sandals with socks and jeans pulled up to your chest.”

“Simmer down there, Morticia,” Takashi answered, taking out his phone and looking through it. “Here. I reactivated Adam’s phone service when we got back to Earth, Curtis should have given him his phone by now. Here’s his number, just text him about shopping, he already knows I was asking you.”

Kuro made a face at him but pulled out his own phone, adding Adam’s number to the very short list of contacts. While he had Takashi’s phone he grabbed his number too, which brought his total contact list up to three.

“Oh,” Takashi paused in taking the phone back when Kuro was done, looking apologetic. “And I need to warn you.”

“About?” Kuro asked suspiciously.

“I might have told somebody who will be getting here on Monday about you.”

Alarm bells went off in Kuro’s head. This did not sound good.

“Who?” Takashi didn’t answer him right away, instead making a pained face as if it hurt him to even think about. “Who, Takashi?”

“…Sobo.”

Kuro didn’t mean to gasp like a Victorian woman having a fit of the vapors but that was how it came out, complete with a hand on his chest in shock.

“You didn’t. Why is she coming here? Why is she just coming here now?”

“We just got global communications back online, pictures of everyone have started circulating,” Takashi reminded him. “She saw one of those photos Montgomery took of Adam and you. I had to tell her the truth, she wouldn’t have believed anything I made up.”

“And?” Kuro prompted.

“And the usual,” Takashi sighed. “Is he married? Has HE given me great-grandchildren? What does he do for a living? You probably don’t remember enough to know the fifty-question test you’re going to get but I can assure you, it’s a minor nightmare.”

“Well tell her I’m a clone and not a grandkid to be interrogated.” Kuro insisted. “Alien, foreign, not even fully human. No need to bother with me.”

“I did, she doesn’t care. You’re a doctor, so as far as she’s concerned you’ve been family since before you existed. Aunt Hana is coming to try and—”

“Aunt Hana is coming too?” Kuro groaned. “Please not Aunt Saori.”

“All three,” Takashi confirmed. “How much do you actually remember about them?”

“I remember that none of them have ever spent a day in their lives sober. And that all together they’re a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen. Man, you can’t introduce them to anyone on the Atlas with those pantyhose.”

“Stop making fun of the uniforms, this is serious,” Takashi pleaded.

“I am serious, they’ll all need protective cups and 911 on speed dial,” Kuro answered.

Kuro remembered enough to know that Takashi’s grandmother had always been a bit of a wild woman, which was why she’d been so proud of having someone as strong and independent as Noriko marry her son. She had helped out quite a bit in Takashi’s early years and so had her sisters Saori and Hana, two of Takashi’s four great-aunts. All three women were in their eighties now, but Kuro had no reason to believe that meant they’d slowed down in the least.

“I’m not letting them anywhere near the base, but they’re going to want to meet you,” Takashi warned. “So while you’re getting a suit for Saturday—”

“Maybe.”

“—try to find something for going out to dinner on Monday.”

“I don’t want to go to dinner on Monday,” Kuro protested.

“I don’t care if you wear the leather or the mesh or the weird t-shirts, just no holes and nothing with swears on it,” Takashi looked him dead in the eye and spoke as if he hadn’t complained. “Don’t mention the tattoo until we’re safely out of the restaurant, if they bring up tattoos and piercings just deflect. How are you with chopsticks?”

“I can stab them through a sternum if I have to.”

“Then you can probably eat with them too. I get off at around five, can you be ready to leave at five-thirty?” Takashi asked. Arguments were clearly useless, so Kuro only nodded. “Great. Then go get your suit, and I’ll get us a reservation. And be ready by seven on Saturday, Adam and I will come by here and grab you on our way over to the ballroom.”

Takashi flipped him two thumbs up and backed away, making his escape before Kuro could collect himself and go on the defensive. It left Kuro standing alone on the path leading across the quad, ruefully watching him disappear.

He had been railroaded. The same fast-talking, topic-switching tactic Kuro used on everyone else had been used against him, and very effectively. He wasn’t even entirely sure how he’d gotten to this point, but he’d gone from hanging out alone on the roof to being adopted, having a family dinner, and attending a Garrison function as a group all within the span of an hour.

He wasn’t sure if he was insulted or impressed. He was used to getting his own way, clearly he’d underestimated exactly how much alike he and Takashi could be.

Shouldering his bag, Kuro made his way back across the field to the Lorelia and let himself into the warmth of the ship. It was quiet as usual, even when he walked past the loading dock where the three other ship residents were standing around having tea. They tended to ignore him and he ignored them, all of them looking forward to the day he would part ways with them.

He went to his little lab, his quiet little respite from the world, and sat at the long table where he liked to read. Closing up the books that lay open there, he dug through his laptop bag for the bits of paper and junk he had collected that day and laid it all out on the surface.

About half an hour later he was in the middle of converting gum wrappers and receipt paper into tiny origami stars and adding them to his jar when he heard the gentle knock on the lab door. One of the Altean women poked her head in and told him he had a visitor before quickly disappearing again. She wasn’t impolite, but she didn’t stick around to be friendly either.

Kuro didn’t even know her name. He didn’t know any of their names. They had probably been introduced, but to be perfectly fair he had been as disinterested in them as they were with him and hadn’t bothered to listen.

He assumed it was Adam arriving early to go shopping, so when he stepped out into the hall and saw Curtis standing in the airlock he was more than a little irate.

“No,” he called as he stalked down the narrow hall, pointing forcibly to the exit door. “You, out. Go.”

“I just want to talk,” Curtis protested.

“No!” Kuro insisted. “I swear, it’s like you’re just begging me to snap your bones! Get out!”

He hit the panel and opened the door, pointing out into the light of early afternoon, but Curtis didn’t move. Instead he reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a glass jar. He offered it, and Kuro rolled his eyes and took it, giving it a little shake. It was filled with small pebbles, all different colors, smooth and shiny.

“What’s this?”

“I spent seven hours in the cold out at the lake picking out all the prettiest rocks,” Curtis answered.

Kuro raised an eyebrow, looking from Curtis back down to the jar in his hand. He shook it again, listening to the pleasant tinkling sound of little pebbles against glass. He knew what he should do was throw the jar out the airlock and kick Curtis out after it but in all honesty he really wanted to keep the stones.

“…you have five minutes,” he warned, tucking the jar close so Curtis couldn’t take it back if he disagreed with those terms. “And I’m timing you, so talk fast.”

“Can we at least go somewhere else to sit down?”

“No, because I’m throwing you out the airlock when your four minutes and forty-five seconds is up,” Kuro answered.

“Okay, okay,” Curtis took a deep breath, folding his hands in front of him. He had a small box, plain cardboard, but he didn’t mention or reference it. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry.”

“Noted,” Kuro said when Curtis paused for some kind of reply.

“I got upset and I shouldn’t have,” Curtis tried again. “I wasn’t spying on you with those trackers, they weren’t even turned on. They were programmed to go on and signal me if you went near Allura’s containment lab, that’s all. I never really thought you were doing anything, but I needed to know if you were starting to get in over your head. And I got mad because you weren’t careful about it at all, and if you got caught and anybody found out I knew about you before and didn’t say anything…that’s treason. The Garrison has authority over that, not the outside courts. I could get locked up for the rest of my life, no lawyer, no trial.”

He was lying. Or maybe not lying, but definitely not telling the full truth. Kuro might have been dense sometimes but he paid attention to Curtis, he liked paying attention to Curtis. He liked watching him get wide-eyed and confused when he was surprised with a question outside of his expertise, he liked when he gave that little, self-satisfied smile when he finished doing something. Kuro liked watching Curtis, and he knew that when Curtis tilted his head that way and looked down and to the left he was reciting something he’d practiced.

It wasn’t a genuine apology. Maybe Curtis really was sorry, but he wasn’t giving the real reason.

“That sucks,” Kuro answered, lifting up the jar to eye level and looking at it, shaking his new treasure and listening again to the pleasant clinking of stones against glass. “Too bad you devoted your life to propping up a government that thinks it’s okay to do that to people, huh? Three minutes.”

“I’m sorry,” Curtis repeated, starting to sound frustrated. Good. “For everything. I really am. What is it you want from me to not be mad anymore?”

“Nothing, I’m going to stay mad at you,” Kuro answered sharply, lowering the jar. He jabbed Curtis in the chest with one finger. “I have every right to be mad, because you broke my trust. It doesn’t matter why you put trackers on me, and don’t pat yourself on the back that they weren’t turned on when we both know you could have turned them on whenever you felt like it.

“I haven’t hurt anybody since I got here, I haven’t broken any laws,” Kuro shook the jar irritably to punctuate his words, letting everything out in a rush. “All of the money I made was legal, I paid for everything new I have, and I know for a fact I was allowed to wander if I wanted to without waiting for a goddamned visa because I can read and all of your laws are on the internet. And wandering into Allura’s lab? Well last I checked those labs are still classified as general access, so going in there might piss her off but it’s not illegal. There is no law or regulation that says I have to identify what I am and subject myself to prejudice and possible attack, so if your government thinks that knowing I’m different and not just reporting unnecessarily is treason then fuck your government.

Kuro reached up and grabbed Curtis’ collar, pulling him across the airlock and over to the open outer door. He held him out, barely balanced on the edge of the exit, ready to drop him the short few feet down to the ground.

“Your apology was bullshit and we both know it. You’re down to less than a minute, so either stop lying to me or go.”

Curtis propped himself up with his hands on the edges of the exit, like a cat trying to avoid the bathtub. He didn’t say anything right away, so Kuro gave him a warning shove.

“Okay!” Curtis exclaimed, gripping the doorway tighter. “Okay, fine! I was mad that you’re leaving!”

He was fortunately still facing away, so he couldn’t see the surprise on Kuro’s face at the admission. That was not the answer he had been expecting. Kuro schooled his face back into an agitated expression and pulled Curtis back away from the exit a few feet.

“I’m listening.”

“I saw those things on Lotor’s cruiser freak out at you, all right?” Curtis sighed. “It was just like they described the druids going nuts at Lance before they tried to hunt him down. I didn’t say anything to anybody because I didn’t think you were a druid, I figured you were the same as the entity they pulled out of Lance and that one doesn’t necessarily seem to be an enemy. I put the trackers on you because I knew that if you were the same you’d decide to go in there eventually and I needed to know when, in case they got out somehow and went after you while you were in there.”

He pulled himself free of Kuro’s hold and straightened his jacket, scooping up the box from the floor and turning to face him.

“We don’t know how those things communicate. We don’t know if they can talk to Honerva somehow. But I do know those two pet druids of hers saw you on that cruiser and were specifically hunting you, and if the four we have get free they know where you are now. And now you’re just leaving, going off God only knows where, in an empty universe where this woman is going to actively be hunting you down. And you don’t seem to care at all that it’s the most reckless, stupid, dangerous thing you could possibly do.”

“Of course I care that it’s reckless and stupid and dangerous, you jackass,” Kuro groaned. “So I didn’t check some cameras and I almost got myself caught, yes, but that’s because in general it’s safe here. I admit, I underestimated some of the security. But out there I’m not going to be staring off into space and waiting for somebody to sneak up behind me and stab me in the back. I was made to survive out there, I was built to kill a very large number of people in a very small amount of time. Just because I choose to be passive doesn’t mean I’m not just as dangerous to them as they are to me.

“Why do you think they went after Lance and me?” He pointed out. “I’ll give you a hint…it’s not because the Gold and I are considered non-threatening soft targets.”

He didn’t push Curtis again, but he stepped back over to the exit and motioned for him to go.

“Your five minutes is up.”

“So that’s it?” Curtis asked dully. “You’re seriously only giving it five minutes?”

“That’s all I have patience for today,” Kuro said sharply. “But I’ll take what you said into consideration and think about whether I’m willing to talk to you again later.”

“I guess that’s all I can really ask for.”

Curtis stepped toward the exit, looking down at the box in his hands, stopping just short of leaving to offer it. Kuro took it without thinking, looking at it for a moment before taking the lid off, as Curtis obviously expected him to do. Inside he found a small flash drive…and the piece of balmera crystal he had left in Allura’s lab.

“That’s the only copy of the footage of you being in that room,” Curtis said, not looking at him. “I overwrote the original, and I deleted the copy I had. So that’s it, that’s all the evidence you were there. I do trust you that you weren’t there to do anything wrong, and I’m not looking to blackmail you into anything.”

He stepped down out of the ship and walked to his car, parked a few yards away. Kuro didn’t say anything as Curtis pulled away, sealing up the exit and going back inside when he was gone.

So now things were even more complicated. In the span of a day he had gone from being carefree to being adopted, having a family dinner, having a group event, and having an apologetic…whatever Curtis was, to deal with.

He went back down to his little lab and dropped his strange new collection of gifts on the table, pulling his stool back up and returning to the soothing motions of making origami stars.

 

Chapter Text

Allura absently twirled a section of hair around her finger as she stared tiredly at the whiteboard, the carefully recreated characters with their various possible meanings scrawled out under them in different colors. She had printed a photo she took with her phone and hooked it up in the corner of the board, and her father’s journals were laid out on the counter.

She felt like she was missing something, and she knew it was because she was sleepy. Keith’s call had come in at four in the morning and she’d borrowed Veronica’s car to rush over, and she hadn’t been able to get any rest since.

Because how did you just go to sleep when you had something like this going on?

“Any new ideas?” She asked, putting down her marker and reaching for her coffee mug, still looking at the board.

“You could drink your own coffee,” Lotor suggested. “I don’t think you’re going to like—“

She already had a mouthful of it before his warning got through and she very nearly gagged. It was bitter and thin and not at all the sweet, creamy way she preferred.

“On the Ancients, that is disgusting,” she choked, shoving the mug back at him and grabbing her own. “Do you eat dirt as well?”

“Once, when I was a child,” Lotor admitted, smirking a little as he took his mug back. “But in my defense it was my first time on an actual planet.”

Allura climbed onto a lab chair and leaned on the table, cradling the warm mug between her hands and turning back to the writing. She had to figure this out as soon as possible, and as much as she wanted to joke around with Lotor she really needed to concentrate.

It was nice of him to come down as early as he did, all she’d had to do was call and he was grabbing a striker to join her and help, and he hadn’t even commented on the fact that she was sitting in her lab at the Garrison in her pajamas. She knew she looked a mess from rolling out of bed and immediately being on the run all morning, but he pretended he didn’t notice.

The characters she was looking at were familiar, but only in that they resembled the ancient Altean she knew. This writing system could have been from ten thousand years even before her birth, it was more of a proto-Altean. The grammar wasn’t quite there and nor was the nuance to the words, and she couldn’t be entirely certain that she was even grouping the characters together properly.

She was going to have to do something she didn’t really want to do.

Allura desperately missed her family. From her viewpoint they had only died a year or two ago, then pain and the grief were still very fresh. There were still nights when she woke up confused, expecting to see the high, arched ceiling of her bedroom in the castle but instead finding only the ceiling fan and light fixture over her. The room would be cold with a winter chill instead of the warm breeze of an Altean night wafting through the window.

She cried a lot, when she was at home where only Romelle and Veronica could see. She didn’t want to burden Coran, who was still grieving himself, and most of the others were dealing with their own emotional losses. Veronica was always there to wrap her in a tight hug while Romelle made them all tea, and Allura was grateful that although it happened often they didn’t make her feel like she was becoming an annoyance.

She didn’t like to think of Lance as carrying Alfor’s core. She had buried her mother two months ago when they’d all returned to Earth after freeing Colony One, but until recently she’d always been able to pretend that maybe her father was still out there. She hadn’t seen him die, and it was possible to upload a copy of oneself to the memory chamber and then leave without actually being dead. He could have struck out and found one of the traveling Altean groups who had been off-planet, hidden himself away in another ship’s cryo pod.

It was all a flight of fancy and she knew it wasn’t true, but the fantasy of leaving the house for work one morning to see him walking up the drive to meet her was one of the ways she coped.

That was finished now, they all knew he was definitely dead and gone. Lance now had access to his memory and knowledge thanks to the brain frying he’d gone through, but Alfor’s personality had long since been overwritten. Lotor’s presence had helped her move away from her feelings for Lance over the last two months but she still cared about him, and she did not want to grow to resent him for something nobody had control over.

“I was hoping I could figure this out, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case,” she murmured, pulling her phone out of her pocket. It was just about noon now and Lance was bound to be awake.

He answered on the third ring, sounding out of breath.

“Hello?”

“Lance?” Allura could hear laughter in the background but couldn’t easily identify its source. “Are you all right? Were you running?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Lance took a deep breath. “I was just chasing down Hunk and Pidge. They’re laughing at me because Pidge ran my DNA to see what it looked like now and they think it’s funny that enough of the Altean is turned on to qualify me as Lotor’s first cousin. Like I need my mom trying to invite him of all people over to my house.”

“I’m here and I can hear you,” Lotor warned.

There was a short pause while Lance assessed the situation, then went all in.

“I said what I said.”

Allura rolled her eyes, holding up a hand to stop Lotor when it looked like he was about to start. He and Lance didn’t actively hate each other, or so it seemed, and they didn’t really all out fight, but they bickered like a married couple when they weren’t stopped.

“Lance, I have something for you to look at, if that’s all right,” she broke in. “You can say no if you want, I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. But I have something here that might need some of my father’s input.”

“Are you still working on that weird writing?” Lance became serious. “Keith told me about it, he said Shiro went all kinds of weird. Is he going to be okay?”

“He seems fine, and yes, it’s about the writing,” Allura confirmed. She didn’t really want to talk too much about Shiro just yet, that would come after she had a chance to really look him over. “I’m going to turn on the video chat.”

She did so, flipping down the stand on her phone case and lining the phone up so he could see the whiteboard and picture. Lotor pulled up a chair on the other side of the table, the phone between the two of them.

“I know he studied this writing, but he only had notes on some things in his journals,” Allura said. “Things that were directly relevant to whatever he was working on. The rest I worked out from its relationship to my own alphabet, but I wanted to know what you thought. It looks to me like it says “listen through the link,” but I don’t know what that could mean. Maybe…a ring in a chain, perhaps it represents some kind of device or place that’s a loop?”

Lance made a ‘hm’ sound, frowning at the board. He tilted his head one way, then another, at one point going so far as to twist all the way upside down. He was quiet for a long time.

“Anything?” Allura prompted after a few minutes of nothing.

“Sorry, most of the stuff I remember doesn’t really come to the surface until I really look at something for a while. I can’t translate that myself, but I can help you a little bit. I think it’s written backwards.”

“Backwards?”

“Yeah. You’re reading those characters left to right, but if I'm actually remembering right, then before Altean was standardized—”

“Some groups wrote right to left,” Allura remembered, smacking herself in the forehead. “And the particles go on the ends, I’m tacking them onto the wrong words.”

She grabbed her marker and quickly rewrote the characters in a new line underneath, switching the order. As she did so she fixed the grammar, shifting the particles over a space from the beginning of the wrong words to the ends of the correct ones.

“Your radical there does mean ‘through,’ but I think in a different context,” Lance pondered. His fluency in multiple languages was starting to show as he studied the words themselves. “Like, “by way of,” maybe.”

“Link, with this particle, is actually “connection,” Allura pointed out. “If that radical modifies it, then it’s something like “by way of the connection” or “using the connection.”

“Your connection,” Lance corrected. “It’s a second person possessive modifier. It says “use your connection.”

“And this, it doesn’t mean listen,” Allura circled the now-last word. “Well, it does, but with a different connotation. It means “observe.” So “use your connection to observe” seems like the most likely translation. Thank you, Lance!”

“Don’t thank me, that’s actually really cool. I’m glad I got to have a look at it,” Lance answered. “I have to go though, I’m here waiting for my little court date to get reinstated so I can be punished along with the rest of you.”

Allura winced at the reminder that when Monday came they were all to report for a week of cleaning duty. She had tried to plead her case with Shiro, but it seemed that tearing the doors off of that awful woman’s car was simply not acceptable for somebody who represented the Garrison.

Ah well, even queens needed to learn discipline and respect the rules. She had certainly watched her mother do laps and push-ups in punishment often enough to know that.

“Good luck,” she told him, showing him her crossed fingers. “It would be terrible if you were left out of mopping the hangar.”

Lance chuckled and hung up, and Allura put her phone away. Lotor had been sitting quietly through the whole exchange, sipping his coffee. He was looking at her with a slight smile, half hidden behind his mug.

“What?” She asked, suddenly self-conscious, tucking a stray curl behind her ear.

“You’re very animated when you start getting into something that interests you. It’s quite lovely.”

“I’m surprised you can still say as much after what happened in the quintessence field.”

It was a thought that went through her head often. Every time he was polite to her, every time he offered a comment, every time his interactions were friendly. But it was always just a thought, part of her inner monologue.

It wasn’t supposed to slip out and be said out loud, though she knew it would happen eventually. It was always there, under the surface…what was the phrase Shiro had used when she’d spoken of it to him once? The elephant in the room. Over the last two months it had been a very intricate dance, both of them carefully avoiding anything that would bring up the subject.

One of the many things she and Lotor had in common, they both seemed to be hoping enough time would eventually pass for it to simply go away.

It was her lack of sleep that did it, and the fact that she let her guard down around him again more and more. It had all come together in a perfect little storm to broach the touchy subject neither of them actually wanted broached.

Lotor took another sip from his mug as if to stall in answering, but he didn’t look upset. He’d also known it would come up eventually, there was no way he couldn’t have. Allura didn’t push him for an immediate reply, settling back on her chair instead and resting her chin tiredly on one hand.

“Neither you nor I have had extensive guidance in how to behave under pressure,” he said after a moment. “Altea was at peace for most of your life, you learned how to be an exceptional leader in times of calm and that no doubt translates to an extent for less peaceful times. But your father was the acting ruler, and all the tough decisions fell on him, not you. You did the best you could in a questionable situation, and I do not hold it against you for trying to protect what you thought needed protecting.”

“I should have taken a moment to think,” Allura protested, picking up her cooling coffee mug. “In hindsight, I can’t help but think that all those times when Lance was giving advice in battle it was a bit of my father’s wisdom shining through. Even if it wasn’t the case, a friend was trying to advise me and I should have listened.”

Lotor put his mug down and rose, coming around the table. He stopped behind her and she wondered for a moment what he was doing, then she felt her mother’s crown being lifted from her head. He set it down on the table beside her, and now that the weight was gone she wondered if it had always felt so heavy or if it was just because she was tired.

He removed the hair tie that kept everything in its tight, messy bun, letting it fall down her back and slowly beginning to comb his fingers through the textured strands of her hair.

“Personal responsibility is a very important thing,” he answered, his hands gently working out the few knots she’d acquired when she’d yanked everything up into the tie in the dark, early morning hours. “But so is recognizing when the fault isn’t entirely with you. I know you dislike the idea of pointing fingers when you know you’ve done wrong, I’m the same way. But in this case, the wrong was shared.

“You let your emotions get the best of you outside the quintessence field…I did the same once we were in it. We both knew better, we both failed. And I think we’ll both feel guilty for the suffering our failure caused for a very long time.”

The hands moving gently through her hair were soothing, smoothing out the mess and twisting the locks at her temples back out of her face. He fastened everything in place with the tie he’d removed, and under different circumstances she could have fallen asleep. There was more talking to do, but there was also plenty of time for that in the future.

“Kolivan wants me to address the Galra Empire.”

Given their line of conversation, that wasn’t what Allura expected him to say. She woke up very quickly, turning in her seat to look up at him.

“Why? You’d have to come out of hiding to do that, what could possibly be gained?”

“The Blade claims there are still many imperial loyalists,” Lotor answered. “He believes that being ten thousand years and many generations separated from Daibazaal as a home planet makes the stories of its destruction barely more poignant than fables. Many of the Galra citizenry are thirsty for peace but fear the wrath of the empire…they calmly accepted Alfor’s daughter once, he believes they are still willing to do so.”

“He wants to pit loyalty for you against fear of Haggar,” Allura surmised.

She absently tugged at the lock of hair hanging over her shoulder, twirling it around her fingers in thought. She had once looked upon the Galra as friends before they’d turned on everyone, if anyone had a right to still look upon the other in hate it was her. But as Lotor pointed out, the Galra of today were ten thousand years removed from the ones who had wiped out their allies, many generations descended from those who had committed the atrocities.

It was only Zarkon’s inner circle—or Honerva’s, since she was the one consciously pulling the strings, who had been augmented by dark magic to still remain her enemies ten millennia later.

“What are you going to do?” She asked.

“I don’t know.”

“The Empire spans most of the known universe. Having even a fraction of the Galra on our side potentially turns the tide of the war dramatically.”

“That, I do know,” Lotor agreed. “But I also know that accepting one Altean princess doesn’t mean ten thousand years of indoctrination can be wiped clean immediately. It doesn’t mean a planet full of Alteans will be quickly and safely accepted. I cannot lead even a fraction of an empire and a planet of my own people at the same time and ensure safe separation.”

“You would have to leave the colony behind,” Allura said. A great sacrifice, she knew, considering thousands of years of his life spent rebuilding the Altean people from only a few. “You would have to go be the Galra Emperor only, until you solidified your hold on the throne.”

“The politics of peace aren’t the same as those of wartime,” Lotor confirmed. “And I would be one faction of the Galra at war with the others. The Kral Zera tradition gives me backing and credibility, but for a while there will be challengers.”

Political power struggles were horrible things to think about, they often brought strife and ruin to the common people being ruled over. The kind of people who would challenge Lotor for wanting to bring peace, Allura knew, were the kind of people who were only interested in gaining power because they could leverage it to hurt others for their own gain. These were the kind of people Lotor would be going up against, and she didn’t like it. She had confidence in him as a leader, especially if he was willing to take on wise advisors like Kolivan and Krolia, but he was still talking about joining a very dangerous game.

It had been easier to let him waltz into that hell before she’d developed feelings for him. Now she felt a hollow chill in her stomach at what might become of him if he went up against other factions and lost.

“Kolivan is a smart man,” she said carefully. “If he believes this is a move you should make, then perhaps you should. You will absolutely have the support of the Coalition.”

Lotor nodded slightly, and she thought he looked slightly relieved. Sometimes it was easy to forget that much of what he’d built had been done alone, that even a small amount of support could make a huge difference to him.

“It’s just something to think about, I don’t know yet what I’ll do,” he answered, looking up as somebody knocked softly on the door.

“Come in.”

The door opened just a bit, revealing Kuro standing in the hall. He didn’t actually have clearance to be down on this floor, but Allura didn’t think he really had clearance to be in most of the places he was in. Everyone, her included, had simply learned to not be surprised when he showed up. He was also completely harmless if one ignored that he was an agent of total chaos who drove the career soldiers batty, so none of the Coalition group really cared where he went, either.

“It’s afternoon,” Kuro said by way of greeting, carefully keeping just on his side of the doorway into the room as if stepping into her lab might give him “cooties,” as Veronica would say. “Adam called and said he’d like us to make a stop on the way to the mall, so I figured I’d check in and remind you we were leaving soon.”

“Oh!” Allura surged up from her seat. “The mall! I forgot about the mall!”

She grabbed her crown from the table and spun around to push it into Lotor’s hands. She didn’t want to just leave it here, but she also didn’t want to wear it out clothes shopping.

“Can you keep this safe for me? I’m going shopping for a dress. First I have to run to the locker room, I can’t go out dressed like this!”

“Why not?” Kuro asked, looking down at the pajama pants she was wearing. “Have you seen how some of the people around here dress?”

“True, but from what I’ve already made a terrible impression on Adam by being introduced to him on my way into jail, I’d like to at least look decent and try to make a better second impression when I meet him properly. I’ll meet you in the front lobby when it’s time to go.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Lotor let Allura go, stepping out into the hallway to watch until she disappeared through the door at the far end. When he turned back he found Kuro looking at him disapprovingly.

“You’re so gross.”

“I am not.”

“Yes you are. She’s a young lady, get those thoughts out of your primitive man-skull.”

“She’s fifty-eight decaphoebs old,” Lotor answered, pulling him out of the lab and closing the door tightly behind them. “You know Alteans age differently than humans.”

“Really? I honestly wouldn’t put her a quintant over thirty,” Kuro replied. “That still doesn’t excuse you being gross.”

He looked shifty. Shiftier than usual, even. It hadn’t escaped Lotor’s notice that Kuro had flattened himself against the side of the doorway as Allura had passed, as if touching her might burn him. He knew Kuro was very particular about who was allowed to touch him at all—he didn’t have to ask if it was because of the harm he’d come to at Honerva’s hands—but he was normally okay with simple things like people he knew brushing up against him.

But then, it also hadn’t escaped Lotor’s notice that Kuro had been avoiding everyone in general, but Duchesne and Allura in particular. Given the human tendency toward stupidity he could understand avoiding Duchesne, but there was nothing he could think of that Allura might have done that would make him so skittish.

Perhaps he was more afraid of what she could do.

“Have you seen the restored mechs out in the high clearance hangar?” He asked, intentionally stepping close to Kuro as they walked away from the door to herd him in that direction.

“Absolutely not,” Kuro answered a little too firmly. “I have never set foot down here in these labs before in my life.”

He used that tone Lotor knew he used on purpose, the tone that made his statements sound like an exaggerated lie. Sometimes the things he said that way were true, sometimes they were false, but the intent was to ensure that nobody ever knew which it was. In this case, however, Lotor would have been shocked if the words were true, since Kuro had already been everywhere else. He might not have gone in the hangar to see the mechs, but he was too curious about wild creatures to not have poked his nose into Allura’s containment lab once or twice to get a good look at the entities in captivity.

“They’re impeccable fighting machines, someone as inquisitive as yourself would probably find them fascinating.”

They walked together down to the entrance of the hangar, where Lotor swiped the funny little card he had to carry to get into places here. They didn’t add genetic markers by rank here like the Galra did, and so didn’t use the genetic scanners that powered all Galra tech. Some people, like Shiro and the Paladins, had some doors keyed for their hand prints and others for their cards. There really was no smooth, efficient system in place as far as he could see.

Kuro followed him inside, not looking very enthusiastic. He kept his hands folded behind his back, which was unusual since he normally had to be told multiple times not to touch anything if he was in a sensitive place.

Lotor knew he wasn’t responsible for Kuro. This was no innocent child born and raised into the life of a soldier, he was literally built cell by cell to exact specifications for his use. He was a war machine, and on his own could cause massive amounts of damage. He had come to life out of whole cloth, there were no stages of development or learning how to be what he was, he had simply woken up one day and been.

His personality was not the result of a life lived and formed from external forces. It was a creation, Kuro had spun it himself. He chose the traits he wished to display, and he could switch them at will. He chose to gloss over who he with layers of innocence and naiveté, but while there were plenty of things Kuro didn’t know, Lotor knew those layers were for show.

What everyone saw as quaint little quirks were blatant hints at his nature. He spoke bluntly not because he didn’t understand diplomacy—he certainly did—but because he didn’t have to learn to be diplomatic if he didn’t want to. He refused to follow orders or recognize authority not because he felt the people giving commands were insufferable, but because there was no reason for him to.

Kuro was aware that he was powerful. He had always been aware. He followed his own whims in all things for no other reason than because there was nothing anybody could do to force him not to. He actively chose not to cause harm, but there was nothing on this planet that could stop him from causing it if he wanted to. Even Shiro, who was on an even playing field with Kuro, would only be able to reign him in so much by physical force.

Those who had not seen him at Central Command, who had not watched him tear Galra soldiers apart once Lotor had first unleashed him, didn’t understand this because he chose to display this behavior as whimsical instead of dangerous.

That was why Kuro feared Honerva, because she was something stronger than he was. There were things she could do to him that he couldn’t shrug off.

And that was why Lotor believed he also feared Allura.

There really was no other reason why he would be avoiding her so carefully. Why when Lotor asked his three ambassadors on the Lorelia how Kuro was doing he was told that their charge tended to avoid them. Why Kuro avoided the Paladins in general, likely to avoid Keith, who was sensitive to quintessence, and Lance, who was quietly continuing to learn alchemy under Camille’s tutelage.

Kuro was avoiding alchemists. And Lotor thought he might understand why.

“What do you think?” He asked as they reached the mech Natille had been piloting. It was still cut in half, its torso sitting upright with the cockpit only a few steps up as they approached it. “Not quite Altean, not quite Galra. This design is very unique.”

He watched Kuro as they approached, looking for any signs of recognition or familiarity and not seeing any. But that didn’t mean much.

“It’s definitely weird,” Kuro allowed. “But I guess that just comes from who designed it.”

“The inner design is also very unique,” Lotor told him as they reached it. He leaned up to open the cockpit entrance, the door slowly rising upward with a loud hissing sound. “As it turns out, it’s not meant to be controlled by alchemy.”

Kuro looked at him, then back at the mech, shrugging. He was disinterested, almost bored. Very uncharacteristic of him.

“That’s cool.”

No questions, no comments. If anything, he looked like being near the mech made him uncomfortable.

“It makes me tired being too close for too long,” Lotor continued, leaning against the frame. “Allura and I have been trying to figure out why, but I have a theory. You see, Galra respond very well to quintessence, there are several in my father’s inner circle who extended their lives by thousands of years using it. Not all Galra respond to it, but a good number. So I’ve been thinking that perhaps there are gifted Galra the same way there are gifted Alteans.”

Kuro still said nothing, even though this should be right up his alley. They were talking biology and anatomy, the potential discovery of some new trait of a species. But Kuro just kicked absently at the floor and shoved his hands in his pockets in a very blatant display of indifference. Lotor could tell he was actively exaggerating the motions, in the hope that he would be excused.

“Alchemy will power them, certainly, but we think they run most efficiently on a different type of energy. One on the opposite side of the coin, as they say. It’s possible being close makes me tired because I’m compatible with the mech’s power system and it automatically syncs to me when I’m near. It’s quite fascinating.”

“Yeah, fascinating,” Kuro answered, sounding as if it very much was not. “I can’t really help you with that though, since I don’t know anything about mechs. I should go hit the lobby and wait for Adam and Allura.”

“You’re a fighter class pilot, are you not?” Lotor asked conversationally, ignoring his attempt to leave. “That was part of the programming that took?”

“I know how to pilot, yes.”

“Well why don’t you hop in, then?” Lotor patted the edge of the open cockpit. “Have a look, tell me what you think of the interface, as another pilot.”

“No,” Kuro said easily, looking up at the pilot’s hookups and refusing to come any closer. “I’d rather not.”

“Please,” Lotor answered, dropping all semblance of politeness. “I insist.”

They stared at each other, neither backing down. It was Kuro who broke first, but very clearly out of annoyance rather than weakness.

“What do you want?” He asked harshly, crossing his arms. Any facade of being clueless and sweet was gone, replaced by a calculating glare.

It was amazing, the change that took place when he felt threatened. He became far more intimidating and harsh, his stance stiffened and wary. He didn’t become aggressive, Lotor would describe the change as more defensive than anything, as if he were preparing for something unpleasant to happen to him.

“We both suspect it will react to you, I simply want to see how,” Lotor answered his blunt question with honesty. “I think you sometimes forget I’ve already seen you at your most vicious, Kuro. I know that you’re always hiding something, I just don’t care. Your business is your own, I’m only interested in whether you can contribute to my studies.

“I’ve long had suspicions that something was done to me, either before I was born or shortly after. A simple trip to the quintessence field would have just killed me in the womb, it wouldn’t have extended my life this way or made me immune to overexposure. Honerva, as Haggar, was interested in splicing genetics long before she perfected the cloning procedure that created you. I want to know if I was a prototype.”

“So what is me getting into that thing supposed to tell you?” Kuro demanded.

“That’s a question I will share once I have the answer.”

Kuro looked at the mech again, then back at him.

“I want a striker,” he answered. “Once you leave Earth’s system to go to Colony Two, I want a striker to go my own way with.”

“I had assumed you were going to either sweet talk or steal yourself one anyway,” Lotor answered dryly. “You made it fairly obvious that spending time in close quarters with Alteans wasn’t in your future plans. But certainly, I’ll save you the trouble and assign you one, and schedule you a launch before we wormhole. I assume you’ll want a week or two of supplies for yourself as well, and probably some weapons.”

“You assume right.”

“Very well. I would never send you out on your own unprepared.”

Kuro muttered something under his breath that Lotor figured was probably an unflattering Earth term he didn’t know, approaching the mech and stepping up into it. He let himself fall back into the cockpit, into the space where the pilot would stand, looking annoyed the entire time.

Almost immediately, the mech came to life. The inner workings began to light up, overlays and screens coming on in a fashion very similar to how the Lions reacted to their pilots. The lock mechanisms came out automatically, clamping onto Kuro’s arms and legs. On the outside, the seams of the machine began to glow with a purple light.

“It’s not talking to me like Blue talked to Takashi, if that’s what you’re expecting,” Kuro said after a moment, grudgingly giving in to his curiosity and examining the overlays.

“No, I didn’t think it would,” Lotor answered, leaning forward a bit to look at everything as well. “I personally believe that what animates the Lions are entities from the quintessence field, picked up by the comet they were built from. This needs no such thing, I think it’s meant to be piloted by one.”

“The druids Honerva was making?” Kuro asked, the cold look he had been giving fading now that he knew there was no point in trying to hide anything. “So she was training the kids into druids so she could dump one of those entities in them and then build them personalized death robots?”

“Yes. Natille and Haran had trouble piloting these because they weren’t yet druids, they didn’t quite have the right kind of power. Ariella is a young technical genius, she was able to beat Voltron and the Atlas because she was able to calculate on the fly what needed to be done to offset her lack of full compatibility. Can you work it?”

Kuro looked up from the overlay he was examining, one that appeared to be using some kind of sonar to build a three-dimensional model of the space they were in so its pilot could navigate. He looked over the others briefly, then looked out over the lab. One of the mech’s arms lifted, reaching to lift a nearby storage crate.

It moved smoothly, in a manner that echoed almost exactly the way Kuro’s own body moved when he wasn’t hooked up to a machine. The motion wasn’t mechanical or awkward, it was as if there were nerves of wire running through the mech’s arm responding directly to Kuro’s mental commands. Like extensions of his body.

“I don’t like this,” Kuro declared after a moment, putting the crate down. “It’s too closed in. I feel like I can’t breathe.”

“That may be because you can’t breathe,” Lotor answered. The overlays were backwards to him, so he was a bit slow as he scanned them from his view and pointed one out. “That should be your health monitor. What does it say?”

“It doesn’t say anything,” Kuro answered. “It’s blank, I don’t think it’s functioning. I really can’t breathe, I need to get out of this.”

He started pulling at the locking clamps, but they didn’t seem to want to disengage. Lotor climbed up to balance on the edge of the cockpit hatch, leaning in past him to hit the emergency shut down rather than waste time trying to explain to him where it was. The lights started to go out and the overlays began to flicker off as the mech powered down.

Between the two of them they manually disengaged the clamps, and Lotor hopped down so Kuro could stumble out.

“You’re fine,” Lotor assured him as he doubled over, leaning against his knees and taking deep breaths. “The health monitor works just as well as the other screens, it didn’t say anything because there was nothing wrong.”

“Well I sure feel like there’s something wrong!” Kuro snapped, sinking down to sit on the floor.

“Physically, there’s nothing wrong,” Lotor insisted. “The same thing happened to me when I got in it. All of my vitals were normal but I felt like I was being smothered.”

“You know, it would’ve been really nice if you’d warned me that would happen,” Kuro lifted his head from resting against his knees, glaring at him.

“If I had, you wouldn’t have gotten in,” Lotor answered, climbing back up into the mech’s opening. “I needed to see if you had the same reaction, without you knowing it might happen. And don’t pretend your ethics are any less dubious than mine.”

Kuro didn’t argue the point, he knew it was true. Once he was sure everything was shut down Lotor stepped back down, offering Kuro a hand and pulling him up off the floor.

“I think it’s because neither of us are druids,” he hypothesized. “We’re both compatible with it, but we’re not trained to manipulate quintessence in a way that would power it without affecting us. It pulls much more power than the Lions do and it does it much faster, which is probably why it has the firepower it does.”

“Okay, so I wasn’t being smothered, it was just sucking my soul out of my body to power itself because I wasn’t feeding it right,” Kuro grumbled. “That’s a lot better.”

“These things are dangerous,” Lotor ignored the sarcasm. “Not just for the targets, but for the pilots. They might be safer for the girls because they don’t have the kind of energy that the mechs siphon out so readily, but I don’t think I’m comfortable testing the theory. They should be dismantled and not used.”

“As long as I never have to go near it again, I don’t care what you do with it,” Kuro answered, coming to stand beside him and look at the darkened monstrosity. He was recovering quickly, just as Lotor had, but he was still moving slowly. “And if there is a God, I’ll be off this planet and far, far away before the Earth military decides they don’t want to dismantle them and use them anyway.”

“Once Colony Two is resupplied, I’ll come back and take them,” Lotor answered. “I’ve already thought of that potential problem, I don’t intend to leave these here long enough for the Earth military to get any ideas. I would also appreciate if you didn’t mention to Allura that we came in here…she was with me when I tried it and she doesn’t want me near it.”

“Or maybe if your girlfriend cares enough about you to ask you to not play with the dangerous robots, you should try not to play with the dangerous robots,” Kuro said disapprovingly. “Fine, I won’t mention it. But if I find out you were messing with these things after today, I’m spilling.”

“Of course you are,” Lotor agreed, well aware that if he did come in here again he’d just make sure Kuro never found out. “One more thing before you go.”

“Is it one more life-threatening thing?” Kuro asked.

“Quite the opposite.”

Lotor led him over to one of the work benches, to the shelf where extra parts and pieces of the trans-reality comet that had built Sincline were stored. There wasn’t much left, just some small scraps that weren’t useful for much and so were kept for study. Lotor picked up the small ball of what was left of a length of wire that had been used to solder. He unrolled some of it and cut it from the rest with the tools on the bench.

“May I?” He asked, holding out a hand for one of Kuro’s. Kuro looked at it with raised eyebrows.

“Dunno, man. I don’t think I’m comfortable with that, it’s kinda gay.”

He smirked at the annoyed look Lotor gave him, but let him take one of his hands. Lotor pushed up the sleeve of the t-shirt he was wearing.

“While I have had male lovers in the past, you don’t make the cut,” Lotor informed him, carefully shaping the wire so that it twisted around Kuro’s upper arm. “I’m afraid my tastes run far classier than you could manage even if you tried.”

“That would be more of a burn if you didn’t always talk like a sixteenth century lordling upset that he can’t find his favorite codpiece.”

“And I would be more insulted by that if you could count to sixteen and actually spell the word “codpiece,” Lotor answered. “Is this too tight?”

“No, I barely feel it,” Kuro flexed the muscles in his arm slightly, testing the metal as Lotor bent it into place. “What is it for?”

“Ever since I was young, I sought out quintessence,” Lotor replied. “For the longest time, I believed it was because I was addicted since birth. However, in the last two months I’ve been using the treatment I made to wean myself off it and step away, but I still find myself drawn back. There’s no reason for it…I no longer get pleasure from using it and there’s nothing I engage in that requires it.

“But I noticed, after these two months without being anywhere near a source, that I’m tired without it. Not just tired, but sometimes dizzy and sick. It’s as if works like a nutrient for me, like my body doesn’t create it so I need an outside source.

“This metal is what the Lions and Sincline are made of, it acts as a conduit to the quintessence field without actually making contact with it…like Shiro’s ship crystal does, but on a much smaller scale. I started wearing a piece of the wire around my arm because I wondered if it would “charge” me the same way the metal charges the ships, and I found that it does work wonders. It took a week before I was feeling normal, and I’m still left feeling quite exhausted for a while if I expend too much, but if I get a decent amount of sleep every night it helps sort of top me off during those hours when I’m not doing anything.”

“So what makes you think I need this?” Kuro asked. He appeared to be almost insulted by the idea, but he didn’t pull away.

“If I am indeed a prototype of some kind, perhaps the issue was fixed in the newer models,” Lotor reasoned. “But perhaps it wasn’t. You’re under no obligation to tell me if this is the case, but I suspect your eagerness to leave stems at least in part from an inability to be comfortable here. Perhaps, if this helps, you might change your mind.”

Lotor finished adjusting the wire and put the shirt sleeve back down over it. Kuro moved his arm around, testing the fit and feel.

“I have my reasons for going,” he said after a moment. “I don’t want to talk about them, but I do appreciate your concern. Even if you tried to kill me first.”

“But you didn’t die, so everything’s fine,” Lotor answered airily. “And I got some information that’s helpful to me out of it. Now you may want to go meet Adam and Allura.”

He walked Kuro out, and the other man was more than happy to meet up with that firecracker dog of his and get out of the area. Lotor made sure he was gone, then went down the hall to the small office he had been given to use while he was working with Allura here. He took the crown she had given him for safekeeping and wrapped it carefully in a piece of cloth that he’d had wrapped around some machine parts, tucking it away safely in a drawer.

When he was done he left the labs himself, heading upstairs to where he could access a comm line to make a call. He needed to speak with Kolivan.

* * * * * * * * * *

Kuro thought he was going to throw up, his stomach was roiling and he had the urge to heave. He knew he hadn’t eaten anything unusual or done anything out of the norm except mess around with that mech, so the feeling had to be entirely mental.

He didn’t really blame Lotor for his bit of deception, after all he was correct. Kuro’s own ethics and morality were also somewhat skewed, and sometimes there were just things that needed to be done to get an answer.

What was more troubling was the idea that he and Lotor might be similar in ways Lotor didn’t seem to fully understand just yet. If that were true, it didn’t bode well for Kuro. Lotor had spent ten thousand years virtually alone, watching every friend he made and every partner he took eventually die and leave him. That he was only a little bit jaded and didn’t seem to carry any serious bitterness was a miracle, and Kuro didn’t foresee that miracle happening twice.

Kuro had a very, very long life ahead of him. Human beings, Galra, and Alteans would all be entirely extinct one day, or perhaps evolved so much as to be essentially gone, and he would still be aimlessly wandering the universe. Maybe in that time he would come across Lotor again, maybe then he would decide to stick around for a little longer instead of moving on so quickly. Or maybe the universe was simply so big and went on so far in all directions that he would never see Lotor again even if they did both live until the true end of days.

Or maybe he would just go his own way for a year and then pop back in on Colony Two with an Alpha Centauri-sourced tan and massive complaints about the service at the newest space mall. He didn’t have an existential day planner at the moment, his schedule was always open for change.

Either way, he was leaving. He didn’t want to get attached to these humans, with their short, tiny lifespans and their fragile, easily broken bodies. Most of them were probably going to die in the upcoming war with Honerva, Kuro didn’t need that kind of stress. He wanted to disengage as soon as possible, disconnect from them all and go find somewhere to hang out dissecting alien lizards until the dust settled.

He wanted to get the hell away from Curtis, before this Duchesne-induced stupidity he was suffering from got worse.

He’d been doing very well with the avoidance in the beginning. He’d only agreed to go out to dinner and attend this dance thing because he’d been sure he could keep an emotional distance. He liked Curtis, but he was fond of telling himself that he didn’t like like him. The only reason he hadn’t beaten the hell out of him was because he was a doctor and it went against his beliefs.

It wasn’t because he didn’t want to see Curtis hurt. It wasn’t because he hoped the fact that Curtis just kept keep coming back meant he was sincere, and that he might eventually learn something and redeem himself. It wasn’t because their personalities clicked together almost perfectly—when they were on speaking terms—in a way that sometimes made him feel like he was talking to his more reasonable half.

That was what he told himself, anyway. And he needed to get off this planet before he wasn’t able to get by on that comforting untruth anymore.

He reached the lobby before Allura, but in time to see Adam climbing out of a familiar Corvette. Kuro hid down a side hallway while he waited for them to finish talking and for Curtis to leave, absently rubbing the arm where his new metal armlet rested. It was very light and easy to even forget was there, but it also sent a pleasant sort of tingling over his skin.

It was similar to what he felt when he was resting against the balmera crystal on the Atlas. Not as strong, this thing would take much longer to raise his strength, but it had the added benefit of being there at all times. It was also working, his discomfort from the mech was beginning to fade even though he had worried he’d been drained enough to need another trip to the Atlas engine room.

Curtis finally left, and Adam came into the public lobby of the Garrison main wing. He walked slowly through, stopping near a desk and looking around. He wasn’t looking for any of them, he seemed to be taking in the scenery. Kuro came out to join him, glancing over at the television set in the wall behind the receptionist desk.

“Just waiting on Allura,” he announced, scratching Hoshi behind the ears and sending her off on her own. He didn’t think the mall would appreciate having her there. “Is it weird to be here again?”

“A little bit,” Adam admitted, looking down at him. He was wearing glasses now, which was a little weird. Kuro had heard from Takashi about how Adam had always worn glasses, but he’d never seen him use them before. It was kind of pointless, since his eyes weren’t real. “I didn’t really come through this lobby very often though, just when I had to stop in the main office for something first thing.”

He looked over at the TV screen as well. It was showing news clips regarding local things, like the rebuild efforts and information on where to go for shelter as the weather grew colder.

“This was where I was standing when a news reporter announced Takashi was dead,” Adam said after a moment. “It wasn’t supposed to air until that evening, we were supposed to be briefed so we weren’t caught by surprise. I always thought that was a lie and that Iverson was just telling me that to cover up that they hadn’t thought to inform me. Now I know Montgomery sold the story before he had a chance to warn me.”

Kuro wasn’t exactly small, but Adam still stood taller than he did and the many people of far more average size passing by kept looking at him in awe. Many of them recognized Adam’s face, and Kuro could hear the whispers as they went by.

“These kids think I’m the ideal soldier,” Adam scoffed when he saw Kuro looking in the direction of two who were hurrying by exchanging hushed gossip and staring. “The Galaxy Garrison fighter pilot who went out to meet the Galra head on when the invasion came. Survived more than a year trapped behind enemy lines, fought my way free and made it home.”

“That is technically what happened,” Kuro answered. “In the simplest of terms.”

“In the simplest of terms,” Adam repeated. “A lot of them want to be just like me now. I wonder if they’d feel the same way if they’d seen me crying hysterically at the hospital.”

“Yeah, kids are stupid,” Kuro agreed. “But it’s a biological stage of brain chemistry adjustment, they eventually grow out of it. Most of them, anyway. The ones that don’t eventually become your ex-boyfriend.”

Adam smiled a little at that, proving that his less than pleasant musings didn’t necessarily mean he was in a bad mood. Allura finally appeared, still fixing the zipper of the Altean clothes she was wearing even as she jogged across the lobby. She had grabbed a shower in the locker rooms, and gotten rid of the pajamas in favor of the flight suit she wore for trips up to the cruiser.

“Sorry!” She panted as she reached them, her cheeks taking on a faint pink tinge as she craned her neck up to look at them. She was so tiny compared to the two of them. “I didn’t mean to make you wait!”

“I guess it’s my job to do introductions,” Kuro supposed. “Allura, this annoyingly tall Librarian Porn actor is Adam. Adam, this unapologetic little jailbird is Allura.”

“I was doing a public service, I have no reason to apologize,” Allura answered, shaking Adam’s offered hand. “It’s wonderful to meet you, I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Unless at least half of it was bad, it was lies,” Adam answered. “But Lance, James, and Romelle were singing your praises back during one of our rest stops.”

“Unless at least half of it was bad, it was also lies,” Allura said with a smile. “James is far too polite to be honest, and Lance and Romelle are too kind.”

“I think you’re both terrible,” Kuro offered. “Bossy. Pushy. Unfairly suited for warm colors.”

“It’s not our fault you’re a winter,” Adam answered, stepping back a little and taking out his phone, motioning for them to pass him and go out the door. A car was pulling up, the driver looking at his own phone. “Curtis offered to drive me, but I wanted to get around myself for a little bit.”

Kuro saw him shoot a glance at him as he opened the door for them to step outside, and knew Adam was just trying to make things easier on him after seeing he and Curtis were fighting the other night. On one hand it was annoying that anyone was getting involved at all, no matter how minor. But on the other, it was a good thing he did. Kuro didn’t think Curtis had been fully aware that Adam wasn’t going shopping by himself, or he probably wouldn’t have offered.

The driver of the car outside checked a code on his phone against one on Adam’s, and then Adam opened the door for Allura. Kuro slid in next to her and Adam took the front, giving the driver an address and then twisting in his seat to look back at them while they drove.

“So you’re the one whose giant mechanical lion kidnapped three of my students, my ex, and his bratty little adoptee.”

Kuro glanced over at Allura, who suddenly looked like a deer in headlights. He could see she was fighting back the urge to point out that technically it had been his giant mechanical lion who had kidnapped them, since they’d all agreed to give it at least a week before they broke that bit of news to him. They all knew Adam was aware of the Blue Lion, but probably not his connection to it.

“My father’s lion,” Allura took the safer route. “I…I was frozen at the time, I really had nothing to do with it. But nonetheless…I’m very sorry about that.”

Adam raised his eyebrow and looked between them, his expression one of mild concern. Kuro raised a hand and gestured toward Adam’s head.

“It’s your resting bitch face,” he pointed out. “It makes everything coming out of your mouth sound serious. She’s also two feet tall, you’re very large and imposing.”

“I am not two feet tall!” Allura began to tinge pink again, now realizing Adam was teasing. “And he’s not imposing, I’m just…very polite!”

Adam cracked a smile, resting his chin on the back of his seat. “Not according to your new police record.”

“Public service record,” Allura insisted. “Oh…where are we going?”

Out the window, the view was going from the mostly tidy streets going from the Garrison through town to the vaguely maneuverable roads of the areas that had finished being cleared but hadn’t yet begun restoration. They were passing into a section of the city that hadn’t seen a lot of direct damage from the invasion, one of the handful of spots that didn’t carry any infrastructure importance and so had been mostly ignored by the Galra.

“I need to pick up some stuff,” Adam answered, turning around to face front in his seat.

It was difficult to have candid conversation with a stranger driving, so Kuro and Allura fell quiet and watched the passing scenery. He could tell they were taking a long route, the car passed by streets that were still too blocked to get down and went around places where buildings were fallen.

They finally stopped at the entrance of a self-storage lot, where a tired, middle-aged man was waiting in the cab of a beaten up old car. Adam tipped their driver and climbed, out and Kuro and Allura scrambled to follow.

“Mr. Wolfe?” The older man called as he made his way over. “Well I’ll be damned, it really is you. Thought I was being pranked.”

“Jimmy,” Adam greeted. “Thanks for coming out, I know it’s a pain since you’re still closed down.”

“Eh, I’m not going to say no to a little bit of business,” Jimmy answered, taking out his keys and unlocking the gate to give them access. “Not a lot of that coming my way from this particular venture these days. Most people don’t have a lot left to store, and anyone still alive to claim their things already came back to clear them out.”

Adam reached into his coat and took out a fat envelope, passing it over to him. Jimmy took it and opened it, his eyebrows going up in surprise.

“We agreed on the last four months,” he pointed out. “That’s how long the road’s been clear for people to get here…and I’ve still got a TV, I know you haven’t been around.”

“All I have left are the couple boxes of things the Garrison stored while I was gone,” Adam protested. “And they didn’t take very good care of most of it. My whole life’s in this storage unit and you’ve kept it safe for a year and a half, I’m paying you for a year and a half.”

Jimmy seemed like an honest enough man, but he wasn’t about to argue further about accepting an envelope of cash when he was struggling. A year and a half’s worth of rent when he’d been more than happy to get four months was probably a godsend.

Adam had clearly made calls and gotten his accounts all in order, which Kuro doubted had been very hard. From what he’d seen it was usually far longer than a year and a half for things to go completely dormant, and it wasn’t like there had been anyone around to care about getting him declared dead and closing up his estate.

Jimmy motioned for them to follow him to his car, which he used to take them across the large property through roads lined with bright blue garage doors. There were bits of rubble here and there, but for the most part the storage lot was untouched. Being out in the industrial zone had helped a lot, since the Galra had been more interested in destroying more important areas. The car stopped on the far side of the storage facility, where the larger units were.

“Want me to wait?” Jimmy offered as they got out of the car, blowing on his hands. The vehicle didn’t have heat, so stepping back out into the winter air wasn’t exactly a shock.

“No, I have a ride back when I’m done,” Adam answered. “But thank you. And I don’t really have a permanent place just yet, so I’m going to have to keep storying a lot of the stuff here. I’m guessing I can just call you at the beginning of the month and pay in cash?”

“Yup. You’ve got the number,” Jimmy answered, trying not to look delighted at the prospect of a steady customer again. He handed Adam a flashlight out his open window. “You’ll need this, the electricity’s not quite up yet. I’m gonna head down the road for a coffee, just pull the gate closed when you leave and send me a text, I’ll come lock her back up after you’re done.”

He left them, and Adam walked over to one of the storage units. The blue garage door had a smaller doorway next to it, and he dug out his keys and opened it, stepping in and turning on the flashlight.

Kuro let Allura follow first, pulling out his phone as he brought up the rear and turning on the flashlight. Ahead of him she did the same, looking around curiously at the collection of boxes and furniture-shaped tarps. It was a pretty big storage unit, and it looked like it had a full apartment’s worth of belongings in it.

“I moved my stuff here when Sam came back to Earth,” Adam told them, picking his way over to some boxes labeled Bedroom. “We knew the Galra were an imminent threat and I was working pretty much 24/7 on the MFEs. I packed up my place, dropped the lease, and moved into the barracks.”

“You were lucky,” Allura marveled, reaching out to lightly poke at the shade of a tall lamp that had little hanging crystals around the bottom edge. “It looks like everything is safe and in one piece. I’m glad for you though, you’ve certainly been through enough.”

Adam was lifting some clothes out of the opened boxes, and not the jeans and sweater type of clothes he was wearing today. These looked designer, each carefully stored in its own plastic wrapping before it had been put in the box. He set what he was looking at down and crossed the unit, heading for the biggest tarps resting in the middle toward the front.

He pulled the tarp away to reveal a dark blue car, still shiny and clean after so long left here. He pressed the fob on his key ring and the door unlocked, letting him slide into the driver seat and slide a key in the ignition. Adam closed his eyes and said a little prayer as he turned it, grinning when the car started up with a welcoming purr.

The dome light that came on revealed that the car was a whole lot nicer than the one they’d paid to get here, and definitely a lot nicer than Jimmy’s. The emblem was four interlocking rings, but Kuro didn’t know what brand that was.

Adam left the car on and turned on the heat to start warming, going to throw open the garage door to let in more light. Then he went to a smaller tarp and pulled it aside to show a meticulously cared for motorcycle.

He took a few minutes to inspect the bike, making sure all was well, then popped the car trunk and started pulling clothes out of boxes and piling them neatly inside.

“Are these yours?” Allura’s voice came from back behind some furniture, and she appeared holding an open box filled with medals, trophies, and framed certificates. “I’m sorry, it said Bedroom, I thought it might be more clothes.”

“It’s okay,” Adam took the box and set it down on a chair, gently sifting through the contents. “No, these aren’t mine. They’re Takashi’s. I didn’t have the heart to throw away his things after the Kerberos crash was announced, his stuff has just been sitting here in boxes.”

That certainly piqued Kuro’s interest. Adam noticed, motioning him over toward the far corner.

“Over there, if you want to look. They’re the ones with the “T” in the top corner.”

Kuro went to the area he’d indicated and found some boxes marked with a T, as well as some furniture that had been separated away from the rest. A disassembled bed, a dresser, some bookshelves. He picked one of the heavier boxes and opened it up to take a look.

Comic books, carefully stowed in plastic sleeves. A few sci-fi book series, some motorcycle magazines. There was a large manila envelope marked “cards” that Kuro opened, carefully withdrawing a pile of colored envelopes. Takashi’s name was written on the front of each in kanji. Kuro took them out one by one, birthday cards and Christmas cards and the occasional card for some other life event like graduation or an academic award.

Each one had a letter written inside, saying how much Takashi was missed and how much he was loved, detailing recent goings-on with familiar Seattle neighbors, talking about things happening with family. The words were punctuated with little happy faces and small doodles, and although they were also written in Japanese they were all signed in English as “Mama.”

The handwriting was painfully familiar even though Kuro knew he’d never seen it before, the shape of the loops and the tendency to veer out of alignment while writing. The age of some of the cards reinforced what he already knew, that Takashi had known his mother was dying early on and had kept these little notes to remember her by.

He put them back into place and picked up a Garrison yearbook, flipping through the pages. He found Takashi’s picture under the list of first year students, looking so very young and childlike. Kuro had never looked that way, he had always been an adult, seeing his own face looking that young caused a little bit of cognitive dissonance.

He went through the yearbooks, effectively watching both Takashi and Adam grow up. After that were the newspaper clippings carefully stowed in a binder, likely cut out and kept by Adam for posterity.

New Garrison Graduate To Lead Flight Unit: Youngest Officer In History

World Sparring Champion Is First Under 25 To Take Title

New Record Set For International Flight Scores

Youngest Co-Pilot On A Space Mission Will Head To Mars Next Month

Takashi’s picture was in many of them, smiling and idealistic in black and white, looking so carefree and happy. It put the faint circles that were always under his eyes now into contrast, made the scars that covered him now more noticeable.

“Want to put those in the car?”

Kuro jumped a little, almost dropping the book. He hadn’t heard Adam come up behind him, and he closed the binder quickly even though he knew what he was looking at was already known.

“Takashi doesn’t know I still have them,” Adam said, leaning around him to peek into another box. “Or these clothes. He’d probably like it if you brought them by.”

“He probably would,” Kuro agreed, piling the books on top of the clothes box and lifting them both with ease. “He thinks all this stuff is gone.”

He took the things over to the car, which didn’t have a trunk big enough to take everything that was probably wanted. Adam was picking and choosing carefully, taking only what he couldn’t wait to come back for later.

“Oh!” Allura’s voice came from the back, followed by sounds of struggling. They jogged back to find her holding up a cheap utility shelf whose front leg had been bent, trying to keep it from falling. “I’m sorry! It’s my fault, I stepped on the bottom shelf to reach the top one, I thought it was much more sturdy!”

Kuro helped her right the bulky shelf while Adam went outside and found a piece of brick to shore it up. Once it was steady he reached up to pull the hard black case down from the top, offering it to her.

“Was this what you were trying to see?”

It had a half-moon shape to it, and she blushed again as she took it from him.

“Yes,” she answered, looking oddly embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to be nosy. I just thought it looked familiar, I wasn’t going to—”

“It’s all right,” Adam cut her off gently, taking the case again and carrying it over to lay it on a coffee table. “Anything I care about other people seeing is locked in a safe deposit box up in Colorado.”

Kuro was far less embarrassed about being nosy. He followed them over to see what was so special about the case, which Adam opened to reveal a bow and a collection of arrows. He lifted out the bow and offered it to Allura, who carefully took it and held it as if it were made of glass.

“It’s for deer hunting,” Adam said. “Sometimes I would go camping to clear my head, I like to hunt and fish instead of taking a lot of supplies with me. Have you ever used one?”

“No,” Allura admitted, looking a little bit sad. “My mother’s specialty was the bow, I was supposed to learn that after I mastered the staff…but she never got the chance to teach me. The closest I really got was pretending I used one once when we played Monsters and Mana.”

Adam let her hold the weapon, turning it over in her hands to get a good look at it. After a moment he picked up some arrows and a small strap.

“Come here,” he requested, leading them past the car and back out into the empty lane of the silent storage lot. He took her out into the middle of it and handed all but one of the arrows to Kuro to hold. Then he handed Allura the strap. “Put this around your wrist.”

She did as she was told, toying with the little clip on the end. Adam took her other hand and placed it on the grip of the bow, gently turning her sideways.

“This is a compound bow, it’s easier to draw than a traditional one. This little strap-on clip you’re wearing is called a caliper release. Hold your bow up like this—no, straighten your arm a little…like that—and put your arrow on.”

Kuro stayed out of the way, paying attention to the little lesson as well. Guns and blades were in his programming, but not bows.

Adam was definitely different now than he had been back on the facility. Not hurting, not scared, not a wounded animal lashing out at anything that got close. He was soft-spoken and gentle and seemingly immune to frustration, even when Allura managed to drop the arrow no less than three times before she got a feel for how this type of bow worked.

“Now clip your release onto that little loop right behind the arrow. Got it? Draw the string back. Make sure you use your arms and back. Normally a compound bow will lock back at full draw, but this is set for me and your arms are shorter so you have to use your judgement. See the little piece on the string? It’s called the sight. Line it up with that other piece on the bow there, it’s how you aim. Go ahead and shoot the wall over there.”

“It’s brick,” Allura protested. “Won’t that ruin your arrows?”

“I can buy more arrows. Aim for that splotch of white paint in the middle there. When you’re ready to fire, open the release.”

Allura took a very long few moments to try and line up her shot, her draw arm a bit unsteady since she didn’t have experience. Adam braced her, doing his best to keep her steady without interfering with her efforts, and when she finally sent the arrow flying and hit the wall she let out an excited squeak.

It missed the mark by like, a mile, but Kuro wasn’t going to judge.

Adam let her shoot three more arrows, each one coming closer and closer to its target as she got the feel of the weapon. He stopped when he decided her fingers felt like they were getting too cold, and herded the back into the garage while he went to collect the arrows. When he came back he put the bent arrows in the trunk and put the bow away in its case with the others, snapping it closed.

“Here,” he offered the case to Allura. “The Garrison has space for archery on their shooting range. You can adjust it for your pull and borrow it for a while.”

“Are you sure?” Allura asked uncertainly, in spite of looking very eager to take him up on the offer.

“I’m not going hunting any time soon,” Adam answered. “I’m going to be a little bit too busy looking for a place of my own and finding something to do with in my early retirement.”

Kuro and Allura exchanged a look, both knowing that Adam’s so-called early retirement would soon be coming to a screeching halt. And Kuro knew his search for a new place to live was going to be absolutely spectacular once he started ordering copies of his identification documents and found out there was also a marriage certificate out there.

He made a mental note to warn Takashi about that. There still wasn’t any consensus on when the best time would be to tell Adam that as a group they’d dosed him with drugs and convinced him to sign a marriage agreement.

“I think this is enough for now,” Adam announced, putting one last box of Takashi’s clothes in the trunk. “I’ll come back for other stuff later. Kuro, take her out for me so I can lock up?”

Kuro got into the car, adjusting the seat up a little bit, and carefully pulled it up and out of the storage unit. He brought it to a stop with a sudden jerk that made even him wince, not entirely used to braking. He’d brought Curtis’ car to a slamming stop every time the other night, but since he wasn’t pissed off at Adam he felt bad about doing it to his obviously very nice car.

Adam closed up the unit and came over to the driver side of the car, opening the back door for Allura. Kuro climbed back out, but Adam put a hand on his head and pushed him back down.

“You can drive,” he stated, closing both doors at once and making his way around to the passenger side.

“I feel like that’s a very subjective statement,” Kuro warned once Adam was in and fastening his seatbelt. “According to the State of New Mexico no, I cannot drive. According to Curtis Duchesne and the New Mexico State Troopers, I also cannot drive.”

“Left makes car go, right makes car stop,” Adam said airily, adjusting the glasses that were now once again darkened against the outside light.

He paused briefly, then put his hand over his heart and said the first six words of the Pledge of Allegiance to himself. Having then identified his left and right, he corrected himself.

“Right makes car go, left makes car stop. Red light means stop, green light means go.”

“Yellow light means go faster so you get through before it’s red,” Allura said helpfully from in back. Adam shot her a thumbs up instead of disagreeing.

“Oh my God, it’s finally happened,” Kuro muttered to himself as he gave in and nudged the car into motion. “I’ve found people more dangerous than me. Allura, put your seat belt on please.”

He had been freaking out too badly to pay much attention while driving Curtis’ car, but in the quieter hours after he was back in his bunk he’d thought about it and felt sick about how many people he’d put at risk. It was one thing to endanger himself but a whole other to endanger innocent motorists on the road, and he knew he’d been wrong. Now Adam was handing him a car that probably cost more than his life and not even batting an eye, and he was way too paranoid for this.

They got to the end of the row, up toward the front of the lot, and he hit the brake hard again. Allura made an ‘oof’ sound as she was thrown against her seatbelt.

“Gently,” Adam advised.

Like Curtis, he was completely calm. Either neither of them really cared if they died, or they were both sharing the same bottle of Valium.

Kuro grit his teeth and made a right-hand turn, driving along the fence to their point of entry. He hit the brake again, trying to be gentle but not entirely sure what “gentle” entailed in reference to a car and throwing them both against their seatbelts again.

“You need to drive,” he announced, taking his hands off the wheel. “I’m not doing this.”

“Just…pull out onto the street and wait,” Adam sighed, climbing out to open the gate.

“You weren’t afraid of flying my Sincline through a wall of enemy ships, but you’re afraid of driving a car?” Allura asked. Kuro gave her a dirty look in the rear view mirror and pulled the car out onto the street, wincing as he still ended up braking too hard.

Adam closed the gate up behind them and texted Jimmy, then got back into the passenger seat.

“Okay, let’s just start from the beginning, okay?”

“Or you could drive,” Kuro suggested.

“No, you need to learn,” Adam insisted. “What if I get mauled by a bear?”

“Then you’ll never mouth off in that bar again,” Kuro answered. “And Allura will have to take the wheel.”

“No, Allura’s going to have to use the bow to defend the car while you drive.”

“What’s a bear?” Allura asked, looking suddenly wary. “Are they common in rough parts of a city?”

“No, they hang out in the same places as everybody else. That’s a very rude assumption,” Kuro answered. Adam smacked him lightly in the side of the head.

“Stop it, I’m not explaining subcultures just because you’re just as bad as the original.”

“Give me a little bit of credit,” Kuro scoffed. “I’m at least twice as bad as the original.”

“Ignore him, Allura,” Adam advised. “Kuro, put your hands on the wheel.”

Kuro gave an exaggerated sigh and did as he was told. Adam leaned over and took his hands away from the top, moving them down toward the bottom.

“Don’t drive with your hands high. If you do get in an accident and the airbag goes off, it will punch you in the face with your own hands. The general consensus is to keep your hands on three and nine, but I want you to keep yours low. Just like if you were piloting a striker.”

“This car is nothing like a striker.”

“Yes it is,” Adam said calmly. “You’re panicking because you’re used to piloting something that can maneuver better and evade more efficiently. A striker can go up and down and sideways, and all a car can do is go forward and backward and turn. But I promise you that you’ll be fine, because you’re going to be moving a lot slower. You know how to fire a gun, right?”

“Yes,” Kuro said unhappily, trying not to grip the steering wheel so hard he damaged it.

“Know how you don’t pull the trigger, you squeeze?”

“Yes.”

“Use that same concept on the car pedals. You don’t step on the gas or brake, you ease them down slowly. The striker decelerator just has settings you hit, but you can’t do that here. Just ease the brake down when you’re about half a block away from where you want to stop. So you concentrate on driving, I’ll give you directions.”

Kuro took a breath and did as he was instructed, slowly nudging the gas a little harder than back in the storage lot. The expensive car responded immediately, picking up speed smoothly.

Adam gave him directions, taking them back the way they’d initially come by way of the taxi. He eventually directed him to an onramp for the highway, which was when Kuro started to get nervous again. He had thought he’d been panicking before with Curtis, but now that he was actually in a decent frame of mind to care about other people on the road he was afraid he was going to hurt someone.

“Put on your turn signal,” Adam advised. Kuro remembered that one from Curtis, he hit the little bar and the clicking noise filled he car. “Do not cut anyone off. Slow down, us the mirror there to see if anything is coming, and merge into an opening.”

Kuro managed to pull that off easily enough, that really was similar to flying a striker. It was also similar to Takashi’s experience with flying fighter jets. He knew how to fly in formation and he knew how to get into formation, so merging into traffic turned out to be far less strenuous than expected.

“Get in the middle lane and keep driving. And stick to the speed limit.”

“This isn’t the way to the mall,” Allura warned, looking out the window.

“No,” Kuro agreed, carefully merging over into the middle lane. Honestly, Adam was right. At the legal speed limit, safe maneuvering was easy and he really could control the car better if he kept his hands low like he was flying a Galra craft. “It’s the way to the next town over.”

“I can’t buy a suit off the rack, I need one fitted,” Adam informed them. “There’s a bridal shop there that does formal wear, Curtis says it’s open again.”

Kuro hoped this would be a better experience than the restaurant. He turned his attention to driving while Adam and Allura chatted, noticing a pattern after a few minutes. Adam was participating but kept turning the conversation around on Allura, letting her talk mostly about herself without volunteering too much of his own personal information. It was likely a habit that came from being a teacher, from wading through the problems of teenagers to find the source without giving away anything about his own personal life.

It didn’t bother Allura. Adam got her to talk about Altea, and about the Castle of Lions, two things he didn’t think she really got to talk about much. He was curious, and she was happy to oblige for the half an hour it took to reach their destination.

* * * * * * * * * *

Once they were across the desert, Adam directed him again until he was carefully pulling into a parking space in the lot of a row of neat buildings that didn’t have much on them except for writing on the doors to indicate what they were. There was a law office, a consulting business, and a bridal boutique.

Adam took his time so that Allura got out first, leaning over to give Kuro a light jab in the shoulder.

“So can we agree that the next time you steal a car you’ll at least drive it more responsibly?”

Kuro had the grace to look a little bit guilty as the got out, and Adam led them down to the door marked as the bridal boutique. He held the door open for them, glad to get back in out of the cold even though they’d only been out in it for a few seconds.

There was no big sign on the door because it wasn’t necessary. This was the kind of place people came because they were referred, invited, or already knew it existed. There was a little lobby decorated in chic modern furniture, and the slender, bubbly girl who took them in back when Adam gave his name looked like she was too worried about her figure to have eaten a real meal in months.

Adam came here whenever he needed a suit fitted, because they were the only place within traveling distance that understood his pickiness about his clothes. Most places worried more about the look, dolling their customers up as expensively as possible, but Adam hated how uncomfortable most designer clothes were. He liked things with soft fabric linings and materials that weren’t stiff, and being a very active person meant he didn’t like certain narrow cuts or styles.

He was a difficult customer, he knew that. And from what he’d seen in the Abyss and heard from Curtis, Kuro probably was as well.

They were taken back to one of the reserved rooms, one with some chairs lining one wall and a small platform in front of a semicircle of mirrors at the other. Allura seemed a little bit familiar with the setup, but Kuro didn’t look anywhere near so trusting.

Adam led by example, shrugging off his coat and hanging it by the door, and tugging off his gloves. When Allura told them she was there for a dress one cheerful woman swept her away to the back to get a look at what they had to offer. Adam stepped up on the platform as another pulled out a tape measure, doing his best to stand still while she took his measurements with quick, no-nonsense motions.

“So, you’re looking for a place?” Kuro asked after the woman had disappeared into the back. “Like, a new apartment? To live by yourself?”

“Well, I like staying with Curt, but I don’t want to take up his space,” Adam answered, making his way to the edge of the platform to look at himself in the large mirrors.

He needed still needed to gain a little bit of weight. He was healthy now, sure, but he needed to pack on a little bit of muscle, get back to where he was before the invasion.

“But not an apartment,” he admitted, wondering if his honesty sounded stupid. “I’m thinking about a house. My grandmother used to have a garden, she grew all kinds of wildflowers and had hummingbird feeders and wind chimes. Apartments are nice when you’re just starting out, but I think I deserve a garden.”

“What about a roommate?” Kuro asked, sitting on the edge of the platform. “Or a…housemate. Is that a word?”

“It’s a word.” Adam gave him a sideways glance. “Why, are you looking for somewhere to live?”

“Not me, no. But Keith’s getting older, and now he’s dating the loud one who was possessed, he’ll probably want to live on his own soon. Which means Takashi will be out a roommate.”

It was so different, hearing somebody else call Takashi by his given name. His family did, of course, but they were mostly in Japan with a few relatives scattered across the States, for the majority of their time together Adam had been the only one to call him that. He was just used to hearing him referred to as Shiro.

But then, it was also a bit funny having Kuro there at all. No scars, black hair, what Takashi would have looked like if he had never been taken by the Galra.

“Are you trying to be his wingman?” Adam asked lightly, glossing over the awkwardness of the subject matter with levity. “He’s a grown man, he doesn’t need it.”

“I’m just curious,” Kuro answered without apology. “You went to a lot of trouble to make sure he wasn’t anywhere Honerva would hurt him when you went after her. Caused me a lot of trouble while you were at it. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of long-game insanity somebody would go for without a reason.”

“Oh, no, that’s just what I do,” Adam corrected him, straightening up as the clerk came back in with some suits over her arm. “Long-game insanity is my thing, it keeps everyone on their toes. I don’t like being predictable.”

He stepped down off the platform as she hung four suits up on pegs on the wall, letting him get a look at the styles. Adam picked at the sleeves and felt the vest fabrics, judging what was on offer.

“But aside from that, Takashi chose to go to space for a reason.” A whole host of reasons of course, from his health to his vanity, that had not yet been addressed. “I don’t know what his plans are, or even much about what he does now. Captain of a ship I never got to see completed, but I don’t know anything about the state of this war. We’re going to have to set aside a few hours this weekend to have a little chat.”

By chat he meant they were probably going to fight. Seeing each other again had been nice, and relief had overwhelmed everything else, But they still hadn’t parted on the best terms and they still both had issues that hadn’t been laid out, they were two strong personalities and they had both been stewing in the aftermath of their breakup and waiting for the chance to make their complaints heard.

“I wouldn’t worry about Takashi,” Adam picked the suit with the more modern cut, the one that looked less like a stuffy, formal tux and more like he was about to make millions in a narcotics deal then go bang a model on a yacht. “He doesn’t need help. He’s stubborn, driven, and he eventually figures out what he wants. But what about you? It’s been two months and you’re still staying in that little cabin on that ship?”

Kuro reluctantly stepped up onto the platform, standing stiffly as he was measured and looking like he was doing his best not to kick the hand holding the tape measure when it came time to get his inseam.

“It’s fine. I don’t need a lot of room. And they gave me a common room at the back of the ship, so I even have my own little lab.”

“Still, it’s so cramped. Takashi or Curtis would’ve helped you find a better place if you’d wanted.”

“I didn’t want.”

Adam knew that Kuro was leaving. He’d heard it from Takashi and he’d heard it from Curtis, and while they’d been waiting to start their meeting the other night he’d heard Kuro talking to Lotor about when they were leaving for Colony Two. Lots of people were trying to push him to stay, in their own ways.

Adam didn’t. Kuro could make his own decisions, and it wasn’t fair to steamroll over the fact that he likely had his reasons. And they were probably compelling reasons, if he ever wanted to share them. He knew what he needed, and nobody else was in a position to tell him he was wrong.

Some people were lost, some people weren’t. Some people needed to be told what to do, but other people just needed friends.

So Adam didn’t push, or force the conversation in that direction. Instead he came over closer as the clerk went to go see what they had in Kuro’s size, intentionally bumping into him lightly as he stepped down off the platform.

“Just so you know,” he gestured in the direction the woman had gone, then back to the modern cut suits on the wall. “When she asks you what you want, suit jackets do come in leather.”

 

Chapter Text

Shiro’s knock on the door was answered by a woman in a wheelchair, with little strips of red and green mixed into her long, braided hair and a Santa hat on her head. Her bright blue eyes would have told him he had the right place, even if she hadn’t looked like a prettier version of Curtis.

She was a chipper woman, leading him into the living room just as Shiro caught sight of Curtis coming down the stairs in the hall.

“You’re not leaving because I came over, are you?” Shiro asked warily as Curtis grabbed a set of keys out of a dish near the door and reached for his coat.

It was Saturday, and he was acutely aware that he had pretty much invited himself to the house, unwilling to wait until Adam decided he wanted company. It was pushy of him, yes, also more than a little bit rude since there was no reason for him to assume he was welcome in Curtis’ house, but Shiro had always gone after what he wanted instead of waiting for it to fall into his lap.

“No, we actually have to go pick up our parents at the airport,” Curtis answered, handing another coat to his sister. “They’re coming here for Christmas. I don’t care if you’re here, just don’t burn anything down.”

“Wait, is this the doctor’s brother?” Curtis’ sister asked.

“Estelle, come on, we’ll be late,” Curtis said quickly, grabbing the coat he’d just handed her and pulling it up to cover her face. “Here, it’s cold.”

“Ooh, he is,” Estelle said triumphantly, fighting the muffling fabric away. “They’re twins, right? Wow, finally an upgrade. Can I take a picture of you to show my sister?”

“No,” Curtis said firmly.

“Yes,” Shiro said immediately, enjoying his discomfort. “His hair is still black, though. And no scar.”

He smiled cheerfully so Estelle could snap a picture, the smile growing wider when Curtis stood behind her and glared at him with his arms crossed. Shiro didn’t really know anything about Curtis’ private life, but he could tell he was embarrassed. Knowing sisters, he was probably being hazed incessantly over Ryou.

And Shiro was only too happy to contribute to that. He didn’t know what the two were fighting about, but he knew there was a fight and he was pretty sure he was required by law to take Ryou’s side in it.

“Adam’s in the kitchen,” Curtis grumbled when Estelle finished, opening the door for her to go out first. “I’ll be back in a couple hours.”

He closed the door behind them, cutting off the cold breeze and letting the warmth of inside fill the space where the chill had been. Shiro took a moment to poke around, getting a look at the place where his subordinate lived.

Curtis had money, he could tell just by looking. Maybe not on Adam’s level, but the Garrison didn’t exactly pay a CEO salary and this place was nice. There were a lot of dark woods, from the hardwood floor covered by a large throw rug to the exposed-beam style of the ceiling. Wine-colored walls, a big stone fireplace, a wet bar in the corner that looked like it was made for whiskey tastings.

It was decorated too, in a way that made Shiro feel kind of cheap for the boxes of tinsel and foil garland he had back at home. The fireplace and windows were draped with real pine garland, the fresh scent filling the room, and the large Christmas tree in one corner was filled with elegant, spun glass baubles and ornaments. It was like something out of a Hallmark Christmas movie in here.

He would not have guessed Curtis lived in a place like this. It wasn’t huge, but it was nice, and cozy in a way Shiro hadn’t thought existed outside of home décor magazines. Curtis, on the other hand, came off as a man who was sweet and polite strictly as a cover for the fact that he was always two heartbeats away from throwing down with anyone who looked at him with the wrong tone of voice. He was a skilled soldier, not afraid to get dirty or rough it, immediately following orders no matter how dangerous. This was the kind of house generally inhabited by people who dodged military service and bought their way into cushy jobs.

He began to understand why Adam and Curtis had been friends, even with the age difference.

Shiro finally left the living room, stepping through the archway opposite of the front door, past the wooden staircase. The hallway he was in led straight back to what looked like the back door, and there were some doors on one side he guessed probably led to closets or a downstairs bathroom.

To his right there was a larger archway that opened into a formal dining room, and as he stepped through it he found the kitchen separated from that by a breakfast bar. Adam was at the stove, humming along to Christmas music. He glanced up when Shiro came in but didn’t stop what he was doing.

“Thought I heard you come in. Did you have trouble finding the place? You know, since nobody gave you the address?”

“I had it on good authority you’re driving a car I already hacked the Lojack on years ago,” Shiro answered, smirking a little and pleased with his quick answer as he came around the counter into the kitchen. “I’m surprised you never got that replaced.”

He crossed his arms and leaned one hip against the counter next to the stove, watching Adam toss and flip the contents of a big pan. The smell of chicken and vegetables filled the room.

“Stir fry? It’s nine in the morning.”

“Strangely enough, my stomach can’t tell time,” Adam answered lightly. “It’s still following my brain’s Galra schedule.”

There was a slight sharpness to his voice when he mentioned the Galra that was both good and bad. Good, because it sounded like Adam was beginning to regain his mental footing and was feeling well enough for his attitude to begin returning full force. Bad, because Adam being in full possession of all his faculties was definitely going to put a damper on any time they spent together.

Shiro didn’t have any right to complain about that, but he was painfully aware that they had parted on terrible terms. He had basically escaped further fallout by running away into outer space on a rocket ship, he knew he was well overdue for one hell of an explosion now that “sad” wasn’t overriding Adam’s “angry” function.

“You’ve been thinking,” Shiro deduced, taking a surreptitious step back out of range of the spatula.

“It’s always surprised me that you can recognize something you’ve never experienced.”

An idle day of rest and then time spent with others clearly didn’t equate to an idle or distracted mind. Shiro slowly slid along the counter, until he was sidling around to the safety of the opposite side of the breakfast bar. It had been a very long time since Adam had been violent, he’d done a great job of breaking that habit after graduation, but Shiro always had the faint wariness in the back of his mind that it was eventually going to happen again. He felt bad for thinking that way, especially with how much Adam had grown as a person, but now he also knew there was a good chance the arena had destroyed a lot of that growth.

“Okay,” he said once they were separated. “Go for it. Lay it on me.”

“I’m not laying anything on you.” There was that sharp tone again, this time with an edge of warning. “Don’t ruin a decent thing.”

The “again” was unspoken but there, Shiro knew how to read between the lines. It was tempting to listen this time and drop it, but he knew the coming fight would just bubble up again later. Probably at a time that was far less convenient, maybe at a time that was far more dangerous.

“No, you have something you want to say,” Shiro insisted, bracing himself for the scathing dressing down he was due for. “So say it. Now is as good a time as any.”

“Fine,” the spatula clanged against the side of the pan. “You’re an asshole.”

Shiro waited, but he didn’t say anything else.

“That’s it?” He prodded. “That’s all you’ve got?”

“That’s it,” Adam shrugged. “That about sums it all up. Let me be angry in peace until it goes away.”

“You can do better than that. Or worse, I guess. I know you’ve got more bottled up in there.”

“I don’t have to say more or go into detail, you know why you’re an asshole,” Adam leaned over to pick through Curtis’ well-stocked spice rack.

“Because I left,” Shiro supplied for him.

“No.”

“That’s what we fought about, me going to Kerberos,” Shiro protested. “That was why you left me.”

“No,” Adam repeated, this time wagging a finger in his direction. “No no no. I never left you, I was there right up until the end. What I said was that if you left I wouldn’t be here when you got back. I did everything in my power to convince you to stay, you left me.”

“Yeah, because I needed to go on that one last mission.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Adam said, finding what he was looking for and uncapping a glass jar over his pan. “It could have been Mars. It could have been China. It could have been hiking up in North Dakota, the where never mattered. The relationship was suffering, I needed you, and you left. Thus, I feel like you’re an asshole.”

He capped the jar and mixed the contents of the pan, then put a lid over it and turned down the heat before moving over to lean against the counter across from Shiro. He was still perfectly calm and collected, which was the one eventuality Shiro hadn’t prepared for. 

“So…that’s it?” He asked carefully. “That’s all you have to say about it?”

“Yes.”

“I’m giving you the opportunity to yell at me,” Shiro offered. “I’m not going to stop you if you want to.”

“No, I’m good.”

“You don’t sound good,” Shiro noted the edge that was still on Adam’s voice. “You sound kind of pissed off, to be honest.”

“Yeah, Curtis doesn’t have any five-spice powder,” Adam answered, shooting the spice rack a dirty look. “I thought he had cloves so I could mix my own, but he’s out.”

Shiro was at a loss. He’d been preparing for this conversation for two months, prepping himself for all the vitriol Adam could possibly throw at him. He had been certain this would all be much louder, much angrier. That was how their fights always were, that was what he was used to navigating.

“If you have something to say, just say it,” Adam interrupted his musings, leaning on his side of the counter. “Stop putting the responsibility on me.”

“I’m not putting anything on you,” Shiro defended.

“Yes, you are. You want me to be angry with you so you can give me whatever rehearsed speech you have to try and calm me down. If I bring up Kerberos and the breakup and I go off unfiltered like I always do, I’ll eventually say something mean and open the door for you to answer. Well, I’m sorry.”

Adam pushed away from the counter, returning to his cooking.

“You leaving sucked, but it was good for me. I never realized how much I leaned on you until you were gone, and I had to navigate the world without you there to calm me down all the time. I started therapy, I built up my life, I made real friends. Without you there to suck all the energy out of me, I did pretty good.”

“Wait, back up,” Shiro felt a swell of irritation at Adam’s characterization. “What do you mean suck all the energy out of you? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” Adam answered. “I know you like to pretend everything was equal because I cooked and you cleaned, but it really wasn’t. I remembered the holidays, I remembered birthdays, I remembered anniversaries. I bought presents, I shopped for cards, I made travel arrangements, I planned itineraries, I negotiated the leases. Even when you got sick you just pretended there was no responsibility with it…I made your appointments, I picked up and tracked your prescriptions, I tracked whether you took your medicine, I kept your medical records and spent hours on the phone with your doctors and insurance. You couldn’t even be bothered to make sure you had enough medication for your Kerberos trip, that was on me too.

“And even knowing you would probably die out there, you didn’t arrange anything,” Adam reminded him. “You had no burial fund, you had no living will. You had no consolidated records of bank accounts or debts or paperwork important for finalizing your estate. You never even told your family we broke up, they all just assumed I would handle everything since most of them were out of the country. I had to jump through so many hoops to get named your executor by the state, I had to reach out to all your family, I had to plan your funeral. I spent six months on the phone getting your credit cards and bank accounts closed and filing to have your medical debts cleared. Even after you were dead I was still spending most of my life coordinating the end of yours.”

He pulled the pan from the stove and grabbed a spatula, carefully transferring its contents into a serving bowl.

“Thank you, by the way,” Adam added, a touch of sarcasm to his voice now. “For putting in absolutely no effort to do the same for me.”

There was an unspoken accusation there that even Shiro wasn’t too dense to pick up on. If he had bothered to acknowledge that there was no one else to handle Adam’s estate, if he’d taken just a few minutes out of six months to consider that he might owe him at least that much, the fact that no body was found and there was no grave would have put up red flags far earlier.

It wasn’t something he’d ever considered. It had never crossed Shiro’s mind that somebody here on Earth had neatly wrapped up all the loose ends of his life after Kerberos, let alone that said someone might have been Adam. Even after Kuro had brought him boxes yesterday, clothes and medals and mementos he had long since chalked up as gone, he had never considered that storing those things had been part of cleaning up his personal affairs.

“I didn’t realize,” he admitted, feeling his stomach sink. “I never thought about it. I should have, but I never did. I’m so sorr—“

“I don’t care,” Adam interrupted his apology, lifting the bowl. “Are you having any of this?”

“Adam, a serious discussion,” Shiro pleaded.

“I don’t want to have a serious discussion, I want to turn up the Christmas music and eat food that’s too spicy,” Adam complained. “Serious discussions ruin everything, it always just turns into me telling you how much of an idiot you are and you not believing me anyway. If you don’t push my buttons so bad I flip out and we even get that far.”

“Please? I know you hate them, but sometimes you have to have them.”

“Ugh, fine,” Adam whined, putting down the bowl.

He disappeared from the kitchen, heading in the direction of the living room, and Shiro followed. When he caught up Adam was at the wet bar opening a bottle of whiskey, which he took over to the small cabinet nearby. Shiro expected him to grab glasses, but instead he flopped down on the couch with a pack of plastic straws. He took out two, which he bent together to make one and stuck directly into the whiskey bottle to take a big sip.

“Really?” Shiro asked.

“I don’t think you understand how stressful talking to you can be,” Adam answered.

“You’re such a child sometimes.”

“You knew that when you fell in love with me, get over it.”

Shiro shook his head and went over to the bar. He poured himself a glass from a decanter of what smelled like scotch and sat down on the sofa next to Adam. He was drinking the whiskey steadily, and Shiro hoped he would be sober when it came to going to the Garrison dance tonight.

“I want to say that I’m sorry,” Shiro tried to find his footing in this new terrain. If this had been seven years ago, Adam would have been yelling at him in three other languages by now and he would be trying to apologize but only putting his foot in his mouth somehow and making him madder. “For leaving the way I did. I abandoned you and Keith for my own…what are you doing? Stop that.”

Adam had picked up a throw pillow from the sofa and pressed it against his ear so he didn’t have to listen. Shiro was strong enough to easily pull it away, leaving him scowling with his hair messed up.

“I don’t want your apology,” Adam answered around the straw still in his mouth. “I don’t want any of your apologies. They don’t mean anything anymore.”

Shiro sighed, wishing he knew how to navigate this better. At least when Adam was yelling it was easy to pinpoint exactly what bothered him and what needed to be addressed, what should be said to steer the conversation where it needed to go. The fact that Kerberos had come up and Adam had barely batted an eye, that he was still speaking to Shiro and not angry, threw him off completely.

“Okay, fine,” he backpedaled a little, trying to go over in his head what he’d planned on saying when the subject finally came up. “If apologies aren’t enough, then tell me what I have to do to make it up to you. What do I have to do for you to forgive me?”

“Nothing,” Adam finally took the straw out of his mouth. “There’s nothing for you to do. I’ve already been down this road, Takashi, I don’t need to go down it again. I told you, I went to therapy and I made peace with my demons, and Kerberos was one of them.

“After Sam Holt gave me your message and you asked me to give you another chance, I took some time to think it through. To decide if I really wanted to go through it all again. You were my first love, we were both hot messes, it didn’t work out. I had to really consider whether that was something I wanted to go through again. I had to make myself relive it again and figure out if I could just accept you back the way you were if nothing had changed.”

It was the first time Adam had mentioned the message. Sam had told Shiro he’d passed it on, but from the way it had sounded Adam had been less than accepting of it. He knew Adam had watched it, that was how he’d chosen the song for his trap, but the subject hadn’t come up over the last few days.

“And what did you come up with?” He asked. Adam took another big sip from the bottle through his straw.

“I decided to wipe the slate clean,” he answered with a slight shrug, looking at the glittering decorations on the fireplace instead of at Shiro. “I went over everything with my therapist, I worked my way through all the bad feelings and put it all behind me. Do we really have to talk about this? I picked up the bike last night and gave her a tune-up, let’s take her out for a spin instead.”

Therapy had probably done wonders for some things, but it hadn’t completely dissolved Adam’s disdain for heartfelt discussion. He was fine with yelling fights, everybody said things they didn’t mean in anger, but he didn’t like that it was harder to walk back comments made in calm conversation. He’d always had trouble expressing how he felt, and tended to backpedal if he believed his feelings were being rejected. Shiro knew it was from his upbringing, and that it was something so ingrained it might never go away, but it still made things difficult.

“No, we’re not going out on a ride right now,” he declined. As much as he would absolutely love to go out on Adam’s bike, they had to be adults now. “Don’t you want some kid of closure?”

“Not really.”

“Come on, I don’t want this to be sitting over my head for years just waiting for you to use it against me in arguments,” Shiro said.

“Well that’s just not realistic,” Adam murmured around his straw. “I forgave you for killing my iguana and I’m still going to use it against you in arguments until the day we both really do die.”

“I did not kill the iguana on purpose, we’ve been over this a thousand times.”

“No, but I’m petty,” Adam admitted. “I know that, you know that. Carla knows that from up in reptile heaven, bless her squashed, run-over little lizard heart.”

“Well maybe if Carla hadn’t been outside on the ground in the first place she wouldn’t have been where a car could reach her,” Shiro pointed out.

“She had on a bright pink leash and a balloon tied to her,” Adam answered shortly. “Maybe if the driver had been paying less attention to what I was wearing and hadn’t driven up on the curb we wouldn’t be having this argument.”

Shiro was starting to switch gears to defend himself from this decade-old transgression when he realized he was being intentionally derailed again. He had already paid for murdering Adam’s lizard, literally and figuratively, and Adam had long since gotten over the loss. It was just one more distraction being thrown into the mix.

“We’re not having this argument,” he answered. “We’re talking about Kerberos. We’re talking about what went wrong and our breakup.”

“Okay, but what if I gave you five hundred bucks right now to not talk about Kerberos or the breakup,” Adam tried. “Do I count as a sugar daddy even if I’m not twice your age?”

“Never use that phrase in my presence again,” Shiro warned, “or I’ll smother you to death with a pillow. And no, you cannot buy me off.”

He took the bottle out of Adam’s hands and set it on the table next to the sofa, along with his barely touched glass of scotch. He understood that Adam was saying he was over it, that he had dealt with his feelings already and moved on, but Shiro couldn’t help but think that might have changed along with everything else. It probably would have changed for him, at least, so he couldn’t get rid of the suspicion that it must have changed for Adam as well.

“Look, we left off in a really bad way,” Shiro said, blocking him from reaching for the bottle again. “You’re right, you tried everything you could to get me to stay. You talked to my family, you screamed, you cried. You told me you needed me in a thousand different ways, you gave me every chance to change my mind right up until the day of the launch, and I still left. And I left knowing what it would do to you. How can you sit there and tell me you’re over that?”

“Maybe I’m not the one you need to be talking to,” Adam answered, giving up on the bottle. He sighed and leaned back on the sofa, sliding down to drape against Shiro’s side. “Maybe you need to be talking to a therapist of your own. It sounds to me like you don’t want me to forgive you because you can’t forgive you.”

“That’s not it at all.”

“The only reason I can think of for you wanting me to be mad at you is so I can yell at you,” Adam scoffed. “Pick at you, tear you down. Rub your face in everything you did. We both know doing that has never made me feel better about anything, so you probably just feel guilty. Like you need to be punished and the best way to make things “even” is for me to be the one to do it.”

“Maybe a little bit,” Shiro admitted reluctantly. “Once I had so much time to think about how everything went down, I realized how wrong I was and that I’d never have a chance to make it better. But you’re here and you’re okay, and I have a chance to make up for what I put you through. Don’t you think you deserve that?”

“Ooh, you found your old cologne in that box,” Adam’s answer was muffled against his neck, a tickle of breath across his skin. It sent a tingle down Shiro’s spine that was so strong he almost jumped.

“Stop that,” he commanded.

“I’m not doing anything,” Adam murmured. More warm words against his neck, this time accompanied by a hand resting lazily on his thigh. “I’m just sitting here.”

“You know exactly what you’re doing,” Shiro accused, trying not to think about how long it had been since he’d been touched suggestively. “And I’m telling you right now, it’s not going to work.”

* * * * *

Shiro gazed up at the light spilling through the open bedroom blinds, painting glowing bars across the navy blue ceiling. He tried to catch his breath, his whole body feeling like he’d just run a marathon.

“I cannot fucking believe that worked,” he grunted.

His complaint was met with a soft, breathless chuckle. Adam didn’t even bother to move, he remained lying on top of Shiro with his head resting on his shoulder, the fingers of one hand beginning to comb lazily through the already messy white hair. If Shiro could purr he would have done so at the feeling of Adam’s fingernails lightly grazing his scalp, even if it would have been a slightly angry purr.

I can’t believe the carpet matches the drapes.”

“You’re insufferable,” Shiro grumbled without any heat. “The absolute worst.”

“But I love you,” Adam murmured. “And that obviously counts for something.”

The words weren’t casual but they were said with an ease that spoke to their truth. It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t reluctant or halting, it was a statement of fact rather than an admission or white lie. Shiro hasn’t expected the way hearing those words would make him feel, he hadn’t even expected to hear them until he’d worked hard enough to earn them.

Warm, starting in his chest and spreading outward, a soft sort of bliss that made everything else fade in importance. Something he’d felt before and was now finally getting to feel again, like coming home after a long trip far away.

“I love you too,” he answered after a moment. The fingers in his hair stilled.

Lazily, Adam pushed himself to sit up on his knees, leaving Shiro’s legs draped over his thighs as he stretched his arms up over his head. His hair was sticking out in all directions, a result of Shiro’s fingers running through it and pulling at it, and his glasses had been set aside somewhere before they’d even reached the stairs. The only thing different from years ago about this picture were the scars.

They were both covered in scars that hadn’t been there the last time they were together. Many were similar in shape and size, caused by the weapons of enemies during a fight, some were unique. Some were different but eerily alike.

The scar across Shiro’s nose to match the ones across Adam’s eyes. The ragged scarring on Adam’s abdomen, caused by being stabbed through in the arena, so strangely like the ragged scarring on Shiro’s own caused by a druidically charged attack from Honerva when they’d gone into Central Command to rescue Allura.

Shiro’s were secondhand of course, carefully copied onto the body of his clone before it had been sent out, but he still vividly remembered the sources of the original. They’d haunt him for a very long time, just like he knew Adam’s scars would haunt him as well.

“Can we agree the serious discussion is over then?” Adam requested, dropping his arms down to lazily run his hands across Shiro’s legs. “I think it went really well.”

“Nothing was settled, you know,” Shiro reminded him.

“There’s nothing to settle.” Adam shifted to lean forward, dropping down so he rested over Shiro with his weight supported by his elbows, brushing a light kiss across the scar on his face. “The past is the past. I grew up while you were gone, I accepted things, I got over them, I moved on. I forgive you, okay? Is that what you need to hear?

“I understand now that you made your choices based on what you felt was best for you at the time. And that’s okay, because I wasn’t your responsibility. We both knew when you got sick that what we had would be temporary, I never prepared myself for it to end so it hit me hard. You aren’t the only one at fault for what happened between us, it was a 50/50 fuck up.”

“Wait, did I break my neck and die when you threw me back on the bed?” Shiro asked in mock disbelief. “I could have sworn you just said you might have been wrong.”

“Partially wrong,” Adam corrected. “I’m never fully to blame for anything, ever. The point is, everything we fought about culminated in the breakup. Our relationship from when we were younger is over, the mistakes we made died with it. I’ve been through way too much in the past couple years to keep carrying old baggage, and so have you. Let’s leave it at that we were both stupid and wrong and go forward from there.”

Shiro had spent so long hanging onto the past, going over what he’d done wrong time and time again, that the thought of just letting it go and suffering no real consequences seemed almost ludicrous. But not only was he being offered that change to wipe the slate clean, Adam was explicitly requesting it.

A fresh start. A second chance standing all on its own, without the past hovering over them like a ghost.

Well, except for the iguana incident.

“So, does this mean we’re together?” Shiro asked, kissing Adam’s nose.

“Are you asking me to go steady with you, Shirogane?” Adam teased, laughing softly when Shiro wrapped his arms around him and pulled him down against him.

“I’m asking if I can start telling people to not stare so hard at my boyfriend,” he answered, rolling them over on their side so he could pull the blanket up over them. “I think that’s a good place to start over at.”

“You’re still going to have to put work in,” Adam warned. “I think I’m still mostly the same, but some things are different. You’re going to have to get to know me all over again in some ways.”

“So officially dating, but still technically courting,” Shiro offered.

“I’ll accept that,” Adam supposed. “Fine, you can officially tell people I’m your boyfriend.”

He said it as if it was a concession, even though the both knew he was perfectly happy with it. And lying there in the cool bedroom, in the aftermath of what had been a very vivid reminder of their physical compatibility, Shiro was so comfortable it was difficult not to blurt out that technically, Adam was is husband.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Hold on, the zipper isn’t up all the way.”

Allura stopped at the door to let Kuro adjust the zipper of her dress, which he did with a quick, light touch before moving back away so fast it was as if he had never been near. Once he stepped back she poked her head through the open doorway.

“Coran? I’m ready!”

She was bubbling with excitement as she moved back to the middle of the room, arranging the dress to lay around her for best presentation. Coran peeked around the doorway as if to reassure himself that she was in fact decent before stepping all the way in. A smile lit up his face and she knew he was pleased to see her looking regal once again.

The dress was so far out of her current financial means it was ridiculous. There was nothing wrong with working for her keep, with paying her own share of the rent and bills and taking public transport when she couldn’t borrow Veronica’s car, definitely not, but it put her previous life in a whole new light. Being royalty, having anything she wanted within reason brought to her at her slightest whim, having the best of everything at all times…she had always been raised to be humble and her parents had ensured she wasn’t spoiled, but she only really understood how good she’d had it now that she worked for everything.

It had really been brought home as she’d been looking at dresses. Everything at the bridal shop Adam had chosen was nice, but even some of the plainest gowns had such high price tags. With a big Earth gift-giving holiday coming up and her savings for her own car not quite piling up fast enough, she simply couldn’t justify the expense of a higher end dress. Once she would have had a dozen such dresses brought to her for her to choose her favorite, but those days were gone.

She had chosen a few of the cheapest to try on before rejoining Adam and Kuro. Adam already knew what he wanted and his chosen suit was being adjusted while he waited, but Kuro was working with a young woman who was trying to make sure he got exactly what he wanted and it was taking some time. Allura had settled in to try on her chosen dresses, stepping out in each to look at herself in the mirror.

While she was in the changing room, the clerk had begun bringing her other items she hadn’t chosen. She had protested at first but the dresses were so lovely, and she had supposed it couldn’t hurt just to try them on.

It didn’t occur to her until her fifth one that Adam was instructing the clerk on what to bring out. He was trying to be subtle and unobtrusive about it, but it was hard to miss how the clerk would help Allura up on the little stage in front of the mirror then glance back at him for approval.

Allura didn’t know how much Adam had paid for the dress she was wearing right now. He hadn’t let her see the price tag, he had simply seen her face light up and asked her if this was the one she wanted. But the sheer number of crystals sewn into the translucent top alone, making her look as if she were wearing a bodice made of swirling patches of ice, had to have cost an exorbitant amount. The material of the gown’s skirt was luxurious, a light blue painted with more crystals that swirled around her legs as she walked. The stiletto heels were white with a silver filigree over the heel, the sharp points making a satisfying ‘click’ on the tile as she moved.

Coran walked around her, checking that everything lay properly, then gave her a thumbs up of approval. He looked as happy as she felt that she had something so nice, even if she only wore it for a little while. It was lovely to pretend to be a princess again, just for one night.

“I’m supposed to give you this,” Coran announced, offering her a small, flat box. “Adam had Curtis bring it to me and tell me not to let you have it until right before you were ready to go to the ballroom.”

Allura took the box, turning it over quizzically in her hands. It was taped shut, which unfortunately she was currently unable to navigate.

“Could you…?” She requested, giving it back to Coran and holding up her hand. “We just went out today and got my nails done.”

Well, their nails. Allura knew Kuro was avoiding her and she didn’t know why, and that bothered her. She was determined to make him not hate her, and had gone out to the Lorelia to beg him to go with her to get her hair done. He had been considering a haircut the day before, and she’d thought it would be a nice way to spend some time.

Now he had his hair trimmed shorter, though nowhere near as short as Shiro’s had once been. A patch of his bangs, similar to the section of Shiro’s that had once been white, was now dyed a bright purple at the roots fading into bright blue at the end. Allura’s hair was done up in elegant twists around the top of her head, the full length hanging down behind her in braids.

She’d gotten her nails done as well, and Kuro had decided he might as well join her. Hers were powder blue with silver tips, his were black at the cuticles fading into bright purple. It all went very well with his outfit; leather pants and jacket, black boots, and a deep purple vest topped with no tie because he didn’t even have his shirt buttoned all the way up. She thought he might be wearing a dog collar, but it was probably rude to ask.

Coran broke the tape on the box and opened it, moving aside the tissue paper that hid its contents and holding it out for her to see. Allura thought she might cry.

It was a tiara from the case at the bridal shop. Silver metalwork with five points like a crown, the ivy design punctuated with the occasional crystal. Coran stepped forward and helped her put it on, making sure the combs on the ends were firmly in place. She turned immediately to look in the mirror, unable to hold back her happy smile.

It was perfect, absolutely perfect.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do to repay him,” she sighed, tilting her head slightly and watching the tiara sparkle in the light. “Oh, I love it all.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, you’re not the only one he got stuff for,” Kuro answered from where he was back leaning against the wall. “He got Pidge and Ariella some jewelry sets, and cuff links and tie clips for the guys. I think he’s the kind of guy who says thank you with gifts instead of words.”

“It’s just about time,” Coran warned, adjusting his own bow tie. “I have to go out to the landing field, I suppose I’ll meet you in the ballroom.”

“Go!” Allura waved him off, still unable to stop smiling. “Good luck!”

Coran was on his way to meet Hira, who was going to accompany him tonight. The two had hit it off back in the aftermath of Colony One, and Coran often accompanied Allura up to the cruiser to visit. She had always worried that Coran would be lonely, that he spent so much of his time trying to make sure she was happy that he was neglecting himself. She was so thankful that he’d found so much common ground with the regal Atlean general.

“Shall we go?” She asked, turning to Kuro.

She knew better than to offer her arm, Kuro did not like to touch her and she wasn’t going to push him. But he nodded and opened the door for them, letting them both precede him out into the hall.

They were in the Lion hangar’s locker room, the space devoted to the Paladins and their special armor and equipment. Keith, Lance, and Hunk had used the space to get ready earlier, with an agreement to vacate it for her and Pidge to use after. Pidge and Ariella had finished up and gone ahead right before Kuro and Coran arrived, and by now nearly everyone else should have made their arrival at the dance.

Allura walked beside Kuro, down the hallway that led from the Lion hangar to the main building, still loving that sharp little “click” of her heels on the tile. The ballroom was a bit of a walk but not too hard to find, it was the one place lit up and noisy on the otherwise quiet base. By the time they arrive the others had already gone inside, and Allura paused at the door.

“Ready?” She asked Kuro. It had been a very long time since she’d been to a social function like this, she was so giddy to see all the lovely dresses and see the other Paladins done up in formal wear.

“No,” Kuro answered flatly. “I feel like people are going to stare.”

“Of course they are, that’s the point,” Allura said reasonably. “Most of the people here are going through awkward stages of puberty. You’re the handsome kind of man half of them hope they’ll turn out like at the end, and the other half hope they’ll be dating when they’re older.”

“Speaking of older…are you really fifty-eight decaphoebs?” Kuro asked.

Allura had started to open the door. She quickly shoved it closed.

“Who told you that?”

“Three guesses.”

“Oh, I’ll kill him!”

“You honestly don’t look a quintant over thirty,” Kuro assured her.

“You’re sweet,” Allura answered. “But please don’t tell any of the others…I don’t think they really understand yet how differently I age.”

“Not a word,” Kuro promised. He reached past her and opened the door. “After you.”

She had seen the ballroom before, passing through once or twice on her way to other business, but it was always quiet and empty. Now the edges were lined with black-clothed tables and there was a big table set up where a DJ was playing music. Allura paused just inside to look around, trying to spot her friends.

Curtis was the first one she found. He was standing on one side of the room with other officers who were surrounding Admiral Iverson. They hadn’t taken a seat yet and looked like they might be waiting for Shiro, who didn’t appear to have arrived just yet. Curtis didn’t see them right away, but it was very clear when he did; he missed his mouth with his glass and dumped what Allura hoped was water down the front of himself.

She had never seen anyone go to pieces in the presence of the person they liked the way Curtis did. The only reason she could fathom for this was that Curtis had never really liked anyone that way before and didn’t know how to handle it.

Kuro didn’t notice. He was scanning the other side of the room, looking at the faces around the tables. He was right, a lot of people were staring.

Nobody had made any kind of announcement that Shiro had a brother, and they were trying not to use the word “clone” because the way Kuro had been born really didn’t matter. Some people had obviously already seen him around the base, but this was the first time most of the students were getting a real look at him. Nobody dared approach, so they clearly were all aware this wasn’t Shiro gone mad and gotten a dye job.

The next thing Allura knew, Matt and Bandor appeared out of the crowd and grabbed Kuro, pulling him over toward a table in the corner. They were trying to whisper and failing, saying they needed his input for some kind of experiment. Allura followed slower, making her way to the corner. There were two tables that had been taken over there, each seating twelve people. One was already full, with the Paladins and their dates, Pidge’s parents, Romelle and Bandor, and Ina and Nadia.

Matt and Bandor dragged Kuro over to the other table, where Matt unexpectedly reached down and grabbed James’ prosthetic leg, lifting it up and leaving him hanging off his seat. Ryan sat next to him, watching this impassively. Lotor sat at the table across from them, watching them suspiciously as if not certain what they were up to and not sure how to make them stop.

Allura took a moment to look at them all, smiling and laughing and happy, until Veronica snuck up behind her and pulled her over to join the fray.

Altea was gone, her parents were buried. But here on this lonely little blue planet in the far corner of a mostly forgotten system, she had found a family and a home.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Try not to swear so much,” Takashi warned, fiddling with the top button of his uniform in the visor mirror.

“I’ll try,” Adam supposed. He was in the driver seat of the Audi, the seat all the way back and his feet crossed up on the steering wheel while Takashi fretted in the passenger seat beside him.

“And try not to throw any punches.”

“Not making any promises.”

“Then at least don’t throw punches where there are witnesses.”

“That’s a slightly more likely outcome.”

“And if you get uncomfortable, even a little, just let me know and we’ll leave.”

“It’s a dance, I should be okay.”

“I mean it. The second you don’t want to be there anymore, say the word and we’ll go.”

Adam pulled his feet down and hit the lever to raise his seat back up. He turned and reached over to pull Takashi’s hands away from the button, smoothing everything down and straightening out his collar.

He really did cut a striking figure in his uniform, the sharp blacks and crisp whites of his “Black Paladin” designation or whatever it was. Adam really hadn’t discussed this whole Voltron thing with him yet, he didn’t really know the details. He just knew the Takashi Shirogane sitting next to him was definitely not the twenty-three-year-old hotshot who’d left him behind. The medals Adam now straightened out on his chest were the impressive array of a skilled military leader, the insignias at his collar a clear signal that he was kind of a big deal.

They didn’t really mean jack shit to Adam, who was no longer interested in a military life, but he understood they meant Takashi was very accomplished and very skilled. And Adam was proud of that.

“If I get uncomfortable, I will immediately let you know,” he promised. “It’s a room full of kids, Takashi, not reporters and world leaders. It will be fine.”

“I know, it’s just…” Takashi hesitated. “Sometimes, when you’re not ready for it, a big crowd can catch you by…surprise.”

Adam could tell by the way he said it that he was speaking from experience. And he appreciated it because yes, a loud room full of people could be processed by his brain as being back in the arena if he wasn’t ready for it. His therapist had already spoken to him in-depth about the effects of PTSD on prisoners of war. But he was as prepared as he was going to get.

“I’m going to be fine, because you’re going to be right there with me,” Adam answered, leaning forward to steal a kiss. “I promise, I’ll keep you in the loop on how I’m feeling the whole time.”

That assuaged him, at least a little, and Takashi finally got out of the car. Adam followed, pulling his coat closed around him as they made their way across the parking lot and into the building.

Adam didn’t like the Garrison base, but he didn’t necessarily hate it. It was a collection of buildings, it was fairly neutral to him. Some parts of the place carried with them a huge part of his childhood, some carried many good memories of Takashi and his old flight mates. Up on the second floor was an office, probably now belonging to someone else, that had seen years’ worth of late nights grading papers and frustrated meetings with students.

There were good things here, along with the bullshit. He was just ready to find good things somewhere else.

When they were inside Adam shrugged off his coat and cleared the fog from his glasses, searching out Takashi’s hand before starting the walk through the halls to the Garrison ballroom. They passed soldiers on duty, those who weren’t chaperoning and were keeping the base running, and a few students here and there who were waiting to meet friends. When they reached the entrance to the ballroom there were even more kids milling around outside of it, groups of girls coming back from the bathroom and boys texting friends to see where they were.

“Here we are,” Takashi announced at the door.

“Here we are,” Adam agreed.

“Last chance to run,” Takashi offered. “Once you step through that door holding hands with me it’s over. We’re a couple.”

Adam smiled a little, reaching up to brush that annoying floof of hair back out of Takashi’s eyes.

“We’re not just a couple, we’re a power couple. I’m about to become the best thing that’s ever happened to your career, Shirogane, don’t mess this up.”

Takashi smiled and let go of Adam’s hand, offering his arm instead. When Adam hooked his own through it he opened the door and they stepped into the bright noise of a dance beginning to really get started.

It hit a little harder than Adam expected, but he was ready for it. The noise was a bit loud after so long in such quiet but he would get used to it, and his glasses helped with the light. Still, he moved closer to Takashi, pressing against his side as he let his eyes trail over the room full of faces beginning to look in their direction.

Some were new, too young for him to have known during his tenure. Many were familiar, and he found that in spite of everything he’d been through and the time he’d been gone names came easily to the faces he spotted in the crowd. Some of the oldest kids sported scars from fighting during the occupation, some students were using visible prosthetics or mobility aids from injuries that didn’t just scar.

But all of the faces were smiling tonight, and that was what was important.

Takashi started guiding him across the room, to where Adam spotted Iverson standing with Curtis and some other officers. They didn’t get far before a few older students braved coming over to greet him, which triggered the younger ones to gain the courage to do so as well.

Adam assured Takashi he would be okay and let him go ahead, stopping to talk to the kids.

He didn’t realize until now how much he’d missed all of them. How much he’d worried about who had lived and who had died, how much he’d worried who was okay and who wasn’t. There were faces that were notably absent and he didn’t ask about them. He didn’t have to; as he spoke to these students, who had been through so much, they volunteered the names of those who didn’t make it or described the exploits that led to their loss.

It was very matter-of-fact, just footnotes in the conversation. Children were remarkably strong in a way many adults didn’t give them credit for, they grieved and accepted and moved on quickly when they had to. And now here they were, not only rebuilding but still dedicating themselves to a military life even after seeing what they might be up against again someday.

He was very proud of them. He hated that they were so willing to die, and he hated that sometimes the deaths of soldiers were just a necessary evil, but he was proud that they were choosing this path with eyes wide open and full knowledge of what it meant.

Adam eventually made his way through the group of students who had dared to approach, and by then Takashi, Curtis, and Iverson were beginning to break away from the others. As Adam made his way over, he found he was glad.

Jason Laurentia was there, along with that idiot who had come to pick up Montgomery at the police station. Adam sidled up behind Takashi, taking his hand and nodding to the others. He stopped when he reached Laurentia.

“How’s life, Jay? Heard your aunt passed away,” he said silkily. He felt Takashi squeeze his hand, part in warning and probably in part to hold onto it so he couldn’t take a swing. “Devastating news.”

He made sure to draw out the word ‘devastating’. Laurentia didn’t give any overt sign that he felt threatened, but he slowly took a step back and tried to make it look like a natural motion of standing.

“Yes, she died a hero,” Laurentia answered stiffly. “They’ve got a memorial to her out front.”

“Yeah, out where there’s no cameras and it’s easier to deface,” Adam noted. “That’s a shame, somebody might key it up.”

Takashi squeezed his hand again.

“Not me, of course,” Adam added, pulling off his glasses and hooking them neatly on the front pocket of his suit so he could look Laurentia directly in the eye. “I prefer dealing with people when they’re alive. That’s probably going to be a lot easier for me now that I’m not stuck in a chain of command and can handle things the way I want to.”

“I’m sure it is,” Laurentia looked away from him, glancing around at the others there. He had never been the kind of man who did well when he was confronted by someone bigger and tougher, and now that he didn’t have Sanda’s insignia to hide behind he knew he was in for it.

Adam just had to catch the son of a bitch alone and show him how bad it was really going to be. He was not happy with Laurentia’s part in his very rude awakening.

“We were just heading over to sit down,” Takashi said softly, tugging him away. “With the other Space Force officers. I’m sure General Laurentia wants to go settle in with the other extras.”

Takashi said it so innocently, just so completely guileless, that it almost made even Adam whip around to look at him. ‘Extra’ was a military slur, it meant somebody who had a prestigious title but no real power if other officers were present and was only kept around in case everyone else died. It wasn’t the kind of thing you called someone to their face, but Takashi executed an ‘accidentally whispered loud enough to be heard’ maneuver so well it was ridiculously believable.

He was completely straight faced, as if he had no idea how insulting he’d just been. Adam let himself be pulled away, turning away from Laurentia to rest his head against Takashi’s shoulder.

“I love when you’re an asshole to somebody besides me.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Takashi answered, putting an arm around him. “I’m sweetness incarnate. My innocence could light up a room.”

“I hope your pants are fireproof, because that’s the biggest lie I’ve heard in my life,” Adam scoffed. “You really should have just let things go, I’m not afraid to take care of him myself.”

“I know.” They reached a table where Iverson was already seated. Takashi pulled out a chair for him. “Sit.”

He went and got them some champagne and Adam greeted the others at the table. Allura and Lotor, James on Iverson’s other side, Matt next to him. Ryan was at this table and so was Curtis, who had just sat down next to Adam. Straight across from Kuro, who was pointedly not looking at him.

Kuro looked ridiculously good, which Adam felt he was allowed to think given how much he looked like his…boyfriend? They were apparently now started over at that beginning mark now. Curtis seemed to agree, given how he kept trying not to look but still kept ending up staring. Adam hit him sharply with his elbow.

“Ow,” Curtis hissed and gave him a dirty look. “What?”

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” Adam whispered. “What’s up with you two? Takashi said you hit it off nicely and then suddenly everything went south. What did you do?”

“Why are you assuming I did something?” Curtis asked defensively. “Maybe he did something.”

“He’s weird, he does a lot of things,” Adam said easily.

Kuro was what he would describe more or less as quirky, with a whole lot of headstrong thrown in. From what Adam had heard he was a raging annoyance to some of the stuffier officers, but nobody wanted to call him on anything for fear of upsetting Lotor or Takashi. Adam thought they should all be more wary of Kuro himself, but what did he know? He’d only spent a few days in close quarters with the entertaining little madman, unchecked in his natural habitat.

Curtis picked up his wine glass and took a sip, still looking insulted.

“I bugged him,” he muttered around a mouthful of wine. Adam winced.

Curt.

“I know, I know.”

Takashi returned, setting two champagne flutes on the table before seating himself on Adam’s other side. It didn’t escape Adam’s notice that Keith was shooting annoyed looks over in their direction, undoubtedly upset with the fact that he had usurped Takashi’s attention over the last few days.

Adam had never liked Keith. For his part, it had never been an active rivalry or a fight, he just preferred to avoid the places where Keith happened to be. He had always rubbed Adam the wrong way, just existing had bothered him. There was no real reason for it and Adam knew it wasn’t logical, so he never acted on the urge to get defensive against him.

Now, he felt nothing. Knowing his own heritage, and Keith’s, made him think that he had perhaps been sensitive to the fact that the kid wasn’t human. It was probably what had bothered him so much, what had always made him just want to smack the apathetic look off Keith’s face. But a year and a half in close quarters with Galra had pretty much numbed him to that reaction, now Keith was just another ‘whatever’ in this whole ‘ugh’ that was the Earth military.

Adam stared back at him when he caught him looking, but Keith wasn’t the kind of shrinking violet to look away first. And neither was Adam, the two of them were stuck in an awkward sort of stare-off until Lance nudged Keith and turned to him, laughing, to say something. Keith deemed him more important and turned his attention to him instead.

Adam let his own attention drift back to his own table. His participation hadn’t been necessary so far, he was still somewhat of an outsider even if he knew everyone here. They were discussing things that had happened in the last few months, things he had either slept through or not been present for, and he had no input to offer.

Takashi shifted to put an arm across the back of Adam’s chair, moving his own a little bit closer, and Adam let him. He let a hand drift down under the table to rest lightly on the other man’s knee, stilling the slight bouncing that was being fueled by nervous energy.

It was indescribably nice to sit here like this. Comfortable, close. He hadn’t been lying when he’d said that he’d put Kerberos and the break-up behind him, nearly dying and then spending a year believing one’s planet and people were gone had a way of putting things into perspective. By the time the Galra had come, with no word from Lance or Takashi in two years, he had been sure they were dead and really lost.

To be proven wrong a second time, and then to have Takashi still choose him over what were probably hundreds—if not thousands—of people willing to throw themselves at the feet of the first Captain of an Earth space warship, was a gift he hadn’t been expecting.

He still loved and adored this idiot, no matter how much of a bad idea it might be.

As the thought drifted through his head, so did another one. One that made him turn to look at Curtis, his eyes widening. Adam could feel the almost manic smile starting to spread on his face, he tried to fight it back but it was impossible. Curtis glanced over and saw him looking, and was immediately wary.

“You like him,” Adam accused gleefully.

“Yeah, no shit,” Curtis murmured.

“No, you know what I mean,” Adam insisted. “You like him, like him. You’re totally in lov—”

“Don’t,” Curtis cut him off, pointing at him warningly. “If you finish that sentence, so help me God I will kick you out of my house.”

Adam closed his mouth but kept staring at Curtis, huge smile still in place. Curtis tried to ignore him but it was a losing battle, and after a moment he started to squirm. Kuro said something to Coran, who had joined them at their table, about going to get a drink. He rose and crossed the ballroom, and Adam watched Curtis’ eyes follow him.

God, the man looked like a lost puppy. He was so far gone over this one, Adam had never seen him even close to this bad. First time really in love with someone, what a kick in the nuts that had to be for somebody who spent his whole life priding himself on not being interested in commitment.

“So, Adam,” Iverson’s voice rang out over the din of both tables, calling everyone’s attention.

Iverson had only ever called him by his first name twice before. It had always been Captain Wolfe, and before that, Lieutenant Wolfe, and then before that simply Cadet or by his surname. The first time Iverson had called him by his first name had been when Curtis and Gail had brought him back to the base when he’d gone MIA after the Kerberos incident. It had been while they spoke in private, and nobody else had been around.

The second time had been last night, when he had returned Allura to the base to get her own car and Iverson had been there. They had spoken in Iverson’s office, once again alone, about the day of the first wave. Iverson had had some things he needed to say, and Adam had made it clear by the end of the conversation that he wasn’t re-enlisting.

It was fine that he was using his first name, it was just still new and very jarring.

“How does it feel to come home a married man?” Iverson asked, folding his hands and resting his chin on them. If Adam didn’t know better, he’d say the man was smirking. “I really would like to hear the story of how it happened.”

“The story?” Adam asked dumbly, staring back at him. He had no idea what the hell Iverson was talking about.

“Yes…a battlefield wedding is still pretty rare, it sounds dramatic. I’d like to hear how it happened.”

Adam looked over at Takashi to see if he got the joke, but Takashi was staring at Iverson and trying to make a cutting motion with his hand without Adam seeing. Adam turned to Curtis to see if he was seeing this shit, only to find his friend staring straight ahead very nervously, refusing to look at him. Across from them, Matt immediately looked upward at the chandeliers when Adam looked in his direction.

Oh, this was not good.

“The story,” Adam repeated slowly, looking back at Iverson. “The…story. About me getting married. Married to…”

“Shiro,” Iverson supplied helpfully.

“Takashi.”

“Yes.” Iverson looked way too happy about this right now. “I gave him the paperwork to have you added to his insurance as a spouse last week, but I still haven’t gotten it back. HR needs it soon, just so you know.”

So that was why the little son of a bitch had been so pushy about everything. So eager to get back in his good graces and smooth over the past and move forward. Adam turned to look at Takashi, giving him as dazzling of a smile as he could muster.

“Babe,” he said sweetly. “Why don’t you tell the story? I would love to hear your rendition of how this all went down.”

“Um,” Takashi picked up his half-full champagne flute and drained it, fishing for more time. It only bought him a few seconds. “Well, it was, you know. Things were crazy and you were a mess, and we were about to go into a fight with Honerva.”

He looked nervously around the table, at Matt then at Curtis.

“The colony was surrounded, we didn’t know what would happen. It was all a blur, I mean, who can really remember all the details?”

“Try,” Adam demanded.

Shiro sighed, pushing the empty flute away. He looked around the table again.

“Scatter!” He hissed after a moment, shoving his chair back. “He can’t catch all of us at once!”

That fast Curtis disappeared from next to him. Adam watched in shock as Matt used his chair as leverage to literally run across the table, dropping down on the other side to sprint across the ballroom after Takashi and Curtis. Kuro was on his way back to the table but Curtis grabbed, him, pulling the drink out of his hand and shoving it at a very surprised looking Lieutenant before dragging him out through the double doors.

It took Adam a second to recover, but he still gathered himself quickly.

“Excuse me, I have to commit a murder,” he muttered, ripping off his tie and throwing it on the table so it wouldn’t bounce as he ran. He took off after the fleeing fugitives, leaving a crowd of shocked and surprised students and officers in his wake.

Adam slammed into the double doors and threw them open bodily, skidding to a stop just outside them and looking around wildly. He caught sight of the four runners all the way down the hall, but even as he started to follow they hit the end and split up. Kuro and Curtis went one way, while Takashi and Matt went another.

That was fine. They could split up all they wanted to, there was only one neck he wanted to get his hands around right now.

He was a fast runner, he always had been, and he reached the end of the hall to see the door leading out to the airfield slowly falling closed in the wake of somebody running out. There was a very good chance only one had gone outside and the other had taken another turn, but Adam had a pretty good idea of who would have gone out to the airfield.

Takashi would go where he was most familiar with, and where he felt safe. He was a pilot, he’d make a run for the planes.

He wasn’t used to running, two months of unconsciousness had degraded his fitness somewhat, so as Adam made it outside he was a little bit out of breath. He slowed down to a quick walk, making a beeline for the row of jets parked out on the tarmac. Past them was the huge hangar the Paladins used, and the building where Takashi’s office was. If Adam knew Takashi as well as he thought he did, he would try to stick it out here until the danger was gone and then he’d make a run for the office.

Adam slowed down further, pulling off his glasses. He watched as the world switched from daytime vision to night, the darkness falling away as his pupils adjusted to the shadows. He still wasn’t sure how he did it, it was sort of like flexing a muscle he couldn’t name, but he shifted his sight over into a different wavelength and began scanning the field for a heat signature.

There were three. Two were actually inside the building, running down a hallway that went around the airfield. He picked up their outlines as they ran past windows, both of them taller than average and both of them moving quickly. Curtis was easy to identify simply because of his height.

Kuro was easy to identify because there was nobody else Curtis would be dragging down a hallway right now, but he did look a little bit odd. Unlike everyone else, his core looked like it was cooler than the rest of him. Not just cooler, but cold; if not for the warmer outline around it he would have disappeared into the background.

It was weird, but it was just one more of his Weird Things, and Adam was interested in someone else right now. He spotted Takashi across the airfield, almost completely hidden safely away except for the visible heat signature of his head as he peeked around the side of a plane.

Adam blinked off the heat view. The world was still bright and clear with the greenish hues of night vision, which was what made it ridiculous when he slowed down to a very quiet walk and moved along the other side of the row of planes to find his potential mariticide victim flattened against the side of a jet and fully believing he was hidden in shadow.

Adam wished he had a taser. Okay, maybe not a taser, but at least some fresh slush nearby or a bucket of water. He waited until Takashi leaned out to look around the jet again and then sidled up behind him, leaning against the plane with crossed arm and waiting for him to turn back around.

“Looking for somebody?” He asked as Takashi started to lean back against the jet, making him jump and nearly trip over his own feet trying to put some space between them.

“OH jeez, wow, you got really good at being quiet,” Takashi sputtered, holding up both hands as if that might ward off an attack.

“I can’t believe you pulled this crazy bullshit!” Adam slapped one of Takashi’s hands down like he was a disobedient child. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“Nothing!” Takashi answered immediately. “We’re not thinking people! When was the last time a coherent thought went through either one of our heads?”

“This isn’t a joke! You made a huge decision I had no input in, and then you lied to me!”

“I didn’t lie,” Takashi corrected. “I withheld. Lying implies I gave wrong information, I just…didn’t immediately share that information. You were emotionally delicate! I wanted to wait for a good time to talk about it.”

“I had sex with you this morning!” Adam exclaimed. “A good time to talk about it would have been before I basically rewarded you for being a jackass!”

“Okay, yes,” Takashi agreed carefully. “But look at it this way…you technically didn’t have sex out of wedlock. So the Catholic part of you should be happy about this.”

Takashi was very, very lucky that he was as strong as he was. Stronger than Adam expected, honestly. It didn’t take him terribly long to escape from the headlock Adam grabbed him in, but the downside was that pinning Adam’s arms to his sides from behind just made him even madder.

“Look, this isn’t the end of the world!” Takashi said breathlessly, his carefully smoothed collar now askew and his hair a mess. “These things have to be finalized, if that doesn’t happen in ten months then it just becomes invalid! Or we can go get a lawyer and get the contract broken in less than a week.”

“I can also throw you off a cliff!” Adam ground out in frustration, unable to pull himself free. Takashi was barely exerting himself but his hold was like a vise. It was the nonverbal equivalent of “calm down,” and was just feeding the fire.

Takashi’s defense that it was just a temporary measure didn’t help, either.  The whole exchange was just making the sting a thousand times worse, and he was seriously beginning to lack in the ability to be calm. He had fought tooth and nail to not be provoked into anger this morning, and now that was all going right out the window.

“Stop. Stop,” Takashi said firmly, lifting him up completely off his feet so he had no leverage to try to fight free. He held him there for a second then put him down, spinning him around to face him. He quickly held his arms down again to keep himself defended. “I’m sorry. I made a decision under pressure to try and do the right thing. Nobody was going to be there to speak up for you while you were asleep if I didn’t.”

“Oh, now he gets it!” Adam said sarcastically. “Ten years too late, the dumbass gets it. What did you think I wanted when I asked you to marry me, Takashi? Half ownership of your fucking comic book collection?”

“I know you’re angry—“

“I’m furious.”

“Okay, furious,” Takashi allowed. “I know you’re furious. Please take a breath and try to relax so I can let you go.”

Adam didn’t want to relax. He wanted to knee Takashi in the gut and go spray paint his car. Setting fire to his clothes also wasn’t out of the question. But he clenched his teeth and closed his eyes and took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down.

“Okay.” Adam felt Takashi let him go and opened his eyes. Takashi’s hands still hovered by his arms for a moment, in case he had to be grabbed again, before they finally fell away.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I know you’re furious. I know why you’re furious. I get it, I really do.”

Adam scoffed and Takashi’s apologetic look fell away, turning into a scowl.

“I wanted to talk this morning, remember?” He reminded him. “I had things I wanted to say, and you didn’t want to be a grown up for five minutes.”

“Were you going to tell me about this during that talk?”

“No,” Takashi admitted. “But I was going to tell you that you were right, and that I understand where you were coming from back before Kerberos. I could only see things from my point of view then, but I wanted you to know that I understand yours and that I’m sorry for what you went through.”

“I’m listening,” Adam ground out. “Talk fast.”

Takashi took both of his hands in his own, but Adam suspected it was at least partially to make sure he didn’t take a swing at him.

“I know all you wanted to do was take care of me. I know there were a lot of things I never thought about that you were doing your best to handle. I was a dumb kid who was dying, I didn’t see any point to trying to act like an adult because I didn’t think I’d ever really get to be one.

“Then I came back and you were gone, and there were all these things I wished I’d done or even stopped to think needed to be done. Suddenly it was me losing you instead of the other way around, and I got a crash course in being you.”

Ten years late. This was something Adam had wanted and needed to hear ten years ago, “I get why you want that” instead of “there’s no point in bothering.” He’d gone through it on his own, limped along afterward on his own, spent uncounted hours in therapy getting over it without closure on his own. The infinitely petty part of him wanted to give Takashi a sarcastic “poor baby” and tell him to deal with it.

But the downside of loving someone was that cruelty didn’t come so easily. As much as Adam wanted to say those things, he also didn’t want to. Takashi had been through a lot of awful things over the last few years, things Adam understood the extent of all too well. And because he’d been there when they were young, he understood the lost feeling of being unsure and the need to do whatever necessary to take care of someone who couldn’t take care of themselves.

He would have loved to just smother the hell out of Takashi with a pillow right now. But he understood the idiot’s motives, even if the execution had been terrible.

“What did you even do?” He sighed, rubbing his face with both hands. “How the hell did you convince somebody to give you a marriage certificate?”

“You were covered in blood so it wasn’t really hard to convince anybody you might be dying,” Takashi answered, looking guilty. “Ryou gave you a shot of something that woke you up for a little bit, and Matt distracted everyone so nobody looked close enough to see you weren’t lucid. He and Curtis signed as witnesses. Once you signed off on it we rushed you into the healing pod.”

That explained why everyone had run at once, it was a damned group conspiracy.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” Adam groaned. “Matt just ran across a table in the Garrison ballroom. Two high ranking military officers just ran through a dance full of kids dragging a third alleged adult with them. I almost knocked out a freshman trying to get out into the hallway.”

“I wanted to. I was going to,” Takashi insisted. “But you wanted to get married before, I guess I thought if I waited long enough things would be good enough that you wouldn’t care.”

“Of course I’d care. There’s a process, Takashi. I proposed, you were supposed to say yes, there was supposed to be an engagement and planning with our families and a wedding. Just waking up married one day isn’t how it works.”

“There could still be all those things,” Takashi said. “There’s no law that says you can’t have an engagement and a wedding after you have a marriage certificate.”

He was so sincere, in a way that Takashi rarely was. Adam could see it was important to him, the look on his face was half sad and half pleading as if there was something he wanted to say but wasn’t sure if he should. Adam had been able to read him like a book from the first day they’d met, a mere six years apart wasn’t going to change that.

“You hoped things would be good enough that I wouldn’t care so that I’d agree to finalize it,” he completed Takashi’s earlier explanation for him. “You want to stay married.”

“You don’t have to sound so accusing. Is that really such a terrible thing for somebody to want?”

“I’m just being realistic,” Adam answered. “I’ve been awake for less than a week. How can you seriously know I’m even somebody you want to be married to? You weren’t willing to go through with it after we’d been together for a couple years, now you’re talking about spending the rest of our lives together after barely seeing me for a few days.”

“There are cultures out there that still do arranged marriages for people who have barely met,” Takashi pointed out. “Those work out. Some people meet for the first time and elope the next day. We were together for longer than we were apart, I decided I wanted to come back to you halfway to Kerberos and I haven’t changed my mind since. I know a lot’s happened and we’re different…we’re messed up, we have scars, we have issues. But I don’t believe for a minute that either of us is an entirely different person than before, and if we worked then we can work now.”

His romantic side certainly hadn’t died out, that was for certain. Adam had always wished Takashi could have as much passion for him as he had for the stars, it appeared he was now getting what he’d asked for.

“You know you’re insane, right?” He asked.

“Well that’s good, because so are you,” Takashi pointed out. “Completely off the rails, but it’s cute. Think about it. Being married to me isn’t even in the top ten dumbest things you’ve ever done.”

“It’s not in the top five, anyway,” Adam ceded. Takashi moved a little bit closer so he could take both of his hands in his own, and Adam only realized when he felt the warmth just how chilly it was out here.

“You told me that if I still wanted you when I came back, to come find you,” Takashi reminded him. “And I did. I went clear across the universe to find you, this time I’m sure I want to hold onto you.”

God, he was pouring it on thick. He deserved to be smacked in the head and told not to be so cheesy, but Adam was starting to have some slight problems with his eyes and couldn’t do it. They were starting to sting, and he had a bit of a lump forming in his throat. He had always tried to be an untouchable hardass, but this one persistent golden retriever of a person was always somehow able to worm his way through the cracks.

“Whoa, hey, don’t cry. I’m sorry,” Takashi dug the silk handkerchief out of his pocket but Adam waved it away, taking a deep breath and fighting back the tears before they got too serious.

“Fine,” he managed, running his fingers under his eyes to dry what bit had escaped, blinking furiously and looking upward to try and keep anymore stupid tears from getting free. “We’ll do this. What’s the worst that could happen, right? We get a divorce in a year. But I want to do it the way it should’ve been done. I want a wedding.”

“Absolutely.”

“Before New Year,” Adam insisted. “The week after Christmas.”

“Three weeks going to be pushing it,” Takashi said in surprise. “I mean, it can definitely be done, but it’s going to be…”

“Expensive,” Adam finished. “I know. I don’t care. Lotor’s leaving for Colony Two after New Year. There’s no way Honerva’s not watching and waiting for him to leave Coalition space, war is going to break out as soon as she finds him. I’m not stupid, I know you’ll leave again…you’re the Captain of Earth’s only warship. You’ll be on a two-year deployment, at least, by a week after New Year. If I’m going to be a glorified army wife sitting around waiting for you to come back I at least want a wedding before you have a chance to die again.”

“Technically, the Atlas is built to carry the spouses of the crew as long as they have a job on board,” Takashi said carefully. “And since you’re a high-level engineer…”

He trailed off, and Adam got the feeling there was more to it than that. He wasn’t sure if Takashi was going to try to talk him into re-enlisting, but it definitely sounded like there was some job he wanted to wheedle him into.

Adam didn’t have the energy or patience for whatever argument that was going to be, not right now.

“Three weeks,” he said firmly. “Hire a wedding planner. Hire three if you have to. And I get to pick the wedding colors.”

“Fine,” Takashi raised his hands in surrender as he agreed to the terms. “Three weeks, you pick the colors. I pick the place. We haggle on the rest.”

“Deal. You also do not get to claim any kind of spousal status or privilege until you’re standing at the altar in a tux saying vows.”

“Still just boyfriends,” Takashi agreed. “Got it.”

Takashi was taking it all in stride, probably still in shock that this was even going his way instead of ending up with him lying in a ditch somewhere with two broken legs. Adam decided to push his luck.

“I get to pick the house.”

That gave Takashi pause.

“The what?”

“The house,” Adam repeated. “I’m done living in an apartment. I’m going to look at houses, I’m going to find the one I want, I’m going to pay whatever I have to pay to make it mine, and that’s where we’ll be going home to after the wedding. Both of us, together. Which means you have three weeks to pack your stuff and be ready to move.”

That was where it got good. Adam knew he’d catch Takashi up somewhere, and this appeared to be it. He clearly hadn’t thought that far ahead, since he hadn’t even known he’d be having a wedding soon. It also wasn’t hard to see that his immediate assumption had been that Adam would probably just move in with him and Keith or something similar. Watching the gears turn in his head as it worked its way through his brain that he was about to become an actual married man in a real, grown up house was priceless.

“I’m going to have to keep paying my part of the lease,” Takashi blurted out after a moment of blank-eyed processing.

“I didn’t expect you not to.” Adam stepped closer, reaching up to smooth down Takashi’s messed up hair and fix his skewed collar. He used the fabric to pull him closer. “You’re going to finally let me buy you a nicer car, and nicer clothes. You’re going to let me buy you things and pamper you and take care of you, the way I always wanted to. No more of your stupid macho “I pay my own way” crap.”

Maybe it was a little bit shallow, but it had always bothered Adam that Takashi wouldn’t let him spend any real money on him. He had grown up with money and things being a replacement for affection, and sometimes it was how he showed affection himself. He didn’t always have the words to say what he felt, so he let price tags do the talking for him. And sometimes, having those gifts rejected hurt the same way having emotional words rejected did.

“Okay.” That acceptance came a little slower than the previous ones, but at least it came. “Wedding in three weeks, you pick the house, we move in after. I stop being so tight about the finances. I didn’t expect this to turn into a negotiation or I might have come up with some demands of my own.”

“I’ll give you two demands,” Adam offered, holding up two fingers as he let Takashi’s collar go. “You can cash them in when you think of them, guaranteed, with no denial. Within reason.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Takashi reached up and covered Adam’s hand with his own, pressing his fingers back down. “You’re half frozen, let’s go back inside.”

Adam let himself be pulled back across the airfield, past the jets, and back into the much warmer air of the office wing hallway. Takashi linked an arm in his and they made their way back, walking slowly and in no great hurry to return and be stared at for the scene they’d made earlier. It was Takashi who broke the quiet first.

“I haven’t heard the last of this, have I?” He asked as they reached the last double doors before the hallway filled with students.

“Not at all,” Adam agreed as Takashi opened the door for him. “This is going to be argument ammunition forever, just like the iguana incident.”

As soon as they stepped into view, the handfuls of students milling around started whispering. Takashi ignored them and guided him back into the ball room, this time taking him over to the bar for a fresh glass of champagne since his had been left behind. While they waited for it to be poured, Takashi paused to pick up one of the little favors on the table nearby. They were simple things, little treats wrapped in colored tulle with gold wire ties around the top to make small bags.

While Takashi messed with that, Adam took a look around the ballroom. It wasn’t just students that were looking at them, it was other officers as well. The quickly looked away when they caught him looking, and Adam felt his face grow warm.

Usually he didn’t care if he made a scene. But Takashi was a high-ranking officer, and he felt embarrassed on his behalf. Adam unhooked his glasses from the front of his shirt, sliding them on for the tiny bit of nonexistent protection they made him feel like they gave.

The bartender handed Takashi the champagne flutes and he headed back toward their table, cutting across the dance floor even though there was more room if they’d gone around. Adam followed so he could get back to his seat faster, sink down in his chair and hide until people got bored of staring.

Halfway across the dance floor Takashi stopped. He nudged two of the students dancing nearby to make them stop and asked them to hold the champagne flutes, then waved at the DJ to stop playing.

Red flags went up, mental sirens practically blaring in Adam’s head as the ballroom went suddenly quiet and everyone turned to look around, inevitably ending up staring at the two tall men towering over everyone else nearby. Then Takashi turned to face him and started to sink down.

“No,” Adam whispered, mortified. “Don’t you dare. Get up, right now!”

“You wanted to do this the right way,” Takashi answered impishly, settling down on one knee. He held up a small metallic ring that he’d made by twisting the wire tie from the little gift bag he’d stolen. “And you gave me two demands. Guaranteed, no denial, within reason. I’m cashing one in right now, I want to do this in front of everyone.”

Oh, it was so infuriating. Takashi was still a glory hog and attention whore in his own way, he just wasn’t happy unless he got some kind of thrill out of everything he did. It was so tempting to kick him over while he was kneeling there, but he was right. Adam had promised him two demands, and letting him cash one in now meant one less thing he was required to agree to later.

“Come on, give me your hand,” Takashi cajoled. He was grinning like an idiot. Adam let out a pained little groan, feeling his neck get hot and his face start to flush. He tried to ignore the gasps of pure delight coming from most of the young women present and let Takashi take his hand. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes,” Adam ground out.

“Are you sure?” Takashi pressed, dragging it out. He knew Adam hated public displays, this was a nightmare. “Positive? Absolutely on board? Completely—”

Yes,” Adam hissed, feeling lightheaded. “For God’s sake, there are hundreds of people in this room staring at us, please get this over with.”

Takashi chuckled and slid the little wire ring onto Adam’s finger. He got back up and pulled him into a hug, and Adam immediately buried his face against Takashi’s shoulder to hide himself from sight. He was certain some people were taking pictures.

“I can’t believe you,” he whimpered against Takashi. “People are going to talk!”

“So what? You’re not seventeen anymore,” Takashi answered easily. “You’re not a pilot trying to avoid having rumors spread about his superior officer. I took you for granted before, this time I’m going to make sure anyone who pays any attention at all knows I love you.”

The music started to play again, and the attention slowly dissipated as the kids went back to dancing. Adam let Takashi pull him through the crowd and off the dance floor, back toward their table where Curtis, Kuro were still absent. Matt had returned at some point, and he was smirking as the two of them sat down.

“Not a word,” Adam warned him. Lotor and Allura were looking shocked, as were the Paladins over at their other table. Sam and Colleen appeared at a loss for words, the MFE pilots were staring.

The only one who seemed completely unaffected was Iverson, who had seen enough of their weirdness to not even be surprised anymore. He restarted the conversation as if nothing had happened, and after a few minutes the staring stopped and slack jaws recovered. Adam felt Takashi take his hand under the table and glanced over at him, but he was speaking to Iverson.

He looked happy. His eyes were bright and he was smiling, and for a moment he was once again an excited young pilot ready to conquer the world.

Adam knew some things were going to be different, but that some things were going to play out exactly as they had before. It was just the nature of one of them being a warrior and the other being support; one would be called to go and the other would stay behind. But Takashi seemed convinced that everything was going to work this time, he was dead set on making it happen.

Hopefully he was right, but for now all there was to do was wait and see.

 

Chapter Text

The mood of the gala had changed drastically over the last hour. Overall there was a buzz of excitement on the air as the academy students discussed the proposal they’d just witnessed, the beginnings of gossip that would likely spread through the school on Monday like wildfire. Shiro was a very high profile man and Adam’s face was still all over the news, the fact that one had just publicly proposed to the other was going to be everywhere.

But while the overall air of the dance itself was one of speculative chatter, the two tables in the corner of the room held an almost palpable feeling of shock.

Lance and Keith were probably the only two people here besides Iverson who knew Adam and Shiro well, but a quick glance at Keith told Lance he was as surprised as he was. This wasn’t something Lance had expected t happen, and now that it had he was thrown off.

Adam had been awake for less than a week. A handful of days after being apart for years. Everyone knew Shiro had been pining over the last few months, but it was a sort of unspoken agreement that he was still in love with a memory rather than the man sleeping in the cryopod.

Lance had fully expected them to get back together, Adam had been far too happy back before Kerberos for that not to happen, and he thought that maybe they would have gotten married a few years in the future when they had a chance to settle in. But five days?

Not that he was knocking it. Shiro and Adam were kind of old, almost thirty, maybe they just felt like time was running out.

Or maybe there was something else going on. Lance glanced over at the other table, sneaking a peek at the newly advertised couple. Shiro was practically glowing, looking more happy than Lance had ever seen him. Adam, though…he was definitely glued to Shiro’s side in a very determined way, but he looked more pensive than anything.

Lance eventually gave up on trying to read the situation. If there was anything that was any of his business then Adam would tell him later. Whatever his issue was, it wasn’t like he had been sold into marriage and strongarmed into accepting a proposal against his will.

Lance turned his attention instead to the plate of snacks he’d grabbed from the table across the ballroom. He could hear Sam and Colleen Holt whispering back and forth, most likely about Adam and Shiro, and Hunk and Pidge were quietly expressing their disbelief with Romelle. He glanced next to him, at Keith, and found him sitting with his arms crossed and glaring over at the other table.

“Earth to Mullet,” Lance called, waving his hand in front of the other pilot’s face to interrupt his staring. “Be careful or your face might stick that way. Want a petit four? This one’s red velvet.”

“They’ve barely been on speaking terms,” Keith muttered, tilting his head slightly to look past Lance’s hand. “Shiro didn’t even talk to him at all yesterday. Adam ditched him before Kerberos! Now they’re suddenly getting married?”

“Looks like,” Lance answered easily, picking up one of the petit fours. “I think this one is chocolate.

“Look at him smiling like an idiot,” Keith whispered in disbelief.

“It’s a travesty,” Lance agreed around a mouthful of small cakes.

“It’s so out of character!”

“Completely un-Shiro-like.”

“They shouldn’t have been left alone,” Keith decided. “I don’t know what Adam did, but it needs to be fixed.”

“Okay, you lost me on that one,” Lance stole Keith’s water glass to wash down the sweets. “I’m fully on board with your frustrated complaints, but they have to make sense.”

Keith let out a huff and finally turned to face him, absently taking one of the remaining petit fours off his plate. He gestured over his shoulder, not even bothering to hide the fact that he was pointing at Adam and Shiro.

Subtlety, thy name is not Keith.

“He manipulates people,” Keith whispered. “Remember when we went over Hunk’s file on Nixa the other day? And how Romelle said he kept the kids in check on the Lorelia with just his voice?”

Lance slowly bit into a chocolate covered cherry, chewing it thoughtfully as he processed that.

“Let me get this straight,” he said after a moment. “You think Adam got made about something, Shiro, Curtis, Matt, and Kuro literally ran from him because of whatever they did, he chased them down, and then decided the best revenge was to Little Mermaid the situation so Shiro proposed?”

“Well isn’t that the only thing that makes sense?” Keith demanded.

“I dunno,” Lance tried to approach the subject delicately. “That noise Adam made while Shiro was down on one knee sounded more like a dying whale than some kind of seductive siren.”

“Lance, I’m being serious right now.”

“So am I,” Lance said. He wiped his hands and dropped the balled up napkin down beside his half-empty plate, pushing his chair back. “C’mere for a minute.”

He got up and waited for Keith to stand, then linked their arms and guided him around the edge of the ballroom. A few people whispered as they passed, it wasn’t really common knowledge that they were something of a pair, but it was the kind of thing Lance was getting used to. He still hadn’t told his parents, but the sometimes negative attention was certainly helping to prepare him for what he might expect.

They left the ballroom, stepping out into the hallway where a few students were wandering around. Lance steered Keith down to a spot farther down where it was quiet and there were no prying ears.

“None of this makes sense!” Keith repeated, the words finally bursting out now that they were alone. “Shiro never wanted to get married! He wanted to explore space! Now he’s the Captain of the Atlas, there’s a war coming up…and suddenly now he wants to settle down?”

“That’s going to be kind of hard for him to do, seeing as how Adam’s going to be Blue’s pilot,” Lance pointed out reasonably. “I don’t think settling down is in the cards for anybody for a while.”

“Okay, maybe not,” Keith allowed. “But getting married? Just completely out of nowhere? That’s not like Shiro.”

“Maybe something happened that made him want to get married completely out of nowhere,” Lance supposed. “Like…I don’t know. Maybe the males of Adam’s species can get pregnant.”

He meant it as a joke, but Keith got a vacant look in his eye and his mouth fell open in horror. Lance rolled his eyes and nudged him with an elbow.

“Keith, I don’t think Shiro left you out of this on purpose,” he said, guessing at the real reason Keith was so upset. “He didn’t even have a real ring, proposing was probably a spur of the moment thing. If he’d planned it, I know he would have talked to you first.”

“It’s like once Adam was back on Earth nobody else existed anymore,” Keith complained, letting his pent up frustrations finally spill out. “He spent all his spare time in the Quarantine sector with that stupid pod, and now when he’s not at work he’s either following Adam around or sitting around the apartment thinking about him.”

“Not to be the downer here, but you left for a month,” Lance pointed out. “You weren’t even here for him to talk to while Adam was sleeping.”

“That’s…that’s not the point!”

“It kind of is.” Lance had never pulled any punches when he talked to Keith before, and he wasn’t going to start now. “When you’re on base, you’re working with the Paladins. After work, you eat dinner at your mom’s place four or five nights a week. You hang out at Pidge’s house the other couple nights. I’m not saying you and Shiro aren’t close, but now that you have your mom and friends in the picture, don’t you think maybe the age gap is making more of a difference?”

Lance didn’t think it was a bad thing that Shiro and Keith were going their own ways. They were brothers in every sense of the word, and eventually that was what brothers who had a large age difference did.

“There’s like seven years between you guys,” Lance pointed out, leaning against the wall. “Your two years in the quantum abyss don’t even count, you were only there with your mom. You have a life now that you didn’t have when you guys first met. And now that we’re back on Earth, he has a life too.”

“You’re making it sound like I abandoned him and forced him to go find other people,” Keith said crossly.

He was getting agitated, but that wasn’t Lance’s intent. He was trying to make Keith feel better, not worse. He let out a little huff and pulled him closer by his suit jacket, so he could drape his arms lightly over Keith’s shoulders.

“That’s not what I’m saying. When I was little, Marco, Luis and me were always together. We were like, the Three Musketeers, we did everything together. Then Luis graduated high school and went to college. He still lived at home and he still hung out, but then he started getting other friends. Then he met Lisa, and he was around less. After he graduated college he moved out, then came home that Christmas to tell us he was getting married.

“That was when Marco and I knew it was over. I got mad at Lisa, I felt like she stole our brother from us. After she got pregnant, the first time, it was like we never saw Luis, and I hated it. And then Marco went to college, and he started drifting away too. But that’s when I started hanging out with Hunk more, so I was okay when it started happening with Marco. And then I started at the Garrison, and it was me who never had time to talk to them.

“But when I went home for break, and I saw my brothers, I realized they were back to being friends again. Because they were both adults and they were both doing adult things, and I was still a kid. And I decided it was okay to go my own way and spend my time with my own friends doing my own things, because I know once I’m older we’ll have everything in common again and I’ll drift back closer.”

He nudged Keith’s leg lightly with his knee, giving him what he hoped was an encouraging smile.

“You’re gonna be old like Shiro eventually,” he pointed out. “You’ll get on his level someday and go back to being as close as you were. But for now, maybe just let him do his old people things with other old people, and enjoy your time with your mom and us. Adam’s not stealing him…Shiro, Adam, Curtis, Coran, probably Matt…I dunno, maybe Kuro…they’re adults. I mean, we’re technically adults, but they’re like, adultier adults. Like, black coffee and khaki shorts adults. Someday you’re going to barge into Shiro’s place to show him your pair of New Balance and bam, it’ll be just like old times again. You’ll talk about lawn care and complain about the music the neighbor kids play.”

Keith smiled in spite of himself, leaning against the wall with his hands on either side of Lance. He let himself sink forward a bit so his head rested on Lance’s shoulder, and Lance rested an arm around him.

“I just feel…left out,” he admitted. Lance knew that was the kind of admission that wasn’t easy for Keith to make, and that he trusted their conversation wouldn’t go any farther than the two of them. “He looks so goddamn happy, like this is a really big thing for him. And it is! Getting engaged is a big deal! It’s the kind of big deal I knew would happen some day, but I guess it’s the kind of big deal I also thought I’d be a part of when it happened.”

He pulled back a little, frowning.

“That sounds selfish, doesn’t it?” Keith asked. “I know this isn’t about me, I’m not trying to sound like I want to make it about me. He’s just never looked that happy before, and I would’ve liked to be part of something that made him that happy.”

“It’s not selfish,” Lance assured him. “Believe me, I didn’t think Shiro would get married for a really long time. I kind of pictured him as the type who’d plan a big, surprise proposal and get everyone in on it, personally, I don’t think it’s selfish to wish you got to be holding the lit sparklers or whatever in the background when he pulled out a ring.”

He reached up to push some of that unruly hair out of Keith’s face, tugging lightly on a lock of it.

“I think maybe you would’ve felt better about it if you had time to get acclimated to Adam as a Paladin first,” he said thoughtfully. “Or even just as a person. Shiro and Curtis are the ones who’ve been around him since he woke up, we didn’t really have a chance to even talk to him much.”

“I’m going to get more chances to talk to him than I think I’d like,” Keith groaned, wincing. “Curtis called me into a meeting with Iverson yesterday while you were at your hearing.”

“About?”

“Remember when we had that other meeting after we all managed to get arrested?” Keith asked. “When Curtis said he had intel that we were going to be asked to meet with representatives of other countries to calm fears that we were strictly a United States military team?”

“No, I barely remember anything from that meeting,” Lance answered honestly. “I was kind of hung up on that whole part where he admitted that an international terrorist organization was hunting down and killing aliens and alien hybrids because they disproved the fake religious fundamentalism they were pushing.”

“Oh, yeah, there was that too.”

“Oh, yeah,” Lance repeated sarcastically. “Did you catch the part where they still want you dead because now they’re pushing a strict, humans-only-on-Earth policy? Maybe the part where international terrorists have a dossier on you up until the point you disappeared with us in Blue?”

“I…” Keith paused, looking a bit put out. “I’m more worried about publicly speaking in front of a crowd in another country than I am about being murdered.”

“Of course you are,” Lance said graciously. “Because you’re you.”

Keith gave him a look, and Lance remained quiet so he could continue.

“We’re leaving for these little meetings at the end of next week,” Keith picked up his original train of thought. “We’ll each be making three stops and spending the night in each one. Iverson called it the “Voltron World Tour.”

“The Voltron Show, Part Two,” Lance grinned, already picturing himself signing autographs. Honestly, a bit of good will from the other countries on their home planet couldn’t hurt, and Lance loved traveling. “Where are we going?”

“We’re split up,” Keith answered. “You and Hunk will be going to Melbourne, Beijng, and Moscow. Shiro and Pidge will be going to Cairo, Rome, and London. Adam and I will be going to Buenos Aires, Bagota, and Mexico City. If this round goes okay, and war doesn’t break out in the next month or two, they might set up another round of visits to different cities.”

“They paired you up with Adam?” Lance asked critically. “Weren’t Curtis and Iverson both there when you pulled that knife and got expelled? No offense. It just makes more sense to me that they would send him with Shiro.”

“Curtis said it was because the newest Paladin should probably stick with the leader,” Keith answered. “But now that you brought it up, it could be that they’re keeping the two alien hybrids together and closer to home because they’re afraid something might happen with those Babel crazies while we’re staying somewhere. The Garrison can’t exactly set us up with a military protection escort in another sovereign nation, Curtis is probably pulling strings to have his people keep an eye on us.”

“Good. Honestly, I don’t think either of you should be going to another country unless we’re all there. It’s one thing to have the Galra targeting us as a group, it’s another to have people out there who specifically want to pick you or Adam off.”

“I’ve been on Blade of Marmora missions in deep Galra space and come back fine,” Keith sighed. “Do you really think a couple nutcases who think it’s a good idea to make an example of me to keep their cult from accepting aliens are going to be the ones to bring me down?”

“International terrorists,” Lance stressed. He didn’t think Keith was really giving this the serious consideration it deserved. “Come on, man. How many planets out there that we’ve been to have more than a billion people on them? None. Earth’s one of the most crowded planets we’ve seen, even after the invasion cut the population down. We have more people with more countries separated by paranoid borders…terrorists haven’t been a problem because no other planet’s had a chance to recuperate from occupation long enough to have them. They don’t fight by the war rules we’re used to.”

“I get that you’re worried, I really do,” Keith said somberly. “But what kind of message to we send to the rest of the Coalition if we show we’re scared of members of our own species?”

“Ugh,” Lance answered, with feeling. “I guess you’re right. I mean, I hate that you’re right, but I guess you’re right.”

The hallway was flooded with music for a few seconds as one of the doors to the ballroom opened. Both pilots glanced down the hall to see Shiro step out, looking around. His gaze eventually settled on them and he came toward them, fiddling with his pockets as if not sure what to do with his hands and looking apologetic.

“Hey,” he greeted when he reached them, looking at Keith. “Can I talk to you for a sec?”

“Hey,” Keith answered, glancing at Lance and then back at Shiro. “Yeah. Um, is it private, or…?”

“Oh, no,” Shiro glanced over at Lance and shook his head. “No, it’s fine, he can be here. I just wanted to talk about what happened in the ballroom a little bit ago.”

“Something happened in the ballroom a little bit ago?” Keith asked, raising his eyebrows and looking at Lance. “I didn’t notice anything important. Did you, Sharpshot?”

“Me? Nah,” Lance matched Keith’s sarcastic tone. “The whole night’s been dead here so far, dunno what you’re talking about.”

“Funny,” Shiro scoffed, giving them a look.

“Oh!” Keith answered, mock realization coloring his face. “You’re talking about you getting engaged in the middle of the dance floor in front of all of the Garrison officers and most of the students.”

“Now that you mention it, I do sort of remember something like that happening,” Lance agreed. “Nice ring, by the way. Very…what’s the word…avant garde.”

“Yeah, I had to work with what I had to hit him while I could,” Shiro admitted, scratching the back of his head. “That’s part of what I wanted to talk about. There’s about to be a lot of running around…Adam and I are going to have a wedding in the week between Christmas and New Year.”

“Whoa, wait, that soon?” Keith asked in surprise, dropping his teasing act. Lance straightened up as well, his levity going out the window in his shock.

“That’s not even a month!” Lance exclaimed.

“I know, I know!” Shiro waved for them to lower their voices, glancing back as if to make sure his newly minted fiance hadn’t come out to look for him. “I know it all seems rushed and crazy, but it’s really not. And I’ll explain that all later…its a long story. But Adam still doesn’t know about his part in Voltron, he thinks once Lotor and Allura head for Colony Two after New Year we’ll all be deployed and he’ll be left behind again. We all know he’s going to be with us, but honestly I’d rather have it happen while we have the chance too. Once we’re all at war, there’s no telling when it will be peaceful enough for a wedding again.”

Lance glanced over at Keith, who still looked uncomfortable but was nodding slowly. Lance understood that logic as well, even if it did all seem very rushed.

“So…in three weeks I’m having my wedding,” Shiro finished, looking back at Keith. “And I really want you to be my best man.”

That locked Keith up for a minute. Personally, Lance hadn’t expected anything less. Keith might have felt like the two of them were drifting apart, but they were brothers and Lance knew Keith would always be one of the most important people in Shiro’s life.

“Uh…sure,” Keith sputtered, completely losing all social grace he’d learned over the last year as he was caught off guard. Fortunately, Shiro was fluent in Awkward Loner.

“There’s going to be some work involved,” he warned. “Um, I’m probably not going to come home tonight, but I’d like to go out tomorrow and look for a real engagement ring and then look at wedding rings. I could use someone there with me.”

“Tomorrow,” Keith nodded numbly. “Yeah, sure, I can do that.”

The conversation was going about as well as could be expected. Still, Shiro cocked his head to the side slightly and gave Keith a serious look.

“Are you really okay with doing this?” He asked. “There really isn’t anyone else I can imagine being up there with me when I get married, but I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”

“No…no, I want to,” Keith insisted, starting to shake off is surprise. “Really, I do. I just…uh…”

He looked over at Lance, then gestured between the two of them before looking back at Shiro.

“I’m just a little thrown off. This whole thing kind of interrupted…us.”

Shiro finally seemed to notice how they were standing, Lance’s arm still slung lazily around Keith and Keith still leaning against the wall, partially trapping him there with one hand.

“…right,” he winced, holding up both hands and starting to back away. “Sorry. I just wanted to ask you fast, in case you left early or something and I didn’t see you tonight.”

“No, it’s cool,” Keith assured him, flustered. “Really. But…tomorrow. We can go ring shopping and then, you know. Maybe hang out tomorrow night and talk. Get some pizza.”

“Yeah, we can do that,” Shiro smiled as he backed away, flashing him two thumbs up. “Thank you, Keith.”

He made his escape, likely back to the table of “adults.” Keith watched him go until he disappeared back into the ballroom, then turned back to Lance. He had a hopeful look on his face, mixed in with the little bit of anxiety that meant he was probably replaying that whole conversation in his head already.

“I did good?” Keith asked weakly.

Considering the situation, Lance thought he’d done spectacularly. He hadn’t exactly shown enthusiasm, but there had been a noticeable lack of anything bad said about Adam. They would definitely have their usual natural, comfortable conversation once the whole affair had time to settle and they were alone, without Lance there as an audience making everything awkward. But for now, Shiro seemed pretty happy with the quick and tidy exchange.

“Yeah,” Lance agreed, grinning a little as he leaned up to steal a quick kiss while nobody was looking. “You did good.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Five years ago:

He paced, slow and silent, from one end of the small cell to the other, careful not to touch the bars. He’d learned early on that he could bend the metal if he tried hard enough, even whatever reinforced ore this cage was made of, so now it was charged to give him a very nasty shock if he got too close.

It was a maddening captivity. The cell was barely as long as he was tall, completely empty except for him. There was nothing in the lab to indicate date, nothing to mark the passage of time. He was the only clock in the room, his even, steady footsteps marking the passage of seconds.

It was a highly inaccurate timekeeping system, since it only functioned while he was awake. He could count the hours—no, they used vargas here—and calculate how much time had passed while his eyes were open, but he would always inevitably get thrown off track by sleep.

There weren’t regular hours of sleep here, it just happened whenever he was tired. It might be night, it might be day, it might be a nap, it might be a coma. For an animal it would be fine, but for a human being it was torture. He was culturally wired to function according to Earth measurements of time, not having a marker to orient himself to was like being adrift at sea with no view of the stars.

There was nothing to provide any enrichment, either. The fact that he was capable of walking and wasn’t locked in a small pod was a huge concession. Even then, he knew he had only been provided with it because he was a subject of study. He was completely useless for whatever his maker was doing, he had figured out that much, but she occasionally pulled him out to test his endurance or ability to heal. He was a living biological specimen, annoying because he wasn’t an “empty vessel” but something to stab, cut, and break when she was angry.

He wasn’t the only one here, there was another. He had been brought in only recently and it didn’t look like she intended to have him stay long. If the body lying on the table across the lab could be called a “he” instead of an “it.”

The body screamed sometimes, like when its arm was cut off. It reacted to pain stimuli in a way that made it seem alive, writhing and crying out as she tortured it to cause a white streak in the hair from stress. It was very loud when she made the cut on its face, before she got distracted and left it lying there, still bleeding.

But its reactions, while disturbing, were also strangely hollow. It never said words or begged, only screamed. And once the jerking stopped and the noises ended that was it, it lay still and did nothing else.

He had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t really alive, it was one of the “empty vessels” she wanted. He had tried talking to it once or twice when the lab was empty but had gotten no response. It just lay there like a broken doll, unblinking eyes staring up at the ceiling, waiting to be programmed to do something besides react to pain.

It was going to be programmed to act like Takashi Shirogane, he knew that much. He knew because that was the face the doll wore, the same face he wore. She had tried to program him for whatever job lay ahead for the doll but had failed, he was too “alive” to be controlled the same way.

But she had definitely dumped some things in his head. He knew that, because when he’d first woken up in this lab he’d believed himself to be Takashi Shirogane. He remembered growing up on Earth, he remembered attending the Garrison academy, he remembered getting sick. He remembered the horrible falling out he’d had with his boyfriend, he remembered missing Adam all the way to Kerberos, he remembered thinking about Adam and Keith and Matt and Sam in those long hours spent locked up down in the fighting pits.

Except he wasn’t Shiro, and those memories weren’t his. He knew that now that he saw the other clone, heard her talking out loud about her project to her underlings. He was just a copy, the real thing was out there…doing whatever it was Shiro was doing.

That was a bit of a hard pill to swallow. Up until then he’d at least had hope to sustain him, the thought that he had saved Matt and that Matt might be able to escape and come back to help him. But Shiro had saved Matt, not him, and Shiro was already free and fighting.

As for him…nobody knew he existed. There was nobody thinking of him, or wondering if he was okay, or planning to save him. There was nobody who knew or cared that he was currently pacing a cage his head brushed the top of if he stood up too straight, or that he hadn’t been given fresh water in what he estimated was almost a five days. He knew it was five days, because he hadn’t slept during that time either.

That basically meant the end of things, he assumed. What he was given wasn’t great, it was just some cold nutritional mush and a canister of water each day, but it was enough to sustain. She had her programmable copy ready to release, to do whatever its job was to do, she no longer needed him. If he had heard right, there were even more copies out in another lab somewhere. There was nothing special about him and no reason to keep him around, he was probably now going to be used for one final test to see how long it took him to die without food or water.

The smart thing to do would be stop pacing, he was already moving very slowly and having trouble keeping on his feet. Conserve energy, try not to lose water to sweat. He knew all of that survival bullshit, but to be perfectly honest he had no interest in prolonging this.

He wasn’t the only thing in the lab that his maker seemed to have grown tired of. There was one more thing in here besides him and the empty clone, a strange creature kept in a small, enforced chamber across the lab. From what he could gather it was very old, one underling had asked about it and had been told it had been captured back in the days before Daibazaal had been destroyed.

He didn’t know anything about Daibazaal, but it sounded like the place had been blown to bits thousands of years ago. So he felt a little bit bad for the creature for having to be trapped in this lab for thousands of years.

It wouldn’t be for too much longer though, it was dying too. It was regularly given some of that weird glowy stuff his maker was obsessed with, and as far as he could see it was kept around to regularly torment. It had no body, it was like a floating kaleidoscope of black and rusty gold, so the only reason he knew it was probably in pain was because it flickered differently when she messed with it.

She didn’t like it, that was for certain. The fact that it existed seemed to make her angry, but when she talked to it she used some weird old language he didn’t know. But she hadn’t bothered with it in several days, and it was beginning to look dull and lifeless.

The door to the lab opened and three of the Galra doctors came in. They wheeled the gurney carrying the programmed clone out, and a moment later he saw through the two-way mirror as they moved it into the operating room next door. They laid it out on the table where they’d originally removed his arm, and then started doing something he couldn’t see. This was different, something was happening. He guessed it was time for its mission to start.

Just the two of them left behind, then. They’d probably lock up the lab and leave him and shimmering creature to waste away alone until they needed the space again.

He couldn’t reach anything to end it quicker, he’d tried. Anything even remotely dangerous was too far out of easy reach, and even if he could stretch it would require pressing against the bars. He already knew the shock from the bars wouldn’t kill him either, it would just knock him unconscious.

In the next room over, the doctors had left. The turned down the lights and everything went quiet. He watched for a while, but nothing happened so he got bored and started pacing again. He counted forty doboshes before the clone sat up and screamed.

He jumped, turning toward the sound. Something was definitely starting, before now the clone had never moved of its own accord. Now it looked at its very unnecessary prosthetic before staring dazedly across the empty room and whispering something.

It sounded like a name. “Ulaz.” He knew that name, he had heard his maker cursing it once or twice.

The clone got off the table and took a few weak steps before falling to the floor. He knew this had to be a programmed response, he and it came from the same physical stock and he recovered from everything very quickly.

“Oh, no, buddy you don’t want to do that,” he warned out loud as the clone stumbled for the door. “No, really, don’t go out there. Once whatever this is starts, you’re not gonna have a fun time.”

The clone couldn’t hear him, of course. He couldn’t see there was anyone here through the two-way mirror, and sound didn’t carry through it. He could do nothing except watch the clone limp through the door, disappearing out of sight. He looked over at the flickering creature in its storage tube.

“I tried,” he pointed out. “Not hard, but we both know it wouldn’t help if I did.”

He stopped his pacing to lean against the side of his cell. He was tired from the lack of food and water. Three to four days was pushing it for a normal human, but he was beginning to suspect he wasn’t a normal human. Still, he wasn’t feeling pleasant, and his inability to rest was only adding fuel to the fire.

There were loud sounds out in the hallway then, the sounds of laserfire. He heard it hitting the walls and ceiling, then he heard the small explosion of a power line. The lights in the lab dimmed down and slowly died, leaving the glowing creature the only thing even partially illuminating the room.

But the buzzing of the bars had stopped.

He knew he probably didn’t have long. Whatever was going on out there would only cause localized damage, they’d fix it once the coast was clear. He tested the bars with a light touch, and when they didn’t zap him he grabbed them and pulled with everything he had.

It was hard. Harder than it had been in the beginning because he was week. His head swam and he got dizzy, shortness of breath followed. But he threw everything he had into the effort, until the bars bent just enough to allow him to squeeze his way through.

There wasn’t really any chance of escaping, not in his condition. He could maybe hope to find somewhere to hide until it was safe to steal some rations, perhaps they’d think he escaped in the ruckus that clone was causing and he could fly under the radar until he was strong enough to really leave. He would have to move fast, find somewhere to stow himself away before the emergency was over and they started cleaning up the mess.

He was halfway to the door when he stopped, leaning heavily against a table and looking back. The soft glow from the storage tube across the lab was weak, drab. This thing was dying, and it was dying slowly.

He didn’t know what it was, or where it came from, or even if it was friendly. But it had been locked in here the whole time he had been, his only company even though it did nothing but change its sharp shapes when he talked to it. He could not in good conscience leave anything behind here.

He dragged himself tiredly back across the lab, lightly flicking the tube. With the power down, whatever field was containing it was no longer running through the glass surfaces. But clearly this thing needed something else to survive here, or it would have escaped on its own once the power went out.

“You’re definitely dying, huh?” He asked it, tapping lightly on the glass. “It’s all right, so am I. I don’t think it’s going to be very long now, to be honest. But I’m going to find somewhere more comfortable to keel over, pretend I’m making a brilliant getaway. Want to come with me? Maybe if we die in a vent we can contaminate the air supply.”

He fumbled with the tube until he managed to get it open, reaching in just short of touching the creature as if it were just some exotic bird or lizard and not what was clearly some kind of interdimensional alien being.

“Come on,” he cajoled. “I’ll carry you. Anywhere is better than being locked in here, right?”

The creature hesitated, or maybe he was just projecting human behaviors onto it. It took a moment, but it did come closer and he braced himself, uncertain of exactly what was going to happen when it touched him. But as it slid over his hand, shifting its shape to wrap around his forearm, it just felt weirdly soft and very cold.

“All right. Me and you,” he said tiredly, stumbling back across the lab toward the door. “Let’s go see if they have a spa at this one-star resort, a hot soak would be really nice.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Current Day:

“Did you know,” Kuro asked conversationally, trying not to trip and fall face down in the hallway, “that I’m an adult and capable of walking at a reasonable pace when a giant isn’t dragging me along with his ridiculously long strides?”

It didn’t really seem like the kind of thing that needed saying, considering anybody with eyes could see that Curtis’ legs were long enough to give his steps a few more inches, just enough to make keeping up with him awkward for Kuro. Especially since he was being pulled along rather than walking under his own power.

Curtis looked embarrassed and slowed down, then looked even more embarrassed and finally let go of his arm. Given that they’d just fled an important military party in a very obnoxious, attention-grabbing way, Kuro would have thought Curtis couldn’t get any more embarrassed, but clearly he lived to surprise.

“Sorry,” Curtis mumbled, letting him go. “I’m just trying to get as far away from Shiro as possible before Adam catches up.”

They were in a hallway leading to some offices, curving around the airfield and moving in the general direction of the Lion hangars. It was the same hallway he’d walked down with Allura to get to the ballroom, so Kuro wasn’t as lost as he could have been. Curtis wasn’t looking at him as they walked now, he kept his eyes straight ahead and put a few feet of distance between them.

Curtis hadn’t tried to talk to him at all this evening, even though Kuro could tell he wanted to. Aside from dragging him out of the ballroom with the rest of the miscreants he was being very respectful of Kuro’s space and leaving it up to him whether to start a conversation.

Which was fine with Kuro, because Kuro didn’t want to talk to him. He wasn’t mad anymore, he’d had some time to cool off and think, but he really didn’t want to be around Curtis at all. Especially now that the truth was out, and that he knew Curtis’ weird behavior stemmed from the fact that he was genuinely upset that Kuro was leaving.

Honestly, he wished he didn’t know that. Everything had seemed so clear cut a month ago, when he’d first re-implanted his memory. Everyone here was a potential enemy, he was a danger to everyone, he had to go as soon as possible.

He hadn’t thought it would be so hard. Humans were social creatures, sure, but he hadn’t expected them to just decide he belonged here and fight so hard to keep him here even though they barely knew him. It seemed like every conversation he had these days, he walked away with the knowledge he had to leave feeling a little bit heavier, and the urge to stay growing a little bit stronger.

There were “what ifs” cropping up now, scenarios playing through his head on how he could remain without hurting anybody. The armband Lotor had made him had helped, he didn’t feel painfully weak or need to break into the balmera storage chamber. It definitely didn’t push him into top form, he was still tired and occasionally a bit sluggish, but perhaps it was a prototype for something that could do the job.

And that was another thing…Lotor.

After he’d gotten home yesterday evening and had time to really think, Kuro now worried about him. There were too many things that nobody else understood that made complete sense to Kuro when they were all put together, and they did not paint a picture that made him very confident.

Keith said after everyone was down, the “entity” hitching a ride in Lance—which Kuro now knew was a Gold—had shown its face to protect Lotor. The Gold had been hanging around the Sincline in the quintessence field, likely for the same reason. The Gold had mentioned something about a “stolen Silver,” but Kuro’s human brain was quite limiting so it could have been a miscommunication. The Gold could have meant a kidnapped Silver…which put Lotor’s suspicion that he and Kuro were similar and that he was a clone prototype into a whole new light.

Kuro remembered Honerva, back before she’d become Haggar. Back before he’d been “Kuro,” when he’d known of himself—herself, rather—as a half-Iron. When Honerva still had some control over herself, when she’d been fighting the entity pushing to takeover. The half-Iron had been hurt with the arrival of the creatures from the Depths, the ones who had heeded Honerva’s call and attacked even while Alfor had been warning her to stop her experiments.

The half-Iron had been unable to flee back into the quintessence field and so had remained trapped in the lab when the rift had been covered. Locked up with no way out, moved onto a ship laboratory with all of Honerva’s other things. That was where Honerva’s big meltdown had happened.

Kuro remembered that day clearly, Honerva’s agony upon learning that the baby she was carrying was dying because of her quintessence use. He remembered news of her death reaching her lab technicians. And he remembered her return, calling herself Haggar…and carrying a healthy baby to term.

That was the last the half-Iron had heard of it, until Lotor had freed Kuro from Honerva’s lab. Now here there Lotor stood, a healthy, full grown man. A man immune to overexposure, a man who drew strength from the quintessence field, a man who fell weak and ill if he got no exposure at all.

Kuro was what he was because he had been desperate to survive once he’d no longer been useful and had been left to die. Lotor was not a prototype for him personally…but was it possible he really was the prototype for what Honerva was creating now?

Could Honerva have finally given in to the entity trying to take over, becoming Haggar, for the promise of saving the baby using a kidnapped Silver cub? The life of the mother traded in return for the life of the child?

The possibility made Kuro very nervous for Lotor’s sake, but it explained a lot. Why he was never truly able to pull away from quintessence even after ten thousand years, why he had lived so long in the first place, why he didn’t suffer overexposure even though a child in the womb would have died from it. It explained why he couldn’t perform alchemy, druidism was the magic of Kuro’s kind, and it explained why Honerva really wanted him rescued from the rift.

If Lotor was like Kuro, if he was a world walker, he was also a threat. Most Guardians and Reapers couldn’t exist for long periods of time out in the realities, the druids were safe as long as they took bodies and stayed here. Honerva could take her druids and destroy everything in her path here, but Lotor would be able to follow where her other enemies couldn’t.

It complicated Kuro’s plan to leave even further. He didn’t want to fight this war, but Lotor had saved his life. He couldn’t just walk away and leave him behind without at least giving him the truth.

“Watch out for the—”

Kuro walked into the glass door full force, having completely turned his thoughts inward and started to move on autopilot. He stumbled back a few steps, quickly cupping his hands under his nose when he felt the blood start to trickle. The pain was sharp at first but it dulled quickly, and it wasn’t like it was the first time he’d ever been hit in the face.

“Why is there a glass door in the middle of the hall?” He asked irritably, glaring at the door in question as if it had personally offended him. It wasn’t like the others, it was part of a completely glass partition that separated one half of the hallway from the other, and loomed up out of nowhere.

Well, there was writing on it to advise comers and goers that they were entering or leaving a classified area, but that was the kind of thing a person only noticed if they were paying attention.

“Sadistic architects,” Curtis pulled a silk handkerchief out of his dress uniform pocket and pressed it against Kuro’s nose, wincing in sympathy. “If it makes you feel any better, look…there are at least three other face prints besides yours, and that’s just today.”

“No, it doesn’t make me feel better. Not having a broken nose would make me feel better,” Kuro said irritably.

Curtis swiped his ID card and the door unlocked. He held it open for Kuro to enter then made sure it was shut tightly behind them before hurrying past him to get to the third door down first. He swiped his card again, opening the office.

“Here,” he motioned Kuro inside. The plaque on the wall beside it read Commander Duchesne. “I have some bottles of water in my drawer, and there’s a box of tissues on the desk.”

The office was pretty small for somebody who helped save the universe on the regular, but Kuro had seen Takashi’s office and that was small as well. At their core the two men were simple soldiers who didn’t need more space than their underlings. It was noble, in a way, that they were so humble.

Kuro wasn’t. In his opinion, the office was small and plain and utterly lacking in respect for the person using it. It needed at least one wall knocked down, two colors of paint, curtains, and a desk that didn’t look like it had been bought at a scratch-and-dent shop. And that was coming from someone who currently lived in a glorified closet.

Curtis guided him to the desk chair, digging out a bottle of water and passing him the tissues before going to close the door. Now Kuro understood why they’d come this way; even if Adam was pissed off enough at them to take down the glass door, he didn’t have access to the office.

Curtis came back over, past the desk, and opened the office’s one window. A blast of cold air filled the room as he leaned out, but after a moment he closed it and returned with some icicles broken off the sill. He wrapped them in a tissue and pressed them against Kuro’s sore nose, tilting his chin up for a better look. Kuro gave a little huff but let him inspect his face, lightly pressing at the sore spots for a moment.

“It’s not broken,” he announced after a minute. “But damn, it looks like it hurts.”

The bleeding was already starting to slow, so there probably wasn’t too much damage. Except maybe to Kuro’s pride. Curtis let him go and sat on the edge desk, giving him a respectable distance even though it was his own space. Kuro carefully eased the handkerchief away and started to clean himself up.

“How long do you think we have to hide here?”

“Only until he catches Shiro,” Curtis answered. “He’s the main target. We just don’t want to be caught before then. And given that Adam’s brain is still functioning on Arena level while Shiro’s been on Earth for a while, it probably won’t be long.”

Kuro went back to tending his nose. After a minute or two the bleeding had completely stopped and he was just feeling a bit tender, but as long as he didn’t go slamming his face into anything else he supposed he should be fine. He had unfortunately stained Curtis’ handkerchief through with blood, and he wondered if he could clean it or if he should just replace it.

“You know, I didn’t really get the chance to say it,” Curtis broke the silence, still sitting on the edge of the desk and absently kicking his feet. “But thank you. For what you did for Adam. Nobody on Earth would have been able to fix that, even if we’d gotten him home without you I don’t think he would’ve lived.”

“I’m a doctor, that’s what I do,” Kuro answered.

“No, doctors study other peoples’ medical research and apply it in hospitals or in practice,” Curtis disagreed. “You literally created an entire nonexistent treatment from scratch.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Kuro answered indifferently. “I don’t like being told no, not even by nature herself.”

“Sorry. I know you don’t really want to talk to me right now. And that’s fine, I get it.” Curtis glanced over at him, hesitating a little bit. “While we’re stuck here for a few minutes, is it all right if I give you something? Then once we’re out of here we can go back to not talking.”

Kuro wanted to tell him no. He was having a hard enough time with everything without letting Curtis continue to give him things. Not that he’d ever stopped, even yesterday he’d brought by that jar full of pretty pebbles that Kuro had really liked.

“Sure,” Kuro allowed. “As long as there’s no tracker in whatever it is.”

“That’s fair,” Curtis answered. He leaned over to open the desk drawer, and pulled a big white envelope out from under some other papers. He put it down on the desk in front of Kuro. “I was going to give you this the other night when we went out to dinner. But the fight started…”

“Yeah, in hindsight you should have picked somewhere less fancy,” Kuro answered. “Fewer people would stare if I was screaming at you and pulling off my shirt in a Waffle House.”

“Bec Fin is the only French restaurant within driving distance that’s back open. There used to be a little corner place over in the shopping district, but it got wrecked in the occupation. I was trying to give you a little taste of where I was from.”

When Curtis put it like that, it put a bit of a different light on the evening. Instead of being presumptuous and snobby it was almost sweet…but it was still a bit of a misfire to think Kuro would be comfortable in a place like that. He didn’t say that, though. Curtis was trying, he had to give him that much.

Kuro turned his attention to the envelope, opening it up and pulling out a folded sheet of fabric. He put the envelope aside and opened it up, smoothing out what turned out to be a poster-sized print of the night sky. Curtis leaned over and flipped it over, which was when Kuro noticed the bit of city silhouette that marked the bottom.

“I know you said you go by your Bii-Boh star sign, and that you figured it out using the date you woke up listed in the KURON files,” Curtis said. “I don’t really know Galra dates, but I got Kolivan to help me calculate when your wake-up day would have been in Earth time. This is the sky above Seattle on the day you were born…it’s August 30th, that makes you a Virgo.”

He kept talking, pointing out the local constellations, but Kuro didn’t hear any of it. He stared at the print, at the inky backdrop dotted with thousands of stars. The little bit of city skyline at the bottom was Seattle, the city where Takashi had been born and grown up and where his parents were buried. These were the stars they looked up and saw in the summer.

“—nd it’s kind of cool, because you’re exactly half a year out from Shiro,” Curtis was saying.

Kuro looked up at him, watching him point animatedly to things on the print that marked the time of year. Curtis was very pretty right now, those bright blue eyes lit up as he talked and his hair a bit messy from their run. Kuro wasn’t really a person who focused a lot on people’s features, he identified them as aesthetically pleasing or not but wasn’t physically driven by anything he saw. This was the kind of thing that drew him to people, these moments when who they really were shone through.

There was one thing he did notice, though. Now that Curtis wasn’t wearing either armor or a winter coat or jacket of some sort, he could see that he’d lost weight. That was the doctor in him rearing its head though, it had nothing to do with the situation at the moment.

“I don’t really know anything about astrology though, so I can’t tell you anything about Virgos,” Curtis finished. “But there’s plenty on the internet.”

“I killed a guy yesterday,” Kuro blurted out.

That slammed the whole room into silence. Curtis’ thought process visibly came to a screeching halt, and he stared at Kuro as he tried to jumpstart his brain again.

“You…I’m sorry. What?”

“I killed a guy,” Kuro repeated. “Just like everyone would have been afraid I’d do if they knew I wasn’t what I said I was.”

Curtis stared at him. His eyes slid to the side slowly, first left, then right, like he was trying to process the situation and find a way to handle it.

“Okay,” he said after a minute. “I think what you meant to say was that you found a guy dead.”

“No,” Kuro disagreed. “He was alive. I made him dead.”

“No, you found him dead.”

“No, I—”

“You found him dead,” Curtis repeated, this time with a little bit more force. “Because killing somebody is a crime, but we both know that’s not something you do. So he must have been dead when you found him. And now you’re going to show me where he is, so we can make sure he’s not anywhere that somebody might find him.”

“You want to help me hide the body?” Kuro asked skeptically.

“No,” Curtis said quickly. “Hiding a body is illegal. We’re just going to…move the body. If any identifying characteristics disappear between the time we pick it up and the time we put it down it’s completely not our fault.”

“Moving a body is hiding a body,” Kuro pointed out.

“No, we’re just making sure nobody who shouldn’t find it finds it,” Curtis insisted. “Like…innocent kids, or an old lady with a weak heart. You…found a dead guy, and now we’ll go make sure the dead guy doesn’t ruin anyone else’s day. Please tell me the dead guy isn’t a soldier or law enforcement officer.”

Kuro looked up at Curtis. He was so serious right now, he was genuinely ready to help him hide a murder. He didn’t ask what happened, he didn’t ask if it was warranted, he was just ready to dig a hole in the dark woods and cram a corpse into it for his sake.

“I didn’t kill anybody,” Kuro admitted, looking away guiltily. “I just wanted to see what you’d do.”

“…so there isn’t a body?” Curtis asked, letting out a breath of relief when Kuro shook his head. He rubbed his face with both hands. “Why would you do that to me?”

“Because,” Kuro carefully folded up the print, keeping his eyes down and not looking up at him. “I don’t want you to be upset that I’m leaving. I don’t want it to make you sad, I don’t want you to be angry with me. So I want you to understand why I have to go, but the truth is kind of out there and I wanted to see if you could handle it without freaking out.”

He paused for a moment, then peeked up at Curtis.

“…you kind of got a little excited at the thought of hiding a body.”

“I…that’s…what…I did not!”

“You really did, a little bit. It’s okay though, its really sweet that you’d help me bury a body.”

Curtis opened his mouth to say something else, then snapped it closed. He scratched the back of his head, glancing around the office as if for some way to change the subject.

It was a somewhat crazy thing to say, just announcing that he’d killed someone, but he needed to see Curtis’ reaction. He needed to know if he was finally telling the truth, or if he really had been spying because he’d expected Kuro to do something bad that he’d have to turn him in for.

“You have access to the labs downstairs, right?” He asked. Curtis nodded. Kuro put the print safely back into the envelope and rose, moving around the desk toward the door. He stopped halfway there, hesitating a moment before holding out his hand for Curtis to take. “Let’s go for a walk.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Curtis wanted to say he was shocked, but to be perfectly honest the only abnormal behavior from anyone in the whole group of asylum bait he worked with was normal behavior. Having somebody tell him they needed help burying a body was probably a little less unusual for him than it was for most people. Though, other people who asked for his help in that regard tended to be other soldiers on mission with him and not gorgeous, sad-faced doctors giving him the big doe eyes.

He wasn’t really sure how much more “shocking” anything could get, since he’d already come to the conclusion that Kuro was probably an alien parasite inhabiting a clone body. But there was something Kuro wanted to tell him and he was going to listen.

He was a little bit surprised when Kuro held his hand while they walked. His fingers were soft from being protected by gloves through all the years of lab work, but he didn’t hide his strength with a light hold. Just the fact that they were holding hands kept Curtis suitably distracted until they reached the Atlas hangar and he swiped his card to give them access to the elevator down to the labs. He was pretty sure he knew where they were going, but his suspicion was confirmed when they stopped outside of Allura’s containment lab. Kuro turned to face him, holding his hand in both of his.

“I think you need to know that everything anyone would have suspected about me is true,” he said reluctantly. Curtis was put on alert by the way he said it.

“What do you mean by everything anyone would have suspected?”

“I could be a threat,” Kuro answered, squeezing his hand. “I used my access to Adam’s healing pod to upload code to the Garrison mainframe when it was hooked up in the med bay. I gave myself access to everything hooked into the network…I can launch missiles, I can start a war. I can lock this whole place down and trap everyone inside, cause systems to overheat, start a fire. I can turn the active zaiforge cannon on the planet, or bring down the protective field around it. I can kill contact with the Coalition and broadcast a glaring “welcome” sign to every Galra warship within jump distance.”

“Okay,” Curtis said slowly, processing that. It was a shock that anyone had access to that kind of thing, even though gaining access to those kinds of things was something he regularly did. Or maybe it was the fact that it was Kuro admitting to it that was shocking. “So…if you have the whole planet’s destruction at your fingertips, why are you telling me?”

“Because I want to make sure you know that just because I’m able to do that doesn’t mean I want to or that I intend to. I’m not some horrible monster masquerading as a good guy and waiting to hit the big red “destruct” button and I want you to know that. I need you to know that.”

“All right,” Kuro was really squeezing his hand now. Curtis used his other one to gently pry it free. “I get it. I would be a lot less uncomfortable if you showed me this program and maybe if we…took a little bit of that access away from you, but I believe you don’t mean to start trouble.”

He wondered if Kuro would take that the wrong way and get huffy, but he didn’t. He nodded as if he understood that maybe nobody should really be able to do any of that, and then tapped the door’s scan pad. Curtis swiped his card to let them in, reaching up as they entered to flip the small camera sitting on the door frame upward so it didn’t pick anything up. He knew they didn’t have visual, so speaking wouldn’t be an issue.

As soon as they were in the room, the four smaller entities started acting up. But this time, instead of trying to lunge toward Kuro they started flitting around madly as if looking for somewhere to hide from him. Clearly he’d asserted his dominance well enough the first time.

“We call these things Formless,” Kuro said, stopping by the nearest tube. “They don’t have a shape on the other side either, they’re just hungry, roving shadows.”

“The other side of what?”

“Of the border,” Kuro answered. “To human eyes, the quintessence field is just a deep well of liquid energy. You don’t have the senses to perceive it any other way, you’re not evolved to understand it. But it’s a world of its own and it has things that live in it. It has marshes, deserts, seas…but in a way it’s also like the sea. Different things survive in different zones.”

“And you’re from the quintessence field?” Curtis guessed. He certainly sounded like he’d seen it before.

“Not the deeper part. Most of the field is an environment made up of pure energy. This universe is one made up of matter. The zone I come from is on the border in between, my kind are able to phase shift to suit where we are. We can survive here without having to steal a body like the Formless do.”

“So these Formless are from the deeper part?” Curtis asked, trying to understand.

“Yes. No. But yes,” Kuro flip-flopped. “Here.”

He took Curtis’ hand and pulled him across the room, to the bigger tank in the center where the different entity lazily floated.

“This is a Gold,” Kuro announced.

“A gold what?”

“Just…a Gold. You know, like a White.”

“A white what?” Curtis asked. He knew he wasn’t a stupid man, he understood the words alone. But when Kuro put them together he didn’t make sense.

“You know about the White Lion?” Kuro pressed impatiently.

Okay, now that rang a bell. He had been briefed on details when Shiro had become the Atlas’ Captain, and over the last few months he had been given a little more detail.

“It’s some kind of spirit that teaches alchemy,” Curtis recited dutifully. “It was on Oriande for thousands of years, but they think it left with Allura and made its way into the Atlas. Now they don’t know where it is, but Allura thinks it’s in the crystal in Shiro’s arm.”

“Yes, that’s the one. But there isn’t just one White Lion, any Guardian can become a White.”

Kuro must have seen the look on Curtis’ face and known that he was losing him again already. He took a breath and closed his eyes, not used to having this kind of conversation with someone for whom none of this was common knowledge.

“Okay,” he said after a moment, opening his eyes. “The Lions that form Voltron. The ships. Do you follow me so far?”

“Following.”

“They’re animated by something alive, something from the quintessence field.”

“Following.”

“We call those creatures Guardians,” Kuro said slowly, as if he were an idiot. “Guardians are creatures that live deep within the field. They’re elemental creatures and there are five different types…Reds, Blues, Greens, Yellows, and Blacks.”

“Just like the ships.”

“The ships are made in their image. Ten thousand years ago, a group of five Guardians hitched a ride on a trans-reality comet that was heading into this universe. They’re pure energy though, and can’t exist here without some kind of body. They probably guided the ships’ creation to mirror their own appearance.”

“And you know this because…”

“Well, I was there.”

“You were there,” Curtis repeated, not sure if he’d heard that right. Kuro nodded. “Ten thousand years ago, you were th— you’re ten thousand years old?”

“Me? No,” Kuro scrunched up his nose. “No, I’m much older than that. I mean, I remember back when this universe was first created.”

“The universe is fourteen billion years old,” Curtis answered, unable to stop his voice from hitting the disbelieving high pitch it hit.

“Thirteen point eight billion,” Kuro answered. “Give or take a few weeks. I had just met my first boyfriend…he was a Tin, you wouldn’t like him.”

Curtis stared at him, only understanding half of those words and not entirely sure he understood the rest. Kuro waved that line of thought off, because apparently being fucking ancient was no big deal, and returned to the previous line of conversation.

“Anyway, when any one Guardian learns how to master their own element and all four of the others, they do what we call “ascending” and become a White,” Kuro said. “So it’s more like a job description than any one entity, you know? Now for my kind, when you do all that you become a Gold.”

He gestured grandly to the holding tube they stood in front of, where its current inhabitant floated, looking about as grand as a dead jellyfish.

“…not impressive,” Curtis admitted after a moment.

“He’s…bigger in the quintessence field,” Kuro said uncertainly.

“Well if Gold is a job title, what color was he before?” Curtis asked.

“How am I supposed to know that?” Kuro asked, looking flustered. “I only just met him last week. Don’t you think it’s a little racist to just assume we all know each other?”

“No, what I think is that I did LSD in college once, and this is all giving me deja vu,” Curtis answered, gesturing first around the room then at Kuro.

“That’s offensive, but I know you don’t mean that,” Kuro answered. He leaned over toward the tube, clearly talking to the Gold. “He doesn’t mean that, he’s just a little bit surprised. He’s usually much more in control and confident.”

The Gold moved in a weird way, flickering like some weird, abstract model. Kuro glanced at Curtis, then looked back at it.

“No, his voice is usually deeper.”

“Hold on!” Curtis exclaimed. That was the last straw. “No! No, that thing is not talking about me!”

“He’s not a thing, and he’s concerned,” Kuro defended. “He said your heart rate is very high right now and the way you sound is making him wonder about the state of your throat muscles. Or something to that affect, he’s a little hard for me to understand like this.”

Curtis groaned and rubbed his face. If he’d been given the choice between this and Kuro having committed a murder, he would have preferred to be out hiding a body right now.

“What do these Formless things have to do with any of this?” He asked patiently.

“Well, mastering all elements is hard,” Kuro answered. “If it wasn’t, we’d all do it. Guardians…they tend to be more on the power hungry side, they take too much or they refuse to use it properly. In that case it eats them up inside and turns them into Formless. Just shapeless masses slogging along at the edges of reality, sucking up any life they can get. For the most part they’re mindless and disorganized, easy to separate and destroy.”

“So you think Honerva’s getting her power from one of those?” Curtis asked. Kuro looked back at the Gold, and weirdly enough, Curtis got the impression the Gold was looking right back at him. Like they were sharing some kind of uncomfortable secret. “Yes? No?”

“Um…I don’t know,” Kuro admitted. He didn’t sound like he didn’t know.

“Okay, then take a wild guess.”

“All right. If I had to guess—and this is just conjecture—I would probably say that the thing feeding Honerva isn’t a low level Formless. I would guess that it’s something very big and very dark from out in the Depths.”

The Depths. Well that sounded like something out of a Lovecraftian horror novel, this was just getting better and better.

“Clarify,” Curtis requested.

“It’s the nothing,” Kuro answered. “The empty. The void. All realities meet each other in some places, they’re connected in those places by the quintessence field. But out in the spaces where they don’t connect, there’s nothing.”

“If there’s nothing there, how can something come from it?” Curtis asked, confused.

Kuro scoffed, shaking his head. He looked at the Gold again, and this time Curtis got the impression that he had failed some kind of test.

“No, it’s not is fault,” Kuro said to the Gold. “It’s the processing power in the brain, there’s a lot they can’t comprehend. What, me? Pfft, stop that.”

Kuro flicked the glass lightly, giving a little wince at the shock he got from the field that was holding the Gold inside. There was also a telltale shift in his pallor, a faint flush of pink creeping up his neck and into his ears. Somehow, that was the most offensive part of this entire exchange.

“Hold on, is he flirting with you?” Curtis demanded.

“What? No,” Kuro protested way too quickly. “That’s ridiculous, you sound jealous.”

“I am not jealous.”

The Gold flickered. Curtis glared at it, then looked to Kuro for a translation. Kuro wouldn’t look at him, he had his mouth covered slightly with one hand and was clearly trying not to laugh.

“He said that sounds like something someone who’s jealous would say,” Kuro whispered.

Curtis rolled his eyes, looking between the two of them. In the tube, he saw nothing but a strange metallic inkblot, flitting around in space and making no discernible shape or communications. But Kuro looked at it as if it was one of the most impressive things he’d ever seen.

That was when Curtis understood. He’d known on some level that Kuro and this thing were alike, but in his head he’d still kept them separate. But they weren’t separate, this thing was another member of Kuro’s species. One who was impressive, one who’d accomplished something that was apparently very difficult. One who appeared to flirt and make Kuro flush.

Kuro had said the words “my first boyfriend” when referring to a time before he was here in this universe, and referred to the Gold as a “he.” He’d been stuck in this world for more than ten thousand years.

“You’re leaving because you’re going home?” Curtis guessed, his stomach feeling hollow. “You’re going to take him with you when you leave, and you’re going back to the quintessence field?”

Kuro looked up at him and his smile faded. That fast all the levity was gone, like the air had been sucked out of the room. Curtis wasn’t sure what he’d said, but Kuro clearly found it painful.

“We have to go,” he said gently to the Gold. “I know being locked in here is terrible, and I’m sorry. I’ll bring you another piece of crystal when I get a chance, just hang in there.”

He backed away, and Curtis let him lead him out of the room. On the way out he righted the camera, then sealed the door up behind them. Kuro had already started walking, chewing his thumbnail and silent, and Curtis had to hurry to catch up with him.

They didn’t talk as they went back up in the elevator, or crossed the Atlas hangar. Curtis didn’t push Kuro, instead he took the opportunity to really look at him as they went.

He didn’t look older than the universe. Of course, he didn’t look like some youthful teenager either. He looked like an adult, a handsome adult who had lived a decent life and taken good care of himself. A little more physically mature than Shiro and Adam, closer to Curtis’ own age group. In fact, Curtis found Kuro very humanly beautiful. There was nothing alien or ethereal about him, nothing that said he was anything other than another man on the street. Even if he really was as old a he claimed to be, the alien within did nothing to affect the human body it wore.

“I can’t go back to the quintessence field.”

Kuro finally broke the silence once they left the Atlas hangar, as they were walking slowly back down the hallway that would eventually take them to the ballroom. He sounded so sad when he said it, and Curtis was genuinely at a loss for words.

“My kind can cross over into realities, but we can’t survive forever. We exist to feed off worlds, it’s what we do. When a universe reaches the end of its time, it collapses in on itself. Life dies, it becomes just something taking up space. My kind feed off what’s left, we clean up the mess so there’s space for a new universe to start. But if we’re here and we aren’t able to feed off anything, we’ll die.”

They reached the hallway with Curtis’ office and stopped inside, where Curtis collected his bloodied handkerchief for cleaning and Kuro took his star print gift. He sat on the edge of the desk, playing with the corner of the envelope.

“A few years ago, I was dying. I was trapped in the same lab where I’d been locked up since I came through the rift all those years ago. Haggar kept me alive by giving me the bare minimum. I know now she was studying me for weaknesses, to see what kind of threat I’d be to her plans. I’m a mix, half-Iron and half-Bronze, so I was useful in studying two different types.

“But I was also somebody else back then. I was a clone who was trapped in a cage. For a long time I thought I was Takashi Shirogane, until they brought in a second clone to work with and I realized I wasn’t real. I didn’t know at the time, but Shiro had died fighting Zarkon…the other clone had been programmed to follow Haggar’s plan and the original was gone, so she didn’t need me anymore. She left me in her lab to starve to death, to see how long it would take.”

“I’m confused,” Curtis hated to interrupt, but he didn’t fully understand. “Are you an Iron/Bronze mix, or are you a clone?”

“I’m both?” Kuro said it as if it was a question. “Back then I was two, now I’m one. Apart, both were dying, but together they had a chance to survive as one. It’s called bonding. Sometimes it’s called other things, like taking an avatar. It’s when something from the quintessence field merges with the core of something from one of the physical universes. The Reaper makes the human more physically durable, the human provides a physical body to slow energy decay.”

“So you remember being both?” In spite of himself, Curtis was intrigued. He couldn’t say how much of that intrigue came from the fact that he was standing here talking to something older than his reality and how much came from the fact that he was learning more about Kuro, but he was interested. “You can remember being two separate living things, looking at each other across a lab?”

“Yes. It sounds weirder than it is,” Kuro assured him. “You’d think that when you mixed the two, one would take over and the other would go away, but that’s not what it’s like. Both are here, completely. Both are me. But having a physical core means I’m bound to a physical reality, and being merged with a Reaper means I can’t survive in that reality without feeding off other life. That’s why I have to go. Even if I decide I want to stay, I can’t. It’s hard enough knowing the plant diet I eat was alive once, I refuse to survive by siphoning the life around me.”

So this was why Kuro was so adamant about making it clear earlier that he didn’t want to hurt anyone even though he was capable. He thought Curtis might think he was a monster when he found out he was designed to live by destroying. But Kuro had always fought so vehemently to save every life he could, there was no way Curtis could think that.

“So what happens if you die?” Curtis asked. “If you can’t get enough life force or quintessence or whatever, what happens?”

“The core I’m linked to will drift into a nearby quintessence pool,” Kuro answered. “I’ll be reborn eventually. But the bond means my core won’t change or adapt anymore, it will always stay the same. I’ll just wake up one day in a new infant body, as me. I’d really like to avoid that though, I hear being a baby is very difficult.”

“So you’ll just be born over and over again until this universe ends?” Curtis asked. Kuro nodded. “Flow over into the next reality when this one is over? An eternity of that?”

“It sounds very tedious, doesn’t it?” Kuro asked. “I guess it’s not really as bad as it could be. You have to see it from my viewpoint…I was going to exist for eternity anyway. Nothing in the quintessence field dies. It would just be nicer if I could exist at home, surrounded by others who will always exist. Dying is painful no matter how you slice it, I don’t really want to do it continuously.”

“So where will you go?” Curtis pressed. “When you leave here?”

“The universe is a lot bigger than what’s mapped,” Kuro answered. “Somewhere out there is another Quantum Abyss…another point where realities meet and warp spacetime. It’s not safe for me to go back to the one Honerva already knows about, but if I can find another I can live there peacefully. Or near a white hole. Somewhere that quintessence spills over from the field, so I know what I’m absorbing isn’t a life source.”

This was a lot to take in. Curtis was going to need time to sit and think about it all, it was very difficult to process. He knew he wasn’t really focusing it on correctly because his brain kept going back to one particular fact.

He’s not an alien. He’s a human, merged somehow with an alien. A human person who likes human things, he wasn’t just pretending to be that.

“I want to say I understand and that it’s okay for you to leave,” Curtis said carefully. “But I still don’t want you to. I get why you have to, but I don’t like it. I’m sorry it has to happen.”

“But it does,” Kuro answered, sliding off the desk. “We should get back.”

They left the office and Curtis locked it up, then let them back through the offending glass door that had attacked Kuro earlier. They walked slowly, Curtis turned inward to his thoughts and Kuro hugging the envelope holding the print. They were just about to the door that would let them out into the hall with the ballroom entrance when Kuro stopped.

[ [ T W ] ]

“You’re sick, aren’t you?” He blurted out.

Curtis winced. He’d known that Kuro of all people would notice eventually, but he’d been hoping otherwise. He’d been holding out for some positive change, for his treatment to start working so he didn’t have to tell anyone the truth. He had opened the door, but now he let it fall closed again.

“I am,” he admitted. “I found out about it a little before the invasion. It was stage two lymphoma back then, I had a chance to treat it and probably get it into remission. But then the occupation happened and there was no access to the drugs that were needed. Now it’s stage four.”

“You’re losing weight,” Kuro noted. “You have circles under your eyes. Why aren’t you getting better? Why haven’t you tried a healing pod?”

“I have,” Curtis answered gently. “But Alteans don’t get cancer. Neither do Galra. Nobody in the universe does, it’s a strictly human disease. That means humans are the only ones working on it, and we haven’t found a cure yet.”

“So what happens now?” Kuro asked. “You just do nothing?”

“No, I’m being treated,” Curtis answered. He was partly surprised that Kuro didn’t know cancer, but also not. All of his medical training came from a species that didn’t experience it, and any memories leftover from Shiro would be faint and more emotionally tied than scientifically. “I’ve been having chemotherapy for the last month. When Lotor leaves for Colony Two, the Atlas will probably leave shortly after. I won’t be going with it, I’m going to take a leave of absence. If I get better, I’ll return to desk duty.”

“If you get better,” Kuro repeated. “You don’t sound like you think you’ll get better.”

“I dont think I will,” Curtis admitted.

[ [ / T W ] ]

There was nothing else to say on the matter, at least not in that moment. They now each knew the other’s long held secrets, and Curtis guessed they were both feeling the same way. Reeling, a little bit lost, not sure what to do with the information. He opened the door to the ballroom hallway so Kuro could go first.

“I won’t tell yours if you don’t tell mine,” he promised. “But after you’re gone, I do have to tell Shiro so he knows what the Paladins are up against.”

“Fair,” Kuro said dully.

They were both quiet as they went back into the ballroom, which was just as loud and full of laughter as it had been when they left. Curtis stopped at the bar to replace the drink Kuro had been forced to give up, and they skirted the dance floor to return to their table.

They had obviously missed something, there was a different energy on the air. Shiro looked strangely cheerful for a man who had probably had his life flash before his eyes only a little while ago, and Adam was being uncharacteristically quiet as if he didn’t want to draw a lot of attention to himself. People had shifted seats, so Kuro grabbed one of the empty ones and pulled it over next to his, pulling Curtis to sit down next to him.

If anyone was interested in what was going on between Kuro, Curtis didn’t notice. He was too busy trying to figure out what was going on that they’d missed. After a few minutes, Adam got up to get a drink and disappeared for a little bit. When he returned he appeared from behind, setting down his champagne flute and then standing over Curtis to lean on his head.

“You’ll be happy to know I’ve decided not to kill you,” Adam said magnanimously. “Kuro, Takashi needs to speak with you.”

Kuro glanced up, where Shiro was motioning for him to come around the table. He drained his drink and got up, leaving Curtis and Adam alone for the moment.

“Whether I’m happy or not depends on what you have planned for me instead,” Curtis said.

“Something worse. Something much, much worse,” Adam answered. He lowered his hand so Curtis could see it, and the metallic wire tie that was wrapped neatly around his ring finger. “I need you to be part of a wedding party.”

“Oh, God, this is my punishment for being involved, isn’t it?” Curtis groaned.

“Yes. Congratulations on being my best man. The wedding is in three weeks.”

“Three w…Jesus Christ,” Curtis murmured. “You still don’t mess around when you want something, do you?”

“I do not.”

“This means I’m spending my weekends looking at houses with you, doesn’t it?”

“It does.”

“Well, I guess it’s still better than dying,” Curtis allowed. He finally dropped the act, giving Adam a genuine smile. “I’m glad you’re getting your shit together. You’re still crazy for agreeing to let this whole thing stand, but you’re alive, your home, and now you’re getting married. It’s a good week.”

“It is,” Adam agreed. He rested a hand on top of Curtis’ head as he remembered something, dropping his voice a little. “I’m not coming home tonight, we’re going out. But let’s go to theat steak place you like and talk about it tomorrow.”

Curtis gave a nod of agreement as Kuro returned, and Adam stepped away. He went back around the table to sit down, and Curtis picked up his water glass and glanced around the table.

People were trying to look at him without appearing as if they were looking at him. Some of them were pursing their lips as if trying not to laugh. Curtis wasn’t sure what was going on, until he looked over at Kuro. Kuro had been staring at the top of his head, but his eyes immediately dropped when Curtis looked at him as if he could hide what he’d been looking at. Curtis sighed and reached up, patting the top of his head.

He pulled off a piece of mistletoe and held it up, looking at it gravely as the rest of the table finally broke into laughs. Adam must have stuck it there as he left.

“Very funny,” Curtis threw the mistletoe across the table, where it almost landed in Adam’s water glass. “If I find greenery stuck in my hair later I’m sticking it in your blankets.”

Adam grinned and gave him a very cheerful middle finger, knowing Curtis couldn’t return it because he was an officer and Admiral Iverson was sitting right there. Instead he stewed quietly, until he felt fingers lightly turn his chin.

Kuro tilted his head to face him, and before Curtis could protest he leaned forward and caught him with a kiss.

Curtis’ brain momentarily shut down. There was a chorus of childish “ooooooh”s from the Paladin’s table behind them, and he thought a couple of the so-called adults over here joined in as well. When Kuro finally let him go Curtis realised he had forgotten how to breathe, and had to take a deep breath.

“Sorry. It was technically over your head, I was legally obligated.”

“It’s fine,” Curtis said weakly, trying not to sound like Kuro could punch him in the face twice and he’d still be happy about it. “I get it, nobody wants a criminal record.”

“I need to go wash my hands,” Kuro realized, examining the nails of one hand. “I had a bloody nose earlier. I’ll be right back.”

As he got up he squeezed Curtis’ shoulder, letting his hand trail along his back and letting him go as he stepped away. Curtis watched him go, not even bothering to try not to look like he was staring.

“Curt,” he heard Adam whisper, but he didn’t look over until he called a second time. “Curtis. You’re supposed to follow him, you idiot. There’s more mistletoe hanging out in the hallway.”

Curtis blinked, looking around the table. Lotor and Allura were very politely not looking at him, probably because if they did they would laugh. Matt was blatantly trying not to burst into giggles. Even James and Ryan were looking at him pityingly for failing to notice what to everyone else was apparently obvious.

“I…I also have to go wash my hands,” Curtis muttered very unconvincingly. He pushed away from the table and quickly made his escape, following Kuro back out into the hall.

Chapter Text

“It makes no sense,” Takashi insisted, waiting for Adam to turn off the car and open his own door before climbing out of the Audi.

“It makes perfect sense!”

“They’re deer!” Takashi exclaimed angrily. “They’re assholes! Not even smart ones, they’re dumb as a sack of rocks!”

Adam fell into step beside him, ignoring the students who were looking their way as the volume of their argument grew. He gave Takashi an irritable shove on their way to the front doors of the Garrison main building, hoping he’d slip on the patch of ice they were passing. No dice.

“So are humans,” Adam argued. “Humans are bigger assholes than deer. It has nothing to do with how dumb they are or how much they piss you off.”

“By your logic, it’s the same with ants,” Takashi said irritably.

“Maybe it is the same with ants!”

“It’s not the same with ants! Who did you pay off to graduate college? Because you sound like you don’t know science.”

Takashi stepped ahead of him and grabbed the door, holding it open for Adam to pass through. He moved quickly around him, also opening the inner door and holding it, then followed him in and across the lobby.

“Know what? You’re an asshole,” Adam answered loudly. “A bigger asshole than the deer.”

Takashi stopped and turned around, standing in front of him to block him from going any further. He was in full fight mode, refusing to back down in this argument.

“Their brains are the size of walnuts, Adam. The only noise they know how to make is that weird quacking, and half of them wouldn’t know what to do if they heard another deer doing it. We’re talking about the same goddamn animal that stares down cars coming at them at sixty miles an hour.”

Your brain is the size of a walnut,” Adam shot back hotly. “They’re found all over the world! Are you going to tell me a deer in Michigan is going to be the same as a deer in Sweden?”

“They both probably sound as stupid as you do right now,” Takashi returned. “How do you tie your shoes in the morning?”

“Hey,” the Lieutenant on security duty came over, lightly pushing them away from each other before their close proximity resulted in a physical confrontation. “Calm it down, gentlemen. Is there a problem?”

“Yes,” Adam snapped. “Deer are spread all over the world, so any logical person would assume that they have regional accents to their calls.” He turned back to Takashi, who was the main target of his argument. “They’ll be localized! Who even knows if the deer from Michigan can talk to the deer from Sweden? Maybe they can’t!”

The Lieutenant looked at him as if he wasn’t being paid enough to put up with something like this at eight in the morning.

“Congratulations, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard a grown man say this month, at least.”

“Whoa,” Takashi rounded on the Lieutenant, holding up a hand to nudge him back away from Adam. “Watch it. He’s got more degrees than you have stripes, he’s one of the smartest people on this base right now.”

“Yeah, fuck you,” Adam agreed defensively.

Takashi linked their arms and pulled him away from the Lieutenant, across the lobby toward the double doors that would lead through the halls and eventually to the point where Adam would have to stop for lack of security clearance.

“I should report him for being rude to a visitor,” Takashi complained as they reached the doors, holding this one open for Adam as well. “Or maybe I should’ve made him drop down and do pushups. …are you Googling whether deer have accents?”

Adam had taken out his phone, letting Takashi lead him along. He guilty closed the web browser.

“No.”

Takashi stopped when they were both through the door. He caught Adam by the hips and pulled him close, smirking slightly.

“Are you going to have a ten-page, cited research paper on why it makes sense for deer to have accents ready for me to read when I’m done for the day?”

“Maybe,” Adam allowed. He tried to keep his expression serious, as if this were a grave matter, but it was difficult not to smile with Takashi so close.

“Even if you’re wrong?”

“Especially if I’m wrong. You know I have to win all arguments on principle.”

“Well then I look forward to your dissertation,” Takashi supposed.

He put an arm around Adam and started walking again, guiding him through the halls that were open to public visitors. There were offices mostly, plus a lunch room where civilian employees or family visiting soldiers could eat. Past that was another short hall, ending at a very small lobby with a desk. The doors next to the stern looking soldier sitting there were solid with no glass to be seen through. There was a scan pad on the wall there, marking the spot where only those with clearance could go farther. They stopped about halfway down the short hallway, just out of sight of the soldier at the desk, and Takashi pulled Adam close again to steal one last kiss before they parted.

“I’ll see you at the restaurant tonight?” Takashi asked. Adam nodded. “Are you going to look at houses today?”

“No, I think I might go do some Christmas shopping,” Adam answered. “Maybe stop and get a haircut, it’s getting long.”

“I think I’m almost due myself,” Takashi admitted, absently touching his hair. He hesitated for a moment, frowning. “I might go get it done instead of cutting it myself. Maybe I’ll get it dyed while I’m there.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Adam asked critically. “You’d have to dye your eyebrows too. And you know your hair grows fast, your roots will be showing in a couple weeks.”

“The only alternative is walking around looking like a senior citizen,” Takashi muttered.

“Eh, you look fine.”

“Come on. Do you really want to be seen with me like this in public?”

Takashi sounded uncomfortable, and for a moment wouldn’t look him in the eye. He was really self-conscious about this, Adam realized. It made him wonder if someone had said something about it, or if perhaps Takashi had overheard students making comments. He reached up to run his fingers through the pearly white strands, turning Takashi’s face toward him.

“Every mark you have is a trophy from something that would kill anyone else, but that you were badass enough to live through,” he said softly. “And I’m proud of you for every single one. Including the hair. If you really want to dye it for yourself I’m fine with that, but I’m perfectly happy with you just the way you are.”

“And you are very vocal about the fact that your opinion is the only one that ever matters,” Takashi recalled, smiling a little. “I don’t know. It’s something to think about.”

“How about instead you think about what flower you want on your boutonniere,” Adam suggested, giving him one last, quick kiss before letting him go and spinning him around. He gave him a light shove in the direction of the far door. “Get to work before I get in trouble for making you late. I’ll see you tonight.”

He backed slowly away, until Takashi disappeared through the doors and out of sight. When he was alone he turned around to go back the way he’d come, absently rubbing his ear as if he could turn off the sound that was ringing in it.

It had come on slowly over the last two days, unnoticeable at first and then gradually building up in intensity. Adam was pretty sure he knew what it was, but he was doing his best to ignore it.

He made his way back through the building, out to the parking lot, and into the car. He sat there for a few minutes with the heat on, going over the lists of names he had written on index cards.

It was a comforting activity, preparing to shop for, sign, and mail out Christmas cards for the first time in many years. It had been an annual routine, something boring and domestic, picking through the list of Takashi’s relatives to decide who got unique, hand-picked cards and who got the fancy ones out of the box of 24. Who got mailed gifts, who got mailed food. He had to sort out who had been in the States long enough to celebrate, who back in Japan enjoyed Christmas, and who in the majority Shinto family was indifferent to the holiday.

It was familiar, uncomplicated. A social endeavor rather than a work-related one. Most people would balk at the chore, to Adam it was a welcome step back into life on Earth.

He spent about five minutes going over the names, then finally left the parking lot and pulled onto the road heading away from the base and into town. The early morning sunlight glinted off the silver engagement ring on his left hand, a simple place holder Takashi insisted on him having until they officially had wedding rings. Takashi currently wore the ring that Adam had bought him so many years ago.

The noise continued to bother him, ringing in his ear as he came to a halt at a red light. He turned on the radio but it didn’t help, if anything it started to get louder.

Adam finally had to pull over halfway to the mall, when it got so bad he could barely hear anything else over it.

“Fine!” He exclaimed, rubbing both ears even though he knew the sound was really in his head and that there was nothing he could do to make it stop if the source didn’t want to cease. “Okay, all right, fine! Just stop already!”

The sound softened, but didn’t go away. It remained in the background, as if as a warning that it wasn’t gone.

Adam carefully did a U-turn and headed back toward the Garrison, this time parking in the lot of a factory in the industrial park behind it. He pulled into the spot where he’d often stowed his car or motorcycle to be picked up when he snuck out, and made his way along the chain-link fence that separated the Academy’s property from the outside world.

He found it right where it had always been, the portion of fence that had long been broken, the uneven space where it didn’t properly meet the pole hidden by tall grass. It was an overcast day, everything painted gray and nobody particularly interested in being out here keeping watch. Adam waited a few minutes to make sure nobody was doing rounds, then rolled up the corner of the fence and crawled through the opening that he’d often pretended not to notice students sneaking in and out of.

It was a tight fit. He was much bigger than he had been the last time he’d needed to sneak through here, and the ground was cold and damp from the occasional snow and frozen rain. But once he was in, he was in, and he was past the point of needing a visitor pass or security clearance.

It was Monday. Some students scurried by on their way to class, but he walked as if he belonged here so nobody paid him any mind. He reached the pavement and walked confidently along that, around the building and toward the old hangars at the far end of the base that had always been unused back during his tenure.

He followed the sound, a familiar song he’d followed once before out in the hot New Mexico cliffs. He was sober this time, and didn’t have to worry about falling to his death, along with the fact that it was daylight. Adam followed the song across the old airfield that had been out of commission for years, noting the new tarmac and the marks on it that looked like scratches left by giant claws.

There was nothing here. Far off to his left was a building where he thought Takashi’s office might be, but he would be over in the Atlas hangar supervising the Paladins as they scrubbed everything down as their punishment. He saw a few parked cars belonging to the kids, but aside from Keith and his crew nobody came over here.

The giant doors to the hangars were closed as he approached, and there was a light on what once had been an old, decrepit scan pad by the entry door. Adam didn’t have an access card or a code, and nobody was here to let him in.

“Well, I did my part,” he said out loud, holding up his hands in surrender. “I’m going to go buy my Christmas cards and come back later.“

There was nothing for a second, then he felt the ground starting to vibrate. Halfway down the hangar, the middle gate was beginning to rise.

“Aw, come on,” Adam groaned.

Still, he shoved his hands in his pockets and made his way down to the open gate, peeking into the huge, cavernous space before entering. It had been completely refinished since he and Takashi used to sneak in here as kids, all the broken windows replaced and the roof repaired. It was an actively used hangar now, clearly outfitted to service the new arrivals lined up inside.

The ship that accessed this gate was black, and even more huge than the blue monstrosity he’d encountered years ago. It was flanked by a comparably smaller red and green ship, with a middle-sized yellow one to the right.

Adam slowly made his way to the left. He walked through the quiet hangar, the only sounds his footfalls on the cement floor. His breath ghosted in front of him in the cold, it was impossible to heat this kind of space effectively, and the overcast sky outside made the inside a bit dark. None of the lights hanging high overhead were turned on, but the space was lit by the blue glow of a domed, net-like structure at the far end.

He came to a stop in front of it, looking up at the great blue lion tucked safely underneath. Hidden away under a force field, just as he’d found her in the cavern in the cliffs.

He had been feeling anxious when he’d first heard the call a few days ago, breaking into his attempt to reacclimate to home. He felt he’d been through enough and didn’t need any more excitement, and that included giant spaceships shaped like big cats. But standing here, looking up at the Blue Lion again after so long, he had to admit that he felt a small twinge of excitement.

This thing was a ship, faster than light and near indestructible. Any pilot worth their training would be thrilled to get into the cockpit…even ones who were admittedly a little bit tired of the universe in general and just wanted to go buy Christmas cards.

Adam reached up and lightly tapped on the field with one finger to test if it was still as solid as he remembered it being. It most certainly was, but the contact he made sent a ripple out over the barrier’s surface, and a second later it dropped down and disappeared. Adam jumped back as the Lion moved, lowering its head and opening its mouth wide.

Just as before, the access ramp lowered, hitting the cement floor just loud enough to make a “clang” sound echo through the hangar.

Adam folded his hands behind his back as if he hadn’t touched anything, looking around the hangar to make sure he was still alone. When he was sure nobody was there to yell at him for touching the Paladins’ equipment, he bound up the ramp and bolted up through the entrance airlock.

The storage bay was exactly how he remembered it, with a few crates added in and a very vivid smear of blood across the middle of the floor. This was the Lion Takashi had piloted to come save him, this was where Adam had lain unconscious until he had been transferred to the Atlas. Adam thought Takashi had said he’d briefly piloted it in the fight over Colony One as well, but it didn’t look like anyone had been in here since.

Adam kicked at the blood smear, but found it dry and flaky. It would come off of the smooth metal easily enough with a decent scrubbing tool and a few minutes of effort. He wasn’t necessarily responsible for the mess, it wasn’t even his blood, it was Honerva’s. But the mess being there bothered him for reasons he couldn’t put words to, and he disembarked again to make a trip over to the utility sink.

He’d been on cleaning duty enough as a soldier to know his way around a hangar’s supply closet, and a few minutes later he returned with a spray bottle of diluted bleach and some cleaning cloths. Shedding his jacket and tossing it onto the bed on the far side, he dropped down and started scrubbing.

About ten minutes later he was finished, and much warmer thanks to the exertion. He returned the cleaning supplies and came back, finally making his way into the dark cockpit. There was no light here except for the faint blue glow of markings on the floor, meant to guide new arrivals to the pilot seat. He made his way through the dark and dropped down into the seat, leaning back and looking around at the dark controls.

“How are you doing, Beautiful?” He asked, lightly patting the side of the chair. “Did you miss me?”

The seat slid forward, snapping into place a comfortable distance from the controls. The console started to boot up, blue overlays flickering on and the grand viewscreen lighting up with a view of the hangar outside.

He had been more than a little bit inebriated the last time he’d been in this cockpit, not to mention an emotional wreck. It had been only a week or so after the Kerberos crash, two days after he’d been informed his status as a stand-by was being cancelled and he was being put on active duty. Two days after he’d been informed he would be heading Takashi’s unit, a day after he’d been informed they’d voted to hand him down Takashi’s call sign.

Just one great big mess that he’d needed a lot of illicit substances to help numb.

But the end result was that his memory of this cockpit was a bit fuzzy. He did not remember the viewscreen being so clear that it felt like there was nothing between him and the outside world. He didn’t remember how comfortably laid-out the cockpit was, as if it had been designed just for him. It was like experiencing the whole thing for the first time all over again.

He felt that push at the back of his head, the same one he’d felt in that cavern back then. The faint, wordless whisper urging him to give the controls a try. He was in a very different mindset now than he was before, but he was still reluctant.

This wasn’t his ship. It was part of a set, it belonged to the Paladins. A professional military pilot would likely be promoted into this seat now that Allura no longer flew it, or perhaps somebody the kids chose from their Coalition. It was a war machine, not a toy, just like the jets and MFE fighters of the Garrison.

But really, would it hurt to just take her out for a few minutes? Nobody else was using her right now, she didn’t have an official pilot at the moment. Everyone was over in the Atlas hangar, there was nobody here to tell him no.

“And really, who can blame a single lady for wanting to date around a little while she’s waiting for Mr. Right?” Adam asked out loud, reaching out to take the control levers.

The Lion barely felt like she was moving at all as he maneuvered her first to sit up, then stand. There was a very faint vibration that told him systems were running, but other than that every motion was blissfully smooth. Adam had never been in front of a console that worked quite like this but the controls still felt strangely intuitive, as if there was no way he could possibly mess this up.

He walked her around the hangar, around the other seated Lions, getting a feel for how she moved. When he was confident he wouldn’t cause any damage outside he moved her to the open hangar door and ran a scan.

The sheer amount of information that ran across his screen was an engineer’s wet dream. He could see nearby vehicles and what materials they were made of, what their power source was, if they were manned. Life signs littered the screen, every person and animal within at least half a mile radius. Up in the right corner of the viewscreen numbers ran, then a guiding path flashed onto the screen.

A launch and flight path, completely eliminating the need to announce himself to the air traffic tower. For a moment he debated on whether he’d played around here enough, if he should return the Lion to her berth now that he’d fulfilled the promise he’d made back in the cavern to come and see her again.

Then it occurred to him that he was no longer a military pilot, that he didn’t have a superior officer, and that he didn’t have a boss. He was also in a hundred-ton armored ship, and the absolute worst that could really happen was that Mitch yelled at him for taking military equipment out unsupervised. A couple of the generals might try to do something about it, particularly Laurentia and whoever was up his ass these days, but their power was limited.

“Man, fuck those guys,” he told Blue, slamming the accelerator forward.

He may have been manning the controls, but it almost felt as if the Lion launched herself out of the hangar. She hit the tarmac running, veering to the right and clearing the office building easily with a dancing sort of jump. She touched down on the other side and bound forward, clearing the base in one more jump before she was touching her great paws down on the edge of the grand expanse of nothingness that was the desert between towns.

At such a high speed, it was only a few moments before the geography changed and the cliffs loomed up in front of him. Blue’s quiet home for ten thousand years, but he had no intention of taking her to visit.

At the last minute he shifted the controls, made her leap upward. Like a cat going up the tree she clawed her way easily from ledge to ledge, finally propelling herself straight upward into the air where her engines took over for flight.

He closed his eyes and jerked her to the right, letting the direction be random instead of picking any specific heading. Adam didn’t even have to edge up the speed, the world was whipping by so fast down below that before he knew it the desert was becoming mountains and forests. Only a few heartbeats passed before these gave way to snow-laden white and then the ice of the arctic circle.

Thirteen seconds from new Mexico to the North Pole. No G’s from the insane amount of acceleration needed. He hadn’t even put on the harness, this thing moved more smoothly than a commercial airplane.

The snow started to dissipate and he was passing into night, moving over cities lit up in a way that made the dark surface of the earth glitter. Black seas rose up to take over his view, the light pollution disappearing and opening up the sky into a scene of dazzling starlight on a backdrop of inky velvet. There, in the opposite direction of the sun, was the rest of their solar system.

He pulled her up and she spun, dancing up away from the dark ocean of water and toward the one of stars. He felt her move with the slightest touch of the controls, following his own tendency for fancy twists and elegant turns as she picked up even more speed to easily break away from the planet’s atmosphere.

As Earth fell away so did its gravity. Adam felt himself starting to rise from the set and had to pull himself back down, scanning the controls until he found what he was looking for. Gravity rose gently, pulling him slowly down into his seat until he could no longer tell the difference between the artificial force and that of his own planet.

Space was open, yawning, even here within the solar system. Adam was well aware of that, perfectly aware that the heavenly bodies that moved around their sun were so far apart they were considered neighbors by astronomical standards only. Out of curiosity he ran a scan and watched the little blips pop up on his screen, showing him were the other planets were in relation to his position.

Their location, their atmosphere, their composition…information so advanced it was doubtful humanity would have ever learned any of it without the aid of alien technology. It was a fountain of information that was a pure treasure trove for an aerospace engineer, and he was seeing it in living color on a screen that made it feel like he was there.

This was the kind of thing he’d dreamed about as a child. This was what he’d imagined exploring space would be like, as a small boy sitting in his grandfather’s fishing boat at night looking up at the diamond sky. All through his young life, all through all of his years at the Academy, he had always been sure he would get here. He had been fearless, indestructible, nothing could hold him back.

The plane crash had changed all that. Adam had been certain he was going to die that day, the speed at which he’d been going and the way the cliffside had sheared off his wing had left him all but certain. Hanging upside down in the mangled remains of the cockpit, numb and bleeding from the impact, the bitter winter air wrapping around him while he’d waited for rescue…it was far more a nightmare come true than a dream.

That had shattered his illusion of being unstoppable. Takashi’s admission right after had made him stop think very hard, it had made him realize that if he died there was somebody he was leaving behind. And he could definitely die, as easily as anyone else.

He had never stopped imagining what space would be like, he had simply shifted from trying to go there himself to helping create safer ways for others to go. But his imagination had never been this crisp and clear.

Adam glanced over his overlays. The Blue Lion seemed to be in constant connection with the other four, but even though it had been a few minutes since everyone within miles of the base had probably seen him go nobody was following. Yet. It was possible they simply hadn’t made their way to the hangar yet, he figured he could probably expect a very irritated group of kids escorting him back to Earth with their ship soon.

For now, though, the whole solar system was open. He pushed the accelerator up higher, aiming for the glint of reflected light in the distance. What should have taken months was barely five seconds, and before he knew it he was looking at the swirling storms of Jupiter. No photos he had ever seen did the majestic giant justice, no man-made imagery had ever accurately captured the way the swirls of dust and gas clashed on the planet’s surface.

He watched it for a few minutes, the slowly shifting patterns becoming almost mesmerizing, before he decided to move on. Blue danced away from the gas giant and continued out farther, moving through the slightly more dense expanse of the Kuiper Belt. Beyond that was open space, except for one more little blip on is screen that currently lay on a spot in its orbit that was within his path.

It had been intentional to come this way, though he didn’t really want to admit it. It was morbid curiosity, something that had tortured him for years that he felt the need to see with his own eyes. It took a bit of searching and another scan, but as he approached the small, heart-marked surface of Pluto he found it, floating off in the distance, shining quietly in the dark.

Blue slowed down, approaching the double-lobed surface of Kerberos. She landed with ease, her claws kicking up small clouds of the light-colored dust on its hard surface. The oddly-shaped satellite was rocky, uneven, and not at all what he imagined.

He had known it was small, but it was still bigger than he’d pictured. He had known the surface was lightly colored, scientists had known that since Voyager’s fly-by, but he hadn’t expected it to be quite this bright with how far they were from the sun. He had underestimated the light of their star, even after spending most of his career studying the light of stars.

Adam remained seated for a few minutes, looking out at the bleak landscape. There was nothing as far as the eye could see, and then out beyond Kerberos there was nothing at all. Open space, the end of their solar system. The god of the underworld and his three-headed dog, standing watch over the open blackness that marked humanity’s departure from home.

Adam got up and left the cockpit, going back out into the storage bay. He was still wearing his every day clothes instead of a flight suit, but this was a ship so maybe there was something of use here.

He checked in the smaller storage closets but didn’t find anything. Empty storage behind one door, the head behind another. One door looked promising, it had some crates, but when he opened one he just found some old rations written in Altean. They had likely come from the Castle or whatever it was that Takashi had said the Paladins had initially been on and that had been destroyed.

After about ten more minutes of searching he finally came around to a smaller crate that didn’t look like the others. This one was definitely of Earth make, and it had the symbol of the Atlas on the side. He opened it up and pulled out several guns, similar to the one Lance had been wielding back on the outpost.

Underneath that he found what looked like some kind of armored flight suit. It was mostly black and white but had purple accents, and a purple splash across the chest piece in the “V” shape that was the Paladins’ insignia. It wasn’t to his taste, at all, but it would do for the few minutes that he needed it. He grabbed it and started to try it on for size, only to find that the material was of Altean make. Just like the flight suits from the Lorelia, both the undersuit and the armor adjusted to fit his body snugly.

“Oh my God, this is hell,” he complained out loud to Blue, grabbing the helmet and then twisting left and right to look down at himself from different angles. “Leaves nothing to the imagination, does it? You’re the only one here and I’m still embarrassed.”

He was aware of the oddity of speaking to the ship as if it were a living thing, but he kind of got the feeling that she was. He couldn’t really explain it, but he felt the same way with her near as he would if there were another person standing in the room, that sixth sense people had that told them they weren’t alone.

He put on the helmet and ventured out of the Lion, this time using the upper hatch he’d seen earlier. He came out on top, balancing carefully on her head to look around in all directions.

It was even more thrilling being here outside of the cockpit. There were no walls at all now, just him and the stars and the neverending abyss of unknown space. Nothing between him and all of existence except the weak gravity of this eerie little moon. It did something to a person’s head, this kind of experience, it warped perspective. It reminded him of how small he really was, how little he really knew, and how much there was out there to still be discovered.

He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, marveling at the blackness of space and the little blue dot in the distance, but eventually his curiosity overwhelmed his awe. He climbed carefully down Blue’s side, a much easier feat than it would have been on Earth thanks to the lower gravity, and slowly walked a few yards away to look around from a different perspective.

He felt his arm vibrate softly and lifted it to look, a bit startled as a small viewscreen popped up. A scan of the moon’s surface showed an unnatural object about half a mile away, on what looked like lower ground that would have been out of sight. He turned to look back at Blue.

“You’re being an enabler,” he warned. “I’m already doing the astronaut equivalent of going through his phone, did you really have to open the photo gallery for me?”

He felt a wave of what he could only identify as smug triumph, like she was looking over his shoulder and waiting for him to start flipping through the selfies.

The boosters on this armor worked the same as the flight suit he’d used on the outpost with James, turning his slow steps into easy leaps forward. There was still no sign of any of the kids coming to bother him for stealing a Lion, so at this point Adam had to assume they had been ordered to stand down for some reason. He made the half-mile trip unaccosted, coming to a stop at a point where the ground dropped out and left him looking out over a rock-filled plain.

Down below, right where the scan said it would be, lay a long-abandoned shuttle.

Adam made his way down with the help of the boosters, stopping when he reached a small pile of equipment lying on its side. He leaned down to pick up the canister, holding it up to examine it.

An ice core sample. The reason—or so everyone claimed—that Takashi had been tapped to leave Earth in the first place.

Adam walked slowly along a path of footprints in the dust, undisturbed by the lack of atmosphere and wind. He followed them to the shuttle and did a slow walk around, looking at the hull that stood untouched by time. He reached out to run a hand along it as he went, as if maybe it wasn’t real until he touched it.

It was very different to see this shuttle landed on its destination than it was to see it perched on the launchpad back at the Garrison. The marks in the dust behind it showed a perfect landing and rolling stop, a testament to its pilot’s skills and a far cry from the fiery crash the Garrison had claimed occurred. Takashi had brought it here safe and sound, had landed it perfectly right where it was meant to land.

He’d stood here, right where Adam was standing, and looked out into the universe beyond with no clue that within a few years he would have access to light speed travel and would be visiting worlds he’d never imagine.

It must have been amazing, to be standing here without that knowledge. To know, at the time, that he was at the farthest point in space that mankind had ever traveled, standing on the border between home and the heavens. For Adam it was…conflicting.

He had never wanted Takashi to miss out on that experience, if anything Adam had always been his biggest cheerleader. Maybe humanity would have developed interstellar travel on their own soon after the Kerberos mission, but if they hadn’t then this would have been the culmination of everything Takashi had ever worked for.

He had always known, deep down, that he and Takashi had faced the same test but that he had failed while Takashi had succeeded. Death had looked them both in the eye and Adam had blinked, grounding himself and tempering his ambitions. Takashi had done no such thing, and that was where their disconnect had begun.

Because Adam could have been here. With Takashi’s condition, Sam Holt would have pushed for a copilot if someone had qualified. But the only other pilot at the time who would have even come close was him, and he had been too scared to even try. There never had to be an argument, there never had to be a breakup.

Adam had come to terms with Kerberos and had already admitted to himself a few years ago that he had begun to hold Takashi back. He hadn’t meant to, but that was the end result. He had long since forgiven Takashi for taking the Kerberos mission because he’d come to understand why he did.

Adam stopped at the shuttle’s airlock, looking down at the three sets of footprints that had once disembarked here. Sam, Matt, and Takashi were easy to tell apart from their size and stride…Matt and Takashi clearly having run ahead like children while Sam had followed more slowly.

He tapped the control console and it turned on, the shuttle’s solar panels still functioning. There was no special access code since they hadn’t expected anyone to be able to get here, so it opened as soon as he entered the right command. Lights flickered on as he stepped inside, through first the outer airlock then the inner. He stopped there to look around, taking in the interior.

It was such a cramped, small space for three people to live in for a round trip that would take nearly a year, and it no doubt looked bigger than usual because everything was stowed away for landing. Knowing the three men who had temporarily lived here the way he did, Adam knew that under normal circumstances the place was probably chaos.

There were four bunks built into the wall, their covers closed for the day. One of those could have been his if he’d really tried, but he hadn’t and so it had remained empty.

Perhaps for the best. Adam knew that if he’d been here it would have made no difference in the course of history. The Galra simply would have taken him then too. Takashi had survived the arena alone and so had he, but Adam knew that if they’d been captive together, at the same time, each would have been a distraction for the other and they both might have eventually died.

No, everything needed to happen just the way it had for them to end up where they were. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t have regrets.

He started poking around, digging through this time capsule of Takashi’s life after him. There was nothing of interest in the shuttle proper, but he did take pause when he figured out which bunk was Takashi’s.

It was a simple affair, a foam mattress bed with some shelving that had a cover to slide closed over it. Adam sat down and pulled his feet up, opening the main shelf to take a look. There was a container holding pill bottles, half of them empty and half of them still full for the return trip that had never happened. He found a reading tablet filled with ebooks, a bookmark holding Takashi’s place in The Princess Bride. There were some manuals, some printouts for study, and some notebooks. Adam opened one.

It was easy to forget sometimes that Takashi was a brilliant man. He didn’t just excel as a pilot or in physical endeavors, he was smart. He was military trained, yes, but that was secondary; first and foremost he was an astronaut and a scientist.

Few people knew, but Takashi had just finished his university degree in microbiology when Kerberos had been announced. It was part of the reason he had been selected for this trip, to analyze ice cores in search of microbial alien life. Looking at these notes, at a paper Takashi had been working on detailing the cell structures of life that might exist on unexplored planets in their solar system, Adam was strongly reminded of the powerful mind that was hidden behind the muscles and the dumbass tendencies.

He turned the page and smiled in spite of himself, running a finger over the doodle in the top corner. It was a simple heart with an arrow through it, and their initials. Takashi wasn’t a great artist, that was for sure.

There were signs throughout the notebook that what he had said was true; little notes in margins about missing home, little drawings of things he’d left behind. And, folded in half behind the last page, a rough outline of a Last Will and Testament.

Very rough. It was only a few sentences and literally said that Takashi wanted his organs sold on the black market and the rest of him blown up with fireworks, which as far as Adam knew was both very difficult and very illegal.

“…well…an attempt was made,” Adam sighed. “And a complete failure was achieved.”

He closed the notebook and looked around until he found a some bags. He carefully tucked away Takashi’s and Matt’s personal affects, blatantly leaving Sam’s behind as he grabbed the core cylinder and left the shuttle. Time had not healed that particular wound, and he was perfectly content with leaving that bridge burned.

The Blue Lion was seated nearby when he stepped outside, which was curious since she’d been parked half a mile away. But Adam wasn’t going to complain about not having to scale back up the cliff face, and he’d already accepted that these ships were more than they appeared. He boarded and closed up all the airlocks behind him, pleased to finally be able to take the helmet off and shake his hair free.

There was still no sign of any of the other Lions when he returned to the cockpit and the systems booted back up, even though Adam knew there was no way the Blue Lion’s departure had been missed. They were intentionally leaving him alone, and since he was inexperienced with a Lion he knew it wasn’t because they were afraid that if he ran they wouldn’t catch him.

He supposed it was time to address the elephant that had been in the room for several years now. He could continue to ignore it, but he had already seen that even time wouldn’t make it go away.

“You pick your pilot,” he said out loud, leaning back in the seat. “That’s how this works, right? And that’s why you were calling me when you were hidden in the cliffs? You didn’t just want me to find five pilots, you wanted me to find four and be one.”

He felt that push in his head, that thought dump that went through a thousand topics in only a few seconds in a fit of overexcitement. He couldn’t catch it all but he got the gist of it; she’d been waiting in the cavern for him and then she’d waited for him to come home. And then she’d waited not-so-patiently for him to come see her after he woke up.

“Are you sure about this?” He asked, lightly tapping one of the control levers. “You’ve seen in my head, you’ve seen me practically falling down drunk. You know I’m not a saint, you know I can fall apart under too much pressure. You have a whole coalition of planets filled with potential pilots, are you sure you don’t want to keep looking?”

He got the impression that she scoffed. Apparently being a complete disaster didn’t disqualify him at all. Still, he wasn’t entirely convinced.

Blue’s console started to become active, her overlays changing from the various readouts and scans. Star maps flashed to one side, and the screens started to shine with views of different planets and solar systems. Different places she had been, all over the universe, what were probably the most beautiful places she could find in her data banks. Adam let out a small bark of laughter, shaking his head.

“You’re really trying to convince me, aren’t you?” He asked straightening up in his seat to lean forward and look like what, from a glance at the map, appeared to be Alpha Centauri. “What are you? You couldn’t be in my head the way you are if you were just a ship. Are you an alien? Or some kind of psychically-linked A.I., maybe?”

He hesitated to say the Lion was alive, as a scientist and an engineer he knew better than to assume anything had supernatural elements. But that didn’t mean her technology wasn’t advanced enough to seem supernatural, or that the ship itself couldn’t be a shell for an alien who couldn’t otherwise interact.

Adam was leaning toward the latter. The fact that he kept thinking of her as “she” rather than “it” proved the lion left a significant impression of having an identity, and the way she responded to his thoughts was too fast and smooth to be an artificial intelligence. There was also the fact that it was Altean-made and he was a mix of very not-Altean species, and there was just no way a ship could be properly programmed to respond to the brain wavelengths of all intelligent creatures it might come across.

“You’re making me think this might be what Takashi was talking about when he said the Atlas will hold spouses who have assigned jobs,” Adam mused. If that was the case he wasn’t surprised that this would be something Takashi was hesitant to bring up. Of all people, he was most aware of Adam’s love/hate relationship with being a pilot.

He didn’t necessarily want to return to a combat position. Or to a flying position. But he couldn’t deny the pull of space, those dreams he’d had as a kid were still there. Nor was he willing to turn his back on Takashi again out of fear for what might happen.

“I’m not re-enlisting,” he warned Blue. “I’m not somebody else’s soldier. If I do this it’s me and you tagging along with the others. We’re not going to get in the way, we’re not going to be in charge of anything…we just do what they need us to do and be quiet the rest of the time.”

That appeared to be enough for Blue. The star map flickered away and the images of far off planets cleared the screens and overlays to allow the scans and info readings to return.

Still no other Lions, but Adam suspected he now knew why they might have been ordered to stand down. They didn’t need to try and take Blue away from him if it had already been decided in some way that she was his.

Adam got back up and went back to the storage bay, removing the armor and thankfully putting his clothes back on. He flopped down in the pilot seat and set Blue’s course for Earth, taking the trip at a much slower speed that still saw him approaching his home world in about five minutes rather than a few seconds.

He marveled again at how easily Blue plotted a landing course, quickly and easily taking into account all of the air traffic and avoiding it all without the need to contact the control tower. As he brought her down she landed surprisingly lightly and easily at the far end of the runway, the huge ship closing the distance to hangar at an elegant canter.

There was only one person waiting there, standing out on the tarmac with his hands folded behind his back. Adam brought Blue to a full stop and grabbed the bags, his coat, and the ice core canister, making his way down the boarding ramp to where Takashi stood.

“Nicer ride than the motorcycle, don’t you think?” Takashi asked.

“She goes pretty nicely,” Adam admitted, slowing to a stop in front of him and glancing back at Blue. “Definitely faster than the bike.”

Takashi had some idea of what had gone down, Adam could see it on his face. And why wouldn’t he? He had piloted the Black Lion, he had intimate personal knowledge of how they worked. He knew how this Paladin thing worked better than all but a small handful of people in the universe, and he knew Adam better than anyone. He wasn’t questioning the little joyride, or offering any substantial commentary. And Adam really didn’t need either right now.

He let the canister, coat, and bags fall to the ground and closed the distance between them, sliding his arms around Takashi’s neck and burying his face against his shoulder. He felt Takashi’s arms wrap around him as well, and a hand lightly rubbing his back.

“I know, it’s hard,” Takashi murmured, kissing his temple. “It’s so much coming at you in just a few days, it probably feels like it will never stop. I really wish there was time for you to find everything out slowly, but there just isn’t. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not going to be a soldier again,” Adam insisted, muffled against Takashi’s uniform. “I won’t. I’m not going to just do what I’m told and leave my life in somebody else’s hands ever again, I will not do it. Nobody orders me to do anything I don’t want to do, do you understand?”

“Yes,” Takashi answered. “But I promise, that’s not what this is. These guys are a team, not pawns following commands without question.”

He pushed him away lightly, rubbing Adam’s arms with his hands and glancing back toward the office.

“It’s freezing out here. Put Blue back in the hangar and let’s go get some coffee, there’s some Paladin stuff you should be filled in on now,” Takashi advised.

“And then whether you like it or not, we’re going to have to arrange for you to meet with Keith.”

 

Chapter Text

[ [ T W ] ]

Curtis felt a wave of nausea and leaned heavily against his bathroom sink, hating that at the moment it was practically what was keeping him upright.

He’d been having trouble for about a week and a half now. On top of being exhausted, his hair starting to thin from treatment, and not being able to eat, his head was occasionally foggy and he was cold all the time. Fortunately the winter weather made the warmer clothes he wore to cover his weight loss and keep from freezing look less out of place, and he generally had duties that kept him busy and out of sight of the others.

To be honest, he knew he shouldn’t even be going to work today. He’d had an appointment with his doctor on Sunday and the worst had been confirmed; the chemo wasn’t working, the cancer had reached his brain. She had given him an estimated two months, and all but ordered him to turn in notice and retired immediately to make the most of the time he had left. He had agreed to stop treatment, since it wasn’t going to do anything.

But today was Wednesday, and he was still going to work. He knew he couldn’t hide what was going on for too much longer, but he hoped to hide it for just a few more weeks. After that, Allura and Lotor would leave, Kuro would go with them, the Atlas would undoubtedly follow soon after. He could put in word with the Garrison that he was transferring, then go home and wait for the inevitable.

Curtis had never judged Shiro too harshly for Kerberos, even seeing what it had done to Adam. Perhaps because he wasn’t quite as invested and was able to look at it from a different point of view, he’d always had some kind of understanding that Kerberos was a dying man looking death in the eye and flipping it the middle finger. He understood it even better now, as he poured all of his remaining energy into helping the Paladins prepare for the war they would be going into.

He didn’t have much left in him, but what he did have he wanted to focus on paying back the Galra for what they’d done to his planet.

[ [ / T W ] ]

Curtis pushed away from the sink and passed through the master bedroom, stepping over the black clothes scattered messily across the floor and barely even noticing. He grabbed a hooded sweatshirt he could wear when he was in his office and left his bedroom, stepping out into the hallway just as the door to the guest bedroom down the hall opened.

Adam stepped out, his hair sleep-tousled but otherwise neat and put together for the day. For the first time in most of his existence he was living a life that wasn’t strictly scheduled by someone else, and one of his favorite things to do with that was apparently sleep as late as possible then roll out of bed and into whatever clothes he grabbed out of the closet.

“Ready for your day?” Curtis asked as he headed down the stairs first. Adam followed, and he could hear him yawning behind him. “You have a meeting with Keith today finally, right?”

“No and yes,” Adam answered lazily. He didn’t sound very enthusiastic, but at least he didn’t sound like he was contemplating murder either. “If you consider both of us having to go to Takashi’s office this morning and neither of us being allowed to be armed to be a meeting.”

They reached the bottom of the stairs and Curtis made the right turn, through the archway that led to the dining room and the kitchen beyond. He could smell the coffee before he was even through the doorway, which helped him pinpoint his second guest before they saw him.

Kuro was in the kitchen, his back to them, taking a picture out the window over the sink with his phone. There was a squirrel trying to raid the bird feeder hanging from the branch out in the yard, and the small debacle had Kuro’s full attention. It was only then that Curtis processed the fact that he’d stepped over clothes on his way out of the bedroom.

Kuro was wearing nothing but his black boxer briefs, which left very little to the imagination. His tattoo was clearly visible, tracing down his spine and disappearing under the edge of the fabric, thankfully covering the mark that would have given away what he was. The house was warm and there was nothing wrong with the way he was dressed—or rather, undressed—except for the fact that there was a third party currently in the vicinity.

Curtis heard Adam stop behind him, followed by an almost panicked rustling of fabric, and turned around just in time to pull the rising phone out of his friend’s hand and turn off the camera function.

“No you may not,” he murmured. “You have your own. Out, I’ll get your coffee for you.”

He pressed the phone against Adam’s chest then spun him around, pushing him back out into the hallway. Adam let himself be removed, grinning wildly the whole time.

“When did that get here?” He asked. “Where are his clothes? Should I be checking you for bruises and bite marks?”

“He came over yesterday after I got off work,” Curtis rolled his eyes, giving Adam one last shove into the living room. Hoshi was stretched out happily in front of the fireplace, raising her head to glance at them as they came in. “While you were out doing God only knows what all night with Shiro. We made dinner and watched a movie, it was late when it was over so he just spent the night. We probably went to sleep right before you got home.”

“Sleep, huh?” Adam pressed. “And you couldn’t offer him pajamas?”

“I did, but that’s how he sleeps,” Curtis answered. “And yes, sleeping is all we did, Mom. Don’t go spreading bullshit that didn’t happen.”

“You are so adorably over the moon, I love it,” Adam cooed evilly. “You’re even worried about his honor, that’s so cute.”

Curtis snorted and left him there, going back to the kitchen. Kuro had heard their retreat and was just setting out two travel mugs, filling them from the coffee pot.

“I didn’t hear him come in last night, I didn’t even know he was here,” Kuro admitted, pushing one of the travel mugs over as Curtis grabbed the cream from the fridge. “I can’t honestly say I would’ve put on pants if I had known, I’m just saying I didn’t know.”

“His only other option is to go back to Shiro’s place, and he won’t as long as Keith is there,” Curtis answered, grabbing the sugar bowl from the dining table. “Just always assume he’s coming back here, at least until he buys a house.”

Kuro leaned on the counter, resting his chin on his hands and smiling innocently.

“I noticed you didn’t tell him sleep wasn’t all that happened Sunday night.”

Curtis felt his face get warm. He tried to hide it by focusing on adding cream and sugar to the travel mugs.

“Listen, there are two rules in this house,” he protested. “One is that ketchup is for heathens and eating it will not be tolerated here. The other is that it’s nobody’s business what anybody else does with their mouth, except them and the person they do it to. Especially with the things that came out of your mouth.”

Curtis picked his words carefully, knowing Adam was listening. The reality was that nothing had really happened on Sunday, or at least nothing serious enough for Adam to consider it something.

Kuro proved to be every bit the non-sexual creature he claimed to be. He’d admitted he had a libido—on occasion—but that it came and went of its own accord and there really wasn’t anything to be done to summon it when convenient since it wasn’t caused by attraction. It was just something he handled himself when it showed up and then went on with life.

There were definitely things Curtis found Kuro did like. He reacted positively to being touched and held close, enjoyed being petted, caressed, and cuddled. He liked to be kissed, to have his hair played with, to stretch out on top of Curtis with his head resting on the other’s shoulder. He had no problems with nudity, if anything he seemed to like unbuffered contact even more.

On Sunday, however, in spite of Curtis’ best attempts at self-control, Kuro had still had his first actual experience with an “excited” human man. And although he had been very eager to try and help solve the problem, his biological knowledge was not exactly a perfect replacement for practical sex skills. For all of Kuro’s very skillful flirting and manipulating of people who showed interest, when it came down to it what he knew was limited. His very accurate and clinical phrasing of certain things had been very unsexy, and everything had ended with Curtis in tears of helpless laughter.

It was all rather endearing to be honest, and everyone had to start somewhere. Thankfully, Kuro hadn’t been offended.

Kuro reached over and took the mug that was clearly Curtis’, taking a sip now that it had cream and sugar. He frowned thoughtfully.

“What orifice do you think people use to eat ketchup that doesn’t disqualify the first rule using the second?” He asked.

Curtis thought back over the last thing he’d said then frowned, taking his mug back.

“Third rule: don’t question the rule maker,” he amended.

He finished with Adam’s coffee and capped both mugs, moving around the counter to put an arm around Kuro. Kuro slid both of his around Curtis’ middle, resting his head contentedly against the taller man’s shoulder.

“Not to be creepy and forward or anything, but maybe you should think about bringing some of your stuff over and spreading out a little,” he suggested. “I know you only have a few more weeks before you leave, but you’d be more comfortable here than in that closet on the ship. You’d have more privacy too, except for the jackass eavesdropping from the living room.”

“Don’t talk about the dog that way,” Adam called.

Kuro winced a little, scrunching up his nose.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“I’m not asking you to marry me and move in, I’m just saying I have plenty of space for you, your books, and whatever weird stuff you’re up to in that little lab room,” Curtis answered. “There’s nothing in the basement but some shelves for storage…the door locks, you can have the key for anything you don’t want us getting into. You can come and go as you want, no questions.”

Kuro frowned again, but this time Curtis could tell he was heavily tempted.

“Hoshi would have the fireplace,” he added, knowing that would sweeten the offer. “Plenty of room to lay around. And you won’t be on the base…are you still hiding from Shiro?”

Saturday at the dance had been the last time anyone other than Curtis had seen Kuro, who had immediately retired to the Lorelia as soon as the winter ball was over. Sunday and Tuesday nights had been spent here at the house, but his days had been spent hidden away from everyone on the ship.

Curtis had found out he had been avoiding everyone after Shiro had complained that Kuro had not shown up to meet members of the Shirogane family over dinner. He wasn’t answering his phone, he didn’t come off the ship, he had been impossible to get ahold of.

[ [ T W ] ]

Curtis had a feeling he knew what Kuro was up to. He had explicitly told him Saturday night not to drive himself crazy trying to find a treatment for his cancer; it was just going to run its course at this point, and he didn’t want Kuro feeling like he was somehow at fault when his attempt inevitably failed.

Kuro was good, very good even. Honerva had inadvertently created a great gift for her enemies when she’d made him. But he needed time, and that was a crucial ingredient he didn’t have here.

[ [ / T W ] ]

“How mad at me is he?” Kuro called, knowing Adam was listening.

Predictably, Adam poked his head through the doorway, having been listening to every word exchanged. He raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question, not sure what Kuro was referring to.

“For ditching dinner,” Curtis clarified. “How mad is Shiro over it?”

“Oh. He’s disappointed, but not mad. He has four wedding planners on the phone constantly, he doesn’t have time to be mad about anything,” Adam answered. “Except that I won’t let him do the face-smash thing with the cake.”

For only having about two and a half weeks until a wedding, Adam was doing very little planning of his own. There were a few things he was working on with Curtis, nothing that couldn’t easily be done in the time they had, but for the most part the planning had fallen on Shiro.

Curtis was so thankful it wasn’t his wedding, or he would be having a stroke. Adam had given Shiro almost complete control, even knowing that he was slowly turning this into a mind-numbing spectacle.

Half the Galra empire had been liberated since the Paladins had come onto the scene. That was half an empire worth of planets that knew Shiro’s name and knew him as the Black Paladin. To say he was famous was an understatement, he was literally one of the faces representing freedom across the entire universe. His upcoming wedding had become very politically charged very quickly; Allura might have been the royal in charge of Voltron but the Paladins were her court, anything one of them did reflected on everyone.

So there were certain planets of the Coalition that absolutely had to be invited to send a representative. There were some who had been part of the war for so long that not inviting their leader or ambassador felt wrong. There were some who were on the fence about joining the Coalition, and spiting them by not inviting their leaders would be a huge mistake.

And then there was the fact that there was a new Paladin, and this wedding was a chance to introduce him to as many allies as possible so it didn’t look like the Voltron team was trying to keep anyone in the dark.

To be honest, Curtis got the impression that Shiro was thrilled that this had to be big. He’d always been a “shoot for the stars” kind of person, First Offworld Wedding was another broken record he could add to his collection. As it currently stood the plan was to have the wedding on Arus, an homage both to where the Castle of Lions had slept for ten thousand years and to the first alien allies the Paladins had gained.

The Arusians were as thrilled as Shiro. It wasn’t every day that representatives from planets all across the universe came to their doorstep, they weren’t exactly big players in the power game. Their king was indescribably delighted that his people had not only been remembered, but were first on the list of potential hosts for such an important event.

“Only four?” Curtis asked, raising an eyebrow. “Didn’t he have five on Monday?”

“One quit,” Adam answered, coming back into the kitchen and accepting the offered travel mug. “As soon as she saw what had to be done in how little time, she decided it would give her a nervous breakdown and stepped down. I think he’s looking to hire two more this week.”

“How much is this circus costing you?” Curtis wondered.

“Honestly? Not much,” Adam admitted. “Relatively. He’s getting so many offers from planets that feel like they never got a chance to properly thank the Paladins that he’s having trouble deciding who should do what, and half of them want to supply things as a gift. There’s definitely not going to be any shortage of food, music, or decorations. With everyone else stepping up, Iverson didn’t really have much of a choice but to volunteer the Atlas to transport Earth guests…apparently there are a bunch of politicians and dignitaries invited. So now everything has to be elegant and nice and I’m not allowed to refer to the wedding party as “our bitches” in public.”

“I think I’d lose my mind,” Kuro admitted. “I know you were probably just expecting something small with friends…you should’ve stopped him before he made a galaxy-wide announcement.”

Adam let out a breath through his nose, and for a moment he became serious. He shrugged faintly, tugging the cap off his mug to add a little more sugar.

“It’s a power play,” he said honestly. “We talked about it Saturday night, I knew it would get like this. I’m the one who told him to go wild. I want him to keep his name out there, that way he keeps his leverage. He needs to stay relevant. I’d prefer privacy, but there’s nothing people love like prying into a celebrity’s life, and I guess he’s a celebrity now.”

Curtis looked at Kuro, who was wearing the same expression he knew was on his own face. Adam had stalwartly been refusing to admit that he had become famous on Earth overnight with his return, or that his fame was about to multiply on a universal scale until he was on par with the other Paladins. He didn’t watch the news, he didn’t read the newspaper, and he quickly looked away any time he noticed his picture on things.

But at the same time, it sounded like he was already beginning to spin his own web of influence with every intention of keeping Shiro in some position of power. Possibly out of spite, to keep the military that had wronged him under someone’s heel even if the ones who had done it were gone.

Curtis had done some digging over the last few months, but information on Adam prior to his arrival in the US was hard to find. He’d eventually had nothing to go on but the pictures in the Project Starlight file, of the woman who surely must have been his mother.

As it turned out, Curtis hadn’t been able to find anything on a young Adam Wolfe because his name wasn’t Adam Wolfe. It was Adao Lobo, and had been changed around the time the Ghosts had stepped in and he’d begun boarding school. Curtis wanted to know more but he didn’t dare ask, Adam had been so young at that point there was no telling if he even knew anything about it. He also didn’t want Adam to know he’d been snooping around in his past.

What he had gleaned was that Adam’s mother was an extremely wealthy woman, and self-made at that. But more importantly, she had worked her way into politics and was some kind of Brazilian diplomat. She was not known for being nice or for being a pushover; she was vicious, forceful, and hated to lose.

Adam had never been one to get involved in power games, but Janet Lobo’s influence appeared to be rearing its head now. Curtis felt very sorry for anyone who dared to try and get in Shiro’s way going forward, they probably wouldn’t find themselves being dealt with kindly. Especially given that Shiro was very much still Adam’s world, and he’d probably do anything for him…up to and possibly including clandestine murder.

Honestly, if anyone had ever loved him even half as much as Adam loved Shiro, Curtis would have been married and settled down by now.

“When are we going to pick out suits?” Curtis asked, partially dreading the trip. He hoped he wasn’t visibly tired through the whole thing. “Soon, obviously.”

“As soon as I get back from this stupid world tour thing,” Adam answered, pulling up his calendar on his phone. “Seriously, the last thing I need right now is to go prance around in front of strange politicians like a decked out show pony. And you. You need to talk to Takashi.”

He looked up from his phone toward Kuro when he said it. Curtis and Kuro both sensed the reason for this request at the same time, and Curtis felt Kuro tense.

“No,” Kuro said immediately. “No way. Absolutely not.”

“You don’t have a choice either,” Adam insisted. “You’re wearing his face, we either keep pretending you’re his brother or let people find out you’re a clone. And nobody’s going to believe Takashi would leave his brother out of his wedding party.”

“Why not? People leave siblings out of things all the time,” Kuro protested. “Tell them I slept with his boyfriend in college and we’re on bad terms.”

I was his boyfriend in college,” Adam said dryly. “And you’re not my type.”

“You’re the second person in a week to tell me that, I’m going to develop a complex.” Kuro sighed and sank against Curtis a little, looking defeated. “Fine, I’ll stop by.”

“Sooner than later,” Adam urged as Curtis finally let Kuro go and turned his attention to him, shooing him out of the kitchen. “And remember, Allura and Lotor want to get you and Takashi on the training deck together soon so they can really test what you can do.”

“I can blow bubbles with my own spit,” Kuro offered, following them into the living room. “Say the alphabet backwards, fold my ankles behind my head. You can ask Curt about the last one.”

Curtis was in the process of trying to herd Adam out the door now, but that made him dig his heels in. Curtis felt his face grow warm, and shot Kuro a warning look.

“He was doing yoga!” He clarified loudly before Adam could ask anything inappropriate. “Literally, on a mat along with a video! Get out.”

Adam started laughing at him, but let himself be pushed out of the house and over to the driveway where the Audi was parked. Curtis opened the driver side door for him, just to make sure he actually got inside. But before he could close the door again, Adam caught it with his foot.

“So what was it you didn’t tell me happened on Sunday?” He insisted. “Does Takashi need to have a conversation with you? Do we need to have The Talk? Is there somfrmph!”

Curtis put both hands over Adam’s face and leaned into the car, pushing him over sideways. He held him down with one hand on the side of his face and used the other to pry his foot off the door, shoving him all the way inside before standing back up and slamming the door closed. Adam remained half-curled in the driver seat for another few moments, his hysterical laughter muffled by the closed windows.

“Go to work!” Curtis shouted over him, pointing down the street as he backed away from the car.

Kuro was at the front door when he returned, holding it open, completely oblivious to the fact that he was definitely not dressed for neighbors to see him. He pulled Curtis back into the house and closed the door behind him, reaching up to rub some warmth into Curtis’ arms with both hands.

“You shouldn’t be going to work today,” he warned. “You should be getting some rest.”

“I know, but I have things I need to do,” Curtis, sighed, letting Kuro move him over a little closer to the fireplace. “I’m working on the Paladins’ itineraries for their trips, I need to make sure there are people covering them and watching their backs.”

“You can plan itineraries from home.”

“I don’t have the same security setup here that I do in my office.”

“Fine,” Kuro initially seemed to cave, but instead of pulling away he slid his arms back around Curtis’ middle again. “It’s just…it’s really cold out there. Officers will be knocking on your door all day, bothering you. Adam will be interrupting you to talk about wedding plans.”

Curtis winced, trying not to think about the virtual parade of people he generally had through his office on any given day. Or about mid-afternoon conversations about cake flavors. Kuro sensed he had an opening; he snuggled close, nuzzling Curtis’ neck, practically wrapped around him.

It was completely unfair. Kuro knew he had the upper hand, that he could short-circuit Curtis’ brain while thinking perfectly clearly himself. He knew the bedroom eyes, the little murmur of want in Kuro’s voice, the way fingers slipped up under his shirt to lightly caress his back…Kuro got no physical arousal out of it, it was all tailored specifically to get him what he wanted out of Curtis.

“You’d get more done if you worked from home today,” Kuro insisted, snuggling closer. “Later, in the afternoon, after a little bit of rest for the morning. Nice, soft couch, warm blankets, I can find you something nice and hot that you can stomach for breakfast.”

Curtis closed his eyes in spite of himself, resting his head against Kuro’s. Kuro was warm, he smelled nice, his embrace was inviting. The thought of just locking the front door, stripping off his uniform, and curling up under some blankets in front of the fire had often struck him before, but the promise of someone else joining him this time added a lot of extra weight to the temptation.

“…I have a few sick days left for the year I haven’t used,” he relented. “I guess calling out once won’t hurt.”

Kuro let him go, an impish little smile in place now that he knew he’d won, any semblance of his desire disappearing altogether, taking Curtis’ hand and pulling him over to the sofa. He helped him unbutton the uniform jacket, piling up the throw pillows at one end of the sofa while Curtis stripped off his trousers. A minute later he was sinking into the soft pillows, with one of the blankets being tucked around him.

It was, admittedly, so much better than tromping around a freezing base all day pretending he was fine.

“I’m going to find you something to eat,” Kuro offered, picking up the discarded uniform jacket and pulling it on.

“You don’t have to, I’m not really hungry.”

“I’ll make something anyway. Try to eat a little bit.”

Kuro fastened one of the buttons, letting the top of the uniform jacket fall down over one shoulder. He shimmed a little, leaving Curtis wondering what the hell he was doing, until he seemed to get it exactly where he wanted it. Then he picked up Curtis’ phone from the end table and held it up, taking a picture of himself carefully angled to show bare skin and the tattoo.

He unbuttoned the jacket and let it fall to the floor, stepping out of it while he looked at the phone. When he finished he put it down on Curtis’ chest and left the room, likely headed for the kitchen.

“Did you just send that to Adam?” Curtis called after him, not bothering to look himself.

“Uh huh.”

“What, do you just live to torture everyone?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not going to get you out of the wedding party,” Curtis warned.

“We’ll see.”

Curtis looked over at Hoshi, who had raised her head again to watch their exchange. He almost thought she rolled her eyes, or at least did the wolf equivalent, but then she dropped back down and stretched out in front of the fire again.

Curtis followed suit, sinking down further under the heavy blankets and burying himself in the pillows. Maybe he’d get around to calling out, maybe he wouldn’t. He was going to be quitting soon enough anyway, it wasn’t like they could fire him.

* * * * * * * * * *

The promise of the upcoming meeting—or threat, depending on how one looked at it—loomed large in the morning hours as Keith slowly got ready to start the day. Not for the first time, he wondered how he’d gotten where he was and, to an extent, if there was any way to escape it.

His willingness to stand up and lead a team into the war came and went with his mood, or the day, or even the time. Sometimes he was confident he could do it, sometimes he wondered why he was stuck here. As he stood by the window sipping tea from his favorite mug and watched Adam’s car pull up to wait for Shiro, he felt the now-common twinge of alarm run through him.

It wasn’t Adam specifically, though Keith still had a lot of opinions on that subject. Adam was neither the cause nor the culprit, but his return had definitely been the catalyst for some very uncomfortable and probably long overdue change.

Keith had assumed over the last few years that Shiro’s experiences with the Galra had been what mellowed him out, that his trauma had been what killed a lot of his drive. Allura had put him in the pilot seat of the Black Lion, not his own choice. His leadership ability in a time of desperation had put him on the Captain’s dais of the Atlas, not his ambitions. Familiarity had put him at Iverson’s right hand along with Sam, Coran, and Curtis, not his own efforts.

He was a different man after his escape from the Galra than he had been on Earth. Still kind, still generous, still eager to help, but different. Not as energetic, not as mischievous. Not as certain that he really wanted to strive for the same greatness. He did a lot of good and he was very much a willing soldier in the war, but some spark had just been…gone.

That suddenly wasn’t the case anymore. Not only did that spark seem to be back, but it was becoming a flare. Shiro was more energetic, more eager to go out and do again. He wasn’t hanging around waiting for orders as a Captain under the Garrison, he was actively making his own plans as the leader of an interstellar warship. He was having meetings with Kolivan, with Lotor and Allura, with Coalition representatives. He was no longer running everything through Iverson, he was taking charge.

He was starting to perk up, to push boundaries, to look toward being the best again.

It didn’t take Pidge’s IQ to pinpoint that this change had coincided with Adam leaving the Garrison and going home with Curtis, and the subsequent nights Shiro spent out in his company instead of at his own apartment. There was a piece of the puzzle back in place now that hadn’t been there throughout their stay in the Castle of Lions, or their trip back home, or the last eight months on Earth. Something—or someone, rather—was holding Shiro up and egging him on in a way that Keith had never really been able to match.

He was becoming Shiro again. Not the traumatized, broken-down man just trying to catch a break and recover, but the ambitious young fighter pilot who’d once been on course to conquer the world.

It should have been a good thing. Keith wasn’t sure yet if it was.

Outside, another car pulled up. A moment later Lance got out of the driver seat and threw himself across Adam’s hood, completely open and unashamed in a way Keith had never really been able to be.

Keith sipped his tea, comfortable and warm inside, watching them escalate to wrestling in the street like absolute children. There was a “pop” he heard softly through the glass as Kosmo heard the ruckus and ran to join in, a good two-hundred pounds of wolf at this point pouncing both of them.

“Your wife is here,” he called as he heard Shiro come out of his room.

“So is yours, from the sound of it,” Shiro quipped, making a stop in the kitchen.

Some of the hot tea went down the wrong pipe, scalding Keith’s throat and making him start to cough. Shiro came out of the kitchen a minute later to wait for the kettle to boil, coming to stand next to Keith and smacking him roughly on the back. Outside, the Idiot Brigade was still going strong, now with Adam holding a squealing Lance in a headlock while Kosmo danced around them, barking.

A year ago that would have been Lance and Keith, and Shiro would have been very quick to shut it down and tell them to act like dignified soldiers. Now Shiro leaned against the window frame with one arm and watched them go at it, not terribly worried about anyone else’s opinion of it but his own.

Keith recovered and leaned against the other side of the window frame, glancing over at his brother before looking back out at the ruckus outside.

“I was talking to Hunk,” he figured he may as well broach the subject sooner than later, since he knew it would eventually come up. “About how you’ll be out of here after the wedding. I know we’ll probably end up leaving Earth again soon, but he said him and Lance were thinking about renting a house. Like Allura does with Romelle and Veronica. They said three roommates are better than two, if I want to upgrade out of the apartment.”

“You’re going to move?” Shiro asked, looking over at him. “I’ll keep paying my part of the lease, you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to. But honestly, maybe it would be good if you moved in with some friends. They’re not going far, I’m assuming.”

“No, there’s a house for rent right over in Hunk’s neighborhood,” Keith answered. He felt a wave of relief he hadn’t been expecting, having not realized that he had been feeling anxious over Shiro’s reaction. There was no reason for him to feel that way, but the approval made him feel like he had finally managed to make a good decision all on his own. “It’s got a big yard Kosmo will like, and four bedrooms. They didn’t say it, but I think they might be holding out to offer Pidge a spot when she’s old enough to move out.”

They were all glad to be home, glad to be with their families again, but something had been lost in the return to Earth. They had all been together in close quarters for the better part of a year, under some of the most high pressure circumstances that could occur. They were friends, but they were also a sort of family of their own. For a while, it might be nice to return to that.

“It sounds like you guys have a plan,” Shiro answered, giving him a smile. “Good. I really didn’t want to just leave you here alone, but I didn’t want to try and push you out if you didn’t want to go. I think moving in with them might be a nice change for you. A good chance for all of you to spread your wings a little without old people around dragging you down.”

The kettle went off and Shiro pushed away from the wall to go and make his own tea. He rattled things around for a few minutes as he got ready, then came out with a travel mug and grabbed his coat from the hook by the door.

“I’ll see you at the base,” called as he picked up his keys, letting himself out. “I’m going to stop for breakfast on the way, I’ll grab you guys something.”

“Great, thanks.”

Keith stayed where he was, watching as Shiro came up behind the two roughhousing men. He caught Adam around the middle, lifting him clear off his feet, and though Keith couldn’t hear what he said he knew he was telling Lance to get in out of the cold. A few minutes later, Adam’s car was pulling away and Lance was in the apartment closing the door behind him, blowing on his fingers to warm them.

“The complex manager is going to yell at us for that,” Keith told him. “Want some tea? Coffee?”

“The complex manager yelled at you for having a red mailbox,” Lance said airily, shedding his jacket and dropping it on the sofa on his way into the kitchen. “Coffee! Yes! I’ll get it.”

“Well I wasn’t going to get it for you. What do I look like, the maid?”

“You look like a lot of things,” Lance called from the kitchen. “Some of them include rude words. Ooh, you buy good coffee.”

Keith finally left the window and wandered into the kitchen, checking the clock on his way by. Shiro had to be in earlier today, they still had some time.

He moved to put his nearly empty mug in the sink, hooking an arm around Lance from behind and burying his face against the back of his shoulder. Keith breathed in the calming, familiar smell of Lance’s usual shampoo, then stiffened as he noticed something was off. It took him a moment to figure out what it was, but as he raised his head and stood upright it became clear.

“Damn it, Lance!”

“What?” Lance held up his hands to show they were empty, and that he hadn’t broken anything. “What did I do?”

“You’re getting taller again!” Keith complained. “Come on, man! It’s my turn!”

He had noticed on his return from the trip with Kolivan and his mother that Lance was hitting a growth spurt, but now it was clear that it wasn’t just a passing half inch or so. He’d known it would happen soon, Lance was now nineteen and there was no way he was going stay so much shorter than his brothers, but he’d been crossing his fingers that he’d win out in the end in the height competition.

But Lance was catching up, and fast. Faster than a normal human would, which made Keith suspect the emerging Altean genes had something to do with it. Any youthful softness Lance had last year was now gone, his skinny stature replaced with lean muscle.

Keith had known he wouldn’t be the most “grown up” one in the group forever. Hunk was already almost as tall as Shiro and Pidge was beginning to become not-so-tiny herself. But he’d hoped to lord it over Lance a little bit longer.

“Sorry, not sorry,” Lance answered, taking his cup from the Keurig and turning around in Keith’s arms. He reached up to pinch one of the other Paladin’s cheeks. “But don’t worry, munchkin. I’ll try not to put things on the high shelves.”

“You’re funny. A real comedian.”

Lance grinned, ducking under Keith’s arm to get to the cream and sugar. When he was finished he set his cup on the counter, grabbing one of the stools from where they were tucked away in the closet and pulling it over to have a seat. He basically acted like he lived here these days, and to be honest he practically did.

Shiro spent a lot of time out with Adam. Keith assumed they were staying at hotels, sine he doubted the two of them really wanted to work through the frustrations of long years of being single while somebody else was nearby to hear. That just meant Lance was able to spend the night a handful of times without Shiro knowing.

Lance plopped himself on the stool and turned around to face Keith. He opened his arms, motioning with his fingers for Keith to come closer, and wrapped him in a hug when he did. Lance squeezed him tightly, something Keith found pleasant and reassuring.

“So what’s wrong?” Lance prompted. “You were getting ready to complain about something before you got indignant about being short.”

“I’m still taller than you are,” Keith reminded him.

“For now, but it’s only a matter of time,” Lance said reasonably. “Then you’re back to being Number Four. Come on, spill.”

“I just really don’t want to go to this meeting,” Keith admitted. “I don’t need to. I shouldn’t have to.”

“It’s a meeting for the new Paladin,” Lance reminded him. “The leader kind of needs to be there.”

“That’s what I mean!” Keith answered, feeling a familiar frustration rising in his chest. “Who ever said that the Black Lion’s pilot is the one that has to be the leader? Who made it a rule that the Black Lion gets to choose who’s in charge?”

Lance opened his mouth, then closed it again. They both knew the answer to that: Alfor. Alfor had made that rule, not explicitly but by his actions. And if Lance thought about it long enough, he would probably even remember it.

“Buddy, come on,” Lance tried to be soothing, sitting back on the stool a bit so he could look up at Keith. “I feel like we keep hitting this same issue again and again. You’re a good leader, you’re doing fine.”

“We keep hitting this issue because I keep renewing the effort,” Keith answered dully. “But after a while I always come back to the same thing. I don’t want to be the leader. And ever since Adam came back, I guess I just…don’t have Shiro pushing his goals on me as hard and keeping me on track.”

“Shiro would never push you into anything you really don’t want to do,” Lance said.

“Yes he would,” Keith corrected. “I never wanted to pilot Black. I never wanted to leave Red. I never wanted to lead. Shiro put that on me early on…one of the first times we were alone, when he was hurt, he told me he wanted me to lead if anything happened to him. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to, he just put me into a position where I couldn’t say no.”

Keith let go of Lance and went to get the other stool, bringing it over and sitting beside him so the other pilot was able to drink his coffee. He folded his arms on the counter, leaning against it.

“Shiro’s great, he’s always been good to me,” Keith insisted, wanting to make sure Lance didn’t think he was speaking ill of the older Paladin. “I love him, and I know he loves me. But when I look back on how things were before Kerberos, now that I’m older I can see that he was always pushing me in a direction I didn’t really want to go.

“I never wanted to attend the Garrison. I was great at flying, sure, but so what? I hated following orders, I hated being bossed around, I hated the idea of being in the military. The whole point of the Galaxy Garrison is to turn people into something I didn’t want to be. As soon as Shiro was gone, I had no reason to be there. I didn’t want to be, so I didn’t care if I got kicked out. I never wanted to be a pilot in the first place, Shiro wanted me to be one!”

The last sentence spilled out before he could stop it, a thought that had been swirling around in his head but had so far remained unsaid. There wasn’t any malice or anger in it, it was just an inconvenient fact that was becoming more inconvenient as time wore on. Keith could see Lance didn’t know how to take that and wasn’t sure yet how to respond, and he hated that he’d made him feel awkward.

“I’m not railing against Shiro,” Keith said quickly. “I’m just…I want to do what’s best for everybody. Just like he did, just like you did. And I don’t think me being in charge is what’s best for anything. Maybe he doesn’t have a Lion anymore, but he’s a real leader. He’s good at it, he has experience, he wants it. Shiro should be the one in charge of the Paladins, Kolivan and my mom should stay the ones in charge of the Blade. I just kind of want to be left alone.”

“Dude, it’s okay, I get it,” Lance pushed his mug away and turned in his seat to face Keith. “You had to grow up really early, you never had a chance to just sit back and let somebody else take care of stuff. I always wanted to be a pilot, I always wanted to be in charge. I wanted to pilot the Black Lion because I thought I could do it then, when there was nobody else but us. But like, right now? When there’s plenty of experienced people around to take that on? No thanks. Someday, yeah, but not today. None of us have the luxury of not fighting at all anymore, but maybe you should talk to Shiro about…not being singled out, if you feel that way.”

“I don’t want to disappoint him,” Keith admitted dully. “I think…maybe he latched onto me because he knew he was sick. He knew he was never going to settle down, get married have kids. He was never going to have someone to carry on his legacy or whatever. Then I came along and I was what he needed at the time. I could never say no to him then, I wanted somebody to be proud of me so bad. I wanted somebody to know and care that I wasn’t a bad kid even though I was angry a lot. Shiro was one of the best things that ever happened to me, I don’t want him to be disappointed that I just can’t live up to what he wants me to be. How do I tell him how I feel about all this without making him feel like I’m ungrateful or something?”

Lance picked his mug back up and took a sip, taking a deep breath. He had that look on his face, the one that said he was about to rip the rug out from under Keith and bring him crashing back down to Earth.

“First, stop with the self-pity party.”

Blunt, direct, and right to the point, as expected from his body language.

“Come on, Keith,” Lance cajoled. “You know Shiro, he knows you. You love him, he loves you. Both of you know by now that you’d do anything for each other. Nothing that comes out of your mouth is going to make him care any less. It might hurt his feelings or something for a little bit, but he’ll recover. He wants you happy, that’s more important to him than who does what job.

“Your problem here is you think the best way to talk to him is the way I would talk to him. But my relationship with Shiro is completely different from yours. The way I would talk to him is definitely not the way I would talk to my brother. Just walk into his office and talk to him about this the same way you would talk to him about anything else. Talk to him like you, not like me.”

“Talking to him like me would involve some pretty nasty language and an attitude problem,” Keith reminded him.

“Yes,” Lance agreed, grinning broadly as he emptied the rest of the coffee from his mug. He draped an arm around Keith, leaning comfortably against him and balancing precariously on his stool, and Keith felt him kiss him softly on the cheek. “That’s exactly what I mean.”

 

Chapter Text

Under the sometimes sharp exterior and admittedly terrible attitude problem, Keith really was very eager to please. Not everyone, absolutely not, but when people made it onto the list he bent over backwards to try and make them proud.

As far as Lance knew, that list was still pretty small. Shiro was still number one and always had been, with Krolia and Kolivan tied in second place. And that was pretty much the entire list, with new additions not currently being accepted at this time.

Lance knew he wasn’t on it and neither were the other Paladins, and that was perfectly fine. They were his peers and his friends, they were all on the same level in the hierarchy and didn’t need to be impressed. But the three people who did hold that sway over him were all people in positions of power, and they liked being in power. They did it by choice and put in the effort to get there. Since Keith was so hell-bent on making them all happy, he never dared to put up more than token resistance when they presumed that he was also interested in a position of power.

But if Lance had to pick a profession for Keith Kogane, it wouldn’t have been soldier or pilot. Nurse, maybe. Social worker. Disaster relief coordinator.

Firefighter.

He’d never met Seth Kogane, the man had died when Keith was young, but Keith’s personality definitely wasn’t modeled after anyone associated with the Garrison or the Blade. He wasn’t a leader but he was a person who preferred decisive action, and if given the choice he would probably be more than happy risking his life to help people directly instead of engaging in war on their behalf.

So Lance assumed that Keith took after his dad in more than just looks. There just weren’t really any adults in his life who were more about helping than fighting, which made Lance feel kind of bad for him. He loved the family he’d picked up over the last few years, but there wasn’t anyone there who fully met the guy’s needs as far as role models.

At least, that had been the case before. But things were changing, especially since the fight at Colony One.

“So what do you think of Kuro?” Lance asked, slowing the car to a stop at a red light and turning up the heat a little.

“What about him?”

“I dunno. Just in general,” Lance shrugged. “Shiro’s like, laid claim to him. I heard him talking to Adam the other day and Adam called Kuro “your brother.” So like, what do you think of him? After…you know. The last clone.”

Keith shrugged, that indifferent shrug he gave when the matter really wasn’t terribly important. At least that meant he didn’t feel threatened or worried.

“The last clone copied Shiro and tried to take over his life,” Keith said. “It was just a programmed puppet sent to lure us in and kill us all. Kuro’s a Grade A weirdo, but Lotor says according to those Kuron files he doesn’t have the device implants Honerva needs to control him. So I guess he’s all right.”

“You’re not upset Shiro wants him in his wedding even though they pretty much just met a few months ago?”

“No.”

“Not at all?” Lance pressed.

“Nope.”

“You like him.” Lance grinned and turned his eyes back to the road as the light turned green. He saw Keith give him an annoyed glance out of the corner of his eye. “I mean, you don’t love him, but you like him.”

“How do you figure?”

“You said he’s all right,” Lance answered. “He’s a lot like Shiro, so I know you like that. He can pilot and he can fight but he’s given everyone the middle finger and does what he wants, and you probably love that.  He’s a doctor and helps people and he won’t let anybody tell him he can’t. And he’s got a space dog.”

“Wolf,” Keith replied.

“Space wolf.”

It wasn’t lost on him that Keith didn’t argue. He really was a very tolerant person when life didn’t have him wound up tight, and Kuro wasn’t so bad. Weird as hell, just like Keith said, but not as nuts as Lance would have expected somebody who was alone in space for fifteen years to be.

“Are you guys going to plan a bachelor party?” Lance asked. “I was talking to Curtis Saturday night about maybe—“

WATCH OUT!

Lance pulled his eyes away from the road to look in Keith’s direction, and in the same second saw the moving truck blowing a red light headed right for them. There was no time to react, nothing he could do except try to scream a warning that wouldn’t leave his mouth.

His hands moved of their own volition, like something was moving them for him, yanking the wheel to the left. Trying to turn the car enough to avoid having Keith take the hit head-on, perhaps get some acceleration in the same direction to lessen the force of the impact. Tires squealed, there was a deafening crash, he felt himself thrown hard against his seat belt.

Everything was an explosion of sound and color, his vision blurry and his ears ringing. Lance’s heart leapt up into his throat, and for a moment he was back out in the New Mexico desert in a Garrison rover careening along the edge of a ravine. As the sound around him died away, leaving a deafening silence, he struggled to make sense of what was going on around him.

It took a few minutes to bring himself back into reality. By the time he did there were people around the car trying to help; his door opened and somebody removed his seatbelt and pulled him out of the vehicle.

Someone was asking if he was okay. A woman’s voice called out that an ambulance was on the way, and in the distance he could already hear police sirens. He couldn’t see Keith anywhere.

It was a struggle to answer what was being asked at first, Lance felt like he’d bitten his tongue off and couldn’t speak. But physically he felt okay…Altean strength and fortitude was a godsend here, and both he and Keith had already changed into their armor so they could waste a little more time and leave later.

As the ringing in his ears finally dulled down and his eyes came back into focus, he managed to get up on his knees and look around. His car was a wreck, his trunk flattened into his back seat and cubes of glass that had once been his windows littering the street. The truck didn’t seem too badly off except for some damage to the front, but the cab door was open and there was no driver to be seen.

“Keith? Keith!”

Lance got unsteadily to his feet, gently pushing away bystanders that were trying to help. He stumbled around the car to the passenger side, where there was more damage because of the angle at which they’d been hit. Keith’s door was open, but he wasn’t there.

Something didn’t feel right. Lance wasn’t steady enough to know what, he just knew he needed to find Keith and they needed to call Shiro or Curtis. It was impossible to see through the growing crowd so he took a shortcut, summoning his bayard. He didn’t want to get shot by approaching police officers for waving a gun at a crowd so he yanked off the scope, sweeping the area with it.

Just like it did for all of the Paladins, it quickly picked up the signal given off by Keith’s armor, pointing him in the right direction when the viewer was flooded with heat signature readouts the system was giving off. Disturbingly, not only was Keith not close by, he wasn’t alone either.

“Excuse me,” Lance started shoving through the crowd. “No, thank you, I don’t need to wait for paramedics…let me through please, I’m military!”

He tried not to bowl anyone over as he used brute strength to move through the sea of people, bursting out on the other side and breaking into a run. They were in a commercial area and it was early, most stores weren’t open yet and there weren’t many people around. Lance skidded past the mouth of the alley halfway down the block and scrambled back, throwing himself down the narrow street.

Keith was struggling against a guy almost a head taller than he was, his Marmora blade on the ground several yards away and his assailant armed with a knife that was already stained red. Lance immediately dropped down on one knee and brought up his bayard, taking aim.

“Drop the knife!” He shouted, his voice echoing through the alley. “I swear to God, I will paint the walls with you, dude.”

The man was masked, only his eyes showing through the covering he wore. He looked up and Keith got a chance to ram him in the gut with his elbow, sending him stumbling back.

Lance opened fire haphazardly, his only real goal being not to shoot Keith. His focus was off and he could feel blood starting to run down into one eye from a deep scratch at his hairline, leaving him only one good eye and probably a concussion from the crash. He grazed the attacker’s leg as he ran away, but the man was up and over a wall at the end of the alley before Lance could line up a decent shot.

Lance darted forward to catch Keith as he slumped forward, now noticing the two bodies that lay unmoving against the wall, out of sight until now behind a dumpster. Three on one were odds Keith could handle normally, but not right after a car accident like the one they’d just had.

“I’ve got you, buddy,” Lance murmured, carefully lowering him down to the ground. There was a gouge in Keith’s undersuit in his abdomen, so very close to the spot where Keith had accidentally stabbed Lance a few months ago that he knew the other Paladin had to be in a lot of pain. “Relax, I got this.”

He was trying not to panic, but he could tell Keith’s injury was a lot more damaging than his own had been. He was bleeding a lot even though it didn’t look like it, most of it soaking into his undersuit and only becoming apparent when Lance touched the fabric and found it drenched.

This was not good. There was nobody here and it was quiet, if Keith’s attacker came back with a friend this wasn’t a safe place. He needed to get Keith out of here, and quickly.

But there was so much blood, and he didn’t know if he should move him.

“Keith?” Lance pressed his hands tightly to Keith’s abdomen, trying unsuccessfully to keep his voice from shaking. “You holding up all right?”

No response. Keith’s eyes were closed and his breathing seemed kind of shallow.

Lance looked around wildly, but there wasn’t anything to help here. Their helmets were both back in the car so there was no way to access their comms, and they’d both shoved their phones in the center console. He could hear the paramedics finally showing up down the block, but he didn’t dare let go to try and get anyone.

“Hey!” He started yelling, hoping to catch the attention of some passer-by. “I need help! Somebody, anybody, we need a medic down here!”

He waited a moment to see if he got an answer, but it was no use. The noise from the accident scene was undoubtedly drowning out any sound he made.

“Okay. It’s okay,” Lance whispered to himself, taking a deep breath. “I can fix this, right? I can fix this. I mean, I managed to heal up old burns with all the time in the world to work with and only almost passed out once. How hard can a life-or-death situation with only maybe a minute or two left on the clock be?”

Not easy. James’ mother had been one thing, Lance had planned to attempt that for a week. He’d had Camille help him study burns and teach him specifically how to heal that kind of damage and old scar tissue. Mrs. Griffin had been something he’d prepared for, it was not a spur of the moment thing. He had been helped along by some of Alfor’s old medical knowledge kicking in, but that hadn’t been until halfway through what he was doing.

This…this was living tissue. These were essential veins and arteries, if he put them back together wrong—or accidentally sealed one end instead of mending the open edges together—he could essentially ensure that Keith’s heart had nowhere to pump his blood but out. Even if he just tried to seal up the skin and muscle, he might end up sealing up internal bleeding.

I can do this, Lance told himself, even as his brain screamed at him that no, he absolutely could not. He had fought too much with uncertainty, wasted precious days he could have been learning on mulling over whether these abilities were worth having at all. He had already been set back a month from his sleep in the cryopod, then instead of devoting himself to learning something he knew might eventually help his team he had dragged his feet.

And now, when Keith desperately needed the exact skills he had encouraged Lance to explore months ago, he didn’t think he could do it.

But he tried. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the wound beneath his fingers, tried to follow the small currents of quintessence that made up Keith’s shallow breaths and sluggish pulse. He could feel that there was damage, he could feel that things were shutting down, but his head was still foggy and he was still panicking and he didn’t even know where to start.

There was a loud sound that echoed through the alley, heavy clang of metal against concrete, and he felt a tremor run through the ground beneath them. Then, just like back in the car, he felt a tugging at his hands that wasn’t his own doing. They moved, the pressure of their hold lightening and his fingers splaying wider, a soft glow forming between them as if forming a protective net over the injury even as the blood started to seep through again.

Lance didn’t fight it. He knew it wasn’t him doing it, but this was very different from back on Colony One. It didn’t feel like he was being taken over or forced, it felt like there was someone with him guiding from the inside out. He felt like he could make it stop if he wanted to, take back control if he chose, but he didn’t.

The quintessence flowed through his hands in a way he was vaguely familiar with; he had seen it done by the younger Alteans under Camille’s tutelage but had never gotten that far himself. He could feel the skin and muscle under his fingers begin to knit back together, not the messy hack job he would have done himself but an elegant, seamless weaving of ragged edges back into a neat whole.

It didn’t feel like very long before he was sitting back, nothing but smooth, unmarked skin showing through the tear in Keith’s undersuit. He leaned over, smoothing Keith’s hair back out of the way to get a look at his face. There was some blood on the side of his head, running down from his hair and over his ear, a head blow during the accident that had undoubtedly been the culprit causing him to lose a fight he would have easily won otherwise.

Lance watched his own hands rest on Keith’s temples, the soothing blue glow running over his skin, and then a moment later his eyes tiredly opened to look up at him blearily.

“Lance?” His throat sounded dry, but they’d probably both been screaming during the crash. Keith winced, rubbing his eyes and then looking up at him again, blinking furiously. “What the hell’s going on?”

Lance was about to force the helpful entity away, but he found he didn’t have to. It quickly receded, leaving him once again in full control and able to pull Keith up into a sitting position.

“I think you got jumped,” Lance said helpfully. “Come on, we need to get you to the Garrison like five minutes ago. Can you walk?”

He pulled Keith to his feet, unsurprised to find he was a bit wobbly. He draped one of Keith’s arms around him and half-carried him back down the alley, out onto the street where even more chaos was unfolding.

Also not so shockingly—at least not after what had occurred a minute ago—traffic was being held up by the primly seated bulk of the Red Lion. Lance knew he hadn’t actively called her, but he had also seen back during their first run-in with the Blade of Marmora that she tended to decide she was needed instead of waiting for an invitation. And quite frankly, Lance was thankful for that right now.

She lowered her boarding ramp as soon as they approached. Lance helped Keith up into the hold, then came back down and went back into the alley for the two bodies. His first real surprise of the last five minutes was finding that they weren’t dead; Keith had slammed them around pretty good but hadn’t gotten in any fatal hits in his condition.

Lance made sure they were bound and locked them in a storage closet in Red’s hold, where they could damn well stay once they woke up until he was ready to tell anyone they were there. Once he was sure they were secure, he returned to where Keith was sitting on the bed. He was a mess, both of confusion and of back-alley grime, not to mention forming bruises from the crash that hadn’t been important enough to need immediate healing. Lance didn’t need to take off his armor to know that he was also one big bruise.

They were very fortunate they had been wearing their armor. No normal person would have walked away from that crash so easily, and neither would have they if they hadn’t had the extra protection of armor specifically made to mitigate impact injury. This was a morning of absolute miracles, for both of them.

Lance made his way over and sat down next to Keith, immediately pulling him into a firm hug. Keith made a groaning sound as he was squeezed too tightly, bending up one arm to awkwardly try and pat Lance in what was probably supposed to be a soothing manner. Lance shoved him back, holding him by both shoulders and looking at his confused face.

“You listen to me, jerkface,” Lance said threateningly. “We didn’t fight our way across an entire universe, cut through an evil dictator and his minions, escape from a crazy game show god, liberate Earth from Sendak, and live through Colony One just for you to die in a dirty alley in New Mexico. If you ever try this again, I’m going to kill you myself. Do you understand?”

Keith stared at him in that dazed way he had when he didn’t know what was going on.

“Uh…yes?”

Frustrated, Lance let go of his shoulders to grip the bottom edge of Keith’s breastplate. He used it to pull him into a kiss, uncertain and confused and flustered. He didn’t have much more of an idea what was going on that Keith did, he only knew there had been an explosion of action and danger that they had not been expecting on a quiet morning ride to work. Lance didn’t pull away until he absolutely had to, leaving them both panting for breath and slightly dazed.

“Stay there,” Lance ordered, getting to his feet and shoving Keith back down when the other Paladin started to rise to join him. “In fact, lay down.”

He shoved Keith back until his head was on the pillow, now earning himself a cross look.

“Okay, now you’re being ridiculous,” he complained. “I’m okay.”

“I’m not, lay down!”

Keith’s look was annoyed, but he let out a heavy breath through his nose and gave in, humoring Lance’s worry. He stretched out on his back, wincing at some of the aches that were starting to surface, and raising his hands in a little “now what?” gesture.

“Stay,” Lance commanded again. “I mean it.”

He went to the cockpit, dropping down in the pilot seat and bringing Red up to her feet, already calling into the others to tell them it was an emergency and they needed a meeting. He moved Red down the block, carefully maneuvering through a crowd of people that hurriedly parted when she began to move, digging her claws into both his car and the truck. They came with him as he finally took her into the air, setting a course for the Garrison.

He had a feeling this attack had something to do with their upcoming trips to keep the peace, and he didn’t think they were out of the woods yet after only one trap.

* * * * * * * * * *

10,000 years ago:

They called her Che’lohdi.

Generally they didn’t have names, not officially. Nothing in the quintessence field did, personal names weren’t in the culture. Temporary nicknames were a thing sometimes—Chipped Claw, Long Fur, Bent Ear—physical characteristics to be called out when it was necessary to separate one from the group.

But Reapers did not like to single out one from the rest unless it couldn’t be helped. All resources were “ours,” any accomplishments of each reflected on all. In the harsh environment of the crumbling borderlands, unity was their survival. They were highly social creatures, pack animals, extremely altruistic. Abstract, individual names were as rare as this one’s owner, and even then nobody actually used it to her face.

It meant “Storm Warden”, a reference to her bronze-accented black coat often being spotted running across the moors in the distance in spite of the crackling lightning that regularly danced across the dying sky. She was fearless, but she had every right to be.

Elemental mixes weren’t common. Even though the packs intermated freely, mixed element pairings didn’t tend to produce cubs. It had nothing to do with purity, certain things just didn’t mesh well. But there were always exceptions to rules, and eventually some minor change always happened somewhere to produce something new.

Che’lohdi wasn’t the first mixed Reaper to ever exist, but she was the only one to exist in his lifetime. He was neither very young nor very old, and he was sure she was only a little older than him. Everyone had a job to do, something to contribute, and hers was to regularly put her life on the line.

She was a sentry, roaming the edges of livable space to watch for—and often engage with—encroaching Formless. Fast like an Iron, sturdy and strong like a Bronze, she was one hell of a brawler when pushed and did not back down. Her elemental alignments of shadow and electricity, two where all but the Golds had only one, let her move safely and stealthily through the great swathes of open land where terrifying storms tended to pop up with little to no warning.

He knew all this without having to question her about it. All of the Golds knew this, it was their job to know things. He was just more intrigued with it all than most.

The plateau where the five Golds resided was their watchtower by necessity. It was the only remaining land high enough to see in all directions, from the caldera of the Irons to the thinning forests of the Silvers. They were easy to find here, since they couldn’t exactly help if others couldn’t get to them with their problems, and it gave them a decent view of everything they protected.

The sentries guarded the borders, and they were indispensable. But the Golds used their druidic magic to keep the very ground beneath their feet stable and livable. While the Whites of the Guardian prides liked to hide away alone and be useless hermits, the Golds preferred to do what they were put in existence to do, and try to keep the very threads of the borderlands from unravelling.

He hadn’t always been a Gold, of course. None of them had. He had been born a Steel, and had grown up in the pack living near the Irons. Just a few miles away from the caldera where Che’lohdi had been raised.

He’d known of her before she had the name, she was very hard not to notice. Bigger than the almost laughably small Iron cubs, more dazzling in the light. He had sometimes shirked his own chores to creep up close in the tall grass and watch her play fighting with the others in their occasional free time. Eventually she grew old enough, tough enough, and brave enough to take up the job of a border sentry, and he had begun training to try and become a Gold.

At which point he’d still occasionally snuck off from his duties to creep along in the tall grass, but now it was to watch her stroll along the edges of the swamps. He’d never been brave enough to actually speak to her alone out there, and more than once he’d had to run off when she’d realized she was being followed and almost managed to catch him.

He had been working up the courage to approach when everything had gone sideways. He’d been taking her gifts, leaving her things like shiny ornaments or sweet fruits where he knew she’d find them when she tried to catch her follower. They had met when they were younger, spoken a few times, but he was afraid that he might be so different now she wouldn’t remember. Or, worse, that perhaps he was too insignificant to remember either way. It had been taking a lot of build up to convince himself to just go talk to her…every time he thought he had the bravery to do it he freaked out and backed down, so it had never happened.

Now it was too late. She had volunteered to go through a rupture in the border, to try and close it up. Far from any white or black holes, from any place where the contact between realities was thin, they had all known it was possibly a suicide mission when the plan was made. But somebody had to do it, as long as the rift was open it was slowly bringing bigger and more dangerous dark creatures into their ever-shrinking territory. Somebody had to stop the people on the other side from keeping the hole open, for the good of everyone. The loss of one for the survival of all, that was their way.

Now the rift was finally closed, or at least blocked, from the reality side. It was still open here, a wound in the world, and he could feel something very nasty on the other side that would hopefully stay there. The Gold sat quietly at the edge of the misty swamp, his ears occasionally twitching when they picked up a sound. But for all intents and purposes the Formless were gone, no longer drawn by the strong life forces calling from the other side of a tear in the border. They were safe, at least for a little while. Until whatever the Guardians were doing that was slowly sapping the life out of their habitat picked up again and eventually drove them to extinction.

Her paw prints were still here in the deep mud, marking the path she’d taken every morning. There was a new sentry who walked this route, a Silver who took his job very seriously and never stayed to chat. Not that the Gold was really in the mood for a chat, he had his own unpleasant job to do.

Somewhere on the other side of the border here, trapped with the blocking of the rift, the half-Iron was undoubtedly still alive. She wouldn’t be for long, barring some kind of intervention that supplied her with a pure enough quintessence to survive, but as long as there was a possibility that she was still alive there would be a vigil. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t be saved, or that knowing one of their own was dying was distressing.

To bear witness was one of the most difficult duties faced by a Gold, or a White, or an Onyx. To watch, to document, to remember…they didn’t look away, they didn’t shy from unpleasantness. Acknowledgement was the bare minimum that all things deserved, and that meant the bad as well as the good. All things existed in equilibrium, this was one of the most important principles, and all parts of history needed to be remembered.

The once-Tin female made very little noise as she approached from behind, her now Gold coat sparkling in the sickly light of the tired moon. She sat down next to him, looking out at the rolling mists.

“Soon, I take it?” He asked, not looking down.

“We think so,” she answered. “But we’ve tied off and rearranged so many fraying threads it’s impossible to trace them with certainty anymore. Short Hair thinks it will be in an eon, Leader feels it could be any time now.”

There had once been a point where a Gold could look forward and predict upcoming events by following the threads that made up the fabric of existence. Many patterns of the future changed as the weavings of the present were laid out, but at any given time they would have been able to look forward and see what they were currently marching toward.

Not anymore. So much was crisscrossed and tied in knots these days that tracing anything forward bordered on impossible. But while they all disagreed on the when, there was a disturbing tangle they had all seen the day Che’lohdi had warned the packs about the trans-reality comet.

Something was going to happen to disturb the quintessence field and throw this span of the borderlands into chaos. Back in the beginning, when creation had been whole, the Golds would have gathered all the packs here and moved them along the expanse to a safer home until the danger passed.

But the deterioration of the borders had long since turned their lands into an island, and separated them from safety. They only vaguely knew that there were other Reapers out there at other points in the borders, the faint bond between Golds telling them that others still existed but nothing about the wellbeing or number of their kind scattered out along existence. They were cut off from doing anything but standing their ground here, the deeper and deadlier parts of the quintessence field already licked at their heels and there was no further retreat.

“So we have no idea what, we have no idea when, we have no idea where,” he surmised. “We only know it will be big, and it will be bad.”

“Story of our lives at this point,” she replied. “Personally? I think we’re coming to the Final Night.”

It was a thought that had occurred to him as well, and the signs certainly pointed to it. The crumbling of the quintessence field at the edges had long been ignored by the Guardians and Sentinels, but it was accelerating. Soon there would be no more edges to crumble, nothing separating the realities from the rest of the field. The yawning maw of the Depths would eat away at everything, unchecked and unstoppable, until all that was left was a silent nothing.

But even though he knew, deep down, that the end was near, he preferred to be optimistic.

“I’m not going to worry as long as she’s still asleep,” he decided. “If the god who was left in charge isn’t bothered enough to get out of bed then it’s probably not the Final Night.”

“Unless she doesn’t exist,” the other Gold suggested. “The Guardians are the ones who said she did, but they’re liars now. Who’s to say they weren’t liars in the beginning too?”

“It’s a dumb thing to lie about, I think.”

“It’s just kind of shady. She’s supposedly sleeping in a temple in the middle of the quintessence field, where only the Guardians can go. They can tell us anything they want to and we have no choice to believe it...but I don’t see how some great, benevolent goddess would ignore everything we’ve been going through if she allegedly cares about everyone.”

It was a common bitterness, one he’d felt himself for a while when he was young. All of the stories told of the lady of light and the lord of shadow, the two underlying elements that balanced all of creation. Some claimed they were real deities, some said they were metaphors.

He personally believed they were real. The lady of light slept in the temple at the center of creation, to wake only in the darkest of times and the hour of most dire need. She was an ace up the sleeve of those who defended against the things that came to destroy, to step in only if they were unable to do their jobs and stand their ground. She wasn’t a caretaker, or there to hold their paws.

“Free will,” he commented.

“What?”

“Free will,” he repeated. “We have free will, we decide whether to fight and how. She’s just there to clean up the mess if we make the wrong choices and fail. So let’s maybe not do that.”

“I have Formless slime in my fur that’s been congealed since the operation to close that rift,” she answered. “I have to wait for it to degrade, because the only solution that can get it out is made from flowers that went extinct when the sun went out. This is already a failure from my perspective.”

His ear twitched in a faint amusement, but he remained silent. She finally sat down next to him, tense and nervous, waiting for whatever it was that was supposed to come. He hoped it happened sooner than later, the longer they waited the tighter wound they would all become.

“I never really thought I would study my entire life to be useless,” she broke the silence again after a few long, quiet minutes. “What’s so great about mastering five elements? What do we even do? I left my pack to live on top of a flat hill with a handful of others who never know what’s going on either, just so I can have a better view of the world my mate and cubs live in dying.

“We don’t never know what’s going on,” he said soothingly. “The rest of them never know what’s going on. We rarely know what’s going on, we’re old and wise in comparison.”

“The Flat Tail was thinking so hard about a math problem yesterquintant I saw him bite a rock that was by his foot instead of his yellowfruit. I forgot the word for tree this morning and called it a “fat leaf stick.” And I saw you step in that hole over there last movement thinking it was a puddle and sink up to your nostrils in mud. We’re slightly shinier idiots than the rest, that’s all.”

“Uh, yeah, that’s why I said in comparison.”

“So what good is a shinier idiot?” She asked. “Not much. None of us could close that rift. All five of us together couldn’t do it, we had to send some poor soul to her doom to try and close it from the other side. We haven’t kept our world from dying, we’ve just drawn out its suffering. We can’t fix it, we can’t make it back the way it was. So what was the point of all those eons of learning? Does anything we know matter?”

He understood her frustration. It was very difficult to become a Gold, they’d all given up a lot to pursue it. Not everyone made it, Reapers who failed became Formless just like any Guardian or Sentinel who failed did. The temptations of power were astronomical, sometimes almost painful to ignore, and it took a great deal of devotion to the cause to make it. But in the end, there really didn’t seem to be a point. Reapers were creatures of destruction, they balanced the scale by bringing an eventual end to what was created.

They couldn’t heal the land. They couldn’t bring it back from its slow demise. Druidism was a magic of erasure, cleansing, clearing the way for renewal. Some even said that was the reason why a goddess of creation would abandon them to their fate while others seemed to thrive, because they weren’t creatures of “light.”

He didn’t know how to make her feel better. For all he knew they really would sink into oblivion soon, it was impossible to read. All he could really do was believe that the principle they held so dearly—that everything always balanced out in the end—was built into the fabric of existence and that things would eventually tip in the other direction.

He saw her tense, and initially thought it was just more of her discomfort with the current situation. But then he felt it himself, an indescribable sensation that ran through his whole body. The healing rift was being disturbed from the other side, and not by something native.

“Do you feel that?” He asked, already knowing she did.

“Something physical is crossing the boundary,” she answered. “Something very big.”

He closed his eyes and reached out, and next to him she did the same. They felt the other three Golds, still stationed back at the plateau, reaching out to join them. As a group they probed the trembling energies of the quintessence field edge, where the shallower superfluid of the field met the protective barrier of the astral plane.

“It’s on a low frequency,” the once-Tin pointed out.

“We’ll have to shift over,” he agreed.

Be careful, they sensed Leader’s warning, even as they felt her racing to their location along with Short Hair and Flat Tail. This is darker than anything we’ve dealt with before. My gut tells me it might even be from as far as the Depths, and you won’t have the luxury of claws and teeth on the low frequencies.

It wasn’t reassuring in the least, but it didn’t give him or the once-Tin pause. They both launched themselves forward into a sprint toward the remnants of the rift, casting out tendrils of magic to test the field for the easiest place to phase shift. She found it first and bound through, but he was hot on her heels.

It was perhaps one perk of being evolved for the borderlands instead of the deep quintessence field. Other species might have been able to travel at their leisure, but they were contained inside. The Reapers were able to adjust the vibrations of their energy to move through the different layers separating the field from realities, crossing the borders in certain weak spots.

They couldn’t cross over completely without a fully open rift—if they could have, they would have gone after Che’lohdi to bring her home—but they could go as far as the outer border. The shallows, the sea of liquid light just before the astral plane, was a dangerous place to be because nothing really belonged there. Incorporeality was the default, everything flitted around here in shapeless, glimmering clouds of energy.

Golds braved it on occasion, because they had their druidism to fall back on when they couldn’t scratch or bite. A White or an Onyx could also survive it for a time since they could also magically defend. In theory, any denizen of the quintessence field who had truly mastered their element could temporarily keep themselves safe here, if they didn’t stay long.

But only the Formless took up permanent residence. They slipped along through the currents, always looking for something to latch onto, to suck the life out of. Nothing else belonged here.

“…is that a robot?” He asked, brought up short as he took a moment for his senses to adjust to his less physical form. “That’s a quiznacking robot.”

“It very much looks like a robot,” she agreed. “It’s…it’s Guardians driving a robot.”

“It’s a quiznacking catbot. What the felk.”

“It took six thousand decaphoebs to train you out of swearing, and only two ticks and a robot to ruin it,” she commented. “Are those mortals in there?”

He was at a loss. They both were. They had expected something very sinister, and to be honest there was definitely something nearby that would have made his fur stand up if he’d currently had fur, but for the most part he was very hung up on the idiot cats taxiing mortals around the abyss in a giant robot. This was not the kind of thing any of his arduous studies had prepared him for.

“Oh!” She snapped out of her surprise first, darting forward and leaving him to follow. “I see it now! The robot must be made of the comet…these must be the Guardians that Che’lohdi saw leaving the quintessence field. I imagine they’re on their way back home, but…why bring mortals? They won’t survive.”

A door on the robot opened, and even stranger, one of the mortals stepped out into the open quintessence. He floated up, away from the safety of the ship, and was holding something close. After a moment he let go, letting a smaller shape float away from him a few feet. The Golds moved closer, and he found his attention immediately drawn to the smaller form.

From the energy signature it appeared to be a female. But there was something else there, something wrapped tightly around her. Something ominous, with the frightening ability to be here but not really be here. To take up space around them yet not be completely on the same frequency, and only be sensed by those who were looking. Something big, something cold, something hungry.

It was latched onto the female, and as the Gold switched his senses over he could almost see the black, misshapen form attached to her back. Formless sometimes did that, taking a host to suck the life out of them, but that wasn’t what this was. The thing attached to her wasn’t the whole, it was just a piece. Some sort of tendril or chain, linking her to the thing that was everywhere yet nowhere all at once.

Both he and the once-Tin stopped advancing, both put on guard and both clearly shaken.

“Still don’t believe in gods?” He asked tersely. “Because that’s the only explanation there is for that thing. It’s breaking every dynamic law that governs this place.”

“They need to get away from it,” she whispered undoubtedly talking about the mortals and the five Guardians. “Why aren’t they running?”

“I don’t think they know it’s there. None of them seem very experienced.” Without a White nearby to point them in the right direction they, probably didn’t sense the danger. The titanic creature wasn’t quite here enough for the untrained guardians to pick up, and there was no way the mortals were going to see it there.

But there were bigger problems. That thing was sending out a screeching call that was no doubt meant to summon something to it, and he had an idea of what that something might be. It was unheard of for the usually mindless Formless to serve anything but themselves, but they were the only thing that lived in this light-filled abyss.

He and the once-Tin stayed back. Until they knew what was going on, darting in without a plan would only put the foolish young Guardians in peril. Their obliviousness was likely the only thing that kept them safe, if they weren’t a threat they weren’t a target. Everything was happening so fast, he didn’t think the other Golds would arrive before the Formless.

He was right. Before long a cloud of black descended on the robot, the Formless swirling and attacking en masse, attempting to get at the living things within for a quick and easy meal. The thing that was latched to the female mortal continued to scream, a demanding shriek that went unheard by everyone but the tuned-in Golds, bringing more and more Formless with every passing moment. The robot fought them off but over the next few minutes the number swelled, and as more and more arrived the once-Tin noticed something else.

“Look!” She exclaimed, the urgency in her voice pulling his attention right away. “They have a cub!”

In the distance, entangled in the inky cloud of Formless, was a small, silvery light that flickered dangerously faint. It was indeed a cub, a Silver, likely wounded after being hunted by the creatures dragging it along. And it wasn’t alone; what appeared to be its mother chased the swiftly moving group, quickly falling behind in this terrain that she wasn’t native to.

The Formless flitted to the mortal female, they and the cub they brought disappearing into the dark cloud surrounding her. Abruptly, the screeching noise stopped.

“Stop the Silver,” he ordered the once-Tin. “They’ll turn on her next, protect her. I’m going after that cub…that thing specifically called for those Formless to bring a Reaper, and I am not going to let them start hunting us.”

He was off before she could respond, ducking and weaving through the venomous clouds of black. He was fast, faster than most of them, and even when they did notice him and come after him he dealt with them swiftly.

He hit the cloud of black around the two mortals at full speed, forcing himself through with reckless abandon. He could hear the whimpering cries of the cub but couldn’t tell what was going on; all he knew was that the little one was being taken to the evil-feeling thing, and that he had to distract.

The only real action he could take was glaringly obvious, the dark creature was attached to the mortal at her spine. He was mostly blind once surrounded by Formless but he could sense where she was, and he concentrated all of his power and focus on slamming into that spot and forcing an energy feedback through it.

The reality-quaking scream that followed was one of pain that quickly changed, becoming anger, annoyance, disdain. Everything he put out was suddenly turned around, running back through him in a wave of searing pain. He felt himself lock up, felt his mind shut down.

No time seemed to pass. To him it was no more than a blink or a heartbeat, the smallest step of time between one moment and the next. And yet, the next thing he knew he was opening his eyes to find himself lying in the mud of the swamp, only a few yards from where he’d been holding vigil.

The black of the wet ground was mixed red with blood as he got shakily to his feet, his attention going to the ache at his side and finding dried mud plastering his fur where it had been used as a makeshift bandage. From the feel of it he was scratched, and badly, all down his right side.

Murmuring voices stopped as his movement called attention. He looked up and found the other four Golds standing nearby. They were in various states of injury…Leader’s fur was singed, the once-Tin was limping, Flat Tail had a gash across his face. Short Hair was a short distance away, tending to the distressed Silver female.

“Oh good, you’re not dead,” once-Tin said in greeting. “That’s a surprise.”

He limped over to join the others, acutely aware of Leader’s disapproving gaze.

“That was stupid of you,” she said sternly when he reached them. “So foolish for one who’s supposedly gained wisdom through study. You could have been destroyed, throwing yourself into the fray alone like that. It takes all five of us just to keep what’s left of these lands together, if we’d lost you it could have devastating consequences for everyone. What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking,” he admitted dully, hanging his head. “I saw them dragging that cub away and I had to do something…there wasn’t really time to think. What happened?”

“You nearly got turned inside out,” Flat Tail said. “We arrived just as you were charging that school of Formless. That Depths creature they were following almost killed you, and then the rest were starting to swarm. We all managed to distract them long enough for Leader to get in close and pull you away.”

“So what happened with the cub?” He asked, trying not to flex his aching side. The beginnings of a failed feeding frenzy, he was very lucky to only be covered in claw marks. “How long was I out?”

“A few vargas,” the once-Tin answered. “The Guardians and the robot took back the two separated mortals and left the quintessence field. They took that monster with them, and the cub as well.”

“So what do we do about it?”

“Nothing,” Leader said.

“Nothing?”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Flat Tail admitted. “The mortals have re-sealed the rift from the other side. If we wanted to follow, we’d have to travel through the Abyss to a weakness point…a white or black hole somewhere. It’s not safe for anyone but a Gold to travel that far, and we can’t spare any of us.”

“And even if we could, we’d have to be able to hitch a ride on a physical body to get all the way back to this point on the other side,” Leader added. “And then, clearly something dark is working its magic and controlling people over there, we’d have to assess the situation and try to bring it down. It’s not something that was always impossible, but I’m afraid the days of being able to spare a warrior for that kind of stealth mission that far in enemy territory are long gone.”

He was at a loss. He couldn’t believe that those animals could just come across the barrier, raid one of their packs, take one of their children, and face no consequences.

“Go home to your pack for a bit,” Leader advised, her hard stance softening. “Recover. We’ll summon you when it’s time to reconvene on the plateau to discuss what we’ve seen. Something is happening across the border, and it could have terrible consequences for us all.”

Now that he was all right, Leader and Flat Tail went to join Short Hair. They began to urge the mourning Silver back away from the swamps, leaving to him to make his way back to his old home for a bit. He sat back down in the mud, looking down at where the ground was kicked up and stomped. The last traces of Che’lohdi’s paw prints were gone, not even left in monument. It was a sad statement about their lives, they really were able to keep nothing.

“Still believe in a benevolent goddess?” the once-Tin asked when they were alone. “Because if she’s real, we could sure use her help right now.”

“I know you’re joking, but you didn’t get close enough to really see that thing,” he answered, feeling a shudder run through his body. “I can still feel it down in my bones. Yeah, I do still believe the goddess is real…because I’m pretty sure I just got my tail handed to me by a god.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Current day:

Lance’s face was plastered all over the wall of screens, and not for a pleasant reason. The footage came from many sources: cell phone video, security cameras, vehicle dash cams. It presented the same footage but from a variety of angles, Lance being pulled out of the smoking, crushed car by helpful bystanders and beginning to panic when he couldn’t find Keith.

Nothing terrible in and of itself, Lotor assumed that would be fairly standard video for anyone who was in such a horrible accident. The problem was Lance’s appearance.

His hair was a lavender color, with only a few stray brown hairs here and there, and the Altean marks were a vivid red on his face. As he turned his head in different directions his eyes visibly reflected the light, blatant proof that yet another Paladin was very much an alien.

Not that it seemed to matter whether they were known aliens or not. What he was seeing unfolding today was a nightmare for which none of them or their allies had been prepared for.

The door to the communications room opened, admitting a tired-looking Duchesne. Lotor knew Kuro was also on the base right now, but he didn’t have clearance for any of this and so had not been locked in with them. As if Duchesne wasn’t going to relay every little detail to him later anyway.

“The truck was rented with a fake ID,” Duchesne announced to the people gathered in the room. “It was carrying crates of cinderblocks, almost to the point of capacity. They wanted it moving fast and they didn’t want it to stop easily.”

“So somebody crashed into us on purpose?” Lance asked, lifting his head from where it had been resting on his arms. “We’re lucky it didn’t kill us!”

Along with Lance and Keith, others had been brought in. Pidge, Romelle, Coran, Adam, and Veronica had been left in here in the communications room, where Lotor had already been setting up with Hunk, Allura, Krolia, and Kolivan to prepare to send a message out to the Galra. Everyone was clearly worried, but not terribly shocked by Lance’s conclusion. It was one they’d all eventually come to anyway.

“That was the point,” Shiro answered, worry clear on his face. He had arrived with Duchesne, though Adam had been locked in here with the rest of them while investigations were made. “When the crash didn’t do the job, they grabbed Keith in the confusion and tried to finish it themselves. They probably didn’t bother with Lance right away because nobody knew he was Altean until every news channel started running grainy phone footage.”

Adam, who had been seated in the farthest corner of the room away from everyone, slowly made his way over to Shiro’s side. He was trying not to be obvious about it, but he gave Kolivan and Krolia a wide berth. Lotor had seen him go stiff when they were all ushered in here and he’d first seen them, but he had said nothing and just avoided them.

Which was not a terrible surprise. Lotor was aware much of Adam’s snappishness toward him came from the fact that he had some Galra features. He tolerated Lotor only because he’d had no choice but to become familiar with him a few months ago. Two grown, clearly dangerous Galra were not people he wanted to be stuck in a room with after what he’d suffered in the last year, even if they were in reality quite kind and very much on the Coalition’s side.

“The truck was rented yesterday, but somebody’s obviously been watching long enough to get a pattern down,” Duchesne said. “We did a security sweep of everything even remotely related to the Paladins while you were all in here and it’s not looking good. Hunk’s car had its brakes cut, and whoever did it probably knew Pidge has been riding in with him. We also found explosives under the driver seats in Adam’s car and Veronica’s.”

“You found what!?” Veronica and Lance exclaimed at the same time.

“How did anyone get explosives into my car?” Adam demanded. “It was in your driveway behind the security gate all night, then it was here. The only time it wasn’t completely secure was outside of Takashi’s apartment this morning, and I was with it the whole time.”

“And my brakes worked just fine this morning,” Hunk said nervously.

Duchesne glanced over at Shiro then let out a heavy sigh, turning back to the others.

“The only way your cars could have been messed with was if it happened here,” he admitted. “On base, past the secure entry.”

“It had to be a soldier,” Pidge said in disbelief.

“Or soldiers,” Duchesne answered. “The Garrison did a huge recruiting drive worldwide after the occupation ended, with so many records incomplete or lost it’s entirely possible we’ve been training a couple soldiers who harbor enough of a grudge against the Galra that they could be radicalized against all alien allies as well.”

He crossed farther into the room, sitting down at the communications officer’s console and clearing away some of the news feeds. Instead he brought up two photographs of human men with blond hair. One had green eyes and the other blue, but other than that their similarities said they were likely related.

“Whoever fixed the cars isn’t high enough up in the food chain to know that Lance is reinstated,” Duchesne said. “They knew everyone else parked in the secure lot, and that Lance always came later to visit. We think their intent was to cause the accident, then tip off the others so that they all tried to leave to get to the scene. The explosives in the cars would take out Adam and Shiro, then Allura and Romelle with Veronica as collateral damage. Whether that stopped Hunk now or he was already driving when it happened, he and Pidge would still either be hurt or killed at some point…but they’re just Paladins and not known to be anything other than human right now.

“Keith rides a motorcycle most of the time so they had to leave him out to get later…I have a feeling they have a plan in place to target him along with Krolia and Kolivan since all three are Galra. That they found him in the car too injured to properly defend himself was a gift for them.

“We were meant to be the big target since we house the Lions, with others to follow,” he added. “We sent out a warning to our other bases around the globe and have heard back that five so far have found similar devices on the vehicles of non-human service members.”

“They meant to cause chaos on the eve of a worldwide peace exhibition,” Lotor surmised. “And bring attention to their cause, I take it.”

“You take it right,” Duchesne agreed. “We didn’t find anything on these guys, but what probably would have happened is after the death toll rose they’d release some kind of video claiming to be saviors of humanity and calling for the complete separation of humans from all other species. Human fear is big business.”

“Do you know who they are?” Keith asked, looking up at the photos. “Or who the third one might be to put out an alert?”

“I ran these by my superiors, but I was told they would handle it and to just sit tight,” Duchesne answered. “They don’t want me looking into this, which means it’s very sensitive to something they have going on.”

“Which means you had to go around them and get the information yourself,” Adam finished for him.

“Yes and no.” Duchesne looked uncomfortable. “I don’t think it’s really something we need to go into right now.”

“I had a bomb in my car,” Adam snapped. “I think now is the perfect time to go into everything you have.”

Duchesne looked to Shiro, who also looked uncomfortable. Apparently the information had already been shared with him, and he also wasn’t pleased with it.

Shiro pulled Adam aside. Lotor couldn’t hear what was said, by design, but whether it was outrageous news being delivered or not was impossible to tell. Adam’s face remained neutral, and his response was too quiet to hear. But Shiro nodded to Curtis, who turned back to the console.

“Okay, fine. These two guys are hired muscle. John and Steven Benedict, they’re a couple of brothers who have rap sheets a mile long and probably only survived the occupation camps because prison was their hobby before the invasion. They break bones and make people disappear for cash, and they don’t care who they work for.

“Lately, we know they’ve been on the payroll for a South American branch of Babel that’s operating right out in the open under the guise of a newly established Church. The occupation did wonders for their membership...they have enough people that they were able to make their first permanent imprint on society as a legal religious sect, and as long as they don’t outright say “kill all aliens” they’re technically functioning within the law.

“Erik Thomsen is the face of it. He’s a Danish mechanic-turned-preacher who saw big bucks in the televangelist model and started a megachurch as soon as the Galra were out the door. It moved him up in the Babel ranks pretty fast and he’s been trying to get footholds everywhere else for months. They’re using his church as a front for their activities, and they’re making a lot of money off it.”

Duchesne removed the two photos of the men and cleared all video feeds of Lance. In their place, five pictures came up. Three were men and two were women, and one woman in particular drew Lotor’s immediate attention. He looked over at Adam, but his expression was still neutral. Shiro was pretending to pick at something stuck under his fingernail. A quick sweep of the room said nobody else picked up on anything.

Yet. Hunk, Lance and Pidge were too distracted, but Keith was squinting at the pictures suspiciously.

“This is the guy in charge of the territory spanning the northern half of South America,” Duchesne pointed to the image at the top. “Axel Russo. As soon as he had enough power he muscled his way into the arms and drug trades, which right there tells you all you need to know about how valid Babel’s so-called religious concerns are. These four are Babel players who have been in the game since well before the invasion. Two of them are dead.”

The picture of the man named Axel Russo, as well as the pictures of one man and one woman, disappeared from the screen leaving only two. Duchesne stood up, leaning against the console so he could look at the others instead of sitting in the chair.

“Simon Acosta Montez and Jacinta Chaira Lobo. They were Brazilian special forces in the same unit, along with the other two deceased members. Simon was a munitions specialist and Jacinta was a programmer. Their unit specialized in undercover stings, catching black market intelligence and weapons dealers by posing as fake buyers and sellers. Along with the other two, they founded a tech startup in their down time and developed an algorithm that automated stock buying and selling with so much accuracy they became millionaires almost overnight. They became big players in the financial sector by the time they were sued for using software that was unfair and lost, but since it wasn’t illegal at the time they kept the money they made.

“Simon and Jacinta had founded an investment firm by then. They didn’t re-enlist when their time came up and instead they went into finance. From records, by the time the invasion happened they owned worldwide assets worth upwards of twenty-three billion dollars apiece. Post-occupation, their remaining worth is about eight billion dollars each since they lost anything that wasn't in their own country's borders and reclaimable over the last eight months.”

Lotor didn’t know a ton about Earth monetary systems, but he knew that was a lot. It was suddenly very much clearer why neither Shiro nor Adam seemed worried about the cost of their upcoming fiasco of a wedding, which would have strained most budgets even with all the Coalition offers of aid and gifts. He had seen in Adam's memory in the quantum abyss that he had been allotted a sum of money from his estranged mother, now it was fairly clear that the amount must have been very high indeed.

Other heads, however, swiveled to stare in their direction. It appeared that in addition to Keith, the other Paladins had now figured out where they’d seen that picture of the woman before now that they’d heard her name. Adam and Shiro ignored them all, and none of them seemed to be willing to be the first to say something.

“The initial investment company split two years after the court decision against their algorithm. Jacinta remained CEO of her company, got married, had a son. She kept her position for a few years, until she was institutionalized against her will…she claimed to have been attacked by an alien, it was ruled to be a stress-induced mental breakdown. The Board tried to oust her while she was away, but Simon bought controlling shares of the company and held the wolves at bay until she was released.

“After that, she went nuclear. She changed her name and started going by Janet Lobo, so it wasn’t as easy to link her to her past and paint her as crazy. Bought controlling ownership from Simon, torpedoed the Board, and kept a tight grip on who got to have a say in how her business was run. She also made a move into politics, people think that was spurred by her treatment while she was locked up. People who got in her way started getting back out of it real fast. Simon mostly stayed out of her way, until they got back together in a new joint business venture to create the financial software that almost every bank and investment firm uses today. It’s also the software half the state departments in the world have their systems based on.”

“And I guess it’s not completely wrong to assume that they would program back doors into that software,” Adam supposed.

Duchesne pointed at Adam as if he had just won a small prize, leaning over the console. The images changed, back to the original five.

“There’s no reason to assume Acosta Montez and Chaira Lobo weren’t on the up and up through their whole careers,” he admitted. “They were very open about their financial algorithm, cooperated with all investigations, and retired it immediately when they were ruled against. None of their industry takeovers were any different from any other legal buyouts done throughout history. They were decorated military veterans, she got into politics legally. But.”

“But they’re apparently part of Babel,” Krolia finished for him.

Duchesne made a face, as if not quite certain, and made a hand gesture to indicate that deduction was 50/50 on being true.

“Part of Babel, no,” he said. “Working with them, or hired by them? Absolutely. According to the files I pulled, their off-the-books work is in black market weapons and false identification papers. The kind of things you can filter through state department computers to get false, seemingly authentic authorization for. Best guess is that they were radicalized shortly after Jacinta was released from the institution.”

“Understandable,” Adam’s face was still unreadable when he spoke. “If you’re attacked by an alien and end up locked away when you scream for help, I’m guessing you’re a lot more likely to shake hands with people who actually believe you and claim they don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”

There was a lot of discomfort in the room now, and Lotor didn’t need to ask why. He had seen Adam interact with Jacinta Chaira Lobo in the Abyss, but they had clearly not been on good terms. This explained much of that…it was probably very difficult to be kind to someone who she knew wasn’t fully human after going through what she did. But he didn’t think anyone else here, aside from perhaps Shiro and Duchesne, were aware of the details. All they really knew was that they had seen this woman in the Project Starlight file and had come to the conclusion she was Adam’s mother, now they were finding out she was also a supporter for the very group that was