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Palen-Bol

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Haggar frowned at her scrying crystal thoughtfully. So. The clone facility was destroyed. A regrettable loss. She had not been watching the paladins closely enough – the mice had limitations, and in the central command she’d been using Kova’s eyes to monitor Lotor.

Still, it didn’t take too long to work out how they’d found the facility. Taloned fingers tapped rhythmically against the crystal. Easily fixed – once she decided which ships to conceal.

Lotor would be in constant danger for so long as he attempted to rule the Empire. The boy just had no mind for it. Or, rather, lacked the necessary edge. Galra did not respond to mercy and kindness. They responded to strength, firmness of purpose. Lotor lacked the necessary level of commanding presence.

Haggar hooded the crystal in soft velvet to keep it from being scratched or used in her absence. The three generals watched her silently, waiting for orders. Proper respect for her power. “What is the status of Sendak?”

One of their better successes; getting Sendak out of the ruins of the Kral Zera alive – if only barely so. Many promising commanders and warlords had been lost that day.

“He is nearly ready, high priestess,” said Acxa solemnly. “The medical pod should release him soon.”

“Good,” said Haggar. Sendak craved power, and wielded it ruthlessly; Zarkon had favored him for exactly that reason. “See he is prepared to meet with me when he emerges.”

Acxa saluted, which prompted Zethrid and Ezor to do the same, and the three generals departed.

Lotor wanted to rule? Then he would be tested. Tested against Zarkon’s most favored. In combat, as the galra had always preferred. The strong ruled, and the weak perished. Such was the galra way. Such was the heritage Lotor was attempting to claim.

~*~

Shiro retreated to his quarters after the morning discussions. He had a lot to assimilate and adjust to, and wanted to be sure he wasn’t making things worse.

Not, honestly, that there was a whole lot of room left in the ‘worse’ category.

The logistics of the lions was not a small part of this. It would honestly be a lot easier if the lions weren’t sentient. If they were vehicles like any other, and you could just hand over the keys if you didn’t have time to pilot.

The easiest solution would be to ask Allura to step down while working with Lotor. Lion shuffle and put Keith back in a lion. But that wouldn’t necessarily be the best solution. For one thing it would leave Allura alone with Lotor, and that was a level of trust that Lotor had frankly done nothing as yet to earn. For another, it helped Keith – but probably at Lance’s expense. There was no guarantee Blue would take Lance back; he had, in honesty, outgrown the role.

And...he wasn’t sure Keith was in any kind of mental shape to fly a lion right now. Any lion. He might need ‘something to do’, but flying combat missions would do nothing for him right now. Shiro knew that for personal fact. Keith ...needed to be here. With the paladins. He was losing himself, had possibly been losing himself for quite a long time now, and while Shiro wasn’t sure what would help as such he did know what wouldn’t. Keith needed to not be alone. He needed time around people that cared about him to ...heal what had broken. Combat wasn’t the place to heal anything.

~*~

“I married a fantastically smart woman,” said Sam, looking over the letters and the book.

“We were worried about you,” said Matt. “What did they have you doing, in that prison?”

“Energy efficient weapons, for the most part,” Sam sighed. “The most bang for your quintessence. We were well treated, as prisoners go, as long as we complied and could show progress in our researches.”

“And the prison was Lotor’s?” asked Matt.

“Definitely,” Sam nodded. “I heard other prisoners discussing that. Lotor’s got a reputation for treating those he takes fairly, as long as they’re useful.”

Pidge looked up from her keyboard at this. “You’re scared of Lotor, though.”

“Of course I am,” said Sam seriously. “And...I feel terrible about what I’ve had to do to survive. Just because Lotor rewards service doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous to provide him with stronger weapons. People always use the best weapons they have. And if the enemy has better ones, people always dive into research to make even better weapons than that. Don’t be fooled by his civilized manner, Katie. Lotor is every bit as dangerous as Zarkon. Maybe moreso. Because he treats his people fairly.”

Pidge blinked. “That...makes no sense,” she said. “We want a ruler that acts fairly.”

“You want a ruler that will bring peace,” corrected Sam, rubbing at the bridge of his nose where his glasses rested. “Do you remember the tactics of Ghengiz Khan?”

“We’re going to get another humanities lecture, huh,” said Matt dryly. “We should have asked Lance to grab history books while he was on Earth.”

Sam sighed. “Fine,” he said tiredly. “Let’s try ‘what do you remember’.”

Pidge shrugged. “Used bows, cavalry, conquered a lot of Asia?” she said. “Generally not remembered as a nice guy?”

“Fair enough,” said Sam. “If a village stood against him, he’d kill pretty much everyone. But if they served, they survived. The villages under his rule fairly often did better than they had before. He ruled harshly but fairly. Of course it all fell apart when he died, but the important thing is that that fairness was a huge factor in his success. It meant he wasn’t constantly trying to keep the places he’d taken. He could focus on expansion. Lotor may well be using the same tactic here, with you. He doesn’t want to be constantly fighting Voltron. His reputation says he probably doesn’t want to be ‘constantly fighting’ anyone. He wants people to stop fighting him – and the bar is very low, thanks to his father. A lot of places may stay part of his empire just to have adequate food, or defense against pirates. But they won’t be free.”

His children thought about this. “So...we should stay away from Lotor, then,” said Pidge slowly.

“It’s a lot more complex than that,” said Matt, thinking of the many devastated worlds he’d been to. “He...could really do it. End the rebellion. There’s so many people who hate the galra. But there’s just as many who are tired of the fighting. If they just knew their families were safe, their people were safe...they’d put down their guns and go home. There wouldn’t be enough of a resistance to help the worlds that want to stay independent. Like Earth, probably.”

Pidge oh’d. “Yeah...I don’t see Earth joining Lotor. Earth would want to be left alone.”

Sam nodded, seeming tired. Or sad. Or maybe resigned. “...I couldn’t be more proud of you two,” he said. “And I know Colleen will want you to come home. But you can’t, can you.”

Matt and Pidge both quickly shared the sad shift. “You know I can’t,” said Pidge. “If I leave there’s no Voltron. And we just got Shiro back.”

“The rebels need all the help they can get,” said Matt in the same tone. “I’m sorry, Dad. I’ve got to stay.”

Sam sighed. “I knew you’d say that. But Earth must be warned. And, more than that, prepared. I know the weapons that are coming. As things stand now, Earth doesn’t stand a chance. You both have vital work here, but I don’t. I’ll go back, and make the Garrison listen.”

~*~

Takashi sighed when he saw the silhouette of the central command ship on the scanner. “I thought we had work to do?” he asked, a bit archly. “Or would you rather take my ship and fly with your son?”

Krolia – very much to Takashi’s utter shock – casually reached over and thwapped the man lightly (for a galra swat) upside the back of the head. “You’re an intelligent man,” she said. “Try not to be stupid.”

He didn’t win any points when his response was to try and reach for his pistol – and got another swat for his trouble. Krolia’s expression said she was neither angry nor surprised. It was the patient look of a mother waiting for a child to wind down out of a temper tantrum. It did nothing to improve his mood, but he stopped trying to fight. “Are you going to explain yourself?”

“I told you,” she said. “This is where the answers are. Or at least, the first step. Don’t worry. You won’t be staying.”

She handled piloting the ship into dock, using – somewhat to his surprise – entirely valid Imperial codes, while he thought about it. “All right,” he said, giving up. “Why won’t I be staying?”

“Lotor has offered the Green Paladins’ father to the humans as a gesture of good will,” said Krolia. “It’s necessary that your planet be prepared to fight. The elder is not a warrior. You are. You have, as you have admitted, limited time. Go with him. Protect him. Protect your world.”

“Technically I’ve never actually seen it,” drawled Takashi.

“I can swat you again,” Krolia said just as calmly. “I recognize your frustration but you should think clearly. Clone or not you are human. And you have seen what awaits your race if they are not made ready.” She set the ship down and powered it off. “The elder will be your companion, but I can accompany you as well if you wish.”

That made Takashi frown. “Your son is here,” he said.

“My mate is on Earth,” said Krolia.

“I’m….not sure about that.” Takashi tried to remember, but the specifics eluded him. “I think you’re going to want to talk to Keith about that.” But he got up. “But you’re right about the rest. Earth should be warned. And it’s probably the best use of the time I have left. Besides. I think I need to have a word with...with Shiro.”

Word of their arrival had apparently been sent to the paladins. That was probably due to the ship being Takashi’s. First Allura, then Lance, Hunk, Pidge and her family, and then Shiro, who stared at Takashi as if he’d just walked into a very disturbing funhouse (a sentiment Takashi wholeheartedly agreed with). Keith was last, and Takashi’s attention was diverted from his reflection. Keith looked a lot worse than he’d last seen him. There was no fire at all there. In its place was a kind of edge-of-madness fragility. Keith had found his limits the hard way, it seemed.

Krolia saw it too, and her calm features shifted just slightly, into ‘someone is going to die for this’. Shiro registered it clearly and stepped forward. Everyone else but Keith was looking at Krolia and then at Keith as if the resemblance alone had asked and answered a dozen questions. Keith was thus the only one not reacting to the pair, not in any real way.

At least, until Lance broke tension and silence with a surprised, “Hey, she looks just like you, Keith. Crazy, huh?”

And while the rest of the paladins – excepting Shiro – turned quickly to hush Lance before he asked any more questions, Keith turned on his heel and walked off, every line of him declaring that was it, this was the frayed end of the rope, the next weird thing, big or small, was going to get shredded or screamed at or both.

Leaving Shiro to facepalm, then take a deep breath and approach the pair. “Somehow I’m absolutely positive this is not just a social call. The Emperor’s given us all quarters, that’s probably the best place to talk for now. This way.”

~*~

The gathering was, ultimately, held back on the castleship – once they looked for a comfortable place to talk in the command center and realized the closest they were going to get was a briefing room. Allura absently petted her mice, who huddled near her and watched everything, as everyone found drinks and places to sit. Keith wasn’t around, which worried Shiro, but he couldn’t exactly leave to go looking for him either, and didn’t want to guess what sending sentries after him would do. So, for now, he sat on the worry.

Shiro opened with, “I realize there are more important things, but – we’re both in the same room now and I would really like my name back. Believe me, ‘Takashi’ is confusing.”

“And likely to get more so,” agreed the clone – mildly, but there was a decided hint of aggravation there. He was, after all, Shiro’s equal. “I intend to return to Earth.”

Sam blinked. “I...think that would be a very good idea actually. I was prepared to go alone, but I’m not terribly persuasive most of the time.”

Matt looked at the two Shiros. “...So. Secret twin brother?” he said. “That’s the official story anyway. But the official story has your name,” and he nodded to the clone, “as Takashi. Which won’t work on Earth.”

Shiro – the original – sighed. “Actually, it really could. Half the people at the Garrison mispronounce my name anyway. Tell them it’s like naming twins Devin and David and they’d let it go. Takashi, Takeshi, at least once someone tried Tallahassee...there’s a reason I preferred to use ‘Shiro’.”

“Ryou,” said the clone. “The distant twin. Since I’m going to be working at it to remember people, with the distance the Olkari put between my mind and your memories.”

Matt wasn’t convinced. “There are a few people that know you don’t actually have a twin brother though. Adam pretty much tops that list, but he’s not the only one.”

Shiro visibly winced. “I’ll...write a letter, I guess. We didn’t part on the best of terms, but we’ll need him to give ...Ryou here… the benefit of the doubt.”

“I’m afraid you’re going to need to convince him to back up Ryou’s story,” said Sam. “If the Garrison realizes he’s a clone made by aliens...” he shook his head. “Any hope of him actually getting to do pretty much anything stops.”

~*~

Keith ...wandered. He’d been in central command before, of course, to rescue Thace. But that wasn’t something he wanted to think about right now. Thace was dead.

He let his feet go where they wished, figuring it didn’t really matter, and found some corridors guarded by silent druids. Their odd, plague-doctor masks would turn to watch him as he walked by, and his skin prickled when they were near. Not wanting to disappoint Shiro further by starting a fight, he steered clear and found he could sense the druids if he let himself.

When the thought occurred that maybe they could also sense him, he gave them a rather wider berth, and kept mental track of where he’d sensed or seen them just to avoid them in future.

The central hub was what the galra had in place of their lost homeworld. It was the capital and the heart of the galra universe. And it was starkly, almost depressingly barren outside the areas Lotor had had decorated for Allura’s benefit. The galra had no culture; they had war. It felt in a lot of ways like the Blade of Marmora sanctuary. There had to have been inventors once, creators, artists. If any were left, they weren’t here. Fighting for the Empire, or fighting against it – that seemed to be all the galra did.

Perhaps it was because he’d been trying to sense druids; Keith sensed a powerful presence that...wasn’t as dark as a druid, but just as powerful, and turned to find Lotor watching him.

“Are you lost, paladin?” asked the emperor with a cultured grace.

“Just walking,” said Keith guardedly. “Getting a feel for the place.”

“How unusual,” said Lotor mildly. “Your companions seem reluctant to leave their ship.”

Trust, don’t trust – for Keith it was pretty simple. He had no reason to trust Lotor, and no need to take the risk, so he simply didn’t. “I wanted a change of scenery.”

Lotor’s lip curled just slightly for a moment. Not a smile. Maybe a hint of smirk. “And you chose the ‘scenery’ of central command over an Altean castleship. You are unusual.”

Keith wondered for a moment if anyone had told Lotor about his half-galra heritage. If not, he certainly wasn’t going to volunteer it. Lotor might try demanding fealty or something and Keith was in no mood for that fight. “So people love to tell me,” he replied.

Lotor nodded slightly, as if he’d expected such an answer. “If I may ask, which of the Lions is yours? I do not recall seeing you after the fight at Naxzela.”

“I don’t have a lion,” said Keith. “Not at the moment. Not for a while. You don’t have to call me ‘paladin’ if you don’t want to.”

“How quick you are to surrender power,” said Lotor thoughtfully. “I will leave you the title, and I suggest you keep it. I have no authority over the druids, and it is wiser that you let them believe the others will come to your rescue, should they see you wandering the corridors alone.”

Keith frowned. “Don’t they answer to you?”

“They answer to Haggar,” said Lotor, and the mild tone did nothing to hide the venom with which he spoke her name. “She has not seen fit to endorse my ascendancy. Nor will she, I suspect.”

“Why?” asked Keith bluntly. It couldn’t hurt to ask.

Lotor raised an eyebrow. “I think I shall leave that to you to puzzle out,” he decided. “Enjoy your...walk, paladin. Tell the princess I would like to speak with her.”

~*~

“So, you’re...” Lance began, waving a hand at Krolia. “You’ve gotta be related. We know Keith’s part galra. And you look a lot like him.”

Matt just watched and listened. He had some sort of crisp vegetable-ish thing that made a pretty good snack, courtesy of Hunk, and this was better than television. Or classes. This was educational entertainment at its finest, including whole chapters on ‘shit not to say’.

Krolia blinked at Lance. There was a moment or two where she seemed to be mentally placing him, and then she said, quite calmly, “I’m his mother.”

Matt hid a smile behind munching his snack sticks. Sure enough, Lance walked into it for him. “No way. There’s no way you’re old enough to be his mother.”

Pidge adjusted her glasses. “Why are you turning up now?” she asked.

“Why aren’t you saying this to Keith?” was Shiro’s question.

Krolia let everyone get the questions out and then answered them all together. “I am a Blade,” she said to Lance. “I have been fighting the Empire for many, many years. Galra live quite a bit longer than humans.” To Pidge, she said, “My last undercover assignment was concluded when my commanding officer managed to get blown up at the Kral Zera. To answer your likely next question, one of my duties in that assignment was to keep that warlord from examining your homeworld too closely. We knew the Blue Lion hid there.” To Shiro, she said, “I will be. But first I want to know what has happened to him. He does not look able to handle the news right now.” And there was an undercurrent of protective anger to her tone there, suggesting that if anyone in the room were responsible, she would be revising some opinions.

Shiro nodded solemnly. “He saved my life,” he said. “And there was a high price for it. I’ll fill you in privately. I don’t think anyone here wants to relive it.” He turned to Sam, and the newly-minted Ryou. “When do you two want to go?”

“Honestly,” sighed Sam, “I don’t want to leave my children. But Earth has to be made ready.”

“Agreed,” said Ryou. “So...as soon as you can find a way to convince Adam not to reveal me to the Garrison.”

Krolia looked between Shiro and Ryou, nodding slightly as she decided something. “You are a scientist?” she asked Sam.

“Yes,” Sam agreed.

“I know the formula for a serum that will mask Ryou’s nature from the level of technology Earth possesses,” she said. “I used it on Keith as an infant.” She turned her attention to Shiro. “Write your letters. I will give Sam the formula. And then we will talk.” She spoke the last sentence in a tone that said it was not in any way a refusable request.

“Huh,” mused Pidge, as if Krolia had just answered a whole host of questions she hadn’t yet asked.

“Agreed,” said Shiro.

It seemed the cue for the group to break up – at least, Sam and Ryou were moving to follow Krolia, and Shiro started back for his quarters.

This was what Keith found on arrival; a meeting missed, and people leaving. If it bothered him, he gave no overt sign of it. Instead he just said to Allura, “Lotor asked me to tell you he’d like to talk to you.”

Allura held out her hands, and the mice ran down to her palms. She set them on the cushion beside her before standing up. “Thank you, Keith. I had best see what he wants to discuss.” She turned to Matt, Pidge, Lance and Hunk.

Hunk stood up. “I’m gonna check over Ta – Ryou’s ship,” he said. “And hope he doesn’t change his name again while I do. If he’s going back to Earth there’s all kinds of things they should know.”

“I’ll go help Dad with this serum,” said Pidge. “I think I want to see what it does, since scanning for clones is part of our security check now.”

Lance looked like he wanted to go with Allura, but wasn’t asking because he knew what she would say. Matt turned to him and said, “I hear you’ve got Killbot Phantasm. Out here. You wouldn’t mind a match or two, would you? Before I have to go?”

Lance’s jaw dropped for a moment. Almost, he said no. Then he shook his head and said, “Sure man. I’d be happy to show you the rig Pidge came up with. Right this way.”

Keith stood aside as they all filed out, but Hunk snagged his arm in passing. “Come give me a hand,” he said. “You don’t need to be an expert. Just pass me tools.”

~*~

Shiro closed the door to his quarters in abject relief. He’d known it would be weird to be in the same room as the clone, but the actual experience was beyond description. Part of him wanted to bathe in sanitizing gel. For an hour.

No wonder everyone had thought he was the real thing. And that was another level to the creepy, realizing that Hagar had simply replaced him. No wonder Keith was so fragile, that her copies were that good. Everyone else just needed to know what to call him, and Shiro had to bite his tongue on evil clone. How about ‘evil clone’. Is ‘evil clone’ good? Because the new-minted Ryou might not be dangerous now but it had been a close thing.

He did not particularly want to warn Adam about said clone. He was fairly sure Adam would work it out and call an alert, if only because ‘Ryou’ had had a lot of his implanted memories walled off, but…

But.

That wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t help Sam, it wouldn’t help Earth. And Ryou had what Earth needed – a knowledge of galra battle tactics. An understanding of what it would take to defeat them, to defend Earth. Sam had the knowledge to build weapons and defenses but it would still take a military mind to use them. The Garrison leadership had literally no idea what they would be up against. Ryou would.

Which meant, like it or not (and mostly, Shiro was on ‘very much not’) Shiro needed to convince Adam to back Ryou.

He took out a recorder and began a recording for Adam.

~*~

Allura made her way out of the castleship, and was not particularly surprised to find Lotor waiting for her. He bowed as she descended to the hangar floor. “Princess,” he greeted warmly. “I trust your business went well?”

“It was satisfactorily concluded,” said Allura quietly. The clone ship wasn’t a memory she wanted to revisit any time soon. “Keith gave me your message. What is it you wished to discuss?”

“Our next steps, princess,” said Lotor, gesturing to indicate he would like her to walk with him. She did so, matching strides easily enough.

“I see,” Allura mused. “There are likely many worlds in revolt at the moment. What are your plans for them?”

“I’m afraid that rather depends on the world in question,” Lotor admitted mildly. Their route was taking them past druid-guarded corridors; Allura watched them warily. By their masks, it seemed they were also watching her. “Some positions are essential to retaining my throne, and cannot be relinquished – although I am willing to discuss the terms of their status, if that is an issue. Other worlds...” he shrugged. “It will be a matter of what they want, and what they will offer. The chaos is increasing almost exponentially. I cannot defend every world and outpost at once.”

Allura walked in silence for a bit. Tactically it was sound, of course. Hold what you had to hold, let those clamoring for freedom get a taste of it and see if it made them more tractable. But her heart was on the side of the worlds, not the empire, and Lotor’s suggested course sounded very much like abandoning many people to the ravages of pirates and would-be warlords. “Many people are going to die,” she said.

“That is the nature of war,” said Lotor. “I am the rightful Emperor, by blood and deed. But due to my ...impure blood… I will need to prove myself several times over. I must choose my battles.”

Allura thought about this. “Surely allying yourself with another Altean cannot help your claim,” she said carefully.

“I believe my Altean heritage makes me more fit to rule, not less,” Lotor replied. “I will prove it as many times as required. Sadly, galra most often respond best to displays of force, but I can assure you I will act to minimize the loss of life where I can.”

He was half-altean, true. But he was also half galra, and Allura could not trust galra. Yet - Voltron was a weapon, true, but if they weren’t fighting to bring peace – real peace, the peace of free peoples working together by choice – then what were they doing? “I must speak with the other paladins,” said Allura. “But think they will be sympathetic.” As they passed another guardian druid, she changed the subject. “What is it they guard?”

“Haggar’s quarters,” said Lotor, and the elegant tone did nothing to hide the venom. “And her laboratories. Where she crafts her abominations.”

~*~

Through Kova’s eyes, padding silently after the pair, Haggar watched. Her lip curled in a little smile. She could leave her druids there, of course. Lotor could order them and they would obey – reluctantly, but they would. But that would change nothing, test nothing.

“Macidus,” she said aloud, and the druid came to her. “Inform the guardians at central command to withdraw.”

“High priestess, Voltron is there,” rasped the druid. Voltron was trouble.

“I am well aware,” said Haggar. “Do it. Sendak will have need of their skills.”

Macidus bows. “As you command.” He floated off.

Sendak didn’t much like druids either – no one did. That was half the point. The druids were powerful and mysterious and galra had an instinctive fear of them. Most species did, and that was also the point. Beings in fear did not react entirely rationally.

Lotor fancied himself an alchemist. It was time to see whether he deserved the title.

~*~

Keith sat on a little stool by the tool kit, while Hunk went over Ryou’s ship. “Nice work,” he approved. “Olkari make much more efficient systems than our old Altean pods. Still runs on crystals, but they can use smaller crystals and have them last longer. Hand me the one that looks like a socket wrench had a fling with the letter W.”

Keith obediently fished through the toolkit, found something that looked like it might fit the description, and tossed it over. Hunk caught it and used it to adjust some webbing. “I would love to take this apart and put it back together again. Catch.” He tossed it back to Keith, who put it away. “You know they’re totally gonna dismantle this baby when they get back to Earth.”

“Probably,” said Keith.

“Might as well make it pretty,” mused Hunk. “There’s a thing that looks like someone could scale office buildings with it, sort of suctiony.” Keith obligingly located the tool and – since it was heavy – handed it over rather than threw it. Hunk started pulling out dents on the hull with it. “Tempted to suggest they translate the owner’s manual but I’m not sure either of them know how to read written Olkari anyway. Still, it’s got pictures. No, you stay put.” This last was to Keith, who had gotten up to leave.

“You don’t need me here,” Keith said flatly. “I don’t know anything about how the ships work.”

Hunk paused in his work, sat on a wing. “I know,” he said simply. “But you’re not in a good place for a lot of alone time. And this is stuff you can use. You’ve flown with the rebellion ships.”

“I don’t need a babysitter, Hunk,” said Keith flatly.

Hunk hopped off the wing to put both hands on Keith’s shoulders. “No. You need friends. You’ve got friends. You’re just not in a good place right now. You can snarl at me all you want, but I’m not cool with you taking off by yourself right now. So you might as well take a looksee over this ship with me. Maybe you won’t make a mechanic, but you might get better at knowing when something’s going wrong and what’s causing it.”

Keith stared at Hunk as if half the words were in a completely new language. Then he looked away. “...All right.”

Hunk grinned. “Good.” He took his hands off Keith’s shoulders. “We’ll start with basic power. This is a good ship to learn on. I bet Ryou wanted something he could maintain himself. So. Over here is the crystal chamber...”

~*~

Krolia tapped claws lightly on Pidge’s tablet, handing it over. “Do you understand?”

Pidge looked it over. Whistled low. “When did you guys come up with this? And why?”

“A long time ago, and a long story that is not relevant at the moment,” said Krolia. “The important thing is, it will provide Ryou with adequate cover for the rest of his life on Earth. Genetic scans will not reveal his nature.”

Pidge nodded, looking it over, making some notes. “There’s a few ways to get around it, but not with anything you could build on Earth. I can make a scan that would pick this up, just to make sure Haggar doesn’t try fooling us this way again. How long does it normally last?”

Krolia hmm’d. “That I do not know. It has not been tested past five decaphoebs. When was the last time Keith was given a blood test?”

Pidge looked blank. “Uh. I guess...on admission to the Garrison?” she hazarded. “We all have to be tested to be sure we’re healthy, immunized, not carrying any contagions, and don’t have any health risks that would endanger a mission. But I’m not sure what age Keith was getting in. He’d been kicked out by the time I showed up.”

She didn’t miss the little blink as Krolia filed this information away. “I left his father with several vials,” she mused. “But in Keith’s case they were to enhance and strengthen his human genes. Normally, you may have noticed, part-galra are more colorful.”

“The Olkari told him that he’ll never look properly galra, now,” said Ryou mildly. “They said it was a lock they could break and he’d change a little over time, with medipod use.”

Krolia smiled. “The Olkari are very intelligent and capable,” she said. “But this is not about Keith. It is about you.”

Ryou nodded slowly. “This ‘enhance and strengthen human genes’ - could you extend my lifespan with something like that?”

Krolia shook her head. “Everything dies,” she said. “When I said that I wasn’t referring to Keith’s lifespan. I was referring to his health. His father was very worried that the normal injuries and exposures of childhood would endanger Keith more than most. Reveal his nature before he would be strong enough to protect himself. He wanted to reduce the number of reasons Keith would have to undergo examination. I did what I could.”

Pidge and Sam were quietly bouncing equations back and forth, then lines of code. “We’ll be able to make this,” she decided.

“And I think we can adapt it for general human use later on,” Sam mused. “It could do wonders for childhood health.”

Krolia looked at them all, one after the other, searching. “...Do any of you know where his father is?”

Pidge shook her head. “Keith’s never mentioned him.”

Sam followed. “I’m afraid I hadn’t met him before – well, now, really.”

Ryou scowled, his expression a mask of concentration. “...Something,” he muttered, then sighed. “It had to be some kind of passing remark. Ask – ask Shiro. I can feel the...shape, sort of. But I can’t get my fingers around the memory.” He shrugged. “Sorry. The Olkari do good work. But ask Shiro. He’ll know.”

Pidge and Sam shared a look. Both recognized that this was new; that Ryou had been able to access those memories and now couldn’t. But neither wanted to comment on it. “So!” said Pidge. “You can go ask about it and Dad and I will get to synthesizing this serum for you.”

~*~

Shiro folded the paper to fit into a handmade envelope – the Alteans weren’t apparently big on envelopes, or used something other than ‘more paper’ to make them. He’d honestly not so much as thought about Adam in years. The breaking-up, paired with his life going rather inventively to hell shortly thereafter, meant that if he thought of Adam at all it was generally with relief that they had broken up – that Adam could then just accept the official report of his death and get on with his life, without losing too much sleep over might-have-beens.

And really, that had been the most likely outcome – that Kerberos would be his last mission. He’d made it out there, but a solid year in space would’ve done nothing for the muscle spasms. Shiro had never really meant to go back to Earth alive. Adam was bright enough to know that – it was what had pushed him to deliver that ultimatum in the first place.

And now he had to undo that. Tell Adam he’d never died, that instead a whole lot of other things that in some cases were worse had happened instead. Oh and here was, not Shiro, but a copy who needed Adam’s help.

Frankly, Shiro had private bets with himself that ‘Ryou’ was going to be in for one hell of a bitching-out. Adam was generally a fairly gentle soul, but there were and always had been limits. The reality of what had happened would be enough to snap anyone. None of it was Ryou’s fault, but he looked and sounded like Shiro and he’d be in reach of Adam’s voice.

A letter was probably not enough, but there wasn’t a better option available.

To these thoughts came the knock on his door, and Krolia and Ryou on the other side. Of course. Shiro stepped back and let them in. He handed Ryou the envelope. “I don’t know how much you’ll remember of Adam,” he said. “But when you hand him this you might want to stay far enough back that he can’t easily punch you.”

Ryou pursed his lips. “Better get me a photo,” he said. “The Olkari blocks seem to get better with time. Whiiich is kind of why we’re here.”

Krolia nodded. “I would like to know where Keith’s father is,” she said. “The green paladin said he was expelled from the Garrison. Why did he not go home?”

Shiro blinked. “...His father’s dead, Krolia,” he said, trying for a gentle tone but really more surprised than anything. “He died while Keith was still a child.”

Krolia was a Galra officer, and a Blade. The only reaction she showed was a slight widening of the eyes, a small parting of the lips. “...A child?” she asked. “Did his father’s family not come? What happened?”

Shiro gestured to a chair; she might be strong but this was clearly some unexpected news for her. Which was just odd. Hadn’t she kept any kind of watch? “Keith’s never said much about it all, to be honest. There was just a ...period… as we were becoming friends, where we were sharing things we normally wouldn’t. He’s never mentioned his father having any family – or even the man’s name. I’m not sure he remembers what it was. He did say his father was a firefighter, though. That he died trying to save people from a burning building.”

Krolia briefly looked away. “...That does sound like him,” she said quietly. “He lived without fear. And he understood fire. When was this?”

Shiro shook his head. “I couldn’t say for certain,” he admitted. “Before Keith was ten, that’s all I can guess. By the time I met him he’d been bounced around the foster system for years. He was in a group home by the time I was sent to his school. Older children are harder to foster.”

“Before ten decaphoebs,” sighed Krolia. “I went back to the Blades to protect him. Zarkon was getting closer to the Blue Lion – we’d – his father and I – had had to fight off multiple scouting parties. It wouldn’t have been long before the number of missing scouts alone drew attention to the planet. I had to go back, infiltrate the area’s command base, divert their attention to other systems.” She closed her eyes. “I...should have taken him with me. I thought he would be safer on Earth, away from the Empire.” She straightened, nodding toward Shiro solemnly. “Thank you, for befriending my son.”

“I’ve been glad to know him,” said Shiro. “He’s saved my life ...honestly more times than I can even keep track of anymore.”

“Fewer for me,” added Ryou. “But when it counted he’s been there.”

“You should probably talk to him,” said Shiro. “It’s not going to get easier with waiting.”

“True,” said Krolia dryly. “I only wanted to know what has happened to him. He seems so...fragile.”

“Ah,” sighed Shiro. “Yeah. I should probably fill you in on what I understand of the past few weeks or so. R-ryou,” he was still getting used to the name, “chip in where you can.”

~*~

“I understand why,” said Sam quietly, after the others had gone. “But I think after Ryou is gone we should tell the Garrison how to protect itself against clone infiltration.”

Pidge just nodded, tapping code into the fabricator. “Earth is a long way away. We’ve destroyed the only clone laboratory we know about – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others.” She adjusted her glasses. “The Olkari said he’s only got a few years.”

“Yes,” mused Sam. “Which...is ironically how much time Shiro would have had, if we’d never been captured. At most, really.”

Pidge blinked. “Really,” she mused. “That might explain the discrepancies in the genetic scans.” She paused her work to pull up another dataset on a different tablet. “Take a look. The top one is Shiro’s DNA before Kerberos. The middle one, that’s where Shiro’s at now. The bottom one is Ryou’s, before we left him with the Olkari.”

“Fascinating!” said Sam, taking the tablet to look it all over. “Do you happen to have a current scan of Ryou?”

“Could get one pretty easily,” said Pidge. “It was the difference between the top and middle scans that had me worried. But if Shiro had some kind of medical issue...”

Sam nodded. “They weren’t going to let him fly the Kerberos mission because of it. I refused to fly without him.”

Pidge frowned. “You never said.”

“And make you all worry needlessly?” asked Sam. “Admiral Sanda swore Shiro would never survive the mission. She was probably right, honestly. But I can handle bringing a shuttle in through re-entry and Shiro’s been a good friend. I ...at the time I considered it a privilege, to do him one last favor, and let him die in space, the way he wanted.” He studied the tablet’s scans. “Yes, it looks like the Galra just...treated him. I’m sure they’re sorry they did that, now. And Ryou, being made from the treated original, has a shelf life imposed by the limitations of clone technology. Quicker born, quicker to age.”

Pidge just stared. This was information about Shiro she really would not have guessed. But maybe it explained why the Black Lion had taken him, after the fight with Zarkon. Why Haggar had apparently known Shiro was the best paladin to clone. “He’s never seemed suicidal.” She frowned. “...I have to wonder now if Keith knew.”

“I couldn’t say,” Sam admitted. “Shiro has always been a very private man. I’d heard of Keith, of course. Shiro would mention him, from time to time. But we’d never met. I have no idea what Keith might or might not know. But surely it’s not relevant anymore, Katie. The scans confirm it’s no longer any kind of an issue.”

~*~

Dinner was mostly a buzz of conversations, though Krolia, Allura, and Keith seemed more content to eat in silence. The ship was confirmed suitable for taking to Earth and loaded with useful blueprints and assorted data for Ryou and Sam to make their case with, and to help Earth’s defenses. Likewise a few signal boost relays had been added, as Earth was very far away from the rest of the war but would probably want to keep informed about it. Ryou was given a hypospray of Krolia’s serum to use when he felt ready to do so, and the coordinates of Shay’s balmera to drop in on along the way. It wouldn’t do much – the ship just wasn’t big enough to load more than one big or a few smaller crystals onto it. But every little bit would help.

Allura’s proposal – well, really, Lotor’s proposal – was shelved until morning. After dinner, the human paladins wanted to record videos for their families, that Sam and Ryou could take with them.

Krolia, for her part, went to find quarters for herself, leaving Keith and Shiro alone. When Keith moved to go too, Shiro caught his arm. “Keith.”

Keith turned to regard Shiro. It was no wonder Krolia had evidently put off bombshells until tomorrow; Keith looked tired, and drained, and fragile still.

Shiro took a deep breath. “I’d...like to stay with you tonight. If that’s all right.”

“I’ll be fine,” said Keith.

“That wasn’t what I asked,” Shiro pointed out. “You can come stay in my room, or I can stay in yours.”

Some of it was getting through the fog, at least. “What are you asking?” said Keith.

“Just to be with you,” said Shiro. “We can hold hands. Or share a mattress. That’s all.”

He couldn’t say I’m worried about you. Keith would only say he was fine, when he really, really wasn’t. Reversing it didn’t look like it would work much better – and really it made Shiro cringe to think Keith would regard it as an obligation, when he was clearly almost broken. But it was the only card he had left, so he played it. “I...would like to avoid bad dreams.”

Keith didn’t respond immediately. It took a few moments for the idea to filter through whatever fog he was living in. “...I will stay with you,” he said, which probably meant in Shiro’s room.

Good enough.

He led Keith gently to the living quarters, worried enough that for once he didn’t give much thought to how it would look. The whole team knew Keith had thrown himself much too hard at that clone ship. In his quarters, he stripped down to a tank top and boxers, got Keith down to the same – trying not to show just how worried he was that Keith clearly didn’t care – and got into bed.

Keith stared blankly at this for a few moments before climbing in after him. Shiro pulled the blanket around them and tried to hold Keith close. Keith had always responded most to physical contact. Shiro just had to hope that falling asleep surrounded by that contact would help draw Keith out of ...wherever his mind was retreating to.

Chapter Text

Keith did not sleep well. Shiro was true to his word – he shared his bunk with Keith, and his blankets, and he kept his arms around Keith and that was it. And that wasn’t the problem – in truth it had probably kept the night from being worse, as time and again Keith woke from the memory of shiro’s voice screaming, the sound of shiro dying only to have the warm, definitely-alive body of his Shiro right there. Somewhere around the fourth jerking-awake-from-nightmare Keith lost any reserve about holding tightly to that, arms wrapped hard around Shiro’s chest to feel him breathing, hear his heart beating. Anything to drive away the memory of killing his image, over and over.

He might therefore be forgiven for not immediately registering Lance’s freaked-out screaming dopplering down the corridor as anything but a new accent in the repeating nightmares.

Shiro also did not sleep particularly well, although in his case it was worry about Keith paired with occasionally having to figure out how one performed basic reassuring gestures while being squeezed so hard that oxygen became an issue. Keith was significantly stronger than appearances might suggest. And Shiro knew that if he in any way made it clear that Keith was genuinely suffocating him it would….well, the short version was ‘be very bad’. It had to be okay for Keith to need him. Shiro’s reasoning got a bit clouded past that point – lack of sleep had that effect – but he was sure of that much.

The sound of Lance screaming was not, for Shiro, any kind of nightmarish accent so much as it was a new problem in an already complicated tangle, as he would have to nudge Keith awake to investigate. An alarm hadn’t sounded, so the ship wasn’t under attack, but the ambient noise level rose – suggesting the yelling was waking everyone else up, too.

The thing that made Shiro hesitate – just a bit – was what Lance had been screaming.

Was sex pollen actually a thing?

~*~

“The power of the Empire is derived from the strength of its Emperor,” said Haggar. “To conquer, to hold and consolidate, to expand. To fight without hesitation or fear and to take what is desired, the true right of the powerful. The right of the galra.”

“I fight in the name of Galra,” growled Sendak, fist over his chest as he knelt.

“Lotor is weak,” said Haggar. “He will spread his weakness to the fleets. The Empire already crumbles.”

“I will conquer, for the good of the Empire,” growled Sendak.

“Let the fires of your rage purge the Empire of its weakness,” said Haggar. “Until you take the crown that is your rightful due.” She raised her voice. “Acknowledge your rightful Emperor!”

As Sendak rose to his feet, the assembled ranks of druids dutifully knelt, as Sendak had knelt before. In the name of the Empire! Practically resonated through the walls. He was not moved, but watched Haggar. He knew where the power was. He knew better than to trust this witch.

But she only gestured to a door. “This way,” she said. “Your fleet awaits.”

~*~

By the time everyone had caught up – groggy, confused, in varying states of undress – to Lance, he was in the castleship’s landing bay, wide eyed and trembling – although that could be just because he was wearing only a pair of boxers and the bay was on the cold side. Only Keith had grabbed a weapon along the way; everyone else was more concerned than anything else.

Lance’s attention wasn’t on any of them; he was staring at the open bay doors. And, some way past that, open space beyond the Central Command’s hangar floor. And...a retreating ship?

“...Is that Matt’s shuttle?” asked Pidge, yawning. “Where’s Matt going? He wasn’t going to leave until tomorrow.”

Lance almost answered. He opened his mouth to, then snapped it closed and blushed. Given he was only in his boxers, it was a rather impressive full-body blush.

“Uh...Lance?” asked Hunk. “You okay? You were...kinda screaming…?”

The blush deepened. Lance’s mouth was compressed into a thin white line.

Keith, exhausted and possibly not entirely in a normal frame of mind, stepped forward, reached out, grabbed a surprised Lance by the chin. Lance seemed even more surprised that he couldn’t just jerk out of Keith’s grip. “H-hey!”

Keith made a low growling sort of sound; Lance flinched. Keith turned Lance’s head this way, that. Looked him over. “….Matt touched you,” he said, and let Lance go.

The words dropped like lead weights through thin sugar icing.

Lance bolted, running incredibly quickly back for the residential quarters.

Pidge was glaring at Keith. “What are you accusing my brother of?” she demanded. “Matt wouldn’t hurt anyone here!”

“Nobody’s accusing anyone of anything, Pidge,” said Shiro quickly, before this became a fight.

“We might be,” said Hunk carefully. “I mean...that was Matt’s ship, right? What’d you mean, touched him?”

“They had sex, probably,” said Keith. Shiro could tell from Keith’s tone that Keith was not in a usual frame of mind. Keith could be tactless, but right at the moment he wasn’t entirely sure Keith knew he wasn’t dreaming.

He was probably the only one even considering that aspect of it though – everyone else was looking at the statement in light of available evidence, and drawing conclusions. Scowls were forming on Hunk and Allura’s faces. Pidge was angry for a different reason. “My brother would never hurt someone like that,” she snapped. “Matt’s not like that! If they did anything then Lance was okay with it!”

“...Somehow I am having trouble interpreting this as Lance being ‘okay’,” said Allura slowly. “If you’ll excuse me. I think I should see if he’s all right.”

“Thank you, princess,” said Shiro. As she left he turned to Pidge and Hunk. “No fights. No speculation. We’ll get to the bottom of this. Pidge, you call Matt’s ship and get his side of things. Hunk, we shelve this until we’ve got actual information, okay? We’re all tired.”

“No, I want to know why Keith said that,” said Pidge. “You embarrassed Lance so bad he’s jogging.”

Keith blinked slowly at her. Shiro was almost sure, now, that Keith wasn’t aware this was the waking world. “The blush was hiding some of it but in a few hours he’s going to have bruises,” he said. “I’ve seen marks like that before. I’m not making any accusations. It was either sex or a really heavy makeout session.”

Shiro was almost holding his breath, now, and was relieved that Pidge just seemed to regard this as data, albeit very confusing data. “...Matt’s into guys?” she asked. “Lance isn’t into guys. Lance has been drooling over Allura from day one.” She looked to Shiro. “What is going on?”

“You’re going to call your brother and find out,” said Shiro. “And record the conversation, please. We’re probably going to need exact words. Whatever happened, Lance is...not okay with it now.”

Hunk was thinking too. “...Yeah, ask Matt what sex pollen is,” he said. “I’m pretty sure Lance was yelling that near my door.”

“Same,” said Shiro. “I mean I’ve heard of it as a joke, but...”

“You think Matt would roofie someone,” said Pidge, getting angry again. “Lance is being hysterical. Matt’s a good guy. He wouldn’t.”

“I think we need to find out,” said Shiro again. “And in the meantime, for the love of life, get some sleep. We can’t do anything about anything right now.”

“Amen to that,” sighed Hunk, but he did cast a worried look at the open bay door. After a few moments’ thought, he hit the switch that closed it. “We’re in Galra Central Command and we get attacked by another human being? That’s the kind of sense that’s not.”

“Go. To. Bed,” said Shiro firmly. “Everyone. We’ll get the information when we’re awake enough to process it.” Although he was really hoping Allura could ...pry Lance off whatever metaphorical ceiling he was clinging to. If there were any validity to the claim of rape, he was above all else glad Lance hadn’t hung around to hear doubts aired. Nobody needed that.

He was uncomfortably aware that if any such accusation had been leveled against anyone but Pidge’s brother, people would be sliding into Lion cockpits by now. Whatever had happened, it had the potential to get a lot uglier very soon.

Pidge and Hunk headed back for their quarters – Pidge angry and upset, Hunk more confused and worried. When they were out of earshot, Shiro started leading Keith back to bed. Keith’s eyes were half closed. The slow blinks suggested he was quite close to falling asleep on his feet, so Shiro kept his voice low, gentle. “So...should I ask how you know Lance and Matt…?”

“Foster kid,” said Keith tiredly. “...And Lance acting like a virgin who’s just worked out how safe she’s not.”

That was a weird way to put it, but Shiro needed to keep Keith at least awake enough to get back to bed. “So you think Matt forced himself on Lance?”

“Nah.” The yawn was prodigious, and contagious. “I think Lance never realized he’s bi.”

That idea had Shiro re-evaluating quite a lot of things. Up to and including the bruise on Keith’s face. Shiro knew his own identity quite well, and as far as he could recall, always had. He’d heard it wasn’t true for everyone, though, that it could be hard for some people to recognize attraction. Lance, middle child of a very large family, from a culture where machismo was still very much a Thing….would actually be more susceptible than most to that sort of confusion. Shiro wondered if Alteans had any kind of equivalent – or if the lack of such an equivalent would mean Allura really was the best person for Lance to talk to. He’d have to ask her.

In the morning.

Shiro mused that thinking much about how Keith knew what the situation looked like would do nothing for Keith’s current inability to sleep. So when they got back to Shiro’s room, and back into bed, Shiro started talking about happy things. Whatever he could think of that had been a happy memory. Anything to guide Keith’s mind toward dreams, and deep sleep, and away from nightmares. The day was going to be difficult enough without Keith having lost his verbal brakes.

~*~

Allura was glad Shiro was keeping a close eye on Keith. She’d never seen him so ...not-there. It couldn’t be good. But she couldn’t help with that, at least at the moment. And – well. Lance seemed to value her friendship. And maybe he’d find it easier talking with a woman – specifically, a woman not related in any way to Matt. She had to hope so.

She was walking where Lance had run, but really given the embarrassment he’d displayed, and the lack of proper clothing, he could only have gone back to his quarters. So that was the door Allura knocked on. “Lance?” she asked politely. “May I come in?”

There was ...noise. She wasn’t sure if Lance was cleaning his room or demolishing it, but activity was certainly happening. She stepped back from the door, so that if he did open it she wouldn’t be in his personal space.

When he did open it she wondered if she should have stepped back a bit more than that. Lance had gone from ‘thin pair of sleeping-boxers’ to layers of robes over thick woolly pants, the sort of stuff one might wear exploring an ice asteroid. ‘Fully covered’ was an understatement. He looked around to be sure Allura was alone before he said “Yeah, you can come in.”

Allura did so, and realized quickly that Lance had neither cleaned nor demolished his rooms. The only person with messier quarters was Pidge. So...covering something up? As he closed the door, she said, “I would ask if you’re all right...but I think that may be obvious. What’s wrong? What happened? Why did you scream? And why has Matt fled the castle?”

She tried to be gentle about it, but really – this was an entirely new level of confusing behavior from a species she was never that sure she understood in the first place. And it was obvious that she’d asked too many questions. Lance in all his layers just froze, until she had to wonder if she’d broken him.

Maybe...maybe…

Allura went to the room’s small drink dispenser. Hunk’s work of course, but a development she’d found useful. Hot – what flavor, hm – she puzzled through the human lettering and tapped keys while Lance stood there. The result looked promising, and was certainly warm. “I’m not sure but perhaps this will help?”

Lance accepted the cup on automatic, sniffing it before taking a tiny sip. His eyes widened and then watered. “...Habanero cream,” he croaked. “Didn’t know the dispenser could do that.”

“Is that not good?” asked Allura. “I’m sorry. My Terran is -”

“It’s fine, you tried,” Lance replied, setting the cup down carefully. “I’m...sorry I woke everyone up.”

“We’re all concerned,” said Allura. Then, carefully, “You should know Shiro has asked Pidge to get an explanation from Matt.”

Lance’s expression twisted. “Great,” he sighed. “Look – it’s nothing. I just – I have a lot to think about.”

“You can tell me?” asked Allura. “Please. Why were you so upset? Why did Matt leave?”

~*~

“So help me, Pidge, I’ve never seen anyone react like that in my entire life,” Matt swore over the comm. He’d made Pidge promise not to let their father join the conversation. “I’d never have touched him if I’d known he was going to flip out like that.”

“They’re accusing you of rape, Matt,” snapped Pidge -as much from lack of sleep as trying to wrap her head around what was really sounding like Boys Being Really Stupid. “This is all being recorded. I have to know what happened.”

Matt – still in his ship, as without a wormhole it was a long trip back to the rebellion – ran a hand through his hair. “Adding to the list of reasons I’d never have touched him if I’d known is having to discuss my sex life with my little sister. On camera.”

“I’m serious, Matt,” snapped Pidge. And then paused. And winced. “And it goes double for me, just so you know. You’re the only human being for light years, Matt, how the hell do you have a sex life?”

“Mostly by discovering which local brews affect humans by trial and error,” shrugged Matt.

Pidge blinked. “Lance was screaming about sex pollen. That’s a thing?”

Matt snorted. “No,” he said firmly. “That’s the interspecies equivalent of a running gag. Which is on the list of things I regret ever mentioning in Lance’s hearing now. Look – I’ve had to let go of a lot of human ideas about what makes a decent relationship just so I wouldn’t be alone all the time. It doesn’t happen all that often, but – yeah, I’ve woken up in some really strange beds, places, and positions. From time to time.”

Pidge just stared at the screen. Her big brother...interstellar space slut? She was absolutely not having her father in the room when this recording was shown to the other paladins. Matt could do that explaining in person. She ran her hand across her face. “Fine,” she sighed. “I’m gonna need bleach to get the images out of my head, but what did you do to Lance?”

~*~

“So...I invited him to play video games with me,” said Lance slowly. He sat down in a chair, so Allura couldn’t sit next to him. He curled in on himself a bit. “And that was fun. He was telling me about other games in the series, and which planets he’d been to that look like the monsters, and stuff like that.”

Allura found another relatively clean chair, and pulled it over close enough that she could take Lance’s hands in hers. He was clearly upset, still – just also defeated somehow. She didn’t ask Lance to look at her, just lightly squeezed his fingers in hers.

Lance took a deep breath. “We’d been playing for a few hours when Matt took out this flask and said we could make it a drinking game. He said the stuff in the flask had a name he couldn’t pronounce, but it hit like tequila. And...it’s been a really shit week, you know. It sounded like a good idea, unwind a little.”

Allura gave Lance’s fingers another gentle squeeze, to let him know she was still listening without putting pressure on him.

“We beat a really hard level,” said Lance quietly, not looking at her – or much of anything. “And...I hugged him. And he hugged back. And...I think I kissed him.”

~*~

“...So then we’re kissing,” Matt went on, a bit exasperated. “And look, we’re both buzzed, and Lance is really tightly wound – which no wonder, I mean the lives you guys have led just in the past phoeb is crazy even by my standards – and it never occurred to me to ask if he’d done any of this before.”

Pidge had her head in her hands. So much of this was stuff she didn’t want to know, didn’t want to think about – it was going to be ages before she could look either of these two in the eye, now. “So….you had sex.”

“...Yeeeaah?” hazarded Matt. “I mean I’d like to make clear that at no point did I get any signal that we were doing something he wasn’t into. I’ll take the blame for not asking point blank though. Don’t worry. I’ll steer hugely clear of Lance in future. We had sex, at least as far as I could tell it was pretty good sex, we fell asleep in his bed – then I wake up because he is losing his goddamn shit, Pidge. Seriously freaking losing his mind and accusing me of dosing him with sex pollen and why would I do that and the last thing I want to do is be accused of single-handedly disabling Voltron with a flask of unpronounceable tequila so I booked it for my shuttle before he could turn it into a fight.”

“Matt,” sighed Pidge, “I love you but if you ever make me listen to a discussion like this again, I’m castrating you for the good of the human race.”

~*~

Allura was less aggravated, but no less confused. Still, she knew what the important question was. “Was this something you did not want?”

She’d done her best to make the question gentle – just asking for confirmation, for understanding, with no hint of accusation or disbelief or any other emotion that might remotely make it a difficult question to answer. Nevertheless, Lance said nothing. He just sort of twitched in his chair.

Allura waited a few minutes before she tried, “...Lance?”

When he didn’t answer, and didn’t seem inclined to move either, Allura took a blanket off his bed to wrap around him. He seemed to want the concealment and protection more than the warmth, using the blanket as a kind of personal tent that hid him entirely from view. After a few more minutes of silence, Allura sighed. “If you decide you would like to talk, Lance – with me, or anyone – please just let us know.”

He didn’t respond – she really hoped he was falling asleep again – and she let herself out.

Humans. Nothing in Lance’s story seemed to justify his response, unless there had been some element of coercion. But if there had been force, why would he not simply say so? Surely he understood the paladins would not disbelieve him. (Well. Except possibly Pidge, but that was only one of them.) They would certainly be able to obtain justice.

She was tired – it was supposed to be several hours before morning – but it bothered her, seeing Lance so clearly upset. And it bothered her more that she wasn’t really sure why he was upset, or what should be done about it.

Coran was waiting on the bridge, handling the night shift. “Matt would like a wormhole to the rebel fleet, when you’re able,” he said. “Unless we’re arresting him for something?”

Allura sighed, and raised the teludav pedestal. “No, it would seem we are not,” she said. “It isn’t as if we can’t find him if we need to later. There are few humans in this part of the universe.”

~*~

Either Keith calmed down, or Shiro needed sleep himself to the point that Keith’s nightmares didn’t wake him again, but he slept soundly until the morning buzz. He reached over to turn the alarm off, and looked down. Keith hadn’t so much as twitched. That was definitely unusual – if anything Keith tended toward hypervigilance. It was something they shared. But then – sooner or later, the body demanded sleep.

And duty called regardless. With a worried sigh, Shiro disentangled himself with as much care as he could manage, tucking the blankets back around Keith as if the other were half his age. Shiro did not miss the shine on Keith’s cheeks; for whatever reason, Keith had been crying in his sleep.

Maybe...that was for the best. Keith did tend to bottle things up.

Shiro showered and dressed as quietly as he could, and let himself out. He made a note to himself to record his voice telling pleasant stories. Just in case that was what had caused the shift. Keith might be staying with him a while and it would be nice not to be sleep deprived for all of it.

He was not surprised that Lance was also a no-show at the paladin breakfast. Allura looked like she simply hadn’t gone back to bed, but as an Altean she needed less rest than everyone else. When Pidge saw him, she got up to hand him a recording. “I talked to Matt,” she said sourly. “If he did anything wrong, he didn’t mean to, and whatever you do do not watch that while I’m eating.”

“Or me!” Hunk chipped in. “I’m all for solidarity but there’s things I just don’t need to know details of. You and Allura, you decide.”

Shiro blinked, and looked to Allura. He was a bit surprised Hunk wanted them both to judge.

Allura sighed. “I have Lance’s side,” she said. “What he was willing to tell me, at any rate. I’m afraid we’re down a Lion for now, Shiro. Which is going to be a problem.”

“I take it you mean ‘more than it would have been anyway,” Shiro noted.

“While we were sleeping, I received word that the Yovido system was attacked,” Allura agreed. “Several cruisers. A well-coordinated attack. Better than we’ve been seeing. The planetary leaders surrendered to a group calling themselves the Fire of Purification.”

“Ah,” said Shiro quietly. There was no way a galra unit calling itself something like that and getting away with it could be good news. “Are we taking the system back?”

“Lotor has said he does not have the resources to defend so distant a system,” said Allura. “He said that he will of course not stop us from defending any world we choose, but gave me a list of those worlds still part of the Empire that he must defend. For now, we choose who we fight for, and whose distress calls we answer.”

“Smart,” said Shiro quietly. And it was. Lotor couldn’t really stop Voltron from doing whatever it chose – so, grant permission and good wishes, stand back, and see if the paladins would prove allies or enemies without risking his own troops. “We’ll take a look. We could liberate Yovido, but keeping it free is a completely different question.” Especially down a lion. Multiple cruisers sounded like it might be a bit much. “Pidge, do you think you could scout and get back to us safely?”

“With pleasure,” said Pidge flatly. “I could really use not being here for a few vargas. Tell Dad not to leave before I get back though.” She finished her breakfast, and headed out.

Hunk looked relieved when she left. “I don’t know what happened with Matt and Lance,” he admitted. “But whatever he told Pidge wasn’t something she wanted to hear.” He paused. “Uh. Where’s Keith?”

“Sleeping,” said Shiro. “Spread the word, by the way. He’s not to be left on his own. Same goes for Lance, if and when he leaves his room. No pressure to talk, just...they’re going to need people nearby for awhile.” He paused. “And probably not each other. Unless Keith got that shiner from something else.”

“No, I suspect you are correct,” said Allura sadly. “He wouldn’t tell me what happened, but there really are only so many people on the ship and Lance has done this before. You are correct. The two should probably not be together for now.”

Hunk just looked unhappy. “We get you back...and we fall apart.” He shook his head. “This isn’t normal, I swear.”

“It really is, Hunk,” said Shiro. “You held together because you had to. Now you don’t have to – or at least, it feels like you don’t – and everything that was held back is pushed to the front. Don’t worry. We’ll get through this. You want to monitor comms? Call an alert if Pidge needs backup. It seems Allura and I need to ...look stuff over.”

~*~

Pidge was trying – with very limited success – not to seethe.

It wasn’t that she thought Lance was a tease, or her brother was some kind of perv. Not really.

It was that she felt like she was being told to choose between them. Believe her brother, whom she’d loved, idolized for much of her life, and spend quite a bit of it searching for – or believe Lance, who’d fought at her side for years now. And that was a choice she couldn’t handle. Even making it or refusing to make it was treason to someone who mattered to her. So she did the only thing she could – backed out of the entire situation. Nope, nope, fingers in the ears, go take this somewhere else, I’ll deal with the results if and when they happen. Knowing that that refusal was itself a choice but it was the only one she could even marginally cope with.

Scouting out a new warlord in action was much better. That was work she knew how to do. That she was good at. That would ideally take her out of the whole situation for several hours, by which time with any luck it wouldn’t be an issue.

~*~

“I don’t know how you got roped into this,” said Shiro quietly, “But I’m glad for the backup.”

“I must admit I am not entirely sure either,” Allura admitted. “But you are welcome.”

The two sat in a private office, and watched the recording of Pidge’s call with Matt. Shiro increasingly had the expression of a man who wanted to ground everyone to their room for a week because clearly he was dealing with children, and really irresponsible children at that.

Allura, on the other hand, just seemed – well, confused. A state that did not abate when the recording ended. “...Is this a human thing, Shiro?” she asked carefully.

“Did Lance’s version of events agree with Matt’s at all?” asked Shiro.

“That’s just it,” said Allura. “As far as I can tell the two are in agreement about what happened. Lance admits to initiating the -” she made a vague sort of gesture, “proceedings? But I could not get him to tell me if anything that happened after that was something he did not want.”

“So we only have Matt’s side for that,” sighed Shiro. “Which is hardly conclusive.” He frowned at the now-black screen, rubbing his chin. “I have to wonder if Keith might be right.”

Allura blinked. “Keith?” she asked. “He hardly seemed in a state to observe very much last night.”

“More like he didn’t realize it wasn’t a dream,” said Shiro. “He said he thought Lance just discovered he’s bi. Which – I mean I do agree, the only one that knows for sure what happened is Lance. But Keith’s theory would explain a lot.”

“I’d settle for it explaining anything,” sighed Allura. “Is this sort of thing normal for humans?”

Shiro waggled a hand. “I’ve heard stories,” he said. “I don’t know how it is for Alteans. But humans can be attracted to – well, pretty much anything, given a large enough population. Some of us know pretty early on where our preferences lie. I’m one of those. But there are people that don’t realize the scope of their attraction until they’re confronted with it. I’m not saying Matt’s version is necessarily completely correct – but Lance has always played himself as a ladies’ man. Finding out he could be attracted to men as well could really have been a shock.”

“Then why would it not be a shock to Keith?” asked Allura, frowning as she tried to follow it all. How would he know, if Lance himself did not?”

Shiro winced. “In some cultures there’s a stage boys will go through, where they show the object of affection that they like them by...pretty much doing the opposite of anything that would get them the attention they want. Lance has been in Keith’s face for years. I gather Lance had fixated on Keith well before Keith even knew who he was.”

Allura looked like she was glad to be sitting down, now. “So,” she said slowly, “Keith’s theory is that Lance has been unkind to him not because Lance disliked him, but because Lance did like him and was not ready to admit this to himself, never mind anyone else, and somehow this meant Lance would sleep with Matt?” she asked. “Am I following you? It certainly doesn’t feel like I am, I must admit.”

“Matt gave Lance a drink that lowers inhibitions,” sighed Shiro. “Shuts off that part of the mind that’s in denial, at least temporarily. Matt was there and willing.” He made a ‘water flows downhill’ gesture. “And then the effects wore off and Lance is stuck facing ...well, all of this. Compounded with the knowledge that because he woke everyone up over it, the whole ship is now aware of it too.”

“And so he wraps himself in blankets and won’t leave his room,” said Allura, nodding now. “I see. I think. I’m still not sure why accepting this is difficult for him. Is there a stigma, among humans?”

“Some cultures, yes,” said Shiro. “Whether that applies to Lance’s background or not I couldn’t say. It could just be that he genuinely didn’t think of himself that way and now has to do some adjusting. I honestly don’t know.”

Allura nodded to herself. “So...the question then arises, what do we do to help him?”

“For the moment?” said Shiro. “Pretend nothing happened. We may possibly have to sit on Pidge and Sam. Lance is….likely to be kind of a pain for a while as he sorts himself out, but it will only get worse if he gets the idea that the rest of us are judging him too.” He paused. “Unless at some point he says something happened that he didn’t want. That’s a game changer. But – everything else, honestly, is between Lance and Lance’s brain.”

“And if Lance raises the subject?” asked Allura carefully.

“Then we deal with it then,” said Shiro. He shook his head. “For now...unless he’s in his room, make sure someone’s with him. Keep him away from Keith – Keith’s got his own issues to deal with, and if those two try doing anything near each other it may well end very badly. And just...give them time to mend.”

“We may not have that time, in Lance’s case,” Allura pointed out. “This new warlord isn’t going to wait politely for us to be able to form Voltron.”

“We can’t force Lance to heal,” Shiro pointed out. “This isn’t like a broken arm. We’re just going to have to deal with four lions for a while. I’m afraid that whole lion swapping idea is just going to have to wait. We need you in Blue, princess.”

Allura smiled a little. “Well. As nice as it is to be needed, I hope you’ll understand when I say I wish circumstances were better.” She took the crystal that had Matt’s version of events on it out of the player, and handed it to Shiro. “You had best keep this. I will tell Pidge to advise the rebels to send someone else, if a messenger has to be sent to us. Matt will serve best while far, far away from here. For now.”

“Agreed,” said Shiro.

~*~

Keith woke in the same way bubbles escape tar pits. Slowly, with effort, the black pit dragging on him the whole way.

The first thing he noticed was that this was not his bed, not his room. Memory clawed its way out of the tar; right, Shiro had insisted. Odd. Welcome, but odd. The room and the bed smelled of Shiro; it made the idea of lying still and just thinking a while surprisingly less-than-unforgivably-lazy. The sense of recent presence didn’t hurt; this was not clinging to memory or hope, and he’d done far too much of both in recent years.

He did not fool himself into thinking that simply because he was not currently feeling like crap, he was ‘okay’. Keith had quite a lot of experience with pain, and different kinds of pain. He might not know what exactly was broken, inside him, but he’d definitely pushed something too far. And now there would be nightmares, and brokenness. It was an interesting thought, to think he might manage to get through this bout of it without having to make it worse. That would be new.

Keith stayed in the comfortably warm blankets and let his mind wander. When he remembered the previous night, he poked at the memory. That had happened. Lance had apparently lost his probable virginity, and to Matt of all people. The idea was sort of distantly amusing, like half-hearing a sitcom in another room. On the one hand part of him felt sorry for Matt, who clearly had no idea what he was getting into. On the other he was relieved that someone else would be the focus of this particular identity crisis. Matt at least had his own ship. Distance was a good thing to be able to maintain. He toyed with the thoughts a while, just sort of watching them skitter around the interior of his mind, until hunger demanded he get the hell up and pretend to be human.

~*~

Sam was not pleased, when he woke, to find that his son had had to flee the castleship in the middle of the night, and his daughter had gone off alone on a very dangerous scout mission. He went to the bridge to wait for word from either of them, and found Hunk monitoring the comms. “Oh, hey,” said Hunk. “Uh. Sorry about – well. Everything. I mean I’m pretty sure everything’ll go back to normal eventually.”

Sam wore the look of a man who really wanted to tear someone a new asshole, but was also overly aware that he was also technically the only adult in the room and certain responses were inappropriate to level at innocent targets. “Have either of my children sent word?”

The level of self control was really quite impressive, viewed from outside, but Hunk had already fielded enough Holt family drama that his only true reaction was relief. “Matt’s back with his ship,” he said. “Safe and sound – as much as any of the rebels ever are, anyway. Pidge is on radio blackout for the next five vargas. Stealthing through enemy territory.”

Sam studied the screens. “Earth is...a long way away.”

“Yeah,” said Hunk. “I’ve been working that problem. I mean, once you and Ryou get there, you’re gonna want to keep connected to the rest of the coalition. But the distances involved are pretty incredible.”

“I don’t suppose you could show me?” asked Sam.

Hunk obliged by marking their location with a bright white star on the map, and then zooming it out, and farther out, and farther out, for most of a minute until Earth’s system showed up with a blue star.

“...I see what you mean,” mused Sam. “It’s too bad we can’t create a stable, permanent, micro-wormhole just for communications.”

“Allura doesn’t like it much when I go poking at Altean heritage type stuff,” said Hunk. “Teludavs are Altean heritage type stuff. She’s the only one that can make them.”

Sam was absorbed in the display. “….Where is the fringe of Galra territory?”

Hunk obligingly added a red line to the map. “More or less,” he said. “Whether all that’s under Lotor’s control right now is really debatable, but that’s what Zarkon had.”

Sam waved a hand at the swath of unclaimed space between that border and Earth. “We could put relays through here, and then piggyback on Galra relays after that.”

“Still a lot of territory,” said Hunk. “Especially since Earth is sublight.”

“So...we build the relays here,” said Sam. “You were working on that anyway, right? One unmanned crystal powered ship to automatically drop off relays at intervals. It might take a few years, but we can connect Earth to the rest of the universe.”

Hunk knew a man grasping for something useful to do when he saw it, so he just nodded. “All right. We’ll work on an automated crystal rocket to launch relays. And you can set it going when you get home.”

~*~

Shiro asked Coran to keep an eye out for Lance, figuring that of the two damaged paladins, Lance was less likely to try and murder Coran. He was prowling the corridors and debating lunch when Ryou rounded a corner in his path. “Hey. We should talk.”

“Right now, that would not be a good idea,” said Shiro flatly. “My drama quota is full.”

Ryou gave him a somewhat cold look. “So you won’t even talk to me? I didn’t do any of it with intent to hurt you. I thought I was you.”

“So did they,” said Shiro. “Why did you let Keith leave?”

“What is this ‘let’ bullshit?” snapped Ryou, annoyed now. “Did someone forget to mention to you that I was trying to get him to stay and do his job? That I only took over Black again when he’d not only failed to show up for duty but put the entire war at risk in the process? There was no ‘letting’ him leave. I couldn’t fucking stop him from leaving.”

That’s what he does when he knows he’s not wanted,” Shiro snapped back. “He retreats. He withdraws. How could you not know that?”

“Because I’m not you,” growled Ryou. “Not that I knew that at the time, but I’m not. And maybe the only reason Keith didn’t twig to that was it’d mean he hadn’t rescued you. The whole mess he’s in now is because he wanted to rescue you.”

Shiro’s anger faded. He could hear the self-doubt in Ryou’s anger. That the only reason anyone he knew had cared about him was because everyone had thought he was someone else. He knew himself well enough to know that was a dangerous mindset for Ryou to keep. Just as well he was going to go where people would sooner believe ‘identical twin’ than ‘clone’. And it wasn’t like he was wrong. Keith had gone to horrible lengths to bring him back. And all he wanted...was to be wanted. Not even needed, really. Just wanted.

Ryou seemed to feel he’d won, or at least won the round, and relaxed a bit. “And now we’re here an extra day. So Sam can say goodbye. And stock up on ...things.”

Technological wizardry, yes. “Pidge will make it back,” said Shiro.

“Yes,” said Ryou. “But you’ve got a war to win, you’re down two paladins and one Lion, and it’s about to be three-and-two if Lotor gets much more of Allura’s interest. While we’re sitting here dealing with everyone falling apart, it’s going crazy out there.”

Shiro shook his head. “Can’t be helped. They’re still just kids. This kind of thing happens. Don’t say they lack discipline. It’s not a matter of discipline. It’s that they’re not done growing. There’s no substitute for personal experience.”

“Better you than me,” said Ryou, and meant it. “I’d be yelling at Lance to get his ass in the Lion already, and I wouldn’t know where to begin with Keith.”

“Well. The Garrison isn’t likely to send cadets into battle when it’s got fully trained soldiers,” said Shiro. “You should be fine.”

Ryou seemed to be thinking hard about something. “I guess...since this is basically your old life I’m heading to...any requests?”

“Don’t break Adam’s heart,” said Shiro, and Ryou’s eyebrows went up.

“Why would that be an issue?”

“They’ve said you don’t have long. Comparatively speaking.” Shiro took a deep breath. “That’s kind of exactly what broke us up in the first place. He wanted the last of my time spent with him. I wanted it spent in space.”

“Well. In my case, if I’m very lucky, the galra will find me first,” said Ryou blandly. “But – no. I wasn’t planning on any emotional entanglements. As you say; it wouldn’t be fair to get someone’s hopes up. I’m going to do a job, not to get laid.” He paused. “But if a short timer didn’t stop Adam before...there may not be much I can do.”

“I know,” said Shiro quietly. “That’s why I said don’t break his heart. Not don’t go on dates.”

That made Ryou give Shiro a sort of sharp second look, frowning. “We are different,” he mused. “And you’re just like Keith.”

Chapter Text

When the call finally came, it was – as usual for Pidge – blunt and to the point. “You need to get out here now. This is not typical warlord bullying.”

“You can fill us in on the way then,” said Shiro. “We’re on our way.” And he activated the alert. Within five minutes, He, Allura, and Hunk were launched; Coran used the energy Allura had left to give them a wormhole out to Pidge’s location. “We’ll catch up,” he said to the disappearing tails, and set about getting the castleship launched.

Lance waited some ten minutes after the alert had stopped to come out. He did not want to deal with anyone, but there was a limited amount of food in his quarters.

God what a fucking mess. Lance didn’t even have a square one to start at.

Well. No. Not quite true. But the square one he had was ...difficult.

He had really, really enjoyed the time spent with Matt. At least, while he’d been buzzed. It had never in his life even remotely occurred to him that he could have that kind of fun with a guy. It hadn’t ever been forbidden, per se, or looked down on. It just...never came up. Whereas girls, and being attracted to girls, came up pretty much all the time, even when he’d rather it didn’t. He’d never thought of Matt that way. He’d never thought of any guy that way.

And now Lance was having to re-evaluate pretty much everything he’d ever said or done around any guy ever because he had started it and ...that kind of thing didn’t come out of nowhere.

Did it?

And there was a real dearth of people he could talk to about it all. Lance would sooner cut out his tongue than try talking this one over with Keith. He did not want to be hugged by Hunk because right now the entire idea was seventeen kinds of awkward. Pidge probably wanted to kill him already, given he’d driven Matt right off the ship. And Allura…

Oh god. He really wished it hadn’t been Allura that came to talk to him. She probably thought he was only into guys now and he’d never get to ask her out. (Not that she’d have said yes, the pragmatic side of his mind mused. Allura had Lotor sniffing around. All perfect hair and perfect manners and prince to her princess – those royal types tended to hang together, and half Altean to boot. But at least he could’ve asked.) Allura had been the focus of his private fantasies pretty much since the day he’d met her. Except for this morning when he’d found himself remembering some of the really amazing tricks Matt had used and stop thinking about that this was confusing enough already.

Sex pollen or some kind of crazy shit in that alien liquor. That was really the only explanation. Except that part of him was terrified because it wasn’t.

In a genuinely foul temper, Lance stormed into the dining area, grabbed a solid armful of food goo packets without even pretending to acknowledge other people in the room, and stomped right back to his quarters.

Fuck the universe. Fuck everybody. Life did not need to be this complex!

~*~

The job of monitoring the castle mice’s information had fallen to Ezor. This unusual state of affairs had begun right about the time ‘sex pollen’ was introduced. Haggar had interest in the strategy meetings of the paladins. Their personal lives were simply…

It was entirely possible that Haggar regarded them as generally irrelevant save as a window to their weaknesses. But Ezor had a private theory that watching the humans being ...well, dorky overgrown children… pained Haggar in some way.

Ezor was good at people. Of the generals, she was easily the best at people. You had to know someone, understand them, before you could really hurt them.

So Haggar sent the mice to keep an eye on everyone, and Ezor dutifully took notes of anything strategy related. There were a lot of good notes already.

The bit where Ezor was watching the scrying ball with the Pallean equivalent of popcorn – well, that was her little secret.

~*~

Keith had been most of the way through what was probably still ‘breakfast’ when Lance stormed in, grabbed goo packets, and stormed out. He’d simply stayed still, making no gesture or sound that might suggest Lance should acknowledge his existence, and honestly was relieved that no interaction had happened. Lance did not look in any state for such interaction to be pleasant.

They’d launched only four lions, though. Shiro was going up against a fleet without the option of Voltron. Without the Red Lion to watch his back.

The only thing that stopped Keith from immediately going down to Red’s hangar to (probably) argue with the big trickster until it let him pilot was knowing that if Shiro in any way thought him fit to pilot he’d at least have asked.

And Shiro had Views about people trying to Protect him. If Keith were already out there it wouldn’t be a problem. But Keith going out there now, when Shiro clearly didn’t think he was fit to even try asking Red to fly, was declaring he didn’t think Shiro could fight on his own. Declaring that Keith at maybe thirty percent was still better than all the other paladins at one hundred, too, and none of them would appreciate that.

Keith knew exactly what Shiro would think of it. He remembered Adam. And for the others – he remembered the day he’d left for the Blades, too. That solid wall of disapproval.

No. Better to stay...right here. Just thinking about that day, how they’d just – even temporarily – just shut him out. Definitely better to stay right here. Finish breakfast. Try not to be in the way or make things worse than they were. He did not have the….internal glue...to handle anyone being mad at him right now.

The door opened, and Keith looked up. He expected Coran, or maybe Sam. It was, however, Krolia. Unconsciously, Keith’s fingers flexed. On human hands the gesture was harmless.

You had to know Keith had many galra instincts to realize that on a galra, the same gesture extended claws.

~*~

Shiro was thinking about the missing Red Lion, too. Pidge had not been exaggerating.

“We are seriously outflanked,” called Hunk, frantically ripping into a swarm of fighters. “They just keep coming.”

“Where did they come from, Pidge?” demanded Shiro, bounding from one position to the next, trying to support everyone, even as the Lions were getting pushed back toward each other, increasingly cut off from escape.

“That’s just it, I don’t know!” snapped Pidge, Green raking claws through a fighter’s wing. “That’s the problem! This whole fleet came out of nowhere!”

“And we’re at least twenty doboshes away from support from the castle,” said Allura, freezing a few fighters into one out of control iceball.

The Lions could handle fighters – more or less. But not this many, and not indefinitely. At least four cruisers, and they weren’t standing around waiting for their fighters to finish the job either. The local space was full of mines, torpedos, and high-power energy blasts. Someone wasn’t being stupid. Voltron could have handled this – but they didn’t have Voltron. And their enemy wasn’t playing the old ‘let them escape to kill them another day’ card. Their enemy wanted them dead now. Pidge was right – this was new, and this was bad. “Form up on me!” Shiro snapped. “We’re busting out of here. Allura – sonic scan. Keep it going and keep us informed. We’ll go over the data in detail when we’re back at the castle. Pidge make sure nothing inviisble’s hiding on our path. Hunk, you and me are crushing a path back to the castleship. If Coran flies it into this mess it’s toast.”

~*~

“Why now?” asked Keith. The cracks were already showing hard – he couldn’t control anything about his responses, and the insecurity and fear that generated just amplified everything. “Why come now?”

“Because I can,” said Krolia. “All the things that kept me away – they’re gone, or no longer apply. I won’t leave you again.”

Keith just stared at her. There were so many possible responses – so many things he wanted to shout at such a statement – that the conflict rendered him mute for the moment.

“Do you still have my blade?” asked Krolia.

Your blade,” Keith couldn’t stop himself from snapping. “The blade that Kolivan almost had me killed over, you mean, because he said I’d stolen it? That blade? The one that got me into the order and told everyone me included that I’m part galra? That blade? Yes of course I have that blade, it’s my blade.”

Krolia didn’t seem the least bit ruffled by Keith’s anger. If anything she seemed to simply accept that of course he was going to be angry. “May I see it?” she asked, holding out her hand. “I would like to show you that I’m telling you the truth.”

Keith didn’t so much hand it over as draw it and in one quick motion sink it an inch deep into the table between Krolia’s fingers. What tiny shreds of self control he still had were the only reason he hadn’t cut two of them off.

Again, Krolia didn’t seem startled, or offended, or even surprised. She just pulled the blade back out, extended it to its sword form without effort, and let it return to dagger form. And then she handed it back. If she had any concern he might try to kill her with it, she was doing a great job of not showing it. “It was my blade first, you see,” she said. “They’re keyed to your genetic code...and you have half of mine. And you’re right. It is your blade now. Until you’ve earned one for yourself.”

That hurt. That hurt a lot. What had he been doing with the past many-months if not proving he was just as much a Blade as those bigger and older and ‘purer’ than himself? Keith looked down at his dagger. “….So that’s why you’ve come? To train me?”

“I’ve come because all the reasons I couldn’t be there before are gone,” said Krolia. “The reasons I had to leave – to protect you, your father, and the Blue Lion. The Blue Lion doesn’t need any protecting now. You are here. And your father...” She trailed off.

“Is dead,” said Keith quietly, his voice cracking as it hadn’t in years.

“So there is no reason for me to act to keep the Empire’s attention away from Earth anymore,” said Krolia. “If you want to be trained, I will train you. If you have questions, I will answer them. The only mission I have had since you were born, is you.”

Maybe if he hadn’t been holding himself together by willpower alone, Keith would have handled a statement like that better. But he couldn’t stop the sudden tide of tears and the very last thing he wanted to do was display such vulnerability to anyone else.

He stood up quickly and ran for it.

~*~

Captain Olia had trouble, in general, reading humans. They didn’t have tails to perk up or hang or wag. Their ears didn’t perk forward or flatten back. And they didn’t have fur that would stand up and fluff out. Baring teeth didn’t mean they were threatened. Making noise didn’t either. Galra were easier for her to read than humans were. And it didn’t help that she had the only one in the whole rebellion on her ship, so she couldn’t just ask someone else.

So when Matt came back somewhat sooner than she’d expected, told her everything was fine, and got right back to his usual duty of keeping the ship as spaceworthy as possible...well, Olia didn’t really have much choice but to accept that this was the truth.

The squadron Olia was assigned to was currently based on Nabia, a jungle world largely inhabited by an amphibious race. The rebels had cut down exactly as many trees as needed to bring ships in – not so much out of a desire to spare the local environment as a need to keep the tree cover as dense as possible to disguise their presence from orbit. The felled trees were used to make hangars (trees were planted on the roof tops) and residences.

In all honesty Matt didn’t have long to dwell on just what the hell had gone wrong at the castleship. Rebels didn’t tend to lead quiet lives at the best of times, and he found out quickly that this was a long way from the best of times. He didn’t even need to seek out Elcris to ask – she found him first.

“It is good you have returned,” she said. “We may not hold this planet much longer.”

Matt blinked. “Have they found us?”

“It is more accurate to say we are in the path of a storm,” said Elcris. “Yovido has fallen.”

Matt took a few seconds to parse that. The name was somewhat familiar. “That’s...a full sector away, isn’t it?”

Elcris nodded. “But it housed an Imperial shipyard. A new fleet has taken it over. The Fire of Purification.”

Matt frowned. “Sounds...kinda religious, actually.”

Elcris blinked; a slight nod indicated Matt had shown unexpected wisdom. “It may be a dangerous sign, yes. Yovido was lost in mere vargas; after Voltron removed several shipyards not long ago, most upgraded their defenses. In this case it seems to have made no difference. That suggests that either the fleet is particularly well-led, or the shipyard willingly surrendered after a token show of resistance.”

“Neither of those is good for us,” sighed Matt. “What’d the captain have to say?”

Elcris shrugged. “The captain swore about the galra for a few ticks and stomped away.”

Matt grinned. “She does that. It means she’s worried, just so you know.” The smile faded; Matt was worried too. “Do we know anything about this Fire of Purification yet?”

“We will soon,” said Elcris. Since she said nothing more, Matt figured she meant Blades had begun to infiltrate the group.

Matt looked at their ship. Honestly, Olia didn’t have the most powerful ship in the fleet. “So. Better guns, or better armor?”

“More guns are always better,” said Elcris.

Matt chuckled quietly. “Now how did I know ‘more dakka’ would be the answer of choice,” he said. “Okay. More dakka it is. I hope you’ve got some ideas. The ship doesn’t have the stability for a heavy mass driver, or the crystal drive to power a stronger energy blast.”

Elcris scowled. “...Valid,” she replied. “Give me time to confer with the Order. It’s possible plans have been acquired that would be of use. In the meantime, perhaps the captain would be willing to do a crystal run?”

“I’ll ask,” Matt nodded. “Though it may be a few hops to find a free balmera. If a new fleet’s on the move any smart balmera is a long way from here.”

~*~

The paladins were tired and keyed-up on their return, having fought for hours and ultimately chased from the battlefield. They all but trudged to the kitchen.

“I don’t care if he’s having an existential crisis,” said Pidge irritably. “We needed Voltron today. We’ve got to bring Lance along next time.”

Shiro would have liked to argue, but there wasn’t much point. The Fire of Purification was no common enemy. There was an actual skilled commander running that group. “I’ll see how he is tonight,” he said. “Hopefully he’s had enough time to think.”

“He won’t do us any good if he’s not ready to form Voltron,” Hunk pointed out. Tired as he was, he still started the process of cooking an actual meal. Food goo helped nobody’s morale. “So if he’s not ready...well, he’s not ready.”

“Possibly Keith…?” asked Allura carefully. “He was superb in Red before. If Red will accept him, of course.”

Shiro sank his head into folded arms on a table. “...I’m sure he’d like to,” he agreed. “But I’m not sure he’s in a good place to, mentally. And having him take Lance’s seat probably won’t do much for Lance’s state of mind either.”

Meanwhile, this new group kicks our tails around the quadrant?” asked Pidge. “Does nobody have a sense of perspective here?”

“Chill, Pidge,” said Hunk firmly, and set a plate of alfredo-esque pasta in front of her – comfort food, as Pidge defined it, and no one asked what it was actually made of. “It’s not like they’re doing this just to spite you.” He started on the next meal’s prep. “You’re right about this new group though. They’re zealots. Old guard hardliners maybe?”

“Probably,” sighed Shiro tiredly. “Lotor isn’t exactly the ideal emperor for someone like Se-” he paused. “Like Sendak. Does anyone know if he was at the Kral Zera?”

“Surely he had to have been,” mused Allura. “I cannot see that one missing an opportunity to take over.”

All four heads turned at a movement in the corner; Krolia was sitting at a table there, and apparently had been for some time. “Kolivan will be sending agents to find that out,” she said. “This new force is organized, dedicated. It must be one of the high command. The warlords who did not even attend the kral zera would not have this level of skill, this devoted a force. So it is someone who did attend – and survived.”

Hunk, temporarily frozen, swallowed. “Uh. Great. Um. So...Keith got that ‘hang quietly against the wall until he scares the crap out of you because you forgot he was there’ trick from you, huh?”

Allura said, “I will inform Lotor of this development. This warlord is unlikely to be content with carving out a kingdom of his own – they will want to take all the Empire.”

Shiro nodded. “Yes. If we could get a few cruisers on our side along as backup, it could go a long way. It would buy Lance and Keith time to sort themselves out.” But his attention wasn’t on Allura; it was on Krolia. “Have you seen Keith?”

“Yes,” said Krolia. “It went about as well as one might expect.”

Or better; Shiro seemed marginally surprised Krolia wasn’t injured. “Any idea where they’re at now?”

“Lance is in his quarters,” said Krolia. “With enough food for a week, I suspect. I do not know where Keith is.”

Shiro frowned. “You’re not worried?”

“With all that he has survived,” said Krolia, “There does not seem to be much reason to be. And as he does not wish to see me, for me to pursue would make this a hunt. I do not think that would be wise.” She didn’t, to her credit, sound happy about it. Just sure of her reasoning.

Shiro sighed. “Right. I’ll go looking then. He’s not in the best state of mind. It’s better he not end up in situations where he’ll do things now that he’s likely to regret later.”

Krolia inclined her head. “Thank you.”

Allura, amused and wistful at this exchange, took her leave. Shiro – after a moment to consider the idea of lunch, and then reject it – sighed and followed.

Hunk put the meals under seal, so they could be eaten later, shaking his head at the idea of having to reheat them. “Nobody ever makes good decisions while hungry,” he grumped. But with no one left to cook for he turned to Krolia. “So. You’ve been to Earth. Got a favorite food?”

Krolia gave Hunk an amused look at that, her expression softening. “Surprise me,” she offered.

It was not what he’d expected of a galra woman, but Hunk was willing to take the offering for what it was. “Challenge accepted.”

~*~

Coran knocked on Lance’s door.

He was aware he probably wasn’t supposed to. That he was supposed to ‘give Lance space’, whatever that meant. That Lance needed to ‘sort himself out’ - again, whatever that meant. Insofar as Coran understood the reasons why Lance was supposed to be left alone, though, he found the reasons to range from ‘incomprehensible’ to ‘ludicrous’ and therefore was choosing to ignore them.

Because what he did understand was Lance had been through something, and was confused and upset, and therefore probably could use someone to talk to.

When the door opened, Coran felt his own logic was probably superior to at least half the ship’s. Lance’s room was a mess.

Actually...maybe ‘disaster area’ was more accurate. This wasn’t just the mess you got by being tired or distracted enough to forget to put things away. This was that plus Pidge’s hodgepodge of wiring to set up the gaming console – now demolished and scattered throughout the area – plus quite a lot of other things very clearly hurled at walls or floors with an eye to causing the most possible splatter.

Coran opened his mouth to comment on the chaos when he got an eyeful of Lance himself and thought better of it.

If anything Lance was embodying the chaos of his room. He looked rumpled, out of breath, half-dressed and half-crazed, and the way he was looking at Coran suggested he hadn’t yet decided whether to say hello or just punch Coran in the teeth.

Clearly this kind of insanity happened to humans often enough that everyone else had just expected it, and this was why he was supposed to have stayed away. But humans were, honestly, sometimes kind of a primitive species. Coran coughed politely. “I ah, see you’ve got quite the mess there,” he said lightly. “You might want a hand cleaning it up, perhaps?”

If it had been anyone else, Lance probably would have punched. He had enough shit to sort out without trying to be social on top of it. But you couldn’t punch Coran. It was like kicking puppies. There were some lines you just didn’t cross. Likewise, Lance couldn’t really make himself swear at Coran either. It was just – you just didn’t do that. On the other hand, though, Lance didn’t really have a vocabulary that didn’t have swear words just now. So he made a strangled sort of half-choked growling noise, roughly grabbed a wastebasket, and started shoving stuff into it.

Coran gently, gingerly reached out to take the basket from Lance’s hands when he realized Lance wasn’t distinguishing from ‘actual destroyed/damaged things’ and useful things like ‘clothes’ and ‘tools’. Lance gave him a harried, perplexed, well what do you want me to do then? Look, let go of the basket, and stomped over to the bed. Sat on it, stood right up as if it were on fire, and found a chair instead.

Coran set the basket down and went to Lance’s self-care table. Normally, it held brushes, razors, lotions, wraps, hair products – anything he’d found on their travels that counted as self-care. Currently it was bare, the normal contents scattered around the room. He picked up the nearest; a plant-based facial mask. “Good stuff, this,” he approved. “Opens the pores a treat.”

“So you’re into guys too?” asked Lance bluntly, his voice rough. Hoarse. Either he’d been yelling a lot recently, or he hadn’t said a word all day before now.

Coran blinked at him. “I’m sorry?” he asked. “I was talking about the facial. It’s quite good.”

“This is like the day I found out Pidge is a girl and it turned out everyone else already knew,” said Lance. “Only this time it’s me.”

Coran genuinely didn’t have clue one why a facial wrap or Pidge being a girl were related to Lance totalling his room, but he did understand Lance needed to get something off his chest. Gently, he set the packet of facial product on the table, then scanned the room for another salvagable thing. One thing at a time, that was how things got done. “This has to do with Matt?” he asked politely, hoping the answer was yes. If it had to do with skin care, boy would his face be red.

“Did everyone know?” Lance demanded. “Am I the last one again?”

Ah. There. A packet of emery boards. Coran scooped them up, put them neatly on the table. “I’m sorry?” he asked. “The last one to what, exactly?”

“That I like guys,” snapped Lance, heated. “I had sex with Matt and I liked it and how is this only news to me?”

Coran looked relieved. “So he didn’t hurt you, then,” he said. “That’s good. I know they’re worried about that.”

Lance stared at him. “….Are you listening in some other language?”

Coran was going to say no, but then very little about the situation made much sense to the old Altean. “...Possibly?” he hazarded. “But I am trying, lad, if you want to have another go.”

Lance sank into the chair, defeated, humiliated. “They all knew I’d be into guys, didn’t they,” he said flatly. “I’m the only one it’s a shock to.”

“Oh, is that it,” mused Coran. “I don’t think so, if that helps. Not really. Is that something humans do? Go around trying to guess other people’s sexual attractions?”

That question derailed Lance into a whole new land of confusion. “Is it not a thing for Alteans?”

“Not really, no,” said Coran, picking up a miraculously unbroken bottle of nail coat to put on the table. “We love who we love, lad. Who else we love is personal.”

Lance considered this, frowning. “So...you and Alfor…?”

“I would have been honored,” said Coran firmly. “But he had Melenor.”

“So...Alfor was just into girls then,” Lance hazarded.

Coran had no idea why this was now the topic, but at least Lance was talking. And not throwing anything. So he did the best he could. “Why would you think that?” he asked. “I don’t know that. But I do know Alfor was always true to his heart. He loved Melenor. He wouldn’t have hurt her for the world.”

Lance opened his mouth. Closed it. “So...Allura wouldn’t think any differently about me, then?” he asked, a sliver of hope in the tone.

Coran blinked. With strict truthfulness, he said, “Allura definitely does not think any differently of you for having sex with Matt. Her only worry, like everyone else, was that this wasn’t something you wanted.” Because the conversation about Allura being a princess and therefore so far out of Lance’s league that asteroids had whole belts between them was a topic for an entirely different day.

“And...the others?” asked Lance. “Keith’s probably laughing his ass off.” He winced. “And Pidge probably hates me.”

Coran gave this due consideration. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “Number Five has been out all quintant fighting Galra, so she’s probably worked off her issues by now. Keith seems to have a full plate. I know Shiro and Hunk are worried for you, but they said you needed space.” He looked around at the mess. “I’m not really sure why.”

Lance did too, and for a moment looked ready to cry. “I ...woke up and now I don’t know who I am anymore,” he admitted.

“Of course you do,” said Coran. “You haven’t even asked me once what your name is, so clearly you remember.”

And, improbably, that worked. Lance still looked like he wanted to cry, but he was laughing too. A painful sort of laugh, the sound being dragged out of him rather than freely escaping. “...They went out to fight today without me.”

“Space, remember,” said Coran. “But if you don’t need it anymore, I’m sure they’ll be very relieved to have you back.”

Lance started helping Coran pick up the mess. “It’s easy to know where you stand with the average galra,” he said.

The confusion was still there. He still had a lot he needed to sort through. But it was kind of a relief to know that it wasn’t the universe that was any different – it was just his perception of it all that had changed.

~*~

Keith was on the observation deck, watching the stars go by as the castleship flew back to central command. Allura would soon open a wormhole gate, but for now there were stars.

The sound of footsteps behind him had Keith jump to his feet, hand reaching for his knife – a gesture he stopped, visibly, before drawing it. He relaxed only slightly on seeing it was Shiro.

The bruise was already yellowing, Shiro noted. But Keith had always healed quickly. The faint shining streaks where tears had been was a bigger shock. Keith saw Shiro’s expression change and turned away.

“We can send Krolia back to the Blades if you want,” Shiro offered hesitantly. Keith did not cry – but then, if anything were going to, a sudden living mother probably would do it.

“No,” said Keith quietly. “I’ve wanted answers for a long time….I’m just...not sure I’m ready for them right now.”

Shiro offered a hug, and was again surprised Keith stayed distant. “...I know I’m useless to you right now,” Keith went on. “But you don’t have to coddle me.”

Shiro lowered his arms. “Is that what you think I’m doing?” he asked.

Keith’s eyes were dull, looking up at him. “What else would it be?”

“You carving your way through a ship of clones,” said Shiro. “Was that you coddling me?”

“Of course not.”

“When we were thrown out of the wormhole that one time,” Shiro went on. “And you crossed half the planetoid to come help me. Was that you coddling me?”

Keith was looking worried now, defensive. “No,” he almost whispered. “You know I wouldn’t.”

Shiro could see he’d made his point. Keith was afraid now. Not of Shiro, but of Shiro seeing his actions in exactly that way. He held out his hands. “You wanted to come out with us today, didn’t you.”

“...You need the Red Lion,” was Keith’s very careful answer. He did not take Shiro’s hands.

“Did you ask Red to take you?” asked Shiro.

Keith looked away, and that was answer enough.

“Why didn’t you?” asked Shiro gently.

“...Because you didn’t send the alert to your room,” said Keith quietly. “You didn’t want me to come.”

Shiro nodded agreement. “Do you know why?”

“Because...I’m useless right now. Or you thought Red wouldn’t take me. Or both.”

Shiro curled the fingers of his human hand under Keith’s chin, cupping it. “Maybe,” he said quietly, “I just wanted to be the one to protect you for a change. Though that doesn’t seem to be going very well.”

Keith gave Shiro a look that clearly said the entire conversation had just turned into meaningless syllables. Shiro tried not to sigh. He hoped like hell he wasn’t misreading the nature of Keith’s actions, because if he was then this was about to get really, really ugly. Unfortunately, playing it safe wouldn’t help regardless, so ...it was time to trust his gut and take the leap. If he was wrong, it would be entirely in Krolia’s hands to be useful.

With Keith’s chin held in his fingers, Shiro bent down and kissed Keith lightly on the lips.

For a moment, nothing happened.

Then Keith, staring at Shiro like a wild cat trying to decide if the fox was a playmate or lunch, pulled Shiro in for a much more thorough kiss. His body seemed to mold itself to Shiro’s, except at the hips. There was no mistaking the intent there.

But the tears on Keith’s eyelashes said clearly enough that he’d been emotionally pingponged quite enough for one day as it was. Shiro gently pulled back, and to Keith’s puzzled – almost wounded – expression, wiped away one of those little tears with his thumb. “You’ve hurt yourself for my sake, Keith,” he said quietly. “I won’t tell you to stop. We’re in a war and it’s heating up again – it would be stupid to pretend we’re not going to be doing this over and over. And I want you with me. But it’s got to go both ways. You saved me – let me save you, too.”

Keith’s expression softened then, understanding at last. “You already have, Shiro.”

~*~

Allura handled getting the castleship back to central command. Coran had gone off to talk to Lance – it bothered him that some strange human Issue meant there was no Voltron when Voltron was clearly badly needed, and moreso that this had put Allura in danger. She wasn’t sure Coran was the right person for the job – he was more often baffled by human idiosyncracy than she was – but he was the only one volunteering and he did have a point. Voltron was needed.

As the castleship was welcomed into the landing bay, Allura was not surprised to find Lotor awaiting her. He was dressed formally, too, making his welcome an Imperial welcome more than a personal one.

She took the hint, and got out of her paladin uniform and into ...if not court attire, at least something that indicated she was a noblewoman, before disembarking.

She really did not know what to make of Lotor. He seemed to be trying so hard to be Altean, to pretend his skin wasn’t a light lilac shade, that his eyes were not galra eyes, that his hands did not end in galra claws. But it was those things, and not his Altean build or demeanor, that had put him on the throne. It was from that throne he bowed over her hand. “I trust your venture was successful?” he offered.

“Regretfully, it was not,” Allura replied, falling into step at his side as they walked away from the ship. “There is a new warlord. The group calls itself the Fire of Purification. And they are...formidable.”

Lotor’s eyebrows rose. “Formidable, against Voltron?” he asked.

“We could not bring Voltron to the fight,” Allura admitted. “One of us was...indisposed. Four lions was completely insufficient. Lotor, you should take this seriously. The Fire of Purification is a genuine threat.”

Lotor nodded slightly. “Haggar shows her hand, I suspect,” he mused. “I have news for you as well, princess. While you were away, every Druid departed Central Command.”

Allura stopped in her tracks, forcing Lotor and the retinue of sentries to stop as well. “All of them?”

Lotor nodded. “Indeed. The move is, to the best of my knowledge, unprecedented. The witch has never left her lair unguarded before.”

“It must be a trap,” said Allura.

Lotor’s lip quirked a little, approving. “Haggar’s webs are not lightly untangled,” he warned. “But she is ever willing to sit at the right hand of power. I will have nothing to do with her. Therefore, it would seem she has found an ambitious and agreeable puppet.”

“You think Haggar’s gone to this new group then?” asked Allura. “On the basis of what?”

“That she is in many ways an excellent judge of strength,” said Lotor, holding out his hand to nudge Allura back into motion. “And if this new group is as strong as you claim, she will already have judged it – worthy, or unworthy. She will not support my crown, but she must support a crown. So she must back a rival willing and able to challenge me.”

Allura sighed, taking Lotor’s hand. “Such is the galra way, it seems.”

“So it has been for thousands of years,” Lotor agreed. “I have a great deal of work to do. It is my hope that I may rely upon your counsel, princess. It is time for the galra to learn a better way.”

Allura walked at Lotor’s side, wondering if she dared believe the sweet words. She wanted to. In certain respects, she had to. In all the many splintered factions now arising, only Lotor was offering any kind of alternative to the endless war. But did she believe it? Did she dare?

Chapter Text

“It is Sendak,” said Kolivan. “There is no doubt. It would appear he survived the Kral Zera.”

If the old Blade had an opinion about Lotor being among the gathered, he gave no sign. “Those who see Zarkon’s death as a loss, and Lotor as unable to assume the mantle, are crossing great distances to join his cause. Those closer to are given no alternative. Six have fallen so far. Within a few movements, unchecked, the Fire of Purification will be able to threaten the forces at Central Command.”

Lotor looked to Allura for permission; when she nodded, he rose. One claw tapped a world here, a world there. “If we can hold these,” he said, “That should halt the advance. Correct?”

Kolivan’s image peered at the highlighted systems. “For a time,” he agreed dourly. “Long term, if the Fire of Purification acquires the resources from these worlds,” and a new string of star systems turned pink on the display, “they will be able to remain behind their lines and fortify such that holding the line you have drawn would last only a few phoebs.”

Lotor’s eyes narrowed at the map. “And he has the Druids now,” he mused.

“Correct,” said Kolivan.

Lotor indicated a world that didn’t seem to be on the main route of conquest toward Central Command. “He will want this one then. His druids are all but useless without a base from which to create the processed quintessence his fleets will require.”

Kolivan’s expression became even more dour. “If you have no means of creating fuel, Emperor Lotor, your reign is going to be brief indeed.”

“I have something in mind,” said Lotor. “A theory, nothing more. For now, we may have to settle on raids on the Fire’s supply lines. The Lions should be more than capable even at diminished capacity.”

Lance didn’t say anything, but the red in his face almost radiated heat. Shiro’s warning hand on his shoulder kept his mouth shut.

“The rebels can also conduct raids,” said Shiro. “We need to keep Sendak’s greater focus on us. That’ll take pressure off the rest of the Coalition forces.”

“It should have an effect,” said Kolivan. “Zarkon once promised Sendak the Red Lion. It is possible he views Voltron as his rightful property.”

“It would not surprise me,” said Lotor dryly. “Sendak is the son Zarkon wanted.” If he noticed the sharp looks several of the paladins gave him at this, he gave no sign of it.

Pidge got up and started playing with the display. “We need fuel, and Sendak has to know that if the Druids went to his side. He’s going to expect attacks on his supply lines – we don’t have a choice there and he knows it. These are some probable ambush locations. Just holding them, we would weaken Sendak’s ability to defend his fuel resources. But to hold them we’d have to hold territory around them as well, to provide reinforcements.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Shiro. “But Kolivan’s got a point, Lotor. Without the druids to create fuel for the cruisers, your empire’s going to come to a halt pretty quickly. Replacing that’s got to be a priority.”

“And no strip mining the balmeras,” Hunk interjected quickly.

“Thank you, Kolivan,” said Keith, as the meeting seemed to be breaking up. “Keep us posted. I’ll do the same.”

Kolivan nodded to Keith, and the screen faded out.

Lotor turned to Allura. “If you would walk with me, Princess?” he asked tentatively. “I would like your private thoughts of my plan before I present it to the rest of the paladins.”

Despite wary looks from Keith and Shiro, an eyeroll from Pidge, and a genuine look of ‘please don’t’ dread from Lance, Allura nodded and rose. “I will hear you out,” she said.

The two walked out in almost lockstep, and Lance shook his head. “Please tell me I’m not the only one seeing a huge problem with his fixation on Allura.”

“You’re not,” said Shiro. “But it’s her choice to make. Krolia?”

“Kolivan is not sharing more than he has to,” said Krolia. “Not in front of Lotor. Galra don’t put any stock in oaths or promises. He’s making a ….peace overture. Because Voltron is. You’re going to want to have a private talk with him later.”

“Keith warned us this would be an issue,” Shiro nodded. “But the fact is he’s the only galra leader even considering peace right now. We have to at least give him the opportunity to show he’s genuine.”

“If galra show what they intend,” said Lance darkly, “Then what does that say about what Lotor’s doing with Allura?”

“Lotor’s being a special case,” Coran chipped in. “He is a Prince of Altean heritage. Allura is a Princess. We don’t really do arranged marriages, but...if Allura decides he’s someone she can work with...” He shrugged, a bit sadly. “It may be the best thing she can do for the whole universe, lad. She’s the leader of the Coalition.”

“It’s not unknown on Earth either,” said Sam, though he didn’t look happy about it either. “Symbolic marriages to end a war. Lotor’s clearly read the handbook.”

“Not if she doesn’t love him,” said Lance flatly. “We have this thing called paper that treaties can be made with these days. It’s a great invention.”

“You’re missing a greater point,” said Krolia. “Lotor is galra and altean. The problem is that we don’t know if his actions here represent the galra tradition of action, or a more altean approach. Misreading him could be a disaster. And Lotor has survived for millennia by making sure everyone misreads him.”

Ryou shook his head. “I don’t envy you sorting that out,” he said. “But we’ve got to get going. The sooner Earth is apprised of events out here the better.”

Shiro side-eyed him. “Do you have a cover story sorted out?”

“I’m going to tell them the Empire kidnapped me as a child and when they caught you at Kerberos they thought I’d escaped,” said Ryou dryly.

Shiro firmly did not facepalm. It did explain most of the discrepancies. “I’ll wait for the documentary series,” he decided. “Good luck, you two.”

Pidge got up to hug her father, and walk with them to the hangar.

“You’ve got all the mail?” asked Hunk, and Ryou raised a little sack full of messages as he left.

~*~

There was a workshop in what had been the galra fighter hangar on Shay’s balmera. The Balmerans weren’t mechanics but they did their best to provide tools for people who were, and the hangar was underground so the rebels felt safe in having a leg-stretch.

Matt, for his part, was enjoying what passed for lighthearted banter with Elcris. Galra had a sense of humor – it was dark, bloody humor, but humor nonetheless, and he was rather pleased with his discovery. Elcris at least had an appreciation for the absurdity of the rebel ships – easily outflown by the average Galra fighter craft – trying to get near enough to learn anything about the Fire of Purification and then successfully get clear.

Oh, and fitting a large energy cannon on a small ship. She thought that was funny too, and Matt really couldn’t blame her. Their ship currently looked like an independent set of flying genitals drawn by a twelve year old who hadn’t quite worked out proportions yet.

At least, to human eyes. Since Elcris found it absurdly amusing too, though, Matt had to guess galra weren’t built that differently.

“If you have to swivel the cannon to aim it, you could easily fly into an asteroid,” said Elcris.

“I’m thinking maybe fix it in position,” Matt agreed. “Fly to aim, you know?”

“Because that always works,” said Elcris very dryly.

It was that galra didn’t usually smile, Matt figured. It went against the whole military demeanor for one thing. For another, a lot of species thought of baring the teeth as a sign of threat or distress. Elcris was hanging around Matt more often purely because Matt wasn’t afraid of her. She had a job to do. She was doing it just fine. And she had a lot of thoughts about the ship’s weapons systems and how to improve them. Good thoughts.

So Matt was quite derailed when, out of the blue, she asked, “Why did you flee the ship of the paladins?”

Hanging on hard to the new cannon for balance, Matt asked as innocently as he could, “What do you mean?”

“You were going to stay longer, with your kin,” said Elcris, more quietly. “You return early, while your kin are still there. There was a disturbance. What did you do?”

Blade, thought Matt, biting back a sigh. Of course they talked to each other. Of course Kolivan would take an interest. Unless he hadn’t. “Is this, uh, an official request?”

Elcris’ yellow eyes studied Matt thoughtfully. “Does that make a difference?”

“Kinda yeah,” Matt admitted. “It’s personal, Elcris. I realize Kolivan – if you’re asking for him – might figure there’s an alliance something-or-other at stake, but there isn’t. It’s just...personal stuff. Human, personal, stuff. And I think the parties involved would really really want to kill me if it became the subject of Coalition gossip.”

“The Blade of Marmora does not gossip,” said Elcris firmly.

“That’s really about half of what you do,” corrected Matt. “Collect what people say, put pieces together. Mostly that’s a great thing.”

Elcris thought this over. “Human...the Order finds it valuable that you deal so willingly with us. The Paladins of Voltron are mostly human. For the most part we know little about your species. For the sake of the universe it is very important we learn. You understand, if you have caused offense to the Paladins of Voltron, it will be my duty to see you stand before them to be judged. It will not be personal.”

Maybe not on YOUR part, thought Matt, and tried not to sigh. She was doing the best she could. He couldn’t fault her for that. He did what he could given he really wasn’t going to discuss anything like details with her. Whatever state Lance was in now, it wouldn’t be helped by him thinking the entire Blade of Marmora knew about his sex life. He’d messed that kid up enough. So he said, calmly, “I’m pretty sure they won’t be calling me to judgment, Elcris. But if they do, okay, I promise to let you take me in without a fuss. Okay? So you won’t have to transfer to another ship or anything afterward. Just...trust me. It’s a personal human matter. I can’t discuss it without causing the very kind of offense you seem to think I’ve already done.”

Elcris considered this, then nodded. “Very well. It seems we have a great deal yet to learn. Perhaps I will ask Krolia; she is rumored to know a great deal about humans.”

Matt thought about turning that into an offer – he did enjoy Elcris’ company, once he’d gotten used to his hindbrain yelling about tigers. Of course, now that he had gotten used to that, the heightened awareness could be used other ways – and their size difference meant certain positions could be really fun. Shaking his head a bit at himself, he buckled down and got back to work on the cannon. He did not need to know what would happen if Elcris took offense at his offer. They were on the same ship after all. Office romances never worked out.

~*~

Life was normal again. And at the same time, felt like it would never be normal again.

Some sleep and food and, well, time, had more or less gotten Lance to a point where he was willing to try getting clean and dressed and leaving his quarters. It felt like everyone was being Careful around him – but no wonder, really, given the fuss he’d made.

Shiro just told him not to answer the alert if he didn’t feel up to the task. That only he, Lance, would know if he was up to said task and not to try second guessing himself. And if he knew he wasn’t going to be up to it – and only if he knew – to ask Keith to find out if Red would take him. Just for a while.

Lance was trying not to be angry about that. Or hurt. Of course it made sense. He’d said it himself once – this was war, not a game. If one soldier couldn’t do his job then everyone was at risk. They had the option, at least theoretically, of swapping lions for Black, Red, and Blue. This wasn’t the way he’d wanted to test that, but the universe never cared about things like feelings.

And he understood why Shiro thought it might be a while. Because Voltron was...intimate. As Coran had said; to form Voltron everyone had to look into everyone else’s minds. Lance had always been comfortable in his own skin – until now. Now he couldn’t help wondering what everyone else had seen when they looked at him. What had changed? Or had anything changed, really, and it was just perception?

Exactly the wrong kind of doubts for forming Voltron. You couldn’t doubt yourself. You couldn’t hide. Pidge was the first to find that out.

Pidge.

Yeah.

He should probably...talk to her.

Possibly while wearing some kind of armor.

Lance’s feet led him to the kitchen, though, and the prospect of food that wasn’t goo. Hunk was there, hands full with a mixing bowl full of something sticky, clumpy, and blue. He gave Lance a nod to indicate he’d seen him.

The heart of any home was the kitchen. This went double for any home Hunk was part of. Lance asked, carefully, “So...how much trouble am I in?”

“In general?” asked Hunk. “None. With Pidge? Find some virgins and a handy volcano.”

Lance winced. “Is there any way to maybe apologize without her using me as a target?”

Hunk had to think about this. “You ...kiiiinda accused her beloved brother of rape and then drove him off the ship,” he said slowly. “So you may actually kinda need to talk to Matt first. If he’s on your side, Pidge’ll have to shut up and listen. Otherwise she’s probably gonna be too busy defending him to listen to you.”

Lance’s face reddened, then paled, then turned a sort of light green as he tried entertaining that thought. He was not ready to talk to Matt. He just wasn’t.

Hunk studied the color changes and nodded slowly. “Guessing you’re not gonna be up to flying with us for a while then,” he said.

~*~

Keith was also finding sleep and time to be helpful. Shiro was both protective and not – which was to say, he wanted Keith with him at the end of the day, and it was fairly clearly not just for romantic reasons. Keith had no control over nightmares, and didn’t fake okayness particularly well when tired; Shiro could thus tell fairly quickly how okay Keith really was or wasn’t by simply staying near him.

At the same time, Shiro wasn’t forbidding anything. If Keith felt up to talking to or flying a Lion, Shiro wasn’t even going to attempt getting in the way.

It was the combination that really kept Keith in check. He couldn’t say he was fine when they both knew he wasn’t. It was on Keith, then, to weigh the situation against his internal health-check and decide if the risk was necessary.

It wasn’t like Shiro would lecture him or punish him for getting it wrong. But he would know. Just the fact that Shiro was Paying Attention and would know was itself a hard check. As he’d said – this was a war. They were both at risk. All the time. Taking no chances would result in everyone dying – but so would taking stupid chances. Shiro had to trust that Keith would not take stupid chances, just as Keith had to trust Shiro to do the same. Both, or neither. Those were the only ways it could work.

This was a hell of a lot of thinking for Keith, who had run pretty much entirely on gut instinct up to now.

Up to hitting that wall, anyway.

Keith thought best when in motion. So all his mental churning was happening in the training room, against the robot gladiator.

~*~

Shiro, for his part, was working hard to make four lions do the job of five.

Sendak was easily the most able commander Zarkon had ever trained. He didn’t overreach and he didn’t rest on his victories. No. Every attack was measured, the front never stretched too far to defend, and every attack was considered against what could be gained in victory or lost in defeat. Bloodthirsty and ruthless, nevertheless Sendak didn’t let that thirst rule him.

And one by one he captured systems. Everything Shiro tried to do only slowed the tide a little.

Lions could diversify, and Shiro tried that – sending each to defend a different planet, hoping at least one would succeed. He also tried keeping all four together for major targets. But at every turn Sendak seemed to know where they would be, and how much of his forces would be required.

Being fair, it wasn’t that hard to overwhelm one lion. Add in that the Red Lion wasn’t even flying, and Pidge in Green was wrestling too many personal conflicts to be her best, and that Hunk wasn’t the most capable offensive fighter, and you really only had Black and Blue fighting at full power.

He didn’t want to push Keith or Lance. He knew both of them had things they needed to work out, that you couldn’t rush healing, but – damnit people were dying out there.

After another fruitless attempt to at least hold the line ended in another tail-tucked retreat back to the castleship, Pidge spoke for all when she threw her helmet on the floor and snapped, “I don’t care which of them is in Red, or even if it’s both of them on each other’s laps. We need the Red Lion and we need Voltron.”

“Not that easy Pidge,” panted Hunk, leaning on Yellow’s leg like it was a big tree. “We need ..you know, cohesion, for Voltron. You being mad at both of them isn’t helping.”

“So it’s my fault now?” snapped Pidge, and she would have tasered Hunk with her bayard if Shiro hadn’t clamped a hand down on her shoulder.

“Nobody’s saying that,” said Shiro firmly. “You’ve got good reasons to be angry. They’ve made mistakes. But you’re also right that we need Voltron, and that means you’re going to have to forgive at least one of them. We can’t form Voltron if we’re fighting amongst ourselves. So – go take a shower. Get some rest. And decide what has to happen so you can make your peace with them because we need at least one of them flying, and soon.”

Allura said nothing. She hadn’t had much to say since they’d shifted to the galra central command as a base. She had too much to think about – trying to understand Lotor, and his motivations. Trying to figure out what she should do – for herself, for the paladins, for the coalition.

Shiro saved her the trouble by addressing her. “Allura – we’re defending Lotor’s territory here. If you could talk him into noticing it would probably help a lot.”

“Is there some reason he isn’t sending his own troops?” asked Pidge.

Allura made a face. “...Yes, I suspect there is,” she admitted. “He has been reluctant to speak about it. But what I gather is, with Haggar having left, he’s trying to conserve the fuel reserves he has to only defend the most critical worlds, until he can develop an alternative.”

That got the other three pilots just blinking at her. “An alternative to quintessence?” asked Pidge. “Isn’t that pretty much the standard for this part of the universe? Nothing better, nothing stronger? Like, that being the entire point the Empire’s gotten this big, this bad?”

Allura nodded. “The energy of life. Yes, that’s what the Empire runs on – but so does this castleship. Balmera crystals are crystallized quintessence. It’s...well, it’s two things, really. The Empire takes more than it returns, and the Druids do something to it once they have it. The fuel the cruisers run on isn’t the same as what powers this ship. Alteans use pure quintessence. Galra use altered quintessence. You remember what happened when Sendak put a galra-altered crystal in this ship.”

Pidge and Hunk both twitched, hard. “Worst. Day. Ever,” said Hunk solemnly.

“So the purple stuff, that’s what the Druids make?” asked Pidge, frowning.

Allura nodded. “So it appears. Lotor knows that without the Druids to process harvested quintessence, it’s phoebs at most before his fleets are useless hulks. That’s why he hasn’t sent them against Sendak. It would really be just as if he hand-delivered his cruisers to his enemy.”

“What’s this alternative?” asked Shiro. “Because we can’t even slow Sendak down very much. Whatever plan he’s got going, now’s the time.”

Allura sighed. “I think he’s trying to figure out if he can trust us,” she said. “Whatever he has in mind must be very risky. We may be better served by Pidge choosing who should fly Red, and fighting as Voltron.”

Pidge scowled. “Look. Even if I do that, Voltron can only be in one place at a time. Sendak’s already up to hitting multiple targets. We need Lotor’s army if we’re going to beat Sendak back.”

Allura inclined her head. “I will ask Lotor to share his plans with me,” she agreed, but she wasn’t particularly happy about it.

“And you, Pidge,” said Shiro. “Talk with them. Both of them. We need the Red Lion. And we need Voltron.”

“Fine, fine,” groused Pidge, and stomped off grumbling about stupid boys.

Hunk sighed. “Don’t take it too hard, Shiro,” he said. “She’s still really unhappy with herself. That clone ship got to her, too, and she hates it.”

“I know,” said Shiro quietly. “I’m not expecting campfire singalongs any time soon, but we have to at least start to try getting our team back to functional. People are dying.”

~*~

“Neptune,” said Sam with a happy sigh. “I have to hand it to Allura. We’re almost home.”

Ryou studied the planet. He had the facts, sort of floating just out of conscious reach, where they would surface as needed if he didn’t think too hard about how or why he knew. Neptune was on the outer edges of the human solar system, named for a sea god. Possibly because it was very blue, possibly because it was an ice giant. Or possibly he was overthinking it.

For an inhabited system it was strange how little clutter there was. But humans hadn’t left their system before now. All the clutter was hovering around Earth. Ryou got up, letting the ship autopilot for a bit, and started checking to see what might be locked, or hidden.

“You realize they’re going to tear this ship apart to see how it works,” sighed Sam. “A shame. It’s probably the fastest thing in this system. It took Shiro and Matt and I six months to get out to the edge and we’re going back in in a matter of minutes.”

“Point,” sighed Ryou. “I just hate going into what I know is about to become a prison.”

“They’ll have to question us at some point,” said Sam, trying to be reassuring. “They can’t really afford to torture us.”

“And that’s stopped humans from torturing when exactly?” asked Ryou. “I’m surprised you’re not more worried.”

Sam just shrugged. “I know them,” he said. “And many of them know me. Sooner or later, they’re going to want to talk. They won’t be able to get their answers any other way.” He patted Ryou on the shoulder. “They’ll probably take your arm,” he said apologetically. “But I promise. The second thing I do when I can talk is demand they give it back.”

“The second?” blinked Ryou.

“My wife deserves an explanation,” said Sam. “A real one, I mean. From what Katie told me she’s...it hasn’t been good for her, with all the rest of the family out in space.”

“Oh,” said Ryou. “You’re right. Of course. I’m sorry – it’s the memories.”

“I know,” said Sam. “The Olkari blocked most of your access to Shiro’s memory so you could be yourself. That’s all right. It makes it easier for the rest of us, too, to see you as your own person. I think Colleen will be very interested in meeting you – she’s much more into the life sciences than the rest of the family. Just remember, Ryou. We’re here to convince Earth to get ready. We can’t force them. And they’re going to be afraid, and we’re...never at our best when we’re afraid. Will you follow my lead?”

Ryou sighed. “For now,” he agreed. “How about – I promise to let you know in advance when your lead isn’t going to work for me any more. Give you and Colleen time to come up with alternatives, or get out of the way. Fair?”

“Fair,” Sam sighed. “And there’s our little blue home up ahead. Let me just open a channel.”

Ryou settled back into the pilot’s seat as Sam began trying to contact Earth. “This is Commander Sam Holt calling Garrison. Iverson, are you there? This is Commander Sam Holt...”

He repeated himself a few more times before a very startled and out of breath voice answered, “This is the Southwest Garrison, Commander Iverson speaking. Sam, where the hell have you been? You’ve been gone for years, man! Years! You were legally declared dead!”

“So I’ve been told,” chuckled Sam. “I’ve got a surprise guest with me – Shiro’s lost twin brother. And an alien-made vessel. And a really long story.”

We are definitely interested in hearing it,” came Iverson’s bone-dry reply.

Sam muted the channel, looking toward Ryou. “He means we’re going to be taken captive the minute we land,” he warned. “Don’t fight. Promise me.”

Ryou raised both hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m following your lead,” he promised. “For now.”

Sam nodded, and unmuted the channel. “Coming in to land at Southwest Garrison. It’ll be good to be home. Someone call my wife, please.”

True to Sam’s prediction, the moment they opened the hatch someone tossed a sleep-gas grenade into it. Both men were out cold before the first hazmat-suited Garrison officer stepped on board.

~*~

“You would have more leverage if you turned your foot,” said Krolia.

The advice, out of nowhere, startled Keith enough that he nearly got brained by the training robot. Angrily, he redoubled his efforts and made short work of it. “What do you want?” he demanded.

“Are you sure that’s the right question?” countered Krolia. “Isn’t the correct question, what do you want?”

Keith made a strangled sound and started up the simulation again. Clearly he was going to need something around to beat the crap out of.

Krolia nodded as if the sound were itself an answer. “You and Shiro have begun a relationship.”

“And that is your business how?” snapped Keith, as the gladiator started taking swings at him.

“You are my business,” Krolia reiterated. “And turn your foot. Really. You’ll get a lot more power behind the swing.”

Irritated, Keith tried the shift in his stance. It did in fact give him more leverage to swing. “So today is a training session then.”

“Let’s say...I am here to present answers,” Krolia clarified. “It’s only for you to decide your questions. And in the meantime, improving your technique isn’t a bad idea.”

“Fine,” growled Keith. “What did you think was going to happen after you left?”

Krolia looked thoughtful. “...I didn’t – don’t – understand Earth and its customs as much as others seem to think,” she admitted. “But your father was part of a large family. I thought they would take care of you.”

“How do you even know that?” Keith demanded, ducking a swing by the gladiator.

“He showed me pictures,” said Krolia simply. “He had many siblings, many aunts, uncles. I still do not understand what happened, that they did not come for you. Do you remember at all?”

It was tricky, trying to remember long ago events while trying to avoid being skewered, but it was exactly the sort of multitasking Keith had planned for the afternoon. “I remember...there was a guy, old beat-up pickup. Not that that means anything, there were dozens of those around. After the fire he took me to his house. Said I was going to live with him. I don’t remember exactly what happened though. A gas leak or something. Not a fire, not another one, but ...something. It wasn’t more than maybe a month or two before I got bounced to another home. That kind of became the standard.”

Krolia thought this over, while Keith got on with his combat training. “I suppose you wouldn’t remember a name. Can you remember what he looked like?”

“Dark hair, like Dad, and me,” said Keith. “Brown eyes. Kind of...sharp.” He ducked another swing, launched a kick at the robot’s chest. “Smelled like a cat’s litterbox.”

Krolia sighed. “Possibly one of your father’s brothers,” she said. “I know he did not think very much of some of them, although he could not explain why.”

“Well, if that was an uncle,” Keith growled, skewering the robot, “Then he may still be in jail. The police were definitely not happy with him. And if he was family then that’d explain it. Next of kin in jail, kids go into the system.”

Krolia did not seem particularly satisfied. “I will certainly investigate when next you are on Earth,” she said.

“I suppose you made sure I looked human,” Keith sighed. “Not sure that was the best call. I mean at least it would’ve been nice to know why I was so different.”

Krolia tilted her head. “More than you realize,” she said. “You said the Olkari claim I locked you into a human appearance. I assure you, I did not.”

That got Keith’s attention. “But the serum…?”

“Enhanced your human traits, yes,” Krolia nodded. “But you cannot be locked into a form, my son. We are not exactly galra, you see.”

Keith had a sudden oh no, not again look. “….Do I want to know?” he asked, his tone clear that he thought the answer was probably ‘no’.

“Lotor is not the only scion of galra and altean,” said Krolia. “There used to be many, in the days of the first alliance. Zarkon bonding with Honerva was really just the most public, the most celebrated. Among the lower classes – which Zarkon never paid much attention to – there were many such unions in the days of peace. But when Daibazaal and then Altea were destroyed, the children of these unions were in as much danger as their Altean parents. We, however, were better able to hide. Being half galra to begin with, we just had to look – well, more galra.”

Keith stared at her. “….You’re joking.”

For answer, Krolia closed her eyes. Her skin and eyes paled – though this made her stripes stand out as particularly colorful birthmarks – and she looked….human. “Do I look like I’m joking?”

Keith dropped his sword. “...How?”

Krolia stopped concentrating, and her normal purple hues returned. “It’s very difficult for me. It’s been several generations, you see. The ability sort of waxes and wanes across generations. My parents were rather better at it than I am. As for you, well.” She shrugged. “You will find out how capable you are, or are not, as you grow older. But the serum I gave you was only meant to help you avoid inadvertent changes in your childhood. Now, I think you look human because that is how you see yourself.”

Keith tried not to sigh. It had taken him so long just to get used to the idea he was part galra, and now it was even weirder than that. “So...Allura really is my princess then?”

“As much as Lotor is your emperor,” said Krolia mildly, “Which is to say, only if you choose to accept it. The galteans have survived by not advertising our nature. I wouldn’t suggest telling anyone else. Except possibly Shiro. I think Lotor and Allura have quite enough to think about without adding us to the mix.”

Keith frowned. He was by now very familiar with how Blades phrased things. “You mean I shouldn’t say anything.”

“The Alteans were all but destroyed,” Krolia reminded him. “We have Altean heritage. Zarkon made the Imperial stance on Altean heritage very clear, with his treatment of Lotor. And Lotor has yet to do anything to suggest he would change this. If anything, his recent actions would appear to be playing into that preconception. It’s very likely he has reasons for this. Whether those reasons would mean anything good for galteans remains to be seen.”

“So why tell me?” asked Keith bluntly.

“Because you have a right to know who you are,” said Krolia. “I would tell you about your father’s family if I knew more than scraps. But I promise you - when there is time, I will investigate the matter fully. Your father would want you to know who you are, too.”

Keith was torn between wanting to tell this woman to fuck right off, and getting the answers he wanted so badly. For now, the curiosity won out. “...Is that why I know things, sometimes?” he asked carefully.

Krolia blinked. “Know things?” she echoed.

“I can tell sometimes, when something’s died unnaturally,” said Keith. He didn’t like admitting to ‘mystic mumbo jumbo’. People tended to just laugh. “I knew something was coming, when Shiro returned to Earth. I could sense the Blue Lion, and the Red.”

Krolia nodded. She semed surprised, pleased, and proud all at once. “That...honestly, my son, you get that from both sides of your family, if your father’s stories were true. But yes. It crops up in my family from time to time. I don’t have it myself, but I can help you hone the senses you have, if you wish. It’s nothing so powerful as Princess Allura’s abilities, but it can – and apparently has – served you well if you trust it.”

Keith let the sword return to being a dagger, and sheathed it. He didn’t trust Krolia, or her promises never to leave, or that she was on his side. But he needed the answers too badly to turn away. So he took a deep breath and said, “I’d like that. Thank you.”

~*~

Lotor was waiting for her, of course. Never anything but courteous, never anything but well-mannered and polite.

Even when the ‘date’ was ...well. A bit bizarre.

“Are you sure there won’t be consequences?” asked Allura, as they crossed past the markers of what she really thought of as Haggar’s domain. “I can feel her power here, Lotor. It isn’t safe.”

“Haggar is never safe,” said Lotor quietly. “I find it wiser, on the whole, to accept the reality of that danger than to ever pretend otherwise. But if she could strike at a distance, I feel certain I would not still be alive, Allura. I have verified that the Druids are gone from this station. She has no hands with which to attack us. So, while there may indeed be consequences to our foray into her territory, they are unlikely to be the ones you currently fear.”

“But why are we doing this at all?” asked Allura quietly. She could feel they were being watched.

“Because as much as I welcome the Paladins’ assistance in maintaining my realm,” said Lotor, “my throne will never be secure so long as Haggar breathes. There must be some way to destroy her.”

“And you think we’re going to find it in her own territory?” asked Allura.

Lotor gave her a little wry smile. “Where safer to hide a weakness?” he asked. “Who would dare?”

“Faulty logic,” Allura warned. “Considering where we are.”

“Not at all,” said Lotor. “She has never left any part of this sector unguarded, before now. And you may have noticed few wish to tempt her even so.” He pushed open a door, with racks and racks of oddities within. “Where better to hide a needle, than in a sack of needles?”

Allura sighed and followed him, though not without trepidation. That sense of being watched, followed, was even more intense now. “What needle, Lotor?”

“Truly, I have no idea,” Lotor admitted. “But I am hoping we will know it when we find it.”

~*~

Lance really did not want to be doing this. He didn’t feel ready. But then, it was entirely possible he’d never feel ready. He couldn’t say what he felt, not really. There were too many feelings in too small a space.

But if he didn’t work on making this right, there would be no Voltron. Even if he handed Red back to Keith, as he’d offered to do before, there was still a good chance Allura would leave them to spend time with Lotor, and he’d be needed in Blue. No matter how he looked at it, he had to start making this right.

And the first step of making it right was talking to Matt about it. So Lance made his way up to the bridge, and asked Coran to please go find something else to do for a while because he had to make a private call.

Alone on the bridge with the comm, Lance took several deep breaths and tried to remember that whatever else, he wasn’t going to get angry. He needed Matt to be willing to vouch for him with Pidge. Pidge would talk to him if Matt told her to. The dominos would fall from there.

It all made sense in his head. So. One last deep breath and he activated the channel. “Castle of Lions calling Coalition fleet. I’m looking for Olia’s ship.”

He repeated the call a few times before the relays bounced back an answer. “This is Olia’s ship, Castle of Lions. Go ahead.”

“This is Lance,” said Lance. “Mind if I talk to Matt?”

“Securing channel,” replied the voice. “Two doboshes.”

Lance waited, while the connection was secured and whoever that was got Matt. He felt like overcaffeinated squirrels were playing tag in his head. He couldn’t let himself focus on any one thought in case it was one of the ones that wanted to shut the channel down and lock himself back in his room.

Finally, finally, Matt appeared on the screen. “Hey,” he said, visibly wary. “N7 said you wanted to talk to me specifically.”

The back of Lance’s mind was reminding him about That Night. He did his best to shut it up. “Um. Yeah. Uh. You’re okay?”

Matt peered at him from the screen. “...Yeah,” he said slowly. “Better than you seem to be doing. Look – about that night. I’m sorry.”

That made Lance pause. “...You are?”

“It’s pretty obvious in retrospect that I took you places you weren’t ready to go,” said Matt. “Or maybe willing. We were both drunk and I should’ve realized you weren’t in a place to give consent.”

“So you did take advantage,” Lance blurted before he could stop himself.

“I swear it wasn’t intentional!” Matt insisted. “I’ve – I thought I’d gotten pretty good at telling when someone’s thinking no, Lance, even if they’re not saying it. I’ve been around aliens a long time now, and I just – I forgot the human rules, and I’m sorry.”

God, Lance wanted this entire conversation to be over. He hadn’t felt like a victim until just now, but Matt’s version made sense. You did not just get someone drunk and have your way with them. And the liquor had been Matt’s. Lance turned very red. He didn’t just feel like a victim now. He felt like a stupid victim. Because...he’d enjoyed it. He really had.

He heard Matt sigh, and looked up at the screen. “A thousand things at once, right?” Matt asked gently.

“What?” asked Lance. Stupid, embarrassed, and naked. Better and better.

“You,” said Matt. “Feeling a thousand things at once. I’m guessing you didn’t call me to accuse me of rape.”

“I’m reconsidering the option,” Lance replied, almost surprised to hear his own voice growling.

“Then let me clarify something,” said Matt. “Just because you enjoyed it doesn’t mean it was something you were ready for. And – look, not to be smug or anything, but I’m pretty sure you did enjoy it.”

Face so red hot Lance was sure he could fry eggs on his forehead, Lance put his head in his hands. “F-fuck off, Matt,” he said. It was almost fuck you but his mind leaped to the inevitable answer to that.

“Look,” said Matt. “Just tell me. You think I enjoy trying to pretend nothing’s happened? Just tell me that you didn’t want it, or didn’t enjoy it, or what exactly is wrong here. Because it’s obvious something is really wrong, but I can’t do anything until I know what it is.”

“Just – tell Pidge she’s got to talk to me, would you?” snapped Lance. “I can’t do my job like this, Matt. I can’t fly a Lion. There’s no Voltron right now because of this, do you get that? And Pidge is up in fucking arms because I’m being mean to her brother, do you get that? I don’t owe you anything. Just – you do whatever you have to so Pidge will talk to me without trying to bite my head off or kill me. You want to fix this? You want to make this right? That’s what you do. You tell her whatever you have to tell her so she stops hating me for this.”

There was silence for a few seconds. When Lance made himself open his eyes and look at the screen, Matt looked paler than usual, and pained, and – guilty?

“...All right, Lance,” Matt said quietly. “I’ll get Pidge off your neck. She’ll work with you. I promise.”

And then the screen blinked out.

Lance couldn’t stop himself from crying. Hugging himself, feeling a bit sick. That wasn’t how he’d wanted the conversation to go. It wasn’t what he’d planned for. But seeing Matt so guilty about it – and recognizing that yeah, alcohol made everything a bit warped, and he had wanted it, and he had enjoyed it but that didn’t make it something he could cope with, or something he’d have even thought of if alcohol hadn’t been involved. He didn’t know what to make of that. Or of himself. And it was that last thing – that he wasn’t sure what to make of himself now, if he was just This Way and that was normal now, or if he’d genuinely been drugged into participating, or what, that was worst.

Maybe Coran was right and it was all a matter of perception. But self perception mattered a lot.

It was several minutes before Lance had enough of himself together to leave the bridge.

Chapter Text

The nightmares hadn’t come back, but holding Keith steady while he sobbed was not, in Shiro’s estimation, any kind of real improvement.

It was a lot. Honestly, it was probably a lot too much. Keith had pushed himself to his limit to bring Shiro back. And now he had his long lost mother underfoot, and all the answers he’d ever wanted, and a huge passel of doubts about his worthiness to remain a paladin after what he’d done at the clone ship. Keith’s mental defenses were taking a hard beating with just one of those – all three at once meant he ended his day exhausted and mentally bare.

That he felt safe enough with Shiro to just hang on hard and sob said more than a hundred declarations of love. Shiro knew the team needed Keith back on his feet and in a Lion as soon as possible, but...he couldn’t. He couldn’t lay that on Keith’s shoulders too – not because Keith would refuse but because he knew Keith wouldn’t. Keith would do whatever Shiro asked of him – even if he didn’t have the ability or stability to do it. Shiro, therefore, had to be very careful in what he chose to ask, and when he chose to ask it.

There were so many things he really needed Keith’s help with. But Shiro had to make it clear it was optional, that Keith was in no way being requested to do it. That way Keith would check himself, make sure he didn’t overextend.

So...Shiro kept a list of things that needed doing on his desk in his quarters. Neither hidden, nor in direct view. Keith could find it if he were well enough to look, and decide for himself what he was up to doing at any given point.

And Shiro held him through the night, kissed him when it seemed a good idea, and generally – for the time being – let Keith make demands upon his person. Gods willing, there would be time enough for more equal games.

~*~

The call came and Pidge was happy to answer it; she’d been worrying about Matt. “Hey,” she said.

Matt didn’t look entirely happy though. “Hey,” he echoed. “Look – is this a private line? We need to talk.”

“Can be,” said Pidge, and arranged for it – including locking the bridge doors for a while. “Okay. Private. What’s up?”

“You need to lay off Lance,” said Matt. “It’s not his fault.”

Pidge frowned. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “He’s a drama queen. Like you’d ever -”

“Pidge,” winced Matt. “Stop, okay? I love you for defending me, but you’ve got to stop. I – got him drunk, Pidge. He wasn’t ready for – any of it. And I got him drunk. Of course he’s confused and upset. Wouldn’t you be?”

Matt wasn’t meeting her eyes, even on screen as he was. Pidge stopped. “Wait...are you saying you -”

“I’m saying I got him drunk and then did things with him he wasn’t ready for,” said Matt firmly, but there was a sort of gulping rawness to the tone that clearly stated he didn’t want to be saying anything. “I’m saying he’s not some kind of drama queen tease, Pidge. He’s as confused as anyone would be and that’s on me, not him.”

Pidge sat down hard in her chair. She didn’t want to cry. Not again. Not so soon. “...Matt?” she asked, and there were so many questions bound in the name. You didn’t do what I think you did, did you? You’re not that guy, are you?

“I’m sorry, Pidge,” said Matt heavily. “I mean it. I’ve said it to him too, but – you can’t I’m sorry out of something like this. I’ve promised him I’ll stay clear of the castleship, so I can’t visit you for a while, but it’s okay if you come out to where we’re working. Just don’t blame Lance for it, all right? It’s not his fault.”

“But he-” Pidge frowned. Halting. “He said you didn’t force -”

“No,” said Matt, quieter now. “But that doesn’t make anything less wrong, Pidge. I’m – I don’t want to talk about it, because if anyone should tell you anything it’s Lance. Just – trust me. Force doesn’t have to be involved for it to be wrong.”

Pidge shook her head. “No, I don’t understand. You don’t just get to take something back.”

Matt tilted his head at her. “Of course you can, Pidge.” He raised a hand. “Okay. Hypothetical. Let’s say I found a flower whose pollen worked like a huge aphrodisiac on humans. Like, one sniff and you’d be up for anything. Enthusiastically.”

Pidge glared at her brother. “You told me sex pollen wasn’t a thing.”

“It isn’t,” said Matt. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t similar things. Less...call it pure of purpose. Aphrodisiacs do exist, Pidge. For every species, as far as I can tell. Now, if I had one of those things, and I said it’d just relax you but didn’t tell you what else it might do, and you took some of it and had lots of sex afterward – even if you enjoyed it at the time, you can still see where you might have problems accepting events afterward, right?”

Pidge was really not liking this thread of conversation. “...But you said it’s not a thing and you didn’t do that.”

Matt closed his eyes. “I’m saying I didn’t mean to do that, but I think that’s what happened. I didn’t realize it’d affect him that way and I was...flattered. I didn’t look to see if maybe something else was making him do things.”

The look Pidge turned on her brother held crumbling pedestals. “Oh, Matt...

“I’m really sorry, Pidge,” said Matt quietly. “Just don’t blame Lance. I...gotta go. Um. I’ll understand if you don’t want to talk for a while. I’ll...wait for you. Okay?”

Pidge said nothing, but her expression said her brother had just fallen several notches in her personal estimation. She closed the connection and just...stared, for a while, out of the viewport at the walls of Central Command’s landing bay.

~*~

Matt, for his part, rested his forehead on the console after Pidge closed the connection.

Elcris, behind him, didn’t even startle him because of course she would spy on the call. She was a Blade. Spying was what they did. “I see why you wished to consider it private,” she said.

“Couldn’t work that out before I said all that?” asked Matt tiredly, and got up. “I need to go wash my mouth out.”

Elcris blinked at him. “Why? Did you not do the honorable thing?”

Matt gave her a level look. “I told Pidge what Pidge needed to hear so she’d get off Lance’s case,” he clarified. “I didn’t give Lance anything more exotic than a few shots of tequila. He’s definitely had heavier shit than that out here – the Naxzela after-victory party comes to mind. What happened happened because Lance is more tightly wound than a spring in a new clock, and what’s happening now is because the stupid thing was unwinding that spring. I’m not saying I did something smart or right or beyond question. Just that I made a bad choice and the fallout is now killing people, so if ...if my little sister has to see me as some kind of sexual predator while Lance gets his shit together then...I’ll do that. But if you tell anyone what you heard here and it gets back to Lance that this is now all over the Coalition, it will be for nothing and we’re going to have a problem.”

Elcris considered the data. “….You have done the necessary thing,” she said. “As any Blade would do. I will keep your secret.”

~*~

Shiro did not enjoy detangling himself from Keith in the morning. Keith was a light sleeper on his own – but next to Shiro, that changed to a deep sleep that seemed to stay oblivious to everything. And it was maintained by Keith wrapping himself around Shiro, arms and legs as tangled together as possible.

So far, he hadn’t woken Keith in detangling himself. But he still didn’t much like doing it. Here’s to the days when we can both sleep in, he silently told him. But it wasn’t going to be today. Today was four lions against one of Sendak’s supply lines. They needed to take out as much of Sendak’s fuel today as they could, and get it back to Lotor. Because with Lance and Keith sidelined, they were going to need Lotor’s cruisers.

Not pushing either Lance or Keith into just getting into a Lion was proving to be an incredible test of will.

~*~

“There will be only four,” intoned the druid.

“My compliments to the high priestess,” said Sendak. He had no idea how Haggar knew the paladins were crippled, but she’d proven correct on every count. Four lions, no Voltron, no cruisers from Lotor’s fleet.

It was like the boy just didn’t want to be Emperor.

That suited Sendak just fine, really. Every world he captured built his own Empire. And every day the paladins dithered in their little cocoon meant another two or even four it would take them to dislodge Sendak from his territory.

Soon enough even Voltron wouldn’t be much of a threat. Voltron could rip fleets apart – but could not be in two places at once. Push that to having to be in seven or twelve or more at one time and even Voltron would be helpless to stop him.

And when Voltron could not help Lotor, the half-breed would be helpless. Forced to kneel to the true Emperor.

Sendak considered the wisdom of pressing his advantage. Clearly the paladins were currently in disarray. Would a push galvanize them, or cause them to fracture completely?

~*~

Lance ran into Keith in the kitchens, which shouldn’t have surprised him. Keith was dressed – street clothes, which seemed to be his thing lately – and sipping from a mug. Coffee, probably, or the nearest thing to it. He watched Lance, but didn’t say anything. Or move.

“You do realize you’re wearing bright red in the middle of a white and blue space and I can still see you, right?” said Lance sourly.

“You didn’t yesterday,” Keith replied mildly.

Lance closed his eyes, reddening. “So if you’re going to laugh, just laugh and get it over with.”

“No reason to,” said Keith, and sipped coffee.

“Oh, come on,” growled Lance. “It had to be funny. Crazy Lance screaming his head off because a boy kissed him.”

Keith blinked at him over the rim of his mug. “...What’s funny about it?”

Lance, tirade cut off before it even got started, just stared. “Who are you?”

“Freaking out because a boy kissed you isn’t as crazy as Pidge might think,” said Keith calmly.

“You’re not,” Lance pointed out. “Don’t think everybody hasn’t noticed where you’ve been sleeping lately.”

That got Lance a level look. “Shiro is Shiro,” said Keith. “It took me years to be sure Shiro wouldn’t hold it against me, that it would be okay if he felt the same way. You don’t know squat about Matt, and you were right to think there’d be trouble even if it wasn’t the trouble you were expecting. Whether you wanted it or not, whether you asked for it or not.”

“...You know Matt, though,” said Lance slowly. “Did you – did he -”

“No,” said Keith firmly. “Though he probably would’ve if I’d offered. Is that what you wanted to know?”

Lance’s expression clearly said he had no idea what he wanted to know, and just as clearly wouldn’t be able to stop himself from asking for a big truck.

Keith sighed. “Grab your breakfast. I’ll tell you what I can.”

~*~

Several hours later, Keith decided that the smartest thing to do was get the hell away from Lance for a bit.

Not that Lance had been particularly unreasonable. Especially by Lance standards. But there was only so long Keith felt comfortable discussing someone else’s sex life, even under circumstances as extenuating as these. He’d only really done it at all because four lions did not a Voltron make, and Lance was really needed out there. And if Lance didn’t get himself together really soon, Keith was going to quit being patient about it and go talk to Red. He had his doubts as to whether Black would talk to him again, but he was pretty sure Red would. It’s just that asking, if Lance was ready to fly, would cause more problems than it solved.

So Keith stepped off the castleship entirely, to wander Central Command. Krolia had had a lot to say about ...a lot of things, really. But one of the first things she’d said was Central Command was not drab – not to galra. That when he could change himself to see through galra eyes he’d understand the magnificence of it, that Zarkon had built a kind of second homeworld here, something that actually inspired galra who saw it to join the military, to fight for it.

At the moment, though, it still looked drab and ...dark, really, to Keith’s very human sight and sensibility. A place of shadows and violence and intrigue. Which felt more honest to what the Empire had become than the stories Krolia told him. He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to see what sounded like a gaudy and elaborate deception.

Actually the dim lighting meant he’d be happy to be sure he saw at all. The shadows made him edgy. It was too easy to imagine people hiding in them.

Of course, that was because sometimes someone was hiding in them. “Ah, the paladin who is not a paladin,” drawled Lotor. “Why are you the only one that comes alone to walk our capital’s corridors?”

Keith just shrugged.

Lotor’s eyes narrowed slightly. “It is quite rude, you know, to force others to carry the bulk of conversation.”

“I’ve been called that before,” Keith replied. The tone suggested he wouldn’t really mind one more.

“Does our alliance mean nothing to you, then?” asked Lotor. “Is it truly only Princess Allura who has a vision beyond an eternal war?”

Troll, Keith decided. He put on a civilized front, but Keith knew a provocateur when one poked him. “Princess Allura is out there, fighting for your empire,” said Keith. “While you’re...taking a walk.”

“Indeed,” said Lotor. “I understand the goal today is to bring in fuel for my cruisers, so that I can properly assist your efforts.”

Keith’s arms crossed over his chest. “You’re not concerned,” he said. “You’re not worried. You’re waiting. What are you waiting for?”

Again that sharp, calculating look. “I have discussed my hopes with the princess,” he said. “Perhaps she does not trust you enough to share them.”

Or she’s been too tired from all day fighting for days on end. “She’s been busy, or with you,” said Keith. He tilted his head. “Is it Voltron you want – or just Allura?”

There. There it was. Just a flash – just a moment. The question had hit Lotor hard. But he covered well, shifting to princely disdain. “You have many questions. Yet I notice you are unwilling to answer any.”

Keith considered playing that game – question for question. It wasn’t likely to go anywhere, he knew, just because it was Lotor’s home turf so to speak. And Lotor could answer truthfully while at the same time leading Keith to believe wholly untrue things. Lotor might even do that just to see how far it could go. Allura held Lotor’s interest – no one else. The question really was why. Just because she was Altean? Something else?

Better to change the nature of the game then. An idea struck him. “Maybe a trade,” Keith offered.

“Really,” drawled Lotor. “What manner of trade.”

“I could use more training,” said Keith. “I’ve heard you’re good with a sword. Spar with me for an hour a day. While we’re sparring you can ask me whatever you want. If it’s something I can’t answer, I’ll tell you. It won’t cost you any time with the princess, if we spar while the Lions are out.”

This time that calculating look held a degree of….approval? “Do you not have questions for me?” asked Lotor.

“I’d ask if I thought you’d answer them honestly,” shrugged Keith.

“And if I gave you my word to be truthful?” asked Lotor with a little sly smile.

“I’d say honesty isn’t the same as truth,” said Keith. “Answer me honestly, or don’t answer. I’m not up for games of half truths and misdirections. We’re allies or we aren’t.”

The smile faded. “How boring,” he said. “You can’t play the game well, so you don’t want to play at all. That is not the way one improves, paladin.” Lotor flicked perfectly manicured little claws. Almost nails, but not quite. “Very well. A...fair contest. I give you my word to answer your questions honestly or not at all, during the spar. But do me the favor of the same, in the fight as well as with words. As you say – we are allies, or not.”

Keith bit back a wince. Lotor had out maneuvered him there, and he was rather concerned that this ten thousand year old prince would kick his ass. Like, a lot. But...Shiro needed to know what Lotor was like. So did Kolivan. And whatever else, Lotor’s romantic attention seemed to be on Allura. “Deal,” he said.

“Why then, we shall do this properly,” said Lotor. “Do you know where the arena is?”

“I didn’t say anything about sparring for sport,” Keith replied.

Lotor raised a hand. “No advertisements. We will draw spectators wherever we go, for a contest of this nature. It should be a few quintants at least before word gets out, but in the arena spectators are bound by rules of conduct and cannot interfere. If you prefer, when the crowd grows enough we will charge admission and give the proceeds to your beloved coalition fleet as a gift.” He smiled, showing fangs. “I know the people of this station, paladin. A show like this, there will be considerable betting even if you are a truly abysmal swordsman.” He paused. “We might even have to include the Cha-”

No.” Keith’s refusal was firm. “You do not take that idea to Shiro. At all. Ever. Ever.”

Lotor affected innocence. “Even for charity?”

“Even for charity,” Keith replied. He’d definitely gotten in over his head. How had this gotten as far as ticket sales and charities? But - “And you let me tell him about the two of us. You don’t.”

“Ah well,” mused Lotor. “Of course. As you wish, paladin. Did you want to begin today?”

~*~

Lance spent quite a while after the talk with Keith just thinking.

Keith both did and did not have much to say about Matt. He’d never so much as flirted with Matt, having been stationed there as a Blade, being in love with Shiro, and – and you could really just add and so on to that.

But he’d observed, because that’s what he’d been there to do.

He’d observed a hell of a lot, really.

To Lance, the picture that was formed was of Matt as a kind of universal grade free spirit. Whenever the ship spent a while on a planet – repairs to the ship, or after-battle aid to the locals – Matt was willing to hook up with someone. From Keith’s perspective it was almost fetishized; Matt was the only human most of them had ever seen (Keith being behind his Marmora mask) and thus he qualified as ‘exotic’. He rarely propositioned, but if invited seemed happy to experiment.

Nor did he tell tales, as such, which Lance inexplicably found a relief. Matt never regaled anyone with stories of his exploits, even where it seemed a real story had happened. He just treated it as part of space travel. A way to not be too lonely or alone. He never made promises or pretended it was more than it was. He had a few sort of open, semi-casual steadies on worlds his ship visited reasonably frequently, but no one seemed to think of them as serious.

Which was all very well, but Lance did want Stories. Keith seemed to find that odd, but he was willing to oblige with the few he knew about. Taujeerians, apparently, had external sexual characteristics that were exactly the reverse of humans – which was to say, the females had external organs resembling penises, and the males had organs that seemed to be vaginas, and the reason Keith knew this was Matt hadn’t known about it, made some entirely understandable false assumptions, spent a few nights with a friendly Taujeerian engineer and discovered in a casual conversation that he really needed to take a pregnancy test. The scientific shenanigans ‘human impregnated by a taujeerian, how do we test for this’ required had Deeply Aggravated Olia, and while Matt hadn’t really discussed it much, it had come up in conversational snipage for a while afterward.

When Lance asked how that even worked, Keith told him, “What happens between the Taujeerians is the male sort of creates this lube that’s his part of it all, and in normal Taujeerian sex the female’s ...extrusion, bit, whatever...can absorb that really quickly. She’ll gestate the baby that results. The bit Matt didn’t know is human skin can absorb enough of that lube stuff to make it tricky. Human males don’t have a place for a Taujeerian baby to gestate, and if he’d turned out to be pregnant it probably would’ve killed him.”

“And he still sleeps with aliens?” asked Lance, trying vainly to control the crazy mental images this engendered.

Keith shrugged. “I think he figures it’s better than being alone. He’s the only human out there, Lance. He’s been the only human out there for years. The occasional pregnancy scare or being found with goo all over him is just...” he shrugged. “Normal, I guess. Price of company. He’s made a lot of friends and allies along the way. People can’t be afraid while laughing.”

Which was...a way of looking at the whole mess that maybe explained why Keith could be sympathetic to both of them at once. Lance wasn’t particularly thrilled to be Lay 56,394 in the Matt Holt Interstellar Porn Oeuvre, but...he was human, and not related to Matt, and maybe it really wasn’t anything more than that.

Of course, Keith was also half alien himself, so maybe it just didn’t register in the same way for him. Lance could admit to himself that he wasn’t sure what to do with the data, but he felt better for having it. All part of getting used to an aspect of the universe that he hadn’t really been aware of before.

Lance’s feet carried him down to Red’s bay, and he looked up at the Lion wishing it could understand half of what he was sorting through. He felt almost fine, really, until he thought about talking to Matt again, or being in Matt’s company. Then things fell apart.

But Matt had promised to leave him alone, and steer clear of the castleship. And...they needed the help. “What d’you say?” he asked the big metal cat. “Want to go play hunt the mouse with some galra? See where things go?”

The Red Lion bowed its head to him, eyes flashing yellow. A sense of impatience washed over Lance. He took that to mean ‘what took you so long?’

Lance nodded. “Lemme change and we’ll go kick some Galra butt.”

~*~

Training was usually exhausting, but he learned things, so Keith found it beneficial.

Sparring was exciting even when he got his ass kicked, because he was testing himself against a live opponent, and thus Keith also found it beneficial.

Sparring with Lotor, however, took twenty seconds to dive into an hour long exercise in masochism. He was that good. He had Altean grace and speed with Galra strength and stamina and Keith was getting pummeled.

“You do realize I could have killed you ten times so far,” Lotor remarked mildly, not even out of breath, as Keith picked himself up off the sands for the fifteenth time. “Are you sure this is what you want to do every day?”

“This is how I learn,” said Keith flatly. “I won’t learn if I only fight people I can beat.”

That made Lotor blink, even as their blades clashed again, exchanges swift and furious. As a curious twist of his sword sent Keith flying again, Lotor remarked, “For a human, you have a remarkable instinctive grasp of palen-bol.”

“What’s palen bol?” asked Keith. “Is it like vrepit sa?”

“Usually not,” said Lotor dryly, as Keith came at him again. Tick-tak, ting-tang, the blades clashed in strike and parry. “Vrepit sa is the killing thrust – a reference to an ancient galra legend, before our spacefaring days. Palen bol is the enlightening pain. You see why the two would not go together.”

“Yeah,” grunted Keith, trying a different angle and getting a hard kick for his trouble. He picked himself up off the sand again – his perseverence, at least, seemed to either have Lotor’s respect or was boring the prince mindless.

“Are you really the best swordsman among the paladins?” asked Lotor curiously.

“Doubt it,” said Keith. “Shiro’s better than I am. But he’s off saving your fleet.”

“Mmm, indeed,” murmured Lotor. “Look, you’re blinding yourself swinging like that. Your own blade is blocking your field of vision. All I have to do is wait for you to start that swing, step into your blind spot, and -” Keith was sent flying again from another kick, to land hard on his back on the sands. “Do you spar with the Princess, perchance?”

“Not usually,” said Keith. “She likes to train privately. And she doesn’t trust me.”

Lotor blinked. “Really,” he murmured. “Can’t imagine why. Would you tell me?”

Keith met his gaze steadily. “Because I’m half galra,” he said flatly. “She doesn’t trust galra.”

Lotor stepped back. “You? You have galra blood. It cannot be very much, you have very little galra to your appearance.”

Keith tilted his head, as he caught his breath for another round. “I didn’t know either, for a long time.” He hefted the blade. “This is what told me. Only galra can use one. I didn’t even know and it was weeks before she’d acknowledge my existence. Like I’d deliberately lied to her.”

Lotor’s eyes narrowed a bit. “I take your meaning,” he said mildly. “How...kind of you, to warn me.”

“I care about Allura,” Keith corrected. “And the galra finding a peaceful place in the universe. She doesn’t trust you. You’ll only get one chance, Lotor. You lie to her once – even if you couldn’t have known, even if you’re sure she’ll never find out – and she’s going to turn this whole shaky alliance around and ram it right up your ass. And the entire galra nation along with you, because if she can’t trust a galra who’s half altean then she can’t trust galra. Any galra. Ever. You’ll burn us all.”

Lotor actually looked...troubled, at that. Just a bit. Then his polite noble mask returned. “How, may I ask, did you manage to return to her good graces then?”

Keith pushed sweat-damp hair back from his face. “A few months of demonstrating my commitment to this cause,” he said. “But I never tried to date her, and I had other paladins to speak for me. You break the princess’ heart, you won’t just have her to worry about. Now show me how to do that swing properly.”

Lotor nodded. He still had that frowning, pensive look but he raised his sword and demonstrated how to perform the swing so that it was very difficult for an opponent to use the sword as a moving blind spot.

~*~

Lance’s sudden arrival in Red was a real morale booster, and his presence was therefore greeted warmly and happily by the others with not a single question as to whether he felt up to it.

Their first attempt at forming Voltron failed, but after Shiro asked Lance to just focus on the fight, focus on right now, on getting the team through just this fight, a bit of the old flow returned. The sudden appearance of Voltron on the battlefield cost Sendak all of his fuel tankers that day, and several cruisers.

It helped that when they’d all gotten back to the castleship, Pidge caught Lance’s arm and said, “Look...I’m sorry I got mad at you. Matt called me and explained. It’s not your fault. It’s just – he’s my brother. I didn’t...” she took a deep breath. “I don’t like knowing that my brother could mess up like that. But that’s not your fault, that’s mine. I’m sorry.”

The emotional high Lance had been running on poofed like mist in a breeze, but he did manage, “Thanks Pidge.”

Hunk put a big hand on Lance’s shoulder and said, “Welcome to the wide wonderful complex universe. I’m thinking burritos and garlic knots.”

Lance blinked. “...You can’t do garlic knots without garlic. We’re most of the universe away from garlic.”

“And yet Pidge enjoys her pasta just fine,” said Hunk. “Ye of little frigging faith, my man, why did you think I begged one of your precious knots off you when you got back from that visit to Earth?” He gestured to the casteleship around them as he steered Lance to the kitchen. “I wanted to be able to replicate it. I needed the right molecules. You shall have your garlic knots, and to your family recipe no less. You saved my bacon, I give you comfort food.”

Lance couldn’t help smiling at that – and that prospect. “Thanks.”

~*~

Shiro made it back to his quarters to find Keith stripped down and napping on his bed, and the main reason this wasn’t a good surprise was Keith’s body wasn’t so much a mass of bruises as one big colorful overarching bruise from face to knee. He didn’t look so much like he’d been in a fight, as in a small war.

Shiro’s helmet dropped on the floor in shock. “Keith?” he asked, waking the other up. “What is this? What happened?”

Keith rolled over stiffly, and yawned. “Agreed to spar with Lotor for an hour a day. He’s got like ten thousand years experience on me. How’d the fight go?”

Shiro paused. He really wanted to demand why Keith had thought that was a good idea, but...he’d seen Keith this battered before. He healed quickly, and he’d have wrapped a limb if anything were fractured or broken. “….Lance went back on duty, so pretty well actually. Look, if I touch you, at all, how badly is it going to hurt?”

Keith gave him a sleepy, one-eyed look that nevertheless promised dire punishment. “I’m fine. It was just a really exhausting hour and I heal better when I don’t have a lot of clothes reminding me what hurts. Did you know the galra have a name for it? Palen-bol, apparently. Enlightening pain.”

“I wasn’t aware you were trying out for bodhisattva,” said Shiro, keeping his voice level. It was a lot of bruises.

“You fought galra,” said Keith. “In the gladiator ring. When they had you prisoner.”

Shiro winced. “I fought a lot of people in the ring,” he agreed.

“So let me do what I can,” said Keith. “You want to hear this, anyway.” He stretched, stiffly, and sat up. “We talked about things in the ring. I’ve got a few ideas about Lotor.”

~*~

Lotor was also on Allura’s mind. Like Shiro, she went back to her quarters to shower and change. Sans any kind of distractions, she was soon on her way out to meet Lotor, who unlike Keith looked as pristine and unblemished as always, and bowed over her hand. “I trust the day’s endeavors went well?”

“Quite well, yes,” smiled Allura. “We have recovered several tankers of fuel for your ships.”

“Excellent,” said Lotor. “I will deploy them in defense of the most critical worlds. Truly, I cannot thank you enough.”

They began walking, as seemed to be the norm now, down the long corridors. “What have you been doing today?” asked Allura, possibly just to fill the silence.

“I met one of your superfluous paladins,” said Lotor. “Keith, he said his name was.”

Allura smiled. “Yes, he’s a paladin,” she agreed. “Recovering from some difficult work. But you have met him before.”

“True,” Lotor agreed. “Though today he told me he is of galra blood.”

“Yes,” Allura agreed, the smile fading. “But he’s a remarkable person, really.”

She didn’t notice the way Lotor was studying her. Absorbing her words, phrasing. “He may, one day, be a passable swordsman,” he said. “But how did you come to meet so many of such a rare species? I am quite certain that they were entirely unknown just a few decaphoebs ago.”

“It’s more accurate to say they found me,” Allura admitted. “The Blue Lion was hidden on their planet. When they woke it, it brought them here.”

Lotor considered that. “But you fly the Blue lion, do you not, princess?”

They were nearing Haggar’s territory now, sigils half-seen on the walls. “I do now,” Allura agreed. “But Lance flew it first.”

Lotor considered this. “I’m afraid I can’t recall which one that is,” he admitted. “Clearly I shall have to pay better attention.”

Allura thought about the state she’d seen Lance in the past few days, and replied, “Maybe someday soon. The Blue Lion brought them to my castleship, and brought me out of stasis.”

Lotor blinked. “Stasis?” he asked. “How long were you in stasis, then?”

“Before Lance and the other humans woke me,” said Allura sadly, “The last thing I recall was Zarkon bombarding Altea. The flames...everywhere. Father used alchemy to put me to sleep...and I woke up just a few decaphoebs ago.”

“You were fortunate,” said Lotor. “You slept through the purges.”

Allura frowned. “Purges?”

“My father blamed the alteans for the destruction of Daibazaal,” said Lotor, opening a door into one of Haggar’s labs. “He ordered all alteans executed. On sight. Did you not wonder, princess, why you have encountered no alteans in your travels, when many had to have been offworld at the time of Altea’s demise?”

“...No,” Allura whispered sadly. “All alteans?”

“Every one that Father and his generals could locate,” Lotor agreed. “He made it a capital offense even to shelter an altean. Even unknowingly. It went on for...decaphoebs. Being in stasis on an empty world is likely the only reason you survived it, princess. Your father was very wise.”

Allura looked devastated. “How did you survive?”

“I was a baby,” Lotor reminded her. “His only child. And half galra, at least. He set dayaks to teach me ...strengthen the galra side, perhaps. He would have ...phases, I suppose you could say. If I pleased him, I was galra. If I did not, I was altean. It was a perpetual knife edge to walk.”

“I am...pleased you survived,” said Allura. “Though I am sorry you had to sacrifice your Altean heritage to do so.”

“Do you think that is what I did?” asked Lotor mildly. He looked around Haggar’s lab. “So many oddities. She must have them for a reason. Please. Help me to search.”

~*~

Sendak pondered the day’s losses.

Haggar’s influence had limits, clearly. He now had to contend with Voltron. It would be foolish to expect that cohesion to break again.

One claw tap tap tapped against the arm of his command chair. No. The wise general did not simply wait for opportunity. The wise general created opportunity.

“Lieutenant Hepta,” said Sendak. The name was itself an order, a command.

Soon enough the lieutenant was standing before him, head bowed. “General Sendak.”

“It is time,” said Sendak. “Take whatever forces you feel you will require. Enact Order Twelve.”

“Vrepit sa,” said Hepta, saluted, and departed.

Chapter Text

“When I was a bit older,” Lotor began, “I started asking about my mother. There were few that would tell me anything at all, but I learned her name was Honerva. I learned she was Altean. My father’s refusal to tell me anything fueled my desire to learn more. Learn all that I could.”

Allura gingerly stepped along rows of what looked like tentacle tips in jars. Some of them still wriggled. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Between that and the purges, it must have been difficult to understand who you were.”

“The purges were still going on,” said Lotor, taking note of the little plaques on the containers – what experiment had been run there. “Decaphoebs, as I told you. The Empire was much smaller then, and alteans were continually fleeing out of it only to find its borders expanding to reach them. When I was old enough, I started seeking them out. I would save them, and in exchange, they would tell me what it meant to be altean.”

Allura’s fingers flew to her lips. “You – saved them? But – where are they, then? You’re right, I haven’t seen a single altean apart from you or Coran since I woke. Not in this universe, at least.”

“Not in this universe?” Lotor echoed, curious.

“When we retrieved the comet from the reality tear,” said Allura. “It was half in another universe. One where Alteans ruled. A version of...me...was in Zarkon’s place. It was the galra who were wiped out, there.”

Lotor gave her that thoughtful, measuring look then – sometimes what she said, or how she said it, would make him silent for a bit. “...And did that not disturb you?” he asked gently.

“It wasn’t me,” said Allura. “So no. But we had to make sure they didn’t get the comet. They wanted to spread their war to all realities.”

“I am pleased to have proved the wiser option,” said Lotor mildly, but there was still something measuring in that gold-eyed gaze. “At any rate, the refugees would tell me stories of Altea. And of Alfor, and Voltron. The lions were lost – so everyone believed. But Alfor had gained his great skill from Oriande. So, as Alfor was gone, and his creations with him, I began to seek stories of Oriande.”

Allura laughed. “But it’s a child’s tale,” she said. “It isn’t real.”

“Oh, but it is, princess,” said Lotor. “That much I am certain of. Oriande is quite real. I found evidence on a dozen worlds of alchemists as great as Alfor. Great healers and builders, altean colony worlds now lost to the Empire’s expansion. Always, that greatness traced back to Oriande.”

Allura thought that over. “Is that what you think we’ll find here?” she asked. “Some ticket to Oriande?”

“I know we will,” said Lotor. “Haggar is ever drawn to power. Even if she could not read the map or follow the path, she would keep any keys she came across just as I have done. But you, I think, can use them.”

~*~

Morning and evening were the times Shiro could spend with Keith, and as the weeks passed and Keith healed, it became more and more the best times of their respective days. Keith was an enthusiastic and experimental lover, but beyond that loved touch, contact. In the mornings they discussed plans for the day with arms and legs entangled; in the evenings they discussed how those plans had gone with Keith most often resting against Shiro’s chest, listening to his breathing and his heartbeat.

The morning buzz of the alarm had them tangled together, and stretches turned into a leisurely morning bout. Catching his breath, Shiro noted, “If I didn’t set the alarm an hour earlier Pidge would never let me hear the end of it.”

Keith, amused, lightly bit Shiro’s earlobe. “She’s been down since the business with Matt. Can you blame her?”

“No,” Shiro sighed, brushing stray strands of hair from Keith’s face. Soon it would be showers, uniforms, another day of attacking Sendak’s supply lines. They could only hit the outermost – it didn’t really hurt Sendak that much, but the tankers they captured were all that let Lotor fight back. Sendak had taken to using his forces to threaten inhabited worlds – not just Imperial outposts. Sendak knew that Voltron could not stand by and let innocents be threatened. More and more of late, it had been necessary to divide the lions so that some reinforced Lotor’s attacks on Sendak’s supply lines, while the rest defended inhabited worlds. That this precluded any kind of decisive victory – no Voltron with the lions in different places – was getting everyone down.

Shiro’s fingers trailed down Keith’s cheek, along his jaw. “Think you could talk to her, when we get back? Or just listen. I think she’s been feeling isolated.”

“She’s been sniping at anyone that says hello,” Keith replied.

“And you’ve been the soul of courtesy,” Shiro replied dryly. “Your whole life.”

“Point taken,” said Keith, and stretched, which detangled him somewhat from Shiro. “Which side are you taking today?”

“Planet,” said Shiro. “Sendak doesn’t need to change a tactic that’s definitely working. I’ll set Lance and Allura to defending Lotor. Pidge and Hunk with me and Coalition forces.”

Keith nodded, gave Shiro a lingering kiss, then shoved him out of bed. “Go on. I’ll make sure Coran knows we’re backing Lance up today. I’ll drag Lotor along.”

Shiro picked himself up with amused if sticky dignity. “See if I leave you any hot water.”

~*~

“So...you’ve been here, all this time, watching the Empire grow and expand,” said Allura. “How are you so…?”

“Young?” asked Lotor, amused. “Alive at all? Can you not sense it?”

Allura, a bit put out because she felt Lotor was laughing at her, closed her eyes and tried to sense Lotor.

~great energy. Brilliance beyond most; an oversufficiency of quintessence. But bounded by darkness, the threads of it inextricably intertwined with the light. Potentiality for both extremes.~

Allura’s eyes opened, widened, and she stepped back. “...Wh-what are you?”

Lotor’s amusement faded into something nearer sadness for a moment, as Allura withdrew. “Truly?” he asked. “I do not know. I am the child of the rift, and of its makers. What you see is what I am. In truth, I was hoping it was a question you might answer for me.”

Allura shook her head. “You are galra and altean,” she said. “And something more, and something else.”

Lotor hmm’d a bit, thinking it over. He stayed a few feet away from her. “Well...I can understand your trepidation,” he said. “But I can only be that which I am. Perhaps in fulfilling your potential, you may help me to fulfill mine.”

“Oriande?” Allura asked. They’d spoken of it often now, what he’d unearthed about it and the alchemists that claimed to have been there. “You are very certain it exists.”

“Well, my existence is proof of itself that there is more to the universe than most believe,” Lotor pointed out mildly. “Perhaps the sages of Oriande can answer my questions.”

“You sound like Keith now,” Allura sighed. “Questions of that kind cannot be answered by outside sources, Lotor.”

Lotor slanted a look at her. He generally didn’t like it much when she brought up other paladins in their discussions, but the displays of dislike were flickers, quickly gone, easily missed. “I cannot be only the child of my parents,” he said. “That way lies too little choice. I would be more than they ever dreamed.”

Allura frowned. Lotor was adamant that Haggar was not his mother, but the evidence was there and Allura knew Haggar was Altean. Something had transformed Honerva into Haggar. And Haggar was definitely Lotor’s mother. Being more than Zarkon and Haggar wasn’t the most welcoming ambition to have – but he could have meant Zarkon the Black Paladin, and Honerva the Alchemist and sounded the same. It was hard to tell which he truly meant.

“The universe has waited so very long for you, princess,” said Lotor gently. “So very long for Voltron. Too long, perhaps.”

~*~

Keith found Pidge in her lab, experimenting with code that would improve the quantum beacons they used for communication with Coalition worlds. He gave her a nod of greeting and found a place he could watch her without being in the way.

He didn’t need to do more than that, and knew it. After about five minutes of silence, Pidge snapped at him, “All right, what is it you want?”

“To hear what you’ve got to say,” Keith replied. He knew she did. She practically vibrated with all the things she wasn’t saying.

She knew it too. “No, you don’t,” she said shortly. “You really don’t. Shiro sent you, didn’t he.”

“No one makes me do anything,” Keith replied calmly.

“Yeah right,” snapped Pidge. “Shiro says go, you go. You’ve always been that way.”

“If that’s really true,” said Keith, “Why is it only making you angry now?”

“Because now is when I know you’d just as soon throw me off a cliff as have my back if it were me or Shiro, Keith,” said Pidge, her voice cracking. “You’re gonna make me cry, Keith. I am not wasting any more tears on you. Go away.”

“Only when you’ve said what you need to say,” said Keith, still calm, still quiet. “I’m sorry I’ve hurt you.”

No you’re not,” snarled Pidge, almost visibly startling herself with the venom of it. She took a shaky breath. “You’re not. You never will be. Shiro – Ryou – gets mad at you, you leave all of us. Shiro needs you, you drag all of us into that ” she shook a screwdriver-esque tool in the air - “that ship,God Keith, that ship, and you’re not sorry, Keith. You’ve got your Shiro back. You don’t give a flying rat’s ass about anything or anyone else.”

Keith bowed his head. She wasn’t wrong, really, but she wasn’t exactly right either. “I thought you wanted me to leave,” he said quietly. “The day I left...I saw how you were looking at me. I heard how angry you were. I put you in danger.”

Again,” Pidge growled. “You went off alone. Again. And put us in danger, again. Just like you did at Thayserix. And then you left. For months. And tried to kill yourself.” She did throw the tool then, though it missed Keith. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be around you? Do you? Knowing that you could just disappear at any moment, or do something suicidally stupid, and there’s nothing, not one thing, I can do to stop you? You’re the one that said we had to be a team. And you’re the one that left.”

Keith walked over to her work station, and then sat down on the floor, so that he had to look up at her. She was the shortest, and he needed to change the dynamic. “Shiro was back,” he said quietly. “We all thought Shiro was back. Did you really want me to stay? Taking his place?”

“It’s not a trade!” cried Pidge. “Why would you even think that? Why do you keep thinking that? Are you going to leave again, with no Lion for you to fly?” She almost looked like she’d hit him out of sheer pent-up frustration. “What do the Lions have to do with whether we’re a team or not?”

It was like a faucet had been opened, really. Once begun, Pidge couldn’t seem to stop herself. Months of frustrations and fears gushing out at full force, and it even seemed to be scaring her, that she couldn’t even apply what brakes she had to the situation.

Keith had rather more familiarity with being emotionally out of control, though. “I still looked out for you,” he said quietly. “All of you. That’s why I went to the Blades. So I could still help.”

“Are you not helping here?” Pidge demanded. “Haven’t you been? You didn’t have to leave, but you did.”

“I had to learn that, Pidge,” said Keith. “I’m not as smart as you.”

“You’re not stupid, either,” snapped Pidge. “So don’t play that card.”

Keith nodded agreement to that. “But what do you want me to do, Pidge? The rest of you could move on without Shiro. You didn’t want me to lead, and didn’t think I could. You never have. You’ve got your team leader back now. I’ve got my...” he paused.

“Everything,” sighed Pidge, resigned. “He’s your everything, Keith, and that’s part of the problem, because there’s no room for the rest of us.”

“Do you want there to be?” asked Keith honestly. “You’re...pretty mad. You’ve been mad for a while now. I was going to offer to leave you alone.”

“Coward,” Pidge snapped. “If you do that you’re a coward. I’m angry because you keep leaving, so you tell me – how is leaving more supposed to fix that?”

Keith managed a little smile. “Point,” he conceded. The taunt of cowardice probably would’ve hurt if he hadn’t spent a fair portion of his life learning not to react to most of the usual taunts. “But I’m not sure what I can do here.”

“You could at least pretend that the rest of us matter to you,” said Pidge bitterly.

That did hurt. “...You do,” said Keith, almost a whisper.

“You used us to get Shiro back,” said Pidge. “We wanted him back too, but – God, Keith. That ship.”

“If I asked you which you’d rather,” said Keith slowly, “Stab you in the stomach, or cut off your arm, which would you take?”

Pidge blinked. “That’s stupid,” she said. “One’s leth-” she stopped, frowning tightly. “It’s not like that. You weren’t dying without him.”

“I wasn’t living, either,” said Keith flatly. “You already know how this feels, Pidge. You’ve already had to choose.”

Pidge inhaled sharply, like she’d been slapped. “That’s...not the same. Matt said -”

“And before that,” said Keith. “Before he talked to you. That point. Could you have flown with Lance, for the good of the team?”

Pidge was, rather famously, not stupid. But emotionally she was still the youngest of the team, and the only one with family in the war. “...I hated it,” she said in a small voice. “God. Please tell me Matt didn’t lie so I’d -”

“That’s the choice,” said Keith quietly. “You made the two things work together for a long time – protect your family, work with the team. But you can’t always do that. And it hurts.”

“And now I’m stuck wondering if Matt lied to me because if I can’t fly with you or Lance there’s no Voltron,” said Pidge bitterly. “Thanks for that.”

Keith tilted his head. “They’re numbers to you,” he said. “All the people we try to protect. Numbers. Names you only hear in reports. Descriptions in files. They’re his friends, Pidge. And even the ones that aren’t his friends – if he doesn’t do his part, he gets to watch them die. He gets to dig their graves. He’s not mean enough to wish that on anyone.”

“Is ...that what he does?” asked Pidge, frowning. The anger seemed to be gone now.

“Yeah,” Keith nodded. “It’s what all the rebel ships do. When the battle’s over, and Voltron goes home, the Coalition ships clean up the rubble and see to the dead and wounded. They’re usually there days or weeks after Voltron’s moved on to the next fight.”

“He never said,” said Pidge. “Neither did you.”

“He’s your brother and he loves you,” said Keith. “You’re doing your part, in the Green Lion, and he’s really proud of you. Why would he make you feel bad?”

“But that doesn’t work for you,” said Pidge, studying him. “Why didn’t you?”

Keith just studied her calmly, levelly. There were things he just didn’t have words for, and might never. Pidge would have to work them out for herself.

She wasn’t stupid. Tiredly, she reached out to hug him. “You’re kind of a crazy big brother,” she sighed. “Don’t you ever leave again. I mean it. Ever. And...next time Shiro’s in trouble maybe throw a rope back for us to keep up with.”

Keith hugged her very carefully, in case she broke or changed her mind or something. He was honored by her sentiment, but didn’t really know what to do with it. Insofar as he had any ‘slots’ for the other paladins, Pidge had become ‘little sister’ long ago. “I think we can call that a deal.”

~*~

“You must have fought him,” said Allura quietly. Hopefully, perhaps. “The crown prince, if you couldn’t fight him -”

“Then no one could?” asked Lotor quietly. “Princess, I think you fail to realize that he knew that as well. I was the last person he would tolerate any kind of deviation from. The price of disobedience was very, very high.”

Allura gave him a puzzled look – Lotor bore no scars, after all. He had all his limbs. Zarkon had never tended toward subtlety in his punishments. Lotor gave a patient sigh in return. When it was clear she really didn’t understand, he said, “I was, at first, a most dutiful galra son. He gave me a planet to govern, to harvest the quintessence of. It was inhabited.”

Allura frowned.

“I discovered methods of working with the population there,” said Lotor quietly. “The yield of quintessence was always more than what Zarkon had commanded I collect, and it was sustainable. The people were willing to work with me in exchange for basic freedoms.” Lotor’s voice was calm, quiet, controlled. “Zarkon found my behavior dishonorable. I was to conquer the people, take the quintessence. Not work alongside them, treat them with dignity. For my failure, I was exiled...and that world, destroyed utterly.”

Allura winced. “I am so very sorry.”

“I could not fight my father,” said Lotor. “Not directly.”

~*~

Shiro held a sated Keith in his arms, his human hand idly playing with Keith’s hair as he listened. Peace made with Lance, with Pidge and Hunk...just Allura to go.

He would not repeat past mistakes. They were right – he should have told them all that he wanted Keith to be his second, and his successor. More than that, he should have made sure they could be a team without him. That they knew they could trust Keith just as much as he did. Shiro still firmly believed Keith had it in him to be an excellent leader of Voltron, a good and true Black Paladin. But between the fallout of his failures to prepare them and the fallout of the actions taken to rescue him, none of them now believed that. Shiro could not, now, even suggest Keith pilot Black for ‘training’ missions – all of the others would strenuously object.

Shiro did not take well to being told ‘no’. Only Keith really understood how much Shiro took being told ‘no’ as a personal challenge, but in this case subtlety was called for because Keith was also one of the ones saying ‘no’. It was just that Shiro didn’t believe Keith’s reasons were good ones. He wouldn’t take it too far. He would never demand Keith take the reins again – not least because he now understood Keith wouldn’t just say ‘no’, he’d probably go far afield to make sure no one could force him to do otherwise. But neither was Shiro all right with the idea that Keith just live with this idea of being less than Shiro. Shiro knew better. Keith was good. He was really good. He could be a great leader.

But he needed to believe in himself...and perhaps even more than that, the rest of the team needed to believe in him too. They needed to understand Keith’s particular way of showing he cared, needed to trust where Keith was strong and help him out where he wasn’t.

That Shiro was absolutely willing to be completely sneaky and underhanded about. So he’d set Keith to watching the others. “For him” - for Shiro’s sake, the official excuse ran. To help Shiro know when the team was getting stressed, when it was time to take a break, give someone some time off before real damage was done. Address problems before they became serious.

If Shiro had simply told Keith ‘a leader has to know these things’, Keith would have dug in his heels and begged off. Keith would have said he wasn’t any good at it and the others didn’t trust him and all of that had at least a degree of truth to it. But Keith couldn’t refuse a personal request, either. And he was getting better with each attempt. The others on the team didn’t know any orders had been given, and just saw Keith detaching from his personal wall to come talk to them.

Slowly, fences mended. Slowly, Keith learned what upset them, learned how to address it. When he came back to tell Shiro how each meeting went, Shiro offered advice, perspective...let Keith learn the way he did best. By doing, without any stated expectations attached. The meetings hurt Keith, more often than not – his departure and return had caused wounds, as had the fighting at the clone ship. But he healed, with time spent here, in Shiro’s arms. Holding and being held, loving and being loved.

It would take a while, Shiro knew. And there was a war on, so maybe there would never be enough time. But he would do it right. If the need arose, ever again, for another black paladin, it would not seem so crazy or dangerous then for the rest of the team to have Keith in that seat.

In the meantime, Shiro was genuinely valuing the reports. Keith still sparred daily with Lotor, and while neither of them were at all sure what Lotor was up to – beyond a kind of backhanded courting of Allura – it was clear enough something was being plotted.

~*~

They’d gone through several of Haggar’s labs now, always searching for something that turned out never to be there. Allura didn’t mind though. Lotor’s stories were hard to resist – not good, not really, but they helped her understand what had happened to the universe she’d known, how the Galra had come to conquer...almost everything.

What Lotor thought. Or at least, what he was willing to share of what he thought.

“That is the problem,” Lotor said quietly. “The worlds we take, or hold – ultimately it is meaningless without a source of quintessence that Haggar does not control. Her favor directs the course of the Empire. And she is merciless, princess. You wanted to know why I do not fight particularly hard for my empire – that is why. Without quintessence, it is a losing battle. And I will not kneel before Haggar and her druids. The universe must be cleansed of them. The galra must be cleansed of them.”

Allura nodded, troubled. “I see. That’s why you want the quintessence field.”

“And I cannot reach it,” said Lotor quietly. “I know it exists. I owe my life to it. But I cannot reach it. It must require an alchemist of Oriande to find the path – I have tried everything I can think of. The tales I was able to find suggest Alfor could do it at will. Please, princess.”

Allura gave a frustrated sigh. “Lotor, we’ve been through all the labs. We don’t know what most of these things are, or do. I don’t know how you think we’re going to find this ...clue, or whatever it is we’re seeking.”

Lotor took her hand in both of his with utmost care. “Princess, I know you are the key. Look with senses other than sight. Let your heart be your guide.”

Obediently, Allura closed her eyes – and was very surprised to sense something different, something bright, in the gloom of the laboratory.

~*~

“Well,” said Krolia, sidestepping a slash. “If nothing else, your time sparring with the Emperor has improved your sword work.”

Keith used the momentum of the failed swing to move into a new position to try again. It was something he’d picked up from Lotor, though not from any direct teaching. “I can feel he’s trying to get Allura to do something,” he said shortly. “Whatever it is, she either can’t or won’t, but they won’t talk about it. Either of them.”

“It must be magical in nature,” said Krolia. “There would be no point to searching Haggar’s things if it isn’t.”

Keith noted her pensive expression. “Why is that a problem? Allura’s got all kinds of magic. She pretty much resurrected a balmera by herself. She’s fought Haggar.”

Krolia looked around, saw one of the castle mice along the base of a wall, and shook her head. “It may be nothing,” she hedged. “Just...let me know, when you find out what he needs her for. It may be that we need to leave the ship for a while.”

Keith frowned. “….They’re not going to like that,” he warned. “I’ve been getting some really firm language about never, ever leaving again from pretty much everyone.”

“They’ll let you take a trip with me,” said Krolia. “If it comes to that. It won’t be for very long – at least, for them.”

“You’re getting better at cryptic sentences that are really disturbing,” said Keith blandly. “What makes you think I’d come with you?”

“Blade assignment,” said Krolia. “I have a task. You are my mission. So, I need you to come with me. I would have taken Ryou, but.” She shrugged. “There were good reasons that wasn’t feasible. Now I am here, it can only be you.”

“Not. Actually. Helping,” said Keith flatly, and renewed his attack just to vent the frustration.

He didn’t notice the glances Krolia stole, watching the mouse against the wall.

~*~

Matt hauled with all his strength. With great reluctance and metallic protest, the blast door closed on the sandstorm. The sudden silence was deafening, and he slumped down, slowly, to the floor. Gradually his hearing recovered enough to let him know that just beyond the quarter-inch steel, the storm still raged.

“We’ll be able to hide here, at least while the storm lasts,” panted Olia.”

Elcris picked Matt up as if he were a rag doll, laid him out on a cot, and went back to the blast door. She gripped the door handle in one hand, to make sure the wind didn’t blow it open again. “The Fire of Purification grows by the quintant,” she said quietly. “Our numbers dwindle.”

Olia looked over to Matt; to all intents he seemed entirely unconscious. It had been a rough movement, though. Battle after battle with little rest between, mostly fighting not to win but only survive. The Fire of Purification was tearing into the rebellion, into the whole Coalition, as if its mere existence were an affront. With every loss, Matt got...quieter. He smiled, at least when he knew people were looking at him, but the silences were getting longer and the smiles, rarer. She couldn’t blame him. Olia was learning to think of humans as being a particularly resilient and flexible race, but there were limits. There were always limits.

“Never thought I’d say this,” she admitted. “But – glad you’ve been flying with us, Elcris.”

The galra woman inclined her head; half a nod. “We are honored to ally with you.”

Olia made a sort of half-barking rrruf sound. “No, not the whole damn Blade, Elcris. You. You’ve pitched in, done us some really good turns. And you’ve kept this hairless ape out of trouble. You wouldn’t believe some of the stupid things he’s tried over the phoebs.”

Elcris just shrugged slightly. “I can take no credit, captain. Whatever stupidity he is prone to, perhaps he has simply outgrown it.”

“Maybe,” said Olia. She’d called Matt’s stunts stupid and some of them really, really were – or at least, mindbogglingly ignorant. But he’d calmed down, not too long after Elcris joined them. As little as she liked the idea of a human-galra pairing, clearly it worked because the last Blade on her crew had been just such a hybrid. And at least Matt wouldn’t have to worry about a hybrid fetus trying to implant itself on his intestinal wall.

Elcris knew better, but did not enlighten the captain. She had, after all, given her word. So, instead, she said, “Do we regroup with the fleet when the storm passes?”

“If there still is one,” Olia agreed.

~*~

Allura’s fingers brushed cool, carved stone. “This,” she said. “This feels different.”

Lotor watched as she pulled it out, studied the carvings. “Yes,” he decided. “That is what we have been looking for.”

“What is it?” Allura asked, turning it in her fingers. The energy in it tingled at her fingertips, but nothing looked particularly out of the ordinary.

“The way forward,” said Lotor quietly. “But there are things yet to be done before we can walk that path.”

Allura frowned. “What do you mean? If this is what we’ve been searching for this whole time, why stop now?”

But Lotor looked...pensive? As if a moment he really wasn’t looking forward to had come sooner than he’d expected. Or perhaps sooner than he wanted. Gently, gently, he curled Allura’s fingers around the stone she’d found. “I must ask that you arrest me now,” he said. “To avoid bloodshed, I will walk with you back to your ship. It should be a quintant or two before the sentries here send up any kind of alert, since I have helped in the raids on the fuel lines.”

“Lotor?” asked Allura. “What are you saying?” And then her expression turned harder, sharper. “What have you done?”


Chapter Text

Word got around the small group of paladins really fast, and when Allura activated the force barrier of the castleship’s brig, she did so with a rapidly-growing group of spectators. No one looked happy; some were confused, others had the scowl of suspicion-probably-about-to-be-confirmed. But they waited for an explanation, all of them, because of them all Allura had spent the most time with Lotor.

After a kind of informal moment of silence, Shiro said, “He’s the ruler of the empire, Allura. Whatever he’s done, this is probably not going to be the best answer.”

Before she could answer, Lotor did. “She did so at my request, paladin. The time has come for ...a confession. I have come to understand that you will not be pleased. Therefore I have requested this, because you must hear me out, and at least understand my reasons, before you judge. Make no mistake, the fate of the universe rests upon this.”

“Is this gonna take long?” asked Hunk. “Because if it’s gonna take long, I’m voting we take the time to get some chairs, some drinks, maybe some snacks. For you, too,” he said to Lotor. “Lots of talking means thirst, usually.”

Lotor gave Hunk a brief ‘what even are you’ look, until Hunk offered water. Which seemed to be, for a moment, regarded as a touching gesture. “Very well,” he agreed.

~*~

Ryou opened his eyes. The room was unfamiliar in pretty much every possible respect. Golds and browns and ...the light was neither as bright as an Altean craft, nor as dim as a Galra ship. He shifted position slightly and understood his prosthetic arm had been removed. He reached over to touch the stump of his arm and found – somewhat to his surprise – that some kind of softish synthetic cap had been placed over the bared connections. Sorry we took your arm, here, we’re preserving your dignity? Strange.

Ryou sat up then, and noted strange humans with guns – rifles at ready – at the door. One shifted position to indicate heading toward said door would be a Bad Idea, while the other quickly left. The remaining guard said, “Commander Holt’s in the other room. We’ll unlock it for you after we’ve checked your stories.”

Other room. Ryou looked around – and there was another door, one that had no guards. “How long have I been out?”

“About six months,” said the guard. “Quarantine, and then detailed examinations.”

“Uh...huh.” The guns looked incredibly primitive. Low-power mass drivers by the look of it. These were his people? The doors looked pretty flimsy too. If he’d had his arm he could probably punch right through them. Ryou looked down at himself. His clothes had been taken, of course, but someone had dressed him in...rather soft, loose clothing in bright orange. Couldn’t be prisoner garb. You could hide all kinds of things in clothes like this. Medical garb, maybe. Designed for doctors to easily get at your bits. “So you’re questioning both of us then.”

“Orders, sir,” said the guard. Ryou picked up that there was ...apology, in the tone. Odd. He hadn’t pretended to be Shiro. Was the oblique apology for something about to happen?

An older woman in a more elaborately decorated version of the uniform stepped in, holding a clipboard. Behind her followed two more guards, and both of them pointed their rifles at Ryou in a businesslike manner. “Take a seat,” she told Ryou. “I am Admiral Sanda. I will be conducting this interview.”

~*~

Chairs, snacks, and drinks for all, Lotor included, took about an hour. It now looked like Lotor was addressing an audience rather than an interrogation panel. Lotor alone did not sit, but he waited for everyone else to be comfortable. He seemed to be studying Keith almost as much as he was Allura, with a little time left over to puzzle out Krolia’s presence.

When everyone seemed settled and attentive, Lotor began, “You have been fighting the Fire of Purification for phoebs now. You are thus aware that fuel is at the core of their strength. The Druids, under Haggar, have chosen him. Resistance to his attacks, as well as any ability to counterattack, is dependent upon fuel for ships to fight. And the Druids control the ability to process quintessence into Galra fuel.”

“I’ve been working on a method to convert cruisers to run on unprocessed quintessence,” said Pidge. “But I don’t know what it is the druids do to it that changes it.”

Lotor nodded. “The druids are not a race. They are beings, from many different worlds, with a sensitivity to quintessence that Haggar can use, can train. They undergo a...process of conversion, themselves, that gives them their powers. Their masks and robes allow them to present a single appearance to the universe, but they come from many places. When Haggar is done with them, they serve her with utter and complete obedience.”

Krolia’s eyes narrowed. So did Keith’s. For the moment, though, neither spoke.

“I have told you, princess, that for the Empire to move forward it must have access to limitless quintessence. You understand, by now, part of why that must be,” Lotor continued. “Without quintessence there is no counter to the magic and power of the druid caste. And if we do not end the druids, if we do not end Haggar, the Empire will always be ruled by those the druids favor. And the druids favor ruthlessness. There can be no attempt to convert quintessence harvesting to sustainable practices. Under the druids, quintessence harvesting is not merely the gathering of resources but an overt threat to any world that does not toe the line. You are strong, paladins of Voltron, but Haggar is not the kind of threat one can simply cleave with a sword, however large. Her druids are many. Even one can be a dire threat to those lacking a Lion or a Marmoran blade. Thus I have ceded territory, and I have waited for it to be clear to you the kind of threat the druids pose to the peace you seek.”

Lance frowned. “You’ve been letting whole planets fall to Sendak to make a point?”

“You have no reason to trust me,” Lotor replied calmly. “Therefore I have had to wait until the evidence showed you what has been clear to me for millennia.”

“So...I focus on converting cruisers to pure quintessence,” said Pidge. “No processing, no need for druids, no problem right?”

Lotor looked down at Pidge. “Perform your calculations, paladin. At the current rate of expansion, how long could the planets we still hold continue to be held against the Fire of Purification, and the druids it commands?”

Pidge frowned. “...Point taken.”

“Okay, so, you have some kind of solution then,” said Hunk.

“This is the reason I seek the quintessence field,” said Lotor. “And this is the reason I have sought Voltron.”

“Except that this problem’s been on your plate for thousands of years,” said Keith, in the flat tone of someone who’s worked out where this is leading. “And Voltron was assumed lost until just a few years ago.” What did you do almost rang in the air.

Lotor nodded to that. “I sought Voltron,” he repeated. “And when I realized I could never find it before my father, could never hope to use it against his ever-growing fleets, I sought instead the ore from which Voltron was forged. To make my own, something I could control, and take into the quintessence field.”

It was Allura’s turn to frown. “But, again, you couldn’t get that until very recently,” she said. “When you lured us to that derelict ship.”

“Yes,” said Lotor. “And I was an exile from the Empire, cut off from all its resources. Nor could I afford to accept them, as the druids would report any use I made of such.”

Allura’s expression darkened, as she remembered something else Lotor had once said. “Oh...no,” she breathed. Horror – and fury – were gathering in her face. “You didn’t. You couldn’t.”

Lotor nodded slightly toward her. He might have been sad, but he wasn’t going to break down. “In my searches for my Altean heritage,” he said to the others, “I found, and rescued, those alteans in hiding that I encountered. I created a sanctuary for them, where Haggar and my father could not afford to send their scouts. And when I realized I needed a fuel source that the druids could not track or trace...I took it from them.”

~*~

“So you’re Lieutenant Shirogane’s lost twin brother,” said Sanda. “And Earth’s been visited by aliens before.”

“Yes,” said Ryou. “You had a half-alien cadet here until recently. Name of Keith.”

“Who broke your twin out of quarantine,” said Sanda. “Shirogane had a missing arm as well.”

The question hung in the air, but Ryou had already worked out an answer. “The galra had no real understanding of humanity,” he said. “Studying twins was something of a prize for them. Not that they realized it until Shiro was captured at Kerberos. We were freed at the same time. He went to Earth, to try to warn you. I went to the rebellion.”

“That would certainly explain the antibody profiles,” said Sanda. “I’m told that yours indicates you haven’t been on Earth in many years. Childhood, even. Biologists are having a field day with your blood work.”

Ryou wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded far too much like druids enjoying the fruits of their experiments. He tried to look neutral about it. “Shiro is leading the paladins of Voltron. When Sam was recovered, I agreed to come back to Earth with him. I have the most experience in fighting the Galra. It’s a guarantee they’ll come here, admiral. I’m here to help you get ready.”

~*~

Lotor watched Allura as if he couldn’t look away even if he wanted to. She was already starting to cry. “You said you saved them,” she said.

“And if they were to stay safe, I had to keep trying,” Lotor replied. “The empire has spread through the universe like plague, princess. I had to keep searching. For the ore, for the lions, for anything at all that might bring it down. Or their sanctuary would become their prison, and then their grave. I am not an alchemist! I do not have your power! I swear to you I have only ever taken what I had to, to continue the search. They do not suffer. This I swear to you.”

“This sanctuary,” said Krolia. “Where is it?”

“A quantum abyss,” said Lotor. “Very few pilots indeed have the skill to survive traversing it. The scouts Zarkon would send would never be able to.”

“The fuel in your Sincline ship,” said Keith quietly. “So powerful. That’s...distilled Alteans?”

Lotor nodded solemnly. “Quintessence is the essence of life itself. Alteans are more innately connected to the flows of the universe than nearly any other species – possibly why my father was so set on destroying them all. A pure extraction...very little is required to achieve a great deal. But...even so, it was not enough. When my father pursued me, I tried to reach the quintessence field. My ship, made of the comet’s ore. My fuel, the sacrifice of my mother’s people. But it did not work. I went through the gate...and there was only stars on the other side.”

“Another universe,” Pidge nodded. “Like what we went to, to get that ore. Might even have been the same universe. You’re probably lucky the Alteans didn’t find you.”

“They would have been right to kill you,” Allura almost snarled, tears shining on her cheeks. “How dare you call yourself Altean.”

“All I have done has been to bring a lasting peace,” said Lotor. “All I have attempted was from necessity. They are still in danger, princess. They will die in isolation or die when they emerge, if I cannot bring that peace!”

You have treated them worse than Zarkon ever did!” snapped Allura. “At least Zarkon only struck to kill, he didn’t take living, thinking people and turn them into farm animals for his own gain!” She turned to leave. “I will hear no more! I cannot believe I ever trusted you!”

Lotor blew out a long breath as she stomped off, and looked at Keith, who gave him a small nod in return. Lance, scowling, left to go after Allura.

Shiro looked to those that left. “We should probably decide what to do,” he said quietly.”

Lotor took a seat on the cell’s bed. “I will be here, paladins,” he said mildly.

~*~

Sam, it turned out, had been released for his part of The Debriefing months before. If by ‘released’ you meant ‘allowed to wake up and walk around the Garrison’. His wife now resided with him within the complex.

Ryou’s delay had been twofold in cause; the first being that there was (of course) no record of Shiro ever having had a twin brother, and the second being his cybernetic arm, which was entirely beyond Earth technologically speaking. Sam had vouched for him over and over, but the joint chiefs had really wanted to be certain that Ryou wasn’t some kind of walking smallpox blanket or secret enemy spy before letting him get up and walk around, never mind letting him have the use of an arm that doubled as a weapon.

Once given the run of the complex, he was given Shiro’s old quarters – and boxes of Shiro’s belongings as well. While Ryou did appreciate being able to change his clothes, on a lot of levels this new development was unnerving more than it was helpful. Particularly since Sam knew more about where things went than Ryou did. Colleen – Sam’s wife – was more than happy to help get boxes of utensils and dishes and books un-boxed and properly stored, and Sam knew about where to place the larger photos and wall scrolls and mats. During the process all three of them made sure the apartment lacked surveillance devices.

The result, quite a bit to Ryou’s surprise, was an apartment that looked welcoming and – despite several boxes of Things – like it didn’t have a lot in it.

“Shiro was never really one for collecting things he didn’t need,” Sam explained. “I don’t know what the meaning of a lot of it is, though. You’d have to ask him. Or Keith. Or -” he paused. “Right...Adam. You’re going to want to deal with him.”

“I’m pretty sure you don’t mean ‘kill’,” Ryou noted. He was wishing the Olkari had left him the knowledge of languages. The scrolls were decorated in glyphs Ryou couldn’t read, but which nagged at the back of his mind.

“No, no, of course not,” said Sam. “But he could make things very difficult for you if he decides you’re a danger to the Garrison.”

“More or less difficult than Admiral Sanda?” asked Ryou. “She’s going to be a problem, Sam.”

“Not as much as she could have been,” said Sam. “Lance’s continent-long buzz got the whole world talking last year. So many cameras and recordings of the Red Lion’s passing that the Garrison couldn’t suppress the Lion’s existence. They tried passing it off as an experimental Garrison aircraft but when no one could find the Lion or replicate its speed, it all came out in the press.”

“To a point,” said Colleen, and she wasn’t happy about it. “I was able to reach Lance’s family, and Hunk’s. I don’t know what either is up to now, though. Once Sam landed, I became as much a ‘guest’ here as he is.”

Ryou flexed his cybernetic hand. “We’ll need to fix that,” he said. “It’s our job to get this planet ready to repel a Galra attack. We’re going to need every possible angle covered.”

“Ah. Well.” said Sam, adjusting his glasses. “We may have some luck there. One of Lance’s sisters, Veronica, is a cadet here. She’s been doing basically what Katie did – infiltrating the Garrison to find out what happened to her brother, except she already knows that. She’s been using Garrison systems to listen for his return. The Garrison scientists have been studying the pod Shiro crashed here in, but that’s it so far.”

“Crystals,” sighed Ryou. “Can’t fly anything without power.”

“That does seem to be the problem,” Sam agreed.

“Did you get the beacons launched, at least?”

Sam nodded. “The call’s out for a balmera. We couldn’t bring many back with us – certainly nothing of any real size. We’re just going to have to make them work.”

Ryou clasped his shoulder. “Just remember. Better something that flies than something that doesn’t. Whatever we do has to fit inside the limits of what we’ve brought. The question is how best to use what we have.”

“Guns,” said Sam quietly. “The crystals we have are best used offensively. Mobility, offensive capability. We could use nuclear reactors to power stationary weaponry and defensive shields.”

“Do we have time?” asked Colleen. “Those can take years to build.”

“Then we break the silence,” said Ryou firmly.

“But the Garrison -” Sam began, worried.

“Needs to understand that it has no concept of the depth of the threat,” said Ryou. “This isn’t just a case of us landing here with a box of shiny toys. If Earth isn’t ready in time the devastation will be beyond anything in the history of this species. We aren’t like the Olkari, or the Alteans. We have no colony worlds. No escape. If we lose Earth, we lose everything. And we can’t count on a friendly balmera hearing our call in time.”

“Then you really need Adam on your side,” said Colleen. “As well as Veronica. They have the authority to leave the base. If we can convince them, we can get the word out. But I have to tell you the Garrison’s not wrong – there’s going to be panic.”

“It’s not paranoia when they really are out to get you, Colleen,” said Ryou gravely. “I’ve seen nothing so far that would so much as stun a sentry, and that’s a problem. If we’re going to give your children a sanctuary to retreat to and not just another target to die protecting, we need to get started. We’ve already lost six months.”

~*~

Allura did not join them in their favorite den, but no one was particularly surprised by that.

“Give her a few hours, at least,” Shiro advised. “But the rest of us need to decide what to do.”

“He is not lying,” said Krolia. “My task was to investigate the source of a particularly powerful strain of quintessence. I traced it to a quantum abyss. I was going to borrow Keith soon, and investigate it – but it may be there is no need now. What Lotor said fits the evidence. He has drained the quintessence of sentient beings for his ship.”

“So that’s it,” said Lance. “We can’t side with that, can we? I mean that’s really bad.”

“Yeah, but so’s...pretty much everything else,” said Hunk heavily.

“He knew Allura wouldn’t like it,” said Keith. “He knew we wouldn’t. That’s why the arrest.”

“Well, he wasn’t wrong about that,” said Shiro blandly. “But...gods.” He ran a hand through his hair. “He was our best shot at bringing peace. And then this.”

“We rarely get the rulers we desire,” said Krolia.

“But we don’t have to fight for someone who’d do something like this to people he’s supposed to protect,” said Lance.

“He’s supposed to protect the galra,” Keith pointed out bluntly. “He’s half altean, yeah. But he’s not a prince of Altea. He’s...stuck. Betray the alteans or betray the universe by not fighting as hard as he could with everything he’s got. We’ve fought Zarkon. With Voltron. He still beat us kind of a lot. What did Lotor have to fight him with?”

“I can not believe you sometimes,” snapped Lance. “He rescued the people so he could feed on them. That’s not a good Emperor in my book. They’re not galra but they’re more his people than the galra have been. He found them. He chose them. He rescued them. For what?”

Krolia nodded to Lance. “You are correct. He is their Emperor, as much as he is Emperor of the galra. But perhaps the question is – do we believe Lotor’s statement that the universe depends on redirecting the Imperial drive for quintessence? Because if he speaks the truth, then the alteans should be honored for their sacrifice, however unwitting. And if he is lying, then the Empire is lost and our efforts should be spent on defeating Sendak and Haggar.”

Lance just stared. Krolia agreeing with him was a shock. Krolia agreeing with him with better arguments than he had was apparently causing a central brain malfunction.

“I want to call him a liar,” said Pidge. “I really do. He feels greasy. Slippery. But I can’t see an angle here where he’d gain anything by lying about this.”

“There is...something, to him,” said Keith slowly. “Something dark in him. Like there is in druids. I can feel it. But in druids it’s like...the whole thing. All that’s there. There’s more to Lotor than that. Allura’s probably got a better idea of what.”

“All right,” said Shiro. “But I think we’re getting off track. We have the Emperor of the galra in our brig, and we’re docked at central command. We’ve got hours at most before this blows up in one direction or another. The time to get ahead of it is now.”

Krolia said, “Test him. If his regret is genuine then he will tell the central command to stand down, he’s going on a trip. I have the task to investigate the source of the quintessence. Lotor has admitted that his rescued alteans are in a quantum abyss. Let us go there, then. See for ourselves what he has saved, and what it has cost. If nothing else it may give the princess some comfort, to have this ship filled with her own people.”

Keith nodded. “It’s just words to us right now. Numbers. This is about people. We should see them. If Lotor’s really done this...then if anyone should judge him it’s them, before anyone.”

Lance pursed his lips. “...Okay. That I can buy. They’re the ones he’s been killing. If he’s telling the truth then they’re the ones to decide if it was worth it. And if that means the empire’s got no emperor...well then the empire’s got no emperor.”

“Agreed,” said Keith. “He’s the last chance the galra have to keep any part of the system they’re used to – overhauls or no. If he can’t fix it then it’s not fixable, and we’re better served by going back to Coalition space and protecting the worlds there.”

Shiro looked around the group. It seemed a consensus had been reached. “Lance, you want to tell the princess the decision? Keith, you come with me, and we’ll tell Lotor. Pidge, Hunk – keep an eye on the comms and sound an alert if the galra start acting edgy.”

~*~

The Garrison was scarily good at misinformation and misdirection. The Red Lion’s flight over the southern United States had been meant to be a breakthrough. Proof of something beyond the merely human. While the world had not decided on what it was yet, enough other theories had been floated that it had simply gotten lost in the news cycle.

Ryou could use his hand to power small devices – even large ones, for a brief time. While crystals were at a premium, there was that in Ryou’s body language that said taking his had better involve his corpse – or it would, without question, involve someone else’s. So he had his arm, and with it he could make sure any meetings were unrecorded whenever he chose.

Veronica had wasted no time approaching Sam for a meeting. She was a skilled adjutant – very much what Sam needed, as he tended to get a bit scattered when working on new ideas – and in her, Ryou saw an opportunity. He invited her, and the Holts, around for dinner within a few days of meeting her.

“Is Lance all right?” was her first question.

Ryou shared a look with Sam that said this was ground Sam didn’t want to get too involved in either. “He’ all right,” said Ryou. “Still has Red, and all his limbs, so that’s pretty good.”

Veronica blinked. “All his -” she stopped as Ryou turned his wrist just enough that the metal arm briefly caught the light. “Oh. Right. Good. When is he coming home?”

“When he can, or when he has to,” said Sam. “Same as my Katie. There’s a lot going on out there, and if Voltron doesn’t solve it all, it will all come back here sooner or later.”

“Which is why I thought maybe we should talk,” said Ryou. “Sam tells me you’re very organized.”

“Yes, sir,” Veronica nodded. Despite the obedient words, there was nothing meek about her. She sat as if this were an official debriefing. “What is it you need me to do?”

“We need to get all of Earth ready to defend itself,” said Ryou. “Not just this Garrison facility. All the bases. All the nations. Sanda, however, doesn’t want to ‘cause a panic’. The panic she’s going to get is a fleet of Galra ships enslaving everyone if we don’t get around this.”

“Lance said something similar when he visited,” said Veronica. “I’m in, sir. Just tell me what I need to do.”

“You need to get hold of Hunk’s family,” said Ryou. “Sam and Colleen here have the contact info and the plans, but we need someone to get word off this base to them. When we know they’re ready, we’re going to initiate a worldwide broadcast.”

“Ready, sir?” asked Veronica. “Ready for what?”

“The Garison command isn’t likely to take bucking a direct order well,” said Ryou. “Especially since there probably will be a panic, at least at first. They’re going to want to clamp down, make sure it can’t happen again. They can’t retaliate against Sam – they need his mind for any hope of a defense. But Colleen and I, and Hunk’s family, and yours – they can use all of us to make sure no one steps out of line again. I’m not too worried about myself, and I can protect Colleen since she’s right here, and you. But Hunk’s family and yours need to be ready to disappear. And then reappear when they’re needed.”

“I see,” said Veronica, frowning. “Is there anything else?”

“Not for now,” said Ryou. “But believe me, that’s plenty.”

Sam said, slowly, “Are you sure the Garrison can’t retaliate against you?”

“Just give me a bit of code that says touching my arm while I’m unconscious results in a plasma discharge,” said Ryou grimly. “It’s the only defense we’ve got and they’ll want the crystal in it.”

~*~

Lance knocked on Allura’s door with audible trepidation. He wasn’t sure why him. Except – no, he could figure that one out. At times like this Keith would be just another galra, Hunk didn’t do confrontations, Shiro would be Too Official. Allura wasn’t thinking like a princess right now. She was thinking – feeling – like a young woman who’d lost all her people and then gotten them back like this.

When she answered the door, visibly glaring daggers, Lance knew his guess was right – though he hated himself for being right. “Hey,” he offered.

“What does Kaltenecker’s food have to do with anything,” snapped Allura. “I thought – he was our friend. I thought you all were my friends.”

“I dunno about the prince of grapes,” said Lance, “But I’m still with you, and so are the other paladins.”

“He’s killing my people,” said Allura.

“Yeeaah,” said Lance. “We’re kind of unhappy about that too. But if we kill him, that’s...you know, kind of it for the galra. There’s nothing we can do to save them after that.”

“They deserve it,” snapped Allura, visibly trying not to break down into tears. “They’ve destroyed countless worlds. Countless civilizations. The only group of them that’s even tried to resist hasn’t been the least bit effective. They deserve to die.

Lance knew he was going to hate himself later for this. Not even that much later. “Like Empress Allura, in the other reality?” he asked. “They’re beasts, so just...take away their will?”

Allura did not appreciate the comparison. With a wordless sound between a gasp and a snarl, she picked Lance up and threw him out of her quarters. His body hit the wall on the far side of the corridor just as her door slammed shut.

Lance picked himself up off the floor. His whole back ached and his head throbbed now. Allura hadn’t held back on that throw at all.

“I’ll just call back later,” Lance croaked. Yeah, it hadn’t taken long at all to hate himself for this one. Maybe an hour in a medical pod was a good idea.

He wobbled his way thither, on shaky legs.

~*~

Colleen had a satisfied look on her face as the broadcast went out. Citizens of Earth. This is Sam Holt of the Southwest Garrison. The following data has been sent to every Garrison but it is important that all citizens be aware. Aliens exist. Some are hostile. And we must be ready…

Veronica listened, pale but resolute. “They’re in bunkers,” she said quietly. “Are they even going to hear this? How long are they to stay there?”

“At least until the Garrison gets over wanting to use them as leverage,” said Ryou. “But they need to keep track of those bunkers because when the Galra get here they’ll have the same idea.”

“Humans and galra seem to think along similar lines,” said Colleen flatly. Outside the broadcast room the alarm was going up. “They’re coming.”

Ryou looked to Sam, who nodded. “Your arm is ready,” he said quietly, as the door started shaking with the force of the pounding knocks. “You’ve got all the tools you’ll need and I don’t think they can take it off you again.”

“Good,” said Ryou. “Good luck, you three. Hopefully, our gamble will pay off and I won’t have to rescue you.”

“They could still throw me out,” Veronica pointed out.

“Not if I insist on you staying,” said Sam. “They need me. They’re really going to need me now.”

“Damn right,” said Ryou, just as the door burst open. The conspirators found themselves quickly surrounded by men armed with rifles, all pointed at them. They raised their hands in surrender.

“By order of Admiral Sanda, you four are under arrest.”

~*~

Keith walked with Shiro back down to the brig. “You want me to talk to him,” said Keith, the tone saying he’d just worked this out.

“Yeah,” said Shiro. “He has to already know we can’t hold him unless we intend to kill him. And if we kill him then this whole problem turns about ninety degrees and the galra are going to be a diaspora. Which...maybe is for the best, and maybe it isn’t. But whatever’s going on, I think you’re probably the one he’d listen most to, since Allura’s not going to.”

Keith paused then, in the corridor, catching Shiro’s arm. “Then you’d better tell me what ending you want out of this,” he said seriously. “Because I’m right there with you. I don’t know that keeping him alive is the best option. I just know that without him the galra are going to crack into a hundred nations and more than half of them will be little nightmares for anyone in reach. But that can’t excuse what he’s done...can it?”

“I think we can’t know yet,” Shiro admitted. “If you can...get him to say why he did all this.”

“He already did that,” Keith pointed out.

“No,” said Shiro. “He said what he did. He outlined what he sees as the necessities. But he didn’t have to confess, Keith. Why come forward with this now?”

Keith frowned. “I think Krolia answered that. The Blades have been tracking that quintessence of his. She traced it to the quantum abyss – where he says the altean colony is. I was going to go with her. If that were how you all found out about it...”

Shiro nodded, understanding. “The alliance would break and we’d be at his throat instead of hearing him out. You told him you were leaving soon?”

“No,” said Keith. “Honestly I wasn’t sure I would be. Pidge kind of made it clear I shouldn’t take any solo trips for a while. But something definitely told Lotor he was running out of time. I don’t think he’d have said anything if he thought he had a choice. This can’t be what he wants – it’s just better than the alternatives.”

Shiro gave Keith a shy little smile – the sort he only showed when they were alone. “I’m honestly with Pidge on this, you know, but I wouldn’t stop you from taking up a mission.” The smile faded, and he nodded to himself. “Okay...so. I guess we see what he has to say.”

They made their way in silence after that, and Lotor seemed if anything to be meditating in his cell. His long fingers were steepled in some sort of odd angular symbol or shape, but he didn’t move them and it could have been just part of the meditative pose. His eyes opened as Keith and Shiro approached. “Of course it would be the two of you,” he said, understanding. “Ask your questions.”

“Why tell us all this?” asked Shiro. “And why now?”

Lotor gave Shiro a sort of narrow-eyed speculative look. “Allura has a key to Oriande,” he said. “If she goes there, she will become a true alchemist, with great power. I must have her on my side to succeed. Unfortunately, she is quite racist. Understandably, of course. My father’s people have taken everything from her. But if she cannot move past that, then I would have her hate me without that power rather than with it. My plans fail without her aid either way, and with them, any chance at peace in this universe.”

Keith gave Shiro a look that said, told you it was because he had to, and Shiro gave Keith a slight nod of acknowledgment in return.

Shiro said, “You’re that certain of your position. You realize Allura may insist we kill you.”

“She will not,” said Lotor. “Not before the colonists have been retrieved, at least. Only I can guide you safely through the Abyss.”

“That’s a short reprieve though,” Keith pointed out. “Once she has them and we’re out of there.”

Lotor turned his attention to Keith. “She will have me judged by those I rescued,” he said. “Or you will. Unless you all come to understand the necessity of this alliance. Haggar and her druids must be stopped. The galra must be freed from the dark power she wields. And I cannot do it without Voltron – or, at the very least, Allura with Oriande’s power. Haggar is simply too strong. And I have exhausted all other means.”

“What do you mean, exhausted all other means?” asked Shiro, frowning. “What else have you done?”

“That is what I have done, paladin,” said Lotor flatly. “I did not do what I did to the colonists purely for fuel. I have a hundred worlds beyond the Empire’s borders that would have sufficed for simple fuel. I have perfected my alliances and my quintessence farming beyond the reach of my father’s vindictive grasp, and had no need to kill anyone for it. I tried to create something like Voltron myself. The ore, the ships I made from it – that was not enough. There were no more alchemists – so I thought, at least – so I tried the quintessence of alteans. The closest I could come to what I understand as necessary. But it failed. All of it failed. Voltron alone can access that field. Or, if Allura can forgive enough to work with me, my Sincline ships. Those are my only options. You are my only options. Therefore if you would kill me, do get on with it.”


Chapter Text

Ezor was not, by inclination, a Thinker. It wasn’t that she was stupid, it was just that spending vargas and vargas thinking things out when there was so much she could be doing had never held much appeal.

Acxa was there for the Thinking. Then Ezor could simply throw the question of ‘what do I do now’ on Acxa’s lap and go find someone to torture. (Ezor had a very, very broad definition of torture. She had at one point terrorized half a cruiser with a small feather. In the process she’d definitively proven that galra were ticklish.)

On the one hand, she was supposed to report any harm done to Lotor to Haggar. Like, immediately. On the other...he wasn’t hurt? Exactly? And so, when Lotor was put into a cell and then given plenty of food and water and a bed and all that, Ezor went to Acxa to ask what she should do.

Acxa had studied Lotor’s image in the scrying thing. The mouse was, for reasons of detection, behind Lotor – the brig didn’t have enough places where a mouse could hide while facing Lotor and not be seen by him in turn. “No harm has come to him?”

“That’s part of the weird thing,” said Ezor. “I think he actually asked to be put in there.”

Acxa knew what Haggar would say – inform her at once. But the decision wasn’t currently Haggar’s, it was Acxa’s. “Keep watching,” she decided. “If you can get a front view without blowing our cover, do so. Let Haggar know if there’s any sign of coercion or torture. And otherwise...just continue on.”

“Boring,” sighed Ezor. “He’s just doing that thing where he makes up a story that fits the evidence. It’s not even entertaining.”

“If he’s explaining himself to them then he needs them,” said Acxa. “He wouldn’t bother otherwise. If he needs them then this is a plan and we shouldn’t interfere if we have a choice. Haggar only said alert her if the paladins turn on him, or someone hurts him.”

~*~

Lance emerged from the medical pod feeling much better – hungry, of course, but Hunk could fix that – and more importantly, not damaged. Allura did not pull punches.

But she did need to see there was more to this than just “Lotor did a bad thing”. And that was a problem. Because, firstly, it was a pretty big ‘bad thing’. And secondly, killing him or removing him from power would cause even bigger and more numerous bad things.

And thirdly, and this was a thought that Lance wasn’t at all ready to try voicing in Allura’s vicinity, Lotor’s specific variety of ‘bad thing’ wasn’t...very galra. Galra, when they needed something, were pretty direct about it in Lance’s experience. They’d try to take it, or take something valuable hostage to trade for it if they couldn’t take it outright. Or they’d throw armies at you until they could take what they wanted from you. While galra could be subtle – most often in choosing what hostage to take to ‘trade’ for what they wanted – they didn’t pussyfoot. They didn’t care about your feelings about things. Even at their most subtle, galra used brute force most often.

Which was not what Lotor had done. Lotor had gotten the trust of weak, vulnerable people. He’d sheltered them, cared for them – if not in an emotional sense then certainly enough in the physical sense that they cared for and trusted him in return. And then….he’d taken no more than he needed. Or thought he needed. Lance didn’t like what he was imagining, but he imagined that if he saw the methods Lotor was using they might even be...painless.

Keith and Shiro and a lot of rescued prisoners said galra didn’t give two fucks about whether people who had what they wanted felt pain.

Lotor had done a very bad thing...and he’d done it in a very altean way. Like the alteans in the mirror universe – creating slaves not by brute force, but by sapping the will of their subjugated peoples to resist.

Lance wasn’t at all sure Allura was ready to face that. She could hate Lotor for what he’d done – but he hadn’t ‘gone galra’, as she seemed to think. He’d gone altean.

He was...kind of like the dark side of Allura herself, that way. He was even really pretty, like she was.

Lance stared at that last thought as it hung around his mind. Lotor was...pretty. Like...want-to-touch-that pretty. Play-with-that-hair pretty.

The inner Lance that was staring at his own thoughts was honestly horrified at said thoughts now. He was not ready to be thinking shit like that, especially about someone as morally ambiguous as Lotor. It made him edgy. Edge-of-throwing-up edgy.

Back on track! Now! He snapped at himself. Right. We go find Shiro. We don’t have answers until we see what Lotor’s done for ourselves.

Yeah. That was the right thing to do. Lance pivoted on his heel. Go find Shiro. Get Coran to fly the ship if necessary, but get going.

~*~

Keith’s thoughts about Lotor were less personal but no less conflicted. He leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest, just...watching. Asking no questions because he didn’t really think he’d trust the answers, anyway. Actions were truth. Words, too often, were lies.

“I could order you to release me, you know,” Lotor remarked mildly. “You are, after all, galra. I am your rightful emperor.”

“Someday,” said Keith quietly, “You’re going to learn about the United States. That’s going to be an interesting day.”

“Oh?” asked Lotor, still soft, still mild. “Perhaps you think I am saying it because you are galra. Only partly. You, specifically, have accepted my rule. You, specifically, have endorsed it as rightful. Are you not bound by your given word?”

“Don’t remember giving it,” said Keith. “Better than other options isn’t the same as yes.”

“I am well aware,” said Lotor. “But if you follow that path then you and I are the same, and you have no right to hold me.”

“You asked for this,” said Keith. “Now you get to see where it leads.”

Lotor gave a slow, thoughtful nod. “Indeed,” he mused. “Will you be speaking to the princess? Or have you accepted that there is no point?”

Keith didn’t answer that, remaining silent with his arms crossed over his chest. Both of them understood that that was, itself, an answer, and Lotor inclined his head very slightly in acknowledging it. He even seemed somewhat sad about it. “You realize,” he said, even more quietly, “that it is by your advice this has unfolded. I would have waited until after she had become an alchemist...after she had done what I needed her to do. The lives of billions are at stake.”

“Why didn’t you, then?” asked Keith neutrally.

“I came to understand that the longer I waited, the more she would hate me,” said Lotor. “That perhaps it was already too late. I already have Haggar to contend with. Allura with all the skills of her father, as well?” He shook his head. “I need more than her power. I need her support. And Voltron’s.”

“After what you’ve done, you think that’s possible?” asked Keith, just a bit surprised.

Lotor gave him a direct look. “Sometimes we do horrible things,” he said, “to serve a greater good. I have been as gentle, as merciful as I could, in doing what I truly felt was necessary for the future of the universe. I accept my imprisonment now for that same reason. And I sense you know precisely what I am talking about.”

Keith did, although he didn’t like it. The memory of the clone ship, of the Shiros screaming in rage, in fear, in pain, the whimpers as some of them died, the fury in others. It was possible he was never going to forget the blood. He wasn’t sure he should, either. But neither was he going to talk to Lotor about it.

Lotor studied him a while, and when he was certain no response would be forthcoming, he said, “Take out a tablet. Copy down the coordinates and flight path as I tell you. I will record a message telling the generals I will be on a mission with you of utmost importance and will be gone a phoeb, two at most, and they are to conduct the war as best they can, and assist the Coalition forces where able. While I appreciate this force-cell’s ability to protect me from the princess’ wrath, I do no one any good waiting here to die. You wish to judge my actions. You will need to see them for yourself.”

~*~

Shiro took the team out for another round of ‘taking Sendak’s fuel tankers’, which remained the most effective way of keeping him from harassing alliance worlds too much. Rather than simply form Voltron and cut the enemy cruisers in half, though, he’d kept the lions separate and had each one working with a coalition squad. If they were going to take a break, the coalition needed tactics that didn’t rely on Voltron to hold their ground.

And really, the paladins were experienced enough at this point that one lion could take out a cruiser if it had to. The focus today was on shifting the bulk of the work to coalition ships so they could do this on their own – which included the paladins understanding what the coalition ships couldn’t do, what they needed backup for and help with.

“Their shields just aren’t up to it,” Pidge reported. “If they can’t get through the swarm of fighters they can’t strike at the cruiser.”

“Could be they need bigger drive crystals,” Hunk opined. “Do we have time to organize upgrades, though?”

Shiro kept a private line open to Olia’s ship – private, out of courtesy to Lance. “Hey, Matt. How are your shields holding?”

Not good,” Matt responded. “A lot of our ships are reclaimed junkers, Shiro, we grab anything that can still fly.

“We definitely need to do better,” said Shiro. “Can you talk with the Olkari and Taujeerians, maybe, about building actual battle-ships?”

It was Olia who answered. “We can, and we have, but the problem is defending those planets once the galra realize that’s where the shiny new ships are coming from. They’ve been building fleets but they’re stuck defending their own worlds with them. If you could spare some backup long enough for deliveries to be made we might have something.”

“Roger that,” said Shiro, and his eyebrows went up. “Allura, pull up. You’re getting too far from the group.”

“I’ll escort,” said Lance, and Red peeled off from being Shiro’s shadow to go to her.

The Blue Lion wasn’t anyone’s idea of a Lion powerhouse, but the way Allura was flying her it certainly seemed that way. It was difficult to actually convey emotion in a flight path, but Allura was managing it.

She was flying angry. Blue could take out a fighter with a clawswipe or a bite, but Blue wasn’t just clawswiping or biting. She was clawswiping-with-a-stomp, biting-with-headshake. Not just crushing fighters but shredding and crumpling them. Excessive, and constantly so.

“Allura?” asked Shiro on a private channel. “Allura. Come in.”

I am busy right now, Shiro,” snapped Allura. “You may have noticed there is a battle going on.”

“Yes, actually, I did,” said Shiro calmly. “And also that you seem to be taking combat advice from Keith on a bad day. What’s wrong?” Which was a stupid question really, because everyone and their mothers knew what was wrong, but Allura needed a better outlet than this.

I am here fighting a constant and unwinnable fight over fuel tankers while my people are in the tankers,” snapped Allura. “We’ve been out here fighting over fuel without thinking about what’s in it.”

“This isn’t fuel made from your people, Allura, and Keith’s got the coordinates of the colony. They’re getting Lotor’s Sincline ships docked on the castleship while we’re out here. We get back, we clean up, and we’re on our way. So could you focus on the job at hand? We’re going to be leaving these people on their own for several movements. Phoebs, possibly. We need somewhere to bring your people to.”

The Blue Lion looked toward Black, pausing mid-fight – which got it slammed into by a fighter, that promptly got shredded. “Today?” Allura asked.

“Today,” Shiro promised. “Keith said Lotor wants the Sincline ships on board because it’s a dangerous flight for someone that’s never made it before and we’ll want all possible ships flying escort if you want to get your people into the castle. But we’ve got to give the alliance ships a fighting chance before we go.”

Thank you, Shiro,” said Allura, and sounded almost like herself. If you didn’t notice that her thanks didn’t extend to the half-galra actually making what she wanted possible. Still, she got back on track, taking out fighters efficiently, and that was what mattered at the moment. Lance got to her side in Red, and she returned to formation without further comment.

~*~

Hunk helped Keith get the Sincline ships docked quickly on the castleship. The second had not ever had a pilot, being made after Lotor took the crown. Both were fascinating, though for different reasons, to the two paladins.

“The handling’s almost like a Lion,” said Keith. “Really responsive – but not intelligent.”

Hunk nodded. “There’s something missing about them. Like bodies without souls, and I can’t believe I’m saying that about a machine, but you know what I mean, right?”

Keith nodded. “We took readings, while this one was in reach, after Naxzela. The Blades did, I mean. These ships can do a hell of a lot. I wonder why he wanted both of them on board though. He can only fly one of them.”

Hunk shrugged, half absorbed in the readings he was taking for his own work. “Could be he just wants to make sure nobody makes off with them while he’s not around. Could be he wants you, or the princess, to fly one. You said he said the trip in would be rough.”

“Actually, he said if you don’t follow the flight path with perfect timing you aren’t likely to keep your ship, and even if you do follow it with perfect timing you’ll have to fight for it,” Keith corrected. “He put the colony there because it’s almost guaranteed suicide to go in if you don’t know exactly where you’re headed. You can’t just...fly in and nose around.”

Hunk nodded, changing the settings on one of his devices to take more readings. “Seems he definitely didn’t want other people hurting the alteans,” he agreed. “Allura’s going to need to fly the castleship, isn’t she?”

Keith shook his head. “She’ll wormhole us to the edge, but you can’t wormhole right to the center. Something about time being weird. Coran’s a solid pilot. He’ll fly the castleship, she’ll take Blue with the rest of the Lions to fly escort. From what Lotor told me there’ll be plenty that needs doing to keep the flight path clear.” He ran a hand along the hull of one of the Sincline ships. “...They’re...really something.”

“I hope he does let you fly one,” said Hunk. “Lance is good in Red, but you’re the best pilot we’ve got. Sounds like we’re gonna need you.”

Keith almost smiled at the compliment. “Thanks. But ...somehow it feels like a bribe, you know?”

“Yeah,” Hunk nodded with a little frown. “I know. Like...he’s trying too hard to be friends. I don’t know whether to believe him or not. I mean I’d like to. But...how can we be friends with someone that kills people to make ship fuel? We can’t, can we? There’s gotta be some kind of line there.”

“I really don’t know, Hunk,” Keith sighed. “It’s the kind of question I leave to Shiro when I can, and I’m not sure he knows either, this time. I think a lot’s going to depend on what we find on the other side of that abyss.”

~*~

Lance was wondering much the same thing. Allura was ignoring pretty much everyone but Shiro, and Shiro got a pass only because he was in charge of so much. But the thoughts he’d had before about Lotor weren’t going away. He wondered if any of it was how Allura felt, too – that wanting to like Lotor, finding him...kind of attractive (he was working on accepting this, in the quiet of his own head, but not at all ready to say so aloud)...made what he’d admitted to worse, somehow. Because you wanted to like him, and that meant part of you wanted to forgive him, even while other parts tried to tell you that maybe, just maybe, that was exactly what Lotor counted on.

Lance was better at People than most of the paladins, but you needed the graduate course in People to have a shot at dealing with Lotor.

So Lance made his way down to the brig, while Hunk and Keith moved the Sincline ships. Despite being in a fairly little cell, with nothing in the way of privacy, Lotor looked like what he was – a prince. Born royal. Every hair in place, not so much as a wrinkle in his clothes. As someone with direct personal experience in looking good, Lance could appreciate a master of the art even as he wondered how the hell Lotor managed it with nothing in the way of materials.

“You wear blue armor,” said Lotor in the mild voice he seemed to default to. “Yet I know the Blue Lion is flown by the princess.”

“We’ve been introduced,” said Lance. “Wouldn’t expect a busy prince like you to remember. I think you were running away from Zarkon at the time anyway. I’m Lance. I fly Red.”

“Yet you are not the Red Paladin,” said Lotor. If any of Lance’s barbs were even remotely in striking range, he gave no sign.

“Keith will always be the Red Paladin,” said Lance. “Just like Shiro is always the Black.”

“Not true,” Lotor replied. “I am quite certain I recall Keith being introduced as Black Paladin at least once.” He shook his head slightly. “It is little wonder I cannot keep you humans straight.”

Don’t I just wish you could, Lance bit his lip before that got out. “Blue armor is Lance,” said Lance, enunciating slowly and clearly, like practicing English for class. “Ignore the lion, go with the armor.”

“What is it you want, Lance who wears blue armor?” said Lotor, almost audibly bored. “Surely you are not here to interrogate me.”

God, Lotor was good at making you feel inferior. He had the entire routine down to an art form. But Lance was, in a way, quite used to feeling inferior. And in another, weirder way, it helped him to realize that part of that cringing inferiority was down to attraction, and jealousy. Bluntly, part of him wanted to be as cool as Lotor, as pretty as Lotor – and part of him just wanted to fuck Lotor right into the floor.

Lance was still internally side-eyeing that second part of him to a huge degree, and wasn’t at all sure that that part of him didn’t just direly need a good therapist. But it helped, in that bizarre way he didn’t yet have words for, to know it was there.

But because he didn’t have words for it, he didn’t say any of that out loud. Instead he said, “Why would I interrogate someone so keen on telling us all kinds of things on his own?”

Lotor gave him a half-lidded sort of look that Lance, worried now, thought might mean Lotor was well aware of that second, possibly warped part of Lance’s brain, and wasn’t the least bit worried about it. Lions might look at a wildebeest like that, if the lion happened to be full and sleepy at the time. “Is that what you think I’m doing?” he drawled.

Was...was that an offer? The words weren’t. But the tone, the way the words were said – Lance was suddenly keenly aware of his armor feeling tight in certain specific places. Thankfully places where it wouldn’t show right away, but it would soon. The conversation, such as it could be called, had gotten away from him, and fast.

Lance’s mouth saved him when his brain was too busy with its internal issues to pitch in. Without thought, on pure instinct, he said, “Is this how you talk to Allura?”

Abruptly, so quickly that Lance could feel the pressure of attention on him easing, Lotor shifted stance. Gone that predatory aura, that sense of come try it, I dare you, let’s see who can walk afterward. Instead it was confusion, and then retreat. “The princess has not come to speak with me,” said Lotor, and it almost sounded stiff. Wounded.

“Yeah, well, it was most of a phoeb before she acknowledged Keith’s existence after we found out he’s galra,” said Lance. “And he basically bullheaded his way onto a suicide mission before she realized maybe she didn’t want things to end on that note. She’s kinda got a problem with galra.”

“So I have noticed,” and there was a heavy sort of iciness to Lotor’s tone now. “One which you do not appear to share.”

“Earth hasn’t been attacked by the galra,” said Lance. “I haven’t watched galra cruisers burning my family’s house or hauling my cousins off to slave camps or killing my parents. That kind of thing tends to stick on people’s minds. Your dad killed her mom and dad and torched her planet into kibble. I don’t know that she’s going to shrug that one off.”

“I have also saved all of her people – our people – that remain,” Lotor pointed out mildly. “Perhaps that will help matters.”

Lance waved a hand. “Maybe,” he said dismissively. “I’m not going to give romantic advice to my rival anyway.”

Lotor, for once, was caught completely off guard. The lion had expected an oblivious wildebeest. Or possibly a curious wildebeest, lurable into an easy trap. A tapdancing wildebeest singing showtunes in a trained contralto was apparently something of a shock. “Your what?” got out before he got a grip on himself and the politely disinterested noble mask got slammed back into place again.

Lance had seen it though. Lotor had genuinely not had even the barest stray whisper of an idea that maybe Lance liked Allura too. And didn’t in the least bit view Lance as any kind of threat to his plans, whatever they were.

He was spared having to think of some kind of snappy response by the vibrating of the ship around them. Hunk and Keith had apparently gotten the Sinclines aboard.

They were on their way to the cosmic abyss. “I don’t have time for this,” said Lance, and booked it for the bridge.

~*~

“This is not ideal,” said Elcris, as the lions wormholed away.

“Apparently they don’t have a choice,” said Matt, no happier.

“Now we don’t either,” grumbled Olia. “We’re gonna lose so much ground. That bastard Sendak’s gonna roll right over us.”

Matt looked down at his hands. His tablet had blueprints, courtesy of Hunk and Pidge, for fighter ships. The Coalition had never really had fighters of its own – it had always had to repurpose other vessels.

“We’d better get these plans to Taujeer and Olkarion,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’ll take them to get them into production but if everyone helps…

“We’ll all be in two big target-painted places for Sendak’s fleet to wipe out,” Olia grumbled. “There’s reasons we’ve never tried making shipyards on a large scale.”

“If we don’t focus on restoring our numbers we are in huge trouble,” Matt replied. “Let Sendak have the planets if we have to. He doesn’t care about the people. We do. Let’s get the people out, and they can help us build the shipyards and fly the ships to take their planets back.”

Elcris just watched them argue, for several minutes. Finally she said, “The shipyards do not need to be on Olkarion or Taujeer. We need, as you say, the people, not the planets. The Blades know of several locations that can be concealed from the Empire, within the Coalition’s borders. We have the means to hide production.”

Both Matt and Olia stared at her. “….Guess we have a plan then,” said Olia. “Get the word out. Evacuation orders for the Fire’s next targets. And word to the Blades that we need some help hiding a new shipyard. I’d say it’d take phoebs, decaphoebs, to build a shipyard and get it producing, but right now we’re nothing if not really motivated.”

“It will still take phoebs,” Elcris warned. “But it will protect the refugees and give them means to take back their worlds. We will lose planets. We will lose ships. But we will get them back.”


Chapter Text

They exited the wormhole on the edge of a vast, beautiful, deadly chaos.

Allura stared at it. “I have to consider that possibly Lotor has lied to us, and this is intended to kill us.”

Krolia shook her head. “It’s not a trick, princess. The Blade has been tracking Lotor’s unique quintessence supply since we first learned of it. I personally verified that the trail leads here – into this quantum abyss. The flight path he provided is sound. It won’t be easy, and we’re likely to take damage. But we’re on the right track.”

Allura pretended not to hear her, looking instead at Shiro. Shiro, in turn, was watching Krolia register that Allura was Not Acknowledging Galra right now, and Keith giving his mother a sort of tired/aggravated ‘this happens’ kind of look. It wasn’t helping Shiro’s mood. He turned his attention to Allura as the silence stretched, and just said flatly, “You heard her, princess. Since we need alteans to fly this ship, you and Coran are going to have to take it in shifts.” He turned his attention to the others. “That goes for all of you as well. We’ll alternate shifts. Lance, you will fly with Hunk. Pidge, you’ll fly with me. Keith, Krolia? You’ll take the Sinclines. When it’s your shift, you’re flying escort. Take out the larger threats. When you’re off escort, you’re on turrets to support the next shift, taking out smaller or more numerous threats. Eight vargas escort, eight vargas turrets, eight to get your rest.” He turned back to Allura. “If anything happens and you or Coran can’t fly, put the castleship down on something big. Big as you can. From the look of that screen the rocks in there like to hit each other a lot.”

“Lance, Hunk, to your Lions. Pidge and I are on turrets. Keith, Krolia, Coran – get your sleep in.” He turned a look on Allura that said any bucking his orders, any at all, would cause Severe Non-Amusement that invited retaliation. It wasn’t polite at all. It wasn’t deferential at all. As Keith, Krolia, and Coran filed out, his tone was calm, courteous, and absolutely an order. “In your own time, princess. Take us in.”

~*~

“She does understand that we are doing this for her people?” asked Krolia, as they got far enough from the bridge to be safe from eavesdropping.

“Yeah,” said Keith heavily. He’d forgotten how much weight Allura could give a cold shoulder. “She’s just – she’s got problems with galra. It’s ten thousand years ago for everyone else – for her, losing Altea and her family and friends and everything is...maybe five years ago, tops. Cryo-sleep.”

Krolia frowned. “I see,” she said. “Is she going to put us in danger?”

“Shiro will probably make sure our shifts are on Coran’s watch,” said Keith. “He’s not happy with her, but this isn’t a good time for a fight about it.”

“That wasn’t my question,” said Krolia flatly.

Something in her tone made Keith raise his eyes from the floor to look at her. Krolia was...protective? She wasn’t angry on her own behalf, he could see that much. “I don’t need you to protect me,” he said.

That wasn’t my question either,” said Krolia, the growl audible now. “Keith, we are risking our lives and this ship to rescue her people. Granted, also ours, but I’ve got no illusions about them seeing it that way. We’re rescuing her people. And she’s acting like that because she doesn’t like what Lotor’s done. That entitles her to be angry at Lotor. Not every galra ever born and certainly not the ones risking their hides for. Her. People. I need to know how far she’ll take this Keith, because I am not going to put your life in her hands if she doesn’t care whether you live or not.”

Keith blinked at her. He really didn’t know what to do with this protective streak. It wasn’t an attitude anyone had ever had in his direction. If anything people tended to assume he was indestructible. But Krolia held his eyes with hers until he gave her question due consideration.

Unfortunately, all he could say was, “I don’t know. Last time she was just able to ignore me until she’d worked through it.”

Krolia nodded. “Then I will not rely on her,” she said. “I’ve got your back, Keith. I will not let a teenage altean get you killed.”

Again, Keith really didn’t know what to say to that. Or do about it. If anything. Although it would be nice having backup – the abyss did not look like it would be good flying.

~*~

Hunk was not having a good time. Yellow was the slowest and clumsiest of the Lions, and the dangers of the Abyss were not ones easily plowed through. He had a freakout about cute little space birds that turned out to be ship-eating space squidthings, hallucinating light flashes, and careening asteroid fields all within the first hour – and there were seven more to go.

Lance did what he could, but even in Red there was just so much to dodge, to fight, to deal with. If Shiro and Pidge hadn’t been on the castleship turret drones for backup he’d have been right there screaming along with Hunk.

“Why not a barbed wire fence?” Lance snapped after clawing some weirdass space manta ray off Yellow’s eye-panels. “Or, you know, just a really long way away? Why here?”

Because there’s no way a robot is going to pilot through this maze,” came Shiro’s dead calm voice on the comm. “Lotor needed a hiding place he knew how to navigate but that would destroy anyone his father sent in after him. I’d say this place fits the bill.”

“Yeah well it’s not doing us any favors either,” snarled Lance, kicking off Yellow to heat-ray an oncoming swarm of he-couldn’t-even-guess what. “How long is the trip going to take?”

Assuming we can navigate without crashing the castle into anything, a few days. Maybe a week,” came Pidge’s reply. “I’m gathering data based on Allura’s speed relative to the course Lotor mapped out. We’re taking it slower than he would, of course.”

“I don’t like those flashes,” said Hunk. “Is anyone else getting hallucinations?”

I’m not sure they are hallucinations, Hunk,” was Shiro’s wary reply. “They’re too...real.”

I think they’re pockets of time,” was Pidge’s take. “Pieces of the past, or the future, of whatever or whoever you’re near at the time.”

“Lance, you have a lot of brothers and sisters,” said Hunk, in a tone that suggested maybe Lance had too many.

Focus on the task at hand,” Shiro advised. “And try not to poke too hard at everyone’s personal histories. We may be feeling pretty overexposed by the end of this.”

~*~

The flashes of time did seem to be affected by proximity; the flashes you saw depended on the people you were physically near at the time. You didn’t need to be awake, either – the flashes could, and would, affect your dreams in vivid and unexpected ways.

It meant Keith dreamed of his father seen through his mother’s eyes, and saw himself as a baby held in their arms. It meant Krolia saw Keith’s years in foster care and juvenile detention, and what Shiro had done that meant Keith was here and not on Earth.

It meant Lance saw Hunk’s family, and Hunk saw Lance’s. And Pidge, Shiro, and Allura were all treated to pieces of each others’ lives.

Once the flashes started Allura slowed the castleship down significantly. No one could pilot well while frozen in a fragment of someone else’s life. And it was hard, very hard, not to let those flashes affect anything. No one was managing it well. Everyone’s lives had become far too much an open book.

After Pidge had to put down her controls for her drone turret to give Shiro a fierce hug, Shiro realized the only way to deal with this particular issue was to spread it around. The teams couldn’t be static. Halfway through the shift he called Lance in to take a break and put Krolia in his place. Then Pidge got rotated out and Keith replaced her. Then Allura and Coran swapped. Instead of three teams of two each, he put each paladin on a unique rotation that kept the groups changing at a steady rate.

If the universe was going to strip them of their secrets, Shiro was going to make sure it did so to everyone equally, with everyone equally. There would be no cliques formed by inadvertent acquisition of private knowledge.

He just hoped like hell that whatever they found at the heart, it gave them time to deal with all this sudden unasked-for knowledge.

~*~

Keith was on edge. He knew people were seeing parts of his life, just as he was seeing theirs, but he had no control over which parts – or even any idea which parts were what they were reacting to. He just got little “aww, Keith” type comments over the comms now and then.

And maybe that was the reason why he was so willing to focus on something outside himself and the task at hand. The asteroids around them were of differing sizes, and there were creatures of all sizes and descriptions in this insane place. Granted ‘space pirhanas’ was a discovery he could’ve done without, but the space whale, with its whole little ecology on its back, was kind of a nice thing to fly over and around as they passed.

And the body of a large wolf – had to be large, to be seen from the height he was flying – and creatures closing in on something alone and small.

It was an impulse, really.

An impulse born of having his entire life on display for everyone, and those little ‘aww, Keith’ comments that made it sound like he was an object of pity for pretty much everyone he worked with and nobody would even mention what the hell they were ‘aww’ing all over the place about, and the idea, however briefly considered, that maybe having something around that did not fucking talk wouldn’t be a bad idea. An impulse born of a lifetime of shoving back against every box (galra, problem child, hotshot) other people tried to shove him into.

It was the work of mere seconds.

The seconds it took to swoop down, using the Sincline’s guns to scatter the circle of predators, turn the ship upside down so he could open the hatch and grab the little ball of fur while being held in place by the straps of his seat, and roll the ship sideways and back up to position.

Keith?” came Shiro’s voice over the comm. “What’s up? Why did you leave position?

Keith looked down at his lap. A black and blue furred...puppy? Stared up at him with wide eyes, hunkered down in case the ship rocked or possibly turned upside down again.

A crazy thing to have done. Keith had no real idea what this creature was. If it was friendly or could be friendly or if the only reason it wasn’t biting him was it was too small to kill him. But he’d spent enough time with Krolia to know that his instincts were rooted in a deeper connection to the universe that he just didn’t have the means to master. And having the little furball on his lap...felt right. He’d done something that should be done.

It looked up at him with the wide, terrified eyes of a little child well aware that its mother was gone, and the circumstances of its life were entirely out of its control and in the hands of a stranger. And Keith remembered being behind those eyes, once upon a time.

That didn’t change the fact that he’d broken formation in the middle of a battle to rescue an alien wolf pup from being eaten, but it did mean that, while embarrassing to explain, he didn’t regret the choice. “Little rescue mission,” he told Shiro. “You’ll understand later.”

~*~

Allura was not having a good….life, really.

It wasn’t enough that her friends were secretly galra. It wasn’t enough that the last altean was also half galra. Or that the final remnants of her species were practically imprisoned in the heart of this hellmouth of a place, or that even there they weren’t safe from galra predation.

No. Allura had to deal with flashes of everyone else’s lives on top of this, and know as she was forced to experience it that these aliens whom she had to rely on for all hope were witnessing her life in just as much detail.

It was having an effect on everyone. The snarking and black humor that was fairly common to their conversations mid-battle were gone now, replaced with a sad, determined solemnity. No one wanted to crack jokes because everyone was learning far too much about everyone else while at the same time never really knowing exactly what was being learned. Every skeleton in every closet was out and dancing. And no one had any time to really ...talk about it. So no one mentioned any of it, lest it turn out the bridge was full of unbagged cats in the middle of battle.

But everyone was experiencing it. There was no telling if any secrets at all would survive the trip.

Except Lotor’s, of course. Lotor, tucked away from everyone else at the other end of the castleship, too far for his life-flashes to reach anyone else, too far for everyone else’s to reach him.

Part of Allura wanted to drag Lotor up to the bridge, bound and gagged, so that the truth of his life would be known to all. But that would mean Lotor, in turn, saw everyone else’s lives – saw her life – and Allura couldn’t even think that thought without wanting to bodily hurl Lotor out of an airlock. Given not one of the paladins brought the idea up, she rather thought they felt the same. The price for knowing the truth of Lotor by this method was just too high.

She was flinching every time the light came, as it was.

Lance and Hunk with their large, loving families. Allura had been an only child. Pidge and the close bonds of the Holts, how it had felt for her to track down Matt at last, be with her father again, hold the book from her mother. Shiro’s lover on Earth, the way people had admired him with not a drop of royal blood required. All of them hurt her in their own ways, reminded her of what she’d lost or been denied. Everyone she’d known was long, long dead, and the world she’d known them on with them.

And the only one who knew what that was like was the galra paladin – and he’d had it worse. So much worse. Allura had been much happier with Keith just not telling her about it. She’d been happier not knowing.

It wasn’t logical or reasonable but how dare he have it worse. Could she not even have her pain to herself? It felt like an attack, and if she had any idea that anyone could control or prevent the strange time flashes she would absolutely have called it one.

But she couldn’t cry. She couldn’t snap or scream or do any of the things she really wanted to do. She had a ship to keep on course, because if the castleship diverted from the safe route, it would likely be crunched into scrap. And then she wouldn’t rescue her people, she’d join them in captivity.

She would not leave this abyss without her people. It was the only clear, sane thought she had, and she clung to it fiercely.

~*~

Lance wasn’t the only one getting flashes of Allura’s life. He was, however, probably the one who paid the most attention to them. He wanted to understand her – where she had come from, what she was going through – on a more than “this is a problem that needs solving” level.

He was, honestly, kind of worried about her. She stood on the teludav dais, piloting the castleship with the regal, frozen bearing of a tragic queen, and sometimes when it was his turn on the turrets and she was flying the ship, he could see her crying without moving, like a kind of living statue.

The thing was that the flashes didn’t show you a person’s life from behind their eyes. You didn’t get to see what they were thinking or feeling. It was more like you were inserted into the scene, an invisible observer to an event.

So he could, for example, see toddler!Allura gleefully parading around in nothing but a diaper and a galra helmet, but had no idea if this was a memory she treasured or feared. He saw Zarkon, in her memory, before...whatever it was that had changed him. He saw Alfor, and Melenor. And Altea.

He couldn’t really fault Allura for grieving for Altea. It had absolutely been a beautiful world.

The day Zarkon came with fire and fury and torched it all – Lance got to see that, too. Allura had seen Zarkon kill her parents. Coran grieving and afraid and herding her to the cryo chambers.

The still silence of the sleeping castle, alone on a different world entirely. More often than not that was what a flash of Allura’s life showed – ten thousand years of stillness, of silence, while the entire universe around the castle changed.

She wasn’t sixteen. She was an altean teenager, but she wasn’t sixteen. In strict terms of years lived, she was the second oldest person in the castle – only Coran was older. It was just that alteans grew more slowly than humans, grew up more slowly.

She’d had time to explore Altea. Meet a lot of people. Make many friends, meet several mentors. And all of it was gone in one burst of wrath and blood and fire. Gone without trace, without recovery.

Lance got flashes of Keith’s life too, and Shiro’s, and everyone else’s. And none of that was easy to deal with either, but he really thought that of all of them, Allura had had it worst. Keith had lost about as much, but Keith had lost it all so early on that in a lot of ways he’d just grown around the loss; he’d become a survivalist who could handle being on his own in strange and hostile environments, because that’s all he’d ever been in. His parents were faded memories or not remembered at all; he wouldn’t know his mother’s name if she hadn’t turned up again, and didn’t remember his father’s. Lance could admit – to himself at least – that he felt like a complete jackass for making that life harder, and he understood why Keith had the reaction to him he did. It was a hell of a way to learn, but in learning, he’d also come to understand why Keith wasn’t ever going to just come out and say things. He’d make it up to him...probably...but later. Allura was a different matter.

Allura had grown in love, and light, and connection. She’d had time to know her parents, and her extended family, and all their friends, and make friends of her own. Keith had survived so long on his own because he mostly didn’t remember what those things had been like. But Allura did remember. Keenly. With every step down empty corridors that should have been filled with laughter and company she remembered. Every day among alien friends reminded her that her ears were pointed, not round, her face bore markings while theirs were bare.

She hated galra because she knew exactly what she’d lost, how much she’d lost. What they’d taken from her. And because now it seemed they were keen to stomp on even the broken shards of it all. It was the rage and grief that fueled the rebel fleet – the survivors of broken worlds.

And maybe if Allura were out there taking potshots at cruisers in rehabbed junk ships she could just...work through that grief. But she wasn’t. She was in the last altean castleship, flying the lions of Voltron around. The opportunities to directly attack the source of her grief had been relatively few, and the attacks she’d weathered had been fairly personal. That reduced their therapeutic value; it wasn’t therapeutic, really, to take a swing at the person who’d burned your house down if he was now pointing the flamethrower right at you. It was just self defense.

Lance worried at the problem where he could. There wasn’t a lot of time for it, really, between fending off larger attacks in Red and smaller attacks via castle turret drones. He wanted to help her, he really did. And he knew she needed help. But the specifics of how were escaping him.

~*~

Shiro filed all the information from the flashes away to think about later. At least, he tried really, really hard to do so. He’d learned to compartmentalize pretty well while a gladiator for the galra. But that was his own life.

And he could compartmentalize everyone else’s ...fairly well.

Everyone’s but Keith’s, anyway. He’d rather left himself open to being repeatedly wounded there.

Keith didn’t really talk about his past – he never had, any more than Shiro did. Bare bones were all Shiro had had before this trip, and that was still quite a bit more than anyone else had.

And he loved Keith and he was not ready to be hit with the reality behind those sparse understated comments. He wasn’t ready to stand there while the child watched his father burn to death. He wasn’t ready to see the same child crying alone at a new grave. Or the reality of the foster families he’d been bounced around for years. He’d guessed it was bad. Never loved, often barely tolerated, sometimes treated as a walking mistake that would, guaranteed, fuck up somehow. Always, always fighting. To be heard, to survive.

No wonder he’d never fought back against Lance’s accusations. No wonder he’d never wanted to lead. Keith had never been trusted – never even believed – no matter what he did or said. Lance wasn’t unique. He wasn’t even in the top twenty.

Shiro was finally able to see what had happened while he’d been bound in the Black Lion and the universe had one dark, sick sense of humor to throw that knowledge at him while he was busy trying to keep the castleship safe from a genuinely incredible number of Abyss-spawned dangers. How like the universe to grace him with that knowledge long after he could have done something about it, when he couldn’t even take the time to process it.

A kid abandoned by everyone, over and over. And yet still able to be kind. Still able to fight not only to protect himself but to spare others – others who had done nothing to earn such mercy – just a little of the pain he’d survived. Shiro remembered that spark, in the boy he’d met, that potential. Adding context just made that spark all the more remarkable.

He loved someone magnificent. Everything he saw just confirmed that for him.

But it broke his heart, too, to watch what Keith had had to survive. All the blows, all the losses.

He saw Keith lead the paladins onto the clone ship.

He watched what Keith, what all of them, had endured just to bring him back.

Shiro hated that there was no time to do more than file everything away. That he had to focus on the mission, getting the castleship to the heart of the abyss.

But he swore to himself that he was going to make sure all of them knew how grateful he was, and sorry, that they’d had to endure that.

And he swore Keith was going to know how much he was loved.

~*~

The center of the abyss was a welcome sight for everyone, not least because there seemed to be an invisible boundary that kept the flashes of Time from hitting them anymore. The journey had been hard enough just in purely technical terms; they now knew a great deal about pretty much everyone on the crew and between the two events most of them just wanted to sleep for a day or two before continuing on.

Allura, of course, did not. And since the other paladins had all been treated to the full documentary as to why not, there was no surprise and very little grumbling about it. Okay, yes. They would see what Lotor had done...and then sleep.

From the outside, it didn’t look like much. Probably deliberately. You had to know what was here already to recognize the subtle lines of some kind of factory, on a moon about half a day’s flight from an asteroid that looked like a small exoplanet.

By unspoken agreement, the castleship opted for ‘bad news first’ and flew toward the apparent factory. As Allura touched down, she said, “Get Lotor. And...cameras.”

Pidge and Hunk went for the cameras and scanners. Shiro, Keith, Lance and Allura went to get Shiro. Keith, at Shiro’s insistence, wore his paladin’s armor. If there were any people alive in there, Shiro wanted them clear where Keith stood.

Lotor got to his feet at so many visitors at once, nodding as he noticed their armor. “I see,” he said. “We have arrived, then.”

“You’re going to be our guide,” said Allura.

Lotor blinked slowly at her. “Indeed?” he said. “How trusting of you. Of course I will be your guide.”

He wasn’t allowed to go free though. His wrists were bound together behind his back, which was in turn chained to the back of a collar around his neck, which also had a leash that Allura held. The collar could deliver a hefty shock if directed.

The group disembarked the castleship in silence, and Pidge’s scanner found the door. Lotor watched, frowning, as Pidge hacked the security without any particular effort, and the group made its way inside.

No guards. No need. Row after row of pods. Tier after tier of them. Most filled with unconscious Alteans, their life force being slowly drained.

Allura made a sort of keening sound, high and wordless grief. “We have to get them out.”

“Princess,” warned Lotor. “Some will not survive.”

“If we don’t they will all die!” Allura snapped. “Pidge – Hunk – help me get them out.”

“On it,” nodded Pidge, with Hunk in firm agreement. The two ran off, looking for a master console.

Keith studied the pods. “You said you only took what you needed,” he said. “These pods are still active. You’re still draining these Alteans.”

“I have not had the chance to return here since my failed attempt to access the quintessence field,” said Lotor. “I was fleeing my father and could not risk leading him here. And as Emperor I have been rather busy.”

“We’d better prepare for every medical pod on the castleship to be filled,” said Krolia. “Some of these alteans are healthy enough to be woken. Others will probably die the moment they’re disengaged from this. It’s the ones that are weak but potentially still saveable that will be hardest.”

“Let’s get on it. Allura, Lotor’s in your hands. Try not to kill him. We’ll get your people onto the castleship and their presence can serve as evidence in his trial.”

“Yes,” said Allura, and there was angry ferocity in her tone.

Lotor said nothing; his attention was on the pods. The lighting was shifting as Hunk and Pidge found the main operational console. “This facility is entirely automated,” he said. “Sentries remove the dead, sterilize the pods. I could not risk any living staff. They would have told Zarkon of this place. If he had realized that he could gain a pure quintessence in this fashion he would have used it.”

Keith went with Krolia to get gurneys from the castleship, get it ready for an influx of disabled alteans. Shiro stayed with Allura, mostly to make sure she didn’t throttle Lotor in her grief. She was only barely holding on to any shred of self control.

To that end, he said, in a mild tone that made it clear it was an order, “Lotor, now would be a very good time to shut up.”

There were hundreds, thousands of pods. As the lights shifted, and the pods began to drain, preparing to release their altean contents, the silence was broken by soft moans from all around. Allura’s hand tightened around Lotor’s leash.

Shiro reached over and – using all the strength in his cybernetic arm – wrenched that leash from her grasp. “Help your people,” he ordered her. “Help them now. I’ve got Lotor.”

She didn’t understand at first, turning on him with wordless fury. He blocked her – ready for her superior physical strength – and shoved her at a pod where a weak Altean was struggling vainly to get the draining attachments disconnected from his frail limbs. “Help them!” he demanded. “They need. Their. Princess.”

That did it. The word princess reminded Allura of her duty, her place. She helped the altean before her get out of the pod, get out of the connecting attachments. And once she’d started, concern for her people overshadowed her rage at Lotor. She worked feverishly – opening pods, removing connections. Assessing which people could still be helped, could be gotten to the castleship for rest, for medical attention – and which could only be given company as they died.

The paladins quickly sorted out their roles.

Pidge and Hunk shut down the facility in sections, first. Each section would then be gone over by Allura, Krolia, Keith and Lance, who would help the alteans get out of the pods and into the castleship. Lance oversaw the weakest getting into castleship medical pods, which Hunk arranged to infuse those Alteans with the facility’s store house of stolen quintessence. Those less utterly debilitated were shown to one of the many rooms on the castleship and provided with food goo, water, beds and clothes. Most immediately flopped onto their beds and slept.

There were no alteans who were recently enough put into the pods to be able to help anyone else. Shiro took that as a good sign, that at least Lotor’s farming didn’t happen that often. His task was monitoring Lotor, and making sure the recording drones got clear images of every aspect of the factory.

And Lotor watched it all in solemn silence. Line after line of withered alteans being carried or carted out, back to the castleship. Every drop of the pure quintessence being used in the castleship medical pods to try and save as many alteans as possible.

When the last of the pods were opened, Pidge made sure to download all the records for later evidence. Then she and Hunk shut the place down and helped the others get their new castle residents settled.

All in all the work took several days. Once the factory was emptied, Allura took out her lion and shredded the building into scrap.

Allura wanted to immediately go on to the main altean colony, but here Shiro put his foot down. “We’ve saved as many as we could, princess,” he said. “But we’re exhausted. The trip here and now this? And once we arrive it’s going to be chaos again. No. We’re resting right here. At least a full quintant, while our guests get settled.”

“Shiro, if we don’t get them to the colony, several of our ‘guests’ could die,” Allura insisted.

“Not according to Lotor,” sighed Shiro. “These alteans have lost a lot of technology in their time here. The castleship is more advanced than anything they’ve got. You’re going to have your hands full teaching them. For now, our guests are better off with us. If you don’t need sleep you and Coran should monitor the infusion patients. But the rest of us are at the end of our rope. We’ll approach the colony tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

It was not, in fact, ‘tomorrow’ when the castleship took off for the planet.

This was partly due to the sheer exhaustion of the paladins, who – presented with a few hours to sleep and process – put their collective feet down hard on taking it, and accepting any excuse to extend it a little.

Which let Shiro get used to the idea of sharing his quarters with Keith and a wolf pup. It let Keith adapt to everybody suddenly knowing everything about him and thus seeing him quite differently (which would likely have resulted in some ‘good gods fuck off’ fistfights if Shiro had not been there, because Keith was not used to people acting that way around him). It let Lance quietly talk Allura out of focusing on Lotor in favor of focusing on her people instead, since they needed a leader and a rescuer right now. And it let Pidge and Hunk be generally grateful that by comparison their lives were easy, uncomplicated, and full of exciting new technologies.

Which was good, because by the next day some of their rescued pod alteans were mobile and curious as to what the hell had happened (and angry at Lotor) and someone had to fill them in. And others required medical attention since there were more weakened alteans than there were medical pods, which meant Pidge and Hunk were kept quite busy devising alternative solutions. And many of the alteans wanted to know where other alteans were, which led to (among other things) Lance creating name tags in english and altean and slapping them onto every altean who could identify themselves or someone else.

Once Lance had talked Allura off her angry ledge, he and she worked in tandem to get the more mobile alteans roomed with alteans they knew and were willing to look after, and took turns running guided tours of the casteship. Special emphasis was placed on the training deck and ‘helping Pidge, Hunk and Coran’ since the castleship hadn’t been this full in rather more than ten thousand years and its systems were now under a bit of strain.

Lotor was returned to the brig, at least partly for his own safety. Not one of the alteans they’d released from the pods was happy with Lotor, and nearly all were keen to get home and unveil the deception to their fellows. There were no shortage of volunteers to ‘guard the brig’, though none of the rescued alteans were anywhere near physically up to the task.

Shiro got them chairs – but no weapons – and let them ‘sit watch’. They were not allowed to let Lotor out of the brig for any reason, but it seemed to be good for them. Not for Lotor, though. The rage at Lotor’s betrayal of their trust was considerable, and frequently bluntly expressed. The Emperor sat quietly in his cell, expression stoic, and...waited.

Allura was...mythical. The last Princess of Altea before it fell, come in their time of need. That – once she’d been shaken out of her rage – she worked tirelessly to see to the needs of the rescued alteans only increased the effusiveness of her welcome. She might have an uphill battle yet with the main colony, who did not know what Lotor had done and thus thought of him as a savior still, but these alteans welcomed her as a hero.

Not all of their rescued alteans survived, though. Even time in the medical pods, with infusions of quintessence, couldn’t give them back what they’d lost in possibly centuries of immobile captivity. Allura ordered them given glass coffins, sealed tightly, so that they could at least be with their kin in death.

Which was another thing, one Hunk niggled at during off moments. Lotor hadn’t gone for the obvious targets – those with no family to miss them. No, he’d taken families generation by generation. Several of the bodies tested out – Pidge’s scanners, created to find clones, got pressed into service ID’ing the unconscious – to be related to other captives. Aunts, uncles, even parent and child relationships.

“It makes sense when you think about what he wanted from them,” said Allura. “The mystic alteans are families, for the most part. He needed those with the strongest sensitivity to quintessence...that would be a familial trait. Take each generation once they’ve had children to keep the lines going.”

Shiro shook his head. “This is going to get bad when we reach the colony,” he said. “Princess, you realize I’m going to have to testify to why they shouldn’t execute Lotor outright.”

Allura’s lips pressed together tightly. “I’m well aware,” she said, anger creeping back. “But he cannot be allowed to walk away from this, Shiro.”

“And he won’t,” Shiro promised. “But we also don’t want more planets to suffer on his account. It’s got to stop.”

~*~

The colony world was protected by a dome that deflected all attempts to scan beyond it. To the castleship, nothing was there at all – a lifeless rock, maybe, and nothing more.

No one said anything that wasn’t mission related as Allura brought the ship in close.

Mainly because Pidge’s comment was, “There’s a door in that dome that could let a ship bigger than this one through but it’s code locked. Given Lotor built this colony to protect and hide the alteans from attack, I don’t want to risk hacking it if I don’t have to.”

“I’ll get him,” said Lance, and got up to head for the brig.

“I’ll come with you,” said Keith. “If he decides his best chance at living is to fight, now’s probably when he’ll be thinking it.”

The lift took a minute or so; Lance filled the silence with, “Just to have it said, man...I’m sorry for being an ass at you.”

Keith slanted a Look at him; irritated, a bit tired. “If I wanted pity I’d have told people my life story,” he said flatly.

“You can fuck right off with that,” snapped Lance in turn, without moving or even turning his head to look at Keith. “I’d sooner pity a shark. It’s respect, you boneheaded numbfuck. Learn to spot it. Make everyone’s lives easier.”

Keith didn’t answer. Possibly because the doors opened just then, and it wasn’t a good conversation to have where Lotor might hear. But more likely – to judge by his absolutely dumbfounded expression – because he was having trouble balancing what Lance had said with the way he’d said it. There was a nearly visible ‘humans, go fig’ moment and he turned his attention to Lotor instead.

Lotor was watching both of them with a tired, ‘of course it would be you’ look as he got to his feet. “I take it the moment of trial is now at hand.”

“In a bit,” said Keith. “We need the code to open the colony’s defensive shield.”

This got the polite interest of Lotor’s ‘guards’, two of the rescued alteans who were well enough to sit in chairs without falling out of them.

Lotor looked around the room, his glance passing over the castle mice under one of the chairs. “Take me to the bridge, then,” he said mildly. “I give you my word to offer no resistance. If I should act to break my word you are welcome to kill me.”

“You do realize we didn’t need your permission for that, right?” drawled Lance. He held out his hand and his bayard appeared in it, quickly becoming a blast rifle. Keith glanced at him, nodded approval of the rifle, and lowered the cell’s force shield.

They led him back to the lift; a momentary stumble on Lotor’s part – due, no doubt, to having his arms bound behind him – meant the mice did not follow them into the lift.

~*~

There was a considerable crowd as the castleship touched down. Every one of the onlookers was altean, and Coran and Allura stared at the viewscreen with tears in their eyes.

Shiro took over the basic necessities. “Keith, Lance, hold onto Lotor and don’t bring him out until I say. Pidge, Hunk – start getting our rescuees disembarked. Ablebodied first, and we’ll work our way down to the bedbound. The ones in pods can stay there unless a doctor comes up to tell us they’ve got better medical tech.”

Pidge and Hunk nodded and ran off to get started. Lance and Keith stayed by Lotor, and between Lance’s bayard and Keith’s extended blade at Lotor’s neck, the ‘don’t even breathe wrong’ warning was quite clear.

“...There’s thousands of alteans down there,” whispered Coran. “Tens of thousands.”

“We were so sure we were the last,” Allura agreed in a broken, soft tone. “I want to meet them.”

“You need to take a minute to pull yourselves together first,” said Shiro quietly. “Because we’ve got their god and savior chained up as a prisoner.”

But maybe the warning was meaningless. As Pidge and Hunk lowered the ramp so that those they’d rescued who could still walk did so, the paladins could see the stir on the viewscreen. There weren’t so many alteans that the faces of those returning were unknown – weakened and aged, but known. The screen wasn’t showing sound, but questions were clearly being asked even as open arms welcomed the rescuees home.

“I want to meet them,” said Allura.

“Wait,” said Shiro. “Just wait. They’ll believe the people we’ve returned to them first. Let them tell these alteans who you are. It’ll save a lot of problems.”

And there were a lot of rescuees, and none of them were all that mobile. Even the healthiest couldn’t manage better than a gentle mosey. And there was only the one ramp for them all to come down. The people surrounding the ship were clearly in a debate as to whether they should be sending able-bodied alteans in to help their kin get out.

Keith looked at Lotor, who was watching the screen with the quiet passivity of a man at his own trial, watching the jury. Shiro kept his attention on Allura and Coran. Lance’s attention was fully on Lotor, clearly expecting some kind of escape attempt.

“Do you want them to come aboard?” asked Shiro. “Princess?”

“If they want,” Allura agreed. “I would be delighted to let them explore this ship.”

Outside, the alteans on the ramp were now those who needed assistance to walk. Shiro nodded slowly to himself. “...Then go help your people out,” he said to both of them. “The paladins and I will stay out of the way until Lotor is tried. It’s your show now.”

Keith gave Shiro a questioning, are you sure that’s a good idea? Look but didn’t say anything. Both Allura and Coran ran from the bridge, eager to meet and speak to these alteans.

“She’s not in the best mood right now,” Lance warned, once they were gone. “We’ll be lucky if she doesn’t go totally warrior princess on us.”

Keith’s frown suggested he was thinking something similar, though possibly more specific. “What’s the plan?” he asked Shiro.

Shiro shook his head. “We give them a bit. Watch them from here. Let them get the hellos and credentials out of the way. And then we’ll give them Lotor.”

“And if they set me free, as their savior?” asked Lotor mildly. “You will abide by that?”

Shiro turned his attention fully on Lotor. “Zarkon destroyed a lot of lives,” he said. “A lot of worlds. But this world, and these people, they’re all your doing. There’s probably no people you’ve helped more, or deceived as badly. Whether they forgive you or kill you, we’ll abide by their judgment.”

“But you hope they will order my death,” said Lotor. “Thus allowing you to throw the universe into chaos and keep your own hands clean.”

“I think you’ve allowed a people to see you as a god,” said Shiro flatly, because they could see the gigantic statue of Lotor on the viewscreen, serene and mighty as a god figure. “And I think you’ve allowed it to go to your head. But I know I’m not a god, Lotor. I’m not impartial and I’m not perfect. So I’d suggest you hold yourself back from any further commentary that might try my fragile human self control, because personally, what you’ve done makes me sick.”

In the wake of that condemnation was only stunned silence. Neither Lance nor Keith had ever heard Shiro speak that way about anyone. And he spoke calmly, flatly, the way he might have delivered a report to a superior officer back on Earth. It seemed to have the desired effect on Lotor, though; the emperor shut up. Silence reigned until the last of the movable rescuees had disembarked.

When Lance and Keith led the bound Lotor down the ramp, there was a noticeable uptick in the noise level, and the activity level, of the crowd. But it wasn’t decisive. Some voices clearly objected to Lotor being treated like this – others seemed to feel it wasn’t harsh enough.

Shiro raised his voice over the crowd. “He is here to be judged!” he shouted. “By you!”

One or two stepped forward. “We’ve got a holding cell,” said one, uncertainly. “For people to sleep off too much wine. Will that work?”

Shiro nodded to Lance and Keith, and they let go of Lotor. The last they saw of him was his being led away by alteans who clearly weren’t sure if this sort of thing could be done, but were trying it anyway.

Another altean stepped forward and asked, “What of you? And – excuse us, but what are you?”

“Humans,” said Lance. “From earth. Don’t make fun of our ears.”

Keith slanted an amused look at Lance at that. To the altean, he said, “Is it all right if we stay here, while you guys decide what to do with Lotor? We can stay in the castleship if you’d rather.”

“You’re welcome to stay,” said the altean. “All of you. It’s going to take us a bit to figure out what to do now.”

~*~

It really did.

That the alteans didn’t seem at all able to reach any kind of timely decision was worrisome until Pidge, checking some readings (and why she was doing that could only be put down to ‘it’s Pidge’) declared that time was moving significantly slower on this little world than in the universe at large. “By my best estimates,” she decided, “They could take years to come to a decision and we’d only be gone from the war a few weeks.”

“But you know what that means,” said Hunk slowly.

“It means that these alteans have been here a lot longer than we thought,” said Shiro. “They haven’t been here ten thousand years. They’ve probably been here longer than fifty thousand years. Or a hundred thousand, possibly. And Lotor’s been their god figure and savior all that time.”

“More than that,” said Pidge. “There’s only maybe twenty thousand alteans here. I mean, even taking into account that alteans live a really long time, and maybe don’t have large families, that there are this few of them means Lotor really keeps...uh.”

“Culling the herd,” said Keith flatly. “They probably help, honestly. They’re alteans. They probably go in for population control, so they don’t have more people than this place’s resources can sustain. But...yeah. Lotor’s probably been actively culling the herd for a long time now.”

“That monument doesn’t have ten thousand names on it,” Lance pointed out.

“That could be a recent statue, too, though,” said Pidge. “I haven’t seen anything like a library here. Or even a calendar. They measure days and nothing else. “

“Without a sense of time, there can’t be a sense of history,” Shiro agreed. “There isn’t a graveyard either. Everything’s recycled.” He frowned. “Hunk, how long would this place last without maintenance?”

Hunk’s expression screwed up in thought. “It’s pretty well built,” he said. “Lotor probably has to come back every fifty years or so on the outside. Bring in parts, some new resources, that kind of thing.”

“If they decide to kill Lotor,” said Pidge, “We’ll need to evacuate this colony.”

“We can’t,” said Keith. “The castleship’s big, but not twenty thousand people big. We’d need a fleet of cruisers to get these people out and we don’t even have a way to fly them in.”

“And any we leave behind would be vulnerable,” Shiro mused. “There’s no way Allura and Coran would want to leave them behind. We’re going to have a full crew on that castleship, I’m sure of it. But once we return with a full altean crew, everyone’s going to want to investigate.”

Pidge frowned. “...We could break the silence,” she said. “They’ve been forbidden communications technology. Lotor wouldn’t forbid it if it just didn’t work – so we could get a message out. While they’re deliberating. Contact the coalition fleet. Tell them to bring transports here. Escort fighters. Give them the safest route in. We could use a Blade code even. If the Blades took over some cruisers we could get everyone out.”

“How much time would that take?” asked Shiro. “On either side of the abyss.”

“Days, for the Blades,” said Keith. “We’ve already got agents embedded on a lot of cruisers. Kolivan would just have to decide which to activate for this. Maybe a week or two for the coalition; they’ve been hit pretty hard and Sendak’s not likely to ease up on them long enough to send a bunch of ships this way.”

“Which makes it...” Pidge did some calculations in her head. “We’re probably looking at a few years of shore leave here, guys.”

Shiro nodded. “Get started then. Pidge, Hunk, you get an array up and working. Keith, send word to the Blades the moment they’ve finished. Pidge, contact your brother so the coalition can help. Make sure you’re clear about the dangers on the trip in, and the time flashes. There can’t be any risk. So if Kolivan uses the Blades, we’ll have to make sure any living enemy officers aren’t brought along.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll tell Allura and Coran. I doubt they’ll object to getting these people out of here. But they’re probably going to want us to train crew for the castleship.”

“We’re gonna be here for years, Shiro,” said Hunk mildly. “Training crew is at least something to do.”

~*~

The alteans did not do anything quickly. Their entire society had stagnated; food and water were supplied, shelter was supplied, clothing was supplied. There was nowhere to go, and no need to know very much. The story of their rescue, and the myth of the ‘second colony’ was pretty much it for culture. Lotor had said he wanted to preserve altean heritage and culture, but very little had truly been saved. Fifty thousand years of isolation and peace meant that Coran and Allura both knew a lot more about Altean culture than everyone they met – and even knew a lot more about Altean capability. Shapeshifting, for example – the colonists had had no need to blend in with other beings, and had quite forgotten they could alter their shapes. Coran seemed to delight in teaching them, though of course the first attempts were often ‘trying to look human’, since that was the only other race they could see and nobody really wanted to look more like Lotor or Krolia.

To try Lotor was first to assemble a court. Everyone wanted to weigh in on how the proceedings should be conducted. Eventually, Allura settled on a succession of ever-smaller committees – the first vote was general, every altean weighing in. Then she took the majority opinion of that, and held a smaller vote based on it, and so on until she got down to about twenty of the most respected alteans in the community. She would serve as judge or mediator, but the verdict would be given by those twenty.

Each of the paladins was then called in, one at a time, to tell their story to the twenty. Who they were, how they’d come to pilot a lion (or in Keith’s case, pilot two lions, and then go join the Blades, and now pilot a Sincline, and in Krolia’s case, how she’d come to join the Blades, how she’d found Earth, had Keith, gone back into space, and found the trail that led them here) and the circumstances that had brought them to the colony.

In and around this process, Hunk, Pidge and Coran taught those willing to learn how to maintain and crew for the castleship, and everyone else worked with the alteans to build a little enclave of houses where the castleship crew could live until all of this was done. Most of the houses were single-resident (a surprise to the alteans, who seemed to prefer houses an entire family could share) but Shiro and Keith shared one, with a bit of extra space for the rescued wolf.

~*~

Pidge kept very busy, between training alteans for the castleship and monitoring the communication array, but there was time aplenty for her to process what she’d seen. What she’d been through.

Keith’s life wasn’t much of a surprise to her; she’d guessed quite a lot of it in general terms. But in Keith’s time flashes she’d seen what Matt was going through – the battles, the aftermaths, how lonely he usually was – and that was much harder for her to deal with. Matt had always glossed over his work with the coalition, sparing her sad details. And Keith never said much about anything he did. But now she knew, and she was glad she’d sent Matt a message to come here. It didn’t matter anymore what he’d done, not to her. Her brother had lived through terrible things – probably still was – and his mistakes were pretty small, when viewed in that light. He needed her help – needed Voltron’s help – and she resolved never to doubt him again.

Pidge’s little house was a technological marvel. She liked the idea of a little garden with flowers in it, but not the idea of weeding and watering. Automated systems took care of everything.

When Pidge was called in by the twenty to speak, it was mainly of Matt’s experiences she spoke. What the coalition was going through, how few were able and willing to fight. Her advice to them was to kill Lotor – sure the galaxy would be in chaos without an emperor to hold the galra in check, but in the end Pidge felt the universe would be better off that way.

~*~

Hunk was as busy as Pidge with training alteans for the castleship and monitoring the array, but he had more duties beyond that. It turned out many alteans had come here, in the distant past, in their own ships – ships no one knew how to maintain or fly anymore. Hunk wasn’t much of a pilot, but he did know ships. So a fair amount of his time was spent going over every surviving vessel and making sure it was still spaceworthy – or, if not, that the parts could be repurposed to make other ships fly. If an altean looked curious about his work they tended to wind up recruited to help, and Hunk taught what he knew freely. It became a kind of classroom of its own, the colonists latching eagerly onto new knowledge.

He traded that knowledge for altean recipes – food was provided, of course, by the colony systems, but several alteans had gardens, and Hunk was happy to learn their recipes. Hunk made it clear that the castleship could – and therefore would – serve actual cooked food as well as goo.

Hunk’s house was at least as automated as Pidge’s, but unlike Pidge Hunk’s house was automated on the inside – timed alarms, showers, and so on, because Hunk was kept so busy that for him, his house was a place to eat, sleep, get clean and change clothes. He was rarely in it otherwise.

When Hunk was called before the twenty, he spoke of his reluctance to join the fight, and the events that had changed his mind. He spoke in admiration of the balmera and other races that had everything to lose but chose to fight for their freedom and the freedom of others. He spoke of the devastation the empire had caused. When asked, he advised the twenty to be lenient with Lotor; “Yeah, he’s done some very bad things. But – you’re here. You’re safe. He’s kept to that. Believe me, I haven’t seen that kind of mercy with the other galra. He’s right, they have to be stopped.”

~*~

Lance was busy at first just helping get the houses built. But after that he was at loose ends more often than not – he wasn’t a great brain like Pidge or a mechanical wizard like Hunk. He couldn’t help the alteans get ready to leave.

At first he took the time to really process the trip here – everything he’d seen and been through. And, like Pidge, something he dwelled on a lot was the memories Keith had of Matt. He’d had no idea what kind of life Matt really lived. Just how weird it really was. How lonely, how dangerous, how alien. The coalition did real work; he’d never really thought about that before, because Voltron did the heavy fighting. But the coalition ships, they were tin foil fighting paper mache, often dying by the score in any pitched battle, and yet they fought anyway because they had to.

He thought about Matt a lot, when the altean girls flirted with him – and then invariably touched his ears, his alien rounded ears, or his unmarked cheeks. If Matt came with the ships they’d called, Lance resolved to himself that really, they needed to talk.

He thought about Allura, too. They didn’t see much of Allura anymore – she didn’t live with the others, and hadn’t interacted much with the paladins at all since arriving. He hoped she was all right, but he couldn’t just drop in on her anymore. Any time he tried, she was always either on her way somewhere to sleep, or surrounded by alteans working on something and too busy to talk. Lance spent quite a while mulling over what he’d seen in her memories, and in Coran’s, and the differences between the alteans they remembered and the alteans they were now among. He wound up an informal translator as a result, when alteans had been subjected to one of Coran’s improbable stories and they wanted to know what was true.

Lance’s house was simple of construction but meticulously maintained, with no automated systems at all. He had the time to tend a garden and didn’t mind the work, and his house had a lot of furniture arrangements to let people hang out and chat. While Lance wasn’t particularly keen on an altean girlfriend, he made friends among them easily.

When the twenty called Lance in to speak, he told them how Lotor had greeted them, and how Lotor had gotten them to join him at central command – offering Pidge’s father as bait. He told them about the banners, and the way Lotor had gained their sympathy. And that Lotor had confessed to what he’d done without being asked, and given the coordinates to come here. He advised them to “be careful. Maybe he doesn’t lie, but that doesn’t mean he’s on your side. You do what you’ve got to do for your sakes. The universe will sort itself out either way.”

~*~

For Keith and Shiro, once their house was built, the world sort of fell into a bizarre font of domesticity. Neither of them needed much in the way of possessions, and their shared house had no automated systems. Both of them, once Hunk had gotten a few of the old colony ships working, taught piloting to those alteans willing to learn, but it didn’t take all their time.

Which meant days of sleeping in, waking up next to one another. Days where they could, if they chose – and sometimes did choose – to blow off giving lessons in favor of hours of slow, appreciative lovemaking, just happy to have someone there, have the time to really soak it in that this was real, a thing that was happening. They could and sometimes did simply close the doors and alternate sex with little quiet conversations, one being held by the other as they discussed Keith’s foster days, or Shiro’s family life, and the pictures he’d kept. Shiro was an orphan too, though it had happened rather later in his life – he’d been sixteen before losing his parents in an accident, and had been sponsored to the Garrison by his Japanese grandmother. Whom he adored, not least because she put on an expert ‘little frail old lady’ act for those who didn’t know her, but swore like a sailor who’d dropped a weight on his toes in private. The mala that Keith had brought Shiro from Earth, and given to him in Black’s astral plane, had been a gift to Shiro from her, handed down through generations, and her intent in doing so had been much like Shiro’s to Keith when teaching ‘patience yields focus’ - she thought Shiro far too impulsive and temperamental, and had indicated she thought the mala would help him learn to settle down and focus.

The wolf pup seemed to adopt Keith slightly more than Shiro, but not by much. Neither man gave the pup a name, because Keith insisted the pup would find one on his own. They played with the wolf, learning about its teleportation skills. Shiro agreed with Keith that this wolf was a lot brighter than the Earth version, though he wasn’t as certain as Keith that it would choose a name. The wolf was quite protective of both of them, though, which they learned during one of their ‘let’s stay in’ lazy days – the wolf growled so fiercely at an altean who just really really wanted to work on his skills that the poor fellow ran away.

For Shiro, this was much needed down time, to come to grips with the particularly crazy ride his life had been. For Keith, it was a first taste of what a life not at war might be like. Some days he dealt with it well, while others he spent happily teaching alteans how to pilot, because there was really only so much down time he could handle. As time passed, Keith added basic self-defense and combat classes for those alteans who were slowly being selected as final crew for the castleship, and Shiro joined him. As time passed, though, Coran worked with Shiro on the self defense training, while Keith spent time with his mother.

Because Krolia was at loose ends in much the way Lance was, but used her time quite differently. As an obvious galra, she had a more uphill job gaining the trust of the alteans, but she was as patient about it as she was in settling into an undercover assignment for the Blades. And so she got to see the colonists being taught Basic Altean Tricks by Coran, and then Allura – how to shapeshift, how to sense quintessence.

It was Krolia who first realized that the mystic strain was what Lotor had been selecting for in his ‘tests’. He hadn’t simply been farming alteans; he’d been specifically going for the most mystically attuned, the ones like Allura who could in ages past have become alchemists. And now, under Allura’s direction, were becoming alchemists again.

Krolia paid attention, because she wanted Keith to know these tricks too. She herself hadn’t picked up enough of the mystic heritage to do anything useful, but she wanted Keith to have what training might exist. She taught him what she learned from the classes in private; Shiro knew that Krolia and Keith had some altean to them, because Keith told him, but Shiro accepted that it was their choice to reveal or hide that from the others.

Neither Keith nor Shiro admitted that – after the shapeshifting lessons – Shiro had figured out how to get Keith worked up enough to start shifting. It still wasn’t something Keith did easily, but they considered the fact that it was possible to be reason enough for Keith to continue trying to learn.

Krolia’s house was a small one, rather like Lance’s but lacking the conversational, communal touches – she really didn’t get visitors very often, other than Keith.

Shiro and Keith’s house was the largest, and set apart from the others for privacy reasons and so the wolf had plenty of room to run around and play. While the house did get visitors, it was usually either students wanting one or both of them to come tutor someone, or the other paladins dropping in to catch up on news of the week. People really didn’t come over just to hang out; they gathered at Lance’s for that.

When Keith was called before the twenty, he spoke about the galra. He was clear about what the galra had done, and were still doing. He spoke about the corrupt leadership, and how the bombing at the kral zera had begun a change. He spoke about the Blades, and what they were doing and had been doing for centuries to try to mitigate or stop the war, and what that meant for his own life and family. He spoke about what Lotor had said, and done, and not done. He told them about the position Lotor held – what it meant that he held it, and what would happen if he didn’t hold it any longer. He did not advise them to do anything, bud did remind them, “The choice you make here is going to echo through the whole universe for decaphoebs and centuries to come. So whatever you choose, you should make sure you don’t have regrets about it.”

When Shiro was called before the twenty, he also spoke about the galra. He spoke of his capture at Kerberos and his captivity, the experiments that took his arm and healed the sickness he’d had his entire life to that point. He told them about the arena. He told them about Haggar, and the clone ship. He told them about the druids and their magic. He advised them to be lenient with Lotor, not because he deserved that mercy but because the universe did. “Take him out and the galra will rampage wildly,” he said. “Every would-be warlord making everyone near them miserable, trying to build a kingdom. The ones who suffer won’t be the galra – it will be a hundred million worlds just like Altea once was.”

~*~

Coran and Allura did not speak before the twenty. Allura because she was the mediator; Coran because he trusted Allura. Neither of them spent much time with the other paladins – for them, this was a badly needed balm, even though they were quite different from these alteans. Coran happily held forth on ancient customs, holding even quite large gatherings rapt – though that could simply have been because Coran was quite eccentric and prone to doing his own special effects. His classes were the clear favorite for those learning to crew the castleship, too – though his were generally considered the master class, not because he was a better engineer than Hunk but because he was prone to diverging without warning onto other topics, which meant that students who didn’t already have a thorough grounding in the topic tended to wind up quite lost. The colony alteans didn’t really know what to make of him – some were quite certain the long cryo sleep had made him irreparably insane – but there were no shortage of alteans willing to help him.

Allura’s time, however, was entirely unique.

Her decision to stay apart from the paladins at the start was pure ‘get some space’ - weeks of being subjected to their lives and memories made her yearn for some distance between herself and them.

That these alteans seemed to have lost a great deal of what it meant to be altean rankled at her – especially since Lotor had claimed that he was preserving Altean culture here. She was happy to teach, but there were still many alteans here who revered Lotor as a savior. Those alteans learned quickly not to say such things around Allura, because she could and would quiz them on ancient Altean traditions.

Those who had recently lost family members to Lotor’s ‘second colony’ were usually the most sympathetic to Allura’s position. Often they had quintessence sensitivity as well, and eagerly learned what little Allura could teach. That she was a princess – the last princess of Altea – wasn’t immediately hailed as being worth anything, since Altea was very long gone from the colonists’ perspective, but she gradually built a faction of loyal followers. It was from these loyal followers that the first pool of applicants for castleship crew was drawn.

She slept on the castleship, and gradually, alteans were chosen to live there with her, and work there. She regretted she couldn’t pack everyone onto the castleship, but she was just as grateful that there were too many alteans to fit.

Allura was far too busy, day to day, to notice how being among the colonists changed her. They weren’t her people – that was felt most keenly, especially at first – but they were alteans, and thus like her in a way that she hadn’t had since entering cryo sleep. The simple fact that she wasn’t alone anymore, wasn’t the last of her kind, that she had a people to be part of again – it took time, and she really didn’t notice the progression, but it cemented for her who she was; a princess. Their princess. And she would save them. All of them.

Lotor was kept in a cell, and she did not visit him. Others did; there were many alteans that thought of him as something akin to a god, and gods occasionally did kill people, and were inscrutable in their designs. Allura tried to be patient with those people; it had to be hard to know that your god, the god of your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, was a liar and a murderer. Some among the twenty felt that way, too, she knew.

Keith and Shiro were the last to be questioned by the twenty before their attention turned to Lotor and a verdict was rendered. So Allura wasn’t particularly surprised that that was the point when one of the paladins approached her. She was surprised that it was Keith, though, and not Lance. And that Keith had clearly grown since the last time he’d been anywhere near her.

Grown, and changed – taller, yes, but the quiet wasn’t the embers of a dying fire, or suppressed anger. He’d found something on this world where he was almost the only one of his kind; it might have been peace.

She expected to be angry at him, but that had had time to fade, too. She was still more than a bit aggravated with Lotor, but not Keith. Not Krolia. She checked herself, as Keith approached, wondering when that anger had gone, how far it went. She wasn’t actually sure. Maybe it had just been set aside, waiting for the cruisers to come.

“Princess,” said Keith by way of greeting.

“Keith,” Allura returned. “I must say, I would have expected Lance. Or perhaps Shiro.”

Keith blinked at her. “Why?”

“I haven’t exactly been a team player of late,” she said. “The trial is nearing its end. The cruisers will come soon, and we’ll be heading back into the war. I rather expected someone to come and ask if I still intend to pilot Blue.”

“It’s been wondered,” Keith conceded. “But no one’s holding your distance against you. You thought you were the last Altean. You need these people, as much as they need you.”

It was Allura’s turn to blink. That was...perceptive. A kind of perception she didn’t really associate with Keith. “Yes,” she agreed. “So if you’re not here to ask whether I will still pilot...” she frowned. “Are you here to talk about Lotor?” Her tone hardened; clearly if that were the case her opinion of Keith would drop.

Keith heard it; his eyes narrowed very slightly. “Sort of,” he conceded. “I’m here to return a favor.”

“A favor?” Allura echoed. “What favor?”

“Before I left the team to join the Blades,” said Keith, “You had advice for me. I didn’t want to hear it, but that didn’t stop you giving it.”

Allura sighed. “So, then, it is my turn to say I have no desire for a lecture? Because I do not.”

Keith nodded. “You’re right. The trial’s ending soon. You’ll hear Lotor speak in his defense. His life’s on the line. You probably won’t want to believe anything he has to say. You might even be right not to. But I want you to think really hard about something before you judge – ask yourself when it’s going to stop.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said Allura. “If he’s found guilty, then he’ll die. I do believe that stops most people.”

“That’s not what will stop,” said Keith. “Zarkon blamed the Alteans for the destruction of Daibazaal. So he destroyed Altea, and tried to destroy the Alteans along with it. The galra killed your family and destroyed your world, so you fight the galra with everything you have. The coalition is filled with people who have lost everything. They fight because that’s all they have left. And they create, by fighting, even more people who have nothing left but a hope for revenge.”

“So we should just let the galra rampage throughout the universe?” asked Allura, irritated. “Is that your argument?”

“No,” said Keith calmly. “I’m saying that peace only happens two ways. It either happens when someone punches you and you decide to do something other than punch them back...or when there’s no one left to fight. The first is a choice. The second is a consequence.”

Allura opened her mouth to demand just when Keith, who was easily the most violent of the paladins, got off saying something like that to her. But then she remembered. Yes, he was the most violent, but because he’d come from violence, just like many other galra. He wasn’t proposing something theoretical at her but something he’d tried. He’d been given many situations where his past experience told him the best option was to punch someone in the face, but in more than a few – and more than that, since becoming a paladin – he’d chosen something else.

Keith turned away. “Anyway,” he said. “That’s all. I just thought maybe you should think about it. You know, before you’re out of choices.”

“Wait,” said Allura, reaching out a hand.

Keith paused, turning back to her. Waiting, as she asked.

“Do you believe Lotor?” she asked. “Do you believe he should be forgiven?”

“Should I have been?” asked Keith. “Forgiveness isn’t something you can earn, or deserve, princess. You’ve got every reason to hate him. Nobody’s arguing that. And even if he’s not executed, nobody’s saying you should trust him. The only question is where this war’s going to stop. Not just out there,” and he waved a hand at the false sky, “but in here.” He put his fist over his heart. “Shiro changed my whole life with that. He didn’t have to. He had people telling him he shouldn’t. But he did. I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t earn it. But I needed it.”

“And you didn’t answer my question,” Allura replied.

“Princess...I don’t think even Lotor could answer that question,” said Keith.

Allura sighed. “I don’t think Lotor is guilty of the same crimes you were as a child,” she said, a little tired now.

“Only because I didn’t have access to the same kind of resources he did,” shrugged Keith. “I guess you didn’t see all my life, at that.”

“The trip only lasted a few movements,” Allura reminded him. “Is there something I should know?”

Keith paused, then. Gave her question serious thought. “Honestly, princess,” he said at last, “It’s probably just as well you paint me and Lotor with the same brush.”

There was a sadness to that, a resignation, and an acceptance that made Allura frown. She was pretty sure Keith was at least obliquely confessing to murder. Confessing that if she rejected him, she might not be wrong to do so. “Does Shiro know?” she demanded.

Keith raised his head at that, met Allura’s eyes. “The difference between you and Shiro,” he said, “Is it doesn’t matter to him. He knows who I am and who I want to be. Where I come from doesn’t matter.”

He didn’t try for another farewell, or wait, or walk slowly enough to be called back. He retreated. Whatever reserve he’d drawn on to visit her had clearly been exhausted. Allura was left alone, under the false night sky of the colony’s defense dome.

It was food for thought, she admitted to herself. She wasn’t really inclined to be as forgiving as Shiro apparently was, but ...there was a case to be made that sometimes forgiveness could be a strategic choice.

Lotor didn’t deserve forgiveness. He hadn’t earned forgiveness. But did he need a second chance?

Did the universe?

Allura was not the one to make the decision – she was the arbiter of the twenty, there to make sure discussion stayed on topic. Nothing more.

She’d really been hoping they’d simply order Lotor executed. That was simple. There was more than enough justification. But what if they didn’t? What if these people chose to give him that second chance? Could she still call herself their princess, if she didn’t at least listen to what they wanted?

~*~

Lotor was the last to speak.

By this point, many of the alteans in the colony had interest in what he had to say, but Allura ruled that only the twenty chosen to judge would be allowed to sit in the room with him and ask him questions.

Hunk and Pidge got around this by arranging the equivalent of a jumbotron on the roof of the building, and the crowd that gathered to watch was considerable.

The paladins, however, gathered at Lance’s house. Pidge arranged for the signal to be picked up on a smaller but quite serviceable private screen, and Hunk provided snacks and drinks. It saved trouble, because the colonists assumed a rather greater association of the paladins with Lotor than the paladins were comfortable working with. They didn’t want their own opinions to define the course of ...well, anything… on this particular day.

~*~

Lotor sat in a chair, behind a force shield, so that he could not simply walk out, or attack. But you couldn’t tell he was a prisoner, to look at him. He kept himself perfectly clean, perfectly neat, and had the same regal bearing he’d always affected.

Alteans believed in justice; the twenty that had been chosen for the task were not cloaked in shadows, and did not hide behind masks. They had been chosen to judge and accepted responsibility for that task, though some faces clearly weren’t happy about the necessity.

There was clearly no rush. And, after having spoken to all the paladins at great length, the colonist interrogators had a lot of questions.

~*~

The paladins watched as Lotor told the interrogators everything he’d previously told the paladins – how he’d rescued them, and then realized that to keep them safe in the long term he’d need a way around Haggar’s control.

“You know, I should’ve put some repositionable cameras in there,” mused Pidge. “I’d like a better look at their faces.”

Coran nodded. “This must be very hard for the princess,” he said. “There’s what she wants, and what she’ll get, and she can’t control what it will be.”

“She’s not the only one having a hard time,” Hunk observed as he handed out drinks. Shiro and Keith were holding hands, and Keith’s attention was fully on the screen. “You gonna be okay?”

“It’s not a judgment on Keith,” said Shiro. “Or on Krolia. But it’s going to affect all the galra, and most of them don’t even know it’s happening.”

“We should be planning what to do when the cruisers arrive,” said Krolia, helping herself to one of Hunk’s drinks. “These alteans are quick to learn, but they’re not soldiers. Not yet, at any rate.”

“I was thinking Olkarion and Taujeer,” said Pidge. “At least for the technical ones. They could learn there, get up to speed, really help the Coalition out.”

“The ones that aren’t geniuses are going to need somewhere to go, too,” Lance pointed out. “We can’t leave them here. Even with the time warping, we’ll be gone long enough to make people want to poke around the abyss. They’ll find this place.”

“Shhh,” insisted Keith, watching the screen as if no one had said anything.

The interrogators had finished with the past.

We have given you our respect and our gratitude,” one of the twenty was saying. “We’ve done everything you ever asked of us. Why did you feel the need to deceive us Why not tell us what you intended, and let us choose to help you? Did you think we had forgotten the outside world? Did you think we would not offer ourselves to help our children walk freely?”

Not at all, good people,” was Lotor’s solemn reply. “I...confess that it was shame. I needed your assistance. I could not risk that you might refuse. And in all the universe, this is the only place that welcomes my arrival and my presence. I did not want that to change, and if you were constrained to send your friends to their deaths every time I came here, even for the noblest of reasons, it would have changed.”

“Well that’s just bullshit,” said Pidge bluntly. “He’s a coward. He shouldn’t get cookies for that.”

“Fear of rejection’s a pretty strong motivator,” said Shiro, but he was looking at Keith’s pensive expression. “Especially if you’re usually rejected.”

Keith seemed not to hear; he was absolutely focused on the screen. Krolia was less obvious about it, but no less intent.

We will now go out into the universe, back to the war our ancestors fled,” one of the interrogators was saying. “Will you demand our fealty when we no longer depend on you to survive?”

I would welcome it if it were offered,” Lotor replied. “But you have your Princess, and she is most worthy. I understand that my actions have hurt you, my people. I would ask only that you not cast me out. I am, after all, also altean.”

“That...seems fair,” said Hunk slowly, frowning. “They’d go for that wouldn’t they?”

“So they’ll join the Coalition, then,” mused Pidge. “That could get really interesting. You’ve seen some of them practicing flying in those ships.”

“Yeah,” sighed Hunk. “I take it you heard about Romelle then.”

“Hard not to,” said Pidge dryly. “What was it, two trees and a duflax pond?”

“Four trees,” said Hunk. “Took us most of a movement to get that ship to move again. Two quintants just to dry it out and get the duckweed out of the joints.”

Shiro squeezed Keith’s hand. “It’s not a judgment against you,” he said quietly. “However it goes. We’ll figure something out either way.”

“I know,” said Keith. “It’s Allura I’m worried about. She’s changed.”

That got Lance’s attention. “How?” he asked. “She’s pretty much ignored us since we got here. She’s not still pissed, is she?”

The question had Keith frowning, thinking. “That’s...not the way to look at it,” he said. “She’s been among her own. Except they’re not really her own, they’ve had thousands of years to move on. It’s...important to her that they accept her. As a princess, and as an altean. Really important. But she wants this trial to go one way and if it goes the other I don’t know how she’s going to take it.”

“Well,” mused Pidge, “I can’t really argue that point. If they let Lotor go I’m not sure what I’ll do either. I mean I can see it happening. It’s like a reflex with them, the reverence. And exactly how do you kill your god, anyway? But we’ve got to then work with the guy, when he knows and we know that we brought him here thinking these people would kill him.”

“Aaaand there they go,” sighed Hunk, as the screen went dark.

“It’ll take as long as it takes,” said Coran simply. “Simple majority, either way, and it’s done.”

“And we’ll honor it,” said Keith, almost making that a question.

“Yes,” said Shiro firmly. “We agreed to that at the outset. We let them take this question off our hands because they’re the most qualified to make a fair judgment – the most helped by him, the most hurt by him. We can’t go back on that now.”

“Even if Allura doesn’t agree?” asked Hunk carefully.

“Even if,” said Shiro firmly.

Lance sighed. A few years surrounded by pretty alteans, some quite flirtatious, who nevertheless were Not Allura, had put a lot of things into perspective. One of which was that Allura’s iron will was equal parts admirable and aggravating. He sipped at his drink and said, “We could aim her at Sendak. I mean...it’s only a week or two out there, right? So he’s probably stomping everywhere.”

The silence in the house let them hear the growing murmur of voices outside it more clearly. They weren’t the only ones trying to guess how the decision would go. It might well not be a simple verdict. Alteans seemed to appreciate shades of grey, which meant just about anything might be decided.

Into the silence, Pidge remarked, “Matt is going to be so shocked that we’re almost the same age now.”

This got both Keith and Shiro’s attention. “...Dropping an eight year age difference down to a five year age difference is not ‘almost the same age’, Pidge,” said Keith. “What’s going to send your brother into crisis is realizing his little sister has a chest.”

Shiro facepalmed – evidently this was not what he would have said – even as Pidge shrugged. “Binders are a thing,” she said.

“Any reason why?” asked Shiro.

Pidge looked down at herself. Keith wasn’t wrong; Pidge had gone from a late blooming fifteen to an absolutely yes developed female at seventeen. But she still favored loose shirts, short hair, and a generally nonbinary presentation. The altean women favored an undergarment somewhere between a bra and a binder – not meant to flatten the chest, but simply hold the breasts immobile; practicality over what humans would consider sexier. And Pidge seemed to be fine with that approach so far. But she said, “...Here, nobody seems to care I’m a girl. But Keith’s right. When we leave...Matt will care. And whenever we go back to earth, they’ll care there, too. And I don’t want them to. I’d rather they assume I’m a boy if they’re going to care.” She paused. “And there’s whole categories of conversation I don’t want Matt starting with me, not after what I saw in Keith’s memories.”

Keith blinked at that, while Lance added a heartfelt, “I hear you there, sister.”

“We could make a stop at Olkarion,” said Shiro. “If they can tinker with genetic code, they could probably make it so you wouldn’t need a binder. If that’s what you want.”

Pidge smiled a bit at that. “I need to think about it,” she said. “It’s been nice not having to – just doing the work, you know, on the castleship, on training the new crew. But I guess it’s time to think about stuff like this, too. Thanks though.”

Lance nodded. He hadn’t taken any kind of boyfriend, or girlfriend, but he’d had some casual encounters once he’d thought things through to the point he realized he probably should. He’d needed to understand himself, and like Pidge, the time in the colony had provided an unexpected opportunity to develop. He didn’t want to go back into the war and get blindsided by his own feelings. Or attractions.

And what he’d learned was that he really was attracted to both men and women. Matt hadn’t been an outlier – he’d just been the first. But Lance wasn’t attracted indiscriminately; he absolutely had types, preferences. Allura entirely embodied his kind of girl; intelligent, capable, strong-willed...and kind. With guys, Lance recognized he was more usually drawn to a coolness factor; his issues with Keith had stemmed from Keith’s reputation as both a top notch pilot and a recurring discipline problem – the quintessential bad boy. Which he now understood wasn’t who Keith actually was at all, but that had been the start of things. Matt had had more of a cheery piratical air, and that juxtaposition of light and dark had probably been what started things there – the memory of that night was still rather alcohol hazed.

Finding ‘bad boy’ alteans hadn’t been hard. For once they had been drawn to him. But you couldn’t really have a coolness factor when you’d lived for decades or even centuries in this little...shard of timelessness. Lance appreciated the learning experiences, but the men here just were not for him, and he hadn’t lost his mind enough to even consider approaching Lotor. The women held similar problems; the same timelessness that sapped the coolness from the guys, made the women kind of...innocent. Lance’s instinct with innocence was to protect it, not sleep with it.

He was looking forward to leaving this place. It was time to get back to business, and he felt ready for that business. Even the bits that included having a Talk with Matt.

Shiro sighed. “Okay,” he said. “For now, here’s the plans.”

“If they let Lotor live – we’ll work with him as much as we can, but we’re staying independent. The alteans we’ll drop off at Olkarion and Taujeer – even the nonscientific ones. They’ll at least be safer on those worlds than they would be elsewhere in the coalition. Allura’s going to want to try for Oriande, and we’ll back that – who knows, we could get a whole corps of alchemists out of it, if we can find it. And then we’re focusing on Sendak as the greatest threat both to the empire and the coalition.

“If they choose to execute Lotor – same deal for the alteans. There won’t be an empire after that, and we’re not going to back any of the candidates unless some general who’s actually not a sadist turns up, but honestly I’d be surprised if one did. If the empire’s out of the equation then we focus on sendak while the rest of the coalition focuses on discouraging would-be warlords from taking a bite out of coalition territory. We’ll let the galra fight each other until they fall in behind a new leader or wipe themselves out.

“Somewhere in there, either way, we’re going to get word from Earth. I know everyone’s got their hopes set on specific news, but until we hear from them we won’t know how plans need to change. Just be ready to accept that they probably will.

“Any questions?”

“Is Lotor gonna be on the ship with us?” asked Hunk. “I mean once we get back to central command?”

Shiro shrugged. “That will depend on Allura. We need her – we don’t need him.”

Keith sighed and settled back, using Shiro’s chest for a pillow in a casual, not-really-thinking-about-it way. “Guess we wait,” he said.

Lance nodded, and set about grabbing pillows and blankets for everyone. It didn’t need to be said that no one was going to leave the house until the picture came back on, and the twenty delivered their verdict.

~*~

Everyone jumped when the screen turned on, and there was something of a scramble as everyone grabbed a spot where they could see.

The twenty alteans stood behind Allura. They didn’t look happy, or particularly sad, but they did appear uniformly resolute.

Allura stood on a dais, with a microphone, and read from a sheet of paper.

“We have heard the testimony of the paladins,” Allura began. “We have heard the stories of those who came here with them. And we have heard the defense of Lotor, who created this haven and led us here in ages past.”

“We, the survivors of the altean people, declare our debt to Lotor paid in full. By taking our lives without our consent, in acts of deception, he has proven himself neither god nor selfless savior. He is not our prince, nor is he our emperor.”

There was a murmuring in the crowd now, and Allura had to raise the volume to project over it. “We will not take his life,” she went on. “We are not galra. And while we have hidden here, a war for our freedom and that of all good people has been waged without us. No more. We resolve that we will join this coalition, this fight against the corrupt remnants of Zarkon’s hatred, and we invite Lotor to join us in that endeavor. In this we are allies.”

She turned to face Lotor then, reading the final lines for all to hear. “May you find redemption out of the shadow of your ancestors, Lotor. By your actions you will be judged.”

~*~

The paladins blinked at the screen, jaws open.

“That’s it?” asked Pidge. “Weve been waiting years...and that’s it? They’re just gonna let him go?”

“Alteans really don’t like killing people,” Coran said. “I mean...in general. Not when we can talk them round, maybe hash something out.”

“It’s interesting,” mused Krolia. “Galra judge by action too – though in this case I guess no one had a choice. Lotor can make anything sound like a good idea.”

“It’s decided,” said Shiro firmly, getting up. “Let’s see what we need to have done before those cruisers get here.”

“A few more days,” said Hunk. “At least if the array is accurate – you know how the time fluxes make that tricky.”

Lance got up too, and stretched. “Well. Back to the war. And a lot of roommates.”

“Yes,” said Coran happily. “You’ll really appreciate it in a fight, too. You’ve never seen the castleship’s full capability. Only a few hands on the controls and all.”

Keith got up too, but said nothing. He did share a small worried look with Krolia, but that was all.

Chapter Text

The spell failed.

Ezor’s tentacle twitched. That could not be good. The most immediate not-good about it was she’d have to tell Haggar about it. She couldn’t monitor Lotor if the whole mouse-eyeball thing stopped working.

And he’d been in a cell. She’d have to tell Haggar that now, too. Ezor swallowed. This was shaping up rapidly into a very bad day.

~*~

Olia didn’t even swear; she didn’t have the concentration to spare for it. She was too busy yanking the yoke of the controls out of the path of blaster, fighter, and cannon fire.

“Line us up with the third portside cannon,” said Elcris, firmly strapped in. “Give me two ticks and I can take it out.”

Do you not notice all the chaos between here and there?” snarled Olia.

Matt wasn’t strapped in. He had to make do with a few safety clips designed to keep him from being sucked into vacuum in the event of a hull breach. As the engineer he was hanging on to whatever he could to get to every system trying to give out under combat stress. The ship had been in constant battle for twenty vargas straight and not even Olia could avoid all the obstacles for that long. He couldn’t join in the conversation because he didn’t have the breath for it – he was being yanked around far too much for that.

Elcris grabbed him by an arm as a barrel roll caught him by surprise, shoving him against the interior of the hull almost without thinking about it. “If you can line us up for that shot the chaos will be one cannon more friendly,” she said, nodding to acknowledge Matt’s brief thumbs-up of thanks I’m good now even as he tried to cling to the hull to patch a minor leak before it became a major one.

~*~

“We can’t stay here,” growled Zethrid, cradling Ezor in her arms. “She only wants us as hostages to get to Lotor. And now we’ve lost Lotor.”

Acxa bent down to examine Ezor more closely. Haggar tended toward the blunt when doling out punishments – going for excruciating pain over subtler tortures. But sometimes, Acxa knew, she would hide mental compulsions in her victims that would play out later. Ezor looked...well, like a torture victim. And she smelled like barbecue, which suggested it had gone on for quite a while.

Zethrid didn’t care about much in this universe, but she did care about Ezor. The big half-Bhiton was currently visibly torn between protecting Ezor while she was injured and unconscious, and making a suicide run at breaking Haggar’s neck.

Acxa put a hand on Zethrid’s shoulder. She was right; they couldn’t stay here. Their usefulness to Haggar was at its end – temporarily, to be sure, but quite possibly for long enough to get all three of them killed. Haggar had no care for anyone, or anything, with the possible exception of Lotor. And Acxa wasn’t entirely sure about Lotor, either.

“I will tell Haggar we’re going to go find Lotor,” she said. “That will get us away.”

“But we have no idea where he is,” said Zethrid. “And she knows it.”

“We know where he’s going to have to reappear,” said Acxa. “And we have something he needs.”

“We betrayed him,” said Zethrid, very warily. Lotor scared her – differently than Haggar did, certainly, but no less thoroughly. “He’ll remember that.”

“He understood we had to,” said Acxa. “And he’ll understand why we come back. Look – if we run, they’re both our enemies. And so is Voltron. So it’s got to be one or the other. If it comes down to it how would you rather die? An honest blade, or Haggar’s black magic?”

Zethrid got to her feet, scooping Ezor up in her arms. “See you at the docking bay.”

~*~

The three of them watched from under an overhang. The streaks of light blazing through the sky of this world would be breathtakingly beautiful if you didn’t know that every one of them was debris from broken Coalition ships, burning up in the atmosphere.

They’d been damn fucking lucky their own ship wasn’t doing the same thing, but between Matt practically duct-taping it together and Olia’s piloting, they’d made it to the ground in one piece.

More or less.

“How long before we can get back into the black?” asked Olia.

Matt had gotten his arm set in the autocast, and was working on getting it into a sling. His fingers felt...weird. “I’m a bit damaged, captain.”

“I am not,” said Elcris quietly. “Tell me what is needed and I will see it done.”

Matt gave her a little smile. Tough bastards, galra. “Then tonight I’m falling over and come sunrise – assuming it’s not too many vargas off – I’ll start making a list of the parts I’ll need. If any of the wreckage that makes it all the way planetside is salvageable, we might be back in the air in a movement or two.”

Olia made a little growling sound. “The radio still works,” she said. “We’ll have to call for help. We can’t afford to spend movements fucking around on this grass ball. We’re losing enough ground as it is. And you heard that report.”

Matt nodded. Elcris had not been happy to report that the Fire of Purification had a komar. And the druids to use it. It wasn’t safe to hide planetside this close to the front line. “I can’t pull spare parts out of thin air, though, captain. I’ll get you a list as soon as I can, but without repairs...we’re stuck.”

We’re fucked was just as accurate a statement.

The three of them settled with their backs against the battered hull of their ship, watching the debris of those less fortunate streak brilliantly across the sky.

~*~

There was panic. There was rioting. Admiral Sanda had not been wrong about that. Martial law had to be declared in at least four countries as an emergency measure.

And then the offers of support came pouring in. In every surviving language, how can we help came across the airwaves. Tell us what we can do to prepare. And that, Sanda was not ready for.

Not that it mattered. By the light of all the burning bridges, Ryou had taken Sanda on in personal combat, quickly decked her, stripped her of command, and had her escorted off the base, with Sam changing the security codes. By the time those calls of support came in, Ryou was effectively in control of the southwest Garrison base. And he immediately set the Holts in charge of getting everyone else on Earth informed – not just about what was coming, but what was needed to prepare.

“The real problem is we don’t have crystals,” sighed Sam. “The beacon’s been launched, but there’s no telling when a balmera might hear or answer and we can’t wait.”

Ryou nodded slowly. The assembled officers of the base did not, as yet, like him much – he’d taken over in what was rightfully called a coup, after all – and he needed to keep things moving just to maintain control of the situation. “How does nuclear power compare?”

Sam blinked. “You’d need a power plant sized reactor just to cover the power in a moderate crystal, Ryou. There’s no way to make a ship that would fly on nuclear power that could take on a galra vessel.”

“That’s not what I’m thinking,” said Ryou. “The first thing we need is to counter cruiser fire, and incoming fighters. The galra will try to swarm us first – that’s their go-to tactic. Lay down heavy fire, send in the fighters. Can we, using nuclear power, make adequate shields.”

Sam’s eyes widened. “….I think we might be able to do that, yes,” he agreed, nodding.

Ryou turned to the assembled officers. “Get on it,” he said. “Get talking to the other bases. If we can at least protect major population centers, that’s a start and that’s something other people need and can help with.” He turned back to Sam. “Get us a plan. How big a reactor can cover how big an area. Can we make bigger domes, do they have to overlap somehow – we need to know and fast, those things take time to build and time is short.”

About half the officers got up and headed out, and Ryou turned his attention back to Sam, who looked pensive. “Spit it out,” he said, but not unkindly.

Sam said, quietly, “We’re going to need weapons too, you know. The galra won’t stop just because there’s a shield. They’ll hammer on it. A zaiforge cannon would break a nuclear powered shield – and likely cause a meltdown in the process.”

Ryou sighed. “And we don’t have crystals for weapons,” he finished. “Mass drivers aren’t going to cut it against a cruiser hull.” He tilted his head. “Nuclear warheads?”

Sam shook his head. “Wouldn’t make a scratch. Honestly we don’t want the galra realizing anything on the surface is nuclear powered. They’d find it a tempting target.”

“We’ve got some crystals,” Ryou mused. “Just not big ones, except from the ship we flew here in, and that’s just one crystal. I was thinking maybe a relay, little crystals in tandem to make a powerful artillery cannon.”

“Bad idea,” said Sam. “One cannon, no matter how powerful, can only protect a set percentage of Earth. We can make atmospheric craft that could take the weapons mobile.”

“Planes, running on the little crystals we’ve got?” asked Ryou, frowning. “Would that even work?”

“Aerodynamic design could increase their efficiency,” said Sam. “But they’d be limited range. And they’d only be a little more powerful than the standard galra fighter. I could build them to be upgradable, when the balmera hear us.”

Ryou was already thinking about how best to use such planes. “Yeah. Get on that. I want you to think specifically about disabling fighters, Sam. We don’t have crystals. We can’t guarantee a balmera will come in time. So...we need to plan on getting our crystals from the galra themselves.”

“Run on galra technology?” asked Sam. “I was thinking to use altean designs.”

“Altean designs depend on balmera crystals,” said Ryou. “We don’t know that balmera will come, but we know the galra will. Can you make ships adaptable to either power source?”

“No,” sighed Sam. “I don’t know why, yet, but galra crystals drive altean systems haywire and altean crystals just sit in galra ships.”

Ryou’s metal fingers drummed a steady rhythm on the arm of his chair as he thought about it. “How many planes could you make with the crystals we’ve got? With adequate firepower to survive galra fighters?”

“Not many,” Sam admitted. “Half a dozen at most, probably less. I’d be pushing them to the limit of what they can power.”

“Keep it in the safety zone then,” said Ryou. “We can’t stretch too far because if the planes don’t work, we are – bluntly – fucked. So they’ve got to work. You build the planes. Iverson can get the pilots trained. I’ll work on training ground crews to swarm fighter wreckage, identify and remove viable crystals. Once you’ve got the altean-crystal planes working we’ll start building fighters that run on galra crystals. Turn their power against them.”

~*~

Olia was monitoring the comms while Matt (using Elcris as an aide) got on with repairing the ship. So Matt didn’t hear the news until she brought him the recording. “You’re gonna want to hear this. Both of you.”

Figuring it had to be important for her to interrupt repairs, both Matt and Elcris paused. Olia started playback.

To the coalition fleet and blade of marmora, this is voltron. We are currently within a quantum abyss, (here the transmission included a flight plan and map), and have discovered a colony of alteans in need of immediate relocation. We need transportation for roughly twenty thousand refugees. The flight plan provided must be followed exactly. Take only crew you trust implicitly. Time will be unpredictable and histories will be shared with those nearby. The sooner we get these refugees out the sooner we can return to the fight. Owing to the timeflow differences we will be unable to converse until we meet again.

Matt just stared at the data crystal. He loved his sister, he really did, but, “Did they forget there’s kind of a war going on?”

Olia sneezed, her species’ way of laughing. “Wondered that myself. Thought maybe you could explain these crazy humans.”

“It is an order from Voltron,” said Elcris. “And twenty thousand alteans – that is invaluable.”

Olia blinked. “Come again? Twenty thousand altean refugees, galra.”

Elcris gave Olia a frown. “Do you not understand? It is the altean among the paladins that lets them reach battlefields so quickly. The wormhole technology, it is altean. Can you not imagine what an advantage it would be for the coalition, to have more alteans making wormholes? We could escape battle or engage in it at will, on our terms. There would be no more of this,” and she waved a hand at their current predicament. “We could call for a wormhole and have landed this ship at a coalition repair dock. This is important.”

Matt and Olia just stared at the Blade. “...we could have lots of teludavs?” asked Matt. “They didn’t say anything about lots of teludavs. But hey – I’m in. You’re right, that would absolutely be worth it.”

Olia bobbed her head in agreement. “We probably couldn’t carry more than ten on this ship, but hey. Word’s going around the fleet. If it takes a thousand ships to get those people into the war, well...we can probably scrounge up that many.”

“Scour that recording for dangers,” said Matt. “The flight path looked detailed. Elcris and I will finish repairs and we’ll see what extra stuff we need to get into that abyss.”

~*~

Ryou looked up as one of the instructors entered the office alone. He’d taken over Sanda’s office for the time being, in that it was a place of authority other people knew how to find, but he hadn’t really changed anything in it.

“You are not Takashi’s twin brother,” he said flatly. “Because Takashi doesn’t have a twin brother.”

Ryou noted that the man had closed the door, and was speaking quietly. The conversation was not meant to be a public confrontation – yet the man had his hand near a sidearm belted at his hip. As he studied the man there was a sort of tugging at his hindbrain; Shiro knew this one. If Ryou was prepared to spend the rest of the day meditating, and tomorrow getting over the resulting headache, he could probably fish out all the details of how...but he didn’t really want to. He didn’t want to be an echo of Shiro. He didn’t have time for that. So he said, instead, “And you are?”

“My name,” said the man levelly, “is Adam. And if you want to walk out of here, you have a lot of explaining to do. And I’d better like what I hear.”

Huh. So this was the Adam that Shiro had warned him about. Probably shouldn’t damage him then. He leaned back in his chair, studying Adam more closely now. Instructor, yes, by the stripes and uniform. But he wasn’t nervous of his weapon the way Sam usually was. Time at a firing range, perhaps. Earth had been at peace for a while; it seemed unlikely Adam had ever fired that weapon at a living target. He’d confronted what he knew to be a deception, but hadn’t brought backup. Interesting.

“I take it you agree with what’s happening now,” said Ryou. “Or this would be much more public. Possibly official.”

“If you mean did I know there are aliens out there,” said Adam levelly, “Then the answer is yes. If you mean did I know those aliens captured Takashi at Kerberos...I worked that out too, yes. And you’re not Takashi. He can put on a good act but in certain respects he’s never been a good liar. You don’t know me, and he would. So you’re not him. And he definitely has never had a twin. So who – or what – are you, and what’s your real agenda here?”

Smart man, Ryou decided. He’d known he was being lied to, but – older than Katie Holt or Keith – had managed to stay exactly where he would be among the first to know if anything happened. Which led to a question. “First,” he said, “Tell me why you didn’t act to rescue ...Takashi,” and he was trying not to react to that name as his own, “when the galra pod crashed on Earth.”

“I actually had plans to,” said Adam levelly. “But I wasn’t counting on Keith bringing explosives or making it a fight.” His lip quirked at one side, very slightly. “Admittedly I probably should have, but he’d been gone from the Garrison a year by then. I didn’t think he’d have known so quickly about the pod’s arrival. I thought I had time. Then it was just...moot.”

Ryou nodded. That was reasonable. And it did very much sound like Keith, at least. “I’ll answer your questions, then,” he said. “To start with...I’m not his twin, true. I’m his clone.”

Adam’s stare clearly said he wasn’t sure whether he should accept this or just laugh. “You’ve - “ he paused. “You’re not joking.”

“Sam and I agreed on a story that was, while improbable, at least easier for the people of Earth to believe than the truth,” Ryou agreed calmly. “I can give you the whole story; I suspect Shiro would want you to know. But it’s going to be hard to accept in places.”

Adam took a deep breath, then took a seat on the other side of the desk. “All right,” he said, just as calmly. “Tell me everything.”

~*~

Kolivan frowned.

The message Keith sent to the Blades was rather more detailed than the one sent to the coalition forces – and more heavily encoded. Keith’s message included how many alteans were in the colony, that they had been given judgment over Lotor, that they needed to be evacuated as soon as possible and why.

And it made clear that, if Lotor were found innocent, the Blades should declare allegiance to him – but be aware, too, that that did not preclude treachery on Lotor’s part.

It was all there. Kolivan was, at this point, quite familiar with Keith’s approach to report writing. Keith never provided unnecessary details. It was fifty fifty he’d even use unnecessary words – some of his reports read like a telegram that charged by the character.

This report took several pages. That alone told Kolivan how seriously Keith was taking the situation.

And the recommendation was to bring in at least two cruisers, ideally three, with the coalition ships in place of the usual fighters owing to the dangers along the route. Three cruisers would let them bring in enough ships and crew to get in and out safely while providing adequate space for the twenty thousand or so alteans and their ships.

There was space devoted to the danger of time slips and the risks they posed to Blade secrecy and security, as well, along with Keith’s best guess as to how far away one had to be before one was not subjected to such flashes.

The old galra scowled as he tapped the screen with his claw, turning pages. The strategy was sound and thought out, both militarily and politically – for Keith was arguing that rescuing the alteans was a means to demonstrate the galra people were not the same as those who had destroyed Altea in ages past. A fine sentiment, but...there was a war being waged. One the coalition forces were losing without Voltron present. Every day, Sendak’s ships took more territory.

And maybe that was really the problem – that without Voltron, there was only the Empire. But with twenty thousand alteans joining the coalition, maybe that could change too. Keith mentioned an intention by the paladins to seek alchemical training for the alteans, and with that the coalition really might not need Voltron.

Yes. That might well be the thought behind the entire report.

Kolivan looked up. Time to really move.

~*~

They talked quietly for most of the afternoon. Adam had a lot of questions. Ryou had expected more concern about Shiro, but once Adam was quite clear why Shiro had not returned to Earth, and that he was doing entirely well for himself, that seemed to be enough for Adam. The questions had then shifted to Ryou’s place in recent events. And then Earth’s.

“Most of the paladins are from Earth,” Ryou finished. “The galra can’t possibly forego the kind of leverage it would be possible for them to exert if they come here. So yes. They’ll come here. I’ve got my hand firmly on the reins, so Earth won’t be giving the galra the Lions of Voltron no matter how prettily the galra ask. But the reverse will probably work – the paladins won’t be able to ignore a threat to their homeworld. So the galra will likely attack here to force Voltron’s attention away from some more vital endeavor.”

“You’re that sure that even with the preparations underway, we can’t fight them off,” said Adam slowly.

Ryou nodded. “You’ve no concept how powerful the Empire is. Even broken the way it is now, they’re more than capable of destroying every planet in this system to the point that your star just has one massive asteroid belt around it. And they could do that in a matter of hours if they put their mind to it. They’re not going to want to, because corpses are incentives to fight where hostages are incentives to stop and listen. We can use that, but only to a point.”

“But...if they’re that powerful,” said Adam quietly, “Why are we fighting them at all? Why fight when there’s no hope of gaining anything by it?”

Ryou’s eyes narrowed. He decided, possibly charitably, to read that as concern rather than cowardice. Adam read to him as a gentle sort of soul. And he couldn’t imagine Shiro taking up with a coward of any stripe. “Because we won’t be alone in that fight forever,” he said. “Voltron will come – the whole point of attacking here would be to draw Voltron here, away from the greater war. And once we get even one Balmera to work with us, humanity can go on the offensive fast enough to make the galra’s fur fly. We can’t win just yet, but we don’t need to win. Just hang in there long enough for the wind to change. We’ve got the resources to do that – the only question is how much time there is left. Humanity won’t make good slaves the way the galra consider the word, Adam. We’re too curious, we’re too adaptable. And we’re too bloody-minded. We can’t survive this by surrendering. When the galra realize it’s not just their Champion that made a bad slave but pretty much every human? They’ll destroy the planet just to keep us from helping the coalition.”

“Play meek just long enough to get help here,” said Adam. “And defenses enough to make sure our losses aren’t too high. That’s the plan?”

“That’s the plan,” Ryou agreed.

Adam thought this over. “I think you may need more information,” he decided. “Let’s take a walk.”

~*~

Olia’s ears went flat as she stared at the cosmic abyss ahead of them. “I see why nobody found them sooner,” she said in a dull sort of tone.

“Yeeaaahhh,” said Matt, no happier. “That...that is not good.”

“We will not need to fly it alone,” Elcris said. “The Blades are obtaining cruisers. We will ride most of the way – this ship is not battle ready.”

“No shit,” sighed Matt. “And...you remember the other part of the warning.”

Elcris nodded. “I am to remain here, if you will have me,” she said. “Kolivan has decided that trust is more essential than secrecy now. It will be your decision.”

“Honestly, galra, the part I’m not looking forward to is this monkey’s get-to-know-you adventures,” said Olia gruffly, hiking a thumb back at Matt – who blushed scarlet and put a hand on his face.

He played the role for Olia’s benefit – her people really didn’t have human-level issues about sex, or he’d never have stayed on her ship. It was just Olia’s way of saying she didn’t mind learning about Elcris without admitting it out loud in so many words. Both of them had rather thought Kolivan would pull Elcris off the ship to preserve Blade secrecy, so her telling them that it wasn’t an issue was surprising, and gratifying.

An alert sounded on the ship’s console, warning of incoming hyperspace vessels. As they looked up, a galra cruiser filled the view.

This cruiser is under the command of the Blade of Marmora,” came over the comm. “This is Ilun. Your codeword is ‘reparation’.”

“That’s the right word,” Matt nodded.

Olia, her ears still plastered against her skull – being startled with a sudden cruiser had done zero for her trepidation – gingerly began piloting the ship toward the cruiser’s landing bay. “What’s that phrase you like so much?”

“...This is going to suck?” said Matt, because that’s what he was thinking.

“That’s the one,” sighed Olia.

“Ilun is reliable,” said Elcris. “One of the ones who bombed the Kral Zera. Trust me, the Fire of Purification would very much like to kill him.”

“Honestly not the part that will probably suck,” sighed Matt. “Okay everyone. Buckle in, and remember – nobody smacks anybody about something we see in a flashback without first giving the person a chance to provide context and-or apologize. Okay?”

Elcris just shook her head. Sensitive people. She was flying with really, really sensitive people.

~*~

The walk entailed a trip underneath the Garrison, to largely disused tunnels and trains. Ryou confessed himself impressed, although he wasn’t certain the tunnels would be invisible to galra scans. “All over?”

“At least this continent, yeah,” said Adam. “Remnants of the last world war. We can bring refugees down here, or transport supplies, or -”

“We need to do some tests first,” said Ryou quickly. “They’re underground, but might not be invisible to galra scans. If they’re not, then we can’t use them on a large scale – the galra could just fire their cannons at the surface overhead and collapse these tunnels in on whoever came down here.”

Adam frowned. “You really think the galra would look for them?”

“The galra have technology that could literally split this entire planet like an egg,” said Ryou seriously. “And make off with the molten core before it had time to cool. They’ll probably have technology to see the network of tunnels. The question is how likely they are to look and whether we can set up anything that might prevent detection. Does Sam know about these tunnels?”

Adam blinked. Looked up at the ceiling, reinforced with arches. “...Probably?” he hazarded.

Ryou mmm’d. “Go talk to him,” he said. “If he doesn’t know, then fill him in, along with the need to hide them if possible. If he does know, then get him to start a team on that project.”

“Sure,” said Adam, and then sighed. “But there’s one other thing we need to settle first.”

Ryou frowned. “This doesn’t have to do with Shiro, does it?”

“In a sense,” Adam admitted. “You said you’re his clone. Where does that leave you and me?”

“Nowhere,” Ryou replied, surprised. “I don’t remember you – specifically, I don’t have access to Shiro’s memories anymore. You owe me nothing, although I’d appreciate you not bringing up my nature to other people.”

“I won’t,” said Adam. He wouldn’t look at Ryou. If anything he seemed to be having trouble finding words. “I just...we’d broken up, you know, just before Kerberos. He wasn’t intending to survive that mission, and I didn’t want to bury him...but you’re both like him and not like him and ...I’m tempted to ask you out just to get to know you better.”

Ryou sighed. It was understandable. Adam probably had quite a few unresolved issues where Shiro was concerned. But, “I don’t think you want to do that,” he replied.

Adam slanted a Look at him. “Why? Do you share his condition?”

Ryou flexed the cybernetic arm. “No,” he said. “Frankly neither does he at this point; the galra cured that. I don’t know why. But I don’t have long to live. It wouldn’t be good for you to get invested, not like that.”

Now Adam was frowning. “Why wouldn’t you? You look pretty healthy.”

Which was a nicely roundabout way of saying he thought Ryou was hot, and Ryou could appreciate subtlety. But. “I’m a clone,” he repeated with a sigh. “Created by dark magic in a vat. I’ve got less than two years left to live. I was created as a spy and saboteur...those assignments don’t require a long lifespan.”

“Spy and saboteur?” asked Adam, and the tone had gone from curious to dark.

“Keith,” said Ryou, and it was enough of a brick to derail Adam’s train of thought. “He got involved. Kept me from activating...got me back my free will. I’m choosing to use it here, Adam. I’m a creation of the galra empire and I know what they’ll do, how far they’ll go. But I don’t have a lot of time to get earth ready.”

Adam made a small, half-frustrated sound, though it didn’t sound angry. More like...friendly familiarity. “That boy has a positive genius for turning things upside down and spinning them sideways, I’ll give him full marks for that.”

“Nice to know I’m part of a trend,” said Ryou dryly. “You’ll have to fill me in sometime. But for now – accept I’m on a timer, and if you weren’t keen on burying Shiro, you’re probably not going to want to get involved with me at all. But I could use a friend or two, if you’re fine with that.”

The look Adam gave him was oddly knowing and maybe a touch sad. “I’ve never known a Shiro without a timer,” he said. “Thank you for telling me. Yes, I’ll work with you. As to the rest – let’s work that one day at a time, shall we?”

~*~

Matt felt...raw. And knew the others were at least as bad off.

It wasn’t the dangers. Those were, if anything, almost a relief. Treating their cruiser as a base – and that felt pretty weird on its own – they flew out when Ilun put out a call that the cruiser was under attack. Which was reasonably frequent. They’d launch and take potshots at whatever their little ship could do some damage to. When the swarm, or flock, or giant creature had gone away or been killed, they returned to dock and conducted repairs and tried to get on with life.

The trip probably took two to three weeks of subjective time – it was anyone’s guess exactly how long it was on the outside. Maybe less than a day. It didn’t matter.

But the flashes. Oh God in Heaven, the flashes.

Matt knew, in an objective way, that Olia’s family had been devastated by the war. She had photos in the cockpit. She never talked about them. But now, Matt knew. He watched what she’d lived through. The attacks, the injuries...the funerals. And worse – the ships in the sky, and galra sentries herding her people onto cruisers just like this one, taking slaves to some remote outpost that didn’t have its own life forms but did need its own work force. People she’d known, cared about, forever lost. He knew why she fought. Why it had taken her so long to accept even a half-galra on her ship.

And he saw Elcris’ very long life just as often. Galra were an ancient race, nearly immortal now. Their constant use of and exposure to quintessence made them what they were – bigger, stronger, ageless. Slow to change. He saw Elcris’ rise among the galra ranks. How the endless war was presented – needed resources, ‘civilizing lesser races’, the glory of the endless struggle. And gradually becoming disillusioned with it. Seeing the war from the other side – and seeing what it was doing to the galra themselves. For her it wasn’t about resisting oppression; it was about cleansing corruption. She had come to see her own people as stagnant, fighting an endless war because it was all they’d ever known, destroying themselves at least as much as they did everything else. The day she’d landed on a world and realized that long, long ago it had been a galra colony. That her people had made art about things that weren’t war and conquest, that there had been songs, and dances, and light and somehow the Empire had taken all of that away in the name of vengeance for wrongs only vaguely defined. She’d met a Blade while following cave paintings during an AWOL period, learned that she wasn’t alone, and there was a different war, a secret war, whose goal was to bring these things back to the galra. Her Trials, her Blade, and her missions.

Matt wasn’t sure what the others saw in his life. Earth was, in his memory, free of the long war. Innocent explorers just beginning to look past their own doorstep. A child race by comparison, surely.

He understood why the transmission had warned them about the flashes. People all over the cruiser were being overwhelmed. So many tragedies. You couldn’t take ten steps some days without being hit by a flash of someone else’s life. Someone about six berths over had rigged a still, and the moonshine was treated as a precious gift. It meant you just might be able to sleep deeply enough not to dream someone else’s horrors.

Matt knew his own life was relatively free of them. In part, he knew this because he didn’t know all the other ships, or crews, but he was welcomed every time he went for a walk. Nobody minded learning more about Earth, it seemed. He supposed he couldn’t blame them.

He was still relieved as hell when, at last, the cruiser orbited over a small planetoid, shielded by a dark outer layer. The altean ships were old, rising out of the doors that opened in that dome, but brightly colored. The alteans were beautiful by human standards. Faerie folk.

Matt realized what the others must have seen in him, meeting them. Because they, too, were just happy. They greeted races entirely new to them with open curiosity and shy welcome – none of the wariness that those who had been hardest hit by the war couldn’t help but display.

They were even shyly curious about Elcris. Matt was sure he’d never seen her smile so much.

~*~

There wasn’t time for talking, when the cruisers arrived. The paladins were all busy organizing the exodus – every ship Hunk and Pidge had gotten functional was packed to capacity, not just with alteans but their plants and goods. Keith and Krolia coordinated with the Blades who were captaining the cruisers, assigning those ships to berths. Allura and Coran led the boarding onto the castleship, where those colonists who’d earned a place on the crew were now getting settled in and ready for takeoff.

Shiro, Lance, Pidge and Hunk used their lions to help get all the colonists who didn’t fit onto their own ships transported to cruisers, taking what pains they could not to separate family or friends more than was unavoidably necessary.

Lotor took one of the Sincline ships and went with the cruisers. The other ship he assigned to Keith and Krolia, though as it wasn’t designed with a cargo bay they wound up mostly directing traffic.

It took roughly two days to empty the planetoid of colonists. And then the castleship lifted off, and led the cruisers out of the abyss.

Back to the war.

Chapter Text

“Stop,” said Lotor – not commanding, per se, but it was a fairly urgent request. “Do not fire.”

“That ship’s crew are in Haggar’s service,” said Ilun. “If we allow them to leave they will inform Haggar of our presence here.”

“Oh, she already knows of our presence, do not doubt it,” said Lotor. “These three were my spies in her camp. Please. Allow them to dock. I am certain you will find their tales of interest.”

The Blade didn’t make any kind of display of it; he’d been told by Kolivan that if Lotor were aboard, then the Blades should consider him their ally and lord. So he simply saluted, and powered down the cruiser’s weapons systems, opening a port.

But he gave Krolia and Keith a look as he did so; he wanted them to go with Lotor and find the truth of things. Neither of them acknowledged the look – but they did, both, fall in behind Lotor as a kind of informal guard. Lotor did not object – possibly because he knew no one would listen, and possibly because he needed guards.

After all, between the bridge and the docking bays were now something over six thousand alteans, many of whom had some Problems with him. The trip was loud by anyone’s sensibilities; galra cruisers were usually manned mostly by sentries, that rarely spoke. But the colonists were all Very Interested in the world around them – either glued to viewports or talking to others who were glued to viewports. The air was full of speculation. But no one really wanted to tangle with Keith or Krolia – all those voluntary combat training classes had let the colonists become quite clear that none of them had the skill to take on either of the Blades. It didn’t stop some pointed grumbling, but no effort was made to stop them.

The third Sincline ship had docked in one of the open berths; Acxa, Zethrid and Ezor were already out of the ship and staring openly at all the altean vessels that could be seen. Acxa saw Lotor first, and saluted. “Your majesty,” she said.

Zethrid looked from her to Lotor and back again. “Uh,” she began. “About last time...”

Lotor waved Zethrid to silence. “It is forgiven,” he said calmly. “I could hardly take you to task for doing exactly what I needed you to do.” But his eyes were on Acxa.

Ezor frowned, likewise looking from Lotor to Acxa. Brighter than Zethrid, she said, “You...set that up?”

“A necessary deception, I assure you,” said Lotor. “Haggar has ways of pulling the truth out of people. But. You are here, now. I take it there was difficulty.”

“Yes, your majesty,” said Acxa solemnly. “When you entered the abyss, the spell she was using to observe you failed. We were forced to tell her that our last sight of you had been in the castleship’s brig. We are under orders to return you to her, at once. ...By any means necessary.”

“I see,” said Lotor thoughtfully.

“What spell?” Keith interjected, drawing the attention of Lotor, Ezor, Acxa, and Zethrid. He scowled at them. “What. Spell,” he repeated.

Ezor looked to Lotor first; when he nodded, she said, “Haggar had me capture the castleship mice. She’s done something to them so she can borrow their eyes and ears, control them when she needs to.” She was clearly not at all sure what to make of having been played for months on end, but at least at the moment was willing to accept Lotor had control of the situation.

Lotor curled a finger around his chin, still thinking. “If you do not return with me,” he said, “What then?”

“Haggar won’t be happy,” rumbled Zethrid, worried.

“I have little desire to please that witch,” said Lotor flatly. “What of you three.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not go back,” said Ezor – but a bit warily, aware this might not be the correct answer.

Lotor looked to the two Blades, neither of whom gave any indication of having an opinion in the matter. “Then stay,” he said. “Do no harm to any of the crew, mind.”

Ezor looked from Lotor to the altean ships. Some of which were clearly serving as makeshift temporary residences. “Uh. Okay,” she said slowly.

Lotor turned his attention to the ship behind them. “We have all three Sinclines,” he said. And then turned to face Keith and Krolia fully. “And a full complement of pilots?”

Keith blinked. So did Krolia.

“Is...that an offer?” asked Keith.

“I am still alive,” said Lotor. “I am free. Granted, not everything has worked out in an ideal fashion, but these are not minor victories. I have you to thank for them. Each Sincline functions best with two pilots. If the two of you would join us, then we will have a full team. I believe you will find us quite effective in the field.”

Keith turned to face Krolia. She was not particularly honored, if her expression were any indication. But she did nod. “We’ll pilot for you, Emperor,” she said. “But don’t the ships require work?”

“Yes,” Lotor agreed. “But the work they require to reach their fullest potential needs alchemy. And to pursue alchemical knowledge, we must first determine what to do with our many refugees.” A hand delicately waved in the direction of all the alteans. “The trip will not be without its dangers, and at best only a small percentage of them could hope to gain from such a trip. I believe we must consult with the paladins, and the princess, before taking such steps.”

~*~

Shiro took the call, because Allura wasn’t inclined to do so – which was of course most of the problem.

So Lotor had his generals back, and now the third Sincline, and Keith was to be one of the pilots. Shiro was happy for him, honestly. Proud of him. The ships were incredible and highly capable, worthy of Keith’s skill as a pilot.

It meant he’d be seeing less of Keith, but...you couldn’t be selfish in love. Nothing good ever came of that.

And the news about the mice was useful. As for the rest...well.

Start with the small things. “Pidge? Hunk?” he said over the bridge comms. “I’ve got a little project for you. Princess, I’d like to have a chat.”

All three got to the bridge of the castleship at the same time; Allura and Coran were letting the colonists try their hand at piloting, now that they were out of the abyss, to see if anyone had a talent for it or an ability to use the teludav. So while things were no longer private, as such, Shiro didn’t really think that the colonists posed a security risk.

“Hunk, Pidge, thank you for coming,” said Shiro. “First thing – turns out Haggar got to Allura’s mice. They’re her creatures, her spies. Hunk, I need you to capture them, keep them out of the way until we can do something. Pidge, I need you to make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises hiding in any of our systems. The mice can’t do much, but they could still have done damage while under her control.”

Both nodded and got to it – they seemed to be noticing the new crew more than Shiro was. Allura was scowling. “...She put a spell on my mice?” she said with contained anger.

“Seems so,” Shiro nodded. “Lotor let his generals defect to her to use as spies, and they confirmed it’s how Haggar’s been keeping track of us since the clone was identified.”

“Is there no depth to which she will not sink?” Allura demanded.

“Hey now,” said Shiro, trying to be gentle. “We’ve got this in hand. Pidge will make sure everything’s untampered with, and Hunk will get them captured in a nice, pain-free way. But we don’t have a means to cure them, or remove Haggar’s influence. So...it may be time to discuss Oriande. Do you still want to go?”

Allura paused, and the frown wasn’t angry now. “...I think we should find somewhere for these people, first,” she said.

“Mmm,” said Shiro. “Well. According to Lotor, it’s possible some of our new friends might also benefit from visiting Oriande. But we won’t know until we find the place and take them there. We can shuffle families if we need to, around the cruisers, so that the ones who can go are able to. That sound good?”

She almost flinched at mention of Lotor, but sighed. “Yes. That is probably best. But you understand, finding that stone isn’t the same as finding Oriande. Haggar had no idea how it worked – and I’m afraid I don’t know either.”

“For the sake of what it could mean for your people,” said Shiro gently, “Are you willing to find out?”

~*~

The word came to the three Blade-piloted cruisers that Lotor and the three Sinclines would relocate to the castleship for the time being, and to stay alert for new coordinates. Which suited Keith fine, as it meant he could stay with Shiro again, but beyond that things were markedly less clear.

It took a few days, for one thing, for Allura to come up with coordinates. The compass stone frustrated her to no small degree, but she wouldn’t tell anyone how she’d unlocked its secrets.

Then there was the fact that those coordinates led to the Patrulian Zone, which rivaled the cosmic abyss for sheer life-threatening danger – and might even surpass it. Allura wormholed the little group of ships to the edge of it, and the sheer number of derelict ships gave everyone pause.

“...I think we stop right here,” said Shiro slowly. “We have far too many people on this ship, and the cruisers, to just...fly in blindly.”

Pidge was staring at the screen – horrified, but also clearly fascinated. “White hole,” she said. “It’s an actual white hole. Matt. Matt! Tell me you’re seeing this!”

The other paladins exchanged a look, not particularly surprised that Pidge had rigged a dedicated comm channel to talk to her brother on Ilun’s cruiser. The response wasn’t immediate – presumably Matt had to get somewhere he could see their surroundings – but the “Whoah” was definitely his.

Shiro looked to Lotor. And then frowned. “...Your face is glowing.”

This prompted a sudden ‘everyone looks at everyone else’ flurry, on the bridge and then throughout the ship. When Lotor said, “It’s the mark of the Chosen – those who may enter Oriande,” that flurry spread to all the cruisers.

And while everyone was excitedly checking for glowing facial marks, Shiro turned to Keith – and paused.

Keith had them too. But not triangles like the alteans, or zigzags like Lotor’s. Little four-point stars, like the center of a compass rose. When he saw Shiro looking at him, he looked away and activated his Marmora mask. Shiro moved to approach but saw Krolia raise a warning hand, fingers to her lips in a ‘shh’ gesture.

Why – Oh, Shiro realized. Only those of Altean blood could have marks. He knew about Keith’s altean blood, but apparently they were keen not to share it. The marks would be a dead giveaway, and apparently Keith didn’t want to get into another argument with Allura right now.

It wasn’t like Keith was unique, either. When the crews of all four ships had been tallied, two hundred alteans were found to have the glowing marks. Nearly all of those two hundred were already on the castleship – those alteans who had lost family members to Lotor’s factory.

“There’s still the matter of getting them into...well, that,” said Pidge, pointing toward the light. “Magic or no, there’s still a lot of dead ships between us and that light.”

“We have the restored ships,” said Allura. “And pilots. If the castleship and the cruisers stay back, you can come in to provide aid if something goes wrong.”

“...Uh,” said Hunk. “To address ….well...one of the elephants in the room,” he gestured toward Lotor. “Is he going too?”

Allura turned to stare at the startled Lotor. His marks were clearly present, glowing. He was undeniably of the chosen kindred.

“I ...will remain, princess,” said Lotor slowly. “If that is your wish. I have no desire to infringe upon that which is rightfully yours.”

But there was a yearning in his eyes, staring at the screen. Oriande had been his search, his focus of research, for many many long years. It was a visible wrench to him to hold back when he was on its very doorstep.

And maybe that was why Allura sighed, and shook her head. “No, Lotor. You are chosen. It is not my place to deny you your birthright. It is for Oriande to decide our worthiness. We’ll go together.”

“I guess...that decides that,” said Shiro. He wasn’t in love with any of this, but – it was altean mysticism, and really the only guides they had for that were Lotor and Allura. “Go on to the landing bay, you two, and ...get the chosen many ready. We’ll wait for some sign we can help, or...need to leave.”

They left, along with half the bridge crew, marks glowing brightly. Shiro looked again at Keith, still masked, but Keith wasn’t moving. He frowned. Walked over to him. Whispered, “You should go too.”

Krolia slanted a look at the remaining bridge crew, and the paladins. Everyone was absorbed in watching the beginning exodus; nobody was paying attention to them. “...We are not altean,” she said quietly. But not happily.

“We don’t need Allura upset about something new,” Keith agreed, just as quietly. “I don’t think she’s up to the idea that maybe alteans became part of a lot of worlds.”

“This isn’t about Allura,” said Shiro firmly. “Or Lotor. Or anyone else. This is just about you, Keith. You’ve got the key. You could learn something about what you’re capable of, if you go. You shouldn’t hold back because someone else wants to decide if you’re worthy.”

He couldn’t read Keith’s expression, behind that Marmora mask, but it faced him. “They need this,” he said quietly. “They’ve been prisoners for so long.”

“And they’re going to need your help,” said Shiro. “Go last, if...if that will help you. I’ll make sure the bridge is cleared and the blades on the cruisers aren’t going to tell anyone. But you should go.”

Krolia nodded slowly. “He’s right,” she said. “The Blades will keep our secret. We don’t have to take anything from the alteans. You can go separately, on your own.”

That got Keith’s attention; his head turned to look at his mother. She was worried, yes, but firm. “All right,” he said. “When the way’s clear.”

~*~

Lance saw the ships off in a little organized mini-fleet, trying very hard not to worry too much about Allura and Lotor. This was an Altean Thing. There was no way Allura wasn’t going to go, regardless of the risk. There was no way of talking her out of it – and he wasn’t sure it was even a good idea to try. He’d just have to...well. Sit tight and ...hope.

He was surprised when a ship came in to dock, though – moreso when he realized it was Olia’s ship. It looked like it had gone through a lot of repairs since the last time he’d seen it.

For a while no one came out – Lance realized he probably had something to do with that. It felt like forever ago to him, but for Matt it would only have been a few weeks. “It’s all right,” he said. “Come on out.”

The hatch opened and Matt stepped out. “I – was just going to check some readings with Pidge,” he said, staying well back. And blinked. “Uh. Did you...grow...in the last few weeks?”

Lance smiled. “It’s been a lot longer than that on my end,” he said. “Go catch up with Pidge, I’m sure she’ll fill you in. When you’ve got time, I’d like to talk.”

Matt did not look like he was at all cool with that as a concept, but he nodded. “Uh. Yeah. I may want witnesses present, you know.”

“Fine by me,” Lance nodded. “Go on.

~*~

Keith switched to the Red Paladin armor. The helmet still hid the little star marks on his face, and the paladin armor had greater capability. When he’d finished, though, the wolf padded up to him and headbutted his thighs. When Keith bent to pet it, he noticed the blue in its fur was glowing brightly. “...Guess you want to come too?” he said. “I can’t say I wouldn’t appreciate the company. Come on, then.”

He made his way down to the landing bay, choosing one of the shuttles that were part of the castleship’s stock. The wolf hopped in behind him, ears perked forward. Keith got the pod launched, but hovered near the castleship until he heard, over the comms, “The bridges are clear, Keith. You’re good to go. Good luck...and tell me all about it later.”

“Sure thing,” said Keith, trying not to show just how nervous he was. The big ring of dead ships was something of a firm warning. They’d seen the chosen alteans fly blithely into the center, but...but.

Keith wasn’t entirely altean. He wasn’t even half altean. He had no idea how small the percentage was, but considered logically it was probably pretty small. The marks could be an accident, a genetic fluke. It wasn’t like he could do any of the tricks Allura could.

But he’d never know, if he didn’t try. So he flew the pod toward the white hole, piloting with care around the derelict ships. When he got closer, he could see in the brilliance the outline of a ...lion? Not quite a lion – it was actually closer to the maneless forms of the Voltron lions, than a lion of Earth, but there were enough similarities that Keith really couldn’t call it anything but a lion.

It was staring at him.

Keith looked over at the wolf, but the wolf’s ears remained perked forward, its posture relaxed. Interested, but unafraid.

Well, then.

Keith took that as the best sign he was going to get, and flew in closer. The lion opened its mouth, and lacking any better idea, Keith flew his pod into it.

~*~

Matt, Pidge and Hunk were in a lab, eyeballing the readings the ship was taking with awe and delight.

“This is like...a whole rack of articles, you realize,” said Matt. “I mean just being here is turning so many theories on their heads. How much can this ship document? Dad is gonna be so pissed he missed this.”

“Well,” mused Hunk, “It might not have anything to do with conventional physics. I mean we are basically talking a lot of magic here. Some Alfor-type guy may have built this place. Even the white hole. I mean...it’s spewing energy into the universe, right? What if it’s basically just a puncture into the quintessence field?”

“Oh, good call,” said Pidge, her focus on one of the screens. “That’d explain a lot, really. I mean quintessence is essentially living energy. So you’d have life, and power, and...everything you’d need to create anything you wanted. This could be exactly what Lotor’s looking for.”

“Except he probably needs it in a harnessable form, which this really isn’t,” Matt pointed out. “Lot of dead ships out there. I’m tempted to ask Olia if maybe we can go scavenging. We could get a lot of work done.”

Hunk shrugged. “No reason why not, as long as we’re careful. The radiation clearly fried their systems, and could fry ours, but that’s why tow lines were invented, right?”

“And drag nets,” Matt agreed. “Let’s go scavenging.”

~*~

Keith absently gave the wolf scritches with one hand as he flew.

It was beautiful, a sunset world of floating islands, endless peace – well, aside from the many altean pods flitting about. Clearly this was something a lot of the chosen ones were happy to explore. He was glad he’d chosen to take a pod, because at the moment he blended in.

He’d been dreaming of this place, off and on, since rescuing the wolf pup. And really, the wolf did seem entirely at home here. But - “You’re telepathic, aren’t you,” mused Keith. “I rescue you, and dream of this place, and...you seem to like it here. Is this your home? Was your mom taking you here?”

The wolf flicked an ear at him and licked his hand. If it was an answer, it was a rather inscrutable one.

Keith sighed and flew the pod toward a cluster of floating islands. There seemed to be a structure there. That was probably the next step.

~*~

Olia, Elcris and Matt met up with Ezor, Zethrid, Acxa, Lance, Hunk, and Pidge. Everyone had armor on, and jetpacks, and safety lines.

“So we’re ….risking our lives for some junk?” asked Ezor.

“We’re keeping an eye out for the returning altean ships,” said Pidge. “And meantime, we’re going to grab all the usable parts we can for the coalition. You three are on our side now, right? The alliance? Kinda needs parts?”

Zethrid shrugged. “It’s something to do,” she said, resigned. “Sure. Point us at stuff.”

Olia wasn’t sure what to make of Lotor’s generals. They were pretty clearly not entirely galra, but at the same time were very galra. Matt took the lead. “Acxa, you go with Hunk and Olia. I’ll go with Pidge and Ezor. Lance, you go with Elcris and Zethrid. The paladins have the list of parts we’re looking for on their gauntlet computers. Everyone keep everyone else in sight, and if you find a part, stick a tracking beacon on it. We’ll use the cruisers’ tractor beams to pull them in.” He handed out little wristbands. “These are proximity alarms. If it turns red, retreat back to the castleship. If you keep going you’ll get too close to the white hole and your systems will fry. We might not be able to get you out.”

“Exciting,” Ezor grinned. “I have to say spare part hunting in lethal environments is starting to sound like actual fun.”

~*~

Keith rather lamented that he didn’t have some kind of genuinely inconspicuous armor, when he put the pod down before the structure. There were so many pods there already. The building had to be full of questing alteans, didn’t it?

But when he got out, he didn’t see any of them. And the wolf padded casually for the entrance, where the translucent white lion waited for them. Keith shrugged and followed the wolf, though he didn’t like that he wasn’t seeing any of the alteans that were clearly here somewhere.

He understood when he and the wolf were fully inside. The white lion flashed; and they were now, he was sure, Somewhere Else. A bunch of alchemists that were stronger than Allura had fiddled with what physical laws applied to this place and probably turned all of them inside out.

The statues were….not friendly, no, but not unfriendly as such either. At least, not until they stood up, grabbed their spears, and pointed them right at him.

Keith stood quite still. Think. Think think think. They wanted something, clearly. This was...their house. They were its guards.

He took out his Blade, and offered it, hilt first, to one of the giant statue guards.

It accepted the blade, pinched between two giant fingers, and sat down again.

Keith tried to remember how to breathe, and hoped he’d eventually get that knife back again. On the way out, maybe.

For now, he followed the wolf to ...whatever was next.

~*~

Scavenging was actually kind of fun, once you got into it. The three teams bounced from derelict to derelict, with little cans of marking paint. White was ‘we searched it, it’s got nothing’, green was ‘has stuff of value too big for us to move’. The three cruisers were pullng in green-marked derelicts carefully, one at a time. After a while, they started seeing ships coming back out of the white hole.

“Hey! Allura!” Lance called to them. “Is Allura back yet?”

“You are very concerned for the princess,” Elcris observed.

“I just want to know Lotor’s back,” rumbled Zethrid. “This sifting through rubbish is fine for a while, but if he doesn’t come back in one piece we are all so screwed.”

“True,” mused Elcris.

Lance stared at the two giant women. “One thing at a time,” he said, and yelled back at the ships – as if volume would make them more likely or able to answer the transmission - “Hey! Allura! Any of you guys seen Allura?”

~*~

A teludav platform. Keith frowned, but not for long, because the ceiling started to descend. At least he knew about teludav platforms. So he ran toward it, hoping he could use it, but when he put his hands on the controls nothing happened.

This wasn’t the answer. Or at least, it wasn’t his answer. He didn’t have Allura’s raw power. He couldn’t do what she might have done. And the ceiling was coming down.

Focus. Focus. Patience yields focus. Not that there was much time for patience. There had to be an answer – there had to be!

He found it in his sense of the unseen; a hidden door, along one wall. There was no normal way to find that door – it blended in perfectly. But when he set his hand on it, it opened. He waited for the wolf to run through and then followed, just before the ceiling would have crushed him.

~*~

The ships were coming back more frequently now. The alteans who came out mostly had failed, though at different stages. Some had fled the statues in the hall. Some had been ‘crushed’ under a ceiling that just teleported them outside the structure. Some had fought a lion, or run from it, or been ‘slain’ by it. Regardless of when they failed, when they found themselves back outside they’d understood it was time to return.

Some, a very few, had passed. They stood confidently, but were a bit overwhelmed. And all they would tell anyone was it had been a transformative experience, and they needed to sleep and maybe they’d talk about it later.

Allura had passed. Lotor had not.

Allura wasn’t particularly talkative about what she’d been through any more than the others who had passed were. She was visibly different, though – she almost shone with an inner light. Matt looked like he might fall to his knees, and Lance had to admit he was pretty tempted to do the same.

“Get some rest,” Shiro advised Lotor and Allura both. “Not everyone is back yet. And we’re still scavenging what we can from the nearest derelicts.” He did not say Keith isn’t back yet. He was heartened by the fact that even those who failed the tests had come back unhurt, but wasn’t sure what to expect. Krolia wore a faintly apprehensive expression that suggested she was in the same boat.

~*~

Keith was alone now. That was a problem. The wolf had gone through the door ahead of him, but was nowhere near him now.

Actually nothing was. Keith wasn’t sure what he was standing on, even. Air wasn’t usually this solid.

He didn’t get time to think about it, though, because the white lion was there with him. And not happy.

It charged, and Keith dove out of its way. He didn’t try running – lions were faster than humans, and he wasn’t sure they weren’t also faster than galra. Didn’t matter – running would just be acting like prey, and that didn’t sound like the right answer here.

The lion had been his guide, insofar as anything had been, through this whole thing. So the lion was doing something now, too.

He dove out of the way of another charge, got to his feet, faced the beast again. What was the lion wanting? If it were an earth lion he would say it was...play, maybe. The lion’s posture didn’t seem to indicate it thought Keith was prey. Maybe a playmate? Maybe an answer to a challenge? Alteans weren’t fighters by nature. Fighting probably wasn’t the best answer. Which was good, because Keith really, really did not want to fight a lion.

He kept facing the cat. Don’t turn your back on a lion. Don’t show fear. It charged him again, and this time he decided to treat it as very rough play. Instead of dodging, he used galra strength and got up under its paws, launching it and using its own momentum to flip it.

It landed on its feet, growled, and charged again.

Keith sighed. This could take a while.

~*~

“It’s good to see you again,” said Lance carefully. “I wanted to apologize. For last time.”

Matt shook his head. “A night of bad decisions. Call it even, and I will.”

“Fair,” said Lance, taking a seat by Matt. The docking bay was getting busy, and crowded. Soon Olia would return her ship to its berth on Ilun’s cruiser, because there wouldn’t be room here.

“...For what it’s worth,” said Matt slowly, “I’ve...wondered if you ever would have, without the drink.”

Lance smiled slightly. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I mean. You are pretty hot. I just – had a lot to work through. I’ve had some time to do that.”

“The message mentioned time dilation,” said Matt slowly. “You’ve...really grown. How much time?”

“Few years,” said Lance. “Give or take some months. The colonists weren’t big on measuring time.”

Matt nodded slowly. “That’d do it,” he said. “Looks good on you.”

“I realize I’m probably the crazy guy to you,” said Lance slowly. “But if you’re willing to start over…? I mean I’ve tried casual now. I’m not really into that. And – there’s Allura.”

Matt snorted. “Allura is a certifiable goddess,” he said. “She’s practically got a halo now. One step away from wings. Tell you what. If she propositions either of us – hall pass. Agreed?”

Lance smiled. “Agreed,” he said. “And the rest?”

Matt shrugged. “I’m always happy to visit my little sister,” he said. “We can take it slow. See if it goes anywhere. For what it’s worth..I’ve kinda had my fill of casual too. It’d be nice to think of someone I can come back to when I’m neck deep in half-digested insectoid.”

Lance blinked. “Your life really sucks, doesn’t it.”

Matt grinned. “Not when I get to tell the stories about it,” he said. “Is Hunk back yet? Because it’s less fun when there isn’t food involved.”

~*~

It was a lot like Keith’s first Trial in the Blades. Over and over the lion charged. Over and over, Keith dodged or flipped it, refusing to surrender – and refusing to do real battle. His knife had been returned to him – he could feel it in its sheath at his back – but this wasn’t an enemy. It was an opponent, and that wasn’t the same thing at all.

Keith had no idea how much time had passed, before the lion...just didn’t charge. Instead, after the flip, it got to its feet and walked over to Keith, sinking down onto the not-ground beside him.

Keith took the hint, tired enough to sit down too. He reached out to put a hand on the lion’s scruffy short mane – lightly, and easily refused by the creature if it chose. It did not choose. Keith gave it a scritch. “Good fight,” he said tiredly.

The lion blurred out, becoming formless white motes that were absorbed by Keith’s hand.

With that light came knowledge. No – understanding. Which was stranger, because he understood without knowing how to put any of it into words. The lion’s presence, within him, unlocked parts of himself he’d never known were there, never known could be there. He was exhausted and yet stronger than he’d ever felt. Doors to unknown places had unlocked and opened within him.

The strange sunset-scape became the ground outside the structure. And the wolf was there, bounding happily to lick him on the face. So proud of you!

Keith blinked. “...Did you just say that?”

Licklicklick. Keith’s face was a mass of wolfy drool. No, you just heard it. You understand now. And you’re okay! Let’s go home now.

Huh. Okay. The new Understandings apparently included speaking telepathic cosmic wolf. Oookay. Keith was really too tired to do anything but accept it. He got wobbily to his feet, the wolf leaning supportively against him. “Gonna tell me your name now?”

For answer, the wolf growled a lengthy growl. Which Keith understood was the wolf’s name. He sighed. Yeah, that wasn’t going to fit well into conversations. Stiffly, he climbed into the cockpit, only vaguely noticing that all the other ships were gone.

Call me Cosmo, the wolf said. Everyone else does.

~*~

Keith’s pod was the last to return by a rather significant amount – all the alteans, whether successful or not, had gone to bed by the time his pod emerged from the white hole.

Shiro’s voice was, as duty demanded, controlled and polite on the comm. “Keith – are you all right?” It didn’t hide for a moment that he had been very, very concerned.

Keith smiled tiredly as he piloted the pod back to the castleship. “Yeah. I’m fine. Just tired. Did everyone else make it back okay?”

Yes, they’ve all been back for several vargas. I wasn’t sure what I – what any of us could do if you didn’t come back on your own. Krolia’s been ...uh. Intense.”

Keith could imagine. His mother didn’t waste energy when she was upset. She coiled, like a spring, and gods help you if you were in her way when she let that energy loose. “I’ll tell you both everything when I get back. Which I almost am. I could use some sleep first.”

There was silence for a bit, which Keith figured might well be Shiro and Krolia discussing that. “Sleep first,” Shiro agreed. “We’ll be taking the cruisers to Olkarion to drop off the alteans who need more training to be useful.”

mmm. Sleep sounded very good, as Keith gently docked the pod in its berth. “How many made it?”

Twenty five, at best guess.

Keith’s forehead leaned forward to rest on the pod’s console. He was bone tired. Probably there was some better way of dealing with those tests than the one he’d taken, but he’d done what he could. The altean colonists were at least in the dark as he’d been. Twenty five sounded ...actually pretty good, for a result.

The newly minted Cosmo licked his cheek. Come on. Mate and mother want you to go to your den.

“Mrf,” was all Keith managed. Now that the danger was passed, and he was back on the castleship, his bed seemed miles away and the cockpit was comfortable enough.

By the time Shiro and Krolia came down to find out why he wasn’t leaving the pod, Keith was deeply asleep.

Shiro carried him back to their quarters.

Chapter Text

Allura smiled to herself as she woke.

Oriande.

She never would have believed it was even real. Never would have seen it. Never would have become. She could feel it in herself, now - she was a true alchemist, like her father. She had greater power, and greater control over that power, than she would have thought possible now that Altea was gone. She had only to think of what she wanted to do, to know whether she could do it and how she might do it. It was like a library had been installed in her subconscious, ready to answer every query.

She knew how Lotor’s ships might be altered so that they could enter the quintessence field, as Voltron did. And she knew that was what Lotor wanted – he’d made no secret of it, after all. The twenty five alteans who had, with her, passed the trials were unlikely to help him if she didn’t approve; all twenty five had lost quite a lot of their families to Lotor’s ‘farming’ techniques and weren’t inclined to be forgiving. She did owe Lotor, for bringing her and her people to Oriande. She’d have to think about it, before giving him his own Voltron in return. She couldn’t hate him anymore – not after this. The training of Oriande was priceless. But that didn’t mean she trusted him with that kind of power.

Allura showered and dressed and settled the coronet on her brow. No...she wanted to start with something smaller. Trickier. And more personal.

Haggar had put a spell on her little mouse friends. She wouldn’t know until she studied them, but Allura wanted to fix that if she could.

~*~

Pidge rapidly came to the conclusion that twenty six alchemists on one castleship was probably twenty five alchemists too many.

The alteans were juuuuust barely coming to grips with the idea that a schedule was a real thing, and work shifts were more than mere suggestions. But now all of them were pretty much ignoring the entire idea, in favor of those who hadn’t been Chosen asking the Chosen what Oriande was like, and the Chosen asking the twenty five who’d passed the trials there what the world was like now that they had.

Pidge heard ‘magic magic magic magicMAGICmagic magic’ and was ready to throw things at their pointy-eared heads after the first hour. By the fourth she was lining up trick shots in her mind. Hunk had to gently steer her to the lab – and then gently, but firmly, usher the chatting alteans out of it, just so she could vent.

“What’s the point of this?” she demanded. “There’s a war going on! We’ll be dropping all of them – or at least most of them – off today, and Matt’s going back to-”

Hunk just caught her in a bear hug until she stopped ranting. “I know you’re worried about him,” he said gently. “I am too. We’ve lost a lot of ground in the time we’ve been away. But we’ll get it back.”

“That’s not the problem,” grumbled Pidge, somewhat muffled against Hunk’s chest. “The problem is that he’s holding that ship of his together with duct tape. And they’re going out to the front lines again tomorrow.”

Fair enough, Hunk conceded. Good point. He didn’t say that out loud, though. Pidge really didn’t need that kind of reinforcement. “So,” he said slowly, “How about we arrange for help?”

Pidge ran the back of one arm across her eyes. “Don’t you dare say we send an alchemist with him.”

“Well, if you need a miracle, maybe a magician isn’t a bad call,” Hunk pointed out. “And they did scrounge a lot of good parts from that debris field. We could maybe set up a base just outside the Patrulian Zone for the coalition to scavenge from. It’d double as a way for us to keep an eye on Oriande, make sure nobody we aren’t working with gets through.”

Pidge frowned. “Maybe...get Matt assigned to that station?” she asked hopefully.

Hunk shook his head. “Don’t think he’d agree to go,” he admitted. “I don’t think he can sit by while other people are in trouble any more than you can. Family trait, I’m thinking.”

Pidge scowled at him. “This is not my fault.”

“Didn’t say it was,” said Hunk. “Look. When we get to Olkarion I’ll ask Ryner if she can talk Matt into hanging around long enough to get his ship properly fixed up, maybe upgraded a bit, possibly get an alchemist to go with him. Personal favor to the Green Paladin. You know the Olkari’d do anything for you.”

“I guess,” sighed Pidge. “Though what Matt would do with an alchemist I have no idea.”

~*~

Shiro, in all honesty, wanted to take the paladins out to go kick Sendak’s ships around. The maps showed that the Fire of Purification had used Voltron’s absence to incredible effect – he’d taken over a little over a quarter of Lotor’s territory now, and his pace wasn’t slowing. The druids were dangerous, and reports from the front said Haggar had made a komar for Sendak to use on planets that resisted him.

But taking the lions out would mean prying Allura away from the alteans. Or putting Keith into a lion. And since both had come out of Oriande, Shiro was frankly not sure what state either of them were in. Allura had...purpose. More than she had had before, even, although Shiro wasn’t yet sure what it was directed toward. And Keith…

He wanted to think Keith was okay. He’d slept pretty deeply – which was unusual for Keith – and without nightmares, which was good. But he hadn’t seemed quite there this morning, and that was disturbing. Keith didn’t seem unhappy, or vague, or unconnected to the world around him as such. But he’d been pretty damn uncommunicative, and easily distracted, like he was hearing things, or seeing things. Not disturbing things, as far as Shiro could tell, but things Shiro couldn’t see, and that wasn’t good at all.

No, he didn’t really trust either of them in a lion right now, and four lions against Sendak wasn’t a good idea.

He didn’t like it, but the return to the fight would have to wait another day or two. At least he could get the alteans to Olkarion, where those that weren’t going to be alchemists could at least learn to be pilots and engineers. Or help those who did.

Two. He wanted two of the twenty five alchemists to stay on board. The rest needed to disperse.

~*~

It wasn’t really a surprise when Allura’s purposeful stride drew the interest of the new alchemists. They followed after her like a comet’s tail, or ducklings after their mother. She paid little attention. Hunk had put the captured castle mice in a special container, where they could only see themselves, and little white noise generators and vibration dampeners made sure the mice had as little input from the rest of the ship as possible. That was her goal.

Neither she nor the other alchemists paid any attention to Keith tagging along. He stayed quiet, attentive, unobtrusive. His wolf was with him, and the wolf got offers of pets and scritches which it gratefully and happily accepted, but no one disturbed Allura’s concentration.

“There’s something...there,” said Allura. “Can anyone else feel it?”

There were a few nods. Keith didn’t; as far as everyone was concerned he was just watching. Observing.

“There’s darkness in them,” said one of the alchemists, a young woman with a serious expression.

“Haggar’s magic,” said Allura. “I want to free them from it.”

“Wont that...draw Haggar’s attention?” asked another, a dark skinned young man. He didn’t sound afraid, as such – but concerned, definitely.

“Haggar is our enemy,” said Allura. “And these mice are friends of mine. If you want to watch,” and this was obliquely aimed at Keith, but applied to the room as a whole, “stand back. If you’d like to try to help me, I welcome it.”

There was a shuffling as people took their places – circling the cage, if they wanted to help, or heading to the walls if they wanted to observe. The wolf was definitely observing too; its ears were half-flattened, its expression intent on the mice.

Allura spared the rest of the room no more thought, but reached out with her new power to the mice.

You think to contest with me, child? The voice filled every mind in the room, as all of the mice turned as one to stare, red-eyed, at Allura. Do not think a day’s instruction can counter my skill. Learn humility, princess.

And then they felt it – they all felt it. Cold darkness seemed to pour out of the mice. Malicious and hungry, feeding on life, on hope. The new alchemists dropped to the ground unconscious, one by one, as they were overwhelmed. Allura’s entire focus bent toward the mice, the dark seeds planted in their tiny bodies.

She didn’t see Keith and the wolf, both pale and wearing identical expressions of teeth-gritted resistance, doing their damndest not only to move, but to drag the unconscious alteans out of the room with them, one by one.

“I do ‘contest with you’,” Allura snapped. “You have taken over the bodies of my companions and I will free them from you. Your darkness has no place here.”

You can barely keep your own mind out of my grasp, child, and your will is not strong enough to do so much longer. These creatures are mine, not yours. I have made them mine. You cannot have them.

The voice seemed to echo in her bones like a chainsaw on ice. The numbness of that cold was spreading. But Allura had spent a long, long time feeling helpless. That frustration fueled her now as she pushed back against the cold.

~*~

The alchemists, now out in the hall, stirred. None of them were all that sure how they’d gotten there; Keith and his wolf were nowhere to be seen, but neither was Allura.

They turned toward the door to the room with the mice, and felt the surge of dark energy.

“We should go in and help her,” said one.

“We can’t,” pointed out another. “It’s too strong for us.”

While they debated, Shiro came running up – with Lotor and Krolia in tow. “Haggar?” asked Shiro.

Three of the alchemists pointed toward the door. “It’s still going on.”

Lotor’s eyes narrowed. He drew his sword. Nodded to Krolia. She drew her own Blade – which told Shiro that Keith had gotten both the galra – and headed in.

Darkness and light swirled chaotically around the room, with Allura and the mouse cage at the center of the maelstrom. Sometimes dark energy would rise up out of one of the mice, and sometimes the same energy would envelop it. None of the mice moved; Shiro realized they were dying, or possibly already dead, unable to survive the forces at play.

“Allura!” called Lotor. “Princess Allura! You must withdraw!”

“I will save them!” Allura snapped back. “They are my friends!”

“They are dead, princess!” called Krolia. Her Blade was out, and she was trying to use it to disrupt the dark magics flying around the room. “Let go!”

“Dead?” asked Allura, incredulous, shocked – hurt. The light faded. The darkness surged momentarily, denied anything to grapple with. Krolia swung her Blade through it, back and forth, as if it were a solid thing she might cut – and it retreated.

The room was normal again.

Except for the castle mice, now unmoving, on their sides, mouths open in tiny expressions of horror.

Krolia frowned at them, then shrank her blade down to a dagger and left the room.

Allura bent over the tiny bodies, and started to cry. “My friends….”

Lotor’s expression was hard, but not unsympathetic. “This is what the witch does, princess,” he said.

“This is what your general did,” Allura snarled, abruptly furious. “She admitted to it! She captured them, and took them to Haggar!”

“Indeed,” Lotor nodded calmly. “The witch wanted eyes and ears on Voltron. You took her clone spy from her. If it had not been the mice it would have been some other living soul. Coran, perhaps. It is what she does, princess. It is always what she does. We are fortunate the cost today was not higher.”

“Now’s not the time, Lotor,” said Shiro, but his tone was neither harsh nor angry. Just tired, maybe. “The alteans are rattled. Go and tell Hunk to ...get some altean comfort food going.”

Lotor almost resisted – the do you know you are addressing an emperor? reaction almost got to his mouth. But it didn’t. Lips pressed firmly together, Lotor gave Shiro a curt nod and left the room.

Allura didn’t seem to notice. She was bent over the mice, sobbing. Tentatively she reached out to pet their little bodies, close their mouths. Light flickered around her fingertips, but nothing happened. “...I can’t save them,” she said brokenly. “Her magic in them...I can’t bring them back.”

Shiro gave her a gentle hug, tried to lead her to the door. Coran would be a big help, he knew. But in the meantime, Allura needed support. Her little friends had been poisoned by Haggar’s magic, and she hadn’t even known until Ezor told her. And then, she couldn’t save them. She leaned against Shiro like he was some kind of tree, holding the little bodies to her chest and crying, until Coran came to soothingly murmur in her ear as he guided her back to her room.

Shiro shook his head, looking around the now-empty room. His clone had seriously lucked out, clearly. He headed for the commissary, because he wanted to see what the other new alchemists thought about the day.

When he got there, he found Hunk in full comfort-food mode, several conversations going on between the alchemists, and Keith in a corner with Cosmo, and a tall glass of something that might have been moonshine or might have been medicinal. Keith looked like he could use it either way.

Shiro settled down opposite him. “Want to tell me what happened, now?”

“What you’d think happened,” said Keith. “She wanted to free the mice. Haggar fought her. She’s strong enough, Shiro. Allura, I mean. She could’ve won, if she’d practiced first.” He pulled the glass over to his lips, sipped. His eyes were half closed.

“You haven’t said what happened, in Oriande,” Shiro pointed out. “You’re...not okay, are you.”

“I will be,” said Keith tiredly. “Just...okay. Imagine you’re a kitten, maybe. Eyes closed still. So you only know darkness. After a while your eyes start ungumming. Maybe you see blurry shapes. Colors. It’s kind of exciting, new. Strange.” He nodded toward Allura. “And then somebody takes a halogen floodlamp and turns it on, aimed at your face.”

Shiro winced. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Can you tell me what happened today, then?”

“I’m...seeing things,” Keith sighed quietly. “Like, stuff I had to close my eyes and really focus on to see before. I can feel the Lions. All five. I can sort of even feel the Sincline ships, but they’re...not ready. I can see the light in people. And the dark. Like...auras. Allura’s going to give me migraines for a week if I don’t get a handle on it. So when word started going around the alchemists that she was going to free the mice, I tagged along.”

Shiro nodded slowly. “And then?”

Keith’s eyes closed then, and he took another sip of his drink. “The mice were...dark. Ezor was telling the truth; Haggar got to them. Ugly black stuff all around them. Don’t know if there was even anything left of her friends to save. I thought she’d see it too. She’s so strong, Shiro. Any of them are stronger than me, but she’s...blinding. But she didn’t see. She started….pulling on the darkness around them. It got Haggar’s attention and they started fighting, with the mice as the center of their tug of war.”

“So you don’t think Allura saw the extent of Haggar’s magic,” Shiro mused. “Any of the other alchemists seem to notice?”

“Not that I saw,” said Keith. “Not before Allura got Haggar’s attention. And then – they were scared. Can’t blame them. Haggar threw out this...tangible stuff. Darkness made of fear. I could tell she was going to take over their minds – they didn’t even think to fight. While Allura held her attention I got them out of there. They’re not combatants, Shiro. They’re not like Allura.”

“Not surprising,” said Shiro. “Since they’ve got nothing in their background to prepare them for magical duels or anything even close to that. We’ll have to see if any of them are up to trying now they’ve seen what we’re up against. But why didn’t Haggar’s power focus on you?”

Keith gave Shiro a flat, oh fuck off look. “Who said it didn’t? My head is killing me. But I’m...weaker than them. Or different. Or both. I could see what Allura was doing, but I can’t do anything like that myself. I think the others could have – that’s why Haggar wanted them. She could make them into weapons.”

“But not you?” asked Shiro.

“Not the kind she’d want,” said Keith.

Shiro blinked. “...So….you aren’t an alchemist?”

“Don’t think so,” said Keith. “That’s why I was hanging out with them. I wanted to hear what they were talking about. If any of it sounded like what happened to me. But it didn’t. They can focus quintessence. Wield it. Use it. Shape it. They’ve been experimenting already, little things. But they don’t see it. Or sense it. Not the way I do now.” He shrugged. “It is….really fucking exhausting to always be the special case, Shiro.”

That made Shiro smile. That particular complaint, that exact complaint, was one they’d batted between each other for years, even before Kerberos. More than anything it reassured him that Keith was still Keith, just adjusting to yet another new weird thing. He reached out to clasp Keith’s shoulder and gave the traditional response. “Better you than me. So. Changing topic slightly...see anything worth sharing?”

“Just you,” said Keith. “Though I’m not inclined to share you.”

“Share with me, then,” Shiro corrected.

Keith’s smile was wry and just a little wicked. “You shine at least as much as those alchemists, you know. Literal star of the Garrison, you are. You came back from the Black Lion different, I think. Just a matter of finding out how.”

I did not get cute little stars on my cheeks,” said Shiro firmly. “That was all you.”

Keith snorted. “Marks may just be how Alteans know who the lion won’t eat. Humans may not have an obvious clue. I mean we are talking about a race that was colonizing space before humans had got the hang of clay tablets. I’d bet you anything that alteans gave themselves those Chosen marks. Just so they’d know who could approach safely, once they’d discovered Oriande.”

“So...humans have to isolate what the lion looks for and then set up a marker for it?” asked Shiro, rubbing fingers on his chin. “Yeah, I could see us doing that. When the war’s over.”

Keith nodded. “….Whatever Allura tells you,” he said quietly, “Alchemy didn’t start with alteans. I’m sure of it. Whatever it is I am, or have, isn’t like their alchemy. But Oriande knew what to do with me anyway. It wouldn’t have if it were only meant for alteans.”

“But didn’t you say you’re part altean?” asked Shiro. “I thought that was why you got in.”

“Honestly, I think that’s just why I got little stars,” said Keith. “I bet you could get in, if you tried to. Dunno about the others, I’d have to study them. But you shine at least as brightly as the ones that passed the trials. Or Lotor.” He frowned. “...And there’s something weird about Lotor.”

Shiro noted the drop in volume. Keith really didn’t want the alteans to overhear. “Yes?”

“There’s darkness in him,” said Keith, very quietly. “Light as strong as Allura’s, but darkness too. Even mix.”

“Doesn’t that mean he’s an enemy?” asked Shiro. “Like the mice?”

Keith could only shrug. “No idea,” he admitted, but didn’t sound happy about it.

~*~

The rest of the trip to Olkarion was uneventful, much to Shiro’s relief. Keith finished his drink and went to lie down; Allura grieved for her mice. Shiro asked the alchemists if two of their number would be willing to serve, so that the castleship wouldn’t rely on Allura to wormhole. Coran could pilot, if that were needed, but they did need a reserve alchemist to let Allura fly the Blue Lion. In the end, Luca and Tavo chose to remain and serve; both were able pilots as well as alchemists. They weren’t as sure about fighting, but Shiro promised there was a training deck for them to use when they were up to it.

The crew of the castleship had mostly been settled before they left the colony, so for the paladins this was mostly a farewell time – Coalition ships breaking off from the captured cruisers (the Olkari had every intention of dissecting the cruisers to better create specialized weapons to disable them) and nineteen thousand alteans in a steady stream. The Olkari welcomed them, of course, but Ryner sent more than a few messages to Shiro that basically said, ‘you could’ve sent more advance warning for such a large group’.

Lance took Red down to the planet, to wish Matt good luck. He found Pidge already there, tutting over the state of Matt’s ship – which even to Lance’s uneducated eye looked pretty battered.

“You’re not leaving this planet until this ship’s combat ready,” Pidge insisted. “I’ve already told Ryner.”

“I think you’re overreacting,” said Matt, but shut up when Lance shook his head at him.

“Your ship’s battered to hell,” said Lance. “I mean even I can tell that, and I’m not a genius.”

Olia looked between the two paladins. “Good to have someone around you lot want to preserve,” she said grumpily. “They’ll get us patched up fast, Matt. Paladins are asking, that makes us a priority.”

“Are you taking on an altean?” asked Lance, and didn’t miss the spark of interest on Matt’s face. He gave Matt a Look, one that said yeah I know you think they’re pretty people. Matt had the grace to blush and grin.

“If we’re asked,” Matt said. “I mean there’s thousands of ‘em. And a lot of our ships are shortcrewed. Even if it’s just an apprentice willing to hold the toolkit, it’d be a help. We’ll know by the time the ship’s ready.”

“No hall pass this time,” said Lance. “Just so you know.”

“I’d say I’m wounded, but that’s probably fair,” said Matt. “They’re really pretty. And you had two years to get used to it. Plus you’ve got Allura around.”

Pidge had her face in her hand, clearly wondering why her otherwise intelligent brother kept doing stupid things. And firmly ignored the conversation.

Lance just grinned and shrugged. “You know the terms. Don’t think I won’t hear about it.” It was, unexpectedly, hugely fun to tease Matt about pretty alteans.

Of course it was also fun, and kind of touching, that Matt raised both hands in surrender. “I get it. No hall pass. I can be serious sometimes, paladin.” And then his grin matched Lance’s. “The real question is, can you?”

“That’s it,” said Pidge shortly. “You take care, Matt. WITH YOUR CLOTHES ON.” The words weren’t shouted, but they carried. They carried so well that the antennae of every Olkari around them perked up, heads turned, and it was Matt’s turn to blush scarlet and facepalm. Pidge seemed to regard this as fair revenge. “That’s better. I’ll see you soon, and you’d better still have all your bits. Even the bits you’re so keen to lose.” She turned and stalked back to her lion.

Olia’s jaw dropped, her tongue sticking out a bit. “Can I just say I appreciate all visits of the Green paladin?” she said.

“Hey now,” protested Lance. “What did I do?”

“Sleep on my couch and drop galra in my lap,” said Olia, which seemed to cover all the bases.

~*~

Allura didn’t hold a funeral service for her mice. At least, not a public one. It was quite private, just herself and Coran. Hunk had, kindly, quickly whipped up a little mouse-family group coffin that could be launched into space, engineered to orient to the nearest star and dive into it.

“I was sure I could heal them,” she said sadly. “I didn’t even know they’d been enspelled until I was told.”

“You couldn’t know,” said Coran gently. “We didn’t know about Shiro either, until number Five started testing things.”

“May I join you?” asked Lotor, from the doorway.

Allura almost said no. Almost told him to go away, as she’d been telling him for quite a long time now. But she was sad, and a bit guilty, and feeling very alone. So she said, instead, “If you must.”

“As ever, your courtesy warms my very soul,” said Lotor with an inscrutable solemnity. But he did step into the room. “It is only that I am very familiar with the witch’s tactics, princess. I would not have you be alone, when her eye is cast toward you.”

“Be silent,” said Allura bluntly. “Let me honor my friends.”

It was enough that even Coran gave Lotor an apologetic look. Lotor didn’t take offense, though; he simply stood patient guard while Allura said her farewells to the mice, sealed the canister, and launched it.

“I don’t...understand how she defeated me,” said Allura quietly.

“You have the power of Oriande now,” said Lotor. “And alchemists to assist you. But Haggar has been practicing her twisted magics for ten thousand years, princess, and her druids are trained in combat and experienced in dealing pain.”

Allura thought about the druid she’d fought to disable the komar. She’d won...she’d won for a time against Haggar, too. But that hadn’t just been alchemy against druidry, but physical combat as well. If both were in play she probably was better, because few people would dare to take a swing at the High Priestess or her chosen druids. But today...today had just been alchemy against druidry. She hadn’t been ready.

It was perhaps to Lotor’s credit that he didn’t so much as twitch an eyelash that the thing that shifted Allura’s viewpoint was Haggar attacking her mice. “Voltron cannot defeat Haggar by itself,” she said. “We’ve been trying. We haven’t made any headway.”

“I will help you make the Sincline ships able to enter the quintessence field.”

~*~

Haggar stood alone at the center of her ritual circle.

The generals had betrayed her. That was not unexpected. She was rid of the spies in her midst.

Unfortunately, she’d also lost her most valuable spies on the castleship. A no-score draw.

The princess was much stronger than their previous encounter. That was...possibly troubling. But she lacked experience, and an understanding in the moment of the consequences of her actions. So – strength and capability, but not skill or finesse. Not yet, at any rate.

She wanted her son. But, perhaps more urgently even than that, she wanted to understand what he was doing. Wanted to see if he could truly hold by Altean cleverness what his father had claimed with Galra strength. So far the answer seemed firmly in the negative.

“General Sendak,” she croaked, and a druid immediately disappeared to fetch him.

It said something about the respect she commanded that Sendak didn’t object to being summarily dragged before her. He simply saluted. “High priestess,” he said.

“Order Twelve,” said Haggar. “Your progress.”

“Underway, High Priestess,” said Sendak. “It will take some time before I can confirm it is prepared.”

Time, time. Always a matter of time. “And your progress otherwise?” she asked.

“Steady,” said Sendak. “I shall have a third of the Empire under my control within movements at most.”

“Zarkon taught you well,” Haggar approved, but her mind was elsewhere. Slow. Too slow. “Clearly, however, Voltron will soon return to the battlefield.”

“So long as the alliance’s ships require fuel,” said Sendak, “They are forced to focus on the fuel convoys. With Voltron’s attention on them, the conquests will continue at the current rate.”

“Do not concern yourself with Voltron,” said Haggar. “I will prepare a guardian for your convoys. You would be Emperor. You will need an Empire worthy of the name before you claim that title.”

“Yes, High Priestess,” said Sendak. When she turned away from him, he understood the dismissal and departed.

The conquests were too slow. Sendak was a methodical general, never biting off more than he could chew. His tactics were sound against an opponent like Voltron. That was good – but too slow. She would need to provide assistance to make the Fire into the threat it needed to be.

“Summon the cardinal Druids,” she said. Every druid in hearing poofed in teleportation to prepare for a grand ritual.

~*~

You should get up, said Cosmo.

Keith rolled over. “And do what? I feel weird.”

You should get up, Cosmo repeated, nudging him pointedly, in the back, with his very cold nose.

There being nothing quite like a cold nose in the small of the back to cause an involuntary reaction, Keith sat up in the bed, rubbing at his face. “There. I’m up. Do you have any idea how blindingly bright you are right now?”

Because to his new eyes, Cosmo was made of light. It was like staring at a wolf-shaped sun.

The sun licked Keith’s face. You live, you learn.

And it wasn’t just his eyes. Keith was increasingly aware of being plugged into the entire universe. Everything was just...more. It was exhausting. And giving him some not-inconsiderable headaches. The alteans just seemed happy. And powerful.

Cosmo headbutted Keith’s hand. Eyes firmly shut – not that this made any difference to knowing where the wolf was, but it did shut out the light that only he seemed able to see – he gave the wolf scritches. “Learn what, exactly?”

Change. Grow.

Keith frowned. Cosmo was….well, a lot brighter than a dog, definitely. Probably a lot brighter than wolves. But he definitely didn’t think like a human. Or a galra. Things were either dead obvious to Cosmo, or utterly inscrutable. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground.

Maybe that meant the wolf didn’t use metaphors. Maybe what Keith really needed to do was ‘change’. Physically change.

Worth a shot. Better than spending a day in bed and having Shiro fret about having encouraged him to go to Oriande. Which Keith did not, all things considered, regret doing. He thought about changing. Closing that new sense off – not completely, just mostly. Tuning it down, like turning down a radio’s volume. To something manageable, that didn’t make his senses bleed.

He opened his eyes. Cosmo was still brighter than he had been before, but not blinding now. The room around them was dark. “...Huh. That worked.”

Cosmo licked his face. Good boy!

Keith wiped some of the slobber off. “Well, you’re easy to please.”

Come on. Get up.

“And impatient.”

Keith got two firm (and heavy) front paws on his chest for that, as the wolf playfully bowled him over. Up!

“Right, right,” sighed Keith. “Up. I’m getting up. And showering and no you don’t get to come in the shower with me. Go check on Shiro.”

Shiro. Yes. Back soon. The wolf poofed in a shower of blue motes, and Keith sighed and grabbed a towel.

Cosmo didn’t really know names. There was you – which was Keith. There was mate – which was Shiro. And mother was Krolia. And that was pretty much it for projections that could translate into words. Beyond that it was more like the Lions spoke – images, concepts. Feelings.

Cosmo, Keith was rapidly learning, had opinions about everything. And everyone. Mostly it wasn’t a surprise how the wolf felt about a person – Keith knew the wolf’s body language pretty well, and the wolf never hid how it felt. But it went a lot further than that. Cosmo didn’t, for example, think of Keith as parent, or owner, or ‘god’, the way a dog might. Cosmo thought of Keith as a sibling, pack-mate. Possibly a weirdly shaped fellow wolf who just ought to know things. But it didn’t think of Shiro that way. Shiro was firmly ‘other’. So were the other paladins, and the alteans, and pretty much all other beings. Friendly, maybe friends, but not wolf.

Why Cosmo thought of Keith as another wolf was beyond Keith. But so were a lot of things. The light of the white lion had changed something in him, or awakened something, or evolved it – honestly that part Keith wasn’t at all sure of. But because of the change, his gut level intuition was louder than ever, and almost impossible to ignore. He hoped he’d never have to. He wasn’t sure how Shiro would handle “I just know’ as an explanation for going off-book.

~*~

Shiro oversaw the change of personnel – at least for the castleship. Luca and Tavo were the alchemists assigned as relief bridge crew; if Allura wasn’t on the bridge, one of them needed to be. Both were good pilots as well as alchemists.

The rest were now on Olkarion. The teludav technology was known to the Olkari, since the attack on Zarkon had required their assistance. They knew how to build a teludav – they’d just not had any alchemists to run one. Or, possibly, many. Ryner was quite keen on getting a big teludav built on Olkarion to use as a Coalition transportation hub, with a backup on Taujeer. It would come down to what the new alchemists could do – how much depended on the technology, and how much on an individual alchemist’s power. Allura could wormhole the castleship pretty much anywhere – but Allura was provably a lot stronger than the other alchemists.

And of course the cruisers were emptying, with thousands of wide-eyed and badly undereducated colonists swarming Olkarion’s lone city. There was no telling how much use any of them would be, but Shiro had strongly suggested to Ryner that all of them be given rotations on the Coalition battle ships, so they could at least see what was going on and what the fleet was up against. Even if they weren’t fighters, they should know that while they hid, others fought.

While he waited for the farewells and general settling-in to finish, he caught up on the news of the coalition during their time in the abyss and Oriande.

It was not good.

Firstly, Sendak had apparently known the moment Voltron wasn’t going to come back up the Coalition ships. (Obvious, now that they knew about the mice.) He’d simply set traps using the fuel tankers as bait, and done some real damage to coalition forces. It certainly explained why Matt’s ship was so battered.

More than that – denying fuel to the galra ships had meant the coalition had had to stand almost on its own against Sendak’s fleets. And it had been mowed. World after world had fallen, practically a new one every day. You could admire the sheer military efficiency of it if you could look past the bodies. And any real resistance had been met with the komar. Which of course only provided Sendak more quintessence to work with.

Nineteen thousand more soldiers – assuming the alteans proved any good at it, which might be a stretch – and twenty three alchemists. Even if nothing else came of their diversion, twenty three alchemists was not a small gain. Shiro clung hard to that.

And then Cosmo appeared in a puff of blue motes. “Oh, hey there boy,” Shiro offered, petting the wolf. He’d never really gotten the hang of Cosmo as ‘not just a big teleporting dog’. But that seemed to be okay, because Cosmo really acted like a big teleporting dog around him, right down to flopping onto his back for belly rubs. Which Shiro happily obliged, because it was a nice respite from ‘oh my gods we are all going to die’.

Belly rubs duly administered and grateful slobbery lick given in return, Shiro absently petted Cosmo’s ruff while studying the maps. Sendak would know, obviously, that they’d returned. Maybe not where they were now, exactly, since they’d gotten the mice caged pretty quickly, but ‘not in an abyss’. So he’d be expecting a hit on the fuel tankers, as they really didn’t have better options.

Which meant a hard fight for bare necessities. Again. And no real chance of halting Sendak’s forward progress, because all he had to do was not-put-all-his-eggs-in-one-basket. “I need more options, Cosmo,” said Shiro sadly. “Voltron can only be in one place at a time, and all our crew is utterly untested in battle conditions.”

He wasn’t expecting an answer. But the wolf looked at the map, and then at Shiro, and then poofed out of existence mid-pet. Shiro didn’t have time to lament the lack of companionship before Cosmo reappeared with a rather startled Allura.

Shiro blinked. “Did you...ask him to do that?”

“I do not think so,” said Allura. “I was just discussing with Lotor the process of preparing his ships.”

Shiro blinked. The sincline ships. Yes. And they had a full set of pilots now. They weren’t short of personnel anymore. “Those ships are incredibly powerful,” he mused. “Do they run on galra fuel?”

Allura gave him a cold look, and he remembered what they’d run on and tried not to facepalm. “I mean – you know what I mean. I hope.”

“They run on pure quintessence,” said Allura. “That was all he could be sure of obtaining, in exile. So, the same as most Coalition vessels, just liquid instead of crystallized.”

Good boy,” Shiro said to Cosmo, scritching the wolf’s ears. “Allura, would you and Lotor mind discussing some strategies with me? Those Sincline ships might just turn things around for the alliance.”

 

Chapter Text

Keith made his way to the caf, and tried to get used to there being people in the corridors. Lots of people, most of whom he only vaguely recognized. The alteans were bustling back and forth, carrying tablets and boxes and kits and how on earth was there this much for them to do, really? They’d gotten around the universe just fine with less than a dozen people.

Hunk was the informal master chef, in that you either caught him when he felt like cooking or you ate goo, now. And it wasn’t like he didn’t do a lot of cooking – it was just that now, there were also a lot of people eating that cooking. It probably warmed his heart that there were now no leftovers, at all. Keith walked into the caf just as he put a tray of little crisp ….possibly quiche-esqe treats on the counter, fresh from the oven, and by the time he’d walked to the counter every last one was gone.

At least alteans were more polite than hungry humans, Keith mused, but ...wow.

“Hey,” said Hunk. “You’re looking better than earlier. Did the drink help?”

Not really, but that would’ve required Keith to tell Hunk what had actually been causing the headache. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said instead. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Honestly, yeah,” said Hunk. “I get a lot of feedback on all my new creations now. And don’t worry, man, there will always be something good for my friends. Lucky for you, Olkari like meat now and then.” He grinned conspiratorially, and produced a warm, fragrant dish from a warmer. Keith’s inner galra sat up very straight as Hunk set the dish before him. “Didn’t want to serve you this while you had that headache, but. You mentioned -”

“Ropa vieja,” said Keith, trying very hard not to drool. The smell. “You figured out how to replicate it.”

Hunk nudged the dish at Keith. “Bon apetit, man.”

Keith did not argue. He grabbed a steel spork and set to, and for once didn’t even spare a thought for Hunk’s weird spork obsession. Or the alteans that stepped well back with expressions of ‘augh’ and ‘ew’ - they did not appreciate the smell of cooked meat. Not that it hung around long. In minutes the plate was clean. “Thank you,” Keith said, and meant it. “How long did that take you to figure out?”

“The recipe’s not exactly complex,” said Hunk dryly. “Mostly it was getting the meat. As you can see,” he waved a hand at the absence of alteans, “most of our new crew aren’t into meat.”

“Their loss,” said Keith. “You should serve that to Krolia sometime.”

“Tested it on her, in fact,” said Hunk. “She approved. Gave me an earful of the things your dad would cook for her, too.”

Keith paused. He...honestly didn’t remember what any of it had tasted like. He remembered the smell of bacon sometimes, but that was about it. Hunk reached out to clasp Keith’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said. “I saw the flashes. You were probably too young to remember the taste. But I saw what he was cooking, man. One of these days, I am going to give your memory such a rude awakening. Just not right now, ‘cos it’d be kind of mean to do that before a fight.”

“Yeaahh,” said Keith slowly, avoiding that topic. “About that. I was wondering if I could borrow your other talents in the near future.”

Hunk blinked. “You need something built? Fixed? Do you own things that can be fixed?”

“The sincline ships,” said Keith. “Lotor’s offered Krolia and me one of them. They handle great, but...this is Lotor. You could maybe...make sure there aren’t any ugly surprises?”

“Oh, that,” said Hunk. “Already did, actually. He had some shit wired in that would let him auto-eject pilots if he wanted to. Don’t worry. He tries that the only chair that’ll launch is his own.” He grinned. “Dude. Seriously. You really think I’m gonna let friends get into strange ships and not check them out? You’re safe. Your mom too. And I’ll be doing periodic checks just to make sure whatever Allura does to them doesn’t hand Lotor the power to fuck you over.

Keith couldn’t help a little chuckle. “You’re amazing. Thanks.”

“I know,” Hunk grinned.

Possibly the smell of the ropa vieja had carried down the corridors – or maybe they’d just been looking for Keith – but Lotor’s prodigal generals stepped into the caf, sniffing the air. “What is that?” rumbled Zethrid. “That smells awesome.”

“It really does,” Ezor agreed. “I thought this food thing was kind of silly, but I’m rethinking it.”

Hunk blinked at the three new hungry stomachs. Looked at Keith. Then back at them, clearly recalibrating the sight of them from ‘oh shit we have to fight now’ to ‘hungry friends in need of food’. “Uh. Well. Keith had the last plate, but if you’re willing to give me a few, I can cook up a few more.”

It was almost comical how quickly Acxa, Ezor, and Zethrid found seats at the counter, sitting politely and very very attentively.

“I think you’ve found the key to making friends,” said Keith dryly.

“There’ll be less for you,” Hunk warned. “I couldn’t get very much meat. The Olkari aren’t that big into livestock.”

Acxa said, very seriously, “Let us try it. If it tastes as good as it smells, then serve it to Lotor. You will have all the supplies after that you could possibly ask for.”

Hunk blinked at her. “Huh,” he said. “Well. Okay, then.” Clearly, cooking comfort food for Lotor had genuinely never occurred to him. But if it expanded his access to cooking ingredients, he was clearly willing to entertain the idea. He turned to the counter, started pulling ingredients from cabinets and cold storage, and got to work.

Keith got up to leave, but Acxa turned and caught him by the arm. “We came looking for you,” she said. “We’re going to be doing maneuvers today. Shiro and the Emperor worked out a battle strategy. Find Krolia, and we’ll meet you at the docking bay after we’ve eaten.”

Keith nodded, wondering what the battle plan was. Acxa let him go and he headed for his mother’s quarters.

~*~

The plan, it turned out, was pretty simple. Voltron would lead coalition ships in defense of the worlds Sendak was targeting, and try to retake those that had been taken but not destroyed by the komar. The Sincline ships would raid the fuel tankers, since it was Lotor’s cruisers that needed that processed quintessence in the first place. Thus, Lotor would be seen to be aiding the war effort, and his own people, while Voltron defended the Coalition fleet. They’d try it this way first, at least, and after a while swap it around, so that eventually the two groups got used to working together.

Keith and Krolia wore their Blade uniforms, and met the others at the docking bays. The controlled, quiet one approached first. “I am Acxa,” she said. “I am...sorry, about the weblum.”

Keith blinked as he took her hand. No darkness here, not like the mice or Lotor anyway. “I think I understand,” he said. Acxa’s loyalty to Lotor was written all over her. Taking some scaultrite wasn’t the worst she’d done out of that loyalty, he was sure, but – he remembered the clone ship. He was no one to judge her.

Ezor looked between the two of them. “So...you’ve actually met before?” she asked, like she hadn’t believed it. “Huh. Okay. Well. I’m Ezor.”

“Zethrid,” growled Zethrid. She loomed over Keith, who blinked up at her with complete unconcern.

“I’m Keith,” he said. “This is Krolia. We’ve flown all three ships now. Which one do you want us to take?”

Lotor, who had waited by Acxa for the introductions to finish, pointed. “That one,” he said. “Acxa’s with me. Ezor and Zethrid, take the remaining ship.”

The ship Lotor had indicated was the one Keith and Krolia had dubbed ‘arms’ between themselves, as it kind of looked like a pair of arms where the similar ship looked like legs in forked-toe galra boots. Lotor and Acxa were taking the rounder, flatter ship that, since it bore no resemblance to anything else particularly, had just gotten dubbed the ‘crab’.

Ezor and Zethrid’s expressions made it clear, as they all went to their ships, that whatever else was going on, this was definitely a competition. Keith settled in the primary pilot seat of the armship, with Krolia in the secondary seat. “Competitive,” she noted calmly.

“We playing along?” asked Keith as the canopy closed. His tone said he’d noticed too, but had no personal investment either way.

“For now,” Krolia agreed. “Lotor clearly wants to see how we compare.”

“Competition it is, then,” Keith agreed and flicked on the comm. “Keith and Krolia ready.”

~*~

It was a huge relief to get the ship properly repaired. Matt wasn’t going to pretend otherwise. It meant, in practice, that they were really flying, when one considered the percentage of new parts to the whole, a brand new ship that just happened to look like their old one. That was how much of it had needed repair.

On the other hand, as the official liason with Voltron, they’d also merited one of the altean alchemists as crew. And this was….less good.

It wasn’t that Romelle was mean, or anything. She was quite upbeat, energetic, happy to lend a hand. And she didn’t share in the belief that some of the alteans had, which was that Lotor wasn’t that bad a guy. No, she was quite clear where she stood with Lotor, and that started with a foot in his groin and went downhill rapidly from there. She was therefore more than happy to serve on a ship that Lotor would never, ever set foot on.

She’d been more than happy to tell all of them, at length, all about it.

She was, Matt was increasingly certain, kinda...sorta...nuts.

He’d use a better word if and when he could think of one. For now, ‘nuts’ was doing just fine. Romelle was quick, curious, generally kind, considerate, energetic, and quite firm that some galra needed to have their genitals stomped on with very sharp shoes. She would discuss the details of this at length, to the whole ship, in a sort of running stream of consciousness diatribe. Even Olia wasn’t sure what to make of it, and Olia had held the ship record for ‘ability to hold forth at length on the evils of the galra’. Matt, now feeling a bit like the token male, was well past ‘uncomfortable’ with all this talk of kicking and stomping.

Oh, and she also wasn’t sure what to do with her new powers. That, too.

They were flying out with the fleet, to meet Voltron over one of the worlds that hadn’t been sucked into dead rock by the komar. And Matt would never have thought of it that way, but it turned out evasive maneuvers and being shot at in general shut alteans up cold.

It was a really weird feeling, to be glad he was being shot at.

~*~

Three cruisers, and three Sincline ships. It should have been more than enough to take a fuel tanker convoy that was used to fighting the smaller and weaker Coalition ships.

At first it seemed like it would be, too. The defending fighters swarmed but were no match for the Sincline weapons, which could take out a fighter and the nearest three or four fighters behind the first in one shot. Ezor and Keith did strafing runs, letting Zethrid and Krolia fire the weapons that took the fighters out in droves, littering nearby space with debris. They were even keeping a cheerful, competitive count of which crew took out more of them.

It looked like it would be over quickly, and then the ‘incoming craft’ alert sounded on all the ships.

It was...huge. Bigger than a cruiser. Its curled horns served as a kind of gigantic helmet, its claws caught one of Lotor’s cruisers in its grip and just crushed the vessel like tinfoil before the captain could bring the ship around to bear. The other two cruisers hastily launched their fighters, but the gigantic creature just ignored them, or swatted them into comparatively tiny destructive fireballs on its massive natural body armor.

“Witch!” snarled Lotor, bringing his ship around to fire at it. The Sincline’s lasers didn’t even scratch the armor.

“Keith?” asked Krolia, because Keith hadn’t moved his ship at all.

He’d recognized the giant sword in the being’s grasp. The way the horns curled. “...Klaizap,” he said sadly.

“I don’t care what it’s called,” growled Zethrid, as she fired lasers that had no effect at all, “It’s kicking our asses!”

~*~

It had gone very well, at least at first. The attack force had not expected a solid resistance, or Voltron (the two might be considered synonymous) and Voltron had taken on the enemy cruisers while the coalition forces, with the castleship in the vanguard, took out the swarm of fighters.

Then the castleship sent out a warning – druids approaching.

The ship had been specially constructed just to haul the komar around. It looked like a parody of the castleship, with the komar in the center. It crackled with dark energy and the castleship ….just stopped fighting. Voltron had to turn its attention from the cruisers to deal with the druid-ship, and that meant the coalition forces were now dealing with the fighters and the remaining cruisers without reinforcement. The defensive line began to buckle.

Shiro remembered the komar. Voltron maneuvered to stay out of its path, knowing what it could do.

“We must destroy the komar,” Allura insisted.

“And fast,” Lance added. “The coalition ships are getting hammered.”

“This is magic,” said Pidge. “I got nothing.”

“Same,” said Hunk.

Shiro was going to call for the cruiser cutter – or the blazing sword. And then over the comm came the sounds of more panicked fighting.

aim for the joints in the armor – it’s not working – call for the cruisers to – fighters at twenty per-” and then, quite clearly, but not with his ears, Shiro heard shiro it’s a robeast she sent a robeast and if Pidge hadn’t been paying attention and raised Voltron’s shield in time Voltron would’ve taken several cruiser blasts at once.

“Snap out of it, Shiro!” cried Lance. “Form cruiser cutter!”

Shiro was surprised – pleasantly, but surprised – that the other four could act strategically without him; they formed the cruiser cutter, swinging it hard at the komar but hitting a barrier of dark energy.

Shiro opened the comm. “Voltron to Sincline. Call a retreat, meet us at these coordinates. We need reinforcements and this is a battle we can win.”

At your service, Voltron,” was Lotor’s very dry response, and then the comm from his group went silent.

“Allura, can you get us past that barrier?” asked Shiro, as they readied another pass.

“I can try,” said Allura. She sent her will into the blue lion, communicating their need. Let her hand be guided.

Over the internal comm camed Lance’s “whoah” and Pidge’s “seriously I’m not doing that” but she focused only on what was required until she heard Shiro’s “that’ll do. Pidge, Lance, use it.” and felt Voltron move.

Everyone else saw the gigantic cruiser cutter sword become a spear of light, which Voltron brought down upon the dark barrier in an explosive swirl of energies.

For about two seconds no one did anything, because no one could see.

Into that silence came the three Sincline ships, and one cruiser with a handful of fighters. They tore into the enemy cruisers and it was as if it were a signal that the battle was rejoined.

The druid-ship was undefended. Allura relaxed and returned to herself. The spear of light re-formed into the cruiser cutter sword, which Voltron used to carve the komar into very small pieces. But when they tried to turn that sword on the druid ship itself, it hyperjumped away.

Shiro turned to see – yes, all three Sincline ships. They looked a bit worse for wear, but no serious damage. The same couldn’t be said of the Imperial cruisers that had accompanied them. The coalition forces had taken serious hits too. The victory was not without cost.

Shiro made himself sound calm and assured and proud. “Good job everyone. Let’s go patch up.”

~*~

The paladins headed for the showers once they’d docked the lions. The sincline pilots watched them go with confusion.

“Is there some...ritual…?” Acxa asked.

“Go to your quarters,” said Keith. “Clean up. Then meet in the den. Shiro will want to talk out what happened, and what we need to do differently next time.”

Lotor’s lips pursed briefly. “This seems very -”

“It means you too, Lotor,” said Keith blandly. “Stand on your dignity some other time.”

Lotor stiffened, and Acxa snapped, “He is the emperor. The emperor -”

“Can do things as he wishes to do them,” interjected Krolia calmly. “Just because Zarkon did things a certain way, it doesn’t mean Lotor’s bound to do them the same way. The important thing now is maintaining this alliance. The humans say, ‘hang together or hang separately’.

Keith slanted a surprised and amused look at his mother. The meaning of the saying was clearly completely lost on the other galra, who were staring at Krolia like she’d grown another head. “It means if we don’t work together the enemy will pick us off one by one,” he clarified.

Zethrid snorted, Ezor shrugged. Acxa seemed to be trying to figure out how the meaning of the phrase related to its actual words. Lotor just looked resigned. “Very well,” he said. “The...den. Twenty doboshes.”

~*~

Lotor was clearly not entirely up on ‘casual’ as a concept. He was fundamentally incapable of turning up to anything in a state of less-than-fabulous. The generals had done their best on their own, but mostly looked like what they were – warriors, currently out of armor.

Hunk was passing around a tray of snacks, some of which clearly smelled wonderful to galra noses. He grinned proudly. “So. For the meat eaters among us, which is really pretty much everyone but Allura, we’ve got meatballs on sticks. And for those who’d rather be vegetarian today, mini veggie pizzas.”

The generals were clearly re-re-valuating their view of Hunk as they scooped up the meatball snacks. Zethrid chomped away happily, with “you are a god, little guy”, which made Pidge laugh.

Lotor did, clearly, appreciate the smell coming off the meatballs, but he took a veggie pizza to sit ...not exactly in Allura’s space, but near enough. Lance sat at her other side, with both meatballs and pizzas. Keith, as was normal for him, leaned against a far wall, where he could see without really being in anyone’s field of vision but Shiro’s. Krolia sat between Ezor and Zethrid, possibly to make sure Ezor paid attention.

Shiro watched all the little dynamics play out as people ate, drank, got comfortable. “All right,” he said. “Let’s start with the big one. Tell us about the robeast.”

“Wait what?” said Lance.

“Was that what happened to the Sinclines?” asked Pidge.

Shiro waved a hand to shush them and gestured, politely, that Lotor should speak.

“The witch has made a ...beast,” Lotor agreed. “Robeast, you call them. Quite large, heavily armored, with a sword that matches Voltron’s for size. Our ship weapons could not damage it. It destroyed one of my cruisers in ticks, and broke a second before the retreat was called.”

“It was Klaizap,” said Keith quietly.

Allura’s eyes closed, pained. “...The Arusian?”

“Yep,” said Keith.

“So what the hell’s a klaizap?” rumbled Zethrid.

“The castleship waited on Arus for the Lions,” Shiro explained. “Arusians are native to that planet. But they’re normally much smaller.” He gestured to indicate maybe knee height. “Simple sorts. Little villages. Klaizap was the fiercest warrior of the first village we encountered.”

Lotor ah’d. “So the witch is still choosing champions,” he said blandly.

Shiro twitched a little at the word ‘champion’. Pidge quickly said, “She can’t do that to Shiro. We made sure of it.”

“Well, this one’s still out there,” Ezor pointed out. “We couldn’t do anything to it.”

“The sincline ships are not yet ready,” Lotor agreed. “Voltron alone can defeat it.” He paused. “Which means -”

“That very soon there’s going to be two of them,” Shiro finished for him (which made Lotor frown at being interrupted). “She’s lost her spies on the castleship but she knew when they died that we were back in the fight. So she’s made a robeast to draw our attention from Sendak’s fleets. All she needs is to make another and ...Voltron can’t turn the tide.”

“I will begin work at once,” said Allura quietly. “We have relief alchemists to pilot the castleship. I will devote my energies to getting the Sincline finished.”

“Thank you, princess,” said Lotor solemnly. “Although that does not address the fundamental problem we face – which is that however many mechs we bring to bear, robeasts are not especially difficult for Haggar to create.”

Shiro frowned. “They must take a lot of quintessence, though,” he mused. “We’ve seen galra use whole canisters of quintessence and they never got as big as you’re saying Klaizap became. So...maybe without the komar, she doesn’t have enough quintessence to spare to make more robeasts.”

“For now, she does,” said Acxa quietly. “The komar was finished shortly after you disappeared. The Fire’s been using it on any world that offers resistance, to set an example. And apparently also to gather quintessence in significant amounts, quickly.”

“How long will it take her to make another komar?” asked Ezor.

Heads turned to Allura, and Acxa. Neither seemed certain. “She will absolutely try to,” Acxa said. “But I can’t begin to guess how long it would take her.”

“So it would seem you are correct, Black Paladin,” said Lotor, nodding to Shiro. “Costly it may have been, but today remains a victory; the witch’s komar was destroyed.”

Shiro didn’t answer, but pulled up a tactical map showing where they were, where the Fire of Purification’s territories were, and the disposition of Coalition and Imperial forces. He studied it, frowning, and Lotor got up to study it as well.

“The victory’s temporary,” said Shiro. “She’ll make another komar. With the quintessence she already has, she may already be making a second robeast. But she can’t just burn her stores to throw robeasts at us. The quintessence is also needed to fuel Sendak’s fleets.”

“Sendak is allied with the witch,” said Lotor. “But only of necessity. He cannot maintain his position if he relies entirely upon her magic for victories. I must say Voltron’s actions today were impressive.”

“Thank the princess,” said Shiro. “I’m still not sure how she did that.”

Lotor turned to bow to Allura. “Then my thanks to you, princess. Breaking one of the witch’s mystic barriers is no small feat.”

Allura gave Lotor a mild die in a fire look, but got up to join them. “Coalition forces took heavy fire today,” she said. “And Lotor lost two of his cruisers. I’m not sure we can fight a two front war.”

“We can’t,” said Shiro. “Not yet. How long will it take you to complete the Sincline, princess?”

Allura could only shrug. “I’m afraid I could not say,” she admitted. “I know...I can feel...what needs to be done. But I could not say how long it will take to do it.”

“A holding action, then,” said Lotor.

Shiro’s full attention was on the map, and what it represented. “...Finish the Sincline and we have unlimited quintessence, and two mechs to fight her robeasts. But to speed that up, Allura has to leave the Blue Lion and the Sincline has to be taken completely out of the fight. Repairs only delay the process. Voltron has to deal with that robeast and any others Haggar pulls up. To stop or at least delay more robeasts, the fuel tankers have to be taken out and a new komar destroyed as soon as we know it’s in play. But to make that action successful, without Voltron’s intervention...it’s going to take every cruiser you can spare to back up Coalition forces, and the Coalition forces will lose more ground to Sendak’s fleet...which gives him more worlds to harvest quintessence from.”

Lotor eyed the map, and then Shiro. There might have been a sliver of respect in those yellow eyes. “I will order all new cruisers built to use unprocessed quintessence as fuel,” he said. “Such as we hope to gain from the quintessence field. I will then throw all of the unconverted cruisers into battle for Sendak’s fuel tankers. Take them, and those cruisers remain in the fight. Lose them, and there are fewer cruisers that require that form of quintessence. If I devote all unconverted resources to that one task, he cannot replenish his losses. Voltron should not have to fight many robeasts, as there will not be enough surplus quintessence for him to give to the witch to create them. When not battling robeasts, Voltron would then be free to assist coalition forces in preventing Sendak from claiming new territories.”

It was a sacrificial offer; for Lotor to bring that much force to bear, it would be devoting most of his diminishing empire’s resources for a rather less than glorious task. There wouldn’t be much left for territorial defense – but then, there wasn’t anyway. Lotor was, apparently, simply acknowledging that fact.

“I...will resign as Blue’s pilot,” said Allura slowly. “You’re right – for this to work, the Sincline must be finished as soon as possible.”

Shiro turned to the others, who were watching in varying stages of dropjawed surprise that the three had hit on an answer so quickly – and that it was this.

Keith pushed away from the wall. “Let’s go see what the Lions think of the idea.”

Krolia stayed put as the paladins filed out, leaving her with Lotor and the generals. She wasn’t the only one watching Lotor expectantly.

Lotor studied them. “...The Sincline will need to remain here,” he said. “For Allura to work her alchemy upon it. We’ll use my personal cruiser. It already runs on unprocessed quintessence.” He bowed slightly to Krolia. “Will you be joining us?”

~*~

“What was that?” demanded Romelle. “I thought war was supposed to be your side and their side in orderly waves and all kinds of neat formations and things I mean I’ve read about this stuff but that was just chaos.”

Olia’s ears were back a bit at the verbal onslaught. “….Matt.” She managed to pack a quite lengthy order into just his name, and that order was get this insane thing calmed down and sorted out or I will have to bite her.

Matt coughed. “There’s a saying on my world - ‘no battle plan survives more than thirty ticks into actual combat’. You try to remember what the goal is, what you’re in the thick of it for...but mostly, once it starts, your first goal is not dying and your second is usually trying to kill off enemies before they can kill you. So...yeah. Chaos.”

Romelle stared at Matt like he’d grown horns. “Your people do this enough to have sayings about it?” she demanded, and Olia tried not to snigger.

Matt just shrugged. “Romelle...you might like my world. But honestly, the only real difference to me between this war I’m in and most of the wars my people have fought with each other down the centuries is scale. I mean that’s...really it. There aren’t a lot of things the galra have done that humans haven’t, or wouldn’t have if they’d had the technology. Dad’s reminded me a lot of lessons I’d forgotten.”

Elcris tilted her head. “Your world is primitive, you said,” she noted. “You compare yourselves to the galra?” She clearly couldn’t tell if he meant that as flattery or an insult – and if an insult, who to.

Matt thought about it. On the one hand, he liked to win arguments. On the other, winning this one might in fact give the galra ideas, and that struck him as a really stupid thing to do. So he just shrugged. “Sometimes,” he said. “Anyway. Romelle? Today was...really not that bad, as battles go. I mean we came out of it with our ship in one piece, and we’re all uninjured. That’s a great score. I think we might even have won – you know, in the bigger sense. Are you...sure you want to fly with us?”

Romelle...sort of shivered. Sort of twitched. It put Matt in mind of a rabbit, really, the way the muscles could ripple when the rabbit was on the edge of running the hell away and was yet too afraid to move. Energy and outrage spent, that rippling was all that was left.

He’d been there. Several times, honestly. Shiro had only been able to save him once. So he waited, and the others followed his lead because in a weird way this was what he’d proven best at – getting through to people that were new, because to him, everyone was new.

To her, now, too. The colonist Alteans were at least as isolated as Earth was. The only difference was they’d known the universe was there.

“...You’ve all been fighting the war this whole time,” she said at last. “The one we ran from. I’ll fly with you.”

“Deep breaths,” Matt advised. “One step at a time.”

~*~

The paladins walked down to the lion bays quietly. Even Pidge and Hunk were quiet, though their Lions were probably not going to get swapped. A change in the roster meant adjustments for everyone.

Keith walked at Shiro’s side. He wasn’t surprised when Shiro said, “I need to talk with you.”

“Kind of expected that,” Keith replied.

“If you’re back in a Lion...you can’t prioritize me,” said Shiro slowly. “You’ve got to do what’s best for the team. Even if that means abandoning me. I know...that’s not what you did before, but it’s different now. We’re...”

“Together,” Keith finished softly. “And they expect me to abandon them.”

“Shouldn’t they?” asked Shiro, very gentle.

Keith took a deep breath. “...I will keep an eye on everyone,” he said slowly. “I will fight with the team. But I need you to understand something too, Shiro.”

Shiro nodded slightly, guessing at what was coming.

“I would rather burn this entire universe to the ground than lose you again,” said Keith levelly. “Hunk, Pidge, Lance...they’re fighting for their families. Their world. I am fighting for you. The world you want. And that means nothing if you’re not in it. So if something comes and a sacrifice has to be made, send me. Because if you try to go yourself, I will take you out of the fight and go in your place.”

He’d guessed wrong. Shiro winced. “Keith...”

“I mean it,” said Keith calmly. “The team’s proven it can survive without me. It can not survive without you. So just you factor that into your strategies, Shiro, and we’ll be fine.”

Shiro wanted to snap that no, it was not fine, it was in no way fine, but the words stuck in his throat. It was all perfectly reasonable, pragmatic in the way Keith was much better at being than Shiro ever would be. There wasn’t room to argue with it, and maybe that was the point. He could sacrifice his life for his dreams – he’d been willing to more than once – but sacrificing someone else’s?

He’d never tried to weigh that. But Keith had. He’d had to. It was part of being the Black Paladin, and it was Shiro’s doing that Keith had ever taken on that role.

They walked the rest of the way in silence.

~*~

Ryou was fairly new to Earth. So maybe it was some deep-seated biological need, buried deep in the genes, that made it feel like home on a fiercely personal level. It was new, certainly. There were surprises fairly frequently still. How many different tribes of human there were, how many languages, histories. A little galaxy in miniature.

None of the paladins had talked about the sound of rain on a blacktop, or wind in the trees – different, somehow, than Olkarion, which was the most forested world he’d been to. The smell of the world after a storm. Or birds. He could really have done with a heads-up about birds. They were everywhere. Adam had found it particularly hilarious when Ryou – thinking of the pigeons as just sort of background animation, like swaying branches – lost most of a sandwich to a sudden crow. Humans shared the world with so many species – eating quite a lot of them – and didn’t worry about any of them. Comfortable in their niche at the top of the pyramid.

It would all be so much sterilized space dust if he didn’t get the defenses up in time.

Adam seemed...gently aware that Ryou had taken on the task of defending a world he knew nothing about. He took his role as one of Ryou’s few friends quite seriously, dragging him to see and experience things on days off. The animal shelter had been quite an eye-opener, with Ryou initially surprised at little four footed galra around and then surprised at himself when kittens purred in his hands, and puppies wagged their tails and begged for pets.

“Go on and pick one,” Adam advised. “You don’t want people getting invested, fine. I can understand your argument even if I don’t personally agree with it. But no one should die unloved. These animals don’t live many years either, Ryou. I think it would be good for you. Have a little taste of what you’re defending for everyone else.”

Adam had been a bit surprised when Ryou settled on a tiny black kitten that seemed underfed and terrified of everything. The shelter was glad though; Ryou got given a long story about how black cats were always the last to be adopted, unless it was Halloween, and often those were right back in the shelter a few weeks into November. They picked up the needed food and litter and everything (Adam knew what to get; Ryou just tried to pretend this wasn’t exceedingly alien and a little weird and focused on calming the tiny screaming ball of fur sinking claws into his jacket) and on the way back Adam asked what it was going to be called.

“Black,” said Ryou, and Adam rolled his eyes.

“Well,” Adam said. “I guess it’s better than ‘cat’.”

Ryou didn’t say that the kitten was named for the Lion he’d surrendered. Black cat with yellow eyes. And, at least at the moment, a purr several sizes larger than its actual body. All he’d wanted was to be a paladin. Black would be his reminder that he still was, in his own way.

The kitten made itself at home in Sanda’s former office. It seemed to enjoy perching on Ryou’s shoulder while he read over reports of the ongoing work – several major cities were building reactors now, doing their best to disguise them from orbital identification, and Sam was working on adapting altean particle barrier technology to use the reactors as focal points and power sources.

He made up a little box for the cat on the desk, so it could sit in the box and watch him. The creatures didn’t just look like the Lions, they liked having their own little docking bays. Sam – who, as it turned out, was more of a dog person – found the comparisons amusing.

~*~

They stood before the Lions, awkwardly.

“I know I said I’m cool with this,” said Lance slowly. “But I think I’m also kind of weirded out.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Pidge, but she didn’t leave their sides. “Hunk and I are pretty safe.”

Keith said nothing, but was watching both Red and Black as if listening. Shiro could feel something off Black and thought maybe Keith was listening.

“It’s you two we’re asking to swap,” said Shiro slowly. “So...Keith, Lance...whenever you’re ready, I guess.”

Keith didn’t move – might not have heard, honestly.

Lance closed his eyes and swallowed. “I really hated it when she shut me out last time,” he admitted. “I hope she understands.” He started walking toward Blue, with a gentle pace that would let him stop before slamming into a particle barrier if Blue didn’t feel like obliging.

There was no barrier. Lance’s relief practically sheeted off him. He patted the giant square muzzle as the head lowered and the jaw opened. Lance went inside. “….It feels like coming home,” he said, pleased and surprised. “She forgives me!”

“Keith?” asked Shiro quietly.

“I can hear them,” said Keith quietly. “I was explaining to them what we’re doing.”

“...Oh,” said Shiro, because he had no idea what else to say to that. He looked up at Black. “I suppose I haven’t been as communicative as I should’ve been, lately.”

Keith didn’t answer with words, but the look he slanted at Shiro was very much ya think? before he started walking toward Red. The head lowered, and Keith walked inside. He settled into the cockpit and felt whole in a way he hadn’t felt since ...since before Shiro had disappeared. It was like finding his true form. “Same, Lance,” he said. It was almost an effort not to see through Red’s eyes, move Red’s giant body as if it were his own. He had to focus to remember he was just the little squishy bit in the head.

Pidge and Hunk shared an amused look and a shrug, and went to their respective Lions. “We’re all good to go, Shiro,” said Pidge. “Get going and let’s do some practice maneuvers. I do not want to go into battle with Keith and Lance using reflexes meant for other ships. We’ve done that once already.”

~*~

For armageddon preparation, it really felt….almost domestic.

Not, honestly, that Ryou had much idea of what ‘domestic’ looked like. Those were not his memories, and by now he wasn’t even sure he could recover them if he tried. But, on the upside, he felt more and more comfortable being ‘Ryou’. Almost no one on earth knew that human cloning was possible, and almost no one living on earth knew that Shiro didn’t have a twin brother. Everyone just...accepted that he was Shiro’s brother, alike yet different, and…

...And he’d never really expected to feel this comfortable in his own skin, honestly.

The kitten grew quite quickly, from a tiny shivery yowling ball of fur that fit in the palm of his hand with room to spare, to a quick and sleek thing he needed both hands to hold. Adam and Sam both said the kitten would still grow, but not too much. (At least, when Ryou had responded to this by holding his hands apart in ‘this big?’ gestures, Adam had firmly held them about a foot and a half apart and said it depended on the cat and whether you were including the tail.) It was quite an overtly loving, even codependent little creature, and currently would scream its little head off if he wandered out of sight. He got Sam to code a little ‘cat whistle’ into his cybernetic arm – a sonic beacon the cat could hear and follow when it started calling for him – and so far that was working fairly well.

Adam was not smug, per se. Ryou was starting to think Adam had a problem with displaying smugness, as if it were morally beneath him or something. He would instead smile this...really peculiar little smile that didn’t really go with any easily decipherable emotion, and usually he’d hide that smile quickly by raising something to his lips.

Ryou was, nevertheless, certain that Adam was indeed smug about how well the cat got on with him. It was kind of endearing, really.

The cat currently preferred to perch on his shoulder while he reviewed the progress of defense plans. The crystal ships were well in hand, construction-wise, and might be done soon. Iverson was putting every cadet in the Garrison through their paces on simulators based on Sam’s calculations, and narrowing the field down to the best possible trainee candidates. Sam, for his part, had grabbed nearly every available scientific mind the world over and was having daily conferences with them, working on explaining, constructing, and testing particle barrier technology.

Colleen listened to the radio. The crystal relay they’d launched was still speeding toward the far universe, where her children were fighting. Every time a new beacon was activated a signal came back to inform her, but it would be months yet before that delicate line of beacons connected with the farthest relays of the empire. Still, with each new beacon activated, Colleen sent out the call for a balmera. There was always that hope.

There were resistant elements, of course. Some religious, some secular. The earth, the whole planet, was taking mostly on faith that aliens existed – the main evidence that Sam wasn’t lying were the technological advancements he’d brought and was freely sharing. But those advancements required highly educated minds to make sense of, and were therefore easy targets for con men, hucksters, and doomsayers to twist in the media.

Ryou tolerated this, but only to a point. There were orbital space stations. Thin, flimsy things they were. Designed purely for scientific research in the hopeful belief that there was nothing out there more dangerous than space rocks and stellar radiation. If a particular divergent voice got too popular or strident, Ryou’s solution was to put them on those space stations. It kept them out of trouble, and made certain that when the galra did show up they’d get a front row, pure eyeball, zero digitization seat. And in the meantime they could apparently learn about freeze dried ice cream, which Ryou still wasn’t certain how to rank against food goo.

To those angry about freedom of the press, Ryou responded that they could still broadcast (albeit on a fairly weak signal only the garrisons were equipped to pick up), and were in no way being mistreated. Rather, they were being put somewhere where Ryou’s claims would be proven, and in the meantime could do no harm to the ongoing defense projects.

To those who asked ‘what if the galra never come’, Ryou shrugged and said it was a nice hope, but if the reporter insisted, he usually said, “I’ve heard there used to be giant reptiles on this planet. Asteroid strike, wasn’t it? Take heart, worst case scenario, I’ve at least spared you from a repeat performance.”

Adam did not particularly like Ryou’s approach. He was willing to concede that yes, people might deny facts if denying them offered some kind of benefit, but it was also true that getting a firsthand eyeball on the evidence was pretty rare for most of the planet’s population and without that firsthand experience it was really easy to believe this was just a hoax, a grab for power.

Ryou told Adam, and Iverson, “I have maybe a year left. Make sure it’s my name on all of this. Invent a past for me, for the reporters to dig up, that makes it clear to everyone I’m not Shiro, so this doesn’t splash too hard onto him. I’d like to think I’ll be here when the galra come, but there are no guarantees. I’ll be the scapegoat you need. But in the meantime, we get this planet ready.”

It was possible only Adam had any idea how much it cost him to think he’d be remembered as a villain, a tyrant, who’d only ever wanted to be a paladin.

Chapter Text

Allura took a deep breath, and walked toward the Sincline ships.

She didn’t like them. They lacked...personality. They were simply powerful warships. Clearly intended to combine – Lotor hadn’t, apparently, had any guesses about Alfor’s Lions combining and had simply made sure it was possible – but individually rather shapeless. You had to see all three together to have any guess of a final form. Otherwise you might as easily assume they were all based on crustaceans.

They lacked life. But Allura could sense the metal, that trans-reality metal, that comprised the bulk of their construction. That ore would absorb life into itself. Root the ships here, permit them to move beyond yet find this world, this reality, again.

She didn’t want to trust Lotor with this. But unless she wanted to fight the whole universe and burn most of it to ash, she was out of options to do anything else.

Allura approached the ‘legs’ ship. The ‘head’ would be last. She would make sure that if this being developed a self, a mind, it would be whole when it did. She could feel, in her mind, the pathways of will. Where to set her hands, what to infuse the metal with and how much.

She didn’t notice galra NCOs arriving from Lotor’s personal cruiser. Or the way they took up guard posts around her, around the ships. Or left food for her.

She didn’t want to be doing any of this. Since she had to anyway, Allura was going to throw herself into it.

~*~

Maneuvers had gone well.

Better than ‘well’, really, Lance reflected. He’d done, he would absolutely say, pretty damn well in Red. But coming back to Blue was...like coming back to a friend that really got him.

Oh, there were some adjustments still. Blue was nowhere near as fast as Red – but that really didn’t matter, because Blue could take a lot more direct hits than Red. That was the beauty of Blue; while she was never the best at something she was also never the worst, and that meant she could fit herself into the fight however she needed to. Lance didn’t need to focus on making sure cannon fire and fighter blasts didn’t tag him – it helped, sure, and he did need to work on adjusting his reaction times, but it wasn’t anywhere near as big an issue. He could protect Red and Green or give Yellow a boost of speed. Like Black, really, just on a smaller scale. And Shiro knew how to use that, too, reminding Lance of places he could shore up both attack and defense.

So really, maneuvers had gone very well.

But Blue remembered Allura, too – Lance was sure of that. And maybe Blue was worried about her, or maybe Lance was projecting. It was hard to tell; he’d found himself really meshing with Blue, seeing through her eyes without even trying, so he could have been the source of the worry or the recipient. Either way, once they’d returned to dock Lance decided to go check on Allura, and make sure she was really okay with this new arrangement.

He found her where he expected to find her – in the Sincline docking bays. What he did not expect, and did not expect so thoroughly that he stopped in his tracks, were living, non-sentry, full galra guards all looking worried and even a bit sheepish, and not one but several untouched meals, laid out on a table that looked like it had started as a a table-for-two and the guards had just kept on adding tables of the same size so they’d have somewhere to put the untouched dishes.

“Allura?” said Lance, questioning, to one of the guards.

The galra, in the uniform of a soldier, pointed toward the ‘leg’ ship. “She’s been there the whole time,” he said. “We’ve told her there’s food, and drink. Hard to get those, this far into deep space, but the Emperor said anything to make her comfortable. But she’s not budging.”

“I’ve got this,” said Lance, and tried to deal with the resulting feeling of utter weirdness that a uniformed galra was happy with him. He left the guards behind, snagged some cold biscuit-type things off the tables, and wandered on back to the ship.

Magic, of course. Allura wore a look of intense concentration and effort, and her fingers glowed a bit with a shining aura. Other than that, Lance had no idea what she was doing. “Princess?” he called up to her. She didn’t seem to hear him, so Lance used the tone and volume he’d learned when younger cousins thought ‘I can’t hear you’ was a good excuse to not come in for dinner. “Allura!”

She jolted, startled out of her trance, the shine fading from her fingers. She startled so badly she nearly fell from her perch on the ship’s hull. “What? What?” she demanded. Then saw Lance, holding food. “Oh. It’s you.” Lance endeavored not to take the lack of enthusiasm personally. “With food?”

Lance smiled up at her. “Yeah. I’m guessing you didn’t hear when breakfast, lunch, and dinner were called?”

Allura blinked, sliding down the hull to drop lightly to the ground. “All three?”

Lance passed her a biscuit. “All three,” he agreed. “Lotor pulled out all the stops, too.”

Her expression twisted at Lotor’s name, and Lance debated whether reminding her was a misstep. Rival or no, he did want to be fair about things. Lotor had made a solid effort.

Allura took the biscuit, biting into it. “It’s cold.”

“You worked through the whole ‘served hot’ phase,” Lance reminded her, walking with her back to the tables. “You look kinda wobbly. Are you okay?”

‘Wobbly’ was an understatement. Allura looked ashen, drained and exhausted. “It takes...a lot of energy, to do this work.”

Lance took her hand, pulling it across his shoulders, as if she were wounded. “Okay, then you lean on me. Get you a seat at the table, and we’ll see how much food changes things. You know, if you’d rather, I’m sure Hunk’d train some of these galra to cook for you.”

Allura was using her free hand to bite into the biscuit. Conversation would have to wait. Lance helped her get seated, poured a glass of...he really hoped that was wine, honestly, and let her pick and choose from the offerings on the tables. Then he marched over to the guards. “Did you get her attention when you told her about meals?”

The two guards shared a look. “She’s a princess, sir,” one whispered.

“She’s the Emperor’s personal guest,” the other added.

Lance stared at them both. They were genuinely in awe of, or possibly terrified of, upsetting Allura. And it could have killed her as she literally worked herself to death. And...he could see where they were coming from. Likely the last thing Lotor would be pleased to hear was that his people were rude to Allura. But there had to be limits. “She’s also working,” he said flatly. “For you. For your empire, for your emperor. And if she doesn’t eat, that work could kill her. You gonna tell me Lotor’s cool with that?”

Huh. Lance had actually never seen a terrified galra before. They turned a sort of washed-out shade of mauve, like a purple shirt that had been through the laundry too many times. Clearly, Lotor would not be cool with it, and these soldiers didn’t want to find out what the consequences could be.

Good.

“You two make sure she hears you,” Lance said firmly. “Any other guards on duty while she’s working, you pass the word. She eats every four hours. She at least takes a break after every eight, and she eats before she starts working. She looks wobbly after eight hours, you carry her if you have to, but you get her back to the castleship to sleep. Are we clear?”

The guards were giving him a wide-eyed, almost hypnotized look. Lance repeated, “are we clear?” and poked the guards in the chest with his index fingers. He’d have time to giggle madly about just poked two soldiers in the chest and scared the pants off them later. Lance was a pilot and a sniper, and this level of in-your-face confrontation was new. He wondered if Keith felt like this all the time.

The guards both reacted to the pokes as if being jolted out of trance. They saluted and shouted, Vrepit sa! In unison.

“Good,” Lance nodded, and went back to sit with Allura. She was definitely hungry. He found little tidbits from the farther ends of the tables to hand her.

~*~

Shiro stood in the dark – well, technically – and watched the stars. The command center had an observation deck, and with the castleship docked inside it was the only place he could see space without a filter. The endless night, and the stars.

The day’s exercises had been...incredible. From a purely physical standpoint, a bit like removing a handicap from a skilled fighter. Everyone suddenly better than their previous best. There would still be adjustments, yes, but Shiro knew, in his bones, that Voltron was stronger now. It wasn’t that Allura was bad on the team. But the harmony right now was ...powerful, and perfect.

Maybe, and this was the part that was bothering him, too perfect.

For one thing he kept getting bits of Keith’s thoughts. He didn’t have to ask Keith if he was ready, or tell Keith what move to make. Keith seemed to know, just as Shiro knew if he was ready to do it. Really and truly, in the Red Lion Keith was Shiro’s right arm, and a right arm didn’t need clarification; it just knew what to do.

Lance was almost as strong in Blue. Shiro wasn’t getting Lance’s thoughts – thank goodness – but that automatic sync had been there, too. Just with slightly more dialogue required. Which was a relief, because Shiro just...didn’t quite like the idea of, as Coran had once put it, ‘everyone being able to look in everyone else’s head holes’. Not that thoroughly.

Not as thoroughly as he was getting from Keith, and he was in love with Keith. While Keith was in Red, there was no question in Shiro’s mind of Keith’s dedication, devotion. Not that there had been before, really, but there was knowing and knowing. In their respective Lions, Shiro could feel those emotions directly. Keith didn’t talk about it, but he bore the scars of having lost Shiro multiple times. He wasn’t joking when he said he’d rather burn the universe down than do it again. Keith wouldn’t make Adam’s mistake – protect Shiro just to protect himself, preventing Shiro from even trying. No, Keith would let Shiro choose the course, and the battle – but if it came down to it, if it looked like Shiro wouldn’t come out the winner, Keith would throw himself in the path of that attack and be damned to any wider strategy. Keith would die for Shiro, rather than live any longer without him.

That was a deeply uncomfortable thing to know this thoroughly.

Shiro had always known that his chosen course in life might kill him. He’d never let that stop him. And he’d turned away from the quiet path that Adam had wanted because he wanted his life to have meaning, and the quiet life had never seemed to hold any.

It felt different to realize that his chosen course wouldn’t kill him, but just might kill the one he loved. Shiro stared out at the vast unchartable stars and wondered if Adam would laugh, to find out that Shiro finally understood his frustration. That Shiro finally understood that he’d taken the easy path – even a selfish path. It was fine to accept that death might be a consequence, but Shiro had gone further with it. He’d been fine with the pain his death might cause, telling himself they’d heal, they’d get over it, they’d move on.

The Lions had made it clear to Shiro that ‘getting over it’ and ‘moving on’ were two concepts that flat out did not exist in Keith’s universe. Keith had even told him as much – but people said things like that all the time, didn’t they? And then they got over it, they moved on. Keith’s heart didn’t. Every wound was there for all time, fresh as the day it was dealt, and it was a measure of Keith’s strength that the wounds he’d already taken hadn’t dropped him.

It was...hard...to realize, to really accept, that he’d stabbed Keith not once but three times now, each almost a mortal wound, and he’d never actually meant to do so. He hadn’t come back from Kerberos. He’d disappeared, after the fight with Zarkon. And to save him, to bring him back, Keith had had to give himself the kind of nightmares that were never, ever going to go away.

Instinct suggested he break it off now. Just – tell Keith it had been a mistake, they weren’t good for each other. The facts didn’t bear that out though, and Shiro knew it. Sending Keith away now, after all he’d already done...that would be a deliberate stab. And maybe it wouldn’t kill Keith – maybe – but how many such wounds could any heart take before it darkened?

Besides. He did love Keith. Loved, admired, respected, trusted. Having Keith out there in Red was a return of perfect confidence. Knowing without doubt who had his back, that his sword would strike true and clean.

The proper, adult thing to do was just admit to himself that this was reality and try not to leap blindly into harm’s way. Or at least make sure Keith could leap with him. The two of them together had always been unbeatable. If he just...didn’t act stupidly about things. Understood that even though no rings were exchanged, no documents signed, in the real spirit of the concept they were married. One flesh, as the texts like to put it. It wouldn’t work if he tried to protect Keith, or forced Keith to protect him. They had to ...work together. Fight together, back to back. That had to be the norm.

Shiro stood quietly, watching the stars.

Tried to adjust.

~*~

Lotor’s morning was busy.

There were the routine matters of running the empire, of course – Sendak taking chunks out, and threatening more, dominated that part of the morning. Lotor spread the orders that pertained to his forces’ part of the adjusted strategy; that all traditional cruisers were to be manned and armed and ready for the next assault, yes all of them, and henceforth cruisers were to be constructed to use unprocessed balmera crystals and liquid quintessence. Yes, all of them.

After several of his engineers tried to tell him what this would entail, Lotor had a Zarkon moment and snapped Is the effort worth your life? Yes, it is. Because if it is not done as I command it is your head that will roll.

And it was depressing that that got things moving in the right direction. The galra of central command weren’t sure where they stood with a young, smallish, negotiating halfblood. But they were crystal clear where they stood when the emperor was threatening to execute them. It made him wonder, not for the first time, if this was a species worth saving.

But he did understand he was asking a lot, which Zarkon might not have understood. The two forms of energy were completely incompatible in normal terms. His dayak had taught him that this was deliberate. Galra technology was designed to run on altered crystals and processed quintessence, she’d said, because then no rebellion could rise that was based in taking Galra weapons and ships away from Galra hands. If the local population tried to take the guns from the sentries, or fly the fighters or cruisers, all Zarkon had to do was cut the planet off from trade for a few phoebs until the energy supply ran out. Without the Druids, the rebels would not be able to make more, and then the planet could be harvested as an example to others.

As a child, this line of reasoning made perfect sense. Much older now, Lotor knew better. You could run quite a successful rebellion by stealing Galra weapons and tech. Provided some of your rebels were also Galra, or intelligent enough to preserve the coding embedded in sentry-bots. The combination of altered energy sources with genetic and electronic security codes did mean many worlds had no hope of a successful rebellion. But there were a few advanced enough to be real trouble.

The true reason for the altered fuel was to make the entire empire dependent on the Druids. Zarkon’s way of preaching galra racial superiority, while making sure the wraith of his Altean wife was forever immune to any backlash.

Lotor knew exactly who Haggar was. The journals found while searching Haggar’s labs with Allura only confirmed a long suspicion. Haggar was not his mother; she was the wraith left behind, fueled by quintessence and dark magics. An abomination in every sense of the word.

It made him short with his engineers, but he would free the empire of the Druids’ taint.

Sadly it might take weeks for the first new cruisers to be ready. Lotor wasn’t sure they had that kind of time.

He was, therefore, entirely ready to be distracted when his generals all but charged into the throne room.

“Lotor!” boomed Zethrid happily. “We’ve got a thing!”

Lotor blinked at this display of lingual excellence, while Ezor used Zethrid as a vault. “We really do,” she laughed. “Did you know the Yellow Paladin cooks?”

“It has crossed my awareness,” Lotor replied blandly.

“You must let him cook for you, Emperor Lotor,” said Acxa, following the other two more sedately, more fitting for the throne room. “We promise you, you will not regret it.” She held out a covered plate. “He made this for us today. Please. Try it.”

His generals were losing their minds about food, now. Lotor did not sigh, because Lotor was a bastion of self control, but the urge was definitely there.

Acxa took the cover off the plate and Lotor got a sniff. Oh, this was much better than those meat snacks he’d made. He blinked. Picked up the odd little spiky utensil provided and stabbed a piece. Felt his fangs extending, which was an embarrasing slip of control if anyone noticed.

Lotor was no stranger to Real Food. During the centuries of exile he’d had the cuisine of many worlds, quite a few of which were now gone. Few had had quite the proper respect for meat that was involved when Hunk got going. He’d forgotten how much he missed it.

And his generals all had the wide eyed look of children who had just discovered candy. Perhaps there was an opportunity here. He made a solemn show of sampling the dish. “Very good,” he said. “And what do you wish me to do with this?”

“You don’t like it?” asked Acxa, surprised.

“I did not say that,” Lotor pointed out. “I asked what you wish me to do with it. The Yellow Paladin has much more important duties than mess hall chef. I can hardly demand that he cook for the whole of central command.”

Ezor and Zethrid visibly deflated. Lotor wondered if he had just sent them to bed without dessert.

Acxa, slowly, said, “...Maybe he could teach a mess hall chef?” and the other two perked back up, hopefully.

This was clearly not going to go anywhere until it had been fully addressed. “Very well,” said Lotor. “I will discuss it with the paladin.”

And while you’re at it you can discuss proper care and treatment of the woman who’s saving your empire’s collective ass,” snarled a new voice from the door. The four of them turned to see Lance, of all people, storming up to them.

The generals might be unsure where they stood with gastronomically induced ecstasy, but they knew exactly what to do with people aggressively approaching their leader. Zethrid turned to face Lance with a posture that clearly stated the blue paladin needed to adjust his attitude before he became a smear on the floor. Ezor reached for her weapons. Acxa, the most practical, simply put herself between Lance and Lotor and demanded, “You will speak to the Emperor with respect!”

Lance stopped in his tracks – but drew his bayard, which became the sturdier blaster, and he aimed it at Zethrid. There was no doubt that the first person to take another step would start a very serious fight. “You wanna start something, lady, we can start something,” he snapped. “Lotor, Allura worked herself into a collapse for you. I just gave your Helpful Guards a crash course in what they’d better never allow to happen again. And now I’m telling you: if you want Allura to keep working on your ships, you make sure she stays okay.”

Lotor frowned. “Zethrid, Ezor. Stand down. Acxa.” He didn’t need to tell her to stand down; just the sound of her name was enough, though she kept herself between Lance and Lotor, so that Lance wouldn’t have a clean shot. “Explain, paladin. I left live guards precisely so that she would have assistants if she required them.”

“Yeah, well, turns out your guards are intimidated by altean royalty,” said Lance flatly. “She’s been working in there all day without so much as a break. They just left her food she didn’t even notice was there because she was busy working. On your project. I just got her through a meal and back to the castleship, but she won’t be in any shape to start early tomorrow.”

“I see,” said Lotor calmly. “….Do either fire that weapon or put it away, paladin, standing around aiming it is getting ridiculous. I will speak to the guards and make certain they understand the nature of their role in this in future. Is there anything else?”

Lance’s face flushed a deep red, which caught the attention of everyone in the room as galra didn’t do that – and certainly not that color. The blaster disappeared and he put away his bayard. “No,” he said, and it was clear he was embarrassed, but angry enough to bull on anyway. “But I mean it about Allura. This ever happens again and you can try to find another alchemist willing to work with you.” He tried – and mostly failed – to make a dignified exit. It looked a lot more like fleeing Lotor’s presence.

“He’s really kind of adorable sometimes,” mused Ezor, which made Zethrid growl.

“He talks that way to Lotor again and I guarantee he won’t be,” she rumbled. A giant fist smacked into a palm, for emphasis.

“Now, now,” said Lotor mildly. “The child thinks of himself as my rival. That was, therefore, reasonably brave of him. And the news is worthy. The guards were supposed to see to the princess’ proper care. What else would be the point of not using machines?”

Acxa mused, “Another reason to acquire chefs, your majesty. The smell of the food carries a considerable distance and might help the guards attract her attention from work.”

Lotor nodded. “Very well. Speak to the Yellow Paladin. See whom he might train, and what resources he would require. The Sinclines must be completed as soon as possible. And the goodwill of Voltron must be secured.” He paused. “Where is the other Blade?”

“Prowling central command,” grinned Ezor. “Just like the other one – she’s been taking the opportunity to poke into every corner she can and send reports back.”

“The Blade of Marmora are not particularly trusting,” said Lotor mildly. “But as we are battling Druids, the alliance is necessary. See that she continues to prowl unhindered. Inform me if she uncovers something disturbing.”

Ezor tilted her head. “Um. Disturbing to who?”

Lotor frowned. “If the Blade uncovers something that disturbs her, Ezor, it is certainly something I wish to know about as soon as possible. There is no telling what that witch has left hidden here. If the Blade wishes to spend her time hunting for traps, I see no reason to stop her. There certainly will be some to find.”

~*~

Pidge was, very privately, lamenting that she couldn’t talk Allura into making a wormhole to Earth for just a quick shopping trip.

It was the periods, honestly. Pidge was kind of a late bloomer anyway, and the stresses of war had delayed things further, but in the quiet of the colony, Pidge developed regular periods.

And then found out that Alteans were a particularly blessed race in that they didn’t have periods. At least, not nearly as often. A young, healthy altean woman might have one once a year or so. During a stressful thing like a war, maybe every three or four years, even. Pidge just got irregular periods, which – hah – meant they were always a bad surprise.

She didn’t much like what alteans did for periods, either. There was eco-friendly, and then there was taking things Way Too Fucking Far. Because when Pidge, aggravated at having to wad fistfuls of rags into her uniforms just so people didn’t ask if something had cut her leg off, had approached Allura about maybe a pad, tampon, something – what she hadn’t expected, and thoroughly did not appreciate, was the alteans used worms.

Actual worms.

Live and wriggly.

Shoved up there and left to eat the blood and tissue for however long the period lasted, and then pulled out and deposited in a garden.

Allura had no problems with this. Alteans in general seemed to think it was quite normal and proper and very efficient. Pidge did a full-body shudder and ran for the bathroom to be sick at the idea.

Four months into The Joy Of Regular Periods (and more precisely, the utter non-joy of trying to make reusable cloth pads out of scraps of clothing) Pidge was desperate enough to give it a try. She still tried hard not to think about it.

So every month-ish or so, Pidge steeled herself, grabbed an altean bloodworm from the castle’s supply, and thought with deep and reverent fondness about going back to earth and getting a sterilization shot. No periods for five years sounded beautiful and right and much much better than altean bloodworms.

And every time the irregular periods hit, some unlucky paladin ran into Pidge in the corridors right after she’d had to shove a bloodworm up inside her, and while only Allura had any idea at all why Pidge would be in such a bad mood, the male paladins had quickly learned the particular cast of Pidge’s features when she was in That Mood. Curiosity had, to a man, rapidly segued into ‘get me the fuck out of this woman’s way’.

Krolia, however, hadn’t gotten that memo. She didn’t run into Pidge much most of the time anyway, owing to the simple fact that they gathered information in quite different ways. And, being Keith’s mother, most of the paladins had a kind of informal ‘mom’ label invisibly pinned to her tunic. Pidge qualified that with ‘Keith’s mom’, and since she hadn’t had a lot to say to Keith of late, had avoided Krolia where she could.

But today it was a populated corridor with no convenient escape route, and the foul temper that resulted from having to deal with human biology via nonhuman methods and at least Krolia had been to Earth. Rather than make it obvious she was avoiding Krolia, Pidge charged her instead, snapping, “Tell me galra have this better figured out than alteans.”

Krolia blinked down at the frustrated woman. Blinked. Sniffed the air – which had Pidge turning scarlet please gods don’t tell me galra can smell blood – and said, carefully polite, ‘How do alteans do ...what?’

Periods,” growled Pidge, and gods her face was heating up so much. Frustration hadn’t stuck around. Embarrassment was all that was left.

Krolia paused. Frowned. “I...don’t know how alteans handle that?” she admitted. “Alteans were extinct up until a few phoebs ago.” She wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest, but she was clearly aware that Pidge was, and seemed to be trying to be gentle.

“I will tell you later,” Pidge gritted. “If you can tell me galra women have this figured out.”

“...I don’t know about figured out,” Krolia admitted, apparently trying to keep up. “But if it is your time, it’s a little too late right now. I can show you galra facilities, but you’ll need to provide a store of your own blood for whenever it occurs again. So I suppose it’s only a useful answer if you’re willing to trust central command with a quantity of your blood.”

Meaning, trust them not to make clones or viruses or anything like that. Pidge might have cared more if she hadn’t just had to deal with altean bloodworms. She wasn’t even sure why a quantity of blood would be required. Blood was kind of the problem. “Show me,” she said. “I’ll decide then.”

~*~

Lance stayed with Allura until he’d gotten her into bed, went and railed at Lotor about it for a bit, and then found himself at loose ends. He didn’t really want to think about the next day, because he didn’t really want to think about having to kill Klaizap. It wasn’t like he really knew the little Arusian, but he’d at least met the guy, and ...now, apparently, he was a big monster. As far as Lance knew, there wasn’t a cure for being so infused with quintessence you turned into a skyscraper-sized monster.

His feet carried him back to the Lion bays, and Blue. He’d...really missed Blue, and hadn’t realized how much until he was back at her controls. There were all kinds of thoughts that had drifted through his mind while on the training exercises. He’d worried that Blue’s greater powers were only because Allura had piloted, but he knew now he could use them too, and others as well. Blue had missed him, too, and was welcoming him home with gifts.

Lance wasn’t expecting to find Keith in the lion bays – usually Keith spent his alone time in the training room. He paused on seeing Keith there. Maybe another time. He didn’t really want a confrontation.

“So you missed Blue too,” Keith remarked, without turning around.

“What, you can tell who’s behind you without looking now?” asked Lance. “Creepy much?”

“Give it a rest,” said Keith. “We’re on the same team.”

“For now,” said Lance. “Just until Allura finishes with the sinclines. And lemme tell you, that woman is motivated.”

“I know,” said Keith, and sounded a little sad about it.

Lance blinked. Oh right. Yeah. The splashover of Allura’s ongoing galra issues. “She’ll get over it, you know,” he said, trying to be encouraging. “She did before.”

“She decided I was more human than galra,” Keith corrected. “She didn’t change her opinion of galra. Just me. Sort of. And she changes it back a lot.”

Lance came over to sit by Keith, on the grounds that this was less aggravating than talking at his back. “She’s got to be evolving it a little bit,” he offered. “I mean, the sinclines are pretty hefty weapons. If she doesn’t trust the galra, why give them something that can be used against Voltron?”

“Ever hear the phrase ‘race traitor’?” asked Keith flatly. “Pretty sure that’s what Allura thinks Haggar is.”

Now Lance stared. “...We just got the edited highlights of your disaster reel in the abyss, didn’t we.” The tone almost screamed dude, you need a therapist.

“Hell if I know,” said Keith. “I didn’t mind seeing you guys’ lives. I guess I can see why you’re keen to get back to them.”

“Yeah,” Lance admitted with a sigh. “Pidge at least got to see her dad for a while, and her brother’s on call. I just had that one night on Earth.” He shook his head. “You’re being too hard on Allura though. She’s not a bad person. She’ll work it out that she’s being too hard on the galra. Lotor’s been stationing live guards at the sinclines to look out for her. They kinda suck at it right now, but they’ll learn. She’s just...Lotor kind of threw her for a loop. And Zarkon and Honerva took everything from her. And now she’s got all these alteans that don’t remember anything about the old Altea and she’s got to be their princess and I’m not sure she really knows how to do that, just that she’s got to and be perfect at it. So she’s kind of wired.”

“Good isn’t the same as nice, Lance,” said Keith quietly. “It’s good to be back in Red, but ...I don’t think putting me on the same team as Allura will work right now. When she’s ready to return I’ll go back to the sinclines.”

Lance frowned. “You do that, and the problem will be you, not her. I’ve been flying Red for at least a decaphoeb and you’re still leagues ahead of me, damn you. We need the best people for each Lion if we’re going to win this. Allura can fly a Sincline, can’t she?”

Keith gave him an odd look – evidently that wasn’t the response he’d expected. “Probably,” he admitted. “Provided she can get over sharing a team with Lotor and a bunch of galra, which might be asking a lot of her.”

Lance took a deep breath. “You are so ready to give up sometimes, I swear.”

Keith shook his head. “I don’t expect people to change,” he clarified. “People are who they are. They change if they want to. Not if I want them to. Have you seen any sign that Allura’s even considered the idea she might be wrong about the galra?”

That made Lance pause, mentally going over everything he’d seen so far. “….Not the galra in general, no,” he admitted. “But when we went up against Zarkon, here, and you took that job to get Thace out...I saw her decide she was wrong about you. Maybe we can work with that.”

“Not if I’m just the exception to the rule,” Keith pointed out. “The ‘good galra’.” He shook his head. “I agree she can change, Lance. I just don’t know that she wants to. And given we’re working with Lotor and the three generals that’ve tried to kill us a few times, and most of our enemies are galra, I don’t know how to change that.”

Lance absently chewed on his lip. “Point,” he agreed. “Let me think about it a while. Don’t make any sudden changes, okay? Just give me some time to work on the problem.”

That got an amused look from Keith. “Sure,” he said dryly. “All the time in the world.”

Chapter Text

Time to fight.

The five headed down to the Lion bays, uniformed, helmeted, bayards at the ready. Allura was already gone, back to the sincline bays to resume work. Lotor’s personal cruiser was already prepared and waiting.

If only it weren’t someone they’d known, it would be so much easier. But that was the point. That was Haggar at work, there, turning love into a weapon.

The Lions launched, holding formation.

“Black Lion to Coalition Fleet,” said Shiro. “Are you ready.”

After a short pause, Matt’s voice came back, “Fleet ready, Voltron. Sure we shouldn’t expect you?”

“Unlikely,” said Shiro apologetically. “Do what you can, but if you don’t think you can hold the line, surrender the ground. Lives matter more.”

“No heroes here, sir,” came Matt’s amused reply. “We’ll hold out as long as we can and hope you can join us.”

“Imperial fleet standing by,” chimed in Krolia’s voice, which meant if you children are quite done chatting.

“On your mark, Imperial Fleet,” Shiro replied.

“Engaging,” came Lotor’s voice. The Imperial fleet launched. If you didn’t know many of the cruisers only had the fuel to get to the day’s battlefield, it looked quite impressive.

The five Lions waited. The robeast would be deployed – it wasn’t in Haggar, or Sendak, to have made such a thing and not use it at every opportunity. The only question was which battlefield. Protect the fuel tanker – or take out the relatively weak, but numerous, Coalition fleet?

“Voltron we’ve got incoming!” came Matt’s alarmed call. “I count twenty – thirty – where is Sendak getting all these cruisers?”

“We have a robeast,” was the call from Lotor’s cruiser. Krolia had mastered the calm inflection of oh shit to a degree Keith could only aspire to.

Shiro took a deep breath. Of course that was part of the plan. Take on the robeast, while their friends got hammered – and likely slaughtered – by an overwhelming force. “Are you ready, paladins?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” was Keith’s response, grim and a little angry.

“Let’s do this,” was Lance’s, an audible wince.

Pidge was an unequivocal readiness to kick ass, “Let’s get moving.”

Hunk only said ‘yeah,’ but it was hard to get him enthused about fighting at the best of times.

It was as good as it was going to get. “Castleship, wormhole to Lotor’s position,” said Shiro.

A few moments later a wormhole appeared. Shiro led the Lions through.

~*~

Shiro had expected it to be bad. He’d heard Keith’s thoughts when he’d seen it, and knew Keith didn’t spook easily. But the bestial, crazed, enlarged and enraged form of Klaizap was...like nothing Shiro had any reference for. Armored far beyond what the Arusian warrior had ever worn before, with a sword large enough to rival Voltron’s own, it was already taking out Lotor’s cruisers, crushing them with its gigantic hands, cleaving them with its gigantic sword.

“….I am gonna cut Sendak’s furry balls off with a spoon,” snarled Pidge, to the awkward startlement of the other pilots.

“Uh, Pidge...do you need a cookie?” asked Hunk carefully.

“I think she needs to punch that monstrosity in the face,” said Lance quickly.

Keith didn’t say anything. The Red Lion simply charged right at the Arusian, blasters firing. He clearly wasn’t expecting to do damage – and wasn’t – but he did get Klaizap’s angry attention off the cruisers, and got the rest of the team back on the job of actually attacking it.

“Jawblades!” Keith called. “Score that armor, try to force a break for weapons to get through!”

Shiro sent Black after Keith, summoning Black’s jawblade. When he noticed Black’s claws could scratch it, he added, “Rake it with claws! Bite, if you can!”

“Drill punch!” yelled Hunk, and sent Yellow into a spinning charge at Klaizap’s armor. It wasn’t as quick as it usually was, but it did punch a hole.

Blue sank claws into the edge of that hole and hauled; Black came over to pull at the other side. Pulling the fractured armor apart. Red and Green then circled around to raise blasters to fire into the hole in the armor.

Pidge, never one to settle for pure brute force if there was a smarter way, added a scan to her attack. “Lance, set your sonic cannon to this frequency,” she said. “It should cause more fractures in the armor.”

“You got it,” said Lance, glad that this really just involved a bit of on-the-fly copy and paste. Pidge was right about the fractures, which was good.

“Ready to form Voltron,” said Shiro.

~*~

Krolia manned one of the cruiser’s cannons, and fired methodically into the fray. The robeast was most of the tanker line’s defense, but not all of it. And it was focused not on fighting lions, but on destroying cruisers. Lotor prudently ordered most of his cruisers to keep the Lions between them and the robeast, and above all to stay out of its reach. Cruisers just didn’t have the maneuverability to get out of its way fast enough.

Zethrid was clearly enjoying the battle; Ezor was mostly a bit spooked at the gigantic robeast sent against them – Krolia had noticed that while Ezor didn’t show fear often, most of the time when she did, Haggar was the cause. Acxa, like Krolia, just focused on the job at hand.

They were winning...sort of. Lotor was sacrificing some of his cruisers to keep the robeast distracted from the Lions dismantling its armor. Once there was a hole, though – and a few deep cracks shortly after – Krolia wasn’t the least bit surprised when Lotor ordered all the remaining cruisers to focus cannon fire on the robeast.

~*~

“If this is war I officially don’t like it!” yelled Romelle, hanging on to the interior hull railing with both hands.

“If that actually stops Alteans from going to war I am stunned your species lasted long enough to get into space,” snapped Matt, completely out of patience – mostly because he had hooked both feet into other parts of the hull railing so he could use both arms to patch a hole before it sucked all the air out.

“We haven’t been in space, not in decaphoebs!”

“Little one, no one on this ship is surprised,” snapped Elcris, prying Romelle off the handrails so she could get a safety harness around her. “Hold still.”

Will you all shut up?” snarled Olia, barrel rolling port side to avoid a blast. The roll had the desired effect – everyone did shut up, suddenly far more focused on not being thrown into heavy metal objects.

Except for Matt, who hit his helmet on a section of pipe, and was quiet because he was now unconscious. Elcris didn’t notice until she’d gotten the safety harness on Romelle that the hole in the hull wasn’t patched – during combat they’d taken to all wearing pressure suits anyway – and she growled as she grabbed his limp form floating by and shoved him at Romelle. “Alchemist,” she said. “See to him.” And without waiting to see whether Romelle understood, or had a grip on Matt, Elcris saw to getting that hole patched.

Romelle, wide-eyed, gripped Matt’s arm tightly and bit her lip. She couldn’t do anything without being able to touch Matt, and she didn’t dare take his helmet off until there was air in the compartment.

~*~

The right hand could not look a foe in the eye when driving a blazing sword through its heart. But Keith could hear the resonant scream of the Klaizap-robeast, and more accurately could feel it – feel the soul of the fierce Arusian warrior as the corrupted quintessence that had enlarged and enraged it lost its hold at last.

It was, and was not, how Klaizap would have wanted to die. In battle, yes. But to the wrong foe.

Keith pulled the blazing sword out of Klaizap’s chest and felt weirdly seen as the corrupted Arusian died. Seen, as if there were no Lion, no armor, no flesh or bone. For a moment, soul saw soul and screamed ‘why?’

Not that Keith had an answer for that, or even time to think one up. Shiro was telling Lotor, “You’ve got this now, we’ve got to back up the fleet,” and Voltron was on the move.

No time for thinking, or being sick. There usually wasn’t. Keith would deal with it later. The blazing sword in Red’s grip was needed to turn the tide before too many Coalition ships were lost.

~*~

“Your creation has failed,” growled Sendak. “As they always seem to fail.”

Haggar did not respond – not with words, not with any kind of physical reaction.

“You have nothing to say for your failure?” snapped Sendak. “When it cost so much of our quintessence reserves?”

“You know nothing of my power,” said Haggar flatly. “And no concept of what has been achieved. Your enemies are vulnerable – but not to you. You are too blind to recognize the opening presented to you.”

Sendak’s lips parted, displaying his fangs. And he did clearly have an urge to bite, to tear Haggar’s throat out with his fangs, his claws, and he was sitting on that urge. “Pray,” he growled, “enlighten me.”

Haggar smiled a slow, cold smile. She had been watching the battle through her robeast’s eyes. She had seen what it saw, knew what it had known. “Voltron requires five paladins,” she said. “Remove even one and it is crippled. Remove two and it is helpless.”

~*~

Romelle didn’t have the attention to spare to cheer Voltron appearing to turn the tide of battle. She was far too busy hanging on to Matt’s limp body with one arm, and a safety bar attached to the bulkhead with the other, while Olia took the ship through maneuvers that made a boat at sea in a thunderstorm look tame and Elcris patched the holes left by enemy fire and (occasionally) had the time to man the guns and return fire.

She did, however, respond to “Voltron’s here” with “Can we find somewhere to hide for a few doboshes while I look Matt over?” and maybe the crew wasn’t yet sure where it stood with an altean, but everyone seemed to be fond of Matt. The moment the ship stayed still and level for more than a few ticks, Romelle wrestled Matt’s helmet off. The ship wasn’t even fully pressurized yet – but the sound of Matt gasping for air was weirdly reassuring even as she went “oops” about her haste.

He’d taken a bad knock. The helmets weren’t especially padded – they were meant to keep air in and provide communications, not skull protection. She could feel – sense? - that he’d taken some hard knocks in the tumult. Alchemy was very strange; you knew without knowing how you knew, understood without knowing how you’d come to understand. Romelle could feel the shape and extent of Matt’s injuries – and in that feeling, also understood what she could do about it. Her fingers threaded through his bloodied hair, light gathering between them. Matt’s eyes opened – a little bleary and unfocused – moments later.

“That is a good trick,” Elcris decided.

“Agreed,” said Olia, and poked her snoot at Matt. “You okay?”

Matt blinked a few times. “….Maybe?” he hazarded. “Romelle didn’t turn into an angel or something did she?”

“What’s an angel?” asked Romelle, and that seemed to be the consensus question.

Matt put a hand to his forehead. “Nevermind,” he grunted, and reached for his helmet. “Did we win?”

“In the process of it,” said Olia. “Needed to pull back so she had time to get to you. If you’re okay, we’re going back in.”

Matt eyed his helmet. Grabbed a towel, wiped the blood out of it – well, most of it anyway – and put it back on. “Let’s finish this then.”

Olia nodded. “Grab a handhold,” she said, and returned to the cockpit.

~*~

The battles were successful, with the net result being a complete victory. Lotor had tankers of quintessence for his cruisers, the robeast was destroyed, and Sendak had failed to capture another world to replace the quintessence he’d lost.

Haggar would do something to tip the balance back, but tomorrow was another day. The paladins, and the coalition, would take the win.

Once back at central command, of course, everyone split up.

Keith and Shiro walked back together to their shared quarters, and were met about halfway there by a teleporting Cosmo who had managed the trick of landing on both of them simultaneously – though this meant Keith got licked and Shiro got tailwhapped in the face.

“Ppfththph – can tell who your favorite is,” said Shiro dryly, which got the wolf to turn around and repeat the process in the other direction.

Keith, spitting fur, noted, “You get the better deal. When he slobbers and sheds the fur sticks to my face.” But he reached out to give the wolf scritches anyway. “Good thing for you we’re headed to the showers anyway.”

The wolf walked between them, an attention-hungry chaperone, the rest of the way. And took turns playing with him while the other showered – it wasn’t that either was against showering together, but they’d learned that trying it meant cold water and not a lot of actual getting clean. Given that the castleship now had a full crew, it was rude to use up all the hot water.

“He’s good at knowing when you’re worried about something,” Shiro noted, when they’d both dressed again. “You weren’t hurt or anything today, were you?”

Keith didn’t argue the point; Cosmo was good at knowing such things. He hadn’t told Shiro the wolf could talk to him, yet. He just started brushing the thick fur – Cosmo was definitely shedding – and said, “No, I didn’t get hurt. But something did happen. I think.”

Cosmo licked Keith’s hand as it passed by his muzzle. Show. Even as Shiro settled down by his side, a light arm across his shoulders. He answered the wolf first, since that didn’t take words. He thought about the fight, about the end of it, about that odd sensation. Cosmo didn’t like it either; he whined a little.

“Keith?” asked Shiro carefully. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Keith admitted. “Something. Through the robeast. Like...setting off an alarm, or being caught in a spotlight.”

Shiro thought about it. He did know, at least in general terms, the changes Keith had gone through in Oriande. This close he could feel Keith’s pensiveness, worry, as if it were his own. Changes just seemed to happen, lately. But at the same time, “It didn’t carry over,” he mused. “When you first saw that Haggar had sent a robeast, I heard your thoughts even though I was on a completely different battlefield.”

Keith turned to stare at him. “You did?”

It was Shiro’s turn to be surprised. “You didn’t do that on purpose?” he asked. “I figured it had to do with you, and Oriande. I’m certainly not generally telepathic. It’s just...you. I can hear you.”

“Uh,” said Keith slowly. “I’m...sorry?” he clearly wasn’t sure if he should be, but was going on general principles.

“It’s fine,” said Shiro with a smile. “It’s not like you use your words half as often as you ought to, anyway. We’ll figure that out too, just – like I said, this thing today, didn’t carry over. I didn’t feel anything.”

Keith mentally nudged Cosmo, wondering if Shiro would pick that up, too. He didn’t seem to. Cosmo gave Keith an image of the Black Lion – which could mean the Lion had given Shiro such a skill, or that Shiro was picking up Keith’s feelings due to their connection through the Black Lion. He tucked that away for future thinking. Regardless, “I guess it was just me that was seen, then,” he mused. “By whatever it was.”

“Oh, that part isn’t hard,” said Shiro. “Has to be Haggar. Whenever it’s bad magic stuff, it’s always Haggar. But I don’t see how she could reach you – not through the Lions. You were never her prisoner, she doesn’t have anything of you to use as an anchor. She seems to need stuff like that to work her tricks.”

He didn’t sound happy that Haggar had somehow Noticed Keith. But – it was magic. Neither of them were all that good at magic, or knowing what it could and couldn’t do. But they did know what Haggar had done in the past, and how, and that provided at least a loose framework. Shiro’s conclusion felt sound enough. Though why she’d notice Keith now was still in question.

Shiro gave Keith a light hug. “Well. I’ve got to deal with Lotor and Olia for an after-action meeting,” he said. “They’ll be in a good mood since we won, but there’s still the question of what we do next. You want to come?”

“Sure,” Keith nodded. “Get my mind of this weird mystical stuff and onto something concrete.”

~*~

Lotor left the preparation for the next battle to his generals. He had promised to look into food items for the army, and that required personal attention. So he sought out Hunk. Hunk was, as per his norm, settled into the castleship’s cafeteria area for some nice de-stressing-via-baking. Already there were several attentively interested alteans just hanging around enjoying the smells.

Lotor noted this; clearly, Hunk had found the path to altean goodwill. Nevertheless, Hunk startled when he realized the emperor was watching him. “Uh – hi,” he offered. “Are you looking for someone?”

“Yes,” said Lotor solemnly. “You, in fact.”

“Me?” Hunk now looked spooked. “Uh. Why?”

Lotor gestured to the bowl of batter in Hunk’s hands. “The Princess is devoting herself to completing the Sinclines,” he said. “To an unhealthy degree. It has been suggested that the smell of proper cooking might remind her to rest periodically. You would seem to have the secret of holding the interest of my altean cousins.”

“Yeah, but I can’t exactly cook for Allura,” said Hunk, frowning. “I mean I would, but then who’d fly Yellow Lion?”

“Be at ease, paladin,” said Lotor. “I am not asking you to retire from battle. But I would appreciate it if you might be persuaded to train an altean chef to serve the Princess. And perhaps a galra chef as well, for the morale of my soldiers. My generals speak quite highly of your cooking.”

“...How about I just teach one chef,” said Hunk slowly, “And show ‘em both kinds of dishes? I mean it’s not hard.” He thought about it. He really didn’t have time to do this from scratch, and maybe a galra would be more comfortable working in central command. “I might even have somebody in mind.”

“You have my complete attention,” said Lotor.

Most of a varga later, Lotor departed the cafeteria with quite a hefty list of requirements. Thankfully, none of them were so vital as to be necessarily handled in person. Hunk did have several altean apprentice chefs and had agreed to rotate them around just to make sure Allura got distracted from working on the Sinclines, but long term Lotor did want a galra in the role.

Keith was, possibly, rubbing off on the emperor. Lotor kept finding himself pondering whether it was possible to turn the empire into something he’d want to rule, as opposed to something he needed to rule to keep the galra from running amok. If galra could learn to cook...to appreciate it as an art and not simply a means of sustaining life…

It was a small step. Tiny, possibly, and Lotor well knew there were warlords who would decry such things as being ‘soft’, as denying the path of the warrior. But as there was quite a big war going on, possibly he could hope they’d get themselves gloriously killed off. Small steps.

Lotor made his way out of the castleship, and along the bays until he reached the secure area where Allura was working. To his pleasant surprise, however, she wasn’t. She was seated at the table set aside for her breaks, snacking on something...fragrantly fruity. The guards saluted him with anxious expressions, all but shouting see we did our jobs, no need to be upset, right?

“Good afternoon, princess,” Lotor offered. “It is good to see you are taking a more moderate pace.”

“I would thank you for your care,” said Allura quietly, “except that I am of no use to you if I am too ill to finish the work.”

Lotor didn’t let the remark sting; he simply bowed slightly and took a seat opposite her. “I have made arrangements so that a trained chef will see to your needs,” he said. “It would appear that there is now a demand for them.”

Allura almost smiled. “Hunk’s experiments do seem to have that effect.”

“Indeed,” Lotor mused. “The galra have lost so much under Zarkon’s rule. I find it reassuring that my people can have desires other than conquest.”

Allura blinked at him. “I thought you said you had been raised by a dayak?”

“Of course,” said Lotor. “But her teaching was approved by my father of course. He had ….specific goals in mind, for my education. I’m afraid ‘traditional cooking’ was not in the curriculum. It would be lost now, of course.”

“Not necessarily,” said Allura. “I remember the early years. Before you were born. So does Coran. When Zarkon was a paladin.”

Lotor leaned forward, studying her intently. “But you have no desire to bring benefit to the galra.”

“Not as they are now, no,” said Allura. “And I don’t like that I must trust you with a weapon such as this.” She picked up a small fruit tart, turning it in her fingers. “But...maybe as they once were. If they will go back to that.”

“Nothing would please me more, princess, than to facilitate such a change,” said Lotor solemnly. “I would imagine such work would be difficult, however. How might I assist?”

“I’m not sure you can, yet,” Allura mused. “But I will talk to Hunk about it. Maybe...if I meditate on it, I can remember some of the dishes my family once served.”

“Any fragments you might recall would be of great help,” said Lotor solemnly. “My plans to date have been largely economic – to transition the empire away from a need for conquest to continue. But there will need to be something to fill that void. I had feared I would need to promote culture from nothing.”

“Mostly I think you will,” said Allura quietly. “I was a child. Coran and I were both on Altea. There’s a lot we won’t know. Have you asked the Blades? They have a great interest in knowledge.”

“I’m not certain this is the kind of knowledge they intended by that phrase,” Lotor mused. “But it cannot hurt to inquire.”

~*~

Lance thought to himself that opening his mouth was sometimes a Really Bad Idea.

It took a while to get that far, mind. First there was Pidge asking him for a hand in getting Matt to a medical pod, because Romelle wasn’t sure she’d really healed anything and head injuries were tricky and Matt was a solid foot taller than Pidge and Pidge figured if she could talk anyone right now into lending a hand quickly it was Lance.

All of which was quite true. Lance wasn’t exactly sure where he stood with regard to Matt – if it was some kind of fallback position, or actual attraction, or what – and the war tended to mean he didn’t get much time to think about it or explore it. But there wasn’t anything in the tangle that wished Matt any kind of harm, so he was more than happy to help Pidge wrangle the lanky engineer into a medical pod. Along the way he got an earful of Romelle’s synopsis of the fight, and her attempt to heal Matt in the middle of it, and the way Matt had just kind of fallen over once the adrenaline wore off. Somewhere around minute seven though, Lance had just mentally summed it up as ‘a lot of trying things on the fly because Emergency please don’t hurt me’, and since he wasn’t going to go beating up alteans without a really really good reason anyway, he just let Romelle’s words flow right past him. Olia’s ship and the rest of her crew were thus docked on the castleship, and now at central command, in a kind of insulated coalition turducken.

He was a little surprised, once they’d gotten Matt settled, that a gigantic galra woman in a Blade uniform walked over and settled herself down to guard the pod. He had to fish for her name. “Elcris,” he said slowly, which served as an introduction for Pidge.

Pidge just blinked. “Are they like, together-together or something?”

Lance shrugged. “Matt said something at one point about never doing office romances. So my guess is ‘no’. I’m not going to argue with her though, are you?”

“...No,” Pidge decided. “But I am going to get her entire life history out of Kolivan.” She headed for the nearest comm to get started on that.

Which left Lance alone with the silent gigantic guard, and Matt unconscious in his pod, and thinking about galra.

And his promise to Keith to get Allura to unkink her brain on the subject.

He’d really always figured that Keith’s singleminded loyalty to Shiro was just...well, Keith being Keith. And possibly also Keith being in love. But maybe it was a galra thing too. Elcris guarding Matt was a lot like Keith guarding Shiro, and from the way Matt talked, he and Elcris weren’t any kind of item. Lance didn’t much like Lotor, but he’d never gotten ‘lover’ vibes off his associations with the generals, either. Except maybe, possibly, Acxa.

Was it a galra thing? Was it bad to even think of it as maybe being a galra thing? Humans were capable of great loyalty too – Pidge with regard to any member of her family was practically the prime example, with Hunk and the people he’d adopted being a close second, but it was hardly a ‘human thing’ in general.

It occurred to Lance that they’d been fighting the galra for years now, and really had very little idea what the galra were like when they weren’t in battle. Then again, the galra had been ‘in battle’ for ten thousand years straight, so maybe the galra themselves had no idea either.

As he made his way to the bays where Allura was working on the Sinclines, Lance could conclude one thing. Allura wasn’t going to let her issues with the galra go as long as combat was the only way she ever saw them.

When he got nearer, he saw Allura at the table the guards set aside for food, chatting to all appearances quite friendly-like, with Lotor.

He wasn’t jealous. He was not jealous.

Envious, maybe.

Lance paused in his walk, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. He probably shouldn’t interrupt them.

After a few moments more of watching, he headed back to Matt’s medical pod. Maybe talking with Elcris would ….help.

~*~

Sendak had finally stalked off to regroup and emphasize to his subordinates that one defeat didn’t mean he’d gone soft and anyone thinking of desertion should probably cut their own throats to save time and trouble.

Haggar was thus alone in her ritual circle, using Kova’s eyes to watch the paladins and her son in central command. And the princess, yes. Allura had clearly gained a great deal of alchemical insight recently, and watching her had proved quite interesting.

Kova would not board the castleship. There was a wolf there, quite large and apparently intelligent; the wolf had made it clear to the ancient cat that trying to set a paw on board the castleship would result in being eaten. Quite possibly in one bite. But, all the paladins disembarked now and then, and when they did, she could study them.

The red one had caught her interest. He, too, seemed to have picked up a degree of insight lately. Kova couldn’t follow him covertly, anymore, for one thing – he would turn and watch the cat whenever Haggar tried to direct the cat to follow him, and if Kova didn’t go away, he’d just go back to the castleship. He was visibly distrustful of the cat as well, which was a recent development.

Haggar did not, at present, wish to do anything with or to Allura. While her powers had clearly grown and developed, she was using them on Lotor’s behalf. Haggar approved of that.

The red paladin, though...that was a different situation entirely.

Haggar had questions. Specifically, questions about this leap in understanding that Allura had clearly made. And she had sensed, in the battle with her robeast, that the red paladin had also made some kind of leap.

“Macidus,” growled Haggar, releasing the clairvoyance that let her see through Kova’s eyes.

The druid obediently appeared at her call, stepping out of tendrils of shadow. He bowed. “High Priestess.”

“I have a task for you.”

Chapter Text

Voltron couldn’t rest, and so neither could its paladins. Not for longer than biologically necessary, anyway. But Lance was willing to sit with Elcris by Matt’s medical pod whenever the rest of his life gave him time to.

Elcris was not a chatty sort of being. That was fine; Lance was at this point used to Keith, and so another galra that didn’t say more than she had to was ...reassuring. Like he was finally maybe getting the hang of galra.

Lance did ask her why she felt the need to guard Matt’s pod, though. Dating? Future prospects? Some kind of debt? Maybe she just didn’t trust the castleship?

“He is crew,” was Elcris’ answer. “True crew. Not an undercover assignment. Do humans not look out for crew?”

Zero to minefield in four sentences. Not bad. “Family, usually,” said Lance. “Which crew can be sometimes. Paladins are family.”

Elcris considered that. “The little female. Green paladin. Is his sister. Family. They are close. But she is not here.”

“Mainly because I am, I think,” shrugged Lance. “She cares, Elcris. She searched the whole universe for Matt. He’s the reason she was in a position to be the Green Paladin. But she’s kind of practical, too. I’m here, so she doesn’t need to be, and she can do other things.” He paused. “That’s not okay for galra? If Olia came to stand watch, or Romelle, would you take a break?”

“Neither of them could protect him if something happened,” said Elcris, and the finality of her tone told Lance he had his answer.

Yup. Galra thing. Good galra thing.

~*~

“Another beacon is in place,” said Colleen. “Booting up. Test signals broadcast.”

Sam sighed, watching the process over her shoulder. “There’s no telling how far the line will have to extend to connect with the rest of the coalition.”

“The intergalactic void is at least….probably less likely to destroy beacons in the line,” said Colleen hopefully. “We should probably look into micro-wormholes for communications.”

“We don’t even have a balmera to work with,” said Sam, patting his wife’s shoulder. “There’s no way there’s a weblum anywhere near our galaxy. Or an altean to activate a teludav if we could build one.”

~*~

Sendak scowled as the Druid floated onto his bridge. “Does the witch have a message?”

The white mask turned to face Sendak. “We are here to assist you, General.”

Sendak’s lip curled a bit, showing fang. He might need the Druids, but no one could like them. “With what?”

“There are spies aboard your ships,” the Druid replied, matter-of-factly. “We will root them out.”

Sendak blinked. “None would dare.”

“Then this will be over quickly,” the Druid replied, noncommittal.

Behind it, more Druids appeared, and began floating for the doors. Sendak didn’t miss the sudden nervous edge of his officers.

Weaklings. The Empire was driven to rely on cowardly weaklings. Perhaps it was time for a culling. “Proceed as you will,” Sendak replied.

~*~

James Griffin tried not to show his nervousness. It wasn’t Shiro – the whole Garrison understood that by now – but when you were standing in his presence, actually looking at him, hearing his voice, it was hard not to react to Ryou as if he were at least an extension of Shiro.

Admittedly, a less-warm version. Ryou rarely smiled, even with the black cat that seemed to like perching on his shoulder. The cat followed him everywhere. And you’d think such a breach of protocol would make Ryou more approachable, but it never worked out that way.

Griffin wasn’t the only one trying hard not to show his unease. Rizavi and Kinkade both shifted slightly, foot to foot, as they waited at attention. Leifsdotter didn’t, but Leifsdotter had her own ways of being nervous. Gods help the admiral if he asked her a question.

“These are our best cadets,” Iverson was saying. “We’ve tested them every way we know how. They can handle the new ships best.”

Ryou didn’t scowl, at least. He wasn’t dour, just ...solemn, as he took in the four students. “None of the graduates passed?”

Iverson shook his head. “The new ships are far faster and more responsive than any aircraft produced to date, by anyone, admiral. Some of our mach pilots came close to qualifying, but that’s it. And Holt tells me these new ships can go orbital if they have to. Or deeper if we can get some kind of space carrier built. He’s working on that.”

Ryou nodded slowly. Sam was working on a carrier design. Something to bring these ships to the distant battles where they’d be needed. But there were no crystals, and Ryou had put his foot down about expending valuable resources on a ship that couldn’t leave the ground. Earth needed those resources. Without crystals, they needed the knowledge of altean alloys to make bunkers, armors, personal shields. Cannons.

It wouldn’t be enough. Not any of it. The most Ryou could do, with all Earth had, was buy humanity time. Hope that that hard-won time let Voltron come back and have a species alive to save.

And now he was getting ready to send children to the front line of that defense.

Ryou really wished at least some of the graduates, experienced officers, had passed the simulations. Sending cadets into battle just didn’t sit right – but frankly, the weapons they had might, at best, be used to take out sentry outposts. Nothing Sam hadn’t screwed with would so much as scratch a galra cruiser.

The four cadets were starting to look worried at the silence.

Black, the cat, decided to break the tension by climbing down Ryou’s chest, tail tickling his nose as it jumped down to the ground. Rizavi couldn’t suppress the giggle.

“So. You four will be our MFE pilots,” said Ryou. “Congratulations are in order.”

Griffin seemed to think the comment required a salute in response; Ryou noted that the other three took their cue from him.

“We’ve only got the four, at this time,” said Ryou. “We can’t get more until we have crystals to power them. That means you four will be Earth’s first and strongest weapons. You four will be the front line.”

That reality turned all four a bit green. Front line was another way of saying ‘out there fighting alone’. Hell of a thing to lay on the shoulders of someone who wasn’t even old enough to legally drink yet.

“The MFE Ares ships are the finest aircraft Earth has ever produced,” said Sam, encouragingly. “The weapons on each aircraft are as powerful as the nuclear cannons under construction.”

“The downside of that,” rumbled Iverson, “is each MFE has limited uptime and will require a full day to recharge. So while you four have the reflexes, you’re now going to train in making the most of that uptime.”

Ryou nodded to Leifsdotter. “I’m told you have a strong analytical mind,” he said. “You’re going to serve as the team’s guide. All four of you will be drilling every day in the new ships. You’re going to need to be familiar with your ship’s range and capability, and what’s in that range that you can use to help you. We have nuclear cannons under construction all over the world. They’re stationary, but should be powerful enough to punch a hole in a cruiser provided that cruiser enters their field of attack. The artillery batteries are somewhat more aimable, and should be able to bring down galra fighters if you can lure them into range. I want you to remember that for the most part your goal isn’t to destroy but to cripple. The only crystals we’re going to be able to work with until backup comes are the crystals we can take from the enemy. Every fighter you destroy is a crystal lost to us. The Empire will have all the crystals it needs to send more fighters. We will only have what we can take. Part of your job will be making sure the scavenger crews can do that.”

“Sir,” said Leifsdotter. “I will need maps.”

“You’ll have them,” said Ryou. He nodded to Kinkade. “I’m told you like cameras. We’re going to use that, too. You’re going to get some extra training in surveillance recording.”

Kinkade blinked. “Sir, we’ve got satellite imagery for the whole planet.”

“Cadet, those satellites are almost guaranteed to be floating scrap within minutes of the galra arriving on our doorstep,” rumbled Iverson. “We’re going to lose them. GPS, uplinks, the whole lot of them. They were never designed to withstand military assault. Our ships could take them out without trouble. The galra could and probably will break half of them before they even notice them. We’ve got backups in progress for communications. But aerial surveillance is a must. You’re the photographer and you’re gonna have wings. You’re it.”

“That’s why you were trained in the simulator to navigate by landmark,” Sam added. “I didn’t put GPS in your console because it’s very unlikely you’ll have access to it.”

“You’re team leader,” said Ryou to Griffin. “They succeed, you succeed. They fail, you fail.”

James Griffin did his damndest to look proud. “We won’t let you down.” Which he clearly wasn’t sure of, because they hadn’t left the simulators yet.

“Analyst,” said Ryou to Leifsdotter. “Keep them on mission and on course.” To Kinkade, he said, “Cartographer. Get us the maps we’re going to need.”

Rizavi swallowed. “...And me, sir?”

“All of the above,” said Ryou calmly. “Back them all up. As and when any of them need help. You’re going to watch the situations unfold and go where you’re needed. Everything is vital. No one can fail.” He waved a hand. “To your ships. Get training. Dismissed.”

As the four ran off, Iverson noted, “She’s got no idea that’s no cushy job you gave her.”

“None of them will have it easy,” said Ryou. “How’s the Wichita cannon coming?”

The commander grimaced. “Tornados held up construction. The crew chief out there swears it’ll be ready in time.”

“We won’t have enough cannons to cover all the territory the MFEs can’t patrol,” sighed Sam. “They’re just….too big. Too slow to build, if your timeline’s right.”

“My timeline is a guess,” Ryou pointed out. “Odds are we’re still going to be making defenses when the galra knock. There’s no way they can leave Earth alone for the decades it’d take for us to genuinely do the best we’re able with the resources we have.”

~*~

The pod opened, and Matt half-stumbled, half-fell out of it. Elcris caught him easily, holding him steady.

“Took you long enough,” said Lance lightly, and pushed a wrap into Matt’s hands. “Start with that. Should hold you till we get you to the caf.”

Food. Still a bit disoriented, Matt shoved the food into his mouth even as the other two half-carried, half-led him from the pod bay. He didn’t try talking. Medical pods always left people weak and starving, and the longer you were in one the more severe the effect.

It didn’t seem to bother either of his pilots. And the wrap did help Matt get himself together enough to join in steering his wobbly legs to the caf. Both his guides plunked him down in the first chair; Elcris went to get a bigger plate of food, and Lance took a seat opposite him. “Apparently Romelle isn’t that great at healing head injuries yet,” he said. “Took you a few days.”

Matt shook his head. “No, I think she may have saved my life,” he said seriously. “I don’t remember a whole lot but I do remember there being a lot of blood inside my helmet.”

“Indeed,” said Elcris, and put down a tray of Hunk-trained-chef-made food.

Matt’s eyes widened in awe for a few seconds and then he dug in. “Mmmf! When did this happen?”

“The food?” asked Lance. “Right after the battle, actually. Lotor asked Hunk for a chef, Hunk figured he could teach several as easily as one, so after fights he’s been teaching classes. Bunch of alteans mostly, but a few galra too. He’s been making them all keep the caf stocked with fresh meals as part of the practice.” He snagged a sort of curly-cut possibly-vegetable and bit in.

“Heaven,” purred Matt. He nodded to Elcris. “And thanks for staying with me,” he said to her.

As the Blade nodded acknowledgment, Lance said, “Hey, I don’t get a thanks?”

Matt slanted a sidelong Look at Lance that suggested he’d already thought of something explicit to do later. “I don’t do office romances,” he said, which Lance understood as I’m thanking her this way because I’m not thanking her the other way.

Lance smiled and leaned back. So wobbly he couldn’t stand to propositioning for sex in less than thirty minutes. Yeah, Matt was fine now. Or at least well on the way to it.

~*~

The agonized screams brought a satisfied smile to Sendak’s lips.

He’d been wrong. There were spies on his ships. Nothing too high ranking, of course, but in minor but important roles, the Blades had indeed infiltrated the Fire of Purification.

Sendak made sure the screams that were the usual result of a druidic ‘interrogation’ were audible to most of the crew. Let them see that spies would be found out, and punished appropriately.

It was the most fun he was going to have for a while, anyway.

Haggar had some kind of plan. She wasn’t sharing the details – she never did – but Sendak had had millenia to come to understand the twisted paths of the wraith’s thinking. She was gathering information on the paladins. Specific paladins. All of Sendak’s attacks of late had not been aimed at acquiring territory, save in the most superficial sense. No, they were aimed at drawing out displays of Voltron’s abilities and priorities. Seeing how quickly the robot would drop a course of action to defend specific targets. Seeing what each Lion could do, and would do.

The witch had had ten thousand years to perfect her patience. Sendak hadn’t had much less than that, oldest and most favored of Zarkon’s generals. He knew to trust her in this. She would find him a weakness to exploit, and then he would take Voltron from the upstart halfbreed, and with it out of the way, take over the Empire fully.

In the meantime, it amused Sendak that the coalition was managing, at best, to maintain an even footing. Even with Voltron helping.

~*~

Ryou had taken to eating lunch outside, as long as the weather wasn’t precipitating in any way. Blue skies or gray, it seemed he liked seeing it, and feeling wind. Or, possibly, just watching the MFE pilots practicing maneuvers.

Adam brought a picnic basket – not that Ryou tended to eat on the ground at all, but the old wooden park tables had plenty of room for two and a basket, and …

When he got right down to it, Adam had to admit he liked Ryou. It wasn’t any kind of great love – for one thing Adam had already been down that road and didn’t feel like a rehash, and for another, Ryou was far more emotionally guarded than Shiro had ever been. The man knew he didn’t have long to live, and wasn’t about to leave any emotional wounds behind him.

Shiro had lived with the same knowledge, but had chosen the other direction; to live as much as he could, love as much as he could, before time ran out. Adam sometimes wondered why Ryou had gone in the opposite direction, but didn’t ask. One thing Ryou didn’t like was being compared to Shiro.

At least, out loud. He’d probably go crazy if he knew just how often Adam did exactly that in the privacy of his thoughts.

It was always little things. Like food. Shiro had never paid that much attention to food, except in a technical, purely nutritional sense. Not too many calories, not too much fat, healthy balance of food groups...it could taste like cardboard and Shiro really wouldn’t care. But Ryou actively experimented. The limitations of calories and nutritional content were more like search parameters than the full list of requirements; Ryou went out of his way to sample something new on a regular basis. It could be from anywhere in the world. If humans somewhere ate it, he’d try it.

Adam had been politely disbelieving until the day of candied scorpions, and after that just smiled, packed his own lunch, and occasionally passed Ryou the takeout menus and flyers of nearby new eateries. Ryou was by no means a glutton, being if anything at least as dedicated to his physical health as Shiro had ever been, but...Adam drew the line at ‘more than four legs’. If it had more than four legs, he was not going to eat it.

And that was just one of the differences. Ryou was almost never out of uniform – currently an admiral’s uniform. He worked hard, as Shiro had always done, but Ryou stopped sharply at breaktimes and the end of the day. No overtime, no working himself to exhaustion. He had a job to do and saw to it with incredible dedication, but that internal sense of a clock ticking down meant he valued his free time, too. Ryou went to museums. (Of his own free will, Adam tended to mentally add, because Shiro had never really been much for any museum not dedicated to aerospace.) Ryou went to movies, and concerts. Even a nightclub once or twice, though for whatever reason he seemed to have decided they weren’t for him.

He showered incredible love on his cat, which Black returned wholeheartedly. Shiro had never had time for pets.

Adam was, very firmly, Not In Love.

But he was increasingly aware that he was really going to miss Ryou, when that clock inevitably ran down to zero. All the love that Shiro had reserved for the stars, Ryou gave to Earth and everything about it. Despite Ryou’s demeanor being far more reserved and solemn than Shiro’s, Adam found that shift in focus made Ryou a lot more accessible than his ‘twin’.

Not in love, no. But respect, and an increasingly deep friendship...yes.

He set the picnic basket down on the table, and next to it, files from the day’s reports. Adam knew by now that Ryou wouldn’t look at any of them until after lunch, but he’d still want them when that hour was up.

Ryou gave him a nod of greeting, and Black hopped up onto the table to investigate the basket, nosing curiously.

“Carolina barbecue,” said Adam. “I got one of the east coast cadets to point me to a restaurant they said mostly gets the flavor right.”

“I’m still wondering why three kinds of barbecue,” Ryou noted. “You’d think one would be enough.”

“Are you asking historically or culturally?” Adam replied mildly, gently nudging the cat aside to lift out the container of barbecue.

Ryou considered this, then shrugged. “Both?” he asked, taking the container to peer at and sniff the contents. “How’s the training going?”

“Camp Pendleton got the sentry specs that Sam sent over,” said Adam, pulling out a small jug of mint tea. “There’s some talk about devising grenades that might disable sentries, some new armor-piercing rounds, the usual – but we got them to take your advice and focus on training the soldiers to overwhelm and disable.”

“I’m sure they loved that,” said Ryou, carefully sampling a bite. “Hm. It’s always possible we’ll be able to counter galra tech with something homegrown. Unfortunately we don’t have enough hard data to do so in advance. There will be losses while we’re on the learning curve.”

“That’s really not the problem,” sighed Adam, pouring a few glasses of the tea. “The problem is that we’ve shared all these new technologies worldwide. And the galra haven’t shown up yet. If we have to wait too many years the galra won’t have to do anything. We’ll have another world war because someone or other will think it’s a shame to have all these new weapons and not try them out.”

Ryou closed his eyes, and Black went over to headbutt his chin. He gave the cat attention, and a finger of barbecue sauce to lick. “We really aren’t that different from the galra in certain respects,” he said quietly. “But I don’t think you’ll have to worry, Adam. It’s just a matter of them finding us – and I’m sure they’re looking.”

Adam frowned. “You say that like they haven’t already.”

“One cruiser did, yes,” said Shiro. “But only one. They’ve got Earth on their charts now. But they can’t wormhole. The distances involved would make your head spin. They didn’t need Earth once the Blue Lion was gone and pulled their forces in to deal with a power struggle. But now, they’re going to need leverage over Voltron and Earth is the best leverage they could hope for. They’ll come, Adam. They’re probably on their way. It’s just a long trip.”

“Hn,” said Adam, sipping iced tea. “So...they come, we fight and yell for Voltron, and...hope Voltron wormholes in before too much damage is done. And then...what? If we’re so far from the main conflict, do we just….cool our heels? Go back to normal?”

Ryou ate pieces of the barbecue, thinking while also clearly focusing on the food, flavors, textures. “When Voltron comes, that ship can communicate across much greater distances than anything we can build right now,” he said. “Call for a balmera. Build a cruiser or two of our own. Make some friends.”

“With armed cruisers,” said Adam dryly. “Because they’re such friendly things, cruisers.”

“Not with the empire,” said Ryou. “With everyone else who’s fighting the empire. The Balmerans, the Olkari, the Taujeerians...it’s those beings we want to meet on favorable terms. Being able to hold our own against the empire would put us on those terms. Prove to them we’re strong but not conquerers. Build something lasting.”

So you do dream, Adam did not say. He hid the smile behind sips of tea. Overhead a sonic boom roared as the MFEs went about their maneuvers.

~*~

“We’ve lost all contact with our agents in the Fire of Purification,” said Kolivan solemnly. “The only possible conclusion is that Sendak is cleaning house – and the Druids are free to act as they wish.”

“How many?” asked Keith.

“Fifteen so far,” said Kolivan. “It is not easy to leave a cruiser in deep space unobtrusively. We may potentially lose another half-dozen agents. I have given instructions to abandon the op. The Blade does not have enough agents left to lose so many at this stage. We would be better served by retreating if we can, and then beginning infiltration from zero when the Druids are satisfied they have completed their sweep.”

“Agreed,” said Shiro. “But how were so many compromised at once?”

“It’s a declaration of war,” said Keith quietly. “Blades against Druids. They didn’t need to know which crew were agents. Not if they interrogated every last one. The ratios fit – every Druid in the old Empire is with Sendak, but not every cruiser. They’ve got more than enough Druids to scour every cruiser Sendak has for spies.”

“Precisely,” Kolivan agreed sourly. “The net is wide enough to catch every agent in place. My apologies, paladins. The Blade of Marmora is, at least for the present, crippled.”

“No apologies necessary, Kolivan,” said Shiro. “We appreciate all the risks you’ve taken to help us, and you’re right – if any of your agents can get off those ships they should. There are other ways to get the intelligence we need that involve less risk.”

The screen went dark, and Shiro turned to Keith, who was radiating a sort of grieving anger. He put a hand on Keith’s shoulder, a signal that Keith was free to say what was on his mind.

“They’re friends, Shiro.”

It wasn’t a word Keith used lightly. Shiro remembered the time when it wasn’t used at all, and the long time after that when it was never plural. “You have an idea?”

“The druids are on the cruisers,” said Keith. “If they’re killing the Blades there’s less reason than usual to spare those ships. We might get some of the druids too, in a surprise attack.”

Shiro thought about it. “….Can druids be surprised?” he asked. “They always seem to see us coming from a long way off.”

“They’re cowards,” Keith growled. “If we attack, hit them as hard as we can, as fast as we can, the druids will be the first off the cruisers, back to Haggar. At the very least, we might be able to buy time in the chaos for the remaining Blades to get off the cruisers themselves. Kolivan said there’s only five agents left in the Purification fleet.”

It wasn’t like ‘attack now with everything’ was an unusual strategy from Keith, but in this case Shiro could see the merit in it. “You contact Kolivan again then,” he said. “Get the names of the cruisers with agents still aboard. We’ll focus on them. I’ll go see if Pidge and Krolia can get a signal to those ships that the agents should use our attack as cover to get off and we’ll scoop them up.”

~*~

In the end they saved all five. This great good fortune was mostly due to Cosmo, who teleported onto the targeted cruisers once the fighting started, tackled the Blade agents and teleported back to Lotor’s cruiser before the galra had finished reacting to ‘there’s a big blue wolf here’.

And for their part that was about where it stopped; the recovered agents were sent back to Kolivan for debriefing, and the paladins went to bed afterward in the certain knowledge of a day well spent.

Keith was, however, wrong about druids. They were not cowards; they were simply incredibly indifferent to the lives of mere soldiers, however high their rank. They left battles because battles were not their concern; battles were for soldiers unless the High Priestess told them otherwise.

As in this case, she had.

Macidus had been tasked with the study of the Red Paladin. The battle had not revealed as much as he had hoped, but still there were intriguing elements.

He’d hoped that endangering the paladin’s former comrades in arms would draw him out, where he could be studied directly. Alas for this not being the case. But the druid was now aware that Keith had galra officers willing to act on his behalf, and a teleporting wolf.

That could be a problem for the High Priestess’ long-term goals, Macidus understood. He would need to explore the limitations of the beast. This would not be as simple as capturing the Champion had been. Not if the paladin’s creature could simply poof him out of the High Priestess’ hands.

~*~

Matt watched rather lazily, as Lance went about the general process of getting dressed. “You’ve got a really good setup here, you know.”

“What, flying a Lion?” asked Lance. “They’re pretty sweet.”

“No, I mean the whole thing,” said Matt, passing over a sock. He was going to enjoy nudity for just a little longer, himself. “Private quarters. A ship full of the most beautiful race in the universe. Medical pods. An actual cafeteria serving actual cooked food that doesn’t come from cans or pouches. The Lion part is a heavy load of icing on a really big cake.”

Lance settled his shirt in place and slanted a Look at Matt. “That why you’re freeballing it today?”

Matt grinned and shrugged. “Just saying. And I’ll have to get dressed soon anyway or my sister will probably taser you for hogging my time. Can’t stay too long now I’m all patched up, after all.”

Lance sat back down on the edge of the bed, letting fingers brush Matt’s arm. “...Yeah,” he said, distantly sad. “When’s your ship taking off?”

“Probably when Olia’s done stealing supplies,” said Matt dryly. “I’m sure she’s been told she can just take them but she tends not to believe it. This castleship is ….just so far beyond anything else the Coalition has.”

“We could probably build more, you know,” Lance mused. “We’ve got the plans. And we’ve even got Alteans able to crew them and make wormholes without having to adapt the designs.”

“A fleet of castleships,” said Matt dreamily. “Now there’s something to make Sendak twitch. If we had shipyards we could devote to it.”

“Maybe just one,” mused Lance. “Something we could defend, until there’s more ships. I’ll tell Shiro about it. Maybe we can get you a slightly safer job. You and Olia.” He frowned. “Pidge hasn’t got any idea how much trouble you’re usually in, does she.”

“No,” said Matt. “And you’re not telling her. She’s been through enough. I mean really, Lance. How much of all this are you telling your family about? When we get back to Earth?”

Lance didn’t have to think about it. “The Lions are cool,” he said. “But that’s about as far as I’d go. My mother’d have a heart attack.”

Matt sat up then, putting loose arms around Lance from behind, so Matt could rest his chin on Lance’s shoulder. “Exactly. Pidge has a lot to do. And she can’t protect me without putting a lot of other people in danger. There’ll be a time and a place, and it isn’t yet.” He put a light kiss on Lance’s shoulder. “For now we work with what we’ve got.”

Not the most romantic sentiment you could’ve led with,” said Lance dryly.

Matt shrugged. “But you knew what I meant.”

Lance did. It wasn’t love – at least, not really at the moment. Neither of them really wanted to commit, given the general chaos of life and war. But at the same time, there was something...warm, something needed, in human touch. The alteans were beautiful. All of them. But they were also alien, and it had a tendency to shove itself in your face when you least expected it – or maybe just when you stopped expecting it. They weren’t human. They didn’t think like humans thought. There was a lot of similarity, overlap – but...still alien.

Matt had it much worse than Lance, in that alteans were the closest he tended to get to anything like ‘cultural overlap’. Most of the time the aliens he dealt with were a lot more alien with a lot less in common. Most of the time, Matt was in constant self-translation, trying to make himself understandable to whatever beings he was dealing with.

It wasn’t love so much as a huge sense of relief, to spend time with a being that knew about hamburgers, and video games, and how human bodies registered pleasure and pain without having to make a xenobiological study of it first. A taste of home.

Lance tried not to think of it in those terms, though. His family was a loving family, but the cultural snarls in question meant his family would honestly be happier with an alien-but-female partner over a human-but-male one. He’d had a few years now to explore and get at least somewhat comfortable with this side of himself, but ‘explaining it to his family’ was possibly the one thing that made him glad he hadn’t been home in a while. Matt at least didn’t have to worry about it. The Holts at this point would be so glad to be reunited that Matt could probably bring home a robot and none of his family would have word one to say about it.

Thinking of that – the one area where Matt really did have it lucky – Lance turned his head to give Matt a kiss. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re welcome to stay here and stay naked until you’ve got to go deal with people if you want. But I think I’d better go tell Shiro about that castleship fleet idea.”

~*~

In the depths of a galactic void, a small fleet of cruisers hyperjumped continually, skipping across dozens of lightyears at a time. Dozens, but there were hundreds, thousands between galaxies.

They had been traveling for over a decaphoeb now, with at least a decaphoeb yet to go. Most of the crew were incredibly bored. It was deeply unusual for galra crews to go this long without any kind of action.

So when Officer Vrok spoke up, he had the whole bridge’s attention. There was that little going on. “Sir, there’s...chatter, sir.”

“Chatter,” said Lieutenant Hepta, who had command of this little fleet. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, officer.”

“And there’s chatter, sir,” said Vrok. “I’m picking it up clearly.”

Hepta looked around at the bridge. There was literally nothing else going on. “Put it on the main channel, Vrok. We could use some entertainment.”

Vrok nodded and hit a few switches. The sounds came over the bridge’s speakers. “...This is Colleen Holt, calling from Earth. We’re trying to reach Voltron, or my son Matt. If anyone can hear this, please respond. Please forward this message to my family and to Voltron….”

The galra stared at each other incredulously. They were used to hunting prey races. The idea of a prey race doing the equivalent of standing up in the tall grass to run a one-rabbit-polka-kit was new.

Lieutenant Hepta’s ear flaps perked up. “Officer. Where is that coming from?”

Vrok studied his console. “There’s...a line of beacons, sir,” he said. “It’s still being built. I can pinpoint the end beacon.”

“Can that end beacon’s power reach colonized space?” asked Hepta.

“No, sir,” said Vrok with certainty. “Doesn’t have the range or power. But the readings tell me they’re still placing beacons.”

“Calculate how long at the current power and distance between beacons, it would take for this message to reach rebel ears,” said Hepta.

At this point the other bridge officers were joining in. It was something to do, after all. “At least a decaphoeb, sir,” said one. “And that’s if there are no calculation errors in the flight path. Could be two or three.”

“We could cripple it now,” offered another. “Take out one of the beacons and the rest are useless. They’re each at the very limit of range and power for that design.”

Hepta raised a hand. “No. We don’t want to cripple it. This is exactly what the General wants. Do we have any communication beacons of our own?”

“Some backup relays, sir,” said Vrok. “Our crystal coms are much less limited. We could be at Earth and still reach the main fleet if the comms are undamaged.”

“And the backup relays,” said Hepta. “If we substitute one of these frail beacons with an imperial relay, would the current line reach rebel space?”

A few moments to calculate later, and Vrok said, “It’d be weak, but yes, sir. They’d be able to pick it up.”

“Perfect,” said Hepta. “I want you to take a fighter and one of our backup relays. Go out to wherever the line is currently ending. Replace that endpoint with our relay, program it to do exactly as the others in the line do, but at full power.”

Vrok blinked. “Full power, sir? It won’t last more than a few decaphoebs.”

“That will be entirely sufficient, officer,” said Hepta. “Get on it. I’m sure there will be no shortage of volunteers.”

~*~

Lance had the undivided attention of pretty much everyone, which was not a usual state of affairs and had him trying hard not to think of this as ‘standing in front of the principal to explain what he did wrong’.

“It is...very good,” mused Kolivan. “It would require a joint effort, of course.”

“But a joint effort everyone benefits from,” said Shiro. “Potentially in the near future, at that.”

Allura nodded. “It would allow my people a means to do something genuinely meaningful. I admit it’s still something to adjust to – the idea of many alteans surviving, many alteans able to create the teludav.”

“I do not know that I would call twenty five individuals ‘many’, princess,” rumbled Kolivan. “But I can say that twenty five more castleships, each perhaps given a complement of defensive fighters from the coalition...could certainly assist in turning the tide of the war.”

“Alteans to make the teludavs,” nodded Shiro. “Olkari and Taujeerian engineers to improve the designs, build the fighters. Blades to cloak the shipyard from detection. Fighting pilots from across the Coalition in real, designed for combat vessels. We can do this.” He nodded to Lance. “Excellent idea.”

Lance grinned, but any attempt to pretend this was a deeply thought out plan was ruined by the very visible blush of proud embarrassment.

“I will require a team of Olkari and Taujeerians to provide me with parameters,” said Kolivan. “We can use Blade cloaking techniques on the chosen site.”

Olia spoke up. “I can see that you get it,” she said. “But how long is this going to take? We could have used these yesterquintant. A long delay...”

“There are several pockets of slower spacetime in the universe,” said Kolivan. “The Blades have mapped out many as defensive locations. Decaphoebs can pass inside, that are mere movements outside. We use them for medical facilities.”

Olia’s ear flicked. “I’ll definitely get you those advisers,” she said.

“Krolia has the knowledge of Blade bases,” said Kolivan. “She can tell your engineers what will be required to cloak a chosen site.”

Chapter Text

“They are finished.”

Lotor stared up at the three ships. They didn’t look different. But he could feel it, standing this close to them. Thrumming with energy even powered down.

Allura was watching him – tired, wary, already regretting having agreed to help him. He bowed to her. “Thank you, princess. Will you come with me, on the test flight? It seems only right and fitting that you be the first to see the future you have made for the galra people.”

Allura looked at her handiwork, then back at Lotor. “...Yes,” she said slowly, quietly. “Yes, I think that would be for the best.”

“Will you be returning to Voltron, now that your work here is done?” asked Lotor.

“I think...not,” said Allura. “As you have said. These ships are as much my creation as they are yours. I think it is my duty and responsibility to see that they are wisely used.”

Lotor firmly did not smile. It was as he’d hoped. “Very well, Princess. I am sure your continued guidance will prove invaluable. When will you be ready to make the test flight?”

“Tomorrow,” said Allura. “I would like to rest, and inform the paladins of the flight. If the Sincline can perform as we need, collecting pure quintessence, a great many issues will resolve.”

~*~

Shiro was on the bridge of the castleship, which was as close as he got to having an office, when the call arrived. This is Colleen Holt calling Voltron. He was so startled he almost fell out of his chair. He knew her, of course, but it was very much the last thing he’d expected to hear. He quickly set aside his tablet of work and opened the comm to respond.

“Colleen! This is Shiro. Where are you?”

On earth of course,” came the dry response. “It looks like our relays finally connected us to the rest of the universe. I’d like to speak to my children if that’s all right. There’s a lot to go over after that.”

“Yes, of course,” said Shiro. “Um. Matt’s with the Coalition fleet just now, but I’m sure Pidge can make something happen. Hold on, I’ll get her. In the meantime I should tell you that Lance and Hunk are going to want answers about their families so you should have those on hand.”

Shiro wasted no time – he thought hard about the wolf, and Cosmo poofed into being. He gave the dog scritches, and said, “I need the paladins here, Cosmo. In this room. Wherever they are – on the ship, on the station, wherever – I need them right here on the bridge. Will you bring them here?”

The wolf licked Shiro’s hand, and poofed into motes again. The lick usually meant a yes, so Shiro stood back.

Keith arrived first, in his street clothes, and bewildered. Cosmo blinked away again. Keith asked, “What’s so urgent you couldn’t call?”

Cosmo reappeared, this time with a startled and rather aggravated looking Pidge, holding a tablet in her hand. “I was working, Shiro.” Cosmo blinked away again.

“It’s really important,” said Shiro, and got no further when Cosmo appeared with Lance, who was in the midst of taking off a jacket. He re-settled it on his shoulders. Cosmo blinked out.

“Well, that was very nearly embarrassing,” said Lance, and Cosmo appeared with Hunk, holding a grease-shiny burger-flipper in one hand.

“If lunch burns because somebody didn’t think asking permission was a good idea,” Hunk warned, “I am not gonna be open to complaints.”

Lastly, Allura appeared, tired but poised – and surprised. “Is something the matter?” She took in all the other paladins. “Is it a meeting? You could have asked.”

Shiro waved them all to silence, and went to the comm. “We’re all here now,” he said.

Keith caught Pidge reflexively as her knees buckled on hearing her mother’s voice. “Who’s all there? I did as you asked.”

“...Mom?” asked Pidge, her voice cracking. “Mom, it’s Pi – it’s Katie.”

Keith let her go so she could run to the console. “It’s Katie, Mom. Are you okay? Is Dad there?”

Lance and Hunk were both frozen in place, watching and listening. Allura ah’d. “I think perhaps your wolf was a little over-enthusiastic,” she said gently. “I’ll leave you to your reunions.”

Keith shook his head at her as she started to leave. “You should stay,” he said quietly. “It’s...human. And when they’re done reconnecting it’ll be important news for the coalition.”

Allura tilted her head at Keith, recognizing that he wasn’t including himself in that. “You have no...reconnecting to do?”

Keith gestured to Shiro. “All I cared about on Earth is right here with me. But that’s not true for the others. You should stay.”

Allura frowned, nodded. She understood Keith had no family. Apparently he’d had no friends, either. No ties at all. That was...worrying. Shiro seemed the same; he walked over to Keith, staying in back, listening with Keith and Allura but not – for the moment – joining in.

First was Pidge, talking to her mother, patching Matt into the conversation, and Colleen went and got Sam. There were about ten minutes of four way catching up during which Colleen sounded like she was holding herself together on sheer willpower that all her family was alive and safe even if half of it was scattered across the far universe.

Finally Hunk straight up interrupted with, “Not to ruin you guys’ days, but Lance and I would really like to hear from our families, too.”

As soon as we got confirmation the link was working,” said Colleen, “I put in a call to your families. But they’ve got a ways to go and we’re still working on our communications setup here. Admiral Shirogane has been adamant that we have underground cables for all vital communications. In the case of Lance and your families, that means undersea cables too. For now I think they’re flying in.”

Hunk sat back, deflated at realizing he wasn’t going to get to talk to his family yet.

Lance wasn’t in quite the same strait, having at least had a night with them when he’d gone with Keith to get some of Shiro’s things. So he was the one that said, “...Admiral Shirogane?”

The, um.” Colleen was apparently well aware that the conversation might be recorded. “Takashi’s twin. Ryou has been tireless. Once he got out of quarantine there was...a bit of a scuffle between him and the joint chiefs. He won. Admiral Sanda’s been in the brig for most of the year, now, and he just sort of stepped into her place. I don’t think anyone formally awarded him the rank, but he’s good at making people forget that. He’s been directing our defense work.”

Keith leaned against Shiro’s shoulder, briefly squeezing Shiro’s human fingers. He knew the clone made Shiro uncomfortable – and now, apparently, the clone outranked him. And was spearheading all of Earth’s defense measures.

Allura said, “We have access to a broad range of information about galra capability. If he has questions we can try to find answers.”

Mostly we’re glad we’ve reached you all at last,” said Colleen. “That’s been Ryou’s big worry – that the galra would get here and we wouldn’t be able to hold them off long enough for you to arrive. But now that we can call you the minute we see them – I’m told your ships can create wormholes for long distance travel. So we’ll be safe.”

~*~

Lance, Pidge and Hunk worked out a rota, so that they could talk to their families while also transferring important information back and forth.

Allura, Keith, and Shiro left them to it. Keith had no one to talk to on Earth, Allura didn’t know anyone there but Sam and Ryou anyway, and Shiro was more than a little reluctant to talk to his clone. So the three of them gathered in the den.

“It feels rather anticlimactic to say so now,” she noted. “But the Sinclines are complete.”

Keith looked from Allura to Shiro. “Are you going back to Blue?”

“Not yet,” said Allura. “Unless you feel strongly about leaving Red. As much as I’ve loved piloting a Lion of my father’s creation, the Sinclines are now as much my creation as Lotor’s. I ...wouldn’t feel right, if I didn’t stay with them, make certain Lotor’s use of them is honorable.”

She didn’t miss the little glad squeeze Shiro gave Keith at that news. He, at least, was glad to keep Keith near him, for however long he could. “So your next step is…?”

“Testing its quintessence gathering capability,” said Allura. “And the quality of that quintessence. So much hinges on being able to produce quintessence for the fleets.”

Neither man asked her if she was ready to do battle with Lotor, possibly by herself, if this turned out to be any kind of trick or trap. It was clear in every word she spoke that she’d already thought of that, and made her peace with it. For her, this was Lotor’s trial. The imprisonment he’d endured at the colony was the colonists’ punishment for his betrayal of them; this was Allura’s test and trial for him. Hand him a tool that could save the galra, or be used as a weapon against the rest of the universe, and see what Lotor chose to do with it.

Trust but verify. Keith nodded acknowledgment and approval. “If you haven’t already...whatever ship you’re going to fly, make sure Hunk looks it over. No hidden switches that could be used against you.”

Allura sat very straight, even regally. She made a little nod. “I haven’t been out of sight of the ships since I began work...but that is a good idea. Thank you.”

Shiro coughed. “Okay, so...if he doesn’t betray us,” he said slowly, “If this works out as he’s claimed, do we have….anything for the influx of quintessence?”

“Mom’s been prowling central command,” said Keith. “There are storage containers designed for quintessence. Each one could probably run a cruiser in combat conditions for a decaphoeb. There are a lot of them. She couldn’t swear they’d work as advertised because we’re dealing with a lot of unknowns. But at least as far as we can verify, Lotor’s got everything as ready as he can to demonstrate he can power an empire without the support of the druids.”

Shiro nodded slowly. “Good,” he said. “That may be a powerful recruitment tool. I have yet to meet a galra who was comfortable around the druids.”

“They’re tainted,” said Keith. “It’s...alchemy, but not. There’s something dark in all of them. And in that cat of Lotor’s. And in Lotor, too, but he’s different from the others.”

As he paused, he realized Allura was giving him a surprised, even concerned look. “How do you know that?”

Keith just shrugged. “I just do,” he said, very reluctant to go into the causes. “Don’t you sense it?”

Allura frowned. “I...haven’t tried,” she admitted. “But you say Lotor is different.”

Keith looked pensive. This was possibly getting into territory where Allura might judge without proof. He wasn’t keen on facilitating that. Shiro squeezed his hand lightly, though, encouraging him to speak. Keith took a deep breath.

“...The cat, the druids, it’s like...seeing someone with a fever because they’ve caught some kind of virus,” he said slowly. “An infection, something that changes who they are. There’s a ‘them’ that exists independently of being sick. Lotor...” he stopped. Thought hard about it. “If most people’s quintessence shines like sunlight, then Lotor maybe shines like sunrise, or sunset. There’s still light, but there’s also night, and it’s just...him.”

“So the darkness is part of him,” said Allura, frowning. “There is no ...cure.”

“So’s the light,” said Keith steadily. “I’m pretty sure he has a choice, Allura. He can decide who to be, what to do. He could go like Zarkon, or Haggar. But he doesn’t have to. He hasn’t so far.”

“And it’s not your responsibility to save him, Allura,” said Shiro firmly.

“I wasn’t planning to make it mine,” Allura replied. “But I am...I’ve not sensed any of this, and I find it disconcerting that you have. When did this start, Keith?”

This time, Shiro just held Keith’s hand. No squeeze, no encouragement to speak up. This choice he was leaving entirely to Keith.

It wasn’t that Keith didn’t care about Allura. But he didn’t trust her. Specifically, he didn’t trust her not to react badly, not to use such knowledge against him. Maybe when she’d moved past her knee-jerk reactions about galra...but not yet. He didn’t feel like making himself her test case.

Keith shrugged. “No idea,” he said.

~*~

Haggar studied Macidus’ memories, freely offered to her to sift through.

The wolf...the wolf was troubling. The wolf was clearly intelligent, and possessed of power.

“Tell the others to bring me such a wolf,” Haggar ordered. “By whatever means necessary.”

“Yes, High Priestess,” said Macidus.

Haggar released her hold on Macidus’ mind and turned away. “He acts to protect the Marmora. Destroy them. Leave their cursed blades sunk in their corpses for him to find.”

“Yes, High Priestess,” said Macidus, with a bit more relish. “Do we lay a trap for him?”

“Not yet,” said Haggar. “We must understand this wolf’s powers, and counter them. The bond between those two paladins is powerful. There will be a rescue attempt. Plans must be careful or we will not be able to hold either of them.”

The druid bowed and departed to relay her orders.

Haggar could wish, sometimes, that her servants weren’t so abysmally stupid. But stupidity made them easier to command, and their obedience was more important than their intelligence.

She didn’t just want the Red Paladin. She wanted the Red and the Black. Take one, and the other would scour the universe to find him. Storm the heavens, break the gates of Hell. Haggar understood this implicitly. It had, after all, cost her a quite-difficult-to-produce clone.

So she was going to make it the point.

~*~

The communication with Voltron quickly became a global phenomenon. To save time and trouble, Colleen simply put (edited) communications online. Pidge rigged a little camera drone, and let it fly around the castleship and outside the castleship during battles, so the human race got to see what the war looked like. What Voltron looked like.

Lance’s family and Hunk’s family quickly found that the best and safest place for them to be was a Garrison compound, because everywhere else they were now global celebrities. Everyone wanted to know more about these not-exactly-teenagers in whose hands Earth’s fate rested. Lance’s family joined the Holts at the Southwest Garrison, while Hunk’s took refuge at the East Asia Garrison.

Ryou was also frequently sought after for interviews, and Adam found it amusing that Ryou did not like it. Shiro had always been rather easygoing about media attention, but Ryou had developed an active antipathy for it. He wouldn’t say why, exactly, but Adam picked up enough hints to guess that Earth wasn’t the only planet to be fascinated with the paladins.

He didn’t stop the blitz, though. He just put his foot down – hard - on what could and could not be said across the long intergalactic link. Ryou had not forgotten that the galra could hack communications just as well as the Holts, and given there was exactly one line open it wouldn’t be hard for them to do. So no mention of Earth’s specific defenses was allowed, and his main communication to the paladins at the other end was to kindly remember the line was not private.

The crankiness surprised Adam until he realized Ryou actually missed them – all of them – quite a lot. He didn’t talk about it, but he’d clearly worked closely with the paladins for some time. He cared about them, and missed them. One had only to see how avidly he watched the communication stream when he had the time, catching up on all the news.

The Holts could and did communicate sensitive data over the open line, but always in code and always new and different codes. The family actually seemed to have a Big Book of Codes which was just...a book, but a book with words highlighted in different colors, pages marked with little stars or circles or squares, and Adam wasn’t sure exactly how this all meant ‘unbreakable code’, but he could readily accept it meant a massive decoding headache for the galra.

It was by this code that the Garrisons got what they really, really needed – the composition of galra alloys, such as were being used in fighters and sentries. With these, the world military organizations could develop weapons meant to destroy and disable the less-armored galra attack forces. The armies would have a chance. Military R&D companies were working overtime to take advantage of it.

There was no word of any attempt by the galra to come to Earth. But now that Earth could see the war for itself, that was less of a concern. The people of Earth could see what was out there now, and defensive paranoia meant that the human race wanted to make sure it didn’t get steamrolled when that war arrived.

It was all good news. There were, of course, those that insisted the whole thing was a hoax, that there was just some good special effects people creating all the footage. But for the most part Earth believed. For the most part, Earth prepared.

Adam quietly wondered to himself if Ryou had told his distant friends that he was dying. He certainly hadn’t told his closer friends; Adam had learned to watch Ryou’s cat to figure it out.

Oh, Ryou had said he was living on a timer – that much he’d said outright, to Adam, the Holts, Iverson. But actually dying was a different matter. The timer was running out. And Ryou was stubborn, and proud, and did everything he could to present normality.

He couldn’t control his cat though. Black knew when Ryou was not feeling well and would glue his furry self to Ryou, purring like an engine. It was starting to happen more often. And Ryou was, unobtrusively, starting to delegate more of the defense plans to others.

They didn’t talk about it.

Not that Adam would’ve refused, or Iverson. Or Sam. Ryou had earned a lot of respect in his time on Earth so far. If the man had been willing to involve Earth’s medical profession, at this point the best doctors on the planet would have been happy to do all they could. But he wasn’t talking about it. Not to his colleagues, not to those that were friends, not to anyone. And while some of the worry was about Earth – how would the plans proceed, if Ryou died and the galra hadn’t come? - most of it was just concern for a man who was, without comment or fanfare, quietly giving his life to give Earth its best chance.

Sometimes, Ryou reminded Adam very sharply of why he and Shiro hadn’t been able to make a relationship work. Other times, he reminded Adam why they’d gotten together in the first place.

~*~

“Your skills are improving,” said Lotor calmly, parrying the strike easily.

“You’re still winning,” said Keith, disengaging to try a new angle.

The daily sparring was, Lotor admitted to himself, almost...fun.

Tick-tack. Tapticktack. Strike and parry, try for speed strikes.

Every part-galra tended to be some level of blending between their galra heritage and their non-galra heritage. Acxa’s perpetual solemnity came from her Teifen blood; it had been said Teifen had a sense of humor, but they’d locked it in a box and dropped it in a volcano. Zethrid’s unusual strength came from being half-Bhiton; Lotor never mentioned that the Bhiton were also prone to being a bit slow on the uptake. Ezor was really more Pallean than Galra, and Lotor had – at first – thought Keith to be mostly like that. Human, therefore, with some hidden galra traits.

Keith tried a low angle strike; Lotor countered, forcing Keith to go into a roll just to recover his footing.

Lotor was fairly certain, at this point, that that was not the case. Keith was, he was coming to believe, one of the genuinely rare cases of both halves of his heritage complementing each other.

Lotor managed to disarm Keith, but by now knew this would not count as the end of the spar. He moved to put his blade at Keith’s neck – which would – only for Keith to twist out of the way, dive for his blade, and come back with a flurry of attacks.

Humans were not as strong as galra, not as fast as galra, not as big as galra. But Shiro had maintained his Champion status by out-thinking and out-lasting his opponents, and Lotor came to believe these were traits Keith shared; intelligence paired with stamina. Only in Keith’s case, that stamina got added reinforcement from the tougher galra physique. While Lotor could, at first, exhaust Keith, that was rapidly no longer the case – Lotor was still winning the spars, but Keith was steadily less tired at the end of the matches. The Blades had said Keith fought for over ten vargas straight in his trials – he hadn’t won a single fight in that time, but he’d flat out refused to stand down. Galra could take punishment – but Lotor had to wonder if Keith realized most galra couldn’t take punishment that long.

Keith tried a peculiar twisting move with his blade and Lotor almost lost his grip on his sword. Almost. He disengaged, stepped back. Gave an approving nod for the near-success of the attempt, and they began again.

Galra were descended of a hunting species – they were quick and strong, but they were sprinters, not marathon runners. If a galra couldn’t win a direct confrontation quickly, odds were they weren’t going to win at all. Humans did not seem to be the same, not at all. It took – from a galra perspective – a frightening amount of punishment to wear them down. And because they weren’t as big, or fast, or strong as galra and knew it, a direct confrontation was the last thing they were inclined to try.

Keith was running out of ideas, today. The bladework was getting wilder as he became increasingly willing to try unconventional solutions. Lotor disarmed him again, and this time made sure that sword went a significant distance.

Keith was a hunter with stamina. And worse, didn’t seem to have any idea. He was too busy focusing on his opponent to realize his own strengths. He viewed his daily spar as a chance to learn and improve his skills.

Lotor, on the other hand, was very aware of Keith’s strengths. Keith would be a threat, someday. If Voltron turned on him.

Lotor had his blade at Keith’s throat. End of match. Keith stood quite still. It was another peculiarity of Keith’s – perhaps of humans? - that there was always that about his stance that, though they had sparred for vargas in good faith, at this moment Keith fully accepted that maybe, just maybe, this was the time Lotor turned on him. And yet, even in that acceptance of a possible betrayal, there was neither hate nor resentment. Lotor withdrew his sword, offered his hand to pull Keith to his feet. “A worthy attempt.”

In the meantime, this was...fun. Keith’s open willingness to just learn, taking the hits without taking them personally, proud of his successes without gloating or making a threat of them – it had been many, many years since anyone had treated Lotor that way.

~*~

The galra did, at least in Pidge’s view, have this whole period thing worked out better. Not massively better, but...better.

It involved a small, comfortable room with a rather explicit-looking reclining chair and a transfusion cuff. You settled yourself in the chair, and inserted the...well, suction device. What gravity accomplished over the course of several days, was thus handled in about an hour. Since this did involve blood loss, the transfusion cuff monitored the person in the chair and provided restoration as needed to counteract anemia. This included giving back the person’s own stored blood if needed. Very efficient, to Pidge’s mind, although there were settings on the chair which made it clear enough that some galra women viewed their time in the chair as a good time to catch up on their self-love, which was the sort of thing Pidge wasn’t sure she’d actually wanted to know about galra women.

It felt deeply weird, and Krolia had had to help Pidge make some not-insignificant adjustments given she was a lot shorter than pretty much any galra woman old enough to need such a chair, but it was loads better than altean bloodworms. It did leave the galra in possession of quite a lot of Pidge’s genetic material, though, and Pidge could understand why Krolia hadn’t been at all certain Pidge would want to go this route.

And, of course, it meant sitting still for an hour...away from her consoles and her lab.

That’s probably the reason she hacked another imperial sentry drone when it floated by the room. The drone could go places. She could see through its cameras. Central Command was the size of a small planet, and it was hollow. There were literally tens of thousands of miles of the place – it was why Krolia was often not seen for days between battles.

So, for an hour, to mitigate otherwise crazymaking levels of boredom, Pidge explored.

And the first thing she realized was...the capital was a lot less drab than it first appeared. The drone’s sensors picked up colors her human eyes didn’t. Every wall had indications on it of where you were, what was nearby, and the nearest major destinations. Just...painted in such a way that to her it looked like more of that drab mauve color. The drone’s sensors, though, picked it all up clearly.

Was it painted so non-galra couldn’t see it, or painted so only machines could see it? She’d have to ask Krolia. Or Keith.

~*~

Lotor and Allura waited for everyone to gather. The tests would take time, but the first one of anything was always special.

His generals waited in a little group. Acxa looked worried, but proud – Lotor had already told her that she couldn’t come on this trip. It would just be himself and Allura. This didn’t sit well with Acxa, but she was nothing if not devoted.

The paladins didn’t look any happier, but they didn’t look proud, either. If anything they were worried. Lotor understood why. This was, after all, The Moment. The moment he no longer needed their goodwill or assistance. If this went according to plan, he would have his own fighting mecha and an unlimited supply of quintessence that Sendak couldn’t take from him. A mecha that might well stand a good chance against Voltron itself.

If Lotor was going to betray them, therefore, now would be the tipping point into the land of ‘it wouldn’t cost Lotor anything to do so’.

And, truth be told, the idea had crossed Lotor’s mind. More than a few times. The paladins did not trust him – that was obvious. Allura and her ongoing ‘galra issues’ were at best tiring and on some days actively painful to endure. But betrayal was a card that could only be played once. Voltron had, as yet, made no demands that made the risk necessary, or even profitable. After working with them so long, Lotor wasn’t certain that they ever would, although he had not by any means discarded the possibility that they could.

Anyone could betray. It was a lesson learned long ago and one Lotor had never forgotten. Anyone could betray.

“Today marks the end of a long process,” said Lotor smoothly, stepping forward. He did not take Allura’s hand, but stood close enough that she could take his easily, if she chose. “And the beginning of true alliance, where the Empire can provide as much aid to Voltron as Voltron has provided to us. By the end of this day, we will have fuel for our cruisers to fight Sendak’s rebellion. And a mighty ally for Voltron to maintain peace in the universe.”

He wasn’t expecting applause and wasn’t surprised there wasn’t any. Reminding Voltron that they’d just helped create a weapon that just might defeat them had all the paladins trying not to squirm.

Lotor refrained from gloating. Instead, he gestured to Allura, as graciously as might be, that it was time for her to enter the ship she’d been working on all this time. He followed her into the cockpit, and the hatch closed behind them.

Allura had nothing to say, thin-lipped and determined as Lotor started up the ship, and the docking bay doors opened to let them out into open space. She seemed to be focusing entirely on the readings at her console.

Very well, then. “Preparing for jump,” said Lotor calmly. The ship felt alive, aware. Anticipatory. Responsive. It knew what he wanted to do and was only awaiting permission to do it.

Fascinating.

The slip into the quintessence field was smooth. Seamless. The galra had had no religion for the entirety of Lotor’s long existence, and he’d never really understood the fragments of Altean religious texts he’d been able to recover. But when Allura breathed, “By the Ancients,” he thought he could agree with the sentiment.

“Magnificent,” said Lotor softly. “What are your readings, princess?”

She almost startled, remembering they were there to do a job. “It’s...everywhere. Pure quintessence. All systems seem to be working perfectly.”

“I will see about collecting some samples, then,” said Lotor. The place was...affecting his entire being. He felt like he’d spent his entire life being a dry sponge, and now that he was here, he was soaking up this energy and...becoming.

It was a good thing he’d set up a specific list of goals for this first trip. The serenity of the plane was infectious, somehow. And he could hear Allura making little delighted noises behind him.

~*~

Krolia was not, for once, prowling the less-well-known corridors of Central Command – and there were a lot of them, quite a lot more than Lotor likely knew about.

No, the paladins were all busy, and the generals were all busy, and for once the thing occupying both groups wasn’t a fight that Krolia needed to be at too. That meant the channel to Earth was, at least for the moment, open.

And she had some private requests to make. “Castle of Lions to Galaxy Garrison.”

This is Colleen Holt,” came the expected response – somehow Colleen was more likely to be manning the Earth side of things than anyone else. “Who is this?”

“This is Krolia,” the Blade responded. “You are the Green Paladin’s mother, yes?”

Yes,” came Colleen’s somewhat-wary response. “But I’m not sure we’ve got any record of you. Who are you?”

“My son is Keith,” said Krolia. So far this was exactly what she’d hoped for.

Oh!” Colleen replied. “I’m – honored to meet you. I take it you’re his -?”

“Galra parent,” said Krolia, a bit dryly. “Yes. I serve in the Blade of Marmora. I left my son on Earth because I thought he’d be safe there, and I had to draw the Empire’s attention away from Earth while the Blue Lion was hidden there.”

I’d say you succeeded,” said Colleen. “What can I do for you?”

“I have a private request,” said Krolia. “As a mother I appeal to you to keep any record of this private until you have results, and Keith’s response. Can you agree to this?”

There was silence on the other end for a few moments. “You know this isn’t a secure line. Admiral Shirogane was very clear. And to encrypt the data, you would have to be willing to entrust my daughter with it.”

It was Krolia’s turn to consider. She hid it well, but she was honestly deeply protective of her son. She was simply, in most cases, also confident he could handle events. This would be different. This was a matter of the heart, of blood. “Let us ...make an agreement,” said Krolia slowly. “I will make my request. On your end let it remain private until you have answers. When you have those answers, I will trust you, as mother of children also in this war, to decide whether it is information best imparted in person, or encrypted with your daughter as relay, or if it can be relayed on an insecure line.”

...You’re trusting me with a great deal,” Colleen replied quietly. “And we’ve never met.”

“You are a mother with children in this war,” said Krolia. “And I have spent time on Earth. The mother of the Green Paladin, I will trust with this.”

When you put it like that,” said Colleen dryly, “I guess I can’t say no. What’s your request?”

“Find out what happened to Keith’s father,” said Krolia. “And when. It involved a burning building; he was a firefighter. And why Keith was not given to his father’s family.”

There was another silence on the other end. “...I see.”

“You understand?” asked Krolia. The question involved more than just the request.

Yes,” said Colleen, and the tone was determined. “Yes. I understand. I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you,” said Krolia, and closed the line.

~*~

The group were quiet as the ship returned. In an external claw, the ship held a container that gleamed brightly with quintessence.

“...I’ve never seen it that shiny before,” mused Pidge.

“Hopefully it won’t make any ships explode,” said Hunk.

The hatch opened, and Lotor and Allura climbed out. Both looked….alive. More alive than when they’d gone in. If they’d been standing on soil the instinct would have been to watch their feet for sprouting plants. Keith quickly looked away, wincing a bit; Shiro shifted slightly so that his larger frame hid Keith from the two pilots’ view.

“I take it everything went as planned?” Shiro asked them.

“So far, yes,” Lotor nodded, and though he maintained a calm demeanor, he was visibly pleased at that. “We will need to analyze the sample, and test its efficacy as fuel.”

“And be certain we’ve done no harm by collecting it,” Allura interjected firmly, to Lotor’s surprise. “What you’ve proposed has never been tried, not even in days of old. It’s possible that quintessence collection from the rift hastened the destruction of Daibazaal, for example. We will need to tread carefully.”

“Yes – yes, of course,” said Lotor quickly. “There is little point in trying to rule a broken wasteland, after all.”

Pidge adjusted her glasses. “Actually, if quintessence harvesting had anything to do with Daibazaal’s instability,” she said, “Then it’s more like ‘there’s no point trying to rule a reality that’s collapsed in on itself’. We’re dealing with a lot of unknowns.”

“I am quite certain that you will all be able to inform me if there are any dangers that we have not anticipated,” said Lotor.

~*~

Click-click. Click-clack.

Sparring with Shiro was nothing like sparring with Lotor. Galra figured you could learn technique on your own time – sparring was for testing it in real time. Even with blunted weapons, a galra spar was always real.

Shiro wasn’t like that. Not on any level. Practicing with Shiro was a meditation in motion.

It might have surprised the other paladins that Shiro could and did use a sword. That the Black Bayard, in his hands, became a black-hilted katana with a purplish shine to the blade. It didn’t surprise Keith at all, nor did Shiro not telling the others.

Shiro didn’t really think of sword fighting that way. Not...as something to actually be used in combat. It was entirely possible he had been relieved that the only weapon he’d ever been given was one that wasn’t meant for use in kendo, and which didn’t adapt the techniques well.

Shiro had feelings about swords, and how you used them, and why you didn’t use them in warfare, and this was about ninety percent of why he used his galra arm in fights instead.

He sparred with Keith because when Keith was younger, he’d needed something that let him focus his energy. And because Keith felt the same way about swords, though it had taken the Marmora for Shiro to find out why.

They went through the kata and Keith found that yes, it really did still help. It still helped to focus on each step, each swing.

“So, are you going to tell me what you saw, today?” asked Shiro.

“Lotor?” asked Keith, adjusting his stance.

“Heel a bit farther back. There,” said Shiro. “And yes, Lotor.”

Step, swing. “I don’t think he should go back into the quintessence field,” said Keith.

Clack, click-clack. “Well, that’s a pretty general sentiment,” Shiro noted.

“I mean I think it may make it harder on him,” said Keith. “That darkness. I think it’ll grow. Is growing.”

“Allura said it was peaceful, in the quintessence field,” Shiro observed, and paused to adjust Keith’s grip slightly.

“For her it probably was,” said Keith. “She shone, when she came back. I’m surprised she still had a shadow. But Lotor didn’t shine. Something in him absorbed all the light.”

Clack. Click-clack. Step. Step. Swing-swing.

“...Is Lotor a friend?” asked Shiro, and Keith promptly lost track of where they were in the form.

“What?”

Shiro stepped back. Slight bow, sheathed the practice sword. Always observe proper form on the mats. “Is Lotor a friend?” he repeated, unruffled.

Keith was ruffled enough for both of them. “What do you mean by that?”

Shiro smiled a bit. “It’s really not as difficult a question as you seem to think.”

“Only because you have no idea what it would mean,” Keith pointed out. He waved a hand to indicate huge horking pile of issues.

Shiro hmm’d. “All right. Let me rephrase the question then. Are you, okay, for your part, his friend?”

That made Keith pause.

Shiro nodded. “A friend would tell him he’s in danger,” he said. “Even if Lotor isn’t likely to listen, a friend would make sure he knows.”

Chapter Text

Lotor had lived a very, very long time. He’d rather thought that meant there wasn’t much outside his experience. He wasn’t sure what to make of being wrong.

Vrepit Sal – and he seemed to insist on the ‘vrepit’, possibly the little galra had in fact changed his name – stood with chest puffed out only slightly more than his stomach, doing his damndest to present some variant of military bearing as he presented his Emperor with ...well, dinner.

This was the Yellow Paladin’s galra trainee? Clearly, thereby hung some kind of tale.

And he was absolutely treating this as some kind of formal evaluation. Lotor almost laughed, but if nothing else he had been recommended by the Yellow Paladin and clearly taught by him. Lotor did not feel insulting the paladins was wise at this time.

He dutifully sampled the presented dishes. Not quite the taste explosion Hunk could produce, but clearly Sal – sorry, Vrepit Sal – was working in that direction. He nodded, approving. It was at the very least a significant step up from goo packets.

Vrepit Sal looked like his muscles might lock if he held that posture much longer. “You may be at ease,” said Lotor, forcing his voice to remain calm, without any hint of the increasing amusement he felt.

The little galra looked equal parts proud and terrified to be addressed by the emperor. Lotor had very much never met a galra that showed terror of anything. It was like meeting an entirely new species.

“Is the sustenance satisfactory, your emperorship?” asked Sal, trying to be gruff but utterly failing to hide his amazement that he was standing there, just a few feet from the emperor of the whole empire.

Your majesty will do,” said Lotor dryly. “Yes. I will expect you to continue your studies with the Yellow Paladin, but your sustenance is satisfactory. You will take the learning the Yellow Paladin provides you, and I will appoint you master chef of Central Command. It will be your task to prepare meals for myself and my generals, and to train staff to prepare satisfactory meals for all residents of Central Command. Do you understand?”

He’d just said that in effect Vrepit Sal was in charge of keeping hundreds of thousands of galra happy with their food. The wide-eyed, oh fucking hell terror on Vrepit Sal’s face made it clear that yes, the little galra did understand. And maybe he wasn’t as overtly stoic as Lotor was used to, but he was galra enough not to back down from a challenge. He saluted. “Sir, your majesty, yes sir! Their faces will crack from the smiles sir!”

Lotor nodded. “I am sure you have much to prepare. You may determine your requirements to fulfil my orders and pass them to my generals. You may go.”

He was quite careful not to so much as crack a smile until Vrepit Sal was well out of hearing. And then laughed himself breathless.

Where had the Yellow Paladin found that little one?

~*~

Lance was not a happy camper.

It wasn’t that he begrudged Keith flying Red, not really. Red had some good moves, but Blue felt more...him. Lance quite liked being in Blue, he could really work with her.

But he’d honestly expected that Allura would come back on the team when she was done with the Sinclines. And now she wasn’t doing that. She was staying with Lotor’s group. The number of ways that could go really wrong was not small. And he’d told Keith he could fix this problem she had with galra, but maybe he wasn’t needed for that. She might be on the way to doing that herself.

Or, possibly, starting a war. That was also an option. But Shiro seemed to think it was okay, and Shiro would know, right?

Boo.

Lance didn’t jump out of his skin, but only because it was attached. He did jump, though, up and back and his bayard was in his hands before he had time to think, blaster at the ready -

and Ezor was laughing at him. Doubled over laughing at him.

“You should have seen your face!” she cackled.

“On my planet it’s generally considered a bad idea to startle people who are armed,” said Lance shortly. He didn’t really like Ezor. Not least because she seemed to think of him as some kind of shiny cat toy.

She grinned widely at him. “Really?” she said. “So there are people on your planet who aren’t armed all the time?” She drew a pistol just to demonstrate that she wasn’t worried about Lance’s big gun. “Come on. You have to admit you are funny when you jump. Or did you want to fight?” The grin widened. “What do I get when I win?”

“Well, you’re overconfident,” said Lance shortly.

He had his blaster pointed right at her. She was less than six feet away. And then she vanished. Not a sound, not a flash, or a rain of motes. Just...not there. This time when Lance startled he pulled the trigger. It burned a char mark onto the wall.

And there was a blade at his throat. Not a big one, maybe a dagger, but Ezor’s mouth was right by his ear. “You sure about that, pretty boy?” she murmured in what Lance would have thought of as a disturbingly bedroom voice if sharp objects weren’t involved.

Lance’s blaster became the Altean longsword and he twisted in her grip to knock that dagger out of her hands. He got a cut on his neck, but while it bled, it didn’t seem to have cut an artery. Ezor vanished again, but this time Lance didn’t make the mistake of trusting his eyes. He didn’t even really think it out; he just swung the blade diagonally, exactly the way Ezor might move to dodge a blind strike to get behind him again.

This time she appeared with her back to the wall, bleeding from a large gash in her side. She wasn’t laughing anymore. “...Good one,” she panted.

Lance released the bayard, letting it vanish again. The cut was solid, along her side and down her hip. “What is wrong with you?” he demanded. “We’re supposed to be allies. What kind of shit is this?” He reached for her, grabbing her by her uninjured arm. “Let me get you to a medical pod, idiot. I’m not going to have Shiro yelling at me about starting a war because you don’t know how to act like a normal person.”

Ezor was busy holding her insides in, and didn’t object to his assistance, but she did look really bewildered by it. “I am a normal person,” she said faintly, as if she hadn’t a clue why Lance was so upset with her.

“Really?” Lance demanded, and sounded angrier than he was because this was really a lot more blood than he expected. He picked her up, then – surprised to find that he could, but Ezor was really a very slight and small being when you discounted her tentacle – and carried her, striding quickly. “So you try to cut the throats of all your friends?”

Ezor’s eyes were starting to close. “If...I meant it...wouldn’t have been visible at all...”

No. No, no, no. “Stay awake, damnit,” said Lance, breaking into a run. “Keep talking. Keep talking.” Not much farther.

“Just a game,” said Ezor quietly. “Just...”

She fell silent, and Lance was stuck with hoping like hell he hadn’t killed her, because he wasn’t at all sure Lotor would take that well even if she had started it. He raced along the corridors and heard increased sounds of surprise and concern behind him, but that was a problem for after medical pods.

When he got into the nearest medbay, he all but threw Ezor into the first pod he could reach, activating it. It hummed into glowing life, and he sagged, hands on his knees, catching his breath. She wasn’t that heavy, but he wasn’t used to running while carrying people.

He realized he was covered in her blood. He looked down and saw he’d left a bloody trail into the corridor, and got a great view of a huge bluish fist as it whammed into his face.

And a lot of noise, as the world went quietly black.

~*~

As seemed to ever be the case, Lance completely missed Keith drawing his sword and getting between him and a genuinely murderously enraged Zethrid. Behind them, in the corridor, others were gathering – or running off to get still others.

“He attacked Ezor!” roared Zethrid. She didn’t charge, but only because she’d seen Keith fight.

“And he got her into the pod,” said Keith levelly, staying between her and Lance. “Whatever happened, we are not making it bigger. I’m going to take him out of here. And you’re going to guard Ezor’s pod so nothing can happen to her while she heals. Deal?”

Zethrid was wide eyed, her lips pulled back from her teeth as if she very much wanted to rip Keith’s throat out with them, which she probably did. He could...sympathize, which felt odd to even think, but he knew what Zethrid was feeling. He’d been there. He knew, therefore, what mattered. What to say. “You want to protect Ezor, right? Stay here. Stay with her pod. I’ll take Lance out of here and I promise, he won’t go near her until we get to the bottom of this. If we fight in here, Ezor’s pod will not be safe.”

Keith knew he’d hit the right note when Zethrid made a ‘get the fuck away from me’ gesture with one of her hands. “He better not set foot in here,” she snarled. She moved to put herself between the paladins and Ezor’s pod. She stood in a wrestler’s ready posture, making it clear she fully intended to rip the head off anyone that got too close.

Keith took the win. He released his bayard, picked Lance up, and got the hell out of the room.

He didn’t get too far, though, before it seemed everyone was running in his direction. Lotor looked angry. Shiro looked shocked. Everyone else just seemed worried.

“Is Lance okay?” asked Shiro.

“Just unconscious. Zethrid’s fist met his face,” said Keith. “Let me put him down somewhere and he can tell us what the fuck just happened. Ezor’s in a medical pod. Alive, but she’ll be in there a while and Zethrid’s out for blood.”

“Of course she is,” said Lotor, as if surprised Keith had to say it. “They’ve been together a while.”

Shiro looked around, and then pointed. “There’s a room over here big enough for everyone to listen. Put him down in there.”

Lance put Ezor in a pod?” asked Hunk. “That doesn’t sound like him.”

“Not on purpose, anyway,” Pidge agreed.

“I want to know what you know about this, Keith,” said Shiro, as they filed into the room.

Keith found a table that would serve as a bench, and laid Lance on it. “Don’t know much. Was practicing against a droid and I saw him carrying Ezor at a run, blood everywhere. I followed. Zethrid saw the same thing, and ran faster. I caught up just as she flattened him.”

Shiro looked Lance over, confirming that aside from what would be an impressive bruise on his cheek, he was fine and the blood was mostly not his. But, “There’s a fine cut on his neck, here. Does Ezor carry a dagger?”

“Yes,” said Lotor. “A knife and a pistol are standard issue.” He glanced toward Acxa.

“...Ezor is fond of adrenaline games,” said Acxa slowly. “She has been fascinated with the blue paladin for a while.”

“Adrenaline games,” said Shiro flatly. “You mean surprise attacks, ambushes?”

Games, paladin,” sighed Lotor. “She is unusually playful, true, but they are games. It is...friendliness.”

“Like hell it is,” snapped Pidge. “You can’t just sneak up on someone and attack them!”

“She did no real harm,” Acxa pointed out. “She likely meant no real harm.”

“….Good humans don’t play those games,” said Keith slowly. “Humans that play games like that are doing it to make their target afraid and vulnerable. Whether she intended to physically hurt him or not, Lance probably interpreted her attention as treating him like prey.”

Shiro’s mouth opened, closed. Frowned. Stared at Keith. Slowly nodded.

Acxa blinked. “Ezor is a skilled assassin,” she said, surprised to have to point this out. “If she truly meant to hurt him he would never have seen her at all. How did he not know this?”

“Humans do not play galra games,” said Allura firmly. “He saw an attack and responded defensively. She did cut his neck.”

Lotor was frowning almost identically to Shiro, and he was also studying Keith. “Good humans, you say. Among galra it is a common practice to keep one’s comrades on their toes by staging mock ambushes. It helps keep the alert edge needed to survive in battle, and provides practice in quick responses.” He seemed to be testing Keith’s view on that, at least as much as he was explaining it for everyone else.

On the table, Lance stirred. “….I’m….not on the floor,” he said slowly. “And this isn’t the medical bay.”

“We need an explanation for why you’re covered in Ezor’s blood, Lance,” said Shiro, and the tone was calm but quite clear that ‘no’ wasn’t going to be an acceptable answer.

Lance laid back down with a thunk as his head hit the table. “...Yeah, about that,” he sighed. “Is she gonna be all right?”

“Zethrid is staying in the medical bay,” said Lotor mildly. “So we can assume the answer to be ‘yes’. If Ezor dies, I assure you, you will be the second person to know.”

“The se-” Lance stopped, made a face. Of course the first person would be Zethrid. “Right.”

“Lance,” Shiro repeated.

“Right,” Lance sighed, and filled them in. To his surprise, no one yelled – no one looked happy, but no one yelled.

“You drew a longsword to counter a dagger,” said Acxa, disapproving.

“The dagger was at my neck,” said Lance, indicating the cut that definitely still hurt.

“These aren’t games to humans,” Keith repeated – which surprised Lance to hear. Or at least, hear from Keith. “Once she drew any kind of weapon it was a real fight as far as Lance could know.”

“Wait, how was it not?” Lance asked. He put his fingers to the cut on his neck. “I mean this feels pretty real. I didn’t want to kill her, but having a knife at my throat is no game.”

Acxa reiterated the ‘rules’ of galra ambush games for Lance’s benefit, while Shiro approached Lotor. “It’s your general in a pod,” he said quietly. “What do you want to do?”

Lotor did not look particularly happy. “It would seem that you are unfamiliar with galra ways,” he said. “If you are to remain in Central Command that will have to change. This is the home of the galra, paladin. By our laws, the Blue Paladin should be sentenced for escalating a mere game to such levels, and for assaulting a general.”

“If I heal her,” said Allura, “will you show Lance mercy?”

Lotor turned that blank, regal mask on the princess. “Ever willing to consider us monsters, I see,” he said flatly. “It is a misunderstanding. But as it is a misunderstanding of Galra ways at the very heart of Galra territory, the fault lies more with the paladin than my general.”

Lance started with “Hey, n-” and got no further before Keith reached over and clamped a firm hand over his mouth. Lotor noticed it, of course, but seemed to address his next remark to Keith rather than the room at large.

“I will assign a dayak to you,” said Lotor. “Who will teach all of the paladins the customs of this place. Your castleship you may run as pleases you, but when you step off it into Central Command, it is my law that binds. I will expect that the open minds and open hearts of the Paladins of Voltron will not fail me in this, and we will have no repetitions.” He spoke the last words in such a manner as to make clear it was in no way a suggestion. There would be no repetitions.

And then Lotor turned to Allura. “Heal my general or do not. You are the arbiter of Altean ways now, Princess. But for my part I believe my sentence fair and just.”

Keith looked down at Lance, as if judging whether Lance was going to object. When he saw that was unlikely, he removed his hand from Lance’s face. Allura, for her part, looked angry, and offended, but also speechless. She turned away from Lotor, and put her hand – lightly – to Lance’s neck. A soft shine emanated from her fingers for a few moments.

Lance tested the spot with his own fingers. “Uh. Thanks.” It was hard to be properly grateful when someone looked angry while healing you. Lance had played MMOs back on Earth and it was bringing to mind healer rants he’d been around for. He looked toward Shiro and was relieved that Shiro didn’t seem angry at him, didn’t seem to be blaming him – just looked worried, which was fair.

“You’re welcome,” said Allura, and walked out.

“A ...dayak,” Shiro echoed. “All right. We could probably stand to learn more about the galra from a non-military perspective. It sounds reasonable. I’m sorry this happened.”

“...So am I, paladin,” said Lotor. “I will go and see about prying Zethrid away from vengeance.”

Once he and Acxa were gone, Hunk and Pidge went at once to make sure Lance really was okay. And to get details because, as Hunk pointed out, “Cutting people in half is really not your style.”

“I told you already,” said Lance, irritated – and worried. “She kept...poofing in and out of sight. She said it was a game. Got behind me with that knife at my throat and wanted to know what she’d get if she won. I -” he exhaled. “I panicked. I swung blind. When she came back into view I saw I’d got her….way too hard. So I tried to get her into a pod before she bled out, and people saw me.”

Zethrid saw,” Keith clarified. “The others didn’t matter. Zethrid did.”

“Well, yeah, my face agrees with you there,” said Lance sourly. “I don’t get it. I mean I didn’t mean to hurt her that much, but what was I supposed to do? She had a knife at my throat.”

“Keith?” said Shiro softly. “You seem to understand this situation. I was willing to back you in front of Lotor for that reason, but you need to explain this now. What was Lance supposed to have done? Because I think any of us,” and he gestured to Pidge and Hunk as well as himself, “would have done the same as Lance. It’s just the differences in our weapons that might have changed the outcome.”

“The weapons make all the difference, actually,” said Keith. “A dagger would’ve been fine. Stun pistol too. Nothing that does limb-severing levels of damage.” He stepped back away from Lance, not particularly happy to be on the spot. “It’s just galra.”

“Yeah, we got that part,” said Pidge flatly. “But we’re surrounded by just galra. So if they can pull knives on us in the corridors and it’s on us if we fight back, I’m all for staying on the castleship from now on.”

“It’s – it’s like cats,” said Keith, still very clearly not happy with having to explain things he didn’t seem all that sure of himself. “You see cats do this all the time. Even adult cats. They’ll sneak up on another cat who’s just lying in a warm bit of sun, and pounce, and run away, or maybe mock-fight without claws. It’s just play.”

“I’d say daggers count as claws out, Keith,” said Lance, frowning. “This isn’t exactly holding up as analogies go.”

“It’s the same kind of instinct though,” said Keith. “Galra for the past ten thousand odd years are raised to fight. It’s all geared toward fighting. Being ready to fight. Making sure everyone on your side is ready to fight. They’ll do stuff like this all the time in the Blades. If you’re not ready to deal with a sudden attack at any time, then you’re not ready to go out.”

Shiro was frowning now. “Keith, that’s generally considered cruel to humans. At the light end it would be called a mean prank, but Lance has a point about the weapons.”

“Yeah, well. Ezor’s….kind of bent,” said Keith awkwardly, shrugging. “To put the knife at Lance’s throat is actually fair. It’s like putting your foot across an opponent’s neck in a spar. Or touching the chest armor with the sword tip. It’s...scoring the point, proving you weren’t ready. But Ezor takes things the one step too far. She does that a lot.”

“So – wait a minute,” said Lance slowly. “You mean I really was in the right the whole time?”

“Not that you could prove,” Keith pointed out. “Ezor’s good at that, too. The type is all over Earth, you’ve got to have run into it before now.”

There was a hint in his tone that if no one else had, Keith might possibly give up on trying to speak Human for the day. But Pidge nodded. “I’ve run into the type,” she agreed. “Stick to the letter of the rules when the teacher’s watching, then spread on extra nasty when the teacher’s not in the room.”

Keith nodded, relieved. “Lance’s retaliation is way beyond what the game allows for. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t start it, or that Ezor’s tricks didn’t give him much choice. Or if you look at it another way, those are the point – she didn’t just score a touch in an ambush, she had the whole situation set up so unless Lance knew exactly what he was dealing with, she’d come out on top.”

“Which he didn’t, because none of us know the rules of this game,” Shiro said slowly. “I see. And so Lotor’s made sure we’ll all get a rundown of this and any other games Ezor might play.”

“Fine,” sighed Lance. “So ...if that’s the game, how do we win it?”

“Get good at it, or refuse to play,” said Keith bluntly.

The whole room stared at him.

Not helpful,” said Lance. “I didn’t want to play. I didn’t get a choice about it.”

Keith shook his head. “No, I mean as a group. You’re the humans. You’re...new. Lotor’s right as far as he goes – this is the heart of galra territory, and we all need to know more about galra rules if we’re going to keep spending time here. But if you’re all in agreement, if you’re willing to make a stand about it, you can tell Lotor that no human is to be considered fair game. That humans not only don’t play those games, but if forced to, all humans would react as badly as Lance did. So don’t start it. You haven’t given the galra here….anything, really, to work with. They don’t know anything about humans in general. This doesn’t have to be one sided. You can teach as much as you learn.”

That’s why Lotor kept looking at you, isn’t it,” said Pidge, blinking. “I was wondering about that. He was looking at you to see if he was being fair for humans. Because you’re half galra so he probably figures he can read you better than the rest of us.”

Keith nodded, visibly relieved that someone got it. “He needs Voltron’s goodwill. So he needs our goodwill. But he doesn’t know anything about Earth, or humans in general, unless we tell him.”

“So he’s watching...you,” said Hunk slowly. “To learn about humans. Anybody else thinking this could go really badly?”

Lance and Pidge both raised their hands; Keith blushed scarlet and facepalmed. Hunk walked over to give Keith a little shoulder-shake. “Hey now. Not rattling your chain or anything, but you have said you forget how to human. Like, kind of a lot. It’s nothing personal.”

“Lotor’s watching Keith not because he’s the most human of us,” said Shiro, “but because he thinks Keith may be the halfway point between human and galra. Lotor understands galra.”

“Yeah, okay, in a very general sense,” said Pidge. “But Hunk’s got a real point. If Lotor needs a translator then Keith needs backup to be one.”

The argument, however, was cut short by proximity alarms.

The paladins all looked up and around. They were in Central Command. Who could attack a military base the size of a planet with two mechs guarding it?

“Lance, quick wash to get the blood off and then into uniform. Everyone else, to the lions,” said Shiro, and the tone said that’s an order.

It wasn’t just that only Sendak would. Only Sendak could.

~*~

Lotor retreated to the throne room, because that would be where all his commanders would expect to find him with central command under attack.

He wasn’t needed, precisely. The vast majority of central command’s defense staff were trained under Zarkon. They knew their places and their roles and what to report and what to handle themselves. Lotor had only to activate the three dimensional hologram that showed central command and its attackers in real time, and issue orders for general response.

But he chafed. As Emperor, he was required to be here. In the throne room. Directing the battle. Where he wanted to be was in the Sincline, fighting the battle.

Not that being down two pilots helped with that at all. It was the galra in him; the desire to take the battle to the enemy. It was important, right now, to be altean. Sendak could out-galra him. Was probably counting on doing that. That would be the point of so bold a move. If he could beat Lotor now, here, Lotor’s reign was over. It would be over even if Sendak just succeeded in wounding him enough. This was the heart of Lotor’s empire and it was the heart of his claim to rule. He had to be stronger.

He paced around the hologram representation of the battle, noting the defenses and counterattacks his people were raising. Ordinarily, of course, only a fool would take on central command in a direct confrontation. But with the loss of the druids and the fuel issues not yet resolved, and the loss of personnel to Sendak’s recruitment...the battle was weighted in Sendak’s favor.

If you didn’t count Voltron. A little smile curled the edges of Lotor’s lips as he watched the castleship launch, and the streaks of color as the five Lions took off.

A little movement caught his eye. He turned to see Acxa standing solemnly, at attention, watching him. At her side...Krolia, and...Allura.

Lotor blinked. They were volunteering? Without Ezor and Zethrid?

“We can turn the tide of this battle, sire,” said Acxa quietly. “Let us fight.”

They weren’t his generals. They weren’t his. Krolia was a Blade, and they were still somewhat neutral. Allura was a step shy of an enemy, no trust there at all. But they were volunteering.

And he did need them.

Lotor nodded. “Go,” he said. “Take the head, Acxa. Make them bleed.”

Acxa saluted proudly. He had, after all, told her to take his ship of the three. Alone. “We’ll see it done, sire.”

“I have no doubt that you will,” said Lotor. He didn’t add that he was fairly sure the other two were in it to protect the Lions. Some things didn’t need elaboration.

They left, and he watched the ships launch from his holographic monitor.

~*~

Shiro had a rather easier task. Sendak was the enemy. Central Command was an ally. Defend the ally from the enemy.

He directed the paladins as Lions, so they could cover more fronts and reinforce Central Command’s defenses. There were swarms of fighters battling each other, the two sides nigh-indistinguishable. The Lions focused, therefore, on the cruisers. Lotor’s, using unprocessed quintessence, had paler running lights. And of course weren’t shooting at the paladins.

It was often said that any battle strategy lasted two minutes into an actual battle at most, but this one was chaotic even by the standards of battle. Hunk and Lance mostly stood guard over the docking bays, making sure Lotor’s ships could get back in for repairs or back out to the fray quickly and safely. Keith and Pidge flew to support any of Lotor’s cruisers that seemed to need help, and Shiro bounced between all of them as needed while trying to keep track of the overall battle.

Which is probably why it took a transmission from Krolia – Voltron, we are hard pressed – for Shiro to realize he’d failed to consider a very basic question.

~*~

Acxa was a good commander, and when she wasn’t having to rein in Zethrid’s battle-rage or find a focus for Ezor’s boredom she was even better. Krolia had if anything even more experience than Acxa, and while Allura was the youngest of the three pilots she knew the most about what she could coax her ship into doing.

They didn’t have much experience working together, as such – and none under Acxa’s direction – but the Sinclines were swift and powerful vessels. It therefore took the three women a while to realize that Sendak was pushing them a lot more than he was pushing against the Paladins, or against Central Command’s own defenses.

“He wants the Sincline,” Allura gritted, furious when she worked it out. “That’s why now, why he’s come with everything. The Sincline is done. He wants to take it before we’ve had time to fully explore what we can do with it.”

“He will not get it,” growled Krolia, not as angry but just as fierce.

“Combine,” Acxa ordered. “If he thinks he can take us he is welcome to try.”

~*~

Lotor watched on his monitor as the Sincline ships combined. Sleek and powerful, the final form reflected something of each of his generals. Ezor’s head tentacle, Narti’s tail, Zethrid’s strength, Acxa’s grace. His creation. Lotor’s claws reached out to pass through the holographic image. His Sincline.

“Lotor,” came Shiro’s voice over the comm. “Sendak’s here for the Sincline. He’s going to try and take it. We’re going to combine and provide backup.”

“No,” said Lotor firmly. “Do not combine. Please focus the attention of the Lions on Sendak’s cruisers and fighters as you have been.”

“Lotor, if Sendak gets his claws on that mech -”

“I am aware of the risk,” said Lotor firmly. “My order stands. If my empire is to survive this day, paladin, the role you play here must remain limited.”

~*~

All the paladins heard Lotor’s order. For the most part, the verdict was unkind.

“Sincline needs backup!” snapped Lance, even as Blue ripped the wing off a fighter and threw what was left into another fighter. “It’s missing three pilots, they’ve never combined before, and Allura’s in there!”

“This isn’t the time or place for an ego trip,” Pidge agreed. “Shiro, we’re barely making a dent in Sendak’s army. He can keep this attack up for hours before he starts running out of soldiers to throw at us! By then he’ll have captured the Sincline – and those ships aren’t picky! Anyone can fly thim, him included!”

“Allura will be okay though right?” asked Hunk. “We can go get her if Sendak beats the Sincline?”

Shiro was almost surprised Keith didn’t chime in, but Red had its paws full with a small group of cruisers. Keith didn’t have the attention to spare. “Calm down,” Shiro ordered. “All of you. Lotor has to do things a specific way if he wants to stay Emperor. And we want him to stay Emperor too. If we defend him here, where he’s supposed to be strongest, that tells all the galra that Lotor’s our puppet, that he’s not strong enough to hold even his most defensible position on his own. The Sincline is Lotor’s, so it’s allowed to fight, but we have to stick to support.”

~*~

Haggar, too, watched the battle. In truth she considered it a desperation move on Sendak’s part. Not an unwise desperation move, but desperate nonetheless. If he couldn’t get control of the Sincline, then his defeat was just a matter of time. He knew it. He had to strike now – after their completion, but before it had come into its full strength. He’d tried the same tactic with Voltron itself, and nearly succeeded.

She truly did not care whether Sendak won or died here. Either would serve her.

She had other goals in mind for this day’s work.

“Prepare the circle,” she ordered Macidus. He promptly vanished to see it done, and Haggar walked toward the ritual chamber as her servants gathered.

It would take quite a lot of power to do what she had in mind, but power was one thing the druids rarely lacked. Quintessence chambers were full to the brim around the edges of the ritual circle. Druids gathered at the cardinal points and the midpoints, arms outstretched as they gathered the power into themselves.

“Silence the Red Lion,” Haggar ordered. “Paralyze it.”

~*~

Keith hadn’t gotten that far away from the others – at least, he hadn’t intended to. Like Pidge, he’d been fighting clumps of cruisers, using his Lion’s speed to dart in, claw-rake the hulls, bound off to the next target. Like Pidge, he’d had to work hard to avoid getting pegged by defensive fire, or swarmed by fighters. His whole field of vision had been cruisers and fighters for some time, so he didn’t really notice getting farther from the other paladins.

Nor did he – or could he – notice that the other paladins were being herded away from him as well. The bulk of everyone’s attention, when it wasn’t on the fight right in front of them, was on the danger to the Sincline. Keith for his part was stuck hoping Krolia would make it through all right; he had a screen full of fighters between him and any clear idea of the shape of the battlefield, and mostly he was just trying not to get killed. The cruisers had to run out of fighters sometime, if he could just avoid falling.

There was no possible way Keith could have predicted the surge of dark energy that suddenly filled the cockpit and surrounded his Lion. The scream made no sound, sucked into the blackness along with the Red Lion’s smothered roar.

~*~

Even surrounded on all sides, the Sincline fought brilliantly. Head and tail whips made scrap of fighters with every turn, lasers and twin blades keeping pace. Acxa and Krolia kept up the fighting while Allura focused on the energies at play, directing the mech’s laser blasts into the deepest concentrations of enemies. The Sincline fought ferociously enough that Shiro couldn’t direct the Lions to offer support without getting into its line of fire, so he stayed focused on reducing the number of incoming ships it had to deal with.

It was Lotor, within Central Command and monitoring the entirety of the battle, who called Shiro with, “Paladins. The Red Lion is crippled.”

And it was only when those six words turned Shiro’s spine to ice that he realized he couldn’t see Red, or Blue, or Green. On all sides were only galra fighters and a cruiser. “Paladins!” he snapped. “Sound off! Who’s got eyes on Keith?”

“Surrounded!” was Pidge’s immediate response. “I can’t get anywhere Shiro, I’ve got all I can do just keeping them off me!”

“Same here!” called Lance.

“I can see Lance,” said Hunk, “And Sincline, and that’s it.”

How had Sendak gotten so many galra to his side? How had he done it without them knowing? (The question handed Shiro the answer to that – the Druids had cleared the Blade from Sendak’s ships, of course they hadn’t known.) Where was Keith?

“I’m going to get Pidge,” said Shiro firmly. “And we’ll come and get Lance and then you, Hunk. And then we’re going to get Keith.” Because Keith wasn’t answering to any hail and Lotor had used the word crippled. The only reason Shiro wasn’t panicking was there was no time for panic and if he lost his head now it wouldn’t just be Keith in trouble.

~*~

“The Lion is disabled,” said Haggar. “Do with it what you will.”

“With pleasure, High Priestess,” Sendak all but purred, and directed a cruiser to pull the limp lion into a cargo bay. Zarkon had promised him the Red Lion long ago. It was auspicious, that today he would have it.

He wasn’t a fool though. The cruiser had orders to immediately jump to hyperspace once the Lion was aboard. He couldn’t – yet – force the Lion to accept him as its master. But even just keeping it away from the other Paladins would be a significant victory.

Haggar closed the channel. Sendak was doing exactly as she had hoped.

The Lion was a pointless, worthless target. Sooner or later the other four Lions would find it and the paladins would exact a merciless vengeance on Sendak for taking it. So be it, really. If they succeeded then Lotor would, finally, be the unquestioned ruler of the galra.

Haggar had what she’d wanted out of this. She bent to the floor in the center of the inscribed ritual circle, where Keith lay unconscious. She took his chin in her hand, turning his head this way and that. No injuries. And there was power there, yes.

Haggar wanted to know where this child had gotten his hands on actual, real power. “Secure him,” she ordered Macidus, letting him go and straightening up. “Keep him disoriented. He has power, and a connection to Voltron. He must not be permitted to make use of either.”

“Your will, High Priestess,” bowed Macidus.

Haggar turned for her laboratory. “Disarm him and secure him as well. And get us far from this battlefield.”

The other druids dispersed to prepare a cell, and move her cruiser.

“Your will, High Priestess,” they echoed in somber unison.

Chapter Text

Pidge. Then Lance. Then Hunk. There was a combination of tightly controlled panic and absolute fury in Shiro that he hadn’t felt at all since...since that first day on the arena floor. Realizing that yes, these aliens were going to shove Matt onto the sands, to fight some other alien to the death. That he couldn’t change the situation in any normal, human way, but would have to make Matt an unappealing prospect for entertainment to save him.

But that moment had been just that – a moment. This was minute after minute, using Black’s sight to find his route through the cloud of galra fighters, refusing to be herded any more. He would reach Pidge and together they would reach Lance and together they would reach Hunk and by God in Heaven if anything had happened to Keith he was going to take four Lions and shove all of them right down Sendak’s throat and be damned to Lotor’s PR.

~*~

Lotor, for his part, was watching in some surprise at the level of intensity becoming apparent in his allies’ combat. They were all strong warriors; that had never been in doubt. But now they were fighting for something, for someone, and this made a visible level of difference. What had been good was now verging on awe-inducing. Even the Yellow Lion, which Lotor privately felt was a very large doorstop with thrusters, was tearing into fighters with surprising abandon.

It was….educational.

From his vantage within Central Command, though, Lotor could see what the others could not. For all that inspiring intensity, they were going to be too late.

None of the Lions were anywhere near the cruiser that was even now scooping up the unmoving Red Lion. The druids were retreating one ship at a time from the battlefield as well. Lotor did what little he could – recorded the ship’s transponder code so that it could be tracked. The paladins would want that information later. Or perhaps not even later; the battle would be long still – Sendak’s forces were apparently not retreating, though it was clear now that Lotor’s armies would have the final victory. But Voltron couldn’t help with that without rendering that victory moot.

Yes. Better that the Lions do what the Paladins clearly wanted to do – get the Red Lion back.

Lotor watched as that distant cruiser’s cargo bay doors closed on the Red Lion. And blinked as the ship promptly retreated from battle. He checked his monitors. Yes. The transponder allowed him to continue tracking it. Sloppy thinking, really. Sendak didn’t know how to run a rebellion; he saw himself as the rightful emperor and therefore had no need to hide from Central Command’s tracking systems. He might not even remember right now that Zarkon had made sure all his ships could be located on a tick’s notice, it had been the norm for so long. Well and good.

Black had reached Green and was nearly at Blue. Yes. Too late.

“Paladins,” he said, opening a line to the Lions. “Sendak has the Red Lion. The ship holding it has retreated from battle. Here is its transponder code. I have verified that it can still be tracked.”

We’re going after it,” came Hunk’s voice, in an uncharacteristic growl.

Make sure Allura’s okay,” was Lance’s reply. “If we come back and she’s in a medical pod I’m taking it out of your hide.”

Lotor frowned at the screen. Threatening an emperor. During a battle.

Lance, that’s enough,” snapped Shiro’s voice. “Lotor, we have to recover the Red Lion. Will you be all right here?”

Polite enough, Lotor mused. They were going to go anyway, but Shiro remembered to ask. “I will prove the victor here, however long it takes Sendak to realize that,” he replie calmly. “Go. Recover your comrade. I assure you, I will not permit the Sincline or its pilots to come to harm in the meantime.”

~*~

Sendak did, in fact, know how to run a rebellion. He’d certainly quashed enough of them down the centuries.

Voltron did not exist unless all five Lions were in the same place, at the same time, with conscious pilots. Alfor had built all sorts of little defenses into them to make these conditions easier to meet and harder to prevent, but no one was perfect. Nevertheless, in taking the Red Lion Sendak knew perfectly well that the paladins had no choice but to chase after it. That they would also be chasing after their comrade only meant another reason these short-sighted children would not be at their sharpest.

Sendak was counting on the Lions dropping everything else to fly after the fifth. The cruiser had orders to push its systems to the limit in covering ground, and to take every opportunity to hide its transponder signal in dangerous locales. (They were not to turn their transponder off. A trail was of no use if the enemy couldn’t follow it.) And it was not, under any circumstances, to try capturing any of the other Lions. If in the course of the pursuit it managed to disable another one of the Lions, it was to hail back to the main fleet for a second cruiser to come get it. Better that a potential capture be lost than put too many Lions on one ship.

And while the paladins chased Voltron’s lost right arm, Sendak was free to fully test Lotor on the field of battle. The longer that chase went on, therefore, the better.

~*~

Acxa was, in theory, the leader of the Sincline pilots. This idea had held almost three seconds past the group hearing that the Red Lion had been captured.

In all of galra society there were two bonds that commanded respect; the bond between mates, and the bond between parent and child.

Most galra tended to value the former over the latter; it was considered unseemly – if not insulting – for a galra parent to coddle their child. Sooner or later they had to fight on their own, after all. And galra matured slowly; by the time the offspring was fifty decaphoebs or so it was generally held that really, the child should be fighting their own battles.

Most galra did not know that humans matured rather faster, and that in fact a great deal of the troubles they’d been dealing with had in fact been inflicted on them by a very short-lived race.

Keith was well below fifty decaphoebs old, and Krolia still very much thought of him as her child, half-human or no. And on hearing that her only child had been captured by Sendak’s forces, Krolia took control of the Sincline’s weapons systems and brutally pushed them to their limits. Acxa was wise enough to sit back and focus on making sure they weren’t blindsided; Allura thought about protesting only for a moment or two before deciding that it was better to let this rage play itself out. It wasn’t as if they were short of targets. As Acxa settled for making sure they weren’t blindsided, Allura focused on making sure the Sincline wasn’t taking too much damage.

~*~

Lotor watched the Lions depart, and the Sincline apparently enter some undocumented overdrive state.

Fighting for. He would need to remember this, cultivate it. The Galra would always be fighters. They were hunters, predators back to their earliest roots. But fighting for something...perhaps the empire was salvageable after all. He’d never been certain about that – he’d grown up under his father’s rule, his father’s empire. In his heart of hearts he’d hated the galra as much as any rebel for a long, long time. His enemies took it for ruthlessness; in reality it was simply disgust. Disgust for a race that could have been so much more, rampaging across the universe in packs of sadistic thugs.

Fighting for. Lotor was vaguely aware that the Blade Krolia was kin to the paladin Keith. Having never had a mother figure, or much of a father figure, watching the ferocity of her battle was...touching, and enlightening. There was still something in the galra that could be...unselfish. Lotor had tended to the belief that such positive traits were only to be found in those of impure blood, and chosen his generals accordingly.

Sendak would not win, this day. Already the ferocity of the defenders had done greater damage to Sendak’s forces than he could afford. Lotor ordered his cruisers to begin surrounding Sendak’s flagship – make the ring as far out as they needed, but enclose the cruiser and move in.

It wouldn’t work – at least, if by ‘work’ one meant ‘actually capture or kill Sendak’ - but it would force Sendak to flee. Defeat could be propagandized into something honorable; a no-holds-barred beatdown could not.

A tiny, satisfied smile curled the edge of Lotor’s mouth as, abruptly, Sendak’s forces retreated. If he were his father, of course, he would have ordered all cruisers to pursue, to crush utterly. Lotor felt disinclined to do so. Firstly because he’d lost enough people today, and secondly – well. Secondly, he wanted to see how far wounded Paladins would go, for their half-galra comrade. It would be...educational. Something new to know about humans.

~*~

“I’ve got a lock on the transponder signal,” said Pidge.

“I’ve got my fraunhofer scan going,” said Hunk. “If they take the lion off that ship we’ll know.”

The lions flew in formation, which made the absence of Red immediately noticeable but none of them wanted to change it up. Black in the center, Red and Green on either flank, then Blue on Red’s flank and Yellow on Green’s – that was the wedge. Lance was alone on Black’s right side now and not very happy about it.

“We’re being dragged on a goose chase,” said Lance. It wasn’t a complaint so much as a very audible worry.

“We don’t have a choice,” said Shiro flatly. The lions had to go at Yellow’s pace, and Shiro was doing breathing exercises just to contain his impatience. “Without the Lion there’s no Voltron.”

No one said without Keith. For one thing it was provably untrue and for another, no one really wanted to poke Shiro too hard about it not just being the Red Lion that was taken. The paladins understood at a gut level that if Shiro snapped, they were all very, very fucked. He seemed to be holding it together, but in the Lions it was tangible how surface-level that was. Shiro was holding himself together on willpower alone. And his willpower was prodigious, that was true, but there had to be a limit and nobody wanted to find out where it was.

Pidge therefore used a private line to note to Hunk, “We can track the Lion – but what if they’ve got Keith somewhere else? How do we find him?”

“Maybe….maybe if we get Red back to Allura she can trace Keith’s connection to Red,” Hunk hazarded. “I dunno, Pidge. I got nothing. It’s not like we’ve got trackers in our armor.” He paused. “Except...our armor’s unique, isn’t it? Don’t let me forget. If something goes wrong maybe I can find a way to track the armor itself.”

“Sure,” said Pidge quietly. “It’s better than maybe having to tell Shiro we’ve lost him.”

“Tell me about it,” Hunk agreed worriedly. Shiro with a direction was probably okay. Shiro without any options to pursue sounded, at a deep gut level, like a really bad idea. In that vein he opened the channel to include Lance and Shiro and said, “So, uh, Shiro. When we catch up to the cruiser. What’s the plan then?”

~*~

Keith was suspended in a tank of specially prepared fluids. Stripped down to the undersuit that was usually worn beneath paladin armor, his weapons and that armor were now stored on a separate cruiser at Haggar’s orders. Keith had power. Haggar did not know the extent of that power, or how much of it Keith had learned to use, and was taking no chances. The tank kept Keith in a perpetual dream state, and masked his quintessence signature so that his pet wolf could not find him.

Ideally, Haggar would use Keith to take out at least one of the remaining paladins. But she understood that this would be beyond her power – at least, currently beyond it. The paladins had gotten significantly stronger of late, and brought with them several altean alchemists. That suggested they had found Oriande.

Haggar wanted to find Oriande too. And that, beyond any other reason, was why she had chosen this paladin to target. Allura had power as well, but Allura was clearly better-versed in its use. This one...was different. And, therefore, of greater potential use. Haggar was a great believer in utility.

Interrogating an unconscious prisoner was not particularly easy. It was not a technique she would use if she had many suspects to question; it would cost far too much time. And the answers usually had to be interpreted to some degree. But she could not risk a conscious Keith summoning his allies or his weapons or using that power some other, new way. So, unconscious interrogation it would be.

Haggar stood before Keith’s tank, and summoned darkness.

~*~

None of the paladins particularly liked calling Shiro out over anything. They respected him too much, and there was always that unspoken feeling that Shiro was genuinely different from the rest of them. Better, somehow. It pushed them to fight at their best, not wanting to disappoint him, but it made cases like this – where all three of them were worriedly wondering if Shiro was getting low on sanity points – more difficult. It was really the only situation where all of them would have much rathered Keith be in Black; nobody had a problem calling Keith out when he was getting weird.

But. After a few hours, it was painfully clear that this was not going to be a high speed chase across deep space, with exciting laser blasts and zooming fighters. The cruiser that had Red wasn’t stopping for any of that. It was pelting across the stars as if Hell itself were on its stern, which from a certain point of view was probably a pretty valid way of looking at things. It was burning fuel at an insane rate, hyperjumping at every possible moment, just to get away.

Red could have caught it.

Black might have caught it. Green might have caught it.

Blue and Yellow...didn’t have much of a chance.

And since they couldn’t form Voltron, the paladins had to either go at Yellow’s pace or split up, and when Hunk had – miserably – offered to go back just to give Shiro and Pidge a chance, the way Shiro had snapped we are not splitting up had shut everyone up for a solid hour.

It was Lance, out of that curious combination of obliviousness and courage he was most known for, who broke the silence with a gentle, “We’re not going to catch them like this, Shiro.”

“I am not giving up on him,” growled Shiro.

“Nobody’s suggesting that,” said Lance quickly. “Just that we’re not going to catch them like this. We should call back to Central Command, get Allura – or Tavo if they’re still fighting – to bring the castleship out here. Then, when the cruiser stops to refuel or – or anything - we can all four wormhole out to get it. And...you know...maybe sleep in the meantime.”

This time the silence was embarrassment. Because Lance’s suggestion was sensible, and obvious, and the fact that he was proposing the sensible and obvious plan was shining a pretty big spotlight on how far Shiro was from his best right now. In the privacy of their respective cockpits, both Pidge and Hunk were wincing. The quiet, edge-of-broken way Shiro replied, “Yes. Of course. Thank you, Lance,” caused Lance to join them.

The Black Lion, in the lead, slowed and stopped. The others kept formation as they joined him. Shiro’s call to central command was private, but soon enough a wormhole opened and the castleship flew out over their heads. “Go on and get some rest,” came Shiro’s voice, still holding that not-quite-edge-of-broken sound to it. “That cruiser has to stop sometime.”

The Black Lion turned and flew for its bay. Silently, the other three Lions followed suit.

~*~

Keith….dreamed.

This of itself was not entirely unusual, though he wasn’t normally as aware of it as he seemed to be at the moment.

It was the ...thing, really. With a black duck’s head at the center of a purple flower, a long thin neck, a blue and green spotted four-footed body and blue and green webbed feet. The tail bearing a flag with a metal screw and a baseball for a design (‘screwball’, of course) was just icing. It waddled along lamenting how it thought it had had a handle on life up to now, and disappeared around a corner.

Keith didn’t do subtlety, as a general rule, and apparently neither did Keith’s subconscious. The creature was from an ancient animation, where the being being drawn (the duck) had gotten into an argument with its animator and then been...well, redrawn. A lot.

The world filled itself in around the being, even as it disappeared. Keith looked down at himself. The jacket was a full jacket, such as he hadn’t worn in years. The world was a part of the world he hadn’t been in for years either. The smell of the air – recent rain, some pine – suggested the northwest.

The world filled in more. One of his foster homes, before Shiro. Yes, he remembered. They said you always remembered your first, although usually the people that said that meant ‘kiss’ or ‘lover’, not ‘murder’. He walked along the side of the highway – a blacktop really not deserving of the name, a rural two-lane state highway – and wondered why the world kept filling in details as he walked. Remembering made it real? The crunch of cold snow underfoot now, not rain. He bent to touch it. Cold, yes. Melting on his fingertips. The jacket wasn’t really thick enough for a Washington winter. Not this far inland. He looked up and it was night, all the familiar stars of Earth overhead.

Walking to, or walking from? In this not-exactly-dream, that might be important. Keith stopped and looked around. The highway wasn’t big, but neither was it particularly deserted. Which way was he going? To the house, or from it? There was no blood on his hands, but he’d never been stupid enough to leave any. He touched fingertips to his face – cold. Well, he had just handled snow. But the cold stung a bruise on his face. From, then. He got off the highway. Trudging through the snowy woods wasn’t ideal, but the stars would show him the way and he didn’t want to be seen walking alone on the roads. When someone found the body, he’d be the first suspect. Rightfully so, though – from an official perspective – for entirely the wrong reasons.

Story of his life, that. He’d never actually checked back, later, to see if the local police had found the porn on his now-deceased foster-father’s computer. Or if they’d just seen how thoroughly a pint-sized half-galra in a murderous rage could pummel someone quite literally twice his size and decided Keith was the real problem. He’d learned long before this point not to trust civil authorities to work out so much as the color of the sky on their own.

Keith walked away from the highway, getting his bearing from the clear cold stars above. A few minutes later he saw the flashing red and blue lights of police vehicles, roaring down the highway behind him. He could run fast. Probably get to the Idaho state line before dawn if he pushed it, and then he’d ...at least be safe from being sent back. Adults never believed that a little kid could cover the kind of distances Keith could.

Adam had had Things To Say about Keith spending so much time alone with Shiro. Keith had never had the heart to tell him his fears were misplaced. Keith knew exactly what a predator looked like. That was why he’d come to like Shiro; he wasn’t one.

~*~

Sendak retreated, his cruisers blinking into hyperspace one by one.

There were fierce cheers eching down most of the outer corridors of Central Command now, the defenders proud of their work. Lotor smiled for them, congratulated them on a job well done, and gave Vrepit Sal a small heart attack by ordering feasts for the commanding generals.

Lotor himself was less pleased, but not – as it were – displeased. The damage to Central Command was, ultimately, minimal. What he’d lost were people, and that bothered him more. But that wasn’t something he felt he could say. Not here, not to these galra. Not to ‘lose half your men and the other half will be stronger’ trainees of Zarkon’s tutelage.

Give them time. And a feast, at least. Lotor smiled and congratulated his way down to the bay where the Sincline ships, separated again, settled in to dock.

Krolia was the first one out, and Lotor lost the bet with himself (he’d thought it would be Allura). She looked forged from steel as she stalked up to Lotor. “Tell me everything you know about the loss of the Red Lion.”

Acxa turned on Krolia. “He is your emperor.”

“And Keith is my son,” growled Krolia.

Lotor raised a hand to settle Acxa down. Krolia’s reactions really were fascinating. In a sad way. He wanted galra mothers who cared for their children. “There is, unfortunately, little to tell,” he admitted. “Sendak acted to separate all the Lions from each other. Then Haggar attacked the Red Lion, apparently ...switching it off, perhaps. A cruiser then pulled the Lion into its cargo bay with a tractor beam, and entered hyperspace. I just had time to make note of the ship’s transponder code. Which I have already forwarded to the paladins.”

Acxa moved to stand at Lotor’s left hand, but she wasn’t unsympathetic to the sheer...parental concern radiating from Krolia. Neither was Allura. “The castleship went to join the Lions, did it not, Lotor?” Allura asked, but she was looking at Krolia.

“Yes,” Lotor agreed. “A few doboshes ago. Apparently the cruiser is risking engine burnout, so keen to get away. The Lions were unable to catch it, but I understand you have a full complement of alchemists on the castleship.”

“Not quite, just at the moment,” Allura murmured. “We always thought I would be one of them. But there are two there still, so ...they should be able to wormhole immediately when the cruiser stops or slows.”

Krolia stood quite still, and the others let her have a few moments to process. The new castleships weren’t yet ready. There was no way to catch up with the departed Lions or join in the hunt. “...I request,” she said in a very controlled tone, “access to your records of the battle, your majesty, to forward to the Blades. We may be able to assist in cornering this vessel, or disable it in passing.”

Lotor nodded, hiding his fascination. It was touching, in a painful way. Krolia wanted to be with her son even though her son was grown. He really would need to talk with her – later – to see if there were other galra so affectionate. If there were parts of the empire where Zarkon’s poison hadn’t reached. “You may have complete access, honored Blade,” he said. “My thanks for staying to defend Central Command under such strenuous circumstances.” He turned to Acxa. “Now – let us see how Zethrid is holding up. To stay behind when a battle is going on must have been a wrench.”

“...I will go with you, if you are willing,” said Allura quietly. “Possibly I can heal Ezor.”

“As you wish, princess,” said Lotor. “Come, then.”

~*~

Sendak eyed his remaining forces with a scowl. Zarkon would be disappointed, if he had survived.

Of course, Zarkon’s disappointment did tend to be lethal. But Lotor wasn’t half the man his father had been. Soft, and weak.

And victorious.

The Lions would pursue, of course. The ship with the Lion on it was far from what remained of Sendak’s fleet, with orders to refuel only at the most secure locations. That would give Sendak time to regroup, gather reinforcements – such as he still had available – and...well, decide what to do.

He’d never really entertained the idea he might lose. Even challenging Lotor on his home ground. Lotor just had never been that good a commander. Never held the loyalty of his troops. Clearly, something had changed. Lotor had even been clever enough to order Voltron to stay out of it. And the Sincline was his own creation.

The old galra turned the situation around in his mind, eyeing it from every possible angle. Finally, he opened a channel to Haggar; the absence of the Druids was noticeable.

“General Sendak,” rasped the witch. “I take it your battle is concluded.”

Concluded, Sendak noted. Not won. “The halfbreed was the stronger,” he conceded through gritted teeth.

“And yet you live,” said Haggar. “What is it you desire.”

“Vengeance,” growled Sendak, fangs showing. “If I cannot have the Empire then I would make the upstarts bleed.”

Haggar’s hood obscured her eyes, and for a few ticks it seemed she was as still as any corpse. “Hide your forces,” she advised. “Repair your ships. I have a plan. Be ready to answer at my call.”

At her call. Like he wasn’t the only true contender for the Empire.

...And he needed her help. Or he might as well dive his command ship into the nearest star. “Your will, High Priestess,” Sendak conceded, and closed the line.

~*~

There were no medications on the castleship. Alteans didn’t really bother with them. If your injury was serious, you went into a medical pod, and if it wasn’t you just sort of dealt with it. Of course, the colonists had had all kinds of plant-based remedies – but that was on the colony, and there were limited supplies available from the castleship’s hydroponics bay. So mostly, not taking medication unless you really needed it was a courtesy to the other crewmembers.

It was a courtesy that had Lance quietly swearing under his breath, because he’d have happily given his leg for some knockout drops to put in Shiro’s water bottle about now.

It wasn’t that Shiro hovered, or anything like that. He didn’t bark orders or get in anyone’s face. Honestly, and Hunk and Pidge were in agreement on this, it would have been so much easier if he had. They could’ve maybe had an argument or something. Some kind of...pressure release that would let everyone breathe.

But Shiro didn’t do that. Shiro stayed in his assigned post on the bridge. He didn’t really talk to anyone, though he paid close attention to everything anyone said near him. He tracked the cruiser every moment he could. In Keith, they might have assumed it was sulking, or something. But Shiro radiated intensity. It was like watching someone inflate a balloon. The balloon just kept getting bigger. And bigger. And while there were no sounds of warning, no visible cracks, everyone knew that balloon was getting bigger and bigger and bigger and while no one knew when it would happen, everyone accepted that it would be a hellishly bad idea to be on the same ship when that balloon popped.

Shiro’s self-control was terrifying. He spoke calmly, clearly, quietly. He listened. He watched. And something in the back of the other paladins’ minds made them think hard about a tiger crouched low in the grass, waiting to pounce.

It was a miracle the Alteans weren’t picking up on it. If anything they seemed to think he was being quite normal. Pidge had already dragged an innocent ensign off to one side before she could ask him if he was worried about Keith at all. Maybe, for some things, you just had to know humans.

At the same time, Lance wasn’t sure Shiro was sleeping. Like...at all. Every time Lance visited the bridge, there Shiro was. And that was not good.

Pidge caught Lance’s arm one night – well, third shift, anyway – as he was heading up to the bridge just to see if Shiro was still there. “Don’t.”

“So he is,” Lance sighed tiredly. “And why are you up?”

“Took the night owl shift,” Pidge shrugged. “Hunk’s got second. You should be in bed.”

“I was,” Lance admitted. “Woke up and...just had to see, you know? How’s he going to be any use when we catch that cruiser if he hasn’t slept?”

Pidge slanted a sidelong look toward the bridge. “...Don’t breathe a word,” she warned. “He falls asleep at his chair. Sort of like highway hypnosis, you know? Stare at a steady screen long enough and you just zone out. I’ve already told the alteans not to speak loudly or disturb him if they think he’s asleep. They’ve already seen how good his hearing is when he’s not. Hunk did the same. So it’s as okay as it’s gonna be.”

Lance sagged with relief. “As long as there’s sleep happening in there somewhere. Do we even have a plan?”

“If he doesn’t, I do,” Pidge promised. “I’ve been niggling at the problem. I mean, why Keith, after all? The one member we’ve proven we can replace? This wasn’t about crippling Voltron, not this time. They know we’ll get the Lion back, that’s why they’re running like this. They wanted Keith.”

Lance was not awake enough for that to make much sense. “….Okay...then why?”

Pidge smiled briefly. “I’m working on it. You need to get back to bed, though. Your shift’s up in a couple of vargas and with Shiro probably dozing you will need to be awake, got it?”

Lance put a hand on Pidge’s shoulder in silent thanks. Reassured – at least as much as he could be, under the circumstances – he returned to bed.

~*~

Macidus entered the cell. Haggar was still there, a dark ball of energy between her and the tank that held the unconscious Keith. Tendrils of darkness extended from the ball to the tank; by the look of things, Keith was having dreams he would rather not have. Though Haggar was otherwise statue-still, her fingers occasionally flexed as she directed that energy.

The druid did not question his high priestess, or disturb her. He simply waited silently for her to notice his presence. Eventually, she rasped, “What is it?”

“The interrogation has taken many vargas, high priestess,” said Macidus. It was as close as he could come to asking if she’d gotten anywhere, or if she wanted help.

“The halfbreed has power,” Haggar growled. “He resists. It is not important.”

“Water wears down the hardest stone,” said Macidus. “Perhaps if the process were taken in turns...”

Haggar turned then, facing Macidus. “You are not deceiving me, Macidus,” she said flatly. “What is your interest in the halfbreed?”

“This one attacked me at my work,” said Macidus. “This one destroyed an entire quintessence chamber. And because he escaped, I lost my position.”

“You wish vengeance,” said Haggar, in a flat tone that suggested it was a completely boring and uninteresting reason to do anything.

Macidus bowed his head, the curved beak of the druid mask tilting farther downward. “Yes, high priestess.”

Her eyes, as ever, were hidden in the shadows of her hood. But for just a moment, a small, wicked smile flickered on Haggar’s lips. “Very well, Macidus. You may be water on the stone. I will attend to other matters for a time.”

Her hands closed together, collapsing the ball of dark energy between them. In the tank, Keith’s body floated limply. Haggar turned away and drifted out of the cell without a backward glance.

~*~

It’s getting harder to remember these are dreams, memories. The weird screwball duck thing shows up, now and then, and its presence reminds him when it does, but it’s happening less often. Keith slips sometimes and it stops being ‘just a dream’, or ‘just a memory’, and becomes now.

He is seven years old and watching his father’s body being lowered into the ground in its coffin. It’s a kind of strangeness that an adult would recognize, but the child only sees his only friend, his only family, disappearing forever under the earth. All his dad’s friends and coworkers are in their formal dress uniforms. Firefighter, killed in the line of duty. Full civic honors, like they do for policemen. Keith stands there in new formal clothes that itch and don’t quite fit and cries out of fear as much as grief. One of the men in dress uniform comes over and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he admonishes. “Your dad was a real hero.”

A real hero. The words sink into Keith’s mind. A real hero. Real heroes die saving strangers and leave their loved ones alone forever.

Maybe he’s gone to be with Mom.

The man in dress uniform doesn’t take his hand off Keith’s shoulder until Keith stops crying. The words of the priest or minister or whoever the man is – someone the city brought in to say words, no one Keith knows – roll over the silence. Keith is given a folded flag, that had been draped over the coffin.

Everyone goes home...or at least goes away. Except a lady in business clothes, with a clipboard and folders tucked against her chest. “Come with me.”

There isn’t really anything else to do, unless Keith decides to stay by the new grave. There isn’t much point in that. What’s down there is pretty badly burned, and won’t ever move again. He follows where the lady leads. A car, pretty big, the kind that do well on dirt roads.

In the side view mirror, for a moment, Keith sees the Screwball. Dream. Memory.

In real life, he got into that car. He remembers now. He got into the car and she took him to his first not-family in a trailer park that smelled of cat piss. The family had a house, more or less, but only for the week it had taken for the police to wind up dragging half the people in it away for some reason Keith couldn’t remember, and then it was off to another not-family.

He doesn’t have to do that again. Keith turns away from the woman in her sensible business clothes and flats only a fool would try running on wet grass in, and books it across the graveyard. He’s got dress shoes on, as treadless as the lady’s flats, but unlike her he’s had a lot more practice in running in stockingfeet and bare feet. And he’s faster.

Beyond the dream, in the cell, in the tank, Keith’s hands clenched into fists.

Chapter Text

Commander Nesretan was not having a good week.

He followed Sendak’s orders, of course. They were intelligent orders under the circumstances, and would give him the best possible chance of success, but Nesretan knew better than to think this was going to end in any kind of victory. That wasn’t his job, his place.

No, his place was to draw the paladins far, far from central command, far from the rest of Sendak’s forces. And when he could run no farther, to die at the claws of the lions as they recovered their fifth member.

Nesretan knew his pursuers would be able to wormhole to his exact location if he stopped somewhere they could find him. So he signaled ahead to Fire bases to bring fuel tankers to ion storms, xanthian cluster swathes, gas giants with peculiar magnetic fields – anything and everything that could reasonably mess with picking up a transponder signal.

Once at the right location, of course, Nesretan simply turned the cruiser’s transponder off long enough to hook up with the tanker. Once refueled, he turned the transponder back on and pushed the cruiser to jump away. It wouldn’t work forever, but if his general commanded him to be the rabbit leading the fox, he would by damn do honor to his commander by leading the fox as far away as possible.

Who knew? If he kept it up long enough, Sendak might be able to set up a trap to capture a second Lion. And Commander Nesretan might have a prayer of surviving this mission.

~*~

“Guys,” said Hunk quietly, “I dunno about you, but I am this close to suggesting we wormhole back to Earth and grab Ryou.”

“Don’t,” said Lance firmly. “Just...really, don’t.”

“Hunk’s got a point,” sighed Pidge, sinking into a chair. Apparently one of the benefits of an altean crew was soft serve icecream and milkshakes were available 24/7, and the array of possible flavors was growing by the week as the experimental mess hall crew tried out every idea that came to them. She sucked on a straw full of some berry variant with a frown. “Shiro’s gonna lose it any day, Lance. I know it, you know it. Pretty sure this whole ship knows it. You can’t stay this wound for long and still...you know, function.”

“Calling Ryou’s not the answer unless it’s for advice,” said Lance. “Those two are...kinda funny around each other. I don’t think any of us could predict how bringing him in would go.”

“He’s starting to freak out the crew though,” said Hunk quietly, keeping his tone down so as not to cause said crew’s ears to twitch. “We’re not the only people on the castleship anymore and Allura’s back at central command. If they decide he’s lost his mind we could find ourselves going back to get her.”

Pidge paused mid-straw-suck, thinking that over. “It might not be a bad idea,” she mused.

“I know you’ve had some problems with Keith,” said Lance, “Which I think everyone’s had at some point, but leaving him to Sendak’s people? Not cool, Pidge.”

“You really need to start factoring ‘wormholes’ into your thinking, Lance,” Pidge sighed. “It doesn’t matter where we go. We could go back to Earth right now, or Central Command, or anywhere. It wouldn’t make a bit of difference to tracking this cruiser down. Once it stops somewhere we can pin it down, we can wormhole to it from any of those locations in the same amount of time. This chasing stuff is just to keep Shiro from exploding.”

Lance blinked. “Okay. Point. So. We’ve done that a few times but he always gets away, so...that’s where we’re sucking.”

“Honestly,” mused Hunk, “The best way to find this cruiser would be to figure out where it’s going to be. Go there first and set a trap. But there’s like, no logic to that thing’s course.”

Pidge blinked. “No,” she said. “There is. It has to stop for fuel. That’s a hard limit. And maybe it can have fuel brought to it, but -” she stood up, set her shake aside, and hauled up her holographic map display. “Let’s factor the hard limits here. It can only cover so much distance on one tank of fuel. It’s going full speed with all the hyperjumps it can so we can’t catch up to it in a straight run, but doing that means it’s burning fuel in the least efficient way possible.” She highlighted a few locations. “These are where we’ve lost track of the signal for a while, so presumably these are the locations where it’s had to refuel.”

Hunk brightened, catching on. “So we’ve already got a fair idea how far it can go before it’s got to refuel again.” He pulled up his own computer, typing away. “And for it to get fuel, it has to have a tanker from the Fire of Purification on site. So we’re looking for regions where standard scans are difficult or impossible, big enough to hide a cruiser and a tanker for at least – how long d’you figure it’d take them to transfer the fuel? Call it a varga? Two?”

Pidge was already creating a sphere of potential destinations within the range of the last fuel stop of the cruiser. Within that sphere, new highlighted locations were popping up, where scans wouldn’t work well. And, in a different color, areas controlled by the Fire of Purification. “Fuel tankers are slow,” said Pidge. “Can’t rush the gas. Okay. So. He’s got to pick a direction, and then call ahead to the Fire so that a tanker’s waiting for him. Limited speed, shorter range.”

The overlap reduced the potential targets considerably. Pidge gave it a smug, satisfied smile. And then activated lines on the map that showed the cruiser’s course to date, zigzagging across the universe. “Galra suck at playing cat and mouse,” she said. “Much too linear. I’ll bet anything the next pit stop’s going to be inside that gas giant.”

Hunk nodded. “He’s already burned about a third of his fuel since the last pitstop,” he agreed. “It’s the most likely choice. I’ll work on adjusting our scanners for the atmosphere there. You go tell Tavo where to wormhole to.” He turned to Lance. “If we promise Shiro we’re gonna set a trap for these guys, d’you think you can get him to sleep?”

Lance swallowed. The crew weren’t the only ones getting really worried about Shiro’s stability. “...I’ll do my best,” he said. “But, uh. If I take the easy way out and use a stun pistol on him, think he’ll forgive me?”

“If we get Keith back, yeah,” said Pidge. “If we don’t, you might want to take an early retirement to a really remote listening post.”

~*~

Keith was seventeen, and focusing as hard as he could on his coursework so he didn’t spend all his time staring up at the sky or glued to the progress report broadcasts. Shiro had been gone for six months now, and it would be six or seven more before he came back.

For the first time in his life Keith was the darling of a school. The ace pilot, the most promising cadet. It was weird, and half the time he still didn’t really know what to do with it, but he wouldn’t let Shiro down. He was vaguely aware that other cadets saw him as standoffish, or arrogant, because he never socialized and he didn’t answer every damn challenge to a competition anymore. It didn’t matter. Shiro believed in him, Shiro. He wasn’t going to let Shiro down. Shiro would not come back from his long mission to be treated to an equally long list of Keith’s adventures in fuckeduppery. He would be greeted by a graduate, goddamnit. A fully accredited officer who was by damn going with Shiro next time. That was the only thing that mattered.

There was a knock at his dorm room door; Keith ignored it. He had a lot of equations in astrophysics to get through and one more invitation to an off-campus kegger was going to get someone in trouble. Besides, they only invited him because they knew he’d refuse.

Then a key turned in the lock and Keith turned. He didn’t have a roommate; the other students tended to have Problems with him sooner or later. No one should have a key.

When the door opened, it was Commander Iverson standing there, looking ...gruff. He stepped inside, and closed the door behind him. “Hello, lad,” he said. “We need to talk.”

“If it’s about that paper for Gregson,” Keith began, “I’ve almost -”

“It’s not about your classes,” Iverson interrupted, holding up a hand. “This is gonna be hard enough, kid. Don’t make it harder.”

no. Keith didn’t know what the man was going to say, but he had too much experience in adults using that tone, that demeanor. no. He swallowed. Wanted to dare the man to spit it out. Didn’t dare. no. Stood up to face Iverson, unaware his hands had become fists. no.

Iverson was not a cruel man. “...We’ve lost contact with the Kerberos mission,” he said slowly, roughly. They had been his friends. “All hands lost.”

All hands lost. So...dramatic...for a crew of three. no. “What happened?” said Keith, voice cracked, fragile. Inside was a scream, building. Soon it would break the world.

Iverson clearly had to make himself say it. He was not a cruel man, but. “Pilot error, lad. They’re gone.”

Keith didn’t realize he’d leapt at Iverson until several seconds later, when the door of his room slammed open and most of the hall got a really good look at Keith crouched over Iverson, who was on the floor, and half his face was thoroughly pummeled by Keith’s fists – the other protected by being turned toward the floor. Cadets grabbed the enraged Keith and dragged him off of Iverson – or at least tried to. It took five of them to pull Keith off the commander, another two to drag the now-unconscious Iverson clear. Keith didn’t even hear himself snarling, “Liar! Liar! Shiro would never! You’re lying!” but he did see his target being dragged away from him and fought the cadets trying to hold him down.

A few hours later, Iverson had quite a lot of company in the infirmary and all of Keith’s bridges were thoroughly torched.

It didn’t matter. It would, later – a few weeks later, when he had time to realize that the only way into space, to find Shiro, was through the Garrison he’d just made himself persona non grata to. But right now it didn’t matter at all. If someone had doused Keith in gasoline and dropped a lit match on him, he could have burned to death without even noticing.

~*~

In the cell, Macidus lowered his hands, releasing the remaining energy into Keith’s body. No fists now, no resistance. Lost in a dream he didn’t know was a dream, nor remembering that it was a memory and not the present, no matter how painful it became.

With some personal satisfaction, the Druid floated off to inform his High Priestess that the subject had been broken. The interrogation could truly begin.

~*~

Lotor sat with Acxa and Zethrid by Ezor’s medical pod. There were Things To Do, of course, there were always Things To Do, but Lotor also had things to think about and it was quiet here.

Well. Quieter, anyway.

“We don’t need them anymore,” growled Zethrid. “We’ve got the Sincline! We’ve beaten Sendak! Why put up with this?”

This was, for Zethrid, Ezor getting sliced up. Lotor wasn’t exactly sure when the two had decided to pair off, but it was pretty clear they had. He wondered, idly, if Ezor had any idea what she’d let herself in for.

Good question, though. Lotor gave it due consideration. In the meantime, he said, “Acxa, what are your thoughts.”

“I think...I have never seen better combat skill than I saw on the battlefield today, your majesty,” said Axca, but her tone was pensive. “When the Red Lion was captured...it was like the other four lions each had the power of Voltron. Fighters that had pinned them down were suddenly no obstacle. And Krolia’s rage...I have never seen anything like it.”

Zethrid stared at Acxa. “...So they’re good in a fight, so what? We should let them disrespect our emperor, and cut up our generals?”

“Lance likes to say ‘paladin outranks everyone’,” said Allura, from the doorway. She looked tired. “In truth, I think it more that they genuinely do not know much about the societies they fight for. They do not know when they are rude. But they are not arrogant, or cruel. They can learn.”

Lotor inclined his head toward Allura. “Princess,” he said, as a greeting. “I would have expected you to call your ship here. To go with the paladins.”

“I’ve been speaking with them,” said Allura. “Or at least, with the ship. From what Luca and Tavo have told me, I would not be of much use at the moment. Perhaps in a few quintants, if they have not caught the cruiser.”

Zethrid spat what everyone was thinking. “Why go after your galra paladin, you mean,” she growled.

To the group’s general surprise, Allura didn’t even try to dispute it. She hopped up to sit on an examination table and just ...nodded. “The others say Shiro is...intense, at the moment. They think if I were to join them, just now, he might be less...controlled.”

“The paladins believe their leader might vent his anger at the situation in your direction?” mused Lotor. Intriguing. He wasn’t sure if that was a harsher indictment of Allura’s behavior or Shiro’s current state of mind.

Allura just nodded. It seemed clear that the paladins telling her this had caused her to re-think some things. She didn’t seem happy with herself. Perhaps she still valued Shiro’s opinion. Lotor filed that away for further consideration, too.

“So why are you here,” growled Zethrid. “We’re a buncha filthy galra too.” The way she growled it, and the way her fists clenched, Lotor knew it was time to step in. Zethrid needed a target for her frustration, but Allura wasn’t a good one to choose.

“Now, now, Zethrid,” he said calmly. “She has offered no threat.” He turned to Allura, letting her explain her presence herself.

“I...thought I might help,” said Allura quietly. “If you will permit. I can heal Ezor.”

The offer didn’t get the smiles it might have before the battle. The part-galra were fairly certain, all of them, that at this point if Allura healed Ezor it was primarily so Allura could feel better about herself rather than any external moral decision. But they stood aside, silently, giving Allura a clear path to the medical pod.

~*~

Krolia had all but taken over the communications center. One screen showed every identified Fire of Purification cruiser’s transponder codes. They were slowly winking out as Sendak concealed his forces to recover from his defeat. Another showed known Druid vessels. And a third was her line to Kolivan.

“Perhaps he was taken so that the druids might uncover more Blade operations,” Kolivan mused. “Will he prove resistant to interrogation?”

Krolia shook her head. “Depends what they use,” she admitted. “If they realize he can manipulate quintessence, they’ll use the dark magic. There isn’t a way to resist that if they’ve got him long enough.” She paused. “You should know. Haggar isn’t following standard protocol anymore. As far as I can tell the old methods were for Zarkon’s sake. She’s not interested in causing fear, Kolivan. She’s interested in results.”

“That corroborates other reports,” Kolivan agreed. “She abandoned Sendak to defeat, however. So if rule is not her goal, what is?”

“Power,” said Krolia quietly. “It has to be. She’s been the puppeteer behind the throne for millennia. But Lotor won’t have her, or her druids.”

“Taking Keith can give her power?” Kolivan asked.

“...Possibly,” Krolia mused. “He’s learned things. Surprising things. We’re not sure yet how far that goes. She might be after that knowledge.”

“If she is?” Kolivan rumbled.

“Then she’ll eventually make for Oriande,” said Krolia. “She’d have to.”

“It is particularly well defended,” Kolivan pointed out.

“We don’t know the extent of Haggar’s power either,” Krolia pointed out. “She can’t be allowed to take the power of Oriande. She could build a Sincline of her own.”

“And again I must ask, to what end?” said Kolivan. “If she does not seek rule, what use has she for a Sincline? The ore required is extremely rare.”

Krolia shook her head. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Knowledge can be used toward many ends and she’s been in the shadows up to now. But if she reaches Oriande she could become a great deal more powerful, Kolivan.”

“Have you shared your theories with Lotor?”

“Lotor has had his hands full,” sighed Krolia. “Do we have any ships left?”

“Not enough to blockade the druids from Oriande,” said Kolivan. “I regret to say if she has the power to get past its defenses, there is nothing we could do to stop her. I have scattered most of our Blades among the coalition ships. The druids have driven most of our undercover agents from their posts, or killed them.”

Krolia’s eyes closed. That was the price of coming out into the open. The Blades had survived so long as a shadow organization, largely unknown to the Imperial forces. Allying with Voltron, and its nascent coalition, had brought the Blade of Marmora into the light. Where the druids could see them. “Maybe...it’s time,” she said quietly. “If we are to live in the light, then it’s good to put our people with the coalition ships where their knowledge and skill will earn them respect. But if this is to work, Kolivan, then it must be at all levels. You need to come here. Lotor must be advised.”

“And you wish to remain with your son,” said Kolivan.

“And you have the most knowledge,” Krolia responded. “I think you need to meet Lotor, Kolivan. He’s known of the Blades for decaphoebs, but ...” she pursed her lips. “He has been educated but it feels ...” She stopped, thinking about it. “You will understand when you meet him. I believe you are needed here.”

“You have handled the training of Blades for many decaphoebs, Krolia,” Kolivan pointed out. “I am uncertain that my own skills in the matter are not rusted. Your son is of uneven temper.”

By which he meant ‘inadequate training’, most likely, but ‘unpredictably emotional’ was probably just as accurate an interpretation. “That is ...my fault, Kolivan,” said Krolia quietly. “He isn’t even thirty decaphoebs yet. He has grown among the short-lived humans. He doesn’t know how young he is. Lotor is not young, Kolivan. But he, too, does not know how great the gaps in his learning are. You are needed here. We cannot go back to the shadows now. We will thrive with this Emperor, or we will die with him.”

Kolivan gave her a Look that suggested he was thinking Keith’s youth wasn’t the only reason he was so emotional. “Very well,” he said. “Perhaps...perhaps there are those that might join our order, now that the universe has so changed.”

~*~

The castleship waited silently, cloaked by the thick atmosphere of the gas giant. Pidge had already adjusted the ship’s sensors to work in the fog. It was just a matter of time, now. If they’d guessed wrong, if this wasn’t the planet the cruiser would use to hide in while refueling, they’d know in another day or so for certain. For now, the ship appeared to be on course.

Lance had zapped Shiro with a stun pistol once they arrived. It had generally been agreed that this time, this period of waiting to see if a tanker showed up, would be too much stress and no one, no one wanted to see Shiro crack. So Lance had stunned him and then shoved him into a medical pod, which would keep him unconscious until he was fully rested or until the tanker showed up and Pidge or Hunk went to get him out. (Lance had refused to; he was well aware Shiro wasn’t going to like the fact that one of his own paladins had quite literally shot him in the back of the head, so someone else was going to have to explain to Shiro why it had been deemed necessary.)

They took it in turns to watch, patrol, wait. The castleship flew within the gas giant’s atmosphere, circumnavigating it again and again so the scanners’ limited range would pick up the tanker quickly.

The moment when it actually showed up on their screens was like a breath of scented air. Tension eased all across the bridge. Hunk – on duty at the time – sent the signal to Lance and Pidge that it was time to get Shiro up and fed and up to speed, and to the lions.

So it fell to Pidge to let Shiro out of the medical pod. She kept her bayard at the ready as she hit the switch. Not fully rested, but not exhausted. It would do. Shiro tumbled out, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. “What -” he looked around, and scowled. “Whose idea was this?”

“Mine,” said Pidge firmly. “You’re as bad as Keith, apparently. Good to know.”

Shiro gave Pidge a genuinely thunderous look. Pidge stepped well back and aimed her bayard at him resolutely. “Don’t give me that look,” she said. “You’ve been this close to going off the rails for days now. Get some food. We’ve caught the refuel tanker.”

If there was a debate in Shiro’s mind about whether to get ready to fight, or fight Pidge, it was a short conflict. He strode with admirable speed for the doors. “We’ll discuss this later.”

~*~

Thirty minutes later, the four paladins were on the bridge, watching the tanker. Shiro was now dressed – in armor – with a food goo pouch in hand. He looked intense, but not as hollow-eyed edge-of-crazy as he’d been before the stint in the pod. “We’ve got target lock on the tanker’s engines?”

“And weapons systems,” said Tavo. “And we’re prepared to cut the fuel line once it extends it. The cruiser we will leave to the four of you.”

“When we’ve found Keith and the Lion, be ready to use a tractor beam to pull Red back to its bay here,” said Shiro. “He’s been captive for days. The Flame aren’t merciful. Any sign the tanker’s spotted us?”

“None,” said Pidge. “I’ve kept an ear on all signals and communications. We’ve been on silent running since before the tanker arrived. They’ve given no sign that they know we’re here.”

“Make sure you destroy the tanker the moment the cruiser arrives,” said Shiro. “Without fuel the cruiser can’t get far. It won’t be able to jump away from us.”

Tavo just nodded. His hands rested on the pedestals that controlled the teludav.

To Lance, Pidge, and Hunk, Shiro said, “Disable the cruiser as soon as possible. Weapons, engines. Escape ships. Nobody gets off that cruiser unless we allow it. If – if Keith’s not there we’ll need someone to question.”

Lance’s expression was solemn, almost grim, as he said, “Shiro...we’ve done this before.”

Shiro’s expression briefly twisted as he caught Lance’s meaning; the clone ship. The ship that had almost broken all of them, that they’d fought their way through for his sake. And ...now they were going to face that again. Shiro saw that in their faces. They would risk that this would be a repeat of that. And Keith thought they didn’t care.

Any comment he might have made was silenced by the arrival of the cruiser. It was time. “To your lions,” said Shiro, moving to do the same.

~*~

Haggar stood before Keith’s tank, studying him with eyes and with power. Macidus was correct. Keith was lost, now, in a dream that didn’t end and was wholly out of his control. Druid magic focused on the darkness in the soul, and there was more than enough darkness here for them to work with. A thief and a murderer and a spy. Macidus had clearly taken both satisfaction and pride in finding the darkest, most violent events and using them to break the subject’s innate defiance. He accepted, now, that what he saw was real.

Now was the time for artistry. The information Haggar wanted was not in the dark memories. Keith would have to volunteer it. This room blocked connections. Keith would not be able to call a Lion here, not even in his darkest dreams. Nor his mate, nor his wolf. She raised one clawed hand and sent tendrils of darkness into the tank.

Keith opened his eyes. He was in a cell, chained to a wall. Arms and legs spread and chained close, so that there was no walking, no squatting. He pulled at the chains; they were heavy, and strong.

A druid stood before him, conveniently out of reach. “You waken,” it rasped.

“How did I get here?” Keith demanded. “What is it you want?”

“Oriande,” said the druid. “Tell us of Oriande.”

“Or what?” growled Keith. “You’ll hurt me?” His tone made it clear he didn’t think druids had much of a handle on how pain worked.

“No,” said the druid. “We will hurt him.”

no. Keith shifted, pulling on his galra side. Strained on the chains. There was no give in them. A small floating pallet was pushed into the cell. no. Shiro was on it, shirtless, on his knees. They’d taken his cybernetic arm away. The other was chained down. Chained at neck, waist, wrist, and at each ankle. There were marks of energy whips on him already. no.

“I will kill you,” growled Keith, not even thinking about the damage he could do to his own muscles and joints, straining against his chains. “I will kill. You.

“You will tell us of Oriande,” the druid corrected placidly. “And for every dobosh you do not, we will give him pain.”

“Don’t,” whispered Shiro through parched lips. “Don’t.”

no. This wasn’t supposed to be how it happened. Shiro was the one who was supposed to live. Shiro was the one everyone needed. no. The druids brought in a little….it looked like a toy. The sort you might put on an executive’s desk. A little waterfall, drip drip dripping into a cup. Each drip filled the cup a little more. Keith worked out what it was for only a drop or two before the cup was full, and it tipped over into a little reservoir. At that moment, another druid took a lash to Shiro’s back, cutting a deep slash. Shiro didn’t scream, but the muffled grunt spoke of the pain. “Don’t,” Shiro pleaded. “Don’t.”

Keith saw red. Strained until something cracked against the chains, dislocating his shoulders. Drip, drip. Drip, drip.

He tried. He tried to hold out. Shiro would be so disappointed if he gave in, surely if Shiro could endure it Keith had to be able to. After a few more whip slashes, though, the druids took a plasma knife and started taking Shiro’s fingers, joint by joint. No more flying Black now, or any Lion, not without hands to hold the controls. Still, Shiro whispered, “Don’t...don’t...”

Keith could barely see through the tears, and broken blood vessels from straining on the chains. The druid rasped, “Enough.” Raised a simple scalpel, cut Shiro’s upper arm, near the artery. Just close enough to nick it. The blood poured quickly. “Speak and he will live. If he dies, we will bring in the next one.”

Keith closed his eyes. no. He couldn’t. He couldn’t bear losing Shiro even if Shiro hated him forever for this. “...It’s in the Petrulian zone,” he croaked.

A druid’s dark magic held back the flow of Shiro’s lifeblood. “Continue,” it rasped.

Keith swallowed. He couldn’t meet Shiro’s eyes. “….The white hole will destroy your ship if you go too close. There’s a guardian, a white lion...”

He told them everything, eyes squeezed shut.

...In the real world, Haggar released her spell and let Keith slip into true unconsciousness. A small, pleased smile quirked the edges of her mouth. “We have a new heading,” she said to Macidus. “Inform the navigator.”

“And the prisoner, high priestess?” asked Macidus.

“Do as you please with him,” said Haggar. “But do not kill him. I have further use for him.”

~*~

Five ticks after the cruiser appeared, four Lions launched from the castleship and unleashed every possible weapon on its weapons systems and engines. Escape ships and fighters were sealed in their bays by Lion claws raking hard across the hull, warping doors. Cannons were warped by weapons fire or biting jaws.

The Paladins were angry and their Lions made it abundantly clear as they attacked.

The four paladins boarded by the simple means of their Lions clawing big holes in the hull, through which the paladins dropped. They took prisoner any galra who’d had the presence of mind to don a helmet; Lance and Hunk fired stun blasts, Pidge applied restraints, and Shiro handled any close quarters combat. Galra who took on Shiro did not survive to be taken captive, who fought with brutal efficiency. They checked every room, herding their prisoners to the cargo bay where the Red Lion crouched, encased in its particle barrier.

“Nothing,” said Hunk at last. “There’s nothing here that says Keith was ever on this ship.”

“The captain will know,” said Shiro.

“I’ll check the comm logs,” said Pidge quickly. “There might be something there.”

Pidge scooted off to the bridge, leaving Lance and Hunk with Shiro. Who was eyeing their long row of prisoners. “Where is the Red Paladin,” he growled at them.

“We don’t have him,” said the one wearing an officer’s uniform. “We never had him. Only the ship.”

Shiro’s mechanical hand flexed its fingers like it was testing out the idea of a choke hold, as he walked over to where the captain knelt, restrained. “Where is the Red Paladin,” he growled again. “Who took him.”

The captain eyed Shiro’s hand as if quite certain Shiro was going to break his neck. Hunk had the worried look of someone who also thought that. The captain looked up at Shiro and said, “Spare my crew and I’ll tell you what I know.”

That mechanical hand shot out and gripped the captain by the throat. “You will tell me,” Shiro snarled, “and I’ll think about sparing your crew.”

“Hey now,” said Hunk. “We want Keith back too, Shiro, but we don’t do this.”

“You’ve led us on a wild goose chase,” snarled Shiro at the captain. “He’s been captive for days and we’ve been chasing you.” His fingers tightened; the captain’s purple skin was darkening.

“That’s enough, Shiro,” said Lance. His voice wasn’t steady, or commanding. But he had his blaster rifle raised and pointed at Shiro, so maybe it didn’t need to be. “We don’t do this. He’s cooperating. We don’t torture.”

“We’re not like that,” Hunk agreed, his tone more worried than anything else. “Come on, Shiro. We’ve got this. We’ll get him back. Let him go – he can’t tell you anything while you’re choking him like that.”

Maybe it was the aimed blaster. Or Hunk’s logical commentary. Slowly, Shiro put the captain down, his grip easing. The galra captain gasped for air, taking deep ragged breaths.

“The druids,” the captain rasped. “We were the first cruiser to reach the lion. Nobody else could’ve. Had to be the druids.”

Shiro’s reaction was pure reflex. His hand shot out and Commander Nesretan died, the crack audible across the silence of the cargo bay as his neck was broken. He turned to the other prisoners, who bowed their heads or bared their fangs in defiance, depending on how they felt about dying, but Shiro wasn’t really seeing them. Druids. Oh gods. Keith was in the hands of the druids. There was an invisible hand squeezing Shiro’s heart.

The news rocked Lance and Hunk too. They both looked shocked, and a little green. Lance snapped out of it first, and moved to aim his blaster at the prisoners. “All right you lot. Up up up. One two, one two! You’re going in Blue’s belly and if you’re really good, your Emperor might let you live. Move it, move it!”

The prisoners understood the mercy they were being offered. Lance was getting them out of Shiro’s sight and out of his reach. They all but scrambled to their feet, marching quick time where Lance pointed.

Hunk waited until the prisoners were out of the cargo bay, and then used his own blaster to blow the damaged cargo bay doors off the ship. The castleship could be seen maneuvering into position, and a tractor beam took the Red Lion home.

“Come on, Shiro,” said Hunk gently. “We’re gonna get him back. We’ve got five lions now. We can go back and get Allura and Voltron can give Haggar a good kicking, okay?”

He didn’t say we don’t know where he is. Shiro ...wasn’t being Intense, now. It was like Nesretan’s words had popped that inner balloon, and instead of a massive explosion Shiro had collapsed in on himself somewhere. Lost in just how bad it could be. What Haggar could do. Could already have done.

“Shiro?” asked Hunk, very worried now.

Shiro said nothing, and walked back to his Lion.

~*~

The castleship returned, and four paladins. That by itself was enough to have both Lotor and Allura approaching the castleship; both paused, as a hatch opened and a long string of galra prisoners, in Fire of Purification uniforms yet very subdued, marched out.

“You brought me prisoners,” said Lotor, the question only a barest hint at the end of the sentence.

Lance said, shortly, “I thought maybe someone might want to talk to them before deciding whether they die or not. Allura, we’re gonna need you. They didn’t have Keith on that cruiser.”

Allura’s fingers rose to her lips and her eyes turned to Shiro. Shiro who looked….grim.

“The druids have him, Allura,” Shiro said flatly. “They’ve had him this whole time. He was never on the cruiser.”

“You will need to go with them, princess,” Lotor agreed quietly. “I cannot allow someone who has spent time as Haggar’s experiment to set foot here. You will recall what she did to your mice.”

All five paladins turned to stare at Lotor then. It wasn’t a connection any of them had made and none of them were happy to think about it.

“You wouldn’t,” said Pidge. “Keith’s not a mouse. He’s been your friend.”

“I have cut down my own generals,” said Lotor grimly. “With my own hand, when Haggar turned them. Did I not tell you before, paladins? This is what she does. It is why she is feared, even by the most bloodthirsty of our warlords. Galra are not cowards, paladins.”

“Keith won’t let Haggar turn him,” said Shiro in a low tone. “He’ll fight.”

“If that alone could make a difference,” said Lotor quietly, almost – almost – gently, “Haggar would not be so feared. Go, princess. Take your alteans, your alchemists. If you do recover him, you will need that power. I will not let him return here unless you can demonstrate the witch has no hold upon him. I must protect my people.”

“Keith is your people,” said Allura, creeping horror in her tone. “You can’t just -”

I am not an alchemist,” Lotor interrupted her. “I have no skill, no access to any skill, that can release the witch’s hold on her prey. I do as I must to protect those not in her thrall. You have the choice, princess. Use it well.” He bowed to Shiro – not deeply, but sympathetically. “Ask what you will. Information, resources. It will be yours. I would wish the witch’s attention on no one. But Keith does not return here unless you can prove she has no hold on him.”

Pidge, Hunk and Lance clearly expected Shiro to protest this, but he didn’t. “Keith would agree with you,” he said quietly. “We’ll need everything you’ve got on the movements of the druid ships at that last battle.”

“It will be yours,” said Lotor nodding. “I will inform Krolia of developments. She can serve as your liason, to allow you to focus more thoroughly on your hunt.” He regarded the offering of Fire prisoners. “I will see them interrogated,” he said. “If they know anything that may aid you I will see that you are informed.”

“Thank you,” said Shiro in that quiet, half-dead tone, and went back into the castleship.

Allura stared after him, and then looked at the other three paladins.

Pidge gave an exasperated sigh. “He’s been like that since he realized where Keith is,” she said. “I think it’s….he kinda blocked out his own memories, you know. He’s assuming the worst. I’m not sure he’s right to.”

Allura blinked; Hunk and Lance seemed surprised as well. “Why do you say that?” Allura asked. “Surely he’s right to fear something horrible. She couldn’t even show mercy to harmless creatures.”

“Haggar’s pragmatic,” said Pidge. “She makes tools but she doesn’t destroy them if she doesn’t need to. If she took Keith it’s for more reasons than just ‘he was there and she could’. She wants something. So he’s at least gonna be okay until she gets that something. And then he’s probably gonna be some kind of leverage or bargaining chip with us, and she can’t use him that way if he’s dead. That gives us time to find him and a chance to help him – like we did with Shiro, and Ryou. We just have to watch for the chance.”

“And be ready to take it,” said Lance grimly. “I heard about the mice. We need to do better with Keith. If he dies...”

“It’ll be like when Shiro disappeared, all over again,” Hunk finished, nodding. “I didn’t realize before now that it’s two-way.”

“Even money says Shiro didn’t either,” Pidge pointed out bluntly. “None of us realized. Keith’s never...” she made an exasperated sound and shrugged. “Even when he went diving at Haggar’s ship at Naxela, we never really thought he’d die.”

“What Haggar does may be worse,” Allura reminded. “Of course I’ll come with you. I’ll...talk with Tavo and Luca as well. They’re good alchemists. Perhaps we can figure out some way to help Keith if Haggar’s twisted him.”

She followed Shiro, heading into the castleship.

Pidge turned to Hunk. “Better get on that armor locator,” she said. “I’ll see if I can’t figure out where they’re heading based on where they’ve been.”

“A moment, paladins,” said Lotor. “You will want to take off in pursuit immediately, of course. But I suggest you remain, just a while longer. You are going to face druids. Several druids. And you are taking alchemists, and that is wise. But you should wait for the Blade of Marmora to send you Blades as well. They have combat experience and training in fighting druids – certainly more than your alchemists can boast.”

The three remaining paladins paused. “...You have any around here?” asked Hunk. “I mean besides Krolia.”

“Kolivan is already en route, so I am told,” said Lotor. “I will ask him to spare Blades for you. I believe the delay to your hunt would be beneficial.”

Lance and Pidge shared a look, shrugged. “We don’t have better ideas,” said Lance. “Thanks. We’ll wait for them.”

“Might have to stun Shiro again,” said Pidge, in a tone that suggested she did not regard this as a hardship.

Lotor nodded and turned to go. “I will inform Krolia, and Kolivan. I wish you good fortune.”

~*~

Krolia did turn up, boarding the castleship with her kit within doboshes of Lotor’s departure. Kolivan had been informed, and while Blades normally had the same attitude toward prisoners Haggar kept for any length of time as Lotor – that is, ‘kill them before the time bomb in them goes off’ - the addition of alchemists to the attack force seemed to reassure them. Kolivan sent six Blades to the castleship, to work alongside the paladins and protect them from Druid assault.

As to the alchemists – Allura, Tavo and Luca were the three assigned to the castleship. All three had now seen battle, although Tavo and Luca were still very new to it. They looked...well, surprised. And a bit intimidated by the uniformed Blades.

Now they just had to find the ships.


Chapter Text

Pidge started with tracking the codes Lotor and Krolia provided, for the Druid vessels that had been at the battle. Hunk borrowed (with some wariness on the Blades’ part) some of the Marmora blades to set up a fraunhofer search for Keith’s blade, using his own armor as a template for searching for Keith’s armor.

Lance and Shiro both tried talking to their Lions – Shiro to Black, Lance to Red – to see if they could connect to Keith directly through them.

Krolia approached Allura.

“I have heard of many quintessence theories,” she said quietly. “How we are connected, create connections, bonds...” Krolia looked away briefly, gathering courage. “I bore him in my body. If there is a connection remaining, I offer myself. Find my son.”

In all honestly Allura had never heard of such a thing. But she’d never really been in a position to, either. Never hearing of it wasn’t exactly proof it had never been tried. Krolia knew it was a slim hope; she approached Allura privately, just the two of them, so no one’s hopes would be raised. Allura did not have the heart to refuse to try. She took Krolia’s hands in hers, and focused.

Meanwhile, Pidge and Hunk’s work bore a measure of success. The druid ships were running silent, but Pidge at least had their last known heading. Hunk’s metallurgic scans corroborated her findings.

The druid fleet was heading for the Petrulian Zone.

~*~

Macidus was playing with his new toy when Haggar stepped into the cell. She checked the monitors that tracked Keith’s condition – alive, breathing, sufficient – before gesturing to Macidus to leave off whatever nightmare he was amused to be inflicting and leave her with the prisoner.

Keith had been quite clear. Haggar had a very clear idea of the trials of Oriande now – not just how Keith had dealt with them, but how alteans were supposed to deal with them, based on what Allura had said in Keith’s hearing. A sacrifice would be required for the power she sought.

Haggar raised one clawed hand, dark energy gathering. A sacrifice would be made.

~*~

Shiro got out of Black, frustrated and tired. “I can’t,” he said. “I keep trying – Black can’t sense him, can’t find him.”

Lance was already out of Red, looking just as tired. “Nor Red,” he admitted. “I’m sorry, Shiro. I tried.”

Shiro put a hand on Lance’s shoulder. “Thank you, for that,” he said. “At least we’ve got an idea what they’re after, but without a clear idea which ship has him...”

“Let’s go see what Hunk’s found,” said Lance. “Pidge has the fleet, but Hunk was working on the stuff Keith had on him when he was taken. We’re not done yet.”

Hunk was found amid a veritable mound of wires and control boards. There was a Marmora blade wrapped in wire in the mess, and also Hunk’s own paladin helmet. In the midst of the mound was a screen, with a radar setup, and one blip at an outer circle.

“Does it mean you’ve found him?” asked Shiro, carefully neutral.

“Means I’ve got a read on his stuff, at least,” Hunk said. “After that chase, I’m not gonna swear he’s with his stuff. I mean that’d be kind of stupid, when you think about it, giving a prisoner weapons and armor and stuff.” He tapped the screen, then thumped it with a fist, and beneath the blip coordinates appeared. “There. That’s where his stuff is. At the moment. Either of you have any luck with finding him?”

Shiro calmly entered the coordinates into his gauntlet. “The Lions can’t find him,” he said. “Haggar must...have worked out that we could use that connection.”

“Yeah, Cosmo’s been kinda meh, too,” said Hunk. “That could just be distance though. We’ve never really tested his range.” He looked around. “What’s Allura up to? You seen her at all?”

“She’s our next stop,” said Shiro. “Your coordinates, have you cross checked with Pidge?”

“Yep,” Hunk nodded. “One of the ships in the druid fleet.”

Shiro closed his eyes, breathing deeply. “...If we try boarding the druid ships one by one we’ll get slaughtered,” he said. “But there’s no guarantee, like you said, that Keith’s with his gear. We can do two ships at once, maybe, but that’s the limit. If I had to make a guess, I’d say Keith’s on Haggar’s ship – so the flagship of the group. If we don’t get any more than that, we’ll go with that plan.”

Hunk frowned. “Splitting up, against druids?” he asked. “They’re really bad news, Shiro...”

“We’ve got Blades with us,” Shiro reminded him. “That’s got to help. In the meantime we’ll head for the fleet.”

Hunk’s eyes widened. “Nonono. Bad idea. No. Please.” He got up so fast his lap full of parts clattered to the floor. “The minute we arrive it’s gonna get ugly, Shiro, those are druid ships. Plan first, then wormhole. Please?”

Lance nodded agreement. “Shiro, we’ll go in guns blazing, but we can’t go in blind. There’s no telling what they’ll throw at us. It’s gotta be quick. Go in, get Keith, get out. Let’s at least check on Allura first.”

~*~

Haggar stood on the bridge of her ship, studying the expanse before her. The patrulian zone was beautiful desolation, the roaring energy of the white hole surrounded by rings of broken ships. “Take us in very slowly,” she commanded. “To the edge of what the ship can withstand.”

In one hand, she held what might have been mistaken for a pearl, did it not shine blue-white; a pearl of living quintessence. A connection.

A sacrifice.

~*~

Allura had never done a ritual like this before. It felt strange, but ...rather heartwarming, when it came to that. Krolia sat before her, eyes closed, breathing deeply. Warrior-mother, she was unapologetic in her protectiveness and her devotion. It was something Allura had never thought to see in a galra – and that realization shamed her.

Krolia was smaller than many galra, but concentrated, somehow. As if she were not lesser, but distilled. And there was a bond there, faint and strained from long absence but never surrendered. Allura reached out in spirit to touch that bond with her own power. Strengthened it. Brightened it. “Think of ...your son,” said Allura, not wanting to really picture Keith in this exact context herself. “Think with your heart, reach with your heart. Follow the path across the stars.”

Krolia didn’t move, or speak, but Allura could feel her trying.

The moment was shattered by the door opening, and Shiro and Lance walking in. Allura was just about to yell at them both to just get the hell out already, when Krolia surged up, grabbed Shiro by his human wrist, and dragged him over to Allura.

“It’s working,” Krolia said to Allura. “But we can build on it. He’s Keith’s mate. It’s a bond too, isn’t it? Is it only galra who believe in that?” She all but shoved the now-quite-stunned Shiro into sitting down near where she had been. “We need to try it.”

Shiro managed only a stunned, startled, and rather confused “?!” sound, but sat down as directed.

Allura looked exasperated. “Shiro is human, Krolia, even if there is a bond there how would we use it? How would Shiro sense it?”

“We can have a very lengthy discussion about what my world calls ‘chi’ sometime when Keith isn’t being tortured by druids,” Shiro said levelly. “In the meantime just tell me what I have to do and let’s find out if it can help rather than shutting it down without trying.”

Allura wanted to argue. She’d been with these paladins since the beginning and really only Keith seemed to have much quintessence sense – which, reluctantly, Allura had had to attribute to his galra heritage. Shiro -

She stopped herself. Shiro was going quietly, unobtrusively insane. There wasn’t anything he could do, no enemy he could fight or persuade. Whether it worked or not, this was at least something he could try, and she could see in his face that he didn’t care what the odds were. It was something and he’d throw his whole heart into it because it was better than feeling helpless, doing nothing.

“Very well,” Allura said quietly, and sat back down again. “Lance, do please guard the door against any more intrusions. This requires focus.” She put a hand out. “Your human hand, Shiro. Krolia, your hand also. Think about your connections to Keith. Think about them as ropes tying you together. Follow those ropes across the stars….”

~*~

The first obstacle, as it turned out, wasn’t one. Haggar, to her mild surprise, displayed the mark of the chosen when she conjured a reflective surface. According to her information, that meant the guardian should let her pass.

Good.

Haggar left Macidus in charge on the bridge, and orders that no one was to disturb the prisoner, and took a small personal shuttle into the white hole. She sensed the power of the guardian as she flew into its mouth and smiled to herself. Powerful. She would have use for that beast soon enough.

~*~

Shiro did have a bond to Keith. It wasn’t the same as Krolia’s, but it was rather stronger – if a bit peculiar. Krolia’s bond was given of herself; her love, her self. Shiro’s seemed to have been given him by Keith directly. It didn’t have a lot of Shiro in it, but when Allura’s power was added to it, it drew all three of them to Keith.

“Mate,” said Krolia, with some satisfaction. “I suspected as much, from how he speaks of you.”

Shiro was looking around though. It was a desert, and a weathered shack, and from the sound of things Keith was inside the shack. “This is Earth,” he said, frowning. “This can’t be right. He can’t be on Earth, can he?”

Allura blinked. This was Earth? This...wasteland? She shook her head quickly. “This is a mindscape,” she said. “We are in his mind. We need to pull back to see where his body is.”

Krolia frowned. “….Where is the house?” she asked. “I recognize the shed. Where is the house?”

Shiro shook his head. “I’ve never seen a house near that shed,” he said. “I’ll talk with you about it later. We have to find him.” He looked at Allura, and the look said please get us out of here before I forget we need to stay focused and just go tell him it will be all right.

Allura nodded to that look, put a hand on each of them, and ...pulled back a little. Now the three of them stood in a cell. On a cruiser, clearly. And Keith was suspended, dreaming, in a tank of purple quintessence.

“Oh god,” said Shiro quietly, and the tone suggested he was fighting nausea.

Krolia’s lips were thin, pressed together. She recognized it too. “We need more data,” she said grimly.

“Stay together,” warned Allura. “There will be druids here, we may have to retreat quickly.”

“Then we move even more quickly,” said Shiro, and started dragging the spirit-forms of the two women in his wake. “Run. Run for the bridge. One of us has to get there.”

“Allow me,” said Krolia firmly. And without another word – and over Shiro’s very surprised protest – Krolia picked up the other two, tucking Allura under one arm and Shiro over the opposite shoulder like a very bulky body pillow, and sprinted out of the room. There were indeed druids on guard outside it, and they did sense the group’s passing, but did not react in time. Krolia ran with galra speed, on her toes, through the ship, toward the bridge, ducking and dodging druids she saw along the way, doing everything she could to avoid brushing against them. The trio thus passed through the doors to the bridge and she tossed them down even as the druids all turned, sensing intrusion. “Memorize what you can and then leave!” Krolia ordered, doing the same.

The bridge was, briefly, a dark lightning field of blasts of purple energies as the druids tried to attack the presences they knew were there. One by one the trio disappeared from the ship.

Their eyes opened on the floor of the castleship, all three panting hard, hearts racing. Lance peeked around the door. “You guys okay? There was screaming.”

“We have a heading,” Allura panted. “And not much time.”

~*~

Haggar touched down before the structure. It was just as Keith had described it, although the boy had had no idea what any of the carvings meant. Nevertheless, it served as adequate proof that he had been speaking truthfully.

The first trial would be the stone guardians, then. The guardians demanded a gift, which they might or might not take from the supplicant.

Haggar had her own plan. She walked into the hall, and when the guardians rose to stop her, she blasted them with dark lightnings. She did not come to this place to kindly beg for knowledge. She came to take it. And when the last guardian crumbled into rubble, the passage they had hidden with their energies was revealed to her.

Haggar stepped through.

~*~

The castleship burst out of its wormhole above the druid fleet. From this angle they all looked alike, but the paladins knew which one held Keith. Five Lions roared out of the castleship as the fleet opened fire. The druids would be scrambling to get to their circles; the lions formed Voltron in the short window they had.

Green raised Voltron’s shield as the weapons of the fleet focused their attention on the mech. Right now, Voltron was buying the six Blades time – they were each flying on small personal jets, too small for cruiser sensors to pick up, to the flagship. Voltron formed the shoulder cannon and started firing at the outer ships in the fleet, taking out what it could, but the weapons fire was slowly being augmented with dark druid magic and that was draining Voltron and disorienting the paladins.

Start at the edges and work back to the flagship. Destroy everything possible. The plan was simple, but effective enough.

Six Blades disappeared into a hatch on the hull of the flagship and started searching.

~*~

The second trial was simple enough that Haggar didn’t need to break it. She simply stood on the dais, tucked her ‘pearl’ into her robes, and placed her hands on the columns. The wormhole was pre-coordinated, of course. She walked through.

~*~

Voltron was a powerful distraction – rather too powerful for any of the druid ships to try ignoring. The six Blades moved in coordinated fashion, surrounding and destroying any druid they came across but not diverting their route for any of them. The goal wasn’t to exterminate druids – it was to keep any of them from sounding an alarm, make sure their attention remained outward, on Voltron, while they searched.

When they came to the right room, they killed the two druids guarding it. Once inside, one Blade began the power-down sequence while the other five guarded the door against intrusion. The purple quintessence drained away, and Keith was now supported only by the breathing apparatus attached to his face. The Blade removed this, too, with quick but gentle care, and attached the little tabs of a Marmora mask to Keith’s damp scalp, just behind the ears. The mask was activated and the Blade nodded to her compatriots. Mission accomplished, time to get the hell out.

~*~

Haggar faced the White Lion. As it charged, she raised the blue-white pearl she had brought, and threw it into the lion’s roaring jaws. She had forged the link with care. The lion would judge Haggar’s worthiness by tasting Keith’s soul.

~*~

As they were carrying Keith to the exit point, his body started jerking and spasming, making him difficult to hang on to.

“Is he rousing?” asked one of the Blades.

“This is something else,” said the one holding Keith. “Get your sword out. All of you.” The Blade was worried, very worried.

The closest Blade extended his dagger into a long sword, and poked Keith’s shaking body with it. The cut was shallow, but white light flared from it in a burst. Keith was abruptly very still.

The Blades did not have time to see if he was all right, or even still breathing. They gathered up his body and got back to running for the way out.

~*~

Haggar looked up. The Lion was gone. The pearl was gone. And she was outside the structure, the temple.

The spell had failed. Oriande had rejected her.

Infuriated, Haggar called all her dark power down upon the temple.

~*~

“That one,” said Hunk, highlighting a cruiser on the screen. “His stuff’s on that one.”

Cosmo poofed out of existence – and returned with a small metal box. Well – possibly midsized. Big enough for armor, a bayard, and a knife.

“Good boy,” said Hunk.

~*~

Once Keith and his things were retrieved Voltron and the castleship retreated. It was generally understood that it would be a Bad Idea to try doing too much after Hagger returned to lead her druids – there would be better opportunities later, with more castleships and alchemists with battle experience. Retreated fairly far, honestly – Luca kindly found an ion storm, where the castleship could not be located, and wormholed the ship there. Lotor had, after all, been quite clear about his conditions.

Keith, dripping shimmering purple quintessence, seemed...fine, really, to any examination. There were no visible injuries other than the light cut the Blade had given him. There was no sign he’d been mistreated at all, other than ...well, purple quintessence. Prying an eyelid up, his eyes were normal, no fields of gold. He still looked human elsewhere. He was pretty solidly unconscious, but that seemed to just be normal deep sleep, as if he hadn’t slept in a week.

Shiro was glued to Keith’s side, which...everyone seemed to at least expect, and Krolia and the Blades appeared to actively approve of. He didn’t overtly hover or fret, but he was easily the biggest paladin and quite possibly also the strongest, and with that on his side he didn’t need to hover for everyone to know he was paying keen attention to the proceedings.

Allura was the one to take charge. “Let us get him to your quarters,” she said to Shiro. “We can do what needs to be done there.”

“And the rest of us?” asked Lance. “We’d kind of like to know what’s up too.”

“I am sure you do,” said Allura calmly, “But we will need to focus. I promise you we will spread the news when we are done. Wait for us in the cafeteria.”

Hunk nodded. “Right. Snacks it is for the waiting people. Means you too, Blade guys.”

The six galra were quite surprised to be addressed at all, never mind as ‘Blade guys’, and followed where Hunk led like a passel of great dane puppies. Tavo and Luca came to stand with Allura, and Shiro nodded a ‘goodbye for now’ to Pidge and Lance as he carried Keith off.

Lance slanted a look at Pidge, who gave an exasperated sigh. “Come on,” she said. “You can tell me all about how you’d love to date Allura but she’s all hung up on Lotor.”

Lance blinked. “I – wait. You’re not mad? About Matt?”

“I monitor communications,” said Pidge levelly. “Along with a lot of other things. You are not the most interesting thing in my brother’s sex life, and you have no idea how much I regret knowing that.”

Lance blinked again. “Soooooo ….you’re saying if I talked Hunk into providing a chocolate sundae you wouldn’t give me details?”

Pidge pointedly nudged Lance toward the cafeteria. “Throw in strawberries and you have a deal.”

~*~

Shiro laid Keith out on the bed, only then really noticing bare feet, bare hands, and that Keith was only in his under-suit. It didn’t seem to bother the alteans any. Shiro held onto one of Keith’s hands – more for his own reassurance than anything else – while the three alchemists focused their attention and their powers on Keith.

For long moments nothing happened. Then ...dark glowing veins seemed to spread across Keith’s body, rising from his neck up into his face, extending down his arms into his hands. The veins pulsed, and he convulsed, choking and coughing; Shiro reached out to turn Keith’s head and purple-black goo, thick as syrup, trickled from Keith’s lips onto the pillow. As it did, the veins slowly started receding again, starting at the extremities and retreating toward his chest.

It wasn’t a lot of fluid. Maybe a few tablespoons. But when the veins had disappeared, Keith’s sleep seemed...easier.

Luca bent forward, studying the stuff. “What is that?”

“Do not touch it,” Allura warned. “Remnants of Haggar’s magic, I think. As Lotor warned us. Hooks, he called it. Her hooks.”

Tavo gingerly tugged at the pillow, trying to get it out from under Keith without getting any of the goo on him. “I think we give this to the Blades,” he said. “I want to see if those swords of theirs really do any good against this.”

“They do,” Allura promised, gesturing to them to join her in leaving. To Shiro, she said, “We will give this to the Blades, and I will tell Lotor we have met his conditions. Stay here. I will see to the running of this ship for now.”

Shiro nodded slowly, eyes closing in relief. “Thank you,” he said, and it meant more than just a reprieve from duty.

Allura gave him a brief, sad little smile and departed with the alchemists and the pillow.

~*~

Ezor listened to the whole story of everything that had happened after Lance flattened her, and sighed. “That’s it. I am never playing games with paladins again. I miss all the really good fun.”

Lotor smiled. “Indeed,” he said. “But the two of you are back on active duty. And we have work to do.”

“Do we, sir?” asked Acxa, thoughtful. “I thought you were going to let Sendak go?”

“Possibly,” said Lotor. “But I do not want him building up his forces again. While he is at his weakest, I would prefer we assist the Coalition in retaking lost territory. Or...’liberating’ it, as they seem to prefer calling it. It will put them in a better mood at the negotiation table, and free my hands for worthier projects.”

“...Like what?” asked Zethrid, frowning. Worthier projects than beating an enemy to a squooshy pulp? Not possible.

“I saw something at the battle,” said Lotor. “Something I desire for myself. I wish to build an empire ...worthy of me. I have no desire to lead the remnants of Zarkon’s disaster.”

Ezor, in a tone that suggested she wasn’t sure Lotor was playing with a full deck, said, “Zarkon’s empire lasted ten thousand years.”

“And weren’t they dull,” Lotor replied blandly, which got Ezor’s immediate and fascinated attention. No one had ever really called the Empire dull. If anything it was quite often terminally exciting.

Lotor gestured to the doors, where...Kolivan stood. Taking it as a signal, the old Blade approached Lotor and his generals, and knelt. “Your majesty,” he said solemnly. “Long have I waited for this day.”

Acxa, Ezor, and Zethrid all gave Kolivan the blank stares of people who genuinely had no idea what the galra they were looking at would be doing here. Lotor didn’t leave them hanging long.

“Kolivan has a most interesting tale to tell,” said Lotor. “About the Empire before the fall of Altea. About who the galra were – and who we can be again.”

“We have kept the knowledge until the day it could be used,” said Kolivan solemnly. “Of who we once were. The clock cannot be turned back, but with this knowledge we can build a new nation.”

Ezor and Zethrid both looked...concerned. This might not be fun. They looked to Lotor. “Uh. Do we get a choice?” asked Ezor warily.

“I think between us all we can find a course that will serve all parties,” said Lotor mildly. “The empire of old was galra only. We had not expanded far into space. That must change. The empire that is is comprised of many races. You must know I value your insights.”

“Alloys make stronger blades,” said Kolivan solemnly.

Ezor and Zethrid seemed reassured; Acxa just studied Lotor. Of the three she knew Lotor best, understood him most thoroughly. He might value Ezor and Zethrid’s viewpoints, but only as a sort of weathervane for the more violent corners of the empire. Lotor wasn’t talking about mild reforms here – if he truly meant to do this, it would require sweeping changes. Extensive changes. There might well be yet another civil war over it. Or two.

Lotor met Acxa’s gaze and a tiny little smile tugged at the edges of his mouth. “Your concern is understandable,” he said. “I am aware of the extent of what I propose. All the more reason to be certain of its direction. I have had time to realize...the empire truly is mine. Zarkon is dead, Haggar is driven from power, Sendak’s rebellion is broken. The Empire is mine. Now it is for me to decide what the Empire shall become.”

~*~

Haggar emerged from the white hole drained but still quite angry. Her spell had been broken at the worst possible moment, right on the verge of having everything she’d wanted.

The sight that greeted her were damaged cruisers, some destroyed, and clear signs of a battle.

So that was what had happened to her spell.

She continued back to her flagship, and the way her druids bowed at maximum polite distance told her the rest of what she needed to know.

The paladins had found their lost lamb, and taken him back. And they’d broken her spell in the process. Possibly even the hooks she’d placed in case of later use.

Allura had grown in skill, it seemed. And now Haggar understood she would not have Oriande’s power to draw on to counter that.

Haggar ordered the cruisers to regroup, taking all the cruisers even if only a skeleton crew survived.

Lotor had proven his mettle. The Empire was his. But Sendak would never surrender; Haggar knew that implicitly. Sendak was one of Zarkon’s galra and they never surrendered.

That was fine. Haggar was deeply, deeply furious at the disruption of her magics right on the edge of a goal she’d had for quite possibly longer than the paladins’ species had been worthy of the name. She had a use for Sendak and his burning hatred, oh yes.