Shiro’s feet hit the ground, pain shooting through them and up his legs, all the way to his spine, but he keeps running. The ground beneath him crunches under his feet, the rocks slipping from under them almost tripping Shiro over and sending him crashing into the thin trees and large rocks around him more than once.
A fighter ship passes over Shiro, firing at him, and Shiro barely dodges the blast.
“I need that extraction now!”
“A moment,” Lotor replies over the comms, calm enough to annoy Shiro just a bit.
“I’m going to be blown up in a moment,” Shiro shoots back just as another explosion goes off at his heels, shaking the ground and sending dirt and rocks flying in all directions.
“Patience,” Lotor says.
Shiro dives behind the large rock on his right, ready to tell Lotor where he can shove his advice and wondering if this is how it feels when he encourages people to be patient in tough situations.
“I am ready,” Lotor says after several, too long seconds. “Where are you?”
“Almost at the clearing.” Shiro keeps running through the forest of tall rocks and trees around him, down the slope of the hill, towards Lotor.
The fighters following him only double their efforts to try and blow Shiro up when Shiro nears his destination. Shiro grits his teeth, runs in a less of a straight line, and forces his legs to move just a little faster.
There, at the middle of the clearing, is Lotor with their ship. “I see you,” Shiro says and gathers the last of his strength, and sprints the last stretch between them. The burning of his lungs barely distracts him from the sharp pain in his legs, his muscles hurting from the exertion and hits they’ve taken. His sides sting and Shiro thinks, for a brief, horrifying moment, that he might fall and faint right there.
The fighters fire at him and small rocks hit Shiro’s armor, digging into the less protected places painfully, but Shiro keeps running, his legs burning in protest. He’s almost at the ship. Just a dozen or so feet anymore. He can make it.
He has to make it.
Lotor opens the doors to their ship and steps aside, and Shiro dives into the safety of the ship, rushing to close the doors while Lotor gets them up into the air and away from the enemy fire.
Shiro slumps on the floor, panting and shaking from his narrow escape, his body aching, but he’s alive and that’s all that matters. Lotor flies them away, using the speed of their ship to their advantage to dodge and weave their way to safety. Shiro closes his eyes, trusting Lotor to know what he’s doing.
“I was considering dinner this weekend,” Lotor starts, sounding just a bit too casual.
Shiro opens his eyes and turns to stare at Lotor in disbelief. “Seriously? You’re talking dinner plans right now?”
“I can multitask,” Lotor replies as he fires a shot at the missile aimed at them, taking it out easily.
Of course Lotor can; Shiro knows just how well Lotor can multitask when he wants to, but there’s a time and a place for everything. And when they’re trying to fight their way through a fleet of Altean fighters is not the place to make dinner plans. “I could go for dinner.”
“Good. I also told the others we would be a little late, so they are not concerned we’re not at the — hold on.”
Shiro grabs a hold of the nearest bolted down object — a handle, fittingly, meant to ease moving in zero grav — a fraction of a second before Lotor performs an impressive barrel roll while taking out the fast approaching fighter, sending Shiro into the air as he does so.
“Who the hell taught you to fly?” Shiro barks as he hits the ground again, his already hurting body flashing with pain from the sudden contact. He should really get strapped down.
“My father,” Lotor replies as he rights their ship again and flies into the vastness of the space at full speed. “Hyperdrive in five ticks.”
Shiro curses and scrambles to take his seat. He’s just gotten his seat belt on when Lotor engages the hyperdrive and the force of it pushes Shiro into his seat, just for a second, before the ship’s compensators catch up and adjust to the change in speed.
“I don’t know how we still have Voltron if that’s the case,” Shiro says. “I don’t know how we’re alive with your piloting either.”
Shiro knows why they’re alive and why they still have Voltron, of course he does; Lotor is the best pilot in their little resistance, and there’s no one — not a single person, no matter how much they might hate the Galra — that would even think about denying it.
Shiro nods and does just that.
“Where do you want to go for our dinner?” Lotor asks a mere minute later.
“You’re the local, you pick. As long as it’s not that stuff Galvak got us the other day, that was... not an experience I want to repeat,” Shiro replies.
Shiro spares Lotor a smile before closing his eyes, needing a moment to rest and deal with the dull pain thrumming through his body. It’s worth it though: the Altean ship he had blown up is a loss for Alfor, and not an entirely insignificant one at that.
They are making progress.
However small, they are making progress. That has to matter.
The thing about having Marda and Rinde around is that they stayed barely for a day before disappearing, then staying away for almost two weeks before returning without explanation, and despite the questions directed at them, they refuse to explain themselves. It becomes increasingly frustrating for Thace to deal with Marda evading all his attempts at getting her to just tell him how she is alive. That’s all he wants to know. He can deal with her and Haala making a point of ignoring each others existence if she just tells him how she is alive.
But she won’t. She refuses to say anything. She won’t even explain why she keeps hiding her tail.
“If you need medical attention —”
“I don’t. Stop worrying.” Marda flattens her ears for good measure, but Thace refuses to stop worrying about her, not when he has her there, alive again. He only wants to know if she’s well.
The only thing Marda and Rinde have volunteered is that they are a part of a resistance of some kind, fighting against Alfor the best they can. As if it’s supposed to be enough.
As if it is supposed to make it easier for Thace to tell his family that Marda is alive, after all this time. After they’d accepted that she was gone and moved on.
“I can tell Zairi when I see her,” Haala offers. “I’m going with Marzi on a mission. We’re going to see if some lieutenant friend of hers is still around, and Zairi’s staying near where we’re going, so I thought I’d say hi to her.”
Thace inclines his head. “If you’re sure. And tell her I said hi.”
“I doubt she’d appreciate that,” Haala replies. “But whatever. Aren’t Shiro and the Prince supposed to be back here soon?”
Thace takes the change in topic for what it is and confirms their arrival. “Why?”
Haala shrugs. “Just curious. I heard they were late to the rendezvous point but no one’s told me if the ship took damage.”
Thace can’t tell Haala if it has, but he almost hopes it has, for Haala’s sake; he could use a ship to fix, instead of just tinkering with his smaller projects. “I’ll let you know when they arrive.”
Haala hums in agreement, but he doesn’t try to continue their conversation. But he doesn’t leave Thace’s side either, and that’s more than enough for Thace.
Dinner, when they find the time for it, turns out to be fish in a small yet prestigious establishment in the Galran space, though the restaurant Lotor takes Shiro into isn’t Galran owned, much to Shiro’s surprise. They sit in a small corner table and Shiro never sees a menu, but a waitress with four arms brings them food and drinks minutes after they sit down nevertheless.
“I ordered for you when I meade the reservation,” Lotor explains. “You wouldn’t have known what is good and safe for you to eat.”
“I could’ve ordered my own food,” Shiro insists, but there’s no heat behind his words. “Now what?”
“Lets not discuss the current state of the universe,” Lotor replies and takes a small sip of his wine.
Suddenly Shiro feels inadequate. His table manners aren’t bad by any means, but as he watches Lotor go through the motions of inspecting his food and trying out his wine with pristine ease, he can’t help but think Lotor must be reconsidering bringing Shiro here. Shiro tests the food, acutely aware of the fact that he can’t even begin to replicate the almost delicate way Lotor handles his cutlery and glass, and to his delight it’s good. Better than good, even.
Still, Shiro has no idea how Keith handled dining with Zarkon every day, and he’d welcome some advice on the matter.
“You need not try so hard,” Lotor says quietly, almost softly. “I would rather you be yourself.”
“Huh?” It’s not the most eloquent thing Shiro has ever said, and he has no problem admitting it.
“You look uncomfortable,” Lotor elaborates. “Just... educate me on human dining customs?”
Somehow it makes things easier. Shiro explains all he knows about fine dining human style, and Lotor listens to him, asking questions every now and again and making comments when appropriate. Their conversation drifts to entertainment, and soon Shiro has been roped into a heated discussion on the merits of adapting books into movies.
“They’re completely different formats and both have their benefits and downsides,” Shiro argues.
“I am aware of that. All I am saying is that if you insist on adapting a beloved story, at least have the decency to do it in a proper way,” Lotor responds. “Changing the plot or the characters to the point they are not, fundamentally, themselves is not right. It would be far better for them to call the adaptation an original work inspired by another story than claim it is an adaptation.”
Shiro can’t really argue with that, and Lotor is happy to win their little debate. And if Shiro is honest, he doesn’t mind losing when it puts that small, satisfied smile on Lotor’s face.
The rest of their dinner goes by smoothly, though Shiro can’t help but ask why Lotor had thought they should take a night off for it.
“We will be no help to anyone if we work ourselves to exhaustion. It is good to relax sometimes, and this was the most efficient way I could think of doing it quickly,” Lotor replies.
Shiro accepts Lotor’s explanation, and agrees to the dessert Lotor wants to get. By the time they’re ready to leave, Shiro feels lighter than he has in weeks. Maybe he did need a night off to unwind.
They’ve barely left the restaurant when Lotor’s comm pings, demanding his attention. Shiro gives Lotor the space he needs, directing his attention to the nearby shop with several bright bottles on its window. A minute or so later Lotor touches his elbow and heads to their ship, his expression giving nothing away.
Shiro waits until they’re in the safety of their ship before asking Lotor if something has happened.
“We lost another colony,” Lotor replies, his voice void of any emotion.
Not knowing what else to do, Shiro pulls Lotor into his arms and holds him.
Lotor takes Narti, Thace, and Marzila with him when he goes to see the colony that the Alteans had destroyed. He refuses to let any of the Paladins or Rebellion members near the few surviving Galra, and all three of them are gone for two long weeks, along with the small crew of their ship.
Haala is snappier than usual, but no one blames him for it; they’re all on edge. As long as no serious fights break out, they’ll stick to their unspoken agreement not to mention each others foul moods.
Shiro pours himself a drink, the alcohol sour in his mouth without Lotor there to keep him company. He goes over the report the druids have written him — they like their reports, Shiro has discovered, to an almost disturbing degree — even though he knows it’s nothing new. The druids have looked into possible weapons to use against the Alteans, something to counteract their cloaking abilities, how to shield from their magic, anything that might help, but they have yet to come up with anything truly effective.
Still, any progress is progress, and at least it keeps them busy and less focused on finding Haggar — their primary focus of the early days before Lotor had gotten tired of it and stepped in. They still look for her, of course, but it’s not all they do anymore. Shiro doesn’t say it out loud, but he couldn’t care less if Haggar would never surface again. As far as he’s concerned, she’s brought nothing but pain and trouble with her and they’re all better off without her.
Shaking his head, Shiro focuses on the druids’ request to go raid one of their old bases and recover equipment. The faster he gives them an answer, the better. Thinking it over, Shiro agrees to the request and starts thinking about who should go on the mission, and any additional things they might gather from the druid base.
Getting the survivors from the colony to a safe location was harder and took longer that Lotor had expected, but he had a good team with him and they succeeded in their mission. Eventually.
It was not without problems, though. They had to fight deserters of the Galran Empire and Alteans on the way, but Lotor had the loyal Galra who had come to help their people to safety, his team and — most importantly — his wits and all the knowledge and skill his father had drilled into him until Lotor performed to his impossible standards. They might have been slowed down a bit, but they were never defeated.
Was this what his father had meant when he had insisted Alteans were not the people Lotor had read about in many of his father’s old books? They are so far from kind and peaceful, attacking anyone who disagreed with them — destroying them. In Lotor’s opinion, they are worse than his father was even in his darkest moments.
Or perhaps that is an exaggeration. Lotor is not entirely sure. His father was a different kind of evil; vengeful and vicious, assuming worst of everyone and everything and seeing enemies where there were none, determined to strike them down before they struck him. At least with him, Lotor could understand where he was coming from: his father was far more concerned with protecting his people no matter the cost than anything else, while the Alteans... Lotor is not sure what they want. He cannot see reason in their destruction of everyone who does not bow before them.
And then there is Blaytz, claiming to be a friend of his father. Lotor shakes his head. That is a topic he would rather not get into. It is far too complicated, and he does not have all the facts yet.
Perhaps he never will.
“What is our ETA?” Lotor asks Thace, directing his thoughts from unbeatable enemies and people who should not be alive to more pressing matters, such as getting back to Shiro and the brief moments of distraction he offers.
“Five quarters,” Thace replies, his voice crackling over the comms. Someone ought to fix that particular issue. The ship had taken some damage during their scuffles with the rouge Galra and Alteans, and despite Lotor’s best glowering, the crew has stated they will not be able to fix all the damage before they reach their current base. But the comm issue should be dealt with; it is imperative that they have working communication channels at all times.
Lotor tells Thace as much.
“I will inform the crew of the issue and get it fixed as soon as possible,” Thace assures him.
Lotor turns off the comms and focuses on getting the rest he’d promised Narti he would get. He has been awake for two days straight, and he could do with a nap.
Of course, with Lotor’s luck, he has barely managed to close his eyes before the ship rocks violently to the left and a dozen alarms start ringing throughout the ship.
Lotor is running towards the bridge in a matter of ticks, needing to be where he can be most useful. “What happened?” He demands as soon as he reaches the bridge.
“An Altean ship,” Marzila informs him, already firing on the ship and adjusting their own shielding. “It was cloaked and it’s using some kind of long range missiles; we didn’t see it until a tick before the missile landed.”
“Not as bad as it could have been,” Thace says. “We had shields up already.”
Lotor joins Narti’s side, taking in the situation fast. “Have you called the attack in?” Narti inclines her head, just as Lotor expected her to do. “Revert power to the hyperdrive and get me manual control of the helm.”
“Sire?” Marzila turns to Lotor, confused, but not arguing his decision.
“There is a rather capricious nebula nearby, if I am not mistaken,” Lotor says as he moves to take the helm while adapting a more relaxed posture, and flashing Marzila the kind of cocky smirk that would make his father direct his worst withering glare at Lotor.
Marzila’s expression flickers from impressed to worried, until finally settling somewhere between the two. Lotor ignores her in favor of getting the ship where he wants it to be.
There is a reason manual control of anything larger than a fighter during hyperdrive, battle situations, and in dangerous environments is not recommended, but those warnings are meant for people who have not been under Zarkon’s personal tutelage for thousands of years. Lotor keeps his eyes on his screen and the arrow that shows his direction, making sure he is approaching the nebula and ignoring the sight of the space blurring around the ship as they enter their first hyperdrive jump, leaving the Altean vessel behind for now.
Most skilled pilots learn to jump manually, simply because while it is not recommended, sometimes a ship will be damaged and manual jumps are necessary. The goal is to watch a monitor and keep the tip of the arrow pointed in the desired direction while avoiding crashing into anything. Keeping the direction is the easy part. Not crashing into anything is a lot harder, and requires quick reflexes and the ability to stay calm, both of which Lotor has.
They make it to the nebula with no problems, but while the rest of the crew on the bridge takes a moment to be happy about their escape, Lotor focuses on getting through the nebula in one piece. He keeps his eyes on the windows rather than the monitors, as they will become useless the moment they enter the nebula.
The yellow and blue cloud swallows the ship whole, and the last clear signal the monitors give is a warning of the Altean ship exiting hyperdrive behind them. Lotor does not worry about it; he knows what he is doing, and though he knows not to underestimate his enemy, he does not allow himself to worry either.
The silence on the bridge is loaded and heavy as Lotor takes the ship deeper into the nebula. The cloud is just as capable of destroying the ship as the Alteans are, and Lotor is fully aware of that fact. He knows to respect the nebula, his father had made sure of it.
The Altean ship moves slower than Lotor’s, hesitation clear in its movements. Lotor smirks, but does not relax. He focuses on getting out of the nebula undetected, and once he succeeds in that, he will fire a shot into the nebula and fry the Altean ship to crisp.
Lotor takes the ship low, below the Altean one, and slowly makes his way out of the nebula the way they got in.
They almost make it before the Alteans spot them and launch a missile at them. Marzila curses and Thace scrambles to pull the shields up. Lotor dodges, but the missile going off makes the gasses of the nebula explode. The ship gets caught in the shockwave, tumbling out of Lotor’s control and careening through space.
Lotor crashes against the controls before the ship tilts and drops him on the floor head first. Narti’s tail smacks on his side when she falls while Thace hits the wall with a pained grunt. Marzila is the first one standing when the ship stills, and she rushes to the controls.
“We’ve lost hyperdrive and 87 percent of shields,” she informs the others.
Lotor grits his teeth and pushes himself up, his head pounding from coming into contact with the floor. “The Altean ship?”
“Caught in the explosion. I can’t say if it’s in one piece or not,” Marzila replies.
Lotor doesn’t hesitate before turning the autopilot back on and sets their destination before slumping back on the ground; his insides hurt too much for him to stay upright. “Get the shields fixed and comms online. We need hyperdive as soon as possible.”
“On it,” Thace replies while Narti makes her way to Lotor. She touches his shoulder, a calm spreading through Lotor for two ticks before she withdraws her hand. Lotor frowns, but doesn’t chastise her.
They have to get back to the base, and Lotor decides to focus on that rather than his injuries or Narti’s concern.
They are floating — weightless.
Adrift in nothing, a bright light surrounding them.
There is no time, no up or down or left or right. There is nothing but them, and the blinding white of the quintessence.
Keith holds Zarkon tighter, closer to himself. He’s not sure if Zarkon is conscious anymore (he’s not sure he himself is conscious anymore), but the bond hums gently, so Keith doesn’t worry.
The quintessence thrums through his veins, through his body, his mind. If Keith were to open his eyes, he’d see the quintessence pulse around him, shining brightly, full of energy he cannot begin to comprehend. But Keith is content to rest where he is. He has no need to move, no need to do anything at all but exist there, with Zarkon, in the not quite silent brightness cradling them.
It would be as close to heaven as Keith can imagine if the constant hum would stop. It’s almost like a conversation held without words, shifts in the quintessence, a mood here, and feeling there. It is a language Keith is familiar with, but one he can’t understand. It’s far more complex than anything he and Zarkon have ever tried with their bond; there’s a melody to it, a complexity Keith can only admire from afar.
Keith’s attention drifts from the hum of conversation to Zarkon. He likes having his attention on Zarkon. It’s easier than trying to understand the hum echoing around him.
Keith buries his face in Zarkon’s neck, and lets himself get lost in their bond.