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Third Wheel's the Charm

Chapter Text

All the farewells were written, all the plans transmitted.

Ryou knew he had only days left at most. Clone shutdown was not subtle, as it turned out. He was getting tired more and more quickly, strength leaving his body by the hour it seemed at times. Sometimes he thought he could feel his muscles unravelling.

He’d retired from official duty last week. Earth’s defense could not be left in the hands of someone who couldn’t get around without a walker. (Well. It could, really, but...there was a question of morale, and Ryou didn’t think it was worth pushing it under the circumstances.) Iverson and Sam and Adam had all the plans, all the passcodes. Everything Ryou could think of that might serve in Earth’s defense.

Adam seemed to understand that being trapped in a rapidly weakening body was not Ryou’s idea of a good death, nor was dying in his bed. They didn’t discuss it, not exactly, but Adam packed the basics for a weekend camping trip and put Black in his little walking vest and harness.

“You could let him go,” Ryou noted. “Cats are a hunting species.”

“Yes,” Adam agreed. “But this cat loves you, and turning it away into the woods would just get it eaten by a wolf or stepped on by a bear. It doesn’t know the wilds. Now, if you want me to turn it loose to hunt mice around HQ, I can work something out.”

“Should we take Black along then?” asked Ryou. “If the wilderness is so dangerous?”

Adam gave Ryou a level look. “You’ve said your farewells to the paladins in letters they may not see for years,” he said. “And your farewells to the Garrison last week. But Black is a cat, Ryou. And all he’s going to know is you’re going to be gone. Don’t pretend to me that you don’t care that your cat is going to be upset.”

“Better a cat than a person,” said Ryou with a sigh. He scooped Black up, vest and leash and all, onto his lap, and got a headbutt to the chest for it. The purr was audible at distance. “I probably shouldn’t have accepted him,” he admitted.

“Don’t give me that,” said Adam brusquely, finishing the packing. “It was a cat or you deciding the best way to die would be to be a complete ass at everyone in the mistaken belief that if they were pissed at you they wouldn’t miss you.”

“...Point,” said Ryou dryly, giving the cat affectionate scritches. “But..I admit, I’m surprised you’ve stayed. This can’t be easy.”

“Because you’ve never in your life done something that was difficult,” said Adam, the tone particularly deceptively mild. “Ryou...this is actually an event I’d ...prepared myself for, before Shiro left for Kerberos. All this.”

Ryou’s expression twisted. “Borrowing Shiro’s death, am I? And here I was hoping for originality.”

“Knock it off,” said Adam firmly. “I loved him. Believe me when I tell you I am not in love with you. I’m just not that masochistic, Ryou. But I don’t need to be in love with you to have respect for you, or to think of you as a friend. And because of that, I don’t regard it as a hardship to let you go the way you’d rather go. You do have some things in common with Shiro.”

He gestured, and let Ryou wheel himself out to the lot. The wheelchair wasn’t strictly a necessity, in that Ryou’s legs still worked and he could stand and walk if he needed to. But the wheelchair did mean he didn’t burn the rapidly diminishing energy reserves he had on simple locomotion, and that meant less time sleeping.

There was a skimmer outside, with the goods for the trip packed. “You can pilot, or I can,” said Adam. “This one has a max elevation of a thousand feet, unburdened. Which it isn’t, but. We can probably take it to a decent vista if you find one.”

Ryou understood. Adam was helping him choose his last days. No offices, no uniforms, no walls. The camping gear was more for Adam than for Ryou.

He really had come to care about this backward little space marble.

“...Do you know where the Blue Lion was found?” asked Ryou thoughtfully.

“Not much of a view,” mused Adam. “We did track the trajectory back to a broad location though. Canyons. I think we can find it.”

“I’d like to see it,” said Ryou.

~*~

Keith didn’t so much wake up as surface from a deep, soft, comfortable blackness at about the speed of an oxygen bubble through warm tar.

From there, things more or less went downhill, because Keith genuinely had no idea how Blip A (Keith) had gotten onto Board B (bed).

The problem with ‘This is another dream’ was that it required a level of awareness to say ‘this is not reality’. Keith couldn’t say that. Macidus had broken that bit in him that told him he was awake, or dreaming. There had been blackness, yes, but that didn’t mean anything.

The last thing he remembered was …

...what?

It hadn’t been pleasant. Keith remembered that much. He’d been in a pitched battle...yes, that felt right. The Druids had cornered the last of the Blades and Keith had been one of the last two or three still fighting. So many dead. All his Blade friends had fallen, and his mother...

And now he was….in bed. A bed, anyway. With Shiro. He didn’t need to move to know that; he knew Shiro’s scent, feel, weight, aura. Another reality skip? Shiro was dead. Keith had betrayed him, and the alteans, and the Druids had dismembered Shiro joint by joint. Keith remembered that quite clearly. Or...someone’s Shiro, anyway. The skips had started before that room, hadn’t they?

And yet. Here he was, in bed, with a very definitely not dismembered Shiro.

If it was another reality skip it was a good one. He’d lost his Shiro but maybe he could protect this one. Shiro stirred, noticed Keith was awake, and half-rolled to lie across Keith’s chest, so he could study Keith’s face. “Hey there,” he said gently. “How’re you feeling?”

“Okay,” said Keith truthfully. He reached out to touch Shiro’s human shoulder, arm. Whole, unscarred. Part of him wanted to block out the memory of the cuts, the blood. Part of him was sure doing that would be disloyal. But this Shiro didn’t know that. “You look good.”

“So do you,” Shiro smiled, albeit a bit tentatively. “The alchemists pulled some pretty bad stuff out of you. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“A battle,” said Keith. This was definitely not the same reality. Shiro would never be so relaxed if all the Blades had been killed.

It wasn’t what Shiro had been hoping to hear, apparently. He looked concerned, fingers spreading to lightly caress Keith’s cheek, jaw. “….I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” he admitted. “Considering it took years for me to remember what happened to me. It’ll come back when it’s ready to.”

So there’d been a battle here, too, then. Of course. “What happened?” Keith asked.

“You disappeared from Red,” said Shiro. “We thought you were still in the Lion, so we chased it, but when we finally caught up to it, you weren’t there. That was when we found out the Druids had you. They were heading to Oriande. We got you out, and then Allura and the alchemists pulled Haggar’s magic out of you. You’ve been out for a while.”

Keith turned this data around in his mind a bit, but it didn’t quite fit anything he remembered. Well, except the ‘fighting in Red’ part. He remembered that. But everything after that was...reality jumping. Maybe he was near his native reality though. Since Haggar had tortured his Shiro about Oriande. Maybe that was why this Shiro felt so much like his Shiro.

And Keith was worrying him. “It’s good to be back,” he said gently. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t this man’s fault.

Shiro smiled, and it crinkled the edges of his eyes. “It’s good to have you back,” he replied.

~*~

“Of what possible use is this?” growled Sendak.

“How far is Lieutenant Hepta from Earth?” Haggar replied.

“He has estimated four or five phoebs at most,” Sendak answered, scowling. “And again, what possible -”

“This will allow you to join him in moments,” Haggar rasped. “And complete the journey in moments more.”

Sendak’s fangs bared. “If you could do such a thing then why has he been out there for decaphoebs?” he snapped. “His ships could have turned the tide at Central Command!”

“Do not lie to me,” growled Haggar. “Do not deceive yourself. Lotor was ready for you. A few dozen more ships would not have changed the outcome. But you may have your vengeance, and build an Empire of your own, where he cannot reach you before you have grown strong.”

A druid floated forward and gave Sendak a tablet of requirements. “Bring me the scaultrite,” Haggar commanded.

~*~

Lotor and the generals listened.

For several vargas that was all they did, even Ezor. Kolivan was an old galra, adult even when Lotor had been a child. He remembered many things even Lotor had never known. He knew about the conquest of Palle, of Teif, of Bhiton, and how those worlds had become part of the Empire, and grown into the strongholds they now were. He knew about the history of the gladiatorial ring and in exactly what ways Zarkon had twisted it.

He had brought documents, evidence, from the Blade headquarters. The Blades had been the academics, scholars and advisors of the Empire, before Zarkon. Driven into hiding, watching the history of their people being destroyed, Marmora had created a hidden base and then another and another, that knowledge would be preserved, gathered, and used to bring down what she saw as a mockery of galra culture.

Marmora herself had been too vocal, though. Kolivan had been one of her followers, along with Krolia and Antok, and had done his best down the centuries to see her vision kept alive.

“You cannot bring back the empire that was, in your grandfather’s reign,” Kolivan repeated. “We are not who we were, nor is our Empire. But neither are you bound to continue the empire as your father has made it be. If you will have us, the Blade of Marmora will protect you, advise you, and serve you.”

Ezor reached out and poked Kolivan’s stoic cheek with a finger. “He’s so lifelike,” she mused.

“That would be because he is alive, Ezor,” Acxa sighed. “Try to behave.” She looked to Lotor, who seemed very thoughtful. “Your majesty?”

Lotor was studying Kolivan. “Why did you never approach me before?”

“And increase the danger to your life?” asked Kolivan. “You were the only heir. The only chance. But we are not druids, your majesty. You had to choose for yourself whether you wished to continue your father’s work. In choosing not to we saw an opportunity to fulfill Marmora’s mission.”

“And you have already taught all this to the paladins?” asked Lotor.

“No, your majesty,” said Kolivan. “The paladins are not galra. And I have left Keith’s education to his mother.” He paused. “It was...proper.”

Lotor’s instinct was to mistrust anyone who put themselves forward as an advisor, with good reason. But Kolivan didn’t really advise, per se. If asked a question, he gave an answer, and didn’t seem concerned with what Lotor chose to do with it. Yet, he had to be making a choice somewhere, or why rebel against Zarkon at all? “What drove you to join Marmora?” he asked.

“The druids,” said Kolivan flatly. “After the destruction of Altea, Zarkon declared Haggar to be his ‘high priestess’, though he never did clarify what she was a priestess of and those who asked usually disappeared. Haggar gathered ...beings, to her. Some were able to trace those beings to disappearances among the Seekers. Haggar was doing something to the Seekers she captured, changing them into what you would recognize as druids. I was one of those she captured.” He gestured to his golden eyes. “I was unusually fortunate. I was rescued by Marmora and...cleansed.”

Now Kolivan had the attention of everyone. “...Cleansed,” Lotor echoed. “Of the witch’s control, I take it.”

“That is the final step,” said Kolivan. “Which I did not reach. It requires many quintants of preparation, breaking the mind of the being down to a point where it will accept anything. They are infused with a tainted quintessence and then...a dark power. A druid is not born, your majesty, a druid is made.”

“What’s a seeker?” asked Ezor. “Are there any?”

Kolivan turned his head slightly, so that Ezor would know he was regarding her. “Altean mystics are called alchemists,” he said. “And they have great powers of quintessence manipulation. It is said they can even bring back the dead if they choose. But Daibazaal was once in the same solar system as Altea, and the galra also have the capability to be born mystic. We are not alchemists. We are seekers, so named because that is the direction of our skill.”

Lotor was very attentive now. “Indeed?” he asked. “Do elaborate.”

“We can sense the nature of the world around us,” said Kolivan. “Such as, your majesty, the darkness you bind within you. The nature of lives and deaths near us. We can track quintessence signatures across distances. Some of us have been known to dream of time yet to come.” He studied Lotor. “I am a seeker. I am likely one of the last. Haggar has hunted seekers for millennia for her druids, even as Zarkon hunted alchemists to destroy them. Seekers who joined Marmora created the first of our Blades, by which we are known, and with which we destroy the druids that would destroy us and the last of the empire-that-was.”

Lotor’s fingertip tap tapped on the arm of his throne. “Druids do not evince such abilities,” he noted.

“When Haggar is through with them, they have other powers,” said Kolivan. “Drawn from the darkness within them that consumes them.”

“And this...darkness, you say is within me,” said Lotor levelly. “Does it give you pause?”

“Do my eyes give you pause, your majesty?” asked Kolivan.

“You are hardly the only one with such eyes in this facility,” Lotor pointed out.

“True,” Kolivan rumbled. He gave the question consideration. “Yes, your majesty. It gives me pause. But it is not quite the same darkness that is in the druids. It is natural to you. Part of you. You have a greater capability for controlling what is innate to you. And you have never to anyone’s knowledge used it as a source of power.”

Lotor blinked. “That is an option?”

“Possibly,” Kolivan conceded. “But it grows when it is used. It would consume you, as it consumed your father.”

“You seem quite certain of that,” said Lotor mildly.

“You exist in natural balance, your majesty,” said Kolivan. “Light and dark. Mystic and druid. Your fate is yours to choose, but the balance, once tipped, would be quite difficult to return to the level.” He paused. “You have been advised not to enter the quintessence field. That would be why.”

“I see,” Lotor mused. “We shall have to have many more discussions, honored Blade. But the paladins are returning with your compatriot. I will trust you to tell me if Haggar’s hooks remain in him.”

Kolivan said, stoically, “Of course, your majesty.”

~*~

“What do you mean, gone,” growled Olia.

“I mean gone,” said Matt helplessly, gesturing at a screen. “I mean all reports say Sendak and his army have just...gone.”

Romelle grabbed Matt by the shoulder, so she could pull him down to look past him. “Does that mean we’ve won?”

Ow?” said Matt pointedly, disentangling himself from the altean. “And no, not exactly. Anyone Sendak left in charge of a planet or station is still there. But, you know, the fleet – that’s nowhere to be found.”

Olia’s muzzle crinkled and she turned to Elcris. “Can they do that? Disappear? I mean, and still be there somehow?”

“Sendak has the support of the druids,” said Elcris solemnly. “There was a recent action against the druid ships. It may be she is concealing the ships for now.”

“There was?” asked Matt, blinking. “Did we win?”

Elcris sort of smiled. She’d learned not to show her teeth unless she wanted to upset everyone, so it was a bit tight-lipped, but it qualified as a smile. “It would appear so,” she said. “The witch does not hide when she is victorious.”

Olia looked at her little crew. They were tired, really. Except for Romelle, who seemed to have some kind of direct line to the energy drink of the universe. Battles with the Fire of Purification had taken out so many coalition ships. Olia had honestly expected to be among them, but she could concede – privately, to herself – that humans had a knack for bringing diverse species together. She would never have thought a ship with a galra and an altean on it would survive a war, but here they were.

Of course, the ship was battered to hell. “Any objections to a stay on Olkarion?” she asked gruffly. “Get patched up, restock?”

Matt, as informal second in command, took stock. Both Elcris and Romelle looked hopeful. “Think we’re all in favor, captain,” he said. “We can catch up on the news while we’re there.”

“Set a course,” said Olia, nodding. Romelle treated Matt like a climbing toy again as she watched him enter coordinates and plot a course. She still didn’t have the hang of most of the systems – except the guns and shields – but Olia had to concede she really was keen to learn.

~*~

There was a table in the garrison commissary, that was informally known as the Admiral’s Table. It was where Ryou had preferred to sit (when the weather was bad enough that eating outside wasn’t an option) and only his friends had the go-ahead to sit there with him. After his retirement it was still pretty much the Admiral’s Table, since said friends were managing the entirety of Earth’s defense and really the only people with clearance to have an actual conversation were the other people at the table. It had some distance between it and other tables, and a nice window view of the bustle of the garrison.

For the past few weeks it had just been Sam Holt and Iverson, though. Ryou was in retirement, and Adam was on leave to...well. Sit death watch, if anyone was being honest, but no one said that out loud. Sam had survived a lot more death of late than Iverson, and chatted away pleasantly about the scientific projects underway. Iverson, who thought of Adam and Ryou as friends and didn’t like that Ryou was basically dying of a dead battery, sat listening and scowling into his coffee.

And then Adam, looking very tanned but also very tired, set his tray down at the table and sank into a seat. “Afternoon, officers.”

“So,” said Iverson, apparently to his coffee, “It’s done, then. When?”

“Four days ago,” said Adam quietly. “We explored the canyons looking for the Blue Lion’s cave, and when we found it he was fascinated. I’ve got a notebook for you,” and here he passed a very well-used notebook to Sam, “of his notes on the drawings and carvings we found there. I’ve got a video record as well.” Adam picked at his salad with a fork. “...He decided that was where he wanted to stay. So we did. He just sort of...” he made an ‘off’ gesture with one hand. “Not digital though. More like a lamp that runs out of oil. Dimmer and dimmer and...dark.”

Sam almost stopped eating lunch to go through the notebook, but a would you mind glare from Iverson reminded him of basic manners. “So...what are the arrangements?”

Adam took a deep breath. “His body’s been cremated,” he said flatly. “I brought the means along. His ashes are on the floor of the cave now, as he asked. His arm is in an unmarked case in your office, Sam, you’re going to have to forgive me for not bringing to lunch with me.”

Iverson caught the bitterness there; Sam didn’t. “Any other instructions, news?” asked Iverson.

“Not really, no,” sighed Adam. “I’ve got the cat, who is not a happy cat at all right now. But as I’m not all that happy either, we’ll probably be fine. All the final statements are transmitted or stored. How’s the work going?”

“Steady pace,” said Iverson. “The MFE pilots are improving daily. Might actually do some damage with them when the time comes. A lot of the traditional air force – anything outdated – has been scrapped so we can use the materials in the defenses. The European garrison reports a lot of the old tunnel bunkers from the world wars are successfully rebuilt and reinforced, and new tunnels are getting finished by the week. Evacuation plans will have noncombatants hiding under the Alps within hours of a galra ship being sighted. African garrison’s having a harder time. I’ve signed off on reinforcement personnel this week to help them get their particle barrier network up to par.”

He waited for Sam to chip in, but when he glanced over, he found Sam Holt already going through Ryou’s notes on the Blue Lion’s cave. “Holt!” he growled. “Pay attention. You can read later.”

Sam guiltily put the notebook down. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s really fascinating, especially when you’ve seen the Lions up close.” He coughed, self conscious. “We need to bring Colleen onto this, by the way.”

Adam and Iverson both looked at Sam. “Aside from being your wife,” said Iverson, “why?”

Sam blinked and gestured to Adam. “That’s not a disqualifying point,” he said. “Adam became Ryou’s adjutant on the basis of an association with Shiro, after all. But to answer you – we’ve covered as much as we can in terms of defense, and the underground bunkers will probably be lifesavers. But we do need to consider that we’re going to need to find food and water for all those refugees in said bunkers. Colleen is an expert. She needs to be in on this work.”

“Offense and defense,” Adam nodded solemnly. “Agreed.” He looked to Iverson. “It’s the same division we’ve had with regard to garrison training,” he pointed out.

“If she can keep you acting like a civilized human being,” grumbled Iverson at Sam, “then she’s got my vote. She’s got the clearance already. Saves hassle.” To Adam, he said, “It won’t fly right now. The galra haven’t come yet, and there’s still a lot of people that think we’ve made the whole thing up to gain power. But ...when this is over, we’ll see to it Ryou’s got his place in the statue line. He won’t be forgotten.”

Adam sipped at his drink. “I think he’d appreciate that.”

~*~

Keith was greeted with an almost joyous relief when he emerged from quarters. He seemed to take it well, too – surprisingly well, for Keith. He put up with Hunk bearhugging him and Pidge poking at him and Lance snarking about getting himself captured and making everyone worry. He ate like he hadn’t seen food in a week, which was probably exactly the case, and while he ate he endured with patience the tests the altean alchemists and the Blades put him through. When being cut with a Blade didn’t cause any pyrotechnics (or instant death), and the alchemists couldn’t sense any darkness (though none of them were quite happy, even so) Keith was declared ‘clean’ and the castleship set course back for Central Command.

Allura, though, cornered Shiro while Keith was busy eating. “Did he seem all right to you?” she asked.

Shiro shrugged. “He doesn’t seem to remember anything since the battle,” he said. “He’s not that good a liar, Allura, and I know his tells. He’s lost a week or more of time in that tank, of course he’s going to be a little out of it.”

Allura’s lips thinned. “Haggar doesn’t have any spells on him,” she conceded. “But I’ve talked with Tavo and Luca and we agree there’s something not right. Missing, possibly.”

Now she had Shiro’s full attention. “Like what?”

Allura sighed. “We can’t decide,” she admitted. “It’s not as if any of us have much experience, Shiro, certainly not with something like this. I’m sorry. I just...I felt you should know. If anyone can figure it out, it is likely to be you. You are closest to him.”

“Yes,” said Shiro quietly. “About that...”

“If you are about to apologize for Lance needing to ...tazer you and put you in a pod,” said Allura mildly, “Please do not. We knew Keith loved you. If anything it is reassuring to find you love him just as much. And it isn’t as if either of you are alone. It seems to be quite a human trait, in the end. Pidge is much the same where her family is concerned. I have no doubt that Lance and Hunk would be just as upset or unreasonable if their loved ones were captured by Haggar.”

“I’m supposed to set the example,” said Shiro quietly. “For the paladins, as you are for the alteans, and the coalition.”

Allura smiled a little sadly at him. “Shiro, an example made out of love could never be a bad one. Even if we do have much of the lower levels filled with captive galra just at the moment.”

Shiro found he did not agree, not really. He understood Allura was trying to be reassuring, but he remembered clearly snapping the neck of the captain at his mercy. Lance had been right; paladins did not do things like that. Yet Shiro had.

He saw Lance watching him a bit warily and decided to deal with that one head on. “Excuse me, please, princess,” he said, and left Allura to go corner Lance.

Lance, for his part, seemed very aware that Shiro was still bigger and broader than he was. “Uh. Hi. Feeling better? I hope?”

Shiro held out his hand. “I wanted to say thank you,” he said. “And ...I’m proud of you.”

Lance stared. At Shiro, at the offered hand. “Uh. Okay? So...you’re good with the whole...”

“You did as you had to do,” said Shiro. “I was out of line. I’m glad you recognized that. And I’m glad you stopped it getting worse. And I’m proud of your courage to do so. It ...probably wasn’t easy for you. Or Hunk.”

Lance visibly sagged with relief. “No,” he agreed. “We – look, if it had been Keith with us, rescuing you...we know by now he’s not at home to Mister Logic when you’re in trouble and we’d have been watching for it, you know? It never occurred to us you’d be the same way.”

“It never occurred to me, either,” Shiro admitted. “Is it safe to say you’d be agreeable to this being an all-points thing? Would you trust yourself, if the galra had your family?”

Lance winced. “Okay,” he said quietly. “That’s a fair question. I don’t know, honestly. I mean...if they got their hands on Rachel, or Nadia, or little Sylvio...” he winced, thinking about it. “You’re right. We’re none of us good at being paladins when they push our buttons. And we know Pidge is the same when it comes to her family. Yeah. We should...probably just say this is a Rule, going forward.” At last, he accepted Shiro’s hand. “Agreed, Shiro. No hard feelings...in advance, in my case. You do what you have to, same as I did.” He paused. Frowned. “...That’s where they’re going, isn’t it,” he said. “We got a communication from the coalition fleet a few vargas ago. The Fire of Purification’s vanished. Like, there’s still manned garrisons and outposts on their occupied worlds, but all the mobile units have ...well, gone mobile. Somewhere. They’re going to Earth, aren’t they.”

Shiro blinked. “We’d best check,” he agreed. “Daily communication with Earth. We can get there in doboshes if we need to, but we’ll probably want to check with the alteans to see if they want to come with us.”

“Check with everybody,” Lance corrected. “By now we’ve probably got a lot of people that’d love to visit Earth just because of us. We could bring in a lot of help.”

“Good thought,” Shiro conceded. “Where’s Hunk?”

“Making your boyfriend fat,” said Lance dryly. “Who knew sleeping for a week gave you such an appetite.” He gestured to the wall where Hunk had built his professional-grade food prep area. Hunk was there, making snacks for everyone else and actual meals for Keith.

~*~

The relatively – compared to just a movement or two ago – few ships remaining to Sendak were busy with the work.

First had been collecting scaultrite. That had required several squads, and there had been multiple casualties.

Now they were building the teludavs. The region of space to which they were headed was very different. There could be no reliance on known phenomena, which meant redundancy. They had only one being able to use a teludav – Haggar – but if they also had only one ship with a teludav, it would be too easy for their enemies to strand them far from any kind of escape or reinforcement.

Sendak wasn’t having that. Every cruiser would have one of these teludavs. Then all they had to do was keep Haggar alive, which was a comparatively much simpler issue to handle.

In theory, Sendak’s remaining forces were more than enough to take on even a heavily defended world like Olkarion – taking Earth, or even destroying it, should be laughably easy once there. But Voltron was all but guaranteed to come chasing after them. It would be best to have fall back positions.

Sendak didn’t just want to beat Voltron. He wanted to hurt Voltron. He wanted the paladins to cry out in fear and pain and anguish. He wanted their victory to come at so high a cost they dropped their weapons and swore never to act against the galra again. Actually defeating Voltron was an unlikely event but would be a welcome bonus.

~*~

Blades waited to greet the castleship as it returned, this time. Uniformed Blades, each with their hand on their weapon.

Allura looked down at them with a little sigh. “He wastes no time,” she said. “But in this case I suppose it is justified.”

Shiro slanted a look at her. “You don’t agree he should double check?”

Allura looked...wry. She’d had a lot of thinking to do, lately. “My relationship with Keith is complicated,” she admitted. “I never seem to know where I stand, or where I want to stand.” She gestured to the bay floor outside. “Well. Sooner begun, sooner ended.”

As they headed for the hatch, Keith came walking in his mother’s wake. Krolia had seen the Blades too, which was probably why she was in uniform herself. She seemed to regard it as insulting to think she wouldn’t verify her own son was all right. The other paladins followed as the group caught up, along with the five Blades Kolivan had sent to aid in the rescue.

Shiro and Keith led the way down the ramp, side by side. Keith wordlessly held out a bare hand – no glove – to the Blades waiting as he approached.

One of them took out his luxite dagger, and cut Keith’s palm. No light. No pain – well, beyond that expected of cutting someone’s palm. The group parted, letting the paladins and everyone else disembark as they chose.

Lotor, Kolivan, and the generals emerged from a doorway, walking toward them. “I apologize for the extra measures,” said Lotor solemnly as he neared. “You would of course have tested. I am quite grateful the Blades have chosen to join me. I am relieved to find there is a way to test for Haggar’s influence.”

“It’s fine,” said Keith quietly, accepting a cloth to bind up his hand. “We’ve kind of moved on to the next problem, anyway.”

Lotor raised an eyebrow, and studied Keith and Shiro. “Have you now,” he said. “And which problem would that be?”

“That Sendak has apparently disappeared along with the bulk of his forces,” said Allura. “They are concerned for their homeworld.”

Lotor nodded slowly. “A valid concern,” he conceded. “With the major conflicts concluded, however, I must meet with the Coalition leadership to determine how best to deal with those worlds he has left in the charge of his underlings, and their fortifications.”

Allura briefly smiled; a rueful, ‘back to work’ smile rather than any kind of genuine happiness. “I will begin discussions at once, emperor. I will inform you when an answer has been reached.” She extended a hand to pat Shiro’s arm. “I’m afraid I must leave Voltron in your hands, paladin.” And then she walked to the doors, presumably to one of the comm stations.

Lotor turned to the paladins, now alone on the docking bay floor as the Blades dispersed, though Kolivan and Krolia remained. “I assume your desire is to return home?” he asked.

Shiro looked at the others. Keith pretty clearly was neutral to the idea, but Lance, Pidge, and Hunk were visibly homesick just at the mention. “I think so, yes,” he said. “You mentioned that you needed to establish yourself, and that Voltron would be a hindrance. It seems now’s a good time for us to go back to Earth, and make sure it’s safe.”

Lotor inclined his head slightly. “Indeed. The hospitality of the galra is at your disposal, paladins. You have only to inform me when you wish to depart.”

Shiro turned to the paladins. “Earth’s a long way from anywhere and the only communication line is likely to take a hit early on. So...take a week. Go to your friends, your allies. Get hold of anything you want to bring back to Earth with you for your families, or for the defense. If communications drop early we’ll come get you. Try to remember that for everyone back home, the galra are the only aliens they’ll have ever seen. Remind them there’s more out here than that. There’s so much to look forward to as well.”

“Mermaids,” said Lance with a little smile. “Actual mermaids.”

“I’ll go visit Shay and maybe see if they’ll spare some crystals for Earth,” said Hunk.

“Olkarion for me,” said Pidge. “Just one textbook could turn Earth upside down.”

“I would like to borrow Keith,” said Krolia. “We have a lot to talk about.”

Keith looked a little surprised, but shrugged and gave Shiro a look that said he was welcome to come along if he chose.

Shiro, though, shook his head. “I need to coordinate with Allura,” he said. “We believe Lotor’s earned our trust, but the Coalition as a whole is probably not ready for that. They’ll want to know Voltron will come back if needed, and that even if our main comm line is down they can call us. I need to make sure that’s possible.” He gave Keith’s shoulder a squeeze, and headed off after Allura.

Six paladins, five directions. Lotor turned to Kolivan as the humans dispersed.

“Yes,” said Kolivan to the unspoken question. “In my experience this is typical human behavior.”

“How curious,” Lotor mused. “Let us go and see what the paladin and the princess decide.”

Chapter Text

Shiro caught up with Allura as she reached one of the comm centers. The staff quickly excused themselves so that she had the run of the place – a room full of screens that could open video links to anywhere in the Empire and quite a few places elsewhere if you knew the codes. Without comment, she began entering those codes, requesting a conference across hundreds of light years – and in some cases, galaxies.

“I need to be able to address any concerns,” Shiro said, when Allura finally turned to look at him. “Voltron’s going to be a long way from being any help if for any reason we can’t wormhole. The Sincline will be...essentially an unstoppable force.”

“You are trusting Lotor not to abuse that power,” Allura agreed. “As am I, considering I helped him create it.”

“But only Voltron could stop it,” Shiro pointed out. “If he does abuse it.”

Allura took a seat in one of the tall presentation chairs intended to let galra generals look imposing. She clearly didn’t like the implication of that and adjusted her dress and shawl to try and alter the chair’s appearance. “I’m going to send Merla with you,” she said quietly. “I need to stay here. The coalition finds me a good...symbol. And Lotor doesn’t seem to want to change that. But you will need three alchemists. That way the bridge will always be helmed and the teludav operator will be awake and alert.” She tilted her head, studying Shiro. “You are taking the only home I have left, to your home,” she said. “I do trust you not to destroy it...but I suspect your people will want to fly it. We’ll need the crew here, too, for the castleships under construction.”

She was asking Shiro if humans really, really needed to control her home. It would have been so nice to be able to say no. “...Humans haven’t got a ship that can traverse deep space,” he admitted. “Though I’m sure Sam will be happy to design one. Strip the crew down, or leave them in place. Whatever’s easier for you. We’ll train humans to fill roles if you strip the crew, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to bring at least one battleship-class crystal with us.”

Allura kept one eye on the consoles, waiting for answers to her hails. “Have you considered evacuating at least some of your people?” she asked. “You must know Sendak has destroyed planets in the past. To lose Earth would be a terrible blow – you know I understand that. But it should not also be the death of your people. You’ve done so much for the universe, in your very first years in contact.”

Shiro stared. Instinct told him that humanity would fight to the bitter end for its home and give a raging fuck you to any species that tried to tell it differently. But...at the same time, the desire to protect those most important, to save something even if everything else was lost...that was human, too. “That’s...very kind, I think, princess,” he said carefully. “But asking honestly...where would we evacuate to? We’d...need somewhere uninhabited. Most humans have never met another intelligent species. It’ll be a huge cultural change. We couldn’t go from our home to a trade world, for example.”

Allura gestured to the screens. “Maybe we should bring that up,” she said. “The paladins of Voltron have more than enough...shall we say, social capital? To ask such a favor. There are uninhabited but habitable worlds in many places.”

The consoles were starting to light up, the hails were being responded to. Allura adjusted her clothing and posture to be politely regal.

~*~

Lance took the time to pack, certainly, but within an hour Blue was off to visit Queen Luxia’s underwater city. This time he was bringing a recording device, and a nice big sack for shells and other trinkets if it turned out they were different enough. He’d grown up on a beach, after all, and if the shells looked like Earth shells most of his family would just shrug it off.

He was sure Plaxum would have some good ideas for introducing her people to Earth, and vice versa. Earth had so much water.

Then a thought hit him, and Lance changed course – for Olkarion. He was going home, but it was a safe bet Matt wasn’t. Their relationship was casual, as it almost had to be considering how often both of them were being shot at in situations where teaming up wasn’t an option, but...at least part of this last week should be spent with Matt and seeing how he wanted to deal with his sister getting to go home without him.

A Lion landing on Olkarion was kind of a big deal, though. Lance was mobbed the moment he stepped out of Blue – by altean colonists, by olkari officials, by more than a few press representatives from unaligned worlds, and (at Lance’s best guess) a lot of members of the rebellion who just considered the Blue Paladin their fave. Lance did what he could to navigate the chaos, used to it by now and well able to smile and be gracious even though Matt was nowhere to be seen in the throng. Lance found he couldn’t blame Matt for that – Matt was a certifiable genius, he’d genuinely been at this longer than Lance, and if he had turned up he’d have been press-pegged as the Paladin’s New Boyfriend in short order. Nobody wanted that.

A varga or two later, after it was clear Lance wasn’t going to put on a one-Lion air show or give exclusives, Ryner led Lance to a building that, frankly, looked to Lance a lot like other Olkari buildings except for the guards out front. Inside, Olia and her crew waited along with several olkari Lance didn’t know off hand.

Lance paused. “Uh. It wasn’t an official thing, honestly,” he said. “I just wanted to know if I could borrow Matt for a few quintants. While it’s quiet.”

“We have been speaking with the Black Paladin,” said Ryner softly. “Is it true? Voltron will be leaving us?”

“Er,” said Lance. Ryner sounded worried. Olia did not look happy. “Just for a while? It wouldn’t be forever. Uh. Pidge said she was coming here, she’d probably be a better person to talk to about the details.”

“But you are leaving us,” said Olia gruffly. “At the mercy of the Empire and their mech.”

Lance paused. “Okay. First, trust has to start somewhere and Lotor’s put a lot on the line to help people out who aren’t in any way part of his empire. Which is still very big. Second, Allura’s staying right near by to make sure he behaves. And third, we will come back. We’ve gotta deal with Sendak and Haggar so they don’t come back, that’s all.” He gave Matt a pleading, help me out here look.

But Matt just looked...well, unhappy. “You’ve got no idea how much faith people have in Voltron,” he said. “I want you to protect Earth too. You know I do. Mom and Dad are there. But you’re asking a lot, to go out of reach and out of range and trust it’ll work out.”

“...D’you really think trust is a huge part of how Pidge thinks?” asked Lance bluntly. “Look...if you can’t believe me, believe her. She’ll be coming here soon if she isn’t already inbound. She said she wanted to talk about bringing Olkari textbooks to Earth. I’m not the one to talk to about technical stuff. I just wanted to see if Matt wanted to visit some mermaids with me for a quintant or two.”

Apparently Pidge’s paranoia was a known quantity – her intelligence certainly was. Lance was allowed to take Matt off to a corner. “Was that really necessary?”

Matt sighed. “Olia’s my captain, Lance. She’s never been too thrilled even having Elcris or Keith around and both of them were a big help, a direct big help. Asking her to trust that Zarkon’s son, who she’s only ever seen from a distance, isn’t going to stomp the Coalition flat the moment Voltron’s out of range is asking a lot of her. She’s lost family to the galra, Lance. You’d be the same in her shoes.”

“Probably,” Lance conceded. “But I’m not the one to fix it for her. Not by myself, anyway. That’s ...Shiro, or Allura, or Pidge.”

Matt shrugged. “So. What’s this about mermaids? There really are mermaids?”

“Oh yeah,” Lance nodded. “Not surprised Pidge didn’t tell you, she never saw the place. Hunk and I crashed there a while back. You’ll need underwater gear that lets you talk, at least until they blow their shell bubbles at you. But the dancing’s awesome, the food is great, and the mermaids are really neat.”

Matt looked wry. “Looking to give me more horror stories I can scare Pidge with?” he asked.

“I’m not the one telling her all about my sex life,” Lance pointed out. And then paused. “...Though now you mention it, I kind of envy you that you can. I just realized...I am going home. And Mom and Dad are gonna have questions for me they’re probably not gonna like the answers to.”

Matt noticed the pensive turn of Lance’s mood. “...Our ship’s getting refitted anyway,” he said. “We’ll be in dock at least a few more movements, unless there’s some attack somewhere to cut it short. We’ve really racked up the damages lately. I’ll tell the captain I’ll be back in a few quintants. And we can go see the mermaids, and ...we can talk about it. Or not. Your choice.”

Lance smiled a little wryly. “Thanks. This started out as a vague plan of hot underwater sexcapades and seafood but it’s kinda sinking in that I really would’ve lost my mind out here without you.”

Matt chuckled. “Hot underwater sexcapades, huh?” he asked. “Good thing you mentioned that in advance. I’ve probably got time to whip up a batch of lube an ocean wouldn’t just wash away. Lemme tell you there are some places you do not want to rub raw. And seawater? Not lube.”

~*~

Hunk flew the Yellow Lion out to Shay’s balmera, and received a rather calmer yet no less joyous a welcome than Lance had. He brought with him holocrystals with images of worlds he’d been to since his last visit, checked on the ‘repurposing’ of the galra equipment destroyed or just left behind after the balmera and its people had been freed. Rax was proving a decent engineer, learning as Hunk had learned – by getting into the guts of the machinery and basically fooling around with it until it worked or blew up. But Rax did not want to leave his balmera, not ever, and Shay was endlessly curious about other places.

“You should take them pictures of us, too,” she said, after Hunk explained where he was going.

Hunk smiled. No pleas, no recriminations, no ‘you leave us defenseless’ - though Rax might fill that role later. Balmerans understood the pull of home, of going home, and of protecting home. “Sure,” he said. “But you know, there’s no balmeras out by us. Maybe you could come visit Earth? Like, all of you?”

“If Sendak is finally gone from this place,” Shay mused, “I think most of us would not want to go where he is. He has not been kind.”

“Okay, fair point,” Hunk conceded. He wasn’t sure Earth would be either, come to think of it. This balmera alone had crystals enough to create at least a small fleet. How much did he trust humanity in general not to take and keep taking until the balmera was beyond even a princess’ power to heal?

“...Do you think I could have a couple battleship class crystals, when I go?” asked Hunk carefully. “I mean. If you have them. I’d take whatever the balmera can spare, if not. Crystal shards and dust even. There aren’t any balmeras out by Earth, and they’ll need the crystals...but you’re right, it’s not a good idea for an actual balmera to fly out there until the coast is clear. Thing is though, without a really big crystal, Earth is so far from everyone that the only way it could send a hello is through a chain of satellites that Sendak can take out easily.”

“For Voltron, I think we will do all we can,” said Shay. “If not here then another balmera. Is that why you came? For crystals?”

Hunk blushed. Actually blushed. “Uh. No,” he admitted. “I mean kind of, because I’m worried about my home, but mostly ...I’ve just got a few days before I go home and it might be a while before I can get back in touch, and I ...thought maybe we could spend them together? I mean, if that’s okay?”

“That is most okay, friend Hunk,” smiled Shay, and took Hunk’s hand in hers.

~*~

As it happened, Pidge missed her brother’s departure for ‘Mer-world’ by only a few vargas. Like Lance, she got swarmed on landing. But because he’d arrived first and rather specifically dropped the job of explaining everything on her, she didn’t escape the mob for some time. She wound up requesting a portable holoprojector with a map of the known universe just so she could make clear how far the paladins had to go, what the communication difficulties would be, the plans to deal with those difficulties, and why Voltron needed to go because Earth was much, much, much too far for the Coalition fleet to make the trip.

Even after the press and the autograph seekers were gone, Pidge found herself spending the entire rest of her first ‘free’ day carefully walking the Coalition ship captains and political leaders through what was going to happen, just to make sure they understood yes, Voltron needed to go, no Voltron was not going to leave them undefended, yes they’d thought about this. Shiro could give them the Plan, but Olkari tended to needed Pidge-levels of documentation and detail.

After that, though, her trip became more fun.

There was meeting with Olkari teachers about how to impart the basics of power systems and interstellar travel, as well as calling balmeras and how to repurpose damaged or cracked crystals, and identifying the size of crystal required for a given project. Pidge knew her father was on Earth; she also knew that, brilliant as he was, he was a terrible teacher and tended to focus more on using his knowledge than imparting it. Humanity needed to know this stuff, and that meant finding a way to teach it.

Once she’d got that squirreled away, though, Pidge indulged herself in spending time with the Olkari scientists and theoreticians, seeing what they were experimenting on and experimenting with, what the latest ideas were. She was pretty used to only Hunk being able to keep up with her, so having a whole room/lab/auditorium of brilliant minds to bounce ideas off of was a rare and valued treat. It was much more of a vacation to Pidge than the two years in the colony – the alteans had lost a lot of their science and Pidge had wound up teaching them some just to have a conversation worth listening to.

When Matt returned, about two quintants before they were set to leave, Pidge shifted gears.

He looked good, honestly; toned in the way you got if you did a lot of swimming, and relaxed. It had never occurred to Pidge that being in a relationship – even one as long-distance and intermittent as the one he had with Lance – might be a health perk.

Of course, he had to ruin it by grinning innocently and asking, “You really want to know details?”

“No,” said Pidge firmly. “No, I don’t. I’m just – happy for you, I guess? You two started out really badly.”

“He’s good at talking, when he realizes he needs to,” said Matt. His expression became more solemn. “I wish I was going with you.”

“I do too,” Pidge admitted. “Are you sure -?”

“I’m sure,” said Matt. “Olia needs an engineer she trusts, and Romelle is still learning and Olia is still getting used to Elcris. And someone has to speak for Earth, out here, while you’re all away.”

“It’s gonna be more than that, you know,” said Pidge. “Allura’s going to need you to keep her up to date with the fleet. So she can keep things balanced, with Lotor. You’re basically gonna be adjutant for the whole Coalition.”

“And still sleeping on a folding bunk,” laughed Matt. “It won’t be so bad though. We’ve got all the Alteans joining us – and even if we’re having to train them on the job, that’s still thousands of soldiers we didn’t have before. And soon we’ll have castleships, plural, and ...you really think the galra will calm down when they’re running on crystals?”

“It’s a theory Allura likes,” Pidge admitted. “I’m not sure yet.”

Matt shrugged. “At any rate...I mean...we’re finally getting what we fought for. You’ve no idea what that means to so many people, Pidge. There’s crews starting to talk about going home now that their families are safe. But at the same time we’re getting people wanting to sign on, because what they really want to do is build. Create something new on the ashes, and protect it. When you’ve saved Earth and put the last of Zarkon’s ugly down, you’ve got to bring Earth into this. We may be a little behind a lot of other worlds in terms of technology, but creatively we’ve got a lot to offer.”

Pidge grinned. “You sound like you’re looking forward to it. Got any messages for Mom and Dad?”

“Oh hell yes,” Matt nodded, and fished out a crystal that looked like a translucent disco ball. “When you do get communications set up, use this. We’ll finally have a secure line to talk on.” Then, more soberly, he added, “And keep an eye on Lance for me.”

Pidge blinked. “If he’s getting shot at so am I,” she pointed out. “And Blue’s got better armor.”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Matt. “There’s reasons he wigged out so badly after our first time together. Stuff unrelated to the bad judgment calls. He’s worried about his family.”

Pidge frowned. “Isn’t everyone?”

Matt looked exasperated. “Look...you and I know Mom and Dad wouldn’t care if we brought home an alien, or a sentient AI, or ...whatever we might be happy with. Lance doesn’t have that. He’s part of a big family, and he loves them, but apparently there’s some ….sliiiight possibility that taking up with a dude would be a Problem for him, with them.”

“He never mentioned his family being backward,” said Pidge blankly.

“Not backward,” sighed Matt. “Just some things take more adjusting than others. Like...okay. We could come home with a mermaid or an olkari or a bii-boh-bii and they’d be fine, man or woman or inbetween, they’d be fine. But we probably would get a talking to if we brought home a flat-earth conspiracy theorist, right?”

“You are not a flat-earth conspiracy theorist,” said Pidge heatedly.

“I won’t be there either,” Matt pointed out. “I’ll be here. And there’s any number of good reasons why I probably won’t be able to defend myself – or him – if he’s right and they do have a problem with his choices. So I’m asking you, and asking you to talk to mom and dad about it. He might be wrong – he can be a worrywart sometimes. But if he’s not, I’m telling you so you can make sure he’s got backup.”

Pidge looked troubled. And, just for a moment, a very little moment, resentful. Lance seemed to see her as a little sister, and was still half-pining over Allura anyway, and here her brother was being serious about protecting the dork. “All right,” she agreed. “I’ll make sure he’s okay. And help him beat sense into his family if it turns out he needs it.”

~*~

Keith walked quietly with Krolia along the corridors, apparently in no hurry to get to whatever point Krolia might be wanting to make.

Krolia took him to a meeting room. Comfortable chairs – nothing ostentatious, but one could undergo a seven hour briefing or debriefing without getting overly sore. Liquids, for parched throats. She gestured to Keith to take a seat, and he did.

The fact that he didn’t even look curious concerned her. She’d seen this kind of behavior before. So she got a drink packet, set it in front of him, and sat down opposite him. “I want you to tell me everything that happened from the moment you were separated from the other paladins to this morning,” she said, and her tone said she might be his mother but right now she was also his senior Blade officer, and this was not a request.

It did, at least, get a reaction. Keith looked down, at his hands lightly holding that drink packet. “It’s going to sound weird,” he said. “And...bad.”

Krolia nodded slowly. “Tell me anyway,” she said. “Everything. You have no idea what detail might be important, so leave nothing out.” Which...was and was not true. Ordinarily she’d trust Keith to give a solid and usable report. But not right now. She couldn’t sense it, not...quite like Kolivan might. But Keith was her son, and she’d had time to get to know him, and the feeling something was wrong was making her skin crawl.

And he just accepted the command, with no bristling, no ‘hey, I’m not completely green’ irritation, and that convinced her that her guesses were right.

Krolia sat in front of Keith for several hours then, as he told her about the Screwball and the memories, and then the ‘reality skips’, and the futures and presents where everyone died, where in many cases he’d had to watch them die because he couldn’t stop it happening. And, attention fixed firmly on his hands, he told her about Shiro, and Oriande.

Krolia had been a senior Blade almost since the founding of the order. She’d met Marmora. She’d trained Blade after Blade, knowing many if not most of them would die in the field. Only Antok and Kolivan had more seniority...well, just Kolivan now.

She understood most of what had really happened, as Keith spoke. It wasn’t for official reasons that she kept her expression neutral, unconcerned.

It was because she knew it wouldn’t matter to her son right now, but she needed to keep a solid grip on her emotions or she would take a ship and personally hunt Haggar down to rip the wraith’s throat out. And that way lay many, many dead Blades before her.

Keith wound his tale to a close, bringing things up to date to this morning, as requested. As he finished, he raised his eyes to study her with a sort of distant combination of anticipation and calculation, judging her reaction. Krolia gave him nothing to work with.

Instead, she said, “Have you tested any of your skills, since waking by Shiro?”

Keith blinked. “Skills?”

Krolia nodded. “You told me you can sense quintessence. Hear Cosmo’s thoughts. Have you tried, lately?”

“I could feel Shiro,” said Keith. “He felt like my Shiro, but maybe all Shiros across the realities would.”

Krolia nodded slowly. So that wasn’t it, then. She knew the stages of druid conversion. The biddability, that was typical enough, but it wasn’t what was setting her teeth on edge. “Aside from this reality hopping,” she said quietly, “do you in any way feel different?”

Keith gave this due consideration. “I’m not sure,” he said. “But I think maybe part of me is still...where I’m supposed to be.”

Supposed to be? Krolia frowned. It was important she understand. She couldn’t make guesses, not right now. “Where are you supposed to be?”

But Keith shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “My home reality, I’d think.”

Krolia nodded slowly. “Close your eyes,” she said. “Think about this. You can follow the trail, you can sense where it leads. Where are you supposed to be?”

Keith obeyed, eyes closing. Eventually, he raised his hand and pointed….at the floor, though at an angle.

It wasn’t what Krolia had expected, but there was definitely something new going on here anyway. She rose. “Very well,” she said. “I will speak to Shiro and Kolivan, and meet you at your Lion in fifteen doboshes.”

Keith blinked at her, not moving.

Krolia sighed. “You know where you’re supposed to be,” she said. “We’re going to go there. But you’re not going alone. In case you’re unclear, that is an order.”

~*~

Shiro initially went with Allura, which meant several hours of patiently explaining to the coalition heads that Voltron was not in fact abandoning them, and that two paladins had plans to make sure Voltron would, if ever out of touch, not stay so for very long, and no, Voltron was going even if they thought it was a terrible idea because in fact Earth deserved to be defended too.

There was more than a little in terms of accusations going around, too. That the paladins were selfishly choosing to place their homeworld above all the worlds in the coalition. And Shiro had had to lean hard on several years of not biting people’s heads off when he was angry. Allura had smoothly stepped in when he’d had to bite his tongue and internally count to twenty a few times.

It didn’t matter how much the leaders howled, really. They were still going to go home and be certain their home was safe. They were human, and that was part of being human, and the coalition leaders would just have to accept that. But Shiro was still very relieved when, at last, the final screen went dark.

Allura put a hand on Shiro’s arm. “I will stay,” she said gently. “Most of them still have homeworlds, even if they have been devastated by the occupation and war. You and the other paladins have more than earned the time you need to defend your home.”

“I think I’m just glad I told everyone to take a week,” sighed Shiro tiredly, running a hand through his bangs. “I might have to have Keith forgive me for spending it sleeping.”

“Not just yet,” said Krolia, from the doorway. The sheer solemnity of her stance had both Allura and Shiro straightening up as if this were some official gathering. “Please excuse me, highness, Paladin. I have news. About Keith.”

“Anything,” said Shiro at once, without pause for thought. “What news? Has he gotten worse? He seemed all right this morning.”

Krolia took a deep breath. “This will not be easy to hear,” she said. “But I am certain now. He was put through the druidic transmutation.”

Allura blinked. “No,” she said. “He is not a druid. I know what a druid feels like, Krolia.”

Shiro said nothing, but his skin was now several shades paler. “...What?”

“We got to him in time,” Krolia said. “So you are correct. He is not a Druid. But he has been...damaged.” She turned to Shiro. “Much as you are not the same man you were before you became the Champion.”

Shiro winced at that. “...Just tell me,” he said. “And what we can do.”

“The first step of the process is to break the subject’s mind,” said Krolia in a quiet tone that in no way hid her desire to do painful murder to those responsible. “Zarkon wanted fighters for his arena – people willing to do violence, any violence, if that was what it took to survive. Haggar, however, demands obedience above all. Her druids are powerful and completely devoted to her. The first step is to break the subject from everything they have loved before.” She frowned. “...I think she may have sabotaged herself a bit in this instance, for which we should be grateful.”

Allura looked politely confused. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“She does not seem to be aware that Keith is mate-bonded to Shiro,” said Krolia. “Not simply in love with, but mated to. And that she has already tested – and tempered – that bond by sending the clone Ryou to the paladins. Keith has a framework for ‘his’ Shiro, and actual experience with men who may share Shiro’s face and voice and form but are not ‘his’ Shiro. That is ...quite possibly unique, and works in Keith’s favor.”

Shiro now looked as lost as Allura. “How, exactly?”

Krolia took a deep breath, but did not look away. “In other cases like this I have seen, the ...indoctrinated sensitive, even if rescued, cannot accept that their mate is really ‘their’ mate. The person in question is a copy, or a clone, or a twin, or in some cases a ghost.” She raised her chin slightly. “I am sorry, Shiro. He thinks he is in an alternate universe. From his perspective he has been hopping from world to world every time he goes to bed or wakes up. He cannot tell when he is dreaming. And he thinks ‘his’ Shiro is dead...and, moreover, that he betrayed that Shiro. It is only because he has met variations of you before now, and decided you are all worthy of his care, that he does not distance himself from you.”

Shiro found a chair by feel and sat down, now looking a bit sick.

“You wouldn’t be this calm if there weren’t something we can do,” said Allura, as much hope as statement.

“This is why he’s been so quiet, so accepting,” Shiro said softly, putting it together. “He’s trying to figure out what’s the same, and what isn’t, and whether he should change anything.”

Krolia nodded, to both of them it seemed. “The good news here is, we have rescued Blades from this stage of indoctrination before now. It will take time. I will go over the basics on the way. The bad news is, there seems to be something else affecting Keith as well.”

“Just tell me,” said Shiro woodenly.

But Krolia was now looking at Allura. “I had hoped we would not need to have this conversation, princess,” she said. “My people have suffered enough risk. Your word, please, that what I discuss now you do not speak of with anyone. Anyone.”

“Your people?” asked Allura, moving to put a reassuring hand on Shiro’s shoulder. “The galra?”

“Your word, highness,” Krolia said levelly. “For Keith’s sake.”

Shiro studied Krolia, and seemed to put it together. “Give it, Allura,” he said flatly. “She’s not afraid of what it’ll do to you. She’s afraid of what you will do to them.”

“I?” asked Allura, thoroughly confused now. “For -” she paused. “Very well. For Keith’s sake. I give my word.”

“He was taken because through him, Haggar could know the location and the tests of Oriande,” said Krolia levelly. “And while Haggar had him I think she ...used him. Somehow. Maybe to get in. He is not half galra, princess. He is half galtean. Lotor is only the most famous of us.”

It was Allura’s turn to sit down in a chair, pale. “Galtean...there cannot be many such people in the universe. The alteans were lost.”

But Shiro was thinking on an entirely different path. “That’s how he ‘betrayed’ me,” he realized, paying Allura’s shock no attention. “If Haggar made a dream into reality...and he thought she was hurting me...”

Krolia nodded to Shiro. “She tortured the image of you in front of him, until Keith told her everything she wanted to know. As the image of you begged him not to. And when he had told Haggar everything, she killed that image.” She looked to Allura. “There are not. And yet, there are more of us than I think you would suspect. Alteans are shapeshifters, after all. And galteans can look more galra than alteans can. We have simply looked galra enough. Keith showed marks of the chosen, when we neared Oriande. He entered on his own, and passed the trials, but not in the same way you did. His gifts seem to be more those of a seeker than an alchemist.”

Allura took a deep breath. “You and I should have a very long talk about this, before you go with the paladins to Earth,” she said. “Please don’t tell me you won’t. If Keith is going to take time to heal and you have experience with what is wrong, I do not see you as the sort to simply trust that your son will eventually work it all out. But it can also wait. Please tell me what this has to do with this moment, right now.”

“I asked Keith to point the way to where he thinks he needs to be,” said Krolia simply. “It could be anything, of course, but if it is Oriande then I need someone that can go in with him.”

“I will go with him,” said Shiro flatly. “And if the guardian of Oriande has a problem with it then tough.”

~*~

They took the Black Lion, which was the biggest and had room for a personal craft inside. Shiro tried to be reassured that Black didn’t take exception to Keith’s state, and they navigated more or less by following Keith’s pointed finger. Everyone was some variant of nervous or upset except for Keith, who just watched everything with a detached sort of interest and petted Cosmo’s big furry head; the wolf hadn’t exactly asked to come along so much as it had simply teleported itself into Black’s cockpit with an expectant look.

When Allura thought – not for the first time – that it often seemed as if Keith and the wolf had silent conversations, it occurred to her that she could just ask and in Keith’s current state he’d probably answer her. So she tried it. “What are you two discussing?”

Keith blinked at her; he hadn’t expected the question. “You can’t hear him?”

Allura shook her head. “When did you?”

“After Oriande,” said Keith. “He thinks it’s good that we’re on a hunt.”

Allura carefully did not turn around, though she could sense that the others were now paying attention. “Do you know what we’re hunting?”

“It’s just what he calls it,” said Keith. “I need to be somewhere. You all didn’t have to come. We’re probably a very tempting target.”

“We’ll be quick,” said Shiro. “Just point the way.”

Keith did so. Despite using urgent language, like ‘need to be’, he didn’t seem at all anxious, or concerned, except for the safety of everyone else. Even that was a bit muted. Shiro followed Keith’s directions, and it was soon clear enough that yes, they were going back to Oriande.

Krolia took pity on Shiro’s stony expression; the man had not had at all a good month. “It will pass, Shiro,” she said quietly. “Kolivan once went through this. It is her way of...rebuilding into what she wants. Like ice on a pond. If you break the ice, it will reform. Haggar’s methodology is to sink her hooks deep into her druids before that happens, so that when the ice hardens again, the self reforms in the manner she desires. It sounds horrible now, but the pleasant thing about reality is that it does not require you to believe it is real in order to be real. It will work out. It will just take time.” She paused, thinking. “You may want to keep him a bit isolated on Earth until it does, though.”

Shiro’s expression shifted, showing he was following her implications. Keith had never really fit in, on Earth, and now that they knew why it wasn’t likely to get better any time soon. Humans would soon have great reasons to dislike galra. If Keith took in that hatred while his mental defenses were on vacation...Shiro nodded to Krolia. “Understood.” He thought about it. “So...she really wanted to keep him?”

“Who can say,” sighed Krolia. “Haggar almost never has only one plan. She finds a way to gain regardless of how a given situation comes out. If we hadn’t found him, she would have a new druid and you would be down a paladin, and Allura would have to come with you which would weaken the coalition’s position with Lotor. If at any point we got him back, we would be weakened by the need to heal him, dividing our attention and giving her a freer hand to work.”

“She wins either way,” Shiro agreed sourly. Ahead, the petrulian zone loomed. He took a deep breath. “I’m going to get as close as I can. We’ve got spare oxygen if needed.”

Allura frowned at Shiro. “The guardian may kill us if those who are not chosen approach,” she warned.

“Right now I’m prepared to have an argument with it that this is a special case,” said Shiro flatly, and Allura didn’t doubt that for once Shiro would pit lion against Lion if he thought It needed. “Helmets on, just in case.”

Shiro, Allura, and Keith put on their paladin helmets; Krolia activated her Marmora mask. Shiro piloted the Black Lion closer and closer to the white hole, monitoring its status.

Nothing.

He flew into the white hole. There was no spectral lion to snarl. No pushback, no test.

“Something is deeply wrong,” Allura said softly.

The Lion emerged into the beautiful world of floating islands that was Oriande. Shiro and Krolia both gasped softly in awe.

“I never thought I would ever see it,” said Krolia softly, and put a hand on Keith’s arm. “Thank you for bringing us here. It is beautiful.”

“It’s changed,” Keith replied. He looked at Cosmo and the wolf disappeared – taking Keith with it.

“Wait -” Shiro spoke too late, and looked around. “Where did he go? Allura? Krolia? Do you see him?”

“There,” said Krolia, pointing. The wolf and Keith were running along the islands, not urgently but almost playfully. Teleporting from isle to isle, as if playing tag.

Allura tapped some of the Black Lion’s controls. “There. We have a lock on him,” she said to Shiro. “Just follow. I think the wolf needed some space, that’s all.”

“It certainly seems suited to this environment,” noted Krolia. “The islands let him take advantage of his teleporting abilities.”

Shiro got his heart back into his chest and focused on following the pair. He didn’t begrudge Keith a little fun, but for a moment that had not been pleasant. Staying focused on that, he didn’t really take in the surroundings until he heard Allura’s tearful, “Oh, no...”

“What?” asked Shiro, looking outward. “Did something attack?”

“No,” said Allura, pointing to a still-distant island. “Haggar….has destroyed the temple of the life givers.”

Shiro and Krolia followed her finger. On one of the islands was a lot of rubble. It seemed reasonable that it had at one point been a building. “What does that mean?” asked Krolia.

“It means there will be no more Oriande-trained alchemists,” said Allura. “She’s destroyed the path.”

“Does that mean she’s the last alchemist,” said Shiro carefully, “or that she did this because she’s not the last?” He didn’t really want to think about Haggar with Allura’s magic on top of her own. That was too much for anyone, let alone someone as evil as Haggar.

“Keith isn’t going to the temple,” said Krolia, and Shiro returned his attention to the tracking monitor. “He’s over there.”

“I will want to see the temple,” said Allura firmly. “Before we leave. If there’s anything that can be salvaged...”

Shiro flew the Black Lion to where Keith and Cosmo had finally paused their game, or their hunt. “What is that?”

That was some kind of shimmering thing on the ground near Keith and Cosmo. The wolf seemed...mournful. Keith was consoling the wolf with pets and hugs.

“...That may be the guardian,” sighed Allura. “No wonder we could enter freely.”

Shiro touched the Lion down gently near the shimmering pile, and the three of them hopped out of the Lion and floated gently down to the ground. Closer to, the shimmering pile was a translucent, luminescent lion-form, sprawled on the ground amidst pools of its own shining blood. The lion was not dead, but certainly dying….and beautiful.

“It is the guardian,” Allura confirmed. The luminescence was starting to fade, leaving...a white-furred lion, huge, with little motes of white light in its fur not unlike Cosmo’s pale blue motes. Cosmo was seated by the lion’s head, sniffing noses with the dying beast in a manner both respectful and mournful.

“Cosmo says when the lion dies, this place dies with it,” said Keith calmly, petting the wolf’s fur.

“This is where you needed to be?” asked Shiro, walking over to the lion.

Keith nodded. “But there’s nothing I can do. Maybe Allura can heal it.”

Allura shook her head. She didn’t know how she knew, but she was certain of her feelings. “I can’t,” she said. “He’s lost too much.”

Shiro bent down and before Allura or Krolia could warn him not to, he reached out to touch the lion. The great shaggy-maned head turned sluggishly at the contact -

- and before Shiro could do more than feel a moment of surprise, the white lion dispersed into a swarm of gentle white motes that flew into his body, leaving only the pool of fading, luminescent blood on the ground.

Cosmo threw back his head and howled, a wolf’s mourning call that seemed to echo all throughout Oriande.

“There isn’t time, now,” said Allura urgently. “Shiro. Shiro! We must get back to the Lion and get out of here.”

Shiro shook his head as if it were filled with cobwebs. “What?” he asked, standing up. “Why?”

“Oriande is collapsing in on itself without the lion to hold it here,” said Keith, also standing. He put his hand on Cosmo’s ruff, waiting for the howl to end. “Time to go.”

Krolia grabbed Keith; Allura grabbed Shiro. The two women dragged their respective spacey paladins back to the Black Lion, hoping at least one of them would snap out of it enough to fly the Lion back into normal space. Cosmo met them in the cockpit.

“I’ve got it,” said Shiro, and got them moving at top speed for the slice in the sky back to normal space.

“Why did you do that?” asked Krolia. “Touch it?”

“I just wanted to see if I could ease it a little,” Shiro protested. “Just because we couldn’t heal it didn’t mean it had to suffer.”

Keith said, “I think that’s what it called me for. I’m not sure. But I think it wanted someone to know what had happened. Who wasn’t Haggar.”

Shiro was focused on flying the Black Lion back to Central Command, and so didn’t see Allura giving him a worried look. His arm tingled. Not in a bad way – and Shiro had a lot of experience with the various bad tingles and could be definitive about it – but.

But.

The white lion had changed him. Maybe...given him a parting gift. For trying to help, or for some other reason. Despite its ethereal appearance it had felt as he’d have expected a lion to feel, which probably meant what he’d felt had been tailored to what he’d expected.

And Keith felt very, very...real. Shiro knew where he was sitting without looking – not just a simple deduction, but genuine knowing. That was new. When they were back at central command he wanted to test it, because that sense of knowing was just about exactly what he needed after the past week or so. The idea that maybe the gift was just ...being able to know where Keith was, would be more than enough.

Allura said, “Oriande was irreplaceable. It was old before Zarkon was ever born, before the galra ever had an empire for him to inherit. And Haggar has destroyed it.” She sounded like she was saying it out loud to be sure she believed it.

“You can make a new one,” said Keith calmly, scritching Cosmo’s ears. “You’re an alchemist. When you find a guardian, find a place, make a new one.”

Allura gave Keith a look that said clearly that she was certain Keith had lost his mind, and she was not going to get into a crazy debate with an equally crazy person.

Krolia noticed it and said, “Someone built the first Oriande. You’re the strongest of the alchemists that survive. You should at least give it some thought.”

Allura almost snapped that if Keith hadn’t told Haggar where Oriande was – or if he’d admitted he’d been there and was thus at risk – that maybe Oriande would still be there. But she didn’t. Not because she wasn’t upset, but because she understood exactly why Keith hadn’t told her, and why Krolia hadn’t, and further that right now was not the time to discuss any of it.

The rest of the trip back was silent; there was too much to think about, too much to process, and too little to really say.

Chapter Text

By a mere handful of days, the galra reached Earth first.

Or at least, they reached Earth’s solar system. Cruiser after cruiser floated some distance past Sedna, hiding in the Oort cloud. Liutenant Hepta and his fleet were deeply happy to have been reunited with the rest of the Fire of Purification, and while Sendak planned, the two groups of ships were mostly catching up on the news of events of the past year.

“These are the most valued humans,” said Sendak, indicating names on a list culled from every transmission Hepta’s ships had overheard and had time to decode. “The ones the paladins ask after.”

Haggar nodded. “Do not capture all of them,” she advised. “Only some. The more the paladins’ attention is divided, the longer this may continue. Are the humans equally valued?”

Sendak frowned. “By what measurement?”

“Humans are pack minded creatures,” said Haggar dismissively. “Each of these valued humans is likely one of a paladin’s pack members. Know which, and you know which paladin suffers.”

“A less than relevant distinction at present,” Sendak rumbled. “Scans indicate the planet will be aware of us immediately, once we close past the largest gas giant. They will of course alert Voltron. We will not likely have time to be particular about prisoners.”

Haggar’s lip curled. “You can,” she said. “Choose your most capable and stealthy hunters, Sendak. I will hide your ship of choice with my power. You will be close enough to take many prisoners.”

Sendak grunted. He didn’t doubt Haggar’s claim, only, “Hostages, one presumes. Drive the creatures mad with pack members they cannot find. But the alarm will be raised when the important ones disappear, witch. Quantity, or quality?”

It was a good question, worthy of Zarkon’s favored pupil. Haggar simply waited for Sendak to make up his mind.

“Quantity,” he decided. “Initially, at least. I want a good look at their defenses. If we can take numbers and scatter them it will divert the paladins even if this is the only trip we can make. If their defenses are weak enough, we can capture several cruisers of slaves before revealing our presence.”

Haggar bowed. “As you choose, general,” she rasped. “Inform me when you have chosen a ship to house the captives, and I will mask it.”

~*~

They moved quickly; the unsecured transmissions to and from Earth told them they didn’t have a lot of time. A cruiser was chosen, and with the aid of several druids, masked from detection. Stealth was not the usual galra way, but this mission was not about conquest. Conquest would have been easy, and short-lived considering Voltron would arrive soon.

This mission was about leverage.

A cruiser could hold thousands of prisoners. Sendak took his ‘test’ ship past Jupiter and checked his scans. The mask was holding. Past Mars. Holding. It drifted toward Earth’s daylit side, hiding near the sun but not directly in the sun’s path, angled to present the smallest possible shadow on the planet.

The first captives were individuals who for whatever reason were far enough from the view of others to simply be tractor-beamed up, and the humans on the space stations who could see the ship with nice, low-tech eyeballs and might otherwise have called for help. All over the daylit world – at that time, the north and south american continents – lone hikers, campers, farm workers found themselves lifted into the air. Stunned and shocked by what was happening – quite a few had thought the ‘oncoming invasion’ was a hoax – they were quickly subdued and put in cells by the waiting galra. The planet below rotated and more and more were captured, while Sendak’s crew monitored communications searching for any sign of outcry.

Earth had prepared for a war. A kidnapping mission had not been on the menu.

Five thousand prisoners later, the cruiser retreated as quietly as it came, with a few automated responses newly added to the space stations.

Humans were not quiet prisoners. Some threatened to fight – which the galra guards, mostly quite bored since they’d been stuck trying to cross deep space the hard way for over a year, happily obliged, with witnesses so that the other humans knew better than to resist. Some offered wealth, resources, influence.

Haggar paid attention to the last, and told her druids to bring those humans to her. One at a time, of course. If the human had influence among its kind, she wanted to make use of it – but first its loyalty would need to be ironclad.

Sendak, for his part, now had quite a lot of hostages. But as he didn’t want to fight with a cruiser full of particularly noisy and unbroken slaves, he set his staff to locating a planet nearby that could be used as a base. Not in this system, obviously. The only suitably terraformable planet in this system was far too close to the target and would be found far too easily by Voltron. A nearby star system would do. When one was found, the remaining prisoners were sent there and another cruiser was sent to Earth to capture another cruiser full.

There were billions of humans down there. A mere five thousand disappearing wasn’t even rippling the surface. And some returned, primed by the druids to remove all reference to any ‘possible kidnappings’ or ‘strange events’ from the broadcasts and news reports, and to air every possible theory other than the obvious as to why the garrisons would take control as they had.

Distraction, division, discord. Voltron was ready for a fight in front of it, against Sendak. It might not be ready for a fight from behind, from the people it was trying to protect. Nothing stung quite like a knife in the back.

And the more time they had, the more nearby worlds they could use slaves to build ships, quintessence farms and processing stations, and weapons, out of the reach of other humans.

But there was another part of the plan. Each slave colony, obviously, needed galra to guard it and provide transportation for its resources, but once discovered, Voltron would likely just go and get those slaves back. They might be traumatized and rather fewer in number when that happened, but Sendak didn’t have the forces or time to stop it as such.

For that kind of thing he needed valuable slaves.

Lieutenant Hepta proved his value by providing, culled from hundreds of hours of transmissions, names of humans the paladins knew and cared about, and what the humans had named their locations.

While Sendak waited for Voltron, he had Hepta and some of his crew monitoring Earth internal transmissions to pinpoint more precise locations. Two islands were identified and camoflaged strike teams were chosen and sent down to conceal themselves, hunt, and wait. When Earth scans said Voltron was near, they would move to take their targets.

Voltron would not dare use its great blazing sword on a cruiser that held its friends.

~*~

Lotor’s final week with Voltron underfoot was almost as much of a headache as he’d thought it probably would be. He didn’t get to have any kind of real conversation with Allura because, of course, the paladins required her attention. The coalition was in a panic because … well, because they were clearly under the deeply mistaken impression that Voltron was theirs to command rather than a quite independent entity that happened to wish them well. And the Empire had a million and one things it needed his input on, because for ten thousand years Zarkon had literally had nothing else to do with his time than personally direct a few thousand minor governors.

Zarkon hadn’t slept in ten thousand years, either. Lotor, on the other hand, liked at least a few hours of downtime in a given quintant. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to run the Empire, now that he really thought of it as his empire, but that the requirements of food and sleep meant he really was going to need to delegate and – at the moment – there wasn’t anyone to delegate to.

Not that he could have delegated his primary headache of the moment anyway.

Sendak had retreated. Abruptly, and without trace, all his mobile forces had...well, mobilized. Nothing now defended his holdings but the surface installations and space stations. That wasn’t nothing, but it was well within Lotor’s current power to take it all apart, with time. He was, in fact, already organizing fleets to do just that. One world at a time, starting with the quintessence farms.

That wasn’t the problem. The problem was what happened to those places afterward.

Were they declared independent? Some of them had quite large armories, and were largely uninhabitable outside the defensive fortifications. Were they under the Coalition’s umbrella? If so, did the Coalition have an obligation to assist in liberating them from Sendak’s control? Did the Coalition owe Lotor a debt if he did that job for them? And if they did, how did they pay it? Were the worlds automatically assumed part of the Empire? Given the Empire had taken them from Sendak, presumably conferring an improvement in living conditions, how much right of protest did those worlds have? Would a period of indentured servitude be appropriate, and if so under what conditions?

And that was just the shortest, most cursory glance at the list of questions that had to be decided. And quickly, because the planets weren’t heavily defended now and waiting too long would invite pirate crews to move in, take over, and add a whole new layer of questions and a few layers of difficulty to the task.

It was just as well Voltron would be elsewhere for a while. Tempers were already rising, and if Voltron were around someone would get the bright idea of engineering a situation that only Voltron could resolve, purely as a means to decide the issues the way they preferred. Only Allura and Shiro seemed to have any real grasp of political reality, and of the two, Lotor was fairly sure only Allura actually cared. Shiro seemed to regard it more as a hungry mouse might regard the maze standing between it and cheese; an obstacle to be analyzed and overcome.

~*~

Marco McClain led a fairly quiet life for a twentysomething out of college. There weren’t a lot of jobs he particularly liked, so he’d gotten a degree in business management because it seemed like a fairly safe sort of bet to be useful. And it had, more or less. He worked as the assistant manager and night shift manager for a reasonably popular and rather touristy restaurant in town, and he’d worked his way up while getting his degree. It didn’t pay a lot, but it covered enough to let him – for the first time in his life – have a place of his own, with a bedroom he didn’t have to share with anyone, and the waitresses were pretty.

It wasn’t that he disliked his family; on the contrary, Marco loved his huge family fiercely. But he didn’t have the money to buy a house – or even rent one, really – and he wasn’t married so he didn’t really need a house, and one bedroom apartments were cheaper in the city. It was generally accepted, by Marco as well as the rest of his family, that when he met the Right Girl, he’d get married and probably buy a house on the same block as his parents, grandparents, and oldest brother Luis. Family gatherings joked about owning the whole street piece by piece eventually.

And that they really should because my, didn’t little brother Lance have a big ship and need somewhere to park it.

There was being upstaged by a younger sibling, and then there was ‘younger sibling disappears without warning or trace, official sources say he’s dead, then boom he turns up a year later with a skyscraper sized metal lion parked in the back yard’. It had been all the family talked about, then all the family talked about again, and then when Ryou and Sam Holt came to Earth in a very definitely alien spaceship and the entire clan had to be relocated to a bunker for a few months, all the family could talk about yet again.

Marco was a good man. He really was. But the next time his little brother turned up Marco was resolved to pulling every brotherly prank in the family book plus a new set, because this was really getting to be too much. Little sister Veronica, stationed at the Garrison, was more or less in agreement, but only in a general sense. She visited when she could, called when she couldn’t, and wasn’t allowed to say particularly much. Marco got the impression that gigantic robot cats on the lawn was just the beginning, and it was honestly hard to imagine something stranger than giant robot cats on the lawn. Sure, the news talked about some kind of incoming invasion, but nobody had seen any ships, nobody had sent any pictures, and aside from astronomy becoming a very popular hobby worldwide, life seemed to go on pretty much as before.

Lieutenant Lovac and her team had chosen Marco. He lived alone, on a schedule that made him relatively isolated from the rest of his family, and communicated with said family relatively infrequently – about once a week or so. He could be taken with the least risk, and the least possibility of raising an alarm.

Marco would have been stunned – and quite probably terrified – to realize his new neighbors in the apartment across the hall were seven foot tall, purple-furred, yellow-eyed aliens intent on kidnapping him to use as leverage against his little brother.

Given he’d liked the neighbors he had, Marco would likely be just as terrified to find out what had happened to said neighbors the night the galra had moved in.

~*~

The isle of Apolima had never had many people on it, and even in the crowded modern age had less than a hundred fifty.

Lieutenant Zamke was prepared to hate it. Firstly because it had taken forever to find the damn thing, and secondly because, being a remote volcanic island with a tiny population, it was particularly difficult to maintain covert surveillance in a way that kept his strike team hidden from the locals.

How the hell had a Paladin of Voltron come from somewhere so isolated?

He’d already decided to hell with taking a single hostage. The island was self contained and not particularly populated. When the order came down, he’d take everyone. All of them. Possibly everyone on the nearest populated island too. There would be more than enough room, and the druids could pick and choose.

~*~

The druids handled interrogations. Any human that tried to argue or reason or otherwise talk their way out of being a prisoner got diverted to the druid ships.

These were not Champions. For the most part, they were easy to ensnare. And those that could be, were, and marked to be sent back to Earth. Mobs needed members, after all. She took her time over the more strong-willed ones, testing them for potential. Mobs needed leaders and enforcers, too. Some of these didn’t even need to be broken, just reinforced in their beliefs. Some of the best were, inexplicably, found on the space stations. Haggar sent an order to Sendak to send a few technicians to those paper stations to boost their broadcast range. The voices she found would serve very well, provided they could reach their desired audiences.

~*~

Commander Pametna quite enjoyed her post. The Holt family, separated in the past, was easily the most protected paladin family now. The son was protected by the Empire-of-old and the Coalition fleet. The father and mother were tucked away in the Southwest Garrison, and never left the grounds.

Pametna did not mind this, though her orders were to pick one to capture if at all possible.

She didn’t intend to capture either of these very dangerous humans. Sendak’s orders were not lightly disobeyed, but Pametna knew what the fleets were doing here. This wasn’t conquest. This was vengeance. Vengeance for an empire stolen. But even if it hadn’t been, Pametna knew within vargas of observation that this family of humans were far too dangerous to capture. This family of humans had been quite literally scattered across the universe. It had survived the Arena and imprisonment because men like Sendak had thought they could be useful.

Sometimes, Pametna knew, captives were just too fucking smart to keep imprisoned. Smart enough to break out, or manipulate others into breaking them out. That was her assessment of the Holts.

She wasn’t going to go for the capture. Not this time.

Pametna spent her time looking for clean sight-lines. The Holts never left the compound, but they did go outside.

When the order came down to strike, Pametna intended to go for the kill.

~*~

Sendak had more on his mind than the crushing of the human race.

Galra had almost never been out here. A few scout ships, that was all. The reports were vague and largely dismissive; no interestingly advanced races – thus no interesting battles – and natives that would likely require extermination rather than subjugation.

On the other hand, galra that got assigned to duties like ‘explore the far reaches’ usually didn’t get the job because they were thorough and attentive to small details.

The cruisers assigned to transporting the captives to potential new colonies were bringing back reports that indicated the humans were by no means alone out here. There were other races – signs of them, at least. Trails in space dust, occasional runs in planet or asteroid surfaces indicating a crash.

Earth would have had to deal with its not-aloneness pretty soon even if the Blue Lion hadn’t been there. But who were these others, and – more importantly – where were they? Sendak had no chance of building even a small kingdom out here if the locals were powerful. And as much as the pain he was going to cause the paladins amused him, he’d hoped for more than just a last clawswipe to their collective balls in coming here.

Unfortunately, vague signs were all he had to go on. The overseers for the new slave colonies were provided with beacons in case of a surprise attack, and given orders that defensive structures were to be given priority. That was all he could do, at the moment.

Voltron was coming.

Chapter Text

Allura and Coran stood on the floor of the docking bay. Both were wearing full Altean court finery, which made Allura radiate sheer dignified royalty and Coran radiate ‘fashion disaster’. Lotor, in full imperial regalia – which for galra was still basically ‘military dress uniform’ - stood nearby.

Nobody minded. The touch of formality was all that kept anyone from crying.

“We know you need to protect your home,” said Allura gently. “We know what it means to lose it, and we would never wish you to know that pain. But please….when you’ve made sure your home is safe, and Sendak and Haggar are defeated...come back to us. Bring Earth with you.”

“We will, princess,” said Shiro solemnly. Like the others, he had his paladin armor on for this farewell. It seemed appropriate.

“The Balmerans gave me a big crystal,” said Hunk. “We should be able to reach the relays with it.”

“A battleship class crystal should prove sufficient,” Lotor agreed. “I have communications records from previous missions to that system.”

“You’ll watch over Matt for me, right?” asked Pidge, watching Allura.

“And for me,” Lance agreed. “He’ll be the only human out here for a while.”

Allura smiled and nodded. “I believe he will be my primary liaison to the Coalition forces,” she said. “I will know very quickly if he needs any assistance.”

Lotor stepped in, then, silently joining the group. “Earth may yet be devastated by Sendak and Haggar,” he said. “Other than letting you all go, with my blessing, there is nothing I can do to help you. There are still several worlds here that are under Fire of Purification control, and my forces are still being converted to unprocessed quintessence even as Altean castleships are still under construction. But I would not have Earth think the galra empire is their enemy. When this is over, present this to your world’s leaders.” He held out a holocrystal. “It is a personal offer of aid, to rebuild whatever Sendak destroys, and an invitation to join the empire, or ally with us through the coalition, at their preference.”

Shiro took the crystal carefully. “We’ll see this gets into the right hands,” he agreed. Keith slanted a Look at him which he answered with a slight shake of his head; Lotor meant well, and now was not the time to tell him the planet was hardly unified.

There wasn’t really anything else to say; if anyone started talking about how much people would be missed, someone would start crying and they probably wouldn’t get going at all. Hunk and Lance both looked like if they were asked to say anything else, they’d start crying anyway. So, Shiro went to Allura and gave her a hug, gestured Keith should do the same – which he did, though a little awkwardly – and this was the cue for Pidge, Lance, and Hunk to do the same. Allura had to give Hunk pointed taps with her fingers to please let her go so she could breathe; not many ribcages in the universe were sturdy enough for a full Hunk Bearhug.

The paladins then filed up into the castleship, which had been stripped down to a barebones crew – the three alchemists to man the teludav, and a small engineering crew whose main job would be to teach humans about castleships. The rest of the crew remained at central command, to serve as Princess Allura’s staff and personal guard until one of the new castleships were ready to fly.

Allura watched what really was her home gently lift off and fly out to its wormhole with tears in her eyes. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust the paladins to bring it back. It was simply that – well. It was her home, the last shard of Altea, where she had been raised, and where she had slept through the centuries, waiting for the Lions to return.

Lotor was wise enough not to try to engage her in conversation or make pointless gestures of understanding. He simply waited, silently, for her to be ready to move on to the rest of the day’s business.

~*~

The flight was short, from the paladins’ perspective. Wormholes had that effect. One minute they were in sight of central command, and the next that view had been replaced by Jupiter’s familiar Red Spot storm, and several of its moons, and in the distance, the bright blue dot of Earth growing perceptibly larger as they approached.

“Home,” said Hunk, and there was an aching longing in the word that roughened his voice.

“Mom,” said Pidge, and while she clearly missed her mother, her tone suggested she was missing her mother despite being well aware her mother was probably going to yell herself hoarse.

Lance said nothing. Unlike the other two, he’d been home recently, knew exactly how it felt, and was trying to keep some degree of control over himself.

Keith just looked to Shiro. The two of them were not homesick, because Earth wasn’t really home to either of them any more. But there was unfinished business waiting for them, and while it needed doing, it also needed to not intrude on the time the other paladins needed.

On the viewscreen, the bright blue pearl of Earth was growing larger, closer. Its Moon could be seen now.

Shiro said, “When we’re a bit closer we’ll take the Lions out. You’re each welcome to take your Lions and fly home to see your families, and we’ll leave the castleship in orbit for now. The galra could turn up at any time, though, so make sure if the castleship or the Garrison sends an alert, you’re somewhere you can hear it. We’ll meet at the Garrison at noon tomorrow, and you’re welcome to bring your families. I’ll take care of the initial debriefing.”

Keith frowned at that, and put a light hand on Shiro’s arm, questioning.

Shiro turned his arm to turn Keith’s gesture into a mutual clasp of hand and arm, and gave him a smile. “Your mother will want to see where you’ve been,” he said. “And your father’s grave. You two should have that private time. I’ll be sleeping on the castleship, so you can find me here when you’re ready.”

Keith knew better than to ask questions like are you sure. So he just nodded. “We’ll come back here,” he agreed.

“Well, I won’t,” said Lance. “Miss grandma’s cooking? I don’t think so.”

“I won’t be in any shape to come back tonight either,” Hunk agreed. “I mean I’m sure the folks will want a tour, but that can wait. I want my own bed and an ocean breeze and kopai and panikeke and my family.”

Pidge grinned. Having seen her family most recently she had the least homesickness, even if it had been a few years. “I’m probably going to be hugged, then grounded, and then debriefed with extra foot tapping,” she said. “We’re all two years older than our families would be expecting, remember.”

Lance just blinked. “I forgot about that. I’m almost the same age as Veronica now.” He stared off into space, thinking about it. “...Huh.”

Hunk shook his head. “Two years’d never catch me up to Ginj,” he said, but not as if it mattered – simply relaying mathematical fact. “But man. The little ones won’t be so little anymore.” He bit his lip, clearly trying not to cry until he at least got home.

Merla was on teludav duty and interjected with, “Where would you prefer we orbit?” in a calm, humans-be-weird tone.

Shiro smiled. “Do you want to see Earth for yourself?” he asked.

Merla blinked. “At some point,” she conceded. “This seems to be a very personal moment for you five though. We can wait.”

Shiro thought that over. He knew what would happen, of course. He’d done this little trip before, in a different ship. There was going to be a monumental debriefing as every question that couldn’t be sent over an insecure channel got asked, on both sides. Adding the alteans to the mix wouldn’t help that at all. He wasn’t even sure how to break it to the Garrison that Keith was half galra, though he knew Keith well enough to suspect Keith had already come up with something. “That may be best,” he conceded. “Okay, well, for now, I guess hold an orbit over North America – that’s that continent, there. That’ll let the Southwest Garrison get a good view through telescopes, without them bombarding you with a ton of questions. Keith and I will be back tonight and we can discuss things in the morning.”

Merla just nodded. Of the three alchemists Allura had chosen for the castleship, she tended to be the most reserved. She clearly had Thoughts about all this – but just as clearly felt now was not the time to share them.

Earth filled the viewscreen now, familiar continents and island chains under swirling clouds.

Shiro opened a channel. “Castle of Lions to Galaxy Garrison. This is Takashi Shirogane, pilot of the Kerberos mission and Paladin of the Black Lion of Voltron. Anyone awake down there?”

Lance snorted with laughter – it wasn’t that the line was funny so much as the tension in the room seeking some kind of release. Hunk chuckled a bit too.

Castle of Lions,” came Sam Holt’s amused reply, “It’s the middle of the afternoon down here, some of us have jobs. Of course we’re awake. Colleen says hello, and also get Katie down here pronto because her mother would like a Word with her.”

Pidge groaned. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” she grumbled.

“Expect the Black and Green Lions shortly, then,” said Shiro. “We’ll handle the debriefing.”

There was a silent pause before Sam’s voice returned with, “Only Black and Green?”

“The others would like to reunite with their families too, Sam,” said Shiro mildly. “We’ll do a full meeting tomorrow. After they’ve had time to get reacquainted.”

Again that long pause that suggested Sam was having conversations with others near him. “Fair enough. We’ll see you soon. Garrison out.”

“That was odd,” said Keith mildly.

“We’ll find out what it is soon enough,” said Shiro. “Paladins, to your lions. Go hug your mothers. I’ll see you at the Garrison at noon tomorrow.”

He didn’t need to tell them twice. Pidge ran out at a quite respectable speed, with Lance only barely behind her. Even Hunk was wasting no time. Keith was last, and more than willing to walk – Krolia wasn’t far, after all – but Shiro caught Keith by the arm once they were the last two humans on the bridge. “Just a moment.”

Keith turned to Shiro, watching him curiously.

“Still shaking things off, inside,” Shiro observed. “I thought so. Look, it’s going to be really busy for a while. Even sharing a room, we might not get a chance to talk much for a bit. So I want to say this now.”

“...O...kay?” said Keith, frowning a bit.

Shiro smiled at the dubious worry. Keith was getting better, it was just slower than he’d hoped for. He cupped Keith’s cheek with his human hand. “I just want you to remember two things, Keith. I love you. And I forgive you.”

Keith blinked at that. “...Forgive me?”

“You’ll understand later,” said Shiro. “I’m not sure when, but when you do, remember I said that. Now, your mom’s probably waiting. I’ll see you tonight.” He let Keith go, with a light caress that Keith leaned into even though he clearly wasn’t happy about what Shiro had said.

He’d get it in time, Shiro knew now. Krolia was right; reality was reasserting itself. Which meant sooner or later Keith would realize it hadn’t been real, that he was home and ‘his’ Shiro was this Shiro, and that Keith’d been tricked into betraying him by Haggar’s magic. Shiro understood very well how that realization would feel. And odds were he wouldn’t be able to be right there when that moment hit Keith. So Shiro was saying it now, in the hope that when that moment came Keith would remember the words and maybe, maybe, it would hurt less.

For now, Keith left a light kiss in Shiro’s palm – the sort of gesture he only ever made when the only witnesses wouldn’t talk – and headed off to find Krolia and Cosmo.

Merla just gave Shiro a steady look. “I will monitor the communications console,” she said. “Send word when it’s time to land.”

“If I still have a voice left,” said Shiro dryly.

~*~

The galra stared at the screen, stunned.

“...They don’t see us?” asked one of the bridge techs.

“They are not looking for us,” said Sendak, darkly smug. “They are focused on what is ahead, not what is behind.”

The comm crackled to life as the strike teams, one by one, reported a Lion had landed and asked for orders.

Sendak’s reply was the same, every time. “Hold position. Confirm your targets are important to the Paladin, but do not strike. Wait for the Paladin to leave. I want them to know they could have stopped this but never thought to try.”

Commander Pametna was the only one to argue. “General. These humans are dangerous. Giving them more time to confer is a risk.”

“Hold!” growled Sendak. “I agree with your assessment, but surprise is critical. You will strike on my command only. If any of you can be close enough to overhear any plans, do so, but do not risk your cover for it.”

Haggar chipped in with, “They do not see us because we are masked,” she said. “This cloud of debris hides us from a casual scan until we choose to move.” She turned to Sendak. “The pawns are placed. Their welcome will not be as warm as they would like.”

Sendak gave a little growl, deep in his throat. The witch’s plan was a good one. He had to admit that. It would leech at the paladins’ joy and then extend their suffering, and he approved of that. But it demanded a great deal of him as well. Galra could hunt and stalk, but when oblivious prey was right there, it was hard, very hard, to sit on the urge to pounce and rend.

~*~

Lance’s family wanted to know, first of all, what happened to his relatively little red lion and why he was now in a bigger, chunkier blue one. And then, secondly, how he’d grown this much in the past two years, and he then had to explain that for him it was more like four, and this segued into a McClain Clan Block Party with lots of food and lots of drink and a great many hugs and Lance not getting quite as much food or drink as he would’ve liked owing to all the explaining he had to do.

Hunk’s family was rather better about their priorities. There was an island-wide feast, a great deal of ooh’ing and ahh’ing over the Yellow Lion, and nobody asked Hunk anything until he’d had his fill of said feast. And then they peppered him with questions and asked for rides on and in the Lion and made sure his mug was never empty because hoarse people aren’t as much fun to listen to.

~*~

Keith and Krolia took Red out to the desert shack. While Keith did some maintenance on the skimmer so they could take it to the church graveyard where his father was buried, Krolia studied the shack itself – Keith’s maps and markers, the use he’d made of the equipment his father had left behind. She could feel the grief-madness that permeated the little shack. It was no wonder Keith had no desire to stay here; loss was soaked into every board.

And then the skimmer was ready, and she put on a helmet and gloves to hide her nature and rode with Keith. The graveyard was a few hours away, but neither of them spoke until they were near enough to see the church.

“Why here?” Krolia asked carefully.

“The family he died saving went to this church,” said Keith quietly. “I remember them saying it was the least they could do. There was a ...sort of parade. Gun salute. Somebody played a trumpet, or something...at the end they took the flag off the coffin and gave it to me. I lost it later. One of the foster parents set fire to it.”

He set the skimmer down outside the cemetery and got off. “It’s this way.”

Krolia followed him quietly, until he stood in front of a weathered headstone. He bent to clear the leaves off of it, used a towel to brush moss off. “Whenever I was fostered near enough I’d come at least once a year to clean off the headstone,” he said. “But it’s been a while since I could.”

Krolia didn’t seem to be listening. She got down on her knees before the headstone, tugging off a glove to trace the letters of the name with her claws. She was still, silent, for several moments.

Then she took off the helmet, tilted her head back, and gave a sort of screaming, roaring howl that reverberated through the air. Keith was only startled for a moment; the grief and loss in the sound were obvious. This was what his mother had needed; tangible proof that her mate was gone.

She put the helmet on again when the scream was done, bare hand on the headstone, and cried. After a few moments Keith moved to kneel next to her, an arm around her shoulders. It wasn’t that he didn’t grieve too, it was just that for him the loss was a much older loss. He understood. As the minutes became hours, he realized...he understood perfectly.

~*~

Pidge was hugged hard by her mother once she got out of the Lion, and hugged back just as hard. It was worrying – no, frightening – just how much Colleen had aged in the few years she’d been away, the stress of her entire family being gone with no explanation taking its toll.

Colleen noticed Pidge’s maturity too; she’d left a fifteen year old and returned at almost twenty. Pidge could look her mother in the eye now. And it mattered; Colleen didn’t once mention grounding her daughter, but she did cry – she’d missed a lot of Pidge’s adolescence, and she was hurt by that.

She and Pidge talked for hours, in a private room only Sam dared enter – and even he only entered to bring boxes of tissues, or bottles of water. Colleen wasn’t debriefing her daughter so much as demanding a detailed summary of everything she’d missed. Not ten minutes seemed able to pass without a hug, or a light touch, as Colleen adjusted to the reality that her daughter was alive, well, grown up, and had survived relatively unscarred from experiences no human had ever dreamed of before.

~*~

Shiro stepped out of Black just as Pidge was being herded off by Colleen with a little aid from Sam. Adam and Iverson were waiting for him.

Shiro would never admit it, but he’d wanted it this way – to greet old friends alone. Or whatever it was Adam was now; neither had wanted to discuss anything over a long distance call. And their last talk – well, their last fight – seemed a lifetime ago. Or maybe two.

Iverson got it started by offering Shiro his hand for a shake. “Welcome back,” he said. “You’ll be pleased to know Admiral Sanda’s been in the brig since Ryou took over, so no quarantines. You can tell your friends up there it’s safe to come down.”

Shiro nodded, looking around. Adam gave him a sour look. “Ryou died almost two weeks ago, Shiro. He couldn’t make it today.”

“Hrm, yeah,” rumbled Iverson. “I thought you two would be more alike, but you’re really not. Anyway. C’mon. Might as well get the debriefing done in comfort.”

He led the way inside, and Shiro asked, “No sign of the galra?”

“None so far,” Iverson agreed, Adam falling into step at his other side. “It’s causing some problems. Ryou put the profiteers and dividers up on the space stations. To ‘keep watch’, he said. Some of ‘em have recently figured out how to broadcast from there. If there’s a way to say ‘no galra here, sky’s clear’, believe me they’ve tried it at least once.”

“Profiteers and dividers,” said Shiro slowly. “So people still don’t believe the galra are real?”

“It’s more accurate to say opinion’s divided about twenty different ways,” said Adam neutrally. “There’s people that believe the galra are real, and people that don’t. There’s people that think we could negotiate with them, and people that are sure we can’t. There’s even a camp that thinks it’d be a friendly meeting and Ryou started all this to sieze power. The Garrison isn’t exactly a trusted resource.”

“You did broadcast that I was dead and had killed Sam and Matt,” Shiro pointed out, just as neutrally.

“That was Sanda’s call,” said Iverson, before Adam could respond. “Sam and Colleen got the word out and Ryou kept Sanda from putting Sam in a cell for it. Kind of a little coup situation there. We’ve been busy since then though. We can probably protect at least seventy five percent of the planet from a direct attack.”

“Sam will probably want to inspect your luggage for crystals, though,” said Adam.

The three of them entered a conference room, and Iverson shut the door behind them. “Now for the fun news. The negative voices have gotten louder since Ryou died. The people that thought this whole thing was a ruse to take power want that power given back now he’s gone. Problem is, if we do that, there’s no united front for when the galra do get here. You have any idea when they’re coming?”

Shiro pursed his lips. “That’s the odd thing,” he admitted. “Sendak’s forces have all but vanished from galra space – and that’s most of the known universe. It seemed logical to think they were on their way here. Maybe we arrived first because we can wormhole. The galra don’t have that technology. But they also don’t have the technology to vanish the way they very clearly already have. So something’s definitely changed.”

“And we have to assume they’re coming here, because any other assumption leaves us off guard,” nodded Adam. “But you’re all here now too. I take it the giant robot cats are what this whole mess is about? They’re bigger than I thought they’d be.”

Shiro nodded. “Don’t underestimate Sendak. He’s broken with the Empire – who’ve sent a peace offer, by the way – but he was Zarkon’s most capable, most ruthless general.”

This got a pair of fairly blank stares. Shiro sighed. “Right. Insecure transmissions.” He spent the next few hours filling the other two in on events in the empire since Sam and Ryou had come to Earth. He finished with, “Hunk’s brought a big crystal that’s meant for communications. With it, we should be able to converse freely with the rest of the Coalition. And Matt’s sent a crystal with Pidge that will encrypt the transmissions. But they’ve got their hands full cleaning up the mess out there right now, so ...we’re all the help Earth will get for a while.”

“We’re going to have to brain Sam with a wrench,” grumbled Iverson. “Two big crystals and he can’t build a ship with either of them.”

“I think Hunk may have other crystals with him,” said Shiro. “He asked for whatever the balmerans were willing to give, and they like him. Hopefully it’ll keep Sam occupied.”

“The problem with that,” said Iverson, “is weapons have a way of getting stolen when they’re powerful enough. There’s people who’d pay top dollar for a gun that goes through any armor we’ve ever devised.”

Shiro nodded slowly, understanding. “And it’s in their self-interest to choose not to believe the galra are coming.”

“Or that the galra can be bought off with the Lions,” said Adam flatly. “That’s a story making the rounds lately, too. That this is all a war that’s nothing to do with Earth, and if we just make you five give up the Lions, the galra will leave us alone. You’re going to want to keep the Lions clear of Earth if you can.”

“They have their own defenses,” said Shiro. “I’m not really worried about that. The galra can try to take them, but there’s nothing on this planet that could force its way into a Lion.” He studied Adam. “All right. You’ve been closed off all evening. I know we didn’t part on the best of terms, but this feels like more than that. What’s the problem?”

“Problems,” said Adam, emphasizing the plural. “Are you aware Keith is an alien?”

Shiro blinked. “...Yes,” he said. “Though I’m a little surprised you are. He didn’t know himself, before we left Earth. Who was transmitting?”

“Krolia,” said Adam. “But that’s not how we know, and it’s not contained to the Garrison.” He tapped a few holographic keys over the conference table, and a display lit up. A recording of a news broadcast. “Some investigator or other took an interest in the ‘vanished cadets’ story. Tracked down an anonymous source in the Garrison who leaked blood tests and physical results from when Keith was admitted here as a cadet. It’s really given Garrison credibility a black eye, that we not only had an alien here the whole time, we trained him and he turned on us.”

Shiro blinked. “Wait...so someone here knew then?” he asked. “And no one said anything?”

“Don’t look at me,” said Iverson. “This was classified at above Sanda’s level. Need to know basis only. So either the joint chiefs decided it was time to publicize it, or there’s another traitor or three hiding in the ranks. Ryou did his best with this one, Shiro, but wherever the mole is, they’re hidden well.”

“Doubtful it’s the chiefs,” mused Shiro. “Giving the Garrison a black eye isn’t something they’d go for. My guess is someone farther down the chain, who needed money or had a grudge. So that’s out, then...what is it you want done about it?”

“We’re just informing you,” said Adam. “It’s lent weight to the argument that the Lions aren’t ours and we should turn them over to the galra. Keith won’t be welcome in secure meetings. We can’t confirm his loyalty.”

“Like hell he won’t,” said Shiro flatly. “He’s a paladin of Voltron. He’s fought for the freedom of planets you’ve never even heard of. Even if he’s got no reason to love Earth – and you’re doing a great job convincing me he’s right not to – he’ll still fight to protect you, just like every other world we’ve fought for.”

“Shiro, you know that’s not how it works,” said Adam tiredly. “I know he isn’t a traitor or a spy. But if anything goes wrong – and it’s not like it’s been smooth sailing so far – Keith’s a textbook scapegoat and nobody needs that. It’s better to leave him out of this.”

“No, it’s not,” said Shiro, getting angry. “We’re a team. And he’s my second. He’s done nothing to deserve exclusion.”

“He broke into the Garrison a few years back,” said Iverson. “Assaulted several officers, stole their credentials, broke into a secure storage facility and back out again with a lot of stuff that included classified intel.”

“For me,” said Shiro, jaw clenched. “He was getting my things out of storage.”

“And classified intel,” said Adam, almost gently. “Shiro, it doesn’t matter how good his reasons were and you know that. The fact of the matter is, he did it. And anybody who isn’t completely familiarized with the circumstances is going to be up in arms that someone who broke into the Garrison is then allowed to walk in with complete access.”

Shiro gave Adam a glare that Adam returned with perfect equanimity. Adam said, more quietly, “I’m aware you two are a couple now, and I’m not going to pretend that even thinking about that doesn’t make me uncomfortable. But this isn’t about the ex being jealous of the new lover, Shiro. It’s about actions having consequences. He made his choices. He’s going to have to live with them.”

“We’ll record the meetings,” Iverson offered.

“No,” said Shiro. “You’re going to offer Keith amnesty. First. Before any meetings happen. The Garrison is going to admit that it was wrong to declare me dead in the first place, and it’s going to make clear to the general public that Keith was put into an untenable situation where the only thing he could do was go around you all. And then he will be welcome at all strategy meetings, with the other paladins.”

Clearly, neither Adam nor Iverson had actually expected that response. They shared a look. “We’ll...take it up with the chiefs,” said Iverson slowly. “But either way this gives the Garrison another black eye, Shiro. They’re not gonna like that. Especially since the galra aren’t here, and you are.”

“Better now than in a crisis,” said Shiro levelly. “These aren’t cadets anymore, Iverson. All of them have seen and survived battles Earth has never conceived of. They deserve your respect. All of them do.”

“We could set it so it’s just you at the strategy meetings,” Adam began, and stopped when he saw Shiro’s expression.

“The only reason you’ve got me alone tonight is I had three paladins who haven’t seen their families in literal years,” he said. “Tomorrow they’ll be back at work. They’ll fight for this planet, put their lives on the line for this planet. That deserves respect. You’re in a very unhappy minority of worlds that hasn’t recognized that.”

“Minority?” asked Iverson. “So there’s others?”

“It’s a big universe,” was all Shiro would say about it.

“Let’s get done what we can, while we can, then,” grumped Iverson. “Ryou didn’t waste a minute once he was let out of quarantine. We’ve got a lot to catch you up on.”

~*~

Much, much later, Shiro rode Black up to the castleship. Adam had pointed out that he had rooms in the Garrison, but that was the last place he wanted to be. The castleship was home, now. And Shiro was exhausted.

He wasn’t particularly surprised to find Keith already in bed in their quarters, stretched out and against the wall, just as tired but waking quickly at the sound of the door opening.

There was a moment where their eyes met, and both of them realized they were both exhausted and neither really wanted to go into any kind of discussion of why. They just wanted, each of them, to take solace in the peace and quiet and the other’s embrace.

Shiro stripped down without a word, climbed into bed, and hugged and was hugged by Keith until both of them fell asleep.

~*~

Pidge stayed with her parents at the Garrison. Lance was in his old room in his parents’ house, marveling at how small his bed had gotten. Hunk got into his favorite hammock, evening sea breezes floating through his window.

The galra watched them all. And as Blue and Yellow launched skyward to join Green the next morning, two of those watching set their strike teams in motion.

Haggar and her druids could only shield one cruiser from detection, but one cruiser was more than enough. The moment Yellow was out of sight the strike team went into high gear. Most of the islanders were partied out from the festivities the night before and were easy prey. Soon enough the entire population had been scooped up.

In Cuba, Lieutenant Lovac had a harder time. Her target was only one of Lance’s family, but that one was in an apartment building, surrounded by other humans who might start an alert. She dealt with this by using a plasma knife to cut through the locks on Marco’s door silently, and her team had orders to subdue and capture any humans that saw them. Only one of the Paladin’s pack would be taken, but collateral prisoners were fine.

Marco was about as hung over as the rest of his family, and Hunk’s for that matter. He was barely aware of the galra woman bursting into his room to capture him. He was the lucky one, really, as Lovac hadn’t known about fire sprinklers or that the heat and smoke from using the plasma knife on the deadbolts would set them off. The entire building was taken prisoner; most had a lot more bruises than Marco got.

Getting the prisoners out of the building unseen, and into the cruiser, was the trickiest part. Marco lived in a city, surrounded on all sides by other humans. Taking this entire island would not be possible to do without someone noticing immediately.

This, however, Lovac had planned for. She just had to up the scale. Her squad – all wearing copies of hazmat gear, though nothing could be done to disguise their sheer size – used the rooftops (humans almost never looked up during daytime) to reach and acquire vehicles. Cramming a full sized galra into a human sized driver’s seat was unpleasant, but once the (bound and gagged) humans were rolled into blankets they could be loaded into the vehicles and driven out to a safe pickup site under the excuse of removing hazardous materials. As excuses went it was terrible, but the humans weren’t expecting galra kidnappers and so their theories as to what was ‘really’ going on were far afield of the truth.

Commander Pametna waited in tense silence for her orders. She watched Blue and Yellow arrive at the Garrison, their pilots blissfully unaware. She watched Red and Black descend from the sky to join them, the complete set. She ordered her team to take up assault positions. If possible she intended to take out the entire family – father, mother, and daughter. But she would wait for her order.

~*~

Four of the five paladins gathered at the feet of the Lions, waiting for the Garrison commanders.

Sam Holt arrived first, with Colleen and Pidge (in her green armor) beside him. The Holts collectively looked tired, but not uneasy; an accord of sorts had apparently been reached, and the family was unified. Standing next to Pidge, it was clear to see that his Garrison uniform had been altered to have green shoulders; Colleen wore a similar uniform, without any indication of rank on it.

Iverson was second, with four cadets in tow, following him like goslings after the mother goose. They lined up smartly as Iverson came to stand by Sam, studied the paladins with overt interest and in one case a scowl, and waited patiently. Iverson’s uniform had black shoulders, but the four following him had red.

Last was Adam; he also had red shoulders on his uniform, and came alone.

Keith, Lance, and Hunk all took their cues from Shiro; this was clearly some kind of formal hello. They waited with relaxed posture – not their usual, but the sort of specific relaxing prior to a fight, ready to draw bayards.

“...We’re going to begin this with a formal welcome to the paladins of Voltron,” said Iverson gruffly, and the tone hinted and you’d better be welcoming at the cadets near him. “And in the spirit of that, we’d like you all to know that Shiro’s been reclassified as a living officer, and Keith’s been cleared of all charges relating to the, uh, incident here a few months ago. In addition, it’s understood that the cadets who have become paladins have full Garrison officer status.”

Shiro gave Iverson a very small, approving nod. Lance and Hunk mostly looked relieved. Keith seemed to be either taking everything in or not paying attention at all, as his expression didn’t change, but one of the cadets behind Iverson now looked like the only reason he wasn’t causing trouble was there were a hell of a lot of armed officers present.

“We’ve got a lot to go over,” said Sam. “But for now, we’ll take the most basic. Your...brother, Shiro, changed a bit of how the Garrisons are organized. You’ll note the changes in our uniforms. Red are combatants, fighters. Green are scientists. Yellow are support personnel. Blue are medical. Black are administration and command. Your brother felt this would help you know who to contact more quickly, and help the people of Earth relate to you when you arrived.”

Shiro’s expression became a neutral mask at mention of his ‘brother’. The paladins with him mostly seemed bemused at how their roles had been interpreted. Lance said, “You guys do realize I am in no way a doctor, right?”

“Allura was,” Sam pointed out. “And we didn’t know who’d be in which lion when you did arrive. Ryou thought categorizing Blue as healers would help people get over ...well. An alien.”

“Just so nobody thinks I can do first aid,” said Lance. “Cos I have to tell you, that’d probably end kinda badly.”

“And these four are the best fighters we have,” said Iverson, gesturing to the cadets with him. “We’ve had very little crystal to work with. What we had has gone into the MFE fighters. These four are the pilots. James Griffin, Ina Leifsdottir, Ryan Kinkade, and Nadia Rizavi.” He indicated each of them in turn. “Griffin’s their leader.”

Griffin gave Keith a you’d better remember it look; again, Keith either didn’t care, or wasn’t paying attention. The other three pilots did notice and care, they just seemed to have no idea what was going on there.

Adam said, “I run the training program for all the new equipment. Ryou brought a lot, but Earth just doesn’t have a lot of what seems to be needed for a fighting force that can stand up to the galra. We’re hoping you can help there.”

“I brought some crystals,” Hunk agreed. “But the big one’s for communications. Me and Pidge will get on building a station that can use it. Once it’s up and running, Earth will be able to contact the balmeras directly. And the Coalition fleet. You won’t be so alone.”

“We’ve got the beacons?” said Adam, confused. “We’ve been in touch. Matt Holt’s been keeping us apprised.”

“Those beacons are a single thread across an incredible distance,” said Shiro. “And if even one got taken out – ion storm, random asteroid, passing ship, anything – the whole line’s dead until it can be replaced. What Hunk’s talking about is a much more stable and secure connection. Something defensible.”

“We’ll get on it,” said Sam. “There’s no telling how much time we do – or don’t – have.”

“Speaking of,” said Colleen, to the general surprise of the other Garrison personnel present, “Where is your mother, Keith?”

Keith blinked at her. “On the castleship,” he said. He paused a moment, considering clarification. “...We weren’t sure how she’d be welcomed.” Or if.

Shiro slanted a look at Keith; he could, somewhat to his surprise, clearly sense that Keith had given a truthful answer, but not an honest one. Krolia wasn’t sure of her welcome at the Garrison, but that wasn’t the reason she hadn’t come today.

“So you are a galra,” said Griffin flatly. “Do they look so much like us then?”

“No,” said Keith. And then – to the worried surprise of the other paladins – he shifted. His paladin uniform hid most of it, but his skin turned lilac, and his fingers ended in fine claws.

And his eyes were solid shining yellow fields. The paladins knew they hadn’t been that way before. But Keith seemed not to know; he simply said, “Galra look more like this. Only usually bigger. I’m still growing, they tell me.”

He shifted back, and Lance coughed. “Little warning next time, okay buddy?”

Lance wasn’t the only one who’d been derailed. For a moment the whole group seemed to have forgotten what they were doing out there. For some it was their first sight of a galra. For others, it was the specific change in Keith.

Colleen cleared her throat. “I see. Please tell your mother I have the research she requested.”

“Can your mother…?” Iverson trailed off, gesturing at Keith to indicate the shifting.

“Not for long,” said Keith. “A few minutes maybe. She’s not going to -”

But what it was she wasn’t going to do didn’t get said. All at once, all three Holts stumbled. Both Colleen and Sam had dark spreading stains on the fronts of their uniforms, dropping with pained, openmouthed expressions to their knees. Pidge dropped to the ground – not in a deliberate manner, but as if she’d been shoved.

“Take cover!” snapped Shiro, extending his cybernetic arm to fill it with energy. “Hunk – get the Holts to the castleship now!”

Keith snapped to Lance, “Cover me!” and ran off at full galra sprinter speed for the origin of the shots – or at least his best guess to them. Lance dove behind a transport for cover and summoned his bayard rifle.

Pidge, on the ground, managed a “...what?”

Hunk grabbed Colleen and ran for his Lion, the big yellow head already dipping to take him in. Shiro grabbed Sam with his human arm, carrying him over his shoulder to Yellow’s mouth. Iverson, to his credit, stood over Pidge with his sidearm drawn, looking for a target. The four MFE cadets instinctively obeyed Shiro’s order to take cover, but Rizavi called, “What’s happening?”


Chapter Text

Yellow was the slowest Lion, but it was also the most protected Lion, and Hunk was...if not the strongest Paladin, then at least a close second. (Actually sorting out the ranking between himself, Shiro, and Keith would have been getting rather more competitive than Hunk had ever felt comfortable being.)

But Hunk urged Yellow to go as fast as it could, with two elderly Holts bleeding out in the Lion’s mouth. He called the castleship as the Lion ascended: “Yellow coming in hot – get some stretchers or emergency medical staff to Yellow’s bay fast as you can. Green’s parents are dying.”

Tavo, it seemed, was on bridge duty; at least, it was his startled voice that replied, “Medical emergency, Yellow bay. Roger.”

Hunk tried not to wonder who’d taught alteans to say ‘roger’ as he saw the castleship in the distance. He knew perfectly well he was thinking about it to avoid thinking about the increasingly large pool of blood in his Lion and how could he possibly get these two into a pod in time and God what about Pidge.

But alteans respected and valued life, for the most part. When Yellow thundered into its bay, lowering its head and opening its mouth to let Hunk bring out the wounded, there were already a dozen of the barebones crew waiting – with medical pods, and some kind of rigging that let them be portable? Hunk didn’t really have time to examine them closely. He picked up Colleen and handed her over (too light, too light, her body’s too light) and then Sam, and sat down hard to let the shaking work its way out of his system while the medical pods were wheeled away at speed to their usual, fully-powered nooks.

He didn’t realize Tavo had stayed until the altean put a hand on Hunk’s shoulder. “We’ll do everything we can,” he said. “Do you want any help cleaning up the Lion?”

“Uh. Yeah,” Hunk decided. He knew he was not going to go back down until he had something he could tell Pidge. Pidge did not deal well with vague responses. “...They can be saved, right?”

Tavo could only shrug. “Merla’s the strongest of the three of us,” he said. “But she’s asleep right now. If she can help, I’m sure she will. In the meantime, the medical pods will at least keep the situation from getting worse.”

Hunk frowned. If they were already dead, he was pretty sure a medical pod wouldn’t do squat. But he had to admit, they’d never actually tested that.

~*~

Keith had definitely startled somebody, charging off the way he did. Shots hit the dirt and the paved road and sidewalks, but were clearly wild shots with little chance of ever hitting anything. Lance took up a position behind a car, his bayard turning to a sniper rifle as he took aim in basically the direction the shots seemed to come from. He focused on what he could see through the scope – just flickers of movement at first, in a distant window, but he took a few shots anyway just to see if he could flush whoever it was out into the open. It would at least give Keith more time to close the distance if the other sniper had to take cover.

He vaguely heard everyone else taking cover or reaching for weapons, but he had a job to do and he’d catch up later. Someone had shot at Pidge, and Lance was angry enough about that to figure that if Keith caught them first, they were luckier than they had a right to be.

~*~

Shiro stood over Pidge, at first, his cybernetic hand glowing with energy. But the shots were wild and Lance and Keith had whoever it was occupied. So he let the glow fade and bent to help Pidge to her feet, checking for wounds as he pulled her to where the Garrison crew had taken cover. “You okay?”

“I don’t know,” said Pidge, shaken. “Mom? Dad?”

“Hunk took them to your ship,” said Iverson, gruff but not unkind. “Turn around, Ms. Holt. We’ve got to see if you’re wounded.”

“She’s not,” Rizavi chimed in. “Look. Just a sort of burn mark on her armor.”

“Good armor,” Kinkade approved.

Adam frowned. “I haven’t seen burn marks like that before.”

“I have,” said Shiro. “That was a galra rifle.” He helped Pidge get out of the armor, so he could check for broken bones, internal bleeding.

Her mind was definitely not on her own problems. She looked up at the sky, and the vanishing dot of the Yellow Lion. There was a set look to her features that suggested that Sendak would regret making things this personal for her. But she let Shiro pat her down and carefully poke at her, growling a bit absently as he hit the new bruise where the blast had impacted.

Galra rifle,” Iverson said. “We haven’t got any galra rifles...” He stopped, trailing off as his brain registered what his mouth was saying. “They’re here? But – Ryou said cruisers. Armadas of fighters.”

At mention of the galra, the MFE pilots were now scanning the sky. Shiro helped Pidge back into her armor.

“Clearly, Sendak decided to change his approach,” said Shiro shortly. He tapped his helmet. “Keith. Report.”

Three at least,” came Keith’s absent, distracted voice. “I have the trails – this was an ambush. Meeting paths. They were waiting for a clean shot at Pidge and her family, I think. The group’s running north.”

Lance, Shiro, and Pidge listened; Pidge’s expression contorted and suddenly Shiro was busy holding her back. “Their ship’s got to be hidden that way,” she snapped. “Let me go. We’ve got to nail them before they can get back to their cruiser!”

Iverson gestured to the MFE pilots; as one, they nodded and broke cover to run for the hangar. Adam said, “We know the terrain here better than you, paladins. Go high, and we’ll go low.”

“You stay and get the sniper,” Shiro said to Lance, who just waved them off, not looking away from his rifle scope.

“Got ‘em pinned down,” Lance said. “If I can keep ‘em from rejoining their group we might be able to get answers out of them later.”

Shiro nodded, and then let Pidge go to run for Green as he headed for Black.

~*~

Keith felt...strange. Not bad, certainly, but different. He’d never stayed ‘galra form’ long before. He’d never had much to make comparisons with. He knew that to galra eyes, central command was brilliantly lit and full of color, but that was nothing compared to what galra senses made of Earth, or an active hunt.

He’d hunted this desert before. After Kerberos, before the Lions. He remembered the careful work of spotting trails in the dry earth, finding random prints in pockets of moisture-dampened ground. But here, now, it was as if the galra strike team had painted big neon arrows on the ground pointing the way. He could see the trail clearly, practically smell them. They weren’t familiar with Earth, or this desert. Keith was.

He was gaining on them. They weren’t trying to hide, not now – not really. They were focused on getting back to their unit.

The Garrison was surrounded by open desert, in part for security purposes and in part because putting cadets near aircraft and other large vehicles tended to necessitate a buffer zone between their education and civilization. Keith didn’t really think about it, as he ran after the snipers, but later he would be glad of that buffer. Glad, in particular, that no humans had witnessed a galra on the hunt in a red paladin uniform.

Particularly when he caught up to the prey and found them wearing human-style camoflage and hoods to hide their nature. Sword and Blade at the ready, Keith for the moment thought only of the fight and sprang at his targets.

~*~

Pidge was on the hunt too, but there was no predatory joy in it for her. Her mind was full of the confused surprise on her parents’ faces, the blood spreading across their uniforms as they dropped, apparently unaware even as they bled that they were dying.

The Green Lion thundered into motion, the metal paws indenting the earth. She would fly, soon, but for now she wanted that strike team. She wanted to bite into their ship and rip it apart. They had hurt her family.

Above, Black flew. Between them, four planes in formation, spread wingtip to wingtip, the MFE pilots apparently shadowing Keith in his bright red armor, then using his course as a guide for forward searches. There would be a ship, somewhere here.

~*~

From the edges of the solar system, Sendak and Haggar watched.

“She was warned,” said Sendak mildly, as Keith caught up to the fleeing strike team. Neither Sendak nor Haggar were particularly surprised to see the little halfbreed tear the strike team apart.

“Humans protect their own,” rasped Haggar. “Are the others in place?”

“Zamke and Lovac both became overzealous during their wait,” said Sendak. “And the humans all claimed to be the relatives of the paladins. They’re separating out the true from false by scan at the moment. The surplus will be scattered among the new work camps.”

Haggar watched with half-closed eyes as the hidden fighter was discovered by the Green Lion, and ripped apart like a cat shaking limbs off a corpse. “Perhaps it would be better to keep them,” she mused. “How many dear ones were acquired?”

“One precious to the Blue,” said Sendak. “Lovac got that part of the plan correct. Six precious to the Yellow.”

“And the Green are now out of our reach,” finished Haggar. “But likely weigh heavily on that paladin’s mind. Scatter the Yellow Paladin’s precious kin as widely among your ships as you may. Different groups. The longer it takes the Yellow Paladin to track them down, the better this maneuver will serve you.”

Sendak nodded slowly. “I wish to send Lovac to acquire the rest of the Blue Paladin’s kin. I would take their castleship, but that would corner them. I suspect they would prove more courageous if cornered.”

“Not all are acquirable,” said Haggar. “One is in the Garrison already.”

Sendak shrugged. “Lovac reports he has a large family unit – the better to shield my cruisers with.”

Haggar nodded. “As you desire, General,” she said, retreating.

~*~

In the end, the only member of the galra assassin squad to be captured alive was the one Lance had kept pinned down with his rifle. Adam took the galra prisoner – via use of repeated stun blasts – with Lance covering him. Keith guided the Garrison officers in choosing and applying restraints, and she sat in a very uncomfortable position in an empty locked room.

Iverson regarded the galra woman thoughtfully. “I see what you meant about ‘bigger’, Keith,” he said.

Keith, reverted back to his human form, shrugged. “She’s not exactly tall for a galra woman. Bigger than my mom though. The men are usually a lot bigger. Sendak’s definitely a lot bigger.”

“Those are ties meant to hold aircraft down in a windstorm,” grumbled Iverson.

“She’d snap right out of all your civil restraints,” Keith said with flat certainty.

“Nice job catching her,” said Griffin to Lance. “The others were all killed.”

There was a decidedly snarkish tone to that; Griffin didn’t think much of Keith taking down four galra soldiers, instead of taking them prisoner.

Lance didn’t rise to the bait. “The others wouldn’t have helped us,” he said firmly. “They’d only have tried to help her.” He nodded to the one in the cell. “Or Sendak, if they’d have gotten back to him.”

“We’ve got a salvage crew out there right now,” said Adam. “Taking apart what’s left of that fighter. Ryou had us work with galra technology. We can use that fighter’s crystal and weapons.”

“I’ll go help with that,” said Pidge. Her tone suggested she didn’t want to be near this galra until it was time to kill her.

“I want to know why the castleship didn’t spot it,” said Shiro. “And where its cruiser is and why we haven’t spotted that. There’s no way a group this small came this far to act alone. There’s more around.”

That got everyone’s attention. Keith said, “I’ll go with Pidge.”

“I’ll check with the castleship,” said Lance. “Catch Hunk up, see if there’s some way he can tweak its scanners.”

Iverson blew out a breath. “Years,” he grumped. “Years we’ve spent getting ready….and it turns out they’re here. What I want to know is – how long have they been here?”

~*~

It was all over the news, of course. The galra had slipped past the lookouts, the expensive defense systems, and taken shots at the Garrison’s best scientists. How could Earth possibly be safe when it could take such hits in its most well defended places? How could Voltron protect Earth when it couldn’t protect its own loved ones?

Haggar was pleased. She had chosen her puppets well. And would gain more.

She and her druids had already taken up residence on Earth – not all of the druids, of course, as Sendak needed some to conceal his ships and process his prisoners, but quite a few had come with Haggar to Earth. There were plenty of abandoned towns and villages where all they had to do was move in, really. Druids did not need much to survive. They could pull the quintessence out of any living thing; it rather reduced the need for food or water.

Ghost towns were best. Haggar’s puppets could arrange meetings, and the dilapidated buildings hid the quintessence tanks from easy discovery. There were many, all over the planet. Haggar did not need to be close to her people to speak to them, or control them. She could speak to them or control them from anywhere on Earth, anywhere in Earth’s galaxy, anywhere at all.

Humans only very, very rarely showed actual real quintessence sensitivity. Of the tens of thousands already captured, only a handful were now being turned into the first formerly-human druids. Haggar did not mind this. Druids were tools to her, and as long as she had enough to do the task at hand she was fine. The rest were slaves to the darkness implanted within them, and would create and support the narrative Haggar demanded of them or die.

~*~

Keith went with Pidge back to the wreckage of the galra ship. Pidge wasn’t doing too well; one moment she’d be shaking and the next fine. It wasn’t herself she was worried about; Keith knew that much. She’d traversed the universe to bring her family back together only for them to almost die on their home planet, not two feet from her. She was trying not to think of them as dead, while at the same time trying not to get her hopes up too far. None of them really knew the limits of the medical pods, or if Hunk had gotten the Holts there in time.

Work was something she could apply her mind to. But it didn’t stop her snapping, “I could handle this myself, you know. The galra from this ship are captured or dead. I can handle myself.”

“I know,” said Keith simply. There was a crew of Garrison personnel out here already, their trucks slowly being filled with parts salvaged.

Pidge stared at Keith until he said, “I came in case the reason we didn’t see this fighter was magic.”

Pidge’s mouth twisted. Her antipathy toward ‘magic’ was well known, and Keith’s relative sensitivity to it, undeniable. “Just don’t get in my way.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” said Keith calmly. The two Lions sat at either side of the wreckage, drawing the attention of the salvage crew. The red one drew most of their attention, it seemed; as Keith stepped out of Red’s mouth, the salvagers raised their tools as weapons.

“We don’t need you fucking up a secure site,” said one. “Hiding galra secrets away.”

They didn’t get farther before Pidge drew their attention with, “Oh, come off it,” snapped in a tone thoroughly out of patience with human Stupid. “Keith’s not your enemy. He’s here to help, same as I am, and we’ve got no time for this bullshit. Get back to your work and leave him alone or you can deal with both of us, and if I hear any more Stupid today I am going to bite. it. I don’t have time for it.”

Pidge alone was not intimidating. She’d grown, but she still wasn’t particularly tall, and she didn’t have the muscular build of a fighter because she wasn’t one. Most of the salvagers would have had no trouble physically picking her up, although they probably would have been very surprised at what happened after that.

They didn’t get the chance, though, because when Pidge spoke of biting, the Green Lion’s head moved, pilotless, to glare at the salvagers, yellow eyes lit and flaring.

The group calmed right down then, spooked, and let the two paladins go over the salvage they’d gathered thus far, and poke in the wreckage that was left.

“Thanks,” Keith murmured as he picked apart a console.

“I’m just tired of the stupid,” sighed Pidge. “Any ping? There’s nothing new about this fighter. I’m surprised they all packed into it.”

“Yeah,” said Keith. “I can feel it. I mean, it’s...fading?” He thought about the word, then shrugged. “But there was something around this thing. For a while. Druid magic.”

“So Haggar’s people are here too, great,” grumbled Pidge. “Why though? It’s not like Earth is just bubbling over with quintessence. We had to have passed plenty of easier targets.”

“I thought the Blade of Marmora had kind of subverted the usual galra way,” Keith admitted. “Sticking to shadows and covert attacks. But what if they didn’t? Sendak has to know that in a straight up fight we’d destroy his ships. So what if the Marmora way is just...how galra deal with a superior force?”

Pidge winced. “I really hope not. Ryou spent his whole remaining life getting this place ready for a frontal assault. There’s nothing for a -” she caught Keith’s very steady, frowning look. “Point taken,” she agreed, and looked around. “They’ve got pretty much anything useful on the trucks now. Efficient. We can probably pry this ship’s orders off it back at the Garrison.”

“They’re gonna need you, Pidge,” said Keith quietly. “Without your parents here, or Matt, there’s no one who can adapt to the new situation.”

Pidge frowned. “Shiro will handle it.”

Keith shook his head. “He doesn’t like covert ops, Pidge. He’s gonna need you.”

“My family needs me,” Pidge snapped.

Keith stepped back, nodded. “He’ll make sure you have whatever you need. Just...remember he’s going to need you, too.”

~*~

Lance took Blue up to the castleship, turning over in his mind if this was something that really, he should call Allura to help with and call Matt to let him know about. Allura was firmly ensconced in Lance’s understanding as the best and strongest alchemist, able to take on Haggar directly if she had to. And Matt...well. Matt might forgive his little sister not calling him immediately; he and Lance both knew Pidge was now aimed firmly at making sure this never, ever happened again. But he might not forgive such an omission from Lance, and Lance could understand why.

No one was waiting for him when Blue settled in her bay, but there was a lot going on. He could go and find them, no problem there. He headed for the bridge as a first stop; if it was empty, at least he could call Matt from there.

He found two of the three alchemists assigned to the ship, and Hunk – well, half of Hunk. From the waist up, Hunk had disappeared into a console.

“Do I even want to know?” Lance asked.

“Those galra got down to the planet somehow,” said Hunk. “Fighters are short range. The cruiser’s got to be in this solar system somewhere. But ship sensors aren’t picking up squat. So are we being jammed, or what?”

So much for catching Hunk up. “Keith went with Pidge to check the wreckage in case of magic,” Lance offered. “Maybe magic is it?”

The two altean alchemists turned to Lance. “We thought of that too, when Hunk told us about this,” said Tavo, the more awake of the two. “Luca’s on rest but I thought maybe the two of us could help if we worked together.”

Lance looked between them. Neither looked happy. “Aaaand that didn’t go so well,” he guessed.

Luca looked vaguely annoyed. “It’s magic,” she said. “But that’s all we can say. Haggar is very, very strong, and she has all her druids with her. They’re here – but you know that already. Everything they did, they did to conceal their presence.”

Tavo had the grace to look embarrased. “So we’re not really much help.”

“What about the Holts?” asked Lance.

“They’re alive,” said Luca. “While their pods are safe and functional, they won’t die.”

Lance frowned. “Aren’t they supposed to, you know, heal them?”

Tavo made a gesture of helplessness, of surrender. “They were barely alive when the pods were activated, paladin,” he said apologetically. “None of us are healers, not like the Princess. It could be phoebs before the elder Holts are released.”

“Assuming we don’t come under heavy fire from the hidden cruiser we now know is somewhere in this system,” Luca pointed out. “Their conditions are delicate.”

“So….what are you doing ass-deep in a console, Hunk?” asked Lance, in a very careful, ‘just curious’ tone.

“Trying to adjust our sensors to pick up magic,” grumbled Hunk. “It’s there. It exists. There’s got to be some kind of way to detect it. If they come at this ship out of nowhere, Lance, before the shields are up, we lose the castleship. We lose the teludav, the lion bays, the whole thing.”

Lance took a deep breath. “No,” he decided. “Get out of there, and put the console back together.” He paused. “Not necessarily in that order.” He turned to the alchemists. “Look. We’ll be fine here on our own for a bit. Give us time to get the lions off, and you take this ship and the Holts back to Central Command. Get the Holts to Allura – she can help them, and for Pidge I know she would. Then take this ship to Olkarion and work with them to get a magic scan designed and installed. Once they work out how, they can put it in all the new castleships too. And when you’ve got that scanner, then you come back here, okay? Allura trusted us with her home. We can’t protect it here right now. So we’ll send it back to her. We’ll focus on getting communications up here.”

The two alteans blinked at Lance uncertainly. “Are you sure?” asked Tavo.

Hunk finished his repair and got out of the console. “You sure Shiro’s good with this?”

“I’m sure Shiro would say the same if he were standing right here, yeah,” said Lance. He really wasn’t sure. But he was sure that right now a decision needed to be made because right now the castleship was a sitting duck. “He’s not, but I’ll tell him when we get back to Earth. If I’m wrong, well, you’ve got that bigass crystal for communications and that little one for encryptions and we’ll call the castleship back when it’s working.”

Hunk was never one to argue where arguing meant internal disharmony. He shrugged and put away his tools. “I’ll get back down to the planet then.”

“I’ll join you in a few ticks.” Lance turned to the alchemists. “I need to make a few calls. Give me the bridge for fifteen doboshes, then let me get Blue planetbound and off you go okay?”

Allura and Matt deserved to hear the decision and the news from him, before it smacked them in the face.

~*~

Shiro went into the Garrison with Iverson and Adam, checking on their prisoner the galra lieutenant. She seemed content to wait in her little cell, ears twitching at every passing sound.

“Can she hear us?” asked Iverson quietly.

“Probably,” said Shiro. “She won’t show it if she can. Too much of an advantage.”

“No kidding,” said Adam dourly. “Now that we’ve got her, how do we interrogate her?”

Shiro frowned at the commanders. “If you’re thinking about torture I’d say you’re going to have to be very creative to find something the Empire hasn’t already perfected,” he warned. “Pain isn’t going to cut it. She’s an officer. She wouldn’t be an officer if she couldn’t take a punch. And anything else...” He shook his head. “We can’t let them make us as bad as they are. Fighting them on their terms just destroys us in different ways.”

“The rest of the planet may not agree with that level of idealism,” said Adam. “Fear of the galra has driven most of the things humanity’s done for the past few years. Now that they’re here...”

“No,” said Shiro firmly. “I won’t back it.”

“We do things your way or Voltron leaves?” asked Iverson bluntly. “There’s billions of people on this planet. You really think someone’s not going to think maybe we just shoot you five and hold tryouts?”

“I think if someone suggests that,” said Shiro slowly, “You should tell them that once the founding team broke up it took ten thousand years for the lions to choose replacements,” said Shiro levelly. “The Blue Lion waited here for as long as our species has had writing, commander, if not longer. Didn’t budge until Lance came near. They’re picky. And more than capable of flying back to Allura with no pilot at all. Their maker sent them out into the universe with no pilots and she’s out of your reach, gentlemen. They’ll go back to her, if we fall here. I doubt she’d consider our species worth saving if it turns against itself like that.”

Iverson nodded slowly. His attitude made it clear he, personally, had no interest in harming any of the paladins, but was simply familiar with people who would. “Any way we can demonstrate that in advance?”

Shiro took a deep breath. Humans had no familiarity with the legend of Voltron, or of the Lions. Of course they’d be doubtful. “...Iverson,” he said tiredly, “the first idiot that thinks they can – for example – take over the Red Lion by removing the ‘galra’ pilot from our roster will discover exactly what the last lot that thought that discovered. Namely that there isn’t a stronghold on this planet that a Lion will not go through – without a pilot – to recover its pilot. And they’re more than capable of raising personal defenses that no weapon on this world or even up in Sendak’s fleet can get through. I don’t recommend holding demonstrations. Just...don’t worry about it. Anyone stupid enough to try it will find out soon enough the hard way.”

Adam nodded just slightly toward the one-way window through which they were watching the prisoner. She looked thoughtful – proof enough she could hear them, and was digesting the discussion. Iverson nodded back, and nudged the other two to walk on. Once they had a few more doors between themselves and the prisoner, he said, “We’re gonna need to deal with that.”

Shiro almost said, Keith would know – and then realized Keith did know, and had already showed him what to do. “Play music,” he said. “In the corridor, or in her cell. Twenty four hour music, above conversational decibel level. Tell the guards to have fun picking songs. She shouldn’t be able to pick out any conversations over the sound.”

Adam smiled wryly. “Keith brought his music collection into space, I take it,” he said, catching on.

Iverson blinked, visibly reassessing previous events in new context. “Hnh,” he said. “Good idea. We can rig that pretty easily.”

“We need to respond to this attack,” said Adam. “And quickly. I take it there’s no target to aim at.”

Shiro tapped his helmet. “No word from Lance or Hunk,” he said. “So, probably not.”

Abruptly, the room became significantly more crowded as Krolia and Cosmo appeared. Krolia looked – well, as startled as the men, but with significantly faster reaction speed. Even as their startled minds registered ‘sudden galra’ and reached for their weapons, she threw a spinning kick that knocked the guns clear out of Iverson and Adam’s hands.

“Krolia?” asked Shiro, waving the two Garrison officers to stand down. “What happened? Is Lance all right? Hunk?”

Krolia blinked at him. “...I do not know,” she admitted. “I was meditating in my quarters when Cosmo appeared and then brought me here.” She looked down at the big wolf, who seemed rather pleased with himself, and then shrugged at Shiro.

Shiro tapped his comm. “Lance. Hunk. Report.”

“En route,” said Hunk.

“The castleship’s going to take the Holts back to Allura,” said Lance, his tone making it clear he was well aware his decisions might not meet with Shiro’s approval. “The alchemists can’t sense Sendak’s ships, or Haggar’s magic in any useful way, and the castleship sensors aren’t picking anything up. It’s a sitting duck. And the Holts are in really delicate condition – the ship gets attacked, they probably die. So I sent them out of range. Allura will be able to help them, and the Olkari can upgrade the ship sensors.”

Krolia nodded, understanding. “Cosmo got me off the ship before it wormholed,” she said. Then turned to the two humans she hadn’t yet met. “...I am Krolia,” she said. “I am of the Blade of Marmora, allies of Voltron. I am Keith’s mother.”

Adam sat down hard, staring at Krolia as if he’d just been handed some big pieces to a very old puzzle. Iverson just studied her and grunted, “Hnh. Thought you’d be bigger.”

Krolia gave Iverson a steady look that told Shiro clearly that Krolia knew exactly why Iverson had only one good eye and was perfectly willing to deprive him of the other one if given cause. But what she said, in a steady, mostly polite tone, was, “My mate always spoke highly of the Garrison. He was known to be mistaken in his judgment at times.”

Into the flat silence that followed that remark, Shiro coughed and sent, “Good thinking, Lance. I’m sure Pidge will be glad to hear it. Hunk, Pidge has the wreckage of the sniper team’s fighter to go over if you want to help with that.”

Adam had Iverson sit down, and said carefully, “I’m aware that Colleen Holt was doing some research on your behalf...ma’am.” The honorific seemed to be some kind of default setting. “Would you like me to take you to her notes?”

Krolia didn’t answer at once; she instead looked to Shiro, for his judgment. There was a quality of that look that said it wasn’t the uncertain looking for reassurance, but an operative used to betrayal asking for a risk assessment.

Shiro took a deep breath. Krolia would get the full story eventually, he was sure, and it would get probably very complicated. He did what he could. “I will personally vouch that Adam won’t knowingly lead you into an ambush situation.”

Adam flashed Shiro a look – surprise, then thoughtful, clearly not having considered that yes, of course, there might well be people wanting to capture and examine a galra woman who was also the mother of the only galra-human hybrid. “I’ll stay with you, ma’am,” he said solemnly. “Any surprises will have to take me too.”

“Thank you,” said Krolia, apparently not sure if that was a suicidal gesture or a kind one. The two stepped out.

Iverson ran a hand over his face. “She explains a lot.”

“You really don’t know a tenth of it,” said Shiro mildly. “She’s a senior Blade. Easily centuries old. She knows more of espionage than any human alive. And emotionally, right now she’s dealing with the death of her mate – uh, Keith’s father.”

“Can we use that?” asked Iverson.

Shiro blinked. “...I’m given to understand you’re the one that tried telling Keith that I was dead. She will usually refer to me as Keith’s mate. I’ll leave the math to you.”

Iverson winced. “Her presence isn’t going to make anything easier. A known Galra spy? Even if she is on our side. We’ll need to get her off the base if we can. Occupy her with that project she had Colleen working on, or something.”

“What is that project?” asked Shiro.

Iverson shrugged. “Something to do with Keith’s father, I think. She wouldn’t talk about it. I just know it took a lot of digging – she’s been at it for weeks. Colleen solved long distance deep space air filtration in less than one. Holts.”

He said Holts in the loaded way everyone used after getting to know the family; it meant genius and also a little unstable.

“We’re going to need Krolia,” said Shiro. “She can help us uncover the fleet, I’m sure. The Blade have done covert ops for millenia. She’ll know better than anyone what Sendak’s using to hide.” He paused. “Where are your pilots?”

“Probably with the fighter wreckage,” said Iverson. “Big find, and all.”

~*~

Allura was waiting for her ship when it returned. She wore a courtly gown – a gift to her from her altean staff, who felt that now she was reunited with her people she should Look Like Royalty. And at the very least should look as regal as Lotor.

Allura was...adapting. On the whole she felt more comfortable in the Blue Lion, but she did understand why she felt that way. Flying a Lion was simple. Talking through conflicts was much harder.

Merla, Luca, and Tavo descended the ramp first, with Merla in the lead. None of the three looked happy.

“It’s barely been two quintants,” said Allura. “Surely it can’t have gone badly that quickly.”

Merla, the leader of the trio, said solemnly, “It did, your highness. We have the Green Paladin’s elders aboard. They are in critical condition. Even the medical pods are barely sustaining them. The paladins’ homeworld has no medical pods. And if the castleship came under fire, any disruption to its power flow would likely kill the two humans. The Blue Paladin ordered us to bring them to you.”

Allura nodded. “Lance told me. Now tell me why you listened, please.”

It was Tavo who said, “Highness...there’s druid fingerprints all over that system. But we can’t sense them directly, or their cruisers. We can’t find them. You chose us for this ship because we’re the strongest. But if the cruisers had wanted to destroy us, we wouldn’t have had time to raise any kind of defense. Yellow Paladin wanted us to see if the Olkari could help us improve the ship’s scanners.”

Allura nodded. That was a good reason – not that mercy to the paladins was a bad one, but it was war, and depriving the paladins of the castleship was not a small sacrifice. Sending the castleship away was like preventing yourself from being disarmed by deliberately throwing your weapon out of reach before it could be taken from you. It was desperate.

And these three, though they’d had combat experience now, were frightened of how close the cruisers had gotten without being detected. Close enough to reach the planet, and strike.

Allura wondered if she could detect Haggar’s presence. She rather thought she could; these three were the strongest of the colonists, but Allura was royal. Her power was orders of magnitude greater. But that wouldn’t solve the problem, not really. They needed a way to do this on their own.

“Coran,” she said into her earpiece. “I have two medical pods that need careful attention. Would you see them to a secure medical bay, please?”

Yes, princess, of course. On my way.”

Allura turned her attention back to the trio of alchemists. “Once the pods are safely here, take the ship to Olkarion. Whatever they are willing to do, for the paladins or me, would be greatly appreciated.”

Merla saluted, which prompted Luca and Tavo to do the same.

“And while you are here,” Allura added mildly. “Please transfer your logs for my review. I would like to know how the paladins could return home and be in this much trouble this quickly.”

Chapter Text

Sendak watched through the magic the druids provided; the agitation on Earth. The fear. Having no visible enemy to confront, yet being wholly aware an enemy was there, somewhere, was driving the species mad.

It was almost worth losing what had turned out to be his only chance to destroy the castleship. That would have demoralized them. But it would come back, eventually. He could probably destroy it then.

“How much of this is your doing, witch?” he asked.

Haggar regarded the images passively. “I chose humans who were already, for reasons of their own, inclined to pretend the threat you pose is not real,” she said. “Charismatic speakers willing to create lies for their own gain. All I have done is make certain they have no change of heart. This is their work.”

“The Champion is clearly an unusual representative of the species,” said Sendak. Which was, really, a relief; a whole planet of Shiro would have been a problem.

“It is unlikely they will destroy themselves in this manner,” Haggar warned, but not in a manner that suggested she cared whether Sendak listened; she was simply stating a fact.

Sendak sat back in his chair with a little sigh. She was right, of course. Amusing as the riots and protests were, they were unlikely to cause any real damage to the species’ battle plans. They were simply demoralizing to the paladins. He eyed the images, thinking.

“Have any of them made an attempt to seize a Lion yet?”

Haggar nodded. “A plan is underway – several – to attempt to take the Red Lion. A few include plots to kidnap the paladin’s parent as a hostage to force the situation.”

Sendak grinned widely, his fangs gleaming. “Indeed. Make sure to record those, Haggar. I’m sure I will find them amusing. When do they plan to enact these plans?”

Haggar fell silent, communing with her druids and her puppets, sifting through their minds. “A quintant or two at most for the first attempts.”

“Confirm the time for me,” said Sendak, the tone now that of an order. “We may as well make use of them. I want the rest of the Blue Paladin’s pack.”

~*~

No one particularly wanted to leave Pidge alone for too long.

Lance and Hunk took it in turns to keep the most ‘eye’ on her; Hunk worked with her while conscious, on prying usable data out of the fighter wreckage, and on setting up the communication center that would keep her in touch with her brother and the Coalition fleet. Lance stayed with her whenever work wasn’t occupying her mind.

The first night, Pidge tried to sleep in her parents’ empty quarters. That ended with Lance finding her trying to work on the broken fighter console in her pajamas, and finally with him getting her to sleep in his sister Veronica’s quarters (which had his sister sleeping on a couch, for which he Owed Her). The next morning, the issue of Quarters resulted in five rooms, all neighboring each other, being offered to the paladins. Pidge’s room got put between Lance’s and Hunk’s, but Keith’s and Shiro’s remained empty. Keith flatly refused to sleep under Garrison security, ever, end of story; Shiro didn’t feel quite as strongly about it, but he had his own problems with trust and the Garrison since the ‘quarantine’ incident. He didn’t need to make any kind of fuss though, as Keith very easily made enough for both of them. They alternated their nights between the Black Lion cargo bay, and the Red, the two Lions seated near enough to the wing housing the others that in the event of any treachery the response could be swift.

So worried were the Paladins about Pidge, that even while they worked on getting the new communication center up and running, and decoding the fighter logs, Lance and Hunk didn’t notice right away that there was an unusual level of radio silence.

Veronica, however, did not have quite so disrupted a life. And while Hunk was busy working with Pidge on the fighter console one morning, she approached her not-as-little-as-she-remembered brother and said, quietly, “We need to talk.”

Lance looked around; Shiro and Keith were doing their ‘we’re not hovering, we’re just keeping watch from a distance’ thing that conveniently covered both exits from the hangar the fighter pieces were scattered in. So he gestured with me to his sister and walked nonchalantly toward a water cooler that put a fair amount of distance between them and any eavesdroppers. “What is it?”

“It’s Mom,” said Veronica quietly. “I don’t want to - you know, with Pidge’s family -”

Lance nodded. “She’s busy and out of earshot. What’s wrong with mom?”

“She’s too quiet,” said Veronica softly. “Every Wednesday afternoon, after lunch, she calls me. Every. Wednesday. The one time she didn’t, she’d slipped on some wet leaves after a rain and cracked her hip. I don’t want to upset Pidge, but...Mom hasn’t called.”

Lance nodded again, more slowly. “You want me to take Blue and go see?”

Veronica sighed. “Honestly, I want you to take Blue and bring them all here,” she admitted. “It’s safe here. There’s room. I know they’ve got lives and all but that’s kind of the point. I want them to keep having lives. The Garrison won’t call the families into the bunkers unless there’s a clear threat. The press keeps an eye out for that call – it’s like hearing Congress has recessed to a bunker, it’s a warning flag. So they won’t call unless they’re sure they have to and Mom being late with the weekly gossip session doesn’t count. But you can go where you want, when you want. And if you brought them here the Garrison would just have to deal with it.”

Lance smiled. “De nada, V. I’ll go stretch Blue’s legs in that general direction and bring everyone in. I’ve been worried too, I just -” he nodded briefly toward the wreckage. “Didn’t want to look like I was upstaging Pidge.”

“I’m fine being the excuse,” Veronica agreed, relieved. “I’ll tell them I requested it.”

~*~

Marco McClain ….dreamed, but did not know he dreamed.

This was deliberate, of course. Unlike the capture of Keith, where keeping him in a tank had been a precaution against unknown abilities, in Marco’s case it was pure sadistic convenience. Suspended in a quintessence tank, dreaming ever-increasingly-dark nightmares, Marco could see nothing real, hear nothing real, make no attempt to escape. Fear for him would drive the Blue Paladin mad – or at least provide a powerful and possibly disabling distraction – and even if the day came that the paladins won, there was a fairly good chance that Marco’s mind would be permanently broken.

Sendak had the tank placed on the bridge of his cruiser, where any open communication screen would be sure to show Marco’s nude, quintessence-infused body dangling in the background. He had given orders that all the ‘special’ prisoners be likewise positioned. There were to be no accidental deaths. No, if the humans fired on a protected cruiser, they would know exactly what they were destroying.

Voltron might have taken Sendak’s emperor from him, and then his empire, but Sendak intended to do them a hurt in kind, returning pain and loss in full measure. He would make them weep before the end. The thought brought a smile to the old general’s lips.

He watched, now, as the Blue Lion launched from the Southwest Garrison, heading east-southeast to Cuba.

“Sir,” said a lieutenant. “We have all of the paladin’s family. Do we attack?”

A good question, Sendak mused. Part of him still wanted to wait, for that attempt on the Red Lion. Acting now might dissuade the humans from trying to remove a Paladin themselves. On the other hand, it might also spur them to act more decisively – an attempt to control a situation that was in no way theirs to control.

“Let him have time to realize his kinsmen are gone,” Sendak decided. “Then destroy the island. Leave nothing alive. The humans are, after all, awaiting proof of our power.” He turned to the druid assigned to his ship. “Cloak us again on my command.”

~*~

Keith and Shiro were both fine with Lance taking off for a few hours. Hunk would need Pidge’s help for that long yet at least. So Lance suited up – at the very least, if it was something minor, being in armor would make it clear now wasn’t the time to make anyone Worry – and got into Blue, flying toward Cuba.

It was several hours in a plane, that flight. Lance remembered well how coming home for winter or spring breaks had required a great deal of planning for the long cramped flight. But Blue covered the distance in minutes. With legroom.

The street his parents’ house was on was...curiously empty. Cars on curbs, in driveways, indicated people at home and not work or errands, but no one was playing in the yards, walking on the sidewalks. It wasn’t just his parents’ house. Lance hovered there, above the block, and no one came out to wave at the Lion.

Blue growled in response to Lance’s gnawing worry. He punched up a scan...there was no one. Not here, anyway. There was no one for at least a mile.

This was all wrong. The cars said people should be here. Lance touched Blue down, and kept his hand ready to call his bayard as he stepped out. The scan said no one was here, but they’d already gotten proof the galra could sidestep that if they wanted. It might be an ambush.

The door of his parents’ home was not locked and only barely closed. That wasn’t right. Lance opened the door carefully, using his helmet to scan for heat signatures, foot prints, anything.

He went room to room like that. And then went two doors down, where his eldest brother Luis lived with his wife Lisa and their two little ones. That house was open too, and empty.

They’d been here. Fairly recently – within the past day or so, anyway. Both houses had that light level of disarray that came with daily living, and not the level of Clean the family used when going on trips. They’d not meant to be gone long, wherever they went.

They’d probably not meant to go at all. There were no signs of anyone having packed anything – and anyway, all the cars were here. Even if an evacuation order had been given, surely they’d have at least tried to take a few things with them?

The gnawing worry in Lance’s stomach was growing larger. Much larger. Marco. He didn’t live with the rest of the family, they’d been joking about it. Leaving the nest to find a mate and all that other rot. Lance racked his brain, trying to remember if anyone had given an address, a building, as he ran back to Blue.

Reacting to his increasing distress, Blue roared defiance. Miles away in every direction, every car alarm and burglar alarm went off at once. Lance couldn’t find it in him to be embarrassed. Something was wrong! They needed to be alerted.

Blue bounded into the air, toward Matanzas. There were people below, now – Blue flew low, and he could see people pulling over or stopping what they were doing to watch the Lion pass.

Apartment building. Acting on a hunch that twisted his stomach, Lance scanned the taller buildings and apartment complexes.

One of them was entirely empty. Lance parked Blue on that one and rappelled down to ground level.

The mailboxes in the lobby confirmed; this was Marco’s building.

Someone – three guesses as to who and the first two don’t count – had scooped up Lance’s whole family, and anyone else in the vicinity just to be sure.

Blue roared again, which set off car alarms, home security systems, and citywide sirens. People were now flooding out of everywhere, hands over their ears, staring at the Lion and the stunned young man in blue armor. Some were worried, some were angry at the racket and disturbance. Everyone wanted explanations.

“The galra have taken everyone in this building!” Lance snapped, pointing at the doors he’d come out of. “All of them! They have taken everyone near my family! You’re not safe! You -”

Lance didn’t get to tell them anything else.

He didn’t need to.

Blasts of powerful energy descended from the sky, tearing into the nearby buildings like they were paper. Ripping them apart to crumble on the crowded streets.

The screaming started.

The panic started.

The Blue Lion dove, Lance leaping up into her mouth, as the attack began.

~*~

It startled the Garrison personnel, how quickly the paladins went from ‘going about their quiet tasks’ to ‘running for their Lions’. Even Pidge and Hunk put down their work immediately, running just as determinedly as Shiro and Keith. Shiro yelled, “Cuba’s under fire!” as he ran, which told everyone else why they were moving and got the general alert sounded.

The Lions launched a good two minutes before the MFEs got off the ground, but the Lions could also meet their pilots halfway. Behind them and below them, domes of energy shimmered into life all across the continent. A direct attack was what Ryou had prepared Earth for. Beneath the domes, streets were packed as citizens began evacuation proceedings.

The entire world seemed to be hunkering down for a fight in just the few minutes it took the Lions to reach Cuba. Fighters filled the air with the Blue Lion furiously trying to take down as many as it could – but the fighters weren’t engaging Blue at all.

They were focused on the ground. Cuba only had one force dome, over Havana – this part of the island was already largely on fire, the fighters taking down every building they could. Lance had to be going insane given how quickly Blue’s head kept turning, firing blasts, racks of missiles appearing at her shoulders to aim at the galra ships, and none of it apparently saving much of anything. There were still more than enough fighters to focus fire on Havana’s defensive dome – and more than enough to have destroyed Blue if that were what they’d chosen to do.

As the other four Lions neared and engaged, the fighters seemed to simply vanish. They didn’t just retreat – one moment they’d be there, and the next it was clear open air.

“Where did they go?” yelled Lance. “Where the fuck are they? They took my family, Shiro! The houses, Marco’s building – they were empty when I got here! Where are they?”

“I don’t know,” said Shiro, as the Lions fanned out to do a sweep. The island below was burning, black smoke filling the air. Only the force dome over the capital had saved anything. A green and vibrant place was now largely...char.

“The druids,” said Keith quietly.

“Yeah, we worked that one out for ourselves, genius,” snarled Pidge, as Green turned her head westward. “Hunk. We gotta check your place. Lead the way.”

Hunk’s voice held naked fear for his family. The shock was audible, the numbness, audible. “My? - Okay. Yeah. Right.”

There wasn’t anything they could do for burning Cuba below them at this point. The MFE pilots were coming and could patrol. Hunk turned Yellow westward, and led the paladins to the island of Apolima.

Shiro fielded the calls from the Garrison. “Paladins! Report!” came Iverson’s voice. “What’s the situation out there?”

“Havana stands, Commander,” said Shiro solemnly. “But it’s the only thing in Cuba that does. The galra have torched the rest. We got there in time to drive them off before they could break Havana’s dome, but that’s all. They’ve done their vanishing trick again.”

Merciful God,” sighed Iverson. “So you’re returning to base?”

“Not just yet,” Shiro replied, adjusting the comms so the stressed, fearful snarkfest going on between the other paladins wouldn’t reach the Garrison. “Lance reported that before the attack he discovered a lot of people had gone missing – his entire family, but also everyone nearby. Whole buildings, whole blocks of people, just gone. Apparently done so quietly that nobody nearby realized anything was amiss.”

You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Iverson. “SOMEBODY would have noticed!”

Yellow was dipping lower. Mere intraplanetary distances were really nothing for the Lions. “You’d think we’d have been able to follow the fighters back to their cruiser too, commander,” Shiro sighed. “I’ve never seen galra so hell-bent on hiding before. We’re nearing Samoa. Shiro out.”

“Nobody noticed,” said Lance in a dead tone. “That whole block was deserted. Marco’s whole building was empty. Nobody noticed.”

“Guys,” said Hunk, and there was enough worry and fear in the lone word to shut everyone up.

Yellow touched down first, outside the ring of houses. There were no people to be seen as the other four Lions followed suit.

“Just like Varadero,” said Lance woodenly, getting out of Blue.

Hunk got out of Yellow and ran with a strange, halting gait – wanting to know, and fearing to know in equal measure. Shiro stayed with Lance, a hand on his shoulder, while Pidge and Keith went after Hunk.

It was just like Varadero. The houses were empty, food laid out and sometimes mid-preparation, fires burning low, untended and unsmothered. Pets ran about freely, mewing or barking or cawing for feeding. Hunk went from house to house, scanning as Lance had scanned. “They were...here a day or two ago,” he managed. “They were just here.” His voice was rising. “They were just here.”

Keith grabbed Hunk by the arm; Hunk jerked, but Keith was strong enough not to be pulled. “Stop it,” he ordered. “Stop it, Hunk! You’re no good to them like this!”

But Hunk wasn’t in any state to listen. He dropped to his knees, pulling off his helmet and sobbing. “They’re gone. They’re all ...gone.”

“At least they’re alive,” Pidge growled. “Get up. Sendak did this. He had to have done this. We’re going to break his magic camouflage and we are going to kick. His. Ass. Get up!

Hunk didn’t seem to hear. The big man was bowed, on his knees, almost a kowtow before the empty village, as if asking it to forgive him for not being there. His family and his home were the foundation he built everything else on; when it crumbled, so did he.

Pidge gave Keith a ‘you deal with this’ look and stomped back to Shiro and Lance, snarling that she was going to find Sendak, and Haggar, and there was going to be payback.

Keith crouched by Hunk and put a hand across Hunk’s broad shoulders, and let him cry. He didn’t try to talk him out of it, or soothe him; he just made himself there, and waited until the force of Hunk’s grief had died down to little hiccups and sniffles.

“I know, I know,” Hunk croaked hoarsely. “M’no good to them like this.”

“You were no good to them,” Keith corrected. “You were on the edge of hysterical for a minute there. You’re better now.”

Hunk gave Keith a flat, dead look. “Cos on my knees and a face full of snot’s the best answer to a panic.”

“You love them,” said Keith slowly. “You love them more than anything in the universe. You love them more than you’re afraid of Sendak, or Haggar. You can solve any problem, fix any machine. You’ll find them, and you’ll bring them home. You won’t let anything stop you.”

Hunk stared at Keith with the vague, blank eyes of the emotionally exhausted. “You’re real sure of that.”

“You’d have done it for Shay,” said Keith simply. “You did do it for Shay.” He patted Hunk’s far shoulder, across Hunk’s back so that it was also a kind of light hug. “Come on. Don’t make me carry you, Pidge would take pictures.”

Keith stood up, and Hunk got his knees under him to stand up with him, running the back of his hand across his face. Hunk looked up at the stars as if judging them for hiding his family. “You’re gonna help? This magic shit, I see where Pidge is coming from with that.”

Keith’s mouth twitched upward briefly at the edges. “If you’re asking whether I’ll be your guinea pig...yeah, I will. Come on.”

~*~

Pidge stormed back to Lance and Shiro, grumbling dire warnings of her wrath to come and just how much Sendak was going to regret pissing her off.

At first, neither of the other two paladins seemed to notice her or pay her much mind; Lance was still numb, processing the loss of his family and the loss of most of his country along with it. Shiro was trying to keep at least half an eye on everything at the same time, and discovering he didn’t have anywhere near enough eyes for that.

Pidge did not require the attention or validation of anyone else, though. She was too busy conducting scans and typing furiously and onehanded into her wrist console.

Eventually, Lance asked in a soft, mind-utterly-elsewhere tone, “Why didn’t the fighters burn here?”

Shiro blinked. “You mean attack? I’d guess because it looks like they took everyone. The island’s entire population.”

“Took where though?” asked Pidge bluntly. “I mean it’s not a big place here, but there’s easily more than a hundred normal residents by the evidence. What’re they doing with the people?”

Lance winced and turned visibly green; his imagination could supply any number of answers he didn’t want to think about.

Shiro sighed and said to Pidge, “Maybe save that speculation for me and Keith, hm?”

“So several houses on Lance’s street,” said Pidge. “An apartment building. And an island. I mean clearly focused on us, and taking...what? Likely witnesses? Even the Blade of Marmora isn’t this paranoid.”

“Oh, they are,” said Shiro grimly, thinking of the first time he’d been to their base. “We won them over, but ...they were definitely this paranoid at first.”

Pidge gave Shiro a narrow-eyed look at that. “Really. Okay. Well. Even with magic there’s got to be a limited number of places to hide, and some reason they’re willing to take on extra prisoners. We work those angles, maybe we can find them.”

Lance was coming off not just the shock of his family’s loss, and his homeland being torched, but some intense combat in the meantime. The adrenaline was starting to wear off. Shiro let Lance lean on him, holding Lance steady with a light hug.

“We’ll work the problem, Pidge,” said Shiro quietly. “At least people can’t possibly deny the galra threat is real now.”

~*~

Sendak watched through the scrying sphere his druid provided, with a slow, satisfied smile on his lips. “Good,” he rumbled. “Good. And they cannot find us. That should increase their fear. Prey always fears the unseen predator.”

“Our work continues, general,” said the masked druid. It – it was impossible to tell under the robes and masks which ones had been male or female – gestured, and on the forward screen appeared little rectangles – headlines, newscasts. Several blamed the paladins for not catching or defeating the Galra Enemy. There was some praise for Ryou now – dead heroes were easy to praise – and challenges to the Garrisons to Solve The Problem; either get Voltron to save everyone like everyone had been told they would do, or surrender the Lions that weren’t any help anyway and hope it meant the galra would leave Earth alone.

Sendak nodded approval of the work. “Do your spies think it likely the humans will force the paladins to surrender?”

“No, general,” said the druid. “Though it is possible they may drive the paladins to leave Earth – with, or without, their kin. Developments continue; there is little data regarding the general nature of this species.”

“Indeed,” mused Sendak. “They have particle barriers that can withstand a sustained barrage. Saboteurs will be required.”

The druid bowed. “We are already placing agents, general.”

~*~

Little data. Not no data.

Haggar had completed the conversion of a few new Druids, and was currently testing them and their use of the dark powers.

They were an ...unusual species. Haggar had not yet decided if that was a good thing or a bad one yet.

Most species, when exposed to large amounts of quintessence, changed in some way. Galra would lose any visible sign of pupil or iris, rendering their eyes a uniform gold color. Further quintessence use tended to increase their size and muscle mass, and often increased their fang length as well. Alteans most often developed white hair, and further use would increase the size of their facial markings.

Humans, however, showed no outward changes at all. Their eyes did not change. Their hair did not change. Their size did not change. Haggar had to rely on mystic senses to know when a human in a tank had absorbed enough quintessence to be prepared for later conversion stages. They just didn’t show….anything.

At least...not when quintessence was applied. Or dark magic as such. Casting spells on them didn’t change them.

But when Haggar undertook the final step in conversion – imbuing the body with dark rift energy – humans changed. Alteans didn’t, and galra didn’t, but humans did.

Ironically, it seemed to turn their hair white.

“You are immortal now,” she told the two test subjects, the purple quintessence still gleaming on their bare skin. “You will not age, or sicken. But you will need to feed. You feel it now, the hunger.”

Both the human druids turned their heads to watch Haggar as she floated by them. Their expressions betrayed no emotion. She gestured to one of the galra soldiers assigned to assist her. “Bring the prisoners.”

The galra saluted – trying, with only partial success, to hide his healthy terror of the witch – and backed out of her presence. He returned a few minutes later with a few police officers in restraints, holding one up in each hand. He dropped them before Haggar; they swore at the pain, and in fear of their captors.

When they saw the two new druids, naked and gleaming in the afternoon sun, they made the mistake of thinking species was enough to forge allegiance and called to them for help.

The druids ignored the sound, watching Haggar.

“Reach for the darkness,” rasped Haggar. “Focus your will upon the life force before you, and feed.”

The two bound officers paled, aware now that something really bad was going on. They tried to plead with the new druids. Beg for their lives.

Two hands raised. Two zigzagging lances of black energy shot forth, each striking one of the police officers.

They aged, rapidly. Decades of aging in seconds. Their corpses dropped to the ground, crumbling to dust as if centuries had passed in seconds.

The two new druids inhaled, a small satisfied sound. “Always destroy the remains,” Haggar commanded flatly. “You have much to do and an investigation would be inconvenient.”

“Yes, High Priestess,” the two druids chimed solemnly.

Macidus drifted forward, draping Druid robes over the two newest members of the flock. “Follow me,” he ordered them. “I will familiarize you with your assignments.”

~*~

Shiro did not let the paladins return to the Garrison that night. Five Lions encircled the little shack where they’d all spent their first night as a group of mostly-strangers, because there weren’t really a lot of options. Keith and Shiro swept up dust and did enough repair to give Pidge, Lance, and Hunk room to sleep in a big pile on the only mat, which served as bed and couch. No one complained. If anything, having friends to hold on to who were as much on the edge of tears as everyone else was the best thing for them.

Keith and Shiro stayed outside the shack, on watch. They’d firmly confiscated the other three’s helmets – and thus communications – for the time being. The Garrison wasn’t happy.

Keith absently hung the Yellow, Blue and Green helmets on Red’s fangs. He kept his own on, though he didn’t respond. He just wanted to know what they were trying to order Shiro to do. It wasn’t hard to guess - ‘go on the offensive’. But there were no signs of the enemy fleet, or fighters, or druids. And the brilliant minds that could find a way to locate that hidden enemy were currently traumatized and emotionally exhausted.

They weren’t children anymore, none of them were, but they were his team and Shiro would take on the whole Garrison if he needed to, to protect them. Keith knew it. Approved of it. And would help, if it came to that.

“Pidge defended me, yesterday,” Keith noted, apropos of nothing much.

Shiro raised an eyebrow. “You’re surprised?”

“Kinda, yeah,” said Keith, leaning back against Red’s mouth. “Lance did, too.”

Shiro shook his head. “You’re so quick to think they don’t want you around. They got over that a long while ago.”

“Defending the galra team mate to the Garrison at a time like this is different,” said Keith.

“It’s really not,” said Shiro, gentle now. “Not to humans, Keith. Once you’re family, you’re family. The Garrison’s not their family. You’ve got their trust. You’re family. The Garrison tries to argue with that, the Garrison will get told to go to hell.” He paused. “Galra don’t work that way?”

Keith shook his head. “I know...it looks a lot like the standard racial purity bullshit humans have pulled for centuries,” he said slowly. “But it’s not. Not to galra. It’s so much...bigger. It’s like...where are the neanderthals, on Earth?”

Shiro blinked. “You’ve lost me. Neanderthals are extinct.”

“Not quite,” said Keith. “They’re humans. Part of what makes up humans, anyway. They were genetically compatible with early humans and just got...absorbed.”

Shiro thought this over. “So...because galra are genetically compatible with, apparently, pretty much every species in the entire universe...”

“If they don’t focus really hard on species purity, in a few thousand more years there wouldn’t be any ‘galra’ to speak of,” said Keith. “There’d be people like me, or Acxa, or Zethrid, or Ezor, or Regris, or Antok. Or Lotor.”

“So the only way for galra to continue to survive as a distinct species, is to come down hard on impure blood,” said Shiro slowly. “But several of those names were Blades. I’m guessing Kolivan doesn’t feel the way Sendak does.”

“Kolivan thinks that maybe it’s past time for galra to fade out,” Keith corrected. “Given what the galra have done out of their need to stay pure. Sendak’s fleet, they’re all pure galra. We’re probably gonna have to kill them all.” His lip twitched in an echo of a smile. “I just...I dunno. It’s kind of exhausting getting the purity rhetoric from both sides. Especially when humans subdivide to levels the galra probably haven’t bothered with since becoming a spacefaring species.”

“You’re thinking on grim lines today,” said Shiro, and looked over his shoulder at the shack, and the relative silence of three exhausted paladins in a gerbil pile. “Not that there isn’t cause. Are you feeling better?”

Keith shrugged. “I can accept I’m not hopping realities,” he said. “And I understand why you said you forgive me. Which, thank you, and also you’re an asshole for doing it that far in advance.”

Shiro grinned. Keith was definitely feeling better then.

Keith noted the grin and gave Shiro a light punch on the shoulder. “Asshole,” he repeated. “But there’s ...” he sighed, relaxing against Red. “There’s thinking it through and going ‘yeah, that’s logical’, and there’s feeling it. Knowing it in the gut. I’m sure I used to.”

Shiro tilted his head. “Anything I can do to help?”

Keith thought about it. “Do something in the mornings. When we wake up. Something only you, out of all the millions of possible versions of you, would do. That no other version would think to do. I can hang on to that.”

Both of Shiro’s eyebrows went up. “Well. I did say ‘anything’,” he replied. “I’ll think of something. But for now we’ve got tomorrow to sort. Lance sent our base back – which, sound logic, not knocking that, but. We still need a base, and this shack’s not going to cut it.”

“We’ve got five gigantic metal lions, Shiro,” said Keith blandly. “Anywhere we park them is a base.”

“I think we need one with communal beds,” said Shiro just as blandly. “Those three ...this is their first experience with this kind of loss, Keith. You and I were a lot younger, and we’ve had a lot more time to deal with it. Them...we don’t even know if their families are alive.”

“Alive, yes,” said Keith firmly. “If Sendak wanted to kill them he’d have left their desecrated bodies for them to find, Shiro. He doesn’t do subtle. And he can only kill them once. He’s going for the pain. He can inflict a lot more pain while they’re worrying about their families and afraid for them. While they’re scared that they won’t get there in time. Or that around any corner Sendak could leave their family’s corpses hanging from a beam.”

Shiro stared. “...Every now and then your galra brain worries me.”

Keith met the stare levelly. “We’ve hurt him, Shiro. He was devoted to Zarkon, to the Empire as Zarkon built it. And we’ve ripped it all from him. He had two ways to deal with that – a suicidal charge, or go for the pain. He’s taking that second option. He’s waiting to attack until we’re invested in the outcome. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the first casualties were the best minds we could’ve tapped for solutions, or that the first territory attacked was important to one of us.”

Shiro had to look away; Keith knew Sendak’s madness because he’d been there. He knew, personally, that desire to rip and shred and hurt the ones that had hurt him. And Shiro knew that Keith’s willingness to do so had probably saved his, Shiro’s, life. Possibly more than once. It was just...now that kind of rage was aimed at Pidge, Lance, and Hunk. “So...alive, then. Then we focus on recovering them. Getting them clear.”

Keith took a deep breath. “Alive,” he agreed. “Healthy enough to move under their own power, or sane enough to recognize their own rescue...that I don’t think we should count on, Shiro. Sendak will hurt them more if they suffer to get their families back, but the people they get back are broken.”

Shiro was really, really glad Keith hadn’t said that near the other three, and wasted no time emphasizing, “Never, ever mention that theory where they can hear it.”

“I won’t,” Keith agreed quietly. “But you need to be ready for it.” He paused. “You’ve all told me what happened to me. And how much time that took. Sendak has had these people longer, hasn’t he?”

Shiro took a deep breath. If Sendak had done that – if he’d turned their families into druids, or Haggar’s puppets – this really might be the last battle for the paladins. He couldn’t imagine Pidge, or Lance, or Hunk being at all willing to keep flying with Voltron with their families in that kind of condition. “We’ve got to find them.”

“We will,” said Keith grimly. “If not on our own, eventually Sendak will have to dangle them where we can see. If he can’t show proof of life, his prisoners will be assumed dead and ...the others’ll start moving on. He won’t want that.”

Shiro closed his eyes. Gods, sometimes he just...really hated galra. There was a wry sort of sense from Keith that meant Keith knew it, and felt the same. Keith had days when he really hated humans, too. Benefits of a dual heritage; he got Stupid from both sides, and enough distance from either to call out both. “Just let me do the talking when we explain this to the garrison,” Shiro sighed. “The last thing I want is to remind them your brain’s wired a little differently. They’re on edge enough right now.”

Keith tilted his head. “The helmets have stopped squawking. Maybe they’ve gone to bed.”

“Good idea,” Shiro agreed, and tugged Keith toward Black. “My place this time.”

Keith took the time to snag the helmets off Red’s teeth before coming with him. “We could turn Black’s belly into the base,” he offered. “Room enough in there for everyone to sleep if we got another mattress or two.”

Shiro slipped his human arm around Keith’s waist. “Leaving you and me in Red, because I am not surrendering my privacy. I’ve got too much to get done.”

“You, me, and Cosmo,” Keith reminded. “At least, when he decides Mom’s okay to be left alone.”

~*~

Matt arrived, and almost bowled over the docking bay attendants as he rushed out of the ship. He didn’t stop – careening off of corridor walls and anyone in his way like a mad human pinball – until he reached the medical sector.

Lotor was, clearly, very much at work reforming the sector. Many alteans were there now, installing and upgrading pods, removing the beds that had doubled as interrogation chairs. The galra attendants were, for the most part, at least friendly – if a bit put out at all the change. Some of the pods were occupied with galra and were being closely monitored.

The two Matt needed to see were farther in. The pods were older, and clearly designed to be on a castleship, not central command’s medzone. But his parents floated in serene sleep in the pale blue liquid, and their lifesigns were stable.

Matt immediately set about looking over every aspect of the two pods. Looking up how to understand the readouts. He ignored all the beings behind and around him until Romelle put a hand on his shoulder. “Um. You should probably talk to the princess, Matt.”

“I just have to make sure -”

Matt.” the voice was not Romelle’s.

He turned and Allura was standing there, garbed as the princess she truly was. It was like being bitchslapped by Aphrodite; Matt shut up and stood still.

Allura wasn’t actually sure what to do with that reaction. A little concerned, she stepped forward. “They live, Matt. They made it here. They will heal.”

“But why haven’t they already?” Matt asked, almost a whisper.

Allura’s lips pursed. “Have you seen any truly elderly beings among the alteans or the galra?” she asked. “And please don’t say Coran. Late middle age at most. Life...runs out, among many races. Yours included. The fire...runs out of fuel.”

Matt studied his parents. They were old. He knew that. But they could live another thirty years, easily…

...and what was thirty years to beings that considered ‘somewhere past six hundred’ to be ‘late middle age at most’?

Allura put a reassuring hand lightly on Matt’s arm. “I come here every quintant,” she promised. “The paladins sent them here because they will be safe, and because I can help them. But it will take time. I want to heal their wounds, not make them immortal.”

Matt nodded. Gods, his mother looked a lot older than he remembered her being when he’d left on the Kerberos mission. A lot older than the...what. Four years they’d been gone? Five? She looked like she’d lived twenty, alone on Earth. “I ...don’t think they’d want to live forever,” he agreed quietly.

“Say rather, I think that choice is one best made by your entire family,” Allura replied. She looked over at Romelle, and back to Matt. “Will your crew be staying here, then?”

Matt sighed. “Probably not,” he admitted. “Too much to do still. Is there anything I can do to help them?”

Allura’s lips pursed. “The medical staff really don’t know very much about humans in a general sense,” she said. “As a family member, your medical information would be more valuable than most. If your captain agrees, would you stay a day or two and submit to medical scanning? We can use that information to help gauge your parents’ state of health.”

“Sure,” said Matt. “Anything you need.” He paused. “Um. I realize saying this while standing where I’m standing is...rude… but if I have to be examined by a galra can there be, like, altean guards or nurses or something? My last stay here wasn’t the awesomest.”

“We’ll stay with you,” said Romelle. “You trust Elcris, right? Me and Elcris and Olia, we’ll make sure nobody does anything they shouldn’t.”

Allura smiled. “That’s settled then. It shouldn’t take more than a quintant or two, to be thorough. When the crystal link is encrypted, we will ask Pidge to transmit hers.”

Chapter Text

Krolia was not herself.

To her credit, she was fully aware of this. She’d known it would happen, coming back to Earth. Her mate was dead. There were several levels of knowing and accepting that. Galra were stubborn beings, difficult to sway. She’d learned of his death from Keith, and intellectually, she’d had plenty of time to process the reality. She’d even seen his death, in Keith’s memories, and had time to come to terms with it.

But there was a visceral level, too. A deep gut sense that wanted to say he could just be ...somewhere else, that he might come back. That she could still return to him. That same visceral level had kept Keith searching for Shiro long after his human comrades had accepted that his disappearance probably meant his death. Keith had been lucky; he had gotten Shiro back.

Krolia knew she would not be so fortunate. That was why she’d wanted to visit his grave. Something real, physically solid, so that her heart could – finally – accept the truth that yes, her mate was gone. It hurt. It hurt a lot. And she knew it was affecting her thinking, her reactions. It was why she’d accepted Adam’s offer to poke at Colleen Holt’s computer for her findings; she was no good to her son or his friends like this, any more than a wounded puma was a good house cat.

Krolia was far older than her son. She’d lost more than one mate down the centuries. More than one child, too; Keith was her only living descendant, but there had been others once – all dead now. She knew this pain, knew what she should and shouldn’t risk trying, knew how long it would take to reach some kind of normal again.

Thankfully, Colleen Holt had presented Krolia with exactly the kind of challenge the senior Blade could sink her fangs into.

Colleen did not trust the Garrison. That was immediately obvious. The humans of the Garrison mostly treated basic network security as a formality endured to make superiors happy. Krolia, in what Blades would count as ‘mild poking around’, not even general recon, had already uncovered the handwritten notes on which several Garrison officers had written their passcodes. She’d filed that information away, of course. No telling when it might be useful.

Colleen did not have any such handwritten notes. She didn’t have any personal items in her lab that might indicate likely choices of passcode, either. It wasn’t a variation on her name, age, or birthday, nor any of those for any of her family. And she’d added a second layer; a particular flash drive had to be in a specific slot, or her computer booted up into a clean slate – all default settings. Krolia didn’t want to try the flash drive in any other machines; she wouldn’t put it past Colleen to have booby trapped it so that using it anywhere else wiped both the drive and the computer it was plugged into.

It was Marmora level paranoia, and Krolia approved. But she still needed to know what was there.

The weakness had to be that Colleen was restricted to using Garrison equipment, and Garrison servers. And the Garrison’s idea of security wasn’t as thorough as Colleen’s. Which meant there was a passcode, and not – for example – biometric scans paired with a voice print recorder requiring a specific phrase.

Brute force it had to be, then. It would take time – vargas, likely, since Colleen had to have known this weakness was there and set her code such that this approach would at least buy her time – but it would get Krolia in. She set her program running.

Adam was watching her from the doorway. Krolia glanced at Cosmo, but the wolf seemed unconcerned. Not spying, then. She trusted the wolf’s judgment.

He noticed her watching him. “You’re very familiar with Earth electronics,” he said mildly.

“I’ve been here before,” she reminded him. “And compared to galra systems, your electronics are not very complex.”

“So...if you’re part of a good faction of galra,” said Adam slowly, “And we’re so primitive, why didn’t you send any forces to help us out?”

Krolia blinked at him. “You have Voltron helping you,” she said.

“Five people, and some animal shaped robots,” said Adam.

There was a moment where Krolia visibly dialed down her internal assumption of Adam’s level of Clue. “Those ‘five people and animal shaped robots’ have liberated worlds that entire fleets of my people’s ships held captive,” she said patiently. “Did Ryou not tell you this?”

Adam shrugged. “I guess I’m still seeing my ex and a bunch of delinquent cadets,” he said, though without particular judgment. “You’re hacking Garrison systems. Colleen didn’t give you a passcode?”

“How would she have done so?” asked Krolia honestly. “Our only means of communication was over an insecure line. She was shot before she could provide it.” She waved a hand. “I have no interest in Garrison intelligence – only in the question I asked her to research.”

“Keith’s family,” Adam guessed.

Now he had Krolia’s narrow-eyed full attention. “Did she speak to you about it?”

“Not really,” said Adam. “But there isn’t a lot else you could have asked her to do, that she’d have been willing to do, considering she never met you face to face. Are you sure this is a good time for that information?”

“It is difficult to turn someone you did not know existed into a viable hostage,” said Krolia. “Unless humans think differently about such matters?”

Adam’s lips pursed. “I don’t know this Keith with Voltron,” he admitted. “When I knew him he was still a cadet. The Keith I knew? Would have blown up bank vaults for that information.”

Krolia was still studying him. “You do not like him.”

She said it calmly, neutrally, as if just making an observation. Adam still heard the warning. He had courage enough not to back down, though. “Not really, no. He was always Taka – Shiro’s - pet project. I never saw the appeal, personally. Kid steals his car the day they met, constantly getting into fights, disobeying orders...Shiro went to bat for him over and over and I never got the impression Keith actually appreciated how much risk he put Shiro to. And it was mutual, like they’d just bring out the arrogant hubris in each other. It doesn’t seem to have changed.”

Krolia listened, as if measuring every word and measuring Adam by them. “I see,” she said. “And others, they agree with your assessment?”

“Some do,” said Adam. “Ryou didn’t, but he wouldn’t, would he? As Shiro’s clone?”

“Clones are close copies,” said Krolia. “Rarely exact matches. Most of the situations where one would employ a clone require a few key differences from the original.”

The console in front of Krolia beeped. The crack had worked; she was in Colleen’s files. Krolia did her the courtesy of only looking at those files marked ‘Krolia Research’. Adam walked over to take a look – and found Krolia’s hand on his chest. She didn’t seem to be making an effort, but she utterly stopped any forward motion on his part.

“Don’t trust me?” Adam asked.

“There are factions among galra,” said Krolia. “There are factions among humans. Possibly, we are not enemies. But we are not friends.”

Adam snorted. “I don’t have any particular love for your son,” he admitted. “And I’m a little inclined toward giving my ex a punch. That doesn’t mean we’re on opposite sides.”

“I didn’t say we were,” Krolia pointed out. “But we are not friends. And my son deserves to see this before you do.” And this time, the warning was crystal clear. If he pushed it, he would make himself an enemy, and she would act accordingly.

Adam backed up, shaking his head. “We are at war,” he said. “I don’t know if now’s the best time for personal journeys of discovery.” He noted Krolia’s expression. “...Keith used to look exactly like that. I know what it means.” From his reaction it seemed he thought it meant ‘stay out of reach or get punched’.

“Good,” said Krolia. She copied the relevant files to her wrist computer, removed the hack connection, and restored Colleen’s security measures. Whatever the causes of Colleen’s mistrust – and Krolia could think of several, possibly in conjunction – the galra agreed with it.

Adam coughed. “So. You...have to realize that you’re going to need an escort. This is all...high security, this whole complex.”

“And you are one of three that manage it,” Krolia replied blandly. “You are volunteering, then.”

Adam looked pained. In truth he hadn’t meant to volunteer. But she was right, in his company the barriers would disappear. The thing was, he didn’t really trust Keith – and this woman reminded him a lot of Keith. “You’re going to want to study those files, right?” he asked. “I can provide quarters...”

“You are going to finish that sentence with, ‘but not security’,” Krolia observed. “I will stay with the Lions.”

On cue, the big blue-and-black wolf appeared – taking up most of the remaining available space – and Krolia set a hand on its ruff. The pair disappeared in a swirl of blue motes.

Adam sighed. Security nightmare, this.

~*~

Cosmo took Krolia to Red’s belly. It seemed the safest place to be, and presumably the Red Lion didn’t mind her presence as long as she stayed out of the cockpit.

“Thank you,” she said to the wolf tiredly, offering a hand to rub his jaw. She couldn’t understand him, but she knew intelligent eyes when she saw them. “Are you curious as well, then? Shall I tell you what is here?”

That got her petting hand a lick, which Krolia took to mean ‘yes, please’. The way the wolf got comfortable and watched her suggested rapt attention. She looked around. Clearly, her son and Shiro would stay here – not that she was entirely sure where ‘here’ was, just at the moment. That was the downside of being teleported; no sense of distance covered. Still, she was unlikely to be ambushed by anyone other than her son here. She sat on the mattress, and activated her gauntlet computer, opening the files.

“Keith’s father was a good person,” she said. “Brave. Sacrificial. I couldn’t really be part of his social life, of course. My shifting isn’t that good. I could answer the door once or twice, that was all.” She flicked through the files. Her mate had done ...fairly well, it seemed, creating a paper trail for their son that had little to do with reality. At least, for the few years she’d been here. A birth certificate for a hospital he hadn’t been born in, an attending physician conveniently dead. Immunization records that didn’t really apply when dealing with galra biology. Colleen had found it all – and had done quite a good job spotting the fakes, too, judging by the flags on some files. “He lived alone, until I arrived,” she said. “I got the impression that he had a large family, but that he preferred to live on the edges of it. He didn’t tell me why, and I didn’t ask. I didn’t know enough about humans to make any kind of distinction. I know better now.”

Cosmo padded over to her to put his big furry head in her lap. Comfort? Reassurance? Welcome, either way.

Colleen had found a lot more than she’d bargained on. Krolia frowned, reading. “Listen to this,” she told the wolf. “The fire that killed him was not an accident – or rather, the fire was an accident, but his death was not. Apparently there were elements in the Garrison that had noted my ship’s arrival, but were unable to find me – or my ship – because we’d hidden it, and I stayed indoors during the days. But he needed to give Keith a paper trail so that Keith could go to school with other children his age. And the documents he had forged weren’t forged well enough; the Garrison flagged them, and Keith and my mate were put under surveillance.”

Cosmo’s ears perked forward, lip curling just a bit to reveal fang. His eyes were locked on Krolia. “I agree,” she told the wolf, continuing to read. “Colleen wasn’t sure who it was that flagged the files, or ordered the surveillance. She seems certain it wasn’t Iverson or Adam. She hadn’t decided if a ‘Sanda’ was responsible yet. So that’s worth investigating. Thanks to Ryou and her marriage to Sam, Colleen had access to otherwise restricted files at the Garrison. She uncovered orders that...my mate be ‘removed’ and Keith ‘acquired’.” She studied the dates. “My son would have been...six decaphoebs at most when that order came down. But it does not appear to have gone according to plan. Keith wasn’t taken in by the Garrison….” Frowning, Krolia kept scanning the files. Why hadn’t the Garrison taken him in? She knew where Keith had ended up. Over and over. Lost in the system. What had happened? “I can’t find an answer in this. Colleen hadn’t finished her research, it seems. But she did note that the Garrison acted deliberately to remove Keith from his father’s kin, by sending him to...oh, I recognize that name. He was always angry – sorry, my mate was always angry at him. A brother, I think. Prone to crafting illegal consumables. My mate would mention him as a reason he didn’t live near a lot of his family – didn’t want to be drawn into the troubles his brother caused.” She paused. “Which...hurt him. I think. Normally they would work as family, I think...he never really did explain, and galra do not really run extended families. I didn’t think to question it at the time. But essentially, the Garrison agents saw to it Keith was placed with the least suitable member of his family, specifically so that when his family failed to provide a good environment, the Garrison would have full recourse in taking over. Except that’s where Colleen’s research fails, as they succeeded in putting Keith into the child-care system, but did not then exert any influence over ...anything that she has thus far been able to find. It seems the Garrison lost track of him entirely, until Shiro brought him in as a candidate.”

Cosmo tilted his head at Krolia, questioning. She could only shake hers. “I don’t understand either,” she admitted. “I wish I could discuss this with her. Or Keith. I do not want to bring this up to him until I have something useful, something that won’t hurt.” She flicked through the files some more. “...Ah. This is useful. At least to start.” She squinted at the text. “Window Rock, Arizona.” She tapped some keys, getting a set of coordinates, which she showed to Cosmo. “Will you take us there?”

The answer was evidently yes; Cosmo got to his feet, nudged her hand with his big furry head, and they disappeared from Red’s belly in a shower of blue motes.

~*~

“You are moping,” said Ezor. “Lotor’s the Emperor. He’s fine with us. Sendak’s gone, Haggar’s gone, we have the Sincline and a blank check to use it on Sendak’s remaining forces, and you are moping.”

Acxa gave Ezor her blandest, most neutral expression. “I do not mope.”

“Except right now you totally are,” said Ezor, grinning. “You think I can’t see it but I do. Is it because the halfbreed’s gone away? Ooo! Or is it Lotor you’re moping over? I bet it’s Lotor.”

Acxa had a lot of experience in not grabbing Ezor by the tentacle and swinging her in circles by it. A commander had to have more dignity than that, more control. But sometimes, patience wore thin. “Why would I be moping about the Emperor, Ezor?”

“Because he’s mooning over that altean princess and not you,” said Ezor with a sly grin. “Y’know, I don’t think he’s ever noticed how you look at him.”

“He is my liege-lord, commander, and Emperor,” said Axca calmly. “He’s not supposed to notice.”

“But the pretty, long haired halfbreed might,” said Ezor. “If he weren’t completely bound to the Champion. Have you ever noticed your love life kind of sucks?”

“That’s what I have you here for, Ezor,” said Acxa with ironclad calm. “You seem to have a remarkable amount of free time. Clearly you would like me to fix that.”

“I would, actually,” Ezor agreed, more seriously. “I mean stomping the Fire of Purification out with the Sincline is awesome and I love it. But I’d rather be kicking Sendak.”

Acxa blinked. “You want to join the paladins,” she said. “But we would leave Lotor defenseless.”

“We would not,” Ezor snapped. “Sincline can warp through the quintessence field. I know, it’s risky if we do it too much, but we could be all the way out there or all the way back here at a moment’s notice if we were really needed. Lotor doesn’t need us cleaning up Sendak’s leftovers. The fleet can handle that just fine, and the rebels with their second hand ships. Voltron goes where the challenge is. I want to go where the challenge is.”

“Are you sure you don’t just want to go where the Blue Paladin is?” asked Acxa.

Ezor had the grace and intelligence to look briefly spooked. “I won’t say he’s not adorable, but no,” she answered firmly. “He’s just fun to torture. If Zethrid even got the vague impression of a hint it was serious, it’d take both of us and Lotor to stop her killing him. I like my fun, you know that, but that wouldn’t be fun.”

Acxa just nodded. That would not be fun, no. It would be a nightmare. Though she privately suspected Lance would win a real fight. Ezor tended to think of things as games for a few beats too long. Lance had already proven he didn’t think of things as games at all. His reflexes would, therefore, be faster and more deadly.

“I mean it though,” said Ezor. “We should go. We should hunt Sendak down, bring him back in chains, maybe shave him hairless and hang him somewhere public and upside down. He stood against the Emperor. And we let him run away. That’s not a good look.”

“Lotor’s fleet is much diminished,” said Acxa. “The conversion process is slow, and he lost a lot of the finished cruisers to Sendak’s forces. We have to stay here. Lotor needs us to defend central command, and finish off Sendak’s strongholds. We haven’t tested Sincline’s teleportation powers, or their effects, and we’ve been warned that we can’t afford some of the consequences. We cannot take the Sincline on what amounts to a personal jaunt.” At Ezor’s frustrated, disappointed look, she sighed. “I’m sorry, Ezor. Until we’ve had time to replenish our losses...we just can’t chase after Sendak.”

Ezor eyed Acxa thoughtfully. “No...Sincline can’t chase after Sendak. And doesn’t need to anyway because Voltron’s already gone. But we could go. You, and me, and Zethrid. We could go. We’ve worked for Haggar, we’ve worked with Sendak. We could help catch him. Personal imperial bounty hunting squad? Sendak’s giving a bunch of new people a bad impression of Lotor’s empire. We should fix that.”

“You are really bored,” Acxa replied, much to Ezor’s frustration. Acxa raised a hand before Ezor started literally hopping. “I’ll ask. Lotor has the Blade of Marmora to protect him now. A few more Blades can probably pilot the Sincline for him too, if he’s willing to allow that. But Ezor, if he says no, then we must remain here. At our posts. And finish our duty. Understood?”

“Thanks,” said Ezor, relieved. “No really, thanks. I know he might not understand.”

Acxa thought about it. She might have a few angles that would have Lotor appreciating the chance to send...trusted eyes to see the human homeworld. But she didn’t want to make promises she might not be able to keep. So she only said, “I promise to do my best, as you do the same.”

~*~

The sun rose and shone through Black’s eyes into the cargo area of its belly. Shiro stirred slowly, his grip on sleep reluctant to release, but the rising sun was persistent.

He opened his eyes to find Keith already awake, on his side, watching him with a little smile.

“Morning, starshine,” said Shiro.

Keith blinked in genuine surprise.

“You did say to think of something unique,” Shiro pointed out, and leaned in to kiss Keith’s nose. “You remember, I think.”

“The night before the Kerberos launch,” said Keith. “I remember.” He rolled across Shiro’s chest and it was rather further into morning before either of them bothered with sentences again.

When they did get themselves sorted, and dressed, and outside, the other three paladins were also awake. None of them looked happy, but – while undeniably more grim – none looked as desperately crazed as they had the night before, either.

“What’s the plan?” asked Pidge, in a flat tone that suggested there’d better be one.

Shiro nodded to that unspoken statement. “Lance, you need to coordinate with your sister. Fill her in, and see what she is and isn’t willing to do. Some of what we’re going to need won’t be in the standard rules and regs. They’ll expect us to go off script and they’ll be watching for it. Veronica, maybe not so much. Pidge, you and Hunk have two jobs. First is – get that comm station up, running, and encrypted properly. We may need to call for help – numbers, or brains, either way. Once that comm station’s running we need to find a way to detect Sendak’s fleet.”

Both Pidge and Hunk turned their attention to Keith, currently standing just behind Shiro’s left elbow. Keith said, “I already told Hunk – whatever you two need, I’ll do. Guinea pig standing ready.”

“But what if they’re not with the fleet?” asked Lance. “Our families. What if they’re somewhere else?”

“Even if they’re somewhere else,” said Shiro, “the information on where to look will be with the fleet. Sendak wanted them alive, and he wanted them taken before we could catch them. He wouldn’t have been so sneaky about it just to kill them, so he wants them for something. That means it’s definite that his ships will have records of where they’re at. But first we have to find those ships.”

“...We couldn’t save Cuba,” said Hunk sadly. “The Garrison’s not gonna think much of us.”

“I don’t care,” said Shiro. “We didn’t become Paladins so Earth could throw us parades.” When pretty much everyone looked at Lance, Shiro snapped, “I know what he said. He knows what he said. And it doesn’t mean anything now, now does it.”

“No,” Lance admitted, looking at the ground, but with a thunderous expression. “My home is in the char. My families’ homes are in the char. Sendak burned my house down. My parents’ house, my grandparents’ house, my brother’s house, and he’s killed all my old friends. They didn’t live in Havana. They’re gone. Their homes are gone. I don’t care if the Garrison wants to throw me in prison. When we find Sendak I’m going to shoot him.”

Hunk looked skyward, his expression thoughtful. “Yeah,” he said in a soft tone. “Sendak’s got my family somewhere. All my old friends. If the Garrison doesn’t want to help me get them back...I guess that’s the Garrison’s problem.”

Pidge nodded. “We’ll do this. We’ve done this for a hundred planets. We can do this again. Sendak’s made it personal, but that just makes it easier, not harder.”

Keith gave Shiro a look that said ‘that’s because she’s not thinking it through’. Shiro answered with a small, ‘definitely not now’ gesture. For now the main thing was continuing to move forward. To get the work done. Take the steps that would reveal options. They could face the reality of Sendak’s hostage-set when they were in a better position to do something about it.

Hunk nodded to Pidge. “Comm station. Then we strip him of his magic invisibility.”

Keith looked at Lance. “Your sister gonna be okay?”

Lance, for just a moment, looked like he might clock Keith in the teeth. “No, she’s not gonna be okay. She’s probably already got the news about what happened to most of Cuba.”

Shiro, very calmly, just said, “Lance.”

It...mostly worked. Lance at least un-bristled a bit, and shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell her. She was right. Something was wrong. So ...Mom, and everyone, have been missing since at least the day before yesterday.”

Hunk blinked. Counted on his fingers. “That...” For a moment he almost looked crushed. “They had to have taken everyone right after we left, Lance. Right after we took off for the Garrison, the morning -” the morning Pidge’s parents were shot.

Keith nodded thoughtfully. “A timed, coordinated attack,” he mused. “They made sure we couldn’t stop them. That we wouldn’t even think to.”

“So shooting my parents was the distraction for all this?” Pidge demanded.

“No,” Shiro interjected. “It was part of the whole. Sam and Colleen were spearheading the defenses. And Sam’s been a prisoner before. Sendak couldn’t take the risk of those two starting escape plans or leading a revolt – unlike everyone else, your family knows how galra camps work. So while everyone else was captured, your family’s...just too big a risk for that.”

The glint in Pidge’s eye would frighten anyone targeted by it; the paladins could see it and were unanimously relieved to not be that target. “Damn right we are,” she growled.

“I won’t be much help to Pidge or Hunk,” said Shiro. “Lance, if you need Keith or me, we’ll be free at least until they need Keith for camouflage testing.”

“Veronica’s gonna need our help,” said Lance flatly. “Just make sure she’s got it.” He looked up at the clear, bright blue morning sky. And the ships hiding beyond it. Invisible, out of reach.

“We’ll do all we can,” said Shiro.

“I may have some ideas,” said Keith.

~*~

Haggar sat in a large, not-particularly-thronelike chair, and listened.

Humans were a horrifically primitive species. But they had potential. Haggar listened to the minds of her new, formerly-human druids, watched through their eyes as they returned to their jobs and their lives, cover stories in place to cover their absences.

One was some sort of media person – the titles were supremely uninteresting to Haggar, just the work. This one chose which stories, which news events, their television station would cover and what stance would be taken. There were surprising limits on this, from higher up the authority ladder, but those were no longer of any concern to the druid. He had the power, now, to enthrall his superiors to make sure Haggar’s instructions were followed. The ‘Cuba Defense’ stories were top of the pile; as Haggar desired, the new druid made certain the paladins were blamed for drawing the attention of the galra, putting thousands of lives in danger. Cameraphone footage of Lance screaming at people just before the attack was cleaned, edited, and added in. It would be part of the afternoon broadcast.

One was a maintenance worker of some sort. Of the most menial, he passed without much comment or notice into secure areas, his heightened Druid senses telling Haggar much about the security measures he passed through.

Nuclear fission. A faintly satisfied smile crossed Haggar’s lips as she sifted through the druid’s thoughts. The shields that had protected Havana were powered by nuclear fission. This new druid had access to a nuclear power plant. The city it would protect...Austin, Texas.

Protecting the cities. Magnificent. And possibly useful. Cities had a lot of people, but not a lot of food. They had to import the food, bring it in from the rural areas. The humans had not had time to make a seamless shield that protected everything.

Haggar’s thoughts flickered to the druids that had come with her. She would need more human-druids. More human puppets. The particle barriers protected cities? She would place druids in the cities. And when the humans were starving, their fields razed and their animals slaughtered, Haggar’s druids could bring down the barriers and let Sendak finish them off, if he still wanted to do so.

No need to rush. For now, the main thing was acquiring the leverage.

Such thoughts were...habitual, for Haggar. Ten thousand years of service to her Emperor, only in the last few remembering why. But her husband Zarkon was dead beyond even her ability to revive him, and ten thousand years of amnesia meant Lotor wanted nothing to do with her. Sendak was a reasonable representative for what was left of what Zarkon had built, but.

Haggar walked along the empty streets of what might have been a ghost town, but bore signs of also being a repeatedly-abandoned movie set. Considered what she’d seen, was still seeing, in the minds of these humans.

Sendak was not going to win. At best a Pyrrhic victory, hurting the paladins enough that they abandoned Voltron afterward. But Sendak would not rise from this to be a new Emperor. And Haggar had to consider...what would be the next step. What was existence, without the Empire? Without her husband, her son?

Did she want to find a new Empire to serve? Something else?

Quintessence.

There was that, yes. She controlled all the others, but she was a druid too. She, too, needed to feed.

Haggar considered her son’s work with the colony of alteans. The facilities in ruins, but their purpose understandable enough.

There were...such a lot of humans. And they did seem to have a great deal of potential. Five of them had taken down an Empire of ten thousand years. Granted they’d been given access to superlative tools, but still.

Billions of humans. And now a few slave colonies as well. Humans quick to master new technologies. Humans quick to break under the right conditions.

It wasn’t an end game. But it would serve quite well until Haggar had decided on an endgame.

Chapter Text

Five Lions touched down in formation on Garrison grounds. The Black Lion’s head dipped, jaw opening to let Shiro walk out to meet the gathered officers. The other four Lions waited with metallic patience.

“Where were you?” asked Adam. “We’ve already sent salvage crews to Cuba. And relief efforts. What happened?”

Shiro gave Adam a level look, and directed his reply to Iverson, standing next to Adam. “Lance went to check on his family. They were gone, as was everyone in an apartment building a brother lived in, and everyone in the nearby area to the rest of his family. He tried to warn people of impending danger when the attack began; he called us, and stayed to fight until the galra were driven back. We checked on Hunk’s family after that – the same thing, only this time they’d taken everyone on his home island.” Then he turned to face Adam. “My team’s been through a lot in the past few years, but given two of them now have no idea where any member of their family is, or if they live, I gave them a night to adjust to the situation before coming back here.”

“If it were anyone else,” said Adam, “we’d take them out of their ships and put in relief pilots.”

“If they weren’t flying Lions, I might agree with you,” said Shiro. “But they are. You’re going to have to accept that that’s the reality.”

Iverson looked at them, one and then the other. “If you two are gonna have some kind of lover’s spat, do it somewhere the fuck else,” he grumbled. “We’ve just lost ninety percent of a country to an enemy we can’t touch.”

“We’re going to change that,” said Shiro. “Starting with communications. Pidge and Hunk want to get that comms crystal in place, with encryption, as soon as possible. We do have friends out there, commander. They’re recovering from a lot of hits, but unlike Earth, they can devote entire planets worth of resources to rebuilding their defenses. We just need to make sure we can reach them.”

Adam mused, “That’s two. What are your other two going to do?”

“That’s up to you,” said Shiro. “If Pidge and Hunk get to work, how great are the odds of someone interfering with them while they try to get things done?”

Iverson winced. “Not...great,” he admitted. “While you five were off having your teddy bear time, the global media’s had a field day blaming you all for what happened in Cuba. Blaming Lance, specifically. There’s footage of him yelling at people like he’s lost his mind, right before the attack started. Your Lions are huge, Shirogane. Anyone in the world can track them. There’s going to be a media firestorm now you’ve resurfaced, and this will be ground zero.”

“Then I’ll field that,” said Shiro. “Keith and Lance can focus on protecting Pidge and Hunk.”

Adam almost smiled. “Guessing Keith still isn’t media friendly.”

Shiro did not see the humor in it. “We’ve dealt with worse crowds,” he said calmly. “But his reputation here seems to still leave something to be desired.” He turned to the Lions and gestured to them to come out.

They did.

If it startled Adam, or Iverson, to see all of them looking as calmly grim as Keith, the only sign given was a standard military poker face.

“You want to update the comm system,” said Adam, and both Pidge and Hunk gave him their attention. “This way.” They followed him.

Iverson took in the sight of a Lance with no smiles to offer. “...Veronica’s at her post,” he said gruffly. “Do what you need to do.”

Lance set off. Keith looked toward Shiro, a moment of silent communication that was probably I’ll look after him, and then Keith set off after Lance.

Just Shiro left, and the five silent Lions.

Adam exhaled. “...I see,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Shiro. “Worse last night. Trust me, Sendak now has their full attention.”

“Well. The rest of the world is more interested in you,” said Adam. “We’ll show you what’s been said so you can get your answers ready, and then ...call the press corps.”

~*~

“Why are we with the salvagers?” asked Rizavi. “We should be patrolling up high, not down here.”

Griffin carefully picked over the remains of a galra fighter. “Nothing to fight,” he said. “And we know what an intact galra crystal looks like. Need to find as many as we can – and usable fragments.”

Kinkade was doing dual duty – scavenging, and documenting the fight zone. The galra had left nothing alive, the remains of fighters on top of buildings that had been rubble even before the fighters had landed on them. Griffin hoped Leifsdotter could pull some kind of useful analysis from it later.

Rizavi sighed and got back to work. “I know that was always the plan,” she said sadly. “That our weapons can’t fight them. But it never really...sunk in, before now, just ...how much damage the galra can do. I mean – people lived here. Lots of people. I can’t even find a cat.”

“Just remember the dome over Havana worked,” said Griffin. He was having Issues contemplating the sheer scale of the devastation, too. “This is what Admiral Ryou was afraid of – the whole planet ending up like this. But we’ve got the domes. The MFEs. And we’ll turn the galra’s own weapons against them.”

“The domes don’t protect everything,” said Rizavi quietly. A gesture took in the rubble – the uniformly flat rubble, extending as far as the eye could see. “This took just the minutes from the alert to us arriving here.”

~*~

Keith stayed a polite distance back as Lance approached his sister. Veronica worked in an open room, with several associates. Veronica already knew a lot of the bad news, of course. Footage of Cuba’s devastation was on practically every news station. But that wasn’t the same as hearing it from someone who’d been there. From family. Keith quickly scouted out an empty conference room, and when Lance got the initial hug out of the way, signaled the two over to it. They could talk privately there. Cry privately there. Once they were inside, Keith closed the door and stood outside it.

For a little bit, everyone stared at him, at the door. Natural gossips, looking for news. Then Veronica’s coworkers got back to work, realizing there wasn’t going to be anything to see.

Keith’s ears were good. Lance and Veronica had a lot to say to each other. Veronica hadn’t seen the empty buildings. Hadn’t known that her family wasn’t dead – at least, not dead yet.

A small group of three or so officers walked too casually up to Keith. They were all bigger than him. “Hey,” said one. “You’re needed.”

Keith tilted his head slightly, to indicate he’d heard, but didn’t budge. He didn’t know these three, and they hadn’t explained the situation. And there was an air about them that he recognized. They might be adults, but they were schoolyard bullies on the inside.

“You’re needed,” said another of the three, gesturing Keith to come with them.

“For what?” Keith asked bluntly. “By who?”

“Does it matter?” demanded the third. “Orders. Come on.”

“No.” Honestly, it took self control not to smile. Keith was still feeling out his day to day reality, but he’d been expecting something like this pretty much since landing. Namely, for someone to decide he wasn’t a fit pilot for Red.

The first attempt didn’t look like much. A simple ‘no’ seemed to bother them.

“You wanna get written up for insubordination?” snapped the second man.

“I’m not a cadet,” said Keith calmly. “I’m not a Garrison officer. I’m a paladin of Voltron.”

“You’re subject to Garrison authority while you’re here,” said the first man flatly. “Now get moving.”

“You’re drawing an audience,” said Keith. Really it was taking a lot of effort not to laugh, or grin. And the three men were getting an audience. Everyone in the area, except for Lance and Veronica.

“No, you are,” said the third man. “You’re the one bucking orders.”

The urge to smile faded. Keith could see the third man was holding a taser in his pocket, the outline just visible. That could be a threat. Knock him out discreetly, carry him off ‘for medical attention’. Yeah...no. He met the third man’s eyes. He knew that Keith knew. But the three men were each bigger than Keith; he seemed confident he could use the taser without it being seen by the rest of the people around.

It really felt...very schoolyard. But maybe you had to get through the schoolyard attempts to get to the serious ones. The real danger would be Lance and Veronica finishing catching up and then getting hit with this bullshit while both of them were emotionally raw. Someone could get badly hurt, and no one needed that.

Well. Maybe these three yahoos did, but nobody else.

“Whose orders?” asked Keith innocently.

He’d gotten the tone right. Out came the taser, shielded from general view by the third man’s body, and all three closed in. Keith shapeshifted just a little bit. Just enough to turn fingernails to claws – and sank them into the third man’s taser-holding wrist, holding on with an iron grip.

They didn’t know galra had claws. They also didn’t know galra were, on average, a lot stronger than humans. Keith twisted the man’s wrist around, and made him taser himself. The taser itself, he pocketed. The other two men quickly moved to pick up their now-unconscious comrade.

“He doesn’t look well,” said Keith with false but convincing concern, pitching his voice to carry. “You should get him to the medics.”

Not that they really had any choice. If they attacked openly the gossip would be flying – and there was always the chance of Lance and Veronica opening the door and joining in. They couldn’t even ask for the taser back. All they could do was try to hide their anger and carry their comrade away.

It wasn’t exactly hidden. Keith returned to his guard-esque post and noticed frowns, concerned looks around the room. But nobody was daring enough to ask questions.

Good enough, Keith decided.

A few minutes later the conference room door opened. Lance and Veronica both looked like they’d been crying, and had taken the time to clean up as best they could before opening the door.

Keith gave Lance a little nod, but said nothing. There really wasn’t anything to say.

Veronica walked away from them, back to her station. Lance gestured to Keith to lead the way out, which he did. Only when they were outside the building, in the warm sun, did Lance say, “You didn’t have to stand guard or anything.”

Keith slanted a look at him, judging whether Lance had noticed the three men or not. He decided on ‘not’, and that Lance was talking about being separate, not actual danger estimates. So he said, “You and your sister deserved to have some private time to talk.”

Lance tried to smile. It failed miserably, but he tried. “She’s gonna keep an eye out for trouble. And for anything that might point us at ...anything that might help. I told her I’ll get Pidge to give her a personal alert. Something that’ll tell the Lions she’s in trouble, that’s small enough to hide. Figured that wouldn’t be hard for Pidge.”

“No, it wouldn’t be,” Keith agreed quietly. “So. What now?”

“V said the MFE pilots are heading up salvage ops in Cuba now,” said Lance, in the slightly distant tone of someone trying not to think too hard about the words coming out of his mouth. “We could go and help, I guess. Until Pidge and Hunk need us.”

“They need us,” said Keith firmly.

Lance blinked at him. “They who? Pidge and Hunk, or the pilots?”

“Pidge and Hunk,” said Keith, thinking of the three men and their sourceless orders. He paused, thinking hard. “And me.”

Lance gave him a yeah, right look. “What do you need help with? Shiro’s here.” He stopped. “...Oh. Your mom. Nevermind.”

“No,” said Keith. “Cosmo’s with Mom. She’s fine. He’ll come get me if I turn out to be wrong. But I think I may need backup.”

Lance frowned. Visibly kicked his brain into this different gear. “...You think there really will be people coming after you?”

“Yes,” said Keith, and decided not to tell Lance it had already started. “I can ...probably… fight them off. But my reputation isn’t the best. Witnesses and backup are kind of...a good idea.”

Lance snorted at mention of Keith’s reputation. “Damn right your reputation’s not the best. Iverson used to use you as his favorite cautionary tale. Toe the line, or end up like Keith.” There was a pause as his ears kicked his brain with what his mouth was saying. “...Shit. You’re right, you do need backup. Sure. I can do that. Sneaky, you figure?”

Keith nodded. He wasn’t making it up; the first attempt had been clumsy, but all three men had lived to walk away. That meant the next attempt would be stronger. And the one after that, stronger yet, until they either succeeded in taking him out, or the cost to try proved too prohibitive. Humans were a bloody minded species; they wouldn’t give up until they were clubbed over the head with the necessity. But choosing to tell Lance about it rather than Shiro...well. That was because Lance direly needed something to do, and at least the hope of venting some of his frustration at a worthy target.

Thankfully, Lance nodded. “It’ll give me something to focus on,” he said by way of agreement. “Okay. You guard Hunk and Pidge, and I’ll set up a sniper’s nest and keep an eye on you.”

~*~

Pidge and Hunk….worked.

It was a relief to both of them, really. Something that required their full attention and the use of their hands, required them to think ahead and think in tandem. And it was at least peripheral to the work they really wanted to get done. In Pidge’s case it was actually pretty directly needed; she wanted a secure line to Central Command so she could get updates on her parents, and to the coalition fleet so she could talk to Matt.

But the Garrison was in no way used to the two of them, or what they could do together. The Garrison thought of them as they’d been years before, two cadets that barfed in the gear box and sniped at the pilot. It didn’t help that the majority of the console they took apart turned out to be useless for what they wanted to do.

Hunk tossed down another circuitboard. “Nope. Not gonna work. Not with this lot.” He turned to one of the cadets who’d been assigned to assist. “Okay. You need to go and get...lessee. I need a metallurgist and a chemist.” He took the cadet’s tablet and started scribbling on it with a stylus. “Tell the metallurgist I need this one, and tell the chemist I need that one. I’ll deal with both of ‘em when they come storming in here to tell me they can’t do it, so don’t sweat that, okay?”

The cadet gave him a wary, ‘you sure you’re not on something’ look and ran off.

Pidge smiled briefly. “Yeah. We’ve been spoiled.”

“Your dad made this stuff talk to castleship level systems,” said Hunk gruffly. “But ‘talk’ is all it can do. No wonder we couldn’t get any range or encryption. We’re gonna have to go ground-up on this.” He started picking the boards back up, to reassemble the original console. “So. Basically. Where d’you want it?”

“Here’s good,” said Pidge, moving to lend a hand. “Might as well keep it all together.” She gave Hunk a sidelong look. “We’re gonna find them.”

“We’re gonna need to build the systems that could,” Hunk corrected. “And since we have to do that anyway, I want to multitask.”

Pidge set the outer switchboard in place. “...Okay, but how, exactly? They’re hidden with,” and here her word dripped with bitter venom, “magic.”

“Clarke’s Law,” said Hunk. “Alteans call it magic but I think that’s just a mental division.” He set about making sure the console worked again. Might as well retain the open system they’d had, while working on the new, since the one couldn’t be used to build the other.

Pidge pursed her lips. “What’s the point of doing that, though?”

Not having a bunch of Haggars running around,” said Hunk shortly. “I mean think about it. This whole fucking mess starts because an Altean discovers an unlimited quintessence source, and completely forgets that she’s fucking around with life itself. It’s just a new energy source to her. Next thing you know we have ten thousand years of super strong space vampires.”

Pidge crossed her arms over her chest, which – while she didn’t notice – did have the effect of reminding a few cadets she had one. “So you figure ‘alchemy’ isn’t magic at all, then. Just a way of separating ‘screwing with life energy’ from ‘not screwing with life energy’?”

“Bingo,” said Hunk. He didn’t smile. He hadn’t smiled since the empty island. “The alteans knew they needed to keep it separate in people’s heads or you’d get a lot more Haggars. That’s what I think. So I think we can find those ships. It just means we need to understand more about quintessence.”

Pidge frowned at the console. “...Honerva’s research?” she asked carefully.

Hunk shook his head and absently pounded a corner into a locked position with one slammed fist. “Whatever she did, she’s moved on from it. And also we don’t need to turn Earth into a bunch of space vampires. Keith can sense this stuff. And we know about crystals. I’ve got a few of decent size – not battleship class, but decent. Enough that I think we can cobble a detection system if we can figure out the way to.”

Just then, two older officers came storming in, each waving a tablet. “Have you lost all grasp of basic physics?” snapped one. “How dare you send a cadet to tell me to do the impossible?”

Pidge gave Hunk an, ‘all yours’ look, and stepped back. She’d have her turn soon enough.

Hunk walked over to the officers. “Guys,” he said. “It’s not impossible, I just didn’t want to try translating via cadet. C’mere. This is how we’re gonna get this done.”

~*~

Adam wasn’t wrong.

With the Lions now back in civilization (more or less), it seemed the entire global press corps had questions, concerns, and demands. Shiro was shown the compiled cell phone footage of Lance trying to warn people right before the attack. Shiro was glad Keith had gone to keep an eye on Lance – he didn’t want to think about what Lance’s reaction to all these accusations would be. While Keith was with him, the only problem would be dealing with press angry that Keith got angry or physical with them – which was still a problem, but it was an entirely different problem and one Shiro had a lot more experience dealing with.

Shiro had fielded less-than-friendly press meetings before. Not just as Black Paladin, but in his pre-Kerberos days as well. He knew not to take it personally, even when the questions were deeply personal and more than a little antagonistic. And he knew, too, that right now he needed to keep his head and turn the ‘Shiro the Hero’ charm up to eleven. He’d heard about the Voltron Show tours, but ….in the end that was still alien cultures and alien worlds. This was their own species leveling accusations at them that could break their hearts.

This was total strangers asking in all seriousness, as if they knew what they were talking about, whether Lance bore any ill-will toward his family or his home country, and whether apparently anticipating the attack meant he could have stopped it, and why – if he could have stopped it – he didn’t. This was total strangers asking how long the team had known Keith was half galra, bringing up Keith’s school record, and disciplinary record (which a part of Shiro’s mind filed as ‘incredibly good investigative work – or a leak’) and whether the Paladins had ever considered Keith to be a galra spy, and if that were likely, and if not why not. This was total strangers asking if Pidge had been kidnapped and how alien species treated a minor and what was Pidge’s standing in the team given her size and age and the fact that her parents had recently both been shot, as if she were more likely to be emotionally unstable than anyone else under those circumstances.

And Shiro fielded all of it. He was strictly truthful, not always entirely honest, smiling the easy, gently heroic smile he’d perfected back when he still had two flesh and blood arms.

And, privately, increasingly worried. He had fielded more than a few press conferences before, and he knew the signs of reporters being fed questions. Being told to ask about certain things.

This wasn’t neutral. This wasn’t the understandable panic of people who had never really had to deal with straight up non-human aliens and now had aliens they couldn’t fight on their doorstep. This was beyond that. This was someone, somewhere, egging things on in a specific direction – that direction being blaming it all, all of it, on the Paladins.

For the moment Shiro knew he was immune to the attacks. Unlike all the others, he’d been a media golden boy before Kerberos. A genuine hero, brave explorer – he’d hated that kind of titling at the time but currently he had to be glad he hadn’t stopped it. It was the main thing protecting him; people remembered him as the hero, as someone who had risked his life to warn Earth. And, weirdly enough, as Ryou’s brother. All of it amounted to a kind of storehouse of ‘good reputation’ that an attack campaign would have to bypass or dismantle to make him vulnerable.

Shiro knew they would, though. It was as simple as someone figuring out – or, more likely, being told – that galra prosthetics connected directly to the brain. From there it wouldn’t take too long before people questioned whether Shiro could be influenced or controlled by that arm, and from there it was a teeny, tiny hop to ‘galra sleeper agent’. And the harsh truth was, that had genuinely been the original point – it was just that once the accusation was leveled, Shiro couldn’t counter it with testimony from an Olkari scientist saying ‘yeah but all better now’. These people didn’t know anything about the Olkari or their history or their skills. They’d just see Voltron being run by a possible galra spy and seconded by a half-galra delinquent.

At that point...Voltron would really need to leave Earth. Not abandon it, but…

Shiro fielded questions with apparent ease, easy smile never faltering, posture professional but friendly and relaxed. And let the back of his mind quietly work over contingencies.

~*~

Lance had found his sniper nest. A building across from the one Pidge and Hunk had taken over, where he had clear line of sight to most avenues of approach to the entrance Keith was guarding. Not perfect but more than serviceable, and the supply room door easily locked.

It was hard, at first. Lance was not in a mood or state where ‘sit still and focus on the field’ was anywhere near easy. The empty houses, the empty apartment building – the streets under galra fire, fighting alone against a cruiser’s worth of ships – knowing all the time it was home down there, every building every family down there part of home and he wasn’t able to stop it from being burned. The images, the sounds, the smells kept replaying themselves over and over even as he tried to make them back off.

Keith was a lot of things, but he didn’t ask for help casually or lightly. He’d asked Lance to watch his position and that meant Keith was expecting trouble and needed the backup. It wasn’t much of a weapon against the images, the twitching need to go back there and...do something, but it was all Lance had and he tried. He tried.

It got ever so much easier though, when the trouble Keith had predicted started showing up.

People came and went all the time in a place like the Garrison. Twos and threes weren’t uncommon, people chatting as they walked to and from the various buildings. If it weren’t for the uniforms and the occasional weapon you could sometimes mistake it for a college campus. But fours and fives were atypical. And three different groups that large, all ‘randomly’ approaching Keith’s position at about the same time was reaching lottery levels of ‘odds against random chance’.

Lance adjusted his rifle to silent fire, heavy stun, and watched down his scope. At last, a real distraction from all the shit he couldn’t do squat about.

Down below, Keith also noticed the approaching groups. Yes. They had upped their game. While Shiro was busy with the press, and Hunk and Pidge were busy with their work. He didn’t doubt that security cameras were currently not recording; there was, after all, no way to say this many people had just ‘happened by’.

I see them,” said Lance’s voice in Keith’s ear. “Looks like maybe fifteen.”

“Wait until you see trouble, or lose sight of me,” Keith replied quietly. “Someone’ll probably try to raise an alarm, so we can’t let anyone get clear once it starts. Or this’ll just get worse.”

Eh?” asked Lance, but not as if he cared much. “Whatever. Right now I’ll take the target practice as a win.”

No knife. No bayard. There wouldn’t be enough room for control with this many opponents.

“You,” said one of the approaching soldiers, once he was close enough. “You were ordered to accompany duly recognized officials. There’s no getting out of it this time. Come quietly, or get dragged.”

Keith looked up at the man, not particularly surprised that whoever had organized this had apparently requested the services of the entire Southwest Garrison Weightlifting Team. He had, after all, easily overpowered the last attacker to come at him. It’d be stupid not to take that into account. “You never did say whose orders,” he pointed out. “And I’m still not under Garrison authority.”

Something about being quietly Reasonable at times like this always seemed to have the effect of starting a fight, and today was no different. Someone threw a punch at Keith. He ducked, threw one of his own, and the fight was on.

He was stronger, faster, and tougher than the average human, but Keith was still glad he’d asked Lance to be backup – this many, and this many very large, strong opponents, would have been too much. He couldn’t block all the punches, or all the kicks. But all that meant was he was totally allowed to cut loose and fight hard, and that was such a stress relief it was almost a shame to look around and just see...unconscious people.

And Lance jumping out of a high window, trusting his paladin armor to cushion his landing as his bayard disappeared.

“What the fuck is this about, anyway?” Lance demanded. “Fifteen bruisers? On Garrison property? What orders?”

Keith shook his head quickly, forcing the inner galra to shut the fuck up and pay attention. “Beats me,” he said. “Was just three of them this morning.”

“This -” Lance paused. “Wait. While V and I were -?”

Keith eyed the field of unconscious men, and bent to pick up one of the bruisers, hauling the body over his shoulder. “You had other shit to deal with,” he said matter of factly. “But I figured they’d be back. Thanks.”

“Now hold on,” said Lance. “I’m happy to be backup, but what’s this about?”

“Grab a body and let’s find that out,” was Keith’s suggestion. “Grab an officer if you can.” He headed inside, so Pidge and Hunk could join in later if they wanted.

~*~

Sendak drummed claws on the armrest of his chair, studying the images the druids showed him.

“Your orders, General?” rasped the druid.

And that was the trouble, wasn’t it? Sendak’s forces were getting restless. Only one cruiser had been engaged to take out the Blue Paladin’s home. The rest had had to stand back, watch, observe.

Nobody liked that. There was a battle brewing. Most of the soldiers wanted to get started on it.

“The dome,” said Sendak. “That protected the most populated part of the island.”

“Yes,” rasped the druid. “The High Priestess is placing agents. Does the General have a preferential target?”

Sendak’s lips curled, revealing his fangs. “Oh yes,” he said. He tapped one claw on a spot on the holographic image of Earth. “Take out the dome there.”

The druid, if it had a reaction, hid it behind the elongated mask they all wore. “Yes, General. I will convey your wishes to the High Priestess and inform you when a strike is possible.”

~*~

Krolia couldn’t shapeshift much, or for long. Thankfully most of the differences between galra and humans were easy to do, but it still took a great deal of concentration.

The first thing she did, therefore, was get her hands on clothes that suited the region. But with long sleeves, and long pants, and then a ‘sun hat and scarf’ combo with sunglasses. It didn’t cover all of her face, but it covered enough that she only had to focus on shapeshifting her face.

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected. Krolia had never really gotten the chance to see much of Earth, for a variety of reasons. Window Rock was not much like the Garrison, but she wasn’t sure that meant much. Humans weren’t as militaristic as galra.

She could read English, and write it. But not all of the signs or place names or shop names were in English. Perhaps she was near a border. Cosmo drew a lot of attention, padding along at Krolia’s side, but very few people have the fortitude to come up to a small-bear-sized wolf that isn’t currently bothering anyone and make demands, just in case it started bothering someone.

They did, however, make a lot of calls to the authorities. It wasn’t long before a man in his twenties, wearing a sort of uniform – it wasn’t Garrison, and that was all Krolia really knew to identify, but it was clearly some kind of uniform – approached Krolia. “Excuse me, ma’am, but are you responsible for this wolf?”

Krolia – half her focus on keeping her human skin tone – nevertheless noted that the uniformed man wasn’t implying ownership. She tested it. “Cosmo is responsible for himself,” she said. “If no one bothers him, he won’t hurt anyone.”

The uniformed man got a Look on his face that suggested this argument was some variation of one he’d had before. “There’s traffic and loud noises aplenty around here, ma’am. Those usually ‘bother’ wolves. We’d like to see no one getting hurt.”

Cosmo sat down, studying the man with – if Krolia was any judge – a kind of amusement. She chided the wolf, “Don’t start.” To the uniformed man, she said, “Then perhaps you can guide me. I am looking for the family of this man.”

She took out the only memento she’d kept of her time on Earth; a holocrystal with an image of her mate, hoisting a laughing little infant Keith up onto his shoulder, grinning proudly.

The officer studied it. “Don’t recognize him,” he said. “Do you have any information besides this?”

“A few names,” said Krolia. “This man ….died… several years ago. In a fire. He was...” she searched memory for the exact phrase. “A firefighter. Yes. Near the Southwest Garrison.”

Now the officer looked interested, but also rather confused. “That’s some way away from here, ma’am. There’s some reservation territory out that way, though – that why you’ve come?”

Krolia tucked the precious crystal away again. “Reservation?”

“...This is as close to a capital of the Navajo Nation as you get, ma’am,” said the officer, a bit dryly. “But if you didn’t know that, why’d you come here when the Garrison’s pretty far off east?”

Krolia considered. She wasn’t sure how much to tell this person – on the other hand, she badly needed a guide, and she could always kill him later if she needed to. He wanted her to get Cosmo out of town, and she wanted information that, quite possibly, he might be able to get more quickly than she could. She made a decision.

“I will go, with Cosmo, with you to a place of your choosing to discuss this,” she said. “If you in turn will assist me with finding the answers I seek.”

The officer stepped back. “Hey now,” he said. “I’m willing to be helpful, but -”

He stopped. Krolia’s shifting had slipped; the lower half of her face (all that was visible under the clothes) was now galra purple. The officer stepped right back, hand lowering to near his service weapon, but not touching it. “You’re one of those aliens attacking Earth,” he said – quietly, so as not to cause a panic. “You’re a galra.”

“I am a mother searching for the family of her son,” said Krolia, just as softly, but there was a growl of warning to it. Her skin paled again. She didn’t want to start a fight, but if she needed to kill to protect her cover, she would.

Something in her reply had hit a chord in the officer, though. He still looked spooked, but his hand withdrew from ‘grab your gun’ readiness. “...I...see,” he said quietly. “Follow me, ma’am. I don’t have the answers you’re looking for, but I think I know who might.”