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The Tides of Change

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"Regardless of what happened out on the battlefield, we still have defeated Zarkon.  Even...at the cost of a Paladin."

Allura's voice rang out on the command deck of the castle from her place at the control stage.  They hadn't even been warped away from the wreckage of Zarkon's command ship half a dooble when they discovered Shiro's lion was empty.  A variety of reactions occurred but all around the same emotion rang out across everyone's faces; the sense of loss.

"Don't you dare say he's gone!"  Keith stomped his foot on the floor angrily.  "There's no way he can possibly be gone!"

Allura's face frowned with sadness.  Keith's upset was understandable.  Heck, they all were upset, but Keith was taking harder than the others.

"Keith, I know Shiro was like a brother to you, but you may have to accept-"

"To hell with that!  Shiro is out there somewhere and yet we're here jacking around acting like he's already dead!"

"Keith calm down!"  Pidge stepped between Keith and Allura, their arms out.  "We don't know what happened to Shiro, but we're not acting like he's dead!"

Keith sighed and hung his head.  "Then what do you think happened to him?"

"The Black Lion is currently deactivated, but we've found signs of life coming from its cockpit."  Allura tapped a few buttons and several screens popped up.  They showed schematics of the Black Lion along with a pulsating scanner.

"Life?  Like wait, you mean there's someone in there?"  Hunk spoke up, slight confusion in his voice.  "But we all saw that the cockpit was empty."

Pidge adjusted their glasses and walked over where Allura was standing.  They pointed to the scanner.  "It's not like we can see it.  It's more like we're picking up the energy signature of life.  There's something there, we're just not sure what it is.  I'll have to do more scans of the Black Lion before I can pinpoint what these readings mean.  That'll take some time, so we shouldn't worry for now."

"Yes, it's pointless to fret over it.  Pidge and Coran will answers in no time I'm sure."

Lance had been silent for this entire conversation.  He stood leaning against his chair, arms crossed and a pensive look on his face.  Keith thought it was strange to see him in such deep thought.  He sighed and uncrossed his arms, shaking his head.

"Lance?"

"Hmm?  Oh, no it's nothing.  Come on guys, lighten up a little!  We just kicked the ever-living tar out of Zarkon!  That's gotta feel good to some extent, right?  I know I feel like a million bucks right now!

Everyone else smiled a little.  It was comforting to see the Lance was still his overly confident goofy self amidst the sadness.  However, Keith could hear a little forcefulness in his laugh.  Lance must be hurting just as bad.

"Keith."  Allura's voice caught his ear and his tore his gaze from Lance.

"Yeah?"

"Did Shiro say anything to you, anything at all, about who would lead Voltron in his stead?"

At that, Keith shifted uncomfortably.  He looked around the room, at each of the faces of his teammates, his friends, those who he had come to call family.  He squared his shoulders and looked Allura dead in the eyes.

"He did.  When we were all separated in the wormhole, Shiro said...that I should be the one to lead if he didn't make it out."

"WHAT?!"  Lance shouted so loudly both Hunk and Coran jumped.  "Dude, that's so unfair!"

Keith glared at Lance, taking small comfort at the feeling of familiar argument starting.  "Look, Shiro was seriously injured and I told him he was just delirious with pain and blood loss at saying that.  But Shiro seemed determined to convince me that's what he wanted."

Silence fell over the bridge as the news of Shiro choosing Keith to lead in his stead.  The silence was painful and Keith could feel side gazes on him.  He sighed and looked down at his boots, hands balled up and brow furrowed.

"I don't think Shiro made the right choice," he said finally, breaking the stillness.  "I'm not a leader."

"Shiro wouldn't have picked you if he didn't think you could lead, Keith."  Allura's tone was soft, as if trying to both comfort and convince Keith.  Keith just shook his head.

"I...I can't lead Voltron...I just can't."

"And why not?!"  Coran was the one who piped in this time.  "You've proven time and time again that you're a valuable asset to Team Voltron!"

"That's right, you pilot the most difficult to tame lion.  The Red Lion doesn't just let anyone bond with her."

Keith kept shaking his head.  "No, you guys, you don't understand.  I can't lead Voltron.  I might...I might end up like Zarkon."

He said the last bit very quietly, hoping no one would hear him, because he didn't want to admit it himself.  He was scared.  He was scared without having Shiro to confide in.  He was scared of his heritage.  Heck, he was scared of simply being rejected by the friends he had finally made.  Keith felt a sharp smack on the back of his head and the force cause him to totter forward a little.  He whipped around angrily to see Lance's hand outstretched and a glare on his face.

"Keith, no one freaking cares that you're part Galra.  You are not going to end up like Zarkon.  You are a whole hell of a lot better than that old prune.  I can't believe you, as my rival, are wallowing in such self pity!"

"No one asked you to make me your rival!"  Keith practically shouted at Lance, pissed off that this jackass was trying to make him feel better.  He was this close to punching Lance when Pidge pushed in between them.

"Knock it off, you guys.  You can squabble later.  Right now, we need to figure out what our next move is."

"Pidge is right.  With Zarkon either dead or seriously injured, his empire will be severely weakened.  They wouldn't be so unwise as to try and make a move when they're so heavily incapacitated.  His commanders will likely be figuring out who will lead in his place."  Allura tapped a few more buttons and the schematics of the Black Lion were replaced with several panels of Altean script. 

"The Castle of Lions is in need of severe repair, so we would do well to find a quiet planet where the Galran presence is minimal to dock and take time to recuperate.  Luckily, neither the engine crystal or the teledove plates were damaged.  Coran, what all will we need?"

Coran brushed his mustache, stroking his chin with his other hand.  "It's hard to say Princess, I won't know for sure until we dock and I can take some full service scans.  I do know that our particle shield is more or less out of commission, so that leaves us very vulnerable to more damage should we be attacked.  Our communication system also took a beating when we diverted power to our weapons system."

"So what you're saying is that we're getting a vacation?"  Lance's eyebrow cocked upward, a small grin curling his lips.

"In a way, I suppose," Coran replied.  "Though it won't be much of a vacation since we'll need several parts for repairs."

"Aww, we're not going back to that Space Mall again are we?"  Hunk sighed, shoulders slumping.  "I don't wanna run into that weird Galra fanboy again."

"Galra fanboy?"  Allura asked quizzically.  "I'm not sure I know that Earth term."

Pidge shook their head.  "We had some trouble with this Galra who was in charge of the Space Mall when we went to find the teledove plates.  He idolized Zarkon or something, cause he kept saying some kind of weird catchphrase."

"Oh...is that how we ended up with the Earthian bovine?"

"Partially."

Allura made a face, but decided not to press it further.  She swiped a few screens away and brought up the space map.  "Anyway, I suggest we head to the edge of the Galra Empire.  Their presence is much less likely on outpost planets.  Phio is our closest option and is relatively uninhabited."

"What do you mean 'relatively' uninhabited?"  Hunk asked with concern.

Allura tapped a tiny bright star on the space map.  It brought up a planet covered in small islands.  "The planet was once home to a thriving civilization, but mysteriously died off without warning.  It was a dead planet even 10,000 years ago.  All that is left is the ruins and a few wild animals.  Much of it is covered in water, but where there is land, lush greenery spreads.  We should be able to hide quite well in the surrounding foliage."

"Sounds like a paradise," Lance said, already imagining the beaches with fondness.  He hadn't seen the ocean in forever it seemed.  Both Keith and Pidge rolled their eyes and Hunk just chuckled.  Allura smiled and brought the castle's command windows back up.

"Everyone take their seats please.  I'm starting up the teledove to warp."

 

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In the blink of an eye, the castle came out of the wormhole and a very blue planet appeared in view.  It swirled with mixing hues of blue and green, ivory clouds easily seen in its atmosphere.  Tiny dots of green speckled the teal water.  Orbiting the planet were three diminutive moons, not quite round but not too oddly shaped.  Phio could have been Earth's twin except it was twice the size of the Paladin's homeworld.

"Everyone, strap in, we're entering the atmosphere."

The castle rumbled as it slowly entered the thick atmosphere, burning off any debris that might have still been stuck to the hull from the recent battle.  As the ship dipped below the cloudline, more islands appeared, each lush with forestry and black sand.  The castle hovered low for a while before coming to a halt over a large island with a clearing and a few ruins.  It landed smoothly and docked quitely, only disturbing a flock of two headed large winged birds that were feeding in the clearing.

"Alright, I'm shutting the castle down into standby mode.  Everyone is free to do what they please for the rest of the day, but please don't stray too far from the castle.  We'll discuss further plans tomorrow once everyone is refreshed and well rested."

"Ooooh, I'm gonna go find stuff to use for dinner tonight.  I'm so sick of green food goo."  Hunk rubbed his hands together, a big grin on his wide face.  "Lance, you wanna join me?"

"Nah, buddy, I'd rather check out the beach.  The sand is freaking black here!"

Hunk shrugged, still smiling.  "That's so you, dude.  Pidge?"

"No way in hell.  I hate nature.  I'm going to start analyzing the data from the Black Lion."  With that Pidge got up and stalked off to the Black Lion's hangar, laptop tucked under arm.

"Oh, well, ok then."  Hunk looked over expectantly at Keith.  Keith swallowed and eye shifted, backing up slightly.

"Uh, I'm pretty tired from everything, so I think I'm just gonna go to bed early."

Hunk's shoulders drooped again but Coran stepped up and slapped him on the back.

"I'll go with you.  I can always start castle repairs after dinner.  Plus I used to vacation on this planet with my grandfather, so I know the foliage quite well."

Hunk strained a smile, but he couldn't refused the older Altean's offer, so the two of them set off to go explore the surrounding forest, Coran's hand still on Hunk's shoulder and talking his ear off about the history of Phio.  Keith glanced over at Lance, expecting him to be inviting Allura to the beach with him.  But he was surprised to find Lance looking at him instead.

"You're coming with me."

"H-hey wait, what are y-!"

Keith's arm was grabbed by the lanky Paladin and more or less dragged from the bridge.  He caught a glimpse of Allura's concerned face before the bridge doors shut.  Keith shook Lance's hand off and stepped back.

"What is your problem?!"

"Why did you lie to Hunk?" Lance asked flatly.

"What?"

"You don't have any intention of going to bed.  Why did you lie?"

Keith shifted, rubbing his arm.  "I...don't think I should be around you guys too much right now."

Lance groaned.  "Oh my god, is this about the Galra thing again?  Dios mio, Keith, I told you no one cares-,"

"I care!"  Keith cut Lance off, trying to keep his voice even.  "You don't know what it felt like, to find out that I was part of the Galra, the Galra that destroyed Altea, that-"

"No, you're not.  You are not part of those Galra.  There are good Galra, the freaking Blade of Mamora should be proof enough of that.  What is this really about?"

"Why are you so concerned about me?  You usually spend half your time trying to irritate the shit out of me."

"Well, that's...that's because I...I need someone to compete with, so I need a rival who'll stay on his toes."

Keith made a disbelieving face.  "Are you serious, that's the best you could come up with?"

Lance blushed slightly and quickly turned away.  "S-Shut up!"  He scratched his head.  "Jeez, this is what I get for trying to make you feel better.  Heh, guess I'm a failure at that too, huh?"

"What?"

"It's nothing!  Nothing at all!  Just...just go try to get some sleep, ok?"

Lance more or less bolted down the hallway after saying that, hurriedly exiting the castle before he could embarrass himself further.  Keith cocked his head, feeling confused at Lance's contrasting words when the bridge doors opened behind him.

"Oh, Princess," he said, turning to face her.

"Keith," she replied, nodding.  She tucked her arms behind her.  "How are you feeling?  I'm sure this is a lot for you to take in right now."

Keith looked down again.  He'd been doing that a lot in the last hour.  "I'm mostly upset, but also...scared.  Shiro was the glue for all of us.  I don't know if we can function right without him.  I thought I'd lost him once when he was captured by the Gal-"  The word caught in Keith's throat, the dread sinking back on him.  He was Galra.  He could not deny that at all.  He swallowed hard and remained silent.

"We'll find Shiro, Keith.  So don't worry so much."

"I wish I could do that, Allura.  Honestly I wish I could.  I think I'm just gonna go back to my room for now."

"Good night then, Keith."

"Good night, Allura."

 

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Keith decided after all to not go back to his room right away.  His mind was too fuddled to be sleeping despite the exhaustion in his limbs.  He took a walk around the clearing, taking in the few surrounding ruins and greenery.  The trees surrounding the clearing grew in squiggles, like they were crazy straws and their branches fanned out like wide spread hands.  Leaves nearly two feet in length splayed out amongst the branches, blotting out the redding sky as the sun of Phio set.  The grass under his feet had a slight blue tinge to it and looked soft.  Keith decided to sit under a large archway that towered over him, as tall as the castle.  A set of stairs lead to nowhere there, buried under grass and vines.  The fresh air was helping to clear his head as he sorted out his thoughts.

Keith's first thought was of the Galra who had helped them beat Zarkon and died in the process.  He'd have to apologize to Kolivan the next time he saw him, if ever.  He pulled out his Mamora blade, unwrapping it to glint in the sunlight.  The dull purple glow of its emblem was faint in the bright sunset.  As Keith held up the knife, he thought he felt a small pulse of energy vibrate into his hand.  It was so sudden that Keith wasn't sure if it had actually happened.  At the same time, his arm gave a violent twitch like he had been shocked.  Keith cried out and dropped the knife, clutching his wrist.  The knife remained unchanged and untransformed.  He hesitantly picked the blade back up and examined it.  There was nothing out of the ordinary.  No pulse, no shock.  What the heck had that been?

Keith sighed and rewrapped the knife and put it back in its holster.  He leaned back against the stairs and stared up into the sky.  So much had happened in the last week, his emotions were a mess.

As of now they knew two things: Zarkon was either dead or near dead and Shiro was MIA.  Keith's thoughts wandered back to that battle as he closed his eyes.  Things all happened so fast, it was a blur.  Shiro had finally broken Zarkon's bond over the Black Lion.  He remembered Shiro struggling to overcome Zarkon.  How he had somehow phased through Zarkon's armor and stolen back his Paladin bayard...

Keith's eyes snapped open and he sat up abruptly.  Wait...Shiro's bayard was still in its slot in the Black Lion.  Shiro had obtained that bayard back through some kind of mind meld with his lion.  What if...  Keith jumped to his feet and went running towards the beach.

"Lance!  Lance!"  He called out, his voice straining but full of anticipation.  He found the lanky Paladin right where he said he'd be, boots off and feet soaking in the teal water.  Lance turned, bewilderment on his face.

"Dude, what's got you so excited?"

Keith huffed, hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath.  "I think...I think I know what might have happened to Shiro."

Lance's eyes went wide with surprise.  "What?!  Are you serious?!"

Keith nodded.  "Yeah, I do.  Lance, do you remember when Shiro phased through Zarkon?"

"Hmmm...you mean when his lion did that weird glow thing and her wings opened up?"

"Yeah.  Do you remember when he said he'd somehow gotten his Paladin bayard back?"

Lance cocked his head.  "Yeah...Dude, I'm not sure I'm following you."

Keith took a deep breath.  "I think...Shiro became one with his lion after he activated his bayard in the Black Lion's slot."

"Oookay, now you've really lost me."

"Ugh, why am I bother- nevermind."  Keith grabbed Lance's arm and gestured back to the castle.  "Come on, let's go back.  I gotta tell Pidge my theory.  It could explain why we picked up those strange energy signatures."

 

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Needless to say, Pidge was very intrigued by Keith's theory when the two of them got back to the castle.  Hunk and Coran hadn't returned yet and Allura was resting in her room.  Pidge asked if Keith wanted to call everyone in, but he had shaken his head.

"I don't want to get everyone's hopes up if I end up being wrong."

"That's a fair point.  Your theory is interesting to say the least.  What makes you think Shiro, how you said, became 'one' with his lion?"

"We all have a connection to our lions.  Shiro had the most difficult time bonding with his because her original Paladin was still alive.  Voltron is powered by quintessence.  That's some sort of life energy of planets, right?"

Pidge shifted their glasses, lenses flashing in the dark hangar.  "It's a bit more complicated than that according to my research, but basically."

"What if Shiro's bond became so strong that he literally became his lion?"

"Whoa, wait man, back the heck up," Lance was trying his best to follow Keith's theory, but he was thoroughly lost now.  "Are you saying that could happen to any of us too?"

"I don't know.  But it's all I got right now."

"Keith, we're not even sure what quintessence really is," Pidge stated.  "Everything I've found in my research is either partial accounts or just pure mythos.  Not the most reliable sources, but the Galra do seem to have a very keen interest in quintessence.  They've been collecting it from planets for unknown reasons, since at least the beginning of the empire."

Keith started to pace around the hangar, thinking hard.  "Do you remember that secret Galran base we infiltrated?  The one where I found all those quintessence containers?  That druid was doing something to it.  When he charged it with his magic, it turned from golden yellow to violet."

"Pfft, yeah and you got your ass handed to you too by said druid."  Lance snickered, but Keith ignored him.  He looked up at the Black Lion.

"Pidge, trying scanning the Black Lion for quintessence signatures."

"On it."  Pidge turned back to their laptop, fingers flying over the keys.  Several windows flashed by as the scans completed and started anew.  Pidge made a small noise of astonishment.

"Well, would you look at that...Keith, you may actually be on to something here."

"Did you find something?"

"Sure did.  Look at this."  Pidge shifted so Lance and Keith could see the computer screen.  It showed two energy readings, one large which Keith assumed was the Black Lion's and a much smaller, pulsating energy that was dwarfed by the larger one.

"I retuned my scanner to be more discerning and it picked up that second energy.  It's different from the Black Lion's , which is this larger blue line.  I'll have to do more tests, but...this little line...it just might be Shiro."

"What might be Shiro?"  The three of them tuned to see Hunk and Coran walking into the hangar, arms full of foraged goodies.

"Keith had an idea about what happened to him," Pidge replied.  "I won't confirm it, but there's strong evidence he could be right."

"And what might that theory be?"  Coran's interest was piqued now.

"Keith thinks Shiro's body became part of his lion as quintessence when he broke Zarkon's bond."

Hunk dropped his armful of food in alarm.  "What the heck?!  Is there some way to un-quintessence him?!"

"Calm down Hunk, no need to panic yet.  That is a pretty bold theory, though," Coran said.  "The lions are powered by concentrated quintessence, as is Voltron itself.  I suppose Paladin could bond on that deep of a level, but I'm not sure they could become pure quintessence.  And you said you had evidence of this?"

"Yeah, I did a narrower scan and picked up a second energy signature different from the Black Lion."  Pidge pointed to their laptop screen.  "Keith also mentioned the quintessence factory we checked out a while back on that secret Galra base.  It'd probably be less guarded now that Zarkon has been knocked out of commission and they're figuring out who's gonna lead."

"It might give us a lead if we go back," Coran said, moustache twitching.  "But with the castle temporarily out of commission..."

"I'll go."  Keith spoke up, solidity in his voice.  "I want to know why the Galra are so interested in quintessence."

"Keith, it's too dangerous!"  Hunk  had started picking up his dropped food but that was moot as he nearly shouted at Keith.  "The Galra are probably just collecting it for powering weapons or something."

"That's very unlikely," Coran replied.  "It has to be for something much bigger.  In the wrong hands it can give immense power to someone or something.  Quintessence is more than just the life energy of a planet.  It's the very soul of a planet.  It gives life to its surface, permeating into everything that ever lives in or on it.  Take that away, and the planet dies, along with any life on it.  Quintessence is a very precious thing; it's not something that you can just fling around all willy-nilly."

"I don't care.  I'm going.  I want to bring Shiro back."

"Well, dude, you're not gonna go alone.  I'm coming with you."  Lance leaned on Keith's shoulder, an uncharacteristic stern look on his face.  "Gotta have someone who'll have your back."

"As long as you two don't fight, you actually make a good team," Pidge scoffed, eliciting a glare from both Keith and Lance.

Coran wasn't convinced.  "Are you sure about this?  You're taking a big risk on just a hunch."

"Hey, we've gotten this far on just hunches and instinct alone," Lance grinned.  "What's a little more?"

"That's what I'm worried about.  But, I suppose I can't stop you.  Keith'd probably go off on his own if we told him no.  It'd be better to let the Princess know as well.  She won't be happy about it, but at least we've got a direction now.  Pidge, can you call Allura down here please?"

 

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Coran was right; Allura was not happy about any of it.  She was more shocked than anything at the idea of Shiro becoming part of his lion.  But she flatly refused to let Keith and Lance go off on a wild goose chase.

"No, absolutely not!"  She stormed around the hangar, dressed in her normal gown, curly hair bouncing everywhere as she paced.  "I cannot allow only two of you go to such dangerous place again!"

"But this might be our only lead to figuring out what happened to Shiro!"  Keith was in an argumentive mood and he would not be swayed on this.

"I would prefer it if you waited until the castle was operational again!"

"Princess, if I might interject, with only Keith and Lance going, the chances of detection are far less than if all of us go.  They'll most likely know of the castle's energy presence from our last visit.  There'd be no way we could sneak up on the base."

"Coran is right!"  Lance was on Keith's side, for once.  "We can go in Red!  She's light and fast on her feet.  Keith and Red could get us in and out in no time at all."

Allura frowned.  " I could wormhole you there, but getting back might be an issue.  I don't know the state of the communication and coordinate locking system.  I can't guarantee I can lock onto your position to bring you back."

"Actually, Princess, the coordinate system is just fine," Coran said matter of factly.  "I just started the system repairs and-oh...was I not supposed to say that?"

Allura was giving Coran such a glare, it could melt the fur off a Galra.  Keith couldn't help and smile a bit at the cringing Coran.  She sighed heavily.

"I'm not going to convince you otherwise, am I?"

"Nope."

Allura groaned and rubbed her temples as if a headache was setting in.  "Pidge, Coran...can you at least give some upgrades to the Red Lion before they go off on this fool's errand?"

"That shouldn't be a problem.  But on one condition; I'm coming too." 

Allura's face dropped.  "Oh, Pidge, not you too?!"

"I need to be there to download and decode any further information Keith or Lance might find.  No offense, but I don't really trust either of them to do what I need them to do."

Lance pouted.  "Wow, thanks for the rousing vote of confidence in us, Pidge."

Pidge just shrugged.  "I'm being realistic.  I'm your best shot at getting the information you need.  Plus I want to get one of those quintessence containers for research.  Having one actually on hand is even better than data."

"Yes and in the meantime, I can continue the castle's repairs."  Coran smoothed out his moustache and looked down at his handheld.  "Thank goodness Slav left with the Blade of Mamora.  I don't think I could have taken any more of him messing with my things.  I'm going to go start the diagnostics .  Good luck, Keith, Lance, Pidge.  Be careful."

Coran waved goodbye and tottered off to check supplies.  Allura turned back to her Paladins.

"Alright, if you're going to go, fine.  But I want you to be fully prepared before you do.  I do not want a repeat of the last time we were there.  I'll be monitoring your movements from the bridge.  If I think you're in danger at any time, I'm opening up a wormhole to bring you straight back, you understand me?"

"Of course, Princess.  Thank you."  Keith's face was still determined, brows knotted.

Allura softened a little.  "I'm just as eager as you to have Shiro back, but please, don't do anything reckless.  Voltron will be useless if one of you dies."

"Geez, no pressure huh?"  Lance was trying to keep it light, but it was obvious he was nervous.

"Second guessing coming along?"  Keith said, a small grin on the corners of his lips.

Lance grinned back.  "Not a chance.  There's no way I'm letting you pass me up on this."

"Then how about a little sparring before we go?  You know, to get warmed up."

"Ohhhh, it is so on, Keith-boy!"

Chapter Text

Everyone had gathered in the Red Lion's hangar to see the three Paladins off.  Pidge had installed the same cloaking program from their lion into Red, as well as an upgrade to the lion's basic laser weapon.

"What I've done is upped the intensity of the laser charge.  It's now outputting twice the amount of concentrated energy because I made the beam narrower.  You can also now combine it with the Red Lion's fire laser for a double beam attack."

Lance whistled, impressed with the upgrades.  "Whoa, Pidge, you really went to town on this, huh?  What're the chances you'll do this to Blue sometime?"

"Maybe when you stop being a tool," Pidge replied calmly.

"Ohhhhh, damn Pidge that was savage," Hunk whipped his hands to his mouth to call out the burn.

"Yeah, and your footwork is lousy," Keith piped in.  "You know I was keeping count of how many times I had you on your ass-"

"At least I've got an actual coat!" Lance snarled, attempting to hide his humiliation.  "Not some stupid short thing.  What are you even supposed to be with this thing?!"

"Alright, that's enough!"  Allura sighed exasperatedly.  With Shiro gone, the duty of policing four teenagers had fallen to her.  She didn't know how Shiro did it.  "You three are going to be out there for a while.  Best not to start fighting right off the bat."

"No, it probably is better we get this out of the way first," Pidge replied, grinning wickedly.  "Otherwise, I'll get to roast Lance the entire trip."

Lance glared snidely at Pidge, who stuck their tongue out at him. 

"Gremlin."

"Asstard."

"Pidge!"

Allura sighed again.  "Alright, now that that's out of the way, you three get situated and ready to go.  I'll head back up to the bridge and prepare the wormhole."

She left the hanger, doors sliding smoothly shut behind her.  Hunk suddenly swept the three of them into a bear hug, squeezing tightly.

"You know, I'm gonna miss you guys," he sniffed.

""Dude, it's not like we're leaving forever," Lance said.  He could swear his shoulder was dislocating from the tight hug.

"I know, I know, but...I mean I guess I wish I was going too."

"We'll be back before you know it, Hunk," Keith said reassuridly.

Hunk honked and sniffed again.  "Ahhhh, I like this Galra Keith so much.  You're so nice now."

Keith was a little taken aback at that statement.  He didn't know quite how to respond to that.

"Paladins!"  Allura's voice reverberated over the hanger on the PA system.  "The teledove is ready to start up and I've got the coordinates in.  Are you ready?"

"We're suiting up now, Princess," Keith replied.  Hunk released his hug, his eyes puffy from tears and his nose running.  Keith patted his shoulder.  "See you in a tick, Hunk."

"Y-yeah.  Be careful out there, guys."

The three of them climbed into the Red Lion's cockpit, helmets on and ready for their next mission.  Keith took his seat in the pilot chair and his lion roared to life.  She stood up, shaking herself loose and tail swishing.  Keith could see Hunk had taken several steps back to get out of the way.  Allura appeared in the visual monitor.

"Warp is ready to go.  Ready, paladins?"

"As ready as we'll ever be, Princess."

Allura nodded on the screen.  "Alright, launch set, start!"

The Red Lion roared and made a run for the open bay doors.  Once she was clear of the castle, she jumped into the air, rockets coming to life and propelling her further into the upper atmosphere.  In a flash she had cleared Phio's gravity and entered its outermost orbit.

"Wormhole, activate!"

A large swirl of energy appeared in the space near the Red Lion, opening up into a gateway.  Allura reappeared on the monitor.

Since the castle is in standby, I can only reopen the wormhole four of your Earth hours from now.  Please, be careful.  The universe depends on your safety."

"Don't worry, we'll be back in no time.  Let's go guys."

Lance and Pidge gave a cry of zeal and Keith threw the boosters forward.  The Red Lion took off like a shot and disappeared into the swirling vortex.

 

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The Red Lion shot out of the wormhole at high speed, nearly colliding with a piece of debris.  Her lithe body quickly dodged it and she floated quietly as the wormhole snapped shut behind her.  The area was just as they remembered it.  Two small planets orbited around each other, silent in space as a horde of space debris drifted around.  It was decidedly more messy that before; probably remnants from when the Green Lion had smashed into the quintessence factory and practically destroyed the place.

Keith was wondering which direction to go when the Red Lion took off, bouncing off larger pieces of debris, coming closer to the Galra shipping station.  Of course, the shipment aspect was merely a facade to hide the influx of collected quintessence coming in and out of here.  Red leapt off another asteroid and dodged another, the station coming into view.

The station was still demolished, the large hole in the top easily visible from even the front.  It was deserted, not a single Galra ship or sentry in sight.  Keith felt uneasy about its abandonment.

"It looks like no one's been here since we were snuck in," Keith stated, settling the Red Lion near a large floating rock.  She was well hidden, just in case there was still an off chance someone was here.

"Well, Green really did a number on the place," Pidge replied.  "The Galra probably figured that since the location was ousted, it would be better to move the operation to a new location and simply abandoned this one."

"Do you think there might still be something here?"

Pidge shrugged at the question.  "Maybe.  They might have left in a hurry, we won't know for sure until we check it out.  I'd put the cloak up just in case.  We can set down on that cliff from before."

"Right," Keith nodded and tapped a few buttons and his lion shuddered slightly.  "Is it supposed to do that?"

"Hmmm, I'm not sure.  Green didn't have any trouble with the modifications I did to her, but Red is much more temperamental.  She may not like what I did."

"Well, if she didn't, I don't think she'd have let you touch her.  Maybe she just doesn't like hiding."

Keith patted the dashboard and his lion shuddered again.  She didn't seem to want to get any closer.  Keith frowned and jostled his left control stick.  Red growled lowly before begrudgingly moving forward.  Keith prayed that the cloaking was working.  There was no way to tell on the inside if it was even activated.  She headed towards the back of the station where a cliff overlooked the hole in its side.  Red landed heavily on the green hued rock, the cloak slipping off.

"Do you think it's ok to leave her here?"  Keith asked worriedly.  He wasn't keen on the idea of almost losing her again.  Lance scoffed.

"Of course she'll be fine!  Green was just fine when we were here before!  Besides, there's literally no one here."

"That's what I'm worried about," Keith retorted, his voice raising a little.  "They may have left behind traps to ward off anyone who might come by snooping."

"If they did, I can deactivate them,"  Pidge shifted a bit to hold up their laptop, grinning.  "You underestimate my power."

"Oh yeah, Pidge the Hacker is in da house!"  Lance hollered, throwing up his hands.  Keith glared at him and unbuckled himself from his chair to stand up.

"Let's just get this done with.  This place makes me uneasy."

"Oooh, what are you nervous, Keith?"  Lance was just trying to get a rise out of him.

Keith sighed.  "Yeah, I am.  Is that going to be a problem for you?"

Lance blinked, for once at a loss for words.  "Uh, n-no.  Unless...you make it a problem?" 

His voice lilted a little at the end, making the statement a question.  Keith raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything.  The three of them exited the Red Lion and jetted down to the back entrance of the station.  Their boosters weren't powerful enough to make it to the hole, so they were going to have to worm their way through the station to get back into the quintessence factory.

A large imposing bay door stood in their way.  Lance looked around the door, searching for a way in.  "Hmm...do you think there's still power here?"

"I doubt it," Keith replied, also walking up to the door.  He noticed a hand scanner on the right side of the door.  He cocked his head, hand going to his chin.  "Hey, Pidge, can you use this to get into the system?"

Pidge came over to the scanner and looked it over.  "I might be able to hack into it, if there's still power here."

"Or...Keith could just use his hand," Lance said matter of factly.  He was leaning on the wall on the left side of the bay door.  Both Pidge and Keith gave him a questioning look.

Lance shrugged, his hands out in a duh sort of pose.  "Dude, you can open their doors, remember?  Cause you're part Galra."

Keith blinked.  "Oh...yeah...I forgot."  He reached up and put his hand on the scanner.  It took a few seconds, but it finally blinked to life and scanned Keith's palm.  The red light turned green and the bay door clunked loudly as it slowly started to open.

"Ooookay, I guess the place does still have power."

"Might be a back-up generator or something."  Pidge looked down at their wristpad where a clock was ticking away.  "We've used the first forty five minutes of our four hours.  Let's get moving."

They went inside, face masks retracting.  Lance took a deep breath.  "Mmhmm, looks like they still have an atmosphere here."

Pidge was typing on their wristpad, ignoring Lance.

"I'm downloading the blueprints of this place to each of your wristpads, cause I doubt you remember every hallway here.  I'm also giving you a timer with the remaining time counting down.  Let's all meet back here 15 minutes before the timer is up."

Keith looked at his wristpad projection.  From what he remembered, the room with the quintessence containers was located near the middle of the station, in a quarantined area.  A three dimensional display of each of the station's floors were stacked up on the projection.

"Aww, look at you, you brainy little gremlin," Lance crooned, checking out his wristpad.  Pidge punched him in the gut and he staggered, wind knocked out of him.  They started off down the hallway.

"I'm going back to the bridge.  Maybe I can reboot the system and see if I can glean any more information about the quintessence from here."

 "Alright, be careful, Pidge."

Pidge nodded and was off.  Keith looked down at Lance crouching and holding his stomach.  "Come on, man, they didn't hit you that hard."

"Ugghhhhh, why....why are they like this...," Lance wheezed, tears in the corners of his eyes.

"You asked for it.  Stop whining and let's go."

"Easy for you to say..."  Lance managed to catch his breath and straightened up.  "Where are we going?"

"Here."  Keith zoomed into his projection and tapped a floor.  It circled on his wrist.  "I remember we can get there faster from the service ducts on the outer walls of the station."

Lance groaned.  "So that means a lot of climbing."

"Suck it up.  You were the one who wanted to come."

 

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Surprisingly, Lance didn't complain too much as the two of them climbed the ladders up the service tubes.  But they discovered quickly they could only get to the third floor from the ducts.  They came out from the tube into an eerily silent hallway that was lit only by emergency light glow.

"We're going to have to climb from the outside now," Keith said.  "We should be able to get out there if I punch a hole in the wall."

Lance groaned.  "Ugghhh, why can't we just take an elevator or something?"

"Because there isn't one that goes there.  Look, you can only access the refinement room from this outdoor loading dock."  Keith zoomed into his projection and pointed to a small runway just above them.  Hold on."

Keith put his mask back on and drew out his bayard.  It formed his broadsword and he got ready to stick it in the wall when Lance grabbed his arm.

"Hold up, what's that?"  He pointed to a tiny door on the projection.  "I don't see it on this floor, but it should be right in front of us."

Keith squinted at the virtual door.  Lance was right, there should be a door on the wall behind him, but there was nothing there.  His bayard retracted as Lance went over to the wall.  He started tapping on the metal.

"Maybe it's a secret room, or an elevator or something," he said, tapping away on the wall.

"Or it could be a trap," Keith replied.

Lance scoffed again.  "Eh, you worry too much.  This might just be our ticket outta here."  He put his hand on a small diamond shape on the wall and his hand sunk into it.  Lance yelped and jumped back like he'd been bitten.  A thin violet light appeared at the top of the wall and ran down, forming an odd shaped door.  It rose up into the wall, revealing a small, two man elevator.

"Heh, you actually did something good for once," Keith smirked.  Lance just glared at him.  He looked carefully into the dimly lit elevator.  There was only one button inside, another hand scanner.  Keith hesitated, but decided to try his hand on the pad.  The elevator suddenly sprung to life and the door started to close.  Keith grabbed Lance's arm and hurriedly pulled him into the elevator.  The door shut smoothly and it started to rise.  It was a tight, uncomfortable fit; Lance was pressed right up against Keith's left shoulder.

"Where do you think this goes?" Lance asked, pretending not to notice how uncomfortable it was inside the elevator.

"Dunno.  Hopefully, to where we need to be."

Lance crossed his arms, his brow scowling in thought.  It was uncharacteristic to see him so pensive.

"What's the matter?"

"Don't you think it's really strange?"

"What is?"

Lance's brow furrowed harder.  "This place still has power, even if it is just emergency lights.  If I were the Galra, I'd have at least left a few sentries just in case.  We haven't seen anyone at all."

Lance's words stirred around in Keith's head as they rose higher.  He had a point; if this room was so important, there definitely should be more guards.

"Maybe...they just didn't feel like it," Keith said after a moment of silence.

"Maybe...but if they were abandoning the place, why didn't they just destroy it?"  Lance gave Keith a sidelong glance.  "Maybe they're planning on coming back."

Before Keith could answer, the elevator pinged and the door opened.  Keith and Lance looked out and to their amazement, it was open to the quintessence refinement factory.  The hole in the room was even bigger than Keith remembered.  Gravity was at least doing its part, but twisted metal and piles of broken glass lay strewn across what was left of the floor and bridge. 

The conveyor belt that took the refined quintessence was of course no longer running, and hoppers still sat in it, some turned over.  Most of the room was empty, but surprisingly there were still unmarred containers of golden quintessence left.  Keith supposed the Galra had left in a hurry and counted a few lost containers as collateral damange.  Or maybe Lance was right and they were planning on coming back.  Keith tapped his helmet, activating his intercom.

"Pidge, what's your status?"

A crackle over his intercom blared in his ear before Pidge's quiet voice came through.  "I've managed to get back into the station's system through a secondary power source.  I tried a new set of codes that have generated new access to previously encrypted files pertaining to the quintessence itself.  I only managed to get a partial translation, so I'll have to finish when we get back.  Did you guys manage to get back into the quintessence refinery?"

"Yeah, though it looks likes they abandoned this place in a hurry after we left.  There's still a few containers of quintessence here."

"Roger that.  I'm sending you a code that will scan those containers for energy readings."

Keith's wristpad blinked and a new projection popped up.

"Just point it at one of the containers to get a reading."

"So it's like a Geiger counter?"

"Same concept."  Pidge replied over the intercom.  "I'm estimating I'll be here another 20 minutes.  Pidge out."

Keith's intercom went silent again.  Lance touched his shoulder.

"So, what are we looking for exactly?"

"Pidge wants us to get an analysis of the quintessence stored here.  But I want to see if they left behind any of the refined containers."  Keith held up his hands to show Lance the size of the container.  "We're looking for something smaller than these.  It's purple and glows really bright."

"Right, small, glowing and purple.  Got it."

While Lance split off to go search for the smaller refined container, Keith jetted himself up to one of the remaining large containers.  He pointed his wrist at it, the blue light scanning it from top to bottom.  Several numbers and charts flashed across the projection before returning to the blinking blue light.  As he moved on to the second container, his thoughts started to wander.  Why had the Galra just left these behind, if they were so precious?  Had they really found a faster way to gather the resource?  Was this another case like the Baalmera they had saved?  Once it was no longer useful, time to just throw it away?  He sighed heavily.  Maybe this had been just a wild goose chase.  He called out to Lance.

"Found anything yet?"

"Nope.  But-wait hold on."

"What?  Find something?"

"These containers...they're similar to the cryo-pods on the castle ship."

Keith went over to one of the empty containers.  The top and bottom were indeed similar to the cryo-pods, if of a slightly different design.  Each base had a small sensor pad and the glass looked like it would open.  Why would these be styled like cryo-pods?  Unless...

The abrupt sound of footsteps jarred Keith and Lance from their search.  It was definitely not Pidge; the steps were too heavy to be tiny Pidge.  They also sound like more than one body.  Keith's immediate thought went to his lion.  He was sure she was safe for now, but that didn't decrease his sudden worry.  He caught Lance's eyes, which were wide with expected panic.  Keith silent shook his head and motioned for them to hide.

Lance squeezed behind a support beam and Keith ducked behind one of the containers that still had some quintessence left in it.  He practically stopped breathing as the doors to the outside runway opened and two figures stepped inside.  One was a tall, hooded figure.  Keith immediately recognized him.  He was one of the Witch's disciples and was one not to be trifled with.  The other wore armor and a helmet, obscuring his face.  A cape draped over his narrow shoulders and he was obviously Galra, but he was small for a Galra, Keith realized, as he stood shorter than the druid.  The armor he wore was also ill-fitting, as if it were not made for him.

"So, Haggar decided to move the quintessence after all,"  The mysterious Galra looked around the room with displeasure.  His voice sounded young but jaded; it lilted at certain words.

"She thought it was best, considering your father's condition," the Druid replied.  The Galra scoffed.

"She cares for my father too much.  It would be better if he had died.  It's a shame those Paladins didn't finish the job."

"My lord, such ill speak of your father-,"

"Oh, shut up."  He snapped agitatedly at the Druid.  "You know how I feel about my father."

The Druid remained silent.  The armored Galra stepped forward to look around the room again.

"Pitful, isn't it?" He said, throwing his arms out.  "My father couldn't bear to be without the quintessence.  But I am different.  I'm stronger than he is.  I have no need for such frivolities."

He turned back to the druid.  "Oh, but I have plans for this quintessence, that you must have no doubt.  I will rebuild this place, create more power for myself here, away from my father's and Haggar's prying eyes."  The Galra's tone turned icy.  "You will not speak of this either, lest you wither.  Give me the container."

The Druid hesitated slightly before reaching into his robe, pulling out a small container.  It was glowing brightly with a purple hue.  Keith's breath hitched in his throat.  The Galra took it, an impious smile on his lips.  He held it up in his hands, admiring it.

"Look at the beautiful glow...almost as beautiful as the ladies of my court."

"Yes, my lord."

Keith tried to shift to see the Galra better, quickly formulating an escape.  He was eyeing the Galra and the Druid, debating on whether or not he and Lance could come out of a fight a little worse for wear.  He remembered the last time he fought a druid.  Keith shifted again and he could see Lance attempting to move from behind the support beam to get closer.  He was stalking well enough, but Keith saw his foot slip on the narrow ledge, causing a rock to fall.  It echoed very loudly down into the sphere's base.  Both the Galra and the druid's head snapped to the noise.

"My Lord, it seems we have rats,"  The druid said quietly.  Keith saw him phase closer to where Lance was hiding.  Well, no time for plans now.

Keith jumped down from his hiding place, his bayard drawn and shield up.  He landed heavily near the Galra, yelling distractingly and trying to rush him.  The Galra turned, his mouth open a little in surprise and reached for his own sword.  He hadn't been expecting a straight on attack.  Keith swung at the Galra, missing as he slid out of the way.  The quintessence container was still in his hand.  Lance meanwhile had also come out of hiding and was trying to keep the druid at bay with blasts from his gun.  It was not going well; the druid kept firing magic bolts at Lance.  He was dodging ok until one bolt struck him in the arm and he lost the grip on his bayard.

"Lance!"

"Keep your eyes on me, pretty boy," the Galra sneered.

Keith barely had time to put up his shield before it clanged with the strike of another sword.  He staggered a little, but recovered quickly.  He readied his sword again, letting out a cry.  He and the Galra clashed several times, but each swing was met with expert deflection.  This Galra clearly had a lot of experience fighting.  Blasts of magically charged lighting exploded behind them as Lance fought his own battle.  Keith could hear the cries of Lance trying desperately to escape his assailant.  He wanted to help his teammate, but the Galra was giving him no reprise.

Keith decided to go on the defensive, trying to find a weak point in his opponent's form.  Clang after clang on his shield, the Galra was relentless.  They danced around each other in a deadly ballet, Keith just barely dodging slices and blows.  Keith didn't know what was going on with Lance.  The sound of the magic bolts had ceased.  Maybe Lance was dead...No!  Keith couldn't think like that! 

"Give me a bit more sport, pretty boy!"  The Galra jeered at him, his mouth twisted in a bloodthirsty smile.

Keith grit his teeth.  He could still see the container tucked into the crook of the Galra's arm.  He couldn't afford to break that container, they needed it too badly.  Keith took another lunge at the Galra, only to have his hand knocked and his bayard went flying.  It clattered away from them both, deactivated and useless.  Keith now had the tip of a blade trained at his throat.

"I do so like your eyes, pretty boy.  They're full of ferocity.  It's a pity you have to die, my little Paladin.  I would have enjoyed breaking you."

Keith's eyes widened as the sword came forward.  He was dead, this was it.  But a sharp blast from a rifle deflected the sword, knocking it out of the Galra's hand.  He whipped his head angrily towards Lance, holding his wrist and snarling.  Lance had managed to get his bayard back, holding it awkwardly with his left hand.  He was scratched up and bruised but thankfully still alive.  Keith took the opportunity to draw his Mamora blade.  It extended in his hand to its sword form.  Keith felt the pulse of energy in his arm again, though this time it was stronger and made his whole body tingle.  He roared and sliced sloppily at the Galra.  The Galra dodged just in time, but Keith's blade knocked off his helmet, slicing his cheek.

A pair of dark yellow eyes glowered ferociously at him underneath a fringe of pure white hair.  His long ears were not furry at all and he had facial markings underneath his eyes.  His hair was long, pulled into a ponytail.  His sharp teeth were bared.  He was pissed off.  Keith held his stance and didn't wait for the Galra to recover.  He came at him again.

"My lord!"

The druid had sensed his liege was in danger and had abandoned trying to kill Lance.  He phased in front of the Galra and shot a bolt of dark magic at Keith.  Keith tried to put his shield up, but part of the attack grazed his side.  He was hit with the full force of the attack at close range.  It pushed against his shield and the inertia of the blast sent him flying upwards.  Keith soared backwards and hit one of the full containers of quintessence.  The glass shattered under his mass; Keith felt sharp pieces dig into his back despite the thick material of his armor.  Keith slid into the base of the container.

 The quintessence, being released from its cage, burst forth, spreading out like thick tentacles.  It wrapped around Keith, spilling over his skin and soaking into his suit.  Before, he had only been splashed with pure quintessence, it healing the lightning burn on his right hand.  This was different than last time.  It felt warm and soothing, like he was being hugged.

Keith's Mamora blade was still clutched in his hand.  The quintessence dripped down touched the blade and all of the sudden, Keith felt an incredible shock to his body.  It was like he was being torn apart from the inside.  He felt like he was going to explode, it hurt so much.  He'd never experienced a pain like this.  The quintessence around him started to turn violet.  Someone was screaming.  Was it he who was screaming?  Keith didn't know.  Then everything went white.

 

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"....eth....Keith!  Keith, can you hear me?!"

Keith tried to open his eyes, but they felt so heavy.  Who was that talking?  His body hurt so much.  Why couldn't he just sleep?  He felt himself being shaken.  He slowly opened his eyes, blurry visions coming into focus.  A face was near his.  Who was it?

"...S...Shiro...?"

"I sure as hell ain't Shiro.  Keith, are you ok?!"

Keith suddenly remembered where he was.  He sat up, his head starting to pound.  "What...what happened Lance?"

"Dude, it was crazy.  After that druid sent you flying into the container, this weird light started coming out of your Galra blade.  It exploded, like literally exploded and knocked that Galra and the druid out cold.  I managed to get back behind the support pillar before then."

Keith looked at Lance more closely.  He was bleeding from several scratches on his face and forehead and there were burns on his suit.  Behind him were the unconscious bodies of the Galra and the Druid.  Lance got his arm under Keith's and hoisted him up.

"Can you walk?"

"Y-yeah...I think so..."  Keith tested his legs and found they were ok.  He felt a little lightheaded, but that might have been the headache starting.  "Wait, what about the glass...?"

"The quintessence stuff healed it," Lance said.  He handed Keith back his bayard.  "It was really weird, I can't really explain it.  But you should definitely have a physical check-up when we get back.  Pidge, are you there?"

A loud angry crackle came in on the intercom.  Keith and Lance winced at the pitch. 

"WHAT THE HELL DID YOU TWO DO?!"

"Owww, Pidge, indoor voice please!"

"I was finishing up my download and all of the sudden, the damn station started to shake like a quiznaking earthquake!  What the hell happened?!"

"We'll tell you later, Pidge.  How much time do we have left?"  Keith's voice sounded strange in his ears

"We got 25 minutes.  I'm already back at the service dock.  You guys need to get here ASAP."

"We're on our way.  Lance, out."

Lance scooped up the purple quintessence container from next to the unconscious Galra.  Keith found that he still held onto his Mamora blade.  It had retracted back into its knife form.  It felt a little different in his palm, but he couldn't place exactly how different.  He put it back in its sheath and gingerly stepped over the rubble.  It was even more destroyed than before.  Now, all of the containers were broken and not a drop of quintessence was left.  The room now had a faint golden glow to it.

"Did that explosion do all of this?"

"Yeah dude.  Come on, let's get the hell out of here."

Keith nodded.  He felt somewhat uneasy, a little nauseous even.  But he gritted his teeth and tried to bear through it.  No doubt that explosion was gonna bring down the rest of the station and Keith had no idea how long he'd been out.

Lance was lightly holding Keith's arm as they stumbled out of the room.  Then the unmistakable grunt of someone reached their ears.  The Galra had woken up and was limping towards them.  His white hair was disheveled and he was covered in numerous cuts and bruises.

"You...dirty...you'll pay for this...!"

At his words, a small squad of sentries appeared at the end of the runway.  They must have been waiting for this Galra to return and come to investigate the disturbance.  Guns were raised and ready to fire.  Lance's grip on Keith's arm got tighter.

"RUN!"

The pair bolted as red pings of laser blasts flew around them.  The adrenaline was still pumping hard in Keith's body, his legs ached but he willed himself to run faster.  They jetted up onto an overhanging  balcony, ducking into a side room.  It wouldn't be long before those sentries got up here.  Lance called up his intercom.

"PIDGE!  We need you, we're under attack, how do we get out of here?!"

"Hold on.  There's a service duct right behind you.  If you slide down that you'll land right outside the service dock."

The door was deafeningly banged on, making Lance and Keith jump.  Lance shoved the quintessence container at Keith and pulled out his bayard.  It was then that Keith noticed Lance's right arm was hanging limp.  He'd been doing everything with his left arm and hand. 

"Lance, your arm!"  Keith looked horrified.  "We need to treat that or-!"

Lance shook his head.  "Not important right now.  We need to get out of here, time is running out!"

He shot at the grate in the wall, knocking it off and revealing the duct.  He grabbed Keith's hand and practically dragged him over to the duct.  The door was weakening and Keith could hear the Galra angrily shouting at the sentries.

"I'll be right behind you," Lance said, pushing Keith into the duct.

"Wait, Lance!"

The door flung open, straight off its hinges.  Laser blasts filled the room.  Lance returned fire from his own rifle.  He turned and shouted at Keith.

"What are you waiting for?!  Go!!"

Keith let go of the edge of the duct, letting himself slide down it.  The sound of gunfire slowly faded away as he slid.  He heard a thunk and the reassuring sound of Lance's voice as he yelled down the pipe.  The pipe was more or less a straight drop, curving only slightly here and there.  Keith bounced down the duct, feeling new bruises form with each hit.  Before long he could see light at his feet.  Another grate.

"Oh no...!"  Keith braced for impact.  The grate gave way under his weight and he tumbled out of the duct, bruised, bloodied but thankfully alive.  He groaned but didn't have time to get up when Lance landed right on top of him.

"Ahhhhghhhh!"  Keith cried out in pain.  He was going to feel that one in the morning.  "Get off me, you clod!"

"Hey, I'm injured too, you nasty-"

"KEITH!!  LANCE!!"  Pidge was waving frantically at them.  "WE GOTTA GO NOW!!"

They got up and dashed for the bay doors.  The elevator at the end of the hanger opened and more sentries came spilling out, along with the long haired Galra.

"Don't let those disgusting Paladins escape!"

Keith amidst the fire managed to slap his hand on the scanner and the doors opened.  Pidge was trying to dodge the gunfire too.

"Augh!  Of course, leave it to you two idiots to pick a fight!"

"Hey it wasn't me this time, Keith started it!"

"Oh yeah, who was the one who dropped a rock?!"

"OH SHUT UP YOU TWO!"  Pidge looked up and saw the wormhole forming.  "Guys, the wormhole is opening!"

"Shit...!"

The Red Lion was already up and running.  She was crouched down, ready to receive her pilot and passengers.  The three of them scrambled into the lion and she took off, deftly evading fighter plane fire.  She shot off her rocket boosters heading for the now open wormhole.  Keith gripped his control sticks hard.

"Hold on guys, this is gonna be close!"

"Auuuggghhh, we're not gonna make it!"

"Oh, yes we are!"

 Lance was shrieking, holding onto Keith's chair for dear life.  Pidge wasn't faring any better; they were on the ground clutching at the console.  Keith bared his teeth and pushed his controls forward.  His lion roared and in a spurt of extra speed, passed into the vortex.  It snapped shut behind them, cutting off any following Galra ships.  Lance released his death grip and exhaled slowly.  Pidge reappeared over the console, breathing again.

"Remind me, buddy," Lance said, his voice quaking.  "That we are never, ever doing that again."

Chapter Text

Red came out of the vortex back into the space surrounding Phio.  She made a beeline for the planet, Keith's fingers still clenched onto his control sticks.  The adrenaline hadn't left his system yet and he felt keenly on edge.  He knew they were out of danger for the moment, but his brain refused to believe it.  The Red Lion flew out from the cloud line and landed with a thud in the clearing next to the castle.  Keith finally let out a long sigh and let go.  He took off his helmet and leaned back in his chair.  He was going to have to do some sparring in the training deck to work this off.

"Man, I can't wait to get myself a shower," Lance moaned, massaging his shoulder.  "That Druid really did a number on my arm."

"I'm just happy we got what we were looking for," Pidge replied, also removing their helmet.  "No thanks to you."

Lance made a face.  "If it weren't for me, we'd all be dead right now!"

"Yeah, yeah..."  Pidge waved their hand dismissively.  They tapped Keith's shoulder lightly.  He jumped and Pidge quickly withdrew their hand.

"You ok?"

Keith groaned quietly.  "Yeah...I'm just tired."

"I think we all deserve a break.  Come on, let's let Allura know we all got back ok."

Keith nodded and stood up.  As he did, the room swayed dangerously.  He grabbed the back of his chair, steadying himself but it passed quickly.  He followed Pidge and Lance out of the Red Lion's cockpit.  Allura, Coran and Hunk were all waiting to greet them.  Allura looked reassured that they were all back in one piece.  Hunk looked like he was gonna cry again and Coran...well, Coran was holding something that could only be described as one of his cooking...creations.

"Thank goodness you're all safe!"  Allura clapped her hands together.  "We lost communication once you entered the wormhole, so we were all worried.  Did you find anything about Shiro or the quintessence?"

"I managed to download any information pertaining to quintessence from their database," Pidge readjusted their glasses.  "I'll decode it later after I finish helping Coran with repairs.  Hopefully I can find out what the Galra are using the stuff for other than fuel.  I might even be able to find out how they're collecting and manipulating it into its refined form."

"And, yours truly managed to get something even better," Lance said, holding up the purple quintessence container.  "A working, physical sample of the refined quintessence!  Be grateful Pidge, that I helped out with your weird research."

Pidge made a face of disgust at Lance and snatched the container out of his hand.  "Gee, thanks ever so much, Lance!"  Their voice was soaked in sarcastic honey.

"Give that back, you little gremlin!"  Lance made a grab for the container, but Pidge easily dodged his wide attack.  They stuck their tongue out at him and skittered across the clearing.  Lance chased after them, making attempts to grab the container.  He didn't seem perturbed by his injured arm, even though it was still hanging limply at his side.

Keith had been quiet during the conversation.  He was feeling nauseous again, maybe because the world had started spinning again.  He just needed to eat something, he was sure.  He grimaced; the thought of food only made his stomach churn harder.

"Keith, is something wrong?"

Allura's voice called him out of his thoughts.  He looked up to see her looking at him worry.  Hunk had gone to join Lance in chasing Pidge.  They were currently up in a tree and Lance had climbed onto Hunk's shoulders and was swiping at Pidge.  Keith shook his head.

"I'm just tired.  Lance and I got into a fight with some Galra on the way out."  He pointed to Lance's limp arm.  "Lance might have a broken arm, I'm not sure.  We were kinda in a rush."

"Oh my, are you alright?!"

"I'm ok, but Lance will need to get in the healing pods.  I'll tell you more about it at dinner.  I think I'm gonna go-uuuhhhh..."

Keith swooned on the spot, holding his head.  He nearly fell over.  Both Allura and Coran jumped forward to catch him.

"Keith?!"

Keith braced himself on Coran's arm.  He suddenly felt really cold, like he'd been outside in the snow for hours.  He started to shake, his vision hazing.

"I-uuuuggghhhh..."

This time Keith did fall.  He could hear people shouting his name, but it was really muffled.  He wasn't sure when he passed out, but he did remember being picked up.

 

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"Well, all of his vitals are reading normal, if just a little high because of a fever.  Might be side affect from the extended adrenaline release in his system."  Coran stood at the controls of the cryo-pods, several medical screens displaying Keith's vitals from inside the pod.

"I told him he'd need a check-up!  Quiznacking idiot."

Lance sounded annoyed as he stood with his arm in a sling, staring at the cryo-pod.  He had been patched up by Coran, who said that his arm was not broken, but just dislocated.  He'd be fine a couple days. 

"I'm not sure I'm understanding what's going on,"  Allura said, also looking into the pod.  "Keith said right before he passed out you and he got into an altercation with a Galra."

"We sure as heck did.  It was pretty intense, I was all like, pew pew pew at the Druid, kept him on the run, mind you but-"

"Lance!"  Pidge kicked the back of Lance's leg.  "Stop gloating and tell Allura what happened."

Lance pouted and sighed.  "Fine.  Keith was fighting this white haired Galra and when he had him on the ropes, the Druid shot Keith with one of his magic bolts, I guess to protect the Galra dude.  He seemed like he was pretty important.  Keith used his shield and managed to deflect most of the attack, but it sent him flying into one of the quintessence containers."

"And then what?"

Lance shrugged.  "I'm not really sure.  His body broke the container and he got drenched in the concentrated quintessence stuff.  Then the whole room explode-what?"

Coran and Allura's faces were marked with alarm, severely taken aback.

"What?!  Are you sure?"  Coran's voice was very serious.

Lance's eyebrow cocked.  "Uh, yeah, I'm sure.  Keith got all glowly yellow but when it touched his Galra blade it turned purple and exploded in a flash of light.  Why, does that mean something?"

"Princess, this might be more serious than we thought," Coran ignored Lance's question and quickly started tapping buttons and screens at the controls.

"Soooo...what's gonna happen to Keith?  Is he gonna be ok?"  Hunk asked the question tentatively.

Coran frowned, still staring at his screens.  He was doing some other scans on Keith.  "I'm honestly not sure.  Absorbing that much pure quintessence is extremely dangerous.  Most would die from even a small dosage.  And we don't know exactly how much Keith has absorbed."

"But it didn't kill him.  So he should be fine, right?"  Lance couldn't figure out why Allura and Coran were so anxious.  "I mean, he's a tough guy.  He wouldn't die from just this, he's been splashed with this quinta-stuff before.  Plus don't the Druids use quintessence in their magic?"

 "Well yes, we can surmise so, since they probably learned their magic from the Altean Witch.  They absorb small amounts of it into their bodies, effectively boosting their natural magic poweress. The Alteans were once well versed in quintessence, manipulating and using it to cast powerful magic.  They respected it; it was something freely given by our planet, just like the crystals from the Baalmera.  But the knowledge has been lost to time; only the old lore and myths remain.  We knew just enough to know how to use it to create the Lions."

"That still doesn't answer my question."

"I think what Coran is trying to say, is that quintessence changes.  It's never the same twice; it ebbs and flows with the life of its host planet.  Every living thing in the universe is made up of quintessence given by the planet which birthed them.  It changes everything it touches.  So when one absorbs quintessence, it changes them as well."

"Well said Princess,"  Coran looked up from his keyboard, smiling.  "You were paying attention during your history lessons."

Allura blushed slightly.  "Well, I had do, Coran.  Father would have bent my ear had I not."

"So, what is Keith gonna turn purple or something?!"  Hunk exclaimed.  He had been listening intently.  Now his eyebrows were arched with uneasiness.

"Hard to say, Hunk.  Small amounts won't have noticeable effect, but with as much as you said he absorbed...well regardless, I'd like to keep him in the cyro-pod at least until his fever breaks.  He'll be ok in a few days.  In that time, I should be able to get enough data to know for sure of any signs of changes in his vitals or physical body."

Hunk sighed, relieved.  "Oh, that's good.  Heh, you had me worried there for a second he was really gonna look-"  He stopped mid-sentence and swallowed.  "Uh..."

"Galra," Pidge finished.  "You were gonna say he was going to look like a Galra."

"Hey, you never know!  Allura said it herself!  Quintessence changes people!"

"Oh, but dude, can you imagine?"  Lance had stopped staring at the cyro-pod and turned to look over his shoulder.  "How cool it'd be to have a full looking Galra on Team Voltron?  All the Galra tech access Keith could have!"

"There already was a Galra on Team Voltron, and you see how that turned out," Pidge replied, light of the room flashing on their glasses.  The room went silent as everyone awkwardly avoided eye contact. 

Lance scowled.  "Y-yeah, but Keith's nothing like Zarkon."

"It's unusual for you to stick up for Keith, Lance,"  Allura was looking at him quizzically.

"W-well, I mean, I hate the guy's guts, but I know he's at least decent guy.  Even if he is a hot headed, brash, quiznacking idiot.  Just because he's part Galra doesn't change those facts."

 

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"Keith..."

A quiet voice echoed around the Black Lion's hanger.  Keith looked around frantically, searching.

"Shiro?!"

"...Keith..."

"Shiro!"

Keith turned around and saw Shiro standing near his lion, his face clouded by the darkness of the hanger.  Relief crossed Keith's face.

"Shiro, where have you been?  We've all been worried..."

Keith took a few steps towards Shiro when he simply vanished into the darkness.  Keith stopped, confused.

"Shiro?"

Suddenly, Shiro was behind Keith.  He jumped, feeling the hair on the back of his neck prickle.  Something wasn't right.

"Ashamed," Shiro said quietly.

"What?"

"Of yourself.  Of your blood."  Shiro pointed to Keith's hands.  "The shame."

Keith looked down in horror to see his hands violet and clawed.  His Mamora knife was in one of his hands.  "No...no, I'm not!"

Shiro was gone again and Keith whipped around, trying to find him.  He shouted Shiro's name into the hanger.  He ran around the Black Lion, calling for Shiro to come out.  He looked down at his hands again.  The violet was spreading.  Keith's heartbeat was picking up.  No, he wasn't!  He was not...!

"Keith."

Keith jumped at the voice behind him.  Shiro had reappeared.  He reached out with his cybernetic arm and seized Keith by the throat.  Keith felt it tighten on his neck as Shiro lifted him up.  A cruel smile was on his face.  He clutched at Shiro's hand, struggling to get free, but Shiro's grip was strong.

"Shi...ro...w...why..." Keith could feel his breath being squeezed out of him.

"You'll never lead Voltron," Shiro sneered.  His fingers griped tighter.  Shiro's form started to shift and he transformed into the Galra he had fought on the base.  His sharp grin was wicked and cold.

"I like your eyes, my little Galra.  They're full of such hate..."

The white haired Galra shifted forms again, this time turning into a reflection of himself.  This self had the same glowing yellow eyes and still bore the curled grin.  It was almost in pleasure.

"I'll enjoy breaking you!"

"NOOO!"

Keith's eyes snapped open as he woke with a start.  He was still inside the cryo-pod and he went into a panic, not sure of where he was.  Keith started to bang on the glasslike front, yelling for help.  The front soon dissolved after a few ticks and he fell heavily out of the pod, his breath coming out in short bursts.  Keith was shaking, his panic still very much real as his heart pounded in his chest.

"Keith!"

A voice reached down to his ears and he felt a small hand on his shoulder.  He reacted automatically, throwing off the hand with a startled cry and falling backwards against the cryo-pod.  He felt the hard surface of the pod jab into his side has he hit it.  Pidge stood near him, looking worried and slightly taken aback. 

"Are you ok?" they asked quietly.

Keith was still breathing shallowly, starting to hyperventilate.  He swallowed hard, taking a deep breath before nodding softly.  A few tense moments passed as Keith regained his bearings and his heart calmed down.  He looked up at Pidge again once he was sure he was in a safe place.

"Pidge...what...what happened?  What are you doing here?"  His voice was hoarse.

"You passed out right after we got back from the station.  You've been in the healing pod for the last three days with a fever.  Coran asked me to keep an eye on you since you were scheduled to be released today."

Keith's head felt foggy.  It was probably just a side effect of being asleep for so long.  He tried to stand up, only to find his legs were like pudding.  He slid back to the ground with a groan, feeling heavy and stiff.  Also...Keith's stomach gave a huge rumble of hunger.  It was very loud and Keith blushed slightly.

"Ah, Keith, good to see you up and about!"  Coran entered the room jovially, holding a plate of green food goo.  He held it up.  "Thought you might be hungry after being asleep for three days."

Keith had never seen the food goo look so appetizing before.  He was absolutely starving, probably drooling too.  Coran handed him the plate and Keith devoured its contents.  He just smashed his face into it like he was Hunk.  He was that hungry.

Coran coughed and Pidge giggled a little.  "Well, I suppose it's good that you have a...ahem...healthy appetite."

Keith looked up at Coran, the plate licked spotless.  There was a few spots of goo stuck to his face.  He held it up to him.  "Is there any more?"

Coran was about to answer no when the bay doors opened and Lance and Hunk came into the room.  Hunk's face brightened and he swept Keith up in a bear hug.

"Aww, man I'm so glad to see you!"

"H-Hey big man, I wasn't going anywhere," Keith felt a little touched at Hunk's concern, but that was just Hunk after all.

"Hey, buddy, good to see you back," Lance said, face displaying his usual cocky smirk.  "Been boring these last few days with no one to insult."

Keith smiled a bit.  "Yeah, it's good to be back."

The bay doors opened again and Allura entered.  Her face also lit up when she saw Keith.

"Oh, Keith!  It's so good to see you up and about!  You gave us all a terrible fright!"

Keith sheepishly scratched his head.  "Yeah...sorry about that."

Coran coughed again, his face turning serious.  "Well, now that's out of the way...Keith, we have something very important to tell you."  He nodded to Allura.  "Princess, if you please."

"Lance told us the details of what happened at the Galra base.  According to him, you absorbed a large, unknown quantity of quintessence.  Coran had been monitoring your vitals while you were in the healing pod, but there don't appear to be any adverse side effects from the quintessence."

"Yes, you were quite lucky!"  Coran tugged at his moustache.  "Most people would have died from that much exposure!  I guess you Earthlings are made of tougher stuff!"

"Uhh...yeah...I guess?"  Keith didn't know how to answer that.

"Keith, do you feel any different?"  Allura asked him.  Keith shook his head.

"No, I feel fine, more or less.  Kinda stiff, but I just-,"  His stomach gave another huge rumble of hunger.  That one plate of food goo was nowhere near enough.  He blushed again, holding his stomach area.  "I...uh...I'm just really really hungry."

Allura smiled.  "That's understandable.  You've been asleep and sick for the past three days.  Let's get you some food."

 

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It was around lunchtime, so everyone gathered up in the dining hall to eat.  Keith could barely sit still; he was so hungry it was putting him on edge.  It had taken him a few attempts to stand and a little trial and error before he felt ok to walk to the dining hall.  Hunk had been nice enough to be the support Keith needed as he hobbled into the room.  There was the usual food goo, but Hunk had also made up special dishes from the stuff he'd gathered from the forest.  Keith didn't care what it was, as long as it was edible.  He grabbed the nearest plate of goo and shoveled into it, snarfing it quickly.  Once it was empty (which didn't take long at all), he reached for one of Hunk's creations.  He didn't care about table manners at the moment.  He was just too damn hungry to care.  At the fourth plate, he felt eyes on him and he looked up.  Everyone was staring at him with astonishment.

"My goodness...you weren't kidding when you said you were hungry," Allura stated, her face betraying slight disgust.

"I've only ever seen Hunk eat like that," Lance said, for once not a snide comment on his lips.  He had been attempting to eat with his left hand and not fairing too well.

"Dude, that's rude," Hunk said, frowning.  "I at least use table wear."

"Well, he was asleep for three days," Pidge said, holding up their own spork of food.  "I suppose his body is just trying to catch up."

"Man, just watching him eat like that killed my appetite.  I'm gonna go chill in my room." 

Lance stood up and left the dining hall.  Everyone else tried to go back to eating their own food, but they were still watching Keith out of the corner of their eyes.  Keith swallowed what was in his mouth.  He eyed a plate of some sort of creamy dessert thing.  He didn't know nor care what it was.  He picked it up and consciously made an effort to not be a pig while eating it.  It was in vain.  Keith ended up licking the plate clean.  He noticed everyone looking ill.

"Uh...I...I think I'm gonna go to my room too...I'll let you guys eat in peace..."

Keith was still feeling hungry as he left the others in the dining hall.  Not ravenous as before, but still hungry.  He figured he'd just go back later and get something else to eat.  His limbs still felt heavy so he figured he'd try some sparring in the training deck to loosen up.  It was located on the floor just above the dining floor.  He just felt like he needed to move around.

The food had helped reinvigorate him so he had no trouble walking up to the training deck.  He decided to set the training level low since he need to just warm up.  Besides, he was fairly sure he was not going to be up to snuff right away.

"Ok, begin training level one," he announced into the room.

"Beginning training level one."

A droid materialized at the other end of the hall.  Keith drew his bayard, springing to life and forming his broadsword.  The droid was set to such a low level, Keith had to make the first move.  He ran forward, starting with his usual offensive attack.  His shoulder was low and on guard as he lifted his sword arm for a thrust attack.  The droid blocked it with its staff and pushed Keith back.  He slid back a little, keeping his stance tight.  He saw the droid get into position for its own attack.  Keith moved to block it.  The droid's staff came down...and hit Keith square on the top of his shoulder.

Keith grunted in pain and staggered backwards.  He swore he had moved quickly enough.  He rounded on his heel to come in for a swinging attack and...missed completely.  Keith's feet tangled and he fell over hard on his side.

"Oww...damn what's wrong with me?"  Keith's body was not listening to him at all.  He managed to block a couple more attacks from the droid, then got whacked in the shin, falling to his knee.  He was getting irritated.  He scowled at the droid and slashed at its neck, cutting through the hologram.  It buzzed electrically and disappeared.

"End training simulation!"

"Ending training simulation."  The quiet voice of the computer echoed his words.  Keith was sore and his pride hurt.  He still felt sluggish.  The spar hadn't done what he wanted and now he was just frustrated.  He rubbed his side, standing up and the room started to spin without warning.  He wobbled, feeling suddenly ill to his stomach.  Maybe he'd eaten too much food goo...?

"Uh oh...," Keith felt his stomach reel and the gag reflex in the back of his throat.  He covered his mouth and made a bolt for the door.  Just as he was about it open it, it opened by itself.  Lance stood on the other side and he looked surprised to see Keith.

"Whoa, dude, do you think you should be in here so soon?"

Keith grabbed Lance's good arm as he hunched over, trying really hard not to puke on Lance because oh lord, he would never live that down.  He felt Lance's hand grip the upper part of his arm to support him.

"Dude...hey are you ok?  You look kinda...green..."

Keith swallowed and oh no, that was it.  He looked up at Lance, his eyes watering.  "I am so sorry," he whispered and promptly vomited all over Lance's front and pants.

Lance yelped in shock, letting go of Keith as he tried to jump back.  "DUDE, what the heck?!  Are you freaking serious?!"

Keith heaved dryly, now back on his knees as he felt his stomach try to finish emptying its contents.  He coughed, spit dribbling out of his mouth.  This was it, he was done for...Lance was going to hang this over his head for the rest of his life.  Instead, he felt a hand hoist him up under his right arm and get him back to his feet.

"Aiyaiyai, you quiznacking idiot..."  Lance's tone was scolding as he held onto Keith's waist to keep him up.  "Anyone could have told you sparring right after eating so much would make you throw it back up."

"...sorry...," he muttered, feeling humiliated.  .

Lance rolled his eyes.  "You ruined my shirt," he tried to quip teasingly.

"...sorry...," Keith repeated. 

Lance just gave a profound sigh.  "Whatever dude, I can always wash it.  Come on, let's get you back to your room..."

Keith felt exhausted and didn't really want to walk anywhere.  Lance tugged at his waist and slowly walked Keith back to his quarters.  He dropped Keith on his bed, sliding off his coat and yanking off his shirt too.  Lance took off his own coat and shirt, rolling all the dirty clothing into a ball and setting them by the door.  He threw a new shirt at Keith.

"Put that on, or you'll catch a fever again," he said sternly.

Keith struggled to sit up and put it on, but he just couldn't.  He felt like everything in him had been drained out to nil.  Lance cocked an eyebrow questioningly and went over to the bed.

"Dios mio, are you so sick still you can't even dress yourself?"  Lance pushed Keith upright and tugged the fresh shirt over his head.  "There.  Now lie down and get some rest.  I don't care if you've been asleep for three days, you need to let your body catch up."

Keith stared at Lance as he picked up the ball of gross clothing and got ready to leave.

"Why are you being so nice to me?" he asked frankly.

Lance didn't turn around but Keith could have sworn his ears turned a little red at the question.  There was a long pause before Lance spoke again.

"I have three younger siblings," he answered finally.  "My mom was usually working so I had to take care of them when one got sick.  I guess...it's a habit of sorts."

Lance looked over his shoulder.  "Don't tell anyone, please."  And with that he hurriedly left Keith's room.

 

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Keith tossed and turned after that, dozing here and there for a few hours at a time.  The heaviness in his body had finally subsided but now he was left with the soreness from the droid's attacks.  He rolled over on his side after waking up for about the fifth time and he found he was hungry again.  No, not just hungry, he was starving.  Keith groaned and tried to ignore it, but it was insistent.  It was making him feel sick, he was so hungry.

Keith kicked off his blanket and got up.  He didn't have his jacket since Lance had gone to wash it with all the other soiled articles, so he just put his boots on.  He opened his room door and looked out into the hallway.  It was dark and quiet.  He wondered if it was nighttime.  Keith's stomach growled in protest and he sighed.  Time to head to the kitchen.

The kitchen was at least on the same floor as the crew quarters.  Keith opened the sliding door to the kitchen and the light automatically turned on.  He went immediately to the fridge.  Two of the shelves held Hunk's creations, most likely made for tomorrow's meals and another held some of Coran's weird concoctions.  Keith made a face at those, but he supposed he should try to eat those first, otherwise Hunk might get upset at him.  He pulled out three of the plates and set them on the counter, grabbing a spork from the drawer next to him.  Luckily, these weren't moving.  Keith stuck his spork into the first plate; a pile of what looked liked mashed potatoes, green slimy vegetables and something that might have been rice noodles. 

He took a cautious bite, knowing how Coran's cooking usually went.  Surprisingly, it tasted ok.  Keith didn't know if it was just because he was so hungry, but that first bite triggered something in Keith's body.  His stomach rumbled and he found himself practically inhaling the first plate of food.  He actually ate so fast, he choked a bit.  Keith quickly made himself a glass of water and chugged it.  In less than ten minutes, the first plate was empty.  But that wasn't enough to quell his hunger.  He was sure he'd never felt this hungry in his whole life.

Barely thirty minutes had passed and all three plates were empty.  Keith had paused only briefly to drink water between plates.  He got up and pulled the last two plates of Coran's cooking out and quickly finished those off too.  Keith sat back, water cup in hand as he stared down at the plates.

"Ooof...did I really eat all five of these?"  Keith pondered out loud.  "I guess those healing pods do a number on your digestive system..."

Keith felt another pang of hunger and frowned.  "I can't possibly still be hungry..."  He sate there for a bit before getting up and sticking his head back in the fridge.   He looked at Hunk's food, practically feeling his mouth drool.  There were two large plates and several smaller ones of what looked like some kind of poultry and various vegetables. 

"...but if I eat that...Hunk won't be too happy..."  Keith noticed a medium sized bottle in the back of the fridge.  He reached in and picked it up.

"What the...?  Milk?"  Keith guessed it had come from the cow they'd gotten at the space mall.  He shrugged and undid the cap.  He knocked it back, feeling the cold liquid fill him.  His body seemed to like this more than the food, because after finishing it (it was what, at least a quart?) he finally felt full.  Keith hiccupped a little and went to the sink, rinsing out the bottle.  He yawned as he set it down on the counter.

"Maybe I can sleep finally..." Keith yawned again and left the kitchen to go back to his room.  He kicked off his boots and rolled into bed, finally feeling sated.  He just prayed he didn't throw up again.  Keith felt himself drifting off again, hoping this time for a solid few hours when a sharp pain in his legs jolted him awake.  It was jarring, like he was being shocked.  Keith curled inward, trying to ignore it, but it persisted, coming in and out in intensity.  He lay there, squeezing his eyes shut for god knows how long.  Eventually, it faded off to just a dull ache.  Keith pulled his blanket tighter around his face.  He guessed this ache was better than the cramps and eventually he fell asleep.

 

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When Keith woke up the next morning, his legs still stung but the soreness in his side was gone.  He rolled back over on his back, blinking himself awake.  He knew it had to be late in the morning, he just had that feeling.  Groaning groggily, Keith hoisted himself upright and wandered out of his room.  He yawned widely, pulling knots out of his bedhead with his fingers.  He really wished he had a comb with him.

A loud screech from the kitchen jerked Keith from his half asleep state and he ran into the room.

"What's wrong?!  What's going on?!"  He was ready for a fight, but instead was greeted by Coran sobbing into a plate.  Hunk was looking at him with concern.  Pidge was seated at the counter, staring at Coran's form with an 'oh my god are you serious' kind of look.  Hunk noticed Keith in the doorway looking confused.

"Oh, Keith, you're awake."

Keith came into the room to stand next to Hunk.  Keith cocked his head up at Hunk.

"What's...going on?"

"I'll tell you what's going on!"  Coran shrieked from his seat.  "Some nare-do-well snuck in here in the middle of the night and ate all my food like some quiznacking Snarklant!"

Pidge just shook their head at Coran.  "It's probably for the best, Coran.  No one here would even touch what you attempt to call food."

"How dare you!  I create authentic Altean dishes so that I might preserve the elegance of my home planet's culinary delights!"  Coran was outright upset at Pidge's jab and Hunk was just shaking his head.  Keith tried to shrink back behind Hunk, trying to not look guilty.

"Are you sure you just didn't sleepwalk and eat the stuff yourself?" Hunk asked innocently.

"Absolutely not!  How can you even suggest such a thing?!"  Coran looked pointedly at Keith, who swallowed hard, hoping he looked innocent.  "Keith, did you hear or see anything last night?"

"I...uh...well...that is..."

The kitchen door slid open behind Keith, graciously cutting off his awkward attempt to answer.  Lance walked in, holding a couple pieces of clothing.

"Oh, there you are.  Here's your coat and shirt back."  Lance tossed them at Keith, who gave him an embarrassed look as he fumbled to catch them.  He felt Pidge's querying look on his back and pretended to not notice.  Lance looked around the kitchen and his eyebrows cocked upward.

"What's going on in here?"

"Someone or something snuck into the kitchen last night and ate all of Coran's food," Pidge replied.  They were still staring at Keith, a slight smile on their lips.

Lance made a face.  "Eww, who would do that?"

"More importantly, Lance, why did you have Keith's shirt and coat?" Pidge was tired of Coran's drama and wanted a change to a more interesting topic.  Keith felt his ears heat up.

"Oh, that.  Well-h-hey!  Keith's what's your-hey!" 

Keith pushed past Lance and bolted out of the kitchen.  The soreness in his legs was gone at least, but now his heart was pounding and he was hungry again.  He left the others behind in the kitchen and went out into the clearing.  The crisp cool air felt good on his hot face.  God, he'd never been more embarrassed.  Of course they'd wonder where the food had gone.  But he just didn't have the gumption to admit he was the one who'd eaten it.  He doubted they'd believe him anyway.

Keith wandered back over to the archway and crouched down, curling into a ball in the grass.  He just felt like crap, everything was piling up and he felt lost.  He didn't know how to handle all of this and god damn it why was he so freaking hungry again-

He sighed deeply.  "I wish Shiro was here..."

Chapter Text

The Paladins and company were still stuck on Phio.  The planet was pretty, there was no doubt about that, but it was also lonely.  With no real inhabitants to speak of except the wildlife, things got pretty boring real quick.  It seemed the repairs to the castle were more extensive than Coran had anticipated.  It alone had taken Pidge and he nearly a week to get the particle barrier generator back into a somewhat useable condition and it still needed repairs.  It of course needed parts they didn’t have, so while Coran hashed out where to get the parts, Keith, Lance, Hunk and Allura were left to their own devices.

                Lance had taken to the water like a fish, having been deprived of it since they’d left Earth.  Hunk was busy scouting out all the edible wildlife, even going so far as to take the Yellow Lion to some of the surrounding islands.  Allura merely wandered around the castle, trying to help where she could but all in all not really knowing what to do with herself.

                And then there was Keith.  It had now been three weeks since they’d come to Phio.  In those two weeks, Keith’s hunger had not subsided at all.  In fact, he swore it had gotten worse.  He had begun to avoid eating when the others were present, finding excuses to not eat with them.  But there were only so many excuses he could make before they suspected something.  There was a another downside too.  Keith’s late night food binges had doubled.  At first, he was eating only a extra plate here and there, but now it was close to five plates of food goo plus quite a quantity of Hunk’s creations.  He was practically emptying the fridge.

Keith still hadn’t fessed up that it was actually him who was eating all the food.  Coran was in such a state over the food going missing Keith almost felt bad for him.  Almost.  But when Hunk started getting upset over his own food going missing, Keith knew he had to say something.  He just wasn’t sure how.  Or when to say it for that matter.

“I'm telling you, it’s got to be some kind of animal getting in here and cleaning the place out,” Hunk finally said one day. 

He, Lance and Keith were lazing about in the clearing around the castle.  Well, Lance was anyway.  Keith was a short distance away, practicing his knife combat.  He had to do something to get his mind off the growling in his stomach.  He paused and looked sideways at Hunk.  Lance scoffed, not opening his eyes from his position on the ground.

“The castle would have alerted us if something like that got in,” Lance reasoned.

“But it might be some kind of like, I dunno ninja animal?”

“There's no such thing.”

Hunk was persistent.  “I'm telling you, something is getting into the food.  It's freaking me out man.  What if it's a huge monster that once it gets tired of our food, it'll come for us?!”

Hunk made a spooked out face and drew his lips tight, eyes wide.  Lance sighed and sat up, giving Hunk an incredulous look. 

“Dude, you're freaking yourself out.”

“I’ve got a legit reason to be freaked out,” Hunk was not backing down.  He always got fired up when food was involved.  "I'm pretty sure the castle can't just continuously make food goo.  It'll run out at some point if this keeps up.  Whatever it is, it keeps eating more and more each time."

Lance shook his head.  “Then what do you want to do about it?”

Hunk shrugged his shoulders, throwing his hands up.  “I don’t know…?  Hey, Keith, what do you think-huh?”

Hunk had turned to ask Keith his opinion, but he had quietly slipped away.  He’d disappeared when the other two Paladins had been arguing.  Hunk was looking around for him, expecting him to reappear.  Lance frowned and stood up.

“Seriously...well Hunk, I just might have an idea of how to fix your problem.  But we need Coran and Pidge first to pull it off.”

 

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Keith had snuck away as quickly as he could.  He was silently kicking himself for avoiding the issue, but what was he supposed to do?  Just come out and say, hey it was him the whole time?  He stopped suddenly as a prickle of pain ran up his left leg.  It almost made him trip it was so sharp.  These pains had also become common place with the hunger.  Keith wasn't sure what it was, but he was beginning to suspect it was, of all things, a growth spurt.  This was absurd, he was done with all of that, the odds of another onset of growing pains at his age was slim to none.  Besides, growth spurts didn't last three freaking weeksAfter a couple minutes the pain subsided back to just a dull ache in his calf and he continued walking down the hallway.

He wandered into the Great Hall, the grand ceiling sprawling above him.  Keith was letting his thoughts wander as he meandered across the hall.  He could feel the gnawing grumble in his stomach but was doing his best to ignore it.  He had been getting hungrier sooner, especially after his usual sparring sessions.  He was so lost in his thoughts that he ended up running right into something.  Keith staggered back, surprised.  He looked down to see Pidge barely containing a large box full of mystery machine parts and wires.

"Oh, sorry about that Pidge...I...I didn't see you..."

Pidge shifted the box.  "Hey, that's ok.  At least I didn't drop it, Coran would have skinned me alive if I had.  Actually, it's good I ran into you.  Can you help me take some of these down to the crystal room?"

"Ah, yeah, sure thing."

"Great, thanks!"  Pidge beamed at Keith and set the box on the ground.  They started to pull out a number of things and hand them to Keith.  "Ok, I just need you to carry the pullac stabilizer, the quarnak shifter and the rezzean's outlet wiring.  Ah, that lightens my load a ton."

Pidge picked the box back up, hefting it with more ease.  Keith had been handed the most awkward of the items and they weren't exactly easy to hold onto.  One was a long, cylindrical tube with a smaller tube jutting out from the side, another was a small panel with a number of buttons and the last was just a giant jumble of wire.

"Ok, let's get going.  Coran says we should only need a few more things before the particle barrier is fully operational again."

"Well, that's good."

Pidge nodded as they continued down another hall and into the lower levels of the castle.  "Yup!  Once we get that finished, Coran said he can start fixing up the teledove and the exterior portions of the ship.  That means I can get started analyzing the data we got from the quintessence factory."

"Oh...yeah...that's right..."  Keith had almost forgotten about that.

Pidge gave Keith a sideways glance as they boarded the elevator for the lower levels.  "Hey, are you ok?  You've been acting...kinda weird lately."

"Oh, no, I'm ok..."  Keith's voice trailed off as the elevator lit up and started downward.  Pidge didn't seem convinced, but didn't press any further.  They arrived at the crystal engine room in less than a tick, the white doors sliding smoothly open.  Coran was already there twiddling away with an open panel in the wall.  He perked up as Keith and Pidge came into the room.

"Ah, excellent, you brought the parts!  I knew we still had some old pieces in the storage rooms!"

"Are you kidding me?  There's so much junk in those rooms, I was lucky to find what I needed!  We should really reorganize that sometime."  Pidge set the box down again and took the stuff from Keith's arms.  Coran waved his hand dismissively.

"It's not important right now, maybe another time.  Now, did you bring the-"

"Quarnak shifter?  Got it right here."  Pidge held out the cylindrical tube.  Coran practically beamed at them.

"Ohoho, look at that!  Ho, before long, you'll be the engineer of the castle and I can retire."

"Heh, well I know I'm good, but you still know way more than me, Coran."

Keith was starting to feel a bit like a third wheel and he turned to leave.  Pidge caught his arm.  The look on their face was of concern.

"Keith, are you sure you're ok?"

"Yeah...yeah I'm sure.  Thanks for the concern though."

Pidge was still wearing the concerned look as Keith walked back the elevator.  As the door opened, Hunk and Lance were on the other side.  Keith's eyebrows knit together as he felt his previous irritation flare.  Lance's face was the last thing he wanted to see right now.  Lance seemed unperturbed by Keith's glare.

"Oh, hey there you are.  Hunk was looking for you," Lance said off-handedly.

"Yeah, you kinda disappeared on us."

"So what?"  Keith snapped the words a little harsher than he had intended. 

Lance frowned.  "There's no need to be mean about it."

"Just leave me alone," Keith snarled and pushed past the two of them to get back into the elevator.  He refused to turn around as the doors shut behind him, but he was sure he was getting looks from everyone in the room.  Damn it, why the quiznak was he so irritable right now?  He felt fidgety, like he had too much pent up energy.  Guess that meant another trip to the training hall.

 

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"HYYYAAAAA!!!" 

Keith swept his sword through the chest of a training droid, letting the sparks fly as he easily kicked it off his blade and turned on the next one coming.  He had been venting his displaced aggravation here for nearly three vargas.  Keith sliced the head off the second droid and swung at a third, cutting an arm off.  That was the end of level five. 

Keith hadn't finished his knife maneuvers from before, but he had decided he needed to keep working with it in its sword form.  He hadn't quite mastered the transformation sequence of knife to sword.  It felt awkward in his hand as he went through the motions.  It would sporadically transform without warning while he was working with it and Keith was getting frustrated.  He figured the more he practiced with it, the better he would get at it, so he kept at it despite his irritation.

He was breathing hard, his blood pumping hard in his veins.  He'd always had more stamina than most people, but today he felt like he could keep going for vargas on end.   Keith straightened up, chest heaving.

"Start...training level six"

"Training Level Six.  Warning: Caution is recommend-"

Keith cut the voice off.  "Just start it!"

There was a pause before the computer spoke again.  "Beginning Training Level Six."

Keith ran his hand quickly through his damp hair, pushing the bangs back as the simulator spawned more battle droids.  This time, there were four of them.  Three held their usual polearms, and one held a long broadsword.  Keith flipped his Mamora sword in his hand, changing his stance as the first of the two polearm bearing droids came at him.  He easily dodged the first attack, using his elbow to hit the droid in the throat and throwing it to the floor.  The second tried an uppercut, quickly filling the space where the first droid had been.  Keith rolled away, skidding to the right of the droid.  It recovered quickly and turned to attack again.  This time it was joined by the third polearm droid.  They teamed up to come at Keith with alternating attacks.  It was all Keith could do to dodge the swings.  He rolled again, trying to get behind the tag team.  That's when he ran into the droid with the broadsword.

The sword whizzed downward, grazing Keith's cheek and cutting him.  He was lucky it didn't do more damage.  Keith was forced onto his back and it looked like he was in trouble.  But his mind was on fire, his eyes darting around, looking for an opening.  He noticed that the broadsword was heavier than the droid seemed capable of handling, which meant he was slow.  He grinned, feeling his adrenaline rush as he kicked hard on the chest of the droid.  It landed square and hard, the droid stumbling back and losing its grip on its sword.  Keith took the distraction to stab upward into the chest of the droid.  It sparked around the luxite blade, going dead.  Keith wrenched it from the metal carcass, jumping to his feet and ready for the next onslaught.

The droids gave Keith no respite.  With one of their comrades down, the three polearm droids came at him full force.  They were on the other side of the room, so it would be several ticks before they reached Keith.  He took a deep breath and focused his energy.  The movement of the droids seemed as if they were coming in slow motion.  The blood banged in his ears, ba-dump...ba-dump...ba-dump...drowning out everything else.  It wasn't just the feeling of the adrenaline anymore.  It was as if Keith was enjoying this, like he wanted to fight, wanted to kill.

Kill...kill...The Mamora sword in Keith's hand trembled.  He had felt this before, knew this feeling.  It was exhilarating.  Keith wanted more.  The sword sparked from its emblem, trailing tendrils of violet energy up Keith's arm like an extension.  The droids were right on top of him, poles coming down for a tri-attack...

And then they were in pieces at Keith's feet.  Keith felt like he had barely moved, but the sword in his hand glowed fiercely with purple vigor.  The sensation of bloodlust gleamed in his eyes and he was ready for the next fight...the next kill...

No.

A small voice broke through in the back of Keith's mind.  He froze, his blade still shaking in his hand.

You don't want this.

Keith's eyes widened in horror.  Were those...claws...?

"NO!"  Keith threw his Mamora blade away, sending it clattering across the floor.  His breath hitched in his chest as he looked down at his hands.  No purple, no claws, no, just plain and normal human hands.  He curled them into his chest as he looked across the room to his sword lying just a few paces from him.  It had returned to its knife form and no trace of the violet energy remained.

"End...simulation."  Keith's voice came out croaky and more strained that it should have been.  He was breathing like mad, his heart racing.  He took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself down.

The training hall went silent as the computer echoed his command.  Keith wiped the sweat off his face with the back of his hand.  He felt sick and like he might pass out.  It sucked too, cause he had finally been feeling good about things and for once he wasn't ravenously hungry.  He managed to get his breathing down to just large slow deeps.  Keith walked back to his knife and picked it up.  That's when it hit him.

It wasn't like the usual quips of sudden pain.  This was completely different.  It first hit in the middle of his back, like someone had smacked him hard with a baseball bat right across his shoulder blades.  It moved swiftly down to his arms, the feeling of bones seeming to crack under his skin unbearable.  As it hit his legs, Keith crumpled.  It felt like every bone in his body was being broken and he lay there, unable to move.  This was just like the time he was drenched in quintessence, but this time the electrical shock was not there to numb him.  He screamed in agony, clawing clumsily at the tiled floor, desperately trying to shout louder, for someone to make it stop, oh god it hurt so much...!

And then it was gone.  What had felt like fire had disappeared and all Keith could do was lay there motionless.  He barely dared to believe it.  He took a shaky breath and slowly propped himself up on his elbows.  He felt so sore all of a sudden.  First his Mamora blade acting weird, now this?!  What the hell had that been?!

Keith laid like that for ten or so minutes before he was sure he was ok to get up.  He stumbled to his feet, holding onto the wall for support.  He felt even more sick now and his head was pounding.  He was pretty sure he was going to puke.  Keith took another breath, holding it deep in his chest before slowly letting it out.  He took a trembling step forward and inched his way to the door.  The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach was not helping, nor did he feel like he wanted to be upright at the moment.  All he had to do was make it back to his room.  Then he could lie down and just sleep it off like usual.

Keith gradually made his way down the hallway, taking wobbly steps while leaning against the wall.  He felt like he'd just been drug across the Texas desert by a Land Rover going seventy miles an hour and that had slammed on its brakes without warning.  His skin also felt too tight, which was weirding him out.  It was like he wanted to just scratch it off, just to make it stop being tight. 

After what seemed like the longest fifteen minutes of his life, Keith finally made it back to his room.  He dropped his jacket on the floor and flopped into bed.  He had no idea what time it was, nor did he really care at this point.  Keith was simply exhausted and sleep sounded like the best thing in the universe right now.  He closed his eyes, the heavy lids fluttering shut as his breathing calmed and he passed out.

 

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Keith found himself on the bridge of the castle, standing just by the elevator doors.  Everyone else was gathered here as well, standing around Allura.  Shiro wasn't there of course, they still didn't know what happened to him.  But they looked concerned.

"Hey, what's going on?"  Keith asked, calling out as he approached the others.  He didn't get a response.  "Guys?"

"What are we going to do?"  Hunk spoke first.  The look on his face was of sadness.

"Bring him back," Lance said forcefully.  His arms were crossed and he looked pissed.

Keith cocked an eyebrow as he came up behind the group.  "Bring who back?  Did you find Shiro?"  Again, he got no response.  "Hello?"

Allura frowned.  "Lance, we may have to just accept the fact.  He went of his own volition."

"I'll bring him back myself and kick his sorry quiznaking ass.  I'll make him pay."

"But that doesn't change the fact Keith turned traitor."

Keith's eyes shot open to their widest.  "Whoa, what?!  Guys, I'm right here!"  He reached out to touch Lance's shoulder, but it passed right through it.  Keith gasped and drew back.  "What...?"

"I knew we could never trust a Galra."

The bridge suddenly went dark.  Behind him he sensed movement and spun around.  The other three paladins stood before him, their faces obscured in shadow.   Keith took several steps back, feeling his heart sink.  "This...this is a joke, right?  Guys?"

"Galra filth,"  Pidge spoke first.  "Disgusting..."

"We trusted you," Hunk was next.  "I can't believe I called you friend..."

"We're better off without you." Lance dealt another blow.   "Dirty traitor..."

Keith shook his head.  "No, I'm not!  Guys, you know me better!  Hey, wait!"  He reached out a hand again to the three Paladins walking away and choked a little.  His hand was...clawed.  Keith looked down to his other hand and it too was clawed.  His bare arms were covered in fine purple fur.  He could feel sharp fangs in his mouth.

The whispering of voices began to echo around the darkness.  Keith was left alone, turning on his heel, trying to find the source of the voices.  They were all of people he knew.

"Filth..."

"You should just die..."

"Traitorous blood..."

"Galra trash..."

Keith covered his ears, crouching down and gritting his teeth.  He squeezed his eyes shout as the whisperings got louder.  There was another noise mixing in with the whispers.  What was it...?

"No...no...I'm not...I'm not..."  Keith turned his face towards the black sky.  "I'M NOT LIKE THEEEEMMMM!"

Keith's eyes snapped open as he yelled and promptly fell out of bed.  The sheet was tangled around his body and a blaring alarm was ringing in his room.  Keith kicked it off angrily as Allura's voice rang out over the intercom.

"Attention, Paladins!  We've received a distress signal.  Please report to the bridge at once."

Keith swiped his jacket off the floor and took off for the bridge.  The alarm was still going as he entered.  Everyone was there, even Coran.  Keith blanched a little.  His nightmare was still fresh in his mind.  He decided to hang back a little as Allura brought up the main screen.

"I had a feeling we'd still be receiving these," she said as the message appeared on the monitor.

"Where's it from?"  Pidge was seated at their station, yawning widely.  Hunk also looked like he had been asleep.  Keith wondered what time it actually was.

"It's from a planet this quadrant of the Empire.  It's within flight distance, so a wormhole isn't necessary."  Coran tapped a few buttons on his control station.   "The planet's name is Iaulia, a desert world with very little water and underground cities.  As water is so scarce, wars have been fought over the resource since the dawn of its civilizations.  I'm afraid that's all the more information about it I have.  You'll be going in blind to its current situation."

"The message we received is very old, so it's broadcasting distance may not have been very wide."  Allura swiped again and a planet appeared on the screen along with coordinates.  "There's a good chance it only reached us now is because we happened to be in the quadrant already."

"So we don't know what we're getting into.  Sounds like the usual.  Right, Keith?"  Lance looked over his shoulder at Keith, who blinked a few times.  He hadn't been paying too much attention.

"Huh?  Oh...yeah...I guess..."

Lance made a face as Allura spoke again.  "Now, I know with Shiro gone, forming Voltron is out of the question.  So if you feel as if you're in real danger, get out of there immediately.  I do not want any more of my Paladins to be out of commission.  Coran and I will be keeping an eye you from here."

Hunk yawned again as he stumbled out of the room.  Pidge was close to follow, looking slightly more awake.  Lance patted Keith on the shoulder on his way out, a gesture that left Keith giving him an odd look.  Keith turned to leave as well, but Allura's voice made him pause.

"Keith, wait a tick, please." 

He turned back to Allura.  "Yes, Princess?"

Allura thought out her words before speaking.  "Keith...please remember.  You lead Voltron in Shiro's stead.  You are serving as the binding glue of everyone else.  We...I...believe in you."

Keith's eyes shifted away.  "Thank you Princess, but...I don't think I'm the person you believe me to be.  But I'll do my best to lead in Shiro's wake, in a fashion he would be proud of."

Allura smiled softly.  "Thank you, Keith.  And please, be careful out there."

 

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The planet of Iaulia was located in the next system over, so it would be about a couple vargas before they reached it.  The silence between helmet coms nearly deafening.  Nobody seemed to want to talk.  After all, it was their first true mission without Shiro.  The four lions drifted along quietly, not even the sound of their boosters audible.  Their formation was that of a diamond, with Keith as the head point.  He had the planet's cooridinates up on his monitor but he was lost in thought.  He still hadn't quite recovered from his nightmare, nor his ordeal in the training hall.  The echoes of nasty words still lingered.  He knew it had just been a dream, but it made him realize his fears.  He didn't want to think about it.

Just do the mission, go back, everything will be fine...patience brings focus...patience brings...

A crackle on the intercom broke Keith out of his meditation.  He opened his eyes, annoyed.  Lance's face had appeared in the top right hand corner of his monitor.

"Soooo...does anyone what to talk about how Keith's been acting really weird lately?"

Keith groaned.  "I have not.  I'm the same as always."

"Then why are you avoiding us?"

Pidge's face appeared underneath Lance's.  "I knew it!  I knew something was wrong!"

Hunk was quick to speak up.  His face appeared next to Pidge.  "Dude, you know you can talk to us about anything."

"There's nothing wrong!"  Keith snapped, making the others jump.  He sighed, leaning back into his seat.  "Sorry...I've just...got a lot on my mind."

"Oh yes, we've all got to come under the commanding shadow of Keith," Lance's tone was a little snide.  He made a face and tried to imitate Shiro's voice.  "Paladins, we've all got to stick together under these trying times."

For some reason, that made Keith angry.  "Shiro sounds nothing like that!  And I am not Shiro!"

"Hey, whoa guys, calm down," Hunk tried to interject a placating tone, but it didn't help.

Lance was not having it.  What had started as a simple let's get talking conversation had quickly turned into another row between him and Keith.  He scoffed harshly, throwing up his hands.  "Ohhhh, so you got Shiro's big shoes to fill now, huh Keith?  That must be sooooo hard, since everything you've ever needed has been handed to you on a damn silver platter."

"What the hell are you talking about?  I never asked for this!"  Keith shouted into his intercom.  He was fuming now.  "I told you from the damn get-go, Shiro said I should lead cause I was closest to him and he thought he was going to die!"

"Yeah, well now it looks like he might actually be-"

"LANCE!"  Pidge's voice rang out over the argument, cutting Lance short.  They glared from their on screen image.  "Arguing over this isn't going to help.  I think we've all had a lot on our minds.  Shiro was closest to Keith, Keith knew him the longest so it stands to reason he's been upset over all this.  Lance, I understand how you feel, but-"

"No, you don't!"  Lance slammed his hands down on his control panel.  "You have no idea how I felt when they told me the only reason I made fighter pilot was because this sorry excuse for a leader got the boot!  That was after I called home and excitedly told my mom that I'd finally made it.  I seriously thought I had gotten in because of my skills.  But no, I guess I'm always the second choice."

The other Paladins were speechless.  Lance was usually the goofy type, but they'd never seen him this irate before.  There was quite a bit of tense quiet before Keith dared to speak up.

"Lance...I...I never knew you felt that way."

Lance huffed  "Of course you didn't.  You were too absorbed into yourself to even notice."

Keith couldn't argue with that.  Had he really been that dense to not notice?  Sure Lance was always butting heads with him, but he was always the kind of guy to have your back no matter what.

"Lance."

"What?"

"I...I'm sorry.  Truly, I am.  But I do know, despite everything, we work well together.  You always have my back.  I know I can count on you when the going gets tough.  I...I don't consider you second best."

Lance's narrowed eyes widened a bit in shock.  His cheeks turned a little pink too.  He awkwardly turned away from his screen.  "Yeah...well...I guess you're not that bad of a guy either...I'm sorry for the outburst too..."

"I think we've all had tensions piled up for a while now," Pidge piped back in.  "We've been going stir crazy on Phio and we've finally got something to do."

Hunk was now grinning from his monitor.  "You know what guys, when we get back I'm gonna make us the best dinner you've ever seen!  That is, if there's still food left in the fridge..."

Keith froze at that comment.  His brain started to scream danger, danger.

"Oh yeah, I've been wondering about that," Pidge cocked their head.  "Coran kept going on about it yesterday when we were messing with the courzan casing."

Hunk shrugged.  "I dunno about it, but it's been going on since you guys got back from the quintessence refinery.  I didn't notice at first, cause it was just small amounts disappearing but then all of a sudden the entire freaking fridge was empty.  Coran had a fit about it for nearly a whole day."

"Yeah, Hunk thinks it's a ninja animal getting in," Lance smirked as Hunk blushed.

"I just said that cause I couldn't think of anything else!"

Pidge rubbed their chin, thinking.  "I don't think it would be an animal.  The castle would alert us if an intruder got in."

"That's what I said."

"Did you guys have Allura check the security cameras yet?"

Keith was trying very, very hard to pretend he wasn't listening, but he was starting to panic internally.  He wasn't ready to come clean yet.  Both Hunk and Lance blinked and looked at each other on the monitors. 

"Huh, no, we hadn't tried that yet."

At that moment, an alert came up on the main monitor and Coran's voice filled the cockpit.  Keith breathed a sigh of relief.  He was safe, at least for now.

"Alright Paladins, you should be entering the Ruenov system now.  Iaulia is the largest planet of this system, so it shouldn't be hard to miss.  Desert-y colors, dust storms might be visible from space."

Coran wasn't kidding.  As Iaulia came into view, the planet was about half the size of Neptune.  But things must have changed in 10,000 years, because Iaulia was not a golden rust colored desert.  A huge patch of green sprouted from near its equator, and an artificial satellite ring surrounded the planet.  The ring looked like Galra tech and several ships were coming in and out of the atmosphere.  The odd thing was, barely any of them were of Galra origin.  Keith gripped his control sticks.

"Ok, guys let's try to do this as discreetly as possible.  Iaulia might be a hub planet for the Empire.  We're far enough away yet that we can avoid detection.  Pidge, you got any ideas?"

"Yeah hold on.."  They disappeared from the monitor, rummaged about for a bit then reappeared.  "Lance, do you think you can do a sonic scan on the planet?"

Lance frowned slightly.  "I don't know...from this distance I might not be able to get an accurate reading."

"That's ok, I thought I'd ask.  Give me a sec."  Pidge disappeared again, then came back with a small device in their hand.  "I'm gonna try remotely accessing the satellite ring.  I might be able to shut off a section of it so we can get in undetected."

Keith nodded. "Ok, PIdge, give it a go."

"Alright, here goes nothing."  Pidge plugged the device into their control panel.  An agonizing ten minutes went by before Pidge made a noise.

"What is it?"

"It looks like the satellite is unmanned.  Everything is controlled from the surface and the satellite only serves as a sort of border control check of ships coming in and out."

"Do you know why so many ships are here?"

Pidge shook their head.  "Nope, I can't access that from here.  But the good news is is that I can easily get us in.  There's a port just a league from our current position that we can get in through.  It's unused and not monitored at all."

"Then that's our ticket in.  Great work, Pidge."  Keith motioned his lion towards the port.  "Let's go guys.  Remember, caution is the key.  We don't know what to expect."

The others echoed oks and the four lions descended into Iaulia's atmosphere.  The deeper they sailed past plump clouds, the darker it got.  It must be night on the surface.  Keith was grateful for the night cover, but it looked like it wouldn't do them much good.  The green swath was coming into better view and now they could see a gigantic city built on top of it.  It flashed with bright colored lights and from the looks of it, water was not scarce in the least.  Keith noticed a darker area near the edge of the city.  It was less developed than the city and that's where he told everyone to land.

As everyone exited their lions, their barriers came right up.  The Paladins walked over solid concrete pavement, past the backs of a couple buildings and entered into the bright lights of the city.  It blared in their eyes, blinding them momentarily.  When they refocused, they were met with a polar opposite of what a desert planet should be.

Skycrappers soared into the night sky, bright neon-like signs flashed alien words, unreadable to the Paladin's eyes.  Advertisements in the same language were plastered everywhere and my god, there were so many people.  The buildings were jumbled together, squished in to occupy as much space as possible but there were still so many aliens around.  Lance was the first one to say what everyone was thinking.

"Guys...I think we just landed in Galra Las Vegas."

 

Chapter Text

The four of them just stood there at the end of the alley, dumbstruck.  Hunk's mouth was hanging open in awe and staring up at the buildings.  Pidge was looking back and forth up and down the street, taking in everything with wide eyes.  Lance was grinning like an idiot, barely able to contain himself as he stood there.  Keith was in a bit of a shock as well, but he shook it off and took a deep breath, determined to set some sort of example.

"Ok, guys I know this is far from what we expected, but we should really stay together and-"  Keith's sentence was cut off as he was now standing alone in the street.  The other three had vanished into the crowd.

"Quiznaking...," Keith swore under his breath and pushed his way into the crowd.  There were so many types of aliens on just this street alone, it was hard to keep everything straight.  Lance hadn't been too far off the mark when he said this place was like Las Vegas.  Keith had never been to Las Vegas before, but he'd seen plenty of videos and pictures and this sure as heck looked like the city of gambling and bright lights.

The street he was on as he slowly made his way down it appeared to be mostly small food stands and gambling halls.  Occasionally he saw larger establishments with what looked like Galran security guards standing out front.  He guessed those were the ones under the control of the Empire.

"Huh...I guess even the Empire has places like this..." 

Keith spied what looked like an tourist center squashed in between two gambling halls.  It was decorated with a large neon sign that probably said "guest information" but was otherwise un-notable.  He managed to make his way over after elbowing past a large group of reptilian looking aliens.  Keith walked into the tiny building.  It was cylindrical in shape and a pretty female alien with three eyes and dark green and cream fur sat behind the counter at the opposite end of the room.  She smiled as Keith walked in.

"Hello and welcome!  What may I assist you with today?"

"Uhh...well I guess I'm sort of lost?"  Keith was suspicious and not about to tell just anyone what he was actually there for. 

The lady's smile didn't falter.  "Are you a first timer here in Delran?"

"Yeah...yeah I guess so."

"Well then, let me extend a warm welcome to you from Iaulia and the Empire.  Now, you said you were lost?  Did you have a destination in mind?"

"Not really...I lost track of my friends in the crowd."

The lady nodded knowingly.  "Ah, yes that happens a lot to first timers here.  Allow me to assist you."  She tapped a few buttons on her monitor and brought up a map.

"Now, the city of Delran consists of four sectors.  You're in the pleasure district right now."  She pointed to the second largest swath of buildings.  "Just south of here is the resident area, then there's the recreational sector and the last sector is a wildlife preserve."

She swiped the map away and tapped a few more keys.  Her monitor made a beeping noise and popped out a small card.  She took it and held it out to Keith.

"All first timers to Delran receive a point card pre-loaded with 1000 credits.  These credits are used within the city as currency.  You may earn more credits by playing the games here.  The card also contains a map of the city.  May I assist you with anything else today?"

Keith took the card, slightly puzzled but grateful none the less.  "Uh, no I think I'm good now.  Thanks."

The lady smiled again and bowed.  "It was my pleasure.  If you need to access the map on your card, just press the small green button on the back.  It will bring up a hologram mini map.  Please do not lose your card; it is non-replaceable if lost or stolen.  Thank you, and come again!"

Keith left the tourist center feeling a bit like a kid on a field trip.  He came back out into the crowd of people and groaned slightly.  Right...the crowd.  Even with the map, he doubted he could find anything in this sea of bodies, let alone the other Paladins.  He started to walk again but then the enticing smell of food hit his nose.  Keith stopped dead in his tracks as his stomach gave the loudest rumble of hunger he'd ever heard.  That was right, he hadn't eaten since last afternoon.  His stomach was making him keenly aware of how long it'd been.

"No...I don't have time for this...," Keith muttered under his breath.  "I need to find the others so we can figure this out..."

Keith resisted, forcing himself to walk past a large restaurant boasting an all-you-can-eat buffet. His stomach was having none of it.  In the end, Keith backtracked and marched himself into the buffet place, embarrassed and stark raving hungry.

 

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Hunk and Pidge were the first ones to run off.  Hunk had picked up on the unmistakable smell of food stuffs and Pidge noticed just how many robots were wandering around.  There were also a couple glass front stores selling robots for personal use.  Pidge gravitated straight towards it, their hands and nose plastered up against the glass.

"Hunk, look at this one!  It's modeled to look like some kind of pet animal!  Oooh and this one is like a mini version of an equine!  And-Hunk?  Hey, Hunk?"

Pidge looked over their shoulder because they didn't feel Hunk's looming presence behind them.  They spied Hunk standing in front of a super flashy building covered in marquee lights and neon.  The name of the establishment was written on the sign, but of course was in an illegible language.  Hunk just stood there unmoving.  People were giving him weird looks as they pushed past him going into the building.  Pidge left the storefront window and trotted over to Hunk's side.

"What did you find, Hunk...ohhh my god!  This place is full of robots!"  Pidge's eyes lit up brighter than a solar flare as they flitted between droid to droid there at the entrance.  "I can't believe it, this place is fully automated!"

Hunk took a big whiff and sighed.  "Ah...do you smell that?"

Pidge was still oogling over a bellhop robot (who looked rather uncomfortable from the attention) when they looked back at Hunk.  "What, you mean the smell of metal and grease?"

"Nah...that's not it at all.  The sizzling of fine meats, the crunch of crisp vegetables... that's the superb smell of a buffet!" 

Hunk's own eyes lit up with a different kind of fire.  He broke into a wide smile and took off into the building, running past the droids stationed at the entrance, Pidge close on his heels.  The interior foyer of the building was even more grand that the outside.  It had a old-timey feel to it, a stark contrast to the bright and futuristic scene outside.  Hunk and Pidge only paused a moment before they met eyes and they grinned wolfishly at each other.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Hunk asked.

"Oh, heck yes!" Pidge replied.

They both raised their fists up and shouted at the same time.

 "I'm gonna go hog crazy!"

 "I'm gonna go research!"

Pidge scuttled off first towards the gaming tables where most of the robots were stationed.  A few aliens all dressed in uniforms wandered around the crowded floor.  They all looked similar in features, so Pidge assumed that they were some of the natives of Iaulia.  For once Pidge thanked the stars they were small in stature.  It made it much easier to wind in and out of the crowd.  As they got closer to some of the tables, the crowd thinned out.  On one side of this part of the floor stood what looked like slot machines.  They more or less looked like Earth slot machines, but these were huge and held reels counting four across and three down.  Most of the patrons were moving that way and taking seats.  By far the machines there seemed to be the most popular thing here.

Pidge looked to their left at the other game tables.  The crowd was sparser here, except for a single large table centered in around all the smaller tables.  Pidge's curiosity got the better of them and they made their way over to the center table.  They elbowed their way to the front of the small group, albeit some grumbles from the patrons there.  The edge of the table just hit the middle of Pidge's chest, so they were right at eye level.

Laid out on the table was a 4 x 4 grid, with a central square holding a number.  In each of the square surrounding it were gold coins with various other numbers on them.  Pidge couldn't read the numbers, but they assumed that was what they were.  On the outer edge of the grid were silver coins with numbers on them as well.  The house player was not a robot here, but rather one of the uniformed natives.  They gave Pidge a quick glance before turning their attention back to the projected board.

The house tapped the center square and the number on it changed.  "Multiple is of 7.  Players, place your coins now."

Pidge watched the aliens who were playing each place silver coins on the outer edge.  The house tapped a button and the gold coins all changed their numbers as well.  Suddenly, several of the silver coins jumped up and flung themselves away from the grid and up against the raised wall of the table.  Three of the silver coins remained and turned gold.  The house reached out with a slider pole and pushed the newly gold coins towards a single player.

"Multiple of 7, 14, 21 and 28 win.  Those who lost, forfeit your coins to the house."

Several of the aliens groaned, having lost the last of their silver coins.  They wandered away, muttering that the game was rigged.  Pidge shifted down the table a little more, closely watching the center square as it changed numbers again.

"Multiple is of 3.  Players, place your coins now."

Pidge stood there watching several plays of the game.  From what they could tell, the game was fairly simple; it was math based and you had to make multiples of the center number.  The numbers seemed to range from two to nine, with no one or zero.  The silver coins were the basic multipliers and ranged from one to nine.  The gold coins were the house's multipliers and were set randomly.  You had to match the center number or make a multiple of it with your coins.  You won if your silver coins turned gold; you lost if your coin couldn't make a multiple.  Pidge had to watch at least four more games before they were sure they could recognize the number symbols.  They looked up at the house player.

"Hey, how do I get in to play too?"

The house player blinked at them and answered flatly.  "You need coins to play.  You can get coins from your point card."

Pidge cocked their head.  "Point card?"

"Yes.  All visitors to Delran receive pre-loaded point cards to use as currency here."

Pidge furrowed their brow.  Well, that would have been nice to know sooner.  They pulled back from the table, feeling disappointed.  It was such a bummer, that was just their kind of game.  It would be so easy to...

Pidge blinked.  Was that...?  They squinted through their glasses at a spot on the floor.  Wait a dobosh...Pidge lunged forward and snatched up a single silver coin from the floor.  One of the patrons must have dropped it earlier.

"Well, well, this might just be my lucky day..."  Pidge smirked, looking at the coin in their palm.  "Let's hope it's a good one."

Pidge went back to the table and held up the coin for the house player to see.  Their grin grew broader.  "Count me in for the next round!"

 

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While Pidge went towards the games, Hunk was set on finding the source of those delightful smells.  He hoped this wouldn't end up like the time at the space mall, but at least this time he was prepared.  All of the food was located in an offset room to the left of the foyer.  Hunk could hear chatter from that direction so he decided to head that way.  A sign stood at the entrance of the room, but since Hunk couldn't read it, he just ignored it and walked right in.  The sight that met his eyes was beyond his wildest dreams.

Before him was laid a large dining room crowded with patrons.  Along the right hand wall were four rows of food stations, each double sided and approximately eight feet in length.  They were set on a diagonal and were also surrounded by people.  Hunk let his nose lead him that way.  Several of the pans held things that looked like meats, some were vegetable-like, but most Hunk had no clue what they were supposed to be.  He didn't really care, the smell of everything was enough to entice him.  Maybe he could pick up some ideas for recipes here.  He went to go grab a plate when a rather noisy group of people caught his attention near the back of the room.  They had started to chant someone's name.

Curious, Hunk pressed his way through the throngs to the group.  Luckily he was tall enough to see over the gathered aliens' heads.  Seated at the table in the center of the group was a larger alien attempting to eat a ridiculously large bowl of something brightly colored and steaming.  The alien's face was flushed as he attempted another bite while the onlookers continued to chant.  Hunk tapped an alien in front on him on the shoulder.

"Hey, what's going on?"

The alien gave him a funny look.  "Don't you know?  He's attempting the Pukupuku challenge!"

Hunk raised an eyebrow.  "Puku...challenge?"

"Yeah!  This place has a special food challenge."  The alien pointed over Hunk's shoulder to a poster on the wall.  It displayed the same bowl of food and writing, along with a burst on the bottom corner he guessed was the prize.  "If someone can finish the Fiery Pukupuku Ran bowl, they win a platinum card with unlimited credits!  Many have tried, but so far none have succeeded."

A joint gasp from the crowd snapped the alien and Hunk's attention back to the contender.  The guy just had a handful of bites left.  His paw trembled as he attempted to bring his fork up to his mouth.  The crowd hushed as the fork paused.  His mouth slowly opened, his hand still shaking and sweat pouring from his brow.  The crowd leaned forward in anticipation, and that's when the guy's eyes rolled back.  The fork fell out of his hand as he made a guttural noise in the back of his throat and fell with a thud on top of the table.  He had passed out cold.  The crowd's energy sank as they all gave a conjoined sigh of disappointment.

"Ah, he was so close too..."

"That was the closest I've ever seen someone come to finishing..."

"Too bad..."

Hunk took a deep inhale, feeling determination coming over him.  "Hey, uh yeah hi?"  The crowd all turned to look at him.  "Yeah, so who do I talk to do this challenge?"

The crowd all gave each other quizzical looks.

"Hmm, I don't know..."

"Could he really do it?"

Hunk held up his hands.  "Hey, I know I don't look like much, but I've won my fair share of eating contests back on my homeworld."

The crowd still looked like they had their doubts but eventually a small alien came forward, jumping up onto the table.  He was roundish in shape, about the size of a beach ball with a stubby tail and short limbs.  He was covered in fluffy gray fur and his face resembled one of those lucky cat dolls from back on Earth.  He rubbed his paws together, grinning up at Hunk.

"Greetings, stranger, my name is Negimara.  I own this establishment.  You wish to challenge the Pukupuku bowl?"  His sleazy grin made Hunk a little uncomfortable, but he nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, I wanna take the challenge."

"Hmm, are you sure about this, stranger?  I would not want you to get yourself into something you cannot handle..."

Hunk gave a short laugh.  "Haha, you underestimate my power!"

The alien's smile broadened.  "Very well.  Bring forth the Pukupuku!"

Negimara clapped his tiny paws together and the crowd parted to let two antlered and uniformed aliens in carrying a bowl heaping with piping hot food.  It smelled spicy, but heavenly as well.  Hunk could feel his mouth starting to water.  He eagerly took his seat as the bowl was set in front of him.  It was piled so high he could not see over it.

"Whoa momma..."  Hunk's eyes grew wide as he took in the sheer size of the food in front of him.  He took his fork and dug into the top layer of sautéed vegetables and meat, breathing in the intensity of the spice and appreciating its vibrant color.  This was it, the start of it all.  Hunk took his first bite and his eyes grew even wider.

Hunk's mouth was assaulted with so many layers of flavor he wasn't sure where to start.  Each was distinct, yet blended together in perfect harmony.  The meat was juicy and supple, the vegetables cooked just enough to still have that crunch.  It was heaven on a fork.  The rice like base was perfectly steamed and added the needed texture to complete the bite.  Hunk had never tasted anything like it before.

"Ohhhhhhh...what is this sensation?!"  Hunk swooned, feeling the linger of spice in the back of his throat.  "It's an ultimate cacophony of intense flavors and textures, blended together in one superior dish!"

Hunk eagerly dug deeper into the bowl, wolfing down bite after bite, only taking respite to drink a swig of water here and there.  Slowly but surely the food before him diminished until more than half of it was gone.  The crowd had been silent watching Hunk eat, but now that he was at the halfway mark, they were starting to get antsy.

"In less than a varga..."

"By Marduk...no one's ever eaten that fast before..."

"He might just do it...!"

Negimara had also been watching silently, his cat-like face stony as he sat across from Hunk.  The previous contender had been taken off somewhere.

"You have done well stranger.  Tell me, what is your name by chance?"

Hunk paused mid-chew, pushing the food into his cheek.  "Oh..it's Hunk," he replied thickly, trying not to spray food everywhere. 

Negimara nodded and grinned.  "Well then Hunk, let us cheer you onto victory!"  He stood up on his chair and raised his paws, stubby tail swishing.  "Everyone!  Hunk has come closer than any other contender to stardate!  Can he do it?  Come, show him your support!"

The crowd started to chant Hunk's name, at first quietly and then with growing intensity as now only a fourth of the bowl was left.  Hunk however, was actually starting to feel full.  He had come so far already, he didn't want to quit but his chewing got more sluggish as he kept at it.  Down to ten bites...nine bites...eight bites...

Hunk sighed heavily after the fifth to last bite.  His belly felt heavy and he truly wanted to quit now.  He leaned back in his chair, swallowing hard and grabbing his water glass to chug.

"Hold on guys, let me take a quick breather..."  Hunk inhaled deeply after a short pause and took four more bites.  He was literally down to the last one.  He groaned and suddenly put his head on the table, his eyes drooping.

"Ooof...ugghh...I don't know guys..."

The crowd had gone quiet again after seeing Hunk slow down.  They were looking very saddened, giving each other glances and whispers as Hunk lay on the table.  Finally one alien in the front of the crowd stepped up and slammed his hands on the table.

"No man, it can't end like this!  You've given me hope, something to believe in again!  You gotta do it!  Do it for us, man!"

Hunk heard the determination in the alien's voice and it sparked something inside him.  He leaned back up off the table and pushed back his chair to stand up.  Hunk looked the alien dead in the eyes, his jaw set forward and new fire in his eyes.

"You're right...I can't just give up now!"  Hunk swiped up the Pukupuku bowl and held it high over his head.  "I'll be the challenger who takes it all!"

The crowd cheered loudly as Hunk took his fork back up, scooped up the last few pieces of food left in the bowl and ate it.  He slammed the bowl back on the table, his eyes practically sparkling as he put a leg up on the chair, holding his arms high in victory.  The crowd went nuts, swarming around Hunk giving congratulations and back pats. 

"Hahaha, I knew you could do it!"

"You've really inspired me!"

"This'll be a story I can tell my kids, of the victor Hunk who conquered the Pukupuku bowl!"

Hunk just grinned sheepishly, wiping some of the Pukupuku sauce off his face.  "Heh...come on guys, you're embarrassing me..."

A light tap on his wrist made Hunk look down at Negimara.  He stood on the table, his face twisted in a sharp toothy grin.

"Congratulations, stranger Hunk!  You are the first to ever conquer my people's specialty dish.  Now, for your promised prize."  Negimara clapped his hands and two uniformed aliens came forward.  One handed Negimara something the size of a credit card, the other what looked like a medal.  Negimara turned back to Hunk.

"Master Hunk, I present to you, a medal commending your valiant victory here today, as well as our exclusive VIP platinum card.  With this, you may play for as long as you like.  May your luck be ever in your favor!"

Hunk took the medal and the card, still smiling.  "Gee, thanks Negimara, sir."

"But of course!  Now, go enjoy your stay in the glimmering city of Delran!"

 

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Lance stood before a medium sized building covered in neon lights, flashing what were obviously female aliens.  The front had windows covered by curtains and more neon women were set up in them.  Two large security guards stood at the entrance and heavy music and chatter could be heard behind the closed doors.  Lance's face held a knowing leer, his eyes shifting between the guards.  Feeling confident, he strutted up to the entrance.

"S'cuse me, gentlemen," Lance said, tipping his head and went to head inside.  The guards immediately barred him.  Lance frowned.

"Hey, what gives?"

One of the guards snorted.  "You hardly look old enough to be here, boy."

Lance took offense to that.  "Y-you!  How dare you!  I'll have you know I'm old enough to buy adult material if I so wished!"

The other guard chuckled.  "Sure you are.  You couldn't get in anyway even if you were old enough.  This is a private club.  Now get lost."

The guards roughly pushed Lance back away from the entrance.  He stumbled backwards and into a tall furred alien with large ears and horns.  They snorted angrily and pushed Lance the other way.  He went tripping into the side alley and right into a pile of trash.  It all fell over him, burying him in smelly refuse.  Lance furiously tossed the bags off of him, brushing the loose pieces off his arms and chest.  He glared at the guards, his brain working feverishly to find a way to get in.  He watched a few groups of patrons come up to the entrance.  Each one flashed some kind of card before being let in.  They were also all dressed a certain way; each wore something akin to a tunic and sash, kinda like what someone from India back on Earth would wear.  Lance's eyes narrowed.  He had a sudden brainspark.  He just needed to wait for the guards to change...

Sure enough, about thirty doboshes later, a second pair of guards came to switch out the ones who were there.  These new ones wouldn't know Lance's face.  Now if only...

Lance spied his prey coming up the street on his left.  A finely dressed alien, about his height but a bit wider in stature.  He was fairly human looking; his long black hair was pinned back in a large hat that obscured his eyes and he had long pointed ears.  Lance noticed that his partially visible face was marked like an animal, but the features were still humanoid.  His garb was royal blue with gold embroidery and his sash was a paler blue.  Perfect and ripe for the picking.

Lance moved quickly, coming up on the side of his target.  "Excuse me, sir, but I was wonder if you could direct me?"

The alien seemed taken aback that he was being spoken to.  "I'm sorry?"

"Ah, you see I'm in a bit of a pinch, I'm new to the city and subsequently lost.  I was wonder if you could direct me back to the main port?"

The alien frowned.  "Why don't you just ask one of the guides?  I can't help you."

He turned to leave, but Lance wasn't going to lose his shot.  Onto plan b it seemed.  He reached out a grabbed the alien by the shoulder, smiling flatly.

"Oh, no you don't understand, I really need your help."

"Hey, what are you-?!"

The crowd on the street was thick enough that no one noticed Lance punch the alien in the gut, knocking the wind out of him.  He was close enough to the side alley he had no trouble half dragging the alien into it and depositing him on the other side of the trash heaps.

He wasn't knocked out, but couldn't move either.  He gasped, clutching his midsection and glowering at Lance.  Lance took out his bayard and put it on the alien's shoulder.  It let off an electrical shock and the captive passed out.

"Sorry about that, but I gotta get in there,"  Lance squatted down, taking off the alien's hat.  He took off everything the guy was wearing except for his skivvies.  Lance examined himself, twirling around.  "Hmm, not bad not bad.  Now let's see..."

Lance dug into the pouch on the belt and easily found what he was looking for.  "Aww yes!  Let's see them deny me now!"  He bounded out of the alley, making sure to look as natural as possible.  He pulled the hat further down over his face and walked right up to the entrance.

"Evening, gentlemen," Lance said lightly, taking care to mask his voice with the scarf.  He held up the card.  "I'm here for a good time."

The guards didn't even bat an eyelash at Lance.  One merely took the card, swiped it on a small pad next to him and handed it back to Lance.

"Have a good night then."

Lance had to fight to keep his calm demeanor as the guards opened the doors.  He was greeted by two pretty alien girls as he walked inside.  They bowed to him, holding out their hands like an invitation to go even deeper.

"Welcome!  Please enjoy your stay~"

"Oh, honey I most definitely will," Lance mused, more to himself than anything.  He sauntered down the foyer, the loud music drowning out most other noises.  The building itself was simple in design and it was not as crowded as Lance would have assumed it would be.  Of course, it was a private club after all.  He was feeling quite proud of himself for sneaking in, taking the time to wink at a couple of waitresses.  Yes, he was in such a good mood...

Lance's face paled as he got closer to the back of the room.  Standing in the middle of a group of female aliens was the silver haired Galra from the quintessence refinery.  Lance panicked a little and shot behind a wide pillar.  He was pretty sure he hadn't been seen.  He wasn't even sure this guy would remember him, but he wanted to be safe just in case.  Lance peeked around the pillar to look at the Galra.

This guy was surrounded by women and he looked so damn smug about it too.  They were fawning all over him, pouring a drink and just...Literally these women were all over this guy.  Lance felt his blood boil a little.

"What the quiznak...this guy's got better A game than me..."  Lance's teeth clenched in fury as he watched the Galra take a seat, holding up his drink and slowly stroke one of the women's cheek.  That just made Lance angrier.  Who the quiznak did this guy think he was?!  He was just about to let his jealousy get the better of him when he heard a shout behind him.

"There!  That's the guy who mugged me and stole my clothes!"

Lance looked over his shoulder to see the black haired alien pointing at him and the two security guards from the entrance running towards him.  His face went from pale to blanched.

"Shi-quiznak!"

 Lance threw off the ridiculous hat and bolted out from behind the pillar.  The hat flew into the face of one of the guards and he stopped mid run, but the other guy was still coming.  Lance ran around some tables, trying to throw things off them to slow the guy down, but it wasn't helping.  He was catching up on him.  Lance had to change his strategy, and fast.  He climbed up on one of the tables and started to jump from table to table, narrowly missing being caught on the heel by the guard.  People were screaming and running away, causing panic in the room.  Lance jumped from one last table, throwing off the tunic and right past the silver haired Galra.  They locked eyes.

"...!  You...!"

Lance was in full flight mode now.  He grabbed the nearby tablecloth and threw it at the Galra, attempting to distract him.  The girls around him screamed and ran away.  Lance took the opportunity to made a run for the front door, dodging the guards.  He had to jump over a couple overturned chairs before making it out of the place.

The Galra threw off the cloth, catching the last glimpse of Lance absconding out into the Delran streets.  One of the guards came over to him, looking concerned.

"Prince Lotor!  Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Lotor snarled.  "Don't you know who that was?!"

The guard gave him a puzzled look.  "Uhh, should I have, sir?"

Lotor sighed exasperatedly.  "That was one of the paladins of Voltron, you fool.  If he's here then that means the others are here too.  Get my sentries ready.  I'm going to finish this right here."

                                                                                                                          

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Keith had stuffed himself into a corner table in the back of the restaurant.  Piled up next to him were two stacks of plates, with approximately ten or twelve in each pile.  This was the second set of plates too.  He'd been stuck in here for at least an hour and a half.  Keith had also watched them restock the food four times after he'd gone back up nearly as many.  He was starting to feel unwelcome and that wasn't just because the place was run by Unalu.

Keith felt a tap on his shoulder as he was finishing another plate of food.  He looked up to see a rather cross faced Unalu starting down at him, both sets of arms folded.

"You need to leave," he said bluntly.  "You're eating me out of restaurant!"

"Well, that's hardly my fault," Keith replied.  "You're the one with food that isn't that filling."

That just made the Unalu more cross.  He slapped a hand on the table, making the dishes rattle.  He held out another hand, motioning with his fingers.  "Pay up, and then get out of my restaurant."

Keith shrugged and nonchalantly handed him the card he'd been given earlier.  The Unalu snatched it out of his hand and squinted at it.  His eyebrows knitted together.

"Are you trying to be funny?"

"What?"

The Unalu threw the card onto the table angrily and it bounced back into Keith's face.  "There's nowhere near enough money on this to pay for the amount of food you ate!  How are you going to remedy this, hmm?"

"Uhh..."  Keith didn't answer directly.  Instead, he pushed the stacks of plates over the table edge and onto the Unalu.  The guy gave a cry of surprise as Keith jumped over the table and ran out the door.

"Hey!  Get back here, you-you-food thief!"

Keith ran back out into the streets, roughly pushing past people going in the opposite direction.  He didn't know if the owner was chasing him, but he wasn't about to take that chance.

"Gotta hide...gotta hide...hmm?"

Keith stopped in front of a flashy building that looked kinda like a gambling hall.  It looked like good as place as any.  Keith went inside, still looking for a place to hunker down until it was safe to come out again.  He cursed his hunger getting the better of him, cause now that he was done, that meant the bone pains would be starting soon.  Keith felt his stomach twist as he ran further into the gambling hall.  He ran past something like slot machines, only to stop dead and backtrack.

"Hunk!  Jeez, I'm so glad I found you!  We gotta...Hunk?"

Hunk was seated at one of the slot machines, his eyes glazed over and his hand absently pulling the lever to spin the reels.  Keith waved his hand in front of Hunk's face.

"Hunk?  Helllooooo?  Hunk!  Snap out of it!"  Keith shook Hunk's shoulder hard, but that didn't faze him.  Keith sighed, raising his hand.  "Hunk, I'm sorry about this," he said and slapped the side of Hunk's face as hard as he could.  Hunk's head spun around and his hand flew to his face.

"Owww!  What the quiznak, Keith?!"  Hunk rubbed his cheek.  He blinked a few times.  "Wait...what are you doing here?"

"That's not important right now.  We gotta find the others and-"

A high pitched scream cut off Keith's sentence.  It grew steadily louder as it got closer and soon something green and white whizzed past Hunk and Keith, taking the scream with it.  The pair followed the blur with wide, quizzical looks.

"Was that...Pidge?" Keith asked hesitantly.

"I think so...?"

Another set of yelling started up and the two of them saw three larger security guards running after Pidge.  They looked really pissed off.  Keith and Hunk weren't about to stick around and took off after Pidge.  Hunk's arm brushed the lever of the slot machine and the reels went off, hitting the big jackpot.  Hunk stopped to look at the coins spilling out of the machine.

"Aww, man that's just my luck!"

"Hunk, we don't have time for that!"  Hunk grumbled and kept following Keith.

"Pidge, wait up!"  Keith yelled after them as loud as he could.  Pidge looked over their shoulder.  Their arms were full of what looked like coins and...clothing?

"What the-?  Keith?!"

"Get back here, you little filcher!"  The guards were gaining.  The three of them managed to get out of the hall and back into the street.  Keith tried to steady his breath.  He didn't like running so much after eating.

"Pidge, what the heck?!  What did you do?!" he asked.  "What the heck is all this?!"

Pidge shifted guility.  "I...might have figured out how to cheat at a game..."

"What?!"

"Hey, in my defense, it was a math based game and right up my alley-!  I was doing it unconsciously!  Well, at least until I realized I was cheating and then...I uh...kinda kept doing it... "

Keith rubbed the bridge of his nose.  "Pidge, please tell me those clothes aren't what I think they are."

"Those guys lost these fair and square!"

"Pidge..."

"Uh guys, I hate to interrupt, but those guards are still coming out after us."  Hunk pointed to the hall's doors and the security guards were right at the doors. 

"Aha!  Got you!"

Someone grabbed Keith's wrist and pulled on him.  It was the Unalu who owned the restaurant he'd dined and dashed at.  "You're going to pay for that food one way or another!"

Keith groaned.  This wasn't what he needed right now.  "Sorry buddy, I really don't have time for this."

Keith flipped the guy over his shoulder, slamming him to the ground.  At the same time, the guards were approaching them.

"Pidge, leave it!  We gotta go!"

"But-!"

"LEAVE IT!"

Pidge pouted but dropped the loot as told.  The three of them fled down the street, avoiding people and those chasing them.  It was causing quite the scene.  They made it about half a block down the road when Keith noticed a white and blue blob running towards them.

"LANCE!"  Keith shouted at the speck coming closer, but stopped in his tracks.  "What the f-?!"

"GUYS, WE GOT A SITUATION!"  Lance bellowed at the group as he got closer.

"No shit!  What now?!"

Lance bent over as he finally got to them, trying to catch his breath.  He inhaled and grabbed Keith's by the shoulders.  He looked freaked out.  "That guy is here!"

"Guy?  What guy?"

"That Galra guy who nearly killed you at the quintessence factory!  Him and his posse are right behind me!"

Sure enough, a large squad of Galra sentries was coming over the crest of the hill, with a white haired Galra at the lead.  Behind them, the guards and the Unalu were closing in.  Keith swore loudly, which made everyone stare at him.

"Argh, I do NOT need this right now!"  He glared at his comrades.  "Seriously, we had one freaking job to do!  Let's just focus on getting the quiznak out of here!"

Pidge pointed to a narrow alley across from them.  "There!  We can escape through there!  We should be able to see the lions from behind all these buildings!"

Keith didn't respond and merely ran into the alley.  Everyone else was close on his heels.  It seemed luck was on their side.  They had managed to slip away in the confusion.  They could hear the angry shouts of their pursuers behind them, unable to figure out where they'd disappeared to .  Keith breathed a sigh of relief.

"Let's just get back to the lions," he finally said after they'd come back the half block.  They'd wound behind the buildings and around several alleys on their way back.  "I want to go home."

"You said it," Lance replied in earnest.  "I tell you want, strip clubs ain't all they're cracked up to be."

Pidge gave Lance a look.  "Figures you'd find a place like that first."

"What's that supposed to mean?!"

"Knock it off!" Keith snapped back.  He head was pounding.  He was going to feel all of this in the morning, he just knew it.  "We should be coming back to our lions, just around this corner."

The four of them rounded the corner and found...nothing.  The lions were nowhere to be seen.  That was the last straw.  Keith threw his arms up, absolutely irate.

"Of course they're not here!  Why would they be here?!"

"Uh, Keith, you ok?"  Hunk was giving him a concerned look.

Keith bared his teeth in a mock grin.  "Oh, I'm just absolutely peachy.  I've just had to run around like a chicken with my head cut off because my idiot teammates can't keep their hands to themselves."

"Dude, that's mean," Lance was going to defend himself.  "You're just as guilty."

"I don't want to hear that from you, you lecherous excuse for a Paladin."

"Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?!"

Keith was too angry to notice a small group was closing in on them.  He started to yell at Lance, mostly out of exhaustion and frustration.  Lance was yelling back, just as enraged.  Keith didn't notice Pidge was the first to disappear.  Hunk was next.  Lance was running out of insults.

"Yeah...well...you-you're just a piece of Galra trash!"

"...What...?"

"You heard me!  You think you're so tough, but really you can't handle the fact you're a part of the enemy!"

Keith went silent.  Memories of his nightmare flooded to the surface.  "I...I'm not..."  Keith looked back up to Lance, his eyes starting to shine.  But Lance wasn't there.  Keith looked around the courtyard.  He was alone.  "Lance?  Guys?  Hello?"

Keith felt a presence behind him.  He went to turn around, but an arm wrapped around his shoulders and something was pressed to his face.  He struggled, but the cloth was covered in something that made Keith feel listless.  He tried to fight it, but his eyes were drooping.  The last thing he saw was a masked face before he blacked out.

Chapter Text

Muffed, garbled voices echoed in Keith's ears as he came out of his unconscious state.  The voices faded out as he groaned, sitting up from the floor and slowly opening his eyes.  He had to blink a few times to make sure they were actually open.  The space he was in was barely illuminated; the only source of light came from behind the space's entrance, casting a long black shadow over the rest of the area.  He was not bound, but he was contained behind a set of hefty horizontal bars. 

Keith crawled over to the bars, pressing his face between them.  He tried to look out and around the extended wall on his left side, but it was impossible.  The light he could not see didn't flicker; it was a constant soft glow, which meant electricity.  He noticed that pipes ran all up and down the walls and ceiling outside his confinement space.  Looking around, the space was in fact a tiny room.  The floor was some kind of metal and the walls were of the same type, but it was hard to tell in the dark and with all the thick layers of dirt.  The dirt was everywhere.  It clung to the tiles and to the walls as well as the bars.  Now he was sure he was underground.  But where exactly was here?

A familiar, prickly feeling started to irritate Keith's shoulders.  He rolled them around, trying to ignore it.  The shoulder pain was a new one.  Usually when this happened it was either in his legs or his arms.  The pain bristled and moved down his spine, causing Keith to shudder against his will.  It disappeared as quickly as it started, which Keith was thankful for.  Right now, he needed to figure out how to get out and find the others.  He pushed on the bars, but they didn't even budge.  They weren't going anywhere and neither was Keith.

"Great...," Keith muttered, sitting back away from the metal.  He reached behind him on his belt to touch is Mamora blade...and it wasn't there.  Keith twisted to look behind him, patting his waist.  Sure enough, it was gone.  Keith started to paw around in the room, looking for it.  Maybe it had fallen off...?  He felt his heart sink in a panic.  That knife was a small condolence when he was nervous since he'd had it for as long as he could remember. 

While Keith was scrambling around in the dark, the muffed voices came back along with the sound of shuffling footsteps.  Keith froze, cautiously looking over his shoulder.  He wasn't about to be caught off guard.  The footsteps and voices grew louder as they came closer.  Keith quickly went back to the corner of the room, obscuring himself in the shadow.  He hunkered down, watching the spaces between the bars.  Sure enough, figures appeared, cloaked and masked on the other side.  The tallest of the three did something on the wall and the bars creaked and started to slide back into the wall.  It kicked up the dirt and created a cloud of dust.  The two smaller figures entered the room while the third stayed outside.

"Looks like he's still out cold," said one of the figures.  A male voice.

"Keep your guard up," the taller one said from the entrance.  A female, older sounding.  "He put up a huge fight before."

"Well, if he does again, we'll just drag him out," said the last figure.  Another male voice who sounded younger than the other two.

The two males came closer, reaching out to grab Keith's arms.  Keith took that as his opportunity.  He sprung forward and grabbed the closer of the two figures, tossing him easily over his shoulder.  He then tackled the other in the mid section and hurled him into the wall.  Keith kept his stance and squared with the taller female, ready to continue fighting.

"Tell me where the others are!" Keith demanded.  His hands were balled into fists.

"Really, why are you Voltron children all so troublesome?"  The female sounded bothered.

Keith stiffened at the mention of Voltron, but he didn't back down.  "Where are they?!"

The female shook her head, sighing heavily.  "Boy, you would do well to calm yourself."  She reached up and removed her mask.  The face underneath was animal-like, akin to a rabbit or a deer.  Keith wasn't sure which animal it was, it seemed mixed.  She had a long face and a narrow snout that ended with a flat and wide black nose.  Her face was covered in tawny and cream fur, but her most striking feature was the third eye located just above the bridge of her muzzle.  Her eyes were pale gray, almost white and gleamed in the dim light.  She gave Keith another annoyed look.

"Your friends are safe.  If you come with me, I'll take you to them.  Our shaman will explain everything once you're gathered together."

"And what if I don't believe you?" Keith said it with force, but the female alien just shrugged.

"Believe me or don't believe me, I don't really care.  Kora, Jace, stop playing dead and get up."

The two deer-like aliens behind Keith groaned and sat up.

"Bleh, Teiya you're no fun," said the younger one.

"Yeah, I was just resting," said the other.

Teiya rolled her eyes (which was really unsettling to watch the third one do that) and put her mask back on.  She turned back to Keith as the Kora and Jace ran back out of the room.  She tossed something lightly at Keith's feet.  It was his Mamora knife.  Keith snatched it up, protectively holding it to his chest.  He glared at the alien and she merely scoffed. 

"Come if you want."

 

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In the end, Keith followed the three deer rabbits (there really was no better descriptive word for them) down a corridor, trailing behind them just slightly.  The silence was broken only by the footsteps of the four of them on the metal and dirt.  Kora and Jace kept looking back at Keith.  It was almost like they wanted to ask him something.  Eventually Keith got fed up with it.

"Is there something you want to say?" he asked bluntly.

"Umm, well I guess," said the younger one.  "I'm Kora by the way.  Jace is my brother."

"Older brother," Jace corrected.  Kora punched his brother's arm.

"Yeah, by like, two doboshes.  Like that really matters though."

"It does!"

"Does not!"

"Kora, Jace..." Teiya's voice was laced with warning.  The brother twins shut up at that and the silence returned.  But that was only for a few minutes before Kora spoke up again.

"So...what's Voltron doing all the way out here?"

"Kora!"

Keith couldn't see Kora's face, but was almost sure he gave Teiya a defiant look.  "What, I'm curious!  And on top of Voltron being here, one of their pilots is Galra!  That's crazy!"

Keith flinched at the mention of Galra.  "Wait...how did you know I was Galra?"

"Kora, stop asking unnecessary things, " Teiya said sternly.  "Your questions will be answered in time, both of you.  While you and your companions have been waging war against the Empire, trickles of information have come from the visitors to Iaulia and to Delran.  So we are well informed of Voltron's exploits."

"But...I...we haven't told anyone about me...so how?"

Teiya was quiet as they walked for a time.  Finally she spoke again.  "Your blade was a dead giveaway.  You also smell of Galra.  Paguo noses are sensitive to such things.  I apologize for taking it and locking you up, but we had to be sure you weren't one of them."

Keith had to stop himself from sniffing his suit at her comment.  Teiya stopped suddenly and turned to a door on her right.  "Your friends are through here.  They've already met the Shaman, but now that you're awake, she may tell of your true purpose in coming here."  She reached up and waved her hand over a pad on the wall.  The door creaked and rumbled.  It opened just as slow and as hesitantly as the bars of the cell block.  This place must be either really old or just plain run down.

The door opened up to another room, larger and much better lit, though it was still dim by normal standards.  A number of other deer rabbits were milling about the room, but came to attention as Keith entered.  Keith spied three familiar and refreshing figures.

"Keith!"  Lance, Pidge and Hunk all said his name at the same time and in the same tone of relief.

"Hey, guys," Keith replied, not knowing what else to say.  "Erm...sorry about...you know, before..."

"Hey, don't worry about it," Hunk said nonchalantly.  "We all knew you were frustrated.  And it was kinda our fault to being with."

"Yeah, we got distracted by all the lights and stuff," Pidge said with just as much unperturbed tone.  "Besides, how cool is this place?  Who knew the Iaulians had such advanced technology to build a city like this underground?!"

"Uh, yeah...," Keith didn't like the idea of being underground.  It unnerved him knowing there was a whole other city above them.

The clack of a stick being struck on the ground, brought their attention to a figure sitting on a raised chair.  Floor lights illuminated her from underneath, emphasizing the wrinkles in her face.  Her large ears drooped slightly from age and her silver hair was cut short and simple.  Her third eye was closed and she was dressed in a similar cloak as the other three.  This had to be none other than the Shaman.

"I apologize for you rough arrival, Paladins of Voltron.  When we spied your Lions on the outskirts of Delran, we dared but hope that help had finally arrived.  But tell me, where is your Black Paladin?"

The group shifted uncomfortably.  Keith spoke up for everyone.  "Shir-the Black Paladin is currently out of commission.  I'm leading in his place."

The Shaman's face fell ever so slightly.  "I am sorry to hear that.  But I am still glad you have come to our remote planet.  We had feared that our message would never reach anyone."

"Message?  Oh, you mean that old radio signal!"  Pidge's face lit up as they realized what the shaman meant.  "You have evidence of such advanced technology down here.  Why would you use such a old method of broadcasting?  Even on our homeworld, radiowave broadcasting into space is ridiculously ancient."

"Most of the technology you speak of is non-functional," Teiya replied.  She had moved from the back of the room to where the shaman sat.  She had removed both her hood and her mask.  Her long, rounded ears now sprung back to their normal resting place on the top of her head.  Her dark brown hair was also cut short and swept back away from her face.  "Since being banished to our ancestral dwellings, we've only managed to recover part of our past knowledge."

"Yeah, no one really kept records of stuff," Jace piped in.  He had also removed his mask and hood.  Small antlers protruded from between his ears.  "Kora and I have been able to figure out how to turn the power back on, but we don't have any idea how anything else works down here or even what's powering everything."

"That's...disconcerting...," Keith paused over the statement.  He turned to look back at Teiya and the shaman.  "I'm guessing this is part of the reason you used radiowaves to send out a distress signal?"

The shaman nodded.  "Yes.  By using a older type of communication, we could be sure that the Galra occupying the surface would not know of our cry for help."

"We are grateful that Voltron has heard us," Teiya bowed to the four of them.  "With your arrival, we can finally set our long held plan into action."

Keith bowed back to Teiya.  "We'll do what we can to help.  Tell us about the current situation, please."

"Of course.  Please, take a seat.  I must first tell you a tale of our ancestors."  The four paladins got comfy on the floor as the shaman took a deep sigh before starting to speak again.

"Iaulia has long since been a planet of dry deserts and as such water was a precious commodity.  We of the Paguos were a nomadic tribe, harvesting water from the few precious places it would appear. The Zadrics were another tribe who fought us for control of water sources.  They envied our special abilities to find the underground sources, but even now those sources are drying up.  That is most likely why the Zadrics made a deal with the Galra when they first arrived, so as to gain the upper advantage over us.  They knew we would not throw away our pride."

"We Paguos were forced underground, lest we become little more than slaves to the Galra.  Most of our water adepts were captured and forced to build an atmospheric vapor extraction machine to serve the growing city's needs, and to maintain it." 

Teiya's eyes drifted over at Kora and Jace who were sitting by the dor then back to the paladins.  Her expression was difficult to read.  She continued.  "We are a remote system, on the very edge of the Empire.  We hadn't even heard if the Galrans until they showed up.  At first, they only wanted to harvest the chloride salts and chalcanthite that occur naturally in our bedrock.  But a few decafebes ago, the commanding Galra assigned to Iaulia decided to create Delran as a pleasure city for those aligned with the Empire and the Empire itself.  It's been this way ever since.  The Galra have been misappropriating water and other resources for several cycles now.  It's begun to affect not only us, but the city as well, even if it's not clearly visible.  The Galra didn't care how the machine would affect our natural environment."

"What is this machine?"  Keith asked.  He was starting to get an idea of what was really going on.  Judging from the look the others' faces, they were realizing it as well.

Teiya answered.  "It extracts water from the upper atmosphere through condensation, collecting water that would otherwise vaporize before it even reached the planet's surface."

"OH!  Like a dehumidifier!"  Pidge exclaimed, making the others jump slightly.  "To service a city that size...that machine would have to be humongous."

"Our intel tells us that the machine is located in the preserve.  The reservoir is there as well, making it an ideal location.  Paladins, we ask that you help us rescue our adepts.  It would be the first step in reclaiming what is rightfully ours."

Keith stood up from the floor, dusting grime from his suit.  The others followed suit.  "We'll do whatever we can, ma'am."

"Yeah, just leave it up to us!" Hunk added in.

Lance finally chimed in.  "After all, water is my specialty."

The shaman smiled, the wrinkles on her muzzle lifting.  "Thank you, for all of us.  Now please, allow us to escort you to your accommodations for the night.  You must be exhausted from your adventure on the surface.  In the morning, we will tell you the first course of action."

Jace put in one last bit before the paladins were escorted out of the room.  "Oh, and don't worry about your Lions," he said matter of factly.  "We brought them down here."

 

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Keith, Lance, Hunk, and Pidge were led by Kora and Jace down another set of hallways and into a large spiraled open area.  In the center of the spiral was a vertical tunnel of which they could not see the bottom.  There were several levels both above and below all up and down this schaft and each layer was filled with curious onlooking Paguos.  As they walked around the circular level, Keith couldn't help but wonder how large this underground city was.

"How old is this underground city?" Pidge asked Keith's unvoiced question.  "It's so large and extensive...it must have taken hundreds of decafebes to build."

"Records of our ancestors don't really exist," Kora replied.  "Since we were nomads for so long, our histories were passed down by word of mouth.  As you might think, the stories have gotten a little exaggerated."

"We can guess from the quality of the technology running through most of the discovered portions, it was built about 100 revolutions ago." Jace added.  "The facilities down here also have a water extraction machine, but it's much smaller and works differently than the one the Galra had built."

"What do you mean?" Keith asked, wanting to know more about what they might be going up against.  "I would think the machines would operate in the same way."

"Well...yes and no.  Here, it's this door."  Jace pointed to an open doorway.  Kora frowned at him.

"No, that one goes to the outskirt hanger.  The hostels are over there."  Kora pointed to an opposite door.

"No they're not, that door leads to the hanger."

"Jace, I just came from the hanger before we went to go get the red one.  I know which door is which!"

Jace sighed and motioned to the door his brother insisted was the correct one.  "Alright, have it your way.  Lead on."

Kora gave a satisfied little huff, his ears twitching as he took the lead.  The others followed down into another hallway.  This one had brighter lights than the other tunnels and seemed a lot cleaner.

"Ok, so I've been meaning to ask this every since it got mentioned," Hunk interjected abruptly.  "But what the heck is a water adept?"

"Paguos have a symbiotic relationship with water.  Some even have the ability to manipulate as they wish and can find it wherever it appears," Jace answered.  "We call them water adepts, because of this ability to manipulate water.  They can sense water sources and draw it up, like a magnet.  Our water machine works on the same principle."

"Our mom is a water adept!" Kora added.  "I'm one too but...I'm not very good at it."

"Anyway," Jace continued, giving his brother a look.   "The machine down here doesn't need water adepts to maintain it.  It utilizes the natural flow of quintessence in our planet to draw water to itself.  The energy in the underground rivers is drawn towards the machine, where it then purifies it by running it through a variety of self-cleaning filters.  It's what we've been using ever since the Galra showed up."

The group fell silent after that.  The number of Paguos was increasing as they got closer to the end of the hallway.  Finally, Lance spoke up with another question.

"So...what does the Galra water machine do?"

A hard look came across Jace and Kora's faces.  They both paused in front of a set of double metal doors.  Kora opened it up as Jace shook his head.

"It will be easier to see it rather than to explain it.  We'll take you to the reservoir tomorrow.  For now, please try to get some sleep."

The four of them entered the small room as the doors shut behind them.  Inside was furnished with several thick floor mats, ratty blankets and other items that looked stolen from the city above.

Lance wrinkled his nose up at the sight.  "Oh...well this is...cozy..."

"Lance, what do you want out of them, five star accommodations?"  Pidge said snidely as they took a seat on one of the floor mats.

"I've stayed in dive motels better furnished than this," Lance muttered.  But he eventually look a seat on the middle mat and sighed, stretching his arms.  "Dios mio, I'm tied enough I think I could sleep for a week."

"Hunk might beat you on that," Keith said.  He pointed to the larger paladin already passed out and starting to snore next to Lance.  "It's been a long day for all of us."

"Heh, you said it, Keith.  I for one am looking forward to kicking some Galran butt tomorrow."

Pidge made a small groan of concern.  "I don't know...something seems off.  Lance said that Galra guy from the quintessence refinery was here.  I don't think he'd show up here just  to have a vacation."

"We can worry about that in the morning."  Keith yawned and settled himself down on the opposite side of the room.  "For now, let's just try to sleep."

Keith got two acknowledgements as Lance and Pidge settle in themselves.  Before long, the two had drifted off, but Keith found himself unable to sleep.  He sat in the corner, his legs curled up against his chest, his head resting on his knees.  He had the same uneasy feeling Pidge had mentioned in his gut, mind racing with all the information from today.  He still wasn't sure he was ready to tell the others that there was something seriously wrong with him.  He wasn't ready to tell them that he felt like his skin was stretched too thin over his bones.  Whatever it was that was going on with his body all of a sudden, he didn't know if he could solve it himself.  It scared him.

Keith felt his eyes starting to droop.  His exhaustion from the day was finally catching up with him.  The others were soundly asleep as Keith started to drift off.  From there, he slept fitfully, waking every few hours from some sort of night terror.  At one point when he woke, he didn't know where he was and panicked a little before he saw Hunk's large form snoring next to him.  Keith curled his knees up to his chest, not wanting to go back to sleep anymore.  He could feel familiar gnawing of hunger starting, but he had no means of quieting it.  His body ached, either from running all day or from sitting scrunched up on the floor mats, he wasn't sure.  Keith scratched at his arms, vainly trying to get under the polymer plastic.  He felt uneasy but he didn't have any real reason to.  He just...did.

Hunk gave a loud snort and rolled over roughly, his arm landing heavily across Lance who was asleep next to him.  Lance gave an abrupt guttural noise as Hunk's arm smacked him across his stomach.  He sat up, eyes bleary as he angrily pushed Hunk off him.  Hunk kept snoring.  Lance blinked a few times, half asleep before he noticed Keith looking at him.  He cocked his head, confused.

"...Keith?  Why...why are you still awake?"

Keith drew his legs tighter, attempting to shrink into the wall.  "Just couldn't sleep, I guess."

Lance yawned, smacking his lips as he scratched his head.  "Tell me about it.  These mats are about as comfortable as a wet knurlcracker's behind."

Keith had no clue what a knurlcracker was nor did he really care to know.  "At least Hunk and Pidge seem comfortable."

Lance glared down at Hunk again, half rolling his eyes.  "Hunk can sleep anywhere, seriously.  I once saw this guy fall asleep standing in line at the commissary at the Garrison because he'd spent the previous night building some kind of radio spectroscope for a class project."

Keith chuckled a bit at the mental image of Hunk asleep holding a food tray. 

"I'm glad to see you smile for once," Lance said quietly.

Keith gave Lance a weird look.  "What?"

"You've been just plain gloomy this last month.  Plus you've been avoiding us like the plague.  Oh don't think we didn't notice, even Allura was worried about you.  Dude, seriously...this isn't just about Shiro being gone, is it?"

Keith looked down at his knees, cursing how perceptive Lance was.  "There's...just been a lot on my mind...that's all."

A moment of silence passed before Lance spoke again.  "You know you can talk to us about it."

Keith turned away, staring at the wall.  "I...don't think you guys would really understand."

"Oh for the love of...Keith, seriously!  Stop trying to do everything on your own!  WE.  ARE.  A.  TEAM!"

Keith flinched at the tone of Lance's voice.  His voice was loud enough it woke Pidge from their sleep.  They shot up from the mat, arms flailing and glasses hanging half off their face.

"Hey-who-what-!"  Pidge noticed Lance and Keith staring at them with wide eyes.  They blushed a little and glared, resetting their glasses.  "W-what?  Matt used to scare me awake, so it's a reflex now."

"Oh, no, we were just wondering if maybe a bug or something had gotten into your mat," Lance said casually, shrugging his shoulders.

Pidge immediately jumped to their feet, stomping at the mat with a look of terror on their face.  They stopped only when they saw the smug look on Lance's face, their face turning bright red.

"Oooh, Lance you're such a asstard!"  Pidge shouted, beating on his back with a furious fist.

The noise was enough to wake Hunk up now.  He snorted loudly and blinked awake, looking around at everyone from the floor.  "Oh, is it time to get up now?"

"No, go back to sleep, Hunk," Pidge replied, still beating on Lance.

"Owww...!  Ok, ok, Pidge enough already!  I'm sorry!  ¡Detene, lo siento, ok!"

Lance's Spanish outburst finally did make Pidge stop hitting him.  He rubbed his arm, tears in his eyes as Pidge huffed satisfactorily.

"You didn't have to hit me that hard!"

"Serves you right!"

"Guys...please..."  Keith finally spoke up amidst all of the noise.  He was rubbing his temples.   "My head is pounding and your bickering isn't helping it."

"What's the matter?" Hunk asked, sitting up at last.  "Whoa...you don't look so good..."

Lance peered over Hunk's shoulder, a eyebrow raised.  "Yeah...buddy, your face is really pale."

"I'm fine," Keith retorted.  "I just need more sleep."

"No, seriously Keith,"  Lance's brow was furrowed.  "You really don't look well.  Do you have a fever?"

"I told you, I'm fine,"  Keith said the last word through gritted teeth.  "It'll...go away in awhile..."

"Wait...this is something that's happened before?!  Why didn't you tell us about this?!"

Keith was getting irritated at Lance's continued prodding.  He was about to tell Lance off when the door to the room opened.  Kora and Jace were standing on the other side along with Teiya and two other Paguos.

"Oh good, you're already awake," Teiya said, her tone flat as she eyed the Paladins.  She motioned with her head to outside the room.  "Come, it's time."

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Teiya took the Paladins to the outskirt hanger, where the four lions were sitting along with several more Paguos.  It was like they had come to see them off.  The shaman was there too, standing underneath the Green Lion.  She smiled when the Paladins approached.

"I hope you slept well, Paladins of Voltron," she said, her smile continuing to broaden.  It revealed a few missing teeth.

"Eh...it was-," Lance was about to say something sarcastic, but a jab in the side from Pidge changed his tone.  "...Great!  It was great!  We slept like angels, right guys?"

"I'm glad."  The shaman clacked her walking staff on the metal floor, the sharp sound echoing across the hanger.  "We rescue our adepts and stop that machine.  It's presence silences the voice of the Azani."

The other Paguos around nodded in agreement, but Pidge was wearing a concerned look.  Keith noticed and asked what the matter was.

"I just worry what would happen if the machine is shut down.  I know it's having a negative effect on the environment, but even if we do shut it down, it might have the opposite effect."

"What do you mean?"  The shaman's ears twitched at Pidge's words.

"I'm saying that instead of the drought conditions you're experiencing now, it could cause mass flooding."

"Can we prevent that?"  Teiya asked.

"I don't know," Pidge answered.  "If the adepts that are left here really can manipulate the water, you might be able to redirect the flooding but it won't be enough."

"Our adepts..."  The shaman's voice grew dark.  "Ever since the Galra arrived, the few adepts who escaped capture have not been able to hear the voice of the Azani."

"Ok well, it doesn't really matter now, does it?"  Lance said.  "We need to rescue those Paguos regardless of what might happen."

"I would have a better grasp on the situation if I could actually see the machine in person.  Before we even rescue anyone."  Pidge sighed, their shoulders dropping.  "I know it's somewhere in the preserve, but we don't know where.  And I particularly don't want to wander around until we either stumble on it or get caught by sentries."

Quiet fell over the group as they stood and contemplated their options.  It was then that Keith remembered his little card from the tourist center.  He reached into his neckband and pulled it out, holding it up to the group.

"I nearly forgot, but there's a map of the city on these cards," he said matter of factly.  "One of the Paugos in the city gave it to me at an information center."

Keith pressed the green button on the back of the card and immediately a 3D map of the city appeared.  It displayed five times the size of the card, but it kept fizzing and twitching, like the signal was bad.

"Ok, that's kinda cool," Pidge stared at the image, scanning over everything.  "Ok, so it looks like we landed near here."  They pointed to a jumble of buildings.  "Is this what we're under right now?"

Teiya shook her head.  "No, the hangers here are closer to the preserve.  Right here."  She pointed, her finger touching the holographic.  The map fizzled again and zoomed into the preserve, pushing out the rest of the city.  Amidst the trees was what looked like a fortress.

"That has to be the reservoir.  And it looks like we can get there from here in no time at all."  Pidge gave Keith a sideways glance.  "What do you think Keith?"

"I think it would be stupid for all of us to go," Keith replied.  He was still feeling unwell, but at least his headache had diminished a little.  "Pidge, I think you should take the Green Lion along with Kora and Jace.  They've actually been to the reservoir.  I'll go with Pidge as well."

"What about us?" Lance asked, crossing his arms.

"I want you and Hunk to stay here and figure out how to find and capture the Galra who's in charge."

"What good is that gonna do?"

Keith smiled a little.  "I figure if we rough him up a little, he might reconsider having his pleasure palace on a desert planet."

"Our information tells us that he lives in the central tower in the residential district.  It's guarded pretty heavily."  Teiya also crossed her arms and turned to the shaman.  "Malquat, what do you think?"

The shaman pursed her lips.  "It's certainly a start.  Teiya, go with the Blue and the Yellow Paladins.  They'll need your expertise."

Teiya bowed to the shaman.  "Of course, Malquat."

 "Alright, finally gonna get to kick some butt!"  Lance pounded his fist into his palm, grinning.  "Let's get going!  Hey, Keith, are you...Keith?"

Lance looked to his left at Keith but he had vanished.  He looked side to side before a loud thud on the other side of the Green Lion made everyone rush around the corner. 

"KEITH!"

Keith had collapsed on the ground.  He was arched inward on himself and making a horrid sound of anguish.  Lance, Pidge and Hunk all ran to his side.  Lance had a look of knowing and annoyance, Hunk looked terrified and Pidge was wearing concern.

"¡Estúpido...!  I knew something was up!"  Lance barely spoke Spanish around them unless he was upset or making a point, so the outburst was a bit of a surprise.  He grabbed the sides of Keith's face and turned him upright, patting his cheeks.  "Hey!  What's going on?!  Keith, talk to me!"

Keith groaned piteously and tried to roll back over, but Lance's hands held him fast.  He didn't like the touch of Lance's gloved hands.  Keith knew Lance was just trying to be supportive, but he really needed him to let go.  It was making the pain worse.  It was just like that time back in the training hall where he'd had that severe attack.  His eyes were squeezed shut from the pain but he heard an audible gasp from Hunk.

"Dude...!  I...I think his arm is broken!"

Keith's eyes snapped open at that.  He craned his neck up to look over his shoulder and down his side.  His right arm was lying awkwardly on the ground.  That happened to be where most of the pain was centered.  Keith tried to move it, but all that did was shoot another jab up his spine and he let out another growl.  Pidge pushed Lance out of the way as Keith lay there whimpering.

"Keith, I'm gonna touch your arm.  I just need to make sure it's not actually broken."

Keith mumbled something of a response and Pidge gingerly lifted up Keith's arm.  The twinge of pain shot up again and Keith ground his teeth against it.

"It's not broken...but it's more like...well, I actually don't know how to put this."  Pidge set Keith's arm back down.

"Like what?"  Lance asked.

"It's almost as if the bones in his arm just...vanished."

Keith blinked at that statement.  Hunk and Lance looked just as confused.

"Bones just don't vanish, Pidge," Lance replied dully.

"I know that!  But I don't know how else to put it.  The bones are still there but they're just...regrowing I guess?"

"Do you think this is related to the quintessence thing?"

"Pardon me, Paladins, but what's going on?"  Teiya and the other three Paguos had been standing there the entire time watching.  She had finally spoken up.  "What's wrong with the red one?"

"Sorry, ma'mam, but we're not sure," Lance answered.  "He had an accident a few weeks ago involving refined quintessence.  This might be related to that."

Keith groaned again on the ground and rolled over onto his other side.  He could feel his other arm needling just like his right.  The pain wasn't receding at all.  These attacks had never lasted this long before.  His anxiety was starting to rise up.  Not now of all times...he wasn't ready yet. 

"Guys, he can't fight like this."  Pidge stood up, addressing Lance and Hunk.  "We should take him back to the castle so Coran can check him.  This is serious."

"But what about rescuing the water adepts?"  Hunk asked.  "We made a promise."

Lance sighed, standing as well.  "Hunk, you of all people should understand this kind of situation.  This is just like the time with the Baalmera."

Hunk's eyes went wide.  "Oh...oh man...this...this is serious, isn't it?"

Lance turned to the shaman and Teiya.  He bowed deeply to them.  "I'm so sorry, but we need to take our teammate back to our ship for immediate medical attention.  But we'll return as soon as possible to help your people."

Teiya was about to say something back, but the shaman held up a hand to stop her.  She looked at Lance with a serious gaze.  "Do what you must for your friend, Paladin.  We shall await your return."

"Thank you so much!"  Lance knelt back down next to Keith.  "Hey, buddy...can you stand at all?"

Keith swallowed and slowly tried to sit up.  The pain in his body was finally starting to quiet, but now he felt light headed and weak.  He was starting to shake.  He sat there for a bit before attempting to stand.  He managed to get to his feet, but that didn't last long as his knees gave out and he fell over.  Hunk luckily caught him and propped him up.

"I gotcha, Keith," Hunk reassured him.  "We're gonna get you fixed up."

Keith cracked a small smile.  He spoke a last.  "Heh...sorry...for being a bother..."

"Naw man...we're friends.  We look out for each other."

"Hunk, you're probably gonna have to tow Red back to Phio," Lance said.

"Whhaaattt...!  Why me?!"

Pidge rolled their eyes.  "Because you boob, Keith is in no shape to pilot, plus Yellow is the only one big enough besides Black to tow ships."

Hunk chuckled sheepishly.  "Oh...right...ehehe..."

"Come on, let's get back to the castle.  We can let Allura know what's going on as well."

 

Chapter Text

"Ok guys, I have some good news and some bad news."

The four Paladins had been brought back to the surface with their lions after the shaman had ordered the hangar door to be opened.  The ground had rumbled and shook as the ceiling opened up and the floor rose up to greet it.  They were now looking up past the tree line canopy at the satellite ring encompassing the planet's uppermost atmosphere.  It was a blurred dark shape through the skyline and tiny dots that were various visitor ships could just barely be seen darting back and forth.

Lance squinted harder at the satellite.  "Ok...well what's the good news?"

Pidge was running their scanner and looking rather perturbed.  "Well...the good news is that we're close to one of the exit ports.  We should be able to get back into orbit and contact Allura for a quick jump in less than half a varga."

"And what's the bad news?"  Hunk was still holding onto Keith's waist and arm, though the Red Paladin was fairing a little better at standing on his own now.

Pidge made a face, corners of their mouth down turning as they grimaced.  "The port is the main entrance."

Everyone's faces fell at that statement.  The continued to stare at the ring in the sky.

"So...we're just gonna go and blast through, right?"

"What?!  No, that's a terrible idea!"

"It's not like we've got anything better."

"We could just, I dunno, go back to where we came in from?"

Keith groaned at Hunk's side as another throb ran through him and he shuddered again.

Lance looked over at Pidge.  "How far is the other port?"

"It's about 20 clicks from here.  We could make it, but that risks being seen.  Only Green and Red have the cloaking installed and Keith can't pilot right now.  The port above us is honestly our best bet out of here."

Lance hummed in thought and started pacing back and forth under his lion.  He wandered for a bit, making faces and looking back up at the ring periodically.  All of a sudden, Lance got a grin on his face, pounding his fist into his palm.  He went running to his lion, pointing back at the others.

"I got this!  Pidge, stay here with Keith.  Hunk, get in Yellow and get ready for my signal!"

"Wait, what?  Lance?  Lance, what are you-?!"

 Hunk was cut off as Lance loaded up and Blue roared to life.  Blue ran off deeper into the forestry.  He gave Pidge a quick look, who just shrugged at him.  Hunk scowled, sighing heavily.

"Quiznak...Keith are you gonna be ok if I set you down here?"

Keith nodded weakly.  His stomach was all over the place and he was fighting the urge to puke, the pain was that bad.  Hunk didn't look convinced, but gently set him on the grass near one of the Green Lion's front paws.  He straightened up, sighing again.

"I dunno what hare-brained idea Lance has gotten into his head, but I'd better follow him.  Take care of Keith, Pidge."

Hunk was just getting up into Yellow's cockpit when a loud crackle came over their helmets.  The headgear had been retrieved right before the hanger had been opened up.  Lance's voice came excitedly into their ears.

"Ok, I'm gonna use Blue's sonic cannon to knock out their sentries and wedge the port open.  We'll have exactly fifteen doboshes before it comes back online.  It should knock out any other ships in the vicinity as well.  Hunk, I want you to bring Red up through the port as soon as I blast the doors open.  Pidge, you and Keith should be right on Yellow's heels in Green."

"Wow, Lance...that's...actually a pretty good idea."  Pidge's voice was surprised.  "We'll be ready then for your signal."

"Roger that!"  Lance crackled off the intercom.  Pidge knelt down to Keith in the grass.

"How you doing, Keith?"

Keith grunted, scoffing lightly.  He really had to force his voice out to answer Pidge.  "I feel like a Mac truck just ran me over...but otherwise I'm fine."

Pidge made another face and offered a hand.  "We're gonna get you fixed up, don't worry,"

Keith almost retorted that he seriously doubted that, but held his tongue.  Instead he took Pidge's hands and used them to pull himself back to his feet.  His world didn't spin this time, but it made his stomach lurch.  He hurriedly turned his head and rolfed into the grass.  He felt Pidge's hands on his back, rubbing it gingerly.  Boy, he was sure getting tired of puking.

A low vibration rumble unexpectedly swept over the forest, rattling the trees and sending birds flying.  Keith felt it in his bones as it roared across the landscape.

"That must have been the sonic cannon," Pidge said.  Their hands were still on Keith's back.  "Hunk, any word from Lance yet?"

Hunk's voice came into the helmet intercom.  "Not yet.  But I don't remember the sonic cannon making that sort of noise."

"Maybe because it was used on a planet surface, versus being in space?  The atmosphere might change its sound struc-"

A shriek pierced through Pidge's voice and squealed harshly in their earpieces.  Everyone winced at the scream.  At almost the same time, a flurry of Galran sentry ships came flooding out of the forest from several clicks away.  They shot straight for the port above their heads.

Lance's voice came through the earpiece, panicked.  "Ok, ok that was a really bad idea!"

Hunk responded, Yellow's head turning upwards to the sky.  "Lance, what happened!?"

"My cannon knocked out the sentries, but it also triggered an automatic defense mechanism!  Ack!!  Whoa, shi-!" 

Lance's voice stopped abruptly as a tiny blue speck in the sky dodged the swarm.  Yellow started moving, getting ready to join the firefight.

"Pidge, I'm gonna go help Lance!"

"Ok, be careful!  I'll be right behind you!"

Yellow leapt up into the air, floating over the treetops as he growled lowly and shot a few lasers blasts at the sentry swarm.  It hit a few ships as they exploded, showering debris down to the surface.  Yellow came up quickly to Blue's flank, barreling through more ships.  Blue turned his head towards Yellow, as if approving of the help.  Lance came back onto the intercom.

"Whoa, thanks buddy."

Hunk grinned, twiddling his control sticks.  "I got your back!"

Lance smiled back and turned his attention back to the guard ships and the port above their head.  "Ok, new plan!  We're just gonna rush the port and destroy part of it.  That should buy us enough time to blast through."

"What about Pidge and Keith?!"

"We'll worry about that later!  Hunk, more on your right!"  Yellow was too bulky to avoid the shots, but a blast from below destroyed the would-be attackers.  Pidge now joined the three way conversation.

"I got you from down here!  Get that port open!"

"You got it!"

Blue and Yellow split off in opposite directions, with Blue demolishing more ships as Yellow rose higher into the outer atmosphere to attack the satellite structure.  It was of course more heavily guarded.  Yellow just barely managed to avoid laser cannon fire as he flew hard at one of the support beams.  He collided with the metal, tearing off a large chunk.  It wasn't enough though; the beam was still holding strong.  Hunk pulled his right control  forward as the left held back, steering Yellow out of harm's way again.  Yellow arched, settling a little further up above the port.  He was pretty much out of Iaulia's atmosphere now.

"This thing is pretty tough," Hunk said, shifting his controls again. "I'm gonna try something different."

"Well, whatever you're gonna do, do it fast!  I'm getting fragged down here!"   

Blue was weaving in and out of sentry blots, avoiding falling debris from said ships.  Pidge and Keith had gotten into Green and were firing covering shot from the ground, but it wasn't helping much.  It seemed the more ships they destroyed, three more took its place.  Hunk in Yellow swerved out of the fire of another laser blast as he inserted his bayard into its slot at his right.  Yellow's eyes flared as his heavier armor materialized, claws extending and back  curving to accept the new upgrade.  Hunk twisted the bayard clockwise and a new weapon formed on Yellow's left shoulder.  It was his shoulder cannon.

"Ok, here goes nothing!"

Yellow let out a deafening roar as the cannon charged up and let loose a powerful barrage straight into the side of the satellite.  It hit dead center on the right side of the port opening, causing a spectacular explosion.  Black smoke billowed forth, obscuring the definite hole.  Hunk let out a triumphant cry.

"Yeah!  I think that did it!"

But as the smoke started to clear, it revealed that it had only destroyed the outer shell of the port.  The internal structure was still intact.  Hunk's face fell but he quickly geared up to fire his cannon again.  This time, he was going to destroy it completely.  A warning light came on in his monitor's corner just as he was about to fire again.

A larger Galran ship had appeared, but it wasn't a flagship.  This one was smaller, though still larger than the sentry ships, it had an unusual design to it as well.  Just as Hunk got it into his Lion's sights, the ship disappeared.

"What the-?"

Lance's voice came into Hunk's ear.  "HUNK!  WATCH OUT!"

Hunk didn't have time to react.  Something crashed into the side of Yellow, throwing him off balance and spinning off away from his position above the port.  Red warning lights flashed angrily at Hunk inside the cockpit.  Yellow rammed into the battered portion of the port and bounced across its surface.  Hunk was jostled as he was thrown about.  He didn't even have time to recover when Yellow was hit hard by a direct ion charge.  Yellow was smashed into the twisted metal of the satellite.  He was no longer moving.

"Hunk!"   Lance's frantic voice bellowed into the earpiece.  "Hunk, can you hear me?!  HUNK!"

Down on the surface, Pidge and Keith could see everything that was happening from the Green Lion's monitors.  Pidge had made an audible gasp as Yellow crashed heavily into the satellite's exterior, loud enough for Keith to hoist himself up off the floor to look.  There was little they could do on the ground, save for joining the fight too, but Lance had asked Pidge to look after Keith.  So that was where they were going to stay.  Pidge would just have to do their best and provide cover from below.

Lance's angry voice came over the speaker comms again.  "¡Puta...!  You're gonna pay for that!"

Blue had rounded about face on the rogue Galran ship, a glint of fury in Lance's eyes as he glared through his monitors.  He toggled his controls to rush headlong at the ship, mouth open wide to release a blast of icy laser.  The ship dodged the attack, but not before its left wingtip got glazed in ice.  Blue came around again, this time firing his tail laser.  Again, the ship dodged the attack, edging further and further from the satellite port. 

Lance and Blue were lured further away, shooting laser shot after shot to no avail.  The sentry ships had returned and were now swarming around the Blue Lion.  Lance was now surrounded.  Blue tried the frozen laser again, but that only managed to destroy a handful of ships.  The sentries had succeeded however, in distracting Lance long enough for the Galran ship to charge up its ion cannon.  Pidge stood up in their chair, hands slamming down on the controls as they watched helplessly.

"No!  Lance, it's a trap!"

The Blue Lion was hit broadside with the ion charge.  Pidge and Keith watched as Blue was tossed aside from the force, drifting back towards the satellite.  Luckily, Blue was out of the danger zone, and was quickly back on his feet.  Pidge got back in their chair, flipping some switches and tapping their helmet intercom.

"Lance!  Are you ok?!"

A groan came over the earpiece.  "Unghh...yeah...but if I get hit with that again, I'm a goner."

" Any response from Hunk yet?"

"Negative.  Yellow's still down for the count."

Pidge jostled their controls.  "Roger that, I'm coming up to help you."   They were about to take off when a loud thunk made Pidge look over their shoulder.  Keith had gotten up and was attempting to exit the cockpit.  Pidge got up out of their chair again, grabbing Keith's arm.

"Keith, what are you doing?!"

"I'm...gnngh...supposed to be the leader right now...I can't...just sit on my ass..."

"No!  Absolutely not!  You're in no shape to walk, let alone pilot!"

Keith wrenched his arm out of Pidge's grasp.  "No!  I...have to...just...guhhh...hnngnh..."  Keith braced himself on the wall.  He was still in a lot of pain and it hurt to move. But he was determined to do this.

Pidge's tone was soft and pleading.  "Keith, please...just let us handle this for now."

Keith gave Pidge a glare and slammed the cockpit door button.  "Shut...up...I'm going."  He jumped out of the Green Lion and into the grass, landing roughly.  His legs almost gave out but he had steeled his nerves for this.  He'd been in worse pain before, like after he'd gotten the snot beat out of him at the Blade of Mamora's headquarters.  Keith winced at the memory as he stumbled closer to his lion.  Pidge's voice was behind him, imploring him to come back.  Keith ignored it, instead shouting over his shoulder reached the front claws of Red.

"Pidge...Try to get a hold of Allura...If she can...ugh...if she can link us a wormhole, we won't...have to worry."

"But Keith, we can't teleport inside the satellite's barrier!"

"Don't you think I know that?!"  Keith snarled, making Pidge flinch.  "I'm gonna take care of that satellite.  Gonna...slice it...clean in half..."

"Slice...?  Wait, Keith, you can't- Keith!"

Red's eyes had lit up as she came to life, leaning down to meet Keith face to face.  He reached out and gently stroked her nose.  "Let's go, girl."

As Keith got into Red and settled into his pilot's seat, he suddenly felt at ease.  The pain in his bones seemed lessened, though he knew it was still there, he felt empowered.  Like this was all going to turn out just fine.  He took a deep breath and let Red loose.  She roared viciously as she leapt into the sky, making short of the distance between the ground and the satellite.  Lance appeared on his monitor.

"What the quiznak?!  Keith, what the coño do you think you're doing?!"

"Pidge is gonna try getting a hold of Allura so we can get the heck outta here.  You just keep that ship at bay while I take care of this!"

"Keith, don't try to be a hero!"  Lance had serious concern in his voice.  "You were just on the ground barely able to move a few minutes ago!"

"I'm fine for now, don't worry about me."  Keith swiftly took care of one of the port's guard cannon towers as he settled onto its shell.  Lance was having none of it.

"To hell with that!  I'm gonna worry whether you like it or not!"

"Then worry later!  Lance, ships on your six!"

Lance was shut up as he started another assault on the sentry ships and the Galran ship in its center.  The larger ship had retreated a bit and was letting the sentries do more of the grunt work.  Keith maneuvered Red over to Yellow, who was finally starting to stir.

"Hunk!  Glad to see you coming around!"

Yellow slowly got to his feet, shaking off debris and steadying himself.  "Ughh...yeah...wait, Keith what are you doing here?!"

"That's not important right now.  I need you to go help Lance keep those ships at bay.  I'm gonna use my lion's sword to slice through this thing so we can get out of here."

Hunk mumbled something incoherent.  "This thing is pretty tough.  Can your sword even cut it?"

"We're gonna find out."

Lance's happy voice interrupted them.  "Hunk!  Buddy!  Oh man, am I ever glad to see you!"

"Heh, yeah sorry about that.  Hold up, I'm coming to help ya out!"

"Much appreciated!  If you can keep tabs on that rogue Galran ship, it'd make my day a lot easier."

As Yellow took off to help Blue, Keith took his bayard and activated it.  Red's sword materialized in her mouth as her claws dug deep into the metal of the port.  She ran up the surface, her head turned so that the blade slashing into it.  Explosions followed behind her footsteps.  Eventually she had to leave the ground, twisting about in the thin atmosphere to look at her work.  But just as with Hunk's cannon, the sword had only scratched the outermost layer.  That wasn't about to stop Keith.  With the fighters still occupied, Keith took Red and her sword to hit the port at a different angle.  Red reangled her sword and prepared to strike again.

Keith heard the charge before the warning lights went even off.  At her current position, Red couldn't dodge it, even with all her nimbleness.  Keith braced himself for the impact of an ion blast, but a flash of green whizzed past his nose before the cannon even went off.  Keith heard the cracking noise of crunching metal as the cannon and its surrounding turret were coiled into something unrecognizable as a weapon.

"I got your back, Keith!"  Pidge's voice resonated into Keith's hemlet as the Green Lion flew off past Red to where Yellow and Blue were keeping the rogue ship at bay.  It was doing a fair job of keeping up with the two-now-three-man assault.  Keith turned his attention back to the job at hand; clearing a path large enough for all of them to escape.  Red got back into position underneath the port and snapped her head to the side, swiftly cutting at where the damage had already been done.  The metal blade screeched into the space material, ripping more debris free and sending it flying.  Red hacked at it a few more times, but it was only making the smallest of dents.  Keith frowned in frustration.

"Guys, this isn't working.  We need something bigger."

A crackle then a garbled voice replied.  "What do you mean, 'something bigger'?!"

Keith took Red back up to the port and had her land on the surface.  Her tail swished agitatedly as she clawed at the plastimetal surface.  Keith repeated his statement.  "My sword alone isn't sharp enough to cut into this stuff.  We need a bigger sword.  We need Voltron."

"Keith, that's impossible!" Lance sputtered into his headset.  Blue dodged another cannon shot and pawed some sentry ships out of the air.  The rogue ship was starting to gain the upper hand.

"There's no other way!"

"What if we all hit it with our lasers at the same time?" Pidge offered a suggestion  as Green fired a shot from her back cannon.  It missed and struck another portion of the satellite ring.  The rogue ship zipped around Green and made a beeline for Keith and Red.

"Keith, watch out!"  Yellow shot towards the ship to knock it off course, but being a smaller and much faster vessel, it easily dodged him.  It veered off with Yellow standing between it and Red.  "We can't do anything while this guy is here!  All he does is keep dancing around our attacks!  It's almost like he's taunting us."

"Or maybe...he's..."  Keith's eyes got wide as the realization hit him like a rock.  "Guys!  Get out of there!  Right now!  He's a decoy!"

Blue and Green were still out fighting sentry ships when the flagships came out of hyperspace.  Two of them, to be precise.  They were right in each ships' firing range and the sudden barrage of laser fire threw the two of them hard into the satellite's side.  Yellow was hit broadside by the rouge ship as it was distracted by the appearance of the flagships.  He collided into the satellite as well, near Blue and Green.  The smaller Galran ship rose up to level itself with the flagships, sentry ships swarming around them as well, aligning into a new formation.  Red had not been hit and was still staring down the now full battalion of Galran ships.  Keith turned his attention to his teammates, calling their names but getting no response.  The other three Lions remained embedded in the side of the satellite.  Keith felt his heart sink.  No, not here, not now!  They were so close to escape...

Keith's awareness was snapped back to the squad in front of him.  The sentries had started another wave formation and were attacking.  Since Keith was the only one still in commission, he was the main target.  Red swiveled in the thin atmosphere and took off into the horde, attempting to thin it out.  But he was seriously outnumbered and the Galra knew it too.

 Keith managed to slice into one of the larger flagships, but it wasn't enough to destroy it.  More sentries were hot on Red's tail, firing barrage after barrage and endeavoring to take the lion down.  Red was quick and that was at least in her favor; but Keith was tiring.  His limbed were aching again and starting to go numb.  He could barely feel his fingers gripping the control sticks as he weaved in and out of clusters of sentry ships.  Sweat rolled down Keith's temple and he was starting to get dizzy.  He took another stab at the damaged flagship, this time managing to hit a more vital spot.  It exploded with great fire, breaking in half and taking out some of its own ships. 

Keith turned his attention to the small oddly designed ship, but it had disappeared.  His warning signals didn't even have time to go off before something hit the top of Red hard and fast.  She was flung across the space between the ships and the satellite, rolling across the top and leaving heavy dents in her wake.  Keith was banged up as well as she rolled, eventually coming to a stop on her side as bright red lights flashed inside the cockpit.

"...hnnghh...ughh..." Keith's vision was still reeling as he tried to get Red moving again.  She was down for the count this time.  In desperation, Keith called out to his friends once more.  "...Guys?  Hey, are you guys ok?  Hello...?"

The other end was silent and Keith's heart sunk even lower.  Allura had told them to be careful, but that hadn't been enough to take heed.  This might just be the end of them.  Keith closed his eyes, the regret welling up inside his chest.  "I'm so sorry...everyone..."

At that moment, a low humming throb resonated in Keith's chest and his eyes opened wide at the feeling.  It pulsated through his entire body, thrumming with more intensity as it got louder and louder in Keith's ears.  His breath hitched in his throat as he watched the sky above the satellite open up with a wormhole.  He dared to believe what his eyes were telling him.  Barreling out of the gaping mouth of the wormhole was the Black Lion.  It roared ferociously as it flew down into the flock of sentry ships, destroying several with swipes of its claws.  It turned its head towards Keith. The look felt familiar and comforting, a presence of which Keith knew well.

"...Shiro?"

An electric pop on the intercom drew Keith out of his shock.  Another familiar voice reached his ears and Keith's heart leapt.

"...what the hell happened?" Lance sounds dazed but ok.  It was followed by a surprised gasp.  "What the quiznak?!"

The Blue Lion staggered to his feet, shaking rubble off his shoulders as he stared at the Black Lion looking down at them.  The Galran ships had halted dead in their tracks, unsure of whether to attack or back down.  Keith watched as Green and then Yellow rose up as well.  He heard the astonishment in both Hunk and Pidge's own gasps as they looked up at the Black Lion.

"T-that's impossible!"  Pidge was trying to rationalize what they were seeing.

"Maybe it came to save us, like Red did for Keith?"  Hunk was also in great disbelief.

"But there's no one IN the Black Lion!"

The Black Lion turned its gaze back to the Galran ships and roared deafeningly.  Keith got an immediate sense of what to do next.  At the same time, each of the other lions looked at each other and then back to the Black Lion.

"Dude...I just got this really weird vibe..."  Lance sounded confused.

"Like what?"  Hunk asked.

"Like...we're gonna form Voltron."

"You got that too?!"  Pidge exclaimed.

"Did the Black Lion just...tell us that...in our minds?"  Hunk sounded even more confused than Lance.

Keith signed.  "Who cares where it came from, let's listen to it!  Everyone, form Voltron!"

Keith got a rowdy chorus of agreement from his teammates.  Each of the lion's eyes sparkled as they leapt up from the ground, limbs shifting with a great clank of metal and spark.  Red and Green's front legs shifted into their torsos as their back legs curled up underneath them.  Yellow and Blue turned on their heads, forming the feet, knees and whole legs of Voltron.  The Black Lion sat upright as Blue and Yellow took their respective places as either of Voltron's legs, snapping into place with mechanical sounds of pistons and steam.  Red and Green soon joined to become the right and left arms of Voltron.  The Black Lion's mouth opened, revealing the ever stoic face of Voltron, eyes flashing with determination as the whole of Voltron finally came together.

"Oh...it has been too long..." Lance crooned, feeling elated at forming Voltron after so long.  "I've missed this feeling."

"Me too," Pidge replied.  "I feel ready to take on the world!"

"Then let's do it!"  Keith leaned forward, a devilish grin on his face.  "Bayards, ready!"

Even with no apparent pilot sitting in the cockpit of the Black Lion, words didn't need to be spoken.  Everyone knew what needed to be done.  The portal was still open above their heads, but the flagships had to be taken out first.  They stood between Voltron and escape.  Each Paladin activated their bayards in their Lions and Voltron soon had its long sword drawn and ready.  At this point, the Galran ships had decided to try attacking again.  Sentries were trying to swarm, but Voltron easily swept through them, heading straight for the remaining flagship.  With one swing, the long sword sliced through its midsection, effectively severing and obliterating it.  In its fiery defeat, Voltron brushed off more sentries that had been on its tail.  There were only a handful left now that the flagships were gone.  And of course, the smaller rogue Galran ship.  It had taken a backseat when Voltron had formed and was still hanging back, seemingly unsure of whether to approach or not.

Keith had no interest in the small ship now.  Their path had been cleared and they needed to make a break for it.

"Come on guys, let's make for the wormhole!" 

Keith urged his teammates forward, Voltron's leg thrusters blazing to propel it closer to the portal.  Something started to come in over the intercom, faint and broken at first, but Keith recognized the voice.

"...kssshkk...pa-ksshkk-p-p-paladins?  Are you there?"

"Allura!"  Everyone shouted simultaneously.

Allura's voice was still faint and kept fading in and out.  "I can't ke-kkssshhhkkk...the wormhole....kssshkk lon-ksshkkk...interfe-ksshhkk..."

Keith leaned forward, trying to hear Allura better.  "Princess?  I'm getting a lot of interference...Hello?  Allura?  Hello?"

Just like that, Allura was gone and replaced by only radio static.  Keith tried to bring the signal back, but it was no use.  She was off the air.  But her message had been clear enough.

"Guys, we need to get to that wormhole now," Keith declared.  "I'm sure that was a warning from Allura.  That portal may not be open for much long and then we'll really be in a pickle."

"But what about that guy?" Hunk questioned, obviously indicating the Galran ship who still floated silently before them.

"Forget him!  We need to go now!"

Keith couldn't see it, but everyone nodded in agreement.  Voltron had turned its back to the Galran ship as it made for the portal.  That was a mistake.  As Voltron drifted closer to the wormhole, a sudden blast of charged ion beam grazed its left shoulder.  Thankfully, the pauldron from the Green Lion protected it from serious damage.  Voltron looked over its shoulder at the Galran ship, which hovered there as if to say how dare you ignore me.  A new static entered the intercom with a strange unknown voice.

"You little Paladins won't be escaping me anytime soon."  The voice was young, jaded and fluid.  It was a voice Keith suddenly recognized.  His eyes narrowed into a glare.

"You...you're that Galra from the refinery!"

A chortle reverberated as the Galra spoke again.  "Hmm yes, I suppose that was our first meeting.  But really, I had expected better out of you, Red Paladin of Voltron."

Keith continued to glare through his screen monitor.  "You seem to know us quite well...but who are you, exactly?"

The Galra scoffed.  "Ah, yes I suppose a proper introduction is in order.  I am Lotor, Prince of the Galran Empire.  I'd also like to thank you for getting my father out of the way, even if you couldn't finish the job."

There was quite the pause as the weight of this information sunk in.  Each Paladin reacted at the same time, either with shock or disgust.

"Wait, what?!" / "Eww, that old purple prune had a kid?!" / What the quiznak?!" / "I can't believe Zarkon has a son..."

Their reaction was obviously not one Lotor was expecting.  He puffed indignantly over the intercom.  "How dare you!  Or does your backwater boondock planet not have a concept of heirs?!"

Keith laughed at Lotor's annoyance.  "Oh, no we do, we do.  But there's a reason empires died out on our homeworld.  It's because we don't praise mediocre idiots who ride on Daddy's coattails."

"Ooohhhhhh snap!" Lance whistled in approval.  "Damn, taking one outta my book there Keith!"

Lotor sputtered incoherently, clearly infuriated before composing himself enough to hiss an insult at Keith.  Keith merely clicked his tongue.

"Oh dear, that was nasty.  What's the matter?  Did I strike a nerve?"

"You little...!  You won't be smiling so broadly when I kill you all and take the Lions for myself!"

"Ha!  I'd like to see you try."  Lance was joining in on the snark.  "Sorry, Lotor, we'd love to stay and play with you, but we've got more pressing matters to deal with."

"Yeah, gotta know when to quit when you're ahead," Pidge inputted.

Keith gave Lotor's ship a farewell salute.  "See ya later, little Prince."

"Wait!  You can't just leave like that!  Get back here!"

The Paladins were no longer listening to Lotor's blathering.  Voltron's thrusters flared again and shot straight for the portal.  Lotor's ship began to fire wildly at it, barely able to hit the broadside of a barn in his fury.  But the shots did manage to hit the satellite and the port.  It was enough of a barrage to effectively destroy it (at freaking last).  The debris scattered as the port split in half, splintering into several large pieces amidst explosions.  Voltron blasted through the port and finally out into open space.  Lotor's ship was close on its heels, still discharging it's bombardment of laser fire.  The wormhole was starting to close up.  There was only milliticks before it was shut for good.

"Come on!  Lance, Hunk, give me one more good thrust!  We can do this!"

Lance and Hunk gave it their all, pushing forward in a last ditch effort.  Voltron lurched forward as its leg thrusters burst forth with more power.  It penetrated the swirling surface of the wormhole and just managed to enter as it snapped shut.

"NO!"  Lotor slammed his fists on his control console, spittle flying.  Voltron had escaped his grasp by just a hair's width.  "Damn them...!"

A sergeant behind Lotor dared to speak up.  "Sir...perhaps it's better that they escaped..."

Lotor responded by smashing the sergeant's face into the wall.  He slumped unconscious to the floor.  The other Galra on the bridge flinched but didn't dare to speak again.  Lotor balled his fist and turned to the monitor, golden eyes glowering.

"You petulant little brats...I'll get you next time, Voltron...I swear by my Altean blood."

 

Chapter Text

The other end of the wormhole tunnel finally opened up and Voltron came barreling out, straight into a thunderstorm.  The portal had opened up right into the lower atmosphere of Phio and Voltron was coming in far too fast and far too close to the water's surface.  Warning lights began to flash as the robot tumbled in the gale and rain.  Keith heard his teammates struggling to keep control .  He gripped his own controls tightly, attempting to as well but it was useless.  Without a pilot in the head, Voltron was spiraling out of control and straight for the ocean. 

"Guys!  We're gonna have to split apart!" Keith shouted desperately into his comm.  He was using all his strength to keep his side of Voltron steady, as he hoped everyone else was.

"But if we do that, we'll still crash into the water!"  Lance' reply was filled with static.  The lightning must be interferring.

"Not necessarily!" Pidge grunted into their comm, also filled with static.  "If we all throw our controls upward the instant we break apart, we should be fine!"

"Ooohh, Pidge I hope you're right about this!"  Hunk sounded anxious through his strained groans.

"It's a long shot, but you'll have to trust me!"

Keith's brow furrowed as he readjusted his grip.  "Ok, let's do this!  Break!"

Voltron glowed like the flashes of lightning around it and split back into individual lions, and not a moment too soon.  Each of the five lions sharply turned and shot upward, just skimming the top of the choppy ocean.  However, that was all the control they got.  The dive was too strong and they lost control.  Keith felt his lion twist in the air, the warning lights flashing even more frantically as he went flying off towards a nearby island.  Red smashed into several trees, uprooting them as she skidded through the mud, stopping just short of a cliff's edge.  She lay there motionless, the rain not letting up and the loud rumbles of thunder was all to be heard.

Keith came to a few minutes later to darkness and low red emergency lights blinking in the cockpit.  He groaned, lucky to have stayed in his seat through the crash.  His neck felt weird and he was sure a headache was coming on.  Lightning flashed again outside his windshield, displaying the expanse below him of heavy forest.  Keith jostled his control stick, but it was out of commission.  He groaned again, tapping his comm.

"Guys...hey guys, are you ok?"  Keith waited for a reply, but all he got was more static.  Just what he needed.

Keith sighed and decided to unbuckle himself.  As he went to move his left arm, a nasty jolt made him flinch.  A spark of lightning illuminated the bright red dripping onto his white armor.  He was bleeding heavily from a gash on his upper arm.  A few feet behind him, a sharp piece of unknown metal (maybe debris from the space station?) lay on the floor stained.  Keith leaned back in his seat, holding to his arm.  He didn't know how far he was from the castle or where the other lions had crashed.  He didn't know when his lion would come back online, if at all.  Keith slowly shook his head.  No, he didn't have time to think like that.  He tried his comm again but it was still not working.  He was alone out in the storm, injured and without power.

As Keith sat there with only the sound of the thunderstorm, he began to feel his body tightening.  All the previously subdued aches were coming back full force.  Keith had strained his body too far and he was paying for it now.  His joints all felt like they were being stretched too thin, as if they were hardening taffy.  He swore his bones were splintering apart right under his skin, he just was sore all over.  His vision was going hazy; shock from the blood loss was starting to settle in. 

"S-shit...," Keith swore under his breath.  So was this how he was going to go out then?  He grimaced and smirked a little in his half conscious state.  "Heh...they better find...a good replacement...for me..."

".....ith...."

Keith blinked in the dull red darkness.  The rain outside was deafening on the metal surface of his lion, but he thought...?

"....eith...."

Keith sat up a little, still clutching his arm and wincing.  Even that slight of a movement hurt.  "Hello?  Lance?  Is that you?"

Keith assumed it was his head comm, but that was still filling his ears with static.  He settled back in, thinking the pain was finally starting to affect his brain.

"I must...be going crazy..."

"....Keith...."

Keith bolted upright at that and immediately regretted it.  He knew that voice coming into his headset.  It was a voice he hadn't heard in months.

"S-Shiro...?"  Keith whispered, falling back into his seat.  His visions was super fuzzy now and he could barely keep his eyes open.  "Is...nngghnn...is that really you?"

"...I'm...kay...lim...Keith...resc...,"  Shiro's voice was faint, but Keith could just make out his words.

"What?  Rescue?  But...where are you?"  Keith blinked a few times, staring at the windshield.  A clouded form of what might have been Shiro slowly appeared, just barely visible to Keith in the darkness.

"Lim...Lion...lead...hel...........,"  Shiro's voice started to fade away along with his form in the windshield.

"Wait!  Shiro!  Don't go, please!  Shiro!"  Keith reached out to grab at Shiro's arm but he disappeared in a bolt of lightning.  At that same moment, Red came back to life, the cockpit filling with light and blinding Keith.  His head set crackled and another familiar voice came into his ear.

"....Keith?  Keith, can you hear me?"

"Princess...yeah...I...ugh...copy...,"

Allura's voice was faint and kept coming in and out but she breathed a sigh of relief on the other end.  "Oh thank goodness!  Are ...ok?  We couldn't...hold...you...the storm..others..worried..."

Keith grunted as he shifted in his chair.  With the cabin lights back on he could see splashes of blood littering the floor and console.  He must have really rolled around when he crashed.  "Allura?  I'm having trouble hearing you.  The crash landing back through the wormhole and the storm messed up my communicator.  If you can hear me, I have to thank you for that.  You opened it up just in time."

There was a pause on the other end of the comm line.  After a while, Allura's voice came back.  It was a little clearer now, but it was still quiet.  "Well...I, that... Are you hurt?  You sound strained."

Keith shook his head, even though he knew Allura couldn't see it.  "I've lost...a lot of blood..."

Another pause as thunder rumbled overhead.  It sounded like the storm was starting to let up just a bit.  Red's console might have been back up, yet she remained in the same position, unmoving.    No more voices came through his comm.  Keith's eyes were hazing again, his body fully in shock now. The rain pelted outside, creating an echo within the cabin but in Keith's ears it was nothing more than a dull, muffled noise.  Red was abruptly jostled from the side, causing Keith's head to roll on his shoulders and bang the side of his chair.  Keith barely registered it, his senses numb from shock.  He cracked his eyes open with great effort to see his video comm pop open with two familiar faces.

"Keith!  Allura said you were in trouble!"  Pidge's small face quickly changed to horror as they saw Keith's state of being.  "Keith?!"

"I knew you had pushed yourself too far!"  Lance had anger in his voice but it was overlayed with desperate concern.  His friend was in dire straights, any fool could see that.

Keith managed a tiny smirk and a chuckle.  "Some...leader I am...I guess..."

"Hold on, we're gonna tow you back to the castle,"  Lance replied, ignoring Keith's self depreciating comment.  His video feed cut off and Red's right side was bumped.  Keith felt his lion being lifted up and moving.  There was little he could do but sit there and fight the overwhelming urge to sleep.  Sleep sounded so good right now...then maybe the pain would finally stop...he was just so tired...

"Keith, stay with me!"  Pidge's voice broke into his ears.  "We're almost to the glade and the castle.  The rain's letting up, see?  We're gonna get you fixed up.  Just a little longer...ok?"

Keith mumbled something and rolled his head back down to his chest.  He still held onto his wounded arm, but the grip was gone.  Some of the blood had started to dry and crack on his armor, creating a nasty crust.  At some point, his helmet had come off...where had it gone?  Keith blinked.  Was it just him...or was his wrist poking out from under his sleeve, as if the sleeve were too short?

Red shook again, roughly this time.  Keith bounced in his chair, eliciting a pained groan from the red paladin.  He couldn't move himself, he was just so weak from losing that much blood.  Were those footsteps?  Keith thought he heard voices inside the cockpit with him, but he couldn't make them out.  Was someone lifting him?  He wasn't sure, he couldn't really feel much right now.  He couldn't even open his eyes right now.  Something wet touched his face, making him flinch.  Oh...he must be outside now.  Why was he outside...oh right...he had crashed...

"Hunk, be careful with him!"  Lance said sharply.

"I'm trying, but you keep pulling to the side!  I'm gonna drop him at this point!"

"Knock it off, you two, we don't have time for this!  Keith is going to die if we don't get him into the medical bay right away!"

Pidge stood next to a hovering cone shaped pod.  It was one of the stasis containers from the medical bay.  They gasped a little as Hunk and Lance lowered Keith into the pod.  "Oh quiznak...he looks worse than I thought..."

"He'll be fine."  Lance's tone was still sharp.  "Keith is tough.  He's...we've been through worse."

Hunk knotted his brow together as the pod's lid slowly closed.  "I don't know...that gash is really horrid.  It cut through his armor for Christ's sake."

"Look, can we just stop talking and get him to the medical bay?"  Lance snapped, clearly agitated.  "You said it yourself, we don't have time for this."

Lance tapped a button on the pod's console and it hummed to life, slowly floating back towards the castle's open gate.  Pidge and Hunk gave each other looks, but silently followed Lance back into the castle and out of the rain.  The lions would have to wait.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

"Quickly, quickly!  Get him in here!"  Coran's voice was strained as the stasis pod floated into the medical bay.  The other paladins were in hot pursuit as Coran turned the pod upright and settled it into one of the floor's outlets.  The doors opened again and Allura came running in, looking distressed like everyone else.

"What is it?!  What's going on?!"  Her eyes widened even further at the sight of an unsightly pale Keith covered in blood inside the stasis pod and she clasped her hands over her mouth.  "By the stars...Keith?!"

"Princess, please step back!," Coran held out his arms to keep Allura from getting closer to the pod.  "I need to calibrate the pod to the castle's system and if I don't do it soon, that pod won't be enough to keep him alive."

"Wait, I thought he'd just lost blood from that gash?!"  Pidge nearly shouted in concern.

"It's more than just that," Coran replied.  "While you all were on Iaulia, I was doing some research pertaining to Keith's quintessence exposure.  It reminded me of some old research data back when Altea was still around."  Coran hastily pressed some backlit buttons on his console and the stasis pod glowed brightly, making a soft mechanized noise.  "When I did some tests on Keith's blood samples, I-"

“Give it to me straight Coran.  Is Keith gonna die or not?”  Lance’s voice cut the older Altean off.  He was looking Coran square in the eye, his jaw set firm.

Coran’s eyebrows knotted as his moustache drooped a little.  He turned back to his console.  “I can’t say for sure, Lance.  Not until I make sure his data and this old data aren’t the same.”

“Coran, what are you talking about?”  Allura was still standing to the right of the pod, staring at the pale blue tinged glass front.  “What data?”

“I’m so sorry Princess.”  Coran tapped a few more buttons on the console and Keith’s pod hissed like an angry cat.  Pressurized steam flooded out from its vent holes at the bottom as small lights flashed on its glass surface.  Coran straightened up and turned to face the three restless paladins and one worried princess.  He took a deep breath before continuing.

“Princess, your father asked me to keep this a secret from you until you were old enough to handle the truth; the true reason why the war between Altea and the Galra home planet began.  Before you were born and when I was yet a small boy, the Galra had started to experiment on an inter-dimensional rift that opened up on their planet when a large meteor struck the surface.  That meteor eventually became the lions that comprise Voltron, of which you already knew.  Back then, King Alfor and the original Paladins had helped Zarkon and his Altean wife in their research but…in the end, the raw quintessence pouring out from the rift slowly poisoned Zarkon and his wife.  They went mad and eventually begun to believe that Altea was their enemy.  King Alfor saw that the only way to close the rift and stem the poisonous flow was to destroy Daibazaal.”

“That…that’s absurd…,” Allura had taken a few steps back from Coran.  The other Paladins looked equally confused as well as appalled.  “Zarkon destroyed Altea…he…he killed the other paladins…my father…!  Coran…what are you saying?!”

“Please, Princess, try to understand.”  Coran’s voice was gentle.  “Your father wanted to protect you from this.  Zarkon and Alfor were friends long ago, but Zarkon has forgotten those times in his centuries of poisoned judgment.  He only sought the power of quintessence.”

“But wait, what does all this have to do with Keith?” Hunk asked, crossing his arms and frowning.  “Like, I know Keith got dumped in a giant vat of that refined quintessence stuff.  But you had said his blood work was normal.”

Coran nodded.  “That’s what I had thought, until I took another look at the readings.  Keith’s body is-,”

“Hey, Keith’s moving inside the pod!”  Pidge cut Coran off this time as their pointed to the unconscious red paladin.  Everyone looked to see Keith’s face grimacing behind the glass.  He looked like he was shaking and sweat was dripping off his forehead.  At the same time, bright red and angry warning lights flared to life on Coran’s console as the loud cry of the castle’s alarm system sounded off.  Everyone winced at the loud noise, covering their ears as the castle’s calm computer voice spoke over the alarm.

Warning.  Dangerous level of radiation detected in medical bay.  Securing area for quarantine.  Warning.  Dangerous levels of radiation detected-,”

“Wait, quarantine?!  What does that-,” Lance didn’t even have time to finish his sentence as the guard doors of the medical bay started to lower into place.  “Wait, it’s locking us in here?!”

 “Coran, what’s going on?!” 

“I was afraid of this…,” Coran was back at the console, tapping buttons as windows of data and charts whizzed across his screen.

“Coran, do someeeethhhhiinnnnggg…!”  Both Hunk and Lance were fighting a losing battle against the bulkhead doors.  Pidge had even come over to try and help.

“Hold on everyone, I’m going to try and override the system from here!”

“Is that going to work?”

“I’d prefer to be on the bridge for this sort of thing but we’ll work with what we got.”

Coran left his console and ducked behind the stand to the repair panel on its base.  He pried open the hatch and pulled out some of the wires, unclipping some from their positions and beginning to rewire them.  At this point, the three Paladins had lost the fight with the door and everyone was thoroughly trapped inside the medical bay.  The alarm was still going off and the whole room was bathed in irate red light.

Coran twiddled a couple wires in his hand.  “Hold on…almost…got it…”

“Anytime would be great, Coran!”  Lance was still banging on the bulkhead doors.

“Uh guys…?”

“What is it Hunk, we’re kinda busy right now.”

Hunk pointed to Keith in his pod.  “Why is Keith glowing?”

Everyone’s heads twisted back to Keith’s pod.  Sure enough, a faint golden light was emanating from Keith’s wound on his arm.  It reflected on the glass of the pod’s front surface, making it seem brighter than it was.  It was enough to even drown out the red of the alarm lights.  All of a sudden, the golden light flickered and then blazed bright, bursting forth and blinding everyone in the room.  Eyes were shielded as the golden light bathed the medical bay.  It obscured everything else in the bay, even the obnoxious alarm.  It felt…warm and comforting, like being swathed in a cuddly blanket.  It went as quickly as it came, receding back into the pod where Keith lay, unmoving.  The red lights were gone and the alarm was no longer sounding.  The bulkhead doors were also open, revealing the normal bay doors.

Coran peered up from his seat on the floor.  “Well that was…unexpected.”

“What…was that…?”  Lance rubbed his arms.  He still felt like he was floating a bit.

“That,” Coran stated, getting up from his spot and returning to the console, “Was quintessence.  Looks like most of it is still in Keith’s body, at least according to these readings.”

Coran indicated a few charts displayed on his screen.  “When Keith absorbed all that refined quintessence, it solidified within his body, effectively changing its genetic structure.  When its host body was in danger, it sprung forth to heal the damage.”

“So Keith’s gonna be ok!” Hunk let out a triumphant cry, grinning but Coran shook his head.

“Now hold on, you’re jumping the qualark, my young friend.  Keith’s not out of the danger zone yet.  He’s still suffering from acute blood loss.  His blood pressure is dangerously low.  He needs a transfusion as soon as possible.  Otherwise, he’s not going be leaving this bay any time soon.”

“Well, that should be simple enough.”  Lance nodded his head knowingly.  “What’s Keith’s blood type?  I’m sure someone here can donate.”

“I wish it were that simple.  Keith…isn’t human anymore.”

Lance blinked at Coran, hardly believing his ears.  His mouth cracked a strained smile at the corner.  “Heh, what are you talking about, of course Keith is human, I mean look at him-,”

“Lance, don’t kid yourself, we all know he’s part Galra,” Pidge rolled their eyes at Lance.  “Even if he doesn’t look like it.”

Coran nodded.  “Yes, that’s right.  I said the quintessence had changed his genetic structure, yes?  Keith needs the blood of someone who’s like him; a Galran hybrid.”

Lance threw up his hands.  “Well where the hell are we going to find that?!”

There was a very long and heavy pause in the room.  “We could try asking the Blade of Mamora,” Pidge proposed after a while.

“Oh, that’s actually a good idea!”  Allura brightened a little at the suggestion.  “Kolivan must know someone within the rebellion.  I doubt Zarkon ever treated hybrids well, so there would have to be a few among their ranks.”

“Or…we could just kidnap Lotor.”  Everyone gave Hunk a look and he just shrugged.  “What?  Lotor is a hybrid, right?  Cause he’s Zarkon and that Altean lady’s son yeah?”

“Hmm, I never thought of that, but yes you’d be right.”  Coran twisted his moustache in contemplation.

“Ohhh no, we don’t even begin to have the manpower to kidnap that guy!” Lance pointed out.  “We wouldn’t even know if Lotor’s blood would be compatible!  Even my stupid brain knows you can’t mix different blood types.  Why don’t we just ask Kolivan like Pidge suggested?”

“Lance, what has gotten into you?”  Allura gave the Blue Paladin a perturbed stare.  “You’re taking this awfully hard.”

“Yeah, well excuse me for not wanting to lose another friend.  Sorry for being down in the dumps because we’re down two Paladins, one of which is MIA and the other might be in a permanent coma if we don’t find some of this magic blood to revive him.”

“That’s a little harsh, Lance.”

Lance crossed his arms, furrowing his brow.  “I’m just looking at things realistically.  Lotor is going to be a problem, if he isn’t already.  We might need to start looking for new Paladins.”

LANCE!”  The Blue Paladin jumped at the coarse tone directed at him.  Allura marched over to him and pointed her sharp finger in his face.  She looked livid.

“Don’t you dare speak of things like that again.  I can’t believe you would just flippantly suggest something like that!  This is a test for all of us, for our bond as a team and most importantly as friends.  You have to have the faith to believe that we will prevail.”

Lance’s expression hardened.  He narrowed his eyes, glaring at Allura’s enraged face.  “Faith will only take you so far, Princess,” he hissed.

Allura slapped Lance so fast the others thought his head was going to spin off his neck.  A nasty red mark sizzled on his cheek where her hand had stuck it.  The others were dumbstruck and just looked on.

Get out.” Allura’s voice was low and shaking ever so slightly. 

Lance’s expression didn’t change, the mark still red on his dark skin.  “Fine,” was all he muttered as he turned and walked out of the medical bay.

The air was tense as Allura stood motionless in her place.  Pidge, Hunk and Coran were at a loss of what to say.  Emotions were running high, that was to be expected and Lance had been a tad out of line, but to go as far as to slap him…

“Princess Allura?” Hunk timidly spoke out towards her.  She stiffened but didn’t turn at the call.

“Coran…you…you keep an eye on Keith please.  I’m…I’m going to contact Kolivan.”

Coran bowed slightly to Allura.  “Yes, Princess.”

With that, Allura swiftly exited the medical bay, leaving the other three to reflect on what had just transpired.

“She was shaking,” Pidge quietly uttered.

“Allura knows all too well what Lance brought up,” Coran replied.  “She knows better than anyone on this ship the consequences of failing.  She doesn’t want anyone else to see her weaknesses.”

“Poor Allura…,” Hunk sighed.  He looked back over to the quietly humming stasis pod where Keith was sleeping.  Coran tapped a single button on his console.  The lights of the medical bay dimmed and was now swathed in pale blueish green light from the pod and the console.

 “So…what do we do now?”

“The only thing we can do,” Coran answered.  He also looked up to the pod glowing in the darkness.  “Wait.”

 

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The dark medical bay was only lit by the soft blueish green glow of the stasis pods and it was quiet, save for the small taps of pacing footsteps of a lone individual.  He was circling back and forth in front one of the pods and kept pausing to look at its interior’s occupant.  He caught his reflection in the glass front for a split second and quickly looked away.  He was ragged, lacking from a decent night’s sleep.  Nearby was a pile of pillows and a couple blankets.  It had been two weeks already and it was getting hard to chase away the thoughts of his worst fears coming true.

The doors of the medical bay slid open, bringing in a blindingly bright light Lance was not accustomed to.  He squinted and blinked, the light stinging his eyes.

“I thought you might be in here.”  It was a female voice he recognized well.  Lance turned his back to the door.  He didn’t want to acknowledge her just yet.

“Holing yourself up in the medical bay isn’t going to help Keith, Lance.”  Allura’s tone was stern but attempting to be lighthearted.  It wasn’t working well.

Lance scoffed at her.  “Well I got nothing better to do, I guess.”

Allura sighed.  “Lance, there’s no point in staying mad at me.  I already apologized to you three times.”

“I know, I know…but I can’t help it, you know?  I’m just…worried.”

“We’re all worried,” Allura replied.  She walked closer and eyed the pile of pillows.  “…Have you been sleeping in here every night?”

Lance shrugged.  “Just about.  I can’t sleep in my own room, my thoughts start running wild and then I get nightmares.  It’s calmer in here.”

He put a hand on the glass front of the stasis pod.  Keith’s face was relaxed, his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open.  He looked sickly and pale, nearly all the color drained from his face.  A couple small screens monitored his EKG and other vitals near Lance’s hand.  Lance couldn’t even tell if his friend was breathing anymore.

“There really hasn’t been any changes, has there?”

Allura had come up behind Lance to observe Keith as well.  Lance shook his head, taking his hand from the glass and turning to the makeshift bed.  He stretched and sat down on the pillows, yawning widely.

“Yeah.  It’s disheartening, knowing that without that blood transfusion, he’ll be like this forever.”

“Don’t think like that.  Kolivan said he would help at least.  But the Blade has several hundred members, so finding a matching and then willing donor is no easy task.”

Lance scratched his head.  “Yeah I guess so…but it’s already been two weeks.  The universe can’t wait much longer.  I know you don’t want to consider it, but we might seriously have to start looking for both a new Black and Red paladin.”

Allura’s face fell at Lance’s truthful words.  She came over and sat down next to Lance, her hands clasped around her knees.

“I know…but I want to believe that we can pull through this.  Shiro has to be somewhere out there and with all the tests and tech we have searching the known quadrants for him…”

“And Keith?  What if he stays like this?”  Lance asked seriously.  There was no hint of humor in his normally jaunty voice.

“Then…I…we will start the process of finding new Paladins.”

Silence blanketed the two as they sat in the dim medical bay.  The pod Keith slept in was droning with a soft humming, dull enough that it was not an irritant but just audible that you were aware of it.  Finally, Lance leaned back against the pillows, looking up to the ceiling.

“Why did this have to happen now?  I mean…why Keith?  He never asked for any of this.  Heck, none of us asked for this and yet here we are.”

Allura looked up as well.  “I believe something greater than you know guided you here to the castle and to myself.  Call it what you will, destiny…fate…I know that you five are meant for great things.  Whether it be as Paladins of Voltron…or as a lanky young Earthling who tries too hard to impress girls.”

“Hey now, that one was uncalled for,” Lance grinned at Allura and she smiled back.

“What about you, Allura?  You recently found out you had magic, right?”

“Ah, yes that…to tell the truth, I-,”

The buzz of the castle’s intercom interrupted Allura.  Coran’s voice echoed around the lofty medical bay.

“Princess, Kolivan has sent us a message.  He’s on the line waiting for you.”

 “I’ll be right there, Coran,” Allura replied, standing up.

Understood, Princess.  I’ll open the comm line and await you.”

Lance chuckled softly under his breath.  “It’s about damn time.”

“Yes, well I suppose it has been a long time.  Are you going to stay here?”

Lance shook his head, getting to his feet as well.  “Nah.  I want to see who this Galra is who Kolivan has found.”

“He might not have found anyone at all,” Allura said.

“Now who’s the one being the downer?”  Lance grinned cockily at her.  “You know Kolivan wouldn’t deny a request that was vital to the Blade’s mission.  He’s found someone who can help.”

“I hope you’re right, Lance.  Come on, let’s not keep Kolivan waiting.”

 

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As Lance and Allura came onto the bridge, Pidge and Hunk were waiting there for them along with Coran.  Kolivan’s face was super imposed on the bridge’s monitor, looming down over the people in the room.  His ears twitched a little when he saw Allura.

“Ah, Princess, welcome back,” Coran smiled at her as she took her place on the bridge.  She looked up at Kolivan’s image on the screen.

“Kolivan, thank you for getting back to us.”

Kolivan nodded, his face as stoic as usual.  “I would have liked to have taken care of this as soon as possible, as having the Red Paladin back in good health is beneficial for both of our parties, so I am sorry that it took this long, Princess.  It was not easy, but I think we have found a suitable donor.  .”

“That’s wonderful news, thank you so much for your assistance.  How far are you from our location?  The repairs on our ship are complete enough that we can come to you.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Kolivan replied curtly, shaking his head.  “I’ve already dispatched the individual to your current location.  He should be arriving shortly.”

No sooner were the words out of Kolivan’s mouth than a small flashing light appeared on the screen.  Coran tapped a button and the light opened up into a new screen.  Behind it was a masked individual, wearing the standard garb of the Blade of Mamora.

“Forgive my intrusion; I believe Kolivan has briefed you on my arrival?”

“Yes, of course, he just finished.”  Allura had a little surprise in her voice.

“I’ll take my leave now.  Please do what you can for them.”

“Of course.  I’ll let you know when I’m headed back.”

And with that Kolivan’s transmission ended and he disappeared from the screen.  The Blade member now took up most of the window.  He reached somewhere above his head.  “My ship is hovering just within the planet’s atmosphere, but I’m having trouble pinpointing your location.  I’m getting strange radiation readings that’s messing with my instruments.”

“Ah yes that might be due to us.  Hold on, I’ll send you the coordinates to our ship.”

There was a pause as Allura sent the information.  The Blade member gave a noise of surprise.

“Oh.  Looks like I’m right above you.  I’ll be right there.  Please meet me outside.”

A low rumbling started to shake the castle as the Blade member’s screen disappeared off the monitor.  Everyone hurried out of the room to make their way to the elevator and likewise to the reception hall.  As they stepped outside into the bright light of the midday, a small ship was coming in for a landing.  Heavy wind generated from its thrusters blew all kinds of leaves and other debris as it slowly descended.  The craft was about the size of one of the Lions’ pod skimmers, sleekly designed for optimal space travel.  Its engines whined loudly and sharply as they died down, the wings of the ship twisting to an upright position as it finally made touchdown.  It hissed steam as the cockpit on the top popped open and the pilot stood up.  His garb was not much different than any other Blade member, but has he jumped down off the ship, they could see that he wore a small skirt sash that indicated a higher rank.  The swish of a thin tufted tail caught everyone’s attention as the pilot pulled down his hood.  He reached up and touched his neck, his mask dissolving and revealing the face beneath.

The Blade member had purple fur and long pointed ears that were notched and drooped a little from their weight.  They were covered in fur as well.  His eyes were unlike purebred Galra; they had violet irises and pupils, with the whites being golden instead.  His face had patches of lighter purple fur around his eyes and around his mouth, with thin red lines following the lines of his cheekbones down the sides of his face.  Adorning his neatly parted dark violet hair were two black horns that curled around and down the back of his head.  He bowed to his onlookers.

“Pleased to meet you,” he stated plainly, showing his long Galran fangs.  “I am Enio, Kolivan’s son.”

 

Chapter Text

The three paladins and Allura were left staring blankly at the Galran envoy.  Enio, as he called himself, didn’t seem to notice the oogling.  He was busying himself with getting a toolbox and a large bag from a storage compartment on the lower part of his cruiser.  The silence was awkward, but it didn’t last long; Lance broke it with a prickly comment.

“Wow, I didn’t know Galrans had horns.”

His voice was cold, but it did hold a bit of disbelief.  Pidge’s heel immediately came down on the top of Lance’s foot and he let out a pained squawk.  Allura, ever the diplomat, stepped forward as Pidge hissed at Lance to not be rude.

“We appreciate you and your father taking the time out of your campaign to help us,” she said pleasantly.  She unsuccessfully was attempting to hide the scuffle going on behind her.

“Oh, it’s not an issue,” Enio replied.  He picked up the bag he had finished repacking and slung it over his shoulder.  “In this war, we of the Blade of Mamora and the Paladins of Voltron are on the same side.  Though…I may not…agree completely with my father’s methods, he knows what he is doing.  Like a well oiled machine, when one cog is not working properly, the rest of the machine may not function.  Having all of Voltron’s paladins in top health is necessary.”

There was another squawk behind Allura and a dull thud.  Pidge now had Lance in a headlock on the ground and Hunk was trying to separate them.  Allura’s eyebrow twitched and she roughly grabbed both of them by the collar, stubbornly pulling them apart.

“Oh for the ever living love of Altea, will you two stop?!  Can you go two parsecs without squabbling like small gaolings?!”

She let go of them and Lance rubbed his neck, frowning.  “Jesus, you sound like my mother.”

The next look Allura gave Lance made him flinch and quickly apologize.  She turned back to Enio to also apologize, but found the Blade member snickering slightly.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh,” he said, waving off the chuckle.  “But you all really seem like a family.  It’s…refreshing.”

Enio’s tone seemed distant but it was fleeting as Allura blushed at the odd compliment.  He picked up his tool box as he nodded towards the castle.  “Shall we go then?  I believe this was a matter of somewhat urgency.”

“Ah, yes, of course!”  Allura waved at the sliding doors of the ship.  “Let me show you to the castle’s medical bay.”

Enio and Allura walked past the three paladins and Hunk and Pidge quietly followed with Lance grudgingly trailing behind.  Lance walked there glaring needles into the back of both Pidge and Enio’s head, with both persons in question ignoring him.  The castle’s foyer lit up as the group came into the atrium through the sliding doors.  Enio looked up into the foyer’s expansive ceiling and he let out a small breath.

“Wow…I had heard stories from old Bladers and soldiers but this is just…wow.”

“The Castle of Lions had to be large enough to not only build but also store the Lions of Voltron.  My father and his engineers put a lot of thought and love into building this ship, as well as the Lions themselves.”

Enio nodded in agreement.  “It’s something else entirely to see the real thing in person.”

At that moment, the doors at the top of the foyer’s stairway slid open and Coran emerged from the hallway holding a bowl full of green food goo.

“Oh, Princess, you’re back…?” Coran said hesitantly, trying to hide the bowl.

“Yes…I’m back…,” Allura replied, raising an eyebrow.  “Coran…why are you trying to hide that bowl?”

“Oh, uh, this?” Coran countered, holding up the bowl and pointing to it.  “Umm…no reason…I was just…trying to make myself a snack before going back to the medical bay.”

Allura’s other eyebrow rose as did the suspicion of the paladins.  Sweat started to drip down Coran’s forehead as he became more and more nervous.  Eventually, he broke and ran down the staircase.

“Alright, I’m sorry ok?  I was doing some maintenance on some other parts of the castle while you guys were out greeting our guest and I may or may not have accidently reprogrammed the kitchen food bot to spray goo upon movement and-,”

“Hold on, wait a minute,” Pidge said, holding up their hands.  “Are you telling me you managed to destroy the kitchen in the fifteen minutes we were gone?”

“Oh no…don’t tell me it’s like that one time when the castle was on the fritz is it?”  Hunk’s face fell as he recalled that horror show.

Coran’s hand flew around as he assured the others that it wasn’t as bad as he was making it sound.  The green food goo also sloshed around as he held tightly to it.  “I can fix it in just a few vargas just…just don’t go into the kitchen for awhile.”

At the same time, Coran noticed Enio standing and looking blankly up the stairs at him.  The older Altean’s face flushed crimson.  “Oh…I-I’m so sorry! I didn’t, I mean, I-,”

“No, it’s alright.  But…I’m just here to help with the medical problem so…?”

“Ah, right!  Well…I can worry about the kitchen later.  The medical bay is right over this way.”

Coran pointed to the left side of the second floor’s reception area to another set of doors.  These doors led to yet another long hallway which was just lit by the low tealish glow of Baalmeran powered lights.  Coran escorted everyone and headed the assembly.  Lance brought up the rear and still had narrowed eyes.  Enio walked up next to Allura, looking down at her as he asked another question.

“Princess…this may be sudden of me to ask but…have you had any word yet of the Black Paladin?”

The hair on the back of Lance’s neck bristled at the question.  Allura’s expression became hard as she turned way and a heavy silence fell over the group.

“As of right now…we have not found the Black Paladin, but we have found traces of his signature here and there, so we have a good inkling of what happened to him.  We are not sure how to retrieve him.”

Enio hummed in contemplation.  “I see…you might have to find a new Black Paladin.”

“Yes…we have considered the option already.  But as of right now, I would rather just Keith be back to health first.”

As the group headed further down the hallway towards the medical bay, Lance narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Enio’s back.  The other three walked into the medical bay and disappeared.  He tapped Hunk and Pidge on the shoulders as he hung back. 

“Don’t you think it’s a little odd that Kolivan never mentioned he had a son?” Lance whispered, his arms folded crossly.

Hunk frowned at Lance.  “Why are you so suspicious of this guy?”  The three of them had stopped right before the doors as the others vanished into the medical bay.  “I doubt Kolivan would have sent someone he didn’t trust.”

“Yeah, but…why would he not mention some of his officers or the like when we went to their base the first time?”

“Kolivan had no reason to trust us,” Pidge replied simply.  “Yeah, sure we had the Lions of Voltron on our side, but that still was no reason to extend a hand of aid to us.  The Blade had been doing just fine by themselves before we came along.  We just pushed them into action, that’s all.  Even now, Kolivan didn’t need to help us.  He could have just left Keith to rot forever in a stasis pod.”

“That’s true,” Hunk replied.  “Pidge has a point.  There was no need for him to tell us anything, let alone any of his officers or family.  He has plenty of reasons to be suspicious of everyone and everything.”

“Look, Lance, why don’t you just let it go, ok?” Pidge patted Lance’s arm in a friendly manner.  “Let’s just let Enio do his thing and we’ll worry about this once Keith is better.”

Lance huffed a little before unfolding his arms.  “Alright, fine.  But only for the time being, ok?  As soon as this guy does something weird, he’s outta here, got it?”

He stormed past Hunk and Pidge and into the medical bay, still with a cross look on his face.  The other two followed behind Lance, Pidge shaking their head and Hunk looking worriedly at Lance’s back.  He wasn’t completely convinced Lance wasn’t going to do something strange, but had to give his friend the benefit of the doubt.

Allura, Coran and Enio were standing in front of Keith’s stasis pod.  Enio and Coran were concentrating on the computer screens displaying Keith’s vitals, while Allura was attaching something that looked like a thin tube to the side of the pod.

“Yes, that’ll be just fine,” Enio said, bending down to dig in his satchel.  “The technology here is rather…archaic if you’ll forgive the term.  I may not be as familiar with this old of machinery, so I might require assistance.”

“Well, the Castle of Lions is over several thousand years old after all,” Allura replied.  She was eyeing Enio curiously as he worked, watching him attach cables here and there from his bag to the pod and to the medical bay’s main console.

 “Yes, and despite that, I think that the Castle possesses some of the most advanced technology for its time period when it was first built!” Coran boasted rather pridefully.  “I’d be happy to assist you if you need anything.  I know the Castle’s systems like the back of a wailing horngrub.”

The three observing paladins made faces at Coran’s awkward and obscure adage, but Enio didn’t seem to mind.  He was too busy concentrating on getting his own machinery hooked up to the medical bay’s console.  His tail swished here and there as he worked and he hummed quietly to himself as he pulled the last contraption out of his bag.  Enio fastened it to a thick blue cable that was attached to the pod and pressed a small button on the top of the cube shaped machine.  The device whined to life and a floating transparent screen appeared above it.  He took a tablet out of one of his belt pouches and used it to bring up several windows on the floating screen.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to do a quick diagnostic on the Red Paladin.  I want to check exactly how much of his Galran blood is active before I actually do any transfusions on him.”

“What do you mean by active blood?” Lance asked, suspicion in his tone.

Pidge gave Lance a look, but Enio didn’t seem to notice.  Or if he did, he didn’t care.  “Galran hybrids always display anywhere from 60 to 90% of their Galra parent, because Galran blood is very dominant genetic-wise.  The traits can show up in childhood or as the hybrid reaches maturity through puberty or a little later as a young adult.  Typically what we see is the purple fur or skin, the yellow eyes, claws, longer teeth and similar traits.  Sometimes all that appears is one or two traits.  This is actually the first time I’ve seen a hybrid look more like their non-Galran parent.”

Enio’s tail twitched as he tapped a few keys on his tablet, then looked up at the transparent screen, frowning.  “Hmm…well that’s interesting.”

“What is?”  Allura also looked up at the computer screen.

“I’m getting large readings of quintessence radiation off of the Red Paladin’s vitals, along with his low red blood count and a number of other things, but not from the general readings of the other Paladins.  Have you been to any mining colonies recently?  That would be the only way you would get this level of contamination.”

Allura shook her head at Enio.  “No, no mining colonies.  Only an abandoned refinery, and that was several months ago.”

“Wait, you mean he’s been poisoned?  I thought getting that stuff dumped on him wasn’t dangerous!”  Lance’s voice raised a couple notches to a small squeak. 

Enio put his tablet back into his satchel and pulled out something else.  It looked like a long syringe, but it was much larger than a normal one.  He walked over to the stasis pod and tapped a few buttons on it.  The computer screen flashed and changed charts.

“Normally, quintessence radiation is only dangerous over an extended period of time or in large quantities,” Enio said, his tone still placid as he primed the syringe.  “I’ve had to deal with this type of poisoning on the field as a trained medic, but definitely not on this level.  I’m not sure what this quantity will do to an individual.”

“Well, Coran said it had changed his genetic structure,” Pidge replied.  “That’s apparently why we needed a matching hybrid to give him the transfusion.  Though…it doesn’t look like it’s changed him physically?”

“Hmm…genetic structure changes you say?  That could certainly be a side effect of the radiation.  The physical changes may not be obvious right away.  The radiation could have given his body a jolt as it were, something like a jumpstart to the otherwise dormant Galran blood.”

Enio opened another panel on the side of the pod and inserted the syringe into a tiny hole.  “As of right now, it appears that the Red Paladin’s Galran blood is only 30% active, which was enough to need a matching hybrid.  You may not start to see physical changes until it’s more than 50% active. His treatment is going to be a bit more difficult, mostly because of the radiation, but also because he’s a hybrid.  Since the Empire has nearly wiped out most of the existing Galran hybrids, it’s hard to find matching donors.  The Blade did rescue a number of hybrids marked for extermination, myself included, so a large portion of our members are hybrids.  But it was still hard to find a matching blood type for the Red Paladin.”

Enio pulled out the syringe and put the needle back into his bag.  “The quintessence radiation is causing his Galran blood to become more dominant.  Like I said, that’s going to make things more difficult.  I’ll have to stay here for at least a week to make sure he gets the blood he needs and to keep an eye on the contamination so it doesn’t get worse.  The Red Paladin is going to need several more transfusions before he can come out of the stasis pod safely.”

 

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There was nothing else to do other than wait for Enio to finish his test runs on Keith’s stasis pod.  Allura had wandered off to the castle’s record room and Coran meanwhile had gone off to the kitchen to deal with the mess he had created there.  That left Lance, Pidge and Hunk to their own devices.

“Well, I don’t know about you two, but I’m still peeved over earlier.  I’m gonna go blow off some steam until that guy is finished.”

Lance waved the two off and headed down the hallway in the opposite direction.  Hunk went to call after him, but Pidge grabbed his shoulder.

“Don’t bother with it, Hunk,” Pidge stated flatly.  They sighed and shook their head.  “There’s no point trying to reason with him while Keith is like this.  He’d never admit it, but he cares about that guy quite a bit.”

Hunk frowned, continuing to stare down the hall.  “But…”

Pidge held up their hand.  “Trust me, it’s not worth it.”

At the same moment, the entire floor rumbled and shook violently, nearly knocking Hunk and Pidge over.

“What in the world was that?!”  Hunk now had a worried look on his face as he flipped back and forth up and down the hallway.

“That felt like it came from the kitchen area,” Pidge replied, readjusting their glasses.

“Do you think Coran did something trying to repair the kitchen?”

“It certainly felt like that.  We should probably check it out.”

Luckily, the kitchen wasn’t too far from where they were at in the castle.  Within ten minutes, they had reached the hallway containing the kitchen.  As they turned the corner, Hunk’s foot landed in something slick and slid out from underneath him.  He landed heavily on his butt with a dull thud.

“Ow…!  What the heck?!  What is this stuff?!”

Pidge leaned down to closer examine the slime.  “This…looks like food goo.”

“It…it can’t be coming from the kitchen can it?”

“That would be the only logical place it could come from.”

Another loud rumble emanated from further down the hall, causing both Pidge and Hunk to jump.  They looked at each other, both thinking the same thing.  The two of them took off down the hallway, stepping around growing piles of green goop and stopping in front of a single sliding door.  The slime was oozing out of the bottom of the door and it slid open with difficulty as Pidge and Hunk came into the room.  Coran was attempting without success to block and stop the food generator in the wall making food goo.  Sweat poured off his brow as he tried without avail to fix his problem.  The sweat got worse when he noticed Pidge and Hunk enter the kitchen.

“Ack!  I told you know to come to the kitchen for a while!”

“…do you need help?” Pidge asked quietly.

“No!” Coran’s response was very quick and he paused.  “I mean…no…I can fix this myself.  All I need to do is reprogram the food maker.”

“It doesn’t look like you’re succeeding too well.”

 

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Keith wasn’t sure where he was.  The last thing he remembered was the faces of his friends in the cockpit of the Red Lion right before he lost consciousness.  Now he found himself in a large and very empty space, with nothing to denote what or where it might nor any decent lighting to give him an idea of what time it was.  Keith was pretty sure at least he was still on Phio and somewhere within the Castle of Lions.  Where inside the castle exactly was the million dollar question.

The area was a wide expanse which appeared to be a room of sorts, with dark tiled floor and walls of a matching shade.  Keith looked around where he was standing.  Up, down, side to side, behind…nothing but the dim glow and tile floors.

“Hello?” Keith’s voice rand out and echoed ominously in the room.  His eyes shifted as he turned his head again.  A few seconds passed; no response.

“Hello…?” he called again, a little louder this time as he took a step forward. 

The sound of his single footstep finally elicited a response from the room.  A bright light exploded from underneath Keith’s foot, swallowing up and blinding the Red Paladin.  Keith instinctively shielded his eyes from the dazzling radiance.  He blinked a few times as the light slowly faded away, revealing a new area.

Keith was standing in the middle of a hallway and it didn’t look like the Castle of Lions.  The anxiety started to bubble up in the back of Keith’s throat, but he swallowed hard to push it back.  No sense in panicking yet until he knew where he was and what was going on.  Keith blinked again, realizing something.  He wasn’t injured anymore.  There were no stains, no rips, no tears.  He clutched at his jacket and his shirt which bore no signs of any previous injury.  His skin was bare and perfectly clean.  That was his first clue that something was wrong.

The noise of voices approaching made Keith jump a little.  The voices were coming from behind him and were quickly getting louder and closer.  Keith glanced around the hallway, desperately looking for a place to hide.  There wasn’t even a side door he could duck into.  As the panic started to return, the owners of the voices made their appearance as they came around the corner and into the hallway.

The speakers were two Galran soldiers.  One was a bit more built than the other while the other had thick tusk-like fangs protruding from his lower jaw.  Similar in height and with helmets obscuring their faces, they walked side by side in casual conversation.

Keith stood stock still in the middle of the hallway as the two soldiers drew nearer to him.  Their gazes were fixed on each other as they talked idly about what seemed to be work related topics.  The two of them were practically on top of Keith as he readied himself for a fight.  To his shock, the soldiers walked right past him; or to be more accurate, the one with tusks walked through him.  It was as if Keith wasn’t physically standing there.  That was the second clue that things were definitely not right.  Keith’s eyebrows knotted in confusion as he stood there bewildered when a line from one of the soldiers caught his attention.

“It’s kind of surprising that they even got that paladin.”

Keith’s ears perked at the mention of ‘paladin’.  He quietly padded up behind the two soldiers, keeping just a couple feet back from them as he leaned into their conversation.

The broad shouldered Galra shrugged.  “Yeah it is…that replica should be finished soon then I guess?”

“I suppose so.  But what are they going to do with him?”

The Galra shrugged again, throwing his hands up.  “Beats me.  They never tell grunts like us anything.”

“Honestly, I don’t know what the General is thinking.”

“Well, we can’t do anything about it now.  Hey, did you hear about what Hyrin did the other day?”

Keith stopped in his tracks as his mind clicked furiously as questions began to spin.  Replica?  Did that mean Shiro might be…?  Keith shook his head.  No, that was ridiculous.  Shiro wouldn’t get captured by the Galrans again so easily, let alone be cloned.  Wait…could the Galra even clone things?  Was a clone what a replica was referring to?  Or was it something else entirely?  Keith scratched his head, frowning in frustration.  More questions were appearing and he still didn’t know how he had gotten here, let alone where here was.  He felt a sudden twinge in his chest, drawing him out of his thoughts.  It was a familiar feeling but he couldn’t quite place where he knew it from.  It panged again, welling up from deep within his gut.  What was this…?

Keith’s vision suddenly blurred and he swooned a bit.  He backed up against the wall as the hallway began to gyrate.  The lights above his head flickered and then just simply blacked out.  Keith was in darkness again, but he still had the dizzy feeling.  Even as he tried to shake it off it would not go away.  His chest twinged again, adding to the vertigo and making him nauseous.  A faint voice beckoned out from the inkiness, pulling at Keith’s heart.  He squinted out into the blackness, straining to hear the voice.  Why did it sound so…?

Something hooked the back of Keith’s jacket, yanking him backwards.  He momentarily blacked out, losing track of things.  As he came back around, he was in a different place once again.  Two figures stood staring up at him, dressed in white and blue clothing.  They looked like medical people.  Keith went to say something, but all that escaped his mouth were bubbled and garbled noise.  He realized now where he was and he did not like it.

“What did the tests indicate?”  One of the figures spoke, adjusting goggle like glasses and looking down at a small hand tablet.

The other figure, taller and wearing matching goggle glasses, looked at their own tablet.  “They were inconclusive.  We’ll have to do further tests to make sure.”

Keith banged on the glass front of the tank.  The figures ignored him.  It was just like with the two soldiers.  Was he actually here?

“The poisoning has already affected him this much.  There’s not much else we can do except ease the pain.”

The second figure hummed in contemplation.  “If we do that though…”

The door behind the two figures slid open.  Keith’s eyes widened at the new person walking into the room.

“Are there any new changes?”  Allura’s tone was somber.

“I’m afraid not, Princess,” one of the doctors replied, shaking their head.  “He’s still in a coma and doesn’t show any signs of waking up.”

Allura sighed heavily and looked up at the tank and at Keith.  “First it was Shiro…and now Keith…I never thought the quintessence would cause this dire of an effect.”

“It was unpredictable to begin with.  Quintessence radiation affects each individual differently.  And the fact that he’s a hybrid…”

More bubbles gushed from Keith’s mouth as he banged on the glass again as he tried to get the figures’ attention.  What did they mean, radiation?  What did him being a hybrid have to do with anything?  What had happened to Shiro?  For that matter, what had happened to him?!  Everything around him was tinted with a faint blue glow, but something else was off.  There was another color mixed in with the blue.  Keith stared at the back of his hands pressed up against the glass.  They were purple and clawed.