The hyper space jump had taken them to the edge of Galran space. The channel of empty space between Clexan and Galran territory was uninhabited but patrolled according to a variety of treaties between the two planets. Finding Galran fighters out this far wasn't impossible and there were rotating support ships out around the Pathfinder as it flew at a third its full speed. It was pretending to be a freighter. The fake radio call signs and other cloaking was all in full effect but it wouldn’t do any good if a ship got close enough to really see it so the support shuttles were there on the look out.
Shiro was tagging along in Matt’s shuttle, lounging in the jump seat and trying really hard not to backseat drive. Matt wasn’t good behind the wheel. Matt had never been good behind the wheel. He was fully trained but he didn’t like to fly and he didn’t have great instincts for it. He was the kind of pilot to hit an asteroid because he followed protocol regardless of what was happening in the real world.
This was a safe mission. Matt was doing fine. Shiro was just antsy and wanted control of a ship. He wanted to be back out in that shuttle with Allura. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and leaned over to look at the radar just to have something to do.
They flew with six other ships in loose formation around the Pathfinder. He counted the other ships. He tried to figure out what parts of the radar were picking up the masking and what was the real ship. He tried to distract himself from remembering her leaning in watching him with those bright blue eyes. Those pink marks on her cheeks got bright sometimes and between that and the shape of her lips, her face was filling his thoughts.
“I don’t believe you,” Shiro said just to set Matt off. He needed a distraction and he wanted to spend some time just having fun with Matt. They had been friends once. Coworkers. People trapped on a tiny craft on a long distance mission. Shiro wanted to remember the kinds of things they talked about.
Matt was trying to bond by reminiscing and it was leaving Shiro deeply aware of the holes in his memories. There were a lot of them. Strange ones. He remembered all the technical stuff but he struggled with all the personal memories. The inside jokes, the shared friends, the stories of going out drinking during training. All those memories were riddled with holes.
He was driving Matt crazy by knowing less than half of what he was supposed to.
"Do you remember the Math Twins?"
Shiro shook his head.
"You just said you remember the approach math. The math! So you can do the entire orbital mechanics emergency checklist but don't remember Juan or Eric? Juan's all tall and Spanish and grumpy? Eric's Mexican also tall and cheery as a fucking sunrise? They used to fight about Spanish grammar? Talked in equations half the time?" Matt said.
Shiro shrugged, his attention straying back to the emptiness of space beyond them.
He didn't. He also didn't really want to talk about it anymore.
Juan and Eric had been on the ground team and had handled most of the orbital mechanics computations. They had trained Matt and Shiro and the rest of the crew on the gravitational differences on each stage of the journey. The Jupiter slingshot required different math than the actual approach or the momentum killing maneuver around Pluto that would keep them from shooting off into the depths of space. Shiro knew that. He knew it. He just couldn't remember being taught it by a pair of mathematicians who spoke different dialects of Spanish and fought about it.
All the parts of life that really mattered were missing. Family. Friends. Jokes and stories and good days. All of it was gone. All he was left with was the technical details and a few shattered bits on the floor.
"Best place you've been?" Shiro asked.
"Like ever?" Matt asked.
"Out here. All the parts of space I've seen are shitty," he said.
Also he didn't want to be reminded of any more parts of Earth that he should know but didn't.
"There's this place called Renza 41," Matt said. "It's a satellite. It's as big as the moon - you know the moon, right?"
"The what now?" Shiro said with his best slack jawed confused look. Matt laughed and punched him in the shoulder. Shiro laughed.
"Ok, shut up, so this giant satellite is just incredible. It's got bits of tech from everywhere and engineers and programmers go there just for the chance to play with it. You ever hear about the Library of Alexandria?" Shiro nodded. "It's like that. Except instead of every book that comes into the port, it's tech. They take scans of the ships that come down. They take samples and hack the code. Friel won't go near it but I'm going back someday," Matt said. "My kid sister would die. She'd spontaneously combust just looking at that much technology."
“Would you bring her?”
“If you had the chance to go home, pick up your family and take them on a space vacation, would you do it?”
“Yeah. Hell, yeah. Dad would-” Matt stopped and shrugged it off then launched back into his imagined vacation itinerary.
Neither of them knew what had happened to Sam Holt. The three of them had been separated after Shiro had volunteered for the arenas. That day had been the last time either of them had seen Sam.
The conversation stayed firmly on the topic of Matt’s vacation planning and Shiro was able to laugh and joke along. He started adding suggestions. Where could you go parasailing on the Alliance planets? Best sightseeing? Foodie tourism? Matt told a dramatic story about eating something he had thought was a dessert only to discover that it was made with insects.
“What is this place?” Shiro asked as they circled around to the other side of the ship and caught site of an asteroid field. There was something about the debris that caught his attention. It wasn’t rock formations. Not an asteroid field, something else.
“Dumping ground. This is Galran space’s great Pacific Garbage Patch. There’s a few of these scattered around deep space. The Clexans have a nasty one. I swear an entire advanced civilization that has nanotechnology but they never discovered how to recycle. This one’s big though. It’s been growing for a thousand years if you believe the stories.”
“Yup. It’s the best way into central space if you don’t want to get noticed by patrols. We’re not heading into their territory yet but as soon as we drop off our refugees, we’ll come back this way.”
“Going into Galra space doesn’t seem like the best possible idea.”
Matt shot him a look.
“I guess that’s the only way to steal something being stored in Galra space.”
“You’re so smart. S-M-R-T. That’s why you get paid the big bucks. Mr. Astronaut Lion Pilot Hero Guy.”
“Bite me, Holt,” Shiro said. “You wanna steal a Lion? Be my guest.”
Matt cackled. “Couldn’t pay me to do it.”
“Listen, Shiro, I am sure that this Altean priest lady knows her stuff and I’m sure that you’re very special and whatever but people die trying to do this. They’ve tried before. They’ve lost entire teams before. We don’t even know what happened to some of them. They send a team in to steal the lion and no one comes back out. No one. Transmissions go dead and that’s it. It’s just a space ship. It isn’t worth it.”
“I know that everyone out here is all into Voltron and magic lions and stuff but it’s just a ship. It isn’t even a practical design. The one in the hangar takes up all the space. It’s cute I guess but there are so many moving parts to repair. Jointed legs? On a fighting vehicle? That’s ridiculous design. Just get a fighter jet and a big gun.”
“I think the Alteans would lose their minds if you said that to them.”
“I know. It’s like a cult. Like when someone tries to explain scientology or something to you and they just can’t see that it’s bonkers. Giant robot cat ships.”
“Sentient robot cat ships.”
“Don’t risk your life for these people unless you’re really sure it’s worth it. We’re never getting home, you and me, we’re stuck out here. There’s got to be more to life than risking your life when Friel tells you to or you’ll just die on one of his missions.”
The moon they were headed towards was in fringe space. There were uninhabited systems that existed between the zones of influence of the central planets that no one had ever bothered to claim. These empty spaces existed without oversight from any major government. The empty spaces. The black. The Gwalin worlds. There were many names.
Allura had always been taught that they were lawless and dangerous places. Places where people traded in drugs and weapons and worse things. She had never heard a story about the Gwalin that didn’t have crime and violence in it. Allura wasn’t so sheltered that she couldn’t see the elitism in those stories but stories had a grain of truth to them and she wanted to know what she was walking into.
“Shit, girl, it’s not all that bad. Exy is that bad, sure, but I grew up on Wendo and my sister lives on Luna,” Reesh had said with a laugh when Allura mentioned this concern to her.
“So what’s it like?”
“Luna? It’s a little world. A real world, not a colony. It is established,” Reesh said with a faux accent like it was very serious and Allura raised her eyebrows. “Not affiliated with any central planet but it’s got roads and trains and a recycling system. It’s like a real planet, there’s just more smugglers and people like us out there.”
Allura listened to Reesh’s stories. She had started collecting up details by talking to the neighbours. The Gwalin places were a mix of cultures and communities. Satellites and moons and rocky planets scattered around the edges. Some of them had existed for centuries and had thriving economies and unique cultures. Others were hanging onto the raggedy edge. The one they were headed for was one of the larger communities.
When Allura wasn’t bothering the neighbours, she was bothering Yalla and Enzo. After her little show of mechanical knowledge, Enzo was treating her more like a person and less like Shiro’s pet annoyance. It was nice but it didn’t make her like him much. Those people who only listened to women after they’d prove themselves on a very specific metric were rarely worth the trouble.
Yalla was her favourite source of information. When there was nothing to do, Allura liked to be up here. Yalla wasn’t exactly nice but when the bridge was quiet, she answered questions and shared details. As an added bonus, there was something about sitting on the bridge and watching the screens that made Allura feel a little more in control of this whole mess.
She watched them pass by the garbage dump and listened to the discussions of routes through it. Her pilot was out with his human friend on one of the rotating patrols that passed over them. Allura was a little bit jealous. Just a little bit. She wanted to be behind the wheel of a shuttle even if it was just flying patrols around the larger vessel. Maybe she would have preferred his company to the crew on the bridge too but just about anything would be better than Kolle and Friel.
“It seems like tempting fate to make such a close pass, especially given how mad the Galra have to be after the rescue mission,” Allura said.
“That was all you,” Kolle said from the next console over. “You and that lunatic.”
“If we get shot down, you can blame me but I don’t feel guilty for saving lives,” Allura said.
Kolle said something sarcastic but he wasn’t worth her time. Friel she had to pay attention to because Friel was in charge but Kolle was just a wannabe with a bad attitude. Allura turned her entire chair back towards Yalla and gave Yalla a grin. The rest of the bridge tended to ignore her. Comms was an important post but not a glamourous one and people treated her like an after thought. She was smarter than they all gave her credit for and Allura wanted to make sure she knew it.
“Making too many trips out here might catch attention, it was on our way so we’re just having a look,” Yalla said. Then in a mutter added, “It is tempting fate and fate is a bastard.”
Allura laughed. Kolle scowled and she leaned closer to Yalla to make sure he was very aware that he was being left out of the joke, “Fate might be a bastard but we’ll win in the end.”
They passed through the garbage patch without incident and soon Yalla was turning her attention to making calls about landing windows. They were headed to a small moon buried in an asteroid belt that was almost as dense as the garbage patch had been. Reesh’s sister’s planet. A tiny world called Luna.
“Which one? Where are we headed?” Allura asked.
Yalla pointed at the screen. The moons were floating in a set of rings that included the remains of other shattered moons. It was as dense as an asteroid field and Allura didn’t like the idea of trying to fly a ship in there. The debris, the smaller particles of dust and gas, the gravitational pull of the planet below. She had never tried to fly in a situation like that. Yalla took it in stride. The Pathfinder had made this trip before.
“It’s called Luna, Human word but a mixed community. There’s not enough humans anywhere for them to make more than a renga team. There’s a few of them out there, but not many,” Yalla said.
Allura nodded and Yalla let her zoom in on the moon itself so she could see the map overlay of the cities on the surface. Cities. It had an ecosystem. It wasn’t like the moon colony they’d picked people up on near Bruno. It had an atmosphere and the dark green of forests and plant life. Surface water glinted blue on the screen. Reesh had said established but it was more advanced than Allura had been expecting.
“How far out are we?” Allura asked.
“Three days, probably, you can’t jump into fringe territory. No hyper space markers, you could land anywhere. Ship like this, we don’t risk it. Alteans probably would be able to do it, I’d love to get my hands on Altean tech, just for a few hours,” Yalla said.
“Teleduv wormholes are different from hyper space. You can set the landing zone exactly as long as you’re working in true space. If you’re outside linear time, you can’t wormhole properly,” Allura added.
Yalla started talking wormholes and landing zones. Allura just sat back and let her talk. Linear time was the only medium that Allura had been trained in. Messing with the fringes of reality was a dangerous proposition. It was still fun to talk about the theory. Yalla knew enough to have good questions but she was a bridge agent, not a pilot. Allura still found herself getting caught up in discussing the theories around time and space and how to manipulate them.
Up on the screen was a read out of the life-support systems on the ship. They were taxing the recycling systems by being so far over capacity. Water was going to become a problem in the next few days. Hopefully they got where they were going before that happened.
This was a risky proposition. The entire transport mission was risky. Allura threw out her quintessence. She let herself be aware of all the souls on board before the Lion pulled her attention. Red was sitting in the hangar bay, doing nothing but he was more active than Allura had seen from a Lion before. His energy signature was vibrant but Allura couldn’t understand what he was paying so much attention to.
“You’re not paying any attention,” Yalla said.
Allura answered Yalla’s last question about theoretical reality and added a little bit of showing off by quoting the formulas. She raised her eyebrows. Yalla repeated it. She mimicked Allura’s accent in the most offensive cadence she could muster and Allura had to laugh.
“I’m thinking about the Lions,” she admitted.
“Keith likes his.”
“I can tell, but it isn’t his.”
“You’ve got some hang ups where the Lions are concerned, don’t you?”
She was also cranky. The Red Lion sitting in that hangar bay was just a lightning rod for her mood. She was hungry and cold and wanted a proper shower. The overtaxed life support systems meant that showers were reduced and the heat was down to reduce the draw on power. The rationed amounts of food available didn’t take into account the speed of Altean metabolism. At least they weren’t still staying in the barracks. Having a room to escape to was a blessing.
She left Yalla to finish out her shift and headed back to the room. She took a little detour to scavenger around the dining hall and see if there were any leftovers around that she could eat and managed to score a bowl of soggy porridge that the cook shoved her way with a shrug. She was feeling a little better by the time she got back to the room.
“Hey,” Shiro said as she slid the door open.
She had been expecting to be alone but finding him there brought her mood up immediately. He pushed damp hair out of his eyes. He’d washed up and was wearing a soft shirt that didn’t fit him right. It was designed for someone with different body proportions than his and the sleeves hung down long over his hands and he shove them up to his elbows without looking.
“How was patrol duty?” she asked.
“Dull. They pulled us back in when we left Galra space. There wasn’t much to see but garbage and empty space but it was worth it to hang out with Matt and just talk. It’s been a long time since I just hung around with a friend. Except for you but the lines are kind of blurry there since you did have me thrown in prison.”
Allura’s head snapped up. “I did not-”
He had a serious expression on but it didn’t reach his eyes. There was a smile hidden in there. She crossed her arms and arched an eyebrow. She could make her expression as severe as he could. The smile slipped and the corners of his lips turned up even as he tried to maintain the scowl.
“You tried to murder me,” she said.
“I - accidentally - nearly killed you. That’s not murder. Murder is premeditated.”
“If you say so, Princess.”
She shoved him in the shoulder hard enough that he stumbled a little and laughed. He was in a good mood and it was infectious. Allura was always very aware of his quintessence and his good mood just made it brighter. She was smiling and couldn’t help it. He pushed her again and raised his eyebrows at her. A challenge.
There was no space in the little bunk room for a fight with any kind of grace. It was a childish shoving match. All laughter and taunting. Allura grabbed a pillow off the bed and hit him in the face with it. He recoiled from the hit with a heavy exhalation.
“Ow, you’re strong,” he said shaking his head.
“Sorry-” she started but he took the distraction as an advantage and pulled the pillow out of her hand and hit her back. She swore at him but it came out as laughter. He backed her up against the wall and she finally got a good enough hold on the pillow to stop him from swinging it again.
“I hate you,” she muttered.
“Maybe I do. You did try and kill me.”
“Are you ever going to let that go?”
She was smiling and breathing just a little too hard. He shifted and it made her suddenly aware of where they were. He was bigger than her and was leaning in so his body kept her with her back against the wall. She could push him off. A voice in the back of her head reminded her that she could just give him a good shove and get him away from her but she ignored it. She kept hold of the pillow they had been fighting over but she didn’t try and get it away from him.
She looked up. She had to crane her neck to do it so she fixed her height and her hair without breaking eye contact. He raised his eyebrows at her. Less of a challenge. More of a question. She shrugged. She didn’t like being shorter than he was. Her natural height was close enough that she could hold his gaze without tipping her head back and that felt important in the moment though she couldn’t have explained why.
He watched her with careful eyes and a half smile. She took a deep breath and held his gaze. The scar across the bridge of his nose was a little jagged. His hair was a mess, falling forward into his eyes. She started to let go of the pillow held between them so she could push it back out of his face. His smile spread a little and she finally realized what the look on his face was.
It was the same look he’d given her in the shuttle before they’d come back for the jump. Those intense eyes and careful curious smile. She hadn’t recognized it properly then but now, she was shocked that she had missed it. Was that the look she was giving him? When had this crossed so many lines?
“If I let go, will you hit me again?” he asked.
What was he talking about?
He was still playing. Flirting. He was flirting. Quizznak. Fuck. By the stars, what was she thinking?
He had an adorable smile. He carefully took his hands off the pillow and took a step back with his hands up in surrender. Allura chewed on her bottom lip and was still lost in her thoughts. She held the pillow between both hands and watched him step away, still grinning at her. It was an invitation to try it again. She squeezed the fabric and watched him.
He was so cute and she missed how warm he was when he was pressed up against her. That laugh. How serious he got when the situation went wrong. The way he looked out for other people. His chest against her back when he rolled over and fell asleep pressed up against her.
She needed space to breathe.
She threw the pillow at his face and he caught it out of the air with a laugh.
“See you at dinner,” she said.
Then she slipped back into her disguise as best she could when she was so distracted and left the room. She walked away before she did something stupid like wrap her arms around him and pull him down into that little bed with her. She walked away because it was the only sane choice.