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The Princess and the Pilot

Chapter Text

It had been a gift. Calling the creature in the box, “it” felt wrong. She had never had that trouble with other animals, aliens or not but as had been pointed out by the Galra who had sent the box, this alien looked an awful lot like an Altean. It was sometimes hard to tell with aliens but it seemed obvious that this creature wasn’t an “it” so much as it was a “he.” Or maybe she was just projecting Altean social standards onto a completely independent creature.

“Is it healthy?” Allura asked looking at the animal that they had laid out in an empty bedroom in a medical pod. He – it – the alien had scaring on his face and arms and the readout on the screen that the doctor was looking at was lit up with red marks. She didn’t try and read them.

“There’s been extensive medical work done. Head injury, broken bones, the amputation, these bones here were all shattered at one point and that injury would have come with massive internal bleeding given the placement of arteries and veins through that area,” the doctor said pointing at the screen.

“He came from the arenas?” she asked.

“That’s the best guess I have for the source of these injuries,” the doctor said.  

The Galra held gladiatorial battles for their criminals where those who won would be afforded their freedom and those who didn't, died. Sometimes those battles included animals from other planets to be battled as well as other prisoners. It had always seemed barbaric to Allura but one did not judge the moral compass of other species.

This creature must have been one of those animals but he'd been retired after a rather catastrophic injury and rather than being released back to the wild or simply killed, Lotor had given him as a gift. It wasn't meant as a kindness. Allura had taken an even stronger view than her parents on the Galran gladiators. Everyone knew she didn't like it. But you couldn't refuse a gift without making a public statement and to make a public statement would have meant publicly judging the moral compass of another species.

And judging the moral compass of another species was not something one did when one was a princess or a diplomat.

So she had accepted it as graciously as she could and now had no idea what to do with it.

"Maybe he's trainable. He look's almost like a person. Maybe he'd make a nice pet. The Galra sometimes keep strange things as pets. It’s better than starting a diplomatic incident by refusing to keep it," one of the advisors had said.

Keeping something that looked like a person as a pet left Allura feeling disturbed but she wasn't even sure what planet he was from. Just sending him back and dropping him off there seemed like the best solution but that meant figuring out where in the galaxy there were near-Altean non-sentient animals and why no one had ever seen them before. It seemed like the type of thing someone would have mentioned if he came from a known species.

He.

It.

The alien.

The alien had been in a drugged stupor of some sort for three days. He was still dressed in plain black prison clothes and she had him left locked up in the small bedroom until some plan could be determined. He was injured and battered though the Galra had technically healed him before sending him on to her. A prosthetic arm that her doctors claimed was state of the art by Galra standards had been installed after his had been lost. The scarring was extensive but healed.  

As far as gifts went, this one had been put through a blender and no one had even bothered to tie on a bow. Maybe she could use that as enough of a reason to refuse it. Her advisors advised against that. There were issues with the Galra as it was. Zarkon had been pulling for greater control over Voltron and every conversation with the Galra over anything turned into a complex negotiation. Choosing a menu for the festival dinner at the end of the week had been a dramatic affair. 

On the third day, a terrified looking maid came to tell her that her new pet awake.

She opened the door to the little room to find that he looked quite a bit bigger when he was standing and had a feral sort of intelligence in his eyes. He met her gaze directly but otherwise didn’t react. He'd come collared and the guards had recommended leaving it on. The other shackles had been removed over the course of the medical examination and hadn’t been replaced. The medical pod that the chain was attached to was heavy enough that he'd only been able to drag it about a foot away from the wall before he'd gotten tired. He still held the chain in one hand.

It was shockingly obvious.

Disturbingly obvious.

She swore.

He. Not it. He.

"You're not an animal," she said.

He met her gaze with a level expression that was furious and terrified and not altogether sane. It was utterly sentient. Lotor had called him an animal and she'd taken it at face value. The Galra picked up animals from different places around the galaxy to toss into their fighting rings. It was barbaric but legal. Moving sentient species from planet to planet without their consent was illegal. Locking them up in gladiatorial combat rings was more than illegal. It was the kind of thing that could get a species kicked out of the galactic alliance.

He answered her.

She didn't understand it, she had just gotten up and wasn't wearing her translators but the rhythm of the sounds were unquestioningly language. Sentient and with enough intelligence and culture to have developed language. His eyes were dark and steady. A person’s eyes in a person’s face. He was monochrome and tattered at the edges. His hair black and white and sticking to his face, his clothes black and torn around the edges. His feet bare because the doctors must have taken off his shoes at some point.

Allura turned and picked up the communicator on the wall and called her father.

The prisoner said something else to her but this had to come first.

"The Galra are breaking galactic law and just moved from hiding it to flaunting it, they're planning something," Allura said to the sleepy voice of her father's secretary who had answered the phone.

"That's a hell of an accusation to make before breakfast," he said.

"The gift that Lotor gave me just woke up. It's not an animal. It's a fully sentient but unrecognizable creature which means at best they ran across him on a trade route and he committed a crime for which he was arrested under Galran law for and someone just forgot to log his species. At worst, it means they're picking up slaves from among the outer planets and then killing them for entertainment. Either way, they sent him here and claimed he was an animal." 

The voice on the phone swore. “Get as much information from the alien as you can, I’ll wake your father and the advisors,” he said and then hung up on her.

She turned back to the prisoner. Best case scenario meant that the Galra weren't angling to start a diplomatic incident that could lead to war but that best case scenario also meant that this creature was dangerous enough to have broken some Galran law and then survived the arenas. Allura was an Altean woman. She was one of the most physically powerful creatures in the galaxy and she’d been born into a heritage of magic that she was still learning but she was a force to be reckoned with all on her own.

She could win if it came to a fight but it was still disturbing to be standing in a room with someone who could potentially be that dangerous.

What sort of abilities did he have that she wasn’t aware of? Was this a cheap and messy assassination attempt? That disturbed her even more. She had grown up with the Galran royals. Jockeying for political power wasn’t anything new in the alliance. An assassination attempt from someone she’d known since she had been a toddler was quite a bit different. She didn’t like Lotor but she’d never thought of him as a threat to the alliance, to Altea, to her own personal safety.

The prisoner crossed his arms and was touching the metal arm with his normal fingers. Rhythmically tapping on it as he watched her. Some small edge of the fury had faded but there was nothing friendly in his expression. He looked dangerous. Tightly coiled and on the edge of something. Panic or rage or something else. Whatever it was, he barely had a hold of it and he set her teeth on edge. She drew herself up to her full height and then a little taller because she wasn't going to be intimidated in her own house.

"Do you understand me?" she asked.

He held her gaze for a long moment before bobbing his head once.

"Stay here, I'll be back in a minute," she said.

He answered her again in that language she couldn't understand but she didn't stop to try and figure it out. She heard a bang as he tried again to get the chain off the sleep pod and made the thing jerk across the floor. She winced a little but didn't turn back. She went back to her room and put on her translators and pulled her hair back. She had some food ordered up and then steeled herself and hesitated. It wasn’t just the anger and potential for violence in him that made her hesitate. It was the guilt. Criminal or not, he was a sentient creature and didn’t deserved to be chained up like that. She pushed all that to the side and went back into the room.

His head snapped up at the sound of the door. He looked at her with his lip curling and his eyes narrowing. He still stood at the edge of the range of the chain, tense and with his arms crossed over his chest. He was terrifying. Nearly Altean. So damn close. The ears were wrong. There weren't any silana marks on his face. Unusual coloring. Too monochrome, too few colors. Little differences. But close. He was even the right height for an Altean. He was close enough to Altean that the little differences made him more alien despite the similarities.

The food had arrived before her and she readjusted the table so that it was within his reach. Then she retreated to the desk by the door, far out of that reach, and waited. He didn’t move. He watched her like she was a threat and he barely glanced at the food. It was a breakfast plate. Fruit and porridge and cold drinks. She hadn’t realized she was hungry until the food was there and the nervous looking servant was being herded back out the room. If he was dangerous, better he come after her than someone else.  

"Say something, I need to be sure that my translators can pick up your language," she said.

He said something and after a moment of static, the translators gave her: "How about you untie me?"

"Until I'm sure that you aren't going to try and kill me, no."

That lip curl again. Less like a person. More like an animal. Then he pulled himself together again and looked at her. Angry but once again, almost Altean. A person, a different kind of person than she was but a person nonetheless.  

"You should eat, you've been on intravenous drip for three days. Maybe longer, I don't know what happened before you arrived here. Food will make you feel better."

"What are you?" he asked.

"Altean. What are you?"

"A pilot."

"I was speaking more to species."

"Is this some new challenge?"

"Not for you. You just became a pawn in a political game that has been raging on for decades. This isn't about you. This isn't about the arena. This is about the Galra playing games with us. Where did they find you?"

He nodded again. That little bob of his head. He didn't look convinced and he didn’t show any interest in answering the question.

He still hadn't touched the food. That wasn't good. He was her damn responsibility and she didn't want him dead of starvation. Also she was hungry. He could stare moodily at the food but she was going to have some breakfast. She hadn't gotten within his arm's reach when she'd moved the table. Now she risked it. She stepped up so that the table was between them and took a piece of fruit out of the basket before retreating back to her seat. He hadn't tried to grab for her. She sat back and ate it. He didn't look away from her.

"Do you have a name?" she asked.

"Yes."

She raised her eyebrows at him but he didn't volunteer it. She went back to eating pieces of her fruit. He took the same one that she had and did the same. He seemed to struggle to use the metal hand. It had to be very new. He didn't sit down, and he didn't relax, but at least now he was eating. She took another piece of his breakfast, lingering in his range for just a moment before retreating. Once again, he didn't try and touch her.

"Where did the Galra pick you up?" she tried again.

"Kerberos."

She ran through her memory. That name didn't sound familiar. A moon maybe or an outpost. If he had come in off the far-flung trade routes, then maybe he’d be from a place that she wouldn’t recognize.

"What system is that?" she asked.

"I don't know. We don't have systems at home. The other prisoners talked about systems sometimes. None of the names I know make any sense out here. I don't know enough astronomy to tell you. It was the edge of the solar system. My solar system."

That was the most she'd gotten out of him yet.

"You're from an undiscovered planet."

"I lived there. I think we know where it is."

"Are you signed onto any of the galactic treaties?" she asked.

"No."

"Then by galactic standards, you’re undiscovered,” she told him.

He looked at her but his expression didn't change. Was he annoyed by that answer? She studied him. He had been watching her since she entered the room and now they were watching each other. How far from home was he? How long had he been with the Galra? How much had he suffered? How dangerous was he?

She stood up and his eyes followed her as she came back to the table to pick out something else to eat.

His hand, the metal one, snapped forward and caught her wrist.

He was faster than she expected and jerked her forward before she had got her footing.

She yelped in surprise and then went still and silent.

She had let him lull her into a sense of security that she should have known better. Too trusting. She had always been too trusting. The kids when they played war games while their parents had conferences had always played on Allura’s trust. There were some of them she would never trust again because they’d double crossed her too many times when they’d been little. She knew better. And yet. She still let her guard down too easily.

He held on with enough force that the bones in her wrist protested. She straightened and grabbed hold of his real hand and wrenched one of his fingers hard enough to make him flinch. He was silent but his expression was tight enough to let her know that she was hurting him.

"I can break every remaining bone in your body," she told him. "It won't be difficult. The collar might slow you down but don’t think it’s the only thing protecting me. Don’t imagine that I won’t hurt you if you leave me without a choice. You might have been powerful in the arenas but you don't scare me."

Her voice did not waver. He held onto her. She returned the favour. She bent the finger she’d gotten a hold of a little further. Still not to the breaking point but she was hurting him more than he was hurting her. She held his gaze. He loosened the crushing grip on her wrist but didn't let her go. She mirrored it. Not bent as far, not held as tightly, a little farther from the breaking point.  

"I want to leave," he said.

"I want to avoid a war. Until my advisers tell me that I can let you go without starting one, you stay here."

"I'm nothing."

"I am aware of that. You're just another piece on the game board but you're an important piece. Lotor turned you into an important piece when he gave you to me like a new pet. I will get you home. I will take you back to your solar system and your Kerberos. I will do that. I have the power to make it happen. But. Understand that I will not do it at the expense of my planet and my people. I will not start a war with the Galra over the wishes of a cranky gladiator boy."

Silence.

She matched it.

"Fine. But I want the collar off," he said.

She studied him. He was still holding onto her but it was a weak enough hold that she could untangle him. She didn't. Not yet.

"Alteans are stronger than you," she said.

"Fine. Then I will be at a disadvantage. It shouldn’t matter to you so fucking take it off."

"I'm going to have you put on a limiter so you can't leave the grounds. You aren't free to leave."

"Fine. Fuck. Whatever."

"Any issues and we lock you up in a proper dungeon or just leave you in a stasis pod until this is resolved."

More silence then finally a sharp nod.

"Understood."

Allura untangled his grip on her. She did it gently but she could see his shock at being removed so easily. He hadn't believed her when she had told him that she was stronger than he was. Then she left the room. She heard him make an angry noise behind her but once again, she didn't go back. She leaned back against the door and buried her face in her hands and sucked in a few long slow gasps of air. She paused to flex her fingers and examine the finger shaped bruises on her wrist. Sinking to the plush carpet and just sitting there for a few minutes seemed like a good idea. Would she have broken his fingers if he’d refused to back down? It had seemed like such a rational threat but she’d never intentionally broken anyone’s bones in her life. That one time with her cousin and the tree didn’t count. She hadn’t expected him to fall.

The alien was dangerous.

He was dangerous enough that giving him any sort of freedom was going to endanger her staff.

And yet. He was a person. He was a person capable of rational thought and argument. He was able to make decisions and use strategy. It wasn’t rage that had led him to grab her. It had been an attempt to threaten his way to freedom. Not the best strategy in the world but he wasn’t going to go around mindlessly beating up strangers. She tapped her toes and covered her eyes again and thought. She made a decision. She called in to get a report from the advisors who of course had done a lot of advising but hadn’t decided anything. Then she went to fetch what she needed.

She stopped to gather herself together before she stepped back into the room. The bastard had hurt her. She flexed her fingers again and the bruises ached at the movement. He had hurt her but she wasn’t going to give him a chance to do it again. She’d break his jaw before she let him touch her again. She pushed those thoughts down and waited until she wasn’t scared any more before she opened the door.

"I'll keep the collar off when you're with me," she told him.

He had finally sat down. He perched on the edge of the sleeping pod, no more relaxed. He looked up at her but didn't respond. He did not belong in this room. The room had a white tile floor, a pink rug, yellow walls, and pink draperies. It had always been empty because it was too small to be a real bedroom or even a play room for children. Someone had put in a white desk and there were some books on it. Allura and Quill had snuck in here when they were little to eat candies and hide from their tutors. It was not the kind of place where angry men in black were meant to be chained up.

"This doesn't come off until this is all over. I can have one attached at the wrist or your ankles, it's your choice. You can spend the rest of your time either with an escort or locked up here with the collar or locked up in a prison cell."

"You're afraid I'll try and escape?"

"I'm more afraid that you'll go after one of the staff with that metal hand. I have combat training. They don't. If you try and hit me, I'll put you in a hospital bed. That isn't true for everyone in this building."

"I won't hurt anyone."

She held up her arm where the bruises were already starting to come into view, "I don't believe you."

"I'm sorry,” he said. That stopped her. He meant it. He held her gaze as he said it. He regretted hurting her. That earned him a few points but not enough to make her willing to renegotiate the deal. Free and in the company of someone who could take him down or locked up. He was too dangerous for anything else.

"I recognize that you've had a very trying time and I appreciate the apology."

"You're quite the politician."

"I'm a princess."

"Are you really?"

"Yes."

He didn’t respond to that.

She stepped up to him and he held out his wrist so she could attach the tracker. It would hurt him if he crossed the castle's wall and tried to get out into the city. It was a connected to a node in the palace's tech-core so if he went too far in any direction, it would shock him until he couldn't move. He listened to her explanation and while he didn't look happy about it, he didn't argue it either. She fit it to his wrist and set it to seal.

Unchaining him was scarier. She could take him in a fight. She knew that. She was stronger and better trained than he was. Probably. She had done a lot of training in her life. But, she'd still never been in a true fight in her life. Sparing in a training ring wasn't the same thing. Simulations weren’t the same thing. Her life had never been in danger. He had fought for his life and won. She'd never fought anything that didn't have a safety command that she could call if she needed it to stop.

"Princess?" he asked.

"Are you going to try and kill me?" she asked.

"No."

"Why not?"

He looked at her and considered the question. She was close enough for him to grab but he hadn't tried. His metal hand rested beside him. He had let the newly banded wrist she'd just finished working on fall in his lap. He smelled like metal and worse things. He needed a shower and a new set of clothes. His expression was hard and defensive but not quite as furiously angry as it had been. He was becoming a person inch by inch, a little bit at a time. It was fascinating to watch.

"In the last year, I have been kidnapped, beaten, abused in ways that I can't even remember properly. I've had my arm ripped off and my face torn open. In all that time, no one has offered to untie me. Not even with caveats about tracking bracelets and escorts. I am not going to try and kill you because if everything else that happens to me on this planet is terrible, this morning has been the best thing to happen to me in longer than I can remember."

"We're going to get you home," she said. "This is temporary. You're going to go back to the place where you were born and see the people who love you. I'll make it happen."

"Ok," he said.

She was pretty sure that he didn't believe her but he was calmer than she'd seen him since he awoke. She stood and he didn’t recoil again as she had him turn his head so she could unchain him. Once the collar was gone, all he did was rub his neck and look at her. He had really intense eyes even when he wasn't furiously angry.

"Where do you want to go?" she asked.

“What do you want from me?”

“Information on what the Galra are doing in those pits. Coordinates of where you picked up. Eventually a full profile on your species so that they’ll be recognizable should they turn up on other trade routes. The advisors will have other questions too. None of that is immediately pressing. Until the advisors have finished the meetings they’re holding with my father, there isn’t anything pressing but to wait.”

“Ok.”

“What do you want to do Pilot?” she asked.

"I want a shower and to see the sky” he said.

"Ok."

That phrase didn't translate so when she said it, she said it back to him in an imitation of his language. He didn't smile at her but she almost thought he wanted to. Not Altean. She couldn't read him like an Altean and assuming that she could would just embarrass her. With the chain gone, he was immediately calmer. He picked up another piece of food and then put on the boots that had been left by the door. Then he looked up at her and waited for her to open the door.

“Come along then,” she said.

Chapter Text

She stood and left the room. A moment later, he was trailing along after her. Nervous and defensive. Though they hung at his sides, both hands were held like he was ready to lash out an enemy. She led him down to a bathing room across from her own rooms and pointed him inside. She had gathered up a military uniform that wasn't going to fit him properly but would come close enough and she handed it to him and then left him alone inside the room. The bathing room had only one exit and she installed a guard close enough to see it but otherwise left the gladiator boy to figure out how to run a bath himself.

Back in her own rooms, she left the doors open to hear if there was a problem and started reading up on things that her father's advisors had already uploaded into the private system. She had told Coran about her not-an-animal pet less than an hour before and that was all it had taken for the historians and political scientists to start writing analysis. She shot off a few responses about how, "Yes, he was truly sentient," and her limited knowledge of his condition and his origins.

He appeared in her doorway after nearly an hour. He had gotten dressed, brushed out his hair which was a mix of pitch black and snow white, and looked even more like a person. Undoubtedly a person. Without the feral lip curl and the grime of the prison on his skin, he really looked Altean. The ears and the unmarked cheeks were the only things to interrupt the illusion.

"Hi," he said.

"Hello, Pilot."

"Hello, Princess."

No smile. Something in his tone hinted that maybe, if they hadn't met like this, that he might have smiled at her. He wasn’t quite as scary when he wasn’t angry. She flexed her hand again and made the bruises hurt. She was too trusting but not stupid.

"Are we headed to the gardens or the river?" she asked.

"What?"

"You wanted to go outside. The gardens are in full high summer bloom but if you prefer your nature a little less tended to, there is a river that runs inside the west gate that you might like."

"River."

"Come along then."

She pocketed a communicator and headed out of the room. He trailed her and stayed out of arm's reach. In her pocket was the panic button that went with the device on his wrist. She could push the button and have him injected with a drug that would knock him out immediately. As if he knew it, he was very intent on being non-threatening. There were no displays of teeth, no sounds of any kind, his eyes traveled over everything as he took in the palace but he didn't make a comment.

She checked messages and sent off responses as they walked. He glanced at her but didn't say anything. She had thought his tension was waning but it wasn't. Not as angry, but not any calmer than he had been before. People paused to watch them as they went by. She was a princess and she got attention but they watched this boy for a different reason. They were trying to figure out why he looked wrong. She saw the differences register in other people’s expressions as their eyes followed them. 

She paused in a foyer that opened onto the gardens and checked the readings. She was afraid that she had made an error on the limiter and it was going to switch on as they left the castle building instead of the castle grounds. She tapped at the readings. They were wrong. She checked again. And again. It wasn’t the range it was something else. The bracelet didn’t do much more than send out a pulse every few seconds but the reading from that pulse wasn’t showing up in her system properly. The band she'd given him was being interfered with.

"Your arm is broadcasting,” she said.

"Fucking fantastic. Is it playing anything good?"

Same flat tone. She looked up from the readout on her screen. The translator had given her the literal meaning of whatever word he had used but it seemed that he had meant it sarcastically. His expression barely changed, a little twist of his mouth as he studied his arm but he obviously didn’t think it was doing anything good. She didn’t understand what he had said and tried to make sense of it as he flexed the metal fingers and pushed up the sleeve of the jacket he was wearing to show more of the forearm.

As she studied it, the reading started to make sense and with it, his arrival made a little more sense too.

Not an assassination attempt. A bug. He was recording and broadcasting everything that was said in his vicinity. But maybe that was too obvious. What was this? She tapped a few more times and swore softly as she did it. The castle only sent out broadcasts three times a day: dawn and noon and dusk. The shielding was a specific model and was weakened by any electronic impulses passing through it so any outgoing calls were limited to the windows when the electronic shields were temporarily dropped before being put back in place.

She switched through the programs on the communicator and held it out to his arm before snatching it back and making a call.

"Have the scrambled calls gone out this morning?" she asked a startled tech in the comms room who seemed alarmed that a royal had called his desk directly.

"No, your grace. Everything remains scrambled until Dawn in Corella."

"Keep them from going out. I've got a spying device here.”

Dawn in Corella was an old religious superstition. Morning on Altea didn't start until light had hit the temple spire. That it was nearly four hours behind the capital didn't matter. It was most of the way to noon in the capital city but it wasn't morning until it was dawn in Corella. For the first time in her life, she was glad of it. There was a message that the arm was trying to send out.

“Are you still there? I’m uploading a sample of it’s signal so you can do something about it. I don’t think turning it off is a viable option but maybe we can cloak it?” she said to the tech who barely managed to keep from babbling as he tried to ask her questions.

“I will send up a team. To look at the source. And to check for other signals. And to find the source of the signal. Your grace. I’ll have them sent up right away,” he was saying.

“Yes, thank you,” she finally said before hanging up on him.

The pilot was still staring at the arm, tapping at it with his fingers and flexing it as though he’d only just realized that it was there. He glanced at her a few times but he was silent. He was thinking but she couldn’t guess what he was thinking about. His mouth stayed pressed into a tight line and his eyebrows were drawn together enough to leave a little frown line between them. He turned the hand over and look at the palm.

“It’s new,” she said.

“I didn’t have it when I passed out,” he said.

“This must be a bad day for you,” she said.

“It’s been a bad year.”

He didn’t say anything else after that as the tech crew appeared and started chattering over the arm. It took two hours as transmitters were located and nullified. It turned out that it was easier to shut off the transmitters than she had feared but there was far more of it than she had expected. There were the obvious ones and then there were the back ups. Altean technology left the Galra behind by light years. They would find everything.

The techs opened up the metal arm and scanned it over and over on successive frequencies. The pilot didn't like it. He stayed still and silent but his lip curled when the panel snapped open and his arm fell open. Disgust or horror maybe. The technician beside him was rhyming off diagnostics and descriptions for someone else to write down and didn’t notice the expression. 

“What did you do, before?” Allura asked him.

His gaze snapped up to her, the movement sharp and terrifying again. The expression on his face was closer to the one he’d given her when he’d grabbed her wrist. She did not flinch. If she flinched, the technicians would notice and then they’d be worried. She tucked one hand into the pocket of her dress and wrapped it around the control for the bracelet he was still wearing. He didn’t move beyond raising his head but the look in his eyes didn’t soften.

She tried again, “What kind of pilot were you? Commercial? Cargo? Did you fly long voyages or short ones?”

“I worked for the military but the last mission I was on before was a science program,” he said.

“Studying what?”

“Geology mostly, they were going to collect a lot of rocks and analyze what they were made of. We had a lot of extra cargo space for rocks.”

He was distracted by the arm but he didn’t look away from her. His voice was tight, his words didn’t flow properly. The technicians were discussing the hydraulic system and whether or not it would work to increase strength. She ignored them and asked him inane questions about rocks that he didn’t know the answers to. He was not a geologist. He was a pilot so she moved on to asking questions about the ship he had been flying. That was a dead end too. He didn’t want to talk about the ship. She didn’t try to ask him questions about himself.

The failed conversation about rocks took enough of the edge off of his expression to make her calmer.

The technicians finally let him go and he curled the metal arm in against his chest and put distance between himself and the little trio of techs who were still reading off comments and discussing among themselves. He stood back by the window. His metal fingers drummed on the window ledge but he was otherwise still. It was all so subtle. She was watching him for signs of violence and she noticed but she doubted the others did.

He put Allura between where he stood and the three of them. In order to touch him again, they would have to walk past Allura. She didn't miss it. He was using her as one of his defenses. When one of them asked for another reading, she suggested checking the broadcast range. The pilot gave her a relieved look as the technicians took the last of the readings without getting back into his personal space.

"We'll alter the broadcasts, what do you want them to say?" the tech asked.

"Let them know that we believe it," she said. "Make them believe that we think he's just an animal. We'll play dumb. They want us to be angry about them sending us a sentient but we're going to pretend he's too injured for it to be possible to tell. It’ll buy us a few days.”

"Yes, your grace."

There was some bowing and then they were all gone and she was left with the Pilot again.

"Still want to go to the river?" she asked.

"Yeah."

Down by the water's edge, he stood as stock still as he had inside. His arms were still tightly crossed, his shoulders were tight, if she approached him outside of his field of vision, he whirled on her and his hands clenched into fists. The illusion that he was Altean was fading. He was making her nervous again.

And yet.

He watched the water. He looked up at the teal blue of the early afternoon sky. He let his flesh and blood hand trail along the bushes as they walked so that his fingers brushed over the leaves. He was quiet and calm and defensive all at once. Allura ignored him. She kept him in her peripheral vision as she took off her shoes and tied up her skirts and waded out into the shallows. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the flow of the water as she had since she was a child.

It was a chance. He could have run. He could have attacked her. Between the bracelet and her strength, she was sure that she would have come out victorious but she was very glad that he didn't try. She stood and let the minnows dart between her ankles and a few minutes later, she looked up to see him doing the same thing about fifteen steps up stream from her. He didn't close his eyes. He didn't relax. He rolled up his pants and stood in the water and when she caught her watching him, he nodded as though they were sharing some understanding.

She didn't know what it was but she nodded back.

Her communicator buzzed and she sat down on a rock to swish her feet in the water and send messages to politicians about the tense alien upstream from her. He was starting to breathe. He must have been breathing before but it had been so shallow and so obscured by the tension in his shoulders that she hadn't been able to see it. Now he was breathing and she could see his chest rise and fall. She paused to watch him.

He noticed.

His eyes snapped up to her, alert and ready to defend himself if he needed to. She smiled at him and kicked some water in his direction. He jumped away from the splash with a frown. Allura laughed. He stared back and she kicked water at him again.

He was silent and tense. There was no part of him that was ready to play with a stranger in a pool at the edge of a river on a planet lightyears away from his home. He just stared at her but it wasn't a hostile stare. He was baffled rather than angry. She smiled at him and turned back to her messages. She could feel his attention on her for another few moments before he turned back to the water or the sky or the plants around them. She didn't look up and invade his moment.

"Definitely sapient. Undoubtedly so. Injured and suffering but he's as much a person as you or I," she sent in response to something Coran had said. If they were so sure that she was wrong, they should come and meet him for themselves instead of constantly trying to poke holes in everything she said.

"I'm hungry. Can we get something to eat?" he asked her.

It was a long time later. The conversation scrolling past on her comm had gone into deep strategy and she was barely keeping up with it. She marked her place and looked up. He stood near her. Not near enough to touch, never near enough to touch, but still closer than she had expected. He was tall. She had to tilt her head back to meet his gaze.

"Any requests?" she asked.

"Probably nothing you have on this planet," he said.

"Are you from a culinary species?" she asked.

"I don’t know what that means."

"Alteans don't really have a sense of taste. We eat so we don't die. We can eat nothing but protein paste and not be bothered by it. I recognize that other species have more varied needs in relation to food. So what do you want? Meat? Fruit? Sweet food? Sour food? Hot or cold? There are many options in this city."

"Meat and something like bread or noodles. I feel like I haven't eaten properly in months."

"Spicy or plain?"

"Either."

"Rellia cuisine might work. They serve everything on noodles. Vegetables and meat and spicy sauces. They give you big bowls that have too much to finish."

"Yes, please."

Please. She knew it was a single word because she could hear him in the lag before her translator gave her his meaning. Polite phrasing. The Altean sentence was very different depending on whether it was said politely or abruptly. It was the first time that he had used his language's version of polite language with her. She hopped off her rock with a smile and headed for her shoes. That he would use polite phrases made her like him more.

She sorted out her dress and put on her shoes and waited for him to do the same and then join her on the path.

"I'm going to fix your shirt before we go into the market," she said.

She stepped in closer to him and his body language locked up: back straight, shoulders tight. But he nodded. She didn't touch skin. He didn't want to be touched at all and she did her best to honour that as she tugged the collar into the right place and then retied the belt of his tunic. He let her do it and then relaxed as she stepped back without hurting him. He still looked like he was wearing someone else’s clothes but at least now he was wearing them properly.

"Is the market inside the range?" he asked holding up the bracelet.

"Yes, it's the castle market. Once you're comfortable here, you can visit any time you like. If you like the noodles at this restaurant, you can come every day. It's a large area. The castle grounds are designed for visiting diplomats. A diplomat can get anything they need without setting foot in the city. If you want, you can imagine yourself as a diplomat.”

“I’m not a diplomat,” he said.

“I know. But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat like one,” she said and then led the way down the path.

He could not handle the market. Every time someone bumped into him or he got caught in a swarm of people, he'd tense up badly enough to scare her. Allura grabbed his metal arm with both her hands and held his wrist. He didn't like that either but he turned all his attention to her.

"If you're going to hit someone, it's better if it's me."

He grabbed her by the arm and swung her around into a quieter side street. He let go immediately but fear had gotten its claws into Allura in the moment between him grabbing her and stepping away. Her heart rate kicked up, magic curled in response to the adrenaline. He was backing away before she needed to defend herself. He was closer than he had been since she'd put on the limiter and he was taller than her.  

"Why are you my tour guide?" he asked.

"You were sent to me, that makes you my responsibility."

"You said you were a Princess."

"And Princesses aren't meant to have responsibilities?"

"The kind of responsibility that starts fights in the street?"

"You haven't started a fight yet."

"You just willingly risked me punching you in the face to keep me from punching someone else. Go find a guard or something to follow me around."

"Ah, but I don’t think you want to punch me. You’re not as dangerous as you pretend to be. Come along."

That was a lie. That was a bold face lie. He was exactly that dangerous. He was possibly more dangerous than he pretended to be. He was pretending very hard to be calm. She didn’t think he wanted to punch her. She was very sure that he would punch her if she startled him.

She ducked around him and continued out into the street. The market wasn't as crowded as it would be in a few hours as it neared dinner. They were there in the early afternoon so it was quiet enough to make it easy to navigate. The palace market did better business than the city markets did and the stalls popped up like daisies in spring. The bright colours of the Altean crown were draped over every available surface. Stalls selling sweets and stalls repairing weaponry looked much the same from a distance. It was a riot of blues and yellows and bright white all jumped over each other.

"You shouldn't trust me, Princess," he said.

He was closer in the press of people. There were enough people to make it difficult for him to keep the two step distance he preferred though he still avoided touching anyone and everyone. It meant he wove through the crowds in her wake rather than walking beside her. She didn't turn to look at him.

"I don't trust you. All I said was that you don't want to hit me. That's not the same as trust."

"Hm," he said.

"That you would say that at all, is in itself a good recommendation of the type of person you are."

"I think I've forgotten too much of myself to be any type of person."

"What do you remember?"

"Some things."

"You wouldn't tell me your name. Do you know your name?"

"Yes. I know that much."

He didn't volunteer it. Allura let the topic of conversation drop again. She had brought them through the throng of people to the little restaurant. She smiled and chatted with the man at the grill and ordered them a variety of things for the nameless pilot to try. He took a seat with his back to the wall where he could see the room and the door. She sat beside him instead of in the seat across from him. He glanced at her but didn't comment on it.

She mimicked his posture, angling her shoulders and crossing her arms. She got another glance from him when he realized what she was doing. This time she flashed him a smile. His lip quirked in response. A near smile. An almost thing. She attempted to look more stoic in response, narrowing her lips and looking away from him to stare at the door.

It was probably wrong to mock a man who has spent a year in hell, might be a violent murderer, and didn’t seem particularly stable. He watched her with that near smile and then sat up straighter, folded his hands in his lap, tilted his head a bit to the side without breaking eye contact and then attempted a pleasant smile.

She laughed.

“You aren’t doing a good job of it if that is meant to be me,” she said.

He smoothed out an imaginary skirt and tilted his head the other way.

She swore at him and shoved him in the arm hard enough to knock him off balance so he had to lose the ridiculous posture to catch himself from falling. He grabbed the edge of the table to keep from tumbling away from it and came up laughing at her. Actually laughing. It was a quiet, deep sound that came with a smile that changed everything about him. He looked younger and all her thoughts about how he looked nearly Altean or more like a person than an animal were washed away.

When he laughed he was himself. She didn’t know him well enough to know who that person was but it was the only description that fit.  

“Don’t mock me,” she said. She was smiling back at him. His smile was too infectious to be ignored. 

“You started it.”

“You’re an easy target, it’s your own fault.”

“I don’t think anyone’s accused me of looking deserving of mockery since my little cousin first saw me in uniform. She said I looked like I was playing dress up, badly.”

“You have family?”

He went still again, holding her gaze.

“You have family,” she said again as a statement.

“Yes. Fine. I do,” his eyes finally skated away so that he was staring up at the banners hanging from the walls, all written in languages that she was sure that he couldn’t read. She followed him as his eyes wandered over the wall of reviews and the cook at his grill in the center of the space. The smile was gone again and he was still and careful again.

“You aren’t much for sharing.”

“No, I’m not.”

“I’m going to win you over. I’m very trustworthy. You can tell me anything.”

That made him smile again. There was no bright laughter, just a small smile and a shrug. He slouched back down beside her. The posture was more casual but not much less defensive.

“How about this: it’s probably better if I never go home. Going home might mean bringing my planet into contact with yours and your allies. What I have seen of your allies… Well, maybe it would be better to remain undiscovered by your standards. It’s better if no one knows we exist because if they don’t know then they can’t find us and if they can’t find us, my little judgmental cousin will never have to know that gladiator pits are a thing that exist in the universe. If going home means making contact, then maybe I’m better to stay here. It would be better to live and die while being passed around like an exotic fighting dog for other people’s entertainment than to bring anyone else into this.”

“There are so many wonderful places in the galaxy.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

“I meant it, about helping you find your way home. It doesn’t have to mean disaster. The darkest pieces of the galaxy aren’t all the pieces of the galaxy. But do know that I respect anyone who chooses their people’s safety over simpler choices.”

The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the food and the food was interrupted by a call from her father. She left the alien to eat while she went to find a quiet corner where she could discuss the potential implications of his existence. It wasn’t the most productive conversation and it was going to drag on through the rest of the afternoon.

She went back inside to find the pilot and the cook puzzling over an older model translator that apparently couldn’t make sense of the alien’s language. He understood everything the cook said but the cook couldn’t understand him. The pilot was laughing again as the cook hammered on the back of the translator unit with a spatula to see if that would help.

“Why did yours work immediately?”

“Because mine reads brainwaves and translates based on intention rather than a dictionary. Those models need to have the dictionary and grammars loaded into the database before they can translate things. Your language isn’t recognizable.”

“So, your translator reads my mind?”

“Not quite. It can’t read unspoken thought because it’s connected to spoken language. True brain scanners are illegal. I don’t think anyone’s even perfected a model. Thoughts are too chaotic to be read. You have to say it before I can hear it.”

“I don’t think that’s as comforting to hear as you think it is.”

Allura laughed at that and for a little while she played translator for the two of them. The conversation was about food and managed to be kept away from anything that concerning state secrets. The alien laughed at some of the cook’s jokes. He was calmer by the minute. The smile started to look less foreign on his face each time he made it.

“Where are you from?” the cook asked.

“A long way from here,” the pilot told him.

“I can’t let him answer that. I need to take him back to the palace. There are advisers who want to ask him questions,” Allura said.

It was enough of an answer that the cook felt like he was in on a secret without actually telling him anything. A conspiratorial wink, an expression that involved fluttering antennae and a last try to make the translator work and she finally managed to convince the cook to let the conversation go.

“Always lovely to have a visit from the Princess,” he said.

“Always lovely to be here, Rewi,” she said.

Allura shoved the pilot in the shoulder to turn him away from the grill and towards the door. He smiled at her and shook his head. It was the kind of expression you might give a younger sister. Annoyed but fond. It was hard to look at him when he was frowning at her like that and remember that she was scared of him.

“You knew his name,” the pilot said as they stepped out onto the street.

“Rewi is a form of address for his people. I don’t eat in the market often enough to know the names of everyone here,” she said.

“You’d remember it, if he told you,” he said it like a statement and a statement that meant something.

“I don’t think the Rellians tell people their given names. It’s considered private, a think to be shared among close family and friends. Everyone is just Rewi. Is that why you are so resistant to a proper introduction?” she asked.

“Humans use their given names.”

Humans. She filed that away to remember later. They were moving back up through the market. He was keeping pace with her now, moving through the crowd instead of trying to avoid it. The riot of cooking smells had started in earnest as restaurants prepared for the dusk meal. The crowds were getting thicker as the shifts changed in the palace and guards went home to their families and the evening cleaning crews came on shift.

“You called the guard on outside the bathroom by his name,” he said.

“You seem to think that is important. The palace staff, I have seen daily since I was a child. Perron isn’t that old but he’s been working on that wing for three years. That’s long enough for a proper introduction. In my culture, we do not treat names as secrets.”

He gave her a little smile but didn’t rise to the bait. “You’re not like I expected a princess to be.”

“I’m Altean. Maybe human princesses are different.”

He laughed and said, “Maybe.”

A pair of children, only about waist high, came running down the center of the path, shrieking at each other and Allura stepped back out of their way and bumped into him. She stumbled away a moment later but this time he didn’t grab her or even tense. He was looking down the path as the crowd split and then came back together to swallow the two children up in a bright swirl of various uniforms body parts. An alien with feathers on its head was coming up the path just behind them and for a moment she was distracted by the spray of bright pink.

“It’s different,” the pilot said. She waited for him to explain the remark. “It’s different to see this many different kinds of people looking happy. That’s not a strong enough word to explain the difference.”

“I meant it, when I said that there is good in this galaxy.”

“It’s illegal.”

“Goodness? I’m certain that is not illegal.”

He didn't react to the attempt at humour. His expression was calm and level when he said, “The fighting, the gladiator battles, all of that is illegal. You said something like that when you first stepped into my room.”

“Yes, it is.”

He nodded. She was watching him as they walked. The palace market was not one of Allura’s favourite places. She liked the world a little better ordered and with a few less odors and a manageable number of people. This was too chaotic. He probably wouldn’t agree with her on that. He avoided making contact with other people but he watched them all with a bright look in his eyes. Fascinated rather than annoyed.

“If there is anything that I can do to stop it, to end it, I want to be a part of that,” he said.

“We can do it.”

Another smile from him but then his attention was running back over the crowd. His face was serious again. Was he sizing up everyone who walked by as potential enemies? Was he comparing the people he saw here to the ones he had seen in the arenas?

“We can stop it. We’ll figure it out. First, we have to go meet with the advisors,” she said.

“Great.”

“Mind numbing but useful. They’re brilliant, they just like to talk and talk, and then after the talking is done, they talk some more,” Allura said.

“Sounds thrilling,” that flat sarcastic tone again.

“I’m sure you’ll love it,” she said giving him a little jab in the shoulder and making him hop farther away from her with a laugh rather than a glare. He stayed out of her range as they walked the rest of the way up the hill but he walked beside her. She resisted the urge to fill the silence with chatter. The silence felt friendly so she kept quiet as they wove their way back towards the castle.

Chapter Text

The Alteans were a strange mix of careful control and the mass chaos of trying to herd cats. The chattering advisers jumped from topic to topic, argument to argument, so fast that he could barely make sense of them. The King was quiet and watchful and when he spoke the others fell silent immediately and everyone listened with an unsettling kind of intensity. The conference room where they all sat had the charged space of a cockpit at launch. Anything could go wrong at any moment but everyone was unshakably confident in their own ability to manage it if it did.

The chief adviser, a man called Coran, was dramatic and insisted on filling every silence but then sometimes everyone turned and listened to every word he spoke. Coran was able to put it all together. Everyone else's bits of plan and theory and disjointed ideas became something coherent when Coran reassembled them. He wasn't a strategist or a politician. He could connect all the dots and present a final picture.

Shiro had given up trying to follow the others as they discussed him and his fate. He waited for the Princess or Coran to start putting it together and tuned in only to that part.

He had tried to sit at the table among the others and there had been too much friendly jostling and back patting for him to be able to handle it. There had been a break and when they'd come back in, he'd taken a seat nearer Allura. She was separate from it all. Much younger and one of only three women in the room, she didn't get pulled into the physicality of it all. Just having her closer cut him off from some of the forced friendliness.

Everyone was so intentionally nice. He had never stopped to think about what it meant to be an alien held by the Galra. It simply was. He couldn’t stop it or save himself so he had simply learned to endure it. Sitting in a room where every surface was glass or white lacquered metal and everyone was clean and well dressed and spoke so politely, it seemed like it couldn’t have happened. It was absurd to have these people lean back on brightly coloured cushions or against the perfectly clean table and discuss what had happened in legal terms.

What was or was not illegal and by which planet’s terms. Estimates on numbers and time tables and prison conditions. They were taking hell and making it into something that could be drawn on a graph or written up for a middle school textbook. Cold and clinical and comprehensible.

It wasn’t any of those things.

It was a jumbled mess.

His mind couldn’t string together the narrative. Images came spilling out of him memories and sometimes he would try and sort them and other times it was all he could do to push them back in. He had taken a blow to the head. He knew that. He had only been awake for a day. He knew that too. There would be time later for the memories to start making sense of themselves. There would be time for the holes to start healing.

Healing would come.

He needed to believe that.

Because where his thoughts were now wasn’t tolerable. He was only halfway paying attention as the legal terms flew fast and thick. The Princess was getting annoyed at the direction of the conversation. The King kept bringing it back to different topics. The man who fancied himself an expert because he’d been invited to view a match once was quickly becoming insufferable. The legal terms were blurring. Then. Sometimes. Sometimes sentences would drift out of the din.

“It is likely the public arenas aren’t the only ones in operation,” someone said.

Bright white light as a door opened on a cavernous space and the sound of a crowd. That memory he had to stop.

“It would be better to have a name to call you other than ‘the alien,’” someone said, pushing the topic again.

“Takashi Shirogane, this may be a scientific mission but as the lone pilot and the only member of the Garrison on board, you will have responsibilities beyond those of the others. Do you understand what that means?”

“Yes sir.”

That office had smelled liked lemon cleaner and the General’s cologne. It hadn’t been a pleasant combination. The blue carpet and the dull gray walls with certificates on them made for a forgettable backdrop but here, now, Shiro’s memory pulled up those insignificant pieces of the memory in vivid detail. What had it meant? He couldn’t remember but he could remember that one of the frames around one of the certificates had been pale wood while all the others were black and gray.

Back in the current moment he said, “I don’t mind being called ‘the alien,’ sir.”

He had nothing else to hold onto. Nothing that was his. If they wanted to, these people could beat the hell out of him and lock him up somewhere as easily as the Galra had. He didn’t think he would be promised any rights. He didn’t have a single possession. He didn’t understand the planet where he stood, or the language, or the culture. He had nothing. And somehow holding onto his name had become a piece of control that he wasn’t willing to let go. It was irrational. Utterly irrational. Knowing that it was irrational did not help him stop holding so tightly.

There was eventually another break. This one with food. Shiro took as much as it felt polite to take and retreated to a small balcony that looked out over the flower garden that the Princess had mentioned before. The sun was starting to set. The day had been cloudy and as the light got lower, he could see that it was reflecting off some sort of dome that covered the palace and the little city around it. There was a wall that ran all the way along the edge of the town and it looked like there was nothing out there. The old white stone walls were crowned with metal machinery that must power the dome.

"You can refuse to go back in there," she said.

"I want to hear it. Why do you have a dome?"

"Rains."

"Rain?"

"The firestorms come in the winter. A long time ago, the Alteans were nomadic. As the fire storms rolled in from the volcanoes along the south coast, they would just move farther inland and then come back again once the season was over. The inland is desert so when towers and then towns were built, they needed to be closer to the farm land. Volcanic ash is good for farmland once the fires go out. And they needed to be protected. There are still many towns built underground. The capital was one of the first built beneath a dome. We've expanded the walls three times. Can you see there," she pointed.

"There?" he asked, "By the silver roofs?"

"Yes. It's a portion of the original wall, back before there was a castle and it was really just a village."

She came to stand beside him. Not touching. She had only touched him twice, the time she'd nearly broken his fingers and when she had shoved him in the restaurant. But she stood close enough that it was obvious that she wasn't afraid of him anymore.

Was that a good thing? Was he dangerous? He didn't know.

"Why are you telling me that?" he asked.

"Because I am proud of my city and I'm proud of my people and I don't usually get a chance to show them off," she said. Then she turned, head tilted a little and a bit of a smile on her face, "Also you needed to be distracted."

"I guess I did," he said. "I genuinely don't remember. I think Coran and the others suspect I'm lying to them by giving them such vague answers but I don't know. I don't know how many rings there were. I don't know how many prisoners. Time seems strange when I try and put memories in order. I don't even know how long it was between fights. I think some of the fights I remember weren't in the rings at all."

"You're not lying and we know it. You don't need to justify it. You're doing well."

"Well? On what standard am I doing well?"

"You were held as a prisoner for a very long time under very harsh conditions. By that standard, that you are moving around and having coherent conversations is an achievement."

He smiled but couldn't think of a single thing to say to that. It did not feel like an achievement. He wanted to feel like himself again. He wanted to be able to think clearly and put his life back in order and go home.

The talking was going to start again soon so he turned his attention back to his food. He didn't remember being hungry. If he ever had been, it was lost to the haze of the memories but he had missed food. Real food. He couldn't identify any of the things he was eating but it tasted good and it didn't leave him desperate for more. It helped. The princess leaning on the railing and watching her city in the fading sunlight helped too. It was nice to have company that he could be relatively sure wasn't plotting to kill him or plotting a way to use him to keep themselves alive.

Then they went inside and sat back down.

The talking resumed.

The talking dragged on.

Shiro wasn't paying attention to the advisers at all anymore. Even his strategy of listening for Coran or the king had fallen apart. He still tuned into the Princess but more because her voice reminded him that she was there than because he was listening to the words. None of the words made sense. It was all starting to blur. His translator was still feeding him English but he was also listening to the sound of their language and the two were muddled. He couldn't think clearly enough to focus on one or the other.

"I need to rest, do you mind if I leave?" he finally asked.

That was all it took. In a flurry of apologies and behaviours that were likely the height of courtesy on Altea, he was shuffled off to a bodyguard who took him back to the room where he had started.

It was surprisingly comforting to be alone.

For a moment.

Then the guard locked the door from the outside and the panic set in.

The room was small and luxurious even if the bed was strange. It was not a prison cell. He was not chained up again. He was simply inside a room he had asked to be returned to. Logic didn't help. His heart was beating like it was trying to get out of his chest. He tried the door but the handle didn't jiggle. He could pull it off the hinges. Maybe. He shouldn't try. Destroying doors and furniture would not help the case he wanted to make that he was civilized and safe to around. He forced himself to sit. He could manage this panic. He could. Sane and reasonable. A deep breath in. A deep breath out. Trapped again in an alien prison. No. Breathe. His heart rate didn't calm. He closed his eyes and shuddered. When a space ship was crashing, you had to maintain control because you needed to do everything you could to save your crew. Just run the checklists. He reached into his broken memories and found the launch checklist. Not a crash list but good enough. The sound of the lock. Small simple. And trapped. No. Breathe. What was the first dial to check? Pressure? He found the memories again and started running through a launch checklist. One breath for each dial. One breath for each switch and each call and response for mission control. 

It might have worked. It worked sometimes. Panic and then checklist. Panic and then checklist. Over and over. His mind on loop. He lay on his back and looped it. Every time the panic edged in, he pushed it back with a list of measured necessary steps. 

Later, there was a soft knock on the door.

It was still dark and maybe he had slept but maybe he hadn't. 

"Are you awake, Pilot?" she asked.

He was awake - fully awake - and across the room before he'd made the decision to move. He leaned against the wall beside the door and tried to get a handle back on his thoughts and his emotions before he said anything pitiful or angry. The wall was smooth and white. Everything here was so clean.

He stared at it in the dark for a moment and said, "Can you open the door?"

And just like that, he heard the lock disengage and the latch turn and he had to step back to allow it to swing open.

Easy.

Open.

Just a door.

Hardly worth the mess his thoughts had been a moment ago.

The Princess stood in the hallway, a guard was in view but the lights were all dimmed. It wasn't so dark that he couldn't see her face or notice that she was wearing the same clothes as she had been wearing before. Her hair wasn’t quite as perfect but she didn’t look tired. Maybe it hadn’t been long. It felt like a lifetime but time kept slipping sideways. He had been in space for a few weeks. He had been in space for years. He had been in the room for hours. Earth was a dream, he’d never been there at all. It slipped and spun.

She met his eyes and frowned.

"What happened?"

"Nothing."

"Something did."

"I-" he started but couldn't figure out how to articulate it. Irrational. He wasn't in danger. He didn't have anywhere else to be. He had entered the room with no plans to do anything but sleep. But then the door had been locked and none of it mattered. It hadn't really been fear. He wasn't afraid of the closed door but he hated it and hated being on the wrong side of it and no matter how many times the rational side of his mind told him that there was no danger, the panicked side would not calm.

Explaining it was impossible so he just said it, "They locked the door. It's fine. I'm a potential threat in the royal palace. Of course they would lock the door."

She nodded.

Then she turned to walk away, leaving the door ajar. The wandering off mid-conversation was quickly becoming the most annoying thing she did. Where was she going this time? He stepped out into the hall and watched her cross to the guard. They had a quick conversation in low voices that his thoughts were took chaotic to make sense of and then she came back to him.

"They'll stop you from leaving the floor or coming near an inhabited room but we'll leave the door unlocked."

"Just like that," he said and his voice was flat and strange.

"I learned to write my name with my mother just before I started training with a tutor. Up until that point, I had believed that, Yes, Your Grace, was my name. My parents called me by a variety of nicknames. The other kids didn't care too much about names because we were still all so small but everyone else called me Yes, Your Grace. I learned to spell Allura before I realized that it was my name."

He could listen to her talk for years. She existed in a world where people taught their children to spell and 

He quirked a smile at her, "So what you're telling me is that you were atrociously spoiled as a child."

"Unendingly. I'm still spoiled. And people still say, Yes Your Grace to just about everything I ask," she said.

"Thank you."

"For being spoiled?"

"For using that power on my behalf."

"Go get some sleep. You look scary when you're tired," she said.

And she left him standing in the hallway, still fully dressed, as she walked up the hall and disappeared into her own rooms. The guard across the way looked disapproving but Shiro didn't think he'd disobey the Princess. Shiro stood in the open door for a little longer before stepping back inside and letting it swing almost shut. He left it a crack open while he went to the sink and in the corner and washed his face and looked at himself in the mirror.

She had called him scary.

He had dark circles under his eyes and the wound on his face had healed to a scar that cut across the bridge of his nose. He hadn't had a chance to look at himself. Hadn't wanted a chance. He did look scary. He didn’t look the way he remembered. This was still his face but it was different too. He was too pale. No sunlight in the gladiator prisons. The scar, the hair, the expression in his eyes that he couldn’t name. He ran his hands through his hair and the white piece just looked more out of place. Looking at his reflection wasn't helping him calm back down. He turned his back on it and went to sit down.

Finally, he let the door swing shut, just a single latch clicking over.

He opened it again.

It opened. Just a door. All that panic and it was just a door. 

Then shut it one last time and then collapsed into the weirdly shaped bed and finally fell asleep. 

Chapter Text

Morning came. He hadn't slept through the night. He had slept and woken and slept again. Without the sounds of other prisoners to clue him into dangers in the dark, his body had woken at every sound. Footsteps in the hall. Voices in the courtyard below the window. Once the beep of some bit of machinery in a nearby room. Each time he would have to remind himself where he was and check the windows and the doors and the aches in his own body before he could settle back down and sleep again.

He had woken up a half dozen times. He hadn’t gotten nearly enough sleep when he finally gave up on trying to fall asleep again. It was starting to get light outside the window and he got up to look out the window at sunrise on this alien world.

In spite of all the tossing and turning, he hadn't felt so well rested in a long time. The prospect of breakfast and another day where the worst pain he'd have to face would be the ache where his body was still trying to adjust around the metal arm were enough to make it the best morning he could remember since leaving Earth. He sat on the bed and stared at the morning light creeping across the rooftops outside the window.

"What happens now?" he said into the silence.

There was no answer. He didn't have any answers but at least he wasn't going to die today and that gave him time to work it out. Outside the sun had risen above the horizon and the silver rooftops the princess had pointed out the night before shone with it. The sky was a greenish blue. He hadn’t been calm enough the day before to notice but now he let himself stare at it as the pinks of sunrise gave way to a color closer to sea foam than sky blue.

He finally roused himself the rest of the way and tried to smooth out the clothes he had slept in. It hadn't occurred to him to ask for pajamas. Pajamas and slippers and cups of tea in the morning. Were those things possibilities again? Could he ask for tea? How did he ask for tea? Did this planet have tea? Even better, did they have coffee? The princess had done all the asking before and he didn't know who to ask or how to call them. Asking the guards for tea or coffee was probably disrespectful. He'd once been asked to fetch coffee for a superior officer and had been deeply offended by it even though he'd been a thirteen year old cadet at the time.

Without a way to ask for coffee or tea, he found himself testing out the limitations of his body. The arm responded as though it were a piece of him. It took the same amount of thought to move the metal one as it did the one that he had been born with but the information it sent back was strange. It had some sort of synthetic nerve endings so he could tell when it touched the wall or the window. He knew they were different but the sensation wasn't really touch.

His brain knew what it was feeling but it was information not sensation.

Shiro spent an long time just touching things in the room and trying to make sense of how the arm was sending information. How precise could he be? How careful? He could be gentle enough to pick up wet paper without tearing it but it took more thought than he expected. He stood at the sink and dropped things into the water and picked them out again. Hot and cold water didn't hurt the arm. Banging it against the stone window frame or the metal bed didn't hurt it though it made a horrendous sound that had him wincing at the door like a kid about to get caught doing something naughty.

He was throwing a paper weight from hand to hand to test his hand eye coordination when there was a knock at the door. He lost focus but the arm reached out and finished the catch without his conscious attention, the way he always had with his real hand back when he had played baseball in high school. He put it down on the bed and went to open the door.

"Good morning!"

The princess stood there in a white jumpsuit with pink and green details at the shoulders and waist. She had pulled her hair back tightly which made her ears more noticeable. It also made her a different kind of pretty. The soft flowing dress and waves of hair were very Disney Princess but like this she looked more like the kind of woman who would punch someone for catcalling her on the street. It took him a moment to remember what one said when someone greeted you.

"Good morning," he echoed.

"I'm going down to breakfast in the hall and you're welcome to join me," she said.

"Breakfast would be great."

"Come along then, pilot."

She turned on her heel and he fussed with his shirt for a minute before following after her. She was direct. She didn’t quite stomp down the hall but the word walk wasn’t strong enough. Strode. She strode down the hallway the way the president in a movie might stride out across the stage to make some important announcement to the nation. Shiro hurried to catch up and fall into step beside her.

Expecting breakfast to be served in any sort of room that he might recognize was, of course, ridiculous. He had been expecting a little family kitchen or some sort of college dining hall or something else a touch less dramatic than the room the princess led him into. It was a banquet hall with a vaulted ceiling done in dark stone and covered in draperies instead of the white and chrome of the rest of the palace. It was a giant striking room.

And it was crowded.

Shiro paused in the doorway to scan the mass of movement and bodies as people moved around a buffet and between the tables, stopping to talk to one another like it was a high school lunch room where everyone had known each other for years. Everyone was well dressed and perfectly tailored and unlike the market where Shiro had seen a mix of species he recognized and some didn’t, everyone here was Altean.

“How much staring should I expect?” he asked.

“With your ridiculous ears?” she said reaching out to flick one and make him jerk away from her with a short laugh. “Rather a lot,” she told him.

The motion reminded him of being a tiny child and sitting with a girl on a patch of grass somewhere. They had plastic toys arranged around them. She yelled something at him and reached out to flick him on the end of the nose and he’d laughed at her the way he laughed at Allura now. His sister had flicked him on the end of the nose when they’d been small.

He had a sister.

He had forgotten having a sister. He couldn’t remember her face or if she was younger or older than he was. The memory wasn’t quite clear enough for those details. He remembered only that she would laugh and flick the end of his nose and he would get upset with her for it at her. The memories from before had seemed fine. He could pull up clear memories of the Garrison and of basic training. He could remember having dinner with his mother the day before he deployed.

But he’d forgotten he had a sister.

What else had he forgotten?

Were any of those other memories real?

He was still lost in that single shard of memory when the princess stepped away. He scrambled back to reality and reminded his feet how to walk and trailed after her. What had felt like a crisis mustn’t have showed on his face at all. She didn’t pause or glance back at him after he laughed at her. He caught up with her as she paused at a table to say hello to an older woman.

The princess led the way across the dining hall to the buffets. There were a few stops along the way to talk to people she knew. She was all smiles and brightness and introduced him as a military ambassador from a border world. More than one person stood up and squinted at his face or examined his ears. No one tried to touch him except for the princess. She took him by the arm and pulled him along like they were old friends or joked about the ears and touched them with a finger tip while chatting with the old lady.

The casual touching was jarring. It set off alarm bells in his head. Someone who was touching him was someone who was too close. He tried to find that memory of his sister again or a memory of a friend. Something. Something other than what his thoughts were giving him.

"You don't seem to have any special security," Shiro mentioned after the overwhelming process of picking food was complete. She had mentioned that Alteans didn't really care for the taste of their food but it was obvious that they did care about the colour and presentation. It meant the buffet was a riot of colours and choices but everything ended up tasting like porridge. It wasn't bad. It was just bland. Like his grandmother's plainest okayu but thicker.

"Why would I have security?" the Princess asked.

"Because you're a princess?"

"I'm in my own house. Do you come from one of those cultures who believes that accidents of birth give one special powers?" she asked.

"Princess," he pointed out.

"Ah but I am not preternaturally skilled at being a princess, nor am I specifically suited to being a Queen. I have had to learn the skills that I will need to govern and I am still learning them. Living in isolation does not help one become a better leader. Visiting the market, eating in the halls, speaking with the people is a part of my training as it will one day be part of my responsibilities as a ruler. Besides, I'm a girl," she said.

Shiro must have looked confused.

"Altean women are rather stronger than you might expect given our outward appearance," she said.

"I remember."

"Attacking an Altean woman is never a safe choice. We're stronger than most people and if it isn't the physical strength then it's the magic. I'm more than capable of defending myself should a problem arise. But once again, this is my home and the people here are friends and family and community. There's nothing to be concerned about. You're the most dangerous thing in the building."

"I'm not dangerous."

She looked at him and raised an eyebrow as though to question whether or not that was true. He shrugged. He didn't feel dangerous. Maybe he was.

He turned back to eating the food. He was hungry. Maybe he would always be hungry. He stirred the green paste in the bowl and ate it in spite of the fact that it looked like a fourth grade science experiment gone wrong. He was going to finish it before he started in on the fruit. It had to be some sort of nutrient rich something if it was enough to keep people alive. He didn’t want to be drained and hungry when something went wrong. If something went wrong.

He sighed and the princess looked at him. Now he had to invent something to say. He gestured around them with a hand and seh followed the movement.

“You’re younger than everyone else in the room,” he said.

“I am. Everyone else in my cohort is on a retreat for another three weeks. Being a princess comes with a few restrictions. Not getting an invitation to go have lots of sex in the woods for a month is one of those restrictions,” she said.

Shiro coughed on his mouthful of food and looked at her. She grinned at him as though his moment of prudishness entertained her. Of all the things, he might have imagined discussing with a space princess over breakfast, the fact that all her friends were off having some kind of orgy was not one of them. He started to say something to explain his discomfort with the entire topic but it just felt ridiculous to even try when her tone was so matter of fact. She took his expression as a question.

“Alteans have mating seasons during which those who are attempting to have children go off and attempt to get pregnant. It happens twice a year. Younger people go more often but anyone who isn’t a royal is technically invited,” she said.

“Alright,” he said.

She laughed at him and flicked his ear again. She was so shockingly at ease with him. It kept catching him off guard. Being treated as a dangerous criminal might have been easier to manage. He gotten used to every touch being a prelude to attack and every sound being a danger. Having breakfast in a busy restaurant with someone who smiled as easily as breathing was an adjustment. He had to get used to feeling safe. He turned back to his food and ate the rest of it without saying anything else.

"I'm going to go take on some training simulations before I have to spend all afternoon in more meetings about whether or not your presence here is meant as a declaration of war and what that means," she said once she had finished hers.

That explained what she was wearing. It looked like a tracksuit because it was a tracksuit. When she got up, he trailed out of the restaurant after her. He hadn't been invited but it didn't seem to bother her. She stopped to strike up conversations and check in with a few different groups at different tables including that same older woman who seemed to be a teacher or a mentor who accused her of not keeping up with her studies.

"You're young enough to be a student?" he asked. She seemed somehow beyond all that though she looked about the right age to be a university student.

"As I will be for the rest of my life. You're comments make obvious the components of your culture," she said.

"Do they?"

"You keep your rulers and government separate from the rest of the society. You consider sex and mating practices distasteful or at least private. You have a distinct period of study which ends at a certain point in a young person's life," she said.

"Yeah, ok."

"No one is a expert in their chosen field after five years of study. The Clexians have an education system like that and it is rare for their professionals to continue to study into the later part of their lives. They studied and now they will perform the tasks of their profession until such time as they are too old to continue. It's a system that looks neat on paper but is a bit absurd. You are an undiscovered species, if I were to have stopped studying two years ago, how would I be expected to learn about your society?" she asked.

That was an oversimplification if Shiro had ever heard one but watching her talk about something she had strong feelings about was entertaining. She kept going. She spoke with her hands, gesturing and turning back to him as she walked to make sure that he was paying attention. He wasn't going to remember all the things she was talking about children's education and the value lifelong learning on the planet of Altea but it didn't really matter.

Just as it had in the market the day before, her cheerful commentary made him feel a little more normal the longer it went on. He found himself trying to call up memories of his friends in his life before to have something to compare it to. It felt like a very long time ago that he had had people to just natter away with about nothing but school memories and what they had heard about life in other countries. He could find the memories. Not all those memories weren't lost to the haze of the head injury and the fear. They just didn't feel quite real. Arguing with Jackson and Ezra about how wrong they were about schools on the moon base couldn't possibly be real in a world where he walked through a palace with an opinionated space Princess who had apparently taken classes in magic, real magic, at her elementary school.

"What kind of magic?" he asked.

"Magic is life force. There are various words for it. Quintessence, soul, heart strength, but Alteans prefer to keep it simple, magic is magic."

"Can you show me a trick?" he asked.

"It isn't the sort of thing that you can do as a trick, don't be vulgar," she said punching him lightly in the shoulder.

That made him laugh. Magic tricks were a vulgar topic of conversation. Orgies weren’t. He was still chuckling and she was just a little bit offended but didn't seem to be taking it too hard. He laughed at her again as he danced back out of range of another arm punch.

"Are you going to punch all your rivals and advisers when you're Queen?" he asked.

"If they deserve it, yes," she said.

He was still laughing as they rounded the corner and she typed a code into a key pad and opened up a stark white space with a long hallway lined with doors. At the end of the hallway was something that looked more like a gym. There were a few people there who paused to glance her way and wave. Shiro got a little bit of staring but not enough to make him nervous, just the look that any new person would get entering a private gym.

"Do you do sparring?"

"Oh god no, none of those people would dare. The very few people willing to risk hitting me are all still away on the spring retreat for another few weeks."

"They won’t try because you'd hurt them?"

"Because I am a Princess and while getting a bloody nose in a sparring match is hardly worth getting concerned about, just about everyone does get concerned when it's me. We have a proper med kit over there but oh, no, no one can risk it. Can't hit the poor princess.”

He started to crack a smile at that.

"I will punch you again if you make a snide comment."

"Oh no, I wouldn't want to offend such a delicate flower," he said.

"Quizznak," she said.

It was a swear word that his translator didn't bother to switch into English for him. It didn't need translated. He laughed again and drifted down the hallway to look at the open space of the gym while she punched a code into one of the white doors closer to the entrance. He paused to look inside. A little square white room with a screen on the door. She had mentioned simulations. Curiosity curled in his chest but he didn't follow her in.

He had been so upset at the idea of being treated like a pet when he'd arrived. That conversation happening over him as he'd drifted in a half-conscious haze of drugs and confusion had left him angry even before he'd woken to find himself tied up someplace unfamiliar. Now he was trailing her around like a puppy. He forced himself to walk away just to prove that he could. Just to stretch the still shaky freedom that he couldn't quite figure out what to do with.

The gym was an open space. All white. Why was this species so obsessed with white? How much work did it take to clean it all? He had to admit that the institutional gray of the moon bases he'd grown up and the various shades of taupe favoured by military compounds where he had trained wasn't much more creative and didn't look as striking. Still, gyms were usually done in easier to clean colours. Even the mats on the floor were white. There were weights and complicated looking equipment up against one wall.

He stuck to the edges and watched the other people.

This was a survival instinct that he knew he hadn't had before. He could remember being fifteen and being told repeatedly to stop and watch his opponent's footwork. He hadn't been a patient teenager and he had driven his coaches mad with it. He was a better fighter when he could stop and pay attention. The arenas had turned that from advice from an authority figure to a skill that made it the difference between life and death. Other species fought differently. The skirmishes in the prisons were where he'd learned how to defend himself.

He tried to turn that thought into a memory but as soon as he grabbed hold of it, it blew apart like smoke.

Still, the instinct remained even if he couldn't call up the memories that went with it. He watched the Alteans in the center of the room. They didn't so much fight as dance around each other. It was a very careful style of fighting that was obviously more concerned with form and athleticism than landing a good hit. He wondered if any of them had ever been in a real hand to hand combat situation. Could their style be adapted into something more effective and less aesthetic?

"Are you from the borders?" someone asked and Shiro pulled himself back from his thoughts and turned to look at a man old enough to be his father, leaning against the wall beside him. He had dark eyes with green pupils which were a bit shocking. Allura's blue and pink eyes still unnerved him sometimes but the mix of black and green was even more striking. The man had green marks on his face and dark brown hair brushed back from his forehead.

"Borders? I guess but not the Altean borders," Shiro said.

"I heard once that there were people on the edge of the empire who cut their ears and filed their teeth, thought maybe that's what happened to you," the man nodded at Shiro's head.

"I was born with these ones, thanks," Shiro said.

The man must have had a translator which meant he was probably someone important. The translators that were small enough to fit in a bracelet or a pair of earrings like Allura's were expensive and rare. Talking to people at breakfast and the conversation with the cook the day before had been enough to teach him that. Most people couldn't understand him, even if they had translators, they couldn't set them properly to pick up his language because there were no Altean-English dictionaries in existence.

"Do they work properly?"

"Are you asking me if I can hear?"

"Obviously, you can but still, it seems like you'd be able to hear less sound with less ear to collect the vibrations. They sit so close to your head."

Shiro frowned and turned to look at his new friend again. Allura’s little comments had tracked as teasing from a friend. He hadn’t even thought to be annoyed by them. This conversation left him feeling a little like a zoo animal or a curiosity someone had found washed up on the shore. The man kept talking and it wasn’t getting any better.

The Princess appeared at his side with the energy coming off her in waves. She hadn’t had a long work out yet but she was bouncing a little as she came to a stop. Shiro was still leaning on the wall, considering the vaguely offensive things that the man couldn’t seem to stop saying. She came to stand near them and met Shiro’s frown with one of her own. He forced his expression into something more neutral.

“Winst,” she said, “Are you bothering my guest?”

“Just asking questions,” Winst said.

Shiro raised his eyebrows.

“He’s got a meeting with the entire Royal Advisory Board this afternoon, give him a break from the questions,” she said.

“Can he fight? It looks like he can fight. It’s so rare to get an opportunity to take an alien into the sparring ring,” Winst said.

“I don’t think you really want to put that to the test,” Allura said.

Shiro was suddenly caught by the desire to do it. He really did want to put that to the test. He wasn’t sure how well he’d respond to a fight but this place was so clearly not life or death. It was a room full of people hitting one another but there was no sense of anxiety building his chest. He had been watching the matches with curiosity. Even the nerves of the market weren’t here.

There would be no surprises here. It was too sterile and simple. It was a gym. He had done training matches in gyms since he was eight years old and had taken a taekwondo class with a kid named- but no - the memory fell apart. A kid from his neighbourhood. He couldn’t find his name or his face. Just that they had gone to class together and been competitive about everything they did.

Winst was just as serious about pulling him into the ring and Allura backed off the argument surprisingly quickly. Maybe this was an orchestrated test. There was one way to find out how dangerous the alien was. Shiro was already second guessing himself but took off his boots and stepped out onto the mats in his bare feet. Not a battle. Just a sparring practice. He wanted to know what his body could do. His hand eye coordination had seemed fine but playing in his room hardly gave him a chance to really test his reflexes or his strength.

“Before I go get my ass handed to me, is he as strong as you are?” Shiro asked.

“Of course not, he’s a man,” she said with a little snort.

“What are the rules?” he asked.

“Ask him.”

Winst was, unsurprisingly, arrogant enough to make the only rules a stop for blood and a set of boundaries. Shiro didn’t like this person. Allura’s arrogance felt either naïve or honest. She honestly believed that there wasn’t a threat in the palace that could hurt her. Her opinions on education were carefully considered but built on incomplete information and the bizarre assumptions of someone who had grown up in a very controlled environment. She had said some arrogant things since he’d met her but she never left him feeling like she was the most obnoxious creature in the galaxy. She was always taking in every piece of information she heard and thinking it over. Winst behaved as though he was immediately right.

The Altean fighting style was all movement. Footwork and big sweeping movements with large weapons. Every match he had watched had been two people dancing around each other. Pretty and predictable. Almost like fencing. Shiro just stood his ground and waited for Winst to put himself in range.

And then knocked him down.

The Altean might have been a little stronger than he was, and better fed and better rested but he was showing off. Winst was trying to make himself look good rather than worrying about making good hits. The first time Shiro just dropped down and took out his feet. The second time, it only took two hits before Shiro found an opening in Winst’s stance and landed a hit to his ribs. The third time, Winst was annoyed and rushed in. Shiro took his feet out again, using the same motion he’d used the first time.

The princess was not laughing.

She made a noise after the third time Winst went down and when Shiro looked up at her, she was pressing her lips together and playing with her hair. Since coming out of her little simulator room, she’d let it down and started finger combing it out. She was trying very hard to keep from laughing. Noticeably. It was making Winst seethe which just made him easier to knock down again. He stood up and finally started trying to use a strategy but Shiro had size on his side and he was calmer than the other man.

The princess sat on a bench, primly crossed her ankles and tried really hard not to smile as she fiddled with the little tech screen she was always carrying. She looked up from the thing that wasn’t a phone and the smile slipped out. Winst was rolling to his feet again when she interrupted them.

“It wouldn’t be so easy to knock me down,” she told Shiro.

“You can break my arm with two fingers,” he said.

“I didn’t say break bones, I said knock me down,” she said again.

“I thought people didn’t fight the delicate flower.”

“You’re trying to get out of trying.”

“You scare me.”

He said it flatly.

Another little joke in their traded jabs. It wasn’t true. She had scared him when he’d first woken up. She had scared the hell out of him when she’d peeled his fingers off her wrist without blinking after he’d grabbed her. At some point in the little trip to the river and then the market, it had started to fade. She could hurt him, he didn’t doubt that but she wasn’t a threat.

“Who’s a delicate flower now?” she asked.

Winst looked annoyed to be ignored throughout the exchange but he also didn’t show any signs of wanting to restart the fight. A handful of very short rounds and the Princess laughing at him was enough to make him back down.

“I’d like to see the Princess knock you down,” Winst said clearing the ring.

She didn’t bother tying back her hair. She just put down the phone and flounced over to him. She didn’t stop. She got within three steps and then came the rest of the way swinging. It caught him off guard and he managed to get back into a usable stance without losing too much ground. He took the hit on his forearm and even though she wasn’t hitting him hard, it hurt.  She laughed at him as she bounced back away again.

She wasn’t fast. She had solid footwork but she relied on power first. She fought like someone twice her size, someone who was used to dropping opponents with a couple of hits. Figuring her out was easy. Figuring out what to do about it was different. He was bigger than her but not by enough for it to make a difference when the strength was so uneven. That meant relying on speed and the space wasn’t big enough for it to be useful.

In an arena fight, he could have outflanked her and come at her from the side but this wasn’t an arena. She was too close and was a quick learner and was turning into his retreats and cutting off any speed advantage he might have had. The hits he took was probably not the strongest she could have mustered but they were enough that blocking them with anything but the metal arm was utterly useless. He had wanted to learn how to use the arm. 

They were both laughing. She bounced and grinned and teased. He swore each time she landed a hit. He was going to have bruises up and down his body from this. The metal arm didn’t feel pain and he was getting better at using it catch the worst of her attacks. There had been no fear until the moment she hit him in the chest hard enough that he’d had to roll to absorb the impact when he went down.

It wasn’t a bad hit.

But it left him gasping.

She knocked the breath out of his lungs and panic hit him.

It had nothing to do with her. Nothing to do with the moment.

It came in a rush of formless emotion that sent his heart rate climbing and his thoughts scattering like leaves in the wind. She didn’t notice fast enough. She came back into his space and this time instead of responding like it was a sparring ring with a friend, he responded as though his life was in danger.

Later, it was hard to say how he managed it because she was still stronger than he was but he managed to hit her at the right angle to bring them both crashing to the floor. He must have thrown all his weight into a free fall to pull her down out of her stance like that. She hit him again on the way down, a hit to the ribs that knocked the air of him again and pushed the panic a little higher.

Haze and chaos.

The room was quiet but his thoughts were not.

His thoughts were very loud. No words. No identifiable noises. Just chaos and loudness.

He still couldn’t breathe.

Chaos.

Air.

Shit.

Shit shit shit.

She said something.

She said something but he didn’t know what.

Her voice was enough to break through the panic. He sucked in a ragged breath that made him choke.

He still hurt but his own thoughts coming back into focus. The world came back together as he pulled in another slow breath of air.

She was pinned under him and someone had screamed. Out of the corner of his eye, the world blazed with a purple light. He registered that. The light first. He was leaning over her, his hand buried into the mats beside her head. In them. Wrist deep. The mat and a chunk of her hair were scorched. The air smelled like burned plastic.

Light first.

Then the smell.

Then the pain.

It shot up out of the arm and into his head.

She got her hands up against his chest and pushed him off in one fluid motion that flung him up and across the room. The pain wasn’t in his ribs. That was nothing. Hitting the wall was nothing. The pain burned up out from his arm and lanced across his head. He couldn’t think.

Pain pain pain.

There were people talking all around him. He could pick out Allura’s voice but his translator seemed to have gone dead or maybe the pain was taking up too much space in his head to let him think about words.

It didn’t stop.

Everything faded to black and still the pain lingered then even that was gone.

The world fell away into nothing.

Chapter Text

Allura was still seething. She sat with her feet up on the couch in the medic’s office as they poked at her shoulder and face again. The burns weren’t severe. He had pulled the punch before he’d made contact with her. If he had hit her. By the stars, if he had truly hit her with the arm glowing like that, he probably could have killed her. The burns were just proximity burns. She was fine. She knew it. The medics knew it. They were still fussing over her. The fussing just made her seething anger worse.

“Didn’t you have the arm examined?” she said into the phone.

“We did.”

“And you missed that function?”

“Your Grace, I have the plans up in front of me now, I cannot quite fathom how it could be done with this technology. There is a neural link. A few transmitters. The power source is in no way strong enough to sustain that kind of power. It might be quintessence but we’ll have to have one of the magic teams investigate it to answer that question.”

Another call came through.

She sighed and closed the first one without signing off. She was angry. She had almost had her head removed from her body. She felt like that gave her a little bit of a right to be rude. She waved the medic at her ear away. Her ears were fine. They didn’t hurt. They worked fine. That had already been determined. There was only so much patience left in her before she lost her mind entirely. Besides, she could still smell her burned hair and that was making her even more cranky than the near-death experience.

“Hello,” she said cheerfully into the phone.

“Tell me you didn’t start the fight with the dangerous alien criminal who has spent years in a Galran gladiator ring,” Coran said.

“I might have invited him into a sparring match. It wasn’t a fight.”

“Princess.”

“He’s not a threat,” she re-evaluated that sentence, “He didn’t seem like a threat.”

“Alien criminal who survived the Galra battle arenas,” Coran said simply.

“Yes. Well. I guess I can’t argue that. Where did they take him?”

“Prison. He’s in isolation until it can be determined how much trouble he is.”

“I don’t think he’s an intentional threat.”

“That could be a bigger problem because it meant that instead of sending us an unstable alien, they’ve sent us a weapon,” Coran said and then the phone call was back to talking about the Galra and whether or not her Pilot was an intentional threat from an ally or an accidental one. She kept the phone to her ear but tuned it out.

His gaze had gone funny near the end of their little fight. It had been fun. He was fast enough and smart enough to be a challenge and he had grinned at her when he’d made it out of the range of one of her hits. He’d laughed the first time she’d almost knocked him over. It had been like fighting Dira or Quill. Almost a game. A challenge between friends. It had been such a relief to be trading jabs with someone who wasn’t afraid to hit her back.

Then he’d gasped and that piece of him had shut off like a switch had flipped. He had come at her harder, his eyes too blank to be anything but terrifying. His eyes were solid colour and that hadn’t bothered her until he was looking at her like that. He had been so alive. So much a person. Even when he was terrified and hostile, he had been utterly present and aware. Until the moment when he wasn’t.

There hadn’t been time to stop it, to back off, to ask what was wrong before she was flat on her back and he was swinging for her face with his arm lit up purple. A deep unsettling glow that was something more than light. Either his aim had gone off or he’d realized what he was doing before the hit landed and stopped himself from hurting her.

Allura played it over in her head and couldn’t make any sense of it. That just left her angrier.

She wasn’t sure what she was mad at.

She was mad that they’d hauled him away before he’d woken up.

She was mad that she’d let herself trust him even though he’d told her specifically not to.

She was mad that her shoulder did hurt and the burn gel hadn’t finished healing it yet.

She was mad about her hair which was cut short on one side and smelled like fire and melted plastic.

She was mad that everyone kept treating the alien like a dangerous monster.

She was mad that she was stupid enough to think that he wasn’t a dangerous monster.

She was mad that they were chattering about politics in her ear again as she switched the screen to broadcast to the undamaged earring so she could listen and keep her hands free.

Some stupid impulsive corner of her mind wanted to go see him. It felt like her fault. She had egged him on into the fight and he was the one who had ended up locked up. It seemed unfair but her sense of fairness wasn't strong enough to balance out the fact that she wasn't a complete idiot. He had come very close to killing her. There was no tactical reason to go and see him. There was no practical reason either. It was better to just let it go and leave him be.

She spent the rest of the day in meetings and then finally went to see a stylist about getting the hair fixed. In a fit of annoyance, she just had them cut it all short instead of trying to find a way to hide the giant missing chunk. It hung down to just above her shoulders by the time all the scorched pieces were cut away. She leaned in to the mirror when the stylist was done and fluffed it up a few times. It felt different. It was hard to tell whether or not she liked it but at least it didn't smell any more.

With her new hair cut and her bad mood, she retreated to her own rooms to try and make sense of her thoughts.

"I received a sentient alien as a pet and it tried to kill me and then I cut all my hair off. It's almost as short as my father's now," she sent in a message to Dira. She knew Dira would assume it was a joke until she got back. "Next time, take me with you out to your peasant party in the woods."

It wasn't a peasant party.

Allura was the only one in her entire cohort who hadn't gone but she hadn't gone because she was a princess and so she'd started the joke among her closest friends that she hadn't wanted to go anyways because they were all peasants and far below her. Dira just laughed at her and Quill had told her was going to learn how to farm so that he could be closer to the magic of nature like the naturalists were always arguing for. It had made them all laugh. Quill probably couldn't identify wesblum from a weed if his life depended on it. He was not the sort of person to excel in nature.

Allura had her head down, sending messages to people who were too busy to check them when she made it back to her floor. She stopped outside the Pilot's room and stuck her head inside. Maybe she was hoping for some evidence but he'd only been there for a day. There was no evidence. He didn't own anything for her to snoop through. It was just a room. A small spare room for visiting friends. Nothing special. No personality. No hints.

She kicked the door shut and stalked back to her own room to collapse into bed and fall asleep before her thoughts could run away with her again.

 

Three days went by and life largely settled back to normal. She didn't go to see the Pilot but she did check up on his reports so she knew when he woke again. He was listed as dangerous and kept in isolation. He had asked whether or not she was alive but beyond that had responded to attempts at interrogation with stony silence. The gentle conversation she had started to be able to coax out of him was gone again. One of the interrogators reported that he wasn't convinced that the subject was truly sentient. That was ridiculous. She sent off a refutation that while unstable and potential murderous, he was undoubtedly a person.

She went to her meetings. She went to her studies. She sat in on her father's meetings and observed quietly from a corner. She sent messages to her friends that were only responded to about half the time. Life went on as it always had. The world was busy and Allura was busy with it. The problem of the alien prisoner and the Galra's erratic behaviour stewed in the back of her mind.

"They're trying to push us into declaring war first."

Those words had been said in a meeting she had attended with Coran and they haunted her. She found herself turning them over while she was doing other things. She had started piling up history and law books and trying to find precedents for that.

War was a foreign thing to Allura.

Wars happened in other places to other people. They did not happen on Altea and they did not happen because Altea declared war. It had been centuries since Altea had declared war. While they had dispatched fighters or the lions of Voltron to help calm down outbreaks on the outer edges of the galaxy and the alliance, war happened somewhere else. In all her imaginings of what it would mean to be a Queen, she had never once considered participating in a war.

Trying to imagine war here. Especially trying to imagine war with an ally that had been ironclad for longer than she had been alive, left her feeling like the ground was shifting. She had grown up with Galrans. They had different manners and different values than Alteans did but the children of Galran diplomats had been there with her and her friends when they snuck under banquet tables to steal cake after they had been sent to the nursery so the adults could drink and dance and talk politics. Those children who had once passed her elliberry cake and dared one another to drink stolen champagne might be the people plotting to push the stable core of a galaxy wide alliance into war.

If Altea and Galra fell to in-fighting the Clexans and Rellians probably wouldn't be able to hold the outer edges of the galaxy. The point of an alliance was stability. The only reason that anyone joined an alliance was for the promise of peace and stable trade. People wanted their children to be safe and for their communities to be well fed. A war that included fleets and Voltron and assassination attempts was not going to make any of that possible.

"Why?" she asked Coran one afternoon.

"Because pie," he said without looking up from his paper. He had tolerated her when she was a child and she still came to him more than she went to any of the other advisers. Coran was almost family and he was someone she could ask questions without worrying about whether or not she sounded like an idiot. He was quick to point out when she did sound like an idiot but he wasn’t cruel about it.

“Ugh.”

“Why is the start of a question. Not a question in and of itself, Princess,” he said.

“Maybe the answer I wanted to hear really is pie.”

“Then case closed, all is well.”

"Why would they want to start a war?"

"That's a child's question Allura, you're better than that," he said.

She rolled her eyes and considered doing something childish like throwing a ball of paper at his head. She already had the hair cut of a child, why not the curiosity and temperament of one too? She flicked her hair back over her shoulder in a habitual gesture it was too short for now. It ended up swing around and getting in her face. Stupid hair. Stupid alien. Stupid war.

"A different question then," she said, "What power do they imagine is to be gained by destabilizing the Alliance? An alliance that has lost it's core signatories isn't going to have any power at all."

"That is a better question," Coran said.

"Well?"

"Assuming that the Galra are seeking to destabilize the alliance then likely the power of the alliance isn't the end goal. You care about the stability of the Alliance but not everyone does."

"That sounds like a riddle."

"The Alliance maintains stability by setting laws for many things but chief among them is conquest. We sent Voltron to the Bleean system last year because the Bleean had started a war against a sovereign planet that shared their system."

Allura swore.

"Princess," Coran said.

She swore again and he shrugged as though she were hopeless as a bar fly. She added, "So the goal is to remove the greatest barrier to conquest and then turn the alliance into an empire."

"That’s what the theorists think, though of course it could all be a big misunderstanding."

"Have we considered asking directly? Don't they have an ambassador in this city?" Coran shot her a look and she rolled her head back and answered her own question. "Of course we haven't because that would mean tipping our hand. One can't very well start a conversation with 'Oh, are you considering declaring war and bombing all our outposts? Do pass the tea and tell us where the first strikes well be,' though honestly, it would make the whole diplomacy thing simpler, wouldn't it?"

"Diplomacy is never simple," Coran said.

Allura thumped her hand against her stack of books, "As I am well aware."

"I will not give you a child's answer and tell you that there is nothing to worry about but I will caution you against worrying needlessly. Zarkon likes power. He likes to make prisoners fight just to prove that he can. He likes to hold big military parades and have his squadrons practice formation drills just off major shipping lanes where everyone can see them. He likes the show, the pomp and circumstance.

“A war with Altea would mean giving up his right to being a Paladin of Voltron and facing both it and us in battle. We may not run our squadrons up and down the central convoy lines to impress the tourists from the edge but our technology is better than theirs. Altea is, and always has been, a formidable enemy. A little saber rattling is all quite normal. It happens every few centuries. When I was a boy it was the Rellian king vying for more power. He threatened withdrawal from the Alliance and tried to levy that threat into all kinds of powers, mostly tax revenues. At least potential assassins with metal arms are more entertaining than someone attempting a power grab over taxation law."

That made her laugh and let the conversation go so they could both go back to reading.

 

When she finally went down to see the pilot herself, it was on official business. She had considered him but hadn’t violated the instruction to stay far away from him because he was terribly dangerous.

The prisons were simple and concrete, with heavy metal doors and lots of mechanical safety systems that reduced the needs for most guards. Alteans themselves were dangerous prisoners and everyone had heard at least one story of an Altean criminal who had used magic to get out of jail or to trick their jailers. Hiring jailers with magic abilities was hard since most who had the gift were educated and promoted into far higher ranks, so mechanical locks and robot sentries had become standard. You couldn't magic your way through a timed lock. Magic worked on living things or through living things.

Her pilot - no, not her anything - the alien, sat with his back against the wall and one knee drawn up on the narrow bed. He had the metal arm folded across his stomach and he looked up and met her gaze when she came through the door. She sat down in a chair across from him. It was very close to the way they'd had their first conversation but that time he had been terrified and furious and there had been no bars. He looked far less frightening now than he had then.

He was steady, even, and calm.

She tried to mirror back that calm.

"Are you hurt?" he asked.

"No," she said. "Are you?"

"You broke three of my ribs during the fight. They're healing normally. I should be fine by the end of the week."

"I might have underestimated how strong you were. You had the kind of confidence in a fight that most people don't."

"I was not confident."

"You played it well."

"Right up until I almost killed you."

"Well, yes, there was that," she said.

"I'm sorry."

"Why did you do it?"

He didn't answer her for a long moment. He leaned his head back against the wall behind him and considered her. He tapped his fingers against his knee and started to speak twice before he managed to get the words out.

"I can't remember much," he said in a soft voice. "A long time before, I can. Most of my childhood is there. I think. Training and my first few missions. It's all there as it should be. Memories. Distant but intact. Most of them anyways. The Kerberos mission is a jumble. I remember parts of the prep and the trip. I remember meeting the science crew and worrying about their lack of training. The younger one had never been farther than Mars. It's like there are holes in it though. Once the Galra had us, it falls to pieces entirely. There aren't just holes in my memories. It's like they were torn to pieces and all that’s left is the pieces scattered on the floor."

Stars above, how could he talk about that without so much as a waver in his voice?

He went on, "The pieces aren't connected. I'll find a memory, a bit of visual that will play like a film but with no emotion attached to it. I'll watch a monster's limb fall to the ground and know that I did that but I don't care. Then other times the emotions hit me first without any rhyme or reason. I know that they're memories. I know it but when they hit I can't stop them.  Not right away. I can find myself again in the scattered bits. It just takes a bit of time. I wasn’t very fast that time."

"I broke your rib and hit a memory."

"I didn't know the arm did that. I vaguely remember being strapped down for the surgery but I don't think I had even seen it before I woke up here. If I'd known that I had the capacity for that kind of destruction, I wouldn't have risked it. If I'd panicked and it had just been my hand, you would have stopped it. But it wasn't just my hand. It was a weapon," he said. Then again, "I'm sorry."

"I don't blame you, you are forgiven for that."

"Thank you but I blame me."

"Can you decide when it turns on?"

"I've been working on that," he said.

His gaze had dropped from hers and he was studying the hand. He held it up and she straightened. It wasn't quite a recoil. She tried to convince herself that it wasn’t a recoil or a flinch. His hand was extended as though he was asking for alms or offering her a gift. She shied away from it as though it was something more hostile.

He shifted and pointed his arm at the wall without mentioning her reaction. Matte black and gray. Well made so that the joints fit together seamlessly and moved with all the fluidity of a living limb. He had rolled the prison issue gray up past his elbows on both arms so she could see the way the plates fit together around the joint. She watched in fascination as he turned it over so his fingers were extended.

Then he lit it up. It glowed purple, spreading up the fingers and then across the wrist and up his arm.

She did flinch. It was bright enough to cast the room in an eerie light. It was hard for her to tell if it was quintessence or electricity but the power coming off of it filled the room. It left spots on her vision and brought back the memory of his dark empty eyes and the weight of him crashing into her.

She covered her reaction with words, "So, you can control it?"

"Sometimes and sometimes it gives me a blinding headache and I pass out and there's no way to predict which one I will get."

“Why haven’t you cut through the bars? It cut through the floor under the mats in the training room.”

He glanced at her. Held her gaze for a moment. She let the silence stretch. Allura had grown up in court, he wasn’t going to be able to pull up any negotiation tactics that she hadn’t seen before. Finally, he shrugged and the purple glow faded back down his arm from elbow to finger before winking out. Just an arm again.

“I’m trying not to cause any more trouble,” another pause that she waited out. He leaned his head back, closing his eyes and exposing his throat. It wasn’t really vulnerable but there was something about the movement that held her attention. It wasn’t something an Altean would do. It was that simple. She kept expecting him to be Altean and he wasn’t. His body language followed different patterns.

He added finally, “I don’t know where I’ll go once I’m out.” Once he said it and she didn’t react, he kept going. “Or how far I’ll get. Probably not far. Then I’ll end up locked in cellar on some asteroid or dead instead of here. Here is boring. Boring is an improvement over every fragmented memory I can assemble of the last year. I don’t want to be dead. I have things I need to do.”

He leveled his gaze on her again. Were his eyes black or dark brown? Did it matter? She held the look and tried not to think about it.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“You reacted pretty badly the last time someone locked you into a small space,” she said. She was ignoring the question.

“I’m not thrilled with this situation either but I’ve been sitting here long enough to get over the worst of the panic,” he said. “Did you just come to chat about my mental health?”

 "They tell me that the reason they didn't notice your arm was a danger during diagnostics is because it wasn't technology that made it light up like that. It was quintessence."

"I don't know what means," he said.

"Magic."

"Can everyone on your planet it do that?" she asked.

"That?"

"Use quintessence like that."

"No."

He snorted and dropped his head down with a little laugh. For a moment, he was adorable. He lifted his head and was still giving her a half smile. She blinked at him and kept her mouth shut. She needed a minute to readjust after he smiled like that. Alien. Dangerous alien. Nearly cut off her head. He ran his fingers through his hair and held up the metal hand in front of his face and it turned it around to examine it like she had told a ridiculous joke.

Quintessence existed in all living things and different cultures gave it different names. Life force, soul, spirit, or they ascribed it to the workings of gods. It was very real. Altea was an unusual planet in how much it had. Alteans grew up steeped in magic and the sacred Alteans - people like her - could move the quintessence through themselves. Allura had never spent much time on it. There were enough priests in the world sitting in their temples, making balls of light float in perfect patterns or helping plants to grow.

She had taken flight lessons and learned to fly the Teladuv. That was as close as she had ever come to using quintessence or studying it. She studied law and science and politics. She was going to be queen. She didn't need the magic. Magic was a way for the intensely religious to connect to the soul of Altea itself. Beautiful. Important. But she was going to be Queen and it had never seemed like something worth learning.

She had never once heard of anyone using the magic like he had. There weren't even myths or urban legends. The priests had been fretting over it for days. The purple flash. The heat and the strength in it. In extremely rare cases, like the Teleduv itself, the magic could be drawn from a living source and used to direct specially designed machinery. Even the lions of Voltron used quintessence to bond with their paladins. 

Quintessence was a magic of connection and life. Itwas soft and gentle and in the rare cases when it was visible at all, it was blue or white. It was important but ultimately it wasn’t very strong. It was not a weapon.

What was wrong with his magic?

This man had wielded some sort of corrupted quintessence like a weapon and was treating it like it was funny. She watched him laugh about it and wanted to shake him. He went back to being quietly watchful but a corner of his mouth stayed tilted in a smile.

“So what are you doing here?” he asked.

"The priests said you were uncooperative," Allura said.

"And you're going to ask me very nicely to do what the creepy women in robes tell me to do?"

"Please do what they ask, they're not going to hurt you," she said in as syrupy sweet a voice as she could manage. She could be sarcastic too. He met her gaze and his lip twitched in a little smile. "No one asked me to come down here and talk to you. I'm supposed to be staying very far away from you. You're a hazard."

"And yet here you are." 

"I was curious."

He gave her another smile.

"Can you turn it on again?"

"I will be your science project - magic project, whatever but only if you let me out. I am not a pet or a zoo animal and I will not do what you say for your entertainment."

He said it conversationally. Simple and easy. Like he was discussing the weather. He unfolded himself from the cot and crossed the cell to her and leaned his arms through the bars. She'd forgotten he was tall. She drew herself up out of her chair and met his gaze. He was so calm. Underneath it, the anger and the fear were still there. She couldn't see it in his expression but if she reached out with the quintessence, even just a little bit, he was a storm in a person.

"I can try."

"I appreciate that but I won't hold my breath."

He didn’t look away from her and he was still taller than her. The urge to push her height up a little bit was there but that would be noticeable and that would be embarrassing. She ignored the impulse but he was making her uncomfortable. Too close. Too tall. She had let her own quintessence slip a little and now she was too aware of him to stand here beside him and not be aware of how upset he was. She held his gaze and when he didn’t back away first, her skin started to crawl.

She turned on her heel and walked away.

Chapter Text

It had been six days of the tiny room with the bars and the stone walls and the high window. Six days of gooey food and an uncomfortable bed. Panic had receded into boredom before the princess had come to visit him on the third day. Each day followed a predictable pattern. Food was delivered. Trays were removed. Water was brought. Later, another meal. Then the priestesses would arrive to conduct experiments on his magic.

By the time the priestesses arrived on schedule, Shiro had retreated as far from himself as he could get. He buried his conscious self as deep in his own thoughts as it would go. Ignoring the real world wasn’t easy but it was the only defense he had to hold onto his sanity and keep from hitting people. He needed to remember that these women were just people and they were just doing their jobs. They weren’t monsters and they wouldn’t hurt him.

He didn’t think they would hurt him.

Some part of him wanted to believe that the princess would have warned him if he was in real danger. She hadn’t and even from the priestesses themselves, there hadn’t been any threats. No one had told him that if he didn’t cooperate then something terrible would happen. It seemed likely that if no one had said that then there was no reason to fear it.

So he closed his eyes and ignored them.

They had moved from trying to coax him into helping them investigate his powers to just doing it without his participation. He sat there and they made little bubbles of light float around him and pushed their energy up against his personal space. Each time they did it, he was more aware of it. They must have done it in the first few days but now he was starting to understand what was going on.

They seemed to be trying to magically goad a reaction out of him because he wouldn’t do it on command. He hadn’t turned the arm on while they were in the room. The leader kept trying to reason with him. One of the others got exasperated and had scolded him like he was a resistant child at lessons.

He opened his eyes again. The leader of the three was sitting on the end of his cot with her feet crossed like a child. She was old enough to be his mother. Not elderly but old enough that his first instinct was that he should be respectful and call her by a title. Her hair was a dusty pink and her markings were pale blue. She was paler than most of the Alteans he had met and the colors reminded him a little of cotton candy.

The first few days they hadn’t stepped into the cell at all but now she was close enough for him to grab her. Even if she was as strong as the princess, he could hurt her with the arm before she could stop him. Just thinking that scenario through made him feel like a monster. He shivered and crossed his arms a little tighter over his chest to keep from doing something stupid.

She wore robes that were as close to the colour of the quintessence as it was possible to dye fabric. He could imagine them sitting with fabric samples and arguing colours like his aunts argued over quilts and embroidery. Her robe was a long single piece with dark blue edging and a sash around her waist. It was the same uniform that the others wore.

He watched her make another ball of bluish light and push it toward his face with a tap of a finger. He tilted his head back and swatted it away like it was a bubble. It shied away from his hand as though it was being carried on air currents and drifted past him through the bars out into the hallway near the guard who was waiting at the ready.

The priestess stopped and stared at him.

He couldn’t retreat fast enough to keep himself from noticing the shift in her expression. All three of them stopped to stare at him. He wanted to slip back down into his silent mood and pretend that they weren’t there and he was somewhere far away. It would be nice to be in Hawaii on a beach or in a pub just off the Garrison campus with a few friends, arguing over a baseball game. The staring was more than he could block out.

“This is a creepy new tactic,” he said.

“How did it do that?” the younger one with the brown hair and green eyes asked Cotton Candy.

“Could you call me something other than it?” Shiro asked.

They didn’t address him directly. He was pretty sure that they had the fancy translators but they hadn’t spoken to him since he’d given them the silent treatment on the first day. He had done that mostly because he’d been barely holding his self control together with the cage bars and the lingering pain of the fight with the princess. He hadn’t trusted himself to behave so he hadn’t done anything.

“He must have the capacity for magical manipulations,” Cotton Candy said.

“Thank you,” he told her and she didn’t glance back at him in response to either what he said or the sarcasm dripping off the words.

The next little ball of light floated towards his head from the third priestess. This woman would never get close to him. She stayed at the edge of the cell or on the other side of the bars and constantly told Cotton Candy off for doing things like sitting on the end of his bed. There were a lot of hissed reminders that he was dangerous and a criminal and an alien. An alien.

He watched it come and then waved it back in her direction. The things floated like soap bubbles. It wasn’t hard to move them around. She didn’t shriek but she leapt out of the way as though he had fired a gun in her direction. Her eyes were wide and she backed out of the cell to stand beside the guard.

“Are we done yet? Why don’t you all go away and play magic bubbles somewhere else?” Shiro asked.

“How did you do that?” Cotton Candy asked.

“Oh, you do understand me, I am shocked.”

“How did you do that?”

“Like this,” he said waving his hand.

She kept asking questions and Shiro pressed his shoulders back into the wall and closed his eyes. This was something they wanted and he had made his terms as clear as possible to the princess. He would not talk or explain or discuss unless they were willing to let him out of the box. Until someone was willing to discuss that, he would sit quietly and wait.

He kept his eyes shut as another little light bubble bounced off his forehead. He shuddered a little bit at the sensation. They must have changed what they were doing because the first few times they did it, it hadn’t felt like anything. In the past few days, he had started to be able to feel every impact. It didn’t hurt but he didn’t like it.

It took longer than usual before they gave up and went away, leaving him alone behind a locked door again.

 

 

They were back not longer after that.

He wasn’t actually sleeping but he hadn’t moved from the place where they had left him. He sat on the narrow cot. His back against the wall, his arms crossed, his body getting stiff. He did not open his eyes as he heard the door to the hall open and footsteps come through.

He ignored that. He was negotiating with himself. The Alteans had good healing technology and whatever they had given him was making sure that his ribs healed fast but he wasn’t sure if they were healed enough for him to attempt push ups without setting the healing back. His body was tense and he needed to burn off some of the extra energy before he lost his mind entirely.

He wanted to run. He wanted a well kept hiking trail somewhere that wound through a forest. He was day dreaming about making the run up to the top of a bluff and coming to a place where the trees opened up. A drop and a view and maybe a sunrise. Quiet and serene and that kind of empty that was peaceful without being lonely. 

Another light bubble popped on his face and pulled him back from the image.

He grimaced and shot whoever had thrown it at him the bird. Flipping the middle finger wasn’t exactly nuanced and mature but he was feeling crabby and petulant. They were on the other side of the bars, he would have heard it if they had opened the door. It wasn’t Cotton Candy. He was used to Cotton Candy. That didn’t make sense but he was sure that it wasn’t her throwing bubbles. He tried to guess who it was. Maybe the green eyed earnest one. Definitely not the terrified one.

“Wake up.”

Her voice was familiar.

He opened his eyes.

“Come on,” she said.

The princess wore one of her track suits and her short hair had been braided back so it didn’t fall in her face. She didn’t look much like a princess. She looked like a college student on her way to the gym. She nudged his door with her foot and swung it open.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“You told me the last time that you would behave if I let you out,” she said.

He gave a pointed look at the guard standing behind her. The man was in his early thirties, with a stiff, proper uniform and a severe expression. He wasn’t intimidating. He looked the way Shiro expected a palace guard to look. He’d probably never had to fire a weapon at another living thing. Shiro held his ground on the cot and looked back at the princess and waited for an explanation.

“Call this negotiations,” she said.

“Negotiations?”

“You’re a danger and I can’t very well let you just run off to lose control and go throwing punches at strangers. We’ll go out, grab something for dinner. You don’t have to do anything but come with me.”

He closed his eyes.

He should refuse it. He shouldn’t agree to some half measure. If they wanted something from him, they should be the ones making real offers. He wanted freedom. He wanted to go home. If they wanted to do bubble experiments on him, then they needed to start offering him something that got him closer to that.

But the door was open.

And it wasn’t Cotton Candy and her friends who had opened it.

He pushed up off the cot and covered the distance to the princess in two steps. Her eyes widened but she didn’t flinch. Behind her, the guard did. His hands twitched toward something that had to be a weapon but when Allura didn’t react, he didn’t do more than cast Shiro a warning glance. Shiro only caught it out of the corner of his eye, he was looking at her.

“What’s your side of this?”

“I’m convincing you to trust me so that we can get you to agree to full proper testing so we can figure out what’s wrong with your arm.”

“Why do you care?”

She blinked. She did not have many tells. He would have expected a pampered rich kid to be easier to intimidate but she held her ground like a prize fighter. The blink was the only hint she had given so far. He crossed his arms and leaned his shoulder against the door frame. He did not step out. Stepping out would be an admission of how much he wanted to make a run for it.

Her attention flickered and he said, “Tell me the truth.”

“There is a concern that your life force was corrupted and that it could be contagious to other people or to Altea itself.”

“Fuck.”

Shiro rubbed the back of his neck and considered his chances of making a break for it in the middle of the night. He could use the arm to get through the bars and the doors but then he had no where to go. There was no where to run. He had done the math. Repeatedly. He was on foot. She had mentioned volcanoes and that the villages were all underground. He would have to make a run across farmland and a volcanic mountain range with nothing but what he could carry. It was a suicide mission and he wasn’t desperate enough to attempt it yet.

Now this.

Corruption was a word that fit the arm. That purple glow. The shuddering intermittent pain that hurt so deeply that it was blinding. The way it slammed through him until his personality had evaporated along with everything else and he was reduced to his flight or fight response. There was something deeply wrong with it.

“Is it going to kill me?” he asked.

“I don’t know. You won’t turn it on when the priestesses can check it. Ellis’s report says that you’ve moved from an awareness of quintessence to being able to manipulate it. You’re getting stronger and no one know what that means. It’s possible the corruption will get stronger as well or it is possible that your natural life force will balance out whatever technology is present in the arm and it will become more stable rather than less.”

He stared at her.

She raised her chin and waited. Her expression was even and a little bit wary. The blue and pink of her eyes were deep, rich colours. Inhuman but beautiful. She set her jaw and refused to look away first. She was probably stubborn in everything she did. This was her idea.

“You’re going to get in trouble for this, aren’t you?”

“Ellis is going to feed me to an Awiri for risking myself like this so I would like to have something to show for it.”

“I will consider this. You will explain everything that you do before it happens and you will explain exactly what they want to do to me. Nobody touches me.”

“Alright.”

Shiro stood up straight and she took a step back so he could step out of the cell. The idea of his self control slipping again was more terrifying than the idea of being left inside the cell for the rest of his life. When he turned the arm on, he could feel the power build in it and then the fear set in.

What if he lost control of it?

Each time that the power brought pain, it made the fear worse. He had swung at her in the sparring ring because he had forgotten where he was and attacked to protect himself from a more powerful enemy. It had a sort of insane logic to it. And yet, understanding it did not help him calm down. What if the pain from the arm itself was enough to trigger that panic? What if stubbing his toe on a rock was enough to trigger it? How dangerous was he really?

He did not want anyone else, especially this beautiful kind girl with her fierce eyes and stupid bravery, to be the one in range when he did. He kept lulling people into false senses of security. The priestesses stepped into his cell. The princess walked beside him, close enough that he could have reached out and grabbed her. He didn’t believe that he wasn’t more dangerous than that.

She didn’t take him to the castle market this time and he was thankful for it. She took him back to the dining hall where they had gone for breakfast that first day and they sat at an empty table. Shiro looked up at the high ceiling. The lights were off and the windows let in afternoon sunlight. The stone and the tapestries made it look far more medieval than everything else he had seen.

Someone brought them some food and he ate without looking at it. The princess sat quietly and picked at her food while watching him. He could feel her attention on him. The guard went from worried to bored and sat at the far end of the table, fiddling with his uniform.

“I’m sorry for making your life so exciting,” Shiro said.

“Interesting isn’t always bad.”

“There’s an old curse I heard once, ‘May you live in interesting times,’” Shiro told her.

“That doesn’t sound like a curse.”

“No, not until you realize that gladiator arenas and the possibility of interplanetary war on a planet that you’ve never heard of are really very interesting,” he said.

She considered that and then nodded.

Shiro carefully stacked up their dishes on the tray that they had been delivered on. The princess pulled her hands back into her lap when he reached towards her. She had barely touched her food but didn’t question his little urge to clean it up. By the time he had finished sorting out the dishes, her hands were back on the table as though she’d never pulled away from him.

“Please explain, in detail, what you or Cotton Candy and her friends, want to do to me,” he said.

“That sounds like an examination question.”

“Please include your citations.”

She cracked a smile at that.

She walked him through the steps and as he asked questions it became obvious that she didn’t really know very much about what they were planning on doing. Every question got a vague answer.

“How much do you know about this stuff?” he asked.

“I chose flight lessons over magic lessons.”

“You can fly?”

“I need a plane.”

Shiro’s mouth tugged up toward a smile and he pushed it back down. There was an ocean of distance between the closest thing he had to a friend right now and a real friend. This woman was the closest thing he had to a friend but she was also standing between him and any chance he had at freedom. He did not want to laugh and joke with her. No, that wasn’t right. He did want to but he needed to keep his attention in the right place.

She caught the half smile and smiled back.

“Ellis can explain it better than I ever could.”

“Ellis calls me ‘it’ half the time.”

“You call her Cotton Candy. I don’t even know what that means and neither does she.”

“I think being it is worse.”

She looked like she wanted to argue but instead she just said, “I will tell her to stop and you don’t have to be her friend. You just have to trust that she knows how to do her job.”

“Are all the magic people on your planet women?”

“No. It tends to run more strongly in daughters then it does in sons but there are certainly men who have these powers as well. It was just luck that landed you with a team of women. I chose Ellis because I trust her and Ellis chose people she could trust.”

“Why do you trust her?”

“I’ve known her since I was young. What very little I understand about quintessence, I learned from her when I was young. She’s a friend to the crown and I thought you would be unlikely to find her intimidating. She’s one of those people who isn’t very likely to try and punch anyone. She’s not soft or kind but she’s a good person and she means well.”

Shiro sighed. The princess looked very earnest. She was leaning forward a little and talking with her hands. Her opinion on Cotton Candy was much more positive than his was but he had to admit that she wasn’t wrong. The priestesses wouldn’t have been such a pain in the ass if he hadn’t already been locked up.

“I will make one attempt at playing along with what they want,” he said.

The possibility that the arm was poison and it was going to kill him was a strong enough motivator. He lay the hand on the table and flattened out the fingers. He tapped each finger against the polished wood. The princess watched him do it again and again.

“It’s started to feel like a part of me,” he admitted. “Like it’s mine instead of a thing that’s been done to me. I can’t get my old arm back. Is it insane to wonder where it is? Did they throw it in the trash? Is it rotting away in some Galran trash heap somewhere? Did the thing that beat me in the fight eat it?”

The princess looked a little horrified by this train of thought. He snatched the hand back and clenched it into a fist on his lap. Her eyes were wide as she considered him and said, “I don’t know.”

“It was a rhetorical question. I know, you don’t know.”

“Come to the temple, we’ll figure out as much as we can,” she said.

She was giving him that kind careful look from the first day, before it had all gone wrong. He looked up at her and smiled a little. This time he didn’t try and bury the smile again. He needed someone to trust even if that trust was messy and imperfect. Maybe this wasn’t quite a friendship but it was the closest thing he had and he let himself be glad of it.

Chapter Text

The temple had been a place that Allura spent most of her childhood despising and avoiding. It was beautiful. A tall narrow building set into the castle wall so that there was an entrance to the main hall that opened on to both the market and the castle. Inside it was hung with tapestries and art work. Flowers and plants filled long gardens and changed with the seasons. Pools filled with water from the six reservoirs sparkled in each corner. Everything that wasn’t growing was done in crystal or polished stone. It was blue and white and pristine. 

It was beautiful but that didn’t make her hate it any less.

Still, she took some pride in how impressed the alien was.  

He tilted his head up to look at the stars painted on the ceiling. Each constellation was picked out in lights. During certain rituals, they were the only illumination except for the quintessence of the participants. It was late afternoon and the lights were faint against the sunlight that came in through the tall windows. Allura tried to see this place through his eyes but her imagination was too caught up in the memories of a child being lectured on the importance of her boring studies.

The main hall was empty. A few of the lantern posts had gatherings of people around them. Probably hosting memorials for family members who had passed on. The day of remembrance for Allura’s mother was coming up and she took a moment to wish that her family could have a private moment to grieve instead of sharing that memorial with a planet of people who had adored Bella far more than they were ever going to adore her daughter.

That was the most selfish thought she had ever had. It crossed her mind every year in the week before her mother’s memorial ceremony and every year she hated herself a little bit for feeling it. She was lucky to be the child of a woman as amazing as her mother had been. She was lucky to have so many people who cared about her family to come out and support them. She was lucky. She knew that.

“You idiot child,” Ellis’s voice hissed.

Allura turned to look at her and smile. “Hello, Sister Ellis.”

Ellis had shown up at her side, coming down an alley between the lantern posts. Inside the etched glass of each orb, the blue light flickered. The lanterns glowed with the power of the planet itself but they glowed a little brighter when a person of power stood in their circles. The lanterns around them drew on the power that rose with Ellis’s temper and got a little brighter.

“You should not be out alone with this creature. He is dangerous,” Ellis said.

“I promise to be nice,” the pilot said.

Ellis ignored him and pointed at Allura and then toward the door they had come through. The doors were open to allow as much sunlight as possible into the main hall and the square outside had a few people moving through it.

“I do not want his power in this place,” Ellis said.

“You said this morning that you didn’t think that you could get an accurate reading if he wasn’t in this place,” Allura said.

“That was a theory. That did not mean I wanted to test it right this instant. Yorrik was being a jackass and I said perhaps more things than were quite necessary. This is a bad idea. You are playing with fire and we’re all going to get burned,” Ellis said.

“You’re the only one who is allowed to play with fire then?” Allura asked.

Ellis pressed her lips into a tight line and looked around. They weren’t attracting much attention yet but they were going to if Ellis’s power climbed any higher. Allura reached out and took the woman’s hand and opened up her own quintessence so that Ellis’s power could fall into her instead of shivering out across the temple floor. She had enough power herself to catch the priestess’s spill over. Ellis had done this for her when she was an angry teenager whose power slipped its leash far too often.

“Ellis, the advisers will talk until the sun goes supernova and the entire planet is swallowed in a ball of fire. They’d still be talking as it happened. I’m not content to wait for them to make a decision. My father won’t make it for them because he wants to keep this mess quiet so that the Galra don’t hear about it. While everyone else is talking, let’s try and quietly find ourselves some answers,” Allura said.

“If he threatens you in the slightest,” Ellis started and then turned her attention to the pilot who was still studying the space around them, “If you threaten her, I will open a channel between your vessel and the heart of Altea itself.”

“Which is bad?” the pilot said, “I’m guessing based on your tone.”

“Your life force will be drawn into the planet’s core.”

“Ok then. Be nice or the Cotton Candy space witch will feed my soul to her sentient planet. Got it,” he said.

In spite of herself, in spite of the way that Ellis was glaring at him, Allura laughed. She bit it off but not before Ellis heard her.

Ellis sighed and waved a hand at the three of them. The guard was doing an admirable job of pretending that all of this was perfectly normal and not worrying at all. She wondered what he made of aliens and princesses and the second in line for the role of High Priestess of the Capital and Crown all in the same place. He didn’t share his thoughts, he just trailed along after them.

“Altea is not sentient, it’s just a planet,” Allura muttered to the pilot.

“Noted,” he said with the faintest edge of a smile.

In one of the training rooms on the second floor, Ellis pointed at the circle of white stone on the floor. The alien cast Allura a glance before he stepped into it. Nothing happened and relief crossed his face.

“Stay there.”

Ellis dragged Allura back out into the hall and glared at her. Up here, there was less greenery. These halls were about training your own life force rather than celebrating the life of the planet. White halls, lanterns lit by electric rather than magical light, crystals set in the walls, a portrait of the late Queen hung at one end of the hall. Allura didn’t look at it as Ellis glared at her.

“I do believe that the advisers told you to stay far away from this mess,” Ellis said.

“They did. They also told me that it was in my best interest to marry Grannin so their opinions on my well being are suspect at best.”

“Admittedly that one is a terrible suggestion but staying away from the immensely dangerous and powerful alien is not a terrible suggestion. You should undoubtedly stay away from this. That creature isn’t safe and the fact that he is so attached to you isn’t an asset, Allura, it is very concerning.”

“If it helps us make sense of all this, then it is an asset,” Allura said. “I am in no immediate danger and he’s much more likely to help if we treat him with respect. The attack was an accident, you’ve spent a week with him now, you know that. He’s injured, not malicious. I am being careful.”

“One guard?” Ellis said.

Allura nodded. One guard who couldn’t take the former gladiator in a fist fight, let alone in a fight that involved that arm. It wasn’t a great idea. She knew that. She wasn’t going to admit that she knew that. Ellis’s reports had done more to convince her that the pilot wasn’t dangerous than anything else.

Ellis glared again but Allura just held her ground. She was right. She had been reading the reports coming from Ellis’s crew and had watched Ellis’s tone change in each one. Renny was still terrified of the alien but Ellis was more curious than anything else. If it had been anyone but Allura who had talked him into coming down to the temple, Ellis would have been overjoyed.

Ellis took looking after Allura’s wellbeing very seriously. Too seriously. Allura had managed to convince most of the advisers to treat her like an adult over the last two years since her ascension ceremony but Ellis still fussed over Allura like she was a little kid.

“It’s already happened, Ellis, he’s already here. What are we going to do moving forward?” Allura asked.

Her lips tightened and Allura waited.

“Let’s go try this,” Ellis finally said.

Back in the little training room, the pilot was stretching his arms and rolling his shoulders while the guard stood by the opposite wall. It didn’t look like they had struck up any conversation.

“What happens next?” the pilot asked.

“We will do an aptitude scan with the arm dormant and then again with it activated. You will sit quietly and attempt to keep your thoughts clear so that the magic can work through you on its own terms,” Ellis said.

“She’s going to activate the circle. It’s made of a special crystal that channels quintessence from the core of the planet. It will glow and you will likely be able to feel the power. If you have power of your own, the light will glow brighter. The higher the wall of light, the stronger the power. It will last about two minutes. Every child comes to the temple to have an aptitude scan done 100 days after their seventh birthday. It’s safe,” Allura explained.

Ellis gave her a warning look as the pilot nodded. Allura hadn’t thought of him as attached to her. But now, she had Ellis sitting beside her, judging her for that attachment. She was nice to him. That was all it was. He had been injured and abused and that made him wary but she had been consistently kind and so he trusted her more than most. It wasn’t something worthy of the glance that Ellis gave her. She tried to put all that into the look she shot back.

The first ritual went off exactly as it should have. It was the same one that Allura had done as a child except that the pilot didn’t have his parents hovering and getting excited as the light lifted higher. She had been exceptional and they had been so proud of her even though all she had done was sit quietly where they had told her to.

The pilot’s reading was higher than she remembered her own being but he was an adult and Ellis didn’t seem too impressed. The light receded and she studied him.

“That wasn’t as bad as I’d been afraid of,” he said.

“You’re about what I expected based on your performance earlier today. About a seven, maybe an eight if you were calmer.”

“A seven?” he said with a wry smile. The number meant nothing to him but he seemed entertained by it nonetheless. He was more at ease the longer they were away from the prison. Just like the day that she had taken him out on a walk, the farther from being a captive he got, the more like a person he became. He was more relaxed. He didn’t keep his arms crossed and he was openly curious and interested now.

“I’m a thirteen, Ellis is a ten,” Allura clarified. “You qualify to train as a priest if you are a four or higher.”

“You’re stronger than the head priest?” he asked.

“Ellis is one of the five most powerful people in this entire country. I’m the strongest that anyone has seen in three generations,” Allura said with a shrug. “Everyone was very annoyed when I chose flight school over magic lessons.”

“It’s never too late to start training,” Ellis said.

“Maybe some other time,” Allura said.

Ellis had the pilot turn on the arm. He hesitated before doing it and Allura cast him a smile. She was standing behind Ellis this time so Ellis couldn’t glare at her over the little exchange. He pressed his lips together and his jaw tightened before he did it. Bracing himself in case it hurt him. The arm lit up purple before Ellis could turn around to say something to Allura about the pilot’s nod.

Like the floor, the walls were set with crystals and they reflected back the power. It was important for children who didn’t have control or awareness of their own power yet. They needed to feel it bounce back in order to understand how much magic they were using. Behind her, they started to glow with reflected energy.

The pilot was not a child practicing their lessons. He was putting out so much power that it made the hair on her arms stand up and her head ache. The walls didn’t shake but it felt like they should have. The ritual hadn’t begun yet but the walls were glowing bright.

Ellis took a few steps back but then gathered herself up and stepped in to activate the reading. The room lit up in a blaze of light that only lasted a second before it cut off. The pilot stood in the center of it, the arm quiet again and his own power pulled in so tight that the circle could barely read him.

“That was interesting,” Ellis said.

“Interesting?” he asked in a breathless voice.

“Where does the power come from?” she asked.

“I don’t know? How am I supposed to know?” he asked.

“You should come back tomorrow. I need to think on this before I decide what tact to take,” she said.

“What rating do I get for that little performance?” he asked.

“You’re currently ranking up around the power of a Injira Engine, maybe even a Teleduv. Living things can’t do what you just did. Maybe a Balmoral but they’re the size of a city and you aren’t,” Ellis said.

“Come on, give me your best guess,” he said. 

“The last conscious reading I could pull from that mess was a twenty eight. We would need an industrial testing facility to get a more accurate reading.” 

The pilot looked amused by that. He should have been terrified but he was more at ease than Allura had thought he was capable of.

“What about the corruption theory? It looked like any other reading,” Allura asked. Everyone looked at her, “Except that it was so much brighter.”

“It reads clear but that doesn’t explain the power, the purple or the pain,” Ellis said. “Get out of my temple, both of you, you make it hard to think. And don’t go through the main hall. People would have felt that and they’ll want to ask all sorts of questions. Take the yellow stairs and then go out through the wall.”

Allura nodded and Ellis pointed past her at the pilot, “You should come back tomorrow,” then at her, “You should not. I will send someone to collect him tomorrow. You go back to avoiding me and this temple and everything related to quintessence.”

Allura smiled and Ellis shooed them all out of the room. The last thing that Allura saw was the woman leaning up to the wall to run her hand over the crystals and look at the echoes of what had just happened in that room.

Allura led the way to the yellow stairs. They weren’t actually yellow but they were in the east and yellow was the colour of the rising sun. The castle had a yellow wing too. The stairs weren’t often used because they opened into the narrow space between the two walls that made up the castle wall. The hallway that ran between the internal and external walls of the castle was about four feet across and the stone wasn’t as polished here as it was on the other side. It was a dark, cramped space.

She pushed open a door and they stepped into a courtyard similar to the one outside the prison but the building that oversaw this one was a guard house.

“Why are you in such a good mood?” she asked the pilot.

“The magic felt different in that place. Like something I could touch, something I could control. I don’t know how to do it but for a minute there, I actually believed that it was possible.”

“Those rooms are designed to echo the power back to you like that. It’s part of how children learn to use their magic,” Allura said.

He nodded and looked back at the closed door like he wanted to go back in and do it again.

“I can take him back, Your Grace,” the guard said.

The pilot’s mood fell again. Allura watched it happen. The gentle amusement in his expression fell back behind the wariness. Allura stalled for a minute. She suggested making a call to the advisers, advocating for house arrest of some kind because he was cooperating so nicely now. He shook his head at her.

“It’s fine, you won’t win that one and we both know it,” he said.

She sighed, “You don’t deserve it.”

“It’s nice to just have someone believe that, don’t worry about me. I’m sure that things will change but I don’t think it will help to try and force them right now. I scare people,” he said.

“You don’t scare me,” she said.

“I should scare you more than anyone else,” he said.

“I know but you don’t,” she said. “I’m going to ignore Ellis and show up tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to,” he said.

“I know but I will, try and get some rest,” she said.

 

 

Allura avoided Ellis but she walked along with the pilot on his way from the prison to the temple. He had a team of guards and by the second day had started answering their questions. He wasn’t exactly forthcoming or gregarious but he was a little friendlier each day.

Three days after the first time the pilot had gone to the temple, Allura's life was full of people again.

The season had come to an end and everyone had come back to the city with new gossip and new friends and too much energy. She had spent too much time stewing in her own thoughts and now everyone was back. Quill and Dira showed up at her door before she'd gotten dressed and sprawled out on her bed and told her every bit of gossip that she had missed. Miro and Dorrell met her for breakfast to tell her about all the fun she had missed. Elana was pretty sure she'd decided on who she wanted for a bond partner and came with Allura to the gym so she could gush about the guy.

It was like real life had come back. She had been caught up in the bizarre world of acts of war and aliens from unknown planets and fears that the Galra were positioning for an empire and now suddenly she was buried in everything else. All the rest of life. Her friends and their lovers and everyone’s family dramas. Playing games and running races and staying up until midnight to talk about nothing. Laughter and dancing and comparing dresses before going to dinner.

Frivolous things, stupid things.

It was an amazing relief.

Elana had been horrified by her hair. Dira had gushed over how brave it was to cut it all off like that. No one had believed her when she had told the story of how it had happened. The two of them sat her with her and tried out hairstyle after hairstyle trying to find new ones that worked with how short it was. Allura started to feel like herself again. By the end of the week, she was slipping back into comfortable routines with people she cared about. She went to the meetings and to the rituals with Ellis but the fears of war and Zarkon and the alien pilot didn't fill her every thought anymore. She could put those problems down to go watch a play with Miro and Quill and just laugh at the jokes. It kept her balanced. She could put down the disasters and pick them up again later. She could come back to a problem after time to think.

The pilot was letting Ellis give him lessons. Allura read Ellis’s reports and tried to honour her request to stay away. A few times. Sometimes she would fall into step with the alien on his way to the temple just to check on him. He was calmer but still unhappy about being refused his freedom.

Ellis wanted to take him for an industrial reading but that would mean taking him out of the city and right now, Coran was arguing vehemently against it. The ship yards were nearer the coast, a two hour flight by pod shuttle, it wasn’t that far but the alien was a pilot and there were fears that he would take control of a ship and make an escape if they gave him an opportunity like that.

She was still thinking about him and her chances of convincing the council that he could be moved out of the prison when Dira threw an arm around Allura's shoulder and whispered in her ear, "Tell me all the things that you have been keeping secret."

Allura startled and shook herself out of her own thoughts. Dira was a little shorter than Allura and wore her hair long and straight and usually twisted up into some very fancy style. Today it was looped and twisted in a nest of braids.

“Hello, Dira! I was just arguing with your mother!”

“I don’t care. Secrets, go!”

"I'm a royal."

"I never noticed that about you."

"I can't tell you all the things I've been keeping secret, Dira. I attend meetings where things are said that literally only fifteen people on the planet are allowed to hear," Allura told her.

Dira’s mother was Ellis. Ellis was powerful, ambitious, and well respected across the planet. As a sort of teenage rebellion that she had never grown out of, Dira had made it her life’s work to be as useless as possible. She could have trained as a priestess but she refused that. She had refused to join the army. She had studied art history at school but hadn’t tried for a job with the museums or schools. She claimed that her purpose was a higher one. She refused to explain what that meant.

"I don't mean those things," Dira said. "I know that you can't tell me any of that political stuff. I am not an idiot. I am a frivolous gossip monger. I want to know about this new boy the advisers found for you."

"What new boy?" Allura asked. "The list hasn't changed and I still refuse to acknowledge it."

"Allura! Don’t lie to me!"

There was a list of approved suitors for her to choose from. Allura had the potential to be an extremely power Sacred Altean. She came from two families that both carried Sacred Alteans in their bloodlines. She had shown immense promise in her ability to manipulate quintessence. A ruler with a close connection to the heart of the planet was a great thing that everyone took very seriously and Allura didn't doubt that it was important. To be able to use quintessence was to be able to connect with Altea itself. A beautiful idea.

The issue came from how badly everyone wanted her to choose a husband with a comparably illustrious bloodline.

Then there was the little matter of the frivolous gossip mongers across the planet and how much they had adored the story of Allura's parents. They had been a love match. Everyone had been so delighted. They had been so happy. The wedding had been a holiday across the entire world. People tried not to tell Allura that they wanted her to fall madly in love with some politically appropriate and appropriately powerful young man who would look good in the commemorative portraits and with whom she could have a baby so they could make more commemorative portraits. They tried not to say it but the silent pressure had been there since she had hit adolescence.

There was a recommended list. No one had said that i

"I am not getting married any time soon. I'm busy with other things. I don't know where you're getting your information," Allura said.

"I saw you."

"You saw me on a state-sanctioned date with an appropriate boy from the quizznaking list? Really? Because that didn’t happen."

Allura had made it to one of the lounges and she squirmed out of Dira’s grip to sit on one of the sofas and pick up a book. She didn’t really want to read and she didn’t really think that pretending to read was going to chase Dira off. Dira sat down beside her and watched her. Allura continued to ignore her. Dira had all her mother’s colours but she was pretty where Ellis was stately. Soft pink and blue, round cheeks, perfect lips. Allura had known Dira since they had been toddlers and Dira’s cuteness didn’t work on her.

"I saw you flirting with a young man. Tall, dark hair, pale," she said.

"Oh," Allura said. Dira poked her in the face and Allura tried to put her expression back together but she was surprised. She hadn’t thought to worry about people seeing them walking down the street together. She hadn’t imagined that someone would assume that.

"Yes! Him. That one. You know exactly who I'm talking about. I wasn't close enough to get a good look at him before you two went off into the temple but honestly, I don't think it matters if he's got a troll face because those shoulders are absolutely worth it. He's cute though, isn't he?"

"No. He is not someone I am dating, stop," Allura said.

"He isn’t local. I’ve been asking around. Is he from Corella? Or a country boy? Is he all quaint and polite? Does he have a cute accent?"

"Dira," Allura grabbed her hand and pulled her around to look at her. Dira was still day dreaming about this fictional person she had invented. "This is not that. He is not some country suitor. There is nothing about him that is ... like that."

"You like him."

"I definitely do not like him like that. He is so far from anyone who would ever made that list that it's absurd."

"What's wrong with him?"

Allura studied her and weighed her options. Telling Dira the full truth was not a good idea. Some of her childhood friends had taken the same training that she had and were becoming politicians in their own right but Dira was not one of them. She was not diplomat material and as much as Allura loved her, she didn't trust Dira to make good choices with state secrets. A small fraction of the truth then, the last thing that the negotiations with the pilot needed was to have Dira running around thinking that Allura was keeping secrets from her.

"He's not Altean."

"He looked Altean," Dira said. Then she paused and her eyes got a little wide and terrified, "Is he Gwalin?"

"No!" Allura said. "He's just an alien. He's got some sort of unusual quintessence thing going on. Ellis has a team fussing over him. I was just there because I'm supposed to be practicing my inter-species diplomacy skills and he's not important enough that any one is worried about me saying something offensive."

Not a lie. A massive reduction in the truth but not a lie. No one was worried about her saying something offensive. They were worried about a thousand other things but not that.

"Also don't look so weird about the Gwalin. They're not monsters," Allura said.

“What kind of alien looks that much like an Altean though? Have you checked? Maybe he is Gwalin.”

The idea had crossed Allura’s mind. As it became more obvious that the pilot was powerful in his own right, she had started to wonder. Most species couldn’t wield quintessence. They could experience it and feel it but they couldn’t truly use it. To find a new species that used quintessence in a way so similar to how the Alteans did was a shock.

But the Gwalin were a taboo topic.

Alteans did not mix with other species. They might make friends with aliens but it didn’t go farther than that. When it did go farther than that, the result were known as Gwalin. They were children with one Altean parent and one alien parent.  The general opinion from most  of the planet was the same as Dira’s: mild terror.

It was a ridiculous response but it was common. The Gwalin didn’t pose any threat to Altea but they were strange and unnatural. Then there were theories that they endangered the quintessence of the planet because they were living things of Altea that weren’t intended to live there.

It was superstitious nonsense.

King Alfor had done the unthinkable when he had first offered medical aid to a Gwalin colony suffering from an outbreak of an easily treatable disease. Allura’s father had never gone so far as to suggest integrating Gwalin colonies back onto Altea but Allura had been out to a few of the colonies with him. Since then, he’d made attempts to improve things for the colonies nearest Altea. They were just people. They weren’t Alteans but they were still just people.

“He doesn’t think he’s Gwalin. He knows what planet he’s from and it’s off our usual routes. I don’t think he’d ever seen an Altean before landing out here,” Allura said. “His species just looks a lot like ours. It’s nothing more than a similar role of the genetic lottery.”

“That is a shame,” Dira said. “Stupid alien ruining everything by being a stupid alien.”

“What is he ruining? Don’t make that face. You’ve never met him. Maybe you’d hate him.”

“You like him.”

“Not like that.”

“You’d think about it differently if he wasn’t an alien though, wouldn’t you?” Dira said.

Allura sighed.

“Thought so.”

“That is not what that sigh meant. It meant something more like, why are all my friends so annoying? They’re the worst and I hate them.”

“Right, of course it did.”

“I’m going to go do paperwork for the next council meeting,” Allura said.

“I’ll pretend that I believe you and you had a very good excuse for why you’re walking out of this conversation because otherwise I might think that you had a little bit of a thing for an alien boy.”

Allura threw the book she was holding back over her shoulder. She heard it thump into something and Dira cackled with laughter.

Chapter Text

The lights were starting to make his head spin. The crystals in the room glowed and throbbed with his heart beat and it was horrifying and incredible all at once. Most of the magic lessons were incredible and all of them were a little bit horrifying. He watched the lights fade as the quintessence retreated back into him. He couldn’t see it but he felt it. It was a little like the waves on the shore retreating back into the ocean in a trail of foam. He shivered as the magic settled and the crystal flickered out.

"You aren't paying attention," Ellis snapped. "You cannot expect to master the complexities of magic like this if you cannot maintain your focus. This is important. Is your species particularly thick?”

"Are you this nice to the little bitty seven-year-olds? Is that why the princess quit?" Shiro asked.

Off to the side of the room, the taller guard hissed in a breath. Shiro shot him a glance but he was pointedly looking at his feet and pretending not to be involved. Ellis didn't follow the look. She was staring at Shiro. Her eyes were narrowed and her lips were a tight line. This was a touchy subject and he'd never poked at it before. He sat on the floor in the magic circle and tilted his head up to look at Ellis. Her hands had rolled into fists but she wasn't going to tell him anything. She was either going to magically make his head pop off or she was going to make him do the magical equivalent of running laps.

It was kind of funny. No. It was really funny. She looked so mad. Small and pink and with those pointy ears. Why did they have pointy ears? He laughed and rolled up onto his feet. Ellis flinched a half step back but that only made her look more annoyed. The rush of the magic coming back to him always left him buzzing with energy and today it left him in an artificially good mood.

"Come on, Cotton Candy, it was just a joke."

"You are not in any position to joke."

"Sure, I am. I'm not in any position to do much else so jokes are all I have. It's tragic," he said.

Ellis frowned at him and then turned to glare at the guard. One of them was missing. Shiro hadn't seen him leave but there was only one now for Ellis to point at and order, "Take him out of my temple until he's ready to approach this seriously."

"You're no fun, Ellis," Shiro said.

She didn't respond to that. She just turned and stomped out of the room. She was small but there was nothing comical about it. The woman was imposing. Shiro watched her go with his inane smile still on his face. The mood had tilted everything. Ellis was his mother’s age, someone important, and one of the few people to be even passingly nice to him on this entire planet. He hadn’t meant to be a disrespectful little shit but his mouth had opened and the words had escaped. The magic left him giddy and it wasn’t a good thing. It was somewhere between an endorphin high and a real high. He felt a bit unbalanced.

The guard tiptoed forward and glanced down the hall to make sure that Ellis was gone before he turned on Shiro and pursed his lips like a disapproving parent. He was younger than the other one but taller and broader. Darrow had been the guard that Allura had brought with them the day that she had brought Shiro to the temple for the first time. This other guy had been coming along for the last few days. He tried to pull off imposing but somehow missed the mark. He looked like the kind of guy who was good with kids not like the kind of guy who actually knew how to shoot his weapon.

"You probably shouldn't joke about that, y'know," the guard said.

"The cotton candy thing?" Shiro asked.

"The princess leaving her lessons thing," he said.

"Touchy subject?"

Another glance out the door. Shiro crossed his arms and waited. If he didn’t speak much, maybe he wouldn’t say anything else giddy or silly. He liked this guard more than the other one. The older one was silent and disinterested. Darrow was living furniture with a gun. This guy was bright and friendly even with a potentially dangerous criminal. His black hair was constantly falling into his face and he talked with his hands. He had golden yellow marks on his cheeks but his eyes were a solid brown that looked more human than most Altean eyes.

"You do know what happened to the Queen?"

"I don't know the name of this city," Shiro said, "Of course I don't know what happened to the Queen. I wasn't aware that there was a Queen, no one mentioned her."

"She died about ten years ago. It was... it wasn't a good thing," Shiro raised his eyebrows. When was someone's death ever a good thing? The guard didn't notice, "She was Ellis's best friend, they grew up together. And the princess took it hard. After everything, the princess decided she didn't want to follow in her mother's footsteps and left the priesthood. It's a touchy subject for everyone."

"Noted," Shiro said.

"You don't say much when you aren't trying to make Ellis angry."

"Does she make you nervous?"

"Yes. That's a perfectly reasonable response. She's crazy powerful. You should probably not, make her angry,” he said.

“I’m working on it,” Shiro said.

“Yeah, ok. Do that.”

The guard looked uncomfortable to be having the conversation. His accent was a little different from the way the other Alteans talked but the translator covered too many details for Shiro to say for sure. Most of the people he had talked to were royals or people who worked closely with royals. He was suddenly full of curiosity about the normal people of this planet. What did normal people do? There had to be Altean garbage men and accountants and preschool teachers but it was hard to imagine in the pristine walls of the castle and the temple. He had stepped into a movie but out there, beyond the walls, there were normal people just living their lives and he wanted to know what they were like.

“Do you have a name? Officer Darrow just calls you the prisoner and the princess just calls you Pilot but that's not a name, is it?" the guard asked.

"Do you have a name?" Shiro asked.

"I'm Hunk," he said.

"Hi Hunk, where are you from?" Shiro asked.

"Um. Altea? Not in the castle town. Smaller town. Out near Blaniero. It’s nice. Farming mostly. Hydroponics on the big underground lake on the Blani river. Mom lives there. Where are you from?"

"Some place classified," Shiro said but then shrugged that off. What good was keeping secrets at this point? "I'm from Earth."

Hunk's eyes went wide.

"Earth-Earth? Like real Earth?"

Before he could ask what that response meant, the other guard showed up and Hunk snapped back to attention with an alarmed look on his face like he'd done or said something inappropriate. Shiro watched him and waited for some sort of explanation but there was nothing. Earth had meant nothing to the princess. The word had meant nothing to any of the advisors. They couldn’t find it on their maps and their star charts and their experts were baffled by it.

Shiro studied Hunk but he was back to looking at his shoes or the back of Darrow’s head or anywhere but at Shiro. This guy had grown up in a farming village. He recognized the planet’s name. Earth meant something to him and Shiro wanted to know what. Darrow waved them along and out into the hallway and down the hall. Shiro wasn’t going to bring Earth up while Darrow was standing there. Hunk didn’t look like he would say another word about it.

The Princess had been waiting for them outside the temple wall to ask how things had been going. Shiro found himself smiling before he got the reaction under control. He would have time to worry about Hunk and Earth and all the rest of it while he was lying in his cell. For a moment he was standing outside, in late afternoon sunshine and a pretty girl was looking at him like she was genuinely happy to see him.

It was easy to get complacent. He didn’t have a plan. He could have been planning an escape but he was friendless and isolated. He had nowhere to go. As long as they were treating him well, he could stomach the prison cell. The longer he tolerated it, the more it started to feel like some kind of normal. He needed to remind himself that he was still a prisoner and these people weren’t his friends.

Repeating that over and over in his own head didn’t completely kill the smile. The princess wore a purple dress with gray and white details. Her hair fell around her face in corkscrew curls that she had to shake back from her eyes to look at them. The short hair suited her and this style made it look like a cloud. He kept the smile to a quirk of his lips but he was in a good mood and didn’t really want to force himself to be too serious. The magic lessons left him with the same kind of energetic exhaustion that he could usually only find when he ran for miles. He was starting to look forward to these sessions and Allura showing up was an added bonus.

“Good afternoon, Princess,” he said.

“How are you?” she asked.

“I’ve been worse.”

“That bar is very low given your history,” she said. The smile escaped at that comment. She considered him and said, “You look better.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I feel better. It’d be nice to not be in prison but even with that, I feel better.”

“I’m working on that.”

“I know,” he said. “Maybe we could take the long way back?”

The mood was affecting his judgment. That was not something prisoners could ask for, was it? He was sure that someone was about to get stern and start issuing threats but the pair of guards just glanced at the princess who was studying him with her head tilted a bit to the side. He held her gaze and waited for her to make a decision. She glanced away from him and looked at his guards.

“You have to come or someone will throw a fit,” she said.

“My next assignment involves cleaning barracks to build discipline, I’m not going to argue with a detour,” Hunk one said. Darrow set his jaw and nodded. Hunk dropped his gaze again with a little twist of his mouth into an embarrassed grimace. He had overstepped by speaking before his superior officer had made a decision and now Darrow was outvoted.

Allura led them off down a path that Shiro had never even noticed before. It ran along side the guard barracks and then split into a wide boulevard where people walked below the spreading branches of trees. He wondered how many people were going to stop and stare. He was dressed in plain clothing - or at least what counted as plain clothing for Alteans. It had too many colours and too many details to feel like anything but a uniform to him but it was the sort of outfit that rendered him invisible. No one had noticed him, even with the guards.

That was how it had been on the way to the temple through largely empty alleyways. This was a busy thoroughfare. They got a few glances and a few quiet comments as they went by but nothing that Shiro could hear well enough to understand. There were more people around to notice him was his first thought but that wasn’t the real difference. People were glancing at them because he was walking with the Princess and everyone noticed her.

She smiled at people and said hello. She was charming and people loved her. The idea of normal Alteans crossed his mind again. Allura was a princess, she had grown up here with these people and their families. She was everyone’s favourite niece. Out there, in Hunk’s farming village, in the industrial cities where they built engines that ran on quintessence, what did people think of the royals? Was Allura considered a celebrity or a politician? Did regular people smile just to see her picture? Would they stop and watch if she walked past them on the street?

He was daydreaming a little bit as she chatted to an old lady for a moment, then the woman moved on and for a few minutes, Allura turned her attention back to Shiro. She asked him about his magic lessons and how he was feeling and whether or not the arm had been bothering him. That conversation was interrupted by a loud voice behind them.

“Allu!”

“Is not my name!” she snapped.

She spun around to glare at a tall thin man with gold hair and bright blue eyes. He was handsome in the way that magazine models were. His face was too angular to look normal but he was all smiles, a broad grin and an appraising look over the company the princess was keeping. He looked Shiro in the eye for a moment before glancing at the guards then turning his attention back to Allura. He was about the same height as the princess and was the first person that Shiro had seen invade her personal space at all. Even Ellis kept a respectful distance. The blonde was almost nose to nose with her and she didn’t seem bothered by that until he started talking.

“Allua, Lura, Allina?”

“Quince, Quite, Quizznak?” she shot back.

He laughed and spun her around so he could drape an arm around her shoulder and study the three people she was walking with. They had stopped under a tree with dark orange flowers hanging from the branches. People were still glancing their way but no one else stopped to ask questions. Allura looked annoyed but fond as her friend’s attention fell on Shiro. Shiro felt a prickle of something but he pressed it down before he had to name it.

“Is this the alien that Dira was talking about?” he asked.

“No, that’s Darrow, he’s been with the Royal Guard for two years now, you should pay more attention,” Allura said with a smile at the man who was probably not named Quizznak. She leaned into his arm and poked him in the ribs to make him laugh. Easy and affectionate. She had friends. It shouldn’t have been surprising but Shiro had only ever seen her in the company of people older than her. She was a different person at council meetings or when talking to Ellis.

Shiro had seen little flashes of this girl when they had been alone together. She had mocked him at the restaurant. She had kicked her feet in the water. She had laughed and bounced when she had challenged him to that sparring match that had ended so badly. He was a little jealous to be reminded that she had other friends and he had simply been lucky enough to be treated like one of them for a few days.

“You’re hilarious, I know who the guards are, I mean this one,” the friend said.

The stranger leaned around her as he waved a hand in Shiro’s direction. Shiro didn’t expect the man to try and touch him. He poked Shiro’s ear and he jumped back in surprise. He moved away from the little group and both his guards bristled. Before they could reach for weapons, the princess was in the way. She grabbed hold of Shiro’s wrist the same way she had when he’d panicked in the marketplace on his first day out. Her fingers were thin and strong and curled all the way around his human wrist. Skin on skin. It distracted him so much he forgot everything else for a moment.

She hadn’t put herself in harm’s way by grabbing the metal hand this time. She was scared of him. The tension was there in the way she looked at him. She watched him to see if he was going to react badly.

She came to check in on him when he went to see Ellis and she was willing to take him into the gardens but she was still scared of him. That was a perfectly reasonable response. He was scared of what he could do too but it still hit him harder than he was expecting. He dropped his shoulders and let the tension go in his hand too. The urge to punch Allura’s handsy friend hadn’t gone anywhere but he wanted to prove - to her and to himself as well - that he could control himself. The man wasn’t a threat. He was just a little too familiar.

“Is it real? Not some shapeshifting thing?” the stranger asked without noticing how tense everyone had gotten.

“These are the ears I was born with, don’t touch me again,” Shiro said in a tight voice.

He kept his body language under control but his voice came out on the edge of hostile. Almost a threat. He swallowed and took a deep breath. The princess still had a hold of his hand and she was close enough that he could smell the flowery perfume or shampoo she wore.

“Touchy. He’s touchy.”

“You just grabbed him by the ear, Quill,” Allura said. “You wouldn’t be any happier if he’d done it to you.”

Quill considered that. Allura was staring at him. She kept hold of Shiro but turned on Quill. She didn’t say a word and Shiro couldn’t see her face. The little staring match only lasted a moment before she stepped away from them both.  Some sort of warning. Some sort of silent conversation, the kind that only friends who had known each other for a long time could have.

“I probably would have hit me,” Quill said with a genuinely apologetic look. “Sorry about that. I truly thought they were an illusion, most people can’t hold an illusion when they’re surprised. And even had that been true, my behaviour was out of line and inappropriate. I hope that my transgression will not reflect poorly on the princess or on Altea itself. It was a personal error and I hope you can forgive me for it.”

Shiro blinked once. Slowly.

That had been a diplomatic apology and he had no idea how to respond to it. Allura kicked him in the ankle and let go of him. It was a silent conversation in its own right but not as eloquent as whatever she had said to Quill.

Deal with it. Don’t make this worse.

Military training was hard to shake. He had joined the air cadets as a precocious twelve-year-old with poor impulse control. His mother’s idea. Not his. Once upon a time, she had been the kind of air cadet who actually liked the marching and the seminars and the stupid uniforms and had hoped that her headstrong son might learn something from the organization and rules. He had learned a lot of things. He had hated cadets but the stupid program had helped get him into the Garrison. More than ten years later, he still remembered being the kid in front of the ranking officer, apologizing. Apologizing for something stupid. Always something stupid. Grabbing a stranger’s ears would have ranked somewhere in the middle of a list labeled, “Cadet Shirogane’s Bad Decisions.”

Usually events from that list led to a lecture. Usually a long one. Shiro took a long moment after Allura released him to try and decide how he would have preferred to have had his apologies accepted and tried to match that. 

“I appreciate the apology. You are forgiven. I have been left confused and overwhelmed by the similarities between our two species myself and hold no ill-will.”

It came out too formal.

Too awkward.

It seemed to be acceptable.

Allura flashed him a quick smile and then her friend was introducing himself as “Quill of the house of Weshton,” and draping arm around her shoulder as though her nearness would protect him from embarrassing himself again. The little crisis passed without Quill noticing that he’d crossed the line. The guards were still wound tight but Allura dropped back into that princess role: diplomatic, friendly, utterly at ease. He’d seen enough cracks in it to know that there was someone else hiding under that effortless smile but he didn’t know her well enough to know what it was.

“Quill and I were the only children born to our community that year,” she said. “We are friends only because we weren’t really given any other options.”

“Liar, you love me and think I’m charming and brilliant,” Quill said with a laugh. “We have been friends since we were infants which really just means that you have delightfully good luck.”

“Good luck?”

“I am a fantastic friend.”

“You are a friend,” she said.

“Oh, ouch, my heart, I hate you.”

Allura was steering the conversation away from normal topics like names and planets of origins and kept Quill talking about their childhood so he wouldn’t notice how many secrets surrounded Shiro.

Shiro had always been direct. Secrets took too much work. Now, he found himself standing in the middle of a conversation that felt like it needed analyzing by intense scholars to uncover all the layers of meaning. The secret of who he was, the social niceties of interplanetary dignitaries, the princess’s attempts to shut the conversation down and move everyone far away from one another.

“Aren’t you supposed to be out on the plains for another few days?” Allura asked.

“I’ll be back out there again before the end of the season but I needed to come and visit you!” Quill said.

The conversation was empty and terrifyingly complex in its emptiness. It was completely civil and friendly and normal but the weight of the things unsaid was hanging over all of them. Shiro was smart enough to know that Allura was trying to make specific points to her friend but he wasn’t smart enough to figure out what they were.

He was lost in it and kind of hoped that Darrow and his partner would find a reason to hurry him off and send him back to prison. Allura had positioned herself between him and Quill and had managed to make that look natural and effortless. Quill was intensely curious about Shiro and she was barely managing to keep those questions within the bounds of state secrets. He knew that his very existence was considered a secret by the Altean government. Allura was trying to keep that secret without offending her friend or letting slip that she had agreed to take a dangerous criminal on a sightseeing tour of the palace.

“Look at that,” Quill said. He had been asking questions about where Shiro was from that were perfectly normal and Allura had been trying to deflect them without outright refusing to answer them. Then his head had snapped up and he’d reach out and snatched something out of the air. He grinned at his closed hands.

“No! You did not just grab that!” Allura said.

“Do you want to see?” he asked.

“No!” Allura snapped.

Her political facade fell away and she frowned Quill. For a moment, Shiro could see them as they might have been when they were ten years old. They were friends that were close as siblings. Laughing and teasing and sharing inside jokes.

“No,” she said again, “Keep that nasty thing away from me.”

“It’s harmless.”

“That isn’t the point. I don’t want it in my hair,” she said.

Quill held his hands out to her and she bounced away from him and well into Shiro’s personal space. She didn’t touch him but she was closer to him than she usually was. She never got close to him unless she was trying to keep him from hurting someone else. He leaned past her to look at Quill’s cupped hands. He could see Darrow out the corner of his eye trying to decide how to handle this and only succeeding in looking confused.

“What is it and why do you hate it?” he asked Allura.

“It’s a laskani eritan,” Quill said.

“It’s a creepy flying bug that lays eggs in people’s hair,” Allura snapped.

She hadn’t pulled away from Shiro. She was still glaring at Quill. When Shiro had leaned in to look over her shoulder and her arm brushed his chest. If they had just been two people, it wouldn’t have been anything but having her that close left him reeling. She wasn’t as afraid of him as he thought she was. She was still there and he was trying to pretend to be normal.

“Can I see it?” Shiro asked Quill so he had something to say.

“Why?” Allura said. She wheeled on him and glared. She was closer than he had expected and he straightened to get a little bit of distance. Her nose had been millimeters from his and the possibility of kissing her crossed his mind a moment after they had snapped away from each other. She took a big step back from everyone involved.

“Because I want to see an alien bug. Is that so strange? This hasn’t exactly been a nature hike of visit,” he suggested.

“Why are boys like this? It doesn’t matter how old they are or what planet they’re from, they all want to see the bug. I hope it does lay its eggs in your hair,” she said throwing her hands up in the air and retreating from both of them.

Quill laughed and opened his hands to show off a big red beetle about the length of his thumb. Shiro was still smiling after Allura. She would willingly and easily put herself in the path of a deadly weapon that had nearly killed her but she wouldn’t stand near a bug because it might touch her hair.

A moment later it took off, buzzing up off his hand in a flurry of wings that made Allura flinch away from it’s path. It rose up into the air and lumbered away lazily towards the nearest tree. It flew like a bumblebee. Fat and slow and loud. Allura shot them both a murderous look.

“If you find any eggs in your hair, then you can kill me later but I think you’re fine,” Quill said.

“You’re scared of bugs?” Shiro asked her before his rational brain had processed how annoyed she looked.

“I am not talking to either of you right now. I’m going inside,” she said.

She turned and walked away. Quill started to laugh and she shot him a hand gesture that must have been rude back over her shoulder. Shiro chuckled. He felt deceptively and impossibly normal. Darrow was behind him and Hunk was still looking up at the tree and watching the bug buzz up past the leaves.

“If I go after her, will she punch me?” Quill asked.

“Maybe,” Shiro said.

“That she didn’t punch me now is probably thanks to you,” Quill said.

“I don’t know her that well but learning that her political skills outweigh her fear of small insects isn’t all that surprising,” Shiro said.

Quill laughed, “Few things outweigh her fear of small insects. I’m a little bit impressed that she managed to avoid an international incident despite a laskani being held under her nose.”

Quill noticed a moment too late that he had crossed another boundary but Shiro had already let out a little laugh. He liked pretending that he was normal. In some other life, in some other universe, maybe his damaged shuttle would have been found by the Alteans instead of the Galra and he could have ended up here as a true diplomat. Not a broken soldier and a shattered gladiator but a young man who wanted to know more about the galaxy. It would have been nice to have met Allura’s friends without having to worry about being a threat to their planet.

“I’ll put you down as my guest for dinner, it’s a Enshiri affair, you can protect me from her retaliating. She has to be polite when a foreign dignitary is present.”

One of the guards made a soft sound that was probably meant for his partner and not for Shiro but the excuse to escape some sort of political event was worth going back to the cell. The idea of being locked up alone was easier to stomach than the idea of walking this minefield of secrets at some fancy dinner.

“Unfortunately, I’ve already got dinner plans,” Shiro said. “I would love to join you but I just can’t today.”

That was polite enough, wasn’t it? The conversation broke up a few minutes later without Shiro having to engage in any high level lying.

The princess could do that. He couldn’t.

He was good at being direct. He was good at strategy. He was good at problem solving and he had the social skills to manage a team. He could lead a team or teach a class but he wasn’t any good at lying. He was not good a politics and misdirection and things that required nuance. Sure, he could see those things, he knew when a situation required a carefully nuanced approach but he had no idea how to actually do that. That he escaped from the conversation with Quill without giving away some dangerous secret about himself was a miracle.

“What’s wrong with you?” Hunk asked on the way back to the prison. The comment snapped the last pieces of his magic induced mood. Shiro sighed.

“I have some kind of intense PTSD and can’t control my damn robot arm. Why, what’s wrong with you?” he asked.

The guard stared back at him after he snapped out the answer. Shiro sighed and rolled his shoulders. He wanted to be alone again. People were tolerable when Allura was there but now the strangeness of dealing with aliens was more than he could take. He wanted to ask Hunk what he knew about Earth. He wanted to sleep for a year. He wanted to call Quill back and accept the invitation to dinner just to see what everyone would do about it.

“Sorry, I only meant that you’re not quite I was expecting from an alien criminal.”

“I’m not a criminal, I’m a threat, they’re similar but not actually the same thing,” Shiro said. “Let’s go back to jail.”

He turned and started off down the path as though he was the one leading the others. They hurried to fall back into step with him and he ignored any more questions.

Using the phrase made it real. PTSD. He had suffered a trauma and his mind hadn’t healed from it. It was a mental illness. He didn’t speak. The guards brought him back to the cell and closed the door and the locks slid into place and he kept his eyes shut and ignored them. He hadn’t thought to label it with something as simple as PTSD. That was wrong. Not simple. But comprehensible. Everything that had happened was some strange alien thing. Glowing limbs and missing memories and battles against monsters and magic lessons. It was too much. It was more than he could handle. But then the phrase had slipped out and he’d realized it was probably true.

A mental illness was just another injury and it needed time to heal.

He listened to the doors shutting as the automatic locks took over, each one locking him away from the rest of the world because he was injured beyond what he could manage without a doctor.

The amputation was the least of it.

No. Not the least of it.

The hair was the least of it.

He didn’t really care about the damn hair but he definitely cared about the missing arm. He lay on his back and stretched both hands up over his face. He could remember the exact place where the princess’s fingers had looped around his human wrist. His metal hand had almost killed her and he still didn’t understand it. He closed his eyes and spread his fingers. He looked up and both the metal and the human hand were suspended above him with the fingers stretched wide.

He sighed and rolled over. He pushed it all down. He pressed everything out of his head. The fragmented memories, Quill and the bug and everyone laughing as the sun shone down like it was any other day, the realization about just how fucked up he really was, his mismatched hands, the flowery smell of her hair, the way she had backed into him when she’d been distracted and laughing, the clang of the door as he’d been locked back into the cell.

He hadn’t even gotten to the gardens.

His memories wouldn’t stay pressed down.

Allura’s hair smelled a little like roses and a little like something else. Lemongrass maybe. She smelled like nature and sunny afternoons and warmth and -

He rolled over and folded the pillow over his head.

There had been enough thinking for one day, he didn’t want to think about her or anything else.

Another memory slid out the dark to fill up his thoughts.

Before he’d had the arm, he hadn’t had a single functional defense. Humans weren’t meant for hand to hand combat against things with claws and teeth and armoured hides. He’d won his first match because he had very good aim. He’d been on the baseball team in high school and then at the garrison too. He had hit the monster in the head with a rock. It had screamed -

Fuck.

He pushed that thought away and rolled out of bed, pacing to the locked door and then back.

The memories wouldn’t stay pressed down.

They didn’t come to him in any kind of logical order. His mind provided a chaotic spill of images and bits of knowledge and uncontrollable fragments of emotion.

The smell of the arena as the gate slid up and the guards shoved him out past the opening. Blood and metal and fire and something he could -

No.

Fuck.

No.

He didn’t want that one.

Allura smelled like flowers.

It had been a good day in so many ways. The little walk. Her laugh. Talking to Hunk like they were both just people instead of a guard and a prisoner. The bug and Quill treating him like a diplomat. Even the magic lesson had gone well before he had offended Ellis.

The smelled of charred flesh rose in his mind again and he wrapped his own fingers around his wrist and tried to call back the memory of her hand on his arm and the way that hold had made him feel balanced. He fell asleep like that, holding his own hand and holding onto better memories.

Chapter Text

Quill sat with his feet up and a tablet in his lap. He had positioned himself near a mirror as though being able to study his own face was going to help him make decisions about what he was going to wear. Allura sat on a low sofa near him, pretending as hard as she could that she didn’t have a care in the world. She wished there was a switch she could flip and just forget about politics and aliens for a few hours. Instead her thoughts were running in circles while everyone around her was laughing and joking.

The closet was open. Quill wasn’t the only one talking about outfits and Allura had the biggest collection of dresses. Silk and satin were strewn across the bed and the backs of the sofas as her friends discussed the possibilities of alterations and whether it would be too obvious if they showed up to an event wearing something she had worn before. Allura reached out to touch the embroidery on the nearest gown, she hadn’t worn it in so long that she had forgotten it but it was beautiful. She pulled it down into her lap.

“You don’t need to buy something new,” Dira told Quill.

He was digging through magazines and fashion plates from the biggest houses with all the focus of someone shopping for their wedding. He kept throwing his screen to projection mode to ask for opinions then snapping it back to private to scroll through the catalog until he found another one that he liked. The blue glow flickered on his face and he glared at the screen as he looked.

“What about this?” he said and everyone turned to look.

The holo lit up in full color. He was going to kill his battery if he kept switching. The image of a suit rotated slowly in mid air. It looked a lot like the last one he had shown them. Traditional Altean patterns were very in this year. Political strife always had the Alteans doubling down on matters of national identity. Wearing traditional patterns with their long lines and angular details, eating only food that was grown on Altea, going to see plays and dramas about classic mythology. This suit looked like every other classic-revival suit in the collection. Allura told him so and he flipped her a rude gesture before asking Elana for a second opinion.

Elana leaned forward with her elbows on her knees and studied the slowly spinning headless suit of clothing. Then she went off on a long discussion of the braid on the jacket and manage to keep a straight face long enough that Quill didn’t notice he was being mocked until she started talking about the nuance and beauty of the stitching.

“I hate you all,” Quill snapped as they burst out laughing around him.

The rest of the room kept laughing and they were talking over each other. Someone threw a pillow at Quill’s head as the conversation got chaotic.

“It’s just a party.”

“And besides, it’s a Galra party.”

“Yeah, the Galra don’t care if you’re wearing something fashionable. They all wear the same uniforms and think marching in formation is fun.”

“And even if they did care about fashion, no one can tell the difference between those two suits. I can’t tell the difference between those two suits. Hey, Allura could you tell the difference?”

“I could not. Elana?”

“No, me neither.”

Quill rolled his eyes. “It’s a Gala event. Galra soldiers wear uniforms but people still dress up for galas on any planet.”

“It’s a birthday party for a madman who is trying to edge the universe into war, I think we should all just boycott and refuse the invitation,” Elana said.

Allura glanced at her and Elana groaned and waved her hand as though she could wave away what she had said. Offending madmen who were inching the universe toward war was not the best strategy for avoiding a war and Elana knew that. Still it was nice to hear someone suggest refusing to capitulate to Zarkon’s demands on the grounds that he was a madman. He was a madman. Allura was sick of feeling like every decision and action was being made only after carefully considering how Zarkon would feel about it.

Thinking about the damn Galra Empire just made her think of the pilot.

In any normal diplomatic relationship, receiving a slave as a gift would have been reprehensible and all the worry about hidden meanings wouldn’t have ever come up. They would have been able to ask for clarification or look up their customs in the anthropological databases and that would have been it. There was a good chance the entire thing was an error but they couldn’t take that chance. Zarkon was too unpredictable on the best days and it left everyone else in the Alliance scrambling to keep up with him so he didn’t do something dangerous.

“We could have him assassinated. Lotor would have to take over the empire and he was always pretty sane as a kid. I haven’t seen him in years but at least he isn’t a warmonger,” Quill said.

“You can’t suggest murdering heads of states. That’s an act of war,” Allura said.

“Still, it would simplify diplomacy and then you wouldn’t be so cranky and your dad wouldn’t spend all his time locked up in his office,” Quill said.

Allura sighed and tilted her head at him. He threw his hands up in surrender. Later, he would tell her that she took the politics of it all too seriously. It was just a joke and that didn’t mean that he would actually recommend it. There would be a comment about loosening up and not bringing her work home with her. With the rest of their friends there, he waved it off and let her win the argument before they even had it.

“I know!” Quill said, “I am not actually advocating murder. I promise.”

Her comm beeped and she turned her glare on it. She wanted to sit here and talk impossible politics and fashion and the various events of Zarkon’s ridiculous birthday week. It sat on the low table by the window on a charging dock and she wanted to leave it there and pretended that she hadn’t noticed the call. The comm beeped again. The message coming in was coming from Coran’s office.

She had set it to a specific ring as advance warning.

“Are you going to answer that?” Elana asked.

“Yes, but only because if I don’t, he’ll send someone up here to knock and then stand there awkwardly while I get my shoes on to go talk to him,” Allura said.

She grabbed the device off the table and stomped off to the next room to answer the call. She did not put on her shoes. It was already dark out, the day’s business was supposed to be finished. That was a petulant and childish thought and Allura took a deep breath and pushed it away. She knew better than that.

If Coran was calling, she was probably going to have to put her shoes on and go deal with something. The comm beeped again but for the moment, she stood in her bedroom with her socks on and her hair half braided because Dira had been playing with new hairstyle ideas. She looked at herself in the mirror and poked at the frizzy part that hadn’t been braided down yet.

The comm beeped. She finally answered it.

“Good evening!” she said cheerfully.

“Hello, Princess,” Coran said.

“Oh, you’re calling me yourself,” she said dropping the artificial cheer from her voice. Coran didn’t phone her often. Usually he sent a message or had a staff member from his office call to relay the message. Most of the older generation preferred to write out their messages but even by those standards, Coran had an unreasonable aversion to talking on the phone.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing is wrong.”

“You are calling me. This is your voice speaking over the comms. You’re usually like a little old lady who only sends carefully crafted written messages.”

Coran ignored the little jab and said, “Ellis wants to move your alien out of the city.”

“So, he’s my alien again?”

“Ellis is suggesting moving him out of the city to more accurately categorize his abilities. The advisers are pushing back on that issue, they don’t like having things moved away from where they can control them. I am going to suggest a demonstration to prove that Ellis is correct. I was hoping that you could help convince him to behave properly so they will agree that he isn’t trying to blow up the planet.”

“Do people really think he is trying to blow up the planet?” Allura asked.

“Altea has been receiving threats from the rebels who oppose the Alliance and it has everyone nervous about undocumented aliens,” Coran said. He did not sound worried.

“Everyone has been receiving threats. They’re Galra rebels, they’re just trying to get attention,” Allura said. “When is this little presentation?”

“Later this week, I will be suggesting it at the meeting tomorrow morning and I would appreciate your support in convincing the others,” Coran said.

That made Allura pause. She was young. The advisers had all known her since she was an egg and most of them struggled to remember that she wasn’t a child anymore. Coran was approaching her as a political equal. He had probably made other calls to Indira and Banon with the exact same script. She started at her reflection in the mirror, she was in a ball gown and fuzzy socks and her hair was sticking up at wild angles on one side of her head. She did not look like someone worthy of being approached as an equal in matters of state.

She raised her chin and met her own gaze in the mirror. She didn’t need to look like a politician. She was a princess and she knew what she was capable of. When she answered Coran, she tried to answer him as the Queen she hoped she would be someday.

“Of course, I will support the suggestion. It’s a good idea and will benefit everyone involved,” she said.

“Thank you, Princess.”

“Get some rest, Coran. Don’t stay up all night on this,” she said.

“I will try. Go back to your friends. Have a nice evening.”

She signed off and stood with the comm in hand for another minute. A part of her felt like she needed to sign into the secure network and read up on anything that had happened that evening. If she was going to be a serious politician instead of playing dress up all the time, then why not start now?

“Because I deserve a life too,” she told her reflection.

She had told Coran not to stay up all night obsessing over politics and problems and she was going to take her own advice. Her father had always made time to play with his daughter and spend time with his friends and that hadn’t made him any less suited to being King.

She stuffed it into her pocket and went back to the main room. Someday, she was going to be Queen and even when she was, there would still be time for moments like this. She spun around and dropped herself back onto the couch so she landed on Quill and was able to wrestle the stupid tablet away from him before he could make them look at any more ugly trendy suits. She tossed it to Elana who tucked it behind the sofa where Quill wouldn’t be able to see it once he finished dumping Allura and her poofy skirt off his lap.

She sat on the floor and laughed and then sank back into enjoying herself until it got too late and everyone drifted off to bed.

 

The castle alarms went off at three in the morning. The little trill of the alarm came through her personal comms and it woke her up with its insistence. She rolled over and picked it up and grimaced at it. It wasn’t an emergency alarm, it was an intruder alarm. The usual alarm tone for a fire or a medical emergency was pretty standard. They had regular drills for both but this one was different and she had to stare at the screen for a moment before she understood what it was telling her.

An intruder alarm could be nothing. Someone had flipped a wire someplace where they shouldn’t have. A cleaning crew in the wrong room maybe. A maid she could forgive but if something small and furry and crawled into a vent and set off the alarm, she was going to have it publicly arrested and tried. The possibility that it was something else, that it could be a real threat didn’t occur to her until she got down to the lobby and found the guards running around in circles.

She stood at the bottom of the steps. A bit of hair falling out of her braid and into her eyes. She stood there in her pajamas and a pair of slippers and stared out at the chaos of the people running around very very quietly and whispering to one another. Allura had been expecting animal control or the housekeeping supervisor. She had only rolled out of bed because it was protocol that if the alarm came to you, you reported.

The alarm didn’t go to everyone and so most of the castle was still asleep. The little teams of uniformed guards reported in quietly. They didn’t want to wake anyone on the upper floors and cause people to go into a panic. Allura scanned the room and tried to decide if there was anything she could do to be helpful. She hadn’t gotten a call to come up to her father’s office but if the alert had been sent to her then it would have gone to him too. He would definitely be there.

She considered it. Just go up and let herself in, pretend that it was something normal that she was just allowed to do. No one had ever explicitly told her that she wasn’t allowed to let herself into her father’s office. Very nearly every other political meeting was open to her now that she was an adult. She could sit in with the parliament if she wanted to, she could meet with the captain of the guard, she regularly sat at the most classified meetings the advisers held. But she did not cross the line where her father’s office was concerned.

Her train of thought was interrupted by a voice behind her whispering, “Who do we report to?”

She turned to see the Pilot’s guard, the broad one with the kind eyes standing with a partner. He looked a little sleep rumpled and his hair was falling in his eyes. The partner was a stranger to her, closer to his age than Darrow. They both looked a little bit wide eyed and confused. The palace had a hundred drills but it was very rare that the guards were actually called in to do something.

“You can report to me,” she said in her best imperial voice. “And start at the beginning, I’ve just come in.”

“We still haven’t found him, Your Grace, and we’re not sure where he’s going. The treasury and records halls are both heavily guarded but he hasn’t headed into the west wing at all. Honestly, he’s getting better at avoiding the sensors and it’s making him harder to track,” he said.

“Where was he first noticed?” she asked.

“Perimeter wall on the north side but the initial response thought it was an animal so they didn’t look to hard. Then it was a third floor window on the north wing. Nothing but offices up there but it definitely wasn’t a bosatara jimmying open windows and unscrewing gates.”

Bosatara were knee high animals with long limbs and thick claws. They usually lived on rock faces and used the claws to climb up and down the sides of mountains looking for grasses to eat. They were a pain to have in a city because they tore up stone work but people sometimes imported them as pets. They were cute. Big yellow eyes, little button noses, smart enough to learn tricks. They were also smart enough to escape and tear up temple walls but not smart enough to break into windows.

“Did they lock down the wing?”

“Not fast enough,” he said and then added, “Your Grace,” with a little wince when he realized that he had forgotten it. She was very casual with the Pilot, it was one of the things that she liked about talking to him and she’d never talked to Hunk in any other capacity. She pretended she didn’t notice the lapse. Sometimes it was nice to lose the formalities and they certainly weren’t the most important thing right now.

Someone had broken into the castle.

Someone they hadn’t been able to catch yet.

Allura sent the two of them back out into castle to search their next quadrant and went to find a higher ranking guard. She kept waiting for panic to set in but it didn’t. As long as there was something to do, Allura just kept moving onto the next thing that needed done. She hadn’t panicked when she had thought the Pilot was going to take a swing at Quill and she wasn’t going to panic now. She needed to find something to do and someway to help.

The captain of the guard wasn’t here but the highest ranking guard was easy to pick out. The woman had white hair that she pulled back into a tight bun and yellow markings on her cheeks. Allura recognized her a moment later. She hadn’t heard that she had gotten the promotion but it looked like she was handling the responsibility well. Miranda was only about ten years older than Allura and she came from a noble blood line but they’d never spoken much. Miranda’s younger sister had been in some Allura’s diplomacy classes so most of what Allura knew about Miranda, she had learned from her sister. Miranda was smart, the favourite daughter in a family lucky enough to have two. She was severe and a stickler for following every rule ever written. At least that was how her sister described her.

“Can I help?” Allura asked falling into step beside her as the last round of guards were sent out with their instructions. Allura resisted the urge to make herself taller. She had woken up her natural height and while that was tall, it was still a head shorter than Miranda.

Miranda sized her up. It was not the way people looked at her. People didn’t look at princesses like that. Allura knew that just about everyone was always sizing her up. What kind of Queen would she be? Was she brave and selfless like her mother? Smart and decisive like her father? Was she frivolous and pampered and useless? Usually though, people didn’t let those questions show on their faces. Miranda analyzed Allura as though she were just another recruit reporting in for duty and not the heir to the throne.

Allura tilted her head and waited. Miranda made a decision and said, “While I respect that you have the training to help in the floor search, I don’t think it would be prudent to have a royal on the floor while there is an intruder in the castle. But you could help with life force scanning.”

Allura almost flinched but pride kept her from letting it show.

“You don’t think the intruder is Altean?”

“The two visual confirmations we have say that he could be, bipedal, no noticeable extra appendages, he could be Altean but if he isn’t the priests will be able to pick him out. I think it is still worth the attempt and you have the ability to speed the process up immensely.”

Allura did not sight or whine or complain. She did not want to be a battery for a life force scan. Life force scans were the type of thing that made her most nervous about using her quintessence. Reaching out with a piece of her soul and touching other people was always awful. But there was an intruder in the palace and she would not go upstairs and wait for someone else to solve it. She would not be that useless.

So she went to find the priests.

They sat in a far corner of the ballroom on a ring of chairs that had been pulled up haphazardly out of the cupboard where the banquet things were kept. There were still decorative ribbons tied to some of the chairs from the summer ball nearly three months before. Seven priests. Four women, three men. Most of them still in their pajamas just like she was. Gisella, who was Allura’s age though not a friend, wore fuzzy slipper with little bosatara faces on them. They had cups of coffee and juice beside them. They had been there for awhile.

She hadn’t been slow. Allura had woken to the alarm and found the meeting area in a few minutes but the entire search was already in full swing. It hit her a moment later and she almost got up and went to go yell at Miranda for holding the report. The alarm hadn’t gone out on the royal frequency right away. It had only gone out once Miranda had everything under control and rolling forward. Allura did not turn to yell at her. There would be time for that later.

Allura settled down into the circle and they all cast her terrified looks. Miranda and Hunk were not going to coddle or bow and scrape but these people looked like they really wanted to. None of the top priests were present. That meant this hadn’t gotten clearance from Ellis and it was a purely volunteer activity. Ellis hadn’t thought that this would work but Miranda must have pushed for it anyways and these volunteers were the compromise.

Allura reevalated the looks of terror. These people were probably mostly in the 4 to 6 range. Gisella was strong enough to be in training for the Paladin Project and Erwin was one of Ellis’s favourite proteges but the rest of them were older and yet Allura didn’t recognize them. They were probably actually terrified of her powers. She couldn’t vaporize them or anything like that but they were looking at her like she could.

“I’m just a battery, you’re the experts. Tell me what to do and I will do it,” Allura said with the most reassuring smile that she could muster. She did not want to do this, they did not want her to do this but here she was. Hunk had said that the intruder had figured out the sensor system and was avoiding the trip wires. If that was true then a life force search might make all the difference.

The priests shied away like moths when she let her power loose but one by one they came back and gathered up the flow of the circle and the project. Gisella kicked the last one in the leg and glared at them and they reached out and rejoined the circled. No one left. No one locked down. No one freaked out and gave her an excuse to say it was too hard to do.

Allura forced herself to stay calm.

She felt her energy, her sense of self, being drawn out into the air and then into the palace beyond. The first thing she was aware of was the nerves in the room around her and then it stretched wider and the castle fell into place as a landscape of lives. The people in their suites and apartments above. The guards and search teams. There were sparks of life spread out over the busy castle. Beyond that, each spark was a person and each person was a bundle of emotions and that was the part that made her head hurt.

The tension of the records room knocked at her attention. It was nearby and everyone was stressed there, worried about an attack. Miranda was a calm spotlight in the center of the room. She had no ability with quintessence to speak of but her personality burned bright. Out beyond that center core of the castle things got murky but she was aware of the bright spot of light on the far edge of her attention.

“We already found that one, there’s something in the prisons. It isn’t Altean and it is powerful but it’s contained and the higher ups know about it.”

That was her Pilot. Of course the Pilot would burn like a beacon. He wasn’t even awake and he was almost as bright as Miranda was. She pushed her attention away from him.

She let the others guide the search, stretching out and then scanning before pulling in to rest. A lot of life. Servants and search teams and people in offices. She could recognize her father’s life force and Coran’s a few floors above the records room. Most of the sparks, she didn’t recognize and she stopped trying. She was just going to tire herself out. Allura was just along for the ride. She let the others guide the search.

They found what they were looking for hiding in the chaos of the life forces in a residential wing for some of the less high ranking families.

A bright spark amid all the others. Strong and young and frustrated and not in sync with the ebb and flow of Altea below. This was a life force that hadn’t been on Altea very long. It didn’t belong to a native or a local.

“Well done,” Miranda’s voice said and Allura didn’t look up. She was still wrapped up in the magic. The flow of quintessence felt more real than the world around her. Miranda was still talking and Allura tried to focus in on it, “… following? We can take a strike team and cut him off if we know where he is. We still can’t risk audio comms, the internal system is too easy to hack, he’s broken our frequency twice now.”

“Can you keep a hold on him or will he notice that?” someone asked and it took Allura a moment to realize that they were talking to her. He was far away. The entire circle could keep track of that specific spark in all the others but they weren’t strong enough to do it individually. She was.

“I just need to know where he is?” she said.

“Yes.”

“I can do that.”

Allura was spacey and needed to be pulled along by someone else to keep her from losing the plot of where she was and what was happening. Keeping that much of her own energy separate from her body was difficult. She couldn’t risk tethering. It was possible to hold her quintessence to someone else’s but even people with no sensitivity would notice that something was wrong if she did that. So she had to just keep reaching out and watching. It was a little like dangling out a window and trying not to fall.

The intruder was fast. He was pausing here and there as his frustration mounted but he never stayed in one place for long. He had gotten into the vent system and was making impossible moves from one floor to another and between apartments. It seemed like he was walking through the walls. He wasn’t in the apartments, he was in the ceiling above them. No wonder he had been hard to catch.

Allura called out orders as her head started to pound. This was hard. Even now that they were closer, it was hard. There were too many people. Too much life around her. Too many feelings. Anxiety and excitement and determination all scrambled together. The glow of planet below had stopped being comforting and started to drum against her attention. The search team around her drummed at her attention, the sleeping people in the apartments around them drummed at her attention.

Competing energies thumping against her in steady but chaotic rhythms.

It was too much.

Then the life force that she was trying to track through the chaos and the pounding noise of so many living creatures spiked. A too strong emotion rolled through him. Allura couldn’t say what it was. It wasn’t fear. It might have been anger and surprise.

Ahead of her, a guard pulled him down out of a ceiling vent.

He was smaller than she had expected. His quintessence was bright and sharp and it made him seem like he should have been big and bright too. He was thin and angular and wearing a black suit. About her height, maybe a little shorter, he moved too fast to be able to tell. He hit the ground as the guard pulled him through a broken vent and rolled to his feet, moving low and fast and attempting to cut his way out of the middle of a small crowd that was all grabbing for him.

It took Allura a moment to stop tracking him. He was there, she could see him but the awareness that came with casting her quintessence out didn’t go away immediately. She was going to have to reel herself back in and then meditate for a week to keep her awareness from slipping out without her permission after this.

She should train and train properly.

If she trained properly, she would be able to do this.

That was where her thoughts were when the intruder kicked the nearest guard in the chest and twisted away from the other. Allura couldn’t make sense of what was happening. The real world didn’t feel real yet and her consciousness kept trying to slip back into the higher plane.

He had a knife.

At least it wasn’t a gun or a laser.

There was blood on the floor and she still could barely understand it.

He had a mask on so she couldn’t see his face.

No one would shoot at him. There were more of their own people in that hallway.

Someone yelled.

Allura whirled. One of the doors in the hall had opened and a girl of about ten stuck her head out to see what the commotion was. She stared with wide open eyes. The real world snapped solidly back into place and Allura spun around to see where the intruder was. He was fast and there were too many people in the hall for a reasonable fight. They had expected to pick up a burglar but this guy fought like he was fighting for his life. No one was prepared for it.

The intruder noticed the open door as well and spun in that direction. Allura was at the back of the crowd. Now that he had a direction, he was headed straight for her. Small and fast and not afraid of where his knife landed like the guards were. The intruder rolled through the guards and then sprang up in front of her and went to push by her, not attacking, just looking for a way out.

Allura stepped forward and grabbed him by the back of the shirt before he could get too close to the girl and whoever else was in the room beyond.

He spun on her, knife flashing. Allura had enough combat training to react without thinking. She still wasn’t thinking clearly. Her arm came up to catch his wrist. She had combat training but no one had ever come at her with a knife before. He was fast and she was still confused. The blade sliced through her sleeve and deep into her arm. She caught his wrist on the next swing.

He kicked out braced his foot on the door frame and slammed her back into the guards behind her. She didn’t go down. There were too many people blocking her way for her too fall. She just held on. One hand sank into the fabric at his collar and the other holding the knife hand.

Her arm hurt.

There was blood on the wall.

The intruder had a very skinny wrist for someone so fast and strong.

He was twisting and she was going to loose her grip. The bleeding arm was losing strength.

She was too disoriented to know what to do with him now that she had him but she managed to hold him still long enough for someone else to remove the knife.

That was good.

The knife was bloody.

It was dripping on her arm.

No. Her arm was dripping.

The intruder was being pulled away. Miranda was there and she was holding onto him while someone else put on hand cuffs and checked him for more knives. They found three. Allura watched them pull each one out and toss it to the side. He had a blaster too but he hadn’t been using it.

She went to push her hair back from her eyes and was surprised to find that she couldn’t move her arm.

Someone was holding it.

Wrapping it in bandage to stop it from dripping blood on the floor.

“Are you alright?”

Allura heard the words but she was too busy watching Miranda lift the intruder up off the ground to keep him from twisting away again. His legs flailed. It should have been comical but it wasn’t. He was strong enough that anyone he caught with one of those flailing legs was being kicked across the hall. He kicked at anyone near enough to reach but Miranda simply took a few steps away from everyone else and grabbed his foot in her other hand and flipped him over so he was hanging upside down, his leg held in her hand and his bound hands held behind his back. That was actually comical.

Allura snorted out a little laugh.

“Your Grace?”

“My arm is bleeding,” she said.

“Yes.”

“I’m also inordinately tired. Is anyone else hurt?”

“A few injuries,” the person beside her said.

“Go help them. I’ll go down to the infirmary on my own.”

They didn’t agree to that which was probably a good thing. She had over extended herself in a way she wasn’t used to and was too dizzy to manage the walk down the hall. A pair of guards went with her and brought along any other injured parties to have wounds stitched up and whatever else they needed.

Allura glanced back at the intruder who was still trying to twist out of Miranda’s grip despite hanging upside down from one hand. There was a lot of blood on the ground. The little girl had been pulled back into her apartment but one of her parents stood in the doorway and watched the spectacle with tightly crossed arms and a frown. That was the last thing she saw before the elevator doors closed and she was left to stare at a reflection of her own blood spattered face in the reflective doorway.

The infirmary was waiting for them and nursing staff pounced to drag the injured off into healing pods and examination rooms. Allura was sat on a cot and her arm was stitched up by a nurse who apologized profusely that she wasn’t going to be able to use a healing pod because they were all in use for more severe injuries.

“It shouldn’t scar too badly, Your Grace,” the nurse said and then was explaining the medicines that he was putting on it. He was a plump man with dark blue eyes and hair even curlier than hers that was sticking up funny on one side because he had just been called out of bed to help with the injured. Allura liked him but wanted him to stop apologizing.

“Stop apologizing for saving people’s lives,” Allura told him as gently as possible. “I’m ok.”

She made him give her a full field report on the other injured who had been brought in but she was too exhausted to fully understand it. The fight in the corridor had been a tactical disaster but most of the injuries were superficial. Slashes and stabs. A few guards had taken injuries to the stomach but they were all safely tucked away in healing pods and were expected to make full recoveries.

“Thank you for telling me,” she said.

They wanted her to sleep. She wanted to sleep. Instead she pushed herself up and went upstairs to force her way into her father’s office and get the rest of the story. Exhaustion rang in her ears but she ignored it. More than she wanted to sleep, she wanted to know what was going on.

Chapter Text

The sound of footsteps woke him. Shiro opened his eyes at the commotion but otherwise didn't move. He had his back pressed to the stone wall and a pillow balled up behind his head. It had been a bad night and sleeping lying down was just making it worse. It was easier to defend himself from a sitting a position than lying curled up on the bunk and he’d given up trying to convince his brain that there was nothing to defend himself again. He hadn’t slept well in this position either but he had slept a little.

The prison had one long main hallway with nearly identical cellblocks branching off it. Shiro had made a mental map of the layout when he was taken to and from the prison on various field trips. It was simple. And empty. There was never anyone else in the building. The doors were automatic, they opened with swipe cards. There were a handful of cameras and the podiums like the one outside his door.

Each little cellblock had only a few cells. The largest he had seen was near the exit and it looked like it had four. His space had two. There were lots of empty ones so he was surprised when the door outside his cell opened and a pair of guards stepped through. There were more footsteps in the corridor and one of them turned to yell at back at someone behind her.

“Should we put him in here? There's already a prisoner in this block.”

“Who authorized that?”

The lights were still off and guard lit up a screen on the empty podium. Shiro watched blue light flicker over their faces as they each tried their login codes. They looked young. So many of the guards seemed so young.

“Even the answer to that is above my pay grade. Look at that, it just says classified on the record.”

“Fine, then we can't move that one and we're going to need maximum security for this one.”

“Just put him where we were told. If they want to move him later, they can.”

Shiro didn't have a clear view as a group of guards brought someone in and tossed him into the cell next to Shiro’s. Shiro made eye contact with the woman who had come through the door first. She frowned at him and then nudged the person beside her. His group of usual guards was so small that it made sense that he wouldn't know all of them but it was still unsettling to have a little group of people peering at him like he was some sort of zoo animals.

He raised the metal hand and waved once.

“Hi,” he said.

It pulled all the attention in the room and they all studied him. No one said anything or tried to ask him any questions. They marched back out the door and once everything was locked and quiet again. Shiro got up and went to sit by the door. He knocked on the wall.

“Hey, who are you?” he asked.

Nothing.

He tried a few more times to get some conversation out of his new neighbour and got unending silence in return. He started to worry that the guy must be seriously injured or had died.

“At least tell me you’re not dead,” Shiro said.

He got a swearword in response. It was a word he recognized from the arenas but he didn’t know what it meant. It didn’t really matter. Shiro got up and went back to sitting on his bed, trying to sleep.

Later, after Shiro had given up trying to start a conversation, he had heard noises in the cell next door. Rustling at first and then banging and slamming. His new neighbour was doing something to his bunk and then the bars.

"Are you attempting to cut through the bars with a bed spring?" he asked.

Silence in answer.

"There's wiring through the cross beams but not the verticals," Shiro told him. "But you probably don't have a translator and can't understand a word I say. You know common?"

In the pens and cells around the arena battle grounds, Shiro had picked up a few words of Galactic Common. The time just sitting in a prison cell had given him time to start sorting through what memories he did have and some of the words were coming back. There had been prisoners with translator chips installed in their bodies. People who had spent time as workers on the interplanetary mining colonies and shipyards were the most likely to have them. They were good friends to have. Everyone else relied on Galactic Common or at least a variety of it.

His neighbour didn't answer.

Shiro had to dig through his memories to get as far as, "Side bars power."

He had used his arm to chip away at some of the bars. The arm had enough power to burn through the metal in a single swipe but he'd been more careful than that. It was almost more experimentation than it was escape attempt. There was dull light over the empty guard's podium outside the cell and he'd always assumed it was a camera. Then again, no one had responded to him sitting there, whittling away the bar strength with the tip of a glowing finger so maybe no one was watching. Shiro had found the wiring inside the bars during the process but he wasn't sure what it did. He hadn't tripped it.

That had been his last attempt to talk to the new prisoner until morning.

 

Hunk and Darrow showed up in the morning to take him to see Ellis. As he stepped out of the cell, he paused to have a look in at the person who had been banging around all night. Hunk peeked around Shiro's shoulder to see what he was looking at and made a little squeak of a sound and took a step back. Shiro glanced at him and Darrow turned to sigh in their direction. Hunk straightened and pretended he wasn't hiding behind Shiro. He didn’t step out from hiding behind Shiro, he just stood up a little taller and looked straight ahead away from the other prisoner.

"I'm supposed to be the prisoner," Shiro said.

"Yeah, I know,” Hunk said.

Darrow sighed.

In the other cell, that prisoner blinked his eyes and looked up at them. He looked almost human. If he were human, Shiro would have guessed he was in his late teens or maybe early twenties. He was pale with purple markings running along his jaw and forearms. He had on the gray prison uniform that Shiro had been given before Ellis had decided it was too conspicuous for him to wear on his way to the temple. His hair was black and stuck up at all angles around his head. He had dark human eyes but when he met Shiro's he blinked. Slowly. They shifted to a vibrant yellow.

Hunk squeaked again.

There wasn't much in the cells and there wasn't much that could be destroyed but the yellow eyed boy had destroyed everything he could. The bunk had been pulled off the wall and most of the support pieces had been pulled apart. All the pieces of the toilet were on the floor around it. The sink didn't have anything to take off, it was a basin and a spigot sticking out of a metal plate in the wall. There was a blind that could be pulled over the small window and that was shredded. The blanket and mattress from the cot sat in a corner like they had been tossed there.

“You’ve been busy,” Shiro said to him.

"Why would you work for them, Gwalin boy?" the prisoner asked.

"I don't work for them," Shiro said.

"Not you, him," he pointed at Hunk who was staring back with wide eyes.

"I'm not. Nope. Who told you that? They're wrong. I'm definitely, definitely not," Hunk said.

"Yeah. You are. Didn't mommy ever tell you?"

"Hey! I don't know what you are but we're not the same. I'm not," Hunk said.

"Sure, you are, do you have to paint the little shiny marks on so you can look like all your friends?"

"Enough," Shiro said.

Darrow was busy watching Hunk and being silent as he always was. Hunk was too worked up to say anything and the prisoner watched them all. Gauging reactions.

Shiro shot him a look and he shrugged. It took him a moment realize why he was so annoyed by it. He didn't like that this stranger was targeting Hunk. The guard was a nervous mess at the best of times and Shiro had spent the last week trying to find times when Darrow wasn't there to ask him how he knew about Earth when the most highly ranked people on the planet didn't. Hunk was almost a friend.

"I've been here so goddamn long, I've got Stockholm Syndrome," Shiro said rubbing the bridge of his nose. Everyone turned to look at him and he just shrugged and turned around. He put a hand on Hunk's shoulder and pushed him towards the door. It was ridiculous to care so much about someone whose job it was to keep him in a prison cell but here he was. He would deal with all that later. He kept pushing Hunk along and Darrow followed in their wake.

“Let's go see Ellis,” Shiro said.

 

Hunk and Darrow dropped him off outside Ellis's office and then left. He had been behaving well enough for long enough that neither of them felt much need to stand around and watch. Ellis usually just gave them orders and they both hated that. They went to go grab something to eat or sit in the park and read a book or whatever it was that they did while they were avoiding Ellis. He knocked on Ellis's door as Hunk disappeared around the corner. She stuck her head out into the hall, looked back inside at a clock, frowned at him and ordered him down the hall to a training room.

No one went with him.

No guards, no priests, not Ellis herself.

She just pointed and told him what number and left him to figure out which one that was.

For a moment, he stood in the hallway and considered walking away.

Did it even count as escaping from prison if they just left you in a fancy church and you walked away?

"Hello," someone said.

He turned to smile at Allura. There were worse ways to have an escape attempt interrupted. She was wearing purple and white today. The dress had a long flowing skirt and sleeves that billowed out and then pulled in at her wrist in a fancy bracelet. Her hair was pulled back tight. She looked tired but she returned his smile and came to stand beside him.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Considering escape routes but that’ll be difficult with you here," he said. "Ellis sent me to four, if you want to come."

She followed him into the room. He kicked off his shoes inside the door because the main part of the room was covered in mats and rugs and his mother would have killed him for walking on rugs with his shoes. Allura did the same but he couldn't tell if she did it because he did or because that was what Alteans did. He sat down on one of the low chairs and stretched his feet out in front of him. These rooms had started to feel comfortable lately. Of all the places he was allowed to go, the children's training rooms were his favourite. Go figure.

"Why haven't you?" she asked.

"Haven't I what?" he asked.

"Tried to escape."

"I don't have anywhere to go," he said.

"That's it?"

Shiro started to lie but they were alone in the little room with only half the lights on. The rooms were done in beige and light blue and the lamps in the corners did enough to push back the shadows in the windowless space but not much more. She had sat down in the other chair and tucked her feet up under her. The moment where he'd found himself needing to defend Hunk as a friend rather than thinking of him as a guard or a threat had got him thinking. Allura wasn't really his friend either but he wanted her to be. He wanted to have someone he could trust. She trusted him enough to sit alone in a room with him.

"What are you doing here?" Shiro asked.

"I came to see if Ellis needed any help, you're avoiding the question."

He raised his eyebrows at her.

"If you must know, I'm hiding."

"Why?"

"There was an intruder in the castle last night and I was injured in a very minor way and now everyone I know is deeply worried about my survival prospects. I’m sick of everyone asking me when I’m going to die from a little cut," she said.

"You don't look injured," he said.

She unbuttoned her sleeve and showed him a bandage on her forearm. It was wrapped from nearly elbow to wrist in a thick layer. It didn't look like a bandage to go with a minor cut. She pulled her sleeve back into place and rebuttoned the cuff so it was hidden entirely. The yellow eyed boy in the prison was probably to blame for the injury but she didn't explain the story and he didn't press the issue.

"Back to you and the places you have to go," she said.

Shiro looked at her and she stared back. Her expression was even and patient. He had let his expression slip at one point and she knew he had something to say. She was going to wait him out.

"If I go out there into the depths of space with my twenty words of Galactic Common, an undiscovered species with a rather distinctive physical appearance," he ran his fingers through his too long hair to highlight the white, "A stolen space ship and a chunk of Galra tech that can send and receive transmissions and no friends. If I go out there like that, I'm going to make it less than a week before they find me and lock me up again. Maybe the Alteans will find me and I'll be right back here but maybe the Galra will and that means going back to the arenas or back to whichever lab they have that used me as a test subject," he said.

She nodded.

"I won't survive that. Even if I live through whatever they would do to me next, I won't survive it. Not really. Whatever would be left, won't be me. I'm already not sure if I'm still me," he said.

Once he had stared talking, it had kept coming. That was more than he had intended to say.  

The princess watched him and they fell silent for a long time. The room was quiet. It was insulated against both sound and magic. Ellis had been trying to teach him out to recognize the magic of other living things. He couldn't usually do it but in the quiet, he could feel her magic. Sometimes other people's magic made him nervous, sitting across from Hunk as Ellis made the poor guard more and more nervous with her pacing and orders, had been awful. It was nice with Allura. Like sitting beside something warm or maybe beside a radio turned down low but playing a favourite song. The whole magic thing didn't make sense when he tried to explain it through his other senses. It didn't matter. It was nice and that was enough.

"Pilot?"

"Hm?"

"Do you know how to play Zenda?"

"No."

"Come learn," she held out a hand and waved him out of the chair.

“Why?”

“I need a distraction and so do you, children’s games are excellent distractions. Come on, I’ll show you how to make a da and play.”

She sat down with her feet crossed on the mat and he came to join her, sitting across from her in the same position. She made a little ball of light appear between two fingers and then reached out and grabbed his human wrist and pulled his hand forward. "Hold this." He went to curl his fingers around it but she flattened his palm out using both her hands and a shake of her head. Her fingers were cool and soft and strong around his. She held his hand still for a moment so the ball floated above it.

"That's it?"

"No, I'm just starting the game. If you've never played before then you don't know how to make the da. We each need one, that one is yours. Stay there," she said.

She let go of his hand and he watched the ball over his palm while she made herself another one. He raised his hand and then lowered it, moved it one side and then the other. As long as he was thinking about it, the ball stayed in place, floating above his palm. When he got distracted, it started to float away and Allura had to grab it and put it back in place.

"What are the rules?" he asked.

"It's a game of concentration. If your attention wanders so will the ball. The first few rounds are warm up. You push the ball across the space between us. Some people find it helpful to actually push with their hands but it's really your mind and your magic doing the work," she said. "I try to catch yours and you try to catch mine."

It took him a little while to get the hang of making it move without trying to touch it. Each time he touched it, the ball unraveled and Allura shook her head at him and made him a new one. Once he knew how to move it, they could start to pick up the speed. It was like magical catch or two-person juggling. It wasn’t quite easy but he was starting to get the hang of it as they traded the little balls of light back and forth. He needed to keep his attention on his own and not get distracted by hers or his fell apart.

"Is there a winner in this game?" he asked.

"Only if you're playing in a tournament against others," she said.

"How do you win?"

"You go faster or longer or use more Da than the other teams do. Some competitions are based on speed, others have points for skill and artistry," she explained.

"So, I can't beat you?"

"You couldn't beat me even if this wasn't a team game," she said.

"That sounds like a challenge," he said.

"It's not a challenge, Pilot, it's a statement of fact. I'm better at this than you are," she said.

Shiro laughed and as soon as his attention wavered, he dropped his little ball of light. Allura scooped it up and shook her head at him. Mocking but gently. She passed the ball of light between her hands and then let the two of them weave around her fingers. It was a show. She was showing off and he just sat back on his hands and watched her do it. The two balls of light broke into pieces that scattered before she pulled them back together into one big one that she left spinning in the air between them.

"Hey, I'm still attending my training, you're not," he said. "Eventually, I'll learn more than you did as a kid."

She stared at her little balls of light, still weaving between her fingers but didn’t say anything to that.

"Why'd you stop training?" he asked. "You're good at this and you seem to like it."

"I hope you never asked Ellis that question."

"I did and she stormed out of the room."

The princess studied him and he used it as an excuse to stare at her. She was trying to decide what to tell him and he was busy taking in the details of her. In the half light, he couldn’t see the pink in her eyes but her hair style made her ears more noticeable than usual. He’d stopped thinking of the pointy ears as strange, especially on her. They were just her normal.

“You don’t have to explain anything to me,” he told her.

"My mother and Ellis were close friends from the time they were very young. Altea is a planet with very strong quintessence which means we have different natural disasters than other planets do. We have volcanoes and earthquakes and sandstorms in the north but we also have quintessence swells. Small ones are normal. Many temples and cities are built around places where the magic is thick. The magic pools and flows in the planet itself. Like water on an ocean world. The temples help control it. When the quintessence builds up in one place the temples and the priests can direct that magic into crystals for storage or to be used in machinery."

Allura took a deep breath and the balls of light between her fingers started to move faster. She stared down at her hands as she continued to talk.

"Swells are different. They come as a surprise. You can predict them sometimes, like an earthquake but other times, they take everyone by surprise. There was a swell at Talis which is near Corella. It's not a sacred place. It doesn’t have much natural magic. It's just a town. The swell builds and that doesn’t hurt anything but then a swell must recede, when it recedes, it takes things with it. Quintessence is life magic, life energy. A wild swell takes lives with it when it recedes. People, animals, plants, they just die. Their life energy is taken from them and returned to Altea's core with the magic."

"That is terrifying," Shiro said.

"So are volcanoes," she said.

"I guess so. It's just a lot weirder to imagine an invisible magic wave washing into your town and then people dropping dead as it washes back out," he said.

She didn’t respond to him. She was looking past him at the lamp in the corner. She had dropped one of the light balls. It had fluttered and then unraveled like his had when he’d made mistakes during the game. Shiro reached out and scooped the other one back from her. She didn’t look at him as he did it. Her attention was somewhere in the past.

"Before the Talis swell could recede or wash back out, a team from the capital, from this temple, went to try and help. There were evacuations in progress but no one knew how long they had.  Some swells take hours, some last for years. Some take one life, some take thousands. The priests were there to track the magic and give people warning so they knew how far they had to get away and how long they had to do it. Talis is a farming community and people were worried that when the quintessence left, it would take the life of their plants and they would return to barren land that wouldn't grow again for decades so there were people who argued against the evacuation until plans could be made to save some of the harvest."

Allura paused and then kept going in a small voice, "It receded in the middle of the evacuation. My mother was there and so was Ellis but my mother was the one who did something drastic. She was powerful."

"Like you?"

"Yes, but she had been training her entire life," Allura said. "You can learn to connect to the core of the planet, that's what the priest training is for. First you learn to master your own magic, which is what Ellis is training you for right now, then you learn to tap into magic beyond yourself. That's what my mother did. She opened herself as a conduit to Altea. Instead of borrowing magic from the planet, she opened herself up to it. It was a little like carving a hole in the side of an overflowing cup. Instead of receding naturally, the swell went through her and her alone."

Shiro could tell what the end of the story would be but he let her tell it.

"Only one person died. Only she died. The farmland survived. Ellis was there when it happened. I was ten years old and my mother went out to help and then never came home again and instead there were monuments to a hero and it felt like people were celebrating her death. They weren't. I know that now. But I was little and I was angry and people always say that Altea recognizes its own. Which I think is meant to mean that if you are Altean, you will always have a place to return home. When I was young and grieving, I thought it meant that Altea would recognize me as my mother's daughter and if I reached out like she used to, it would take me too," Allura said.

"Over time – I know now – I know now that I was wrong in that but choosing to follow my father's footsteps had already become a piece of who I was. The temple reminds me of my mother, Ellis reminds me of my mother, in a good way usually but it is still a reminder. I cannot live up to my mother's legacy and I hate the idea of people sitting around discussing my progress as a priestess. I am not her and I cannot life up to what she was. She was a hero and I am the most spoiled royal in the entire dynasty," she said.

"That's not true," Shiro said.

She turned and looked at him. She wasn't crying but he could see the shine in her eyes. Shiro stood up and held out a hand to her. She took it and let him pull her to her feet. Her hand stayed wrapped around his so he didn't let go. Hugging her would be over the line so he just held onto her hand.

"Your mother doesn't matter to people because she was powerful in that particular way. She matters because she put herself on the line to save lives," Shiro said. "From what I've seen, you inherited that same trait. The Altean people won't care about you because of your mother or your father."

"You're not very good at this," she said.

"The point I'm trying to make is that you don't matter because of who your parents are, royalty or not," he said, "You matter because of what you do and because of who you are. You're the type of person to put yourself between a dangerous alien with a scary metal arm and strangers on the street. You've even done it after I hurt you. Your biggest fear and your greatest concern is always the safety of this planet. You don't have to be your mother or have her powers to live up to her legacy. You're going to be great. You're already amazing."

She stepped into the little buffer of space he had left between them and wrapped her arms around his waist. He hesitated for a long moment before he gave up trying to remember where the boundaries were and returned the hug. He pulled her in close and tried not to think too much at all. She didn't say a word. She closed her eyes, tucked her face down so he couldn't see her expression and she held onto him.

"Thank you," she whispered.

It felt like it lasted a long time, it didn't last nearly as long as he wished it would.

She pulled back and met his gaze. Her expression was tight and nervous, like he was going to scold her or maybe like she was going to yell at him. He patted her shoulders which was immediately awkward and ridiculous so he dropped his hands and took a step back.

"Go home, Princess, someone is worried about you."

"Is someone worried about you?" she asked.

"I was probably declared dead so, no, they're probably not worried any more, not really," he said.

"I worry about you," she said.

"You shouldn't do that. I'm nothing but trouble," he said.

Shiro grinned at her and took another step back. He needed space and jokes and time to think. This moment was too overwhelming and he needed to break that tension before he did something she wouldn't forgive him for. Something like kissing her.

"You are in trouble, you're not the source of the trouble," she said.

"I don’t know, I don’t remember a lot, I could be the source of all trouble in every galaxy," he said.

She caught his hand and squeezed it again and then she turned to leave. She stopped at the door and looked back.

"I wish there was more I could do to help you," she said.

"You do enough, really," he said.

Then she was gone and he sat back down in his little chair and stared up at the ceiling. The room felt empty with her gone. It had seemed cozy and peaceful when he had walked into it alone but now it felt like something was missing. Shiro knocked his head against the back of the chair. It didn't do any good to try and knock the stupid thoughts loose.

He was still staring at the ceiling when Ellis came through the door.

"You have the potential to be a hazard to the princess," Ellis said as way of greeting.

"I wasn't aware. No one has ever suggested that to me in the last however many months I have been on this planet."

"Don't be sarcastic with me," Ellis said.

"Sorry, Cotton Candy,” Shiro said.

He sat up straight and folded his hands in his lap and gave her a polite smile. Ellis stood by the door with her arms crossed tightly over her chest. Her demeanour swung wildly. Sometimes she reminded Shiro of one of those school teachers who was brilliant and always fair but never really nice. She was the kind of teacher that you wanted to impress. The rest of the time, she looked like this. Like the crazy woman who lived at the end of the block and chased children with a broom if they stepped on her grass. She frowned at him.

"Cotton Candy, have you been eavesdropping?" Shiro asked. "For the record, I did not at any point in our conversation do anything dangerous."

"I appreciate what you said to her. She doesn't speak of that often," Ellis said.

Shiro had not been expecting that. He frowned at her and started to say something but was too surprised to figure out what he wanted to say. She said it like it was nothing, a comment on the weather. Then she was cranky Ellis again, brusque and annoyed. "That said, your guards really shouldn't be flouncing off to drink nunvill in the bushes while you're left unattended. I'll have to talk to them about that. Stand up. We have work to do."

Shiro studied Ellis for a moment but did as he was told. She did not bring it up again through the rest of his lesson and the little tests she wanted to run on his arm. Nothing had changed. Ellis was brusque and intense and she pushed him harder than he really wanted to be pushed. She treated him like a hard-working student when all he really was was a prisoner who wanted to extend the time he wasn't in stuck in that cell with its locked door.

Toward the end of the session, Ellis had him sit down and gave him a cup of tea. He rolled the cup between his hands. It smelled bitter and tasted worse so he just held it and tried to look polite. He was still drawing out the time but he was tired. Allura's little game had taken more effort than he wanted to admit and then Ellis had spent nearly an hour having him turn off and on only specific parts of the arm. It had been exhausting. To sit with tea, even disgusting tea, was nice.

"I want to have you moved," Ellis said.

"Because you don't like that I have conversations with the princess?" he asked. It was better to be blunt than let her dance around the issue.

"I don't like that you have conversations with the princess and are so attached to her and that she seems to think that there is nothing to worry about where you are concerned," she said attached like it was a dirty word, "But no, that isn't why I want you moved. I want you moved because there is a training program in the Southern Temple that you would suited to and we could have you enrolled as a student. You've proven - to me at least - that you are not a threat to Altea or anyone's immediate safety. I would like to try and prove it to the advisers and get clearance to have you moved south where you could live as an immigrant rather than as a prisoner."

Shiro went still and looked at her as though he would be able to see the trick in her expression if he studied her closely enough. She wore the same robes she always wore. Her hair was done in the same twisted bun that it was always done in. She looked cranky and annoyed by his presence like she always did. She studied him back with the same expression she always wore when she thought he was being difficult. Shiro leaned forward, still fiddling with the teacup between his palms.

"Why?" he asked.

"Why not?" Ellis asked. "You're a pain to have here. I have more important things to do. The Southern Temple has a special program for off-worlders who show promise with the magic on their own worlds. They come from across the galaxy and the Alliance to study with us. It will be better for you. That it gets you out of my hair and out of the princess's is an added incentive."

Shiro smiled a little.

"That's an incredible offer Ellis, thank you," he said.

"The King’s advisers are coming down tomorrow as long as no more Galran rebels try to attack the castle," Ellis said. "Let me explain what I want you to do."

He sat back and listened to her explain it with a smile on his face.

Chapter Text


Shiro was leaning on the bars and asking his neighbour questions. He wasn't getting any response and his questions had gotten more and more ridiculous as the one sided conversation dragged on. He wasn't sharing anything about himself. Keeping his secrets had become a reflex.

"Do you think that the Yankees will take the World Series this year? I never followed American baseball too closely until I got the Garrison job and I still don't know all the teams. I didn't like the Yankees much but they won the year I flew out," he said.

"Do you ever shut up?"

"Sometimes but not today," Shiro said.

"When I get out, I'm going to come kill you. Just for the quiet."

"You could try but bigger things than you couldn't manage it," Shiro said.

"You think you’re funny?"

Asking stupid questions wasn't getting him anywhere. He wanted to know something - anything - about the galaxy beyond Altea. This prisoner was his best chance and it probably wasn’t one he was going to have for much longer. The Alteans had lazy prison policies but eventually someone would decide that rooming them so close together wasn’t a good idea. He needed to crack through the idle threats and dripping sarcasm before that happened if he wanted any chance of answers.

Honesty was worth a try.

"Not really," he said. "I spent some time in the Galra arenas. It's not the kind of place that has much comedy relief unless you're really into blood and misery. And if you are, I guess I shouldn't judge."

Silence.

He had been quiet most of the afternoon. They had taken him out sometime very early in the morning. Whatever Altean interrogation entailed, Shiro was counting himself lucky that he'd managed to avoid it. Everyone had been worried about everything else. The magic and the politics. They hadn't tried to question him beyond that first meeting. His memories were such a disaster that no one seemed to think they were worth the trouble.

Shiro was imagining interrogation techniques that involved magic worming its way into your brain and started to feel bad for this guy. He looked too young to be a spy and all the bluster could have just been teenage attitude. Shiro was trying to figure out what kind of people sent teenage kids into heavily fortified alien castles when the kid spoke again.

"You're Ulaz's guy," it was a statement, not a question.

Shiro turned as though he'd be able to see through the wall. He had no idea what that meant. What was an Ulaz? Was that something he should have known?

"Shit, of course you are, the English, the scar, shit. I didn't even think to look in the fucking prisons," he said.

"Wait. You came here looking for me?" Shiro asked.

"Did a great job, didn't I?"

"Care to explain that?"

"That's not an in here conversation, that's an after we get the hell out of here conversation."

"And I'm just supposed to trust you on that one?" Shiro asked.

"My name's Keith. I'm a Blade," he said.

Keith. Of all the names that Shiro had ever imagined for an alien spy or warrior or whatever, Keith had never made the list. Keith was the name of a guy on someone’s bowling team. Someone’s dad’s bowling team. Keith was not the kind of guy to trash prison cells and have glowing eyes. Shiro couldn’t make that detail fit so he decided to ignore it.

"So?" Shiro said, "I don't know what that means."

"Didn't he give you the code words? Aren't you Ulaz's guy?" Keith asked.

"Probably not."

“Shit,” followed by silence again.

Shiro turned and slid down the bars so he was sitting on the floor and staring at the back wall of his cell. His memories were a trash pit where someone had chopped everything up and set half of it on fire. Forcing himself to stare at the pieces he did remember usually didn’t help. Today it just made his head ache and he couldn’t remember anyone name Ulaz or anything that might count as a code word.

"Maybe. I don't know. I'm an amnesiac. I spent a year in the arenas and got bashed around a lot. Then they did whatever they did to give me the arm and that included wiring it into my nervous system which might explain why the memories are so messy. I could be Ulaz's guy but I doubt it. I'm probably just a pilot who got really unlucky," Shiro said.

"You've got the weaponized arm?"

"Yeah. It's brought me nothing but trouble but I got it," Shiro said.

He knocked it against the bars and the clang of metal on metal rang out through the prison. He winced.

"You were shipped out of the prisons in a box marked as a gift to the royal family, right?"

"Yes."

"Fuck. You don't remember anything?"

"I don't remember much."

"Fuck."

"You're not human," Shiro said. "But you speak English like it's your first language."

"My dad speaks English. He did a shitty job raising me but he did manage to teach me how to talk."

"What's your mom?"

"Galra."

Shiro hadn't been expecting that.

"I've got a chip for you."

They were interrupted by Hunk - but only Hunk - showing up at the door looking harried. He shot Keith a wary look and then punched a code in and came through the door. Keith and Shiro both fell silent as soon as they heard the foot steps and by the time Hunk had made it into the room, Shiro was standing and reaching for his jacket.

"Ellis has decided I don't even rank two guards any more?" Shiro asked. "I'm offended."

"Sorry?" Hunk said.

"Gwalin Boy's partner won't talk to him now that he knows," Keith said. He was leaning forward so his hands hung out through the bars. He had torn up his fingers while attempting to escape and had scabs on his fingers but no band aids.

"Don't be a dick," Shiro said.

"Gwalin isn't an insult," Hunk said in a tense voice.

"Altean assholes think it is."

"You're gwalin," Hunk said.

"Yeah but I don't go around pretending to be anything else. What's the other half of you? Altean and Clexan?"

"Human but that’s not your business. That is none of your business. I shouldn’t have said anything," Hunk turned to Shiro and said, “We should go now.”

"How the hell are there so many people who apparently have human parents and no one knows where Earth is?" Shiro asked. He was still standing inside his cell and he spread his hands in confusion.

Before either of them could answer, Darrow showed up in the hallway with his phone still in his hand. He frowned at Hunk.

"What's taking so long?" he asked.
"Nothing, sorry," Hunk said.

He fumbled with the keys and opened the cell door. Shiro wanted to push the issue but both Hunk and Keith had gone silent. He looked between them as he stepped out of the cell. Keith was sitting with his back to the wall and he glanced up with a little more curiosity than he had shown before but then that disappeared back behind a blank mask. Shiro ran his fingers through his hair and stepped out into the hall. He had other things to worry about. Keith would still be there when he got back.

 

Allura waited for them outside the temple. She wanted to talk to a dangerous alien more than she wanted to talk to a woman she had known for her entire life. Maybe Ellis was right and she was too attached to the Pilot. She didn't even know his name. When he showed up on the path flanked by his guards and chatting with the younger one like they were old friends, she smiled in spite of her better judgment.

He wore a plain suit of clothes. A workman's outfit. Green and blue against gray. These clothes fit properly, not well tailored but the right size at least. It made him look incredibly normal. He could have been anyone. A farmer’s son who took a job in the city maybe. No, if he were some normal Altean boy, he’d probably be a candidate for the guard. He’d have taken the flight qualifications and maybe done a few years at a university. They were still far enough away that the details that marked him as alien weren't noticeable. He let out a little laugh and she could hear it across the square. Bright and happy.

He wasn’t normal but it was nice to imagine that somewhere, in some other life, he might have been.

As he crossed the square, he caught sight of her and gave her a smile. She had seen him smile so rarely that his good mood took her by surprise. She returned the smile and waited for him to climb the steps up to where she was standing. He seemed to take up more space in this mood. He had seemed too tall when he’d been furious and terrified when she had first met him and since then he had been trying very hard not to be intimidating. He never seemed small but he carried himself differently when he was smiling. When he was happy, he demanded more of her attention than when he was sullen and watchful.

“Good afternoon, Princess,” he said.

“Hello, Pilot,” she said.

“Are you here to talk to Ellis?”

“She wants to put you on display this afternoon, I’m supposed to convince you to behave properly.”

That got her one of those rare laughs and a shrug. “That seems to be your responsibility far too often.”

“You could just be nice to the priestesses and I could go back to doing frivolous princess things,” she said.

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” he said.

Another smile and then he stepped past her to push open the door. The guards didn’t try to stop him or try and control him. They didn’t really guard him much. They walked with him when he went places. The illusion that he was normal was holding and she found it hard to remember that he was still a prisoner, an alien, someone dangerous. He didn’t seem dangerous.

He held the door open for her and his expression was a little more serious and respectful now that he was facing back to where Darrow and Hunk could see him. Her heart stuttered a little as the expression shifted. He was flirting on purpose and he knew exactly how close to the line he was. His eyes only held hers for a moment before he dropped his gaze and she snapped her attention away like she had anything else to look at.

She stepped past him and a smile slipped out that was far too friendly. Encouraging the flirting was a bad idea. A very bad idea. But he was cute when he was happy and it made her feel less guilty about getting him sent to prison when he was smiling at her. Maybe this little show would be the tipping point in convincing the council that he could be moved back out of the prisons and into a standard barrack or some sort of house arrest. He wasn’t dangerous if he wasn’t attacked first.

“Pilot?” she stopped him in the hall. He raised his eyebrows at her and waited for her to continue. She kept her attention on his metal hand to prevent herself from getting distracted by his eyes again. She said, “Try very hard not to be scary.”

“Do I look scary?”

Her attention jumped back up to his face. The temple hall wasn’t dark but it was taking her eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness. Behind them, Darrow was frowning at Hunk who was failing to lock the door behind them. The Pilot was smiling like it was all a big joke and she held his gaze until some of the humour dropped away.

“You don’t look scary to me,” she said.

She had more to say to him but she turned and walked into the room before she accidentally let any of it slip out. She had already said far too much. Do not flirt with aliens. She needed to write it on her hand or set one of those reminder alerts to her comm system so the automated computer voice would just repeat it into her ear piece a hundred times a day until she stopped wanting impossible things.

Inside the room, she let herself get caught up in saying hello to the advisers who were already there before settling down beside Gisella and Ellis who were sitting in the corner. Gisella gave Allura an almost unfriendly look. She had never been a very friendly person but usually she wasn’t quite so tense. She had been on the pilot’s original assessment team and Ellis had complained about her being afraid of him back then and it looked like she was still terrified of him now.

“Gisella, how are you?” Allura said.

“I’m very well, Your Grace, how are you?” she said mechanically.

“I’m well,” Allura told her. Sometimes being a princess was an annoyance. She had meant it as a genuine question. She really was worried that Gisella looked so nervous. She had her hands in a tight knot on her lap and her green eyes were fixed straight ahead. Gisella was pointy. Allura felt unkind for thinking but Gisella had a narrow face and sharp features and didn’t really seem to like anyone very much. That discomfort with everyone just made her look more pinched and harsh.

She was extremely sensitive to quintessence so maybe that was why she always looked like other people made her uncomfortable. Allura kept her own magic tightly locked down to avoid being aware of all the life around her. Gisella was a sensitive which meant she couldn’t push her magic that deep. She was always aware of the push and pull of living things in the world around them.

“I hear you graduated from the training program and will start working on the Paladin Project,” Allura tried again.

She needed to not think about the pilot who was standing across the room between Hunk and Darrow, watching the crowd and standing like a soldier. He stood straight and alert and she wanted to go over and check on him. She really wanted the distraction of talking to someone and Gisella was her best bet to avoid something awkward. The other choice was to talk to one of the advisors.

Gailan looked suspiciously like he was waiting for her attention to wander so he could steal her away and trap her in some horrible conversation that she did not want to have. Gailan had a son or a nephew or some sort of relative who was about the right age for marrying off and Allura did not want to hear about him. She didn’t remember his name from the last time that she had gotten dragged into a conversation with Gailan. She did not really want to learn it. Awkward conversation with Gisella was better.

“I have joined the Paladin’s project, it is an honour and I am very proud to have been chosen,” Gisella still sounded stilted like she was taking an exam in a language she barely spoke.

“Who’s up next?” Allura asked.

“Up next?”

“I heard that Gyrgan was planning to retire and start a family, so we’re going to need a new Yellow Paladin, won’t we?” she said.

“Oh,” Gisella said as though surprised by the direction of the conversation. This was the most awkward conversation that Allura had had in a long time and in the long pause, she reminded herself that Gailan would be worse. Thankfully, Gisella managed to get a few more sentences out. “We perform regular interviews and analysis across all Alliance planets for all five Lions. None of the current paladins are planning to leave the Voltron team but it is important that we have suitable candidates in training who might be ready to step up should it be needed.”

The Paladin project went off looking for people who had the right personality profiles to be Paladins of Voltron. The lions themselves would make the final decision about which candidates would be accepted onto the team but Gisella’s project made sure that there were fully trained pilots with tactical training ready should the need arise. Allura had never had a chance to think about how it worked.

Allura nodded. This was a failure of a conversation and she was going to have to talk to Gailan if she didn’t think of something else quick. She was saved when whoever they were waiting for arrived and Ellis promptly snapping to her feet like a soldier standing before a general. Or a general standing before a king. Ellis was absolutely a general, not a foot soldier.

“Thank you for agreeing to come today. I fear from our previous meetings on the subject that far too many of you misunderstand both the character and the content of the issue at hand,” Allura glanced at the Pilot who gave her a tiny shrug like he thought being call an issue at hand was funny. Ellis kept talking, “The young man in question is a member of a scientific expeditionary force from an undiscovered fringe world managing a deadly weapon he did not request and has not been trained in the safe use of.”

Allura had been saying that for weeks but no one else had seemed to agree with her. She had been so sure that Ellis thought the Pilot was a problem and a hazard. For his part, the Pilot was still standing at attention but his gaze was straying as he checked to see how the rest of the room was handling Ellis’s assessment of him. Allura watched him for a moment but he didn’t look at her.

Ellis was still talking. “He is distinctly less dangerous than he has been made out to be but he has been fitted with a prosthetic arm which is dangerous and without proper, cohesive training, it will continue to be dangerous not only to him but to everyone around him. I have suggested this demonstration to prove that point to you as none of you have seen fit to listen to my clear and concise explanations.”

Allura could hear the exact place where Ellis had to stop herself from using the word idiots. She was angry. Allura had thought that Ellis’s permanently miserable mood where the Pilot was concerned was a result of her believing he was dangerous. Hunk looked surprised as well and the Pilot muttered something to him and Hunk had to fight to keep his straight face in place.

The Pilot had been expecting this.

Allura watched him as Ellis waved him over and had him stand in the middle of the room. Not in the circle, just before the assembled advisors. He was calm and gave the proper salute of a visitor to the Altean court. Allura wanted to shake someone and ask how long they had been planning this. Ellis had coached him on how to behave and he did it as though he had been born to it.

A few of the advisors started paying more attention. Most of the advisors came from the old families that were so deeply entrenched around the Royals. Most of them were people her father had grown up with and many of them were the relatives of Allura’s friends. The parliament featured a broader range of the Altean population but those closest to the monarch, the ones who knew the classified secrets before they were released, were such a small group. A small group that had grown up at Court and really, deeply, cared about things like the proper salutes and how one stood and the use of titles. Someday, Allura would choose advisors who weren’t quite so insular.

The Pilot glanced at her and meeting his eyes pulled her back into the present moment.

"My name is Takashi Shirogane, I am a deep space pilot with the United Nations Expeditionary Organization. I was the captain of a small scientific mission to Kerberos which is a small moon orbiting a dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system. It's an icy rock but the scientific lead, a man named Sam Holt, was doing a geological study so he was looking for rocks," a little smile and then his expression went serious again. "Our ship was intercepted by a much larger vessel. I struggle to remember the details. There was a period of about a year between then and now but I'm also not sure how much time I've lost. I do know that it was a Galra ship and that it took the three of us on board."

He took a deep breath and then continued.

"We were separated soon after that. I was sent to the arenas and I don't know where Matt or Dr. Holt ended up. I don't even know if they're alive. From speaking to the princess, I understand that usually those sent to Galran arenas had committed some crime. If I did, I don't remember it. I spent the last year surviving."

Allura watched him talk with annoyance building in her chest.

Except for the little joke about rocks, he spoke with the gravity and detachment of a soldier giving a field report. These people weren't his commanding officers but he spoke to them as though they were. He stood straight and kept his expression serious. She wanted to go over there and flick him in one of his round little ears or something to force him to break this serious attention. It took her a moment to figure out why he was annoying her so much.

She was jealous.

He had never trusted her enough to tell her his name and here he was, announcing his life story to a group of people who had regularly discussed the possibility of having him quietly executed under an obscure ancient law. That was irrational. She was being ridiculous. This was not about trust or friendship. This was about making a case for his freedom and his people's right to be treated as equals before the Alliance. He was telling them this to prove to them that he wasn't a monster. It wasn't anything more than that. Keeping his secrets had been beneficial before and now tell them was more useful. It was all strategy and she needed to take her emotional reaction out of it. He didn't look at her as he spoke.

"When I passed out, I didn't have this," he said holding up the hand. "I didn't know how to use it or even that it had capabilities beyond being a hand when I woke up. I panicked when the princess hit me hard enough to hurt. I can't guarantee that I won't panic again in a combat situation and I probably shouldn't be allowed in a sparring ring or near a bar fight but I have not intention of hurting anyone on this planet."

His attention jumped to her for a fraction of a moment before he fell back into his role as a soldier giving a report.

"The Lady Ellis has been helping me to master my natural quintessence as preparation for learning to master the powers of the arm," he shifted and the careful reserve broke for a moment, "A course of study that I am intensely uncomfortable with."

Ellis cleared her throat at him and he let his lip twitch.

Allura couldn't tell if the little lapses were planned or not. Was he enough of a politician to play the crowd like that? He had been a soldier which meant he would probably look back on those moments as lapses in decorum to be ashamed of rather than as weapons. If it was intentional, it was artfully done. He appeared normal and humble and a little bit younger than he might otherwise. He was doing a very good job of appearing harmless. The little smile at Ellis's scolding did him more favours that anything he said was going to.

"I believe he isn't a personal threat and that any danger he might pose to Altea or her people is inadvertent. I am suggesting the move to Elgan not only to further study the technology of the arm - which you all know is far beyond what we had believed the Galra to be capable of - but also to allow him to join the Southern Temple as a true student," Ellis said.

Is that what the Pilot wanted? Allura wondered.

Beside her, Gisella shifted. Her expression had gotten even more pinched and her hands were twisted tightly in her lap. Ellis might think the Pilot - no, he had a name now - she might think that Takashi Shirogane would be a good student at the Southern Temple where the Gwalin students studied alongside other gifted aliens. People did come from across the Alliance systems to study quintessence and magic on Altea. He wouldn't really be out of place there but it was still hard to imagine him sitting around doing the quiet repeated rituals and drills of a candidate for the priesthood.

She knew what he wanted. He wanted out of prison.

It was that simple. This was a step toward freedom so of course he was taking it. His hands were folded behind his back and Allura could see him holding onto himself too tightly. His flesh and blood hand was white knuckled around the metal hand like he was trying to literally hold himself together. Getting up and walking across the room to untangle his fingers and tell him that he was going to be fine would not make anything better but the urge to do it was still there.

Gisella glanced at her. Allura slammed any loose bits of her defenses back into place. Sitting beside a sensitive and letting her impulsive thoughts run away with her was not a good idea. Gisella looked away again immediately. It was rude to use your magic to pry.

"Does he have enough natural power to qualify for the Southern Temple?" Gailan asked. "If we were to unplug the arm, could he manage with the other students?"

"You can't unplug the arm, it's grafted onto my skeleton and wired into my brain," Takashi said.

"Is it really?"

"That's what your doctors told me. Removing it was suggested after the," he hesitated looking for a word that wasn't attack, "Incident in the gym. Pieces of the hand could be removed but there’s a lot of bits that are attached and trying to cut them off would probably kill me.”

His fingers flexed and tightened again where most of the room couldn’t see.

“With or without the arm itself, he undoubtedly qualifies,” Allura said.

They turned to look at her and she held her chin up and stayed sitting with her with hands folded. Ellis stepped back in to back up that claim by telling them all - again - the story of how she had tested the pilot’s powers initially. This wasn’t new information and Allura was annoyed that it needed said again.

There was a lot going on and most of the advisors had other things that they were supposed to be keeping track of. The Pilot was important to her and the mystery of why he had been sent to them without explanation was pressing to her but it mattered less to everyone else. He was a minor problem in the grander scheme of negotiations and guesswork that surrounded Galran diplomacy. These people would be going back to offices to discuss nuance and details surrounding Zarkon’s party and ways to avoid offense. Others were working with the parliament on the problem of the failed harvest in the far west counties and how to avoid famine when the firestorms cut off supply routes.

Those things were more important than this.

It still annoyed her that no one seemed to remember the details for more than thirty seconds and yet they refused to sign off on having him taken out of prison. Allura had explained it. Ellis had explained it. Now she was explaining it again. Then she was demonstrating it. She waved Takashi into the ring and he gave her a little shrug as he went by.

“This is the same simple analysis done on all children. I hope that this demonstration will prove to you that Captain Shirogane’s quintessence is perfectly normal and certainly strong enough to qualify for proper training,” Ellis said and the annoyance was creeping back into her voice again.

Allura caught her eye and raised her eyebrows. She wanted to say, “Do not start another fight with my father’s advisors.” Ellis was more than twice her age but they had known each other long enough that Allura still sometimes talked to her as though they were friends. In answer, Ellis gave her a little eye roll and sigh that the assembled audience wouldn’t be able to see. Allura pursed her lips. Ellis did not start another argument with the advisors. She kept her mouth shut and turned to the Pilot.

Captain Takashi Shirogane, Allura reminded herself. He had a name. She didn’t need to call him the Pilot anymore.

He looked at her but only for a moment. Ellis was starting the ritual and he turned his attention back to that. The light pulsed in the room around them. Most of the advisors were politicians or members of the military. Allura’s mother had been a priestess but her father had never really cared much for the temple and hadn’t chosen any of his inner circle for their skills with quintessence. Most Alteans could feel at least some echo of quintessence and those that could shifted in their chairs as the ritual started.

The stones around the circle were glowing and the light was starting to rise, blue white and blindingly beautiful. Allura could feel the echo of his energy, of all that energy in the room, even through her defenses. Beside her, Gisella had gotten even tenser. Allura wasn’t sure if it would be welcome but she reached out and touched Gisella’s hand. Gisella surprised her by grabbing hold and squeezing her fingers.

“Too many people and too much quintessence bouncing around,” Allura whispered.

“Yes,” Gisella hissed back.

The room was designed to mirror back energy and it was picking up the power from all these people and making Allura’s skin prickle. There were certain rituals you would never do in a room full of people but it had never occurred to her that something this simple could be one of them.

It had started out feeling normal.

Then it had built up into a feeling of uneasiness.

Now, Allura could feel the power pushing in around her as it echoed off the walls of the tiny space.

“Ellis, I think we need to turn it off,” she said.

“It is not my power, it is his,” Ellis said.

“And?” someone else said.

“He needs to cut off the source,” Ellis said. “I can’t do that for him.”

He stood in the middle of the circle with his eyes shut and the light glowing around him, it had pushed up past the height that Allura could remember from last time. The echo of all those life forces in the room was feeding back into the circle itself and maybe into the Pilot himself. He had both hands clenched into fists and stood at attention with the light blazing around him. He looked otherworldly in the glow.

“I think it would be better if everyone left, there is no danger but there is too much life force in one room,” Ellis was saying but Allura was still watching the Pilot.

People were standing and starting to move out of the room. No one was distressed except for Gisella and the Pilot himself. Coran caught Allura’s eye and shrugged. This wasn’t how he had expected this to go but Ellis had made her point about both power and the need for training. Allura nodded back to him in agreement.

Inside the circle, Takashi made a soft sound. Not quite pain but close enough to pull Allura’s attention back to him. This poor man deserved to have something go properly, just once.

Allura stepped in closer to the circle.

She edged in over the circle of stones. The light blazed up farther now that she was inside but she wrapped her own quintessence up tight and forced it down and the light receded. She wasn’t fully trained but she was very good at suppressing her abilities. Up close, his face was pulled in tight.

“Allura,” Ellis said in a tone she usually saved for her own daughter. Allura’s father was the only one who had ever scolded her. She ignored Ellis’s attempt at scolding her now.

“Takashi,” she said. His eyes snapped open and the light blazed a little brighter around them. Allura looked up at him and said, “This isn’t dangerous.”

“It’s pulling,” he muttered through clenched teeth.

“So pull back,” she said. “It’s your power, make it do what you want.”

He blinked at her and held her gaze. She held her hand out to him and he stared at that instead. He hesitated and then took her hand very gently with his real one. The metal one stayed tucked down at his side, not quite hidden behind him but like he was thinking about it.

Allura let her walls down again and the light flared brightly enough to make Takashi flinch.

She put them back into place carefully and a moment later he figured out what she was trying to show him.

“It’s a little like the moment that you wake up from a nightmare. You need to push those thoughts to the side so that you can remember where you are. The magic is a little like a thought that has taken form. It is still within your control,” she said in a soft voice.

He was holding tighter, his fingers curled around hers, warm and shaking.

She started to demonstrate it again, to try and get him to follow along but this time when her walls went down the magic felt different. He took a deep breath and nodded as though she had done something. She hadn’t. Her magic was slipping loose as she stared at him and tried to figure out what had changed.

It wasn’t bad.

It was warm and balanced.

The magic in the room had felt chaotic up to that point but now it was evening out. Ripples in a pond finally fading out into calm again. She took a deep breath and flashed a smile at her Pilot. He returned it. Beyond the circle, there was still an overwhelming amount of life. Allura ignored it. She let herself indulge this feeling.

The light was starting to recede around them. Takashi had gotten control of his own powers again and wasn’t feeding so much energy into it. Ellis could finally cut the ritual off.

Everything outside of the balance seemed far away. They were balancing. Just the two of them.

Then the balance shifted.

And she fell in.

One moment she was standing there in the temple with her hand in his and the world settling back into place. Then she was falling. The light didn’t come back but she felt the magic twist around her. The floor tilted but she hadn’t fallen.

She was falling.

The floor was as stable as a raft on stormy seas.

She was falling but her feet were still on the floor.

She had always been falling.

She hadn’t fallen yet.

“Princess?” he asked.

And then she was falling.

Truly falling and he had a hold of her.

The world cracked. Metal clanged and she hit the ground. No. He did. Gravel and sand. Stained rocks. She knew what they were stained with but her mind refused to face it. Another door clanked and he rolled to his feet with his heart rate already so fast that he was starting to feel light headed.

It was a memory. She was falling through a memory.

A piece of a memory. It shattered and another took it’s place.

Then another.

Visceral memories. Sight and sound. Scent and texture. The wet of someone else’s blood on her skin. The sound of someone crying somewhere down a long echoing hallway. And the weight of all that feeling. Terror and anger. Despondency and grief. The memories tangled and shattered and then she was falling through another one.

“Ellis.”

“Let go, Allura.”

“It’s ok.”

“Are you ok?” she wanted to ask him but words were still too difficult to find. Someone had a hold of her wrist and was very gently pulling it away from whatever she was holding onto. Him. She was holding onto him. She had fallen and he had caught her and now someone was trying to pull her away.

“What did you do to her?”

“Nothing. What’s wrong with her?”

Allura tried to answer but the words slurred together. She yanked her hand away from the person who was trying to pull her away from Takashi. She had her feet under her again but she wasn’t ready to let go of him. He had been badly hurt in the arenas and those memories were filling up her thoughts.

“I’m fine,” she said.

“You blacked out,” he said.

Other people were talking but Allura was still too caught up in what had just happened to listen to them. She pulled herself the rest of the way to standing so she wasn’t leaning on him to keep her upright. She did not step away from him. She still had a hand on his shoulder.

Ellis finally edged her away from him and out of the circle to where the air felt normal and the warmth of the magic settled back into the normal pressure of quintessence and life. She was standing beside Gisella who was watching her with wide eyes.

“What was that?”

“I-” Allura started.

Ellis cut her off, “I will have to investigate it further.”

“Did he do it on purpose?” Gailan asked. Why did it have to be Gailan? Allura’s head hurt and a sense memory of blood and something rancid was lingering in her nose as though it was actually there in the room.

“He didn’t do anything,” Allura said. “It was just blow back from the ritual, it happens sometimes.”

That was a lie. Neither Gisella nor Ellis, the only two people in the room who knew that, corrected her. She was having a bad week. She had been attacked by a knife wielding rebel and now she had accidentally stolen a bunch of violent memories from a former gladiator.

The Pilot was watching her but he was keeping his distance and trying to look harmless. Allura reached out and patted his nearer arm, the metal one, and then turned on her heel and walked away. She couldn’t handle Ellis telling her what just happened in excruciating detail while the smell of blood was hovering in her senses and her head still hurt. She needed to be alone for a little while before she could face that.

Chapter Text

Shiro was dreaming. It was the sort of dream that announced itself immediately. He blinked and it felt like coming awake but he knew, in that formless way that you knew things in dreams, that he wasn’t truly awake. He didn't usually have lucid dreams. These days, he only had nightmares anymore but even before all the horror had started filling up his thoughts, he had never had dreams where he felt this aware. His nightmares were tangled in his memories and they always felt intensely real in the moment. This didn’t. This felt like a dream and it wasn’t blood or violence or fear or destruction.

He lay in a soft bed in a pile of thick blankets and a mound of pillows. He didn't bother to lift his head and look around. If he looked at it too closely, he didn't trust that the dream wouldn't shift sideways and dump him out of this warm safe space and onto an arena floor or into the cockpit of a crashing plane with dead controls and a screaming crew he couldn’t help. He did not trust his subconscious not to realize its mistake and send him something awful instead.

He pulled the blankets in closer and then stopped to stare at his hand. Definitely a dream. He stretched the very normal looking fingers a few times. There was the scar on the back of his hand from where he had burned it while trying to cook something over a camp fire. The smallest finger wasn't quite straight because he'd broken it trying to slide into third at a high school baseball game. His hand. The missing one. Right there. He remembered himself having it so his dream had given it back.

"You're here," she said.

He looked away from the hand at the princess curled on her side in the mess of pillows. Had she been there a minute ago? It didn't seem like something he would have missed, hand or no hand. Her white hair was loose around her face and longer than he remembered it and she hadn't quite opened her eyes all the way. She blinked and stretched liked it was early in the morning and she wasn't all the way awake. She smiled at him.

"This is that kind of dream?" he said with a laugh.

"That kind?" she asked.

He hadn't really said it to her. She was a figment of his imagination and usually figments didn't answer in dreams if it didn't fit the story. She pushed herself up on her elbows and tilted her head. Her shoulders were bare, she was wearing some kind of nightgown that had narrow straps and dipped low. He pulled his attention back up. He had never seen her dressed in anything that didn't cover her from ankle to neck to wrist. There were pink marks tracing along her shoulders and down to her elbow.

"The beautiful woman in my bed kind."

"This is my bed," she said.

"So, this is your dream? Do you often dream about me in your bed?" he asked.

It was a dream. He could flirt and not have to worry about offending her or crossing some social line that he didn’t understand. He didn’t have to worry about whether or not it would hurt his chances of ever getting free again. He rolled a little closer to her but didn't touch her. Dreams made him braver but it still felt wrong to touch her without an invitation. A smile instead. She watched him with unwavering attention but didn't say anything. That was not an invitation and he tried not to be disappointed by that.

"I can't read you, here or in real life," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"That look," he said reaching out but stopping shy of touching her face and let his hand drop to the blankets between them. "Looks like it means that your interested and you do things like step right up into my personal space or smile at me like I'm your best friend and you haven't seen me in years."

"Do I?"

“It's a great smile. My mom used to say that some people had sunrise smiles that could push back the dark and yours is the brightest I've ever seen," he said. He felt heavy and comfortable, more comfortable than he had felt in a long time. He wrapped his arms around a pillow to remind himself to keep his hands from wandering and set his chin on the pink fabric. "Those days when you don't show up at the temple to say hello? I hate those days."

"Oh."

"Anyways," Shiro said. "You're hard to read because I think you're interested but then there's everything and you’re always so polite and what is just you being polite and what is something more? I can’t tell."

She rolled over and rearranged herself and the blankets so that she was lying beside him in the same position as he was. They were lying stretched out on their stomachs, his head propped up on the pillow, her cradled in her hands like a girl in a music video. Her shoulder brushed his and he leaned into the ghost of a touch. She went still and then settled into it so their arms were touching but the rest of them wasn’t. They didn't look at each other.

"If it wasn't for everything," she said. "I'd be interested."

Shiro grinned and turned to look at her. She was looking away from him. He inched across to the sheets. A little closer. Leg pressed to hers. Hips touching. He watched her as he did it. She bit her lip but otherwise held her ground, perfectly still. He got close enough that his nose brushed her cheek and she shivered and smiled. She still didn’t look at him.

"I would never have imagined you as shy," he said.

"I'm not shy," she said.

He finally let himself reach out and touch her, just her cheek. He ran his finger down from below the pink mark and traced the curve down to her jaw. She still wasn't looking at him but she was smiling and chewing on her bottom lip.

"I think you're blushing," he said.

The moment broke but not the way he had intended it to. The nerves got the better of her and she rolled away from him and started to laugh. She laughed hard and shoved him in the shoulder as she pulled away to sit up and bury her face in her hands. She was still laughing and it was contagious. He rolled over onto his back and lay there and watched her laugh with a big stupid grin on his face.

"I knew I thought you were hot, I didn't realize I liked you this much," he said because it was a dream and it didn't matter what he said.

"Excuse me?"

"You're pretty. No. That's not a strong enough word. You're gorgeous. And you're very kind even after that time I almost killed you-"

She interrupted him, "You didn't do that on purpose."

"I know but I did almost kill you and you're still very nice to me. The point I'm trying to make is that I knew I had a crush but I just didn't realize that my crush was this bad. I like your smile and your laugh and that silky thing you're wearing and your whole brilliant but sheltered thing and the way your expression shifts just before you start an argument. You set your expression just so and it’s fantastic. You’re incredibly smart. Oh. And the way you fight. You did break my ribs in what was supposed to be a friendly sparring match and that sucked but the rest of the fighting was incredible. Hell, I like that you're afraid of bugs, I think that's cute. I'm a little deeper into this than I realized."

She slid back across the bed and looked down at him. He was still smiling.

"And you do this thing, when I'm on the edge of losing my head where you grab my wrist," he reached out and caught her wrist with his fingers the way she did to him sometimes, "It works. It's like a lifeline, pulling me back to myself."

She was looking down at him with a very soft expression but she wasn't talking.

"Princess?"

She nodded, still silent.

"I'm going to sit up and then I'm going to try and kiss you because this is a dream and the only reason not to is if you don't want me to," he said.

She was watching him with a steady expression as he sat up. She didn't pull back but she also didn't say anything. He raised his eyebrows at her in a silent question. He couldn't tell if she was shy or disinterested or uncomfortable or something else but then she leaned into him and closed the space between them and pressed her lips to his. Gently. He smiled for a second before he remembered how to kiss someone.

He cupped her face in his hands and went very slow. She let him lead. Her eyes were shut and she kissed him back gently. The desire to push the kiss farther, to roll her over onto her back and wrap himself around her was there but he didn't do it. This was so soft edged and so far away from everything else that had happened to him for so long that he wanted to spend a year in this moment. The kiss broke and he rested his forehead against hers, his hands were still cupped around her face and he let them fall to her neck. Hers were on his chest and she was almost sitting in his lap and he didn’t remember that happening.

"Takashi?" she said.

"Allura?" He'd never used her name before. It earned him one of those sunrise smiles.

"We should do that again," she said.

"You're right, we should," he said.

This time he kissed her harder. She gasped a little as he pulled her in but before he could second guess himself, she had wrapped her arms all the way around his neck and pulled herself into his lap. He wrapped his arms around her back and pulled her in tight. She had settled in to sit facing him with her knees on either side of his waist and her body pressed up against his. She was wearing a nightgown and the position pushed the fabric high up her thighs. He dropped his hands to her legs instead and ran his hand up from her knee to her hip. Her skin was smooth and he could feel the muscles shift under the skin as she pressed up into the touch.

She tasted a little bit sweet and kept smiling through the kisses. Her hands were wandering. She had gotten them up under his t-shirt and rubbed his back as he kissed her. Shiro kissed down her jaw to her throat and she gasped a little.

"Ok?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "You use your mouth a lot."

"You taste good," he muttered into her throat.

"I've got other things you could put your mouth on if you wanted to," she said.

Shiro laughed. "You're right."

"I know, I usually am," she said.

"You're right about that and all the very interesting things I can do with my mouth," he leaned down while she watched and nudged her shirt out of the way to suck on her nipple for a moment. Her skin was perfectly smooth except for the swirls of pink and her nipples were a little darker than the rest of her skin. She stared at him with her lips parted and her breathing a little uneven. He looked back up at her and said, "You were also right when you told me that you're not shy."

"Not shy, a little startled to find myself in the middle of some alien boy's sex dream but not shy," she said.

"You're having a wonderful time in my sex dream, don't try and deny it," he said.

Her top was pushed down, her skirt was hiked up, at some point he had run his fingers through her hair and it was in disarray around her face. Her mouth was still open and she was flushed. She was the hottest thing he had ever seen and he was having a hard time imagining anything better.

"I'm not denying it," she said.

"Good."

"Now take your shirt off," she said.

"If I'm taking off mine, you're taking off yours," he said.

He hooked his finger into the nightgown strap that was still on her shoulder and pushed it down so he could see both her breasts. She smiled at him, a little shy, a little amused, and pulled it up over her head. The skirt was longer than he had expected and it got wrapped around her head for a minute. She was laughing again. He helped her pull it off and tossed the whole thing over the edge of the bed. He could have happily listened to her laugh for hours.

She went right for his shirt but he stopped her and said, “Let me look at you.”

He took both her hands and laced his fingers with hers.  She let him hold them down near his knees. She still had her legs thrown over his thighs and sat on his lap with a pair of baby blue panties on and nothing else. For all that strength, she was slender. A dancer's muscles. She didn't look like she could break his ribs. The pink markings from her cheeks ran up and down the rest of her body. Swirls ran all over her dark brown skin. Narrow lines along her collar bones, a pattern of angles and curves from her shoulder to her wrist. A small design just below her breasts, a larger one that was half hidden by her panties.

He took a moment to just look at her. That made her shy. He leaned in and kissed the end of her nose which earned him another smile. The rest of the world - everything that had ever happened - felt very far away and he could let himself imagine spending forever chasing that smile. He almost believed he might get the chance. Someday. Maybe. Only in his dreams.

"You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen,” he said.

"You're a flirt."

"I am, yes," he agreed. "But that doesn't make it less true."

She bit her lip and looked away and then drew herself back up before he could accuse her of being shy again and said, "You're supposed to be taking your shirt off."

"Oh, really?" he asked.

She untangled her fingers from his easily and reached out to hurry him up. The shirt disappeared over the edge of the bed after her nightgown. He didn't look down. His subconscious had given him back his hand in this dream world but the possibility of the map of scars on his chest still being there was too high. It was hard to look at them and not have each one connect back to some fragmented memory that he didn't want touching this moment.

There was a girl on his lap who was trailing her fingers up and down his arms and across his chest. That was all he wanted to think about. He didn’t need some reminder of something awful dragging a half formed horror out of his memories. She was exploring with a little smile tugging up her lip. He watched her face as she did it. She was studying him. A soft smile and utter focus. Soft and sweet. She deserved much, much better than him. Even in a dream.

"I'm the worst thing that ever happened to you, aren't I?" he said.

"What? No."

"I dragged political issues to your door, I hurt you, I fucked up your magic," he said. "You've been safe, your whole life, until I showed up."

"You give yourself too much credit, you're not that bad," she told him.

Dream. This was a dream and he wanted to enjoy it. He could worry about the real world when he woke up in the morning. He pushed all those doubts aside and nodded. She left her hands on his chest and leaned in to kiss him. Without breaking this kiss, he flipped them both over so that she was lying on her back and he could press himself into her. She relaxed into the new position immediately. She stretched and Shiro had to bury his face in her neck to keep from moaning at just that.

"Now, who's shy?" she asked.

"Not shy," he said, "Impossibly turned on. It’s different. "

He grabbed her knee and pulled her down a little so he could grind his hips against her. She gasped and looked up at him with wide eyes. He still had his track pants on and she still had her underwear but none of that fabric was thick enough to leave much to the imagination when they were this close. Her hands were on his waist and she watched him very carefully. He kissed her nose again and she slid her hands down to his hips and the waist band of the track pants. Shiro smiled at her and waited.

She tucked her hands into his pants and shimmied them down a little. She had her hands cupped around his hips and he twisted a little in encouragement but he stayed quiet. Her hand slid in a little farther and followed the curve of his body around. He didn't quite manage to stay still. Her fingers brushed his cock and he pulled back a little so she could have more room. She took it as an invitation and flipped him over onto his back.

She did it effortlessly. She rolled him over with one hand and then settled back in against his body and just that left him flushed and breathing harder than he meant to be.

"You're so pale, you blush everywhere," she said.

"Yeah, but just for you," he said.

Just for her.

Shiro had always had a type, especially when it came to girls, and it wasn't the type of person who left him disoriented and so turned on that he ached to be touched. He married his job and always figured that there would be time later to find someone, after he had finished the academy, after he had made captain, after the next mission, after, after, after. Always later. His relationships were short lived and usually began in bars with people looking for a bit of fun. He took home girls who flirted and giggled and played up that sweetness for the military guy in uniform. He was almost always the one in the lead. He didn't usually find himself on his back with someone who made him blush and pant with just her fingers.

"I like it. It’s cute," Allura said kissing his cheek and making him laugh a little.

"I like it too," he told her.

She was talking about blushing. He was talking about everything.

She cuddled into his side, her breast pressing against his arm and her cheek on his shoulder so she could look down his body at what she was doing. Her hair was in his face and he smoothed the curls back and pulled a pillow over to prop his head up enough to watch as well. Her fingers were just barely under his waist band and she had only hit the tip a few times. He kissed the top of her head and bit his tongue to remind himself not to accuse her of shyness again. He could wait, he could do this on her schedule.

"What's this?" she asked.

Her hand was on his stomach. "Uh?"

She rubbed her thumb in a circle around his belly button. It was kind of nice. He was willing to take anything she did to him as nice at this point so maybe that was beside the point.

"You don't have a belly button," he said.

She hadn't had one. He hadn't really registered it because he was too busy being fascinated by the rest of her.

"No. Why do you?"

"Because I didn't hatch out of an egg or an artificial womb?" he said.

"You didn't hatch out of an egg,” she said in a very flat voice.

"Did you hatch out of an egg?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Really?"

"Yes? Your species has live births?"

She was sitting up and staring at him now.

"You really hatched out of an egg?"

"Of course, I did," she said.

She frowned and considered him again. The hum of arousal was starting to recede. He did not want to play some intellectual round of comparative biology. He wanted to play a much more physical version of that actually included comparing anatomy.

He watched her as she frowned down at him and said, "You look so much like us and your species has live births? Isn't that dangerous? Species that have live births have high rates of maternal mortality."

"Allura," he said.

"It's just not what I was expecting. You're hardly the only species in the galaxy that does but I keep forgetting that you're not Altean. You look so Altean."

"Allura," he tried again.

"Yes?"

"I don't really care," he said.

"About what?"

"About how biologically similar our species are."

She frowned down at him.

"It might matter if we were trying to get married and have kids but this is a fantasy my brain cooked up and we both know that in the real world, there is no way that we'd ever get this far let alone far enough that it would matter. I like you and I don't really care if under those pretty silk panties are something I have never seen before. It doesn't matter. I want to get you off and make you moan my name and I'm very sure that we can figure out how to do that but eggs and babies is not something I can handle talking about right now."

"Oh."

"Yeah," he said.

"Can I harass you about it later, when we're awake?" she asked.

"Sure, if you want to, but just not now, ok?"

"How different is your cock?" she asked.

Shiro settled back against the pillow and reached out with an arm to pull her back in close. That was a much better question for the mood he was in. That was the kind of question that he actually wanted to answer. He lifted his hips and pushed everything else he was wearing down and then kicked them off then gave her his most obnoxious grin and a shrug.

"I have never seen an Altean with their pants off. I have no idea. You're going to have to tell me," he said.

She didn't tell him anything. She dropped back down to his side and reached down to the trace the head of his cock with a finger tip. He sighed and it twitched a little. He was pretty sure that he had been on video surveillance the entire time that he had been in the prison and it was very hard to masturbate when you were both being watched and trying to manage your own dream induced panic attacks. It had been a long time since he had had any kind of relief. He’d thought that he was doing fine until she was touching him.

He was going to come and come hard long before she was done exploring.

Her finger slid down the underside of his cock to his balls and he pressed his face into her hair and shivered. She lifted her head and kissed his jaw and then went back to exploring with that single finger. After everything, the incarceration, the capture of the Kerberos mission, all those battles in the arenas, after all that -- this was what would kill him. Cause of death: a pretty girl, his closest friend, maybe just the closest thing he had to a friend, whatever it was she was to him, it was hard to categorize her. She was going to leave him break him into tiny little pieces with this gentle teasing.

She wrapped her fingers around his cock and squeezed a little and he moaned.

"That's what you like?" she asked.

"Yes," he said.

"You're thicker than I was expecting," she told him. Her fingers shifted as she tested out the size of him. She slid up and then down. Thicker at the base, narrower near the top. She wasn’t doing enough to do anything but make him crazy. She squeezed again and he reached down to guide her hand up and down. He needed something or he was going to pass out. He was close already. She took the hint and rubbed but she was too gentle and too slow to get him where he wanted to be. He sighed.

"Can I use my mouth?" she asked.

"Yes, always yes, forever yes, your mouth, my body, always yes," he said in a rush that would have embarrassed him with anyone else but felt natural and right when he said it to her.

Watching her slide down and find a place between his thighs was the best thing he had ever seen. He grinned at her as it happened. She looked up at him and the expression on her face was shy and nervous even as she wrapped her hand around the base of his cock and adjusted it.

"You’re perfect," he told her.

She held eye contact as she leaned in to lick him. She was too gentle. Every touch was too gentle. He loved it. He was losing his mind and he loved her for it. He loved her for making him ache. Gentle and wet. Slow long licks up the underside of his cock. He shivered. She put a hand on his thigh and spread it a little wider and watched him as she played with him.

The thing that made it so atrociously hot - so unimaginably and unbearably hot - was that she didn't seem to realize that she was making him crazy.  She was exploring him the way she wanted to and his biology was different enough that she didn't know how much she was turning him on. He didn't stop her to explain it. He couldn't think of anything else but her and he loved that. He was so aroused that he couldn't remember why it was so wonderful to forget everything else. This was everything.

This was a dream.

His subconscious popped up with the little reminder.

It was a very lucid dream but it was still a dream.

He didn't care.

He reached down and played with her hair. She looked up at him again and took his cock in her mouth. He stroked her cheek and said, "I love it when you look at me," as she started to suck on him. She held eye contact as she opened her mouth a little wider and took him a little deeper. She sucked. Slow and hard as his cock disappeared into her mouth. Shiro watched her do it. Her eyes were luminous, blue and wide and flecked with the same pink that decorated her skin.

She nearly glowed. Maybe she did glow. That was almost more weirdness than he could take. Almost. Then her tongue curled around the head of his cock and those glowing eyes were locked on him and he didn't care. He couldn't keep her. This was an impossible fantasy. She was an alien and a princess and more than he was in every way. Astronomically out of his league.

But for a moment, right now, in this impossible moment he could have the impossible thing.

He bit down on his lip. She slid down so far that her eyes fluttered shut and he felt his cock hit the back of her throat.

"I wish this wasn't a dream," he mumbled.

She looked up at him and paused. She pulled back and took a deep breath, his straining cock was brushing against her lip as she looked at him. There were a hundred things she might have said and most of the likely ones were going to break his heart. She didn't say anything. She just nodded, looking more nervous than she had up to that point. The moment held. Both of them on edge. Then she closed her eyes like she could push the real world back and started sucking his cock again.

She was gentle and the orgasm was building slowly. She was coaxing it out of him, a little bit at a time. He had no idea what to do with that sensation. He had given up control and asking for it back meant something that he wasn't ready for. He didn't really want control back. He wanted to collapse into this and be so completely hers that he forgot his own name.

"Please," escaped from him mouth even though he was trying very hard to keep his shit together.

She stopped.

Fuck.

"Please?" she said.

"So close, harder," he said in a whisper because saying it any louder would be admitting how much of a mess he was. This was amazing.

She went back to sucking. Her hand tightened and stroked the base of his cock while she used her mouth on the top. She wasn’t as gentle with him now. She was being careful because she was so much stronger than he was and she didn’t want to hurt him but she had let some of that go. Her hand was tighter as she rubbed him and she took him deeper into her mouth.  

He shuddered.

She didn’t stop. She sucked until he shivered and fell apart. Release came in a rush and he cried out as it happened. When he blinked himself back together, she had the evidence of that release running down her cheek and neck and she stared at him with her mouth open and a shocked look on her face.

“Sorry,” he said but that wasn’t what he meant, “Thank you,” but that was awkward. “Come here.”

He grabbed her and dragged her back up the bed. She giggled until he rolled her over flat and pressed himself against her. Mine. He couldn't shake that thought even though the rational part of his thoughts knew it was ridiculous. Mine. She held onto him as he used the edge of a sheet to wipe cum off her face. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him in for a kiss when it was done. She played with his hair as he clung and the irrational neediness beat through his chest. One arm around her waist. His other hand twisted in her hair. Her voice soft and kind but he was too far past the point of no return to understand what she was saying.

Mine.

He held onto her and waited out the moment of irrationality.

"Hi," he said later.

"Hi," she echoed.

"Your turn," he said.

He was utterly sated and it made him feel lazy and content but she hadn't come yet. He was very sure of that. He shifted her body and stroked her hair back from her face as she settled into position on her back so he could lie beside her and look down her body. Only then, once she was breathing easy, did he slide his hand down her belly. She tensed a little as his palm settled just above the waistband of her panties. He nuzzled her ear until she laughed.

No tension.

No doubts.

No reservations.

She was content and comfortable. It was great but he wanted her to want him as badly as he wanted her.

"Hi, Princess," he said.

His rubbed the heel of his palm against the mark on her stomach. The skin felt different. The soft normal brown skin and this thicker, cooler, pink mark. Like scar tissue but softer. He rubbed it and she shifted and groaned. A little harder. A louder moan.

"Hi," he said again.

"Don't stop," she said.

Shiro kissed her ear and then her neck and then the dip of her shoulder. That was just the mark on her belly. She was more sensitive than anyone he had ever met. She shivered and tried to get closer to him. He pulled her in and slipped his hand down between her thighs. She spread her knees wide and wrapped herself around him. He pulled her knee up over his hip so he could keep his hand down there but still hold her close. It took a bit of trial and error before he found the right place to rub his fingers against. He couldn’t see what he was doing and it felt like what he was expecting but her body was shaped a little differently. 

She moaned and held onto him.

She was already on edge and that made her more easy-going than he had ever imagined. She spread her knees and closed her eyes and groaned for him. He teased her. Rubbing hard and then kissing her while his fingers got gentle. He had already come hard. He was still soft and too relaxed for anything to feel urgent.

He tried to slip his fingers inside her and couldn’t find the right place.

“Go back to what you were doing before,” she said reaching for his wrist.

“How does sex work for you?” he asked.

“This was working pretty well before you stopped,” she said.

“You’re very demanding,” he said.

“You stopped,” she complained. 

Shiro shut his eyes because this was going to be an embarrassing statement and he had no idea how to say it without being embarrassing. He searched for better words but couldn’t find any.

“There’s no way in down here,” he said walking his fingers up along the skin between her legs. He didn’t have an angle where he could see it. There was a little patch of bright white hair beneath the pink mark on her belly but she was still laying against his shoulder and he couldn’t sit up high enough to see anything more than that without moving her. He didn’t want to move her away from him.

“Oh, ok,” she said. She shifted her hips a little and he felt the place where his fingers had been resting shift and stretch and then swallow up his fingers, “Better?”

“Wow. Ok. That’s ok. Different. That’s different,” he said.

“I thought you didn’t want to play the comparative biology game,” she said. “Didn’t you say that you didn’t care what I had between my legs?”

“Whatever you have between your legs is not going to make me want to be here with you any less,” he said. “But you really can’t blame me for being curious.”

“Fine,” she said.

“You’re impatient. Are you pouting?” he asked.

He caught her chin in his free hand and turned her to look at him. She was pouting but trying not to. Shiro kissed her and then untangled himself enough to look.

She lay back on the bed and spread her knees for him. The outer parts of her body looked pretty normal, a little brighter pink than he had expected but all in all, not as shocking as he had imagined after what she had done to his fingers. Since he had promised her oral, he slid down the bed and took her clit in his mouth. She gasped and pushed her hips up into the touch. That was too good to pass up so he spent another minute there. She slid her fingers into his hair and moaned when he sucked.

"That's good," she told him.

"Open up again," he said.

"Keep going," she told him.

The opening he would have expected on a human was tightly closed. He ran his finger along the line. It was like a pair of lips pressed tightly together. Soft skin but tight enough that he couldn't just slip his finger in.

"Show me everything," he said.

"You're going to find it weird," she said.

"You don't know that and besides, you’re the one who keeps telling me that my species is the freakish one for our bizarre ears and live births and belly buttons. Why does this make you uncomfortable? You did fine with mine."

"I don’t want you to be uncomfortable,” she said with a frown.

"I like weird," he said. "I've got this massive crush on an alien girl with magic powers. I'm totally into weird."

She snickered.

He reached up and rubbed her belly. He licked her again. Her clit and then the slit that twitched a little under the attention. She murmured and he slid his hand up farther to play with her breasts as he lapped at her. Long, slow strokes.

"Please?" he asked.

She sighed and then opened her body. It was conscious and slow, like opening her mouth. She smelled far sweeter than anyone's sex had a right to smell. Like fresh fruit but not any flavour he'd ever had before. He licked her again and she hadn't been expecting that and jumped. She tasted good. Good enough to eat. He had to force himself to pull back. Whatever had closed around his fingers was more complex than this. Once last moment of licking her and then he pulled back and rested his cheek against her thigh and tried to be a little bit patient.

Something slid out of the slit. It was longer than his hand, maybe seven inches, and had a tapered tip that swelled to nearly the thickness of his wrist where it met her body. The part that emerged from her was the bright pink of the markings on her skin but the color faded to a shade of lilac that was almost blue. It was a little bit terrifying and surprisingly beautiful.

He exhaled slowly and looked up at her. She was watching him and he flashed her a smile. He reached out and ran his finger down it the way that she had touched his cock. She smelled good. The skin was soft and slick and the liquid clung to his finger. The rest of her body temperature seemed to be lower than his but this was warm to the touch. It moved. It was muscle in a way that a cock wasn't and she could move it around like someone could move their tongue. The tip twitched when he touched it and curled over his finger.

"I have no idea how sex works for your species but I like this," he said.

"Here," she said.

The tentacle thing split open at the tip. It spread out like the petals of a flower, breaking apart and revealing a bright pink channel down the middle. He made a small sound that even he didn't understand. The petals or whatever they were stretched and wrapped itself around the finger he had been using to pet it a moment earlier. She tightened them around it and sucked on him. Shiro bit off a swear word that he meant in the best possible way but was probably going to offend and stared up at her.

"I get how it works now," he said.

"Too different?" she asked in a nervous voice that he hadn't expected from her.

"Yes. No. It's not bad. It is different and if it feels this good to have you do that to my fingers, I'm willing to let you do anything you want to me," he said.

"Even if I asked you to open your mouth?" she asked.

Shiro looked up at her and down at the tentacle between her legs. He pulled his fingers back and the slipped out with a wet sound that made him ache. He wasn't hard again yet but he wanted to be. God, he wanted to be. He wrapped his hand around the base of it and squeezed enough to get a moan out of her. It was too soft in his hand and that set him on edge. Her stomach was so sensitive that she moaned when he ran his hand over it. He needed to be gentle, slow, careful. Like she had been with him.

He had sucked cocks before but never something that could move like this or was quite so thin at the tip. It was barely thicker than a finger tip at the top and it brushed against the back of his throat almost immediately. He swallowed and pushed himself down deeper. She moaned and slid down into his throat. He couldn't breathe like this but he held it for a little while, bobbing his head and sucking as hard as he could manage. He pulled back to take a deep breath. The sugary fruity flavour lingered in his mouth.

"Is that affecting you?" she asked.

"Maybe?" he said, "Should it?"

"For an Altean it increases arousal. Is that happening to you?" she said.

"I honestly can't tell. I’m having a great time even without needing some kind of aphrodisiac to help it along," he said.

She blushed at that.

Shiro could have said something but instead he made a show of licking off the places where tentacle was wet and then took it back into his mouth. It really did taste good. He made her moan and squirm but stopped before she got too close. She wasn’t that hard to read. Her fingers tightened in his and in the blankets around them. She was quiet but vocal. Her gasps and moans were soft but she made a whispered sound in response to every touch. He pulled her out of his mouth and she moaned again.

He climbed back up her body. He played with her in one hand as he settled in to kiss her throat. She pouted at him and arched her hips to push against his palm.

“I like making you wait,” he told her.

“I don’t like waiting. I don’t want to wait.”

"Could you fuck me with this?" he asked.

"Where would I put it?" she asked.

He guided her hand around to his ass and rubbed her finger against himself.

There were things you didn't ask nice girls for the first time you took them to bed. She was a nice girl. An alien but an alien who had a family that carefully controlled who she might be screwing around with. A nice girl who hung out in churches and studied diplomacy and always dressed like she had just stepped off the pages of a magazine. She was not the kind of girl who had likely ever been asked to fuck some dude in the ass.

Shiro realized all this far too late. He was horny and the weirdness had overwhelmed him for a moment. She didn't have anything weird between her legs by the standards of her species. She wasn't offering him some kink. She had been nervous to show him any of this in case he found the difference between them off putting. The request was way over the line. He buried his face in her hair and started to apologize but the tentacle was curling its tip around his fingers and she didn’t seem like she was about to shove him out of bed for mentioning it.

"You'd like that?" she asked.

"You don't have to do it."

"I want to do it, I just don't want to hurt you," she said.

"This isn't weird for you?" he asked. "I'm not trying to push your boundaries."

"Your existence pushes my boundaries," she said.

He laughed and gave in to how much he wanted to try it. He said, "You could hurt me but I trust that you won't. You're going to have to go slow and make sure that you get me wet enough but I want you to do it."

He had to teach her how to warm him up. It had been a long time since he had done this but she was wonderful. This time the slow and careful was a relief. Her cock was wet enough that she just needed to worm her way without hurting him. Shiro stretched out on his stomach with his cock pressed to the mattress and tried not to care that it was still a little too sensitive for how turned on he was.

She didn't want him lying out on his stomach once she was ready to really start. She got him up on his knees and then had him lean up against the bed frame so he was kneeling with his back straight and his knees spread. The position felt uneasy until she cuddled in at his back. He braced his hands against the head board as she started to push into him. Her cock was slick and wet with that sweet liquid and she had done a good job of relaxing him.

It moved on its own, massaging and teasing and pushing in without her needing to use her hands or any real force. Shiro moaned as she slid along inside him. He whispered encouragement and she took him at his word. Her cock started so narrow and it edged into him so slowly that he didn't realize that he had taken all of it until she rocked her hips and nestled herself against him. He was full and it ached enough to make him nervous. He wanted it. He wasn’t scared and it didn’t hurt but he was so full and she was so strong. There little thrill that came with getting bent over and taken by someone else who could destroy him if she decided to. She wasn’t going to but that thought kept pushing its way back up through his thoughts.  

"You don't have to be gentle with me," he told her.

She didn't believe him for the first little while. She thrust her hips gently so it slid in and out only a little bit at a time but her self control wasn't good enough to keep that up. He’d left her on the edge twice and now that she was the one setting the rhythm, she didn’t have enough self control to keep up the gentle and careful movements. Soon she was thrusting harder.

Shiro moaned. She was wet and getting wetter and the aphrodisiac was working. He ached a little as she bottomed out in him, her hips pressed tight to his ass as the tentacle twitched inside and made him moan. She held him there, that deep, his ass stretched out around the widest part of her cock. It moved inside him. Stroking and pulsing.

"Don't stop, princess, anything you want," he said.

She rocked against him. In and out. Each time the width at the base made him moan. It was soft and flexible and she was figuring out what he liked and how to hit him in just the right place. He had to close his eyes and breathe slow to keep from losing his self control all over again. He had gotten hard again. Very hard and it bobbed with every stroke. It almost hurt. He wanted her to reach down and stroke it and push him over the edge again but he couldn’t remember how to talk.

Their bodies were close together. She rested her cheek on his back and held him around the waist as she worked her hips against him. He stayed where he had been put and he wanted to reach around and stroke her hair or touch her cheeks but then he would have fallen on his face. He had his arms braced against the wall over the headboard and it was the only thing keeping him from collapsing as every stroke hit places deep inside him.

She shivered. They’d found that edge of an orgasm for her again. This time he wasn’t going to try and slow it down.  

“You’re holding too much back baby,” he said, “I can feel it.”

She kept going but her orgasm wouldn’t come. He was getting close but he held off his orgasm because he wanted her to come first. He braced himself with one hand and reached down to squeeze her hand where it was curled around his waist. She shivered again and her rhythm faltered. She pressed her face tighter into his shoulder where he couldn’t see her. She was close but she wasn’t crossing the line.

“This isn’t going to work for you, is it?” he asked.

“I don’t know, never tried,” she said.

"Lie down, baby, my turn again," he said.

She reluctantly let him go and slid out of him with a gasp. She was sensitive and wet. He turned into her and kissed her while they were both still kneeling up on the bed. His cock was hard and hers was twitching and flushed a brighter colour than it had been before. He reached down and stroked it in his hand and she cried out for him.

“Do you need a break?” he asked.

“Please, no, don’t stop again,” she said.

“Lie back,” he said.

She was flushed. Being the one who had done the fucking had been doing something for her but it wasn't enough. She collapsed back into the pillows and let him put her when he wanted her. He tugged her a little closer with a hand around her ankle and she yelped and laughed at him as he slid his hands up her legs until he got to her cock. Her skin was warmer and she was definitely glowing now. The pink marks shone faintly and her cock glowed as well. He rubbed the tip between his finger and thumb and she just stared up at him and panted until she understood what he wanted.

She opened herself up to him and the pink lining of her tentacle glowed too. It had been easier to think of it as a cock before but that impression fell apart when it was split open like a pulsing glowing flower. He stroked the inside of one of the petals with a finger and it was sopping wet. She gasped and her eyes got wide.

"Is it still ok, do you still want me to keep going?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "Please keep going. You’re the worst with all your stopping."

“I’m the worst?”

“Terrible,” she said shaking her head at him.

He stroked her again, rubbing his fingers up and the petals until she moaned.

“Awful,” she said. Breathless and smiling and with her eyes half shut. The inside was much more sensitive than the outside was. He teased her a little longer. He needed to get himself back under control before he started this because even though he had already come once, he didn’t think he’d be able to hold out against this. Just watching her pant and whisper insults made him want to come.

He held her in place with a hand curled around the bottom of the tentacle, below the petals. Even that much touch made her breathe harder. The petals were curling up and then shivering back into place and she kept staring at him. It was a hell of a reaction. Shiro had never managed to get anyone to look at him like that before and he didn't know if this was normal for Alteans.

He was hard again. The fucking he had taken had left him too aroused for anything else. He ached a little but it just made him want it more. He guided their bodies together and she closed up around him. The petals curled up around his cock and held tight. She was wet and she moaned as he pushed into her. She drew the entire thing back into her body as he pressed deeper into her. By the time he glanced down, all he could see was their bodies pressed flush together. The petals moved against him and there was gentle sporadic suction. They were still moving and holding onto him inside her. 

Shiro paused to catch his breath and gather her up. She was still right on the edge of an orgasm that wouldn't come. He held her close, pressed them both back into the blankets so all he could see was her and pink fabric. She panted into his ear as he settled in against her. She was still pulsing and sucking and squirming around his cock. She clung to him.

"I want you to come for me, Princess, stop fighting it," he said.

"Takashi?" she whispered his name in a breathless voice.

"Come on," he said in a soft tone.

He pulled out a little and then thrust back in. She sighed in his ear as he whispered and thrust. She moaned and arched and he didn't stop or speed up. He reached down between them and found her clit again and started to rub as he thrust. They stayed close. Hips pressed together, her ankles crossed behind him so she was holding onto him with her legs as well as her arms. He kissed her neck with every thrust.

“Let go, Allura,” he said and rubbed her harder. She gasped and spasmed around his cock a moment later but he wasn't done with her yet. She cried out and held him tighter. He whispered nonsense in her ear about it all being ok about safety and love and home and taking care of her. He was just behind her and every twitch or moment of suction made him gasp and groan.

She came with a scream. When the orgasm finally crashed in around her, she arched and grabbed hold of him hard enough that he was going to have bruises. Or would have if it wasn't a dream. Shiro pushed that though very very far away so he could enjoy this. Her fingers tight in his hair, her thighs around his hips. Her arm around his back holding him against her body was as immovable as an iron bar. Not that he wanted to move it. He wanted to be just that close.

She pulled him down with her into his second orgasm of the night. She was sucking and shaking and squirming around him and it was more than his self control could take after everything else. He pressed himself deep into her and let himself come with a groan.

They collapsed into each other and the bed and didn't move for a few long seconds.

"Takashi?" she said again.

"I've got you, I'm right here, you're beautiful," he whispered.

She nuzzled his neck in answer and finally started to relax her hold on him. She slowly unclenched her fingers from his hair.

"Allura?" he said.

"Hmm?"

"I wish everything was different," he said. He hadn't realized how relaxed she was until she started to tense up. He kissed whatever skin he could reach and rubbed her stomach until the tension started to ease. "I don’t regret that. I wouldn’t regret that if this weren’t a dream. That was amazing. I mean that I want to keep this. I want this to be something I could have when I woke up."

She nodded but didn't say anything. He pulled her in so he could tuck her body against his chest and wrap himself around her. She happily settled into being the little spoon. They might have talked or just snuggled together in the mess of blankets and pillows and their tangled limbs. It would be harder for him to remember later.

He could have sworn he was falling asleep.

But he was actually waking up.

Shiro woke up alone on the cot where he had fallen asleep and loneliness hit him hard. The sheets were on the floor, his metal hand was pressed up against his face and he was going to have an imprint of metal fingers on his cheek. He had not cum in his pajamas which was a hell of a relief.

Someone was banging on the bars nearby. Shiro swore and pushed himself up and back into the real world.

 

Chapter Text

His face was pressed to the mattress and he had to roll over before he could open his eyes. He looked across the room at the brick wall. It was morning. Late morning. Sunlight shone in through the high window and left four neat squares of light on the floor. It was almost peaceful if he ignored the fact that it was a prison.

A bang.

“Hey! Holy shit, you sleep like the dead, are you alive in there?” the voice from the other cell was distant and unpleasant. Shiro wasn’t all the way awake and he didn’t really want to be. He wanted to go back to sleep and pretend the world wasn’t really there. He rolled over onto his back and stretched out, his fingers touched the bars and he pulled them back. Still a cage.

“I’m not dead,” Shiro said.

“You were asleep when they brought me back and you haven’t woken up for awhile,” Keith continued.

“Ok, I’m up, what’s the difference, still a cage,” Shiro said punching the door. He didn’t do it with much force but the metal rang with the impact. He stretched his metal fingers. He had been having a dream and in the dream, he’d had his own hand back. He missed it. It wasn’t that the metal arm wasn’t functional or that it caused him any pain. It was and it didn’t. It was fine. But it was his damn hand and he missed it like he missed his friends and his family and the corner shop where he’d bought candy when he was a kid.

He also missed Allura.

And that was not an avenue he wanted his thoughts going down.

Something else. Anything else.

He stretched and wished he had the space to go for a run. There was only so much energy that bodyweight exercises could burn off. Push ups made him feel more trapped and boxed in. Maybe it was all the movies where prisoners did push ups in their cells. He stood and went to lean on the bars instead.

“Where’d you grow up, Rebel Kid?” Shiro asked.

“You finally wake up and you want to talk about my childhood? Who are you my long lost dad?” Keith asked.

Shiro ignored that.

“I was a military kid, grew up everywhere. Small town outside of Tokyo for awhile. Moon base for my mom’s job. Germany for another one of her jobs. The American desert, I don’t even remember what state, one of the dry sandy ones, for flight training and the job at the garrison,” Shiro said.

No answer.

Shiro stretched out each finger and rolled his shoulders. He bounced on his toes a few times and waited. Finally there was a sigh from the cell next door.

“Valina,” Keith said.

“Never been, what’s it like?”

“It’s a hell hole. It’s a mining colony that doesn’t mine anything worth having and the Galra basically treat it like a dumping ground for people they don’t like. It was shitty,” Keith said.

“What do you miss?” Shiro asked.

The other guy was silent for awhile and Shiro just waited. He rested his head against the bars and closed his eyes. He was wide awake and slowly starting to settle back into existing in the real world. Talking was helping. If it was helping him, maybe it was helping Keith. The guy was a kid. Maybe that was unfair. No one thought they were a kid when they were eighteen or nineteen years old but Shiro couldn’t help but see his students when he looked at Keith or listened to him talk.

Shiro hadn’t been a great teacher but he’d taught enough incoming cadet groups the basic mechanics of space flight to recognize a troubled kid. Keith was a washout waiting to happen. The kind of guy who threw punches at drill sergeants who used the wrong motivation tactic.

No. He wasn’t. He wasn’t a cadet. Keith was already a rebel, a criminal who had broken into the government buildings of a foreign power so he probably couldn’t be helped by someone talking him through anything. Keith’s problems were lightyears beyond Shiro’s.

Still. There was an edge there. He had something to prove and no one to prove it to. Shiro had known other kids like that. A rebel and a criminal but still just a person.

“Come on, you miss something. The moon base was shit. Recycled water, poorly filtered air, every meal came out of a freeze dried pack. We didn’t even get the good instant meals. It was all kind of tasteless and spongey. But there was this park in the upper dome with a jogging track. I was about thirteen and I would go up there and run because I wanted to make the team when I made it back home and so I needed to keep up my training. But you could see Earth rise from there. That’s what I miss. Shitty place to live. Would never go back. But watching Earth rise from the jogging track was a hell of a thing.”

Another pause.

“We had good food. Good soil, grew everything. And my mom taught me to fight. We had a vegetable garden and she taught me to fight on the lawn beside it. The house was kind of shit but the garden was fine,” he said.

“My mom taught me to fly,” Shiro said.

“Dad?” Keith asked.

“Two moms, no dad, the other mother was a mathematician who convinced me I would need physics to make pilot and taught me everything the school system didn’t. Yours?”

“Dad died,” Keith said.

“Sorry.”

“Shit happens.”

“I guess so. I’m still sorry to hear it.”

Shiro could almost picture the eye roll and the shrug that went with the next stretch of silence. He didn’t say anything else. He left the ball in Keith’s court. Keith could say whatever he needed to say.

“So I have a thing to give you. Your chip went dead before the arm had activated and they were supposed to be able to get a hold of you,” Keith said.

“They thought it was a listening device, the Alteans removed it,” Shiro said.

“It was supposed to be, the fuckers,” Keith said. “Here.”

He held out his hand in a fist through the bars so it hung in empty space in the hallway between them. Shiro stuck his out as well and Keith dropped something.

“Fuck,” Shiro said softly.

“Sorry about the blood but that way they couldn’t find it even after I got caught.”

“Do you always transport stuff under your skin?”

“No but the resistance uses chips like this to get info in and out of the dead zones and even Galra high command. We haven’t gotten caught at it yet. Eventually they’ll realize how we’re doing it and they’ll start flaying prisoners to see what’s under their skin but that hasn’t happened yet,” he said.

“Jesus, I thought my life was bad,” Shiro said.

“Alteans didn’t even look,” Keith said.

“Not the point. Really not the point,” Shiro said looking down at the chip.

The chip was about the size of his thumb nail and it was gory. It sat on his metal hand and for a moment it was too repulsive to even turn it over with his other fingers. He dropped it on the corner of the bed sheet. The blood was dried. “What are you rebelling against?”

“The Galra.”

“Descriptive, you’re an artist with words.”

“Fuck off.”

“Artistry. Really.”

“Fuck. Off,” Keith said again, slower.

Shiro laughed. He let the weird pent up emotion in his chest out as a loud laugh that bounced off the walls. The last year of his life had been shit but it was a weird anomaly. This wasn’t his normal and normal life was still out there. He had grown up in a world at peace. A world where wars didn’t last long and rarely spanned more than a country or two. Earth had its issues but they’d sorted out a lot of them.

The idea of not being old enough to drink and being sent out on life or death missions alone, of being taught to fight by your mother when you were a tiny child, of living in places where you had to fear that your government would kill you, was unimaginable. Keith had grown up in a resistance movement against a super power. He didn’t even realize that his life wasn’t normal.

“I’m just trying to understand this. I know the Galra are bad news, I just don’t understand enough to know what they’re doing beyond cheering loudly while prisoners attempt to murder each other,” Shiro said when his laughter had passed.

“The Galra strip mine planets for everything from the minerals to the life force of the world and the people. The Alliance planets pretend to not notice as long as the Galra don’t get too close to their colonies. Someone had to do something,” Keith said. “Did you put in the chip, is it working?”

“The bloody bit of plastic you just handed me? No, I haven’t inserted it into my body,” Shiro said.

“The metal arm, there’s a port in the forearm,” Keith said.

Shiro grimaced at it again and then pulled himself to his feet and took it to the sink to wash it. If it could survive blood, it would survive water. The metal arm was the only one he had and he didn’t really want a bloody something in it.

“Even if I had a disease - which I don’t - your metal arm can’t catch it,” Keith said.

“You’re the type of guy who eats the pizza after it falls face down on the floor, aren’t you?” Shiro said.

“I’ve never eaten pizza.”

“I’m washing the blood off the thing before I install it,” Shiro said.

Surprisingly, he wasn’t questioning installing it, only how clean it was. Every bit of evidence said that Keith was exceptionally dangerous.. He was the kind of guy who went after girls with knives and tore rooms to shreds. Shiro didn’t remember anyone named Ulaz, he had hated the idea of the arm broadcasting when Allura had initially found the signal.

And yet, he was going to do this.

Any chance for answers was a chance worth taking.

“Why would you go through all this trouble for me?” Shiro asked.

He looked at the chip. White plastic with silver and gold wiring running over it. It looked like one of those things you got for your cellphone so you could connect to a network.

“I think Friel should explain that,” Keith said.

“I want to hear it from you,” Shiro said.

“I’m nobody.”

“I still want to hear it from you.”

“We want to steal something,” Keith said. “We need you to do it.”

“Is this about Kerberos somehow?” Shiro asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You need a human? I’m obviously not the only one out in this corner of the galaxy. You gave me the arm. Or the Galra did. Someone did. If it’s the arm, just put it on someone else. Find another human. The only thing that might be special about me is that mission and it was just a geological survey,” Shiro was talking out loud.

He was a case study in wrong place, wrong time. He was a pretty good pilot. He was a mediocre teacher. He was a half decent baseball player. Nothing about him was irreplaceable. He couldn’t figure out why a rebel group going up against an oppressive alien regime would pick him out as someone worth all this trouble. They had sent a rescue to come and find him. They had forged the right documents to get him sent out as a gift to a royal family. This wasn’t a small operation.

He wasn’t unique. If Hunk had a human parent and Keith had human parent, human wasn’t the deciding factor. There were other humans out here. Shiro wanted to know where they had come from but he hadn’t been able to corner Hunk into a conversation where he could ask and this was the first real conversation he had gotten out of Keith. Being a human was rare but not worth everything they’d done to find him.

“What is special enough about me to justify all this?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Keith told him.

“You don’t know?” Shiro said.

“They don’t tell anyone everything so if something like this happens, we can’t give away too much. I could get Ulaz killed and give away a handful of names on the Pathfinder but that’s it. I don’t know the plans. I don’t know who is with the Blade and who is just a recruit. I don’t know what the plan is. Just that they’re trying to steal a weapon is just a rumour. I don’t know shit,” Keith said.

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Once my six days are up, the Alteans will have to announce my capture to the Alliance. That’s the law. You can’t hold a foreign criminal for more than six days without recording it in the system. Once that happens, they’ll extradite me back to the Galra and the Galra will kill me. Eventually. It probably won’t be a quick death,” Keith said.

He was trying for a flat unaffected tone but was missing the mark by just enough to make Shiro hang a hand out through the bars. They weren’t friends. Keith didn’t take it. There was a sound of footsteps and then a whump as Keith flopped down on his mattress.

“I’m going to die for this mission and I don’t even know what it’s for,” he said. “Put the chip in. At least let me succeed in the mission that kills me.”

“What if they don’t extradite you?”

“I don’t have a fancy arm or a priestess girlfriend. They’re gonna send me back. The interrogator woman made that very clear,” Keith said.

Shiro rubbed his face and flipped the chip over in his fingers a few times and then slotted it into the arm. The port was there in a gap between the panels of metal on the arm. A little slot that gave way when he pushed the chip against it. The panel was on the back of his forearm, just above his wrist. He remembered where it was when the Alteans had taken the arm apart that first day.

It fit into place with a soft click.

The arm lit up. A line of light ran from finger tip, up the joints and panels to where it joined his body. He shivered but there was no sensation. It didn’t hurt. It felt like nothing. The light didn’t come back. He tapped the fingers against the floor. No more light.

He tapped the panel that the chip had slipped into and it lit up. A soft glow that crystalized into a rectangle of blue light that shifted to become a projection just above his arm. It was about the size of a cellphone screen and when he moved his arm it stayed in place over the panel.

“Did you do it?” Keith asked.

“Yeah, how do I work it? There aren’t any icons or buttons,” Shiro said.

“Why would there be buttons?” Keith said and it was an almost friendly insult. “It means it’s controlled by a neuro-bond. The arm is run by your brain. So you think at the chip interface the same way that you think at the arm to make it move and stuff. I don’t know. It’s not my arm.”

The screen flashed. It didn’t say ‘incoming call’ but Shiro knew that that was what it meant.

He grimaced at the blinking light.

It was fine to have a metal arm that functioned as an arm. He thought about moving his arm with all the clarity that he had ever used to think about moving his arm. It was effortless. His metal arm functioning as a computer and phone was another deal. He did not want to be thinking commands at a phone. He didn’t have any idea how to do that.

A deep breath.

Another one.

An unexpected urge to go find Allura and talk to her about this.

A deep breath.

This was manageable. It was just a cell phone. It was just an incoming call. All he needed to do was answer it. It was fine. A bit strange but no stranger than aliens and robotic prosthetics and magic powers and everything else in his life. This was much simpler than most of the rest of it. Just a phone call.

“They’re calling me. What’s the code word?” he asked Keith.

“I’m not supposed to tell anyone,” Keith said and Shiro honestly couldn’t tell if it was sarcasm or not.

“Yeah and I’m not supposed to talk to strangers so maybe I should just unplug this and chuck it out the window,” Shiro said.

“Don’t do that. It’s Arusian Star or it was when I left. Who knows what it is now,” Keith said. “Arusian Star should work if they’re calling you.”

Shiro steadied himself and then thought at the arm really hard. It took a few attempts before the screen flickered. It flickered again and then there was a woman on the screen. An alien. An alien with features that matched up with what a human might consider female. Her skin was dark red with ridges running back over her head instead of hair. Her black eyes were wide and a little too round set in a broad face that tapered to a pointy chin.

“He looks different from the other one, are we sure it’s the right one?” someone asked off screen. The red alien turned and glared to her right.

“It’s specialized technology,” she said. “The chip that Keith had won’t interface with anything else. There are five of these neuro-systems in existence.”

“Is the arm that rare?” he asked. “How the hell did I end up with it?”

“We gave it to you,” the red alien snapped.

“Yeah, ok, Ulaz, surgery, I know that part,” Shiro said with a wave of the wrong hand. He had to bring his arm back in front of his face so he could see the screen again. He rested his elbow on his knee so the screen was balanced and asked, “Why me?”

“You were injured and it was an opportunity.”

“So you did all this because I happened to have the good luck to get my arm torn off in some arena fight?” Shiro asked.

“It would have been cruel to cut off a piece of your body intentionally so we could replace it,” she said.

“Do you just want your arm back?” Shiro asked.

“No, of course not, you will need it,” she said.

“For what?” he asked.

There was some muttering off screen. Keith sighed beside him but didn’t offer any help or explanation. The red woman looked away from him to frown at someone else. He waited. He could wait. He was locked up in a prison cell, he could wait for a very long time.

“We need your assistance,” another voice said.

The woman Shiro had been talking to slid to the side, he could hear the wheels of her chair clattering against the floor. The audio was sharp and clear. It wasn’t coming through a speaker in the arm. It was playing in his head. There was no sound. A computer in his brain was interpreting the signal as sound and feeding it back to him in a way he could understand. He wanted to vomit.

He was fine with technology. He was fine with a robotic prosthetic. That was fine. The technology was a little more advanced than they had on earth but it wasn’t impossible. Even the arm’s capabilities as a weapon weren’t unfathomable. This was over the line. This was proof that he had technology in his brain.

There was no way to take it back now. He wondered if he had been asked. Had this Ulaz guy offered him the arm and the up link directly into his brain and had he said yes? He couldn’t remember. If someone offered it to him today, would he agree to it?

“You have been selected because you have a specific skill set,” the new voice said.

The person on the screen now was a man. His skin tone was closer to something Shiro might expect on a human, a gentle brown a few shades lighter than Allura’s. His face shape, his short hair, all of it was very human but he had four eyes and his hands had too many joints.

“Skill set,” Shiro repeated.

“We need your assistance to steal a weapon and save lives,” he said.

Before that could be explained there was a sound in the hallway and Shiro went to snap the screen shut. It wasn’t a laptop screen, it was a projection so his hand just passed through it but the thought of shutting the connection was enough to end the call. That was going to take some getting used to.

He stood up and fiddled with the chip to pop it back out. He passed it back to Keith who tried to argue but by that point the sound in the hall had become footsteps. He sighed and took the chip back and they both snapped their hands back into their own cells before the door opened.

Chapter Text

Allura was in a mood. She felt like a petty child for it but that didn't do anything to slow her crankiness down. She was mad at the Pilot for not telling him her name. She was mad at herself for stepping into a ritual gone wrong when she should have known better. She was mad at the Galra for every detail of the memories that she had gotten from that ritual. She was frustrated in ways she definitely did not want to think about after waking up suddenly from a dream that was definitely a dream. Absolutely a dream.

She had kept herself busy all day. She had worked ahead in her language study. She had cleaned her room and sorted her dresses. She had done her hair very carefully. She had listened to Elana gush about her boy for over an hour. She had lingered at lunch and now she was lingering at dinner. Finally Quill grabbed her arm and pulled her up and away from the table.

"What is wrong with you today?" he asked her.

"If I swear you to secrecy, will you keep your mouth shut?" Allura asked Quill as they were leaving the hall from dinner.

"I swear on my honour," he said.

"You have no honour, swear on your wardrobe and if you ever break your promise, I will burn every stitch of clothing you own and force you to walk around wearing a vegetable sack," she said.

"You have injured me, deeply," he said throwing his hand to his chest and collapsing back against the wall just outside the dining hall. People turned to look at him and Allura rolled her eyes.

"Poor pretty baby," she said patting his cheek.

He bounced back up, wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her in close. He spoke in a low, earnest voice directly into her ear, "I will keep your secrets and carry them to my grave, always, you know that."

"I do, that’s why I’m talking to you," she said.

They found a spot in the gardens, a quiet corner near a waterfall fountain that was more than loud enough to cover the sound of their conversation if anyone walked by. This wasn't the first time they'd shared secrets and they had a list of places for it. The climbing vines on the wall behind them were covered in flowers that bloomed with the sun and died with the coming cold of night and they were falling off and landing on them and the bench as they sat there. Little fish in the pool darted away as a blossom tumbled down and sent ripples across the pond.

It was a good spot for a romantic rendezvous. This was not that.

There had been a time when she had assumed that she would marry Quinn. They had still been very young, her mother had been alive then. It had seemed natural. Who else would she marry? She liked Quinn and Dira better than most other people and since you couldn't have a baby with another girl, her child logic had defaulted to marrying the best friend who was a boy. In most parts of Altean society, marrying a member of your own gender was perfectly acceptable but royals needed heirs. When she was little, she had assumed her only option would be to marry a boy. Quill was the only boy she had liked when she was seven years old so he had been top of the list.

That had never happened.

Quinn didn't qualify. They were the same age and had been nestled together since they were eggs but his rank was too low, his magical abilities too limited, his good judgment too slow to keep up with his fast mouth. He'd make a terrible monarch. Then she'd gotten old enough to start noticing boys in that way and he never hit on that radar. She loved him but it was the love of friends or family. He was far more her brother than he could ever be her lover.

But he was her friend and that was what she needed right now, romantic atmosphere be damned.

"Dira, in particular, never hears this," Allura said.

He nodded.

"Remember the alien you met?"

"Quizznak," he interrupted her with a dramatic moan and pressing his face between his hands. "I should not have agreed so soon. Dira has been hounding everyone to see if you had mentioned him to them and now I'm going to have to lie to her. I told her I thought he was hot and now she's going to know you mentioned him to me and is going to follow me around and whine about it. She is so hard to lie to."

"You're just a bad liar. Tell her I told you not to tell. She'll believe you when you tell her I threatened you. Don't worry about it," she said.

Quill considered that for another moment with his face buried in his hands before he nodded and looked up at her. Now he was considering. "So, hot alien."

"Shut up," Allura said.

"Very hot alien. I usually go for girls but he's noticeably attractive. You add in some eye colours found in nature instead of that all black thing he's got going on and fix his ears and he'd be the kind of hot that people would kill for," Quill said.

This direction of conversation was not helping her mood. She hadn't spent much time thinking of him as attractive before her brain had dredged up a very detailed and nuanced fantasy for her the night before. Now, this conversation made her uncomfortable. She liked his eyes and had stopped finding his ears or his lack of a second pupil unnerving a long time ago. Discussing whether or not he was hot wasn't going to help her mood.

"He's leaving," Allura said.

"Leaving?"

"He's got a place in the Southern Temple. He's strong and his people don't really have or use quintessence so Ellis got him a place to study with them. That should be a good thing for him but I'm less than pleased about it," Allura said.

Quill studied her for a moment and she set her jaw and wrinkled her nose at him. He looked amused. Judgmental and amused.

"I didn't mean to get attached," she said.

"Are you telling me that you have a crush? Like, a real crush? Are you a wessira worm? Did you crawl into Allura's ear and take over her brain? Allura doesn't have crushes," Quill said.

"Wessira worms are a myth! I am perfectly capable of having crushes," Allura said.

Except she rarely did. She was perfectly capable of it but usually she was too busy thinking about the possibilities. Anyone she married was going to become a head of state. They were going to have to address parliament and be woken in the middle of the night by every alarm and help her run a planet. She had always approached new possible romances from that angle. Could they handle that? It was cold and clinical and rational and usually ruined her chances at romance and crushes before they could get started.

The pilot had snuck in around the edges because none of those thoughts applied to him. She'd suddenly found herself wrapping her arms around him for comfort and nothing else. She was looking forward to seeing him because he wasn't any of the things she was supposed to be looking for. There was no question of potential marriage or mating or ruling side by side. He wasn't Altean. He couldn't be any of those things. He couldn't. So she had formed her entire sense of him without any of those thoughts getting in the way and somehow found herself here. She liked him.

"I don't want him to be on the other side of the continent," Allura admitted without further explanation.

"I'm going to give you some advice. One. Don't sleep with aliens. Two. You need to take some time and work your way through the advisers' list," Quill said.

"What?"

"Date them, fuck them, get to know what's out there," he said.

Allura groaned. "You're the worst, I should not have picked you to talk this through!"

"You need an outlet!"

"Outlet."

Quill laughed but then he pulled her in against his side again and held up one finger. He put on his best teacher voice and said, "Princess, you are never going to marry someone who isn't exactly right. The crown of Altea matters to you and you won't choose someone who won't put the best interest of the planet ahead of all else. That's why you're going to be an excellent queen. You are going to rule over the best time that Altea has ever had because you care deeply and entirely. This cute alien boy with his black eyes and his great smile aren't going to change that."

"I know that. It's just hard to know there's someone there that I could want and I'm not allowed to. I can't have a crush on him. I have responsibilities. You know what this is? I think this is my subconscious rebelling.”

Quill hummed a non-answer that annoyed her. She sat up a little straighter and turned to him to try and explain it. She didn't need him to tell her that she couldn't date aliens. That was well known. It wasn't the problem.

“I don't want to marry the person who will check all the political boxes because someone else put them on a recommended list. I don't want to marry someone over their credentials and their bloodline and their quintessence scores. I want to marry someone I like and I'm not even allowed to date. So I’ve gone and got attached to someone I can never even consider."

"You can date people on the list."

"The list is bane of my existence. I hate the quizznaking list."

"You could still take them all to bed. You didn't get to come with us to the peasant party so maybe you aren't aware but it's really a lot of fun to take them all to bed. Just stay on the suppressants and you won't get knocked up. You'll find someone worth marrying eventually - list or not - but you're unnatural attraction to aliens is definitely an expression of your suppression of your sexual desires."

Allura punched him for that comment.

He laughed and scooted away from her. She considered arguing but she didn't want to start the argument. She didn't know how to make it make sense. The Pilot was an alien but he was someone that fascinated her. She didn't want to be sitting here with Quill, discussing the list of approved suitors. She wanted to be playing Zenda with a boy with black eyes and a white bit of hair that fell in his eyes. She wanted him to tell him why he had kept his name a secret. She wanted to know if his name had any meaning in his native tongue. She wanted to make him laugh. She wanted him to pull her into a hug again.

Extricating herself from the conversation with Quill took a long time. They talked things through. Marriage and duty and expectations. Jokes about wedding ceremonies and coronations. Quill was everything she needed. He was kind and confident and to the point. He told her when she was being ridiculous and listened even if she was spouting nonsense.

The conversation was exactly what she needed but as it dragged on, it was also nothing that she wanted.

Once Quill had gone back inside, Allura found herself on the edge of the path that led out of the gardens and into the square. She would pass the barracks, turn south, use her universal pass to get into the prison, find him. She shouldn't do it. The list of reasons why she should avoid the alien gladiator was miles long.

Her feet were moving before she had decided.

She paused at the prison itself. It was after dark and she wasn’t quite sure what she was going to do with him, only that she wanted to see him. Ellis was pushing everything through as quickly as possible, he’d be gone in a few days.

She came down the hall and let herself into the room. She hadn't been down here in a long time, she'd been intercepting him in the public areas of the castle and the bleakness of the prison was jarring. She felt immediately guilty for it. She had before as well but it was worse today.He was sitting on the bed again and his attention snapped up to her and he frowned like she wasn't who he wanted to see.

"Who were you expecting?" she asked coming forward to unlock his door. No explanation because she hadn't let her thoughts catch up with her enough to have an explanation. What was she doing here? She had no idea. She unlocked the door and then went over to the security podium to log it. She listed the signed decree that he was to be sent south as the reason for the release. He was now officially a foreign student, not a prisoner so there was no legal reason she couldn't open the door.

"They took Keith this morning and he hasn't come back," the Pilot said stepping out of his cage and crossing his arms as he looked at the room beside him.

"Keith?"

"Half Galra kid, stabbed you in the arm?"

"They've been keeping him down here with you? There are ten empty cells," Allura said.

She left the podium and crossed over to look at the second cell. It was a disaster. The bed torn to literal pieces, remains of food on the wall where he must have thrown his dish. Blood splattered on the floor. She took a step back and her horror must have shown on her face. "Has he been a problem?"

"He's not so bad, it's nice to have a neighbour. He did most of the smashing in the first night," There was worry in the pilot's voice as he came to stand by the bars. Takashi. He had a name now. She needed to get used to using it. Takashi sounded worried when he said, "We were sharing stories earlier. Is his time up? Did they extradite him back to the Galra?"

"I don't know," Allura said.

She hadn't been following what happened to the rebel after he'd been captured. The reports were vague. He had been questioned and hadn't said anything useful. She caught the look on Takashi's face and pulled out her comm to look for the answer to his question. It was a good distraction while she thought up an excuse for herself.

"Why haven't they moved you out of prison is another question? Ellis's request was approved this afternoon. The Galra aren't asking about you and it has been weeks so they're all content to just ship you off to the Southern shores and pretend you're just another alien from the edge of the Alliance," Allura said as he stepped out to stand beside her. He didn't get too close and she was thankful for that. He was scrambling all her thoughts when he wasn't in the room and having him in her personal space was going to set her thoughts off in a hundred other directions.

"I guess, I'm not interesting when I'm not about to start a war. I don't think it would occur to anyone but you to worry about where I was staying," he said.

Allura looked at him and he gave her a little half smile and a shrug. He crossed the room and grabbed hold of the bars on the larger window by the security podium and pulled himself up to look outside for a moment before dropping back down and coming to look at her screen. He wasn't quite bouncing but he wasn't as still as he usually was. No magic lessons today and not enough space to get up and move around in a jail cell.

"Your neighbour hasn't been transferred anywhere. He hasn't been reported yet. They're still trying to get him to tell them what he was looking for in the residential wing of the castle. No one has made a bid for his freedom, sometime the rebel groups will negotiate for release and his group hasn't tried that yet. He's still in the castle. I can't find out more than that until the reports are filed," she said.

Takashi nodded, his expression tightening around his mouth.

"You're worried about him."

"He's a kid, not a terrorist. He came from a little mining village, Valina. A nowhere kind of place. I don’t know why they sent him here but I don’t think he deserves to die for it and that’s what is going to happen if he gets sent back to Galra."

Allura didn't answer that. She didn't know what the Galra boy was or was not. He had come at her with a knife but also hadn't tried to shoot his way out when they'd cornered him. The blaster might have killed more guards but it also might have blown through the walls and killed civilians. It was impossible to say if that's why he hadn't used it or if he'd just grabbed the knife first and not had time to switch to the other weapon.

"You get attached to people," she said.

"It's a flaw," he said looking at her for a moment before he smiled and looked away.

Allura's heart skittered a bit at the look. This was a bad idea. She should not have come down here. He looked back, still giving her a half smile and and her heart tried to skitter again but she ignored it. She returned it when she realized where she was going to take him. He was a pilot so she would take him to see Altean flight vehicles. She smiled a little broader imagining him staring up at the ships.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Do you want to go for a walk?" she asked.

"Anywhere you want to take me," he said.

Chapter Text

She led him up the hallway, letting the doors swing shut behind them. She maintained that careful distance between them but it was still more like being with a friend than a guard. He paused when he caught sight of his face in a glass door. His hair was a disaster and he ran his fingers through it a few times, hoping it would smooth it out. It didn’t really help.

His thoughts had been turning all day over questions of weapons and rebels and involuntary surgeries and now he was worried about his hair. He made a face at himself and then hurried after Allura.

“Why do you trust me?” Shiro asked her.

“Who said I do?”

He turned to wave his hand over the empty courtyard like he was showing the big prize on a game show. “Most people don’t take people they don’t trust out on midnight walks.”

“It isn’t midnight.”

“Semantics.”

“So I guess that means I trust you, Pilot.”

That was not an answer to the question he was asking. Shiro wanted to know why. More than that, he wanted to ask advice. He had spent the day flipping the chip between his fingers like a coin trick but not getting his nerve up to plug it back in. He did not want to be a weapon for a group of people who sent teenagers into heavily guarded alien palaces. He did not want to help them find a weapon.

They crossed the tiled courtyard and Allura pushed open a small door far from the grand gates that led to the castle itself. Allura paused and shook her head. Her hair shifted. Shiro blinked slowly as it darkened a few shades to a soft brown. His fingers came up and touched a piece of it. She turned toward him and he snapped his hand back to his side.

“The white is recognizable. It’s a pretty rare colour. People always look twice in case its me. ”

“So you just change it?”

She frowned at him and nodded like it was something she did all the time. She pushed the door open and waved him along after her. He stared after her for a moment.

“Come on, Takashi Shirogane.”

They were out into the market. The stalls were dark and shuttered and most of the apartments and small houses between the businesses were dark as well. Here or there a warm orange glow shone out through a window or a cracked door. The night was warm and the night owls of the royal city were enjoying the weather. Homesickness hit him like a wave.

“Pilot?” she asked. “Is everything alright?”

“Are you using your creepy magic powers to monitor my thoughts?” he asked.

“Not thoughts, moods,” she said. “The ritual yesterday stirred up my magic and left me a little uneven. I’m usually better at pushing it back down than this. I didn’t mean to pry. Can you read thoughts?”

Her expression said that the idea upset her. He gave her the best impersonation of a pensive cheap stage magician that he could. He even put a finger to the side of his head as he narrowed his eyes. Her lips quirked up into a smile and she raised her eyebrows at him.

“No,” he said laughing as he lost the expression. “I can’t read moods either.”

He could read some of her moods. She didn’t hide her feelings away. She was open with her annoyances and curiosity. There was no magic in being able to pick up on them. He was more aware of her than he was of most people and he’d been able to read Keith’s tone through the wall without being able to see his face but that didn’t mean he had any special powers.

Shiro was learning how to be fine with the magic as a thing that he could do. Turning the arm on and off. Making Ellis’s lights flash. The little tricks with the balls of light. Even the ability to sense whether something was alive or not was fine. Weird but fine. He did not want to be using his magic for monitoring moods or noticing people’s feelings before they said things. That was a step too far.

“I like this time of night,” Allura said falling into step beside him as they crossed a broader street full of people and entered a quieter neighbourhood.

They passed an open door that led into a kitchen lit by soft lamp light and Shiro glanced inside. A family sat around a low table on a pile of cushions. A little boy, no more than four years old, slept with his mouth open and his head on his father’s lap. They had the same curly purple hair mussed up around their heads. Beside them a man with dark brown hair and red marks on his face sat with a bundle in his arms. He yawned and met Shiro’s eye. He waved like he was waving to a neighbour and then turned his attention back to the baby.

A fragment of memory rose up to meet him and his thoughts flinched away from it but it wasn’t one of the bad ones. A quiet night in the dorms. That wasn’t quite right. Not the student dorms. The barracks maybe, after they’d taken the Garrison job. They. Shiro had forgotten his sister. He could only remember his parents’ faces half the time. He’d been part of a they at one point and his scrambled memories had taken that too.

He’d told this person that he wasn’t going to live long enough to raise kids. He’d made it a joke about being a single father. He always made it a joke when his illness came up. It was easier if it was funny. He’d forgotten that too. There had been a time when he’d been sure that every ache meant that it was catching up with him and the muscular degeneration was going to start in earnest. That was less important than the memory of the man he’d once discussed having children with. He couldn’t find a face or a name.

“Takashi?”

Wrong accent for the memory. His name sounded different in her voice. He dragged his attention back out of his thoughts. It would come. His mind would give it back to him eventually. He’d remembered Hana’s name a few days after he’d remembered her face. He smiled at Allura and forced himself back into the moment.

“I forget that life keeps going,” Shiro said. “I’m the one whose life has gone sideways but the rest of the universe is still turning along.”

Allura looked at him and then glanced back at the quiet little scene in the room. She smiled at the people there but no one looked up again to notice her attention. She watched the little family for a long moment before turning to frown at Shiro. They walked side by side and he gave her a shrug rather than try and explain it. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to find the words to explain it. Hell had come for him but not for these people. There were other people still in that hell hole and he was here on a cobblestone street, in the middle of the night, looking at people who were still living perfectly safe lives.

“You deserve better than what has happened to you,” she said.

Shiro stopped and turned to look at her. She paused a few steps down the road when she realized that he hadn’t kept pace with her. There was enough light that he could see the way her lips were turned down, wary or maybe concerned. They had left the open door behind but there was a window above them and the light falling from it picked out the lines of her face as she watched him.

“Life isn’t always about what you deserve, Princess. Sometimes it’s just luck and luck isn’t always good,” he said.

“I know.”

She was silent and then turned away from the light and kept walking. He stared after her for a moment before falling into step beside her. The city was quieting around them and Shiro let himself just enjoy walking and covering ground. It wasn’t the same as pacing and it wasn’t the run he wanted but it was nice to be out. He tilted his head back to look at the sky but the dome obscured the stars.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Your transfer has been approved, you’re moving on,” she said. “I wanted to show off one more thing before you left.”

She smiled and turned her attention back to where she was going. She seemed to trust that he was following her even when she was just heading off without explanation. He didn’t prove her wrong. They wove through the quiet residential district. The apartment buildings were low and ornate and made him think of a family vacation in Florence when he was small. Little balconies and baskets of flowers overhung the streets. Everything was made of stone that felt old but was perfectly well kept. The streets were narrow and tiled rather than paved and he realized he hadn’t seen a single vehicle since arriving on Altea.

They made it to the wall and the princess punched a code into an unassuming wooden door set into the old stone wall and it swung open onto a stark hallway. Shiro balked at the door. The hallways stretched out in front of him, white and empty and looking like it could go on forever into the depths of the planet. It didn’t. It wasn’t going underground. It kept going straight forward to a large sliding door at the far side.

This memory was just feeling. Down was bad. Irrational. He wasn’t even going down. The feeling didn’t fade but he ignored it and stepped inside so she could close the door. She didn’t stop to explain or discuss, she kept going and opened the other door. Shiro kept close pace with her. He needed out of the hallway before his emotion could outstrip his self control.

She gave him a smile and then pushed open the door.

Inside was a flight hangar.

Shiro’s nerves fled immediately as irrationally as they had come. The huge bay doors were closed on the far end and the ceiling retreated into shadows that the low lights couldn’t penetrate. Cavernous. It made the Garrison hangars in Arizona look like suburban garages. The lights were only on in the little sign in area where they stood. It, like everything, was automated. The princess wrote in a log, scanned her hand, and the door slid open.

They stepped out onto the hangar floor and high above them the main lights started to switch on. It was a cavernous space. Flight suits hung from racks along the nearest wall in different colours and patterns. A few were set aside in fancier cases but most just hung on racks. A collection of long low tables were lined up nearby but everything had been cleaned neatly away and the drawers and boxes were all closed up and stowed properly.

Beyond that was a stable of small atmosphere vehicles. They were sleek and white and fancier than anything Shiro had ever flown on Earth but they only held his attention for a second because a few feet away came the larger ships. They weren’t huge. Private ships probably, smaller than what he had flown to Kerberos but with engine mounts that obviously meant they had the power to make it out of orbit. He was not going to be allowed to fly one but he let himself have a moment to imagine what it would be like. Flying alien spaceships sounded like a very interesting idea.

“If we open the doors to take things out on a test drive, we will get caught,” she said in response to the look on his face.

He had stopped and had his hand resting on the wing of the nearest cruiser. It looked like it was big enough to hold ten people and cargo. It was painted in beautiful colours and the lines were sleek but that didn’t hide the fact that it was a very practical vehicle. It was a bus but it was a fancy bus.

“This one isn’t worth getting caught for,” he said.

“None of them are worth getting caught for.”

“I don’t know, do you have anything that can make a hyper space jump? We haven’t invented anything that can make a hyper jump but it’s why I went into the space program. The engines are barely out of the prototype phase but I wanted to fly those planes when they got out of testing,” he said.

“You are not flying any of these vehicles. Ever.”

“I know.”

The idea of escaping on one of these was filling up all his thoughts. Once he was out in open space, he could figure it out. Alteans were powerful and from what he knew they had a reputation for being peaceful if a little bit snobbish. The Altean colours on the ship would be enough to let him land and refuel. These were royal ships, they were probably very well stocked and ready to go.

It was a bad idea.

He’d done all the math and calculations. He knew it was a bad idea. He wouldn’t make it far on his own and Altean colours would make him easier to catch in the end. Still. It was a nice dream. Open sky. A ship with enough power to not only break atmosphere but to break out past solar gravity and jump into clear space. He wanted it even if it was a bad idea

Shiro had wandered off down the row as they talked, trying to pick out a ship that he thought would be worth taking a risk for. He wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t. He just liked imagining it. He had almost decided on the narrow white and black one that was almost shaped like a jet when they got to the far side and found the lions.

They sat, four nearly identical robot sculptures as tall as buildings. They sat like cats. With their metal feet folded up under them and their tails curled in around the side. Each one was picked out in a distinctive colour. Yellow, blue, green, and red and at the far end, an empty spot. They should have looked comical. They were giant robot cats. Instead Shiro found himself drawn up short and left a little unbalanced just to look at them.

“They’re sentient and will eat you if you try and hurt me,” she said coming up beside him and giving him a bright grin.

“Excuse me?” he asked thinking he had heard her wrong.

“The Lions of Voltron are sentient and are tied to the heart of Altea itself. As a member of the Altean royal family, I am also tied to the heart of the planet. I am quite sure that you are not planning to murder me but if you were, know that I have the Lions on my side and they’re bigger than you.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“I don’t know what that means but I am still very sure that I am not, shitting you.”

“Sentient robot lions.”

“Yes.”

They stood in the middle of the alley. This space probably served for taxiing and maybe even as a runway once the large doors were opened. The lions towered above them, staring forward. They were inert. Fancy ships. Allura had told him once that the planet wasn’t sentient despite all the magic and yet, she easily claimed that the Lions could think. They were each surrounded by a forcefield. He took a step closer to the green one and when he tapped the field, it was solid as a brick wall. A little ripple shot out from his finger and the light crackled over the surface for a few feet before fading away.

There were five bays but only four lions. Red, green, yellow and blue, the last bay was empty. There were no other spaces in the hall. Even the atmosphere ships were all accounted for and neatly lined up. An empty space felt wrong.

“Where’s the missing one?” he asked.

“Each lion has its own Paladin. That’s why you cannot walk up to the Green Lion. You are not the Green Paladin and it will not respond to you. A paladin is a warrior that is bonded with only one of the Lions. Most of them come to the lions only in times of need but the Black Paladin likes to keep his lion close. It isn’t on Altea at all.”

“You don’t like that,” he said.

Shiro turned to look at her. Her tone was tight and her eyebrows were drawn together into a little frown. It was cute. She probably wasn’t cute when she was angry but the little line between her eyebrows was cute.

“I don’t like Zarkon and I don’t like that he keeps one of our lions like it’s a pet or his own personal property. Voltron is a weapon designed to protect the universe, not an ornament to make a handful of Paladins feel special. The lions are meant to remain together.”

“Zarkon? I know that name.”

“Yes, that Zarkon. Galra, Zarkon. I think battle arenas are a fun way to pass a weekend, that Zarkon,” her voice was mocking. He would have said that she sounded like a school girl mocking a classmate she didn’t like but when Shiro looked at her, her face didn’t match that words. She looked genuinely angry. It wasn’t cute. She caught his eye and looked away with a snap.

The memory crystallized. A man, too large to be human but about the right shape, stood over the arena. Broad shoulders. A cape. An expression that had made Shiro want to climb up there and knock him down. Then the memory blew apart and he was standing in the hangar with the princess. He unclenched his fists one finger at a time and rolled his shoulders.

“Why did you bring me out here?” he asked her. He didn’t want to let his thoughts linger on Zarkon and memories of the arenas.

“I come out here to think sometimes. I thought perhaps you might find Altean ships interesting since you were a pilot back on your planet,” she said.

“They’re beautiful, it’d be more fun to fly one than just look at them,” he said.

She laughed at him and shook her head. He shrugged and tapped on the red forcefield next. The same ripple of light shot out from the point of contact but nothing more. Not the Red Paladin either then. He pressed a little harder just because he wanted to see what would happen. Nothing. Nothing happened. It was a wall.

“Will the Lions let you past the forcefield? Since you’re all connected to the spirit of the planet?” he asked.

“I’m a not a Paladin. I’m not suited to it. I did the test and I’m not suited to it,” she said looking over at the other lions and the empty space.

It bothered her. A lot. Shiro understood that one. He had been good enough for deep space but not good enough to be a test pilot. This was her hyper space program, the thing that she was almost but not quite good enough for. Shiro sank down to sit with his back against the lion’s forcefield. He could hear the electricity crackling and he could almost imagine the Red Lion as something with thoughts and opinions, getting annoyed at him.

“If you weren’t a princess, that’s what you’d want to be?” he said.

“If I hadn’t been born to this rank, I would be a diplomat. You can’t train yourself into being a Paladin. You’re either suited to it or not. They lion either chooses you or it does not. I like being a princess and if I didn’t have the rank, I would still do the work. I would still put my thought and energy into helping my people as much as I can. If you could have been anything, what would you have chosen?”

“Deep space. I still would have chosen deep space. I might still make the hyper space test programs,” he said.

“So we ended up where we wanted to be,” she said. Her face scrunched up as she realized what she had said so she added, “More or less.”

Shiro smiled at that. She came and sat beside him, leaning her back against the forcefield and sending another ripple of electricity up over it. She was wearing another one of her track suits today. It was a deep blue and she’d thrown a loose pale gray jacket over it. Her feet stuck out in front of them and she wore simple flat soled boots. The whole outfit was practical.

They sat in silence for a little while.

She was the one who broke it.

“Why didn’t you tell me your name?” she asked.

Shiro blinked a few times and then looked over at her. She wasn’t looking back. She was looking across the hangar bay at the empty space where the Black Lion wasn’t. She was upset. Just a little bit. It wasn’t showing on her face. He couldn’t place why he thought she was upset but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d offended her.

“I didn’t have anything,” he said. “I still don’t, I guess. But I wanted to have something that was mine. My memories are a mess. My future is a mess. I don’t even own my own shoes. My name though, I could hold onto that. It was irrational but I needed it at the start.”

“And then?”

Shiro laughed. “I guess I sort of forgot? You and I talked all the time and I think I forgot that you called me Pilot because you didn’t know what else to call me. Then Ellis wanted me to be a soldier, to be as reassuring and predictable as possible for the advisers. I didn’t really think about it.”

“Oh.”

“Hi,” he said turning to look at her and hold out a hand, “My name is Takashi Shirogane.”

“Hi, Takashi Shirogane,” she said and her mood broke a little and she gave him a small smile as she extended her hand as well and he took it and shook it. She frowned at him. He hadn’t seen any Alteans shaking hands but she took it as a greeting and smiled a little wider for him before pulling her hand back and settling back against the lion’s forcefield.

“Are we on a first name basis then? Can I call you Allura?”

“I out rank you.”

He laughed at that with a shrug. “Ok, Princess.”

“Ok, Takashi,” she said.

He pushed himself up off the ground. She tilted her head back to watch him. He needed some distance and some movement. He held out a hand to her and she took it and let him pull her up. Her height was always surprising him. He could have sworn she wasn’t this tall earlier but now she looked him direct in the eye, exactly his height. He smiled at her and took a step back.

He liked her. He liked her enough to be having very explicit dreams about her. When she didn’t show up on his walk across the castle grounds, it left him disappointed. He liked having her all to himself here in this big empty space filled with planes and wanted, really wanted, to take one of them out for a flight.

“Will you come visit me in the south? You could come down on one of these planes and we could go for a spin,” he said.

“You just want to go flying,” she said.

“God yes, I really do,” he said.

He also wanted her to promise to come and visit him.

“It’s not going to happen. No one pays enough attention to notice that I am sneaking you out of the prisons but they’re definitely going to notice if we open those bays and take something out,” she said.

“Show me a cock pit,” he said. “We don’t need to turn it on, I just want to see how different it is.”

She led the way back down between the planes and picked out the same slim black and white one that he had been fantasizing about stealing earlier. She keyed in the code and let him climb up inside first. He reached out and pulled her up after him. She could get around without all this help but it was an excuse to touch her and she kept taking him up on the offer.

Shiro settled into the center seat, there were three, two set slightly farther back. He ran his hands over the dials and screens and set his hands in place on the pair of levers on either side of the chair. The Princess was watching him with a little smile, almost mocking. He made a little face at her and resisted the urge to make vroom vroom noises.

“I think could fly it,” Shiro said.

“You’d need lessons,” she said.

“Are you offering to teach me?”

He raised his eyebrows at her and she laughed at him and shook her head, “I’m a terrible teacher.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Instead of shooting off a comeback, she frowned. Shiro worried he’d offended her for a moment before she pulled her phone out of her pocket, he hadn’t heard it ring but she tapped her earring and said, “Hello?”

An answer.

“What kind of emergency?”

Her face drew into a serious expression first and then collapsed into something annoyed.

“No hints?” she said to the phone.

Then: “Fine, I’m coming.”

“Time to go,” she said to Shiro once she’d disconnected.

He pouted at her and she slapped him gently in the shoulder like they were old friends who had been teasing each other for years. He sighed and pushed up out of the cockpit with reluctance. He wanted open sky. They climbed down out of the ship and closed it up behind them. Shiro wanted to linger but she was striding away from him with purpose and he hurried to catch up and fall in step beside her.

He tried to ask what had happened but she was busy scrolling through her phone and gave him sharp vague answers. The walk back was shorter and more direct and she was moving fast. It didn’t take long. She hesitated at the prison door once they’d made it back into the castle itself.

“I want to check on Keith anyway, don’t worry about trying to find me someplace else to stay. Go off and be a princess, I don’t mind being a prisoner for another night,” he said.

She looked at him and then at the prison door with a little frown but she took him at his word and put him back in his cell. Keith still wasn’t there and that brought on another wave of worry. Allura paused in the door and looked back at him. She hesitated and turned back. Shiro watched as she went to the podium and waved her hand over the glowing screen that he couldn’t see until it popped out something.

She came over and held it out. It was a little round piece of glass or plastic with one end stretched up like a teardrop so it formed a loop. No string. Just the loop. He raised his eyebrows and she waved it over the door lock. It opened like it did for her bracelets.

“Are you going to get in trouble for that?” he asked.

“Maybe but something bad has happened so no one is going to notice for a while, don’t commit any crimes,” she said.

He opened the door and grabbed her hand. She froze and blinked at him. She was shorter than he was this time. He could have sworn they were the same height earlier but now she had to tilt her head to look up at him. Her eyes were wide. For a moment he forgot why he’d done it, his heart was beating too fast and he just held her gaze for too long before the words came.

“Thank you,” he said.

“I have to go,” she said pulling her hand back.

“Bye, Princess,” he said.

“Bye, Takashi,” she said.

Then she was gone and he was left with an open door and a key in hand for the first time since he’d been given the shuttle codes for the Kerberos ship.

Chapter Text

Valina was burning.

Allura stared at the screen. She stood beneath the giant projection screen on the command bridge. The Castle in the capital wasn't a ship but it followed the same layout as the Castle of Lions and the Castle of Stars. The other two were ships and in those castles, this room was the bridge. Here it was a glorified meeting room with stone walls that the technology had been retrofitted over after the castle ships had been built. Allura stood beside her father who was watching the screen with a tight expression on his face.

The video had come from a news broadcaster on the moon. Valina orbited a small barren planet on the edge of the Galra sphere. The video had been sent out to a Clexan relay where it had been stopped by the censor bureau then forwarded privately by someone in Clexan high command.

"Why aren't we letting it be broadcast?" Allura asked. "It's the army putting down a rebel insurrection, that's right on the edge of the contested space. The rebels have been getting bolder but they're Galra rebels and those are Galra ships. It's news. There's no reason to be suppressing it. We shouldn't be helping the Galra fight their propaganda wars by hiding things away for them."

"Keep watching," someone said behind her.

She shot a look back over her shoulder. It was a looping video. There were people in the room who had already seen it while she was down in the prisons with the Pilot. She turned back to the screen showing a piece of a town being swooped by fighter ships. It was a shot from a stationary camera, probably mounted on the top of the news studio or maybe a vehicle. The announcer had cleared out but they had kept broadcasting.

The city was small. A few high rise buildings and a lot of squat buildings made of repurposed ships. Terraforming crews used their ship materials to make their shelters. Valina had achieved the goal of a stable atmosphere nearly fifty years ago but it was an immigrant colony that took in anyone. People had kept up the tradition of using their ships to make their homes. It was mismatched and ugly but there were homey touches on the buildings still standing. Flower gardens and painted doors and curtains hanging in windows.

Most of it wasn’t still standing.

A Galra ship hung over the city. Pitch black and lit by purple and white against the darkening sky. Smaller ships darted in and out of the view. The houses were obviously just that. Houses. Not military targets. Allura started to turn around and complain to the advisers again.

She did not want any part in hiding someone else’s war crimes. Altea was better than that.

Each planet in the Alliance had the right to set its own laws and administer them as they saw fit. The Declaration of Rights for Sentient Creatures set very broad and loose rules but it had been four thousand years since one of the big five had interfered with another. There had been threats of invoking the clause in the declaration that allowed for the Alliance to step in. Prejudiced application of force resulting in a clear and present danger to undeserving sentient creatures. The wording was broad and left room for interpretation but no one had even made a threat of interference in living memory. Allura knew that breaking that norm might mean war but this looked like it should be worth something more than a closed door meeting.

This wasn't a reasonable government policing dangerous factions. This was an army razing a mining town.

Then she saw it.

She swore.

She was standing beside her father and surrounded by advisers but she swore. No one gave her a second look. In the middle of it all, coming down with the the other ships, was one of the lions. It was there in the midst of a squadron. Explosions lit up the ground around the camera as the ships came in. As the Lion came in. Fire and gunshots and a blast of blue light. The screen went black as the camera was destroyed with everything else. Allura didn't get a clear look at it but even through the smoke she knew it was one of the Lions. It was too dark and too chaotic to make out more than the outline but she knew which one it was. The other four were still in the hangar.

The Black Lion.

Their Black Lion.

Voltron's Black Lion.

It had just been used in an attack against civilians.

"No," she said. "He can't do that.”

Allura watched as the screen ran back and one of the techs zoomed the video in and expanded the image. No one needed the clarity. They knew what they had seen. The image was static. The lion emerging from smoke over the ruins of a mining colony that hadn’t been able to fire back a single shot in retaliation.

"Zarkon killed those people, personally," Allura’s father said. "And he used one of our Lions to do it. How many people have seen this?"

"Clexan high command, whoever was monitoring the relay and the people in this room," came the answer.

Allura crossed her arms. People had died. The news crew, the woman with the orange hair who had been on the screen before the fighting had gotten too close, they were dead. They’d died getting this message out. They had made sure that their broadcast went well beyond their usual territory. Allura pulled a map up on her comm screen. Valina was near the edge of Galra territory but it was too far for Clexan air space to be part of their audience. The Clexan censors wouldn't let foreign programming run without a decree from their high command so no one tried. The news team had set up this signal on purpose.

Allura could picture them. The orange haired woman and her crew setting up the camera so it would record as much as it could and then turning up the power on every bit of technology they had and throwing that video as far as they could make it go. Their city was burning and they'd made sure that someone knew the truth of what happened. She wanted to ask them to rewind so she could see if the woman's name was there at the start of the video. It felt important to know.

"What are going to do about this?" she asked.

The stunned silence that had fallen over the group shattered. Everyone was talking. Arguing. Discussing. Citing precedents and pulling up law books. Allura was only half listening to them. Her attention was still on the screen and all that destruction. The Lions were meant as defenders.

Defenders.`

Not this.

Chapter Text

 

Shiro was wandering through the gardens when the lights went off.

He hadn't stayed put. He had washed his face and tried to do something about his hair and then taken the little key Allura had given him and walked away. He stayed in the palace grounds because he'd been in this place for weeks and weeks and hadn't seen any of it yet. Curiosity drove him much as the itch for freedom did. He walked up to the temple. It was lit from within with the soft blue light of quintessence and he could see a few people moving around under the hanging plants. He didn't go in. He turned past the guard house and headed up onto the garden path where Allura had been scared by the bug.

He had the chip in his pocket and he kept pulling it out to look at it like the best answer would come clear but so far, nothing. Still. The air smelled of flowers and there was a sound of water in the distance. It wasn't an answer but that didn't mean he wasn't having a nice walk. It was late but he was too keyed up to be tired. The possibilities rattled around in his head as he wandered around the abandoned garden paths below the windows of nobles and important people.

Free.

There were so many choices. He could leave the city. He could smash every window in the prison. He could go steal a plane and find out if he really could fly it. He could wait for Ellis to tell send him a train ticket and an enrollment package for his magic college scholarship. He could give the rebels a call and head off into space to fight the Galra and steal weapons alongside people who sent kids into palaces to get caught and executed. He liked Keith but he didn't trust the people who had sent him.

Then the lights had winked out.

The low hum of machinery that was always there was gone. He hadn't even noticed it until it went silent. No buzz of electricity or the shush of air filters and heaters. Everyone was asleep and it left the world too quiet and eerie. Shiro stopped. He stood under the canopy of trees and stared up at the nearest white stone building with its empty, silent windows.

"Power outage," he said aloud but hearing the words didn't make him feel less unmoored.

So many possibilities. He had so many possible choices but that was his luck. He'd gotten lucky that he had the right kind of magic, that Allura cared whether or not he died. Not everyone was so lucky. The memory of the arenas spun through his thoughts. Not everyone was so lucky. He hesitated for a moment and then turned and hurried back the way that he'd come.

"How the hell did you get out?" Keith asked when Shiro pushed through the last door into the little shared space in front of the two cells. The only light in the space was what came in through thte windows. It wasn't much but it was enough to make out the rough details. Keith had deep circles under his eyes but didn't appear to be injured.

"Friends in the right places," Shiro said holding up the little key thing.

"Lucky you," he drawled.

"Power's out," Shiro said.

"So?"

"So, if your asshole friends aren't going to come rescue you then this is going to be your only shot at getting out here while everything's down."

Keith grabbed the door and gave it hard shake.

He tried it on Keith's cell but it didn't work. It had worked on all the other doors but it mustn't have been coded to the other cell. Keith spread his hands in a silent question of "What now." Shiro mimicked the body language which earned him a swear word before he lit up the metal arm and pushed his finger through the lock mount. Keith yelped and then snapped his jaw tight as he jumped back from the splatters of molten metal.

"Why?" Keith said scrambling out of the cage like it was on fire. He paused long enough to grab a chunk of his bed frame that he held like a cudgel. Shiro's arm was still lit and he wasn't sure if Keith was about to take a swing at him with that piece of bed. He looked terrified.

"If they extradite you back to the Galra, you'll end up where I was," Shiro said. "It's like the posters at school. Pay it forward."

"What?"

"Who, when, where."

"You're not funny. You're incomprehensible," Keith growled.

Shiro laughed and shook his head. "I'm hilarious. You're just an alien. Listen, if someone somewhere had been able to keep me out of the arenas, I would do anything to go back and make it happen. I can't do that but this way, I can keep it from being you."

"I'm a rebel and a criminal."

"I'm kind of hoping you'll turn out to be a rebel and a criminal in a more Han Solo, less terrorist kind of way," Shiro said.

Another glare and a baffled head shake. Keith apparently hadn't grown up on old American movies like Shiro had. Once upon a time, the moon bases where he'd spent his childhood had been state of the art. Back then, they'd had full internet hook ups instead of just an intranet on a handful of aging servers somewhere in the central dome. All that was left on the moon bases these days was military outposts. Mars was where the rich people lived and they'd taken all the luxuries with them but they'd left an ancient file library of old movies from the original settlers. Shiro had been about nine the first time he'd seen Star Wars and had watched the whole run a few times during the years before they'd moved back to Earth.

"Are you planning on going on a killing spree?" Shiro asked.

"No."

"Bombing something?"

"Not today."

"Good enough.

Shiro turned and walked away and a moment later, he heard Keith behind him. A glance back told him that he hadn't put his weapon down but Shiro was pretty sure he wasn't going to get hit over the head. They crept out across the courtyard, waiting for disaster. Someone was going to call an alarm. Someone was going fire off shots. Once they were out in open space, he started worrying that something was going to go sideways. He went slow and steady. The courtyard was tiled in slabs of blue gray stone and their footsteps echoed. He hurried into the darker shadows along the base of the wall that separated the castle from the city beyond. Keith kept easy pace.

Shiro tried the door that the princess had used to lead him into the marketplace the day she had taken him to the hangar but it was locked. He poked at the keypad but it wouldn’t even light up to tell him that he had entered the wrong code. It had come to light as soon as Allura had touched it. No power. No electric locking systems.

Keith made a hacking sign with his hand and Shiro shook his head and pointed up. He had a better idea. There was a tree near the back of the prison building and he climbed up it and craned his neck until he could see out over the edge of the wall and into the market. There wasn’t a single light on. No alien convenience stores, no one working late, nothing. The city was silent and black.

Not just a power outage in the castle then.

“Guards?” Keith hissed.

Shiro shook his head and pulled himself up onto the wall. He didn’t drop down the other side into the marketplace. They needed to get to the wall and most direct route was along this wall to where it met the thicker one that ran along the dome. It would be faster than trying to remember the princess’s route through the old twisting streets of her city.

Up here, there was no guess work. He led the way along the top of the castle wall until they reached the city wall and then they could follow that border wall until he found the door she had taken him through. The power outage would give them cover but if someone came along with flashlights or lanterns, there wasn’t going to be anywhere to hide.

They walked along the wall in plain view. If they were seen, dropping off and running into the market was the closest thing he had to a plan but that didn’t look likely. The city was quiet. Most people had been asleep when the power had gone out so there was no one to be alarmed by the lack of streetlights. The Alteans relied on their technology so completely that there didn’t even seem to be any guards to avoid.

He saw a few shapes moving in the darkness below him but they were all headed in other directions. No one came close to the wall. They only caught sight of a handful of lights bobbing along behind the windows of the castle. The gardens were empty. The farther he went, the less he worried. The castle complex was huge and he was working his way along the wall that ran parallel to private gardens when he saw the murder.

He froze when he saw the movement and hissed out a breath when he saw the body fall.

“Keith,” he said in a voice that was more air than sound.

The response was a swearword, just as soft.

The garden was a little private space that was full of so many flowers that he didn’t need to see them in the dark to know they were there. The floral perfume filled the night air. It was cloying and made the scene surreal. Flowers and the distubingly familiar way that a body fell when it was lifeless. The doors were open and a guard stood in the middle of the space with a flashlight that he was casting over the trees. Shiro pulled back into the shadows where a tree would keep them from view.

His mind replayed it for him in the moment after it happened. One figure cut out of the dark of the walls and caught the guard with the light as he crossed a narrow garden. Shiro stayed frozen on the wall. He didn’t make a sound. The instincts from the arena overpowered everything else as his adrenaline shot up. Keith was there beside him, quiet and coiled.

All he had was a year’s worth of broken memories but the truth remained: he knew that if you made a sound, you died too.

The body fell in slow motion. First, to its knees then forward. The light he carried rolled away in the grass, casting mad shadows on the wall. Shiro watched it roll to a stop. It shone on the wall just below them. The murderer had kept going and had disappeared through the open doors and into the castle.

“Don’t,” Keith muttered. “Leave it. Let’s go.”

Shiro had been prepared to label this night a freak accident. An electrical storm had cut power to the city or an incompetent maintenance department had damaged a power station. It was good luck for a pair of criminals looking for a way out and bad luck for most people. It wasn’t anything to be worried about.

Until he saw a body hit the ground.

He could turn and go. He had made the decision to just make a run for it with this second rate alien Han Solo kid. When the only way out was Ellis’s scholarship, it hadn’t seemed like such a bad idea but the arenas were still out there. The Holts probably hadn’t survived but maybe they had. He needed to find them. He had a responsibility to do something. Didn't he? Maybe he could do something for someone else.

He wasn't cut out to be a magical university student. If he'd ever been suited to that, the year in the arenas had beaten it out of him. He might be a broken mess of anxiety and adrenaline but maybe he could turn that to something good. He could just leave this planet behind and go on to become something else. No magic lessons. No princesses. No flower gardens and banquet halls and being called pilot in that fond tone.

Keith punch him in the arm and his eyes flashed to glowing eye for a moment before fading back to a darker colour.

“I need to make sure someone’s alive,” he said.

“Someone giving you a key isn’t worth risking your damn life.”

Shiro didn’t respond to that. He was leaving Altea. He was going to go see what the rebels had to offer. He was going to try and find his crew. He was going to try and do something about the arenas.

But first, he needed to know that she wasn't the target of an assassination attempt.

He gave Keith a hurried series of instructions about where to find the hangar and then dropped down over the edge of the wall. He looked up and got another flash of yellow eyes before he waved Keith on. Keith was scowling. He usually was. Shiro wasn't sure he'd ever seen a smile from him.

“I’ll get us a ride. You’ve got an hour,” he hissed.

Shiro flashed him a smile that went unreturned and then turned back to the castle. He kept to the shadows of the trees as he edged towards the body. He knew before he got there that the only thing he would find would be a corpse. There hadn’t been a sound. The man had been dead before he finished collapsing.

Adrenaline was pushing Shiro’s magic up and though he was keeping the arm under control, his other senses were creeping out. The weight of living things was there. He could feel other people in the world around him but not from this body. The dead had no quintessence left. It faded. Questions about souls ricocheted around inside his head for a moment but he didn't have time for that.

The man wore an Altean guard uniform but he wasn’t familiar. He was thin and long limbed and his throat had been cut with such depth that his head barely clung to the rest of his body. The grass was soaked with blood. Shiro stayed still for a moment. The light hadn’t caught anyone’s attention. There were no footsteps. None of the living things in the castle were close.

If there was someone killing people on the castle grounds, there was a very good chance that they had a specific goal. This could be misdirection. A power outage so it would be harder to track an intruder. Keith had mentioned motion sensors when he'd told the story of how he got caught. No power. No sensors. Everyone had taken the possibility that Shiro was an assassination attempt against the princess very seriously. Maybe he had been the misdirection all along.

If someone was prowling around the palace, planning assassinations, it was the princess who was in danger.

No one was raising the alarm. Everything was silent and peaceful.

He rubbed the scar tissue over the bridge of his nose and then turned and headed into the castle. He had very little light and very few memories to go by but he found the dining hall by accident. It was silent and empty. From there, his memories were good enough that he could double back to the wing where her bedroom was.

The wing had been empty when he had spent a night. Now it was full. The energy of living people pushed against his magic and he hated it. He wanted to scream at them all to get out of his head but they were asleep. It wasn’t their fault that they existed. He sucked his powers in closer to him. He could learn this. He could do this.

Once all this was over, he was going to get the arm removed. Once it was gone, these ridiculous magic tricks would go with it. He found the room where he had spent that one night and then tiptoed across the hall to Allura’s room. No guards now that he was gone. There would be patrols probably but the guard who had been stationed in this hall when he'd been here last had been because of him, not her.

For a long moment, he hovered in the hallway.

He didn’t knock.

He just turned the handle and stepped inside.

The room was opulent. He knew she was a princess but the room was still almost unimaginable after weeks in a prison cell. This one room was big enough to feature two sitting areas and a little office desk and bookshelves by the window. Thick curtains hung around the bed, the room was carpeted with heavy brocade, everything smelled like flowers and vanilla, there was art on every wall and dresses left flung over the backs of sofas. It was warm and soft and inviting and he hesitated in the doorway.

She wasn't going to be happy to find him sneaking around her room.

This was not his responsibility but he was already in motion.

He crept over to the bed and tapped her on the shoulder.

“Don’t be dead,” he whispered. She wasn’t. He could feel that but the words escaped.

“Why would I be dead?” she asked.

She asked it in a mumble. Her head was buried in pillows and her hair was a loose mess of curls that stuck up in all directions. She fumbled to push pillows away from her face and look up. He couldn’t see her clearly but he could make out enough details by moonlight to tell that she was rumpled and confused. She frowned at him. Then shook her head and frowned harder.

"Pilot?" A long pause. "What are you doing in here? How did you get in here?"

“Because there is a murderer running around your house,” he said.

“What?”

She was awake now. Her movements went from slow fumbling to sharp and fast. She rolled up out of the bed and pushed past him. He stayed still and stood beside her as she punched the button on the lamp but the room stayed stubbornly dark.

He caught her hand, slowing her down before she stomped off somewhere else on some mission only she understood, “The power is out. It took out everything, even the prison systems.”

“What are you still doing here?” she asked.

“Checking to make sure that you aren’t dead,” he said.

She frowned. She stepped away from him and pushed her hair out of her face. She was dressed. Her hair was loose but otherwise she looked like she had earlier that evening. There were books and at least two tablet screens spread across her bed and she had kicked a few more bits of mess loose when she’d swung to her feet. She always looked neat and tidy but apparently she was messy. Now was not the time to find that endearing but he did.

“Are you sure it isn’t the exercise?” she asked.

“An exercise?”

She sat down on the edge of the bed. She shoved some books away and one fell off the bed to land on another on the floor. Shiro picked one up but he couldn't read Altean and had no idea why she had half of library of thick textbooks piled on her bed. She picked up one of the screens but it didn’t activate when she punched the buttons. He didn’t stood there with the book in hand and waited.

“Yes,” she said. “The graduating class from the academy try and steal a piece of jewelry from the royal family. Sometimes they find a few loop holes in the system along the way so we can improve security. It’s a big game. They’ve got three weeks to pull it off, this is early but it's probably them. Who else would it be? The sensors don’t go down with the power, we aren’t idiots. There hasn't been an alarm.

Shiro tried to process that. It seemed reasonable. She was comfortable with it, her initial worry had evaporated and she seemed unbothered to have him standing over her in her bedroom. She was still frowning at her powered down tablet but otherwise, didn’t seem worried. The security would have known that the exercise was coming which was why no one was reacting too strongly to the power outage. There was no alarm because no one thought to raise one.

“I’ll show you,” she said rolling sideways and rummaging in the blankets for the smaller thing he thought of as a smart phone.

Her face fell when that one didn’t activate. Her back up system was down. She looked up at Shiro and finally snapped all the way awake. She frowned down at the phone and then looked up at him again.

He let her anxiety kick him back into full gear. He'd been so surprised that he had let her calm him down for a moment but there was no way this was a training exercise.

“There’s a dead body in the garden outside the dining hall,” he told her.

“What?"

“A guard had his throat cut tonight. It wasn’t an accident. No military would keep a cadet exercise going after someone was nearly decapitated. I don’t know what is going on but it isn’t a normal exercise. This could be Keith’s people or it could be someone else but it isn’t nothing,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“I checked on the body, the blood on my pants is still wet. I’m very sure.”

She got up and pushed past him to a table by the window. He could see her more clearly in the moonlight. She checked something on the window frame, running her fingers along some piece of the security system and shifting from worried to a determined anger.

It was the first time he'd ever seen it. The expression on her face when she turned around made her look different. Straight backed, confident, and angry. This was a woman who was going to be queen of a planet someday and in that moment, he could see it. .

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

“Figure this out. Come on."

Chapter Text

Allura stood in her own room beside the Pilot while her thoughts spun in circles. Anxieties and fears chased themselves through her mind. The most disastrous of those fears was the thought of the fires on Valina coming for her city, her planet, her people. Each new image rose up behind her eyes and she had to push them aside to think straight. It was her responsibility to come up with a plan.

She had fallen asleep surrounded by law books. She hated to be ignorant and that evening’s conversation had left her feeling stupid and lost. There had been talk of war declarations and the details of intergalactic treaty law in the meeting after they’d finished being shocked and horrified by the video. Allura still wanted to blast it wide across the Alliance comm lines and entertainment broadcasts but she’d lost that argument. Digging through the books for precedents and documentation until she fell asleep hadn’t made her feel any better.

That all paled against what was happening right now. She was awake in the middle of the night because an alien had snuck into her room and the palace was under attack. She looked up at him and he met her eye and waited for her to make the decision. She nodded though he hadn’t said anything.

“Let’s go,” she said.

The Pilot fell in step at her side and she had the mad desire to pull him aside and explain everything she knew and ask him what he thought she should do. He was an alien and it wasn’t his place to decide what she would do. He also had no clearance and while she trusted him not to hurt anyone, she wasn’t going to trust him with the details of intergalactic law. She could have sent him away. All the reasons not to tell him everything were also reasons not to bring him along.

Instead, she kept him at her side as she marched down the hall.

She hammered on the door to Dira’s room and questioned whether or not this was the best choice. Dira answered with a glower. She wore an inappropriate nightgown that didn’t cover the marks on her arms and barely covered her chest at all. Her eyes were puffy with sleep and her hair was a disaster.

“I need you to go across the grounds and wake the temple. The power is out and there are intruders in the castle. I need your mother and everyone else awake so we can start trying to find these people without technology,” she said.

“Is Cotton Candy your mother?” the Pilot asked.

“Shush,” Allura said to him but it was too late.

Dira pushed her hair back from her face and tilted her head at him with a spreading smile. Allura knew that Dira had heard her but all her attention was on the Pilot. Allura glared but Dira ignored her for a moment.

“Oh, Quizznak, what are you doing running around in the middle of the night with your super secret hot alien? He is -”

Allura snapped a hand over her mouth. She did not want to know Dira’s opinions on whether or not he was hot and she did not have the time to discuss it. “Put on some clothing and go to the temple Dira. Now. Please.”

Dira gave the pilot another look and then whirled on her heel to go find something to wear. Allura headed down the hall to Quill’s room and had a nearly exact replica of the conversation except she sent him to the guard house.

“We are not waking everyone in a panic. This is going to be quiet and careful. Find Miranda not the Captain. She’s not going to try and make it a grand heroic rescue. She’ll just deal with the problem,” Allura said.

Quill was looking at the pilot not her when he said, “Where are you going?”

“To wake my father.”

Thankfully, that was as far as Quill’s curiosity went. He looked back at her and nodded as he pushed his feet into his boots and hurried away. Allura turned and went in the opposite direction. She was going to have years of teasing and questions to go through later. Dira had been curious but Quill gave her a look that said he was very sure what she was doing in the company of an alien in the middle of the night. Dira was going to come to the same very wrong conclusion as soon as she was awake enough to think it through.

Allura led the way down the hall to the servants’ stairs. If there were intruders, they would be more likely to use the more easily recognizable paths. The servant’s stair was behind a white door that looked like every other door on the floor except it didn’t have a sensor lock. It just opened. She didn’t stop as she went through it and started down.

The pilot kept pace with her. She still wasn’t used to using his name when she thought about him. She paused. Hesitated. Without overhead lighting, it was very dark and he bumped into her hurrying to pull away. She turned and said, “Takashi?”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

She rolled up a ball of light. The same little ball she had created that day that they had played Zenda in the temple. Blue white and small enough to sit in her palm. He was on the stair above her and the light cast his face with alarming shadows. She let the light go so it floated between them. It took a fraction of her attention but only a fraction.

“If you want to leave, now is the best time to do it,” she said.

“I know,” he said with a smile. He stepped down to stand beside her and the smirk was a little bit challenging.

“Are you going to steal a plane and go, or not?” she asked.

“Keith went on ahead to break into the hangar. I just want to make sure that you aren’t in any danger before I leave.”

She blinked slowly at him. “The Galra rebel that tore his furniture to pieces?”

“Yeah, that one.”

She shook her head but didn’t question it. He had a soft spot for the guy but Allura waved it off. There were larger problems that evening than a Galra rebel who didn’t know anything about anything. He had been a useless prisoner.

“I don’t need you to save me, Pilot.”

“I know.”

“You’re still coming, aren’t you?”

“If you want me gone, I’ll go.”

Allura considered him as they stood there in the dark with nothing to see by but the little magic trick from a children’s game. He waited. She snapped her hand shut and the ball shattered into a little rain of sparks. Another moment of silence in the dark before she spoke.

“If you want to come, I’m not going to send you away,” she said.

She put her hand back on the rail and hurried down the stairs. She could hear him behind her. This stairwell opened out on the lowest floor of the residential wing where it connected to the original structure of the Castle. They were going to need to cross through the main part of the building, where the dining halls and the meeting rooms were, to reach their destination. Her father had his own suite of rooms in the blue wing and the only other way there was through the gardens.

Allura listened and then stepped out into the hallway. They made it about ten steps before Takashi grabbed her and pulled her back into a closet with him. She gasped but he clamped his hand over her mouth before she could ask him any questions. He was close and still and coiled tight. His metal hand hung at his side but there was tension in it like he was ready to lash out.

She turned her head to the side to look at the door. She could see lights moving. The door wasn’t properly shut and now they weren’t going to be able to close it without the motion being visible to whoever was coming up the hall. The voices in the hall were speaking softly but they weren’t speaking Altean.

The palace staff was Altean. The palace residents were Altean. The only alien in the entire place should have been the pilot who was leaning in to get a glimpse out through the door. Too close. He was far too close. It was hard to think things through clearly when she was pinned back against the wall like this. She put a hand up on his chest to stop him from getting any closer to her.

He drew back and mouthed a word to her that was probably an apology.

The voices drew closer.

Still whispering.

Galactic common was her best guess. The rhythm of it was familiar but still too soft to be understandable. They walked quietly but she could hear their footsteps as they approached.

The light crawled up the wall as they got nearer, the little gap in the door only left a small channel of light but the Pilot’s shoulder was in it.

They were going to get caught.

She leaned up close. He was too warm. This was about to be a very bad idea but it was the only one she had. She ran her fingers through his hair which had gotten very long while he was in prison and would cover his ears well enough that he could pass as Altean for a few minutes at least. He went from tense to rigid at the touch but didn’t pull away as she rearranged it to cover his ears as much as possible.

She whispered in his ear, “We are going to get caught. When we do, I’m an upper floor maid and you’re a gardener and we were using the power outage to fool around.”

She changed the color of her hair and made herself a little shorter. The Pilot stared at her as her appearance shifted. Dark brown hair wouldn’t be as distinctive as the white. People noticed the white. She shrugged out of her dressing gown and wadded it up to shove in the corner. It looked like something a princess would own but the jumpsuit underneath was nothing special. She reached out and undid the top few buttons on the pilot’s shirt. It was a nondescript enough outfit that no one would question it. Thank the stars he wasn’t running around in a prisoner’s clothes.

Outside the conversation was passing away and maybe they were going to manage to sneak out of this without getting noticed but another group came up the wide stairs that led away from the ballroom and the library below them. This group paused outside the closet door and then all their lights went of.

The pilot exhaled and looped his arm around her waist. He already had her backed up against the wall but now he was pressed in close. She tensed in surprise even though this had been her damn idea. His metal hand was on her waist and the other hand slid into her hair and tilted her face up. For a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her. The body language was all right but his eyes were worried as he looked down at her.

The door opened and she hesitated to stare at the silhouette in the gap.

Maid. Fooling around in a closet. What would a maid caught fooling around in a closet say? She scrambled for the answer and started to talk. She started to apologize and pull away from him and do her very best to look embarrassed and sheepish. She started apologizing and stammering in a rush. The pilot said nothing. He didn’t speak Altean. That could ruin their little ruse.

The man standing in the doorway was not a guard or one of the supervisors. She had known that but until she was actually looking at an alien in combat black, carrying a weapon and grinning at her, she didn’t really believe it.

“Stupid kids, fucking in the closet,” he said softly to someone else. “You’d best come on out now.”

He spoke Galactic Common, a language that Allura knew well enough but rarely used. He had a thick accent that she didn’t recognize. Someone else, a different species, stuck their head in the door and considered the scene. The pilot still had his hands on her and she forced herself to step back into that touch rather than away from it. He pulled her in close to his chest.

“Are you armed?” the alien asked.

The pilot shook his head.

“If you’re lying, I will shoot your girlfriend.”

“Not armed,” he said in Common. The pilot’s common was even worse than this new alien. His accent was all wrong and he didn’t know how to make a full sentence.

“Out,” the alien waved a gun at them.

Allura was not going to panic.

She was a princess.

She was a politician.

She had people to protect and things to do.

She was not going to panic.

The pilot kept her close. There were five aliens in the hallway, two were Clexan but the others were all different species. They were checked to see if they hiding weapons. They weren’t. The pilot’s arm was overlooked as just a prosthetic.

“What do we do with them?”

“Take them downstairs. They’re just servants. Harlin is putting stragglers in the ballroom. They’ll find them all there later.”

“Alive or dead?” her pilot asked.

“Alive unless you do something stupid. We’re not here to kill anybody.”

“That’s a big gun for someone who doesn’t want to kill,” Allura said.

Her pilot tensed beside her but the leader of the aliens just snickered and waved the weapon in her face. She recoiled from it. It wasn’t an act. She tried to draw the pieces of her composure back together but it was hard and she only managed it because she had the pilot to lean on. She could have taken a group this small in a fight but that risked raising the alarm and there were too many people in this wing to risk that. Starting a fight would get people killed.

“Leave alone her,” the pilot said.

He got the grammar wrong but the tone of his voice was enough to make his meaning clear no matter what he had said. He was against her back. His arm came across her chest and his palm rested on her shoulder. The metal was heavy and cooler than a living limb would be. She pressed back into him because it was a good way to play up the act.

And it helped.

His cold calculated calm washed over her and kept the panic at bay. She hadn’t thought to panic the last time the castle had been infiltrated but that had been one person, alone. This was a large heavily armed group. They were flanked by two aliens who held large weapons. Allura had no weapons training. She wasn’t even sure if these were particle blasters or if they shot bullets or if they were just toys for show.

“Walk, children, quietly,” the alien said.

Down in the ballroom were a collection of palace staff and a handful of guards sitting in a small group against the far wall. Some of them were people Allura recognized but not all. The group of aliens standing over them held the same large weapons and everyone’s attention turned to them as they entered. They were herded into place and sat down. Neither Dira or Quill was in the group.

“What are they looking for?” Allura asked in a whisper to the person beside her. Kitchen staff by the uniform, probably doing the overnight prep shift. The woman was old enough to be Allura’s mother and gave her wide panicked eyes instead of an answer.

“Quiet,” came the snapped answer.

Rebel groups passed in and out of the great hall, checking in and then moving on again. It reminded Allura of the search her own guards had run for an intruder. A few people were brought down to be added to the group of prisoners but it seemed to be a precaution so that they couldn’t raise the alarm. Everyone was tense but as the time wore on, terror faded into something wary and watchful. Allura stayed still but she started taking stock of species and weapons and possibilities.

The next group that came down the hall was covered by a low green haze. Someone in the group was screaming but the small shield was dampening the sound. They hit the stairs and the yelling man broke away from the group and ran. Allura recognized him.

“Winst,” she said aloud just before he crumpled.

It took a moment to figure out why. Her first thought was that he had tripped. He didn’t get up. He hadn’t had a chance to make a sound. Allura stood. She didn’t remember doing it and the Pilot had come up with her and grabbed her arm to keep her close to him. She started to pull away. She knew what had happened before she understood it. The horror hit before her rational mind had caught up.

The carpet on the stairs was a pale green and the stain of blood was spreading out from where he’d landed. The rebels around them flew into action. Talking and moving around them as the rest of Winst’s group was brought over. Allura wasn’t the only one standing and they stood together in a tight knot of near strangers as they watched. Someone was sobbing quietly to her left.

Takashi slung the metal arm around her shoulder and pulled her in close to his side. He did it easily, like they were the best of friends. The arm was heavy but not cold, curled in so that she was turned into his chest. She recoiled a little. She needed to do something and having him grab hold of her wasn’t helping her fix anything.

"Scared, please," he whispered.

She sighed and couldn’t force her muscles to unlock. Something needed to be done.

"Please," he said again. “Please don’t start a fight. These people can’t win it and we can’t win it alone. Please.”

His mouth was against her ear, she felt it moving and it set her on edge. She needed space to think. To plan. To fix this. He kept the arm there and getting away from him was going to mean pushing away which would be noticeable. He was right. She didn't want to be noticed. She still looked like herself. That her hair was short and dark and she was wearing a plain training jumpsuit made her unremarkable at first glance but there was a very good chance that one of these people would recognize her if they were paying too much attention.

It took time to unlock each muscle one at a time. She turned away from Winst on the stairs and looked at Takashi’s chest. He was breathing evenly and his cool calm hadn’t shattered like hers had. Once she relaxed her muscles, he gave her a little more space but didn't pull away entirely. She gave him a look and he touched her face with the flesh and blood hand. Too warm. One of the medical reports had mentioned that. Human body temperatures were higher than Alteans. She flinched again but he didn't let her go. His hand tilted her face up so that she was looking at him.

His expression was eloquent and she hated him for being right. This was not the time for changing the story. The story was going to keep her alive. She wanted to do more. She didn’t want to just hide in plain sight like this while people panicked around her. It was her job to fix this.

"Don't be scared, Grace," he said in Common loud enough for other people to hear. He was covering for her and she forced herself to fall back into the role of a scared little staff member named Grace instead of being herself.

His common was so thickly accented that it was hard to understand and he obviously didn't have many words to use. What did one learn from prisoners in a gladiator pit? What did people on their way to kill each other in battle say to one another? Had someone taught him or had he just picked things up on his own? He dropped his arm from around her shoulders but he took her hand instead. She sighed and leaned in against him and kept her eyes down.

“Shiro!” someone said and this time it was the pilot who locked up. His anxiety hit her like it was a physical thing even before he turned to look over her head at the voice. The guards around them looked too. Allura couldn’t make sense of the moment. The person waved and hurried across the floor to them.

“Jesus man, I thought you were dead, how’d you end up here?” he said when he got closer.

Another human. The same near Altean features of the pilot but a thinner, smaller person with brown eyes wearing the same uniform as the rest of the rebels. They didn’t look too happy about his cheery greeting though. For a moment, she thought there was some sort of mistake. Her pilot wasn’t a rebel. He had never given any indication that he knew these people.

She had trusted him and the idea of him being an ally of people who were running around the castle murdering guards left her cold. Except he was the one who had told her that story. Had he dragged her right into a trap? She looked up at him and his anxiety hadn’t changed. He still looked upset but he nodded a greeting at the new human.

“Hi Matt,” he said.

Chapter Text

Allura was pressed in close and she was so upset that her anxiety was spilling over onto him. He was frozen, staring at Matt and trying to put the pieces together. There were places where Matthew Holt belonged and raiding an alien palace as a member of a party of murderers was not one of those places.

"Holy shit, man, it's been ages, I almost didn't recognize you!" Matt said.

He was closer now and talking like they'd bumped into each other at a high school reunion. Shiro glanced back at the body on the stairs. They'd just walked around it. People were still crying. Matt Holt stood there in the flat black uniform of the other rebels with a hat pulled down over his light brown hair and a smile on his face.

"I thought you were dead. When they separated us, I thought I'd never see you again," Matt said. "Did they take Dad with you?"

"No," Shiro said.

"Who is this?" Allura asked in that imperious princess voice. She kept her voice low but it was a command. Shiro had never been in an undercover situation where someone’s life might be on the line if they were caught in a lie. He was still a little surprised at how bad Allura was it.

"This is Matt Holt. He was on the Kerberos crew when we crashed," Shiro said. He scrambled for a story to explain who Allura was and settled on saying, "Matt, this is Grace."

He looked back the body and at the rebels around them who were watching the conversation with mild curiosity. No one seemed too worried.

"You speak Altean?" Matt asked impressed, seemingly still oblivious.

"No, I have translator," Shiro said. "How did you end up making friends with the murder squad?"

"They're not murderers, they're just political activists," Matt said.

Shiro nodded in the direction of the body on the stairs. Matt frowned. The person beside him, the one who had elbowed him earlier, followed their gaze. Matt looked surprised. The alien beside him had pale yellow skin, a flat nose, and soft horns that slanted down from either side of his forehead. Olkari. The name was slow to come. Shiro had met a handful of the species in the arenas. His jaw set immediately into anger. His face wasn't human but there was no doubting the expression.

"Friel," he growled out.

"Shit," Matt muttered.

Not so oblivious then. That made Shiro feel a little better but didn’t explain anything about the fake cheer he’d been spinning a minute before.

"Enzo," the alien who must have been Friel said. He spoke coolly, arrogant enough to annoy Shiro on principle. He turned to look at the Olkari man. "Now that we're properly introduced, what's the report?"

Friel pushed up a visor on a helmet and Shiro recognized him. Friel was the man on the video screen when Shiro had called in on the chip that morning. Four eyes, brown skin, narrow and taller than Shiro had expected from the image of him sitting. Smug. Allura lifted her chin and Shiro cleared his throat and shook his head at her. She was going to start a fight and that was going to be a disaster. She went quiet again but all her fear had settled into a seething sort of anger.

"How many are dead?" Enzo asked without pausing.

"No more than were necessary."

Enzo pointed at the stairs. One of his hands was held in a tight fist at his side. Shiro was still running possibilities. Enzo didn't look like the most powerful member of the group but he was also the only one who wasn’t watching everything happen with wariness or fear. Friel was the leader, people didn’t like him, people still did what he said.

"That is an unarmed man in his pajamas, Friel, you left him on the stairs. Did you shoot him? Did you order someone else to do it?" Before Friel could answer, Enzo snapped his fingers at Matt and the guard standing behind him. "Holt, Aylen, pick the man up and lay him at the bottom of the stairs."

"He's dead," Friel said. "It was a clean shot."

"Were you raised by pyla?" Allura asked, breaking her silence. Shiro held her a little closer and she pulled out of his hold to stand straighter as she said, "Do you have no respect for the dead?"

The set of her jaw and her posture were all princess and she was supposed to be a maid. She was not supposed to draw attention to herself. These were not the kind of people who needed a hostage worth as much as the only child of the widower king.

"Aylen, Holt," Enzo said again and Matt and the other rebel hesitated.

"Do not start anything," Shiro said into Allura's ear and then he went to start it himself.

Aylen still held their weapon and Matt was looking at Friel like he was afraid to offend him. Shiro stepped away from Allura and grabbed Matt by the shoulder and shoved him forward. He was picking sides and he was taking Matt along for the ride. No one stopped them. Matt didn't look happy about it but he didn't argue with Shiro as they crossed the empty space while half the room watched them.

Shiro was stalling. It was more respectful to lay Winst out than to leave his body on a staircase but it wasn’t his real reason. He wanted to give Quill and Dira time to wake up help.

He hadn't exactly liked Winst the one time that they had met but to be shot and left dead on the floor was inexcusable. Shiro was fighting down memories of the arenas. Of bodies left lying in the gravel as the gates closed, of people he had known dragged away by an ankle or their hair or whatever the guard tasked with garbage removal grabbed first. He kept himself in the moment by letting the magic slip out enough that he could feel Allura. Matt was close and he could feel the disgust and fear and worry there too which helped. It helped to be someplace where people still found death horrifying.

Shiro took Winst shoulders and turned him over. His face was slack. Matt hovered. His anxiety cranked up a little higher and he resisted glancing back over his shoulder.

"Take his feet," Shiro said.

They lifted the body and carried it down the stairs to lie on the floor. He wasn't sure if there was a respectful way to lay out a body on Altea so he just laid Winst down on his back with his hands on either side of him. He took a few steps back, grabbed Matt by a loop on on the shoulder of his jacket, an empty weapons holster, and hauled him back towards the group. Matt stumbled and then got his feet under him.

"There's blood on your shirt," Matt said.

"He got shot in the head. There's some on my pants, too. it happens when people are murdered. Do your friends speak English?" Shiro asked.

It was sharper than he'd intended it to be. He had just been thinking about going out to find Matt, he should have been happier to see him but the Matt he remembered had been a science nerd, this person wore the uniform of a group that had killed two people tonight.

Matt shook his head, "They speak Galactic Common, mostly, it's a language-"

"I know what common is," Shiro said. "What are the chances they're going to kill all the hostages?"

"They're not hostages."

"Matt? Seriously?”

They had made it back to the group. The group of people in their pajamas and their kitchen uniforms and Allura standing in front of them with her expression hard and furious. He met her gaze and she glared just as harshly at him. Later. He could deal with that later. As long as she lived through this, she could hate him all she wanted. Shiro stopped before he got to the group. He folded his arms and stood in front of Friel. He was wearing a plain workman’s uniform that covered the arm. Friel was taller than he was and used to being intimidating.

Shiro waited for him to speak first.

“What do you want?” he asked.

"This is about me?" Shiro asked.

"Who are you?"

Shiro took the chip out of his pocket and held it up where Friel could see it. He had assumed the video call had gone in both directions but apparently not. He was holding the chip with the metal hand so they could see it. His anger took him by surprise. It was the death that was setting his teeth on edge. If they'd stormed into the castle to kidnap him because he wasn't returning their phone calls, that would be fine but there were at least two dead. Two people were dead and it was already weighing on his conscience.

Allura came to stand beside him and frown at the chip. She didn't start asking questions but she watched him with the same distrust that she watched Friel. Shiro cast her a glance but she wouldn’t catch his eye. If it came down to choosing sides in this mess of a night, he was taking hers but she watched him like he was going to throw her to the wolves. He caught her fingers and squeezed before she could pull away. She folded her hands in front of her and went back to glaring at Friel.

"I was worried something had happened to you Champion," Friel said in a tone that set Shiro's thoughts spinning.

Champion.

No.

He would not reach for the Princess again after she had jerked away from him like that but he wanted to. He wanted that tether. Champion was not a title he wanted to hear tonight. It was not a title he wanted to remember and he had to fight to push those feelings away again.

The word Champion had an ocean of memories behind it that he was not in any way prepared for. He could feel them building. He was going to lose track of this conversation. He was going lose track of who he was. He was going to lose a lot when those memories and all the emotion finally hit him.

Allura reached out and grabbed his wrist and the building pressure broke a little. Her magic was a shield. Just touching her was enough to throw it up like a defense against everything. He changed her hold so he could lace his fingers with hers and she let him do that but she was still mad at him.

“Later,” he promised then he raised his eyes back to Friel who was watching him like a predator looking for a weakness.

The piece of Shiro that was still on the edge of that rush of memory and the person he’d been when he was the Champion wanted to lash out. He needed to do damage hard and fast and then get clear. He was outnumbered.

Allura squeezed his hand again with a little spike of alarm.

He pushed that instinct for violence down and flashed Friel a smile instead. He put his other arm up on Enzo’s shoulder. He had expected it to be Matt standing that close but once he’d started the movement he just followed through with it. He shrugged.

"Maybe I just didn't want to be your errand boy,” he told Friel as casually as he could manage through his tattered nerves.

"We took you out of the arenas. You owe us."

"Bullshit. Your Ulaz guy stuck wires in my brain so he could install an unstable piece of tech that had brought me nothing but trouble. You sent a kid in here after me knowing full well that his chances of survival were basically zero and when that didn't work, you show up and start murdering civilians?" Shiro's voice had gone cold by the time he got to the end of it.

"They weren't all civilians."

Shiro might have started throwing around threats but Allura squeezed his hand again and reeled it back in. He glanced at her and then at Matt who was standing beside Enzo now and looking jumpy. Friel scared the rest of his crew. Shiro looked at him again but there was nothing to explain why anyone might find him intimidating. He let that opinion show on his face.

"What do you want me to steal and why do think it needs to be me?" he asked in the casual voice again.

"This isn't the time or the place. We'll tell you when we get back to the shuttle."

"No."

"Excuse me?"

"I'm not following you anywhere."

Friel took a step forward and Shiro took a step back from both him and Allura's warning hand on his arm. Enzo took a step back and Allura pulled away from Friel who was still coming at Shiro like he was going to pick him up and carrying him off to their shuttle.

Shiro held his ground and shifted his stance and Friel either underestimated him or didn’t notice.

Shiro punched the alien in the face.

Human hand. Not the metal one. This wasn't about killing him, it was just about making a point. Friel's head snapped back and behind him there were a few swearwords. He came up with blood dripping from his nose.

"Don't," Friel said holding up a hand.

He wasn't talking to Shiro, he was warding off one of his other soldiers. So that answered a question. Shiro was important to them. Matt was frozen beside him. At seventeen, Shiro had been the kind of idiot who took risks like this. But this wasn’t a teenager’s impulsiveness, this was some strategy from his time in the arenas. This was a half remembered instinct kicking in. Starting the little fight to test the waters before the big fight came.

"Why does it matter if they shoot me or not? I'm a nobody from a border planet that hasn't even made contact with the Alliance," Shiro said. What had Allura called him when he first arrived? "Just a pawn in the Galra's power play."

"Shiro, dude, stop," this from Matt.

"The Galra fleet is strip mining border worlds. They're draining them for quintessence," this from Enzo.

Shiro shot another look at Friel and then turned his back on the man and raised his eyebrows at Enzo and nodded for him to continue. Enzo hesitated but didn't look to Friel. Choosing sides.

"We don't know what they plan to do with the quintessence reserves but they're destroying entire planets to get it. They can't be stopped because they have a weapon that we can't compete against."

"By the stars," Allura said in a low voice. "You want to steal it from Zarkon himself?"

She was back at Shiro’s side, all her attention on Enzo, eyes wide and mouth open like she’d never been so shocked by anything in her life. Shiro turned to her and spread his hands.

"Steal what?" Shiro asked.

"The Black Lion of Voltron,” Friel said. H

is smile was smug and he directed it Allura. The rest of the Alteans shifted. They’d been quiet and frozen but there was a shift in their energy when he said that. Shiro was sure for a moment that they were going to revolt at just the mention of Voltron.

Shiro shot Allura a look and the way she was staring at Friel was enough to answer the question that Shiro was going to ask her. The missing lion that belonged to the set of four in her hangar. This was about that fifth one. Shiro crossed his arms.

“No,” Shiro started to say but Allura touched him and interrupted in a soft voice.

“What makes you think he can do it?” she asked.

Enzo interrupted. “We need to leave.”

Matt looked between them. Lost. Shiro tore his eyes away from Allura and scanned the room again. Friel and Enzo must have translators because he was speaking English to them both. It was possible that the rest of the room didn’t understand what was happening. Voltron might have been the only word anyone else understood.

“You’re coming with us,” Friel said to Shiro and then made a hand signal in the air above his head and started to walk away. Shiro just stared after him for a moment.

“We’re going,” Allura said.

Now he turned to stare down at her. “We?”

“Yes.”

“No. It is a terrible idea for me to go with these lunatics. It is far far worse for you to do it,” he said.

“He is not taking that lion,” she hissed at him. “Somebody has to take that lion but that man having control of it? Is not going to be an improvement. I’m going. You need me.”

“I’m not going. Nobody is going anywhere with the space pirate murderers,” he said.

That of course, wasn’t true, everyone but the four guards around the group of Alteans had fanned out. They’d gone in different direction. Matt and two others waited for Shiro. Matt looked panicked now. He’d always been pretty good in a crisis through training and on the mission itself. Matt wasn’t the type to panic but all the violence must have pushed him a step too far.

He glanced at the guards who hadn’t moved and around the very quiet castle. The rebels hadn’t traveled in a group. They’d gone in different directions so they’d be harder to catch but there wasn’t anyone to catch them. What had happened to Quill? The guard house was close and Hunk had mentioned dormitories which meant that there were guards in residence. Where were they?

“Shiro,” Matt said.

“Are you going to tell me you trust him, that this is a good idea?” Shiro asked.

“I’ve seen the planets, once they’ve been attacked. Tolzen. Xi. They’re worse than burned to the ground. They’re just rock, all the life is sucked out of them,” Matt said. “I didn’t know we were looking for you. I thought you were dead. It’s been a year. But if you’re the guy, if you’re the true Black Paladin or whatever they call it, you should try.”

“I watched Valina burn tonight. They got video out. I’ve seen what they’re doing,” Allura said. “He’s not wrong about what the Galra are doing. It’s worse than conquest.”

Shiro looked between them.

“I don’t trust him either,” Allura said.

Shiro held her gaze. He wasn’t entirely sure that she trusted him but she held out a hand. The Alteans around them were starting to whisper amongst themselves but they hadn’t gotten up yet. The three soldiers with guns were still hovering even Matt looked more worried than threatening.

“I’m going,” she said.

He nodded. “I’m going with you.”

Chapter Text

Allura closed her eyes and questioned every decision she had ever made. She stumbled and snapped her eyes open again. They were hurrying. The castle grounds were huge and the shuttle they were going to be launching from was out beyond the orchard.

The shuttle they were headed towards was an old Rellian class. She couldn't be sure of the model but the lines and colour choices were Rellian. It was scorched and battered. It had obviously taken a lot of abuse and not a lot of repairs. Rough high speed landings through atmosphere left that kind of scorching. Modern ships flown by competent pilots didn't burn up on re-entry. This thing look like it had burned up on re-entry more than once.

It didn’t look safe and it was overloaded.

"Remember the adamantium boulder simulation?" the Pilot said.

She turned to frown at him but he was talking to the other human. The nervous one with the pale skin who talked too fast. They were halfway across the yard and even from a distance they could tell that it was overloaded. The castle was still quiet around them. Where was everyone?

"Yeah we died, the weight ratios threw off the reentry," the other human said.

Her Pilot nodded towards the shuttle.

“It got us down here alright,” the other one said with a shrug. “It’s an alien ship. It’s well balanced. We’ll be fine! This isn’t a simulation. We were expected to fail the boulder one. It was rigged.”

Allura was too distracted to remember his name. She needed to know what had happened to the guards. Were people looking for her yet?

Allura dug in her pockets but she hadn't brought the comms panel with her. She had left it in her room when it hadn't connected to the emergency network. What else did she have on her that was trackable? Her translator was state of the art: it had an internal database and circuit so it didn't need an external network. She wasn't carrying anything else. The metal arm had enough tech in it to broadcast but her own techs had made sure it wouldn’t do that easily.

"Hey," Shiro said grabbing her hand and talking softly near her ear. He had pulled her in so she was nearly bumping into him as they walked. "You can turn around."

"No, I can't," she said.

“This isn’t a good idea,” he said.

She switched to Common because she wanted the others to hear it, “I’m staying with you.”

That wasn’t why she was doing this. Her life would be easier and simpler if he wasn’t in it. Letting him get on a shuttle and disappear would have been the best possible decision. She was doing this because a group of pirates should not have the Black Lion any more than Zarkon should and she was the only one in any position to do anything about it. Shiro met her gaze and she held it.

The others were hurrying on ahead and there wasn’t time to stop and discuss it all. There was barely time to stop and think about it all. They were jogging and the human pirate fell into step beside her.

"You know he's a huge nerd and 100% not worth leaving your planet for, right? Like he recites the names of exo-planets for fun. That kind of nerd. People think he's cool because he's tall but really, your boyfriend's a big dork and you could probably do a lot better," Matt - that was his name - said.

"Could you embarrass me sometime other than during my kidnapping?" Shiro asked.

"Later then, but the girl needs a chance to back out before it's too late," Matt said.

Allura looked back at the castle. His words rolled past her without registering.

It wasn't the leaving that was making her chest hurt. It was Dira and Quill. Had she sent them out to get killed by these people? She looked up ahead again at the over crowded shuttle and tried to breathe. Had they been found walking the palace grounds and been shot like Winst had? Was it her fault? Was it her fault for having kept the Pilot here all this time? How many people had died?

She reached for the comm panel again but it still wasn't there. It was still up in her room. Still dead from the power outage. She twisted her fingers into fists and did the next best thing. If Friel had been out shooting people the way he had shot Winst, people were in danger or injured and she needed to wake up someone who could help. It needed to be done before she left.

"Prepare yourself," she said in high Bessarian.

It was a religious language. The phrasing was used in one of the rituals she had been taught as a child. She couldn't actual speak it but Shiro's translator should still be able to translate it.

"For-" he started to ask but she was already doing it.

She all her controls on her power go and pushed hard. Her magic was strong enough that letting it out without control or intention was dangerous. She had only done this a handful of times since her magic had started presenting itself. She had been training to control it since before she had been able to use it. Now she let go and let the magic rush out.

Shiro winced, his arm flickered, and he snapped it into a fist as he stared at her. Matt just glanced over. Anyone in the palace with any sensitivity to quintessence was going to be jolted awake by the wave of power. She was a walking swell and she pushed that power out like it was a natural disaster in her hands. People would panic but at least they'd be up, at least they'd be out moving around and trying to help anyone who was injured.

"That was-" Shiro started.

"Necessary," she cut him off.

They were getting close.

Rellian ships wouldn't be able to read quintessence surges but the people in the ship were nervous as they piled in. The shuttle had a small cargo bay that had more than ten people in it already. They were standing and hanging onto the metal ribs in the ceiling and walls or sitting on the floor with their backs braced against the wall so they wouldn’t be jarred by take-off. Allura tried desperately to ignore them but she was too rattled to do it.

Letting the magic out was easy, blocking it back up and getting it back under control was harder. It was like a river and a dam. Building the dam took a very long time and tearing it down just a well placed bomb and a few seconds. She was too aware of everything. Of the people around her. Of the fear and the exhilaration and the anger. Of the planet. Of everything. Different people overlapping until they were all blurring together in a mass of energy and emotion. She could feel Altea below her and the palace starting to wake properly. She tried to throw her magic wide and find someone she recognized but the shuttle was already lifting.

They weren't going to get caught.

The flight bays were all run on the same emergency system that her comm panel was. There was no one to come after them until those locks could be opened manually which meant sending people down there. Even an old Rellian ship could get out of Altean airspace and into the shipping lanes before everyone could mobilize. Allura just wanted a chance that someone would have some idea what happened. Her rush of energy wasn’t going to get her rescued but she didn’t want rescued. She wanted to make sure that there were people up and moving around to find other people who needed help.

"It’s ok," his voice was soft and close and his hand curled around her cheek. Warm and solid and carrying enough power of his own that he pushed back some of the chaos. She was staring at his chest and forced herself to breathe every time he did. He said it again, "You're ok."

She dragged herself back together and looked up at him. They were standing in the middle of the cargo bay, people lined up on either side. Dark and crowded and loud but he was talking into her ear and he was taking up enough space in her head that it was easy to hear him.

"I'm fine," she said.

"I know. Hold on to me, we're going to hit the upper atmo in a minute and I don't know how well this ancient bus of a space ship is going to take it," he said.

He was holding onto the piping above but at her current height, she couldn't reach it. Why had she chosen to be short? She curled her fingers into his shirt and he dropped his arm around her shoulder to keep her steady. The ship put on the next burst of speed that it needed to break out of the gravitational pull of Altea and everything shook and rattled around them.

“Fun right?” Matt asked.

"I had better not die on a Rellian rustbucket older than my father," she muttered.

The ship pushed up through the atmosphere. Allura ran through the names of the layers in her head. Her memory called up gaseous components at different height and friction differentials that affected take off and landing. Speed. Power. Mathematics. In the moment, it wasn’t a calculation, it was a dull roar in her ears. The rattle and shake built and then cut off once they broke free.

The silence was a shock.

Allura knew that she had been lucky any time she had gone off world. She had always traveled in the cutting edge ships at careful speeds and trajectories. Shooting up out of the atmosphere in lazy circles so the shaking was minimal and the ride smooth. Still. That was worse than she could have imagined. Her fingers were clenched in Shiro’s shirt and he was holding onto her so she didn’t panic.

"We're fine, that wasn't so bad," Shiro said.

"What the hell kind of tech does your species have?" she asked. "Do you build ships out of concrete and wood?"

"No, Ms. Super Alien, but we just barely made it to the end of our solar system last year," he said.

She was only halfway listening. He was the most familiar thing on the ship and his magic was strong enough that as long as she stayed close, he was like a shield between her and the world. She was slowly reeling her quintessence back into place and getting it locked back down the way it was supposed to be. He helped. She closed her eyes and held on and put all her attention on that one task. She pushed aside everything but getting the quintessence back under control.

"She fall asleep?" Matt asked.

"I have no idea, she's holding on pretty tight so I don't think so," Shiro said.

"I’m right here, don’t talk about me like I’m child," Allura said.

"Sorry," Shiro said.

“Awake,” Matt said.

Allura gave up trying to keep her distance from him as the trip started to drag on. She reached for her comm panel again to check the distance to the destination and muttered a swearword. The comm wasn’t there and this wasn’t an approved mission with a flight path for her to check. The ship pitched a little and she wrapped both arms around Shiro’s waist and held on. He was too warm but he had good balance and a proper hold and he didn’t pitch sideways with every shift in the poorly weighted shuttle.

The crowd of pirates around them were getting restless. It was a long trip and they knew it and they were chattering and trading stories. Some of it was cheerful and friendly and some of it set Allura’s teeth on edge and made her want to whirl on them and start yelling. She set her jaw and kept her eyes shut.

“She’s super cute,” Matt said. “Like super cute.”

“Tell me how you ended up here,” Shiro said ignoring the comment which Allura appreciated. She didn’t really want to know his opinion on the matter. She didn’t really want to know Matt’s either.

"They separated everyone in that big ship after they grabbed us. Lots of yelling. Lots of guns. I don't know where Dad ended up. So I ended up in this big room full of aliens. Then there was a work camp. Then there was a big break out and a bunch of us ended up on the Queensway then it broke down and we were on a Gwalin moon for a long ass time. Then Enzo got the job on Pathfinder and I came along because it's better than a desolate moon. Most of the time," Matt said.

"Enzo seems alright," Shiro said.

"Don't get involved in that," Matt said.

"I punched Friel in the face, I have known these people for half an hour and I'm already involved in it," he said.

"Yeah Mr. Prophesied Hero or whatever," Matt said in a faux dramatic voice.

Shiro laughed at that. A little snort and a head shake. "No."

"They've been trying for more than a year to find someone who can pilot this Lion thing. I don't get it. It's a ship but it's a lion and it thinks, I don't know. I want to see it. How do you build something with AI that good? I'd give my left arm for a chance to dig around in the code but my Common is not good enough to understand what the hell anyone is saying when they start talking about magic. It's so good to talk to someone in English."

Their conversation droned on but it drifted into talk of people they had known and technical details about things Matt had seen. Allura let it become background noise as she tried to come up with a plan for herself. She would need to make contact with home which would mean finding a comm panel she could rig up to the emergency systems. She'd also need something that would boost the signal.

"I'd give you shit for picking up some chick when you have someone waiting for you at home but it's been like five years so I guess that's not really fair, eh?" Matt said.

"Five years?" Shiro echoed.

"Has it been six?" Matt asked.

"God, I hope not," Shiro said. "I thought it had only been about one. I wasn't in the arenas for six years. I wouldn't have survived that long. I knew I was missing things but I didn't think I was missing that much. Six years?"

"They measure time in different ways on all the planets so it gets a little blurry but it's been a long time," Matt said.

That conversation didn't have time to go anywhere. A tinny announcement told them that they were coming in for a landing. This one was smooth. Allura craned her neck but she wasn’t the only one looking and the windows were tiny. People crowded around the windows to watch the entry and she couldn’t see anything but the back of their heads. It wasn’t until the cargo bay opened and started spilling people out that Allura got a look at the large dingy hangar they found themselves in.

Because of the dark gray and the height, her first thought was freighter but the details came into focus as they stepped out into the space with the others. A battle cruiser. Those were fighter jet compartments, each one with a ship mounted in it. All Rellian design though she had only seen one Rellian in the group.

A second shuttle had come in with them and was also spilling passengers out. People pulled off helmets and gloves and called out greetings to friends.

“Hey buddy,” Friel said falling in step beside her and Shiro. Matt got stiff beside them.

“Nice bruise, friend,” Shiro said.

Matt went rigid. Allura jabbed Shiro in the ribs. She understood why he’d picked the fight and thrown the punch in the ballroom. He had been testing for weaknesses. They were on Friel’s ship now and mouthing off to someone the other pirates followed as a leader felt a little dangerous and stupid. But he had started it. She wasn’t going to leave him to it on his own. She almost wanted Friel to do or say something that she could hit him for. He’d killed Winst. He deserved it.

“It is a great colour, a nice purple-blue, a flattering color,” she said with the same flippant attitude Shiro had used. She was picking sides in a conflict she didn’t fully understand but she was not going to let this Friel bastard think she was on his side.

“He’s going to do the charming and friendly thing, now, try and make friends,” Shiro said to her. Matt was too tense to bounce anything off of.

“It seems a little late for that,” Allura said.

“It is a little late, isn’t it?”

“It would have been more convincing before all the shooting had happened.”

“You’re right. She’s right.”

His voice was even and conversational but his mood was harsh and calculating. He had never been cold with her. Even when he had been angry with her, he had been polite and careful. He wasn’t polite with Friel. He was poking an angry bear with a stick and Allura found herself fascinated to see what was going to happen.

“Please don’t get yourselves killed,” Matt muttered.

“The fun part of this is that he can’t kill me, can he?” Shiro said. “He needs me. What did you call it? Prophesied hero or some bullshit?”

“I could always kill the two of them,” Friel said with all the attempts at friendliness evaporating.

“First, I’d like to see you try and take her in a fight,” Shiro said with a wave at Allura who gave Friel her brightest smile she could muster in her current mood. “Second, I hope you enjoyed that because you won’t get a chance to make another threat.”

He had his metal arm looped around Allura’s back and he stretched his palm out toward Friel and lit the palm up. Allura’s stomach tightened with a little flutter of fear but the glow didn’t spread. He wasn’t a threat to her. He pointed at Friel with the glowing finger. He was very much a threat.

“I am here on Matt and Grace’s recommendation and their recommendation only. These two people seem to think your mission is worth something. I’m not convinced yet,” Shiro said.

“We’re going to save the universe,” Friel said.

“Sure, Jan.”

That startled a laugh out of Matt but it didn’t make any sense to Allura. Friel bristled at the wrong name and one of his team came over to interrupt.

"It’s late. We’ll jump in the morning. The Paladin can stay in the dorms with his little friend here. The girl can stay in the women's dormitory. There should be an extra bed somewhere," the newcomer, a Rellian woman with green eyes, told them in Common.

Shiro shook his head and wrapped his arms around Allura, pulling her in so her back was against his chest. She tensed for a second before leaning back against him and trying to look casual. His entire tactic with Friel seemed to be to pretend that nothing bothered him. Casual. Comfortable. At ease. Almost disrespectful but not quite rude. She could do that. She gave the two of them a pleasant smile.

"We're staying together," Shiro said.

There wasn’t a lot of space on the ship and that demand meant that they didn’t have a lot of choices. The dormitories were just that. Long rows of bunks with partition walls that stuck out of what looked to be a hallway. There were no doors. No privacy. There was space under the bed for a box or a trunk but there wasn’t even a dresser.

Matt has shown them to this one and pointed out where he was staying. Shiro didn’t keep him around for conversation. Matt drifted off like the other pirates around them were doing, people were headed off to bed. It was all very domestic. Voices and conversation. Creaking springs. Rustling and trunks opening and closing.

Domestic but also loud and unpleasant.

Allura was too tired to care. She had only gotten an hour or two of sleep to begin with and using her magic in one giant swoop before they’d taken off hadn’t helped. All that and the stress of everything were weighing on her. It all left her drained. She sat down on the bed and looked up at Shiro. He was looking up and down the hallway and frowning.

She reached out and caught his wrist. He turned back to her and looked down at her two hands curled around his human hand. His expression softened. She had never seen him look like that. He smiled and nodded at her. He readjusted his hand so he was holding hers and it made her smile.

“Was it the right call? Staying together?”

“Yes,” she said. “Come on, lie down and rest. Tomorrow isn’t going to be simple.”

Allura didn’t change. She didn’t have anything to change into. She just curled up with her back to everything and her nose to the wall. The narrow little bed was too small for two people but she was exhausted and couldn't find enough energy to care. She appreciated not being left alone in a den of murderers but what she really wanted was to get on with the rest of the plan so she could just go home back to her own room and her own bed.

There was a sound down the hall. A yell. An impact. Some swearing. Someone else yelling about shutting up. It hit her all at once and she wrapped her arms around her waist and squeezed her eyes shut to try and block it out. She was going to panic. Her breathing was too fast. A moment later the Pilot reached out and put a hand in the middle of her back. She calmed down by degrees. Slowly but surely. As the moments passed with the weight of his hand on her back, she settled to a dull worry that she could think through.

“We aren't in any danger,” he said.

“I know.”

The rest of the rebels around them settled in slowly. Conversation quieted and then faded. Allura listened without hearing anything that was said. Finally the Pilot - Takashi, Shiro, she needed to start calling him by his name - he laid down behind her. The bed shifted with his weight and her heart rate took up again.

“Is is this too close?” he asked.

“It’s fine,” she said.

He settled in behind her and dropped the metal arm over her shoulder. He took up so much space and he was close to her. Not quite touching. There was enough space for a little bit of room between them but she was very aware of him. The bunk left neither of them much extra space. She tried to remind herself that she was stronger than he was and she wasn't actually trapped in against the wall. The metal wall in front of her was streaked in the low light. Rust perhaps or water damage. Grimy and unpleasant.

For a moment, the panic curled up in her stomach again but his hand settled back on her back. He yawned and dropped off to sleep almost immediately. He relaxed and tucked himself a little closer as the tension in his shoulders let go. She was surrounded but it was harder to feel trapped as he relaxed.

He pulled her down into sleep with him.

Chapter Text

Morning came in a rush of voices and noise that left Shiro disoriented. Down in the Altean prisons, his world had been so silent for so long that it was unsettling to be suddenly in the middle of a storm of people again. Allura kept him from waking to panic.

The noise of that many people all riled up and yelling to each other might have brought up memories of the arenas but she was still curled up with him. Her back was against his chest and her hair escaped from her scarf to stick to his face. She made a soft complaining sound at the yelling around them and turned her face into the mattress.

She was warm and solid and it had been a very, very long time since Shiro had woken up curled up close to someone else. There were a lot of reasons why he needed to get up and get moving. Not the least of those reasons was that he was pretty sure that she wouldn’t be happy to find him snuggling in like this. They were not actually friends. They were definitely not like this. He closed his eyes and buried his face in her hair. Her hair was snow white and it was all he could see.

He did not want to get up. Someone yelled a warning to a friend down the hall and he sighed.

"You need to wake up and fix your hair," he whispered to her.

It was supposed to be dark brown. The scarf hid it enough that Shiro didn't think they were about to get noticed but it was still better safe than sorry. She grumbled and he shook her again. Falling asleep so close to her had thrown off all his sense of propriety and normalcy. He couldn't remember where the boundaries were supposed to be so he just stayed where he was.

She woke up and rolled over so she could frown up at him. Her eyes were wide and bright. The possibility of kissing her crossed his mind and he pushed it away. Her mouth opened and she started to speak a handful of times before just shaking her head and rubbing her face with her palms. She was adorable and she was still tucked in close beside him. This was a very good morning. There were boundaries but Shiro was still too sleepy to figure out where they were.

"Your hair is the wrong colour," he told her.

"We're really here," she said.

"Yeah."

"What are they yelling about?"

"I don't know, rebel stuff?" he said.

"We should find out."

Shiro forced himself up, he untangled himself from her without letting his reluctance show. She fixed her hair so it was back to being brown. It made her look almost human. She ran her fingers through it and gave the curls a hard shake. She frowned and wrapped it up in the scarf again so it was pulled back from her face and mostly contained.

She craned her neck to look out over the little partition walls between the bunks at the commotion which was mostly outside the room by now. The rebels had gotten up and gotten moving pretty fast. Shiro still hadn’t heard what had them all worked up. The most likely possibility was that the old junker of a shuttle had been traced out of the Altean solar system and Allura’s rescue party was coming for them.

Allura’s hair slipped out again and she swore. She started to unwind the scarf again while still frowning at the last stragglers running out of the room. She was far more interesting than the possibility that the entire Royal Altean Air Force was outside the ship. Shiro was in so much trouble.

“I hate my hair when it’s like this,” she said retying the scarf.

"I like it when it's fluffy," he said, "It's cute."

"Some advice?" she said.

He raised his eyebrows at her.

"Don't give women advice on their hair, they will be forced to murder you and blood is messy."

He held her gaze for a moment. She had said it all so seriously that he couldn't process it for a long moment. Then he started to laugh.

"I thought that was a compliment," he said.

"Shush," she said waving him off.

The room around them was already empty. Shiro did not sleep through alarms. He'd grown up on military bases. He had once lived in a moon colony where an oxygen leak could kill you in a matter of hours and a fire could kill you far faster. He had survived the arenas where bells announced the rounds and the battles and missing those announcements could mean terrible things. He'd dozed through this one and now he was sitting on the bed, watching Allura fix her hair instead of getting up and going to respond.

They were interrupted by someone showing up at the edge of their bunk breathing hard from running through the halls.

"Who are you?" someone asked.

Shiro turned to see a person with four arms and a flat nose looking at them with wide eyes. She stood in the hallway and stared across the empty dormitory at them. Her voice was breathy and a bit scared. She didn’t look that young but something about the way she held herself made Shiro think that she was fifteen at the oldest.

"I'm Shiro," he said with a pleasant smile and a shrug.

"Why did they send a lion after you?" she said.

"They what?" Allura asked.

She had been attempting to straighten out her clothing and she spun on the stranger, her eyebrows drawn together. Shiro reached out and grabbed the back of her shirt before she could stomp past him. She wheeled on him, glaring.

“Just one?” Shiro asked.

“That’s what the emergency alert said.”

“Which one?” Allura asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, let’s go figure it out,” Shiro said.

He pushed Allura forward with his hand in the middle of her back. She let him do it and they followed the stranger out into the hallways which were buzzing with energy and fear. People hung together in small knots but the woman who had met them in the dormitory marched ahead with purpose. Allura fell into step beside him. She was tense and he could almost hear the thoughts bouncing around her head but she stayed silent.

Their guide led them up to a command room with a ring of terminals around the edge. It looked like a messier version of a Star Trek set. Papers and plastic tablets balanced in heaps. Someone’s sweater was thrown over the back of a chair. There was a panel open in the ceiling and a mess of wires hung down over a pile of tools left on the ground. Shiro caught sight of the red woman with the ridges on her head who had called him on the chip before all this had started. She looked up but dropped her head back to the computer screen without saying anything.

“How are they tracking us?” Enzo asked as soon as they entered the room.

“They’re not,” Allura snapped.

She was looking up at the main screen. It showed a few shots of space around the ship and a couple lists of readouts that Shiro couldn’t make sense of. His translator worked well on spoken words but it did nothing for written words. There were lots of repeating symbols so it was probably numbers but that was just a guess.

“What makes you so sure, spy?” someone from the back of the room asked.

“Oh quizznak dando, you idiot,” she muttered without even turning around before she pointed at the readout and said in a louder voice, “Because it is one lone lion. Look at the signal. It’s not even on a combat broadcast. The Lions don’t launch alone. They travel in pairs at least and usually as a full set and usually with a battalion for support. I don’t know what that is but it isn’t the Altean military.”

“Grace,” Shiro said in a low voice.

The fake name was meant as a reminder. She was being a princess not a maid. She had stepped into the room and immediately started proving how much she knew about the Altean military. She could figure all that out from a list of figures and numbers. It was impressive but it was going to get her into trouble.

“Is it a dummy signal?” Shiro asked.

“Could be,” the red alien at the communications desk said.

“One of my people had visual, it’s a lion,” Enzo said.

“One of your people,” a voice sneered and Shiro looked over his shoulder to see Friel standing there. He had a bruise on his jaw.

“You invited us on board because of what we can do, Friel,” Enzo said.

“And what you can do seems to be eat all our food and hallucinate things in deep space,” Friel said. “There’s no way in hell it’s a Lion, the little girl is right.”

Allura shot a cold look and then turned her attention back to the screen.

“Come on,” Shiro said reaching out and grabbing her hand. He pulled her off towards the red alien at the comms desk.

Friel was already launching into a speech about what he planned to do about this non-existent threat. Enzo rubbed the bridge of his nose and tried to argue back. It was a good enough distraction. No one really cared that much about either Allura or him and that was the way he wanted it.

“What are we doing?” Allura hissed.

“Calling it,” Shiro said.

He dragged her over to the red alien in the corner and she didn’t look up from her screen. She wore the rebel’s black uniform but wore a glowing pendant around her neck that pulsed slightly with a teal light.

“Hi, you called me on the chip, right?” Shiro said to her.

She still didn’t look up. “Yes.”

“Can you raise the lion?”

“Secure line. It won’t answer the hailing frequency. Can’t hack it when it’s that far out. I’d need a hard connection or the private system frequencies.”

Shiro looked at Allura and raised his eyebrows at her in a question. She pressed her lips together and grabbed him by the sleeve to pull him over closer to the wall. Her fingers were twisted in the fabric. Tight and harsh like the expression on her face.

“Those frequencies are protected alliance secrets,” she told him in a low voice.

“I’m open to better ideas,” he said. “What are the chances that it is the Black Lion? The one that’s been going around destroying planets and killing people?”

She went still and took in a long slow breath. Her attention strayed back to the screen and the list of numbers.

“The other four are sitting in that hangar, they’re not something that someone can just take out for a joy ride, only certain people can fly them. So if there’s one breaking protocols and flying solo, then it isn’t one of those four. Am I wrong?” he asked.

“No. That logic is sound,” she said. “But it doesn’t make sense that Zarkon would be flying without a battalion any more than it makes sense for one of the other four to be out on their own. He wasn’t working alone on Valina.”

“What are we going to do?” Shiro asked dropping his voice a little lower so no one else could hear them. He was bent towards her. She had shrunk herself down in her disguise and he had to lean down to whisper in her ear. “The Black Lion will probably just shoot us down and kill everyone on board. One of the others is probably coming after you and they’ll start negotiations. I am not sure that Friel won’t just kill you if that happens. Or ransom you off and that’s going to be bad.”

She swore. A creative string of nonsense words that his translator didn’t bother to try and turn into English. The meaning was clear enough.

“Fine. I’ll let her try with one code. If she can’t do it, we leave it.”

“Enzo!” Shiro called out and waved the man over. Friel had moved on to talking strategy with people who were more completely on his side. Shiro wanted to ask about how Enzo had ended up taking orders from a megalomaniac like Friel. Everything about Enzo said military and everything about Friel said self-important dipshit. Career soldiers didn’t usually follow dipshits into deep space.

“How hard is it to keep secrets from Friel?” Shiro asked.

“About as hard as you’d think,” Enzo said.

“So as long as he feels important, he won’t look at it too hard?” Shiro said.

“That’s about right.”

“Whose side is the comms tech on?”

“Yalla? She’s on her own side. Friel sent her only friend down to Altea to look for you. She blames Friel for the fact that the kid is probably dead.”

“Keith? Half-human? Destroys stuff?”

“Skinny, not very friendly, Galra kid? Claims he’s related to the Blade of Marmora? That one?” Enzo asked.

Allura shook her head and Shiro nodded. That was enough. He could work with that. He picked over a box of crystals on the floor, some of them glowed when he kicked the box to the side. They flickered yellow-green for a moment before sputtering out. This place was definitely not a military operation. Allura trailed him back to the comms desk.

“Don’t yell me in public, you can kill me later,” Shiro said to Allura with a half smile that earned him another glare.

“For what? Why would I yell at you?” she asked.

Instead of answering he dropped down into the seat beside Yalla. “You’re Keith’s friend?”

“Yes.”

“I might have given him the pass codes to get into a hangar so he could steal a space ship while the power was out in the castle,” Shiro said with a glance at Allura who just shook her head at him like she wasn’t surprised he would do something so stupid. She looked annoyed rather than furious which was better than he’d been hoping for. “We’re going to have to find him but he isn’t dead. First, we need to survive the possibility of the Black Lion coming to kill us all.”

Yalla actually looked up from her screen and made eye contact with him. It lasted a second before she dropped her attention back to her screen.

“Can’t do that.”

Allura leaned down beside Shiro and pulled a piece of paper out of a haphazard pile that was weighed down by another crystal. This one flickered pink when she nudged it to get the paper. She wrote a series of symbols on it. They were probably numbers but Shiro didn’t even know what numbers looked like in Galactic Common. He really needed to spend some time learning how to read.

Yalla looked at Allura’s hand and then briefly at her face and then back down at the symbols.

“New guy, leave comms alone!” Friel called from the middle of the floor. “Comms get on that connection.”

“My name isn’t comms,” Yalla muttered then asked Allura, “What’s that?”

“It’s a recipe for juniberry cookies,” she said.

“No it isn’t.”

“It would be better if that’s what Friel thought it was, you know what he’s like better than I do,” Allura said.

“He doesn’t like to be lied to,” Yalla said.

“Do you really care what he likes?” Allura asked.

“No.”

Shiro touched Allura’s arm and she took the message to wait. Yalla studied the number and then folded up the paper and handed it back to Allura who slid it into her pocket. Then Yalla turned on a third monitor on her console and Shiro stood up so he wouldn’t be in her way as she started tapping things in to the oversized keyboard in front of her. She was leaned over the messy desk to do it. Typing with the very tips of her fingers and keeping half her attention on the other screen.

“It’s within the system, it’s definitely headed our way,” someone from another console called out.

“Comms!” Friel called out. “I need that connection now. Is it close enough yet?”

“Working. Shut up,” Yalla muttered.

“We could make a warp jump?” someone suggested.

“It’s Altean. It can probably track a warp jump.”

“You can’t track something through a warp jump!”

“You can’t. The space witches and their lions probably can.”

“You’re a superstitious idiot.”

The argument derailed quickly with other people piling on with their opinions until both Friel and Enzo were yelling at people to shut up. The bridge slowly came back to order. Shiro had never been on a large ship that wasn’t military or at least military-adjacent. Not all the Garrison missions were military or United Nations but they all ran on the same tight chain of command. The chain of command here seemed to be Friel then everyone else except the people who looked to Enzo for instructions. It was unnerving.

Bad orders were one thing. Thirty people on the bridge of a giant spaceship that had to be bigger than a cruise ship who weren’t following anyone’s orders was worse. They were going to die because Enzo and Friel were too busy arguing and their navigation crew was screaming at each other about space witches and worm holes. Or maybe they’d all die when someone knocked one of those electric crystals into a data bank and blew up the entire server.

“Comms!”

“Shut up!” Yalla yelled back.

She had numbers running on her screen. She wasn’t just making a call. She was hacking into the system and Allura watched her do it with her arms tightly crossed. Enzo came to stand on the other side of them. Allura’s dark mood was enough to keep him from saying anything.

The three of them stood back and let Yalla work.

“It’s keeping me out. How is it keeping me out?” she muttered.

“Quintessence,” Allura ground out. “It doesn’t want you in and you can’t force your way in anymore than you could force your way into someone’s mind.”

“Call it, see if the lion will let the call in,” Shiro said. Allura looked at him. “You said they can think and that they aren’t meant to hurt people. If it can think, maybe it will answer.”

“They don’t think the way you and I do,” she said.

“It’s still worth a shot.”

Yalla didn’t get involved in their discussion. She just sent out a hail on the frequency that Allura had given her. The bridge around them was still debating distances and warp jumps as the four of them watched the screen to see if the call would connect.

Shiro wasn’t sure what they would do if it did. He wanted to know who was after them and once they knew that, they could make their next plan. Allura hadn’t gotten involved in the debate about warp jumps and Shiro wanted to ask her if an Altean ship could track them through a jump. He was worried about it but he was also just curious. He wanted to know what sort of tech it took to do that.

He had spent his entire life training for deep space missions. He knew how to fly. He knew all the math to map trajectories and speeds. He knew the ins and outs of the last three generations of space technology on earth. He knew absolutely nothing about warp jumps. That was still the province of sci-fi at home.

The screen binged.

The screen cleared as the call connected to video. The person inside the Lion turned to frown at the screen in alarm for a moment before his face broke into a grin.

Enzo swore. Allura tightened her expression and crossed her arms. Shiro glanced up to see if anyone else had noticed.

“Yal?” a voice on the other end asked.

“Holy shit,” Shiro muttered. “I was thinking we’d take a planet hopper or a shuttle. Not that.”

“What is going on?” Allura hissed.

“Hi,” Yalla said. “How are you on this frequency?”

“You called me!” he said.

“How did he do that?” Enzo asked.

“Your little criminal friend is in one of the lions?” Allura asked Shiro.

“Apparently,” he said.

On the screen was Keith wearing the same prison uniform he had been wearing when Shiro had last seen him on the castle walls. His hair was a mess, his eyes were dark and his expression happier than Shiro had imagined he could be. He looked excited. Shiro was relieved that he was alive but this was not where he’d expected to see him. As the shock faded away, Shiro found himself a little bit impressed. He'd managed to steal a psychic lion from the Altean Royal Hangar in the middle of a rebel attack and a power failure. It was a hell of thing to be able to pull off. 

“So, are you going to let me come in and land this thing or are you just going to keep up that shitty cloaking device and keep hiding behind moons?” Keith asked still beaming.

Allura swore again and everyone else looked up at Friel who was finally looking their way.

“I’ll open the bay doors on the starboard side,” Yalla said looking back at the screen.

“Awesome,” Keith said.

Chapter Text

Friel turned to look at the group of them around Yalla’s console. Yalla straightened her back a little but otherwise no one responded to his interest. Allura was too distracted by her thoughts running in circles to care about the so-called rebel leader and everyone else was watching Keith. Allura watched Friel frown at the disrespect but he pasted a smile on over it before he said anything.

“That’s our boy?” Friel asked in a jovial voice.

“Our boy,” Yalla muttered in a mocking tone too low for him to hear from across the room. “He’s not your anything.”

“Put him up on the big screen!”

Yalla didn’t argue and she threw the video feed to Keith up on the main screen. He sat in the familiar cockpit of the Lion, grinning and disheveled. Keith answered questions that the crew threw at him but it wasn’t a proper debrief and it was difficult to follow.

They spent a long time debating how and why the Lion had just opened for him. He insisted he hadn’t done anything special. The Red Lion had been the one to open the doors to the hangar and let him out while the power was still out across the city. There was a long tangent about Altea and the prisons and the food that Friel finally cut off. Some questions about flight paths. Some yelling about whether Keith did or didn’t deserve to be in the pilot’s seat. He let them yell for awhile then made a rude hand gesture and rolled his eyes without losing his smile.

He looped the Red Lion around in the empty space surrounding the Pathfinder. Showing off. He wasn’t good. No one else was going to be able to tell but Allura could see it in the way the Lion wavered when he straightened it out and the splayed legs on one of his stunts. The Lions weren’t shaped like regular ships and mastering how to keep the legs in the right place for different maneuvers was one of the most difficult skills for new Paladins to master.

He wasn’t good but he wasn’t good the way a new Paladin wasn’t good. The Lion was responsive and there was enough of a connection there for him to pull tricks that included taking his hands off the controls and letting the ship right itself for him while he laughed. The Lion was behaving the way it would for a new Paladin, not a thief who had taken it under duress.

“Bring it inside, let’s have a look at our new weapon,” Friel said.

“That little bastard,” Allura muttered. She wasn’t even sure which one of them she was insulting.

Allura watched the bay doors slide open and the lion come to land in the hangar. Yalla's screen was dim and a bit dirty but there was no rationalizing away what she was looking at. Beside her, the Pilot was leaning over Yalla's chair to get a good look and he grinned at the screen like this was a great trick. His energy rubbed against hers and his mood was more positive than she could remember it being on Altea. It matched the smile he turned on her. He was having fun. She scowled in response.

"How the hell did he do that?" Allura asked.

"No idea." Still smiling.

"This is a bad thing."

"I know, as if the Altean army wasn't already going to be pissed off at us," he gave her a pointed look. "But you gotta admit that it's kind of cool. I thought you couldn't get through the force fields if you weren't a Paladin."

"The Lions choose their paladins," Allura snapped looking back at the screen.

"And this one chose Keith?" Shiro asked with a different kind of smile. It slanted up farther on one side and he arched an eyebrow at her.

She scowled back. "Apparently."

The Galra boy hadn't seemed like Paladin material when Allura had watched tapes of his interrogations. He had swung between the surly bluster of a criminal and moments of silence where he had looked young and scared. Allura tried to see him as the Red Paladin and couldn't do it. He was brave and he could fight and he had been smart enough to evade the palace guard long enough that they had needed magic to find him. But, for all that, he didn’t exactly strike her as a team player or disciplined enough to be a soldier. Paladins were heroes and he was only a half step above being a street thief from some Galran moon colony.

Shiro met her gaze and his expression started to shift. The grin and the buzzing energy dropped down a little as they watched each other.

How long had he been planning all of this? How had he managed to keep it a secret for so long? How had she let herself get suckered into trusting him? She had been the one to show him that hangar and where to find a ship. She had all but handed the keys of the Lions over to these people because she had wanted to show off a little for an alien with a pretty smile.

He frowned but before he could say anything, they were interrupted by Enzo. They both turned to look at the man who had come to stand close enough to see the screen. He had his hands on his hops and was thinking hard but he wasn't considering the screen. He was considering Shiro. Shiro's mood faltered further as Enzo studied him. Allura could read him. She had been able to read him easily since she had interrupted the last ritual in the temple but she had missed so much. She knew he was worried about the way that Enzo was watching him but she hadn’t noticed that he was working with the rebels and had friends among them until it was far too late.

"I feel a little better about this mad plan," Enzo said.

“Do you?” Allura asked.

Her mood crept into her tone in a way she wouldn’t have let it if she had been back home. What was politeness going to buy her here? She wasn’t a princess on this ship. She wasn’t speaking for her crown or her people. Enzo turned his considering gaze on her but only for a moment before he looked back at Shiro and spoke to him directly.

"It’s still a mad plan but we might actually pull it off. Stealing a Lion of Voltron is madness. It's impossible. It has never been done and cannot be done. The Lions serve a higher power. The skeptics will tell you that they serve the Alliance High Command and the conspiracy theorists will say that it’s the Altean Crown and Voltron is just an Altean plot,” Enzo started.

Allura could feel her scowl deepening and she clenched her jaw and smoothed it out as much as she could.

“You don’t think so?” Shiro asked.

He had turned to look at Enzo and he was in her personal space. She stepped back and crossed her arms, standing away from them and looking back at the screen where the Lion sat still and inert in the hangar bay of this pirate ship. Around them the rebels were muttering among themselves excitedly.

“Voltron is powered by the quintessence of the universe itself,” Enzo said. “If the Lions are making decisions on their own, if a terror of a kid like Keith can take the Red Lion off of Altea itself, maybe something out there is on our side.”

“You believe in a higher power?” Shiro asked.

“The universe is as it is,” Enzo said. “I don’t know what is beyond it, where the life force at the center of our galaxy comes from. My people believe in life and the patterns of the universe but I discount nothing.”

“I’m going down to see the Lion,” Allura said.

She did not want to debate philosophy with these people. She did not care about their spiritual opinions on quintessence and life and destinies. She needed time to make a plan, to figure out what she was going to do. She turned and walked back out of the control room. Her plan to get some space failed quickly as Shiro fell into step beside her.

The hallway was narrow and dingy with one light out above them and another flickering near the junction with the next hall. The artificial gravity hummed beneath their feet like something out a century old video feed. The pilot, Takashi Shirogane, the alien who had started all this by showing up on her doorstep, stood amid all of it looking as out of place as she felt but these were his people. His friends. This was all a piece of his plan.

“Are you alright?” he asked in a soft voice.

She stopped and wheeled on him. She did not want him talking at her like that with his voice all soft and warm and careful. She had woken up curled up in his arms and the way he was talking now dragged up those memories. She had done that because she had needed to and she didn’t want him convincing her to want it with just the tone of his voice. She couldn’t trust him any more than she could trust Keith or Friel or any of the goons in the control room and she needed to remember that.

She grabbed his arm and pushed open the nearest door and dragged him in after her. It was a utility closet and he stumbled over a coil of wires and caught himself on the wall with both hands so he didn’t fall. He stayed turned away from her for a moment as the door swung shut and when he turned to look back at her, his expression was wary. She had pushed him too hard. She snapped her hands back and tucked them in as she crossed her arms again. She hadn’t meant to shove him into a wall but she wasn’t going to apologize for it.

“Hey,” he started.

“How long have you been planning this?” she asked.

“I haven’t.”

“It’s a complicated plot. Were you actually in the arenas? How did you get yourself shipped out under the name of the Galran crown prince? I can’t imagine how you could make that happen! And the arm? What is it intended for? Was the attack really an accident? You sold that well. Was I a part of the plan from the beginning or was it just a spur of the moment thing to come and take me along when your rescue finally came?” her words came out in a rush.

“Allura,” he said in a low sharp voice that made her cut off her tirade and clench her jaw shut again. He inhaled and then said it again, “Allura,” She did not like the way he said her name in that soft tone. It was easier to be afraid of him. “I didn’t plan any of this.”

“You-” she started.

He interrupted her without losing the softness in his voice that was grating on her nerves, “You were the one who decided to come along. I didn’t drag you anywhere. I was definitely in the arenas. I never meant to hurt you with the arm or anything else. I haven’t lied to you. I’m not trying to hurt you or anyone else. I promise-”

“You were in contact with these people before they arrived.”

“Yeah. Ok, yes I was.”

“You didn’t think to mention that?”

“Keith gave me the chip the morning of the attack on the castle,” he said.

He dug in his pocket and pulled it out. He held it out and waited for her to take it before he explained. She took it from him without touching him and turned it over in her fingers. It was a small insertable chip made of a ceramic material that she didn’t recognize. It looked innocuous. Harmless. Something that someone might download photos onto to send them to their grandmother.

“I was the thing he was looking for when he broke into the castle but neither of us realized it right away. I had never talked to any of these people before that. I didn’t tell you because I really didn’t want your technicians trying to hack into my arm again. That was awful. I didn’t know what they wanted or who they were. The conversation was five minutes maybe less. I knew nothing. I thought I would have time to figure it out. They didn’t tell me they were going to do this,” he said.

Allura pursed her lips.

He started to reach out and she leaned back but didn’t step away. He pushed both hands into his pocket and looked away at a control panel that was blinking a status warning in the corner of the room. His attention came back to her again and it softened again. She let her shoulders drop just a bit.

“It’s not fair for me to ask you to trust me. You don’t have a good reason to but I’m going to ask you anyways. You don’t need to like me but none of those people out there are going to help either of us. We need each other,” he shook his head and gave her a half smile, “Maybe that’s not true. You probably don’t need me but I need you.”

She watched him. The crystal array behind him pulsed slightly with energy. It was poorly aligned. Everything about this ship was poorly aligned and in need of someone to clean it up. The dull orange glow lit him from behind but there was enough light in the space for her to see his expression. Intent and even and so careful.

“I need someone I can trust to do the right thing, Princess,” he said in a low voice. “You don’t need to like me but Matt is way too mixed up in this and Keith was raised by these people. Neither of them are bad people. I know that but this is normal for them. I need you. I need your help. We’re all stuck in this thing now and I don’t want to do it alone. Just promise me that you’ll help me do the right thing.”

“You’ll do the right thing,” she said.

He smiled at that.

“It’ll be easier with your help.”

“If you’re lying to me-”

“Then you can beat the hell out of me. You won’t even have to try very hard,” he said.

He held out a hand and she looked at it for a moment before she reached out and took it. His skin was warm and he curled his fingers around hers. She hadn’t planned to do it. She was still mad but her anger wasn’t burning as hot and she knew he was telling the truth. She only seen a few seconds of his memories of the arenas but it was enough to prove that he had been there. He had been shocked to see Matt. Shocked to see Keith in the Lion.

This wasn’t his plot. He wasn’t an enemy who was working against her. She wanted to trust him. He squeezed her fingers and she let herself smile at him. He stepped in closer to her, his hand still curled around hers but he stopped short of something more. She wasn't sure what that something more could be but the potential for it hung in the air. 

"I trust you," she said. "I just - it was a lot to take in. I'm sorry for overreacting." 

"I trust you too," he said. 

"We need to go and talk to your friend." 

"Yeah, we do," he said. 

The moment and the potential hanging in the air held and neither of them moved for a little bit too long. Allura looked away from him and then pulled her hand back. The spell broke and she led the way back into the hall and towards the hangar bay and the Red Lion. 

Chapter Text

They caught a look from a little group of the crew members leaving the command room as they stepped back out into the hall and Allura pressed her lips together. Her expression scared off any conversation or comments until the people were near the end of the hall and glanced back once before whispering and hurrying away. Beside her, Shiro snickered. She glared at him too and he pushed the smile off his face with obvious effort. It crept back the longer she looked at him.

It was cute.

“You know what they thought we were doing, right?” Allura snapped just to slow down the smile. It didn’t work. The smile broke a little wider. He slung an arm around her shoulder and whispered into her ear. In the quiet solitude of the utility closet, he hadn’t gotten this close but out in the open, he did it easily. Like they were old friends. Like they were the closely bonded couple that they pretended to be.

“We are trying to convince these people that you love me enough to leave a good palace job on a peaceful planet and follow me into deep space aboard a pirate ship,” Shiro said. “Whatever they thought we were doing is only going to add to that impression so that’s a win.”

She sighed but it was hard to be mad at him when he was laughing. It was hard to be mad at him. The anger had erupted all at once and vanished almost as quickly. Allura was upset about a lot of things but Shiro was the least of her worries. She shrugged away from him with a gentle little shove in the middle of his chest. He stepped back, raising his hands like he was afraid of her but the smile didn’t disappear.

“Stop flirting, we have things to do.”

“I’m not flirting, you’re very scary,” he said.

“Come on. Let’s go before they decide to use the Red Lion to kill people they don’t like,” Allura said.

She set off down the hall, checking the labels on the walls that were written in Rellian but someone had painted labels on in other languages. Allura read enough Clexan to figure out which way to go. Shiro fell into step beside her as she rounded the corner.

“Oh, shit. Keith is the only one who can fly the Lion right? Him and whoever the official Paladin is? Friel can’t just assign some soldier to fly it, right?”

“Let’s hope so,” Allura said.

They arrived in the hangar just as the Red Lion decided that not only was he not going to let anyone else fly him but he didn’t like them touching him either. Allura grabbed Shiro by the sleeve just as they entered the room and pulled him to a stop. She felt the swell in the energy before it happened.

The Red Lion sat in the bay. It was a narrow but tall space with smaller shuttles and fighter planes ranked in along the walls in little berths. It was still only just tall enough for the Lion to sit upright, his head nearly brushing the ceiling. A crowd milled around between the Lion’s feet and climbed on his paws and tail, yelling at each other and laughing like they’d won some kind of battle.

The energy built and then pushed out towards them.

It gathered as a ball at the Lion’s chest before pushing out into a red forcefield. It expanded slower than Allura had ever seen before. Usually the forcefields snapped up and fell into place but this one went slower. Rather than trapping people inside or flinging them out across the room, it pushed them away. There was some running and screaming and falling over but no one was injured as the force field settled into place.

Keith was standing in front of the Lion and he was the only one left inside the ball. Someone stepped up and slammed a fist against the forcefield and it crackled but held like they always did. Keith laughed inside. Allura couldn’t hear him but she could see him with his sharp teeth and his bright eyes doubling over as he laughed at someone on the other side of the barrier.

Allura’s teeth clicked together as she cut off what she was about to say. Shiro reached out and touched her fingers and she snapped her hand away. He sighed so faintly that she might have imagined it. She turned to look at him so she would have something to look at that wasn’t Keith standing inside the Lion’s forcefield like he belonged there.

Keith didn’t deserve to be standing there.

Red had been her father’s Lion when he had been a Paladin. He had stepped down long before Allura was old enough to remember it, she had always known it. Red had been Alfor’s. Once upon a time. This new person that Red had chosen was a dangerous criminal and barely old enough to be considered an adult and had stolen the Lion on a whim. The Lion had let it happen and was protecting him now as he laughed.

Allura finally held her hand out to Shiro as a peace offering. It wasn’t him she was mad at. He took it and led her through the crowd towards him and she trailed along in his wake. He pulled her through to the front of the crowd which wasn’t as concerned with Keith as they were with the Lion. They milled around, heads tilted back, studying it. Shiro knocked on the barrier and gave a little wave.

“Hey! You’re here!” Keith hollered from behind the wall.

Shiro grinned at him. Keith looked up at the inside of the barrier and then reached out until his hand pushed out past the barrier. He winced but nothing happened and he stepped the rest of the way out. He was a little shorter than her normal height but had half a head on her disguise. His hair was jet black and stuck out at all angles. He was still wearing prison clothes but he’d rolled the sleeves up and had stolen a pair of military boots from somewhere in the hangar.

“Who’s the girl?” Keith asked.

Allura did not punch him. She thought about it but she didn’t do it. It would have caused a scene. She was still a princess even among pirates.

“Grace. She’s a friend of mine, how did you pull this off?” Shiro asked waving at the Lion.

“I have no fucking idea. It just dropped the shield thing so I got in. You don’t turn down an offer like that, you know?”

Allura muttered a swear word just as the crowd quieted. Keith shot her a look that made her want to punch him again but the sudden quiet had nothing to do with her. Friel had finally made an appearance. He breezed into the room with a pair of big burly Clexans behind him.

“Our plans are coming together perfectly!” he declared loudly.

“This wasn’t your plan,” Shiro said just as loudly so he would be heard in the echoing space over the quiet crowd.

Keith met Shiro’s eye and then drew himself up a little bit taller. He leaned an elbow on Shiro’s shoulder like they’d been friends for years. He was smaller than Shiro was. Not as a broad, not as tall, not as unwaveringly confident but in that moment, they were a matched set. Keith seemed less like a street criminal and more like the type of person who could pull off stealing a lion.

Shiro did this to people. Allura had seen him do it to Hunk as well. He said one thing and suddenly the other person’s confidence was in a different place. It was an art that Allura had never seen on any one else.

“You never did send anyone to the prisons to let me out. Were you just going to leave me there to get forked over to the Empire?” Keith asked.

“That didn’t happen. You’re here. A triumphant return!” Friel said.

“No thanks to you.” Keith said.

“Boys, both of you, this is the wrong time for this fight,” Allura muttered.

Shiro seemed calm and rational most of the time but he’d already punched Friel once and now he was into his second round of vaguely threatening conversation with the man. Friel was a bully and he was vain enough to care about his popularity in the eyes of his rebels. It was easy to shoot holes in his ego but, Lion or not, they were outnumbered and at a disadvantage.

This was not a battle. This was a long game and Friel wasn’t the opponent. Friel wasn’t worth the energy it would take to antagonize him. They had bigger things to be worried about than the man’s self importance.

Allura met Shiro’s eye and he gave her a nod.

“I haven’t had breakfast yet, I’m going to go eat,” Shiro said with a friendly smile and then he wrapped one arm around Keith’s shoulders and physically turned him around. Allura looked back at the Lion but it sat there, serene behind its forcefield so she turned and hurried to fall into step with Shiro. They ignored whatever Friel was saying about the Lion and their plans and the crowd moved out of the way so the three of them could pass by.

Chapter Text

They might have been on a space ship light years away from home but the room was a mess hall. It had all the finesse and glamour of a high school cafeteria. Allura was fuming when they entered the room and her mood wasn't improved by the appearance of Matt and the way Keith kept pace with them through down the alleys between the tables. Matt bounced along in front of them with a big grin. Shiro was reeling from the past twenty four hours but it was good to see someone he recognized.

“How’d you get the Lion?” Matt asked.

“Wasn’t me,” Shiro told him. “It was him.”

Keith just shrugged it off like it wasn’t anything worth discussing which made Matt consider him a little harder. They were on the same team, theoretically but Shiro wasn’t sure they’d ever met before. If they had, they didn’t like each other.

Matt wasn’t as interested in Keith as he was in Shiro. He rattled off questions about Altea and the Lions that Shiro could only sometimes answer. His memories were a disaster and the barrage of specific questions was just bringing that into intense focus. Matt cared about details. He approached everything like a scientific problem that could be analyzed and broken down into graphs and lists. Shiro didn’t have enough data in his head to fill up those lists. Either Allura or Keith could probably have explained more but neither of them were any help.

“Food first, questions about Altean trees later,” Shiro said grabbing Matt by both shoulders and spinning him around to shove him toward the end of the hall while he was in mid-question.

There was a buffet table serving very strict amounts of mushy alien food. Shiro had eaten worse in the arenas and hadn’t eaten much better in the Altean prisons were everything tasted flat and bland. Allura didn’t speak as she took some food and sat down beside Shiro at an empty table. There were lots of them. Most of the rebel soldiers were still in the hangar with the Lion but there were other people here, civilians. No uniforms, fewer scars, less posturing. Just normal people.

Allura sat and stared at the food for a moment before she started to eat. Her mood rubbed against his. This magic thing was a pain in the ass when there were other people around and was particularly a pain in the ass when the girl beside him was the magical equivalent of a live wire in a thunderstorm. He wanted to tease her, to make it a joke until her mood started to crack but there was a chance that if he tried, she would shove him into another wall or punch him in the face.

“But really, do you think they were deciduous or coniferous?” Matt asked.

They had lost Keith in the crowd and Shiro glanced over his shoulder to see if he could find him. Matt asked another question and it dragged Shiro’s attention back. He hadn’t gotten enough sleep and Allura was dragging on his mood.

“Matthew. I don’t know. They were trees. I wasn’t paying that much attention,” Shiro said.

“Busy?” Matt said with his eyebrows up and a teasing smile.

“Let me stop you, right there,” Shiro tried.

He tried. Matt didn’t stop.

"Dating hot alien girls is not quite how I imagined you spending your time in deep space," Matt said pointing his spoon at Allura who continued to not respond to the conversation.

Shiro raised his eyebrows, "Are gladiator death matches closer to your mental image of my last year?"

Matt frowned.

"I've been on Altea for about a month and a half. I spent the rest of the last year somewhere in Galran space in a prison arena," he said. "You didn't hear the story about how they found me?"

"No. Jeez man."

"You're the only person I've ever heard of who survived the arenas and make it out the outside. Everyone else comes back in pieces," Keith said.

He finally dropped into the chair across from Allura with his plate piled high. He had negotiated his way into extra food including something that looked like bread. Shiro reached across the table and took one of the rolls. Keith shot him a gesture that was obviously rude but he didn’t complain.

Keith was a minor celebrity but now that he was away from the Lion, he seemed to be doing his best to pretend that it wasn't happening. He wasn't any less surly and standoffish here than he had been in jail. He kept his head down to avoid Allura glowering at him and ate like he'd been starving for years. People came by and patted him on the back or called out things that only sometimes made sense. Some of them tried to take the seat beside him until the glaring chased them off.

"You're not going to go sit with the cool kids?" Shiro asked.

"Assholes," Keith said between mouthfuls of food.

Shiro waited until Keith looked up at him. "I get why she hates you," he said pointing at Allura, "I just don't get why you hate them," he waved his hand at the rest of the room.

Keith shot Matt a look. Matt did not leave. Matt wasn't the type of run off because someone was being hostile. Keith was trying to be a bully and Matt was disturbingly immune to bullies. He always had been. Glasses. Science nerd. Shitty pilot in a garrison program where pilots were the top of everything. He should have been a target for the nastier kids but he hadn't been. He just shot back a few retorts, beat them in the next round of exams, and went on with his life. Bullies were left to stare after him in confusion.

Keith didn't bother with trying to up the stakes. He shrugged it off. He just ignored Matt as hard as Matt was ignoring him.

"They didn't come to get me," he said.

"Who? Friel?"

"Anyone."

Shiro tilted his head a little and Keith met his gaze and then went back to his food. He didn’t look up as he kept eating but they were all looking at him now. Shiro had understood all the pieces but it wasn’t until Keith said, “Anyone,” in quite that tone of voice that he got it.

Keith had lived on this ship and with these people for a long time but when the rescue had come, it had come for Shiro.

"They sent you alone when they could have sent an entire hopper like they did last night," Shiro said.

Silence.

There was more to the story. Shiro was sure of that but Keith wasn’t sharing and it was still hard to say where Matt’s loyalty lay. Shiro was very sure that Matthew Holt wouldn’t intentionally do anything to hurt him but that didn’t mean he wasn’t scared enough of Friel to make a mistake. It was also hard to say if Matt’s friendship would extend to either Keith or Allura.

"So you stole a Lion?" Allura snapped at him.

"He wanted me to do it and it was faster than a hopper," Keith said.

"He?" Matt asked.

Keith shot him an unfriendly look but said, "The Lion. The others all had shields but that one wanted me to take it. I'm not going to argue with a giant robot cat."

Allura started to say something and Shiro wrapped an arm around her shoulder and said into her ear, "None of us are experts on Voltron, Grace," he put a little bit of emphasis on the name and her jaw twitched but she kept quiet as she pulled back from him and went back to picking at her food.

"So how long have you two been a thing?" Matt said.

Allura sighed again and leaned forward to point her spoon in Matt's direction, "Why the interest? Are you looking for a date? You should know that you're not my type."

Keith snorted. Allura shot him a glare that was just as friendly as what she had just said to Matt. Her mood was starting to ease, her emotions weren’t rubbing against Shiro’s quite as badly the longer the conversation went on. Matt's imperviousness to bullies held and that took a little more of the edge off of her sharp comment. Matt just laughed her off and she let him do it with a half smile.

“Hey, I borrowed a translator unit from an old buddy in the seventeenth so I could get to know Shiro’s new girlfriend. I’m trying to be nice!”

“By asking personal questions?” she asked.

"That’s not what I was trying to do! No, I'm just curious if this means the thing with Mendoza is actually over because that break up had the feeling of not really being a break up, you know?" Matt said. "Didn't you two break up after graduation and then get back together again? It's sort of your thing, isn't it?"

Shiro stopped. He had been breaking the bread up and eating it slowly to make it last longer. It was heavy and rich and full of seeds that squeaked in his teeth and it was the only good thing about the meal. He held one piece halfway to his mouth and looked up at Matt as played those words over in his head.

They should have connected to a memory.

They didn’t.

Allura's bad mood had faded enough that she smiled when she raised her eyebrows at him, "Who is this Mendoza?"

This was not her playing a role of a jealous girlfriend. This was genuine curiosity. Shiro hadn’t really meant to keep so many secrets but he had kept his walls up and she knew next to nothing about him. The curiosity wasn’t surprising. Shiro knew almost as much about himself as she did.

"I don't fucking remember," Shiro muttered.

"I'm going to tell him that," Matt said.

"How are you going to do that?" Shiro asked. "Are you going to give him a call? Send him a text? Write on his facebook wall? We're in the middle of deep space sitting in a room full of aliens. If we ever get back to Earth the bigger question won't be who I might or might not be dating, it will be why aren't we dead? The Kerberos mission was lost. We're probably a deep space mystery. Besides, people are going to have a lot more questions about aliens."

"You remember facebook but you don't remember Adam?" Matt said.

The full name clicked a piece of it into place.

Adam Mendoza had been in his second grade class. They'd invented a game in gym class where they flipped over the ancient wooden benches and then tried to knock each other off the narrow rail using nothing but volleyballs that their friends kept running to bring back to them so they could throw them at each other a little harder the next time to try and make the other one lose his balance.

There were a lot of missing memories between that one and whatever Matt was remembering.

"I got my head bashed in a few times and then had a magic powered cyborg arm installed in my brain, you're the biologist, you tell me if that's going to fuck with my memories," he said.

He was defensive. The emotion had crept up on him. Under the table. Allura took his flesh and blood hand and held it in both of hers. Her mood was mercurial today. Up and down. Hostile and then supportive and then cold and distant before coming around again. She squeezed and he squeezed back, reeling his emotions back in a little bit at a time. Like it always did, her touch helped him find an even keel.

He didn't want this reminder of how many of his memories were still inaccessible. He'd been raised by two mothers. He know that but he only had one face and one name and he was pretty sure they didn't go together. He had a sister. He didn't know what she looked like and wasn't entirely sure if she was younger or older than he was.

He could remember flight training. He could call up textbooks worth of studies. Physics and trajectory math. Flight theory. Space history. All the checklists that went with the launch and landing procedures of every vehicle he had ever flown.

But everything that mattered was missing.

Family.

Friends.

A boyfriend he had known since childhood but the only memory that would come was the kid with light brown hair and bent glasses laughing his ass off as he held a volleyball between his hands and Shelly Abraham stood on the ground at his side and yelled at him to throw the ball because she wanted a turn.

In that exact moment, Shiro did something he hadn't been brave enough to do before and laced his fingers with Allura's. He didn’t want to get lost in the fragments of the past. He wanted to be in this moment. He wanted to eat terrible food and sit at a cafeteria table with the friends he had now. He remembered all three of these people and holding onto this moment felt far more important than chasing the past. He could chase the past later, when he was alone, when he had time to think.

"So is he cute?" Allura asked. "This Mendoza Adam person?"

"You're the worst," Shiro said. "You could just leave it."

"I’m curious what your type is," she said.

"I don't have a type," he said.

"Everyone has a type.”

“Really? What’s yours?”

“People my father won’t approve of,” she said with a smile that he couldn’t read and temporarily derailed his thoughts.

Teasing him was sweeping out the last of her bad mood. She flashed him a grin. The kind of smile she probably gave to Quill and Baby Cotton Candy when they were all hanging out together doing whatever alien royalty did on their weekends. It was easy to imagine Allura curled up with her friends, laughing and joking and arguing politics and history. They probably drank fancy alien wine and wore beautiful clothes and talked about books or ideas or whatever passed for celebrity gossip on Altea.

"Shiro here has two types, no, three," Matt said, "The 'I picked it up in a bar' type and Adam Mendoza and now Grace whatever your last name is."

"I think I should just throw him out the airlock," Shiro said to Allura who was leaning forward with her chin in her hand and an entertained smile on her face. She looked young and normal and not like a princess. She raised her eyebrows at him.

Matt leaned in towards Allura who was still grinning. Matt raised his eyebrows and waved a hand, "He was very popular and if he was douchier you’d call it being a player but he’s Shiro so no one ever did. His relationships lasted like two months at the very outside edge. He was all nice and charming. Lots of cute locals who were oh so impressed that he was a pilot. Then he got the Kerberos assignment and they transferred him back to Arizona where he takes up assistant teaching while the mission is put together."

"You teach?" Allura asked.

"Not well,” Shiro said.

"Lies," Matt said. "He was great. I mean, he taught me how to bring a ship down for a landing without trashing it. I could almost do it before they decided that the science staff didn't need full pilots credentials and I got a break from crashing the simulator over and over again. But I was telling a story.”

“Yes, of course. Go on,” Allura said with a smile.

Shiro shook his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

Matt smiled back at her. A little dazzled. She was pretty enough to dazzle people but he pulled himself back together a moment later. He pushed his tray forward and leaned forward on the table. Keith looked at his tray and then up at him and Matt pushed it the rest of the way over and Keith helped himself to Matt’s leftovers. He hadn’t gotten involved in the conversation so far but he was watching like it was all terribly amusing.

“So, I meet Shiro during UN basic training out of Nagano where he's the best at everything ever that they could ever ask us to do. Except wiring. He can’t do wiring. But he can fly and do the nav math and remember the names of every probe mission ever sent out past Mars and their launch dates and we all kind of hate him and all kind of love him and it's really annoying that he's also nice. You know? If you're going to be hot and better than everyone else, you should at least be a dick head so we can all hate you without feeling bad about it."

"Wait, you hated me?" he asked.

"No! That's the issue!" Matt said.

"I can be more of a dick head if you want me to be,” Shiro said before taking another bite of the terrible food. The bread was gone and it was back to gooey nutrient slop. Matt shot him a look that was so familiar that Shiro almost forgot that he didn’t remember any of this. Matt was talking to Allura but he was also telling Shiro his own life story.

"Quiet, I'm telling the pretty girl a story. So Nagano. UN basic. Everyone’s fresh out of college. Shiro's fantastically well liked and has a nice time on the weekends with the cute locals and that guy from Engineering.” Shiro kicked Matt hard in the shin but that didn't slow him down beyond a grimace. “Then he goes into some sort of test pilot program which was some kind of competition thing to see who got to fly for the Kerberos.”

“Sounds impressive,” Allura said and Shiro glanced at her. She gave him a smile and he wasn’t sure if she was teasing him or not.

“So he’s gone for like years - two years or maybe three years, whatever - not that long I guess and the next time I see him is after my dad and I got our project approved for Kerberos and I show up at the Garrison in Arizona to start final training and he's there and he's in this committed long term relationship that's apparently been going strong for all that time plus all the time that they'd been dating in high school."

Allura turned to consider him. He could find a few memories of the mountain town and the UN facility and the meetings with the Japanese government and feeling like his diaspora accent was making them all think less of him. He could pull up a girlfriend with big brown eyes that he hadn't liked as much as she had liked him. He could remember the enlisted crew bar on the base and a few of the flashier clubs in town. Most of it didn't hold enough water for him to make sense of what his life had been like during those years. Fragments. It had been real but it felt like watching a movie.

He tried to find a back door on those missing memories. Classrooms at the Garrison. The incoming cadet class who had the running joke about ice cream. The teacher’s lounge. That one almost worked. He had traded problems with someone to make sure that there weren’t any errors before they put them up on the board for students. Had that been Adam? It wouldn’t come the rest of the way together. No face or voice or conversation, just a low snort and a hand passing back a handful of papers with a big red ‘no wrong’ written across the numbers.

"So based on that extensive study of his romantic history, what would you say his type is?" Allura asked.

"His type is smarter than him-" Matt started.

"Hey!" Shiro said. "Why is it beat up on Shiro day? I haven't seen you in a year and you start with how dumb I am and your opinions on my dating history?"

Matt held up a placating hand, "He falls for people who are smarter than him which is difficult for him to find because he's one of the smartest people I've ever met."

"Tolerable," Shiro said. "Maybe I won't chuck you out the airlock or feed you to Keith's Lion."

Allura started to say something about that but Keith interrupted her with a loud laugh before Matt started talking again.

"I can already tell that she's smarter than you and Mendoza is almost as smart as my little sister so the bar's just set too high there." Shiro laughed and Matt tapped the end of his spoon against his chin. "Smart. Opinionated. People who won't be pushed around or easily dazzled. Takashi Shirogane always won all the awards and I think he likes it when people don't really care about that side of him. Pretty? Brunette? You and Mendoza are both pretty brunettes."

Allura smiled at that like there was something in there that she had liked. Shiro watched her watch Matt. She wasn’t actually his girlfriend. Her opinions on who had dated in the past were worth absolutely nothing. He shouldn’t have cared. But he did. Maybe it was how few memories he had of his own or maybe it was just her but he was worried about her opinions.

She looked at him and caught him watching her. She pulled his hand up on the table. He had been holding onto her for almost the entire conversation and it had been so comfortable that he had forgotten he was doing it. She held onto him and made just enough of a show of it that he found it hard to remember what he had been talking about. He was too busy watching her cradle his hand in both of hers.

“Well, all that’s in the past,” she said. “He’s mine now.”

Shiro dropped his head and laughed. His hair fell into his face and he tried to comb it back with his other hand but it had gotten long and shaggy and the mess of it was better ignored. He squeezed her fingers a little and maybe that was a little too close to not pretending but he didn’t care.

Someone Keith didn’t hate, another red skinned alien from Yalla’s species, dropped down into a chair nearby before Matt could bring up any more fragments from Shiro’s past. They finished the meal with the conversation almost entirely on Keith and his grand theft. Keith retold the story again, embellishing a little bit and making Allura glare at him but not pulling her mood all the way back down.

Shiro was only halfway listening, he was using the excuse of her, “mine now,” declaration to hold onto her hand. Her skin was a little cooler than his. He let his mind wander over lost memories. Poking at the holes, trying to find things he had buried.

Then an alarm screeched above them.

Chapter Text

The alarm had brought a crowd to the bridge. People were piled in, watching the screens and talking amongst themselves. Shiro studied it for a moment and then pushed his way through to where Enzo had a group of people gathered by a railing. Allura followed in his wake.

She was starting to hate this room. It had only been a few hours but the urge to clean it up, to report the safety violations and shake them all was growing stronger each time she saw the space. Even the main screens were a mess with too many insets and too many people throwing and pulling pieces of information off of it. They were tracking the Galra ships on one inset screen. It was only two carriers neither of which was large enough to be carrying anything bigger than two seat fighters. It didn’t look like much of a threat.

She had made a promise to herself that she would pretend a little harder that she was a maid who knew nothing but what the news feeds had told her about Voltron and Zarkon and the Galran conflict. She shouldn’t know how big those ships were. She shouldn’t be able to do the math to figure out that they were traveling at about half their full speed. A maid shouldn’t have known all that.

But Allura knew all that and she was doing the math.

If she had been in a war room simulation, this wouldn't have made her bat an eye. Allura was doing the math and had already picked which Altean squadron she'd send out against them and who she'd want running point in the field. They were not the Altean army. She didn't have her choice of squadron. They had a tiny ship with an undisciplined crew in a state of disarray and probably disrepair. They were slower, older, smaller. The Galra would destroy them.

"They're moving faster," Enzo said. "The last attack was only two days ago.”

"You jumped in for that one too?" she asked. Allura had to catch herself from saying the name of the planet. She shouldn't know it.

"Not fast enough."

"This is what you do?" Allura asked. "You take a tiny fifty-year-old Rellian battlecruiser up against the Galran army and the Black Lion?"

"We don't go up against them," Enzo said.

"We could, we've got a lion now," one of Enzo's people said.

"This is a rescue, not a battle," Enzo said. His voice took on a slightly sharper edge.

A rescue. Allura's heart was hammering in her chest.

"We're not taking the lion out. The Black Lion isn't there. If we show up with the Red one, we tip our hand," Enzo said. "It's a trump card for the moment when we truly need it. The Alteans haven't released any statement yet. No one in this quadrant knows that we have it. Keith is going to fly with the green team, just like he used to. We run the same evacuation patterns that we did on Ghar.”

He was talking to his squadron leaders now, the conversation shifting to acronyms and nicknames that she didn’t fully understand she let her attention wander. She wove through the crowd, peeking at screens in hopes of finding one with something more detailed on it. She finally found herself behind Yalla’s console.

On the screen, the image finally flipped to show the moon they were headed for though they were still nearly an hour out. They had made the jump into the outskirts of the system but were making their way through the asteroid dense space between the landing and the moon by manual flight. The planet was a massive gas giant with heavy rings and a swirling surface that looked blue and green in the light of a midsize yellow star. The planet was uninhabitable but it was ringed by a collection of moons. There was a rocky planet nearer the sun that was warmer and featured a breathable atmosphere and a solid sure to support the population. Allura realized as she scanned the star system chart on the main screen that she knew it.

They were in the Bruno system.

Allura sucked in a breath and held it as she scanned the constellations and coordinates. She had to be wrong.

The moons here were dotted with domes. Permanent settlement. Small cities, not cobbled together outposts. This wasn’t a single moon in a far-flung corner of space. There were twelve moon colonies in the Bruno system and more than twenty asteroids had been mined for minerals and elements. Bruno was the only planet in the system with a natural ecosystem. They had made their fortune selling rare metals from their asteroid belt to the rest of the Clexan empire.

She wasn’t wrong which meant they weren’t in Galran space anymore.

“This is Clexan space,” Allura said.

“Everyone already knows,” Yalla said.

“This is an act of war,” Allura said.

“No, it isn’t. Could you stop hovering?”

Allura took a step back and stared at the screen. She had been running on anger all morning but she couldn't find it anymore. Something between shock and fear was beating in her chest instead. Anger had been easier. Fear was worse.

She had been to Bruno. She didn't know the culture well, she'd gone on vacation there back when she was a teenager. She had mostly known the lake country where mineral content made the water a soft pink so the lakes sprawled out like sheets of candy bordered by rich maroon vegetation and the fancy desserts at the resort. It was a place she knew. The domes in the surface of the moon below them were colonies for the Bruno.

The moon might have been a mining colony but it was the colony of a major civilization.

She hated herself a little when her mind made that distinction. The people here didn’t matter more than the people on Valina because Allura had once gone on vacation to their homeworld. They were in just as much danger.

She exhaled slowly and gathered herself back together.

“How is it not an act of war?” Allura asked. “Those are Galran ships headed toward sovereign territory outside of their sphere of influence. We aren’t in the Galran Empire’s territory. They can’t hide an attack here.”

“The Clexans signed off on this,” Yalla said. “Take your questions and go away.”

“Signed off on it? That’s an inhabited colony. Look at the size of the domes on the light side, there could be 10,000 people down there. What do you mean they signed off on it?”

Keith grabbed Allura’s sleeve and pulled her away from Yalla who was scowling at her interruption. He had been standing over by Shiro and he startled her when he grabbed her arm and yanked her away. He was thin but strong and he wasn’t worried about being nice. She spun on him, the fear sparking back to anger.

“Listen, Princess,” Keith said and Allura flinched but it wasn’t a title, it was an insult. He said it with a heavy slant of sarcasm. “I get that you’re Altean and you central planet people like to believe that their governments are going to do the right thing and protect them but that’s not how it works out here on the fringes.”

“She’s Clexan-” Allura started.

Yalla huffed. “I have never set foot on Clex, I was born in fringe space and I grew up out here. Do not make me responsible for those bastards.”

The two of them explained the broad strokes of everything Allura didn’t know. A few people who were close enough to hear them added in their opinions. They were too far out to do anything but weave through the asteroid field and the flight left a lot of time for people to explain to her all the things she was missing. They weren’t nice about it but Allura wanted to understand what was happening more than she cared about the tone of voice Yalla used to explain it.

Allura hadn’t heard about the attacks on the smaller colonies in Galran space but the Clexans had. The refugees from destroyed moons and small planets had fled the Galran empire for Clexan space because it was closest. What the Alteans, even the King’s inner circle, knew was woefully incomplete and that realization made Allura’s stomach twist the longer they talked. She had never thought of herself as ignorant and she didn’t like the feeling.

“I still don’t understand why they would accept the Galran military this close to one of their major systems,” Allura said.

“To protect the rest of it,” Keith said.

The explanation was as simple as it was horrifying.

Allura processed it slowly. The deal had been cut between the two central planets to allow the Galra to mine certain moons or small planets in Clexan space. The comparison of what they were doing to the planets and mining ore was ridiculous but that was what the deal had been signed over as. It had been released in the state-sponsored newspapers in the Clexan empire.

“They’re just going to let all those people die?” Shiro asked. He had been holding his silence while Allura was the one to ask questions and demand explanations and his voice cut through the conversation to make them all turn to look at him.

“The news reports all talk about evacuation,” Yalla said. “But if you evacuate first, there’s a lot less quintessence to harvest.”

Allura went quiet as she looked up at the screen and let the conversation move on without her. She was running possibilities. Trying to think it all through. Trying to come up with options. The Clexans couldn’t withstand a war with the Galra so they’d write it off as an accident or a miscommunication and pretend that everything was fine.

“How long?” she asked and then realized she had interrupted some other piece of the conversation so she added, “Until they arrive or until we do? How much time will there be to do this evacuation?”

“Not enough,” Keith said.

“We’ll have about two hours before they arrive,” Yalla said.

“Which means an hour and a half to actually get people off the surface because we need to be clear of this system before they get here.”

Allura wasn’t even sure who said it. She was busy thinking.

The bridge was emptying out. Ships needed to be prepped and Enzo had sent his pilots out to get started on it. Yalla was still there, sending out warning messages to every Bruno line she could find. It was silent work. A prerecorded message sent out again and again in hopes of getting as many local ships in the air as they could.

“More time saves more lives,” Allura said.

“You’re oh so smart,” Yalla said.

"I'm thinking, shut up," Allura said.

Yalla shot her a look and Allura shot one right back. It got her a half smile.

She was still running possibilities but this was the best plan she could come up with. Yalla had two tablets set up on stands on her console which gave her a total of five screens Allura leaned over her and picked up one that was just playing the same thing as the main screen. Yalla yelled out a complaint but Allura was already talking. She crouched down beside Yalla’s console and started asking specific questions until she had all the answers she needed.

She stood up and turned around. Shiro was standing with Enzo again, looking almost like he belonged here on this ship with these people. She scanned around but the person she needed was gone.

“Where’d Keith go?” she asked.

“The hangar, he needed to move the Lion before they could launch anything else,” Shiro said.

“Stay here. I’ll be back,” she said.

Shiro called out a question but Allura had already turned and was running down the path they'd followed earlier that day to get back to the hangar. She wove through the crowd of people headed to the ships and finally found Keith. She grabbed him by the arm and hauled him out of the group of pilots he was in. He hadn’t gotten into the Lion yet.

"What the hell?" he asked.

"You speak Galran right? What kind of accent do you have?" she asked in a breathless rush.

"What the fuck are you talking about?" he asked.

Allura pulled him away from the others so that they wouldn’t be overheard.

"I know the High Command emergency code and can use it to call the attack off course to respond to a ship in danger but I can't speak Galran and it won't work if the call comes in Altean or Common. I need someone who speaks Galran so what kind of accent do you have."

"How do you know those codes?"

Quizznak. Allura did not swear out loud. She kept her face as straight as possible, "I accidentally found them while cleaning an office."

"They change,” he said.

"Weekly. I know. But the Galran week is ten days so we've got another four before these codes are cycled out. We can only do this once but we can get ourselves two or three hours more to evacuate that planet down there. We can save lives but we have to do it fast."

"An office? You're lying."

"Is that your top priority right now? Really?" Allura asked.

He studied her and shot a look over his shoulder at the hangar. The pilots were running through whatever counted as safety checklists on this ridiculous ship and the main space was emptying out. Lights were clicking on in cockpits as the ships were powered up. Ladders rattled as pilots climbed up to the higher racks. There wasn’t a lot of time. If they were going to make this work, they needed to launch fast and get some distance from this fleet.

"Fuck,” Keith said.

"I don't trust you but Shiro does and I'm staking lives on that trust right now. That colony was opened a hundred and fifty years ago. It isn't a handful of domes and some air purifiers. There are three cities on that moon. Thousands and thousands of people. We might be able to take out two battle cruisers with a single lion and a handful of ancient whatever these are," she slammed her hand into the wing of the little ship beside them. "But it won’t help, they'll just take out the main ship and the reinforcements will finish razing the moon anyways. You might survive in Red but the rest of us will be dead and so will all those people. So. Let me ask you again, what kind of accent do you have?"

"A shitty one. I grew up on a fringe colony like Yall did."

Not ideal. She'd been hoping he could at least fake a Wend accent but if he grew up that far from the homeworld, it was unlikely. Allura watched as the last few ships clicked on and activated.

"We'll work that into the story. We need to get out into open space and Yalla will relay the call off of a probe in the asteroid belt in the next system."

"We."

"I know the codes and the names of most of the generals in Galran high command. If they ask you which fleet you're a member of, what are you going to say?"

"You tell me,"

"That's why I'm coming with you. Which one of these death traps is yours?"

Keith screwed up his face and then shrugged and turned.

“We’re taking the Lion,” he said.

“That’s,” Allura faltered. He was supposed to be moving it. She had forgotten that. There wouldn’t be time to come back and get another ship. She had never actually been inside one before. She looked up at the Red Lion sitting in the middle of the hangar. “That’ll be fine.”

"You're a maid?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Of course I am."

"Fuck," he said again but it was almost a laugh. "A maid who gave Shiro a key to the prisons and has the codes for the Galran high command emergency lines conveniently memorized including the exact date that they expire?"

"Yes."

He raised his eyebrows at her.

"Maintain your priorities, Keith," she said.

He sighed and ran for the Lion. Allura kept pace with him and followed him inside. She did not stop to get star struck and gawk at it. They got to the cockpit and he rushed through the launch prep while Allura did get caught in being star struck by the Lion. Allura kept the word priorities in her mind as she strapped herself into the jump seat at the back of the cockpit. She was doing this for a good reason. She was probably not going to die. Probably.

“We’re going to save lives,” she said as much to herself as anyone else.

"Maybe I don't give a shit about anyone on that moon."

"That would be more convincing if we weren't already in the launch queue," she said.

The alarm blared overhead and the hangar floor cleared in a rush that wasn't fast enough. Allura tapped her fingers on the sides of the tablet she held tight between her hands. The plan only worked if they had enough distance to make the call. It would take time to cover the distance. Time was something they didn't have much of. The hangar floor was finally empty and the full-size doors were sliding open so that the lion could leave and the smaller ships could head for the moon’s surface. The shuttles and the fighters would be faster than the Pathfinder itself.

"You're a do-gooder. You're probably a guard or something. All uniforms and marching and believing in the sanctity of the Central Five or whatever the shit," Keith said.

Allura’s mood finally snapped. This disrespectful little half-Galran brat was going to lecture her on the sanctity of the Central Five while he sat in her father’s lion. In her father’s chair. She pushed her hair back from her face with both hands and breathed in through her nose a few times until she was sure that her voice wouldn’t shake when she answered him.

"I'm sorry I'm not up to the standards of a pirate who tried to take a kid hostage to get away from the guards."

The Lion stood and turned and Allura’s stomach twisted and dropped at the movement. She forgot Keith entirely. She was inside a Lion. She couldn’t hear Red but she could feel the life in the machine around her. She let her quintessence slip out and brush up against Red. The Lion roared and Keith swore. Then the hangar doors were wide open and they were making the jump into empty space.

"So you were there, huh, definitely a guard. Why keep that a secret?” he asked.

His words dragged her attention back. She was still paying too much attention to Red itself. Himself. Him. Seemed right. Allura had never thought to ask whether the Lions had genders until she was sitting inside one. Red surrounded them. Bright and strong and demanding. The lion wanted to do something and was as impatient for the door to open as she was.

"That isn’t your business. You don't have any moral high ground," Allura said.

"Neither do you," Keith said. "And for the record, I wouldn't use a kid as a shield. Apartments have windows and people with kids protect their kids first instead of trying to stop an intruder. I was headed for their living room window. Not the kid."

He had turned the Lion straight down and put all the power into speed. Allura gasped and Keith laughed at her. He banked and she kicked the back of his chair. He laughed again as he banked back onto the course. Allura slid the chair forward and pulled a screen down beside his head. He leaned away from her with a little grimace but she ignored him as she pulled up a comms panel and synced it up to the tablet she had taken from Yalla. The screen blinked as it loaded.

"Yalla?" she said.

"It’s you.”

“It’s me, can you get us a line?”

“I'm on it."

"Warn us before you put us on."

Allura gave Keith the story she had cooked up and told him the codes he needed then she turned off her translators and made him repeat it all back in Galran so she could hear the way he said it. She made him tweak it. The attitude snuck into his tone and she finally had to tell him to "Say the way Enzo would say it,” to finally get an acceptable imitation of a military tone.

"Good enough. Are you ready?"

"Yes, Ma'am," he said in the same intonation but with the sarcastic twist to his smile.

"Good," Allura said turning back to her tablet and connecting it to the Pathfinder again. "Yalla are we ready?"

"If we get caught I'm blaming you," she said.

"That's fine. If we get caught, Friel will probably toss me out an airlock or try and ransom me off," Allura said. "So your blame won't make anything worse."

Keith shot her another look. "Ransom? Maid?"

"Pay attention to what you're doing," Allura told him.

They had come to a stop on the edge of the orbit of the next gas giant over and they hovered in that orbit while they waited to connect to the Galran network. Keith scrubbed his face with both hands and when it connected, he recited the script perfectly.

He was calling on behalf of a Galran pleasure cruise ship from the outer edges of their empire. It had been blown off course during a solar storm and needed help to reestablish life support before they used up all their oxygen. He gave all the right codes and commands and then they waited.

The tablet showed the same screen as Yalla’s console had with the two Galran ships approaching across Bruno space. For a few tense minutes, they sat in silence and watched.

The minutes continued to tick by.

Allura hadn’t thought about the possibility that they wouldn’t answer. If they were on classified maneuvers maybe they were exempt from the Galran High Command’s code of conduct. The Galra didn’t leave other Galra stranded. They came to one another’s aid. It was one of the few things about Galran society that Allura thought was admirable. She had been depending on it.

“Ship at coordinate three six eight point zero nine five, we read you,” came the response.

Allura breathed a sigh of relief.

The ships asked for some clarification on location and the three of them had to scramble over the lies. Between Yalla faking the coordinates and the signal, Keith keeping his cool and Allura hurriedly explaining what she knew of Galran protocols, they did it. On the tablet, the two ships veered off of their course and set out for the edge of the solar system.

“It worked,” Yalla said over the line. She sounded dumbfounded.

“Is that them?” Shiro’s voice asked and Allura was surprised by how much of a relief it was to hear him. It hadn’t been that long and she hadn’t had any reason to worry for him but it was still a relief to know he was there.

“It’s us,” Allura said.

“Now what?” Keith asked.

“Now we go back and help get as many people off that moon as we can,” she said.

Chapter Text

Shiro was in the hangar when the first shuttle docked. They didn't bring the entire ship inside and worry about pressurizing the entire space when the entire fleet was still in the black. It would have been a waste of power and breathable air. The shuttles just docked along the side and let their passengers off through the pressure lock doors.

The Pathfinder had twenty five shuttles. Most of them weren’t from the original ship’s build. The Rellian carrier had carried a small fleet of fighters and the shuttles had been added piecemeal after the fact. They were repaired and patched up shuttles from across the alliance and Shiro was willing to bet that more than a few of them were stolen. Fleet was a pretentious thing to call the group of ships. Everyone knew it but they kept using the word so Shiro did too.

The shuttles had airlock connectors that reminded Shiro of space station docks. Humans had been using docks like that since the days when the only thing in orbit was the ISS. The details were different but the basics of seals and locks were similar. The shuttles locked on to the outside of the ship and the heavy doors swung open on either side to let confused people out into the hangar. There were four of them along the same wall as the massive doors that had opened to let the ships and the Lion out.

Shiro found himself on the second door crew. The metal arm made him strong enough to swing the six inch plate metal open despite its damaged electronic opening mechanism. He was on a team of three. Two of them to do the heavy lifting of hauling the doors open and one to operate the computers that monitored the lock and pressure matching. It was exhausting work and surprisingly thankless.

This was a rescue operation and everyone was annoyed to have had their day interrupted.

The Bruno were a thin, willowy species with too many legs and very human faces. Their skin came in a range of purples from pale lilac to deep indigo. Most of them were glaring and frustrated and asking too many questions, most of which Shiro didn’t have answers for.

“This doesn’t look like a Feania ship,” more than one person told him.

They stopped in the doorway to look around before turning on him where he stood beside the door. Glaring. Annoyed. Frustrated. Not fully understanding what was happening. They stepped out into the large sparse hangar full of empty bays and strewn with coils of wire and discarded bits of partially finished repairs. It wasn’t a sight that inspired confidence.

Feania seemed to be some sort of government agency from their home world and the pirate rescue crews had told everyone that they were members. The refugees were expecting a government operation. There were demands for compensation for being pulled out of work or school or whatever else had been interrupted by this emergency. The passengers on the first shuttle didn't believe the emergency ranked being taken into orbit and stood around and argued loudly with each other and anyone else around.

“Your moon is about to be destroyed, thought you might want to be somewhere else when it happened,” on of the other people on the door said. Shiro winced and shot him a look but he was frowning at the group.

The refugees turned to stare they spun the locks back into place. Shiro was halfway through and kept working while the group stared down his new team mate. The speaker was Galran and dryly sarcastic. Shiro had found his accent familiar and unsettling, it brought up echoes of the arenas but the memories stayed at bay. The longer they worked together, the easier it was to separate this individual from the half formed memories rattling around in his head.

“What do you mean: destroyed?” one of the Bruno asked.

Shiro and the three people he was on the door with stumbled through the answers but they were in a rush and didn’t really have time to answer things gently or completely. Shiro’s poor knowledge of Common wasn’t helping matters much. He knew almost nothing about what was happening out here and could explain even less without losing the plot of what he was trying to say.

Even if he could have explained it properly, he didn’t know what to say.

It had all happened too fast. He hadn’t had time to process it either.

He had been chatting with Matt and Allura had been flirting and it had been one of the better days he gotten lately. Then there had been alarms and flurries of conversation and panic. Allura was gone. Keith was with her. He was pretty sure that leaving the two of them alone together was a recipe for someone getting killed but they had called in and both seemed to be in good enough spirits.

But there was a planet down there that was in danger of being destroyed and everyone on the Pathfinder treated that as a simple fact. It wasn’t simple. Shiro had no love for the Galra empire but the idea that they were out there destroying populated moons for their own gain was still disturbing.

“You’re insane. You evacuated us out of our homes by lying about being Feania because of a conspiracy theory? Did you read that on the net?” someone asked.

Then there had been another round of yelling.

“What’s the purpose of destroying us? We’re miners and manufacturers. Not military. We mostly mine and refine helium,” someone said as the panic died down.

“It’s not about what you mine or whether you’re a threat. The Galra are mining for quintessence. They started with the unpopulated worlds in their own territory but the more living things there are when the process is done, the more quintessence there is to take,” the other member of Shiro’s door crew said.

He glanced out the thick scraped window at the retreating shuttle and the moon beyond it.

Quintessence was a magic trick. Bubbles and light shows and that warm shiver when Allura got close. Down there were people were going to be destroyed for it.

“What they do with it?” Shiro asked.

“Nobody knows,” she said.

Someone came along with a cart thing to drive the passengers from the shuttle away to some holding area. They turned the questions and the yelling about conspiracy theories on the driver who didn’t have a better grasp on how to deal with it than Shiro and his crew did. It was still a relief to not be asked to explain it all. The woman beside him leaned on his shoulder and let out a theatrical sigh of relief. She had four arms and purple hair and pointed ears. Her name was Reesh and she reminded Shiro of a kindergarten teacher.

“Don’t worry about them, Honey, they’re just cranky, you’d be cranky too,” she said. “I’ve been there. It’s not fun. It isn’t helping any that our pilots are lying about being official.”

“People don’t listen if they don’t think you’re official,” the Galra man muttered. Shiro still hadn’t learned his name.

“Lying isn’t going to help matters,” she said.

“Your planet destroyed?” Shiro asked Reesh.

Shiro’s arm had some sort of built in translator that let him understand what was being said but it was up to him to assemble his own sentences. It was a struggle but so far everyone in the hangar had been nice to him about his grammatical errors.

“She’s unilu,” the Galran said as though it explained something.

“I was born in the black. Most of my people are pirates,” she said it like it was delightful. “So my ship was destroyed during a sweep. Spent some time on a lifeboat waiting for pick up. It was something else. I was six months pregnant and it was hell on my back being in those little metal seats for that long, let me tell you. But the point is that finding out that you don’t have a home to go back to is a hell of a thing to learn. So be nice to them even if they’re being assholes to you, alright?”

Shiro smiled at her and nodded.

They got in five hours of solid work.

There was some time to sit against the bulkhead and wait for the next shuttle to come back but not much. Most of their time was spent locking and unlocking the door and welcoming in more and more people from the moon below.

As time wore on, they were more panicked, less surly. The official reports had started coming in over their net and news networks that there were Galra fighters in the system. The inhabitants of the moon seemed to believe that there was still time for political adjustments. There was still time to convince their government to reverse the deal they had cut.

Shiro had been born into a world at peace but that peace had been less than a generation old. His sister had been born before the end of the war. His mother had flown for the military, not for space exploration. It was recent history.

He took a moment to savour that bit of memory when a fragment of conversation with Reesh brought it up. Big sister. A tiny mystery in a sea of bigger ones but it was still nice to have it solved.

He knew the stories of those who had refused evacuations while levvies broke and the storm band had spread. Humans had refused to leave their homes as the northern water wars started. Misplaced trust and unrelenting stubbornness had killed people then and it would kill people here too. They listened as people coming off the shuttles told their stories of family and friends who refused to get on board. People were the same everywhere. Even in the depths of space. Even when they had six legs and purple skin.

The same proximity alarm they had heard in the cafeteria went off again and Shiro winced.

He had been waiting for Reesh to clear the pressure lock before they released the last shuttle. Everyone turned to look up at the ceiling as the sound blasted through the space. The speakers were set high in the ceiling and the sound echoed around the room. It was incomprehensible and garbled and so loud that Shiro winced again. A kid, in his early teens, came down from the hallway and paused at each door to make sure that everyone knew what was happening.

“Did you hear it?” he asked.

“Heard it or understood it?” Reesh said.

“Finished?” Shiro asked.

He was tired and single words were easier. Were they done? How much longer did they have? Had they done enough to help these people? Those questions were all too complex.

“Almost. One more run, there are shuttles still out there. They won’t appreciate us leaving without them,” Bannin said. Shiro had finally given in and asked the Galra man his name.

“How many?” Shiro asked the runner.

“One more run,” he said.

“How many people come?” he asked.

He was failing to ask how many had they gotten on board. If they were about to lose their place in orbit to enemy ships and despite how much his shoulders ached from pulling the big airlock doors open and shut for the last five hours, it didn’t feel like long enough or enough people. The shuttles didn’t carry very many. The one they had ridden up from Altea was the smallest but the largest still held less than 200. A planet wide evacuation done a few hundred people at a time didn’t seem like enough.

“Nearly two thousand and the Bruno sent some ships of their own too,” the runner answered.

“Damn, we’re not going to have enough food,” Reesh said.

“We only have to get as far as Bruno though, aren’t we’re taking these people back there?” Shiro asked.

He forgot to switch languages and had to try again in Common. It took two tries to make it make sense.

“With Galra ships in the system?” Reesh asked with a laugh, “Hell no. We’ll drop them at Endy7 but that’s three days travel with twice as many people as we usually have on board.”

Bannin swore and Shiro just nodded and went back to leaning against the airlock door until the panel binged. Reesh answered the call and punched in all the right buttons to get the lock aligned for the incoming ship and then they were turning the cranks by hand and pushing it open to let in the last group of survivors.

That wasn’t quite the right word. Everyone else on the surface of that moon was still alive but they weren’t going to stay that way. Shiro didn’t know exactly what happened when the Galra ships got there but he’d put enough together from overheard conversations to know that it wouldn’t leave many survivors on the surface. He looked out at the planet still floating below them and wondered if there was more they could do.

Once the last shuttles were emptied, the hangar had to be cleared. They needed to bring everyone aboard and then make a jump to get out of range before the Galra realized they were there. It was a shoestring operation and it was the very edge of falling apart from the start.

Shiro lingered in the hall. He wanted to talk to Allura and he didn’t really have anywhere else to go. Everyone on the ship who could tolerate him was out in space right now. Reesh didn’t seem to hate him but Friel’s people weren’t anyone he wanted to spend extra time with. He would wait for Matt or Allura and Keith to get back on board. He folded his arms and leaned back against the wall to ignore the crowds.

He had tuned people out like this in the arenas.

Shit.

The memory didn’t try to destroy him like they sometimes did.

The sense memory was just of leaning against a stone wall instead of a metal one. It had been on an asteroid. The arenas and the holding pens were all hewn directly out of the rock of the thing and the structures were built over top. A metal grate showed a slice of sky behind scraped plexiglas. Not atmosphere. Just black, empty space. There hadn’t been many stars. They were in orbit around a bright sun. The surface out there was the light side. No sky but that sun burned bright. He pushed the memory down but it wouldn’t go.

People were hurrying by but they just moved out around him like he was a piece of furniture.

He kept his eyes shut, not asleep but not fully present. The memories didn’t want to be pushed down but they weren’t of the battles and that made them almost tolerable. The long corridors. The open halls. The smaller cells. The dining hall. The fear. Fear had clung to the walls in that place. He had thought that the ability to feel other people’s emotions had something to do with Allura and Ellis and the magic of Altea but in that memory, he’d been aware of everyone else’s fear like it was something tangible in the air. Maybe it was in the smell of the place.

“What the hell is wrong with your girlfriend?” someone asked.

“What?” Shiro asked blinking himself back into the present moment.

“Where’s the damn lion? What did those two idiots do?” Enzo was asking Shiro like he was supposed to know. Shiro rubbed the bridge of his nose and turned around without answering. He didn’t know what they had done but he had a few suspicions.

Chapter Text

Allura had studied diplomacy and tactics. She had done well on those exams. There was a long list of reasons that Friel’s plan to save those that they could and run before they got caught was a good choice. She knew that.

“Could the Lion take them? They’re bigger than us,” Keith had said.

Allura looked at him. He was studying the two Galra ship that had given up on the distress call that went no where and were returning to their mission. They were tuned into the frequency for the evacuations and had been listening to the pilot’s reports. Slow. It was happening but it was so slow.

She ignored him and leaned past him to tap the comms panel to another channel, something from the ground. A news program. It made her think of the news broadcaster from Valina and her chest hurt a little. People had died there. These people were debating with experts about whether there was any danger.

“I bet we could,” Keith said. “Just shoot them out of the sky. Who’s gonna stop us?”

“A single Lion could take on an entire fleet of the best technology and pilots the Galra could muster,” Allura said.

“So?”

The news program switched to a commercial showing a little kid attending some sort of theme park on the home world. She swapped back to the evacuation broadcast. Still happening. Still slow.

“Wait until they’re out of the asteroid field, we don’t want any damage.”

People on the ground were watching commercials.

“No, wait until they’re within radar distance of the moon itself,” she said.

“Why?”

“So someone notices.”

“Isn’t that more dangerous?”

Allura shrugged like it didn’t matter. Keith watched her for a long moment before he nodded. He’d come to the same conclusion. Maybe he was smarter than she had been giving him credit for.

If they took down the ships where people could see it happen, they dragged this entire messy business out into the public eye. Allura couldn’t show the galaxy the Valina tapes but if some thief with a Lion happened to make a very public statement in defense of a moon colony, well, she couldn’t have stopped him.

The ships drew in close enough to the planet to be clear of the asteroid field. They waited a little longer until the ships fell into formation and started activating the machine below the larger craft. Lights flickered to life along the metal arms and it dropped down to hang lower as it powered up.

Allura would have liked a better look at it. There was a reason that the Galra were attacking small worlds and a reason that the word mining kept getting thrown around to describe it. She wanted to understand what exactly they were doing and why. It was a large rig that hung off the bottom of the wide flat slow moving ship. She couldn’t even make out the pieces from here. It looked like a jumble of metal arms and large empty tanks. She would have needed time and an engineering textbook to compare the pieces to if she were to have any chance at making sense of it.

Instead they took it out first.

The other ship was a more standard fleet carrier. It wasn't very fast either but it had a crew of fighters to launch. They took the ships by surprise and the launch had taken a long time to happen. They had torn the mining rig off the bottom of the slower ship before the first scout ships could drop out of the carrier.

Keith was a rookie pilot and no matter how much Red liked him, there were features of the Lion that he couldn't access yet. They had torn the mining rig loose with sheer brute force. The lion was fast enough to get a lot of power behind a ram. Still. It should have been a two shot fight and it ended up being drawn out by weapons misfires and Keith struggling to maintain flight stability on banks and turns.

Red did like him. From inside the Lion, Allura could tell. She kicked the sheet panel that ran along the lower edge of the cockpit and shot a little annoyed burst of quintessence at the Lion each time she caught a flash of that happy pride. The lion was proud of Keith. He could barely work the weapons system but the Lion was still very content to have him. Allura couldn't figure it out.

They looped around after another weapons misfire and nearly lost control of the Lion to a barrel roll. Allura swore.

"You are killing me, you're going to throw us into a roll and we’re going to get sucked down into the gravity of the moon, give me flight control," she snapped at him.

She had to walk him through how to do that while the fighters that had finally launched from the fleet carrier tried to shoot them down. Finally, he got the second dashboard active and she swung around into the second chair. The flashing lights and screens stared up at her like a dare.

They said she couldn’t do this. She had taken the exams. She hadn’t been selected as a Paladin candidate. She did not belong at the helm of a Lion. She glanced over at Keith who had his head tilted back to look up at something on the upper edge of the screen. Allura hit a button to recenter the screen. It worked. The Lion hadn’t refused her. A screen realignment was minor.

“We can do this, right, Red?” she said.

No response.

The Lion wasn’t going to talk to her. She retied her hair behind her head and took a deep breath. There wasn’t time to debate this with herself. They had started a fire fight without backup against an enemy that far outnumbered them even if theirs was the superior weapons system. Her hands flew out over the dashboard and every button responded the way it should have. She took over flight and left Keith to figure out weaponry on his own.

The handles under her hands were responsive and the Lion settled into the new piloting set up quickly. Keith muttered answers to the unspoken opinions from the Lion that Allura couldn’t hear. There were moments where the Lion took back its own controls and flipped the ship around on her or realigned itself so that they would be able to aim a little more effectively.

There were three of them in the cockpit. Allura had always known that the Lions had active personalities and were able to participate in flights but she had never felt it before.

“Let’s take the bastards down,” Keith said.

It was a harder fight than it should have been but they’d done it. They took a bad hit to the starboard flank that was going to require repairs but they had disabled both ships and enough of the little fighters to send them scattering.

As the last fighter spun down, caught in the gravity of the moon below and starting to burn up on entry, Allura took her hands off the controls and rubbed her face. The moon below them hung in space looking like nothing but rock and desert. The domed cities were on the other side. Below them was nothing. They hung in orbit, rotating slowly until she caught sight of the domes.

Keith let out a whoop of triumph but she ignored it.

The panic that had been threatening to crest retreated a little as the sun glinted off the solar panels. That was why they had done it. People were dead because of something she had done. There were living people on the Galran ships and now they were gone. She inhaled slowly. Those living people had wanted to end the lives of all the people still in those domes. She let the flare of guilt go like the ship pieces burning up on their way down through the moon’s thin atmosphere.

"That was awesome but we're going to be in so much trouble," Keith said looking out at the debris of shattered mining equipment drifting by them.

"It will take at least a day to get another ship out here, even if the Galra have another mining vessel ready to hyper jump in, they'll have to prep and fuel and then get through that asteroid field. That day means thousands more lives that don't end today," Allura said more to herself than him.

"We went against orders," he said.

"Really? You're going to preach following orders? I’ve known you for less than a day and that hardly seems like your top priority," Allura said.

He scowled out at the debris and the planet below before shrugging. He was only a few years younger than she was but in that moment he seemed like a kid. She reached out and squeeze his shoulder because it was the kind of thing Shiro would have done.

"Honestly, that was kind of impressive," she said. "You've had this ship for less than two days. Usually Paladins aren't let out on full flight missions until they've been in training for months. You brought down two ships in active combat and unfamiliar space. It's more than I was expecting from you."

He shot her a look at that last part. Supportive, not honest. She was supposed to be saying supportive things. Shiro would have pulled that off better than she could. Allura was good at being diplomatic and charming but he was good at being friendly. It wasn’t the same.

"I didn't expect a maid would be able to fly anything bigger than a paper airplane," he said.

"We're all full of surprises."

"Secrets aren't the same as surprises."

Allura laughed at that and he frowned at her before cracking a smirk. His eyes had faded from a bright yellow to a darker shade. Human eyes. He studied her with those eyes and she held his gaze. She would just let him theorize.

“We’re all full of secrets, then, if you prefer,” she said.

“You could share,” he said.

The comm panel binged before she had to decide what she was going to say to that.

"Oh right, Enzo and Friel are both going to scream at us, it's nice of them to get a start on that before we even get back," Keith said looking at the panel and pulling a face.

"Let them yell," Allura said with a wave of her hand. She had made her decision and she was going to have to live with it. The opinion of a pair of space pirates wasn’t going to sway her now.

But the call wasn't coming in on the frequency that Allura had given Yalla to make contact with the Lion. It was coming in over the internal network. She tapped at the screen a few times. Just to be sure.

It was coming from one of the other lions.

Allura took a long slow breath in. Her secret was on the way out into the open. She could block it but blocking it meant helping the Galra keep this secret. They had blindsided an ally into giving up thousands of lives as though it were a business transaction. She didn’t want to face this alone. She needed advice from someone who wasn’t an alien pirate. She wanted to know that there were people at home who were trying to fix this properly instead of with hasty improvised evacuations.

Allura put her finger on the button and then glanced at Keith who was still grimacing at the ceiling, expecting a scolding from his boss.

"I will take this call but you need to keep everything we say from everyone on that ship."

"Why?"

"Because I'm pretty sure that if any of them figure out how big this secret is, they'll kill me."

"Even Shiro?"

The comm panel was still beeping with the incoming call. It switched to a different tone but still a call from another Lion. An emergency line.

"Shiro knows and I'd trust him with my life. I am asking if I can trust you too."

"Two way street. You're going to owe me."

"Done," Allura said.

She opened the details and then answered the call with a cheery, "Hi Blaytz, how are you?"

"Who the hell are you?" he asked.

"If you don't know I'm not telling you."

"You just executed an act of war."

"Not quite true. It was in the interest of saving thousands of lives on an alliance world which is usually exempt under the Verna Amendments. Even if it is not exempt, the pilot of this ship is a Galran thief flying with a stateless rebel fleet so who exactly is declaring war in that situation?"

Her voice maintained its faux cheer but saying the words out loud made her chest tight and made her heart beat too fast. She was walking on very thin ice here. What she had done was a violation of a treaty between two governments that she wasn't a part of. The Verna Amendments were meant to protect against genocidal intent and Allura was pretty sure that in Alliance courts that she would be able to find lawyers who could make the case that they were well within those rules. Still. It wasn't a decision that she, as a member of a central planet's government, should have been making unilaterally.

If her role in this went public, she would probably lose any chance at ever taking over the throne. At the very least. She could end up arrested and tried before intergalactic courts. She had brought down those ships. She had issued that order. She had started an interplanetary incident. Blaming Keith might buy them some time but not much. It would come back to her. She outranked him.

Blaytz was still talking over the line. Asking questions but not giving her time to answer. She let him talk a little longer as her thoughts worked through the possibilities.

"Do you have updated population statistics for that moon, Blaytz?" she asked interrupting him and a rambling line of questioning. It was abrupt and he went silent then answered her.

"74 000."

"Good."

"Good?!" another voice on the line. She didn’t know who.

"The two hour window of evacuation couldn't have moved more than 4000 on their ships and ours," Allura said. "That is tens of thousands of lives that now have a chance to escape."

"The Galra ships you brought down weren't going to destroy the planet, it was a mining operation," he said.

"A two ship mining operation with a fleet carrier?" Allura said. "Tell the people of Valina that it was just a mining operation."

Keith leaned past her and shut the screen off ending the call. She started to complain but his expression cut her off. His eyes ha blazed to bright yellow again. He didn’t look like a little kid in that moment. He looked like a dangerous criminal and he looked angry.

"What did you say?" he asked.

"Valina is a mining colony inside Galra space. They razed it and drained it. I've seen the footage."

He went silent.

The comm panel binged again.

“I’m going to answer that,” she said.

He nodded but his mood didn’t lessen much. He sat back with his arms tightly crossed.

“Turn the Lion around and bring it back to port at Hesti,” the new voice said.

“No,” Keith snapped.

“Does that request come with a written declaration of immunity?” Allura asked just to play the role. She didn’t expect that to happen for either of them. Ever.

“Alliance forces will meet you in Hesti or we can come and collect you,” the voice said.

“Option 3, we ignore you,” Keith said. “We’ve got better things to do than spend more time in Altean prison cells.”

Allura was only halfway listening. Blaytz she was willing to talk to but this officious bastard was just worried about sounding superior. Allura didn’t really care what he had to say. It would all be variations on the same line. This wasn’t someone who ranked high enough to negotiate with nor did she trust him enough to take information back to the people she wanted to talk to.

On the screen, the call details scrolled past in a never ending loop. That was boring so she opened up a scan screen and tried to find the blip that was the rebel ship in all the asteroids. They were clear of the asteroid field. She watched it reorient itself on the screen for a few moments before realizing what it was doing.

“You stand accused of both theft and abduction, you must stand trial. We will negotiate for-”

Allura muttered a swearword and cut him off, “It wasn’t an abduction, just for the record. I’m fine. I’m also hanging up on you. We need to hurry or we’re going to miss our ride.”

“Abduction? Who are-” Keith started.

“Later, the ship is preparing to jump. They’re leaving us behind. We’re going to have to wormhole after them if we don’t get there soon. You can’t wormhole unless you know where you’re going to we need to go,” Allura said.

Keith swore as well and she let him take back the helm and swing the Lion around. They left the moon and it’s people behind and shot back through the asteroid belt after the ship.

Chapter Text

They had been welcomed back as heroes. At least Keith had, Allura had been largely ignored and had gone in search of Shiro. She left Keith to the congratulations and the yelling and probably a lecture from a superior officer on going off orders. Her lecture would come later, after all of this was over.

He found her in the hall and grabbed her by both shoulders and just stared at her for a moment. He had a tiny frown line between his eyebrows and his jaw set. Allura wasn’t sure if he was angry or worried. His hands dropped a moment later and he took a step back.

“Are you alright? What were you thinking?” Shiro said.

“Somebody needed to do it and since their local government and the Galactic Counsel have failed those people then it needed to be us,” she said.

His hands came up to take her by the shoulders again. Having him in her personal space was less jarring but it still made her straighten. He got closer and spoke in a very low voice.

“Don’t get caught,” he said. “You need to be careful. Please.”

“I am careful.”

“That wasn’t careful.”

“My safety isn’t more important than all those lives, it isn’t,” she said. “Let’s go eat.”

Shiro didn’t push the conversation, he just nodded. Allura was starving and he let her pull him along. The closer they got, the more the hallways filled up. A lot of the people were refugees who had been pulled off the planet. Allura wanted to ask if they would be taking them back now that the immediate danger was gone but it didn’t seem likely based on what Matt had said.

“Oh fuck everything,” Shiro said as they entered the dining hall. Allura craned her neck to see what he was looking at. She caught herself before she stretched her height up. Why had she chosen to make Grace so short? She sighed.

“Keith is arguing with some goon,” Shiro said.

“I really do question your taste in friends,” she said.

“Says the woman who just spent the day shooting down Galra ships with him,” Shiro said.

“He’s not my friend. I do not claim that.”

“So you only like him because of his cool car?”

“Are you mocking me?”

He laughed and shrugged. Allura finally caught a break in the crowd so she could see what was happening for a few moments. Keith was shorter and thinner than the guy he was arguing with but he managed to look more dangerous.

“I think your friend is about to get punched. He was the biggest hero on the ship twenty minutes ago and now he’s got three people ready to hit him.”

“Yeah, I should go stop that.”

Allura shook her head at him and then gave him a little shove in the direction of all the noise. If he wanted to take responsibility for a Galra boy with a bad attitude, that was his problem. She went the other way, crossing the dining hall towards the table with all the food. She was hungry and it made her cranky. Everything on board this ship was tightly rationed and it was starting to grate on her. Altean metabolism wasn’t designed to run on so few calories. Even keeping her use of quintessence to a minimum and reserving energy as much as possible, she was still hungry enough to be grateful for the protein goop and chewy bread she was given at the serving table.

She glanced over at Shiro and Keith who were standing shoulder to shoulder now, both arguing with the goon. She considered getting involved and then shook off that idea and went to sit with her terrible meal and eat in peace. They’d find her when they were done with whatever it was that had set them off. The table filled up around her and she glanced back at them again before deciding not to bother saving them seats.

"Are you really Altean?" someone asked reaching out.

Allura snapped back from the hand that nearly brushed her cheek. She blinked and frowned at the stranger. A young woman. Unilu with her purple hair twisted back into a pretty style that she had woven fake flowers into. She was around Allura's age and held a small child with matching hair with two of her four arms. One of her free hands held a tray of food and the other hung suspended near Allura's head and she looked apologetic.

"I'm sorry. Touching someone's silana isn't polite. I wasn't expecting you to do it," she said. She had to gather up her good manners and the story she was supposed to be telling and said, "My name is Grace."

"I'm Reesh, this is Jessa," she said bouncing the little girl on her hip.

"It's lovely to meet you."

"You came aboard with the new Paladin attempt?" Reesh asked.

"I did. How long have you been aboard?" Allura asked.

“All of this one’s life,” she said jostling the baby who laughed.

So Allura’s participation in the stunt with the Red Lion hadn’t traveled out to the rest of the crew and passengers. She still wasn’t sure how many passengers there were or why. Being Altean was still the most interesting thing about her as far as anyone knew.

Reesh had a broad smile and she took the seat to Allura’s left and started feeding the baby with one hand and chatting with everyone. She was friendly. She called everyone baby and honey. She told Allura little details like who knew who from before and how long they had been aboard the ship. The conversation was a bit chaotic as Allura got dragged into the mix of time measurements from different planets. They corrected her grammatical errors in Common and didn’t ask too many questions about her back story.

“You eat like a teenage boy,” another Unilu who had sat down across from Reesh said shaking her head at Allura. “I’m sure you had much nicer food on a central planet like Altea. Is it beautiful there?”

“Alteans have fast metabolisms. I eat a lot. Is food always this tight on the ship?” she said.

“Depends on where we are, this far out from the Gwalin bases? Yeah, usually. And now we’re over capacity so the ship’s gardens can’t keep up with us,” Reesh said. “Do you want this soggy lump?”

She held out a piece of the same bread that Allura had just finished eating and Allura took it gratefully. The conversation turned to questions about Altea which Allura could answer without worrying about creating a lie too complicated to keep up later. Grace was a palace maid, she could talk about the palace grounds and the flatlands around the capital city without worrying she was saying the wrong thing.

Talking about plants and animals was fascinating to the group at the table. Most of the others weren’t even from edge worlds. Edge planets might not have the technological or political power of the core Alliance worlds but they had ecosystems. Most of Reesh’s friends were from colonized moons and satellite bases in Galran space. Some of them had been living nomadic lives on ships like the Pathfinder since they were children. Stories about forests and streams and animals were almost fairy tales. Allura had never thought to take those things for granted. She was a princess. She knew that she had privileges that others didn’t but she had never imagined that having gone wading in a stream would be one of those things.

The conversation was interrupted by a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t quite flinch but she snapped her head up to look at him. It was just the Pilot, he grinned down at her and she returned it. She was in a good mood. The extra food. The success in the Red Lion. The conversation. All the new people.

“You ok?” he asked.

“Yes, did you start a fight?”

“I don’t start fights,” he said.

She frowned at him and he laughed.

“This is Reesh and Wendi and Marill. They’re Unilu from the Blue River system. Down the table, there are Elrin and Vera who got married last month. They’re very nice, do you want to sit with us?” she asked.

“Keith and I headed down to the training decks with Enzo, he thinks Keith needs to work off some of his energy before he starts a fight he can’t win,” Shiro said. Allura raised her eyebrows and he shrugged. When had they found this silent language? She liked it. She liked the way he understood her with nothing more than a look. “Do you want to come?”

“Reesh wants to show me around the residential decks but I’ll come to find you later,” she said.

She still had her head tipped back to look up at him and he hesitated. She raised her eyebrows at him and started to ask a question but he gave her another smile before she could. It threw her off her train of thought long enough for him to lean down and kiss her forehead before he turned and walked away. She stared after him for a moment too long before someone elbowed her and she turned back to the group.

“Despite the lack of arms and the tiny eyes, your boy is very cute,” Reesh said batting her giant green eyes in his direction. “Is he Altean as well?”

“Human,” she said dragging herself fully back to the moment and away from the casual intimacy of the kiss. He had done it like it was nothing and they did things like that all the time. It had been soft and gentle and far too quick. “He’s human.”

“Edge worlders right?” someone asked.

“Yeah, far out. Deep on the edges. I met a few in the colony on Yull,” one of the longtime spacers said.

Allura was starting to pick up the rhythm of the slang and the accent they used for their Common. Spacers. Orbitals. Lunars. They had nicknames for where they had come from. There was another level of slang and commentary for the soldiers that she hadn’t had enough conversation to pick up yet.

“Are you ready for the grand tour?” Reesh asked.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Allura said with a grin. Maybe this little stay on a rebel space ship wouldn’t be as hellish as she had feared if she kept making friends.

Reesh reached out with one of her free hands and grabbed Allura by the arm and pulled her around and started marching her down the hallway while telling her life story. Reesh had been born and raised in an off-world colony. Most Unilu were. They were a nomadic people with a reputation for running pirate operations on moons throughout Galran and Bruno space. Reesh's community had been made up of traders but not criminals. It had been wiped out by a Galran raiding party who wanted the moon to set up a base of some kind.

She didn't get into the details. Her daughter had been born aboard the Pathfinder and they lived with a small group of neighbours in one of the upper decks of the residential part of the ship. Allura hadn't realized there was a residential part of the ship until Reesh had suggested the tour. She had assumed that the barracks where she and Shiro had slept the night before were the extent of the places that people might live.

"Welcome to chaos three," Reesh said pushing their way through a metal door into a soaring but narrow space ringed with metal walkways stacked one over the other in long oval rings.

There was a damaged sky screen four stories above them. A large crack ran through it and it flickered between the image of a pink Rellian sky and the wiring of the screen's machinery behind. Below it, each ring was the same. The sidewalk was broad enough for three or four people to walk abreast, though there were crates and boxes stacked against the walls that made it much narrower. The metal railing that kept people from falling the seven stories down to the park at the bottom where an overgrown mess of vegetation provided fresh oxygen so the screen mustn’t be so damaged it couldn’t provide full-spectrum light.

The room was ringed with little doorways that would lead to private chambers. There were laundry lines strung up in the corner and trinkets and little signs were hung over the doors or from the railings across from them to mark ownership and make the space seem more homey. The homey touches were a nice attempt but Reesh had named it correctly. It was chaotic.

"It's bigger than I expected," Allura said because she had to say something and declaring someone’s home a chaotic disaster area seemed rude.

They had entered on the third floor of a total of seven. The lowest levels closest to the overgrown park and the highest levels closest to the sun screen were the most coveted. Reesh explained it to her as she pointed out different neighbourhoods where family groups or members of the same species or culture had pulled together to form little communities. She led the way up to the fourth floor and dropped Jessa off with a friend of hers.

Then came a torrent of introductions.

Allura was good at meeting people but usually, she had already read up on the people she was meeting. Diplomatic meetings were structured. There was a rhyme and rhythm to them. There were documents to read before the meeting about who would be attending and what she needed to know about them. Here it was just people. Curious people. Children and the elderly and soldiers and parents and species she had heard of and those she hadn't and people who had a mother from one species and a father from another. There was more jostling and laughing and talking over each other than she was used to.

By the time Shiro and his friend Matt had found her, she was thoroughly overwhelmed. Shiro folded his arm around her shoulder and pulled her in against his side. These little displays of affection were important for the story they were trying to portray but this time it was also a relief to have someone familiar to hold on to. She looped her arm around his waist and did just that.

"You ok?" he asked again in a low voice.

"Tired, is everything ok? I thought you were going with Keith," she said.

“Got sidetracked, Matt wanted to introduce me to an Altean who had helped them find me,” he said with a little smile.

Every social rule Allura knew said that she was now going to be required to introduce the people she had met to him. That was how it worked. She glanced up at the crowd which had shifted around her and tried to figure out where to start. This Rellian man had twin sons but she had forgotten his name. That was Wenna but Allura couldn't remember what Wenna's wife's name was and it would be offensive to introduce only one of them.

She was saved from the embarrassment by the group of people moving immediately to being fascinated with Shiro and the fact that he was the supposed Black Paladin. Reesh and Shiro had met earlier in the day and she spun that into a story that made it sound like they had known each other for years. She even gave him a hug which made him laugh.

Matt knew enough of them to take over introductions and he was affable enough to just apologize and keep going if he didn't know someone's name. Allura wasn't the host here. She let herself be Grace the palace maid who was a little scared and overwhelmed and holding onto her boyfriend. She kept an arm around his back and stayed close to his side.

Later, she would be the princess, the one with all the answers. She would be that later.

Shiro and Matt carried her through that conversation but they cut it short, making apologies and dragging her along with them. They wove out of the little crowd and made their way back out of the residential space and into the main halls. There were other residences and they passed other doors propped open that looked into similar rings of small rooms and crowded walkways.

They fell into step with Shiro in the middle as they headed back toward the military part of the ship. Allura was sure that the lines weren’t that strict but it felt like there were two different ships that just happened to exist together. This neighbourhood where Reesh and her daughter lived was one and the barracks and hangar were another.

“Are you sure bringing her is a good idea?” Matt asked.

Shiro started to say something and Allura interrupted him in Altean, “Let him talk, I’m curious,” she said with a big smile

“She has a translator, shit, forgot, sorry,” he said and seemed to actually mean it for a few seconds before he launched into the next thing.

“It’s just that he was a prisoner and doesn’t have a family or anything on Altea but you do and they’re probably worried about you and this person is pretty highly ranked and a bit nervous and I don’t know if having you right there is going to help our case at all. She’s kind of mad,” Matt said.

“Shocking that anyone would be angry about that disaster of a rescue mission,” Shiro said.

“Who is it?” Allura asked, forgetting to switch back to Common and getting a blank look from Matt. She tried again in the right language.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We just call her the Priest or the Searcher. It’s all very hush hush and secretive. The only reason I get in on any of it now because I know Shiro. I’m not exactly invited to their meetings most of the time.”

They had made it back to the goddamn bridge but this time they bypassed it and headed into a small room. It might have been designed to be an office but inside was a jumbled mess. It was almost a storage room but there was a desk. One it a large comm screen. It was already on when they came in and on the screen, Gisella’s eyes widened at the sight of Allura.

Allura muttered one of the humans’ swearwords.

Gisella was a top priest. She was young and she was new but she was one of Ellis’s personal picks. She was on the Paladin Project. Seeing her here, talking to Friel on a video call like they were friends, was jarring. It was a betrayal. This woman who Allura had talked to and spent time with, was a member of this rebel group. Allura let her thoughts on the matter show on her face and Gisella’s expression shifted again but Allura didn’t have time to read it.

“You sit down. Your little entourage can get out,” Friel said to Shiro. “They aren’t a part of this. She, in particular, is not a part of this.”

A soldier pushed both her and Matt back out the door while Shiro started to argue. The door slammed shut and Allura rolled her hands into fists but resisted the urge to bang on the metal. That wouldn’t be ladylike.

Allura swore again.

“Shit is right,” Matt said.

Allura shot him a glare and then spun on her heel and walked away.

Chapter Text


Shiro felt Allura's emotions spike before she walked away. She was mad. Angry and hurt in a way he hadn’t felt from her since these little magic slips had started happening. Finding one of her priestesses on a conference call with the head of the rebels who had broken into the palace and left a trail of bodies was not something she took in stride. He still barely understood the quintessence thing but that little blast of emotion was so unavoidable it surprised him that the rest of the room hadn't reacted to it. He watched the door shut behind her as she stormed off. He almost turned and went after her. It had been a hell of a day and he would rather listen to her yell than listen to Friel talk about anything. The room was small and even with only four people and a screen in it, it was cramped.

“We got the one you suggested, not sure I believe he’s worth the trouble,” Friel said.

“Fuck you,” Shiro said sitting down across from him.

He could go after Allura later. He needed to understand this first. Allura could help him figure this out once they had finished here. Up on the screen, the woman's face was still wide eyed. She was Altean and familiar. Very familiar, someone he had known once upon a time, but he didn’t know when. Shiro was tired and too much had happened today for him to keep it all straight.

It took him a long time to place her to the prison cell. She had been there when the priestesses had come down to do experiments on his arm. The green-eyed priestess with Ellis who had always been so nervous around him. She didn't look any more confident up there on the screen even though she apparently had the balls to defy the Altean crown.

"Some secrets are best kept," Shiro said pointedly to the screen before pretending to talk to Enzo who was also sitting in a corner of room. "Others, don't help anyone. Why kick her out?"

"She defied orders," Friel said.

"She doesn't work for you," Shiro pointed out.

Half his attention was still on Allura. He dragged his attention back to the moment at hand. The tiny room was a field of landmines wrapped up in secrets. He was sure that the priestess had recognized Allura and he had to make sure that Friel didn't figure that little secret out. He was not going to risk her life in this and he shot another look at the screen to try and make it very clear what exactly the stakes were. The Princess was well loved by all the people he’d met on Altea but Shiro didn’t understand enough Altean politics to know if that held outside the castle town.

Friel leaned his elbows on the desk and gestured dramatically at Shiro who slouched down in his chair and crossed his arms like a recalcitrant teenager. He smirked. It annoyed Friel so it was worth it. \

"He's a pain in the ass, Gisella, the last one was better," Friel said.

"The last one was a failure," Enzo said.

"The alien has an extremely close quintessence match," she said. Defensive. Nervous.

“How did you get mixed up in this?” Shiro asked her while ignoring the rest of it. He wanted to be sure that he wasn’t going to accidentally throw Allura under the bus by talking to this woman. He needed to know if he could trust the Priestess with Allura’s secret.

The look she gave him made him think she understood the question he wasn’t asking. She stayed quiet for too long and he prodded her.

“You don’t really strike me as rebel material,” he said with a hand wave at the room around them.

“She isn’t,” Friel added.

That changed the tone of the defensive set of her jaw. She raised her chin and scowled at him. Angry was better than frightened. Shiro raised his eyebrows and waited her out. Friel started to say something else and Shiro held out a hand and surprisingly, he shut up for just long enough for Gisella to start talking.

“I’m a sensitive. I was on Sian when the Zend colonies were destroyed. Back then they were still pretending that it was a military mission. They were destroying rebel strongholds to improve safety and security in the Galra Territory. That was what they were saying but they had no right to use the Black Lion like that. She isn’t meant for that. I study the Lions. I have studied the Lions since I was a little girl. There was a Lion involved in that wave of death. I felt her suffering as well as theirs. They are designed for defense and protection. Not murder. There is no official channel for this. I am doing what I need to do to save the Black Lion.”

“We’ve all lost something to the Galra Empire, kiddo, you’re lucky it was just your feelings while on vacation. The point is whether this squashy little not-an-Altean is going to be any use in stopping it.”

“They’re not an empire. They’re a-” Gisella started.

“Says the woman from the Altean Empire. You’re all empires. You just like to use other words, so you can feel better about it,” Friel said. “Your people aren’t better than they are. You’re all making your riches from people like us. But really, this one? Black Paladin?”

Gisella bristled. She was already warming to her theme when she was telling her story but now she was angry. For the first time since he had met her, Shiro saw her as something other than nervous. She narrowed her eyes and this time when she spoke it wasn’t defensive. She spoke as an expert.

"I have had many chances to observe his conduct and analyze his quintessence signature. You needn’t worry. I am sure. I may not be rebel material, but I know how to read the quintessence of living things. He's a much better match than the last one."

"Is the last one dead?" Shiro asked.

Everyone looked at him.

"Seems like a reasonable question," he said.

A long hesitation.

"Yes," Friel said. "As is the entire crew that we sent in with the bastard."

"So, the bar is low, at least," Enzo said.

"Funny," Shiro deadpanned.

A shrug. Shiro laughed in spite of himself.

"Why try and steal it? Can't you just blow it up?" Shiro suggested.

Gisella gasped like he had said something blasphemous. He probably had. These Lions were a big deal on Altea but as far as Shiro could tell, they were glorified war ships. All this talk about them having thoughts and purposes felt like a distraction. This was a weapon that was being used to attack people and planets and destroying it seemed far easier than attempting an infiltration that involved as many steps as this. Kidnapping a prisoner from one planet, transporting him to another planet, sneaking into a heavily fortified base, all in the vague hope that he might be able to activate a magic robot. It seemed unnecessary.

They started explaining all the reasons that they couldn't just blow the entire thing up. While there was a little bit of hand wringing from Gisella, most of the reasons were very practical. The Lions were nearly impossible to destroy.

"Fine, I accept that," he said. "I even accept that the answer to why me is woo woo alien magic. Fine. After the year I've had, life is so fucking weird that this might as well happen. But how exactly are you suggesting we go get the damn thing?"

A moment of silence.

"You seriously don't have a plan for that? Call me when you do,” Shiro said pushing himself up out of his chair and leaving the room.

 


 

Allura had her back pressed tight against the wall just to feel the stability of something. She was breathing and working on keeping little quintessence balls floating in tight concentric circles between her palms. It wasn’t working but she kept trying. She would drop the balls and have to remake them. Over and over. Meditation had never been her strong suit. Usually she defaulted to training simulations or running when she was stressed but there was no safe place to do that here, so she was trying to find another solution.

Shiro touched her shoulder and she jumped. Her magic gathered, and she barely grabbed it in time to keep from lashing out. He jumped as well and froze for a long moment before he sat down beside her. He didn’t say anything as she reeled her magic back in. She was sitting in the hangar with her back against a steel support bar as she stared down the Red Lion who sat at the far end of the big space, the shield thrown up and his face impassive.

Just a ship. So much more than a ship.

"Can we talk?" he said after a long time of just sitting side by side, watching Red watch them.

She nodded and when he held out a hand to her she took it and let him pull her to her feet. She had been sitting for so long that she wavered. He held her hand for a moment until she was steady. He let go and led the way through the corridors until they found a quiet space and an unlocked door where they could hide themselves away.

It was another closet.

This was getting to be a habit.

She almost made a joke, but he was checking the hall like he was concerned that someone was going to catch them. The moment for the joke passed and she turned her attention to the space. It was part of the engine system, not a proper closet. Instead of comm line cables, it was filled with energy crystals set into arrays on the walls. Some sort of power relay station. Some of them pulsed and made her head ache. The crystals on the walls glowed as energy passed through them and she paused to gently nudge a few back into proper alignment so they would stop pulsing. Shiro stood near the door watching her fix the arrays.

"They're going to try and take the Black Lion off of Galra itself. It's on the planet," he said.

"That scares you," she said.

It was the wrong thing to say. His emotion spiked. She was picking it up from his quintessence. He was infuriatingly composed and if she couldn’t feel that tremour in his magic, she wouldn’t have guessed he was upset by that sentence at all. She looked over at him. Eyes calm. Face impassive. Arms crossed but the posture wasn’t particularly tight or defensive. When he spoke, his voice was even and measured.

"The last time I was in Galra airspace, it didn't go well."

Allura felt like the pieces that held her together were about to shatter. She almost wanted him to goad him into a fight just for the excuse to yell. His eyes got far away and Allura's impulse to start fighting vanished. He looked calm but there was something underneath it. She reached across the space between them and took his hand. She squeezed once and then lost her nerve and let her hand drop.

“I know, I understand,” she said.

He gathered himself again and the nerves even faded from his quintessence. He needed to teach her that trick. She couldn’t figure out how he was doing it. She closed her eyes against the pulsing lights and the sound of the engines below their feet and every reminder of where she was. She was in the depths of space. She was surrounded by people who already saw her as a threat or a novelty and would probably kill her if they knew who she really was.

“Are you ok?”

“I’ve had better days,” she said turning back to the task of resetting the arrays. “Does this ship even have a tech crew? Someone should be fixing these. They need realigned after every hyperspace jump and it looks like they haven’t been done in a long time.”

He stepped in closer to her personal space but didn’t reach out to touch her. He was close enough for her to close the gap, but she didn’t do it either. He watched her twist the crystals back into place. The light calming as she finished each one. They were round, faceted, naturally occurring but cut and polished. The Rellian propulsion system was modeled on the Altean one so the entire layout was familiar. The urge to reach for her comm and check what part of the engine system it was crossed her mind. The comm wasn’t in her pocket.

That was what set off the next round of anxiety. She wanted her damn comm. She wanted to get pretentious text messages from Coran and the advisors. She wanted to be added to long message chains debating agriculture policy. She wanted to be able to call Dira and talk it all out. She wanted to know that she was being tracked and that if she hit the panic button, a group of guards would appear and take her to safety.

She wanted to go home.

"How can I make this better?" he asked.

"Better?" she didn't look up from the set of crystals that were still wavering as the light moved through them.

"You're -" he paused and considered his words. She turned to look at him, forcing herself to ignore the arrays as he said, "You're stressed."

"I'm on the brink of a panic attack. There are rebel spies in my castle. My city. My temple. She is new but she is so highly placed that she knows almost everything that Ellis does. Ellis knows almost as much as the royal advisors do. How much did Gisella tell them? How long has she been working for them? I'm fairly certain that leaving Altea in the company of pirates is the stupidest thing I have ever done," she said and her voice stayed even. “Where do her loyalties lie? Is she up there on that comm call - now that you’re gone - telling Friel who I am? Am I about to become a pawn in some power play? Ransom me off for another Lion? What happens next? I don’t know if I can pull this off.”

“Her reasons for working with the rebels are the same as yours. She wants the Black Lion out of Zarkon’s hands. She’ll keep your secret. And you can pull this off.”

He couldn’t know that but the way he said it took the worst of the edge off Allura’s spinning thoughts. He was still close, and she let her quintessence out a little further, so she could feel how sure he was. The calm radiated despite the turmoil underneath. His eyes were soft, and he leaned against the wall beside the crystals she had been working on. He reached out with one finger and nudged a flickering one until it glowed clear and bright. She did the next one. And the next. He let her fuss with it and keep her magic pressed in against his.

"Keith can take that Lion and drop you back home," Shiro said in a quiet voice.

"He would not do that, and you know it."

"Ok, he wouldn't go within ten light years of Altea but I'm sure we could arrange to have you dropped off somewhere in between. Some sort of outpost where they can come and get you," he said.

"No."

The offer to leave snapped her resolve back into place.

She turned and gave herself a little bit of extra height so she could look him directly in the eye. He noticed it when she did it now and she saw his eyes flick down as he took her in. His species couldn’t shift. It made him uncomfortable when she did it but he didn’t say anything. He dragged his eyes back up to meet hers and raised his eyebrows.

"So, what are you going to do? P-" he cut himself off before he called her Princess. "What are you going to do?"

"What I set out to do," she said.

“Which is?” he asked.

"I set out to fix the mess that Zarkon has created with the Black Lion. I'm not going home because I'm a bit overwhelmed or a bit uncomfortable. It needn't be easy to be worthwhile."

He smiled at her and like it always did, the smile softened everything about him. He smiled with his entire self. She could feel him smiling if she let her quintessence out just the tiniest bit. He was striking when he was smiling. Allura had been very careful to avoid thinking about him in Dira's terms. He wasn't the hot alien. He was the Pilot or Shiro or Takashi. Having him in her personal space so often over the past few days was making it harder for her to avoid thinking about how attractive he was. Alien but not so alien that she didn't find him beautiful, especially when he was smiling.

"It needn't be easy to be worthwhile," he repeated, still smiling. "I like that."

"It's true."

"I know it is."

"We're in this together," she said. "Right?"

"Of course, we are," he said.

They didn't have an audience to prove anything to. She didn't care. She reached out and wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into a hug. He didn't hesitate. He wrapped her up and pulled her close. He was warm and solid, and he held on tight. It eased something inside her. That calm made physical. The metal arm around her waist and holding her close was more comforting than it should have been.

"Stay with me for a minute?" she asked.

"I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere," he said.

She dropped herself down until she was short enough to rest her head on his shoulder. He inhaled a little in surprise but didn't comment on that either. He just readjusted his hold and rested his cheek against the side of her head. She closed her eyes. She let her magic slip a little further and let it wind through his. She just wanted a little taste of how calm he was. Slowly but surely, it was working. Her emotions evened back out.

“She’s the real deal, right?” Shiro said.

“Who?” Allura murmured.

The question confused her. She wasn’t ready to come back to the real world. She wasn’t even ready to let go. He held on and she curled in close. It was enough not to be alone. She wouldn’t be able to handle this alone. He didn’t let go but he kept talking like they were sitting at a conference table debating strategy.

“Gisella, she worked with Ellis, she knows what she’s talking about right? About me being a match?”

“She has all the training,” Allura said, “And she’s a very strong sensitive.”

“Do you doubt her?”

“No.”

“Ok, because you didn’t sound sure,” he said.

“Gisella is young and new to the paladin team but well trained and very talented,” Allura said. “I trust her assessment and knowing you, I believe it. It’s just that I am going to have her tried for treason when I get back. That doesn’t mean she’s wrong about you.”

He relaxed. She hadn’t realized he was holding tension until he let it go. The hug started to feel a little less like clinging together. Allura could have fallen asleep standing there, with her head on his shoulder and the sense of him around her. That was a bad idea and she was already in too deep. That thought made her straighten and start to untangle herself. Finally, he stepped back but his hands lingered on her arms. She didn’t step back from the contact.

“You’re sure you don’t want to home?” he asked.

“I very much want to go home but I will see this through,” she said.

“Good. I’m going to need you,” he said.

“We’re in this together,” she said.

He smiled and held out a hand for her to grab hold of. This time she didn’t let it go as they walked back towards the inhabited parts of the ship.

Chapter Text

The arm was still blazing purple, but he'd come awake enough to stop himself before he hit anything. It hung suspended over his head, casting the bed in an eerie glow. He curled his hand into a fist. He tried to breathe evenly until he could get it to power down. It took longer than he would have like. Someone down the row yelled something about the light. Shiro ignored them. All his attention was on the arm until she moved.

He had forgotten. He wasn’t alone. He stretched his fingers out and looked up. Not the prisons that ran below the arenas. Barracks on a space ship full of rebels and refugees. He started to lower the arm, but it was still glowing. As slow as he was going, it was still a threat.

Allura swore.

She curled into his chest, flinching away from the light and the arm.

He started to apologize and pull away. She didn’t give him a chance to get very far. Her arm looped around his waist and held him in place. She shook her head. She was very very close. Her heart beat was very very fast. Shiro was up on his other elbow and looked down at her as she raised her head.

The barracks were dim, but the purple light was enough to illuminate the details of her expression. Her eyes were a touch too wide and her mouth was set in a tight line, but she held his gaze.

"It's ok," she said in accented English. “You didn’t hurt anything. Just turn it off.”

“I’m trying.”

“Try harder.”

She poked him in the ribs. He used his normal hand to grab for her wrist but that meant twisting in the little bed and there wasn’t enough space for it. He nearly fell out of bed and she laughed at him as she pulled him back in. She was strong enough to catch him by the waist, but it wasn’t elegant. They were sprawled in a pile on the mattress.

He laughed very softly, and she settled into his arms and let her cheek rest on his chest. The arm was off. Thankfully. He missed the moment when it happened. He was still holding it up and away even as she had yanked him over almost on top of her. Allura reached up and grabbed the hand.

"You don't-” he whispered.

"You don't scare me," she said. Imperious. She had a princess voice that she only used sometimes but she was using it here.

"I could have hurt you."

"I could hurt you, too. You don’t want to start a fight with me. You lost the last one, arm or not."

"Is that a threat?"

"A warning."

That made him smile. She was very close, and she was holding on to his hand, so it was trapped between their bodies. Her fingers laced together with his metal ones and held him in place. She held it tight, but he didn't try and pull away again.

"Do you want to talk about it?" she asked.

"What?"

"What you were dreaming about that scared you enough to turn this on?"

"Nothing distinct. Fighting. Blood. I'd fallen, and something was coming after me, but I don't know what," he said. Just saying it brought up the memories and she squeezed the metal fingers. The strange sense information he got from the metal hand distracted him. He stretched the fingers and held onto her.

She didn't press the issue. She rearranged him, shifting him into place easily. She settled so that she could rub the back of his neck with her other hand. Her fingers in his hair reminded him of how long it was. It was hard for the fight or flight reaction to keep hold of him when he was wrapped up with her like this.

In the year or more that he had been in the arenas, there hadn’t been any comfort. Nothing came to mind when he tried to call up a friend or someone he had been able to lean on. That was dangerous. If you leaned on someone then you might end up in a match against them and Shiro had never been able to stomach that. He pushed his memories back and put all his attention on her hand playing with his hair.

"You know, I come from a culture where people aren't usually this cuddly with their friends.”

"Do you feel calmer?"

"Yeah."

"So, ignore your cultural issues for five minutes and go back to sleep."

He turned into her and kissed her forehead. She shifted. He had made her uncomfortable, but she didn’t pull away. He didn’t apologize because that would have just called more attention to it. He just set his chin on the top of her head and tried to breathe normally.

She was more than a comfort. She pulled him back down when he started to lose control. She had been doing it since the day they’d met. This woman had become the brightest spot in his day and he was getting far too dependent on having her there. She was going to go back to be a Princess one day and he wasn’t sure what he would do when he lost her.


He woke up as warm and comfortable as he had fallen asleep. There wasn’t much to be done. They weren’t on any of the flight crews and with all the Bruno refugees running around the ship, more people just got in the way. Allura was still asleep but he only let himself lie beside her and watch her for a few minutes before pulling himself free and sitting up at the far end of the bed. He changed his clothes and considered going to find Enzo and ask incessant questions about the Black Lion mission until he understood it.

He didn’t go anywhere. He just sat there and let his hair annoy him. Shiro needed a haircut. It was in all the wrong places and left his ears itchy and kept falling into his eyes no matter how many times he pushed it back. He sat on the end of the bed and played with it as though he could find a way to keep it out of his eyes that didn't include tying it up into a pair of pigtails like a toddler. He scratched the back of his head and then pushed his hair back with both hands and grimaced.

“Morning.”

He glanced up to see Allura sitting up across from him, still looking sleepy and warm and the hair was annoying, but it was also a distraction to keep his attention on something other than her. She kept drawing his attention and he wanted to give up on whatever was planned for the day to just crawl back into bed and curl around her. That wasn't on offer and keeping the impulse to himself was taking a lot more work than he had intended.

"You should find a barber," she said. "I can ask Reesh if she knows anyone."

"I should," he said.

"Or just grow it a little longer then you'll be able to tie it back," she said.

He made eye contact and kept his expression as stern and serious as he could as he bunched his hair up into two tufts on either side of his head. She frowned at him for a moment before she giggled. Giggled. Fuck. She was adorable. He raised his eyebrows at her and she let out a real laugh.

"Not like that," she said still laughing as she climbed out of the nest of blankets and crawled over to sit beside him.

Her pajamas were loose cotton clothes that she had charmed her friends into giving her. There was a hole in the shoulder of the blue-gray cotton long sleeve that she was wearing. He could see the edge of one of those pink marks through it as she moved. She was in his personal space before he realized what she was doing. His heart rate stuttered a little to have her close when he wasn't braced for it. Sleeping curled up against her was one thing but something about this set his nerves on edge. The nearness. The careful way she was considering him.

She shooed his hands out of the way and he did as he was told, folding his hands in his lap and looking up at her. She was kneeling, and he sat with his feet crossed so she loomed over him. Her fingers were gentle as she rearranged his hair for him. She stopped at his ears and frowned at him with a little shake of her head.

"What?"

"I keep forgetting that you aren't Altean until I catch some detail like this," she said.

“Sorry.”

“I’ll forgive you this time.”

She was smiling as she lifted his hair and frowned at his ear. He shook his head and tried to look offended but couldn’t quite get there. The little smile kept tugging at the corner of his lips. He had kept his reactions under control, but she trailed a finger down the shell of his ear and he shivered. She laughed at him and did the same on the other side and he leaned away from her.

"Hey, elf girl, stop it," he said.

"What did you just call me?"

He pulled himself up on his knees, so he could look her in the eye. She was still smiling. Kissing her, properly kissing her was an impossibility. It had been impossible the night before and it was impossible now. And yet. She was laughing and touching him. It was very very hard to remind himself of all the reasons that he shouldn't lean in and close that last bit of space.

"Tolkien elf not a North Pole elf," he said grabbing hold of the conversation to try and get his imagination back under control before it ran away with his impulse control.

"None of those words make sense."

"Elves are fantasy creatures with pointy ears and magic powers."

A frown.

Impulse won just a little bit and he leaned in and traced the shape of her ears. She shivered and shut her eyes and by the time Shiro realized how close he was, they were nose to nose.

He caught himself.

Bad idea.

She opened her eyes again and for a moment, it held. The closeness. The eye contact. Her hair was dark, and her eyes were the wrong colour but the disguise was starting to feel as familiar as her true appearance. And it didn’t matter. She was still Allura. She was beautiful and kind and brave. She was only a few inches away. The exact pitch of the wanting took him by surprise.

She broke the tension before he could do something stupid. She grabbed his ear and tugged his head sideways.

"Hey! Ow!" he said.

They were laughing like kids. Shiro's fingers were still up on the tips of her ears and he returned the favour and tugged on her ear. She jerked away from him and pushed away so she was sitting up the bed. Laughing again. A little flushed. Her quintessence had slipped loose and it was filling up the space and making the marks on her cheeks glow faintly. She covered her face with both hands and drew the power back in. Still laughing.

This woman was a princess.

She was going to inherit the crown of one of the most powerful planets in an entire galaxy. She spoke at least three languages, knew how to fly a space ship, and had magical powers that were terrifying enough to leave people staring after her in awe. She also giggled like a kid and kicked at him when he reached for her. He grabbed her ankle and she was laughing too hard to kick him off.

"You're a terror," he told her.

"An elf terror?" she asked kicking loose.

"I regret saying that."

"You should. I don't think it was a compliment."

"I'm sorry, let me try again," he said.

He let go of her and sat up as properly as he could and held out a hand. She took it and let him pull her in. The possibility of her climbing right up into his lap crossed his mind.

Bad idea.

This was such a bad idea.

She did not climb into his lap. He was the only one full of bad ideas. She was smiling and sat down with her feet crossed so she was mirroring his posture. Perfectly polite. Perfectly unaware of how many boundaries he was imagining crossing.

Bad idea.

Shiro leaned in and did it anyway. He cupped her face in both hands and the smile faltered as she stared at him. Her attention stayed locked on him and he forgot how to breathe for a second. He had been expecting her to push him off and laugh at him. This was farther than he had expected to get. It was momentum now. He leaned in closer so they were nose to nose and she straightened but still didn't pull away.

He didn’t care that it was a bad idea.

"You're not an elf," he said which got him the ghost of a chuckle but no break in the eye contact, "You're the most incredible person I've ever met," she straightened and the mocking smile fell away until she was just staring at him. Intent and wide-eyed.

Bad idea.

Stop.

He didn't.

"You're brilliant and so brave that I honestly worry about you and you're beautiful, pointy ears and all," that got him a snort of a laugh.

He smiled and finally lost his nerve and stopped talking and dropped his hands. He was not going to kiss the space princess. That was ridiculous. He gave himself a little more distance and it made things awkward. She was still watching him and her little smile was back. Teasing, considering, adorable.

"Are you going to cut your hair or grow it longer?" she asked.

The conversation shift took him by surprise but it was something to grab onto.

"Cut it. I can't be bothered to wait with it like this," he shook the front into his eyes, "Until it's long enough to tie back."

"I could speed it up," she said.

He raised his eyebrows.

"Come here," she said but she didn't wait for him to move. She closed the distance he had given himself in self-preservation. There was no eye contact but he still inhaled. She was looking at his hair as she ran her fingers through it. He felt the swell of magic and it made him shiver again.

"Can I try?" she asked.

"Yeah."

He had missed what she was going to do exactly but he wanted to be close to that magic and he wanted her to keep running her fingers through his hair. He closed his eyes and tilted his head into her touch and enjoyed it. If he didn't think too hard, he could just enjoy it without his head running away with what if possibilities that would never happen.

His skin prickled and she kept stroking his hair back from his face. The magic was warm and comforting. Electric and liquid. It felt like magic. It didn’t compare to anything else he had words for. When she pulled back his hair fell forward out of her fingers, brushing against his cheeks. He looked up at her with a frown and touched it. It was nearly shoulder length. He had never had his hair so long in his life.

"How'd you do that?" he asked.

"It's a quintessence trick. It's easy," she said.

"Why don't you make yours long again? You always seemed kind of pissed about having to cut it."

"It's harder to do on yourself than it is to do on someone else and I find I like it like this."

"Me too, it's cute."

"As are you. This style suits you."

"Does it?" Shiro asked shaking the hair out. It felt weird.

Allura played with it again. There had been a time when Shiro had avoided bumping his arm into hers. These new boundaries were playing havoc with his sense of propriety. He couldn't remember everything about his life but he was pretty certain that he'd never had a friendship that was this physical that didn't cross other lines. He tilted his head into her hand like a cat. She didn't stop. He was waiting for her to stop instead of being the one to pull away first. As long as she held her ground, he would too.

“Hey!”

Allura pulled her hands back and Shiro frowned before turning around to look in the direction of the voice. He wasn’t sure if he was grateful for the interruption or not. He was about to lose the battle against his worst impulses and probably ruin this thing with Allura. As much as he wanted to see what would happen if he kissed her, he wasn’t willing to risk this friendship on an impulse.

“Hi,” he said.

“Am I interrupting? I’m interrupting. Don’t worry, it’s worth it,” Reesh said.

She came down the row of beds to lean on the divider wall between the bunks. The space around them was quiet. The early risers had gone off to their daily work and most of the beds were empty. Reesh was not quiet. One of the few other people left in the barrack yelled out a bit of profanity that she cheerfully returned before turning back to them.

“Worth it?” Allura asked.

“I found you a space on the floor above mine. Come see it. Get up, put on some shoes, stop petting his hair, let’s go before some philanthropist fills it up with Bruno refugees. You guys are here for the long haul. You deserve the shitty pod,” Reesh said.

“You’re really selling it,” Shiro said.

“I don’t want you to overestimate it. It is shitty by Grounder terms where you people have houses and castles and private bathrooms but by Spacer standards, it’s great. And better than this. So much better than this. This is… well. It’s better. It’s got a door and the neighbours never yell swear words at you for having a perfectly normal conversation more than an hour after wake up,” Reesh said. Her voice rose at the end of the little tirade so the guy down the row would hear her.

He yelled back another swear word.

“Get up. Go. Now. Before cranky man over there comes to scream at us!” Reesh shook the divider which was part of the entire frame and made the bed clang.

Allura made a sound of complaint but she reached off the edge of the bunk for her shoes. She pulled a shirt on over the pajamas but didn't change. She never changed where people could see her. Shiro pushed his new hair back out of his face and swung his knees off the edge of the bed to do the same.

Allura took his hand and laced her fingers with his as they headed out of the barracks. He squeezed, and she returned it. A silent conversation. Shiro wasn't sure what they were saying but it still made him smile. They followed Reesh down the hall.

Chapter Text

Reesh had found them a little room that was only barely big enough for a bed and a dresser. There was a storage unit under the bed that was full of someone else’s boxes and neither of them were willing to sort it right away. The walls were a pale blue and there were marks where art or banners had hung on the walls. Allura was trying to appreciate it but it was just making her more homesick.

“Why do people stay here?” she asked Shiro.

“Where else are they going to go?” he asked.

“Home? Back to their planets?”

“Allura.”

She sighed. “I know. I know. Not everyone can go home. I know. I just can’t imagine living your entire life in a room this small, raising children on a ship that can barely grow enough food to keep people from starving.”

“That’s why this is worth doing. I know there’s a lot of politics in this for you, Laur. That it’s about the Lions and the Alliance and all of that but it’s also about people. People like Reesh and her kid. People who were chased out of their homes or can’t return because of what the Galra are doing. People who lost family or have already died. This is that big,” he said.

“You think I don’t know that?”

She glared at him but neither his tone nor his expression was as patronizing as she had feared. It had been a naive comment. She hadn’t meant it like that. She was cranky and she spent so much time being careful with everything she said when she was out on the ship that she let her walls all the way down with Shiro. She shook off the urge to complain about a perfectly nice little apartment to someone who had spent time in prison cells. His expression was soft but he wasn’t letting it go just yet.

“I know you do but you have a home to return to.”

“So do you.”

“Maybe, but no way to get there,” he said.

She frowned and held out a hand to him. She didn’t want him mad at her. She didn’t want him to think less of her. She couldn’t remember when exactly she had started caring so much about his opinion. It had crept up on her. He wore dark pants and a charcoal gray shirt and his long hair was loose around his face. He didn't look like anything special. He watched her with careful eyes like he was worried that he had offended her too. He took her offered hand and she pulled him a little closer to the bed.

“Even if we can’t get everyone home, what we are doing will make sure that other people don’t lose their homes,” she said.

He climbed up onto the bed with her and she squeezed his fingers as he settled in with his feet crossed. Between them was a pile of clothing that she had been working on sorting out. All of it was second hand and it was a mix of styles and sizes. She held out a shirt and measured it against his chest. He raised his eyebrows at her. She was reaching for a distraction and the smile he gave her told her that he was willing to let it go.

"I don't know what size you are. They pulled together to give us some things to wear but you can't adjust your body to suit different sizes like I can so you'll have to try some of them on," she pointed at a pile, "I think those are possibilities."

“Can I ask you something unrelated?”

“Of course,” she said. She did not want him to bring the conversation back around to her complaining about refugee housing options. He didn't. The comment was completely unrelated.

"Can you fly Rellian class E34 fighters?"

"Probably. I've flown E22s and the E40 series, those are nice. The 34s were mostly decommissioned after the border war with the Gellert so they're older but the layout should be similar," she said.

"Can you teach me?"

"Teach you?"

"They're going to do a fly in over a Galran moon to check that my arm doesn't trigger any sort of tracking alerts. I'm riding with Enzo but you called me Pilot often enough that he's talking about putting me in a pilot's seat. I can't read the dashboard, I have never flown anything with a pedal set up like that, I don't even know what it can do. I need a teacher."

Allura cracked a smile at him. "Friel is not going to let a dirty Altean into one of his ships."

"That's why we go through Enzo. Enzo is not an asshole and he'll be happy that he's not the one who has to give lessons."

Allura smiled at little wider. "I can teach you to fly."

"Awesome," he said. "I'd rather fuck it up in front of you than a squadron of refugees who think I can avenge their planets."

He slumped back against the wall, throwing his long legs out in front of him. He'd taken off his shoes and left them neatly by the door. It was a cute quirk and there was something adorable about him sitting around in socks. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a moment before he reached out and started picking up pieces of clothing from the pile and considering them. They were quiet for a moment as they sorted through the clothing.

"You can do this," Allura said.

"Can I?"

"Gisella says you're a good match. The Galra have long lives and Zarkon has been with the Black Lion for a very long time. It's not going to be easy but it will be possible. The Lions know their own hearts. They each carry a spark of quintessence within them. They are more than robots. More than ships. They are aware. The Black Lion was designed, built, created, as a defender of the universe. Not as a weapon to destroy innocent lives," Allura said.

"This poor lion has never had another boyfriend and I'm supposed to just sweep in there and woo her into psychically bonding with her so we can fly away together?"

Allura laughed.

"You are not the Black Lion's boyfriend, you are to be her Paladin."

This time he laughed and threw a sweater at her. She tried to duck out of the way as it hit her in the side of the head. She threw something back and he caught it with one hand. He had a beautiful smile when he let it out like this. It changed his entire face and made him look bright and young.

He slid to the end of the bed, pulled his boots back on and extended a hand to her, still smiling.

"Leave the laundry," he said.

"Where are we going?"

"Flying."

“Now?”

“Unless you really want to sort ugly sweaters.”

Instead of answering, Allura grabbed his hand and he pulled her to her feet and out into the hall.

The hangar was dominated by the Red Lion, sitting behind its shield with a little group of people gawking at it. Allura ignored it and tilted her head back to look at the space. Everything was cramped on the Pathfinder. Even this room. It was tall but it was edged with racks and in each rack was a small ship in various states of disrepair. There was one out in the middle of the space with machinery spread around it like discarded toys thrown out of a bin by a child.

"Impatient?"

Allura turned to look at the Olkari man who had stepped up to order his people to pay their respects to Winst. She liked him more than the other soldiers just for that but it was a very low bar.

"I'm a pilot, Enzo. I joined the cadets when I was 13 but that trip up from Altea was the first time I've been in a ship in over a year. So yeah, I'm impatient," Shiro said.

"And you're taking your girlfriend?"

Allura pursed her lips at him and tilted her head. "My father likes to tinker, he had space ships around since I was a kid. My boyfriend doesn't know how to operate an E34 just like your mechanic doesn't know what he’s doing. He doesn’t seem to have disconnected the ether lines. He's going to get electrocuted if he doesn't fix that."

Shiro's big stupid grin was back. The very prospect of flying brightened his mood. She could feel his quintessence as it shifted with that excitement. It was a nice feeling to be so close it and it made it easier to block out everything else. Enzo pointed them towards a ship before turning on the mechanic working nearby to see what the problem was. Shiro took her hand and dragged her over to the ship that Enzo had offered them.

"You can repair space ships? Is there anything you can't do?" he asked.

"I understand the basics of how they work. I could realign the crystals or reconnect an ether line but I couldn't repair an engine," she said.

"And you learned from your father? Really?"

"Yes, that wasn't a lie. He came from a lower family than my mother and had originally trained to be a Paladin. Red. Once they got married, he put that dream to the side but he's almost as obsessed with flying as you are."

"I would not have guessed that from the time I met him," Shiro said.

As other people used that name for him, she was starting to settle into using it as well. He had this little smile he gave her when she called him Takashi and she squirreled the name away but she used Shiro when she talked about him with other people.

Enzo had given him a paper with the details on it and hffe hit all the codes to open up the ship and let her climb in first and get settled in the seat. He sat down in the jump seat behind her and strapped himself in. She swiveled around, kicking out the chair support so she could look at him. The chair he was on was on a track too and she kicked that lock out as well so she could pull him in a little closer. He startled as the chair clunked down into the groove and then she grabbed the edge of the seat and hauled him up beside her so he could see what she was doing.

For the first few minutes, they sat there, the plane off and still in the bay. She had him run through the instruments he recognized and then explained the ones that he didn't. He knew what needed to be there but couldn't find it all. They compared notes on math, pitch and yaw, flight axis, auto pilot functions, gravity read outs until he started to make sense of the dashboard layout.

"Would it be embarrassing if I made little post it labels and stuck them over the Rellian words so I remember?"

"If it helps but you'll learn it fast enough and won't have to read it. I give you three lessons before you just automatically switch between proximity and long range screens. The details are different but the theory is the same no matter the language. Flight is physics, not culture," she said.

He gave her a smile. He was leaning on the arm of the pilot's chair, no longer buckled in since they weren't moving yet. He was in her personal space but for once he wasn't looming over her. It was nice to have his elbow beside hers, his shoulder bumping into her arm as he leaned forward to point things out as he asked questions. A few days curled up in bed together was enough that now she found his physical presence reassuring.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Born ready," he said.

They strapped in. Allura took a slow breath to make sure she really did know what she was doing. She had never flown this model and she'd never flown anything in this state. The fuel gauge was all scratched up. The nav screen sputtered with static when she booted up the engine. It didn't seem so bad that it would be dangerous but it was an old ship that had been in use for a long time. Her brand shiny new shuttles were completely different.

She backed it up out of the bay without a ground crew, got it spun and into the airlock without running anyone over. Enzo opened the airlock door for them but that was it. The entire hangar was an airlock and the double doors stretched to the ceiling so they could be thrown wide but the rest of the hangar was in use so they used the smaller hatch that Shiro called a "cat door.”

The hiss of pressure.

The whir of machinery.

Then the silence of the void.

Allura had never launched from a carrier. She hesitated in the open door before she shrugged, muttered a swear word, and just drove off the end of the launch deck. The momentum she picked up from the short drive on the wheels carried her out past the belly of the ship where she engaged the thrusters and took proper control of the ship.

"Elegant."

"Be quiet," she said.

He laughed and elbowed her which made the ship jerk sideways a little bit as she jerked the controls. He was smiling as he stared out past her at the open space in front of them.

"Let me get clear of the moon and the ship and you can have the controls," she said.

"Some people wait their whole lives to hear a romantic marriage proposal," he said and she shot him a look that made him smile broader. "But I've been waiting for a beautiful woman to offer me an alien space ship."

"Oh and what are you going to offer me in return?" she asked.

"What do you want?"

"Intergalactic peace and a new dress."

"I've got like four dollars that I need to give back to Enzo."

She shoved him and he laughed again. He was amazing when he was in a good mood. He wasn't the same person he'd been when he woke up in chains. That person had been terrifying and not quite civilized. A broken man who had barely survived a trip to hell. The change had been slow but now, he was something else. Shiro grinning and teasing her was a completely different creature. Those dark eyes were bright and he pushed his hair back from his face to wink at her. He tied it back so she could see his ears and unmarked cheeks as though he was trying to remind her that he wasn't Altean.

"You flirt with every girl at the dance, don't you?" she said.

"No."

"I don't believe you."

"Ok. Maybe. I went through a flirt with everyone stage. Girls, boys, once a flight comptroller who nearly had me fired over it," he said.

She laughed. "No one serious?"

"I didn't say that."

"Tell me or I'll go ask Matt."

"Don't believe a word Matt says about my romantic history. Save the gossip for later. You promised me a space ship."

"We have not cleared the moon's gravity, patience," she said.

He groaned in her ear like an impatient child and she reached out to pat the top of his head before she hit the thrusters a little harder so they could break out past the pull. Once they were in open space, she let the ship drift on auto and gave up her seat. She let Shiro have the controls and he settled into the chair and fiddled with everything for a moment. He flicked between screens and tested out ways to adjust the chair so he could reach the pedals the way he wanted.

"How do I pull up the radar?"

"The what?"

"Proximity scanner thing?"

She showed him again and he spun the image a few times before telling her to buckle up. At first he needed to get a handle on the controls. It was a bit jerky and he messed up the pedal set up over and over again. It should have been tedious but his attention was rapt and he was so at ease with the controls even when he couldn’t use them properly. She sat back and watched him work through the controls.

Allura had the realization that she didn’t really know him. The person he had been before it all started. The man he had been before he’d been captured was someone different. He was a stranger. This was the closest she had ever gotten to meeting that other person. Behind the controls, face lit but dashboard lights, he was more himself than she’d ever seen him. He had introduced himself as a pilot for a reason.

“Ok, I think I’ve got this,” he said after a few minutes in which they didn’t jerk or sputter because he messed up where his feet were. He was a very fast learner.

He was also a very fast driver once he got his feet under him.

He went far too fast. Ridiculously and terrifyingly fast. They were still in a solar system. This wasn't dead space. He didn't hit anything but the hard bank he took them through to keep out of the gravitational pull of the next planet over made her want to vomit as her stomach lurched. He shot the shuttle up to the limits of its engine before banking again and bringing it back to rest in open space.

"You are going to kill us. If I die, the Alteans will definitely declare war on someone and none of us want that."

"I'll keep you safe."

"Not if you slam us up against the side of an asteroid like a bug."

"Did I do that?"

"No."

"Then we're fine. Should we keep going this way? How much fuel do we have? That dial is, where, here?" he said tapping the wrong one and frowning.

She had to lean over and translate the numbers for him. Numerical symbols were the same across the Alliance planets for the sake of everyone's sanity. She did not undo the belt in case he decided he wanted to take another speed run without warning so she had to lean in against his shoulder to reach.

"Are you having fun?" she asked.

He shrugged and made a noncommittal sound which didn't align with his expression. He looked delighted. "You know what we need to do to make it more fun? Test out how well this thing maneuvers."

Allura knew how to fly but Allura was a princess and every flight lesson she had ever taken had come with rules and supervision. She had never taken out a ship to test what it could do. She'd never pulled barrel rolls just to see how well the stabilizers worked. He threw them into a few tumbles but there was enough empty space that they were able to stabilize and try again. Shiro laughed through it all.

“By the stars, Takashi, you’re dangerous,” she said.

“Oh? Am I? Is that why aliens keep throwing me in prison?”

He met her gaze and set up the next roll without looking back down at the pedal set up or the dashboard. A very fast learner. Allura grabbed the arm rests of her chair before he threw it into another flip.

“Wanna try?” he asked.

She hesitated.

"Don't they teach Princesses how to pull outside loops?"

"Shockingly, no."

"Do you want to learn?"

“Yes,” she said.

“Who’s dangerous now?” he said as she settled back into the pilot’s chair.

The teasing followed through the crash course in stunt flying. Allura had seen people fly like this. Air shows were common during festival weeks and the big orbital presentation at new years had been one of her favourites since she was little. She had just never done it. It required a lot more speed and daring that she was used to in her flight training.

Allura had trained to fly giant ships. She specialized in Teleduv engines. The Castle of Lions and the Castle of Stars were both too big to throw into flips. If you tried to flip the Castle of Lions, it would severely damage multiple systems. So she had learned to fly carefully. She had learned to do the math twice before making any movement. She flew things three times the size of the Pathfinder, not things that only had enough seating for 2 people if there was no cargo aboard.

“Faster or you won’t have enough momentum, you fly like a grandma,” he said told her.

He was at her shoulder, sitting on the jump seat on it’s track. She banked hard to send the seat skittering down it’s track with a whine of metal on metal and a bit of creative swearing. He laughed as it rattled to a stop against the wall of the cockpit. She glared over her shoulder at him and he was grinning.

“Fast enough for you, Pilot?”

“No!” he said with laughter still in his voice. “Twice that fast if you expect to pull out of the stunt without tumbling.”

Allura shot a look at him and he was grinning. He pushed off the wall. The chair squealed back along it’s track and he used the metal hand to grab hold of the back of the pilot’s chair this time so she couldn’t throw him off again. He was close to her, still laughing as he gave her instructions on how to do the full turn. She took a slow breath and tried again.

"Hey! Good job!" he said and clapped his hands together when she got the ship to stabilize on the tail end of the flip.

She spun around in her chair and held up a hand. She raise her eyebrows at him and he lifted her hand by the wrist and put their palms together. Allura watched him do it and pressed her hand into the touch. His expression shifted slightly, like the action and turned out differently than he expected.

One of them had leaned in. It might have been her. He was a little bit too close and she didn’t move. He was still holding their palms together but starting to look uncomfortable about it. They were very close. His hand was very warm and his eyes were serious. His gaze strayed down, taking in her face and making her intensely self conscious. She licked her lips and started to say something but couldn’t figure out which words she needed or what she wanted to say.

His fingers closed around hers and she held onto him as he leaned in a little closer. He was still studying her face like there was something impressive about it. His own face was too close for her to make out more than details. The scar on the bridge of his nose, a fainter one higher on his forehead. His eyes were kind and warm and he smiled very faintly.

The moment tottered.

And the comm panel chimed.

Shiro blinked. He turned to look at the screen and the moment was gone. Allura shook it off and turned around to listen to the hail.

An automated message in Rellian, “All ships return to hangar bays. All ships. Hyper jump countdown has been set at 3487.”

She still felt a bit off as they turned the shuttle around and headed back. She caught a handful of glances from him on the flight back but by the time they had parked, things were starting to feel normal again. He was back to teasing her about flying fast enough and making plans for their next lesson.

Chapter Text

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?”

“Hm?”

“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.”

“Seriously?”

“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.”

“No?”

“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.”

“You think?”

“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.”

Matt laughed.

“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?”

“A few.”

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.”

“Details.”

“Important details.”

“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.

“You don’t.”

“Maybe I do. You did try and kill me.”

“Are you ever going to let that go?”

“Eventually, maybe.”

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.

Quizznak.

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.