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Chapter 5: An Old Friend

 

Shiro stared. So did everyone else. Lizenne had demanded every last detail of his strange dream, and had decided to test its veracity with a known sample, namely the bone spear. She'd let the other Paladins handle it as well, being fairly sure that it wouldn't try to kill them. All it had done was glimmer a bit, although they had all heard the happy hum when Allura had touched it, possibly an acknowledgment of her triumph over Zarkon back on Teravan. Its reaction to Shiro was a bit more dramatic. He was standing now, arm outstretched with palm held flat and facing upwards while the long pale streak of bone and ivory hovered about an inch above his hand, shimmering like white opal and making a sound like the singing wind. He could almost make out words in that song, and it sounded almost like a hymn.

“And there's the proof of it,” Lizenne said, retrieving the weapon carefully. “That wasn't precisely a dream, Shiro, and I'll have you know that the last documented Visitation of this nature took place some nine thousand, nine hundred, and seventy-six years ago, just before Zarkon and Haggar crushed most of the Temples.”

“So, what are we going to do about it?” Keith asked, eyeing the spear warily.

“Nothing at all.” Lizenne smiled at his offended expression. “There isn't anything that we can do, nor should we try. I knew what I was getting into when I made this thing, although I wasn't expecting its influence to spread like it has. That you can all use this spear is... interesting. No other bone spear has ever allowed so many to handle it.”

Allura rubbed at her palm, which was tingling, although not unpleasantly. “I think that I might have heard something about that, long ago. Yes! I was only about seven or eight decaphebes old, and a Galra Ambassador was visiting Father's Court. She was very old and enjoyed playing with small children, and we became quite fond of each other. She would do pretty little magic tricks for me, and told me stories. I had thought that they were mere legends and bedtime tales.”

“What did she say?” Hunk asked curiously, rubbing at his own hand.

Allura gazed thoughtfully up at the ceiling as she tried to remember. “There had been a military parade earlier that day, an effort made to impress Father by one of the other Ambassadors whose culture demanded that sort of thing. Quite a lot of big, shiny ceremonial weapons had been waved about, some of which were supposed to have been magical or holy. I asked Ambassador... what was her name... Ambassador Ashoren if Galra had anything like that.”

Lizenne nodded, a nostalgic gleam in her eyes. “Many. Some of them even still exist in museums and private collections. A few of them are part of the landscape here and there.”

“Yes, but she also told me that the rarest of all mortal-made weapons would only permit their creators to touch them, unless certain, very important conditions were met. If another person needed to use them, there had to have been a special oath made, and beyond that there had to have been ties of blood. She wouldn't say more.”

Lizenne's brow furrowed in thought for a minute or two, and then she breathed out a decisive Ah. “Ghren-khesh'vaaht.”

“That was the one that Zaianne swore when she joined up with us,” Pidge said. “What does that mean, anyway?”

“'Soul-sisters in adversity', to translate very loosely,” Lizenne told her. “A very ancient oath. Should two unrelated women have the same mortal enemy, one might beg or one might offer the other the privilege of sisterhood, taking each other to be as one with them in purpose, strength, and spirit, the better to increase their chances of defeating that enemy. In all the ways that really matter, Zaianne is my sister, as much so as if we had been born as twins. This gives her license to use my spear, so long as she does so in the furtherance of the oath of kheshveg that we have sworn against the Emperor and his witch. Keith, you are her first-born and only son, and you, by right of the blood you share with her, may use it as well. Through your Human blood and the soul-bond that the Lions have given you, the others may also wield it in times of need. I suppose that we shouldn't be surprised that the spear's Master has taken an interest. What we're doing here is just a bit unprecedented, and unique things always attract attention.”

“That's us, all right,” Shiro said quietly, and then raised an eyebrow at their companion. “Will he have much influence over what we're doing? I can live with having a guardian spirit, but not if he steps in and takes over without warning me.”

Lizenne leaned on her spear and considered that for a moment before gesturing a negative. “No, or not much. By his own nature, he is much concerned with things of the past. He is perfectly capable of planning ahead, of course, that much is well-known from his surviving Lore, but he has no direct control over events as they happen. That's up to the living, I'm afraid, and none of us here truly corresponds to his own particular element. Voltron was not designed by a Galra, or its aetheric framework would have been very different. Altean alchemy is completely dissimilar from Galra witchery in many ways.”

Lance snapped his fingers. “Which is why Haggar can do things that you can't, but I'd bet that you—heck, all of us—can do things that she can't even dream of. She wouldn't be able to make one of those bone spears, right?”

Lizenne chuckled wickedly. “I'd like to see her try. At best, she'd be left with a pile of splinters and a few second-degree burns when it blows up in her face. At worst, she'd accidentally decapitate herself with the spearhead. Don't look at me like that, it's happened before, and more than once.”

“Risky,” Hunk said, eyeing the spear with deep suspicion. “Okay, so... what do we do now? I mean, it's nice getting a thumbs-up from someone else's pantheon and all, but we've still gotta find ways of dealing with our real-world problems. Keith says that Shiro saw that we'll have more Robeasts to deal with later, and sooner or later Zarkon's gonna start taking the Ghost Fleet seriously enough to really come down hard on them, and he'll probably start hammering on that Coalition we're putting together, too. I kind of want to be ready for him, you know?”

Lizenne shrugged. “You may be asking the wrong person. Kolivan and Yantilee are better long-term tacticians than I am, and have many more resources to tap. All that I can really suggest is that you might hang up a 'Do Not Disturb' sign for a few hours, perhaps get in one of the dragons to watch your backs, and spend the afternoon in a circle-session. You haven't done a full one with Shiro yet, have you?”

Keith shook his head. “Nope. Something always comes up, and then we have to go and hit something with a Lion. We still need to get back to--”

Allura's wrist-comm went beep, startling them all. “Yes?” she asked.

There you are, Princess,” Coran's voice said, “we just got a call from Haswick; it seems that we've got a visitor, and she's been asking specifically to see you and the team. Seeing as how the ship's an Omorog long-range Royal Courier, I'd say that it's probably fairly important. Might possibly be a plea for liberation, eh? It'd be nice to head back out there again.”

Allura smiled. “It would, and liberating planets does seem to be what we are for. By all means, invite them in.”

Will do,” Coran said staunchly. “I'll direct them to the shuttle deck. There should be plenty of room in there, since the Fleet captains took out all but one of those Hatchcrackers.”

Pidge humphed at that; she'd liked having the Hatchcrackers around, and having them stolen out from under her hadn't gone over well with their pint-sized pirate princess. Allura cast her a quelling look—they needed to stay in the Fleet's good graces—and answered, “Thank you, Coran, we'll go down and meet the courier there.”

Very good, Princess, I'll warn them,” Coran replied and signed out.

Lance had perked up instantly at the word “Omorog”, and he smiled hopefully. “Maybe it's a message from Loliqua—maybe she's Seen something important, and couldn't trust the comm channels. Ooh, or they might be throwing a big party and want us to visit! Royalty does that sometimes, right, Allura?”

“Yes, although such events tend to be terribly public, and I'd rather not have to fly the Lion while wearing a ballgown, should someone alert the Galra fleets!” Allura paused, considering that. “Although I am told that my great-grandmother once did something very similar, when a Horlopt raiding party tried to take advantage of the Autumn Dances. I believe that one of the museums preserved what was left of her gown as a historical artifact.”

Shiro snorted a laugh and followed along as she led the way to the lifts. “Was it?”

“Well, she did use half of it to bind the Horlopt's War-Chief once she'd finished slamming his heads into a wall,” Allura said casually, as if everyone's great-grandma could kick ass like an Altean. “Other than that, it was five thela of pure Voilaren ultrasilk, with thaquen-point lace at the bodice and sleeves, and the hems beautifully embroidered in the latest style. Even damaged, it was very much a treasure.”

Lizenne smirked. “Battle dress,” she said, making the others groan.

“I dunno, James Bond used to save the world in a tux all the time,” Hunk said, giving Lance a sidelong look. “There were like, forty or fifty movies and a whole bunch of vid series, and he looked sharp in every one of them. Even the thirty-first one, where he had to fight a pack of nuclear, neo-Communist, mad-science, space-alien-created dinosaurs in the middle of a toxic swamp on Venus. He got turned into a woman in that one, too, but the tux still fit like a glove. Think you can run us up some super-formalwear, Lance?”

Lance puffed a laugh; he'd seen that movie, and had ogled 007's female form shamelessly along with half of the world's population. That tux she'd been wearing had been a true work of costumer's art, especially when the snake popped out of her very impressive cleavage and bit the villain on the nose. “Maybe. I've still got a few other projects in the works.”

The Omorog Royal Courier was just settling itself into place in one of the larger bays when they arrived, a sleek, silver-and-blue craft that touched down with the feather-light precision that spoke of a really first-class pilot. The drive powered down with a long descending whine and the gyros emitted long geysers of steam as they cooled. A minute or two later, the main hatch cycled open and extended a shallow ramp, upon which appeared a tall, neatly-uniformed Griona, who then politely handed down a large and immensely dignified figure. Lance smiled like the sun coming up; while she had traded her customary silks and gems for a modest traveling gown, there was only one person she could possibly be, and he would have recognized her at once out of a stadium full of look-alikes.

“Loliqua?” He breathed, and then called out, “Loliqua!”

Shiro stared in perplexity as Lance dashed over to hug what looked to be a six-foot-tall toad in a schoolteacher's outfit, and one that was perfectly willing to hug him right back. Keith nudged him lightly in the ribs. “The Toad Princess of Omorog, remember? She owned Lance for about a week and a half a while ago, and I think that he had a better time than any of the rest of us.”

“Oh, we all made some friends,” Hunk said with a nostalgic smile. “And did some neat things while we were at it. Allura got to have a real car chase with explosions and everything, I got to build my own ticket arcade, you rescued a prince, Keith, and he's a pretty cool prince, too. Even Pidge came out way ahead of the game, but we couldn't have got her back without Loliqua's help. C'mon, Shiro, let's introduce you to her.”

That was harder than it looked. Lance was in transports of excitement, babbling a blue streak and waving his arms around while the Princess watched him with amused eyes. “Lance, dear, do calm down!” she said, her sweet, motherly voice striking Shiro as odd but appropriate. “Everything is just fine at home and will continue to be so, and didn't it just take some effort for me to ensure that! Let it be a lesson for all of us, that while it is good for one to make one's self useful, one can very easily become too useful to those around us. Half of my Court and all of my ministers were in tears when I announced that I was taking this trip, poor things, although our Governor is doubtless trying and failing to corrupt my stand-in as I speak. There you are, all of you! How good it is to see you again! Lizenne, you look well... ah.” Loliqua's large, gold-threaded eyes sobered as she gazed into Shiro's iron-gray ones. “And this would be the young man that has been setting off fireworks all over the astral plane. That last one would have rattled my teeth if I'd had any.”

“Sorry,” Shiro said, a little uncertainly. “They just... happen, and I've had to go along with them.”

“They were kind of important,” Lance said defensively. “We would have had a lot more trouble at Bericonde and Jeproba if Shiro hadn't been telling us all what he'd Seen, and if he hadn't spotted Doodlebug for us, Lotor would have kicked our butts.”

Loliqua waved a hand in graceful reassurance. “There is no fault in him having the Visions, and indeed, he cannot help it; none of us can. He is quite loud, which is common in an untrained Oracle, and I believe that I may be able to help with that somewhat. Allura, I must impose upon your hospitality and request a place where we will not be bothered for a time; if the Visions that I have been having are in any way accurate, the entire team must attend these lessons.”

“Of course,” Allura said pleasantly, waving a hand toward the lifts. “We've taken to doing aetheric exercises on the training deck, but we can bring in proper seating and refreshments. Will you wish to come along too, sir?”

That last had been directed at the courier pilot, who answered her query with a bow and a smile. “No, but thank you for offering, your Highness,” he replied, “regulations, you know. I'm not allowed to leave my ship unless it's in home port. Royal Couriers are very good craft; good enough that they're often targets for theft. Someone's got to stay aboard to disappoint burglars. It's all right, I've got plenty to keep me occupied.”

Kirs Lathann is studying to move up a rank,” Loliqua explained. “He has ambitions of one day becoming the Director of the Royal Courier Fleet, and far be it from us to deny him some quiet time. Let us leave him to it. We have so much to tell each other.”

 

“...And that's pretty much how things stand right now,” Lance said, finishing up the long and peculiar story of their adventures. “Weird as it sounds, it all really happened, even the supernatural bits. So, how have you been, and what are you doing here?”

Loliqua sipped at her cup of hantic tea with the proper appreciation for the rare herb and shifted in her seat. Keith glared briefly at that particular piece of furniture, as if daring it to come after him again. Alteans were a tall and slender people even at their broadest, and their furniture reflected that; nothing in current use had been wide enough to seat their guest comfortably. Fortunately, the Castle had once received guests from all over the known universe, and had whole storerooms full of seating arrangements meant for persons of different physical configurations. Even though Loliqua was far more svelte now than she had been when last they had seen her, she was still wide enough to require something special. The team had found it in the form of a sort of fainting-couch, well-padded and lushly upholstered in glossy leaf-green satin, with a nice sturdy frame carved from some sort of dark, heavy wood. Emphasis on the heavy. Some brilliant person had attached a hover-plate to the underside of the seat, which was capable of lifting the couch about an inch and a half off of the floor, enabling it to be moved without damaging anyone's spine in the process. Unfortunately, the thing had a mind of its own, and it steered like an Earthly shopping cart that had been hit by cars a few times too many. It had refused point-blank to travel in a straight line, and it had a nasty tendency to whirl around on its axis without warning, dragging along whoever might be holding onto either end, and it seemed to have a burning desire to flatten Keith beneath its carved feet. As a result, the couch arrived on the training deck in a spinning, screaming, cursing rush, with Lance, Pidge, Keith, and Hunk clinging desperately to the sides and back, all of them bruised and dizzy. Loliqua had thanked them all very kindly for their efforts and had settled in once Hunk had killed the faulty antigravs.

“I had a Vision,” she said, setting the cup down neatly on its saucer, “To be truthful, I had several, some of which even made sense. Many of them concerned you and your recent exploits, and were each accompanied by intrusions upon the astral plane that sounded like thundercracks! I am used to picking up a certain amount of noise upon the Mindscape, but nothing like that. Thus, I decided that having Seen, I had to Act.”

“So, you came all the way out here,” Hunk said, offering her another cookie. “We were going to visit as soon as we got a break in the action, but you beat us to it.”

She took it with a nod of thanks. “That wouldn't have been a good idea. My world's peoples are far too well-behaved and placid to get into much trouble, and have been so for as long as the Empire has ruled us. Our new Governor has been quite frankly bored out of his mind, which is useful. He is far more interested in your antics, which has allowed us to sneak a number of things past him that we otherwise would not have been able to. Had you come by us again, he would have flown into a froth of maddened activity, which would have gotten you into a fight and us into a great deal of trouble.”

Shiro nodded, rubbing at his forehead. “Hunting for accomplices. Even if we'd taken him down, whoever got assigned there next would have ordered purges, and a lot of people would have been executed. I just Saw that.”

Loliqua reached over and patted his hand sympathetically. “As have I, and more than once, which is one of the reasons why I am here. Fortunately, we have been such very good little subjects that he was quite willing to let me go on this trip without bothering to ask any questions, even though I took one of our fastest and most maneuverable ships.”

“Hey, if you've gotta ride, then ride in style. Did you leave Fanlen in charge?” Lance asked.

Loliqua smiled proudly. “I did indeed. He's old enough for some hands-on training now, and the Ministerial Council and most of the offworld Delegates are fond of him. He shows enormous potential already, and so as to expedite his education, I decided to take a vacation. It isn't even unprecedented; I always take a week or three off whenever I have a governance-trained son or daughter at this stage, and usually off-planet. Everyone assumed that it was just another little pleasure-trip.”

Allura giggled. “Invisibility through being ordinary. We should try that sometime.”

The Paladins all looked at her as if she'd grown a set of Hoshinthra antennae, and she wilted under the obvious silliness of her suggestion. There was no possible way that a Paladin could ever be considered “ordinary”.

“Sorry,” she said a bit sheepishly.

Pidge shook her head. “I tried that in middle school, and it didn't work. Not after what Matt used to get up to between classes. All of the teachers, the Principal, the Superintendent, and the entire janitorial staff kept their eyes on me for the whole four years that I was there.”

Shiro smiled and gave her an ironic look. “Well, after that one prank he pulled in eighth grade, you know, the one with the bucket of mustard, the smoke bomb, the bag of marbles, and the science room's pet rabbit--”

Pidge rolled her eyes. “Do not speak of that rabbit. That rabbit had a better memory than half of my classmates, and he kept trying to get out of his cage and bite me all semester. God help you if you had eaten mustard any time in the past week, 'cause he'd smell it and get all mad, and stop laughing, Lance! You don't know the horror of being chased down the hall by a raging, mustard-crazed lagomorph!”

Lance slumped onto the table, whooping with mirth. Lizenne gave Pidge an amused look. “Are rabbits as bad as chinchillas, I wonder?”

Pidge glared disgustedly at her snickering teammates. “Rabbits are bigger and can get pretty nasty when threatened, and that bunny had been the class pet for four years. Of course it had a bad attitude. Drinmar may have been on to something when he said that all planets have some sort of bunny, and that all of them are secretly evil. I am done talking about rabbits now. There are no rabbits in outer space. Let's talk about more important things, like Shiro's head, which needs examining.”

“You didn't have to put it quite like that, Pidge,” Shiro protested mildly.

She transferred her glare to him. “Didn't I? Spice Girls, Shiro. I was serious about that, and you really do have a bad drama habit.”

Loliqua smiled, gold-threaded eyes twinkling with good humor. “She isn't wrong, young man. Now hold still and let me have a look, and we'll see if a deeper one is necessary.”

Shiro shifted uneasily as she reached out and grasped his chin. Her grip was firm but gentle, the skin dry and surprisingly soft. She blinked her large eyes and focused them on his in a level, hard gaze that seemed to penetrate right to his core. Her own eyes were incredibly deep, and he realized that he had seen the golden lines in them twice before—once in a dream where he had been required to make a choice, and again, not so long ago, just before discovering a trio of Druids planning an ambush. He could almost see the galaxies strung like beads along those shining roads...

Loliqua hummed faintly and murmured, “Oh, yes. Yes, there it is. My goodness. Such power. I wonder if your kind might have some latent talent, although Lance once told me that aetheric science is a mere fiction in many of your cultures. And that would be the ghost's gift... two gifts. Young man, if you had not died first, there simply wouldn't be room in there for all of this!”

Shiro saw Hunk give her a funny look out of the corner of his eye. “Dying makes people's heads stretch out?”

Loliqua made an amused sound and let go of Shiro's chin. “Not the heads so much as the... hmm, how shall I put this? There is a sort of... well, call it a webwork of physical systems, instincts, and conscious and unconscious will that holds the essential you in place within your physical form. During most of a person's life, that webwork maintains a very tight grip upon the soul; it is at its most tenuous at the start and near the end of one's natural lifespan for obvious reasons, although some people are born able to detach themselves at will.”

Lizenne nodded. “Astral travelers. They are very rare, and highly prized for their ability to traverse the aether with instinctive ease. The Iberix, for example, have evolved it into a dominant trait. It is possible, with a certain amount of training, for an aetheric practitioner to learn to do the same, but it's dangerous. Without a proper anchor, you can wander away and never come back. You got yours from the Lion-bond, and the Lions themselves will not let you go.”

“True, but there are limits,” Loliqua cautioned. “An ordinary, nonmagical person does not have the sort of psychic flexibility that will allow for more than the occasional intuitive leap, and will remain tightly bound within themselves until their life's end, when all bonds break at once to let the soul continue onward. Assuming that it doesn't decide to hang about for a while for one reason or another, of course; an untimely death can make the disengagement a little haphazard. Like a net under tension, once the soul is released, the webwork will spring back and expand enormously, allowing the physical brain to shut down all of the autonomic support systems properly. This prevents wandering denizens from the planes of the Mindscape from moving in and causing trouble.”

“Wait, wait, hold it right there!” Lance blurted suddenly. “You mean that zombies can actually happen? Like real space zombies wandering around saying 'spaaace braaaains'?”

“Briefly, and it is very rare,” Loliqua continued without missing a beat. “It's usually terribly embarrassing for everyone involved. The entities native to that plane simply don't have any idea of how to use a physical body, much less one whose neural tissue is already almost totally useless, I might add. While it is frightening for onlookers, it lasts no more than about ten minutes, past which the body becomes unusable. A bit of lurching, a bit of moaning, and then—thump!—it's over. It's been posited that such instances are little more than brief, interdimensional joyrides.”

Pidge thumped a fist on the table with a triumphant hah. “I knew it! Me and Matt used to argue about that whenever a new zombie apocalypse movie came out. He was all for the evil undead thing, and I was all 'no way, dude, dead neural tissue turns into a meat slushie within minutes, and muscles and tendons can't do anything without the nerves'. It's all just meat. There's no point in being scared of meat.”

“Try eating one of my Uncle Luis's super-secret-recipe tacos with special sauce sometime,” Lance suggested dryly, face crumpling up in remembered pain. “He always made them for block parties, and all of the neighborhood tough guys used to dare each other to eat a whole one without screaming. Nobody ever knew exactly what sort of meat he used, but Aunt Denise used to look at him funny whenever the specialty leather goods store down the road was selling sharkskin, alligator, or snakeskin purses. And the mess he left in the kitchen after making them, plus what the bathroom smelled like on the morning after? Oh, yeah, we feared that meat.”

Allura glanced quizzically at Lance. “I take it that sharks, alligators, or snakes aren't usually used in that dish?”

“Nope,” Pidge said with a narrow look at her teammate. “Let me guess, Carlos loved them?”

Lance sighed. “Yup. Aunt Lucia had to keep him away from open flames for two days if she smelled them on his breath. He liked to get Uncle Luis to slip him a few just before costume parties, so he could dress up as a sewer monster and smell totally authentic. He actually won a prize for that completely by accident when they were doing a lineup at a costume contest, when he got too close to one of the stage lights and the wiring was bad--”

Lizenne waved a stern finger at the blue Paladin. “That's quite enough of that, Lance. It's aetheric fire that we're interested in, not self-inflicted methane explosions. No one has ever brought the dead back to true life before.”

“So, what happened to me?” Shiro asked, confused but entirely alive.

“A number of things,” Loliqua replied. “First, you are soul-bound to the Lions of Voltron, who are uniquely able to provide you with an anchor. You are similarly bound to these young people here, who are also entirely unique, and a part of that same anchoring force. Your talent had not fully blossomed when you vanished into the Mindscape, which made you easier to hold onto. When Haggar killed you, she packaged up your vital parts before they had a chance to decompose, thus preserving life at the cellular level. Your teammates then did the impossible by retrieving your forcibly detached soul from the depths of the Robeast. You had a knowledgeable practitioner standing nearby with a containment unit to hold what they had retrieved--”

“There's a soul in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza...” someone sang softly.

There was a horrified pause at that ghastly pun, and everyone turned to stare at Keith, who had put on an almost waifishly innocent expression and was pointing at Lance.

Shiro glared at him. “Keith, I know what your singing voice sounds like.”

Lance thumped his fists down on the table with a thud that made their cups rattle in their saucers. “Quiznek! Keith, how could you?”

“Lance...” Allura sighed warningly.

“It's not that!” Lance snarled. “I'm just mad that I didn't think of it! I mean, it's a great joke, and it was standing around with its pants down for weeks, and I didn't think of it! I must need more sleep or something.”

Shiro puffed a brief laugh and rubbed at his face. “Don't we all. So, all of my heartstrings had stretched out, huh?”

Loliqua sipped her tea again, sending a stern look at the pouting blue Paladin. “My dear boy, by the time that they were able to funnel you back into your custom-rebuilt corpus, there was room enough for three other people in there, and I do not doubt that the Lions were vigilant to the point of insomnia in order to keep anything else from moving in with you!”

“Which would have given you a great deal of room to grow, so to speak,” Allura said thoughtfully. “How curious. That would certainly have allowed Tzairona to fit her Lens in there, and you did say that Zerod smoothed her path.”

Shiro grimaced and rubbed the back of his head with one hand. “He burned that path in with a shot of white lightning. It seemed to work.”

“In more ways than one,” Loliqua said firmly. “In some ways, his might have been the greater gift. How has your physical conditioning been coming along, Shiro?”

He opened his mouth to reply, and then closed it with a frown as he did the math. “Very well. Too well. The team and the Lions have been helping me recover, but the new techniques that Zaianne's been teaching me... They're a lot easier to learn than they should be.”

“I'll want a look at both of those gifts,” Loliqua said firmly, and turned to Lizenne. “Were you ever able to examine them?”

Lizenne shook her head and cast Shiro a faintly exasperated look. “No. Both have sunk down to the level of the Lion-bond, and I know better than to go digging around anywhere near that. I might as well dig up a power main with a silver shovel while wearing full copper armor in the middle of a violent electrical storm. The result would certainly be the same.”

Keith jerked a thumb in the general direction of the black Lion's hangar. “Black doesn't like her much, and he's a little possessive. Maybe if we did that circle-session like we've been meaning to, you'll be able to see more?”

Lizenne frowned thoughtfully. “Possibly, if you go deep enough.”

“Circle-session?” Loliqua asked curiously.

“A group aura-sharing exercise,” Lizenne replied, “usually for the purpose of getting to know one's companions better, but it's a good base for doing other things as well. I believe that one of the contemplative faiths on your world uses a version of it for mass meditations.”

Cui'cuong-Thie,” Loliqua said with a snap of her fingers. “Of course. The Trance of Togetherness. I used to envy those who had the talent for such deep connections, particularly when my own powers were just starting to develop. By all means, if you are willing to perform that exercise, it would help me gauge exactly what sort of training that I will need to impart.”

“Right, I'll get the floor cushions,” Pidge said, hopping up. “Time to try the new ones Lance made.”

Loliqua cast a questioning glance at Lizenne, who replied, “Sitting on the floor is safer. Even small exercises can have dramatic outcomes in this group, and falling out of chairs is no fun.”

Pidge came trotting back from the storage closet, nearly invisible behind a pile of big pillows, which her teammates were quick to grab. This wasn't surprising; Lance had made the most of his sewing array's ability to embroider things, and the results were fairly impressive. Blue Lions and wave patterns for Lance, of course, and Keith's was a deep red with flame decals. Hunk's had a mountain scene, Allura's was pink with embroidered mice, and Pidge's was green with a clever pattern that might have been either vines or circuit boards. Shiro's was black, and embroidered with stars.

“Lovely,” Loliqua observed quietly to Lizenne.

Lizenne nodded. “He has considerable talent.”

The Paladins arranged themselves on the cushions, all but oblivious to the observers. In truth, they'd been eager for a chance to try this exercise with the whole team for some time. Shiro settled down, folding his long legs comfortably, and looked around at his companions. “So, how does this work?” he asked.

“It's simple,” Allura said. “Lights off.”

The room darkened instantly, taking all distractions with it. “The black Lion gives us this gift,” Allura continued, and a small sphere of pale light appeared, shining like a star. In the distance, the Lions became visible as well, glowing softly in their signature colors, quiescent for the moment. “All we need to do is hold it, and then pass it on. Not with the hands, but with the will.”

So saying, she cupped the floating light in her hands, lending it a rosy tint, and then let it drift into Shiro's possession. To his surprise, it was warm, and it felt like he was holding a part of her in his hands. “That's... very strange,” he murmured.

“It came as a surprise to the rest of us too, the first time,” Keith said softly. “Pass it on, Shiro.”

It took him a moment to figure out how to do that, but the rose-violet orb sailed easily into Keith's hands. He sighed and rolled the ball of light from palm to palm with a pensive look on his face. “You're scared.”

Shiro couldn't deny it. “Yeah.”

“It'll get better,” Hunk said, his face crumpling into a frown as he received the orb. “We've got your back, Chief. Always.”

“Always,” Pidge echoed, receiving the orb next. “Nobody hurts my family.”

“Nobody,” Lance agreed, his face a rainbow in the light of the orb.

Allura caught the orb in silence; no more words needed to be said. The signatures that the team had left upon the shining sphere said everything that needed saying, and she passed it back to Shiro, who drew in a long, shaking breath at the feel of their conviction. They took it slow for the first few rounds, gently easing Shiro into the rhythm of it, coaxing him into relaxing the tight controls that he had placed upon himself. Controls, they soon realized, that had been in place since well before the ill-fated trip out to Kerberos. Shiro was reluctant to let go, but with every revolution of the orb, it got easier. Past the natural frustrations of convalescence, past the anxieties all leaders felt when their responsibilities closed in on them, down to where both old and recent pain lurked, but he was not alone this time. The others were with him now, and he breathed deeply of their presence. Keith was with him, burning like a bonfire and driving the shadows away. Pidge was with him, rooted deep, fantastically complex above and below. Lance was with him, solid as an iceberg, and like that iceberg, there was far more to him than was easily seen. Hunk was with him, steady as a mountain, warm and immovable. Allura was with him, shining brighter than the sun. He could feel them all around him, supportive and protective, welcoming him into their company. It's all right, they said to him, we've got you. Let it out.

Show us, Keith told him, we can take it.

They could, he realized. They were not children anymore. They had fought and killed, and had both won and lost; they had seen both the horrible and the sublime and had survived. They made their own decisions and followed through on them. There was nothing that they could not do, if they did it together. He did not need to protect them from the nightmares that stalked him where no one could see. They also loved, he discovered, somewhat to his surprise. They loved each other, and they loved him. Sibling love, mostly, but he saw that it was starting to go deeper. That Lance was powerfully attracted to Allura was no surprise, but that she was starting to return those feelings was. The feelings that the blue Paladin had expressed in his bout of drunkenness earlier on had been entirely genuine, as a matter of fact, and was having difficulty squaring them with himself. Hunk loved everyone, as naturally as breathing. Keith had deep feelings for both Shiro and for Pidge that he barely knew what do do with, and Pidge's feelings for her male teammates—including him—were very much the same. Allura was a little harder to read, but what she felt was a pure, deep affection for all of them. All of it was as pure as the first light of dawn, and it hit Shiro's heart hard enough to break open old wounds.

The torments he had suffered all too recently at Haggar's hands bloomed in his memory like venomous brambles. She had taken him to pieces, bit by bit from the inside out; the physical pain had been incidental compared to the illusions and terrors that she had visited upon his mind. She had tried to break him, to reduce him to a maddened animal, and had almost succeeded.

In response, the others flared in outrage, and then locked into place around him in a defensive ring, creating a safe space within for him to purge the poisons. It certainly felt like having an abscessed wound cleansed—a mingled feeling of pain and relief as the hot, diseased pressures were eased. More, they told him, get it all out.

He could not resist that command. Old self-doubts left over from their early days of training to be Paladins came out, homesickness and hidden fears of the sheer scale of the daunting task that had been forced upon them. The shock of his initial kidnapping, fears for Sam and Matt when they had been taken away, and the endless horrors of the arena. Day after day of it, being forced to disable and kill other people, and things that had once been people. He remembered the stark terror of fighting the Druid, and the guilt that plagued him when he had been forced to put down the half-mechanical monsters that came out of Haggar's lab. He remembered with deep shame what he had done to the creature that he had not then known was Modhri, despite that man's gentle reassurances that it had been worth it, and he recalled the shock of waking up wearing an arm that was not his. His half-botched escape at Ulaz's hands and the knock on his head that had further skewed his drug-addled brain, the bad landing that had driven the memories even further away. The fear of not knowing where he had been. The fear of not knowing where he was going.

Keep going, his team said, aching along with him but determined to get to the bottom of it.

Shiro was reluctant to go any deeper. He knew what awaited him beneath all the rest, and that loss had nearly killed him.

We're here for you, they whispered in his heart.

Adam, he thought, the very name a black shard of loss skewering his soul.

He could remember the last night that he'd seen Adam alive, on his birthday. Shiro and the rest of the squad had all chipped in to buy a table on the upper level of Hank's Sports Bar, where the view of the game was the best, the beer and food were the best, and the waitstaff were the prettiest... he could still taste the spicy wings and the burger he'd eaten, still hear Adam and the others trading shaggy-fighter-jet stories. There had even been a cake. He'd gotten the cake himself. Red velvet cake, because that was Adam's favorite, with actual cream-cheese frosting. He'd had to explain to the brain-dead bakery worker that no, he didn't want the buttercream frosting, it wasn't real buttercream, nothing that came out of industrial five-gallon buckets could possibly be natural, especially not when it was that shade of godawful hot pink. He'd literally had to explain to that vacant-eyed man how to take cream cheese and mix it up with sugar, cream, butter, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract to make a proper frosting, and no, not synthetic vanilla either, the real stuff. The candles had been easier. He'd gotten the color-changing sparklers, because a man like Adam deserved fireworks. Everything Adam was had deserved fireworks. He had been fearless in the air and bold on the ground, and his desire for adventure had burned visibly in his eyes whenever he had looked up at the stars. Shiro had found that to be irresistible, having had much the same feelings himself.

He remembered Adam laughing with the others, warm brown eyes sparkling behind his glasses in the chiseled face, soft brown hair falling into those eyes, soft brown skin of the hand that flipped that hair away... he'd been the color of well-creamed coffee from top to toe, something that Shiro had also found to be irresistible; Adam had joked on those long, comfortable nights together that Shiro always wanted to add too much cream...

What happened?

They would have been married only two weeks from then. Adam's family had been all for it, and Shiro had finally arm-wrestled his very traditional father into accepting the union. Four days after Adam's birthday party, it had all come to an end. Adam had been a fighter pilot and an adventurous soul, and had fought for and won the right to test-pilot a brand-new, experimental fighter jet. Very secret, very high tech... and unfortunately, very unstable.

There was a blare of red light from Keith's end of the wheel. Oh, shit, Shiro, is that what happened to him? The whole thing was stamped “classified” so fast that we barely knew he'd died!

Shiro had no words, only the memory. He'd seen it on screen as that sleek silver aircraft had not been able to perform in real life what its blueprints had promised on paper, and even the ejector seat had failed. Four point seven seven three minutes after takeoff, the engines and fuel lines had blown, and the plane had come down in three burning pieces with an impact that Shiro could still feel through his feet on bad nights. In his nightmares, the plane struck pavement again and again, leaving tortured metal and charred bone fragments spread over a half-mile of runway, and a cry for help that would go forever unanswered.

Shiro cried out in anguish and the memory shattered around him, the pieces flying up and away into nowhere. They were falling now, all falling through empty space, cold stars gleaming all around, cold stars that Adam would never see again, cold stars that beckoned him away from the hard earth that had taken the man that he'd loved. The Kerberos Mission had seemed like a miraculous escape for him, and he had accepted Sam Holt's offer with gratitude. Cold stars had accepted him, and had taken him far further from that loss than anyone could ever have guessed--

A sudden flash from above startled them all, and a vast electric crackle roared through the firmament around them. White fire scorched a burning road in a miles-wide descending spiral around them, heading down through the fabric of eternity itself to delineate something that glimmered like a lens carved from a first-quality diamond crystal. In that perfect circle, blurred images formed and faded in a constant rush of color and motion; it was turning, they realized, like a plate on a slow turntable, and as it spun, the images were starting to come into focus. They could not look away from that steadily-brightening disc. Color and shape and motion, light and darkness, hot and cold, sight and sound and scent, taste and pressure and sensation, all coming together into...

 

...into...

 

...into...

 

...Alarms screamed in Allura's ears, and her shocked eyes could not believe what the screens were telling them. Coran was shouting at her, telling her to go, to run while she still had the chance, to escape before that impossible maw found its mark. She turned and fled, knowing that she had no other choice, breath burning in her lungs as she threw herself into the lift. She had just stepped out into the shuttle bay when something struck the Castle a mortal blow; she could feel the craft screaming as its main structural members bent and shattered under the ghastly impact, knocking her to the floor. Eyes blurring, she saw the mice waving at her from one of the smaller pods, and she threw herself into the seat, sending the little craft speeding toward the bay doors just as the entire deck began to collapse behind her...

 

...Hunk yelled in horror at what was happening right before his eyes. The world was going gray, its life force drawn up into a vortex the color of nightmares, drawn inexorably up into the impossibly huge, dark shape of that insane freak. They were dying, all of them were dying, he could feel the whole world dying as that monstrous parasite fed upon it, and he knew that it was too late for them even as he boosted Voltron forward to stop it...

 

...Lance was hurled back into his seat from the force of his accelerations, hard enough to blur his vision, but he did not dare slow down. It was fast, it was too fast, and there was too much of it, all moving at once, all of it lethal. They'd die if it landed another hit, and if they died, it was all over for everyone. Everyone. Everywhere. Everything. His thoughts fuzzed out for a moment as the thing landed a glancing blow on the right arm, and he felt the Sword break...

 

...Pidge shrieked as the Shield shattered with a sound that deafened her for a moment, and she felt her Lion groan at the stunning impact. The calculations came in, belated and terrible on the blurring screens, and she could hear Shiro shouting, but couldn't make out the words. This was worse than anything that she'd ever faced before—she couldn't even crack its shielding because it didn't have any. It didn't need any, not with what it had seething through its very substance...

 

...Keith was blind with brightness. He couldn't see, but that didn't matter anymore. All he had to do was aim for where the light wasn't. Everything else had faded away. The only sense he had left was sight, and all he could see was a light like burning ice and a darkness like the nothingness between universes. And a sense unnamed, a sense of oneness, a sense of motion, a sense of a thing about to be completed. It had been a long, long time, and a burning joy that was not entirely his own began to well up in his heart...

 

...Shiro staggered to a halt, lungs heaving, his bayard heavy in his hand, and he felt more than saw Modhri coming up beside him. Together they gazed at the sorry, withered remnant that was all that was left of a man who had been the scourge of the cosmos for ten thousand years. As they watched, what had been a skull dropped uselessly from the twisted metal around it like a rotten fruit, shattering into brittle fragments on the warped decking. Modhri knelt and touched the blasted and crumbling bone, and let out a sigh. “Well, she was right about that,” he murmured, and turned worried yellow eyes up to meet Shiro's. “This isn't over yet.”

I know,” Shiro replied...

 

...and then everything went black.