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The Choices We Make

Chapter Text

When Pidge was upset, she buried herself in her projects. Keeping her head focused on coding and technology, which were methodical, organized, and followed a logic that was easy to grasp helped her avoid dealing with emotions. Those were messy, disorganized, and didn’t follow any sort of logic. At least not the kind that made sense to her.

Right now, however, she was so distraught she found she couldn’t even focus on the most basic of code. Even the Altean vocabulary words she had printed out on flashcards were running together in her head. She felt hot and cold at the same time (not actually possible – it must be psychological), then felt sick one minute and dizzy the next. She wondered vaguely if she might be sick, but a quick scan with one of the medical scanners in the infirmary confirmed what she was feeling was purely psychological. It didn’t surprise Pidge, really, but the more she thought about the cause, the more awful she felt.

So she dissociated, stubbornly shuffling through her flashcards and forcing her brain to focus on the words in front of her.

Gedra. Noun. Country. Wait – no, that’s the word for glue. Country is gidea. Wait, that’s not right, either. Is it?

Pidge felt like her brain was overheating, like a computer using up too much CPU trying to run a complicated program. Except this wasn’t a complicated program, it was a deck of stupid flash cards. With a cry of frustration, she leaped to her feet and hurtled the stack at the nearest wall just as someone came around the corner.

She locked eyes with Lance while the cards fluttered and skipped to the floor between them.

“Um, okay,” he said, blinking rapidly a few times. “Should I leave, then?”

“If you’re just here to offer sympathy, again, yes,” Pidge snapped. “If you somehow managed to find me a giant jar of Skippy peanut butter, then no. And I mean the real stuff. Not the weird blue spread Hunk found on Utox.”

Lance frowned. “Sorry, fresh out of peanut butter. But I do have some news that might be just as good.”

Pidge gave him a skeptical look. Couldn’t he see she just wanted to be left alone? She couldn’t afford to get her hopes up again. They’d been so close to getting her father back! She couldn’t handle another failure. Whatever news Lance had would have to be exceptionally good in order to override her brain’s current settings.

At the sight of her face, Lance smirked. Pidge wanted to hit him. Couldn’t he see she couldn’t handle any more news about her dad? She didn’t need another reminder of how badly the exchange had gone.

“We just got a call from some rebel scouts,” Lance said. “I guess they found the ship your dad was in with those Galra generals.”

Pidge’s brain short-circuited, prompting a hard reset. “They found it?!” she sputtered after a momentary pause to recalibrate. Fleeting memories of her father’s image flickering as she lunged at it – the exact moment she found out they’d been duped – crossed her mind and she angrily sent them away. She felt tears at the corners of her eyes and when she reached up to wipe them away she found she was already following Lance out of the lab and down the hall towards the elevator.

“Where? Is he okay? Do they have him?”

“They found the ship entering Coalition airspace on one of our occupied planets. Kaxoin, I think. The ship crashed, but as far as we know, nobody was injured. It was just the generals and your dad. Where’s Matt?”

Pidge stopped her processing long enough to think about her brother.

“His room, probably. Haven’t seen him since this morning.”

“You head up to the bridge,” Lance said, already turning and heading back down the corridor. “I’ll go let him know.”

Pidge nodded her thanks, her brain whirring too quickly to form words.

 

 

When she arrived on the bridge, the faces of Coran, Hunk, Hope, and Allura greeted her with mixed expressions of pity and careful hopefulness. Shiro, stoic as usual, was frowning at the main screen where an alien’s anxious face was framed. Pidge recognized the slender, pale face as belonging to Thrippa, one of the Coalition leaders in charge of the Veilad system.

 “Pidge, there you are,” Allura was saying. “We just got news from our base on Kaxoin that rebels there found the ship your father was in.”

“Tell me everything,” Pidge demanded, her voice steady despite her shaking hands. She sidled up to Hunk, suddenly drawn to his large, warm presence. She needed something familiar, something grounding, otherwise her head might just overload and shut down altogether. From where she was standing on Hunk’s right, Hope flashed her another sympathetic look. Pidge tried not to grimace back and instead focused on what was being said.

“My scouts just apprehended the two Galra officers who were aboard and have placed them in custody,” Thrippa reported. “No one else besides Commander Holt was aboard. All three are being treated for injuries sustained in the crash now.”

“Do we know what caused the crash?” Shiro asked.

“Or what those three generals were doing apart from the main fleet?” Allura asked.

“The cause is still unknown. We are analyzing the ship’s hull and data box now. All we know right now is the ship entered Kaxoin airspace approximately 45 dobashes ago and crashed in a nearby field shortly after. No sign of the main fleet.”

“Did they make any transmissions?” Hunk asked. “Any SOS pings?”

“None on any Coalition frequencies. We’ll know for sure once we mine the ship’s communication logs.”

The hissing of the elevator at the back of the bridge signaled the arrival of Matt and Lance.

“Lance is saying you found Dad?” Matt asked, coming over to Pidge and Hunk and placing his hands on his sister’s shoulders.

“We’re trying to sort out the details,” Allura answered. “At this point, all we know is the ship Commander Holt was on somehow separated from the main Galra fleet and crashed on Kaxoin. They have the two crew members in custody, but it’s still too early to determine what happened.”

“Then why aren’t we on our way to Kaxoin right now?” Matt demanded.

“We were just about to set course,” Allura said. “Coran, please set a course for the Veilad System.”

“Yes, Princess.”

Shiro spoke up. “There’s a good chance Zarkon’s fleet will be arriving soon to retrieve the ship. He won’t want to sacrifice his precious bargaining chip.”

Allura nodded. “I agree. You should begin evacuating the base at once. We will meet you just outside the Veilad System.”

“Understood, Princess,” said Thrippa. “I’ll give the order immediately.”

“Excellent,” Allura replied. “We will be there in a little over a varga.”

“Thank you, Princess. Swift travels.”

The transmission ended and the screen went dark. Pidge found she was holding her breath. She forced herself to breathe, concentrating on Hunk’s safe presence beside her and Matt’s hands gripping her shoulders. Her mind went over a list of the events that had transpired in the last 24 vargas.

Prisoner exchange went badly. Zarkon double-crossed us. We know he would. The shuttle with Dad and those two generals was a hologram to begin with. They never actually brought Dad. Zarkon had his actual ship hidden from our radar. Followed us back to the Castle and we fought him off with the Lions. Zarkon got away. The ship where they held Dad crashed on Kaxoin. Coalition Territory. He’s safe. He’s safe. We’re going to see him now. He’s safe. Dad’s safe.

In the back of her mind, Pidge wondered if there was some key feature she was missing. Some important piece of the puzzle. What had caused them to go to that dusty, desolate planet in the first place? Pidge decided it didn’t matter right now. They were on their way to get her dad. Nothing else mattered.

Matt’s hands were still on Pidge’s shoulders, and he squeezed them gently before coming around to face her.

“We’re going to get him back, Pidge,” he said, his face hardened and determined. “And this time, no Galra fleets, princes, or generals will stop us.”

Pidge froze, her mind snapping the missing puzzle piece into place with a flash of realization. In all the excitement, she’d never once thought about Lotor and what had become of him. She vaguely recalled seeing him with that third female general (the only one not a hologram), and she’d marched him off… somewhere. What had happened to him? Once Pidge had realized the shuttle was a hologram, nothing else had mattered except finding where the real one was.

She supposed she should feel a little bit bad for forgetting all about Lotor. After all, if he hadn’t been in the Castle, they never would have gotten the chance to exchange him for her dad. Even though the exchange had gone badly, the events surrounding it had led to the eventual crash and later recovery of the ship that held her father. So she supposed, barring any more complications, it all had worked out after all. They’d fought off Zarkon as he tried to take the Black Lion again and they’d gotten rid of another threat to both him and Voltron.

Nope. She decided she didn’t feel the least bit bad. Everything was turning out in their favor, provided the evacuation went smoothly.

Pidge followed Matt, Lance, Hunk, and Hope downstairs to suit up, putting all thoughts about Lotor aside for the time being. Her brain only had so much processing power, and she needed all of it to focus on bringing her dad back. She couldn’t waste energy on trivial matters.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

A heavy silence filled the small fighter ship. Lotor tried to keep his head high and his shoulders proud, but as the dobashes wore on and he grasped the reality of his situation in full, he found it harder and harder to maintain his appearance of apathy. At least Zarkon’s back was to him at the moment. It was only Axca facing him; sitting on the small flight seat opposite his, examining the gauntlets on her hand with about as much interest as a child would a piece of homework. The silence that had ensued after Zarkon had been driven away by Voltron was deafening, and with each passing dobash the blood pounded louder and louder in Lotor’s ears as his inevitable doom drew nearer and nearer. He tried to moisten his chapped lips, but found his mouth was dry, too.

He should have known this would happen. The paladins should have foreseen Zarkon would pull a fast one. He supposed they had been ready for something – they weren’t entirely stupid – but they couldn’t prepare for every eventuality. At any rate, they seemed completely willing to discard him as soon as his purpose had been served. No one thought twice about him the moment the shuttle was revealed to be a hologram, and that had allowed Axca to lead him quietly away in the ensuing chaos – away from the only hope he had of a safe refuge.

“I’m not letting you out of my sight until we’re back at the fleet.” Zarkon had said just before engaging in battle with Voltron. “I should never have exiled you to begin with. You’re hardly worth the space you occupy, but perhaps I can still use you to show the empire that I am still as strong as ever.”

Axca and Lotor had then been forced to brace themselves and trust their restraints to hold them in as they were knocked and jerked around the cabin. Zarkon’s attempt to capture the Black Lion again gave little thought to the poor souls in the back of his fighter, and Lotor suspected that was part of the plan. He still felt queasy, and Axca had actually thrown up a little. But now the cabin was silent and still except for the dull rumble of the engines. Lotor almost missed the combat. It was better than the silence that crept around them like a foul mist. At least then the nausea in his stomach had come from dizziness and not from nerves. If he vomited now, Zarkon would know just how terrified Lotor really was, and then the last stronghold of defiance he held against his father (however small) would be gone.

If I am to die by your bidding, Father, then I will die knowing that my failure in your eyes is surely a sign that I am nothing like you. That is the only comfort I have left, and you cannot take it from me.

Chapter Text

Pidge’s heart was in her mouth. She knew it wasn’t literally, of course; that was scientifically impossible. But it certainly felt like it. The castle’s wormhole travel always left a slight tugging in her stomach, so she tried to focus on that and not on how her pulse was hammering at the back of her throat and how she kept jumping at small noises, as if every time Lance’s leather jacket creaked it meant Zarkon was going to appear out of the woodwork and reveal that the ship they were going to meet was just another apparition, and that her father was already dead, already gone, already beyond her reach-

“Pidge, you okay?”

She shrieked and jumped, nearly falling out of her seat. “Matt!” she snapped as soon as she took a breath. “Don’t do that!”

Her brother wore a carefully constructed mask of patience, but she knew he was just as antsy as she was. He was just better at hiding it. “I know you’re nervous, okay?” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “Dad’s so close, and yet he feels so far away, doesn’t he?”

“I’m scared this is another trick,” Pidge whispered. “I know it’s not rational. The Coalition really does have him. He’s really coming to meet us. But it still feels like Zarkon’s just waiting there to taunt us again.”

“We’ll be there soon and then we won’t have to worry again.”

Pidge felt a chuckle rising from her throat and she punched his arm playfully. “Wow, Matt. All this time apart and you’re still acting like my older brother. Good to know some things never change.”

“No, they don’t. I’m still your brother, even thousands of light-years away.”

“We’re coming up on the checkpoint,” Coran said from the front of the bridge.

There was a beeping sound and the main transmission screen lit up.

“Ah, Thrippa,” Allura said. “We were just about to call you. Are all your personnel with you?”

“Everyone made it out of the base in a timely manner, Princess,” said the narrow-faced alien lady on the screen. She looked frazzled, but pleased. “I have some of my men checking inventory, others keeping watch for enemies. So far, no sign of any Galra.”

“Good to hear. We should get your ships to Olkarion as quickly as possible. Are all of your ships wormhole-worthy?”

“We’re keeping the two prisoners in our only non-wormhole-worthy shuttle. I’m sending it to dock with your hangar. Commander Holt is also aboard.”

“Excellent. Shiro and the others will meet them at the hangar, then. Be ready to make a jump to hyperspace as soon as the shuttle is secured.”

“We’ll follow your lead, Princess. My ships are standing by.

Pidge was already in the elevator, and stamped her foot impatiently as everyone else filed in. The elevator ride seemed to take extra-long, and Pidge found herself counting the dobashes.

She could feel her brain overloading from overripe anticipation, and she wondered if it were possible for a brain to overheat and meltdown like a computer. She supposed it was possible, given the right circumstances.

The shuttle had just docked when Shiro and the rest of the group approached the hangar doors. The instant the light signaling the pressure had stabilized turned on, Pidge was throwing open the doors and scrambling towards the shuttle, which was deploying its ramp with a slow, steady hiss.

She barely registered Matt waiting breathlessly behind her, or the rest of her friends approaching somewhere off to the left. A pair of alien boots was coming down the ramp, much too large to belong to her dad, but the pair behind him…

The tall, imposing yellow alien that some corner of Pidge’s brain distantly registered as the shuttle captain stepped aside, revealing a much more familiar figure.

Pidge felt her heart and brain might just stop right then, but somehow she still found herself surging forward with all the force of a tsunami. Not even Zarkon himself would stop her.

“Dad!” She sang out and rushed into his arms that were open and waiting, just like they always were. Instantly, she was a little girl again. For one blissful moment, she forgot all that had transpired in the last two years. She forgot about the Galra, Voltron, and the fact that they were fighting an alien war thousands of light-years away from Earth. She forgot that Matt and Dad had even gone on that awful Kerberos trip in the first place. For one moment, she was a small child hugging her father as he came home from work.

She came up for air eventually and found she was crying. Reaching up, she pushed her glasses up to her head and scrubbed at her eyes with her sleeve. Then she looked at her father for the first time in two years; actually looked at him.

His eyes were the same golden brown, so very like her own, and he still had those silly rectangular glasses that made him look like an English professor at a community college instead of an aerospace officer and astronaut. Beyond that, everything else looked different. His face had more wrinkles than she remembered and of course his hair was longer and more jagged, like it was cut hurriedly with a single blade. She could never recall her dad ever having a beard and decided it might just be a good look once he cleaned up the awful moustache.

One thing that hadn’t changed, however, were his warm, strong arms. Always safe, no matter what age she was. Always open, always ready for her.

“I can’t believe it’s really you,” she sobbed. “I missed you so much.”

Her dad laughed, and Pidge felt it rather than heard it - a familiar rumble deep in his chest.

“I missed you too, Katie.”

She became aware of Matt just behind her, sandwiching her between them in the best group hug she’d ever experienced. She’d done it. Come hell or high water, she had vowed to find her missing family, and here they were, hugging on the landing ramp of an alien spaceship thousands of light-years from home. Despite that, Pidge knew, in a way, she was home. Home was wherever her family was. And for now, that was right here.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Lotor had sworn to himself, after the last summons he’d received that had resulted in yet another argument with Zarkon, that he would never return to this awful place. The Command Ship held too many memories, and none of them were good ones. Lotor was bitterly reminded once again of how easily events could turn and just how little control he had over any of them.

The hallways here were wider than his own ship had been, but the lighting was dimmer. He had made it a point to remove as many similarities between his personal vessel and the Command Ship as he could, in an effort to distance himself from the familiar walls and corridors stained with the memories of his childhood. He knew the horrors that went on behind closed doors and empty hallways. Had known since he was a young boy. He had learned quickly not to waste energy caring – it wasn’t as though he could stop what his father and the witch were doing, even if he tried.

How ironic it was that he now found himself wishing someone else would give him just an ounce of compassion. He saw many off-duty soldiers and technicians as he was marched (paraded) through the main thoroughfare up to the throne room, and he received many taunts, jeers, and snide remarks as he passed. One soldier even spat upon him. Those who didn’t jeer simply looked at the floor or shot an uncomfortable grimace his way before hurrying through the nearest doorway. There was no room for sympathy or solidarity in this place. It had all been leeched away like quintessence from a komar-stricken planet.

How Lotor wished for just one person who would look him in the eye for longer than a few ticks. Not even Axca would look at him, and it was that that made him feel truly alone. For the first time, he grasped how truly hopeless his situation was. The paladins had abandoned him, traded him for the human despite knowing they were sending him to his death. His generals had turned on him, using him to save their own skins. Lotor should have known better – why stick with someone who kills his friend in cold blood? He would be impressed with their manipulation if he wasn’t just so tired. And so very, very alone.

The only friends he thought he had were gone. The Altean colony, his perfect little hidden world, his greatest achievement, would eventually wither away and all his good work would come to nothing. He would be remembered as Zarkon wanted him to be – if he wanted him remembered at all – as a dark stain on an otherwise glorious rule. With his death, Zarkon would do away with the only one within his ranks who ever came close to openly challenging that image of glory and superiority.

Zarkon would eventually be brought down – not even he could last indefinitely. Whether by the current Voltron Coalition or by some other force, he would eventually meet his end and his empire would at last crumble. But Lotor would be long forgotten by the time that happened.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

“Remind me again why we’re the ones stuck with this job?” Hunk asked, wringing his hands nervously.

Hope rolled her eyes. “Because Allura and Coran are discussing next moves with Ryner, Olia, and Thrippa, Pidge is obviously with her dad and brother, and Shiro’s helping the shuttle pilot with… something, and he said he needed Lance’s help to do it. We’re the odd ones out.”

The two were on their way to the brig, where the two Galra prisoners had been transferred. It wasn’t the same high-security vault they’d kept Lotor in, down in the bowels of the ship, but a smaller lock-up a little closer to the central area. Once the two were secure, Shiro had sent Hope and Hunk to interrogate them after learning the rebels couldn’t get much out of them.

“We interrogated them, of course, after treating their crash injuries,” the captain had said. “Didn’t have much luck. They refused to talk to us. Said they’d only speak to Voltron Paladins.” He shrugged, looking resigned. “We decided to let them be.”

Shiro had nodded thoughtfully and suggested that Hunk and Hope might have more luck with them, as a friendlier, less imposing face might encourage at least one of them to talk.

The suggestion, however, turned into an order, and now the two were stuck wondering if one paladin and the castle’s medic were enough to get them to talk. “I’ve never interrogated anyone before!” Hunk fretted. “I can’t play Good Cop, Bad Cop. I’m stuck on just “Good Cop,” and I know you are, too.”

“That’s kind of what Shiro was going for,” Hope said with a sigh. She shifted the tray of snacks and beverages she was carrying to her other hand and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Perks of being the nice ones, I guess. Plus, would you really want Lance interrogating prisoners?”

“Good point, although if all else fails we might want to sic him on them and see if flirting gets us anywhere.”

They reached the main door to the brig and paused to have a good laugh. The Coalition rebel guarding the door raised one very bushy eyebrow at them.

There was another Coalition guard outside the holding cell, and he nodded to the two and stepped aside to allow them access.

“Well, here goes nothing,” Hope said grimly, and then they stepped inside, closing the door behind them.

The room was mostly bare, with two bunks set in the far wall and a table with two bolted-down benches on the wall to the right. Hope immediately noticed the larger of the two women, who was sitting on one of the benches, picking at her claws. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously as they came in and her eyes followed Hope as she set the tray down on the table in front of her. The smaller general had tucked herself into the farthest corner of the bottom bunk with her knees drawn tightly up to her chest. She made no other movement to acknowledge their presence, but Hope could feel her piercing gaze and could practically smell the apprehension and suspicion in the tiny room. She tried not to sigh.

“Hey,” she said instead, keeping her voice light and conversational. “Are you two hungry? We brought lunch. We were hoping we could chat a little.”

Inwardly, she cringed. This was so stupid. Maybe the only reaction they would get would be laughter. Trying to seem unconcerned with the lack of response, she reached for one of the empty bowls on the tray and spooned some food goo into it from the larger bowl Hunk had carried in. The big bowl was cumbersome, but Hunk had made the very good point the generals might be more willing to try some if they could see it hadn’t been tampered with.

“Well, I’m hungry,” Hope said pleasantly, “so I hope you don’t mind if I eat. Do you at least want something to drink?”

“We’re not thirsty,” the larger of the two said. Her voice was gravelly, almost masculine, and it dripped with suspicion.

Hunk, who up until this point had merely sat down on the other bench, seemingly content with letting Hope lead, spoke up.

“We haven’t poisoned anything, you know. That would be totally counterproductive.”

The galra woman regarded him with a cold stare. “And how do we know you won’t later on after you’ve wrung information out of us, huh?”

Hope and Hunk exchanged glances.

“We don’t do that here,” said Hope, trying to keep her voice smooth, like Lance did. When Zethrid said nothing, she bit her lip and continued in what she hoped was a pleasant and casual voice. “So, um, my name is Hope. What’s yours?”

The woman glanced down at her hands, which were now resting in her lap, seemingly deliberating whether to tell or not.

“Zethrid,” she said after a while.

The other general, who had not so much as moved since Hunk and Hope had entered the room, finally spoke up. “I’m Ezor,” she whispered. “Which paladins are you?”

Hope shot Hunk a look. This was his moment now. Hunk, for his part, tried to put on a more passive face and not one that made it look like he was trying to pass a bladder stone.

“I’m Hunk,” he said. Seemingly without thinking, he extended his hand towards Zethrid in greeting. She merely looked at it. Realizing his mistake, Hunk withdrew his hand sheepishly. “Right, I guess you guys don’t do that.” He let out a bark of nervous laughter. “Anyway, I’m the Yellow Paladin, and Hope is the castle’s medic.”

Zethrid turned her stony gaze to Hope, who had cautiously sat down on the edge of the bunk and taken a bite of food goo. “So you aren’t a paladin. I told those Coalition chumps we’d only talk to paladins.”

Hunk opened his mouth before Hope could speak. “Yeah, we know that’s what you said. Sorry. But everyone else is busy right now, and plus – Hope’s not with the coalition – she’s part of our team. Not a part of Voltron, obviously, but she does practically everything else. So, yeah, you can trust her.”

“Look, it’s either the two of us, or you wait another six vargas or so for Shiro and Allura to be done with their work,” Hope said. “What do you think?”

Zethrid shrugged. “Fine. But none of those Coalition freaks.”

Hope paused, biting her lip in what she hoped looked more like concern and less like nervousness. “Well, anyway,” she continued, wondering briefly whether there was some underlying reason for this insistence, “we were wondering if you could clear something up for us. The last time we saw you, you were stealing teludav bits from under the Empire’s nose. Something must have happened between you and Lotor to make you want to rejoin the Empire.”

Both the generals stiffened at the mention of Lotor. There was a very pregnant pause, during which the tension in the room shifted, and some of the suspicion that had begun to clear away now returned in force. Hope took another deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I mean,” she went on, choosing her words carefully, “whatever happened must have left you and your friends with very few options. Once the Empire declared Lotor a fugitive, anyone who was with him became one too, right? So what made you decide to go back? You knew the risks.”

“He killed Narti,” Ezor said bitterly.

Hunk frowned, clearly trying to recall the name. “Narti. Was she one of your fellow generals?”

Ezor nodded and clutched her knees tighter to her chest. “She was our friend, and he murdered her.”

Hope immediately sensed a note of bitterness in her words and seized on it. “Your friends mean a lot to you, don’t they?”

“We were like family,” Zethrid said tersely. “We all trusted each other. Us and Lotor.”

“And that understandably made you turn against him when he broke that trust.”

“We had no other choice,” Ezor said, and Hope detected a note of fear for the first time. She shifted on the bed and loosened her hold on her legs. “We got the human from that prison and offered him as a bargaining chip to Zarkon in exchange for safe passage back to the Empire. What Zarkon did with him afterwards was his business. We had no part in setting up the exchange.”

“Wait – you think this is about the prisoner exchange?”  Hunk asked, exchanging another glance with Hope as they both realized what the matter was. “No, no, we already know what happened there. But you weren’t exactly a part of it, were you? It was just your holograms.”

Zethrid nodded. She finally seemed to be loosening up a little. “Zarkon had us keep the human with us on the shuttle in case he was needed.”

“Yes, we figured as much,” Hope said. “Now, is there anything you can tell me about the crash? Everyone’s a bit baffled by that.”

“It was an accident,” Zethrid said immediately and with a little too much force. “Engine failure.”

Hunk frowned. “Really? Because if that were the case, wouldn’t you have sent out an S.O.S.? We didn’t find anything like that on your transmission logs.” He paused, still looking skeptical. “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about the crash?”

Zethrid snarled, while Ezor just shifted again on the bed.

Hope sighed. This wasn’t going anywhere fast. She stood up. “Alright, well, if you’re not going to talk, we’ll just have Shiro and Allura come in when they’re done. We don’t have time to beat around the bush. C’mon, Hunk. Let’s go.”

She moved to leave, but a sudden move from Zethrid made her jump and almost drop her food goo. The galra woman had risen to her feet and wore a screwed-up mask of contempt over her underlying fear.  

 “Look, just tell us what you want, okay?!” She snapped, her voice taking on a shrill edge that didn’t fit with her bulky frame. “Quit acting like you care and just tell us what you people want with us! That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? They sent you because you’re nice.”

Hunk and Hope both paused, working over this new development. Hope slowly went and sat back down on the bed. “Well, you’re right. Hunk and I are the nice ones,” she replied. Might as well be honest. These two had seen enough deceit and betrayal already.

“But we’re not interested in interrogating you,” said Hunk. “At least not in the way you’re probably used to. You don’t have to talk to us if you don’t want to. We’re not going to force you. That’s not how we do things in the Castle.” He paused to let his words sink in. “But we do have schedules, like everyone else. Now, are you okay with talking, or would you like us to go away?”

Zethrid looked back at Ezor, who nodded slightly. Zethrid frowned, and some of the anger melted off her face. “You can stay,” she said quietly.

“Alright,” said Hope, and took another bite of food goo before continuing. “Now, I guess we’re just puzzled, because it seemed like the fleet was making a fast headway away from the planet where we did the exchange, but then suddenly you guys crashed on a planet in the next system over, with no S.O.S. and no sign of the main fleet. I don’t know about you, but that seems a little odd, don’t you think?”

There was another pause, and Hope flicked her gaze back and forth between the two women, studying their body language. None of this seemed to make sense. She glanced up at Hunk, who brightened with sudden realization. “You want our help,” he said quietly.

The looks he received told them he was right.

 “That’s why you crashed the ship, isn’t it?” Hunk asked, narrowing his eyes in what wasn’t a look of spite, but of thoughtfulness.

Ezor, who was relaxing more and more by the tick, scooted forward out of the corner and rested her calves on the edge of the bed with her feet dangling out into the air. “We can’t trust the coalition, but we’re still not even sure we can trust you. Voltron isn’t known for being fair to Galra.”

Ouch, Hope thought, biting her lip. Ezor was right, although it hurt to admit it.

“Well, I understand you not wanting to trust us just yet,” she said, “but frankly, we’re your only option right now. You came to us because you had no other choice.” She gripped her bowl of food goo tighter and scooted a little to face Ezor better. “Can you at least trust that we want to help, and we aren’t going to double-cross you or anything like that? You came to us – the least we can both do is work with each other. We can’t help you if you don’t tell us what’s wrong.”

Ezor and Zethrid kept glancing back and forth between each other and Hope as she was speaking. “Zarkon still has our friend, Axca,” Ezor finally said in a small voice.

 Now we’re getting somewhere, Hope thought, pleased at the progress they’d made. She ought to have known this might have something to do with either Lotor or the other general who was with Zarkon during the exchange. The shuttle crash seemed too convenient to be an accident.

“Axca – was she the other general?” she asked. “The one we saw with Zarkon?”

Ezor nodded, while Zethrid picked at her claws. “She wasn’t a hologram,” she said without looking up. “Zarkon wanted her with him to help control Lotor. He didn’t want Lotor messing things up anymore, and he also wanted to make sure we weren’t working with Lotor to double-cross him.”

Hope frowned, feeling a renewed sense of righteous anger against Zarkon at this.

“So you think Zarkon might be holding Axca prisoner somewhere?” Hunk asked.

“He knows,” Ezor said with a worried glance at Zethrid, the note of fear creeping back into her voice. “He knows we crashed the ship on purpose. He always finds out. He’ll kill Axca if we don’t rescue her. Please. We didn’t have any other choice. We know Zarkon would have just gotten rid of us at the first chance he got. “

Zethrid snorted, kicking her feet and leaning back against the wall. “We’re too much of a risk because we worked with Lotor in the past. Nothing we did would have ever gotten rid of that. You can do what you want with us, but anything is better than what Zarkon would do.

“Look, we’ll give you any information you want,” Ezor continued. “Please, just help us get Axca back. You’re the only ones who can keep us safe from Zarkon. You can do what you want with us after.”

Hope bit her lip and tried to keep the pity from showing on her face too much. This was a lot to take in. Her heart tugged painfully as she thought about what Ezor and her friends were going through. She could not imagine being in such a situation. When she looked up at Hunk again, he nodded, silently telling her to continue.

She cleared her throat. “Well, we have to go and discuss this with our team before anything can be done, of course,” she said carefully, “but please know that we hear you, and we care about what happens to you and your friends.”

“And believe us, we’ll do everything in our power to help you find Axca,” Hunk said solemnly.

Ezor looked ready to collapse with relief, while Zethrid almost smiled. “Thank you,” she said.

Hunk seemed encouraged by this. “You’re welcome. You’re with Voltron, now. Nobody is alone here.”

“We’ll be back later once we know more,” said Hope, getting up and heading over to the door. “In the meantime, try to get some rest and eat something, okay?’

Zethrid shrugged, while Ezor flashed Hope a half-smile, slid off the bunk, and approached the tray with curiosity. Hunk got up and the two left the room.

The room outside held a somber sort of silence. The Coalition rebel who had been standing there earlier now sat on the floor with his back to the wall, his eyes glued to the device in his hands. Hunk and Hope paused outside the door to take a deep breath and process what they’d just heard.

“Welp,” said Hunk with a sigh. “We’ve got a lot to discuss with the team.”

“Yeah, we do,” Hope replied.

Chapter Text

“What?! They want us to go back and rescue some random general? And you agreed? Are you out of your mind?” Pidge didn’t mean to raise her voice, but she couldn’t quite believe her ears. Here she was, still riding high off the return of her father, and now everyone was suddenly talking about rescue missions again. They’d just had a narrow shave! Couldn’t they rest up for a bit?

Hope and Hunk both shot her cross looks. Hope pushed a strand of hair out of her face before speaking. “First off, it’s not just a ‘random general,’ her name is Axca. And second, think about this from their perspective. What if it was us who were backed into a corner, and the only hope of sanctuary we had lay with our sworn enemies?”

Pidge snorted. “I wouldn’t trust Zarkon even if he had just let my dad go with no strings attached.” Inwardly, she sighed. This was a waste of her time. She and Matt had been in the middle of an important upgrade to the ship’s radar when she’d been called away to the bridge.

“Yes, and you would be right,” Hope said. “I wouldn’t, either. But we’re the good guys, Pidge. Helping people is what we do.”

“They’re Imperial generals,” Pidge scoffed. “They can’t be trusted.”

“Up until a few movements ago, they were Lotor’s generals,” Hunk pointed out.

“He can’t be trusted either.”

Hunk looked skeptical. “Well – maybe not. He helped us, remember?”

“Only because he had no choice. We had him locked in our dungeon, remember?” Pidge’s voice was dripping with scorn. The conversation was getting nowhere.

Lance spoke up from where he was lounging across his control seat. “Yeah, but I think he genuinely wanted to prove himself. I mean, sure, I still don’t exactly trust the dude, but he seemed willing to help, at least.”

“All the information he gave us checked out,” Shiro said carefully, as if he was trying to remain impartial.

Pidge threw up her hands. “Only because we were the only hope he had of keeping his sorry butt safe from his dad! He was just using us!”

“Like we used him to retrieve your dad?” Hunk said, voice tight with something like incredulity.

“Don’t make this about me!”

“But it is about you, isn’t it?” Hunk continued, looking angrier than she’d seen him in a long time. “This has been about you ever since Lotor told us he had intel on Commander Holt. Not about whether it was in Voltron’s best interest to turn Lotor over to Zarkon. Only whether it would get your dad back.”

“Is that so bad? You honestly wouldn’t do the same if you were in my position?”

Hunk looked down at the pressed metal floor and wrung his hands. “I – I don’t know. It’s hard, and I promise I’m not judging you for wanting to do everything to get him back. But there are other lives affected, you know. Lotor’s, for one.”

“He doesn’t count.”

“Do you even hear yourself?” Shiro said before Hunk could say anything. “You’re treating him the same way Zarkon does – like trash. Hunk is right. We’re supposed to be better than that.”

“It’s not like we can do anything now, anyway,” Lance said with a shrug. “We already traded him to Zarkon.”

“And now I’m wondering if that was a good idea in the first place,” said Shiro.

Allura, who had surprisingly held her tongue throughout the argument, finally spoke. “I agree. Lotor even said it himself – Zarkon will surely put him to death.”

“Good,” said Pidge with more callousness than she really felt. “No more problem for any of us.” Inside, she knew this wasn’t exactly true. Lotor was a complicated case, and she knew he had been more of an ally than a burden lately. But she was so frustrated she didn’t want to think about him. Thinking too much brought her too close to uncomfortable territory.

Hunk groaned. “Gosh, Pidge! Listen to yourself! You’re acting so, so, – I’m going to say it - selfish! Would you really trade someone else’s life for your dad’s? Someone who, might I add, kept him safe and away from Zarkon’s direct influence?”

“We already did trade his life for my dad’s!” Pidge fired back. The heat was rising in her face, and she wanted to bury these uncomfortable feelings and go absorb herself back into her work and forget about Lotor altogether.

“Yes, but Zarkon wasn’t interested in killing Commander Holt,” Allura pointed out, ‘whereas he most certainly will kill Lotor.”

“You’re acting like this was my suggestion!” Pidge snapped. “Zarkon brought it up in the first place and we made the decision as a team! Don’t pin it all on me and act like it’s my fault!”

“But now we have a chance to fix our mistake, and you won’t even take it?”

“Saving my dad wasn’t a mistake!”

“Trading Lotor was, especially when we knew fully well Zarkon would kill him!” Allura said in a shrill voice. “Shiro was right. We should have found another way.”

“There was no other way!”

Hope piped up again. “I thought we were talking about Axca,” she said nervously, biting her lip. “How did we get on the subject of Lotor?”

“Because,” said Shiro with considerable patience, “not only do we have a chance to make a difference for Axca, Ezor, and Zethrid, we have the chance to set things right with Lotor. Provided it’s not too late, we can still save them both.”

Pidge had had enough. She rolled her eyes and let out a short, clipped sigh. “Do what you want. I don’t care. Call me when you need Voltron to kick in a hangar door, or something.” She then turned and stormed out of the bridge, not bothering to look behind at all the faces she knew were looking back at her.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

When Zarkon had taken his seat on the massive purple throne and Lotor was finally marched down the length of the throne room, he tried to keep his face impassive. It was as if by keeping his face neutral, he could somehow deny or delay the reality he knew lay in store for him. He was no fool – he knew what happened to traitors. Over the years he had seen many an insurgent commander turned into a cruel example in order to “inspire loyalty.” In fact, he had wondered why Zarkon had exiled him in the first place instead of turning him into yet another one of his “examples.” The likeliest reason was Zarkon simply couldn’t be bothered to execute him publicly, thus showing Lotor in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t worth the trouble.

Am I worth the trouble now, Father? Lotor wondered bitterly as his guards halted him at the base of the dais. Zarkon’s face wasn’t visible behind the mask of the power suit he now wore, but Lotor didn’t need to see it to guess what expression it wore – none. Nothing to show that this was his own son he was about to sentence to death. Lotor had known for a long time how worthless his father thought him. So why did it still hurt?

He glanced to the left of the ugly metallic throne and saw the witch Haggar hunched at Zarkon’s right, as per usual. Her face was shadowed, like always, and her heavy robes made her almost blend in with the dull purple and gray color scheme. It was easy to forget she was there until she spoke. So far, she had not, and Lotor doubted she would, but her posture seemed more taut than usual. Perhaps something about this was bothering her, although he couldn’t imagine what.

 A little behind her, looking thoroughly out of place, was Axca. Her face was a stone mask, but Lotor had been around her long enough to pick up her unique body language, and her statuesque posture told him she was scared nearly out of her mind and wanted nothing more than to get away. He wondered if she could read the same thing in his stance.

 The soldiers and sentries behind him snapped to attention, which brought Lotor’s eyes back up to meet Zarkon’s. Through the glowing purple eyes of the power suit, Zarkon glared at him with the same cruel gaze he had given Lotor his entire life, and Lotor was determined to meet it head on. He kept his head proud, hoping against hope no one saw through his façade. It was getting thinner by the dobash.

“Lotor,” Zarkon began, his powerful voice booming throughout the throne room, “you are a traitor to the Galra Empire. You have allowed yourself to ally with Voltron, our enemy. You have willingly offered them intelligence and have turned against the ways of the mighty Galra.” Here he paused. His tone shifted and every word became a dagger into Lotor’s heart. “Long have you been my greatest shame; weak, pitiful, and unworthy of the Galra throne. But no longer! For your weakness and for your crimes, I sentence you to death. May it serve as a warning against those who would challenge my rule or side with Voltron. There is no room for weakness in my empire.”

Zarkon finished his speech and fell silent, his booming voice still echoing around the throne room. Lotor’s heart pounded along with it. He had known all along this was to be his fate, yet somehow hearing it spoken finally solidified it into reality. It was almost enough to make his knees go weak – if he hadn’t had such a stubborn resolve, he might have fallen to the ground. As it were, he stood with his shoulders back and his head high, as if he had just been given accolades instead of a death sentence. He hoped they would take him away soon. He wasn’t sure how much longer his resolve would last.

Lotor had held his father’s unwavering gaze all throughout the speech, and now he rather thought he saw his eyes narrow. It was hard to tell with the mask and the glowing eyes, but Zarkon somehow seemed to look even more cruel and twisted than he had before.

“Give him thirty lashes and then send him to the gladiator pits.”

A cold ball of dread solidified in Lotor’s stomach. So this wasn’t to be a quick execution, after all. This was to be a long and drawn-out spectacle. Instead of his life being snuffed in an instant, his would wither away slowly and agonizingly until he was nothing more than a husk begging for a merciful end.

Zarkon would not let him die in the pits. Oh, no. He would have the guards stop his opponent just shy of killing him to prolong his agony until finally, when he had lost all semblance of himself, when he had forgotten what life was like without the constant throb of pain, would they finally end his miserable existence.

The guards surrounding Lotor seized his arms and marched him roughly away. Each footstep was a resounding drum in Lotor’s head, which he still held high. He was met with more jeering soldiers outside the throne room. The cacophony of voices was drowned by the roaring of blood in his ears, and the sea of angry faces swam before him. Someone kicked him in the back of the knee and down he went, his bound arms useless to break his face plant into the pressed metal floor. He was hauled painfully to his feet again, but not before the toes of several sharp boots found their way into his side. Struggling not to curl in on himself, he strode on, keeping his face blank even as insults and fists were hurtled his way.

All the while he prayed to every deity he could think of that he would be granted a quick and merciful end.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Pidge had found a wonderful hiding spot. Tucking herself into a little space beside one of the water tanks in the boiler room kept her nice and cozy warm, while the occasional rumble and rattle heard throughout the massive tank provided just enough white noise. She used the space when she needed to disappear for a few vargas and forget the rest of the world existed. Just for a bit, she could focus completely on her work. Nothing to distract her but the occasional gurgling rumble from the tank beside her.

Today, however, the space seemed to be keeping its wonderful magic of productivity all to itself. Pidge had gone over the same three lines of code six times before she admitted defeat and closed her laptop with a sigh, closing her eyes instead and leaning back against the wall.

The processor in her brain seemed to be running on half power today. Pidge thought with the return of her dad that her mental processes would return to their normal functions. Instead, however, the problem seemed to be worse. She couldn’t focus on anything for longer than about six dobashes, which a real downgrade, considering she could usually spend over three vargas without looking up once from her computer screen.

What is going on with me? It’s been several quintants and I still feel all wobbly inside, like food goo.  Ugh, emotions are so nuts! How am I supposed to focus on modulating the gendocam when I feel like crap? My software needs a serious upgrade. I wish I could troubleshoot like a computer program. Something would just pop up on my screen and tell me what I’m feeling and how to get rid of it. Yeah, that would be pretty nice. Maybe I’ll talk to the Olkari about neurological sensors and incorporating that into an app or something…hmm…

A quiet shuffle of footsteps pulled her away from her jumbled thoughts. She looked up just as her dad appeared from around the water tank.

“There you are, Katie,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you, but no one’s seen you in the last few hours.”

“How’d you find me?” Pidge asked, pushing her glasses up to the top of her head and rubbing at her eyes.

“A few little mice told me,” her dad said with a smirk. “Or, I guess they told Allura, who then told me. I still find it fascinating she shares a neural link with those critters.”

Pidge smiled. “We think it’s because they shared the same sleeping pod for ten thousand years. I’ve tried analyzing those things, but they’re so much more advanced than anything else around here; it makes even my brain want to explode.”

“Well, knowing you, that’s saying a lot,” said her dad, squatting down before lowering himself into a sitting position with his back against the water tank. “So, what’s the matter?’ he asked, casting her a pointed gaze that let her know she wouldn’t be able to get away without talking.

She gulped. “Nothing.”

She was met with a raised eyebrow. “Katie, I’m your father. I may not be as good as your mother at knowing when something is wrong, but I can tell right now you’ve got something on your mind. What’s eating you?”

“I-I don’t know, dad,” Pidge replied. “That’s the funny thing. I’ve gotten both you and Matt back, safe and sound. I should be able to relax; instead I feel more uptight.”

“Allura mentioned you had a meeting a few days ago. Did something happen during that that made you upset? Because you’ve been out of sorts since I got here. Unless you’re going to tell me that’s what you’re like all the time now, but I’m not buying it. What’s going on?”

Pidge made a face. “I don’t want to talk about it, but you’re going to make me, anyway.”

Her dad laughed. “Well, you got me there. I’m just concerned, is all. I’ve missed so much time, but some things are still the same. You still hide when there’s something bothering you. It’s just harder to find you in a castle than it was at home.”

“Yeah, this is a bit better than the storage space under the garage stairs, isn’t it?” Pidge asked with a chuckle, then fell silent again. There was no way she was getting out of this, was there?

“Look,” she began, while her dad listened patiently, hands folded atop his knees, “I – I just got you back. Right after we were so sure you were out of our reach for good. Now they all want to go back into Zarkon’s Central Command just to rescue a Galra general because Hunk and Hope talked to the two who were with you and they want their friend back.”

“Well, you can relate, can’t you? It’s the same thing you were feeling when I was in the hands of the Galra. So why wouldn’t you want to help these people?”

Pidge shrugged. “Because they’re Imperial generals, duh! If they wanted to make sure all three were safe, they should have come here in the first place, not try to use you to bargain their way back into Zarkon’s ranks.”

“So this has to do with the fact that they held me captive.”

“I can’t forgive them for that. Not Zarkon, not Lotor, not anyone.”

Her father frowned, scratching at his newly trimmed beard. “Lotor… he was the one in charge of the research facility I was at, you know. I never actually saw him, but I was treated much better at his facility than at any of the ships run by other Galra.”

“We traded him to Zarkon for you,” Pidge said quietly, shifting her weight and readjusting the laptop perched atop her legs. “Well, we were, but Zarkon revealed the shuttle was just a hologram and made off with Lotor anyway. I guess it doesn’t matter very much because we got you anyway, but still…”

“Well, if you look at it that way, then you could say you have the generals to thank for crashing the ship and allowing us all to be captured by the Coalition. Doesn’t that make up for them using me as a bargaining chip in the first place?”

“I guess. But Lotor could have told us sooner that he had you in one of his prisons. Instead, he fed us other intel and watched us from behind that smug purple face. Gosh, I hate that stupid face of his!”

“Well, from what I hear, you won’t have to think about him again, will you?” Her father’s voice was taut, and Pidge could feel the beginnings of a stern lecture forming. “Since you traded him to Zarkon, he will most likely be killed.”

“Good riddance.” Pidge muttered; her gaze fixed on the floor. She felt a twisting in her gut as she said this but forced herself not to care. It wasn’t her problem anymore. It wasn’t anyone’s problem anymore.

With her gaze pointed downward, she couldn’t see her dad’s face, but she could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Now, is that really what you think? Be honest with yourself. I don’t think I raised my little girl to be wishing death on other people, no matter how much you hate them. In fact, I don’t want you hating anyone at all.”

Pidge looked up, surprised. “You don’t hate the Galra for what they did to you?”

Her father looked sorrowful. “No,” he said in a near whisper. “I don’t. I’m actually very sad for them. The empire has been ruled by a tyrant for so long, the only life they know is war and destruction. It will take a lot of effort and many years to restore what Zarkon has beaten out of his people, not to mention the planets and systems he controlled for millennia.”

Pidge hadn’t thought about it that way. From day one, all they’d been concerned about as a team had been defeating the Galra. She’d never stopped to consider what would happen when the dictator who had ruled for ten thousand years was suddenly deposed.

“Now, it sounds to me like this Lotor fellow did some pretty backhanded stuff, but he also helped your team by providing intel, didn’t he?”

“Only because he had no choice,” Pidge replied. “Look, dad. I’m not interested in talking about Lotor again. He’s probably already dead by now.”

“And I think that’s what’s been bothering you,” said her father, fixing her with that all-knowing Dad Look™ that she both loved and hated about him. “I think you feel guilty about sending that poor guy to Zarkon when you knew what would happen to him.”

When Pidge opened her mouth to protest, he held up his hand. “Don’t give me another excuse. I’ve heard all of them from Hunk. Trading Lotor for me was wrong, and you know it. I don’t care how bad a guy he was.”

“What, you think it was wrong to get you back?!” Pidge snapped. “Do you know how long I searched for you and Matt? I got myself kicked out of the Garrison trying to find you! And now that I have you back you say it was wrong?”

“I’m saying you should have found a better way. Now maybe it really doesn’t bother you that you bargained with someone else’s life without his consent, but it does bother me. We don’t know what Zarkon would have done to me, but something tells me he wouldn’t want to kill me and lose a valuable bargaining chip.”

“Hmph. You sound like Allura. Did you talk to her before coming to find me?”

Her dad sighed but kept going. “There would have been other opportunities to rescue me without dooming this poor prince to his death.”

“We don’t know that,” Pidge said, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. Her eyes had gotten blurry again and she scrubbed furiously with one hand. “We have no idea whether we would be able to rescue you again.”

“Well, consider this a lesson learned, then. Maybe it’s too late for Lotor, but you can still help rescue that other general.”

“I don’t want to.”

“But is it the right thing to do?” Her dad asked, and the question hung in the air like the ten-thousand-year-old cobwebs in the storage bay. “I’ll leave it at that, but if you want to talk about it more, you know where to find me.”

With that, he got to his feet and disappeared around the water tank again, his receding footsteps hammering a spike of guilt further and further into Pidge’s heart. She was left alone in the boiler room feeling like a bubble that had been popped. She sat there for several more dobashes before a growl from her stomach derailed her train of thought entirely.

Well, she thought, closing her laptop and straightening up with a few stretches, might as well take advantage of it.

She’d ignored her guilt for three quintants already. She could ignore it for a few more vargas.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

She passed the lounge on the way to the kitchen and paused when she heard voices.

“…no sign of the fleet,” Allura was saying. “Our Coalition outposts are keeping their radar open but so far, they haven’t picked up anything. We can infer, then, that Zarkon’s main forces are nowhere near Coalition-held areas.”

“Does he suspect a rescue op, then?” Hunk asked.

“Why would he suspect us of wanting to rescue Acxa?” Lance asked.

“Not Acxa, Lotor,” Hunk said. “He’s a potentially powerful playing piece in this crazy game of alien chess. It makes sense someone would want him with the Coaliton. But it probably hasn’t even occurred to him the other generals could be working with us and wanting Axca back.”

“Right, I knew that.”

“But Zarkon must have sent scouts to scope out the crash site,” Shiro said, sounding thoughtful. “He wouldn’t have let such a powerful bargaining chip like Commander Holt go to waste. So we can assume he knows we picked him and the two generals up. So it stands to reason he knows there’s a chance we might get them to work with us. The lack of response from him shows us he isn’t concerned that the amount of information they can give us will be of any real use.”

“Axca was Lotor’s right-hand woman, so it makes sense she has all the same intel he did,” Hunk speculated. “So maybe it wasn’t a coincidence the other two were sent with Commander Holt.”

“The less they know, the less useful they are to us if we capture them,” Lance said. “I get it.”

“I will contact Kolivan and see if his spies in the Command Ship have knowledge on its whereabouts,” said Allura. “Once we locate the Command Ship and its entourage, we can start to form a plan.”

There was some murmuring of assent from the others. Pidge quietly stole back the way she had come and headed to the kitchen a different way.

Chapter Text

Hope leaned over Hunk’s shoulder as they examined the map Hunk had pulled up on his holo-screen. Matt stood a little off to Hunk’s right, near the edge of the screen.

“According to our intel from Olia,” he explained, “a couple of quintants ago we began getting pings off our radar outposts that show the main ships from most of Zarkon’s biggest fleets are now on the move.” He pointed to the screen and several purple blips appeared in various systems. “We’ve been tracking their trajectories and here is where they all converge.”

Here Matt zoomed out and pointed towards a spot near the top leftmost quarter of the map. With a swish of his finger, a red X appeared on the spot. The map shifted as it updated and several purple markers clipped closer, converging, as Matt had said, on the red X.

“Now we haven’t heard anything from the Blade; Kolivan’s still sifting intel from backchannels and encrypted messages, but we now have a pretty good idea of where the main Command Ship is. If we go there, that’s where Zarkon’s main fleet will be.”

“What’s in that sector?” Hope wanted to know.

“Open space, it looks like,” said Hunk. “There’s no Altean data there and nothing we’ve hacked from the Galra to suggest otherwise.”

“So none of those secret quintessence stations or anything like that?” Hope asked.

“Nope.”

“Then what are we waiting for? It’s been four quintants already. We shouldn’t waste any more time.”

“I agree,” Hunk said, getting to his feet. “I’ll go get Allura and Shiro. You find Lance. Pidge should know, too.”

Hope grimaced. “I doubt she’ll be thrilled,” Hope said, folding her arms. “You saw how she reacted when we brought it up.”

“My sister just needs time,” Matt said with a sigh. “She’ll come around eventually; she just needs to come to the right conclusion by herself.”

“Well, we can’t wait around for her to make up her mind anymore,” said Hunk, raising his arms above his head and stretching. His back popped noisily. “Who knows what could have happened on the Command Ship in the last four quintants?” His face took on a grim look. “We might be too late.”

Hope bit her lip and shifted her weight to the other leg. “We might well be too late for Lotor, but there’s still a good chance we can rescue Axca.”

“If she even wants to come us, that is,” Matt remarked. “She may just tell us to screw it.”

“Oh, I don’t even want to think about that possibility,” said Hope, already heading towards the elevator. “Let’s just get everyone here and discuss what to do.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

When Lotor woke, it wasn’t to the sound of his cell door hissing open and the stomping of the guards coming to haul him away. It wasn’t even to a lone sentry bringing him food goo and metallic-tasting water. It was to silence and a shadow blocking the watery square patch of light from the cell door’s tiny window. The floor was hard and cold beneath him, but Lotor knew even the slightest shifting would light his back on fire all over again, and so he remained motionless, curled on the floor with his ruined and blood-crusted back in full view of the door. It had not been his choice to position himself so vulnerably. When the guards had tossed him cruelly into his cell the night before (or was it morning?) it was all he could do to curl into a less agonizing position and let blissful unconsciousness seize him. He had no strength to do anything else anymore.

“Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts now,” he croaked, feeling his words catching in his dry throat and desperately hoping he wouldn’t cough. It was a silly thing to still be worried about pride and showing weakness when he couldn’t possibly sink any lower. But there was still a shred left of mangled autonomy and he clung to it like his life depended on it. In a way, it did.

Axca said nothing, but Lotor could detect a shift in her breathing and he knew she had opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and closed it.

“If you’ve come to apologize, you may save your breath.” Lotor spat with as much derision as he could muster.

There was a loud gulping sound as Axca swallowed. “Still clinging to that stubborn pride, I see.” Her voice sounded heavy. With guilt, perhaps? Lotor didn’t know and found he didn’t care.

“I have nothing else to cling to,” he responded. “Everything has been taken from me. Even my life will soon be parted from me.” He sighed, though the deep breath made his broken ribs shout at him painfully and he winced. “Have you anything to say, or did you simply come to gloat? Or perhaps pity me? I’m afraid I have no patience for pity, so if you came here for that, you can just leave now. I’m sure you’re very busy, now that Zarkon has welcomed you back.”

“There’s nothing more that needs to be said between us,” Axca said, although the note in her voice betrayed otherwise. Lotor had known Axca long enough to listen through her carefully disciplined and controlled tone and tell when she was upset. “We both made our choices. And now we are both suffering for them, it seems.”

“Forgive me, but you do not appear to be suffering much.” Lotor was unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice and knew his brittle façade was close to crumbling.

Axca seemed to ignore the jab and cut to the point instead. “I promised Zethrid and Ezor we would stick together, no matter what happens.”

“And I can see how splendidly that worked out for the three of you, but it has nothing to do with me. If you simply came here to vent, you may save your breath.” Lotor’s patience had run out. He no longer cared how he appeared to Axca. He just wanted her gone. Her familiar presence was not a comfort in this desolate place, but a sure reminder of the lonely end that awaited him.

There was a pause, then a soft sigh. “You really have become pathetic, haven’t you?” She murmured quietly, almost to herself. Then her voice strengthened. “We have reason to believe Ezor, Zethrid, and the human scientist were picked up by Voltron and its coalition.”

Lotor made a noise deep in his throat that almost set him on a coughing fit. “Then their quest in giving me up to Zarkon was not entirely in vain. What serendipity. And how does this concern me?”

“I want to know if there’s a chance they’ll be safe with Voltron.”

“They are far safer than you are; if that is what you want to know. If Voltron had not decided to give me up, I would still be tucked away in the dark depths of the castleship under lock and key, safe from everything except, perhaps, the wrath of the Green Paladin. It seems Ezor and Zethrid are the lucky ones.”

“I’ve never known you to be so envious. The Lotor I know wouldn’t have given up.”

A surge of annoyance brought a burst of energy. Lotor rolled over onto his back, ignoring how his back lit up in agony, and turned his head so it faced the door. From this angle, he could just make out Axca’s face through the window. “Well,” he spat, “a traitor’s death sentence does tend to suck all willpower out of someone. Perhaps you should try it sometime. You might if the guards catch you here talking to me about Voltron.”

Axca didn’t answer for a moment. Her face was still a stony mask, but the skin around her eyes was crinkled and she kept tightening her jaw. Lotor could tell her mask was slipping, and sooner or later she would reveal just how upset he already knew she was. His stomach roiled, and it wasn’t just from sickness and hunger. He could feel her pitying gaze even without looking and he wanted none of it.

“But there is a chance we would be safe from Zarkon, if we managed to get to the Coalition?” Axca asked, her voice taking on a hopeful edge.

Lotor actually laughed then, but it quickly turned into a coughing fit. For several dobashes he spasmed on the ground, his dry throat burning, his back screaming, and his broken ribs and other injuries throbbing. When it finally subsided, he licked his parched lips and tried to calm his gasping breaths.

“What is this “we” you speak of?” he wheezed. “Even if you could fix this, I’m afraid you’re far too late. There isn’t much left of me to save.” When Axca said nothing, tightening her frown and looking at the ground instead, Lotor continued. “Don’t break the promise you made for my sake. Think of yourself, Ezor, and Zethrid. The Paladins are good people, if shortsighted. You will be safe with them, even if they never trust you.”

It was Axca’s turn to laugh bitterly. “Now you’re acting concerned for my sake? Maybe I really did come down here to apologize. Maybe I do pity you, despite your insistence I save my energy.” Her voice took on a sharper edge. “But how dare you still pretend to care about me and Zethrid and Ezor after what you did? Narti was your friend, too. Does she suddenly not matter anymore? If you hadn’t killed her we wouldn’t be in this mess!”

Axca’s voice had risen steadily in pitch and tone as she spoke, and Lotor watched as the mask cracked and crumbled away from her face. She looked stricken; brow creased with the pain of betrayal.

 Lotor took as deep a breath as he could with his broken ribs and let it out slowly. “I… regret what happened to Narti,” he said quietly, the words tasting bitter as they left his mouth. “There is a very good chance, however, that had she not died, we all would be either already dead or in the same position as I am right now.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better, is it?”

“No,” Lotor replied softly. “I’m afraid no apology will ever make up for my actions. But you shouldn’t have to suffer for them any longer.”

“All of this, and you still care,” Axca said, her voice breaking like brittle glass. Lotor could hear the guilt in her voice. It was plain as the eternal flame on Planet Feyiv that she was seriously beginning to regret not taking action sooner. If she had acted earlier, then perhaps Lotor wouldn’t be so bad off now…

Lotor had to get her to see he was too far gone. There was no way the two of them could make it out by themselves, not in his condition. It would take a miracle for them both to make it to safety, and Lotor had learned long ago those only happened to other people. Perhaps she could still have some kind of life away from the Empire. But Lotor knew, with stark certainty, he wasn’t going to last much longer. He almost wished a rogue soldier would sneak in one of these quintants and finish him before the final spectacle Zarkon inevitably had planned. He half considered asking Axca to simply end him right here, but he thought better of it. He couldn’t ask her to do such a thing, not when she was already struggling with her own guilt.

“Please, Axca,” he said, feeling his breath catch again and his voice break. His own mask, which had been steadily slipping, was crumbling as well. “Just go. I am already dead, but you have a chance to live. I suggest you take it and forget about me, and all the pain I have caused you. For what it is worth, I am truly sorry, although that doesn’t even begin to cover my mistakes, and it never will.”

A single tear traced its way down Axca’s cheek, and she made no move to wipe it away. “I don’t know if I can forgive you yet,” she whispered, then swallowed painfully. “But I will try.”

“That is more than I deserve.”

Axca nodded. With one last agonized look at him, she turned and left, taking the rest of Lotor’s pride with her and leaving him to face his fate the way he knew he would. Alone, with only silence as his companion.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

“Remind me again why you’re going into Zarkon Central to rescue a Galra general and the prince who, correct me if I’m wrong – you gave up to Zarkon in the first place?” Captain Olia’s voice was skeptical, and her canine face wrinkled in thinly veiled disapproval. Hunk took a deep breath and tried not to let his annoyance show. Getting the Coalition to see the point in their plan would be tricky. And yes, it was a risk with seemingly little benefit. But Hunk knew deep in his gut that this was the right thing to do – a chance to set right the mistake they had made in giving Lotor up in the first place and a chance to reunite Axca with her friends and give them a chance at freedom out from under Zarkon’s thumb.

Thrippa, the other Coalition captain on the conference call, looked more determined. “We’re ready to help, Princess,” she said. “I can have a fleet of ships at your location in a matter of dobashes.

Allura, who stood in her usual place of prominence in the center of the bridge, shook her head. “Thank you, but I don’t think it will be necessary. This is a small, surgical strike. We aren’t interested in putting more lives in danger. It was our mistake to hand Lotor over to Zarkon and we must rectify it.”

“Tell me again why it’s important we rescue him and his general?” Olia asked.

Shiro, who stood near the front with Coran, cleared his throat. “We believe the crashed shuttle that held Commander Holt was a deliberate move on the part of the two generals we have in custody. They were caught in the middle of Lotor’s rift with Zarkon and had very few options left. It is mostly because of them we have Commander Holt back with us, and it’s for that reason we owe it to them to get their friend back. They crashed the ship on purpose. We are their last hope.”

Hunk spoke up. “And how can we call ourselves the Defenders of the Universe if we can’t defend its most vulnerable?”

“I guess I can’t argue with that.”

Shiro looked to the third vid-screen. So far, Kolivan had only watched and listened without contributing to the conversation. “What do you think, Kolivan?”

“It’s not up to me to decide, Paladin,” came Kolivan’s gruff voice. I know where I stand with regard to my Blades and their missions. But you are not the Blade of Marmora, and I do agree Lotor and his generals would be far more useful under Coalition watch than with Zarkon. We need all the inside intel we can get.”

“What do you need from us, Princess?” Olia asked.

“Continue to monitor your radar and intercepted transmissions,” Allura instructed. “Let us know if anything changes. Zarkon appears to be calling his prominent commanders to his ship, so we can assume that something big is about to happen.”

“And based on the intel, we think it has to do with Lotor,” said Thrippa.

“Poor fellow,” Coran remarked.

“That is our fear as well,” said Allura. “However, the absence of the fleet commanders puts some of them at risk. If our mission goes well, the Empire might be thrown into disarray. Organize attacks on some of the weakest fleets you’ve identified. It may not be enough to put a serious dent in Zarkon’s forces, but every downed fleet means more freed planets for the Coalition.”

“I’ll start organizing an attack plan at once, Princess,” said Thrippa.

“As will I,” Olia echoed.

“Thank you all. We will reconvene once my team returns.”

Olia’s and Thrippa’s screens went blank.

“I have work to do, Princess,” said Kolivan, “so with respect, I will return to my duties. Be cautious on your mission.”

“We will,” Allura promised.

“And tell Keith we miss him!” Hunk piped up. The bridge was filled with murmurs of agreement. Kolivan’s usual stony expression softened a little.

“He is out on a mission of his own, but I will tell him when he returns. Thank you.”

The last screen went dark and Allura and Shiro turned to face the rest of the bridge’s occupants. Matt and Commander Holt were standing a little off to the left of Coran’s control panel, watching the proceedings with silent curiosity. Lance and Hunk were sitting in their control seats, and Hope had taken up the vacant blue seat since Allura was busy at the center of the bridge. Hunk frowned at the empty green seat in front of him and hoped Matt had been right and Pidge would come around soon.

Shiro cleared his throat. “Okay, everyone. Here’s how this is going to work: Kolivan’s spies in the Command Ship have given us schematics of the base, so we’ll have Matt and Commander Holt tracking our movements from here.”

Matt waved a little and flashed them a cheeky grin that reminded Hunk of Pidge. Yup, those two were absolutely related.

“We’ll be sneaking in with a cloaked Coalition ship,” Shiro continued. “Once we’re in, half of us will split and find Axca, the other half will track down Lotor. We’ll be using facial recognition on the surveillance cams to find them. Don’t expect any backup from Kolivan’s spies. He’s not ready for them to compromise their cover yet.”

“Who’s going with who?” Lance wanted to know. “I’m thinking Allura and I would make a great team, just the two of us.”

“Actually, I was thinking you would be better with me,” Shiro said, and Lance deflated a bit in his chair, looking put-out.

Hope shifted in her seat. “I’ll fly the ship and be ready to pick you up in case you need an extraction elsewhere on the Command Ship. You guys are much better at the whole “stealth mission” thing than I am,” she said, making air quotes with her fingers.

Lance made a face. “Yeah, the last time you went with us on a stealth mission you blew up the generator in that underground base and we had to escape through the drain! It took me a week to get the smell out of my hair!”

Hope grinned sheepishly and shrank into her seat, while Matt, Allura, and Hunk chuckled. Shiro smiled in amusement. “Yes, we certainly don’t want a repeat of that, so Hope will fly the ship while we go in. Hunk and Allura, you two will look for Lotor. Lance and I will find Axca. Be sure to run everything through Matt or Commander Holt here. They’ll be able to help you avoid running into a bunch of soldiers and sentries.” He paused to ensure understanding. “We good?”

Everyone nodded and murmured their assent.

“Let’s do this already,” said Hunk, feeling determined as he rose to his feet and headed towards the elevator.

And let’s hope we don’t mess it up, he thought with another glance back at Pidge’s chair.

Chapter Text

“Ugh! Why does Zarkon’s ship have to be so complicated?!” Lance whined. “What happens if someone gets lost? Do the Galra even get lost?”

“I don’t know, Lance,” Shiro responded, sounding exasperated. “But right now, this complicated ship is giving us plenty of places to hide!”

“Oh. I didn’t think about that.”

There was a noise at the other end of the hall. Lance peered cautiously out of the doorway they were hiding in and caught a glimpse of the heel of a sentry passing through another intersecting hallway. Lance motioned with his head and with another glance down the other end of the hallway, he and Shiro slipped along towards the intersection where they had seen the sentry.

Commander Holt’s voice crackled through on the comms. “Alright, you’re going to want to head down that hall where the sentry just was. There’s another doorway on your left you can hide in before another sentry comes along.”

Lance and Shiro did as they were told, quietly stealing along a good distance behind the sentry. It continued down the hall, its metallic feet clanging and creaking methodically with each perfectly timed step. The two ducked into the doorway Commander Holt had indicated and sure enough, within moments the dull clanking footsteps of another sentry could be heard approaching, this time from another perpendicular hallway.

“How are you doing on your end, Allura?” Shiro asked.

“We made it to the brig alright,” came Allura’s anxious voice, “but it appears Lotor is not in his cell! Matt, are you sure the prison logs are accurate?”

“As accurate as they can be,” Matt said. “The Blades spies gave us the access code and I’m looking at the logs right now and – oh, hang on, they just updated. Uh, it looks like…oh, no.”

Lance caught the worry in his voice. “What do you mean, “oh no’?”

“I mean the logs say Lotor has been taken to the gladiator pits. You guys missed him by about thirty dobashes.”

“Shiro, what do we do now?!” Hunk’s voice sounded close to panicking. “Oh, man, and here I was thinking Allura and me got the easy job!”

“Hang on, you may be able to salvage this!” said Commander Holt. “Shiro, Lance, head up the corridor until you reach the second intersection. The door you want is the third on your right. Be careful – there’s a group of soldiers heading your way, but I’m not sure if they’re going to – oh, never mind. They turned down a different hall. You’re good.” There was a pause and at a nod from Shiro, Lance ducked out of the doorway and tiptoed down the hall again. Commander Holt’s voice crackled over the comms again. Allura, Hunk, you’ll want to go to the end of the prison block and hide in the storage room. I’ve got access into their systems, so I can lock it after you’re in. You can hide there until they return with Lotor.”

“How do you know they’ll bring him back?” Hunk asked.

Matt chimed in. “Because I’m tapped into the gladiator ring cameras. He’s just – oh, ow… Uh, yeah, okay, he just finished a fight. They’re bringing, well, more like dragging him back. He’s in really bad shape, you guys. You’re going to need an extraction at the prison block. I’m not sure you can make it back to the drop point with him in tow, even if you can carry him.”

“Copy that, Matt,” said Allura. “Did you hear that, Hope?”

“Standing by.”

Lance and Shiro had reached the door. A couple of glyphs were printed on it in, of course, purple, and Lance figured it was some sort of room number, judging by the multiple identical doors spaced evenly across the corridor. They were in one of the barracks sections of the ship and despite how horrible the gladiator shows were, Lance was privately glad for them at the moment, because it meant most everyone was in a different part of the ship, watching the spectacle. Except for Axca, apparently. Maybe she didn’t want to watch her friend getting sliced up or beaten up, or whatever it was that happened in those fights, and Lance certainly didn’t blame her. He was pretty certain he was better off not knowing what went on during them, so he had never bothered to ask Shiro.

The door hissed open at a signal from Shiro and they both slipped inside the darkened room just as the light slowly flickered to life. Lance’s first thought was that it looked rather like the dorm rooms back at the Garrison, rickety metal bunk bed and all. Even though everything was made of purple metal and lacked more of the personal effects that made up your classic guy’s dorm room, the resemblance was striking.

The bottom bunk was occupied, and at the sound of the door and the light, the figure stirred, rolling over to face the room. Axca’s short hair was tousled and she blinked for a few moments in confusion, even pausing to rub her eyes before she was flinging off the cover and springing to her feet in a matter of seconds, brandishing a blaster that had not been in her hand (or anywhere in sight) a heartbeat earlier. Lance jumped back a little, raising his hands.

“Whoa, calm down!” he said, “we’re here to rescue you!”

Axca’s eyes blazed with suspicion. Her hands were steady around the blaster and her eyes kept darting nervously between Lance, Shiro, and the door, as if wondering whether she could make a run for it.

“Please,” said Shiro in his reassuring Calming Voice™ that could make anyone trust him, even a sleepy, confused galra woman holding him at gunpoint, “we’re here to get you and Prince Lotor out of here. Ezor and Zethrid sent us to find you and get you to safety.”

Axca stiffened and readjusted her grip on her gun, but when she spoke, her voice was unsteady. “Ezor and Zethrid sent you?”

“Yeah,” said Shiro, still in a calm, steady tone, “we picked them up after their ship crashed. They wanted us to find you. We figured we owed you after you sort of brought us Commander Holt.”

 When Axca made no move to lower her gun, but continued to stare in bewilderment, Lance sighed. “Look, lady, we’re kinda pressed for time here. The rest of our team is in position and waiting to rescue Lotor and as soon as they do, we’re out of here. Come with us and you’ll both be safe, I promise. But you gotta make up your mind soon. Do you trust us or not?”

Axca didn’t move for another heartbeat, but then she let out a deep breath she’d evidently been holding and slowly lowered her weapon. The suspicion and confusion melted off her face and left…was that relief?

“I trust you enough for now,” she said, crouching and reaching below the bed with one hand and pulling out what looked like a small brown duffel bag, her eyes trained on Shiro and Lance the whole time.  Her jaw tightened and she narrowed her eyes in determination. “Let’s go.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Lotor felt like he was drowning, although at this point actual drowning might have been preferable. His ears were roaring, muffling the sound of the screaming crowd and the clanking of the guards beside him, making it sound to him like he was, indeed, at the bottom of a lake. His own breathing - harsh, rattling, and too shallow, thundered in his ears in time with the throbbing of his limbs and back. He could feel every rivulet of blood running down his arms and legs and feel every grain of dust that had stuck in the open gashes on his back. Every movement felt like he was being torn apart. It hurt to breathe, and every so often the pounding in his ears would break and he would surface from the ocean of pain he was drowning in and actually make out some of the insults being screamed at him from the audience. It was almost a relief when the guards finished securing his arms behind his back (completely unnecessary at this point) and hauled him away from the arena.

He didn’t get to see what happened to his opponent. The scrappy unilu wouldn’t have stood a chance against Lotor had he been at his full strength. But now, he was nothing more than a joke. Trembling and bleeding, stumbling around on a swollen knee and nearly delirious with infection, Lotor had been defeated easily, even by the poor young unilu wielding nothing more than a stick. He had been stopped by the guards just short of killing Lotor after he fell into the dust, but Lotor wondered if it wouldn’t have been kinder had the unilu been put up against a more powerful opponent and dispatched quickly, rather than dragged away to wait agonizingly until his next fight.

Zarkon had gathered his highest-ranking officials and commanders to witness his son’s final humiliation. The pitiful fight Lotor had just finished was little more than a warm-up. He would be returned to the arena later, not to face another scrappy unilu boy with a stick, but the executioner. Everything was going how he had suspected. He had seen traitor’s executions before, but never did he imagine he would meet his end the same way. Considering his relationship with his father, however, he supposed it was naïve of him to assume he would be completely immune to such a sentence.

Lotor’s head hung as he was hauled down the hallway, and he watched his dragging feet leave a bloody trail down the polished metal floor, marring the otherwise pristine corridor. He had no strength to hold his head up any longer, and his arms dangled limply in the guards’ grips.

“Enjoy your last few vargas of living, traitor,” one of the guards sneered. Dimly, Lotor recognized the change in pattern on the pressed metal floor and assumed they must have reached the brig. His head swam and his stomach churned, and he would have vomited if he had anything to throw up. Despite his complete lack of strength, his body spasmed with violent shivering. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, he couldn’t seem to keep warm.

Darkness was creeping into the corners of his vision. He was barely aware of shouting breaking out around him. The hands clamped around his upper arms abruptly lost their grip and he fell to the ground. More shouting echoed above him. A gunshot rang out, sending a spear through his already pounding skull. His body grew numb and he gave himself willingly to the powerful embrace of darkness.

Chapter Text

Pidge had run out of energy to sulk. It had been several quintants since the botched exchange and she should have been over it by now. Instead, she found herself wandering up to the bridge where her dad and brother were busy coordinating the rescue she knew was happening. She could no longer ignore the guilt that had solidified in her gut and had steadily grown worse. At first, she wasn’t willing to acknowledge it as guilt, simply denying it as frustration or nerves. But after several quintants in a row of being unable to focus at her usual levels, she could no longer deny that her dad, Hunk, Allura, and everyone else had been right.

It was too late to do anything about it now. The team had already left for their mission. In her absence, Matt and her dad were heading up the tech side. She appeared on the bridge to find them both standing by Coran’s control panel surrounded by holo-screens, coordinating with Shiro and Allura on comms as they navigated through the quagmire that was Zarkon’s ship.

“We’ve got Axca,” Pidge heard Shiro’s voice as she approached and quietly slunk into her seat to watch, “and we’re on our way back to the drop point.”

“How are you and Hunk doing, Allura?” Matt asked.

“We can hear someone coming right now.” Allura reported. “Yes, I can see Lotor. Give us half a tick…now, Hunk!”

The sound of blaster fire and surprised shouts filled the bridge. Pidge squirmed in her seat, realizing just how tense she was. Finally, there was some grunting from Hunk and a sharp gasp of horror from Allura.

“We’ve got him,” she said breathlessly, “but…oh, stars – this isn’t good at all. He’s in much worse shape than we thought.”

While Allura was speaking, retching could be heard in the background, followed by a faint splatter. “Oh, man,” Hunk moaned after a few moments, “I’ve never seen anything this bad. How could the Galra do this to anyone? Especially their own?!”

“We’ve got to hurry, but Matt was right, we can’t risk carrying him all the way back through the hallways to the extraction point.”

Matt frowned at one of the screens that showed three little blinking dots moving steadily through a maze of hallways. “Hope, Shiro’s group is almost back to your position. Once you have them, you’ll want to fly around the starboard side of the ship and find the prison docking station. It should be below you.”

“Copy that, Matt,” Hope’s voice chimed in. “Allura, Hunk, can you make it there?”

 “Yes, we passed it on our way in. Here, Hunk, help me with his arms.”

There was a pause, during which Pidge found she was perched on the edge of her chair, holding her breath. She scooted backwards and drew her knees up to her chest, hugging them tightly and listening intently.

A small alarm began blaring and a light flashed on one of her dad’s screens. It took Pidge a moment to realize what the matter was. The getaway shuttle’s radar had gotten some unwanted attention.

Hope swore in several different alien languages, including Altean and Olkari. “Uh, guys, I picked up Shiro’s group safely, but I think I tripped some kind of hidden sensor and now there’s a bunch of fighters tailing me!”

Matt’s fingers were flying over the holographic keyboard. “Yeah, it was some proximity sensor we didn’t spot and disable earlier,” he said.

“Looks like it’s an automated response,” her dad said, “but it won’t be long before Zarkon is alerted.”

“Then I’ll have the whole fleet on my butt. Just grea- whoa!” Hope broke off suddenly as the little dot indicating her ship on one of the screens dipped to avoid a head-on collision with one of the fighters. “Guys, what do I do?! I can’t shake them long enough to dock at the station!”

Matt looked panicked. “Give me a tick; maybe I can override some of the exterior turrets to take them out.”

Pidge’s dad looked nervously back and forth between two screens. “I’ve just been locked out of the ship’s maps! They must have discovered me! I can’t see you and Hunk anymore, Allura!”

“We’re doing alright for now, but we need an extraction soon.” Allura said breathlessly. “We’ve barricaded ourselves in the station, but I don’t know how long that will last! We heard someone coming up the hallway as we came in here!”

Pidge couldn’t stand it any longer. She jumped to her feet. “Hang on, guys! I’m on my way!”

Not waiting to see if anyone heard her, she took off towards the back of the bridge where the chutes for each of the lions were situated, not even bothering to don her armor. Within moments she was whizzing down towards Green’s hangar and within another few moments she was in Green and lighting out of the hangar like there was an explosion behind her.

“Come on, girl,” she said, urging her lion to go faster. “We should have done this a long time ago.”

She spared a moment to patch into the comms network. It was pandemonium. Shiro was yelling at everyone to stay calm, Hunk was moaning about how they were going to die protecting a dying galra prince, and Hope was cursing again, this time in Spanish. Pidge suspected she’d picked it up from Lance.

“My weapons are jammed!” Hope shouted. “I can’t defend us anymore! Matt, how are those turrets coming?”

“No good,” Matt replied, sounding out of breath, “We’ve been locked out. There’s nothing more we can do.”

An idea struck Pidge just then and she urged Green to go faster. She could see the Command Ship now, and the fleet surrounding it. With a flick of her hand, she engaged Green’s cloaking.

“Guys, I’ve got an idea!” she hollered, and was met with a barrage of exclamations of relief. She rather thought she heard Lance mutter “It’s about time,” but she didn’t have time to process it. Her brain was concentrating all available power on get to the prison dock.

“Hope, keep the fighters busy for just a few more ticks,” she said. “I’ll pick up Allura’s group and then cover you while you get the heck out of here.”

“Sounds good, Pidge.”

Pidge maneuvered Green into a barrel roll to avoid a few stray lasers from the fighters chasing Hope’s ship. She could see the little Coalition shuttle zipping deftly between laser blasts and galra fighters, looking completely outnumbered. Hope was a decent enough pilot, but sooner or later she would make a mistake.

No time to think about that now, Pidge thought. She could see the prison dock. Green barreled forward and Pidge yanked on the breaks just as the lion ducked into the open hangar door, still going at a speed not meant for landing. Green skidded the full length of the hangar before bumping none too gently into the back wall, leaving a sizeable dent Pidge was not sorry for in the least.

“Allura, Hunk?” she called. “I’m here!”

There was a snorting noise. “Oh, you think?” Hunk asked.

Turns out Allura and Hunk were on the other side of the wall she’d just dented. Once the hangar door had closed and the pressures stabilized (Hunk’s doing, Pidge presumed), the main door opened and out came Allura with a limp bundle draped over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry, followed closely by Hunk, who was wringing his hands fretfully.

“Hurry, Pidge!” Allura said, sounding more worried than she’d sounded in a long time. “We have to get back to the Castle at once!”

“Copy!” Pidge yelled. “Brace yourselves!”

With that, she jammed her bayard into its lock, turning it just as she sent Green lunging straight towards the large, sturdy hangar doors.

Come on, girl. I need something to get us out of here in a hurry. There was a rumbling growl from Green and she felt a surge of adrenaline boiling up inside her just as a battering ram materialized on the front of the Lion. Both Paladin and Lion roared in unison as Green smashed through the hangar door like a baseball through glass.

“I’ve got them!” She shouted into the comms, blood singing with adrenaline. “Let’s get out of here!”

“Roger that!” Hope responded.

As Hope’s ship fled back in the direction of the castle, Pidge made short work of the fighters chasing them. She only had a short window to finish them off before more were deployed and the rest of the Galra fleet began to mobilize. Now wasn’t the time for cloaking. She’d already made quite the spectacle.

Yeah! In your face, Zarkon!

Only once the fighters were decimated did she begin to come off her adrenaline high. Hope’s shuttle was already a dim speck heading farther and farther away from Zarkon’s Central Command, and Pidge urged Green forward to catch up.

“Wow!” Matt said from back at the castle. “I’m not sure what you did there, but you made pretty quick work of those fighters, Sis!”

“Good work, Pidge,” came Shiro’s voice. “Let’s get back to the castle quickly and wormhole away before Zarkon has a chance to mobilize the fleet. We don’t want to have to fight off Zarkon’s entire command force at once.”

“Duly noted, Shiro,” Pidge replied. “How’re you doing, Allura?”

It was Hunk who replied. “We’re not doing so hot, Pidge! And by “us,” I mean Lotor! Get the first aid kit from the cockpit and get down here!”

Pidge checked that Green was on autopilot and following the shuttle back to the castle before snatching the toolbox-sized container and scrambling down to the cargo hold.

She wasn’t sure what she was expecting when she arrived, but it certainly wasn’t this. She halted at the doorway, limbs still trembling from the adrenaline rush and nostrils prickling from the strong copper scent that had just hit her like a wave at the beach. Her brain momentarily shut down and she had to force herself to reboot her thought process and focus. What was she doing here? Right. Lotor. He was hurt. Hunk had said he wasn’t doing well. But just how bad did that mean?

“Now, Pidge!” Allura shouted, her sharp voice jolting Pidge’s legs into moving before her brain had quite caught up. She was crouching next to Allura and setting down the first aid box before she even registered that she had moved. She shuddered, took a deep breath to calm her still-racing heart and took her first real look at the purple figure lying prone on the metal floor of Green’s cargo bay.

Lotor was almost unrecognizable. His lilac skin was a sickening rainbow of bruises wherever it wasn’t broken. He lay on his side, head pillowed in Allura’s lap. His brow was caked with dried blood from a spot just above his hairline where a chunk of hair had been ripped from his scalp. Another, fresher wound on his temple still steadily dripped dark red blood into his hair where it puddled on the floor next to Allura’s legs.

And his back – oh stars, his back. Lotor’s back had been shredded and flayed nearly down to the bone. And it was obvious from looking that it wasn’t all done at once, either. No, this had been done over time, letting each day’s lashes begin healing before cruelly splitting them open again. A putrid stench hit Pidge’s nose just then, amidst the ever-present scent of blood, and she gagged. The wounds were obviously infected.

Hunk, who was busy pressing the edge of a thick, charcoal-gray blanket to a wound on Lotor’s thigh, grimaced.

“Don’t start gagging now,” he said shortly, “because if you throw up, I’m going to throw up too and I’ve already done that twice. There’s nothing left in me to hurl, so please keep it together!”

Pidge nodded and clamped her hand over her mouth and nose, feeling her eyes beginning to water. With the other hand, she pushed her glasses up to the top of her head. They’d only get in the way at this point.

“Open the kit, Pidge,” Allura said, her voice laced with both worry and a considerable amount of calm. Pidge had a feeling she was the only thing keeping the situation even remotely under control, and if she lost it, then they all would. “We need gauze, a splint, and the emergency blanket. Quickly, now!”

Pidge fumbled with the latch on the box, trying not to think about the sharp smell of blood still assailing her nostrils, the way her hands were shaking again from a new wave of adrenaline, and the way Lotor’s breathing rattled harsh and sharp in her ears.

She found the gauze and tossed it to Allura, who tore open the package and began to press it to the bleeding wound on Lotor’s temple, explaining the situation as she did.

“We think he might have severe internal bleeding,” she said. “I’m worried his broken ribs might have punctured a lung. There’s nothing we can do about that at present, but at least we can do something for his left wrist. It appears to be broken quite severely. Do you know how to do a splint?”

Pidge nodded wordlessly, fishing one of the Altean pop-up splints out of the box. She held it up to Lotor’s swollen limb and it clicked itself into place without much assistance.

Hooray for Altean first aid, she thought.

“Has he responded at all?” she wanted to know. Her voice sounded strange and far-off, like it was coming from someone else.

“No, he hit his head in the scuffle,” Allura replied. “Who knows how concussed he was beforehand? His eyes keep opening, but he doesn’t react to anything. I don’t suspect any spinal injury, of which we should be grateful, but I still need to keep his head still until we can get to a healing pod.”

“What I’m worried about is shock,” said Hunk, still pressing the blanket firmly onto Lotor’s thigh. “Galra do get shock, don’t they? When they lose a lot of blood?”

Allura murmured some reply, but Pidge wasn’t listening. She was busy draping the foil emergency blanket over Lotor’s shoulder and ruined back. As soon as she leaned over to adjust it, she caught sight of his face. What little she could see of it beneath filthy strands of tattered hair was swollen and bruised and glistening with sweat. Even unconscious and swollen, it still bore lines of pain, and Pidge found she couldn’t fathom the amount of agony he must have gone through – he must still be going through. A stab of guilt tore through her gut and paused a little in her task before Allura’s voice jolted her back to the present and kept her from going down a long, dark, tunnel of guilt. She could do that later.

“All we can do now,” Allura was saying, “is keep him stable until we reach the castle. Coran will have a healing pod ready.”

A grim thought crossed her mind. “Won’t we have to do something about the infection?” Pidge asked. “The healing pods can’t heal an infected wound, can they?”

Hunk grunted. “Yeah, remember that bite I got from that big orange bug on Venn? That sucked, man! I never knew a bug bite could get infected so quickly!”

“Unfortunately, you’re right,” Allura said gravely, adjusting her hold on the gauze. “We will have to purge the infection as best we can before we can place him in the pod. Otherwise, the pod will heal the skin right over the infected tissue and that would only create more problems.”

The gauze she was holding had soaked through. Pidge tore open another package and handed her the fresh gauze.

“Isn’t there anything we can do for his back?” She asked.

Allura shook her head. “We’re doing all we can. Coran and Hope will care for him properly once we return to the Castle.”

A gentle rumble from Green just then sent a tremor vibrating through the floor. Pidge scrambled to her feet. “I think we’re back,” she said, already heading back towards the cockpit. “I’ll send Coran in with a stretcher.”

“I think he’ll already be waiting with one,” said Allura as Pidge made her way back to Green’s head. The beast had just entered her hangar and was lowering her head almost before the door was closed and the pressure stabilized. Green seemed to sense the urgency of her paladin and passengers.

Like Allura had said, Coran was already rushing towards the lion with a stretcher at the ready. He tossed Pidge a comm unit.

“Get Hope and tell her to meet me in the medbay!” he called as he rushed by.

Pidge did as she was told and was met with a breathless reply from Hope saying she was already on her way. Letting her hand fall back to her side, she watched in a detached sort of manner as Coran wheeled the stretcher out of Green’s mouth, Allura and Hunk following close behind. In the light from the hangar, Lotor looked even worse, if that was possible. What little lilac skin she could see that wasn’t bruised or covered by the emergency blanket looked several shades paler than she’d remembered. His eyes were open, but he stared unseeingly at the ceiling and his expression was so empty and misshapen, it caused Pidge’s heart to twist, like a wet rag being wrung out. Both Allura and Hunk’s armor were smeared with dark purplish-red blood.

 Coran and Allura disappeared out of the hangar with Lotor, leaving Hunk to stand next to Pidge. He let out a huge puff of air slowly, bending over and locking his arms over his knees.

“Oh, man,” he was muttering over and over like a mantra. “Oh, man! I never want to do that again! That was horrible! Like, how could someone do something like that to anyone – even their own?! I can’t even begin to –” his words failed him, and he let out another sigh, shaking his head. “I mean, we knew already Zarkon is a bad guy, but now this just shows he’s a really bad guy, like waaay more of a bad guy than we thought. Y’know?”

Pidge nodded absently, realizing she had been standing stock-still in the same position since Coran had handed her the comm, her gaze fixed on Green. She blinked and scrubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand. Remembering her glasses were still perched on her head, she pulled them off and stuck them back into place, glad for some semblance of normalcy. Nothing else was normal anymore.

“You okay, Pidge?” Hunk asked. He had stopped rambling once he realized something was up, but Pidge was only aware enough to mutter “uh-huh.” In the corner of her vision, she could see Hunk’s skeptical face.

“Well, I’m going to need a major pick-me-up after that! I’m going to go clean up and probably bake something. We still have lots of that Vennian spice that tastes like cinnamon! You wanna help me make snickerdoodles?”

“Maybe later, Hunk,” Pidge replied, dropping her gaze to the metal floor. She could see a fuzzy version of her reflection in it.

“Okay,” said Hunk, still sounding uncertain, but mercifully deciding not to push the matter. “If you want to help, I’d love the company.”

Pidge nodded, realizing she still had the comm unit clutched in her left hand. She shoved it in her pocket and walked back towards her lion in what almost felt like a trance. Hunk’s receding footsteps pounded in her head and her vision was distant and fuzzy, like how Matt used to describe his own vision before he got Lasik.

Green’s cargo bay still had drips and puddles of dark blood drying on its floor; morbid evidence of all that had transpired. She could still hear Lotor’s shallow, labored breathing amidst the silence; see the jagged lines cloaking his ruined back and the expression of agony on his face that still persisted despite his unconsciousness. An overwhelming rush of guilt swept over her all at once and she found she was unable to look any longer. Heart twisting again like a wrung-out dishtowel, she turned and fled down the short hallway and out of the hatch away from Green, who had always been a comforting presence but the sight of whom now brought fresh waves of guilt and confusion she didn’t want to process.

It appeared she couldn’t run and hide any longer. Even her lab didn’t offer the sanctuary it usually promised. The silence was filled with wheezy breathing and every shiny surface in the lab held a swollen, bloody, violet face, bruised beyond recognition.

Guilt wasn’t a crushing weight threatening to smother her – no, it was more like a black hole dragging her into its depths. She turned and fled once again, this time to the kitchen. Perhaps making snickerdoodles with Hunk would help clear her mind for a while. She would stay far away from the medbay until Hope and Coran were done. She couldn’t bear to see any more pain.

Chapter Text

About a varga and a half later, Pidge and Hunk brought a tray down to one of the lower level barracks where Lotor’s generals were being housed. They were no longer being kept under lock and key, but they weren’t allowed out of the area. It was a temporary solution until the team could figure out what to do next. It depended on whether the generals wanted to stay with Voltron or head to Olkarion to stay with the Coalition. Privately, Pidge wasn’t comfortable having three strange women in the Castle and hoped they would agree to join the Coalition on Olkarion. But for now, even she felt a tug on her heartstrings when she saw how relieved Ezor and Zethrid were to have Axca back with them, safe. According to Hunk, they had loosened up considerably since Voltron agreed to help them.

Baking cookies with Hunk had proved to be a decent distraction; and sharing them with the generals was heartwarming enough that Pidge could almost forget about the bloodstains on Green’s cargo bay and the urgency in Coran’s voice as he rushed Lotor to the medbay. She had been avoiding her father and brother ever since the team had returned. She couldn’t bear to see their faces because she knew there was a third face she would see instead.

Pidge found herself down in the cryopod room some time later, after she’d judged the coast was clear. Hope was busy cleaning up the medbay and Coran was doing the same in Green’s hangar, so she was confident she wouldn’t be disturbed for awhile at least. She needed some time alone to process what had really happened over the last several quintants.

 Lotor still looked several shades too pale, especially dressed in the stark white cryosuit. The turquoise glow typical of Altean technology gave his skin a ghostly bluish hue. His hair floated eerily around his face, adding to his phantom-like appearance.

It was still hard to believe that Lotor had almost died because of her. Worse still, until a few quintants ago, she hadn’t felt at all guilty about it. Even then she’d been able to convince herself she wasn’t until the feeling finally caught up with her and was too much to ignore. She had been able to hold out so long because she had refused to see Lotor as anything more than just another Galra – no different than the faceless commanders whose ships Voltron routinely turned into scrap metal. Lotor was just another pawn in the delicate game they played with Zarkon, and until recently, had been simply a means to an end.

But as her dad had pointed out, they should have found a better way to get him back than to sacrifice someone else. Especially when, as her dad had also pointed out, they knew fully well the miserable end that awaited their victim.

Nobody in Voltron, however, had been quite prepared for just how miserable that end would have been. Lotor had made it clear that Zarkon would kill him if he ever got his hands on him, but Pidge doubted that had really sunk in until now. It was clear from the state Lotor was in when Allura had hauled him away from the prison, that he was meant to die a long, slow, and painful death. How much of that pain could have been avoided if Pidge had agreed to help earlier? None of this would have happened at all if Pidge hadn’t pushed the prisoner exchange so hard. Only now, in hindsight, did she realize how shortsighted she had been. She’d simply latched onto the first option that had come down the pipe, not taking Shiro or Allura’s points into consideration.

Oh, stars, how could Lotor ever forgive her? He had to know it was mostly by her word that he had been handed over to Zarkon. Would he be able to forgive her – and the team as a whole – or had her push for the exchange ruined any chance they had of forming an alliance?

Pidge was so caught up in her thoughts she didn’t notice the quiet hiss of the pod room door behind her.

“Hey, you okay?” Lance’s voice was quiet, but it shattered the silence (and Pidge’s train of thought) like an axe on ice. She jumped, nearly losing her seat on the edge of the steps surrounding the pods.

“Oh, Lance. It’s you,” she said, adjusting her glasses and trying not to look sheepish. “Hi.”

“Didn’t think I’d find you here,” Lance remarked, plopping down on the steps next to her and sticking his long legs out in front of him, “but you weren’t in your lab or your room or any of your usual hiding places.”

“Yeah, you’re annoyingly good at finding all my spots,” Pidge replied.

“It’s one of my many talents,” said Lance with his usual grin, “But even I’m surprised to find you here.” He jabbed a finger towards Lotor’s pod. “You haven’t been exactly friendly with this guy. What makes you want to hang out with him now? Is it because you’re afraid he’ll out-sass you when he’s awake?”

Pidge chuckled in spite of herself. “No, Lance. That’s not it.”

“Then what is? ‘Cause I know you and this, well, isn’t you.”

Pidge was surprised. Lance wasn’t usually this astute. But she supposed she was being rather obvious, wasn’t she? Hanging out in the pod room, of all places, watching the guy she’d almost gotten killed float eerily in his healing pod. Typically, when something was bothering her, she hid in comfortable or out-of-the-way places. This was neither.

“What do you think would have happened if he had died, huh?” she asked, dropping her gaze to the floor. Like in the hangar, a fuzzy version of her reflection stared back. “We certainly wouldn’t have to figure out what to do with him now, would we?”

“Yeah, I thought the same,” said Lance, “but seeing him like this – knowing what he must have gone through…it makes me sick to my stomach knowing we caused all this. I mean, Zarkon suggested the exchange in the first place, but still…we didn’t have to go along with it.” He sighed, drawing his knees closer to his body and resting his arms over them. “Hunk was right. We’re supposed to be the good guys.”

Pidge bit her lip. Lance was summing up everything that had been going on in her mind since the whole stupid matter started.

“What are we supposed to do now, though?” she asked, her voice coming out as a wavering whisper. She looked up at Lance and found her vision was blurry. “What am I supposed to do? Did I ruin any chance of an alliance with him and his generals now? I was only thinking of myself, Lance, and I almost got someone killed because of it!”

Lance frowned, flicking his gaze towards the figure in the pod. “I mean, he’s not the most innocent guy in the universe.”

“But he was innocent of the crimes his dad almost killed him for! Why did I think that was a good idea in the first place? I guess my dad and Hunk and Allura and Hope really were right. Trading Lotor was wrong, and we should have found another way. I should have found another way.”

“Hey, now don’t go pinning this all on yourself. It wasn’t just your decision, you know.”

Pidge reached under her glasses and scrubbed away a tear. “Don’t sugar-coat it, Lance. If I hadn’t pushed so hard, Shiro and Allura wouldn’t have gone along with it.”

“I get it. I would have done the exact same thing if it was my mom or dad.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

Lance was silent for a moment. “No,” he finally conceded. “But what are you going to do about it now?”

Pidge let out a frustrated yell and got to her feet. “That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out!” she snapped, pacing a little in front of Lotor’s pod. “This “I feel you” schtick might work on Hope or Hunk, but not me, Lance! I need a solution, here! It’s eating me up and I don’t know what to do about it!”

More stupid tears were making her vision blurry and she paused to push her glasses up to her head so she could scrub at her eyes with both hands. “How can I face him?” she asked, her voice small and crackling. “’Hey, sorry I traded you to your evil dad so he could torture and kill you even though everyone knew that was going to happen! We’re the good guys, I promise!’ Don’t you see how stupid that sounds?”

Lance, for once, seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “Well, since you don’t want it sugar-coated,” he said after a moment of rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “yeah, that sounds pretty bad.”

“Thanks, Lance.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, dipping his head in a mock bow. “But seriously, if you’re really sorry – and I can tell you are – then just start with that. The rest will come naturally. If he’s half the man he’s shown himself to be, he’ll take it well even if you’re a little awkward.” He grunted and got to his feet. “But, if it makes you feel better, you don’t have to think of an apology right away. He’s still got another day or so in the pod, so you’ve got until then to overthink it, because I know that’s what you’re gonna do.”

He ended with a chuckle, standing with his arms outstretched in invitation. Pidge, in spite of herself, let out a little laugh herself and practically leaped into Lance’s arms. He had to bend down slightly to put them around her. For a few moments, Pidge could forget all about her worries. He wasn’t Hunk, but Lance was still a pretty good hugger, and he felt safe. She knew he would support her however she decided to go about setting things right with Lotor.

“I guess you know me pretty well, Lance,” she said into his shirt. Lance hummed in response.

“C’mon, let’s get out of here,” he said as they broke apart. “This place is kinda depressing.”

“Only because you’re in it,” Pidge replied, giving him a playful punch on the hip.

Lance paused, a goofy grin beginning to form on his face. “Oh, really? I’m afraid that’s quite impossible. I’m the very picture of confidence and optimism, and, and –”

“- really dumb jokes,” Pidge finished with a smirk.

This time it was Lance who punched her, although his fist was soft. “You’re one to talk.”

They laughed and left the pod room together to see if Hunk still had any more snickerdoodles.

Chapter Text

Lotor became aware of reality slowly. Like morning fog chased away by the twin suns on Lenvoth, his brain was becoming clearer by the tick. He felt weightless, lying on something firm, but soft, and there was a faint humming sound to his right. Light filtered through his eyelids, but it wasn’t strong. Lotor blinked sluggishly but quickly shut his eyes again, unable to stand even dim light for long. He couldn’t tell where he was or who might be nearby, and when he tried to sit up, he found he lacked the strength to move at all. His limbs might as well have been made of stone.

It took Lotor a few more ticks before another realization hit him. He felt no pain. No unbearable throbbing in his head, no ache in his knee or wrist, no searing agony in his back at his attempt to move. Nothing. He could only feel the soft cloth of the sheets below him and whatever garment he’d been dressed in.

He should have felt relief. Instead, a cold ball of apprehension settled in his stomach, which roiled unpleasantly at being empty for so long. He was completely helpless and at the mercy of whoever had put him here. Was this some new cruel trick by Zarkon? Letting him think he was safe, even allowing him to heal, before dragging him back to the pits? An involuntary shudder gripped him at this thought, and had he the strength, he would have curled into a ball. Had he really sunk so low as this? Perhaps Zarkon had truly broken him after all. Hadn’t he already given up? What more could Zarkon take from him?

Lotor’s eyes stung behind his dry and crusty eyelids and he screwed up his face in response. A second attempt to move only resulted in a twitch of his fingers and a shifting of his arms.

“Coran, I think he’s awake!” A soft female voice from somewhere to his right, near the source of the humming sound, startled him, and had he command of his limbs, he would have jumped at the fright. There was some shuffling at his right and some footsteps quickly approached from off in the distance.

“Lotor?” Came the voice again, this time just above him. “Lotor, can you hear me?”

Lotor scrunched up his face and made a valiant effort to open his eyes and focus on the shadowy shape above him.

“The lights, Hope,” a second, male voice was saying, “turn down the lights! They’ll bother his eyes!”

There was a small gasp from the female voice and within a few ticks the light had dimmed considerably, allowing Lotor to keep his eyes open without them stinging.

“There you go, lad,” said the male voice. A vaguely orange figure was leaning over him and Lotor struggled to focus on it. “That’s better now, is it?”

After a few ticks, Lotor’s vision was finally clear. He was lying in a mostly white room while a vaguely familiar face peered at him from behind an orange moustache. The face was kindly, and definitely not Galran. A second face appeared, this time belonging to a plain-looking girl with light brown skin and hair.

Coran. Hope. Suddenly everything clicked. He wasn’t on a Galra ship. He was back with Voltron, on the Castle of Lions. However, given everything that had transpired of late, he wasn’t so sure he should feel relieved just yet. But anywhere was better than Zarkon’s ship, he supposed, so he allowed himself to feel some modicum of relief at the fact that somehow, miraculously, he’d been transported away from the gladiator pits, away from the whips and the beatings, the jeering soldiers, and Zarkon’s soulless violet gaze.

Lotor opened his mouth to speak, to ask how this miracle had come about, but his voice stuck in his throat and all that came out was a weak croak.

“Is that how I’ve taught you to behave?” Zarkon’s voice echoed, unbidden, inside his head. “A prince does not croak. Speak clearly, or do not speak at all!”

Begone, monster! Lotor commanded. You no longer hold power over me!

Coran was speaking again, and he was barely aware of the sound before he felt the bed beneath him shift and, with a light humming sound, rise until he was, more or less, sitting up. Something was set at his lips, and he would have recoiled on instinct had he the strength to move. Hope was holding out a water pouch with a straw.

“Try to drink some,” she encouraged. “You’re still dehydrated.”

“Yes, it’s no wonder you took so long to wake!” Coran piped up, his voice sending spears into Lotor’s skull. He winced. Coran continued, seemingly oblivious to this. “What with the state you were in, it’s a wonder you’re awake even now! Blood loss, dehydration, malnutrition, not to mention infection and quintessence imbalance! You really were quite a mess, my boy.” He paused to wipe at his eye, looking down at Lotor with sympathy. “No one blames you for not feeling your best right now.”

Lotor felt a strange tugging in his heart at the old Altean’s kind face and his words. No one had ever called him “my boy” before. In any other situation, he would have been insulted. Now, he wanted to cry. He focused on the straw in front of him instead, sipping cautiously and feeling the welcome burst of moisture on his dry tongue.

“Coran,” Hope chided, “keep your voice down.”

“Ah, my apologies,” said Coran in a much quieter voice. “I get carried away sometimes.”

“We were all worried,” Hope explained, taking the water pouch back and setting it atop an odd-looking machine that was the source of the humming sound Lotor had noticed earlier. It was only then that he became aware of the thin tube snaking from this contraption to a cannula in his nostrils.

“It’s just oxygen and an airborne medication to help you breathe better,” said Hope, seemingly guessing what he was thinking. “You’re still fighting a nasty lung infection, among other things.”

Lotor frowned and attempted to speak again. This time was more successful.

“How did you find me?”

His voice was nothing more than a thready whisper, and he cringed at how weak he sounded. But neither Coran nor Hope seemed to mind.

“Well,” Hope began, a touch of sympathy in her voice. “Zarkon was pretty clear he wanted to make an example out of you. It wasn’t hard to guess where you’d be. We formed a rescue plan and Allura and Hope got you out when the guards were bringing you back to the prisons.” She paused and frowned. “How much do you remember?”

The few sips of water Lotor had drunk churned in his stomach, making him queasy. He thought back to the last thing he remembered before waking up safe in the Castle. The fight with the Unilu, the guards dragging him back to the prisons, that much he remembered. Did they ever reach the cell? No, something had happened before then. Shouting, blaster noises, pain. More pain, more voices, and – growling? Was that one of the Lions? Had they rescued him in a Lion? After that was more confusion, urgent voices, and searing pain on his back, then blissful darkness.

“I remember shouting, and possibly something growling.”

Hope smiled, seeming encouraged. “Yeah, that was Green. Hunk and Allura rescued you from your guards, but Pidge was the one who got you all out.”

That surprised Lotor greatly. As he recalled, the Green Paladin had been the most adamant supporter of the prisoner exchange. Hadn’t it been her father they had traded him for?

“Oh, and you might want to know: Lance and Shiro rescued Axca,” Hope continued, looking pleased. “She’s here in the Castle with Ezor and Zethrid.”

Lotor stared. Just how much had transpired during his captivity? “They’re all here?”

Hope smiled. “Yeah, just after the transfer, Ezor and Zethrid crashed their ship on Kaxoin, allowing us to take them into custody. We got Pidge’s dad back, and your generals asked us to rescue Axca, since she was still stuck on Zarkon’s ship. We went there for both of you, and now you’re all safe.”

Lotor’s head swam. He still had mixed feelings about his generals, given how spectacularly he’d cut ties with them. At least they were safe, and he felt great relief at that fact, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to see them, or that they would even want to see him. He hoped the girl wouldn’t ask.

“Now, Hope,” said Coran, laying a hand on the girl’s shoulder, “let’s not overwhelm the poor boy. The healing pod took care of his wounds, but he’s still battling lots of nasty infection! He needs all his strength for recovery.”

Hope looked apologetic. “Of course, Coran.” She stepped away from the bed and made her way towards the door on the far wall of what Lotor assumed was the medbay. “I’m going to go tell Allura and the rest of the team.” She paused, pointing a finger at Lotor and aiming a serious gaze his way. “You’d better get some more sleep,” she said. “We can talk more later when you’re feeling up to it. There’s no rush at all.”

“She’s right,” said Coran. “Let’s get some more water in you and then you can go back to sleep.”

He held the straw up to Lotor’s lips again, and Lotor obediently sipped at the water, swallowing his pride along with it. It was foolish to worry about his image with these people. They’d already seen him at his lowest. And hadn’t the last drop of his pride been wrung free of him by Zarkon anyway?

Nothing made sense anymore. First they locked him up instead of trusting him (completely understandable, if he was being honest, so that, at least, was excused), then they traded him away like cattle even after he told them what would happen, then they rescued him after Zarkon had nearly beaten the life out of him. And strangest of all, they seemed to be worried about him. Granted, Hope and Coran weren’t Paladins, and hadn’t been part of the decision in the first place, but since it was the Princess’s ship, he figured they wouldn’t be keeping him here without her permission. And Hope had said the princess herself had rescued him. If that was the case, and they were all concerned with his wellbeing, then why in the name of King Groggery the Infirm had they traded him away in the first place?

“It’s a trap,” said the chilling voice of Zarkon inside his head again. “They’re only feigning concern to earn your trust again. Is it really so easy for you? After all, you trusted me once, didn’t you?”

Lotor cringed and took a deep breath to calm his suddenly racing heart. Coran, after deciding he’d drunk enough, withdrew the water pouch and then moved to position the bed flat again.

“Now, can you go back to sleep on your own, or would you like a sedative to help?”

“You’re weak!” said Zarkon. “What son of mine would need a crutch like that?”

Lotor bit his lip and almost said he didn’t need one, but something stopped him. Perhaps the flame inside him hadn’t been snuffed out after all.

“Um, yes,” he replied, his voice still rasping slightly. “Thank you.”

“Not a problem, my boy, not a problem,” said Coran, attaching a small canister to a port on the side of the humming machine. “You know, there’s no shame at all in recovering like this. I promise no one here will judge you or take advantage of your current condition.”

Great stars, had everyone suddenly gained the ability to read his mind?! Or had his face become that expressive so as to be easily discerned by elderly Alteans and little girls?

Coran went on. “Why, I should tell you about the time I ran into a horde of angry lizblatts in the jungles of Angalea! Come to think of it, lizblatts are always angry. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Anyway, they roughed me up so badly I spent a whole phoeb in the infirmary! This was back before the healing pods were commonplace, mind you. Oh, what would we do without those things now?”

He trailed off before catching sight of Lotor’s face and the (Lotor assumed) thoroughly nonplussed expression upon it. “Ah, forgive me, lad. I shall tell the story another time. My point is, everyone needs help sometimes. There’s no shame in letting someone take care of you.” With that, he reached down and patted Lotor on the shoulder affectionately. “Well, that sedative should be kicking in a few dobashes. I wish you pleasant dreams!”

He moved away to another part of the medbay, so he might have missed the soft “thank you,” Lotor whispered after him as his eyes closed once more.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Unbeknownst to the sleeping Galra, Coran had indeed heard the quiet expression of gratitude, and he felt tears prickling at the corner of his eyes. He reached up to wipe them away, then smiled to himself and headed to the supply closet to find more medicine.