(A/N Warnings and Disclaimers: 1. This thing is freaking huge. Like, so long. Be prepared. 2. There is lots of violence, swearing, and references to sex in this fic. There's still no actual explicit scenes (may god strike me down should i ever write one) but the references are there. 3. All of the Chinese in this fic is taken from the show Firefly and a tumblr blog I found about it. I don't know shit about Chinese. If it's wrong, I apologize in advance.

Further Notes: 1. You can find a glossary for the Chinese used in the end notes. 2. I'm no artist, but I did attempt to draw a star map for this AU, which you can find on my tumblr arwenride by searching the tag 'star map'. 3. So many line breaks. The galaxy shaped ones are normal line breaks, while diamonds are used for scenes that are happening close to or at the same time. )

Chapter One: Take My Love

The guns of 2500 are no quieter than those of 1700. That's what the soldiers in this war were learning the hard way- that the deafening boom of cannons and pop of rifles isn't softened by the use of lasers instead of bullets. The lights are even worse, blinding blasts of white and blue and red that make dots dance across their vision.

The bombs had churned up the ground, making the soil loose and ready to slide out from an unprepared foot, sending the men and women fighting to keep their footing just as much as their lives. One man made his stumbling way down a dune of kicked up dirt, boots catching on exposed half torn roots and throwing off his aim as he shot at the oncoming troops with the laser rifle on his hip. He wasn't shooting to kill. He just wanted to keep the enemy off of his back for long enough to make it to the fortification on the top of the next hill.

Twenty minutes later he stumbled into the camp- a mere depression in the dirt lined with sandbags and covered with half-hearted camouflage netting tossed over the top, making the soldiers bend to half their height to make it in. Among the ammo boxes and teetering radio tower were five corpses, and the man was dismayed to see the Commander of their team as one of them. Three living people still remained: a middle-aged man weeping in the corner, a dark-skinned woman trying to calm him down, and the sandy-haired boy barely over twenty struggling desperately to lay down enough cover fire to keep the enemy troops away from them.

The man (who in truth was only a year older than the boy) grabbed him by the shoulder to get his attention and shouted in his ear.

"It's a slaughter out there! Where's our air support?"

The boy slumped back against the sandbag wall, panting, with sweat covering his brow. The thick brown coats they all wore were far too hot for the desert of the Golden Valley.

"The Garrison has anti-air guns." He shouted back. "There's one barely a hundred yards from here, our ships can't get in while they're up."

The man considered for a moment, shoving his sweaty black bangs out of his eyes. They would be utterly destroyed by the Garrison bombers if they didn't get air support to scramble them, but if they couldn't get in due to the anti-aircraft guns, that really only left one option.

Still hunkered down below the netting, he shuffled across the dusty alcove to the other pair of soldiers. The woman had given up on calming the man and now sat crossly against the wall, reloading her rifle. It was her he went to, tagging her roughly on the shoulder.

"Matt and I are going to take down the anti-air gun nearby." He reported to her, ignoring Matt's distant squawk of 'We're doing what?'. "I need you to lay down cover fire for us. Can you do that?"

She nodded grimly and cocked her weapon.

Barely a minute later he and Matt were scrambling down the hill, laser blasts filling the air above their heads as they made their way towards the installed Garrison weapon, painted a garish orange and white. The blasts of bombs and a few fires raging over the battlefield lit the night, allowing them to find an easy enough path down to the gun.

Halfway there an orange-clad soldier leaped out from the brush, gun at the ready, and before the man could react Matt had shot him dead. They kept moving with hardly a second glance.

They ducked down into some bushes near the weapon to observe. The gun was manned by three soldiers, each plated and armored in the more advanced Garrison gear. It was better sure, but the orange made them stand out like red thumbs in the desert, and they didn't notice the enemy in brown stalking them from the dirt.

The man took careful aim, breathed deep, and fired. One of the men dropped. The other two whirled, and he and Matt stood from the bushes. Five rapid shots determined their fate: the Garrison soldiers dead, and the rebels standing.

Matt rushed in to tear the paneling off of the weapon and begin dismantling it. His partner watched his back, picking off several enemy soldiers who attempted to rush their position. Once the damage was done Matt threw the parts into the desert in several different directions, and he and the man fought their way back to the encampment.

When they arrived the crying man was still slumped against the back wall, except this time he was still and silent, blood decorating the wall behind him. The two did their best to ignore him.

"Matt, get on comms and tell them it's safe to come in."

Matt wiped sweat from his forehead with a filthy scrap of cloth, breathing hard. "I'll need the Commanders code to work the radio."

With a heavy breath, the man moved to the corpse of the Commander and roughly tore the patch off of the shoulder of his coat, revealing the code underneath, and passed it back to Matt. Then he sat for several minutes, trying to make the most of the momentary rest. His leg muscles screamed, his head pounded, he was utterly drenched in sweat and caked in dust. But he was alive and wasn't bleeding anywhere major, so he'd count it as a win.

"Shiro." Said Matt, and he picked up his head. He was sitting in front of the radio with the mic in his hand, one headphone pressed over his ear. His expression was twisted into a distraught grimace. "They're not coming."

Shiro felt his very soul drop out through his feet. He barely heard himself asking the question.

"What?"

Matt's voice trembled minutely. "They're saying it's too hot. They're pulling out. We're to lay down arms."

Despite the heat of the desert and his burning muscles, his blood ran cold. Numbly he climbed to his feet, pushing the netting aside, and looked out over the battlefield. Already his comrades were emerging from their foxholes, guns discarded and hands held high. Some were shot on sight. Others were being escorted away by Garrison soldiers.

All of this, all of this bloodshed and death, had been for nothing. And he felt sick.

Six Years Later

The void of space was deathly silent. Sound didn't travel in a vacuum, and the only sound Shiro could hear was his own breath rasping in his helmet. When his body met the metal hull of the ship they were scavenging, the impact didn't make a noise, and he couldn't help but feel disconcerted by the muteness of it all. Four years of working scavenging jobs like this and he still wasn't used to the vastness of space.

He carefully made his way along the hull, using the lights on his helmet to lead the way, until he came across what he was looking for: an inconspicuous door with a keypad lock.

Static buzzed in his ear before Matt's voice came through. "This the place?"

"Yeah." Shiro answered. "Hand me the gun."

With clumsy suited fingers, Matt passed the piece of heavy grey metal to Shiro. Carefully he began to trace around the door lock, leaving behind a thick line of sealant with a red wire running through it.

"I hate that you call it a gun." Muttered the third person with them, the radio fuzzing their words. "It's not a gun. I mean, I guess you could make the argument for a hot glue gun, but even then it's not entirely accurate. It's more of an applicator or-"

"Lance!" snapped a fourth voice, the pilot monitoring them from the ship. "Can it. The radio is for orders and emergencies, not chit-chat."

Blue eyes rolled at the reprimand, but he begrudgingly stopped speaking just as Shiro finished drawing the square of sealant around the lock. With a press of a button the wire within began to glow hot, and a moment later they were watching as it began to eat through the metal around the lock.

Matt gave a pleased hum when the lock shot free of the door with a white plume of air. "The ship's still pressurized. Means the goods are probably still intact."

Shiro pulled the door open with a grunt, and the three of them floated in, keeping a sharp eye out for the boxes they were in pursuit of.

"How are things going on the ship, Keith?" He asked into the radio. "Anything on the radar?"

"We're all good here, Shiro. Nothing yet."

The radio crackled as it went dead, and Keith leaned back in the leather pilot's seat, one foot pushing him slowly side to side. This was one of the less dangerous jobs the crew had taken on recently, but that didn't mean he could be complacent. He kept a sharp eye on the scanners on the rusted metal dashboard that fit around him in an L shape, watching the dusty screens for anything that could sneak up on them. The ship hummed quietly around him.

Ping.

His eyes darted to the farthest left screen just as a large pale dot appeared at the top. Swearing under his breath, he reached for the radio microphone.

"Shiro, I've got something. Looks like a Garrison cruiser."

"Tāmāde." Shiro spat. "Have they spotted us?"

"I don't know if-"

"Have they hailed us?"

Keith quickly spun back to the front to check the other screen. "Not yet."

"If they catch us we're humped." Lance commented, completely unnecessarily.

"If they see us at all we're humped." Matt growled back at him.

"Bìzuǐ." Snapped Shiro. "Keith, go to blackout, everything but the air."

Keith let go of the radio, letting it hang by its spiraling cord, and slammed his hand down on the comm button framed by exposed wires.

"Pidge! Go to blackout, we're being buzzed."

A young female voice crackled through the speaker to answer him. "Shōudào, going dark." A second later the lights went down, followed by the hum of the engine. The entire ship was silent and black, which is exactly what they wanted. If there was less to register it was less likely the Garrison ship would pick them up on their scanners. Everyone waited tensely, the radio static in their ears, Keith staring down one of his monitors.

It flared green.

"Āiyā! Huàile." He scrambled for his radio. "Captain, we're humped!"

"Get the ship ready to fly." Shiro answered, voice stretched taut with tension. "You two, let's get these on the ship, double time."

"Pidge, fire her up." Keith called into the comm, already flipping the series of switches and buttons on his dashboard. The Golden Lion roared to life around him, making his seat judder and the dashboard tremble as the engine revved. With a harsh jerk, he turned the controls upright from their rest position and poised his hand over the button to close the cargo bay door, though he still eyed his other screen with trepidation. The cruiser was getting closer, had probably done a sweep and saw them scavenging.

"Cry baby cry." Came Shiro's voice over the radio, and Keith allowed himself a smirk.

"Make your mother sigh." He answered, pressing his thumb onto the button underneath the controls. Somewhere several miles away, a false distress signal from a dead ship had just been activated, something large and designated as a personnel carrier. The type of ship that Garrison protocol would require the cruiser to respond to rather than chase a bunch of scavengers.

The blip on his radar began to change course, just as Shiro said, "Keith, we're on."

He smacked the button to close the door and the airlock, and once the light lit up to indicate they were clear he tugged the ship away from the wreck they'd broken into. Turning the Golden Lion neatly on its axis, he leaned on the throttle, and with a burst of speed propelled them in the opposite direction of the cruiser.

Another job, another clean enough escape. He couldn't have asked for more.

With the ship on autopilot and the retrieval team out of their suits, the whole crew gathered in the cargo bay to get a glimpse at their ill-gotten goods. The grey shipping crates weren't that exciting on their own, but inside the boxes were filled with copper bars, barely tarnished. The group clustered around where Shiro knelt on the floor to inspect the loot, murmuring to each other.

"Aw, they're so pretty." Hunk cooed, a smile splitting his broad, brown face that was perpetually smeared with grease.

"Gonna fetch us a good price, that's for sure." Said Lance, leaning his thin frame on his friend's shoulder. His skin was a few shades lighter than Hunks, but still far darker than Pidge, who stood on his other side and barely reached his elbow.

"Yeah." She chimed in hungrily. She rubbed her hands together eagerly, the tip of her sideways ponytail the same shade as Matt's swaying and brushing her shoulder. "Can't wait to get my hands on a new compression coil."

"I wouldn't hold my breath." Shiro said, far too solemnly for the upbeat mood in the room as he placed the bar he'd been considering back in its place.

Keith spoke up from his position at the back of the group. "Something wrong?"

Shiro gave a too careless half shrug and shut the lid on the crate. "Not sure yet. Either way, we'd better get these put away. Wouldn't want any civilians stumbling across these."

He and Matt moved to lift one of the crates and Lance bustled over to remove one of the perforated, triangular metal panels that made up the walls of the cargo bay. The panel detached easily, revealing a shadowy alcove that the other two began shoving the crates into.

Hunk was the only one to catch the meaning of Shiro's words, moving forward to ask, "So we're taking on passengers at Balmera?"

"That's the notion." Grunted Shiro as he shoved a box into the hidden compartment. "Give us a few extra bucks, at least."

"Great." Keith huffed, crossing his arms over the black tank top he wore. "Buncha clueless city people stumblin' all over our ship. Sounds like a grand time."

"No." Hunk protested with a distinct whine to his voice. "I think it's shiny. I love meeting new people, they've all got stories and interesting things to talk about."

"That's the spirit, Hunk." Lance said, replacing the metal grate over the last box.

Pidge just scoffed and turned to leave. The others soon followed, Keith taking the left-hand metal staircase to the catwalk that led to the cockpit, while Lance and Hunk disappeared through the ground floor door to the kitchen. Shiro and Matt went up the other staircase, pausing for a moment to talk on the walkway that stretched across the cargo bay.

"Are you sure about taking on passengers?" Matt asked, voice low so it wouldn't echo around the metal room. "We don't exactly get up to legal work, it might be risky to have people around we can't trust." His amber eyes were on the doorway his sister had taken as he said it, and Shiro understood his meaning perfectly.

"I don't like it either, Matt. But even with the money from this job, we'll barely break even." His right arm twinged, and he suppressed a grimace as he rubbed where metal met flesh. The prosthetic always tended to act up after a spacewalk. "We need enough to pay the crew, keep them fed, keep the ship fueled and flying."

"I know. Just makes me nervous is all."

"Yeah, well." Shiro answered with a wry smile. "What doesn't?"

Balmera loomed large outside the windshield of the Lion, blue and green and white, just like all of the closer planets in the system and only slightly smaller than Earth-that-was. The sun was looming over its eastern side, just dawning as they came in for landing. Keith scowled at it.

He'd always preferred the wide-open freedom of the Black to the dirty, crowded planets. Even the ones in the Core, which were supposed to be nicer, felt constraining and itchy. He knew he was alone in this opinion- everyone else looked forward to their time planetside rather than dread it the way he did. But as much as he hated all the planets, there was a special place of resentment in his heart for Balmera.

"Better be careful." Shiro teased as he entered the cockpit. "Your face'll get stuck like that."

Keith rolled his eyes and flipped Shiro the bird, which made him chuckle as he sat in the copilot's chair. He was dressed in his usual outfit, the light brown trousers and dark shirt with the rolled up sleeves. Warm gray eyes looked out from between the red scar across the bridge of his nose and the white bangs that flopped over his forehead. Certainly unusual looking, which drew more than a few eyes whenever they went planetside.

"What's our status?" He asked, looking out the window to admire the sunlight as it broke over the planet.

"It's about nine am down on the ground," said Keith, trying to swallow his animosity for the place. "We'll land in about twenty minutes. Allura's gonna meet us at the Eavesdown Docks at 10:30."

Shiro hummed thoughtfully, leaning his chin on his metal hand. "Hopefully Hunk will be able to get us a few passengers by then. Don't wanna stay too long."

That, at least, Keith could agree with.

"You're meetin' with Kolivan, right?"

"Yup."

"Zhùyì. He's not the nicest guy." Keith's hand found its way to the pendant around his neck as he spoke, recalling the years he'd worked for Kolivan down on Balmera. The memories, much like the man, weren't nice ones.

"We will be." Shiro reassured with a warm smile. "Now get us docked, ace pilot." Shiro stood and ruffled Keith's overlong black hair as he left the cockpit. Keith ducked his head and batted at his hand, but he couldn't conceal the smile he wore, even as he guided the ship down to the surface of the dreaded planet.

"Use your best judgement, Hunk. I don't want any whackjobs on my boat, ya hear me?"

"Yes sir, Cap'n, sir." Hunk said with a cheeky salute. Shiro rolled his eyes at his antics and continued down the gangplank. They'd docked precisely on time, and the Eavesdown Docks bustled around them with dozens of different colors and smells and people. Different languages wove a cloth of babble around the ship just like the clouds of dust being kicked up by so many feet. He was followed by Hunk, Matt, Lance, and a begrudging Keith who already looked like he'd rather be anywhere else. Usually he'd let Hunk handle the resupply, but this time Hunk would be busy enticing passengers and Pidge, though resourceful, was too small and young for Shiro to feel comfortable sending her off on her own.

He, Matt, and Lance split off from Keith once they hit the market. They had a meeting to make, after all.

As usual, when they went planetside, they were all armed. Matt wore his pistols overtly in the holsters on his hips, and Lance had a rifle slung easily over his shoulder, but Shiro preferred to keep his guns concealed beneath his black coat. It disguised how his fingers automatically twitched towards them when he saw the orange and white armor of patrolling Garrison troops.

He actually didn't like bringing Lance to meetings like this. Not because he was incompetent, but because he was so young: twenty, like Hunk and Keith. Too young to be tangled up in these sorts of things, but Lance had been dealing with them for years already, and often the extra show of force was required.

It definitely seemed that way when they finally reached Kolivan's lair, a dark purple shipping container building tucked away in an alley not far from the docks. Two armed and mean looking guards awaited them outside the entrance and escorted them down the hallway. The room they stepped into was small, but dark and cool, with three more armed goons inside to protect the man seated at the desk on the far wall.

"Kolivan." Shiro greeted as politely as he could manage, though his spine was prickling at the dangerous aura in the room. Across the way, Kolivan stood from his chair.

Now, Shiro himself was pretty beefy, pretty tall. But Kolivan stood more than half a foot higher, his shoulders even broader. He must've weighed twice what Shiro did, and it was all in muscle. The grey braid wrapping around his shoulder did nothing to belie the pure power emanating from the man, and Shiro had to resist a shudder. He really didn't like dealing with Kolivan, but he paid well, and was usually consistent. Obnoxious, but consistent.

"Captain Shirogane." The man responded in his gruff, solemn voice. "You're late."

Shiro raised his eyebrows. He was fairly certain Kolivan hadn't been expecting them for at least another hour- he was trying to put them on the defensive. Something was up.

"Somethin' got you in a rush?" He kept his tone even and easy. He wanted to avoid a provocation at all costs; not only would they likely lose, but they'd attract Garrison attention.

Kolivan grumbled an assent. "Maybe if you'd arrived sooner, you would've beaten the bulletin." He gestured a huge hand towards the screen embedded in the wall, the one that was running headlines in Chinese characters at light speed.

"Rogue vessel spotted performing illegal salvage. Classification Firefly."

Shiro paused for a moment, a bit of cold dripping into his veins. So the cruiser had gotten close enough to ID the ship as a Firefly, and had bothered to put up a bulletin on him. It wasn't good- Firefly's were an old model of ship, one that wasn't used much anymore and therefore much more recognizable. But he put his shoulders back and feigned ease.

"They didn't ID us. Can't be traced back to you."

"That might've been true." Kolivan hummed, nonchalantly making a stack of coins on his desk. "If not for the government symbol stamped on every molecule of the cargo."

Shiro's jaw clenched, and Kolivan smirked. "Ah, so you noticed that?" He took a few steps forward, moving around the desk and crowding into Shiro's space. He had to crane his neck to look up at the giant of a man, but he refused to move back.

"And what was the plan? Pass it off so that I would get caught by the Garrison?"

"I didn't pick the cargo." Shiro said tightly through his teeth.

The dirt under foot crunched as people shifted on their feet: everyone responding to the tension in the air by getting into battle stances. Shiro, personally, was just glad Lance was keeping his mouth shut for once. The last thing he needed was Lance's "charm" making the situation worse.

"And I didn't flash my ass at the gorram law!" Kolivan snarled, momentarily losing his composure before forcing himself to settle down again. Smoothing his expression, he took a step back, and when he spoke again he was much more composed. But the words weren't any better.

"Why don't you try one of the border planets? I'm sure there's someone out there desperate enough to take it off your hands."

"You seem pretty desperate." Lance began, and Shiro silently began reciting a prayer for patience. "Desperate to kiss up to the Garrison."

Kolivan was unruffled. "That's the way of things now. You might be smart to start doing the same."

Shiro clenched his fists. That may or may not have been a threat, and he didn't want to stick around long enough to find out.

"Fine." He ground out, still gritting his teeth. "We'll be seeing you, Kolivan."

"Hopefully seeing you dead." Lance muttered under his breath. One of Kolivan's guards shot him a look, but Kolivan didn't seem bothered, so they thankfully made it back out onto the street unscathed.

That's when Shiro really started to process how screwed they were.

"Liú kǒushuǐ de biǎozǐ hé hóuzǐ de bèn érzǐ," Lance muttered angrily to himself, startling Shiro out of his reverie. "Fuckin' coward. It's not our fault the cargo was imprinted, he's the one who chose it, shouldn't he have fuckin' known-"

"Lance." Shiro interrupted tiredly. "Enough."

Lance, with difficulty, swallowed back his angry words.

"We need to think about our next move." He continued, rubbing a tired hand under his bangs. "If we don't get paid for this job we won't have enough to fuel the ship. We'll be drifting."

"Thinkin' about what Kolivan said?" Asked Matt, coming up alongside him as they walked. "The border moons? Maybe Feyiv, we've got a reliable buyer there."

Shiro hummed in consideration. "Feyiv would be crawling with Garrison troops. If we got caught there with government goods we could lose the ship, it's not a safe bet. I was thinking maybe Taujeer, talk to Sendak."

Matt stopped dead in the middle of the dusty street, making the throng of people behind them split as they jostled past. Matt was giving Shiro an exasperated, but not exactly surprised look.

"Shiro, we don't want to deal with Sendak again."

"Why not?"

"He shot you."

Lance's jaw dropped, but Shiro merely shrugged. "Yeah he did, a bit, but-"

"We'll find someone else." Matt interrupted, shoving his hands in his pockets and resuming their brisk pace back towards the docks. Shiro followed, and Lance had to jog to keep up. "What about Te'Osh?"

"She couldn't afford it." Shiro argued. His mind was already made up, but he'd indulge Matt a little longer.

"Ryner."

Shiro scoffed at that option. "She wouldn't touch it. Want me to run a list? The Komars are brain blown, Luxia's dead-"

"Wait, she's dead?" Matt faltered a step as though he wanted to stop again, but he kept walking, though keeping his eyes glued on Shiro the whole time.

"Yeah. Town got hit by Galra."

Matt blanched, and Lance spoke up. "I ain't goin' anywhere near Galra territory." Shiro chanced a glance back and found him wide eyed and pale. "Those people ain't human."

"Taujeer is the safest and the closest." Said Shiro, bringing them back on topic. "It's been a long time since Sendak shot me, I don't hold a grudge and he practically owns half of that moon. He can afford what we've got and he just might need it."

"I don't think that nutjob's a good option." Matt grumbled, kicking at the dirt. They were coming up on the docks now, and although they couldn't see the smallish Golden Lion nestled between the larger ships, they could see Hunk standing on the gangplank and speaking with someone.

"We haven't got any sort of choice." Shiro answered. That put the whole matter to rest, and their conversation came to a tense end as they approached the ship.

Hunk had wrapped up their conversation by the time they made it there, waving the man up the ramp with a diplomatic, "Welcome aboard, Mr. Griffin."

Shiro paused a moment while Matt continued on into the ship. Lance stopped to exchange greetings with Hunk before following, and by then another passenger had made their way up the gangplank.

This one made Shiro raise his eyebrows. Unlike the last one, who had been fairly inconspicuous with his grey shirt and brown hair, this man stuck out like a primped and pampered pet cat amongst alley toms. He had bright ginger hair curling down the back of his neck, so orange it almost looked unnatural, matched in the curlicue mustache on his upper lip. He was clad in an expensive blue velvet suit jacket and white pants with matching white gloves that had been covered in the dust and turned slightly beige, and he absentmindedly brushed them against his trousers as he stepped up to Hunk.

"Oh, Shiro!" Called the younger man, waving him over to meet the passenger. "This is Coran. Coran, this is our captain."

"A pleasure to meet you, Captain Shirogane." Coran responded cheerfully, bouncing on his toes a bit. He spoke in a strange accent that Shiro didn't recognize, and the words were proper and refined, nothing like the frontier dialect most of them spoke. "This is a lovely ship you've got here."

Hunk beamed. It was no secret that Hunk had a soft spot for anyone who praised the Lion.

Shiro swept another appraising eye over the man. He was carrying several black bags, one in each hand and one over his shoulder. He aimed for nonchalance, but he was clutching his baggage close.

Shiro, deciding to be diplomatic, responded with a polite nod and turned to Hunk.

"Those the only two?"

Hunk seemed apologetic when he nodded. "Most folks wanna ride on the bigger ships, seems like."

Shiro sighed but did his best to paste on a smile for Hunk. "It's alright. Stay out here awhile longer and see if you can get anyone else."

"Shōudào, Captain."

The captain cast one last look over the dusty marketplace before retreating back into the Golden Lion.

The man shuffled awkwardly in the entrance to the shuttle, out of place in his grey uniform against the blue curtains hung over the metal walls. He was still young and insecure and it showed in his stance and the way he cleared his throat before speaking.

"Thank you, the experience was more than- it was very good. Thank you."

Allura smiled her patented, practiced warm grin. "The time went too quickly."

The man snorted a bit. "Yes, well. The clocks are probably rigged to speed up and cheat us out of our fun."

Her smile dropped like a stone, and a silence quivering with tension descended over the room. The man cleared his throat again, apparently noticing his mistake and unsure of how to rectify it, before simply shuffling his feet one last time and taking his leave.

Allura allowed herself a moment to stand still and feel the sting of the insult. She breathed in the scent of her incense, made herself feel the slide of the white silk robe over her skin, then breathed out and rolled her shoulders. She carefully balanced the tray she was carrying, full of tea cups and implements, onto the small side table and proceeded past the beaded curtains into the cockpit of the small shuttle. With the exit of her client, she was free now to return to the ship.

With practiced fingers she entered the launch sequence. A few minutes later she was pulling the shuttle into the buzzing skies above Balmera, navigating between the dozens of other vehicles in the air to head towards the Eavesdown Docks.

That bittersweet feeling she was so familiar with rose in her chest. In another life she could've been a pilot like her father. If she focused and cast back her memory she could still feel the warmth of his hands around hers, guiding them around the controls.

The radio crackled when she entered its range, startling her out of reverie.

"Golden Lion, this is Shuttle One, what's your ETA?"

There was barely a moment of silence before Keith's expected voice was answering her.

"Hey Allura. We're already docked over in bay five, land whenever it suits you."

She tilted the shuttle accordingly. "I'm on my way now."

"See ya in a few."

Once landed, one of Allura's first orders of business was to get properly dressed. While she brushed out her long silver hair she heard Keith's voice echo down the corridor, calling to Shiro that she had arrived. A moment later the ship's hydraulics groaned, lifting the gangplank and sealing the airlock, and then her stomach was doing the normal drop as the Golden Lion rose into the air.

She waited for the jostling of breaking atmo to subside before getting dressed- pulling on her favorite gown of flowing white cloth with the blue velvet bodice. Then she emerged from her shuttle, unsurprised to find the cargo bay a flurry of activity and Shiro standing on the catwalk, accompanied by Pidge, who looked up at the sound of the door and grinned at the sight of her.

"Hey, you." She greeted, a teasing lilt to her voice that made Allura chuckle to herself.

"Hey, you." Despite their six year age difference, she'd become fast friends with the teenaged engineer, bonding over their shared experience of being the only two girls on a ship full of men. She made her way down the stairs to the catwalk to join the two of them, exchanging warm smiles with the captain.

"Hey there, Princess." Said Shiro. Allura shook her head in pretend exasperation, but really she didn't mind the nickname so much.

"Hello there Captain. How has business been?"

"Slow." Shiro answered, and Allura frowned. Normally he wasn't so vague, but then she looked out over the cargo hold and realized the reason.

"Have we taken on passengers?"

"Only a couple. Flyin' them out to Feyiv."

Allura hides her surprise with a practiced serene expression. Shiro was a good captain, and he portrayed an aura of easy trust to outsiders, but he was fiercely protective of his crew. This was the first time he'd allowed strangers to board the Lion for any extended amount of time.

As usual, Shiro saw right through her Companion trained shields and turned towards her, dropping his voice low.

"Look, it's a risk. And I don't plan on makin' a taxi service out of my ship, but right now we need the coin. We'll just need to lie low for a few weeks." Lie low meaning, of course, not overtly discussing crime in front of the civilians.

Allura might've taken the time to continue the conversation, but a glance over Shiro's shoulder revealed one of the passengers approaching, a man with a ludicrous orange mustache. So she slid her Companion smile back on.

"As you say, Captain."

For a moment Shiro's brow furrowed, but it cleared when the man's strange accented voice echoed from behind him. It actually wasn't too far off from her own accent, only less refined.

"Your platinum, Captain, as promised."

Shiro straightened, turning to accept the bag of coins the man offered him. "Thank you. Coran, I don't think you've met Allura." He stepped to the side, allowing Allura to move forward. "She's a long term passenger."

"Indeed? And what would compel a lovely young lady such as yourself to travel the galaxy?" Coran stroked his mustache as he spoke, something Allura could tell was a normal movement for this man. His body language was open and friendly, but there was a certain tension to it, a certain force. She would have to warn Shiro to keep an eye on him later, but for now she just kept smiling and extended a hand for Coran to shake.

"I'm a Companion." She explained, pleased when Coran's expression didn't twist in response. "I wanted to expand my client base. I'm far from the only woman in the guild to do so."

"Ah, I imagine not. A pleasure to meet you, miss."

"The pleasure was mine. But," She looked over her shoulder at Pidge, who was waiting next to the stairs rather impatiently. "I learned a new hairstyle on Balmera, and I promised Pidge I'd give her a demonstration."

Coran smiled ever so softly. "Of course, of course, don't let me keep you."

Allura nodded graciously and began to step back before Shiro caught her elbow gently in his metal hand.

"Meeting in the galley in about a half hour." He said. "So don't hold Pidge hostage."

"Don't worry, Shiro, we won't be long."

The galley on the Golden Lion was narrow, as it was in most Firefly's, nestled in the center of the ship between a staircase to the crews quarters and the hall to the engine room. Now the room was crammed full of people standing between the dining room table and the counters that flanked either side of the room. The majority of the crew was there (minus Keith who still had to fly) accompanying the two passengers on their tour of the ship. Allura lingered in the background, making a cup of tea and pretending she wasn't listening.

"Now, the rules on the ship are pretty simple." Shiro was saying to the passengers. The two were listening politely, but Coran was too still and Griffin's eyes skittered all over, never staying in one place for too long.

"You've got your pick of the kitchen. We do have normal meals whenever possible. The galley, the common area, and your bunks are open to you, though I have to ask you stay in those areas while we're in the air. Cargo bay, cockpit, engine room, they're all off-limits."

Griffin's eyes flickered a bit more at that, but neither of the men said anything.

"Aside from that just use your common sense. Don't touch anything if you don't know what it does, don't mess with the crew, all that." He shifted a bit, leaning his hands on the chair in front of him. "There's also one other thing, and I apologize in advance for the inconvenience, but we've been ordered by the Garrison to drop off some medical supplies on Taujeer. It'll be a bit of a hassle but we should have you on Feyiv no more than a day off schedule."

Griffin blinked, once, twice, then his face settled. Coran stroked his mustache, and when neither of them argued Shiro counted it as a win and moved on.

"Dinner is at six. Hope to see you all there."

Dinner started out as a surprisingly calm affair. Hunk worked miracles with their dried and packaged food, and after the usual barrage of compliments, the group settled into easy meal-time small talk. Allura took supper in her room, as usual. Griffin wasn't too talkative, but contributed when expected, in direct contrast to Coran who was talking enough to give Lance a run for his money. And that was fine, everyone was amicable enough, until he started getting into the more personal questions.

"You all look so young to be sailing a vessel like this." The tone was light, but all of them seemed to pause for a moment. Coran was still gnawing away on his canned peaches while Griffin scrutinized each face in turn. His eyes lingered at Keith, who had been his normal level of quiet and was focused on eating, hunched over his food a little defensively. It had been just over three years since he shipped out with the Lion, but there were still hints of the street kid he used to be. His protectiveness over his food was only one of them.

"We're not that young." Pidge was the first to respond, and her voice was nonchalant enough for the others to marginally relax. "I'm the only one under twenty, after all."

"Still." Insisted Coran. "Twenty is incredibly young to be an engineer, and a Captain at only twenty-six? Practically unheard of!"

Shiro tried to brush off the comment with a slightly uneasy chuckle. "Yeah, well. We do what we have to, I suppose."

"And Keith!" Coran continued, the exclamation making Keith startle in his seat. He looked up from beneath his messy black bangs, the rest of his hair pulled into a tiny ponytail at the base of his neck. "A full blown pilot at only twenty. Not something you see everyday."

Keith scowled and deepened the hunch of his shoulders. He looked like a dog baring his teeth, and Shiro shot him a quelling look while internally groaning. The last thing he needed was the passengers getting on Keith's bad side.

"What do you care how old we are?" It wasn't quite a snap, but it was still too sharp to be friendly. Across the table, Lance groaned to himself and dropped his head.

"Great, here comes Captain Killjoy." He said none-too-quietly, taking a sip from his glass. Keith shot him a frustrated look.

"What? So long as we do our job, why's it matter?"

"It doesn't overmuch." Coran butted-in, at least trying to relieve the tension. "Just an oddity, is all."

For a minute or two there's quiet over the table, everyone eating silently and trying to figure out how to disperse the tension. Coran is the first to try, and of course he talks to Keith, which makes it a disaster right off the bat.

"I must say I've never seen a necklace quite like the one you wear." Keith didn't even look up, merely picked up the pendant and shoved it under his shirt. Coran continued on, unabashed. "Wherever did you get it?"

In Coran's defense, the pendant was rather curious. It was a small, smooth red stone with a black center, with only a single streak of purple running diagonally through it. Every single person on the crew had tried asking about it at some point, and all of them had gotten the same response, even Shiro. It was the same response Coran was about to get.

"None of your gorram business." Keith snarled, closing a hand protectively over his shirt where the pendant lay. His knuckles turned white around the fork he held in his other hand.

Coran blinked, taken aback, while the rest of the crew performed a mixture of exasperated sighs and tired face palms.

"Don't be like that, Keith." Hunk said from across the table. "He's only tryin' to be nice."

"There's no such thing." Keith snapped back.

Pidge snorted. "Wow, that was mighty jaded of you. Got any more cold-hearted judgements to share with the rest of us?"

Keith sneered at his plate, and Matt bumped Shiro's shoulder.

"Shiro, control your problem child."

Shiro swatted at him, but the damage had already been done, and Keith turned bright red. Whether from anger or embarrassment he couldn't say. Before he could step in and put a stop to things, Lance was speaking up.

"Why do you always gotta be like this?" He asked with a roll of his eyes. "It was just a yúbèn de question, no need to get your panties all in a bunch."

"Exactly, húndàn, it was a yúbèn de gǒucàode question-"

Alright, that was a step too far. "Keith!"

Keith shut his mouth abruptly with a click of his teeth. For a moment Lance looked victorious, until Shiro turned his scolding look on him as well.

"Both of you, all of you, that's enough. Dǒng ma?"

Hunk and Pidge had the decency to look contrite. Matt merely rolled his eyes. Lance sulked. Coran and Griffin appeared uncomfortable (and honestly, who wouldn't have) while Keith shoved the last few bites of his food into his mouth before shoving away from the table.

The rest of the meal was silent and uncomfortable for everyone involved.

Keith stared out the windshield of the Lion, turning his chair back and forth, back and forth, while his fingers ran over the smooth surface of his pendant. He never got tired of looking at the Black- the void with tiny points of light, points of salvation, gases burning in the midst of endless nothingness. But now his thoughts were tangled and angry.

He didn't understand himself. He couldn't even remember where he'd gotten the stupid necklace, he had no idea why it meant so much to him, but everytime someone asked about it he couldn't help but bristle. And it wasn't just the necklace- he got angry over a lot of things. Snapped at the others for stupid reasons. He didn't know why he acted this way, he tried so hard but the anger always got the best of him, and he didn't know how to make himself better.

Boots clanked against the metal outside, and Shiro stepped into the cockpit, ducking a little to make it through the door. Before he could say anything Keith was speaking, though he still faced out towards the stars.

"I'm sorry." He blurted out, fingers forming a fist over his necklace. "I shouldn't have snapped at Coran like that. He didn't do nothin' wrong."

Shiro let out a long suffering sigh and slumped into the pilots seat. He looked exhausted and was rubbing at his arm, and Keith felt the guilt twist like a blade. Shiro had too much to deal with without him screwing up.

"At least you know it." He said gruffly. He dropped his head back against the seat and looked out at the stars with tired eyes. "I need you to set a course for Taujeer."

Keith sat up straight. "Taujeer? Why?"

"Kolivan wouldn't take the goods." Shiro sat forward and put his head in his hands. He usually didn't show how tired he was, except with Matt and Keith. "We're gonna try Sendak, see if he'll bite."

"Sendak?" Keith questioned with a raised eyebrow. "Didn't he shoot you one time?"

Shiro made a vague gesture with his hand. "Everyone's makin' a fuss." It made Keith laugh a little as he turned back to the controls, already inputting coordinates into the ship's autopilot.

"Alright, Captain, it's your funeral."

"Damn right it is."

It's somewhere around two in the morning when the intercom in Shiro's bunk crackled, startling him awake even before a voice came through. He jolted half upright, his body trained from months of slamming his head into the metal lip of his bunk everytime he had a nightmare, and he was halfway to the ladder up to the corridor before Keith had the opportunity to say a word.

"Shiro, I need you on the bridge."

He went fast, taking the stairs to the bridge two at a time, gasping breathlessly, "What is it?" Once he'd reached the top.

Keith was braced over one of the screens, hair falling into his face while he scowled at the display. He was still in his day clothes but they were rumpled, indicating he'd at least tried to go to bed, leaving the bridge unguarded.

"A signal." He growled. "Someone got on the Cortex and hailed the nearest Garrison cruiser."

Heat and cold battled for domination: heat for rage, cold for dread.

"Tell me you scrambled it."

"All to hell," Snapped Keith in irritation, "But I don't know how much got through. They got a pin in us for sure."

Shiro let loose a long stream of curses in frustrated Chinese. Damn it, Matt had been right, he should have never let strangers on his ship.

Keith made a fist, slamming it against his own thigh, knowing better than to hit the dashboard on such an old ship.

"One of them's a mole." He muttered to himself, and Shiro's spine tightened. An image came to mind- a pampered pet cat in a dark alley where it didn't belong. Everything in him burned and he whirled to storm from the bridge, Keith hot on his heels.

He made his angry way down to the cargo hold. As he suspected, Coran was there despite Shiro's rules, rustling through one of the black bags he'd left there. Shiro stalked up behind him, and he straightened up at the sound of his footsteps and turned to face them with a surprised expression.

"Forget your toothpaste?" Shiro snarled before decking him.

Coran hit the floor with a startled yelp as Shiro flexed his human fist, Keith hovering behind and practically humming with fury just as potent as Shiro's.

"Are you out of your mind?" He cried in that strange accent, that accent which should have told Shiro immediately not to trust him.

"Just about. What'd you tell them?"

Coran turned back toward them, a hand pressed over his swelling cheekbone, beginning to stagger to his feet.

"Tell who?"

Shiro grabbed him by the collar of his fancy nightshirt and shoved him back, digging the man's spine into the crates lining the walls.

"I've got exactly no time for games." This close he could see the frightened constriction of his pupils, the twitch of his orange mustache. "What do they know?"

Coran just stared at him. "You're a lunatic." He murmured, like a half thought, and Shiro sneered and twisted his metal hand into his shirt until the cloth ripped.

"And you're a gorram fed."

"Shiro!" Keith smacked his shoulder several times, and Shiro glanced back at him. He was wearing an urgent expression and not looking at him, instead having his eyes fixed on the opposite stairwell. Shiro followed his gaze.

Standing on the stairs, gun in hand and wrist braced, was their other passenger James Griffin.

"Son of a bitch." He swore to himself. His blood felt like it was filling with lead as he realized he'd had the wrong guy, his grip on Coran's collar going slack.

"Release that man, Captain Shirogane." Griffin ordered in a calm, government voice, and Shiro forced his hands away from Coran's throat, loosely holding them up by his head. Keith was a hard line of tension beside him, eyeing the man with the gun with a wild look.

As soon as he stepped away, Griffin shifted the gun and began down the stairs.

"Coran Hieronymous Wimbleton-Smythe, you are bound by law to stand down."

Shiro's jaw dropped. "What? Him? Oh-" He dropped his hands to his sides. "Is there a reward, by chance?"

Griffin ignored him. At the bottom of the stairs now, he continued to speak to Coran.

"Get on the ground." When Coran didn't move, his voice leapt up, echoing around the empty metal hold. "Get on the ground!"

"Lawman, you are making a mistake!" Coran tried to argue, making Griffin's cheeks color. His hands were trembling.

"You'd best get on the ground." said Shiro in a low voice. Just because the fed wasn't after them doesn't mean he was in the clear. "He seems a mite twitchy."

Coran still didn't move, and for a tense second the two men just stared each other down. Coran was pale, Griffin had a strange sparkle in his eye, and the longer he had his gun pulled the more Shiro wanted to get the both of them off of his ship.

"Look," He said, stepped forward and reaching for Coran. "We can just put him in one of the holding cells and-"

"Get the hell back!" Griffin snapped, swinging the pistol to point at him, and Shiro went still. "You think I'm a complete back-birth? You're carrying a fugitive across interplanetary borders. You think I really believe you're bringing medical supplies to Taujeer?" He paused to swallow, and Shiro glowered at him.

"As far as I'm concerned, everyone on this ship is culpable."

Shiro let out a breath. "Well now. That has an effect on the landscape."

"We don't need to do this." Coran said, foolishly trying again to get out of the situation. "No one has to get hurt."

Griffin glared at him murderously. "I've got a cruiser en route for intercept, so talk all you want. You've got about twenty minutes."

Shit.

"You might have less than that." That was Keith, speaking up for the first time with an expression as dark as the void outside. His fists were clenched at his sides, looking to Shiro for the signal to attack. Griffin snorted and flexed his grip on his weapon.

"Yeah, threaten me."

Keith began to move forward, and Griffin spun to point the barrel at his chest, sending even more adrenaline snaking through Shiro's veins.

"You think I won't shoot a kid?" He snarled at Keith, who had frozen in place. "Back off!"

Shiro grabbed for Coran, snagging the man by the wrists and hauling him close even as he struggled. "Just take him!"

"Get your hands off of me, you brute!" Coran yelled right back, and Griffin turned back to them, brow scrunching up.

"Stand the hell down!" He shouted. The hold was full of noise and shouting, and really none of them should have been surprised when other crew members came to investigate.

"What is-" The new voice started, coming from the center hallway to the galley. Before the person could finish their sentence Griffin had whirled, and a shot went off, deafening.

Pidge hit the wall. Stunned silence dropped over them all as she looked down at her stomach, where the bullet had torn through her shirt and left a perfectly round hole in the skin, red blood just beginning to dribble out. She looked up again, eyes wide.

"What…"

Someone hit the play button again. Above them a voice echoed out. It was Allura from the entrance to her shuttle.

"Katie!"

Shiro released Coran and the two of them simultaneously sprinted for Pidge, who had begun sliding down the metal wall. Keith moved past them in a blur, aiming a jab to a stunned Griffin's throat. A kick between his legs and a punch to the chin sent him to the floor, Keith seething over him vindictively.

The rest of the crew came flooding out from the other parts of the ship as Shiro and Coran eased Pidge onto her back. Her brother had taken two seconds to evaluate things before running for his first aid kit, but Shiro had a sinking feeling that his field medic training wouldn't be enough here. Allura was there a moment later, shedding her white robe and kneeling by Pidge's head.

Hunk looked away from the blood, a green tinge to his face, and went to Keith, who jerked away from his touch with a snarl.

"Get away!" He snapped at the engineer.

"How do you feel?" Coran asked Pidge, who looked at him with clouded eyes.

"A little odd." She mumbled.

"You can't kill him!" Hunk was saying to Keith.

"Not right away." Keith answered. Shiro's head was spinning.

"You knocked him out, he's not a threat anymore."

Pidge's head lolled, cushioned by Allura's robe. "Why did he…?"

Coran pushed her shirt up to reveal the wound, and Shiro's breath caught. Vaguely he was aware of his mouth moving.

"Oh, wow. That ain't no mosquito bite."

"Big mosquito." Pidge slurred.

Matt returned, thundering down on them with his med kit and shoving Coran aside. To their surprise, Coran shoved right back with a snap.

"I'm a doctor!"

"Keith, seriously-"

"He shot Pidge!"

"Keith!" That was Lance, who at some point had joined Hunk. He had his rifle slung over his shoulder, and although he wasn't aiming it at anyone yet, Shiro just wanted to yell at him to put it away. "Come on, man, just tie him up, we don't need to hurt anyone else."

"Katie." Coran said to Pidge, trying to get her eyes to land on him. "Katie, stay with me. Stay with me. Can you move your feet?"

Pidge's eyelids fluttered. "But I don't like dancing."

"She's going into shock." Said Coran, completely unnecessarily. Shiro knew what shock looked like.

Pidge's head started to roll to the side, and Allura jerked it back into place, making Pidge open her eyes again.

"Katie." She said urgently. Her voice trembled. "Mei-mei, you have to focus."

Something beeped over the intercom just as Pidge yelped and let out a pained gasp, and Keith darted back up to the bridge, leaving Lance and Hunk to deal with the unconscious fed.

"Is the infirmary working?" Coran was asking Shiro, jerking him into reality.

"Yeah, we've got it stocked." He and Coran were preparing to lift Pidge when Keith's voice came through the speakers.

"Shiro, we're being hailed by a cruiser. They're orderin' us to stay on course and prepare for prisoner transfer."

Shiro's movements slowed, eyes jumping to meet Coran's. He too had paused, apparently considering. He glanced down at Pidge, who had a single tear streak running down into her hairline. He stood.

"Change course." He ordered with a catch in his voice. "Run."

"Hell with you." Shiro snarled back without a thought. "You brought this down on us, I'm dropping you with the law."

Allura said his name admonishingly, but Shiro didn't hear her. This man was the reason any of this was happening- he was the reason the youngest of his crew now lay on the ground with a bullet in her. Like hell he'd do anything he said.

"She's dying." Coran told him. Shiro shook his head, a cruel smirk on his lips. Coran was a doctor, there was no way…

"You're not gonna let her."

"Yes, I am." He didn't look too convinced by his own plan, but still there he stood, Pidge bleeding out at his feet.

"No, you can't!" Matt cried at him, his eyes shiny with tears. This was the first time he'd seen Matt cry since the war. "She's my sister, you can't just let her die!"

"No way the feds'll let us walk." Lance said from the background, standing guard over the trussed up fed. Shiro stood, not even looking at him, keeping his gaze focused on Coran.

"Then we dump him in a shuttle and leave him."

"Matt-" Pidge mumbled, raising a hand towards him. He grasped it tightly and looked down at her, the tears splattering to the floor. "Matt, why are you crying? Why is everyone yelling?"

"It's ok, mei-mei." Allura whispered to her, though her face was twisted in grief.

"Do you know what a stomach wound does to a person?" Coran asked of Shiro. He seemed to be growing more steadfast in his idea, that cold hearted bastard.

"I most surely do."

"Then you know how crucial the next few minutes are."

"You let her die," Lance jumped in again, blue eyes colder than ice, "You won't even make it to the feds."

Coran looked at him with feigned nonchalance. "She'll still be dead."

Shiro scoffed. The bitter words were choking him. "You rich folks. You don't think anyone's lives matter but your own. What'd you do, kill your family so you wouldn't have to split your fortune?"

That seemed to strike a note, and Coran shouted in frustration, "I don't kill people!"

"Then do your job!" Shiro replied.

"Turn this ship around!"

"Enough!" Said Allura, throwing herself to her feet. "Shiro, do it."

Shiro clenched his fists. He didn't want to do this, he didn't want to become an accomplice, it would only put everyone else in more danger, but Pidge-

Pidge let out a sob on the floor, grasping wildly at her brother's shoulder, and Matt looked up at him. He was more scared than Shiro had ever seen him.

He sucked in a deep breath and pressed the intercom button next to the hallway they stood before.

"Keith. Change course and go for hard burn."

They all felt the shift in the deck under their feet as Keith obeyed the order, and Coran dropped back to the floor.

"Help me get her up." He said, and Shiro complied without a word.

Allura led the charge to the infirmary that was just off of the lounge area, shoving the doors open for Shiro and Coran. They deposited the small girl onto the steel table and Coran immediately began rummaging through their various supplies. Matt was too beside himself to do much but hang on to his sister, who was only barely conscious.

"Do you have an extractor?" Coran asked.

"Got a laser saw."

"Not good enough." He turned to look at Allura. "My room, black bag."

Allura stuttered for a moment before rushing from the room. Matt looked up, cheeks awash with tears, and gave Coran the scariest look he could muster.

"When this is all over," He said, "You and I are going to have a personal chat."

"I look forward to it." Was the sarcastic answer before the doctor tossed a syringe gun at Shiro. "Dope her."

Shiro did, and within a second Pidge was sinking off into unconsciousness.

The whole ship was gathered to watch the surgery. Matt assisted Coran while Shiro hovered in the background, just in case, while the others peered through the windows into the infirmary. The only person who wasn't there was Keith, but he'd set the ship to autopilot as soon as it was safe and was now huddled in the narrow catwalk above the infirmary, peering in through the tiny ceiling windows with one arm wrapped around his knees and the other hand around his pendant.

Three grueling hours later and the surgery is finally complete. Pidge still lies pale and still on the slab, but at least her chest is rising and falling, the bullet is out, and the blood has stopped.

Allura is shrugging her robe back on as the doors to the infirmary open again, and she stands front and center.

"I want to know what's going on here."

"So do I." Says Shiro, and all of the eyes in the room settle on Coran. "Well? One of mine got shot for you, I think we deserve to know why the Garrison wants you so badly."

"Well," Coran began, awkwardly clearing his throat and stroking his mustache. "It's actually quite simple. I was conducting some research that the Garrison didn't approve of."

"What research?" Matt demanded. "What did my little sister get shot for?"

Coran tugged at the shredded, blood spattered collar of his nightshirt. "Ahem. I'm sure all of you space travelers are aware of the Galra?"

Everyone in the room paused for a moment. Shiro had to swallow back an inappropriate bubble of laughter, because really? Of course they knew about the Galra. Crazed men and women roaming space in derelict ships, hunting down travelers not for money or loot but for the thrill of it and even to feast on their flesh. Legends abounded of filed down teeth and yellow tinted eyes and razor sharp nails- except anyone who'd been past the Core knew they weren't just legends.

"What about them?" Asked Lance. His brown hair was sticking up in every direction, suffering from him running his hands through it over and over. Behind him, still huddled in a corner of the couch, Hunk turned ten shades paler.

"Well, I was researching them. The Galra."

Dead silence, until Shiro muttered in disbelief, "Wǒ de mā."

Yeah, no, they actually had a lunatic aboard right now. An absolute madman.

"You're fuckin' crazy." Came Keith's voice from the stairway. Coran jumped in surprise, then tried to pretend he hadn't. "A pampered Core doctor, researchin' the fuckin' Galra? Why the fuck would you do somethin' so stupid?"

Coran looked almost offended, and Shiro just wanted to deck him again, just on principle.

"One or two people catching space madness is not unheard of." He said, addressing all of them. "But a whole population? Enough to actually have recorded losses? Unheard of. Obviously something must have happened to them to make them what they are, and I intend to find out what."

"But why?" Argued Lance, sounding frustrated. "I thought most people in the Core didn't even think they were real."

"They don't. But I do."

"Why would the Garrison hunt you down for that?" Shiro asked. "Garrison ships get taken down by Galra too."

"Ah, but not according to the official record!" Coran stroked his mustache eagerly. "According to the official record, Galra don't exist. The Garrison was covering them up, and when they discovered I was researching them, they tried to arrest me."

"Why do you care?" That was Keith again, descending the stairs to join the group properly. He had that familiar, untrusting look on his face again. "Why does it matter to you? Why didn't you just give up the research and move on?"

Coran actually looked surprised at the question. "I interviewed many ship captains for this research, my boy." Keith visibly bristled at the name, but Coran continued without pause. "Anyone who's gone past the Core is terrified of them. They sound to me like a plague on the universe, and would it not be a service to discover the cause of their behavior and eliminate it?"

"So you're doin' this for the greater good?" Keith asked with a toss of his head. "Yeah, right."

"Maybe he's telling the truth." Said Hunk, chiming in for the first time. "I mean, he's kinda right about the plague on the universe thing."

"If you think you can actually "cure" the Galra, you're even dumber than you look." Keith is still talking to Coran, as though Hunk hadn't spoken.

"I'm not trying to cure them, just prevent any more from being created!"

Keith opened his mouth to continue, but Shiro cut him off.

"Is that why you shipped out?" When Coran looked at him quizzically, he elaborated. "Is that why you booked passage on a ship? So you could get out to the Black? To study them?"

"Yes, that's precisely why."

Shiro shook his head. "If you came out here actually hopin' to find Galra, you're the stupidest man alive."

Coran frowned, but Shiro continued before he could argue back.

"And it doesn't matter anyway. If Pidge makes it, you'll be gettin' off at Taujeer."

The other man visibly gulped. "And if she doesn't?"

Shiro kept his voice even. "Then you'll be gettin' off a mite sooner."

Coran turned ashen.

The next few hours dragged by. The crew drifted in and out of the infirmary, taking turns sitting up with Pidge while she slept. They'd confined the bound fed in one of the guest bunks, and the only reason Coran was allowed to wander free is because he had to be able to respond if something happened with Pidge. But Keith kept a sharp eye on him, and Lance kept his rifle close, and Shiro never let his guard down.

After his shift with their injured teammate Hunk disappeared into the engine room, eyes still brimming with tears hours later. Keith set them a new course for Taujeer, then hung up his punching bag in the cargo hold and went at it with a ferocity Shiro hadn't seen in more than a year. Lance sat in the common room and watched the door to the infirmary, methodically taking his rifle apart, cleaning the pieces, and putting it back together.

When it was her turn Allura gently braided Pidge's hair, and once she'd done it three times she retreated to her shuttle to calm herself. Matt stood guard outside the fed's room, occasionally going off to locate Coran and make sure he wasn't up to no good before returning.

Shiro, as it turned out, was the one in the room with her when she woke for the first time. She'd stirred a tiny bit and groaned, blinking up at the light shining down on her. Shiro didn't bother trying to hide the smile of relief that appeared on his face as he approached the bed.

"Hey, you're awake."

She turned her head to look at him, and he could tell by her clouded eyes that she was still under the effects of the anaesthesia even before she opened her mouth.

"Hey Capt'n." She said with a dopey smile.

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm…" She tilted her head back to the ceiling. "I'm shiny, Capt'n, a-ok."

Shiro snickered under his breath. "Well you just rest a bit more, ok?" He reached over to the counter and retrieved another blanket, draping it over her legs. "I need you back on your feet sooner rather than later."

Pidge hummed. "Aw, you're doin' the dad thing again."

"I don't act like a dad." Shiro argued, shaking his head in faux exasperation.

"Yes you do." She teased back, words still slurring. "Always… lookin' out for everybody…" She was fading back into sleep again, her eyelids fluttering, but just before she passed the precipice she yanked herself back awake.

"You're a good captain, Shiro."

His throat closed up, and before he could clear it Pidge was dead asleep again. He took a minute to compose himself, then went to find Coran.

Another six hours passed before Pidge was coherent enough to hold a serious conversation. Once she was Shiro and Matt went to explain the situation to her, and at the mention of research she sat up as much as the bandages and stitches would allow, eyes gleaming.

"That's fascinating." She muttered to herself once they'd finished their explanation. "I mean, getting shot sucked-" Matt winced, "But what Coran's doing… If he succeeds he could change the universe forever!"

"Yeah." Shiro snorted, leaning up against the infirmary counter. "Or he could wind up dead and eaten, and if I was a bettin' man I'd put my money on the latter."

Pidge frowned and looked at her brother. "Matt, what do you think?"

To Shiro's surprise, Matt actually hesitated. "Well, the scientist in me is curious, but the soldier part of me says it's crazy and he's gonna get himself killed."

"We can't let the Garrison get him." Pidge insisted, crossing her arms and only wincing slightly when it tugged on her wound. "Guys, this is important! He's the first person who's ever thought about stopping the Galra, this is huge!"

Shiro had about a million reasons why choosing Coran's side was a horrible idea, and they were all poised on the tip of his tongue when the intercom beeped to life.

"Shiro, we've got a situation up here."

He immediately hurried from the room, only pausing long enough to toss an order over his shoulder for Matt to stay with his sister.

One minute and twenty four seconds later he was surging into the cockpit, questions and orders already running from his mouth.

"How'd they find us already?"

"It's not Garrison." Was Keith's answer. He'd spent the last few hours on the bridge, monitoring their progress, and had been able to catch the blip on their radar. The news made Shiro pause in the center of the bridge.

"It's not?"

"Nah, looks like a smaller vessel."

"Commercial?"

Keith turned his head to peer at another screen broadcasting the results of the sweep he'd done.

"Yeah. I read it as an older model…" He squinted at the screen and tilted his head, his usual indication that he was puzzled. "Trans-U." He looked up at Shiro through his bangs. "I didn't think Trans-U's still operated."

Shiro's stomach is in knots. "They don't."

For a second they just stare at each other, then Shiro takes a step closer to the dash.

"Get me a visual."

Keith shook his head. "They're still too far out."

"Well get me somethin'."

Keith swiveled his chair to face the panel affixed to the wall, flipped a dial and looked at yet another screen.

"Hm, pickin' up a lot of radiation…"

Shiro crossed the gap in two strides and stood alongside Keith's chair, looking down at the readings himself. Sure enough the entire graph was lit up green in a distressing hill of pixels. Suddenly Keith's breath caught, and Shiro met his eyes.

"They're operating without core containment." He explained, brow furrowed. "That's…"

He doesn't have to finish the sentence. Shiro knows what it means- flying without core containment is madness, suicide, guaranteed no good. No one in their right mind would do it. Which left those who weren't.

The bridge is hot with all of the wires and electronics, but Shiro still shivers, and he turns back to peer out the windshield at the void around them. Sure enough, in the distance is a small speck of a ship, growing closer by the minute as the halo of light that was their thrusters pushed them along their course.

"Galra."

"Shit." Keith white knuckles the controls. "Should we run?"

"No, keep on course." Shiro ordered, already raising his hand to the intercom. More details are being revealed as the Galra ship approached; the whole thing had makeshift welded on spikes covering it's hull, barbed wire affixed around the portholes. Haphazard splashes of purple paint left a cruel fingerprint on the grey metal. It was clearly much larger than their Firefly, nearly twice the size with a conical nose not unlike the sharks from Earth-that-was.

Shiro clears his throat and turns on the intercom.

"This is the captain speaking. We're passing another ship. Looks to be Galra. From the size, I'd say a raiding party." He pauses for a breath, trying to keep his own tremor of terror out of his voice. "Could be they're headin' somewhere particular. Could be they already hit someone and they're full up. So everyone stay calm."

He tried to imagine what the others were doing right now. Pidge was still in the infirmary with Matt, probably exchanging horrified looks with her brother. Hunk was probably in the engine room trying to hold back sheer panic. Lance would join Pidge and Matt in the infirmary as extra security. Usually he'd be grinning and bold, ready to take on danger, but this time he'd be solemn and scared, finger over the trigger on his beloved rifle. Allura was in her shuttle, prepping it to run if she was smart. Keith beside him, ready to fight or fly as the situation demanded.

And Coran, that idiot, was probably jumping for joy.

He gulped and continued.

"We try to run, they'll have to chase us. It's their way. We're holding course. Should be passing them in a minute. So we'll see what they do."

He raised his hand to the button again, then hesitated and said, "Matt you come on up to the bridge." Before clicking it off.

The entire ship held its breath.

Matt emerged onto the bridge a minute later with a grim twist to his mouth. Coran was hot on his heels, and as predicted, clutching what looked to be a tablet and stylus in his arms. But he wasn't joyful, no, he was dead serious as he bustled over to the copilots side to stare out at the Galra ship.

"Don't recall askin' for you." Shiro muttered, too strung out to care about being diplomatic. Coran didn't even acknowledge the jab, just turned to Shiro with focused eyes.

"Captain, in your experience what do the Galra do to those they board?"

"Shouldn't you know?" Keith snarled, and Shiro laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Keep watching, tell me if they change course." He said, then turned half of his attention to Coran. "But he's right, didn't you say you've done interviews?"

"Of course, but I need to make sure the information given is consistent."

Shiro hissed a breath through his teeth. He really didn't want to think about it, not with the real thing slowly bearing down on them, but maybe if he did Coran would go away and let him handle things.

"If they board us." He began carefully, feeling Keith's shoulders tense under his hand. "They'll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order."

Coran didn't pale or flinch away from the information. Instead he just bent over his tablet, clicking away with his stylus.

The Galra ship loomed ever closer. It was coming at them from an angle, looking to go right over top of them, and the four of them stood and stared up at the sparking, almost ruined undercarriage. Keith raised a trembling hand to Shiro's and grasped at it in a rare moment of vulnerability. The leather of his gloves is soft, and Shiro squeezes back.

It feels like eons, watching the ship sail overhead, Keith's gaze glued to the screen that would proclaim their salvation or their doom. Five hundred years later, he huffs out a breath and practically goes limp in his seat.

"They're holding course."

Shiro finally lets himself breathe again, and Matt melts. Coran keeps tapping at his tablet.

"Didn't expect to see them here." Keith mumbled once he regained his breath.

"They're pushing out further every year, too." Said Matt. "Just like the Garrison."

Shiro can't contain the frustrated growl. "Gettin' awful crowded in my sky."

There's another heavy silence. Coran's clicking is the only sound and it's rapidly driving Shiro to distraction, but before he can snap at him Keith is talking again.

"We're gettin' close to Taujeer." He said, slipping his hand out of Shiro's and sitting forward in his chair. He's moving on, putting his walls back up and getting ready for whatever's next. "Shouldn't be more than another five hours."

"Good." Shiro answered automatically. "He'll probably hail us when we're about an hour out to set up the trade."

Keith hesitates, then asks, "Permission to leave the bridge?"

Shiro blinked in surprise. Usually Keith doesn't ask permission to do anything, he just does it, but maybe he figures Shiro wants him to sit and wait for Sendak's hail.

"Granted." Said Shiro with a warm smile. "Go on and say hi to Pidge."

Keith flushed, but endured Matt's hair ruffle as he set the autopilot, spun the controls into their rest position, and hurried out of the cockpit.

Matt turned to him, dropping his voice so that the still preoccupied Coran wouldn't hear.

"That was way too close." He hissed, and Shiro dropped his head in agreement. Though Taujeer was technically in Galra space on the Outer Rim, near the edge of the system, its proximity to it's mother planet Weblum usually kept it safe. The Galra were growing bolder.

"This keeps up, in a couple years you won't be able to go anywhere without riskin' life and limb." He continued. Shiro huffed a bit through his nose.

"Don't suppose the Garrison could be bothered to do somethin' about it."

"Based on what Coran said, unlikely."

Shiro glanced over his shoulder at the man in question. The infernal tapping had finally ceased, and now Coran lounged in the copilots seat as though he owned the place, scrolling through what Shiro assumed was previous data.

Doubt settled in.

Several hours later, Shiro was dozing in the co-pilots seat when Keith jostled him awake.

"Bein' hailed." He said in way of explanation, and with a groan Shiro sat upright and rubbed his eyes.

"That'll be Sendak." He yawned. Glancing out the front windows, he judged their distance to the large planet and it's four brown moons. "We're close enough for vid, put him up."

Keith obeyed, keying in the correct sequence of buttons to open the hailing frequency in a video call. By the time the connection went through Shiro was seated in the pilots seat, with Matt and Keith watching over his shoulder.

Sendak, like Kolivan, was a big man, intimidating. But while Kolivan retained at least a faint aura of restraint, there was always a tint of savagery around Sendak. Like he knew what he wanted and would do absolutely anything to get it- law and common decency be damned.

"Shirogane!" He bellowed over the speakers, making Shiro fight the urge to grimace.

"Hello, Sendak."

"Didn't expect to be hearin' from you anytime soon."

Shiro gave him his best shrug of nonchalance. "It's air through the engine. We're willing to do honest business if you are."

Sendak's mouth twisted into a pointed smirk. "You tellin' the truth about that cargo? 'Cause your asking price is a little too low for that much treasure."

Here goes nothing.

"It's imprinted. Garrison. Hence the discount."

Sendak blinked. "Government goods, huh?" There was only the slightest lilt in his voice to indicate worry, but that didn't stop Shiro from picking up on it.

"That doesn't work for you, no harm. Just thought you could use-"

"Garrison don't scare me." Sendak growled in offense, just as Shiro predicted he would. He allowed himself a small smile. "But I like that you're upfront about it. We can deal."

A knot eased in Shiro's stomach, but a completely different one merely took its place. Just because Sendak said he would deal with them didn't mean they were out of the woods.

"I'll upload coordinates for a rendezvous outside town." He continued with a wide, false grin.

"See you in the world."

The vid crackled as Sendak disconnected the call, and for a long minute Shiro just sat there with a blank smile.

"I believe that man is plannin' to shoot me again."

"He meant to pay you, he would've haggled you down some." Matt scoffed as Shiro rose from the pilots seat.

"A little effort to hide it would have been nice." Keith said with a bitter scowl.

Shiro sighed heavily and leaned up against the lockers between the pilot's seat and the doorway. The Garrison was still hot on their trail searching for their fugitive, Pidge was still in the infirmary and would be for some time, and they still had a kidnapped federal agent trussed up in one of the passenger bays. The last thing he needed to deal with was a double crossing from Sendak, but it looked as though he wasn't going to have a choice.

"Doesn't matter." He muttered, rubbing a hand over the scar that had suddenly began to ache. "Whatever comes up in front of us, we'll deal with it."

"Here's a little concept I've been workin' on," Said Keith even as he began to point the ship down towards the moon's surface, "Why don't we shoot him first?"

"It is his turn." Matt agreed. Shiro just shook his head.

"He needs to be alive to pay us, smartasses."

Matt shrugged. "That's an arguable point."

"Just get us landed. Ingrates."

Matt and Keith exchanged mischievous smiles.

Matt let out an offended noise as he and Shiro approached the rendezvous point: an inconspicuous valley with a dry river bed running the length of it. Gently sloping hills rose up on either side of them, concealing the view of the ship parked barely a mile from their position.

"Nice place for an ambush." He said. Shiro couldn't help but agree.

Footsteps rustled through the dead foliage as Lance came trotting up behind them, already sweaty and covered in dust.

"Here you are." He said to Shiro, handing him one of the inscribed copper bars, which Shiro tucked into the pocket of his trousers. "I buried 'em good. Equipments back on the boat." For once he wasn't hauling his rifle across his shoulders- instead choosing a pair of lightweight pistols strapped to his thighs. The next thing he did was insert the small transmitter into his ear, and Shiro heard the tell-tale crackle and beep as it connected to his and Matt's.

"Testing," Lance said (completely unnecessarily). "Testing, Captain can you hear me?"

"I'm standing right here." Shiro joked with a wry expression. Lance didn't look over.

"You're coming through good and loud."

"Because I'm standing right here."

Lance stuck his tongue out at him and gave his shoulder a playful shove. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. One of these days these transmitters won't work when they're supposed to, and then what?"

Shiro indulged himself in a chuckle before moving forward a few steps, training a practiced eye on the terrain.

"Sendak is gonna figure we buried the cargo," He began, mostly talking to himself even though he had the others attention. "Which means puttin' us at our ease before there's any action. He'll come at us from the east," He indicated the far side of the valley, "Talk the location out of us. He'll have the coin to show us first. We get it, give the location."

He moved forward again, squinting at the hills on their left. "Snipers hit us from there," He indicated a spot halfway up the slope, "And there."

"Figure they're in place yet?" Lance asked.

"Should be. Feel like takin' a walk around the park?"

Shiro heard the dirt crunch when Lance bounced on the balls of his feet.

"Hell yeah I am."

"Walk soft." Shiro warned before he could go rushing off. "I want Sendak thinkin' they're still in place. And don't kill anyone if you don't have to, we're here to make a deal."

"Yessir." Lance said with a tiny salute before jogging back into the brush, his tan jacket helping him blend in.

"Don't think it's a good spot." Said Matt, licking his lips anxiously. "He still has the advantage over us."

Bitterness curdles at the back of Shiro's throat. "Everyone always does. That's what makes us special."

Back aboard the Golden Lion, Hunk was getting nervous. It had been the better part of half a day since the ruckus in the cargo hold, and as far as he knew no one had checked on the fed the whole time. And he really shouldn't care so much, he had shot Pidge after all, but don't people need water to live? Would he lose circulation in his arms from having them bound for so long and need to get them chopped off? How much more trouble would they be in if the Garrison caught them with an officer who had been harmed?

After approximately a half hour of stressing himself out over it, he took it upon himself to bring the poor man a canteen of water. After all, the man was bound. What could possibly go wrong?

He made it all the way to the bedroom door before he hesitated. Should he knock? What was correct hostage holding etiquette? Would it be condescending? Screw it, he was going to knock.

Tap tap.

"Hey, uh, Mr. Griffin? It's Hunk. I thought you might want-" He moved to slide the door open, but the moment he did a hand sprung out, a bottle clenched in it's grip. Pain blossomed just over his eye when it struck him, and then everything tilted and faded to black.

Matt and Shiro proceeded into the valley. They had barely hit the halfway mark when there was movement behind a nearby bush, and a moment later Sendak and his men were filtering out from behind the dull green needles.

There were seven, six of them mounted on horses and the last on a four by four, and a small cloud of dust kicked up behind them as they approached. Sendak's horse looked a bit put upon as it struggled to support the muscled bulk of it's rider. The men lined up before them about ten yards from where Shiro and Matt stood, Sendak staring down at them with a smirk, trying to intimidate with superior numbers and resources.

Shiro breathed in deep.

"Captain Shirogane." Sendak sneered once his men were in position, somehow making nothing but Shiro's name sound like an insult. "And his little war buddy tag-along."

Matt merely narrowed his eyes, refusing to take the bait, and instead studied the line of horses in front of them. "Awful lot of men to haul three crates."

"Yeah, well." Said Sendak with an unapologetic half shrug. "Couldn't be sure Shirogane wouldn't be lookin' for some kind of payback."

Man, I wish.

"We're just on the job." Shiro forced his voice to remain even. "Not interested in surprises."

Griffin, after hiding the lumbering engineer in what had been his cell, burst into the room that held his personal effects. Tearing into one of his duffle bags he quickly produced the hand held communicator given to him by the Garrison, but when he attempted to connect to the Cortex an orange error message appeared.

Unable to connect.

In a fit of rage he threw the useless thing across the room, watching in satisfaction as it broke into several pieces and clattered to the floor. Fine, time for plan B. It only took him a moment to locate his extra pistols, one of which he tucked into his waistband while he brandished the other.

He was going to take this fugitive down, one way or another.

"Don't see my cargo anywhere."

"And you're not gonna, until I'm holdin' 200 in platinum."

Sendak scoffed and rolled his eyes. A few of the horses stamped their feet, the man on the tractor revved the engine.

"Come on, I'm just supposed to take it on faith that you got the goods?"

With a dramatic flourish, Shiro swept back one side of his black coat, revealing both the bar tucked in his pocket and the gun in his holster. After letting Sendak get a good look, he pulled the bar from his pocket and tossed it across the gap to the man riding on Sendak's left, who passed it to him.

"It's pure." He said as Sendak began to peel back the copper foil wrapping with thick fingers. "Genuine 'A' grade foodstuffs. Protein, vitamins, immunization supplements. One of those would feed a family for a month."

Sendak raised the gray paste bar that had been revealed and took a cautious bite of it, chewing consideringly.

"That's the stuff." He grunted, tossing the rest of the bar back to one of his men. From one of his saddlebags he produced a hide bag that he threw to Shiro. The coins within clinked, the first reassuring sound of the whole interaction. "So where's the rest?"

He prowled carefully down the hall of the dinky Firefly, keeping a sharp ear out for any sign of the other crew members. So far so good, until he passed the open doors of what looked to be an infirmary and caught a gasp of surprise. Whirling, he pointed the barrel of his pistol into the room, only to find the auburn haired girl he'd shot before, barely upright on the metal table.

She instinctively cringed away from the gun, even as her eyes shone in the harsh lighting of the medical room.

"Make so much as a sound," He rasped out, "The next one goes through your throat."

"... Then east half a mile, at the bottom of the hill, you'll see where it's been dug."

Sendak straightened his shoulders. "I reckon I will." None of the horses moved, and the hair on the back of Shiro's neck began to prickle.

"Well then."

"Yep."

The only thing that could have made the awkward silence more pronounced would have been a whistle and a tumbleweed.

"I'd appreciate it," Said Shiro, even as he acknowledged it was a risk, "If you all turned and ride out first." Out of the corner of his eye he could see the tiniest movement of Matt's hand towards his pistol.

"Well, you see, there's a kind of hitch." Sendak answered with a fake note of remorse.

"We both made out on this deal. No need to complicate things."

Please, for once, just let things be easy.

"I got a rule. I never let go of money I don't have to."

Of fucking course not. Sendak was still monologuing as Shiro's blood began to boil with rage, fingertips twitching at the adrenaline leaking into his system in preparation for the inevitable.

"Which is maybe why I'm runnin' this little world, and you're still on that dinky old boat, sniffin' for scraps." His lips split into a feral smile, baring his teeth like a dog.

Slowly, Shiro reached into his coat pocket and produced the bag of coins, throwing it back to Sendak.

"There. You got the money back. No need for killin'."

"We're just gonna walk away, sir?" Matt asked, voice burning with accusation. Shiro didn't dare take his eyes off of Sendak long enough to look at him.

"Guess that's up to Sendak." He raised a challenging eyebrow. "Could be messy."

"Not terribly." Was the flippant answer, and with a laugh he said, "Shiro, you just ain't very bright, are ya?"

Alright, enough talking. Clearly this was only going to go one way, so he swept his eyes over the line of men and settled on the one to Sendak's left. He was a thin, gangly man, a top hat perched awkwardly on his head and a shining, practically brand new gun slung across his lap.

"That's quite a rifle." He remarked, earning a proud smirk and a nod from the man. "Boy must be your best shot to carry that."

"Called Haxus." Bragged Sendak, confirming Shiro's statement. "Always makes it quick and clean."

"Haxus. Nice hat."

A shot echoed across the valley, and Haxus's hat toppled from his head as he slumped in the saddle, red beginning to flow from where Lance's shot had torn clear through his brain. The other riders froze momentarily in shock, Sendak throwing an accusing glare up at where he thought his snipers were supposed to be, and Matt and Shiro drew their own guns.

They each managed to get a shot off before the other riders could react, taking out one more man on a horse and the one on the tractor, who slumped his dead weight over the controls and started moving the machine forward.

By now the remaining riders had raised their weapons. Though struggling to aim on their spooked horses, one of them hit Matt straight in the chest, sending him sprawling into the dust.

Keith fiddled with his pendant, glaring out at the dusty landscape and vehemently wishing Coran would go find someone else to bother. For some reason he was the one the man had chosen to sit with while they waited for the team to return, and he'd been chattering incessantly the whole time.

"Please shut up." He snapped eventually, finally making him pause in surprise. "I'm tryin' to listen to the radar."

"You're worried?" Coran asked, as though this was a shock. "Surely Shiro and the others know what they're doing."

"Even people who know what they're doin' can screw up."

Before he can respond, their conversation is interrupted by the thin, barely audible voice trickling through the intercom.

"He's out." Pidge wheezed, making them both tense. "The fed got out."

With a horrified expression Coran immediately rushed from the room, though to do what Keith couldn't figure. He was on his feet, about to follow, when a twitter from the radar made him pause. A glance at the screen had his heart pumping ice water instead of blood.

"Tāmāde."

Shiro moved to the right, parallel to Matt, trying to get an angle on Sendak's remaining forces, laying down a healthy rate of cover fire. One man's shot startled another's horse, making it rear and dump it's rider to the ground as Sendak's horse fought the bit. The man who'd been thrown clambered to his feet just in time to catch a sniper's bullet in the neck, spraying the sand with blood.

The doctor hustled down the catwalk. His heart was racing and blood was pounding in his ears and he had no idea what he was doing, but he knew if that fed got off of the ship he (and everyone else he'd accidentally dragged down with him) would be doomed.

Griffin had just strode into the cargo hold, making for the control panel that would lower the ramp and allow him to escape. On the catwalk above him, Coran peered down as he hit the button to release the ramp and open the doors, and knew he didn't have time to think.

He threw himself over the railing.

The drop was probably about twenty feet, only the body beneath him breaking his fall and preventing him from breaking bones. Even then he lay stunned after he, the fed, and the man's pistol had all clattered to the floor with a great crash.

Lance took a shot at Sendak and missed. The man immediately dismounted, positioning himself behind the horse for protection. Another one of their number followed suit, abandoning his steed for increasing mobility, even as the last remaining member of their party took off the way they'd came.

Raising his head from the dirt, Matt took aim and fired, sending the man crashing to the ground with his horse still running away.

Shiro took a shot at Sendak, only for a spark to fly as a bullet tore through his coat sleeve and ricocheted off his metal arm. With a short shout of irritation he put a bullet through the leg of the last man, and he collapsed with frantic cries of pain. Only Sendak was left, aiming his shotgun over the back of his horse.

With a scowl, Shiro raised his arm to check the scrape, calling over to Matt as he did.

"Armors dented." He grunted back, looking down at the kevlar he wore beneath his shirt with a grimace. "That's gonna leave a bruise."

"Well, you were right about this being a bad idea."

"Thanks for sayin', Shiro."

"Don't you take another step!" Sendak bellowed from across the sand. With only a momentary twist of his mouth and pang of regret, Shiro raised his pistol and shot the horse he was cowering behind.

It let out a twisted neigh of pain and fell, pinning Sendak beneath it. Shiro bore down on him like a freight train and pointed the barrel of his gun right at Sendak's teeth as the man stared at him out of the corners of his eyes in terror.

"Now I did a job." Shiro growled, bitterly vindicated by the look on his face. "I ain't got nothin' but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character. So let me make this abundantly clear. I do a job-" He reached down with his free hand, securing the bag of coins Sendak had dangled before him a few minutes earlier.

"And I get paid."

He clicked the hammer back into place on his pistol and straightened, heading back to Matt who was picking himself up off the ground and putting away his own gun. Before either of them could speak Lance was barreling down the hill beside them, shouting his goddamn lungs out.

"Shiro, it's Keith! We got a ship comin' in!" He yelled, skidding to a stop. His face was pale, eyes wide. His radio was clenched in his hand. "They followed us! The gorram Galra followed us!"

Griffin recovered before Coran, rolling onto his stomach and army crawling desperately for the gun that had been dropped. His hand had just fell upon the grip when Coran grabbed his shoulders from behind, pulling him off and away. He pulled them halfway to their feet before Griffin reared back and clocked him in the nose with an elbow. Two clatters rang across the cargo hold, one from Coran stumbling back into the crates and one from the gun in Griffin's waistband hitting the floor.

The fed was barely an inch from his prize when Coran scooped up the other gun and pointed it directly at him.

"Don't move!" He shouted, voice trembling more than he wanted, but still Griffin froze, looking gingerly over his shoulder.

Coran could taste blood, and his entire face hurt. Most likely a broken nose, but he couldn't let it distract him. He couldn't let this man get away, or all of his research would be destroyed, and he would never accomplish his goal-

"Everybody hang onto somethin'!" Keith's voice echoed through the room as it belted through the intercom. "We've got Galra headin' straight for us! We are in the air in one minute, buckled down or not!"

All around the two men began a whirring as the engines outside booted up, the sound coming in from the open ramp that Griffin eyed. He turned his gaze to Coran, who shifted on his feet.

He was still in his nightwear.

"You can do that?" Griffin questioned. "You're gonna kill a lawman in cold blood?"

His mustache itched at his nose, but he didn't lower his weapon.

"I know you're dedicated to your work, I understand, it doesn't make you a killer. I don't want to hurt anybody." He finished that statement just as Hunk staggered into the hold from the passenger's quarters, a bloody cut above his eye and a dazed expression on his face.

Coran's stomach clenched and he tightened his grip. Griffin kept talking.

"I have a job to do- to uphold the law, that's what we're talking about here."

Keith's leg juttered as he eyed the timer ticking down, down, down. If he looked up through the windscreen he could see the plume of smoke as the Galra ship broke atmo. They were running out of time, and he raised his radio to angrily yell for Shiro.

"What the hell is taking you so long?!"

Coran was surprised at the sound of thundering hooves, and looked away from his hostage long enough to get a glimpse at the captain, Matt, and Lance tearing up to the ship on the backs of horses he was pretty certain they hadn't had before. Unfortunately it was also long enough for the fed to spring for his weapon, and he had to throw himself to the side to dodge the shot that was haphazardly aimed in his direction.

Griffin scrambled back to his feet, leveling his gun in Coran's direction. Above them the noise had alerted Allura, who came rushing out of her shuttle in a panic.

"I'm not playing around anymore." Griffin proclaimed as Shiro came striding up the ramp. "If anyone moves so much as an inch-"

Bang.

Shiro didn't even pause in his march as Griffin collapsed on the floor with a bullet hole through his chest. Hunk looked on from where he braced himself in the doorway, and Allura leaned on the catwalks railing, gripping it tight until her knuckles turned white. Coran was frozen in place, but Shiro didn't even seem bothered.

"Matt, help me." He snapped, kneeling and gathering two fistfuls of the man's shirt. Matt darted forward to help the captain lift the corpse as Lance moved to hit the button to raise the ramp and call into the intercom.

"Keith, we're on!"

Matt and Shiro hustled by, moving up the ramp even as it closed and tossed the body out into the desert heat. They had to run to make it back into the ship before the doors closed, and that very moment the Golden Lion was lifting from the ground.

Keith was deadly focused when the three of them crashed onto the bridge, Shiro scrambling to gather information.

"How close are they?"

"About twenty seconds from spitting distance." Keith snapped as they crowded around his seat. The muscles in his upper arms strained as he fought to keep the Lion as in control as possible.

"Well lose 'em!" Lance said in a terrified voice. He got only a snarl in response.

"Get me the vid." Ordered Shiro, and Matt obligingly pulled up the back camera feed on one of the screens. Then promptly swore in the worst Chinese he knew at the sight of the Galra ship with its great billowing cloud of smoke behind it.

"How close do they have to be to snare us?" Shiro asked, but Keith didn't answer, eyes intent on what was playing out before him.

"Come on, Keith, dumbass, dodge 'em!" Lance was shouting in the background. Keith twisted the controls and sent them flipping neatly around a tall hill, but it wasn't nearly enough.

"I need Hunk and Pidge in the engine room."

"Can she even-"

Shiro interrupted Matt. "Lance, get them in there now!" He followed the sniper off of the bridge, nearly running directly into Allura, who had been hurrying up to them.

"Shiro-"

"Get Coran in your shuttle and be ready to take off." He ordered. The ship jerked and they both had to catch themselves on one of the ladders that descended into the crew's quarters to keep themselves from toppling to the floor. "We get boarded, you take off, head for town. We might be able to keep them from following you."

"I can't just leave you here!"

"You have to!"

"They'll kill you!"

Despite the dire circumstances, Shiro gave her a cocky grin and grabbed her shoulder. "Worse things than them have tried. You go, now."

Though reluctantly, she obeyed.

Shiro returned to the bridge. "How we doin'?"

"They're right on our ass."

Downstairs, Lance was lifting a blanket-wrapped and wincing Pidge into his arms and making for the engine room. Hunk shuffled behind him, still a bit fuzzy from the strike to the head but the adrenaline raising his awareness the longer it stuck around. Allura retrieved the shocked Coran from the cargo hold and pulled him back to her shuttle, perching herself in the pilots seat and readying the shuttle for take off.

The Galra were right on top of them now, gaining ever more speed the longer the chase went on.

Keith came around another bend, flew them down below the clouds and through a valley.

"Can't keep this up." Murmured Shiro from above his shoulder where he braced himself. "They get a bead, they're gonna lock us down." Keith didn't answer him, merely called into the intercom, hoping Pidge and Hunk were in position.

"Hunk, I'm gonna need a push."

"Want me to go for full burn?" His voice was faint and not all there, but it wasn't something they had time to worry about.

"Not yet, set it up though."

A bit of shuffling, and then Pidge, "We're ready for full burn on your mark."

"Full burn in atmo?" Matt questioned anxiously. "That won't cause a blowback, burn us out?"

"Even if it doesn't," Answered Shiro, mind whirring just as fast as the engines. "They'll be able to push just as hard and keep right on us." He looked down at Keith, who was practically biting holes through his lip as he flipped the ship sideways to squeeze through two cliff faces. The idea he'd just had was dangerous, and if anyone but Keith were flying he wouldn't have dared.

But he was, and if anyone could pull it off…

"Keith, you gotta give me an Ivan."
Keith grinned wolfishly. "Sir yes sir. Hey Pidge, how would you feel about a Crazy Ivan?"

In the engine room Hunk let out an alarmed squawk at the same time as Pidge's laugh.

"Always wanted to try one. Hunk, you ever cut hydraulics before?"

"No! This is crazy!"

"Well then just listen to me. Open the port jack control."

"Pidge this is all electronics, you know I'm not good with wires-"

"Just listen you knucklehead!"

One of the scanners on the dashboard began to beep alarmingly, the proximity alert telling them they had someone dangerously close to them. The Galra's welded monstrosity of a ship was right there, its shadow devouring them alive.

"Pidge?" Keith asked tensely, white knuckling the controls. After a moment, Pidge answered.

"Ok, it's ready."

"Hold on!" With barely that bit of warning, Keith threw the switch next to the controls.

The entire right engine of the ship flipped over, the propulsion now in the opposite direction. Keith let it spin them precisely one hundred and eighty degrees before flipping the other engine and stabilising them again.

Shiro clung to the back of the pilots chair and prayed.

Keith took them right underneath the Galra ship, and the moment they were clear of its smoke trail, he slammed down another button and yanked a lever.

Almost all of their fuel dumped at once and ignited, forming a massive fireball that swallowed the Galra ship and sent it tumbling. Keith expertly rode the shockwave, letting it propel them as far away from the Galra as possible.

By the time the ship stopped shaking back and forth, all of them were trembling and drenched in sweat from the adrenaline.

"Whoo!" Lance's voice echoed through the speaker. "Whoo-hoo! Yeah! Take that you gǒucàode savages, fuck yes!"

Matt and Shiro both released breathless laughs, frankly astounded at living another day. Keith was beaming and flexing his sore fingers around the controls and didn't see it coming when Shiro ruffled his hair.

"That's our hotshot pilot." He praised, and laughed out loud at the way Keith's cheeks painted themselves red in response.

He straightened and hit the intercom.

"We're good, people. We're safe."

"You want to what?"

Shiro ignored Keith's outburst and cast an eye around the room. The whole group had gathered in the kitchen- Hunk with his head bandaged, Coran with an ice pack over his nose, and Pidge curled up in one of the softer chairs. She was pale and covered in a thin sheen of sweat, but she'd insisted on being here for this discussion.

"I think we should keep Coran aboard. 'Course, everyone will get to speak their piece." Keith opened his mouth, but Shiro cut him off. "Matt, you first."

Matt gulped, but his soldier facade let little slip. "Actively going after the Galra is suicide." He said bluntly. "And keeping a fugitive on board will have the Garrison riding our ass. But… I have to admit he has a point about the Galra. And maybe if we keep our distance, let him gather data through interviews and such, we'll be ok."

Shiro nodded to him and looked to Lance next, who looked near to bursting with the need to speak.

"I don't know if this is a great idea." The words bubbled out of him like a mountain spring. "I mean, you're the captain so obviously you get the final say, but it's like Matt said, going after Galra is absolutely kuángzhěde and I ain't quite ready to die yet, ya know what I mean?"

"I know. Hunk?"

Poor Hunk look petrified. "I want to say we should, I want to say that it's worth it if we can save all the people who'll get killed by Galra, but I'm also freakin' terrified and I don't know if it's worth our lives."

"Alright. Pidge?"

"Obviously I agree with you." She said. "This research is important, end of discussion."

Shiro rolled his eyes at that and looked to Allura. If she's surprised she's being addressed, she doesn't show it. She pulls herself up tall, for once her expression free and not restrained behind a Companion smile.

"It's noble." She says. "And foolish. But maybe that's the point."

He spares her a smile. "Keith?"

Keith is livid, he knows that without even looking at him. "I think you're the biggest gǒucàode dumb ass in the galaxy." He growled. Some of the others gasped at his foul mouth, but at this point Shiro was expecting nothing less from him.

"Might be." He acknowledged. Keith isn't done.

"The Galra are not our ruttin' responsibility. We can't be runnin' around the system bein' big damn heroes, not when we're barely keepin' afloat as it is. The last thing we need is the Garrison and the Galra on us, 'specially not for the greater gorram good."

"Are you done?"

"No. Why do you even want to do this anyway? Why do you want to 'protect the universe'?" He says is so scornfully Shiro is surprised he doesn't straight up melt from the acid in his voice.

"Because I'm one of the idiots who lives in it." He answered mildly. Keith was about to keep arguing but Shiro looked away, signalling the end of the conversation. At the end of the day, Lance was right, and he had the final decision.

He looked to Coran, who was wearing an expression of cautious optimism.

"Here's how it's gonna be. We'll keep you on board as a proper medic, for injuries like this one, and we'll let you do your research or whatever. But we will not be going out of our way to bait the Galra, and if at any time the Garrison gets to be too much of a hassle, I reserve the right to dump you on your ass." He finished the statement with the challenging raise of an eyebrow. "Dǒng ma?"

Coran bobbed his head eagerly. Out of the corner of his eye Shiro could see Lance and Hunk exchanging uneasy looks, and it was impossible to not feel Keith's glare. But the decision had been made.

"Yes, Captain." Said Coran.

"Oh, and if you ever pull another stunt like you did with Pidge, you'll be gettin' very acquainted with how cold space can be. Am I making myself clear?"

Coran gulped. "Crystal." He rasped out. Having finally ironed this whole situation out, he turned back to a mutinous Keith.

"Set us a course for the nearest fuel station, please."

"Yes, sir." Keith spat, more venomous than any cobra, before turning on his heel and storming out of the room. Shiro couldn't swallow his sigh.

"Alright, let's get some sleep everybody. It's been a long couple of days."

(A/N Chinese translations:

Tāmāde- shit or damn

Bìzuǐ- Quiet

Shōudào- affirmative, like 'yes sir'

Āiyā! Huàile- Shit, this is bad

Zhùyì- Be careful

Liú kǒushuǐ de biǎozǐ hé hóuzǐ de bèn érzǐ- a long string of incomprehensible swearing

yúbèn de- stupid

húndàn- asshole

gǒucàode- dog-humping

Dǒng ma- Understand

Mei-mei- little sister

Wǒ de mā- oh my god

kuángzhěde- crazy, mad, suicidal

UNC-

Silence)