Chapter Twelve: Done the Impossible

Keith was the first of them to surface from despair. The shock in his eyes sharpened as they darted this way and that, scanning over the minefield.

"We're so fucked," Lance muttered behind him.

"Oh, Jesus," Hunk murmured.

"Well, living was nice while it lasted," said Matt.

Shiro blocked them all out and followed Keith's gaze out the windscreen, trying to see what he saw. The Galra ships were obvious; large, usually older, models of spacecraft so derelict and neglected they probably weren't at all safe to fly. Their size left considerable gaps between each craft, but each space was clogged with wreckage and other space junk. He couldn't see a path through it- not without lighting up every single radar on this side of Altea.

But Keith didn't look daunted.

"Got an idea?" Shiro asked softly. Keith frowned and rubbed his thumb over his knuckles.

"Maybe. If we backed up and got a good start on full burn, maybe I could get enough momentum to cruise through." He paused and bit his lip. "And if we switch everything to blackout right before we get into radar range we can avoid being buzzed. Maybe."

Huh… better than nothing, he supposed.

"Pidge." He turned, cutting off the rest of the crew in the midst of their increasingly distressed chatter. "Hunk. Keith's got an idea."

The two engineers sidled forward, wary curiosity scrawled on their expressions, and for a few minutes everyone was quiet as Keith explained his plan. Lance, as ever, was the first to speak.

"You're gonna kill us all," he said, bluntly- Keith didn't so much as blink. His attention was focused on Pidge and Hunk who, so far, merely had considering looks on their faces and hadn't said anything one way or the other.

"I mean…" began Pidge.

"It could be possible…" continued Hunk.

"We might die, but…"

"We were kinda planning on that anyway."

"Dear God," said Matt, pressing his palm to his forehead. "Shiro, if we survive this, I'm gonna sue you for hazard pay."

Shiro ignored him. "What do you think, can you three make it happen?"

Pidge and Hunk exchanged a brief look, then turned back to Shiro and nodded. Keith's lips curved into a smirk.

"Alright, get to it then. We ain't got all day."


"This is crazy. Absolutely insane. You know that, right? I mean, a crazy Ivan is one thing but this is absolutely-"

"I know, Hunk," Pidge snapped as she yanked the backing off of a remote control. "But what else are we gonna do? If we approach from the far side we could get tagged by the Garrison."

"I know, I know, I just don't really feel like dying in a massive fireball when we crash directly into the broadside of a Trans-U."

"Would you rather die of old age in a prison cell? Or, more likely, in the middle of the night with a gun to your head?"

She looked up in time to see Hunk blanch and felt just the tiniest kick of guilt. It wasn't Hunk's fault he was scared. By all rights she should've been right there with him. But ever since she'd helped Matt and Coran go through all of those files, it felt like there was a cloud of rage between her and reality. At the moment she would do anything if it meant getting some sort of vengeance on the fuckers.

"I'm sorry," she said with a sigh, turning her eyes back to the remote she was trying to hook up while Hunk prepared the ship for full burn. "I know it's scary. But we're all in it together. And if anyone can make this work, it'd be Keith."

She heard the air whistle when Hunk sucked in a breath through his teeth.

"It's not that I'm worried about- not really. What I'm scared of is what we have to do. Switchin' a ship from full burn to total blackout that quickly… I've never done anything like it before. Never heard of it, neither."

"Neither have I. Things might get screwy. There might be flames. But the Lion can take it."

Pidge paused and looked up at the engine above her head, slowly, calmly cycling in the same rhythm it always had. The heartbeat she'd spent so many restless nights listening to.

"She can take anything."


Lance's pacing was starting to drive Matt to distraction, but it was either deal with that, with Keith and Shiro muttering over flight paths and coordinates, or with Hunk and Pidge as they tried to perform feats of ingenuity. Compared to the other options, loitering in the galley with the remainder of the crew wasn't so bad.

"What if there are Galra when we land?" Lance demanded, the next in a long line of similar 'what if' questions. "They were created at Altea, wouldn't they make that their home, fortify and hunker down?"

"They wouldn't," Coran reassured. He was seated at the dining room table with a cup of tea, feigning patience, though the liquid revealed the tremble in his hands each time he brought it to his lips. "Galra dislike remaining planet-side, remember? They prefer to make their homes in spacecraft."

"Except the ones that grabbed us." Matt looked up at that and was surprised to find Lance's eyes hard and glittering like steel. "They seemed perfectly happy in their base, which, as I recall, was underground."

"Well, in scientific data there will always be anomalies. Perhaps those particular Galra had been separated from the main population for a significant amount of time and developed their own strategies and preferences. Perhaps they were mostly comprised of second generation mutants, like Keith. Perhaps-"

Matt cut him off. The words were difficult to form with the way Lance's comment had made his throat tighten, but somehow he got through it.

"If they are on the ground, we won't be goin' in blind. All of us will be there, and we'll all be armed and aware."

It wasn't the most robust line of comfort he'd ever given, but even so it seemed to soothe Lance's nerves more than Coran's technobabble had. Then he looked at Allura and got worked up all over again.

"What about you, Allura? You're not comin' down with us, right? It wouldn't be safe, but then again we can't really leave you on the Lion alone, so one of us will have to-"

Allura held up a gracious hand. Normally by now Lance would be complaining about being interrupted so much, but for now he held his tongue.

"I've already decided," said Allura as she took a sip of her own tea. "I will be going down to the planet with the rest of you."

Once again Matt was taken aback, but this time he wasn't the only one.

"What?" Lance exclaimed. "You can't be serious!"

At the moment, Allura looked deathly serious. Her agreeable companion mask had fallen away, and now as they watched her brow furrowed, following the angle of her piercing eyes as she glared into her mug of tea like it had killed her parents.

"I supported unification," she said after a few moments of dangerous silence. "I supported the war effort- I was lied to and misled. I need to know the truth, so that the millions of others in the Core that are like me can know it, too."

Coran seemed impressed by her speech. "That's quite brave of you," he said, summoning a small smile from Allura. But Lance and Matt simply gave each other solemn looks.

They both knew that however this mission of theirs panned out, it wasn't likely to be pretty. They would probably get off lucky with only slightly traumatizing. But what were they supposed to do? Tell her no?

"Your choice, Princess," Matt eventually wound up muttering. As the conversation died out, he hoped that she wouldn't make the wrong one.


"Is everything ready?"

Pidge nodded and pressed a remote into one of Keith's gloved palms. "Put this on the dash next to you- when you're ready to cut the engine and go to blackout, hit the button. Hopefully it won't make the ship implode."

Shiro mentally winced at that, but outwardly maintained his facade of confidence. After all, he was the one who'd wanted to do this. If something went wrong, if people got hurt, if they died, it would all be on him.

"Alright," Keith answered, "thanks." He put the remote down and turned back to the screen he was fiddling with, trying his best to approximate a path through the debris. Of course it would be ever changing as the wreckage danced around in the planet's gravity, but it never hurt to have a plan. He tapped a few buttons before spinning to another screen to double check the coordinates he was going to be shooting for.

"I'm gonna get back to the engine room," Pidge murmured to Shiro before scurrying out of the cockpit. Shiro couldn't blame her for being flighty; they were all feeling the pressure, most of all Keith, who had insisted everyone but Matt and Shiro stay out of the room while he was flying.

I can't think with Lance babblin' in my ear the whole ruttin' time, he thought the exact words were.

Matt was tense and closed off at his side. Mentally preparing for what was to come. If Shiro had the time he might've felt guilty about putting Matt through this again. Fortunately, he didn't, because Keith was about to prove whether he was really the best pilot in the 'Verse.

"You guys ready?" he called into the intercom as he wrapped his hands around the controls. Two affirmative answers echoed through the radio static. Keith rolled his shoulders and straightened his spine.

"Hit it."

Instantly the ship rocketed forward with such force it sent Shiro and Matt stumbling against the back wall. Keith had backtracked them a fair bit during the interlude, but even so the horde of Galra ships was growing larger and larger, so quickly that Shiro couldn't help but be a little bit terrified. But Keith was deathly focused- Shiro could see it in the ramrod straight line of his spine and hunch of his shoulders over the controls.

He and Matt struggled back up to the front of the cockpit step by step. Matt split off to cling to the co-pilot's seat, eyes open, but his white knuckles said that they didn't want to be. From here Shiro could see how fast Keith's eyes moved, darting all over the windscreen and then down to the radar and back up again, counting down seconds and milliseconds.

Shiro restrained to urge to shout orders at him. Even as the Galra ships began to loom, even when Keith passed the point where Shiro would've stopped even if he was running for his life, he bit his words back. He'd chosen to trust Keith, and he couldn't change that decision now.

Keith took one hand off of the controls. It hung poised over the button Pidge had given him, the muscles in his other arm straining as he fought to keep the Lion on a straight course with only one hand. Just barely his lips moved as he counted.

When he slammed that hand down Shiro expected to feel his organs in his throat. Surprisingly enough he didn't- the lights flickered out and the never-ending roil of the engine under their feet ceased, but still they maintained their speed, and Keith brought his other hand back to the controls. The hull around them creaked and groaned.

The ship hadn't exploded. Yet.

Now for the hard part.

Their straight course was safe for about three seconds. Then Keith gave a harsh jerk to the right, flipping the Lion sideways to fit through a gap. Shiro felt his stomach twist at the sensation of their gravity generator trying to figure out what was going on, and before it could Keith had put them into a nosedive to go underneath another piece of debris, then jerked them back up to go over something else.

It was almost like watching an acrobat. Or it would've been, if it hadn't been absolutely gut-wrenchingly terrifying.

There was a horrendous grating screeeeeeech as part of the Lion scraped against something, but Keith didn't seem to waver in the slightest. Shiro was lamenting the fact that he couldn't check the screens to find out if any of the Galra had pinned them, and the motion outside the Lion's windscreen was too much even for him. All he could do was wait, and pray. And hold on for dear life.

He blinked, and suddenly there was no metal in sight. Just Altea rising before them, the green splotch of vegetation growing to fill the whole windscreen. There was a moment of dead silence, no one daring to breathe.

Then Keith exhaled and sat back, slowly pulling back on the controls to slow their descent. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his arms trembled minutely, but a grin was on his lips, and when Shiro met his eyes they were shining.

"We made it through."

Cheers erupted through the radio. The lights overhead flickered back on as Matt slumped into the co-pilot's seat, putting his head in his hands and swearing up a storm. Already he could hear the footfalls on metal walkways- the others rushing up to celebrate with them.

Shiro just put his hand on Keith's shoulder and squeezed, and when Keith reached up and gave his wrist a squeeze back, Shiro knew he understood.

"Dude!" Lance's voice shattered the moment as he stampeded into the cockpit, the others on his heels. All were laughing in slightly hysterical tones, like they couldn't quite believe they were still alive. Shiro could relate. "I can't fucking believe you actually pulled that off! Holy shit-"

"I told you she could take it," said Pidge with a punch to Hunk's arm. "Our Lion can take anything."

Coran was clinging to Allura's arm, staring out the windscreen with an intense gaze, feasting his eyes on Altea, which to him probably looked like a gold mine of potential data. Allura was flushed with exhilaration the way only another pilot could be.

"Why didn't you become an engineer, Holt?" Matt was muttering to himself. "Why did you get yourself all mixed up in so much random bullshit?"

Through it all Keith shook his head like he was trying to get water out of his ears. Still buzzing with adrenaline, most like, and all the commotion wouldn't be helpful.

"Alright, chill out everybody," Shiro said, breaking up the celebration. "That was only part one."

Keith returned his hands to the controls, his expression settling back into concentration.

"I'll bring us in. Hopefully whatever security they have ain't workin' anymore."

"If any of it was, the Galra probably tore it out and stuck it on their ships," said Pidge as she leaned against one of the dashboards.

"Still better to be safe than sorry," Hunk chimed in.

"Yeah, yeah, I know."

Keith shook his head again, this time in irritation. "God, you guys never shut up."

"You love us anyway," teased Lance. He reached out to ruffle Keith's hair, but only Shiro had that luxury, and Keith ducked away from his hand with a sound of irritation.

"I will crash and kill us all, I swear."

"Ok, ok, enough." He almost felt bad for breaking up the banter, but if he was being realistic, they were coming up on their destination and they needed to be ready for whatever was going to happen once they touched down. "Let's go get geared up, guys. Keith, tell me when we're on final approach."

"Sir, yes, sir."


By the time the Lion touched ground, everyone but Keith was clustered in the cargo hold. All of them armed to the teeth (even Allura had a little pistol hanging from the belt of her black pants- possibly the first time Shiro had seen her wear pants) ready to fight. A few minutes later Keith descended from the cockpit to join them.

Well, it was now or never.

Shiro didn't waste time on an inspirational speech. Without ceremony he marched to the controls and lowered the ramp, the blast of air as the airlock unsealed blowing the edges of his coat back. The air that greeted them was warm and humid, and already he could smell the vegetation- something he hadn't experienced in a good long while.

Without a word, he led his crew out into the sunlight.

Altea was blinding. For a moment the sunlight reflecting off of everything made it impossible to see, but as his eyes adjusted Shiro began to make out buildings and sidewalks, all made of white concrete and glass. Directly ahead of them was a large vehicle hangar attached to the landing pad, and attached to that was another building with a large satellite protruding from the roof.

Shiro halted their procession a few steps from the Lion. He wanted to be cautious, just in case there were Galra or other dangers hiding amongst the buildings, but so far everything felt strangely, eerily empty. Untouched, by human hands or otherwise.

"Well, the grounds are pretty, at least," Pidge snarked, breaking the spell that had fallen over the group. With a wry shake of his head Shiro rolled his shoulders and started forward again, moving towards the buildings. If this was the official landing and launching area for the settlement, there may be important data inside.

The Golden Lion was the only ship on the tarmac. And from what Shiro could see, most of the hangar spaces were empty, as well. He wasn't the only one to notice.

"The Galra must have stolen the ships after the uprising," Coran murmured, almost to himself. Already Shiro could hear the tap tap tap of his stylus racing over the surface of his tablet. "Which makes sense, considering they were biologically directed to prefer space travel to planet living-"

"Coran, will you please shut up?" snapped Keith. A glance over his shoulder showed Shiro what was wrong- he was tense, his knuckles turning white where they were wrapped around the hilt of his knife, and Shiro felt a ping of pity. This whole process was going to be hellish for Keith, he knew- hellish, but necessary.

It was cooler in the shade of the hangar. Anywhere else it could've been refreshing, but here it bordered on uncomfortable chill. That feeling only increased when they came upon a crumpled shape beside the entrance to the other building.

"Eugh," muttered Hunk with a visible shudder. "A body."

Technically it was more of a skeleton. Bones coated in dirt and dust rested on the concrete floor, curled into a fetal position, in some places still clothed with the remaining scraps of black trousers and what could've been a white coat. Banked up against the remains were small piles of dead and decaying leaves that stirred minutely with the movement of the air.

Coran took a knee beside the body. "One of the scientists, I'd wager," he said, then leaned forward on one of his hands, without regard for the state of his white gloves. "He was stabbed in the gut, with this shard of metal here."

A closer look proved him correct. A thin bit of metal was protruding from between two of the corpses ribs, finger bones arranged around it as though he'd died while grasping at the wound.

Shiro straightened up. Now that he knew what he was looking for it was easy to see where the metal had been pulled from the door frame. If he squinted, he could even see small smears of blood in the same place, as though the assailant had torn their nails pulling the metal free.

"I wonder…" Pidge padded forward and stooped to pluck something from the skeletons white coat. A white plastic card, roughly the size of her palm, with a black bar on the back. "It probably won't work after so long, but maybe…"

Stepping gingerly around the body she made her way over to the door and pressed the card against the reader. It took a moment, but then the reader lit up a dull green, and Shiro heard the gears whirring in the door as it unlocked.

"Good job, Pidge." He reached out to open the door and cringed a bit at the texture of dust on stainless steel. "Everybody be on your guard."

The room beyond didn't raise any immediate red flags. It just looked like an office space, probably for people to sign in and out as they arrived and left the colony, and behind the wall of desks was another large door. Above it hung a sagging sign that read Welcome to Altea.

"Looks like they have security cameras," Shiro noted, nodding in the direction of the lens hidden in the upper left corner of the room. "Think the video is still stored?"

Matt snorted. "Knowing the Garrison? Definitely."

Pidge had already clambered over the desks. The others began to follow as she moved forward into the room, carefully taking in every detail- including the small name plate beside another door to their left.

"Found it." She tapped at the plate just as Shiro put his feet back on the floor. "This one says Lab Access. Restricted." She glanced back to meet Shiro's eyes, oozing solemnity, and it didn't take a genius to understand what she was hinting at.

The lab. Where the Garrison had tried to build their super soldiers.

Drawing her shoulders back, Pidge turned back to the door, shifting her grip on the scavenged key card. "I'm going in. Who's with me?"

"I'll come." Matt moved to his sister's side, hands hovering near his holsters, just in case. Coran joined them wordlessly, but no one else seemed too eager to follow them down. Shiro certainly wasn't.

"The rest of us will go through the other door," he decided for them, "and take a look around the rest of the place. See what we can see. Keep your radios on, and if something goes wrong we rendez-vous at the Lion."

The dead leaves scattered over the floor crunched as Hunk shifted his weight. Drops of anxious sweat ran down his face and dampened his headband.

"I don't wanna go any further," he blurted out suddenly, dipping his head to hide how his cheeks darkened. "I already know the Garrison did awful things to people here- I don't need to see it for myself. Seen enough horror already, thanks."

Shiro nodded in understanding. A part of him felt the way Hunk did… but the larger part wanted the truth. Wanted proof that the Garrison had always been as bad as he thought, and that he hadn't picked the wrong side.

"That's alright. You can go back to the Lion and see if anything needs fixin' from that stunt we pulled."

His expression melted into relief, and with a murmured word of thanks, Hunk began to make his way back from where they'd come. Leaving the Holts and Coran to investigate the lab, and Keith, Lance, and Allura to follow Shiro.

"Alright. Let's get moving."


He wasn't exactly sure what he'd been expecting to be beyond that door. Whatever it was, this wasn't it; this long idyllic white walkway, flanked on either side by one story buildings made up of as much glass as wood and stone, shadowed by willow trees that let their small leaves fall ever so gently to the grass.

He had been expecting bodies, but maybe not this many.

Skeletons littered the ground. Shiro couldn't even take his planned step out with how clustered they were around the door- he had to readjust or risk stepping right through a skull. Behind him Lance swore and Allura murmured a prayer, but all of them followed when he began to gingerly pick his way through the group of bones.

There had to be at least ten skeletons directly in front of the door. Like they'd been trying to escape but been locked out and cut down. All of them still had a few scraps of cloth on them, black and white, and one even still had a shoe. A high-end loafer with ragged fringed edges.

Beyond that the bodies spread out, though not by much. If he dared to glance through the windows of the buildings Shiro could see more remains inside, sprawled over floors or pressed against the glass, empty eye sockets seeming to watch their procession as they passed. He tried to shake the feeling off and continue, until Lance made a soft sound of interest and broke from the group.

He was heading for a skeleton half-sheltered under a tattered awning. It lay upon its face, its arms tucked underneath it, and when Shiro followed Lance close enough he found the finger bones pressed against the skull, near those eye sockets that Shiro found so haunting.

"Look at this," Lance said, quietly, as though not to disturb the slumbering. He scuffed one boot against the ground beside the skull.

"What is that?" asked Allura. Shiro answered before Lance could.

"Blood stain. Old. Set into the concrete."

She made a squeaking sound. Lance knelt, propping himself up with his rifle as he studied the bones more closely. Shiro was about to ask why when Lance beckoned him forward.

"Look," he said again, "What do you make of this?" A point of his finger directed Shiro's gaze to where he wanted it: a set of grooves in the bone, just below the eye sockets and almost going into them.

Shiro winced. "Not sure but… I think he clawed his eyes out."

He pushed himself back to his feet and took a deep breath, pretending to take a look around to disguise it. Allura was pale and had a hand over her eyes. Lance straightened up as well, setting his jaw the way he did whenever he didn't want his emotions to leak out. And Keith was just… staring.

"Think it was one of them?" Lance asked, gazing off at a tree some distance away. "One of the… the…"

"Students," Keith supplied softly. Lance's eyes cut to him once, then flickered away again.

"Yeah, them."

"I'd reckon so."

Lance swallowed. Keith, with a sudden sharp movement, turned away.

"Let's keep moving," he said rather gruffly before pushing past Shiro. And Shiro, at a loss, followed.

Aside from the skeletons, the campus looked surprisingly untouched. After several minutes of trudging they finally found an indication that something had happened- a single door, standing ajar. Eerie as hell, a matter not helped any when Keith began to wander toward it.

"Keith?"

He didn't respond. Shiro turned to see Allura giving him a questioning look, but could only offer a shrug in return. Really, what else was there to do?

The building Keith led them into was a dorm; the worn, water-stained posters pinned to the walls gave that away. Most of them were for hover-bikes and jets, and some of them were blueprints.

Across the room Keith had gravitated towards a dusty desk. Before it was the chair, tipped over, and installed into the wall above it was a small camera. Probably for correspondence and record keeping, which Keith confirmed when he reached out and powered it on.

The image was flickering and full of static. Whatever power the place had left was probably on its last legs. But that didn't stop all three of them, Shiro included, from gasping at the face that appeared on the screen.

It was a woman. Her face was lean and angular, skin pale, wearing a wry half-smile, with warm brown eyes. Shiro didn't even need the added detail of the pendant around her neck. Even without it, she was the spitting image of Keith.

With a certain mechanical tinge to his movements, Keith hit another button. A video began to play.

"Well, um, hello, I guess." The voice was jarring. The whole campus had been so quiet, silent like the grave. And now one of the headstones was speaking, in a husky, solemn voice that reminded Shiro of so many people he'd known before everything went to hell. "I've never done one of these personal logs before, but the Garrison says it'll be good for us, so… here I am."

She paused and fidgeted in her seat for a moment. She seemed anxious, but at the same time also comfortable and at ease. An odd combination.

"So, um… today is the first day of the Altea Academy." Her lips parted into a blinding, proud grin. "I'm here to be a pilot. I didn't think I was gonna get in, I almost didn't even go to the testing, but here I am!" Another smile, and her fingers rose to roll her pendant between her fingertips in an all too familiar fidget. "Uh, I'm not sure what else there is to talk about, really. So I guess I'm gonna… go. Yeah? Ok, yeah, I'm going."

The video cut, and Shiro took a step forward, reaching for Keith's shoulder.

"Keith-"

He started another video before Shiro could finish.

"Wow, this place is amazing!" The woman's cheeks were flushed, her eyes sparkling. Shiro's stomach twisted, recalling how many times he'd seen that look on Keith's face. "I'm learning so much, way more than I ever would've learned on that piece of gǒushǐ moon that I came from. And the food isn't even half bad!" She gave a delighted laugh. Then she seemed to calm, and sat back against her chair. "I mean, some of the people here are real dicks, and we're constantly getting called in for health checkups, but other than that? This place is practically paradise."

This time when the video ended Shiro didn't move. He would let Keith get what he needed.

"The strangest thing happened today." This time the woman was leaning back, arms crossed, with a puzzled look on her face. One of her hands had returned to her necklace, and she stared slightly off to the side of the camera, as though lost in thought. "I had Rizavi over to talk about the new engines we're learning about and, this is going to sound so weird, but I swear when we met she had green eyes. I remember, because I remember thinking to myself that they were the greenest thing I'd ever seen."

Her brow furrowed and she sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees, now staring down at the floor. "I could've sworn they were green. But today her eyes were this weird blue, purple-y color." She looked back into the camera. "I'm not going crazy, right?"

Keith cut the video and chose another one. Shiro, Lance, and Allura were all silent. They knew what they were watching. Shiro almost wanted to look away, knowing what was coming, but he couldn't bring himself to let Keith witness this alone.

In the next video, her eyes were different.

"I knew it!" she was crying to the camera. Her expression wasn't just anxiety this time- it was pure fear. "They are changing us! When I woke up this morning my eyes were different too, but when I asked the doctor about it at my check up he said they'd always been that color. He even showed me my file, and my eye color was marked as indigo!"

A rattling breath left her, almost like a sob, and she crumbled forward with her fingers twined desperately through her hair.

"But- but- I know I'm not crazy!" When she raised her head again, her new eyes were wild. A very particular kind of wild that made Lance stumble a few steps back. "I know I'm not. I looked back at my past videos- my eyes are brown in those! The Garrison is lying to us- something is going on." Then her eyes narrowed into a glare, and her voice came out in steel. "And I'm not going to quit until I know what it is."

The video stopped. Another started.

Even Keith flinched. The woman on the screen was a completely different person than the one they'd been watching. Her hair was mussed and practically standing on end. Her teeth were bared in a snarl. Two matching, bloody lines trailed down her cheeks and dripped crimson onto her collarbones. The whites of her eyes were gold.

She looked…

Galra.

"They did this to us!" she growled, the mic popping and fizzing at her proximity. Her expression was so twisted with rage she was nearly unrecognizable. "The doctors- the Garrison- they lied. They lied. They hurt us." She clenched her fists, and as she opened her mouth to speak again, blood began to sluice down her wrists.

"They. Will. Pay!" With a guttural roar she whirled around. Her chair fell over, she stormed to the door and yanked it open, and then the video finally ended.

All of them ended.

For a long moment there was utter silence. Lance and Allura exchanged helpless, traumatized glances. Shiro kept his eyes on Keith, and after a minute or two of not moving, dared to reach out again.

Keith was shaking. Shiro wordlessly pulled him under his arm, into his side. After another second after Allura circled around in front of them and, with wounded eyes, reached up to cradle Keith's jaw in her palm. For once he didn't brush her away.

"Are you alright?" she whispered, and just like that the spell of silence broke. Lance strode forward, boots crunching over the leaves, and came up on Keith's other side to clap a hand on his shoulder. Keith nodded, but his sniffling gave him away.

"She liked flying," he said, barely audible even to Shiro. "Like me."

Shiro's chest ached. He combatted it by giving Keith a reassuring squeeze. But no one really knew how to respond.

Keith indulged himself in sorrow for a few minutes longer, then gave a rough exhalation and wiped his cheeks with the sleeve of his jacket.

"I'm goin' back to the Lion," he declared, and squirmed until they all let go of him. "I don't need to see anymore."

Shiro didn't bother giving permission, knowing Keith wasn't asking for it, and instead turned his eyes to Lance.

"Go with him," he ordered, "Just in case."

Lance nodded without argument. He, too, looked like he'd had enough.

Keith allowed Shiro one more shoulder squeeze before shuffling out of the dusty room, Lance at his back. As soon as they were gone Allura scurried over to one of the various dressers around the room, apparently eager to do some snooping. Leaving her to her whims, Shiro wandered around the room, idly examining the torn posters.

"She was from a poor moon," Allura called to him. There was a rustle of fabric. "Self sufficient, from the appearance of her clothing." A drawer slide shut, another opened, and Shiro inhaled dust.

One of the posters caught his eye. It was a diagram of a Firefly, parts labeled in white against a dark background that reminded him of the Black. In the lower right corner was the name of the ship: Serenity.

For once, Shiro didn't think before he acted. He took the poster down and, with a ginger touch, folded it into a neat little square.

Allura's footsteps echoed behind him. "I found these," she said, and handed him something that clinked like metal.

They were dog-tags, long abandoned in a drawer amidst ruins. Imprinted in the metal was a name.

Krolia Kogane.

"Do you think he'd want them?"

"I don't know." All the same, Shiro pressed the dog tags on top of the poster and tucked both into his coat pocket.

"Let's get out of here."


They didn't wander much more after that. There wasn't much more to see. It was all the same; empty buildings, bones, ghosts. When he and Allura returned to the building Lance was waiting for them, outside the door, staring blankly at the skeletons.

"Lance?"

"Oh, hey." He shook himself a bit and readjusted his grip on his rifle. "Coran and the Holt's are still downloading data. Keith and Hunk are back on the Lion."

"Right. I'll go check on them, radio when they're done."

Lance attempted a joking salute, but it fell flat and empty.

It was quiet aboard the ship. Allura returned to her shuttle. Hunk was in the engine room, and gave Shiro a weak thumbs up when he poked his head in. The cockpit was empty, so Shiro left the poster and dog tags on the pilot's seat and went back to the galley to do some of his favorite activities: drinking shitty coffee and brooding.

He'd seen a lot of awful things. Some were objectively more horrifying than this, much bloodier and more violent. But there was something haunting about the silence of Altea, the unburied, unremembered bodies, the creeping knowledge underneath it all that human beings had been tortured and twisted there until they forgot how to be people. But worst of all was knowing they were too late to stop it- several decades too late.

An indeterminable amount of time later, his radio buzzed, Lance's voice crackling through.

"Hey, the brainiacs are done, we're headin' back."

Phantom pain danced between Shiro's fingertips as he reached for it.

"Roger that."

Shiro drained the rest of his mug, and after a moment of stillness, he rose.

Time to act.

When he returned to the cockpit, Shiro was pleasantly surprised to find Keith already there, bent over the screens as he plotted their course. He still wore his jacket, but just barely Shiro could see things peeking out from his collar. A black cord, and a metal chain.

He smothered his smile before stepping in.

"How's it lookin', ace pilot?"

Keith glanced up at him. His eyes were red-rimmed and the necklaces were tucked under his shirt, but his expression had a certain serenity to it. An acceptance. Closure, maybe.

"Not terrible," he grunted, pulling Shiro back out of his thoughts. "If we follow the curve of the planet we should be able to slip around the Galra. Only problem is Galra space and Garrison space border pretty closely, we'd risk getting tagged by them. But I can't think of any other way- we don't have the space to do the same trick from before on the way out."

Shiro hummed and moved forward, studying the maps Keith had pulled up. He was right, but how were they going to deal with it?

"If they tag us, they tag us," he said after a moment of thought. "We'll go to full burn and head straight for Slav's station. Hold them off long enough to get the info out, then whatever happens after, we'll deal with then.

Keith smirked. "Reckless and not thought through. Sounds like my kind of plan."

Shiro couldn't resist ruffling his hair. "I'm gonna go check on the others. I'll be back when it's time to fly."

"Shōudào, Cap'n."


He went first to Allura's shuttle but, upon hearing the muffled sounds of sobbing through the door, backed away.

Pidge and Hunk were in the engine room. Pidge was busily fiddling with a box of wires, but her hands were shaking, and Hunk knelt at her side with an arm around her shoulders.

"That bad, huh?"

Hunk sent a grimace over his shoulder, but Pidge didn't look up, only spat, "Those monsters. I'm gonna burn the whole gǒucàode thing down, even if I have to go down with it. Bastards, fuckers, I'll kill them all slowly-"

"The Lion is good to fly," Hunk interrupted, though Pidge went on muttering under her breath. "Whenever we're ready."

"Thanks, Hunk." As Shiro left the room, he didn't envy Hunk being the person who tried to quell Pidge's fury.

He found Matt standing outside the infirmary, leaning against the wall. Coran worked inside, and Matt answered his question before Shiro could ask it.

"He's puttin' everything together to be broadcast." He paused, then when Shiro came a bit closer, murmured, "It was awful, Shiro."

Bluntly, Shiro asked, "Would it help if I saw it, too?"

Matt immediately shook his head no. "No, you've seen too much already."

"We both have."

"I wish Katie hadn't seen," he said, ignoring Shiro's statement. He opened his mouth as though to continue, but the words died in his throat. Shiro tried his best to resurrect them.

"You can't protect her from everything."

"I know," Matt answered in a sigh. "But I wish I could. I really, really do."

Shiro, thinking of his crew, said, "Me too."

Matt shook himself and straightened up from the wall. Glancing through the infirmary window, he murmured, "Coran will be done soon. I'll get him to send Slav's coordinates up to Keith."

"Alright. Thanks."

Matt looked at him, and his lips twitched like he was trying to smile but couldn't quite manage. Shiro tried his best to smile back.

"We'll be ok, Matt."

Of course, that was what made the bastard laugh.

"Aw, Shirogane," he said with another head shake. "That's the worst lie you've ever told."


"Did Coran send you the coordinates?"

"Mhm. Pidge and Hunk, you ready for full burn?"

The two answers came through the radio, Pidge's voice still holding an undercurrent of anger.

"Let's get moving," Lance chimed in impatiently from his corner of the cockpit. "I wanna get off this haunted ass rock."

This time Matt and Shiro stood back from Keith's chair as he took off. There wasn't as much danger for this route- whether the Garrison buzzed them was entirely up to chance. All they could do was sit back and hope.

Keith took them low, under the clouds. It didn't take long for them to pass over the false vegetation of the colony and emerge over the desert dunes.

"Are we sure about this Slav guy?" Lance asked, incapable of being quiet for more than twenty seconds. "We sure he'll help us?"

"Not really," Matt answered wryly. "Coran said he was paranoid and unpredictable. He could totally just kick us out on our collective ass."

"But," Shiro broke in, "We're choosin' to believe he won't."

"Despite all evidence," muttered Matt.

"It's our only choice," Shiro shot back.

"God, no one on this boat ever shuts up."

Lance laughed at Keith's irritation. "Chill out, fly boy. All you gotta do is go in a straight line."

"For about five more minutes. Shiro, will you flip the radar and stuff on?"

Shiro did as he was asked. For the most part the scanners were blank, though as they drew nearer to the edge of Galra territory, where they were going to slip out, a sliver of color began to appear.

He muttered a curse under his breath as the shape grew larger and larger. Of course there would be a whole ass cruiser right next to where they were trying to escape from. They just had the best luck.

"Be ready for full burn," he said through clenched teeth. "Keith, we're gonna need to break atmo soon."

With a solemn nod Keith tilted the Lion up through the cloud cover. Overhead the lowest lying Galra ships were clearly visible, metal insignias of death blurry against the upper atmosphere.

The Lion rose steadily. Keith kept an eye on their altitude, and Shiro watched the radar with growing tensions, and the cockpit grew silent.

The hull shook and rattled as they broke atmo. "Hit it!" Keith cried to the radio, and the ship filled with a dull roar as full burn kicked on. The ship shot away from Altea like a rocket, but Shiro didn't let himself breathe yet.

A second later the screen lit up red and the alarm began blaring, and Shiro barely kept from punching the dashboard in frustration.

"They buzzed us," he spat. He heard Matt groan and Lance curse before Keith spoke to Hunk and Pidge again.

"Keep on full burn, we have enough fuel to run it for about half of the way."

"Will that give us enough of a headstart?" Pidge asked, garbled over the radio channel.

"It'll have to," Shiro answered grimly. Then he straightened up and smacked on the overhead intercom. "Allura and Coran on the bridge, please."

Shiro didn't notice how worn out the two of them looked when they arrived. He couldn't- didn't have the time.

"We won't know if Slav will let us in until we get there," he began, addressing everyone. "And we don't know how the Garrison is goin' to handle the situation. So I need all of you on your toes and ready to do what you're asked when I ask you. Dong ma?"

Around the circle, everyone nodded, even Keith as he glared out the windscreen.

"Lance, run down to the hold and get into the gun locker. Everyone gets one."

"Yessir," he answered, and hustled out of the cockpit.

"Pidge, Hunk, as soon as we're off full burn I want you up here. We stick together as much as possible until I say otherwise."

He got two affirmative answers. A few minutes later Lance returned with a tote bag full of weapons over his shoulder, and Shiro and Matt put themselves to work loading them. One by one the pistols were distributed. While passing one to Allura, Shiro happened to notice how her manicure had chipped, and all at once the cognitive dissonance hit him again.

"Allura-"

"Oh, shut up," she snapped, making Shiro stop and blink in surprise. In fact the whole cockpit turned to stare at her and Allura's cheeks flushed, even as her eyes still sparkled with anger.

"All of you treat me like a child. Like a- a princess." Her voice was as affected as Shiro had ever heard it, seething with a million emotions he couldn't tell apart. "I don't know where you got the idea that I don't know how life is out here, or that I would ever want to run away like a scared damsel, or that I don't care about any of you. But you are my family, and this ship is my home, and goddamnit, I'm going to fight for it!"

For a second there was stunned silence. Allura still looked pissed, and even Lance didn't seem to know what to say. Ultimately, through the radio, Pidge was the first to speak.

"Hey, 'Llura?"

Allura huffed. "Yes, Pidge?"

"We love you too."

She blushed even deeper. Then Lance cried, "Group hug!" and threw his arms around her neck. Allura cried out in protest, and she wasn't the only one.

"Hey!" yelled Hunk, offended. "No group hugs until I get up there!"

"Alright, alright," Allura was trying to sound scolding, but the giggles breaking through ruined it. "Rain check on the group hug, Lance."

Somehow they were laughing. They'd just flown out of a tomb, were flying into almost certain arrest and/or death, and yet they were laughing.

Shiro closed his eyes, trying to commit the scene to memory. With all of his heart, he hoped it wouldn't be the last time.


They cut full burn after another half an hour. Then the whole crew took their places in the cockpit, and together they waited for Slav's space station to come into view. All the while Shiro watched the radar and the giant shape behind them that never quite disappeared.

Eventually he thought he saw something. A light out ahead of them- not a star, unless stars were red and flashed on and off with a rhythm.

Turns out he was right. As they drew closer metallic spires and rings began to come into view against the velvet background of the Black.

Slowly the group roused from their waiting stupor and began to gather together, all eyes out the windscreen and on the station.

The vid screen crackled with an incoming message.

"Everyone cross your fingers it's not the Garrison," Matt snarked, just before Shiro accepted the call.

There was no face on the vid screen. Just a cerulean background covered in scrolling white text. For a split second Shiro thought it was glitching before the voice came through.

"Who are you?" demanded the voice. It was accented in a way Shiro didn't recognize, with an edge of hysteria accompanying the warning. "I didn't authorize the entrance of a Firefly class transport ship. You have thirty seconds to answer before I release missiles."

Shiro opened his mouth, just as Coran slammed into his side.

"Slav, old chap, it's been ages! So lovely to hear you're still alive and kicking. Surely you remember me from our school days, when you gave me the idea to research-"

"Shhh!" hissed the voice with great vehemence. "You cannot speak of it over radio!" There was a pause, as though he was thinking, then, "Are you aware of the cruiser currently pursuing you?"

"Nah, we hadn't noticed," Keith drawled. He said it under his breath, but still Slav heard.

"Well, there is." Keith rolled his eyes. "For God's sake, Coran, I warned you not to visit Altea on the second Tuesday of October!"

Shiro was caught off guard by that, and apparently so was Coran, as all he could do was stammer.

Slav gave an irritated sigh. "Very well. I'm opening hangar 308-A. Please be cautious when landing." Then he unceremoniously ended the call, leaving the crew to stare at each other in mystification.

"Well," Matt said, "They were right when they said he's eccentric."

"But he let us in," Shiro reminded him, "and that's what matters."

Optimism was a pretty dangerous emotion in his experience. But as they flew into Slav's station, Shiro couldn't help the swelling of hope in his chest.

Almost there.

Keith landed the Lion, as Slav had instructed, with caution. It was probably one of the nicer places their dinky little Firefly had landed- the hangar was all sleek silver metal and bright, expensive lights. Large screens beside the hangar doors revealed the electronic controls that Slav used and Pidge eyed with jealousy.

"Ok, everybody," he said to the apprehensive silence following the powering down of the Lion's engine. "Time to move. Coran, you got the data?"

In answer Coran pulled a data tab from his pocket and winked.

"Alright." Shiro's stomach was twisty and fluttery in a way he hadn't felt in years. "Let's get this done."

The lights in the hangar were even brighter outside the ship. Shiro shaded his eyes with one hand, just as an intercom played overhead.

"Please ascend to central command," said Slav's voice through the speaker, "Quickly. We don't have much time. And whatever you do, don't stop on any prime-numbered floors!"

Shiro raised an eyebrow. Coran merely grimaced and shrugged before beckoning them forward.

Directly outside the hangar was a large freight elevator, everything built of the same shining chrome. All eight of them managed to squeeze themselves in, Coran hit the button for the top level, and slowly they began to rise.

"This place is amazing," Pidge whispered to the tense air. "So much of it is electronic- his cyber security must be insane if he trusts so much of the station to a network."

"Think you could break it?" asked Matt with a side-long glance.

She gave a shrug steeped in false nonchalance. "Maybe. Gimme a half an hour."

The elevator let out a quiet ding when they arrived at the top floor. The door slid open to reveal a long hallway, a sturdy steel door on the other end. Cautiously, one hand on his pistol, Shiro led them forward.

As an ex-soldier, it was impossible for him not to notice the grooves in the walls concealing sliding, sealable doors. Thin lines in the floor under their feet indicated traps, and there were cameras embedded every ten feet in the ceiling.

Paranoid was certainly apt. But, considering the circumstances, that was probably a good thing.

Finally they reached the door, but it didn't immediately open to them. Instead a lens in the wall above it glowed blue, and a moment later there was a laser running over them, scanning them.

Keith gave an irritated growl, but no one protested, and after a moment to compute and a positive ding, the door slid open.

Beside him, Matt's jaw dropped.

Pidge murmured, "Amazing," and even Shiro was impressed.

The room the door led into was absolutely huge. Every wall was blanketed in circuit boards and wires, back lit in blue. They all connected to the center, where a tube nine feet in diameter ran floor to ceiling, filled with even more wires and lights and computer parts. Then a black chair with its back to them, dwarfed by the size of the tower, with a dozen screens pointed towards it.

But Slav was nowhere in sight. Until Coran took a brave step forward and cleared his throat.

The chair spun around. In it was a little dark-skinned man, barely taller than Pidge, with large glasses and slicked black hair. Even as he watched them his fingers flew at lightning speed over the transparent keyboard in his lap.

Shiro, stuck somewhere between amusement and bafflement, couldn't think of anything to say. Luckily he didn't have to.

"Slav!" cried Coran in a joyful tone that sounded surprisingly genuine. He took another step forward, arms outstretched, but Slave recoiled in his chair.

"No touching!" His voice sounded the same as it had over the radio. "Who knows what kind of space germs you've tracked in here."

"Hey!" said Lance in offense, but Coran merely chuckled.

"Understood."

Slav leaned forward with eager eyes, his fingers still tapping away.

"Did you really do it?" he asked in a hushed whisper. "Did you really go to Altea?"

"We did." Coran produced the data tab from within his jacket and held it up. "It's all here. Every test, every name, every incident. We finally know where the Galra came from."

"Excellent, excellent," Slav hissed in excitement. "Finally, the conspiracy will be exposed!" Still muttering to himself, he struck a key, and from out of the floor at Coran's side unfolded a table. The sudden motion made Shiro and Matt jump, but Coran seemed to be expecting it, and laid the tab on the table. It jerked into motion, following a track on the floor all the way to Slav's side.

"How long is it gonna take?" Shiro asked, finally inserting himself into the conversation. "To get the info leaked, I mean?"

"Mmm, several hours," Slav answered. He'd finally stopped typing and was now turning the data tab over and over in his fingertips. "The radio frequencies on the Rim are unreliable, and the signals to the Core heavily protected. But I'll get it done." His lips split into an evil grin. "They can't keep me out."

A bit disconcerting, but at least he was on their side.

"What about us?"

Shiro hadn't been expecting Keith to speak up. When he turned he found the pilot in his usual arms crossed position, but tightened by guarded tension. He hadn't forgotten the dangers of what they were doing.

"The Garrison could be here at any minute," he continued, oblivious Slav's annoyed expression. "What are you gonna do about them?"

"Well, hold them off, of course," Slav snapped as though it were obvious. "Observe."

He spun his chair back around and resumed his rapid fire typing. A bright blue light ignited to Shiro's right, momentarily blinding him, and only then did he realized there was a huge screen on the wall that was taller than him.

"My station is the most secure place in the galaxy," Slav began. Blinking away the sunspots, Shiro finally deciphered the image on the screen- blueprints of the base. "However, it is statistically impossible to create anything with no weaknesses. As such, when I refuse the Garrison entry, they will likely attack at these three points."

In three places on the screen red circles appeared. One, directly above a trash compactor. Two, behind a large vehicle hangar. Three, a hallway connecting an outer ring to the rest of the station.

"I have of course installed safety doors at all of these points, but they will only buy extra time, so you'll need to hold these points for as long as possible before activating them."

"So we're just buying you time?" Matt asked. They couldn't see Slav in his position, but the screens cast his shadow on the floor, which was nodding vigorously.

"Yes, yes, precisely."

"Wait a minute." Lance pushed past Shiro's shoulder wearing an accusing expression. "On the vid you said you had missiles. Why not just blow 'em up?"

Slav gave a mad chuckle that made the hair on the back of Shiro's neck rise.

"I don't actually have missiles, stupid boy! I was bluffing!" He laughed again. "The best security measures are the ones your enemy is afraid of, whether you have them or not!"

Lance scowled, but Shiro spoke before he could.

"And the Garrison ain't scared of much."

"Precisely." Slav waved a hand in their direction as he turned his chair back towards his screens. "Plan defense amongst yourselves, I have to work."

Turning to study his crew, Shiro loosed a deep breath. There weren't many of them. They were all tired and undersupplied and not doing so great on morale, either.

But, he thought as he met Matt's eyes, not like it's the first time.


The worst thing about battle wasn't the dying. It wasn't the screams, or the blood, or the explosions. It wasn't even the battle itself.

No, to Matt the worst part about battles was waiting for it to start.

He and Pidge were crouched on a thin walkway above a trash compactor, churning away below them at deafening volume. They couldn't hear too well, but if they put their mouths right next to each others' ears, they could manage a few words at a time. Matt held her tightly to his side and took advantage of that as much as he could.

"Promise me," he said, hating the ache of his knuckles where they were wrapped around his gun. "Promise me that if something happens you'll go home. That you'll be better than this."

Initially she scoffed, but Matt retaliated by jabbing his fingers into her side until she smacked at them.

"Fine, fine, I'll promise. But only if you promise that if something happens, you won't go home."

"Huh?" Matt didn't think he'd heard correctly. But Pidge just leaned in closer and repeated.

"If I die." He flinched, but his sister twisted her hand into his shirt collar and refused to let go. "Don't leave Shiro and the others. He needs you, and you need him, whether you admit it or not."

He wasn't sure how he felt about that. He and Shiro had been through hell together, that was true. But Shiro was also the one that had dragged them all back into this mess. That couldn't let go of the war. Matt couldn't pretend he wasn't the slightest bit resentful about that.

He promised just the same.


To say Hunk was nervous would be an understatement. He felt nauseous. Dizzy. Clammy. The whole nine yards. His hands were shaking so much he wasn't sure if he'd be able to hold the gun properly.

And Keith acting so calm and cool and not the least bit intimidated wasn't helping at all.

He was just leaning against the wall, flicking his eyes all around the hangar, studying the various ships parked around them. There were three of them, all twice the size (at least) of the Golden Lion, and top of the line, from what he could see.

"These are all new models, ain't they?" Keith asked suddenly, jolting Hunk out of his panicked haze.

"Uh, yeah, I think." Hunk swallowed hard and tried to focus. Keith was probably trying to get him to calm down, in his own way, and he might as well play along. "This one in front is a- a Bernadette 20-V." Carefully, he moved his gunless hand and pointed to the next ship, hoping Keith wouldn't notice the tremble.

"This one's a Windleaf, some kind of new jet, supposed to be real agile. And the one at the end is a Trans-Z, I think."

Keith mulled over that for a moment, then said, "What are the Trans people gonna call their ships now that they're out of letters?"

He was startled into a shaky laugh. "I dunno. Maybe Chinese characters."

"Yeah, maybe. How mad do you think Slav would be if these blew up?"

Hunk's head snapped around. But Keith looked just as casual as ever, enough that Hunk thought he must've misheard.

"Huh?"

"I'm just sayin'," said Keith with a shrug. "Big ships, lots of fuel, lots of shrapnel. Could make good weapons, dontcha think?"

Looking back to the ships, Hunk's head tilted to the side as he tried to consider. It wouldn't be hard to rig the ships to blow. Of course there were safety features, but those were easy enough to get around so long as you knew how. Which he did- and he expected Keith did, too.

His apprehension started to become something more like excitement.

"Yeah. Yeah they could."


"Know how to shoot it, Princess?"

"Yes." With one hand Allura swept her hair over her shoulder and demonstrated her grip to Lance, who gave a pleased smile.

"Good job."

Allura didn't smile back. She paced across the hall with four long strides, back and forth from wall to wall. Honestly the place made Lance a little jumpy- there wasn't a lot of cover to be had, and the glass walls on either side didn't look like they'd hold up too well to bullet holes. But they would just have to make do, and there was always the safety doors to withdraw behind.

"Hey, Allura. What are you fixin' to do after all of this is over?"

Allura turned to face him, but only to continue pacing, her arms crossed and her chin tucked to her chest. So unlike the companion posture Lance had grown used to seeing from her.

"That depends," she answered softly. "If this doesn't succeed, I don't expect there will be an after- we'll be imprisoned or dead."

Lance nodded solemnly. It was a risk, but one they'd all signed up to take.

"And if it does succeed, things will change so much it's impossible to predict."

"That's just a long, fancy way of saying you don't know."

She gave a mirthless chuckle. "I suppose it is."

"Think you'll ever go back to the Core?"

That finally made her stop her pacing. Her back to Lance, Allura stared out at the Black just beyond the glass, and for a long moment didn't answer.

"I… I'm not sure. Even if we win, even if things change, I… I think it'll be a long time before I can look at the Core without seeing Altea."

She was mourning, Lance realized. They'd all been shaken and horrified by what they'd found at Altea, especially Keith, and none of them were going to blame him for that. But for Allura, the Core had been her home, the people her people, the Garrison their support. Their leaders. Their protectors.

And she'd just lost all of it.

"I hope it'll get easier."

Lance himself wasn't entirely sure what he meant by that. But, all the same, Allura nodded in agreement.

So he figured it must've been the right thing to say.


"They're coming," Coran reported grimly from his station over Slav's fancy radar. "The cruiser will be in radio range within the next five minutes."

Shiro quadruple checked that his pistols were loaded. That his radio was on and working. That everyone was in position. The song and dance he knew like the back of his hand, backwards and forwards.

Slav was still tapping away. As time had passed his muttering had grown more and more frenzied, but Shiro was trying not to listen. No point in psyching himself out already.

Having been expecting the crackle of a radio, Shiro jumped a bit at the electronic chime that went off when the Garrison hailed them. Then he had to bite his tongue at the voice he heard to keep from groaning in sheer frustration.

"This is Admiral Iverson of the Garrison Cruiser Montgomery, requesting permission for docking." The tension in the man's voice told Shiro exactly how much he hated uttering the words 'requesting permission', but he was going to hate the answer even more.

"Not at this time, Admiral," Slav called back, never tearing his eyes from his screens. "I'm afraid we're dealing with some electrical issues, the hangars are currently offline."

There was a pause. Shiro was holding his breath- it felt like the moment before a missile strike, watching the trail burn across the sky.

"We are under direct orders from the Garrison governing body to pursue a rogue Firefly transporting a highly dangerous fugitive. We have reason to believe they've docked here. Do you deny us entry?"

Slav gave an impatient sigh, like he was being harassed by an overly persistent toddler. "I am a very busy man, Admiral, and right now I would like to get my base up and running again, so if you want a tour you'll just have to wait." Without ceremony the connection cut off. Shiro couldn't tell from whose end it was terminated, but it didn't really matter.

"Here we go," he muttered to himself, and cracked his knuckles.


Every person in the station felt the impact when the cruiser ran into the station and forced an airlock seal. All throughout the structure alarms began to blare, heralding the onslaught. An annoying sound, but at the moment Keith had bigger fish to fry.

The Garrison had, predictably enough, chosen the hangar Slav had specified as the one to land in. He and Hunk were huddled on the other side of the airlock doors, listening to the soldiers bark commands at each other as they tried to get it to open.

"Ok, we clear on the plan?" he whispered to Hunk, who gave a tight nod.

"I'm gonna start the safety doors closin'. Then you hit the ignition and run back." He paused to gnaw on his lip. "Man, I knew we should've made the wire longer."

"Too late for that now." They were close to getting the door open, Keith could feel the metal trembling under his shoulder. "Get movin'."

With an anxious gulp and a pale face, Hunk retreated down the hallway.

Keith kept his eyes locked on him all the way down. He watched carefully as Hunk opened up the door control panel and set everything up. Then he held up one hand, three fingers extended.

Three… two… one…

There was an ungodly screech as the safety doors began to emerge from the walls. A second later Keith jammed the red button down as hard as he could, dropped the control at his feet, and ran like a bat out of hell.

The safety doors were layered, closing from four directions at once. The square in the middle grew smaller, smaller, and smaller still, but the opening was still just large enough for him to dive through when he reached it.

He hit the floor hard and skidded. He felt the skin on one of his knees tear open, but the adrenaline pumping his blood in his ears didn't let him acknowledge it. Hunk grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him to the side, against the wall, right as the first ship in the hangar went boom.

Well, more like BOOM.

There were screams and panicked voices from beyond the airlock. A few seconds later the next bomb ignited, another BOOM, and the shockwave made Keith's ears ring and made the doors tremble.

"The last one's gonna be big," Hunk said, sounding far away and muffled. "We need to move back."

Keith got to his feet. He was a little jelly-legged still, but he let Hunk pull him further down the hall.

BA-BA-BOOM.

The floor shook beneath their boots, dumping both of them to the floor. He felt a little deafer now than he had been before, but still Keith was pretty certain that the shouts from beyond the airlock had stopped. Now there was just silence.

For a few seconds the two of them just laid there, stunned. Then Keith turned onto his back, and looking up at the smooth metal ceiling, began to laugh.


"They're coming up," Matt breathed into Pidge's ear. "Is your trip wire up?"

Pidge nodded in return and licked her lips. This wasn't quite as scary as breaking into that Galra base had been, but it was a close second. Especially with the huge trash compactor churning away beside them, making the metal tremble under her feet, with only a thin guardrail between them and terrible, crushing, squishy death.

"Trip the first, then I'll shoot the next while you get your gun ready, then we both lay on 'em. Yeah?"

"Yeah."

They'd heard the explosions from above them. Pidge wasn't quite sure what to make of them, but she would bet good money that Keith had something to do with it. She just hoped he hadn't done too much structural damage to the station while he was at it. That wouldn't go well for anyone.

The boots were getting louder as the Garrison troops advanced, and Pidge adjusted her sweaty grip on the wire. It was designed to catch on the buckles of their boots, so that she could yank to the side and hopefully drag one of them over the edge into the compactor. An efficient fighting technique. Brutal as all hell, but efficient.

Finally they turned the corner. The Garrison troops were covered head to toe in body armor, including face shields, and held submachine guns out before them in trained posture. Pidge felt her heart sink- they were massively out matched- but all the same she held her breath and stuck to the plan.

The foremost soldier stepped into the wire, letting out a sharp cry of surprise when he tried to move forward and found himself caught.

"Now!" Matt hissed, and Pidge pulled.

The soldier dropped his gun, which swung wildly around his torso on its strap, and his arms pinwheeled in an attempt to gain back balance. One of his comrades reached out for him, but it was too late- he was already toppling.

With a terrified scream the man plummeted into the machine. Pidge would never forget the sound his bones made as they were ground into powder.

Matt, as planned, pulled his weapon and began firing. Pidge quickly reached for the gun she'd been given. Luckily she had steady hands, had to, to be an engineer, but she still didn't like holding guns, so big and bulky.

Matt dropped one. Pidge unloaded all six bullets from her revolver into the next's chestplate, and he crumbled to the floor. Matt took out another, then another, while Pidge scrambled to reload. But there were so many of them, and they were moving so fast, and-

"Pidge!"

While she'd been loading the soldiers had gotten much closer. Rushing directly at them, one man grabbed Matt by the lapels and slammed him against the wall, gun to his head. The one behind him was almost upon her, and she couldn't get the damn hammer to click!

"Fuck fuck fuck," she babbled under her breath. His shadow was leaning over her now, and when she looked up she saw the most smarmy smile she had ever seen painted over his lips.

Her chest burned with rage.

Without thinking, Pidge dropped her gun and her weight onto her hands and spun, one leg extended. The strike worked. The soldier teetered and began to fall over the railing, but just as he was falling, his gloved hand flashed up and grabbed onto Pidge's ankle.

He was taking her down with him.

And jeez, was this dude heavy. His weight immediately yanked her sideways, down towards the edge, and although she flailed she couldn't catch hold of anything.

Her foot slid over the side of the platform and Pidge shrieked.

"Katie!"

There was a flurry of gunshots over her head, and in the split second before she slid into the maw of death, she felt a hand fasten around her wrist.

Matt hauled her up and back, then back back back. He was taking them back to the doors to hide.

Hopefully, they'd bought enough time.


"They're moving up," Lance heard through the radio. "Hunk and I are headin' back to the control room."

"Roger that, same with me and Pidge," Matt responded. "Lance and Allura, you're the only ones still out."

Lance took a breath and lifted the radio to his lips. "Copy that."

Allura pulled the hammer back on her weapon. Lance, kneeling behind a lightweight armchair that decorated the hall, settled his rifle against his shoulder.

"You ready, Princess?"

"As I'll ever be."

As the impending firefight raced ever closer, Lance grew more agitated. He did not like this position, not one bit. The walls were all glass- if the cruiser deployed gunships and they fired, the whole thing would shatter and they would be starfood.

"Allura, keep your eye on the left window. If you see a ship, call it. We'll have to get the hell out of dodge."

"Got it."

The door at the other end of the hall beeped, the light above glowing blue.

Lance held his breath. The moment he could see the navy blue of Garrison uniform, he pulled the trigger.

Boom. Headshot. Right through the faceshield, meant to protect from random shrapnel, not a direct gunshot.

Allura shot next. The bullet hit a soldier's shoulder but didn't go through the body armor.

The soldiers advanced through the hail of bullets. The chair Lance was using as cover had been turned into Swiss cheese, and his ears rang with the echoes of gunshots.

Movement caught his eye. His worst fear had been realized- gunships were soaring towards their fragile bridge.

"Allura!" he shouted, already scrambling upright, "Move!"

He lunged up and grabbed Allura's arm, and both of them took off, sprinting for the safety doors. Bullets ricocheted all around them- one shard caught Allura across the cheekbone, leaving a burned streak behind it.

They were only a few feet from the finish line when Lance felt a bullet tear through his leg. He yelled as he hit the floor (he'd never get used to the sudden burning pain of bullet wounds) but Allura didn't so much as falter.

She dropped, grabbed his wrists, and pulled him the last few feet.

"We're on our way up," he heard Allura say to the radio over the screech of the doors closing. His head was spinning from all the adrenaline, too wobbly on his feet to be useful, but Allura just wrapped an arm around his waist and held him up.

"It's gonna be fine. Everything is gonna be fine." Her voice was terrified.

Lance only wished he could be afraid.


Everyone was back. Lance was the only one hurt, being tended to in a corner by Coran. The safety doors in the corridor had been closed, the trap doors were open, and they had six guns pointed at the door, waiting for the breach.

"How much longer?" Shiro called over his shoulder.

"As long as it takes!" Slav shouted back at him. "How can I be expected to work with these constant interruptions?!"

Shiro ground his teeth. They were almost out of time, the Garrison bearing down on them. Trapped. Outnumbered. Outgunned.

How did he keep getting into these situations?

From outside the door there were the sounds of metal clanking and men shouting, orders being given.

"Building bridges," Matt said tensely at Shiro's side. "To get over the trap doors."

"Those doors won't hold. They're gonna get in."

"What do we do then?"

"Fight."

"To the death?"

"If we gotta."

Matt sighed and flexed his fingers. "Well, it's been nice knowin' ya."

All of them jumped nearly a foot in the air when something heavy rammed against the door. Even from across the room Shiro could see where the metal had dented from the strike, and the dent deepened at the next.

"Everybody up," Shiro called to his crew. "We're outta rest time."

Keith had pressed himself against the wall beside the door, poised and waiting, tossing his knife from hand to hand. Shiro, Matt, Pidge, and Hunk settled into a loose ring around the door. Pidge's shoulders jumped at every impact against the metal.

Clang. Clang. Clang.

Allura hung back by Lance and Coran, Lance's rifle on her shoulder. The position gave her a good angle to shoot directly over Pidge's head.

Clang. Clang. Clang.

"Slav?" Shiro's hand was sweating.

"Almost there!"

Come on, come on, come on.

Bang!

The doors tore open.

"Fire!" Shiro shouted.

Instantly the air was full of smoke and gunpowder as they all fired at once. It was deafening, and after that, everything fell into chaos.

Shiro saw things in snapshots. Muzzle flashes. Screams. He saw a waterfall of blood as Keith slit someone's throat. Allura went down in a splash of silver hair. Hunk roared. Pidge swore like a sailor.

Shiro was in a fist fight, up close and dirty. His pistol had been knocked away. The soldier he was fighting had lost his helmet. Shiro nailed him in the face, felt his nose shatter under his knuckles, but his follow up swing was blocked by a beefy arm. There was a flash of black in the blue tinted room before the stock of a gun smacked into his temple.

Shiro stumbled as his vision blurred. The soldier struck him in the gut, forcing bile into his throat, then tackled him to the floor.

He couldn't hear exceptionally well at the moment, nor see, but he could tell that the battle was over. The gunfire had stopped. A heavy boot between his shoulder blades kept him pressed to the floor, but he was able to turn his head enough to see the blurry outline of Slav's chair. A Garrison officer (probably Iverson) had just stopped behind it. Shiro blinked rapidly and was able to clear his vision a bit before Iverson spun the chair around.

Blood. There was blood all the way down Slav's legs, dripping to the floor from his dangling feet, smearing across the keys on his keyboard. At some point in the fight he'd been shot. Shiro curled his flesh hand against the floor and bit his tongue until it bled.

Please, he prayed to he wasn't sure who, please don't let it all be for nothing.

"Was it worth it?" Iverson asked snidely, his voice muffled from all the combat noise a few moments before. "Helping them?"

Slav wasn't a corpse yet. He tilted his head back and gave Iverson a big, bloody grin.

"Yes," he said, far too haughtily for a man who was bleeding to death. "You're too late. The signal got out. You can't stop it now."

"What in the hell are you talking about?"

Ah, right. Iverson didn't know about Altea. He was chasing them because of Callum. God did it seem silly now.

Slav didn't answer, at least not coherently. Head lolling to the side, he said, "You can never stop the signal." He was fading, and fast, but Iverson didn't call for medics. He just stood there and watched as the light faded from Slav's eyes. Shiro imagined he could hear Coran crying, but it might've been someone else entirely.

Slav took a gasping, gurgling breath, and with seemingly the last of his strength, he struck a single key. He went limp, the keyboard clattered to the floor, and then-

Everything exploded.

Well, it felt like everything exploded. In reality it was only the central computing tower that went off, though the force was enough to toss Iverson's body against the far wall like a rag doll, and a piece of shrapnel or something must've hit the soldier standing over Shiro, as the weight on his back disappeared.

In this one case, it would seem, being pinned to the floor was actually useful.

As quickly as he could Shiro staggered upright. Half of the lights had been blown out and the computers were on fire, casting the room in a strange mixture of blue and flickering orange. Slav's chair, as well as his corpse, was burning. Strewn all over the floor were Garrison soldiers, some still as death, others writhing and screaming, others pulling themselves pathetically in whichever direction they could.

For a long moment he couldn't breathe. The smoke stung his throat and his eyes, and at his sides his hands shook like leaves. He could feel the rain on him again, the mud sucking at his boots, the exhaustion in his muscles- if he looked down, he fully expected to see the remains of Adam's body, intestines splayed-

"Shiro!" Someone grabbed his arm and pulled, dragging him back to the present battlefield rather than the past one. "We gotta go!" It was Keith hanging off of him, a wild look in his eyes, and that cemented Shiro back in reality enough to look around for a headcount.

Matt and Pidge were already out in the hall. Allura was half-hugging, half-hauling a distraught Coran along with her. Hunk was helping Lance hop out on his one good leg.

He counted again, just to be sure. Then again, and again.

Keith lost his patience and pulled him suddenly, hard, nearly sending him back to the floor.

"Let's go!"

Shiro shook his head to clear it. "Alright," he tried to say, but choked on smoke and had to try again. "Let's move, back to the Lion!"

Even as they fled towards the hangar he knew it was a pointless motion. They'd taken out some soldiers but there was still the whole cruiser lurking outside that had all of their files and information- even if they got out this time they'd only be hunted down again. Truth be told Shiro hadn't been expecting to come out of this alive.

But what could he do, except play along?

Despite the cloud of doom hanging over his head, Shiro still felt the familiar well of relief when he spotted the Lion. She'd been protected from the various blasts going on in the station and so far looked unharmed. Two by two the crew scuttled inside, all of them making a beeline for the cockpit without being told.

Shiro leaned heavily against the dashboard as Keith threw his body into the pilot's seat and initiated the launch sequence. It was only through sheer luck that his eye managed to land on the green light blinking above the vid screen, indicating an archived message.

Probably not a good thing to open, probably just the Garrison, probably probably probably, but Shiro opened it up anyway.

"Hello, Captain Shirogane!" Slav's awkward voice filled the tense air of the cockpit, nearly making Shiro swallow his tongue. "If you're hearing this, I expect I'm already dead." Dimly he could hear his own voice in the background, as well as Coran's- Slav had recorded this while Shiro thought he was just talking to himself.

"I'm afraid I don't have time to get overly emotional, but I want you to know that I'm grateful to you for taking the risk of going to Altea. Since I've already hacked into the Garrisons network to distribute the files, I took the extra liberty of erasing all of the Garrison's files on the eight of you."

Everyone froze at that, even Keith for a moment as he was guiding the ship out of the hangar, nearly clipping the Lion's wing against the door before jerking back into position. No one said anything about it, too busy staring at each other with wide eyes.

"According to the paperwork, none of you are in any legal trouble with the Garrison. And in this business, paperwork means everything."

There was a break in the recording, some rustling and shouting, then Slav returned more quietly.

"They're here. I suspect this will be over soon. Good luck, Captain."

The video ended. Shiro stared uncomprehendingly down at the dark screen. The only sound was the heartbeat of the Golden Lion underneath them as she carried them away, into the safety of the Black.

They all wound up slumped on the floor eventually, unheeding of the uncomfortable metal.

Lance had a makeshift bandage wrapped around his leg. Hunk was covered in soot, tear tracks leaving trails through it. Pidge and Matt clung to each other with all of their strength. Allura had a burn on her cheek, but against all odds she was smiling. And Coran just sat and stared in utter disbelief at the opposite wall.

"It's over," he murmured after an indeterminable amount of time. "It's… done."

"We made it out alive," said Keith. "Who woulda thunk?"

Allura pulled her tangled hair over her shoulder. "Everyone knows, now."

Shiro looked up and found Matt's eyes. Exhausted, but somewhere in there was a feeling of content, the same one he was feeling. After all of these years, after all the death and suffering and running away… they'd finally done it.

They'd won.

"What now, Cap'n?" Matt asked with a twinkle in his eye. Shiro gave him an exhausted grin.

What now? Well, the only thing they could do.

And that was…

"Keep flying."