HALLOOO MY LOVELIES!

So, this is not on time.

At all.

I...I am so sorry. I have no excuse, I literally just point-blank forgot about it.

MY BAD!

BUT ANYWAY.

This is the next-to-last chapter of this story. This is where the angst gets good, people. Or bad, depends how you look at it.

WARNINGS: non-consensual body modifications (Haggar, anyone?), blood, mentions of torture, ya know, the usual.


When Ocean Eyes are Absent


It took them far too long to get to him.

Far, far too long.

A year and a half too long.

A year and a half of horribly silent Castle hallways. Six months of Blue's mournful cries echoing through the night after they found her, abandoned, in a half-destroyed warship. A year and a half of Keith training himself to total collapse. A year and a half of Hunk losing too much weight, stress cooking and having nervous breakdowns and anxiety attacks near constantly. A year and a half of Pidge not sleeping and not eating, just desperately searching for yet another brother until she passed out over her computer again. A year and a half of Shiro's nightmare filled nights with no source of comfort. A year and a half of Allura growing harder and colder and harsher. A year and a half of Coran turning into a silent, pale ghost.

But finally—finally, finally, finally—they had found him. They had managed to reach Zarkon's flagship, smuggled in by the Blade of Marmora.

They were getting their Blue Paladin back, or they were going to die trying.

"I don't know where she's been keeping him," their contact, a commander named Thace, murmured. "But the witch has been going on and on about her new Champion. She calls him Sharpshooter. But her mood seems to change from quintant to quintant. One morning, she'll be swearing that his loyalty is to her and none other. The next morning, seventeen high-security prisoners will have miraculously escaped, and we'll hear him screaming for hours."

Shiro looked like he was about to be sick, and the others didn't look much better.

"Rest easy," Thace assured them, misreading their concern entirely. "Your Paladin has not broken. He refused to breathe so much as a word to Haggar. He has resisted her completely. Such loyalty is rare in this universe."

"I literally could not care less about what information he has shared," Keith snapped. "I just want to get him back!"

"We've got to find him," Shiro whispered. "Pidge, do your thing."

She nodded, grabbing Thace's arm and dragging him to the nearest terminal. His eyebrows went up, but he went with her willingly.

She pressed Thace's hand against the sensor and got to work. Her fingers flew across the keypad with feverish speed, reading the Galra symbols as easily as though they were English.

"Got him," she said hoarsely. "Cell block…uh…" she tilted her head. "That's…not a cell block. Where is that?"

Thace looked over her head with ease, and sucked in a sharp breath. "He is being held in the cells next to Haggar's lab," he said gravely.

"No," Shiro paled. "No, no, no…"

"Come," Thace rose to his full height. "I will take you there. I have Haggar's trust—seeing me around the lab will not arouse suspicion. Hurry!"

They fled through the ship as fast as they could. Almost every corner they turned, there was another member of the Blade to direct them through an air vent, down a service corridor, calling off guards and sending drones on wild goose chases.

Finally, they reached the cell that Lance was in.

It took Pidge maybe ten seconds to get the door open, and they were bursting through the door, Thace's desperate warning of "Careful!" being utterly disregarded.

They slammed to a stop almost as soon as they entered.

There was a thin figure slumped on the floor against the far wall, dressed in nothing but a loose, ragged pair of black trousers. When the door opened, he wearily raised his head, and it was Lance.

Or, rather, it was most of Lance.

"Lance?" Shiro said, voice breaking as he fully took in the form of the boy.

His left arm was gone, replaced by a Galra prosthetic. The metal reached even farther than Shiro's did. It went all the way to his collarbone, where it was obviously screwed into the bones. Both of his feet were prosthetics, and his skin was a nightmarish canvas of scars. The entire left half of his torso was covered in a horrifying amount of burn scars that stretched from his hip up to his metal arm. He was well muscled, obviously from Arena fights, but he was too thin—they could count his ribs. Not quite starved, but just on the edge of it.

The worst part by far was the chains—and the muzzle.

A metal muzzle was clamped around Lance's face, covering his mouth and wrapping all the way around his head.

There were thick metal shackles on his wrists, and chains held him securely against the wall. A thick chain ran from each shackle to the wall, and a much shorter length of chain bound his hands together, pulling his shoulders back painfully.

But his blue eyes were bright and fierce and unbroken. When he saw them, his eyes widened. Then he scrambled to get his feet under him and stand.

Shiro was the first to recover, moving across the room, and Lance threw himself to the end of his chains, wrenching his shoulders back, desperate to get closer. Shiro leaped the last few feet and flung his arms around the boy. A high, desperate sound made its way through the muzzle, and Lance all but collapsed into Shiro's chest, entire body shaking.

"Get these chains off of him," Shiro rasped, and Hunk and Pidge unfroze, springing into action.

They ran forwards, and Lance made that sound again, and his arms jerked, like he'd tried to reach out to them but been stopped by the chains.

Hunk saw it, too, and Shiro stepped back so the Yellow Paladin could wrap his best friend in a gentle, shaky embrace.

"Oh, hermano," Hunk said, voice choked up. He pressed a gentle kiss to Lance's temple, and the slender boy sobbed.

Pidge was steadily sobbing herself, and she pressed close to Lance's other side, winding her short arms around his waist. "You idiot," she hiccupped. "You quiznaking moron."

Lance carefully pulled away from Hunk and bent at the waist so he could bump his head against Pidge's. A tearful smile lifted her lips, and she slowly reached up towards him.

"Can you kneel for me?" she asked. "I wanna get this—this thing off your face."

"We don't have time for that," Thace cautioned, stepping inside the cell himself.

Lance started to jerk away from him, but then he seemed to recognize him and relaxed, nodding to the commander.

Thace nodded back, a little smile on his face.

"Save your reunions for when you are safe on board your own ship," he advised. "We need to get you out now."

Hunk nodded, moving behind Lance. He let out a strangled sound a moment later, and the others quickly scrambled around to see what the problem was.

What was left of his skin was covered in scars of all sorts, but many of them ran from his shoulders to his hips: whipping scars. But that wasn't even the half of it. Lance's spine had been replaced with Galra tech. There was no skin covering it, so they could see the gears and couplings shifting with every movement of Lance's remaining back muscles. The skin along the edges of the implant looked as though it had been burned and melted into the metal, securing it in place.

Hunk lost control of his stomach at the grisly wound and doubled over in the corner of the cell, vomiting. Shiro's face went pasty white, and Pidge screamed, slamming her hands over her mouth and staggering into Shiro's side. Keith went very, very still, and his hands were shaking.

Even Thace looked disturbed. "I knew the witch was depraved," he murmured, shaking his head. "But to deliberately inflict a mutilation like this upon a child…"

"That doesn't look new," Pidge finally managed to get out, voice shaking.

Thace shook his head again, stepping a bit closer to examine the gruesome sight. "No," he said. "I've been stationed in another quadrant for several movements now, so I haven't seen him in some time. But I heard the rumors that he had rebelled against the witch again. I later received the full report of what he had done. He freed two entire cell blocks of prisoners and managed to get every single one of them into an escape pod. Not only that, he used his arm to disable all tracking abilities in the pods and fought off nearly three squadrons of drones and guards to make sure the prisoners escaped."

"Of course he did," Keith muttered, stepping back around his friend so Lance could lean on him. The injured Paladin's legs were shaking slightly, belaying his weakness, and he closed his eyes as he rested his head on the older boy's shoulder. Keith automatically tilted his own head, pressing their temples together in a gentle, comforting touch.

Thace smiled slightly at the sight. "I was not jesting when I mentioned him saving slaves earlier. This is not the first time he has done so. But his punishment…well." The Galra gestured to Lance's bionic limbs. "She took a piece of him every time he fought back. As you can see, it did not really deter him. But never before has he acted out so blatantly, so openly. She must have taken his spine in an attempt to break his renewed fighting spirit. But that was nearly sixteen moon cycles ago—about eight of your earth months. He has made appearances in the Arena since then, but this is the first time I have seen him."

Hunk bit back his tears, wiped his mouth and moved to the wall, pulling the chain taught. "Keith," he said hoarsely. "I need you to cut the chain. Shiro, can you get the other side and hold it tight so it doesn't jerk on Lance when we cut it?"

Shiro nodded, easily moving into place.

Keith carefully transferred Lance's weight to Pidge and stalked over, drawing and activating his bayard in one movement. He put all of his anger, all of his pain, and all of his grief at what had been done to his friend into his strike.

The chains didn't stand a chance.

Lance closed his eyes tightly, a single tear escaping as he heard the offending pieces of metal crashing to the floor.

"Come on, buddy," Shiro said softly. He rested a hand on the boy's shoulder, and those bright blues locked onto his warm charcoal greys. "Let's get you home."

Lance met his eyes with nothing but trust and leaned into him. Shiro carefully put an arm around his back and under his knees and lifted him off the floor.

"You should not be this easy to carry," he muttered. "You are way too thin, kiddo."

Lance gave a half-hearted what can you do shrug and tucked his forehead against Shiro's neck, his blue eyes sliding shut again in exhaustion and pain and relief.

They made their way out of the ship with as little trouble as they'd had coming in. Each Blade member they passed offered Lance a solemn nod of respect, and when his eyes were open, he returned them.

Thace stayed with them the entire way, until they were safely tucked away into the hold of the "scout" ship they'd come in on. He reset the coordinates of it, and handed Hunk the code that would have the craft self-destruct after the Paladins had been picked up by the Castle.

"Good luck," he told them solemnly. He turned to go, but Lance jerked, letting out a short sound. The commander turned, surprised, and Lance lowered his head in a clear gesture of respect. His eyes were full of gratitude, and Thace got the message.

He knelt before Lance, gently gripping his shoulders. "You are most welcome, little blue," he said warmly, and Lance's eyes crinkled in that way they did when he smiled.

Thace rose to his feet and stepped out of the ship, resting his hand over the controls that would open the bay doors, releasing the ship into freedom. "I hope we meet again, Paladins," he said. "Under a much better set of circumstances."

"Thank you, Thace," Shiro said fervently, and the Galra gave them a short bow before opening the bay doors and launching the ship.


Shiro was sitting on the floor against the wall with Lance in his lap. Keith was in the pilot's chair, only a few feet away, and Hunk was kneeling behind Lance, trying to cut through the chain binding his hands together.

Pidge was rifling around in her backpack, which she'd stored under one of the floor panels of the cockpit. She made a quiet sound as she found whatever it was she was looking for and scooted forward on her knees until she was sitting in front of Lance.

"Hey, Lance, can you look at me?" she asked softly.

He opened his eyes and met her gaze steadily, but didn't raise his head from where it was still leaning against Shiro's shoulder.

She smiled at him, small but real. "I wanna get that thing off your face," she told him. "Do you wanna do it now, or wait till we get back to the Castle?"

Lance tilted forward, letting his head drop onto her shoulder, and she instantly raised one hand to rest lightly on the back of his head. He let out a long breath before sitting up, meeting her eyes steadfastly.

"Now?" she asked, both hands on his shoulders.

He nodded.

"This might hurt," she warned. "I don't know exactly how this thing works, and I might hurt you getting it off."

Lance shook his head hard and leaned towards her more.

"Okay," she said. She took a deep breath and cracked her knuckles, her honey eyes hardening. "Okay. Hunk, how you doing on that chain?"

With one last grunt of effort from Hunk, the chain came off and clanked to the floor.

"Got it," the engineer said, wiping sweat off his brow. "The shackles are still there, but that's more of a precision job, and I'd like to wait on those until we're back in the Castle with more tools and a better workplace."

Pidge nodded to him as Lance slowly moved his arms in front of him, breathing hitching and eyes sliding shut. The muscles in his organic arm were shaking.

"Hey, easy does it," Keith said, rising from his chair and walking back to them. He knelt in front of the Blue Paladin and started to reach for him when he stopped.

"May I?"

Lance smiled at him with his eyes and nodded. Keith shifted around to kneel by his right side and gently moved the arm into his lap, working his fingers into the trembling muscles.

Lance whined softly through his nose, signaling his discomfort, and tucked his head back into Shiro's neck.

"Hey, you're doing great, buddy," his leader soothed, running his fingers through Lance's undercut. "You're doing fine."

"Sorry," Keith muttered with a wince, but he didn't stop. Lance managed to loop their pinkies together and squeeze gently in thanks and reassurance, and the Red Paladin managed a shaky smile in his friend's direction.

Pidge gently started feeling her way around the muzzle, slender fingers searching for a seam or lock or control pad of some kind.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," she groaned, thumping back on her heels and weaving her fingers through the ones on Lance's organic hand. "Stupid Galra. Lance, there's no seam on this thing, and I'm terrified that I'm going to really hurt you trying to get it off without the proper tools. I'm sorry, but this is gonna have to wait until we're at the Castle, and I know I can get it off with minimal pain to you."

He leaned forward and bumped their foreheads together.

"Aw, crap," Keith muttered, leaning around Lance to look at his back. "Moving your arms split some of your scabs. I'm gonna tear up one of those emergency blankets and try to stop the bleeding, okay?"

Lance nodded, leaning back into Shiro's support.

Keith was back in only a few minutes with the strips of blanket, and he pressed firmly on the lacerations to force to blood to clot.

Lance's body stiffened, and a pained sound made its way out of him.

"Shh, shh, shh, you're okay," Shiro said softly. He stroked Lance's hair and clasped their bionic hands together so Lance wouldn't have to worry about squeezing too tight. "I've got you, buddy. I've got you."

"Sorry," Keith whispered, face pale. "Sorry, sorry…"

Lance jerked again as the Red Paladin had to apply more pressure. The cloth in his hands was rapidly turning scarlet. Lance whined again, high and distressed.

"Oh, God!" Keith said, horror and mild panic in his voice.

"Keith, what's going on?" Shiro asked as Hunk pulled Lance's legs onto his lap and Pidge held his organic hand tighter.

"It's the spinal implant," Keith replied. "The…melted skin around it is tearing, and…oh quiznak. This…this doesn't look good, Shiro. I think…I think it's infected. Like, under the skin. On the inside."

"Quiznak," hissed the oldest Paladin, and Lance whimpered, curling in on himself. Shiro cursed again, but in his head this time and at himself. "No, no, you're okay, Lance, this is not your fault. I'm not angry at you, okay?"

He tilted Lance's head up, and his heart shattered into a thousand pieces when he realized that the boy's eyes were full of pained tears, and he was doing everything in his power not to let them fall.

"Oh, Lance," he breathed, pulling him back in close. He pressed a kiss to the top of the boy's head, and the mutilated sob he got in return told him the gesture was greatly appreciated. "I've got you. I've got you. Keith, tear the rest of the blanket into longer strips. Press what you've got over the injury, and just tie it in place with the strips. We're not going to be able to do anything else here, and we're just causing more pain. And he's feeling pretty warm, guys. I don't know if it's just me or what, but I think he might have a fever." He rocked Lance slightly in place. "I'm sorry, kiddo. I'm so sorry."

Hunk reached out and laid a gentle hand on his forehead, paling even farther. "Yeah, that's not good. He definitely has a fever. And he wasn't this warm when we got to him. It's still rising."

Keith nodded, and Pidge kissed Lance's knuckles before passing his hand to Hunk and scrambling up to help Keith. They were done in only a few minutes, but Lance was still trembling in pain when they reached the Castle. Keith took the controls and had them safely landed in record time.

He lowered the ramp and took off at a dead sprint for the bridge. "I'll get Coran and we'll set up the medical bay!" he shouted over his shoulder.

Pidge and Hunk shouted an acknowledgement as Shiro focused on the broken child in his arms.

"Okay, buddy," Shiro whispered. "We're here. We're home."

Lance shuddered, and Shiro carefully, carefully lifted him up. Every muscle in the boy's body went tense, which only caused him more pain.

"I'm so sorry," Shiro repeated, voice cracking. He tightened his hold on his precious burden and carried him carefully down the ramp and through the halls. The Castle had never felt so big before.

Suddenly, running footsteps echoed down the hallway. Pidge and Hunk slid in front of Shiro and Lance, summoning their bayards protectively.

Maybe a little paranoid, considering that they were in the Castle, but this was Lance, and they had just got him back. There was no such thing as too careful.

A moment later, Allura skidded around the corner at a full out sprint, breathing hard.

"Lance!" she cried, freezing in place for a moment before recovering and practically flying to his side.

His blue eyes opened, hazy with pain and rising fever. A mutilated sound came from behind the muzzle when he saw her, and wrath exploded to life on her face.

"What. Is That." She bit out, every word sharp and shaking with fury.

Shiro's jaw clenched. "That would be a muzzle," he said carefully.

Allura's hands suddenly blazed with quintessence, and Shiro yelped in shock as she brought them to either side of Lance's face and quite literally melted the thing off of him.

Lance sucked in a great, heaving breath through his mouth and then devolved into great, hacking coughs.

"Easy, easy," Shiro soothed, settling him down on the floor.

Pidge scuttled behind him, gently stroking his hair to calm him while Hunk took his hand.

But Lance couldn't seem to get a breath in.

Allura ripped the muzzle into four separate pieces and melted them into slag before she extinguished her quintessence and knelt next to them.

"Lance," she called, cutting through their rising panic with an easy, calming authority. She reached out, cupping Lance's face and lifting it gently. There were bloody lines carved into his skin where the edges of the muzzle had cut him, but she ignored them for the time being. "I need you to breathe with me, love," she said, giving him a smile. "In…and out. In…and out." She exaggerated her own breathing, keeping her voice soft and calm, and in no time, he was breathing normally again.

He took a deep, unhindered breath, and tears flooded his eyes.

"..ank…ou," he rasped out, voice almost completely gone. "th…y…"

Her eyes shimmered with tears of her own and she kissed his forehead. "Don't try to speak yet, alright? We're going to get you all fixed up and you're going to be perfectly fine. That's an order, Paladin. Understand me?"

A little smile pulled at his mouth, and his lips were so dry that they bled, but it was a Lance smile, the first time any of them had seen one in over a year and a half, and it was enough to drive all of them to tears.

Lance gave her a firm nod, and she nodded back.

"Very well, then," she rose to her feet and helped Shiro stand without jostling Lance too badly.

But he still went rigid, and when a strangled scream tore out of his throat, Shiro almost missed the muzzle.

Almost.

"Hurry," Allura ordered, face hard.

They made it to the medical wing in a remarkably short amount of time.

Coran was already there, with an armful of supplies that he almost dropped when he finally caught sight of Lance.

"Oh, my boy," he said brokenly, reaching out a shaking hand to rest it gently on his forehead.

Lance offered a tiny smile. "…oran…" he croaked, lifting his organic hand and squeezing Coran's tight.

"Quick, lay him down over here," the older Altean ordered, gesturing to a nearby cot.

"Is he not going in the pods?!" Keith demanded from where he was sorting bandages on the other side of the room.

"He can't right now," Coran explained as he and Shiro worked to get Lance lying down on his stomach.

Everyone flinched at Lance's muffled cry of pain when Shiro had to put pressure on his back to turn him over.

"If what you said about the infection is true, then—" Coran's voice died as he got his first good look at Lance's mutilated back.

His face went a pasty shade of green, and a tiny wail escaped Allura, tears streaming from her eyes. Both of them froze, absolute horror painting their features.

"Coran!" Shiro snapped. He felt kind of bad about it when the Altean nearly jumped out of his skin, but Lance was still burning up with fever, and the blood and pus leaking from his back had the Black Paladin borderline panicking.

"The pods can't heal infection," Allura answered, hurrying forward and running a soothing hand through Lance's hair.

The boy was still letting out soft sounds of pain, now almost completely delirious. He turned blindly into her hand, tears streaking his pale, sweaty face.

"We have to bring his fever down," Coran said, visibly shaking himself. "Allura, I need that numbing and disinfecting agent we've got in the fourth cabinet. The entire thing. Make it into a compress, and pack it down the length of the…the spine."

The Princess nodded, taking off at a run for the far wall of cabinets.

"Alright, Paladins, out," Coran said firmly.

There was a general explosion of protests at that, but Coran raised his voice for the first time in anybody's memory.

"NOW!" he thundered. "This boy needs help right now and I cannot help him and deal with you at the same time! Now OUT!" his voice softened. "I swear, we will come and tell you as soon as we have news."

As they stepped out, Shiro looked over his shoulder one last time.

Allura was standing by the table with several jars of a slightly glowing, pale blue liquid, and she was running her hands through Lance's undercut as Coran prepared to pour one of the jars over Lance's back.

Then the door slid shut, and he couldn't see him anymore.

But they could all hear him screaming.

Pidge broke down into desperate sobs, diving into Keith's arm and clinging to him. He sank to the floor and hauled her onto his lap, hiding his own tears in her hair. Hunk joined them, and Shiro stumbled to his knees beside them, wrapping his arms around them and shuddering hard as another scream rang out through the door.

All they could do was wait and hope and pray that their broken blue boy would make it out alright.


Oh, the poor babs. But have no fear! Chapter four is going to be a lot happier.

Possibly.

Maybe.

*evil laughter*

So it should be up Saturday after next! If it's not, I forgot about it and I'll publish it when I remember. (You know, like I do everything...ha ha...)

Till next time!