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They started for the paladins' quarters, Hunk carrying Keith, Allura and Coran supporting Shiro. They were only halfway to their destination when Keith groaned and opened his eyes in confusion.
"What the hell?"
"You passed out, dude. You had the glowy-eye thing going on just like Pidge." Hunk shifted to hold him more securely.
Keith groaned again and let his head fall back. "A little warning next time, Red?"
I will try. But a declaration needed to be made.
Allura stumbled, her mouth open in shock, but quickly righted herself. The movement caught Keith's notice and he looked at her.
"Put me down, Hunk."
"Keith, you just had a lion knock you out by being in your head. That's not the best way to recover."
"I'm fine. Put me down." Keith started kicking to get loose and Hunk relented, keeping an arm around him until he was sure Keith wasn't going to keel over again. When he spotted Shiro being supported by the Alteans, he tried to get out of Hunk's grip. "What's wrong with Shiro?"
"He's okay!" Lance grabbed Keith's free arm. "He just passed out like you did after Black finished talking through him!"
"Oh, right. Sorry, I remember now." Keith relaxed and they let go of him. He turned his attention back to Allura, a frown on his face. "I asked you before, Princess. What does it mean to merge with the lions?"
She looked around at them. Hunk and Lance were confused and a little frightened. Pidge was wary but also curious. Coran seemed to be trying to hide behind Shiro. Her tongue darted out to run across her lips.
"To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure what is happening. Let's go to the lounge, get Shiro settled, and I'll explain what I know."
By the time they reached the lounge, Shiro was also awake and mostly walking on his own with a little help from Coran. Allura's eyes kept flitting between him and Keith, her expression uncertain.
Once they were all seated, Shiro looked around. "Okay, what happened out there? The last thing I remember is Black…rendering judgment?"
Pidge snorted at that. "Oh yes, he did. Turned that bastard into a drooling turnip. And when the judge questioned it, Red got in on the act."
Shiro turned to Keith in concern. "She did? Are you all right?"
Keith shrugged. "I should be asking you that. Wasn't my first time."
That made Allura sit up and now Shiro had a visual reference for "tearing one's hair out": the princess reached up, digging her fingers into her elegant up-do and pulling in frustration.
"How? How are the two of you awake and coherent? It took my father ages to recover after he merged with the Red Lion!"
That got all the paladins' attention.
"Whoa, your dad was the Red Paladin once?" Lance's voice was eager.
"Did it happen with all the paladins?" Pidge leaned forward, adjusting her glasses.
My paladin, ask for patience. This will be difficult for her.
Shiro did so immediately. "Knock it off, everyone! Let Allura tell it her way."
There was instant silence. As they waited for Allura to gather her thoughts, Shiro sought Keith's gaze. Keith nodded slightly toward Pidge, who was sitting beside him. Shiro got the message: the three of them needed to compare notes at some point. He gave a tiny nod of agreement back.
"When my father was a paladin, his team accomplished many great things. They discovered abilities in the lions and were at times in a constant state of astonishment as they fought the enemy."
"Like jawblades?" Shiro asked.
Coran nodded. "And that rail gun on the Red Lion."
The other paladins turned to Keith.
"Rail gun? Is that what I saw cut all the way across and take out one of those border rings? That was you?" Lance asked. "How did you activate it?"
Keith raised his hands palms-up. "I…I'm not sure. Zarkon had just thrown us into the command ship with some kind of energy whip and Red wasn't responding at first. I just kind of…reached further for her. And then it appeared and went off."
Something tickled in the back of Shiro's mind. Black wasn't coming out and saying it, but hinting that all the paladins would be able to do something like this. But this was getting them off track. "Okay, back to the point. Is this…merging another example?"
Allura shrank back a little. "One time, we had a situation rather like this one. There was a race, the Varubans, who had a technology that worked essentially like miniature wormholes. Trigel, the Green Paladin, fell through one into another sector of space. The planet she arrived at, Fisadore, was very isolationist. They lured her out of her lion with promises of starting diplomatic talks, then imprisoned her. They put her on trial for the sins of all races who had acted against them when the rest of the paladins arrived.
"Green chose that moment to merge with Trigel and distract the court, making some pronouncement about their small-minded and oversimplified views. According to Father, they convinced some of the Fisadori that their goddess was seriously displeased with them and speaking through Trigel. The Green Lion timed the speech to end just as Father and the others brought their lions down in the public square next to the building."
Allura wrung her hands. "Trigel took hours to wake and it was at least eight quintants before she could leave her bed. She had no strength—others had to help her with everything. And she couldn't explain what had happened. The best she could describe was that her mind had been invaded and the lion was using her voice to speak." Allura looked up at Shiro. "Just like you."
Shiro nodded. "But Black didn't invade. He asked my permission, both times."
"Both times? When was the first?" Allura's voice rose, trembling, and Shiro realized just how much trouble she was having accepting this. Whatever the lions had been like in her time, it was clear that things were very different now.
Quite different. You are younger. You are more open to working with us as partners instead of seeing us as tools.
"Is it really that simple?"
Shiro hadn't realized that he had asked that aloud until everyone was looking at him.
Coran kept his arm around Allura, trying to offer as much support as he could. Allura had barely left her toddler stage when the other paladins had brought a weak and barely conscious Trigel back to the Castle of Lions. He hadn't realized that she remembered so much, of the confusion and fear as, one by one, each of the paladins went through the merging process and collapsed into a state of profound, lingering weakness.
Except Zarkon. At the time the prevalent theory was that Zarkon was somehow stronger than the other paladins, that he had proven his mastery over his lion where the others had been weak and lost control, allowing themselves to be possessed. The others had fought to avoid it happening a second time.
Now, Coran wondered if the reverse were true. Shiro had been the first to connect with his lion at a deep enough level to fly blind. He didn't have all the details of the battle, but he knew that somehow Shiro and the Black Lion had been separated, Keith had gone in and prevented Zarkon from taking it, and Shiro had gotten back in time for them to save Keith and the Red Lion.
Teamwork. Real teamwork. These five fit together better than the original paladins ever did.
The first paladins had stated their commitment to the cause, had delighted in discovering the capabilities of Voltron, had socialized and appeared to be friends. But there had always been a faint undercurrent of trepidation, of never quite letting go of diplomacy. A question of when—not if—one of them would choose their own planet over the greater good.
This group of young Earthers had arrived already functioning as a team. They knew they didn't have all the answers and looked to the lions as guides. There was even a casual affection in the way they spoke to and about them: Black, Red, Blue…
"Is it really that simple?" Shiro's non sequitur threw them all briefly.
Then the paladins' expressions shifted to recognition and Coran realized. Shiro was talking to the Black Lion.
"Is what simple, Number One?"
Shiro glanced over at him. "From what Black says, it sounds like we're the first paladins to treat the lions as equals, even though that should be obvious. I mean, they're sentient. Blue was communicating with Lance within minutes of him sitting in the pilot's seat. At some point Black started using words with me—have any of you gotten there yet?"
There was a round of affirmative answers from the other paladins and Coran felt his eyebrows reach for his hairline. Alfor had certainly never described anything of the kind to him. Perhaps a search of the archives for Alfor's journals was in order.
Allura sat up a little at that. "Father never said anything about the Red Lion talking to him!" She turned to Keith.
He held his hands out. "I'm really not sure when it started happening, but yeah. Sometime in the last several days the feelings from Red just turned into thoughts. She definitely called to me the first time we merged, pulled me in to try and protect me."
Pidge's expression turned hard and she looked up into the air and hissed, "Green?" After a pause, she seemed to relax slightly. "Green says it was sort of an accident with us. We were both so furious when we found out about Darzi trying to kill Keith that we just sort of fused before we knew what was happening. She says she'll be more careful in the future."
"So wait, what exactly does this feel like?" Hunk was fidgeting nervously.
Coran watched as Shiro, Keith, and Pidge looked at one another. Shiro answered with a bit of hesitation, "It's not bad at all, not painful, just different. You feel like you're sharing the same space, the same mind with your lion. You can see what the other is seeing."
"People look different," Keith added. "Everyone had this…glow inside of them."
Pidge nodded. "Yeah, I could see that you were overloaded with Quintessence. The radiance was intense…it was all shining white." Coran saw Allura almost nod at that.
Shiro shuddered briefly. "Darzi…he was revolting. Like the worst polluted muck you can imagine. Compared to everyone else it was obvious that he was damaged. And then when Black did…whatever he did it seemed to draw a lot of my strength out of me. Like it needed both of us to happen."
"And yet you are here and talking and able to move," Allura observed with an accusatory glance.
Shiro sat up at that. "Princess, all we can do is describe what happened."
Coran gripped Allura's shoulder. "All right, I think we've gotten as far as we can for now. Perhaps I should look through the archives and see if the last paladins left any records, observations of this phenomenon." Allura glanced at him and nodded, letting the matter drop for now.
"Besides," he continued, "I'm afraid we need to do one more thing before we leave."
Iverson took one more look around, making sure everything was in place. Even doubled, the line of cameras stretched the length of a football field in front of the Garrison's perimeter. The platform with six miked podia was in place. The enormous alien ship was positioned about a mile behind the platform.
Everyone was ready and waiting.
Iverson lifted the sleek white alien communicator to his mouth and spoke. "We're ready."
The rushing sound of displaced air overlaid with a rising hum caused the media crews and observers to look up.
Five large, lion-shaped ships descended and landed in perfect formation directly behind the platform. Five pairs of eyes flashed gold. Five heads lowered and opened their jaws.
As everyone watched, five armored figures emerged. A sixth person, in an elegant but practical combat uniform, followed the man in black and allowed him to assist her from the lion and up to the platform. Each of them took position behind a podium as the lion ships sat up once more.
The woman's gaze swept slowly across the crowd of people, making every one of them think she was looking at them for a moment.
"Greetings, people of Earth. I am Princess Allura of the planet Altea. I have been asked by your Galaxy Garrison and Earthforce to take this opportunity and introduce the Voltron Force. These five young people from your planet were brought to us by chance, but have come together to bring back Voltron, the Defender of the Universe.
"We will now hear a few of your questions."
To her far left, McClain made finger guns at a red-haired woman among the reporters.
Iverson groaned and let his head fall into one hand.
Haggar had waited for quintants, nearly half a lunar cycle, monitoring Zarkon's thoughts and moods with spells that she would never share. Should the Galra Emperor discover them, he would try and kill her on the spot. And as long as he held the bayard of the Black Lion, they were too evenly matched for her to risk such a confrontation.
But Zarkon had finally begun to calm down after Voltron and the Alteans escaped. Now was the time to approach him, especially as she had an idea on how they could track Champion. Did he not bear her gift? And was she not capable of sensing her work and its effects? All that was needed was research on how to amplify her magical senses and she would be able to pinpoint his location at greater and greater distances, just as she had the moment he entered the base. She could already sense Altean life force when in deep meditation, so the theory was sound.
She entered the audience chamber and inclined her head, as always. Zarkon brooded, stroking the bayard as he replayed the battle in his mind. Haggar waited, rather that interrupt him and dare angering him.
Suddenly he growled and flung the bayard across the floor. That surprised her. It was his most treasured possession, his reminder of how far he had risen since the days of being the Black Paladin and the leader of a single planet, one of five members of Voltron.
"I know I'm right! It's not enough!"
She edged closer, putting sympathetic attention in her posture. "Sire?"
"We've accomplished great things over the eons, Haggar. Great things. But we've done it by overwhelming numbers, by creating the sentries and improving them so a single Galra officer can command thousands of expendable troops. But that innovation happened long ago and, with Voltron's return, the game is changing."
Haggar was surprised Zarkon had finally noticed. The more spread out their influence, the harder it got to keep the Empire pacified. It was one of the reasons she had driven her druids so hard in crafting the new process to harvest Quintessence – they had barely been able to keep up with the growing demand with the old methods.
"What are you thinking, sire?"
"We need to expand the abilities of the sentries. We need more options than the old genetic imprints of our officers. We need more diverse source material."
He paused, then looked her in the face. "We need the Skydancer."
"The one in the Red Lion. He held me off for an extended time. He woke the lion's rail gun. There was one point where I actually began to worry that my shield would not withstand his assault. He is possibly the most talented pilot I have ever seen." Zarkon stood and strode to the enormous window, looking out as drones repaired the damage to the base. "With his genetic blueprint incorporated into the fighters, they would be much improved in their capabilities. Possibly the sentries as well, should he prove to be skilled in hand-to-hand combat."
Haggar was intrigued but unsure. "It is an idea, but I need to research it closely. Those Paladins are not any species we know well. We must ensure that the genetic material is compatible. If you will be patient, I have enough left over from my work with Champion to make the experiment."
Zarkon nodded at her, pleased that she supported his idea.
"At the same time, I can research my own idea. If I am successful, I will have a way to track Champion at great distances. We find him, and we find your Skydancer."
And that's all, folks! I am pretty certain there will be a sequel to this in the future (because Keith is my favorite and I can't stop putting him in peril and there's all kinds of plot threads to pick up like the Holts, etc.), but I'm going to give some love to other fics first. Please feel free to follow me if you don't already do so for updates! Thank you to everyone who has read and commented on the first of my "Voltron" fanfics!