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As Color Fades Away

Chapter Thirty-Four

Despite Shiro's readiness, they weren't able to proceed right away.

Coran insisted that he eat something and fully wake up before they tried anything of such a delicate nature, especially after the amount of blood he'd lost. That interim also gave them time to prepare Lance for what was about to happen.

It hadn't taken much to rouse Lance, as the sleep he'd fallen into was fitful at best as the sedative was all but out of his system. Fortunately, Hunk gently calling out to him had brought him almost peacefully back into consciousness and he'd even allowed Hunk to place a pair of fingers again on his shoulder, but over the blanket. He was shivering badly – chills, Hunk had told the Altean – despite the fact his internal body temperature said he should be anything but cold.

Pidge had awoken Allura, who even after just about an hour of rest felt refreshed, and all of them were gathered about the bed now, although remaining quiet as Coran had asked. The only sound was Hunk's soft humming that Lance had almost relaxed to and crunching sounds as Shiro mechanically plowed through a round of energy bars.

Coran hated to break that peace, but time was of the essence. Although Lance had stabilized for the time being, every tick that passed was another that Coran worried over the fate of the boy's hands and feet. He still was not sure if the pods would be able to heal such extensive damage, but the sooner he was in one the better chance the limbs would have.

"Lance, lad," he called quietly, sitting at Hunk's shoulder and drawing a pair of tired, pitch-black eyes to him. "Are you with us?"

"'m here," came the reply.

"We're going to have a healing pod ready in just about a varga," Coran said. "Before you can go into one though we must remove the collar and manacles from you. Number One is able to cut through them, but you will need to remain absolutely still."

And that is what had Coran concerned. He knew without a doubt there was no way Lance – anyone really – would be able to make no movement with a live, hot blade coming towards them and in these circumstances that doubly applied to Lance. The only way for certain would be to restrain him and Altea almighty he could not do that to the boy.

Lance seemed to be thinking the same thing, as his breath hitched and his entire body stiffened. Just thinking of what Coran had barely described, even knowing that he knew it was Shiro, had him shaking. Already he could so easily picture Theodek, hot knife at the ready, and the cold, choking grasp of metal encircling him and dragging him back to the ground. As if summoned by his thoughts, he felt the hot burn against his feet and sharp claws digging into his shoulder, overshadowed by Haggar's soft laugh as Theodek chuckled. "I will enjoy this," the Galran whispered and stabbing heat engulfed his arm.

"N-no," he cried, trying to pull away from Theodek, but the claws followed, sending more fire down his shoulder. "No más."

"Lance, it's just us," pleaded a voice over the sound of Theodek's amusement. "It's okay. You're not there anymore."

He let the voice lead him out of the inferno, realizing moments later that it was Hunk speaking and reality crashed back down again. Pathetic, he could almost hear Haggar sneer. Scared of nothing. Scared of everything.

"Lo siento," he murmured, voice catching. "I'm sorry, I'm sor—"

"Hey, hey, we talked about this," Hunk interrupted kindly, "There's no need to apologize. I know it's scary. But we'll all be here with you, okay?"

"Lance," Shiro's voice sounded and Lance hunched further over, feeling his face flame. Losing it front of his leader. His hero. Again. He couldn't do anything right. "Lance," Shiro called again, commanding and tender at the same time. "Look at me."

Lance tentatively raised his head, staring sightlessly in Shiro's direction. He was almost glad he could not see. He couldn't bear to see the disappointment in Shiro's eyes.

"I would never, ever, hurt you," Shiro said. "And I will do everything in my power to keep you from ever feeling hurt or scared or in pain again. I am the one who is sorry, Lance. I…" and his own voice broke. "I would have done anything to take your place. You should have never had to suffer as you did. I am so sorry."

Lance's eyes widened. Shiro was apologizing? To him? That wasn't right. Shiro hadn't done anything wrong. He was the one who had messed up. The one who had failed. Failed so, so many times.

He was failing now. Couldn't even keep it together for a minute. What they all must think. He lowered his head again, the weight of the stares too much to bear.

"Lance," Shiro called again, voice rough. "Look at me, buddy." Lance weakly shook his head.

"It's okay," Shiro sighed, and Lance felt a stab of shame. "It's okay," he repeated, hands aching to just pull Lance into a hug, but he resisted the urge, knowing it wouldn't really help at all. "Right now," Shiro continued, "You do whatever makes you feel better, okay? We all just want you to feel safe. And I… I know you're scared. We all are. But we're going to get through it together, all right?"

Shiro was scared? Everyone else too? But why would they be…? Hunk's hand, which had remained steady on Lance's shoulder, gave the tiniest of squeezes. And despite at first stiffening, Lance relaxed back against it, the warmth comforting this time around. Not fires and burns, but steady and safe. He let out a breath.

"We're all here for you," Hunk murmured. "And we all want to help. Will you let us?"

Lance gave a small nod and he could almost hear Hunk's smile behind him. He wished he could return it, but his lips wouldn't even twitch up. He honestly wasn't sure he could smile anymore. He fought back against the wave of despair that brought, the feeling of cold rain dotting his skin and the crash of thunder crying out with him. He couldn't stop the shiver though, the action leaving him exhausted and reminding him that he was still cold. He leaned more into Hunk's hand, trying to leech what little heat he could.

"Lance," Coran said gently. "I would like to pose one more question before we carry on any further. I know thinking on this is difficult, but if you prefer we can try to solve the dilemma of your vision before we begin. Perhaps it would be easier if you could see us as we worked."

Lance swallowed thickly. His vision? He wanted his sight again, more than anything. To be able to see them, reassure himself that they really were there and he wasn't there. But... "I… I don't know how," he admitted, hating the hot sting of tears that cropped up.

What if they couldn't remove it? What if he was blind forever? He would be absolutely useless than, more so than he'd already proven to be. He drew a sharp, ragged breath at the thought.

"That's all right," Coran soothed. "Do you remember what," and he paused, remembering how last time such an inquiry had shut Lance down, "it is that did this? A spell, maybe? A bright light?"

"Spell," Lance whispered, confirming Coran's worst fear. "She… she called it the… the darkness spell."

Coran hummed in thought. "I am afraid that one does not ring any dornacks. Do you recall anything else to it, Lance? If you don't right now, that's all right too."

He did know. He remembered all of it. Even with the fuzziness of his fever and the constant thrum of pain he remembered all too well. It was seared into his mind as surely as Theodek had burned his feet. He just needed to stop being so pathetic and tell them. It's what Shiro would do. Shiro would lay out all the facts so the problem could be solved. He needed to be more like Shiro and less... less like the even more pathetic version of himself he had become.

He swallowed again, trying to build what little courage he had. And how sad, truly, to need courage for something like this.

"There's words to unlock it," he said after a few ticks of silence. "She said… she said I just have to say them."

"And these words, do you know them?" Coran asked, trying not to hope too much. For if Lance knew them he was certain by this point the boy would have uttered them.

"One," Lance said. He ducked his head down, the word coming out a mere whisper. "P-please."

"Please," Shiro repeated, and his voice was hard. Lance tried not to flinch but Shiro must have seen, because his tone softened immediately. "Sorry, buddy. I didn't mean to upset you. Good job."

Inside Shiro was boiling and the faces of his family reflected the same. Please. It wasn't a word that was being used for politeness. It was meant to demean Lance, to make him plead for something that should have never been taken in the first place. It was one of Haggar's ways – and Shiro was one hundred percent certain that the witch was the she Lance had referred to – of maintaining power and control.

"And you are unaware of the other words?" Coran clarified.

Lance gave a small shake of his head, leaning it tiredly against the pillow throne. "Just that there's one more. And…And she said… she said I knew it. And I… I hadn't said it." Whether that was in her presence or at any point during his captivity he couldn't say. She had cameras everywhere, after all.

"This 'she,'" Coran said carefully. "You are referring to the Druid known as Haggar?" Lance's cringe answered that question.

"It… it has to be a word with some meaning then," Pidge said, keeping her voice low and hating that even then Lance still started slightly. "Like… maybe a Galran word? One that Lance would know." She turned warm eyes to him, although Lance stared blankly past her. "Is there… is there any word the Galrans used, maybe, around you?"

It was a good suggestion. But thanks to their weird translating abilities Lance was never certain what language was actually being spoken around them. And any Galran, save perhaps slang or a formal name like the Kri Za Kri, would likely be translated to English.

So he shook his head, which gave a new ache. Thinking hurt too much. And he was so afraid he'd think of something that would trigger yet another flashback.

"Perhaps it is a name?" Allura suggested quietly. "Or a title? That would make some sense, yes, with the other word?"

A name? Lance couldn't quite understand the sudden sick feeling that filled him at Allura's suggestion, his stomach twisting in unease. That couldn't be… hadn't he… hadn't he said it?

"Lance?" Hunk's voice sounded distant through the sudden sick haze that was clouding him. That had to be it. It had to be. But the word wouldn't come, getting stuck in his throat and threatening to choke him. And he was choking, he realized in growing horror as his chest seized and he failed to draw a breath.

Worried voices were washing over him and he was aware there was a hand on his back again – Hunk, he registered through the fog, safety, warmth, Hunk – rubbing hard circles and gradually he felt that terrible tightness lessening and air return to him.

"¿Estás bien?" Hunk murmured. And Lance found himself shaking his head, too exhausted to care what they made of his admission of weakness.

"You know the other word," Shiro said, voice heavy. He had a sinking suspicion himself given Lance's reaction. His hands clenched into fists. Damn her.

Lance nodded. "Yes. I… I…"

He didn't seem to be able to get it out. Understanding was dawning in the other's eyes along with a rising fury.

"Haggar," Coran said softly, bracing for it but still wincing himself as Lance recoiled at the name. "The words to end the spell are those, aren't they? 'Please, Haggar.'"

Lance swallowed a sob, feeling tears already running down his cheeks for a reason he wasn't able to fully determine. He just knew if he said it… if he said it… He could hear her, echoing in his mind. My Lance. The words pounded in his heart. A hand touched his cheek, a pair of cold lips pressed on his forehead. My sweet Lance.

He trembled and suddenly even Hunk's presence was too much. He shifted slightly and Hunk understood – he always understood – and the hand disappeared, but Lance felt it settle on the bed next to him. Close, but not touching. There, but not invasive. He felt the tears come harder.

Haggar closed in, fingertip tracing around his eye and lighting on the brimming tears. So pretty. Such beautiful eyes, my Lance. A hand tightened in his hair and he whimpered. You're all mine.

"No," he whispered, trying to turn his head but found it locked in place, rough stone and crashing waves making him shudder even more. "I'm n-not…"

I am right here, she crooned. Oh my sweet Lance. Sharp nails carded through his hair. All is as it should be.

"Lance." Shiro's tone was gentle but firm even though inside he felt like screaming and crying himself as Lance waged a mental war right in front of him and he couldn't even reach out a hand to ground him, to comfort him. "I need you to listen to me, all right?"

Lance didn't react to Shiro's voice, just curling in on himself even more.

"Lance," Shiro repeated, voice cracking despite his efforts to stay in control. Watching Lance though, lost again in memories that they had unwittingly called up, that were forcing him to remember his own, were breaking his resolve. He was supposed to be their leader and yet right now he was feeling anything but.

"Lance," Hunk's voice cut in, shooting an understanding look in Shiro's direction, which gave him time to draw in a shuddering breath and Allura's small hand descended on his shoulder in a measure of comfort. "Lance it's us. You're not with her. You're safe."

Lance was turning his head slightly in the sound of the voice and Hunk continued his litany, praying it was enough to drag Lance from whatever horrors he was seeing. "Estás bien. You're safe. We're all here for you. Come back to us. Por favor. Come back to us."

And to everyone's relief Lance blinked open dark eyes highlighted by tears and looked towards Hunk. "Estoy aquí," he murmured. "Lo siento."

"Lance, can you hear me now?" Shiro asked.

He received the barest hint of a nod, hidden in another sob.

"Then listen very closely to me," he paused, knowing that this was either going to work or backfire horribly. But he had to try. They had to get through to him. "Lance… You are not hers."

Lance's breath caught and Shiro hurried on, needing to speak this piece. He needed him to understand.

"No matter what Haggar's said you are not hers. You are not her property or possession or pet or child or whatever she might have claimed." The words reverberated inside Shiro as he spoke. This was as much an admission to his own memories that he had allowed himself and the words released something, something freeing, that he had not known was still chained.

"You are you, Lance. You are strong and brave and compassionate. And don't deny any of it," Shiro said, anger burning again that he could even sense Lance's doubt. His voice lowered. "And Haggar? Haggar is the one that is weak and pathetic and has to bring others down to make herself feel powerful. Her words are poison. They are not the truth.

"And this spell of hers? The words she's making you say? They don't mean anything, Lance. They don't define you. They're just syllables. An incantation. Do you understand?"

Lance managed a nod, his throat still closed with tears. He could feel the soft heat of a flame burning deep within, springing back to life from the dying embers. If Haggar's words were darkness, than Shiro's were light. They brought back that tiny spark that he had clung to for so long, reminded him of the things he had told himself once but had been forgetting as fear and hopelessness took hold and Haggar's darkness blanketed everything.

He could still feel Haggar hovering, her memory cold and dark, but he shook his head to try and dispel her. She didn't disappear – would she ever truly leave? – but the light of Shiro's words burned brighter and he clung to that. He didn't understand how Shiro could say such things about him, believe them, but he believed in Shiro.

That… that had to mean something. Right?

"Good," Shiro said, releasing a breath. "Then I think it's about time you got to see us all again, huh?"

Lance nodded again, even as his stomach clenched. They were just words but… but still…

"I have a suggestion," Pidge said. Shiro gave her an encouraging smile. "What… what if we all said the words? That way it isn't so…" Personal? Painful?

"I think that is an excellent idea, Number Five," Coran said without even having to force the note of joviality.

"Is that okay with you, Lance?" Shiro asked.

Lance swallowed thickly, tears pricking again but this time at the sheer relief he felt and the wonder that people like this were a part of his life. "Sí. Yes… please."

"We'll go in a circle then," Shiro said. "Pidge, would you start us off?"

"Gladly." Her gaze narrowed although she kept her voice clear of any inflection, making sure to say the phrase as not the sentence they were intended but just two words that were unfortunately placed next to one another. "Please Haggar."

Keith wasn't so successful. "Please, Haggar," he growled, silently adding "burn in hell."

"Please Haggar," Allura said softly, her voice clear and bright.

Shiro was up then and he kept it as steady as he could. "Please Haggar."

"Please Haggar," Coran murmured, mentally tacking on a series of Altean swears that would make even a seasoned soldier blush.

"Please Haggar," Hunk said, praying that this worked.

And then it was Lance's turn. He took a breath, his chest tightening but the action calming him despite the pain. This was it. He could do this. They were just words. He could say them. He could. And these words… they weren't for Haggar. She wasn't here, not really. They were for him. For his friends. He could do it.

Lance could feel them all waiting patiently, the weight of Hunk's hand still pressing down the mattress and proving that last bit of real that ne needed. He licked chapped lips and summoned his last reserves of courage. "Please," he whispered, "Haggar."

And just like the previous time, his vision was returned immediately.

He let out a soft cry though, as even dimmed the lights in the room were too bright after so long in darkness and he heard through the spots of pain dancing in his vision Coran utter an apology and race to turn them down. He kept his eyes squinted closed, afraid now that when he opened them that somehow, despite everything, it would prove to be an illusion. He'd see that he was still in his cell and all of this was one cruel, beautiful dream.

"Lance, open your eyes," Hunk coaxed. "The lights are low now. Come on. Mírame."

He cracked them open, not open enough to see anything but enough to test the light. It was dimmer, no resulting pain. He took one last breath and then opened them all the way. Color. That was best how to describe this new world.

Colors were so vibrant, even in the low lighting. His breath caught as he took them all in. The darkness had been there for so long he had nearly forgotten just how many colors made up the universe. And the colors burned brightest in the circle of his friends – his family – that were crowded about the bed.

Hunk was right next to him, his own eyes filled with tears as their gazes met. "There you are," Hunk murmured, reaching up a trembling hand before he lowered it. But as it settled on the bed Lance surprised even himself as he forced his own leaden right hand to move, managing to settle a few fingers on top of Hunk's open palm. Hunk sobbed and wrapped his own about them, in as much of a hug as he could right now.

Grounded now with Hunk's safety and calm, Lance traced every face. Coran was there, tears running down his cheeks while Shiro met his gaze head on with a soft, "welcome back, buddy." Allura smiled at him, such joy radiating from her that Lance nearly had to look away.

Keith was next, a rare smile on his face that wavered dangerously as their eyes met. And then Pidge. She was crying silently, eyes magnified by her tears, but she had never looked happier. Lance gingerly moved his left hand in her direction, guilt still filling him as he dimly recalled how he had scared her – scared all of them – when she had tried to touch him last time. "Por favor," he whispered.

She needed no second urging. Hauling herself onto the bed she sat next to the hand, still loathe to encroach on his immediate space, and carefully placed one of her smaller hands on the very fingertips of his. He forced himself to not draw back, staring at her hand, peach and small and not purple and long, and drew a breath. Not Haggar. She wasn't Haggar. She was Pidge.

A chorus of squeaks sounded and the mice appeared from where they'd been resting on one of the pillows, lining up right next to Pidge's leg. Platt leaned forward and very gently nuzzled his nose against Lance's index finger and stepped back, each of his siblings repeating the motion. Lance remained completely still the entire time, the soft velvet of their noses invoking none of the terrible feelings that other contact seemed to have. He felt himself relax as Plachu gave the last nuzzle, his normally narrowed eyes crinkled with happiness.

He looked around the circle again, half-expecting that if he blinked it would disappear. But they remained, pillars of reassurance and strength and love.

He had so much he wanted –needed— to say. To apologize for. He had no idea where to even begin. But he had to start. And with his vision returned he felt… not stronger, but more in control. Ready to face them. To face whatever it was they wanted to say to someone like him who had almost cost the universe there one chance at peace.

"I…" he started. But before he could figure out what came next he was seized with a cough. It was deep and painful, wracking his entire body and he felt his contact with Pidge disappear as he hunched over, struggling to draw air again. And despite the pain, he made himself stay with it, refusing to go back to any memories. Not now. Not when he'd just escaped.

"Easy, easy," Coran soothed over the pounding in his head. "There you go, lad. Just take a small breath, that's it."

He took a shuddering one, leaning back on the pillows in exhaustion. Everything was aching and burning all at once in a pain he hadn't felt in a while and his stomach twisted ominously. He felt too hot and too cold all at once.

He felt a pass of air and then a sharp beep.

"Lance, lad." Lance pried open heavy eyes to look at the Altean, whose face was drawn with worry and a scanner in hand. "Your fever is rising. One hundred and three point two in your Earth measurements. We need to get you cooled down."

And Lance realized within a few ticks what that meant. "No," he rasped, panic flaring. "No." Just because he could see it did not make it all right. He'd learned that in the mindscape all too clearly.

"Would some ice be okay?" Hunk suggested, giving his fingers a tiny squeeze of reassurance. "No water. I promise. Just some of those ice packs from the kitchen."

Ice? Ice would be okay. He gave a tiny nod.

"The body's best cooling points are the neck and wrists," Pidge said. "But…"

"We need to get the collar off," Shiro said. He met Lance's gaze. "It and the manacles. You'll feel better and be able to breathe easier. But I won't do anything until you're ready."

"You'll… you'll do it?" he asked softly. Shiro nodded. "And…" he looked about the room. "You'll stay?"

"Of course," Pidge said vehemently, having reclaimed her light touch on his hand.

"We're not going anywhere," Keith added fiercely. Allura inclined her head and Coran met his gaze head on with a pride that had Lance ducking his down. The mice squeaked out their input on the matter as well.

"Okay," he agreed quietly.

If they were all there, lending him their courage and strength… he could do this. It'd be okay.

He trusted them. And if he knew anything… he knew they would not let him down.

It would be okay.

xxx

Somewhere else in the universe a pair of yellow eyes widened as a ripple of familiar magic passed through the air, swirling up around the figure before dying down.

"Oh my Lance," Haggar whispered. She pulled the vial of quintessence free from under her robes, holding the glowing blue droplet in front of her, all that she had left of her precious Blue Paladin. A sharp grin tugged up her face as she stared at that pulsing drop. He had said her name. It had rolled of his tongue, releasing her spell. It had probably sounded so beautiful.

"I will be there soon," she murmured, caressing the vial lovingly. "And then soon you will be mine."

xxx

Author's Notes:

I have been looking so forward to Lance getting his vision back. I loved writing that scene and hope it resonated with all of you as it did for me. I will say I had one person guess the correct phrase and another reader get right up in its business, so major kudos! Did anyone else realize that Lance never once actually said Haggar's name in all these many chapters? Crazy, right?

For those who didn't get the reference last chapter, it was from Avatar the Last Airbender when Zuko goes to approach the Gaang in season three to join them. He practiced first with the frog/rabbit thing and then repeated it on the actual Gaang and got a water wave from Katara for his efforts. Keith's greeting went over much more smoothly, if still adorably awkward.

Huge thanks to the amazing reviewers: Sirrius The Moonblade, Lasagna, WhiteTails, JustADamFrenchFry, DoctorMerlinReid, thegalacticpope, CrispyFics, AnimeAngel4ever200, TheTheoryofFangirling, FanaticFangirl2602, Finnesotan, Guest, Shadow Gray, Sarah, Noel, wingedflower, Guest, Shadows Demons, Alexa, SonoSvegliato, Pheonixwarrior123, White Space Lion, imagine forevermore, Jadegem02, Guest, PaintedWings45, Jennyfish26, dragoscilvio, llamamoose23, Belletiger BT, rwbygirl, HetaRosFangirl, lovemelau, LishaChan, QuestionablyCapableGhoul, IceAurora, Adrianna Agray, Spacenerd7, StrawberryFever3, Rookblonkorules, Death jump, Rachhecht, Pfeh, Stargirl720, Justanangryfangirl and Eeveecat1248!

Also, thanks to those who came out to the Q&A chat. We had an awesome group and I dropped way more spoilers than I should have :p You can see the chat on my profile page (scroll to the bottom) if you want a little more insight into Color. I may host a third one (we're turning into a little book discussion group! :D) and will post details if such a thing does happen.

I'd love to get your reactions to this chapter if you have a second to spare. Thanks so much for the support, everyone!