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The Last Stand

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Cheers erupted after the awed silence, after the explosion that ignited the skies and detritus crashed to the Earth like cleansing rain. It had been harrowing and not without loss, but humanity prevailed. In the face of planet-destroying weapons and entire fleets of technologically advanced aliens, humanity emerged the victor. The Galra were gone, chased to the vestiges of the solar system through the combined might of Altean and Earth minds. Everybody was crying, leaping from their seats and hugging the closest body. No eyes were dry, no faces without smiles.

Something was missing.

The celebration did not stop, exactly, but a hushed murmur began to break through the jubilant crowd. When the initial euphoria passed, people began to remember. Whispers were exchanged as people climbed out from beneath makeshift shelters to stare at the ruined cities, at the deceptively calm atmosphere. Glances were thrown, searching, but…

"Where are the paladins?"

The crew of The Atlas came to a halt. Veronica was staring out, her hand frozen over the controls still humming at her fingertips, gaze flickering from face to face in search of an answer. They all looked at one another. Reality was an unpleasant feeling that crept on them as the joy faded. Atlas had knelt, had been powerless, drained by the strange beast that had come from the heavens. She had not stood up, could not. So who had carried the beast to space? Who had gotten up when humanity was too crippled to save itself?

Who had been near the explosion strong enough to decimate more than half a planet?

"Where," Veronica said again, "is my brother?"

Nobody knew. People exchanged shocked glances, a horrible awareness budding in their eyes.

"Sam, open the comms!" Shiro snapped, swinging around to face the control panel once again. The wide-eyed stares of the crew followed his motions, struck dumb with the force of their realization. "Contact the lions!"

"We can't, Atlas is offline. Power is recharging gradually, but there is no way to speed up the process." Despite his words, Sam Holt was frantically pressing his fingers to the controls, pulling up the comms. Under his breath, he muttered prayers for his daughter and her friends, for Voltron. He cursed and slammed his fingers on the keys when they didn't respond, his head hanging limply in renewed despair. Shiro took a deep breath, relished in the simple act of his lungs expanding, and resisted the urge to expel it in a scream.

"We are spreading out and searching," Griffin's voice rang through the command center. Heads jerked, people flinched. It had been laughably easy to forget about the other young pilots in their midst in the chaos of war. "The Galra leftovers are fleeing so we can-"

"Make sure the Galra stay out, MFEs," Shiro interrupted hastily. He tapped his fingers impatiently against the nearest surface, feeling Atlas vibrate at his touch. "We can cover the search, but with Atlas and Voltron down, you're the final defense. Stay in the air as long as you can. We will send out search teams where we can spare them and find the paladins."

"Okay, Commander," Griffin said reluctantly. More quietly, "Bring them home." The tell-tale crackle of the comm going mute left Atlas's crew in the dark and silence once again. It felt too much like several minutes before, elation warring with terror when the corpse of their foe had pulsed dark, bloody purple with the incoming detonation.

Veronica swiped at the controls, bent over the panel and eyes squinting against the mellow orange glow. Atlas responded to her with an inaudible whine that had Shiro grimacing and cradling his head. She was drained and had nothing left in her tanks, but she was still cycling fumes in response to their desperation. Shiro rested his hand on the console, hoping Atlas felt him. "I've locked onto their locations," she announced, voice grim. The holographic display whirred and came to life on the screens, showing the flickering dots on the map that indicated the abnormally still forms of the lions. "The signals are weak and... and they're not moving."

"The channels are quiet," came Sam's unwelcome news immediately after. "No chatter between them, or any transmissions being sent to us. The lions appear to have blacked out. All power readings on them are coming back severely depleted. I can't seem to get any vitals for the paladins."

Some brave soul raised a hand and asked softly in the tense quiet, "Are they… gone?"

"No!" Shiro near shouted. He wiped a hand over his face, allowed himself the moment to collect himself, before raising his head once again. The crew was shuffling at their stations, Atlas coming to hesitant life under their caring hands. They knew she was exhausted, could feel her, but they still had a job to do before it was over.

"I'm sure they're just a mite tired," Coran rambled. "After fighting as hard as they did, the lions and their paladins no doubt are taking a bit of a rest before meeting up with us. They've come back from far worse injuries, you know." His eyes were focused on the screen, where he had tried to pull up vitals on the paladins where Sam had failed. The way his hands were clenched into shaking fists betrayed his words.

Shiro pat a hand on Atlas's console, like he used to do with Black. Please, he thought, just a little longer. Just until we find them. Atlas whimpered, but obeyed. Her systems burned slowly, coming online at achingly slow speed, one panel at a time. Shiro closed his eyes and thanked her for her fortitude, straightening and gazing at the crew. His crew. Standing at the bridge. Christ.

But no, he couldn't afford a breakdown. Not when he had paladins to find.

The Blue Lion stirred with a soft rumble. Water cradled her metal frame gently, the waves rocking around her as she sank. Her vision came on at her beckon, eyes glittering faintly yellow in the dimness. She had not expected to wake so soon, not with the extent of damage done to her during the nonstop fighting, but the fact that she had crashed into the ocean was a boon that the lion would not overlook. It gave her the strength to turn on her systems, letting the hum envelop her in a familiar wash of blue light.

Her pilot was worryingly silent in the cockpit, mind empty and still. Blue cooed in concern and straightened her body, but did not stop her descent into the depths. It would be effortless to glide through the currents and back to the surface, but her paladin required her now. Blue mentally reached out, nudging against Allura's mind. She wrapped her presence around the princess, using her ice to numb the hurts and ease the pain as best as she was able. It was by no means a permanent solution, like how the energy provided by the ocean was but a temporary boost to her systems, but they had a ways to go before they could rest. The fight wasn't over.

Allura's arm twitched, fingers flexing subconsciously on the controls. Blue rumbled happily and pressed ever closer, coaxing the princess awake. Soon, you will rest, but not yet, paladin. Wake for a little longer, until Voltron is together again.

When Allura roused from unconsciousness, her muscles shook furiously against the cold digging into her bones. The cockpit was dimly lit, attesting to Blue's injured and exhausted state. It was utterly silent and the world Allura saw through Blue's eyes was nothing but water and darkness. Were they even on Earth? Yes, they were, Blue reassured. On Earth, in the oceans, lost but time to find the way. Allura raised her head and flinched at the agony lacing up her spine, intertwining with the nerves and settling in with a deep ache. Blue flooded the princess's mind in a waterfall, allowing her pilot to brace against her mentally. They sank, basking in one another's company and sharing the burdens.

Allura blinked dizzily, removing the helmet to wipe the sweat and blood from her eyes. She leaned forward, gripping the controls and taking a steadying breath against the nausea. Blue hummed under her hands comfortingly, solid and stable for all the lion's own hurts.

"Alright, Blue," Allura whispered hoarsely, "let's go."

Blue glided through the water with a playful, if exhausted, twirl as she aimed her muzzle to the surface. They took their time, paddling together through the currents. The battle was over and they were the victors. They could afford the respite before throwing themselves headfirst into the politics of the aftermath.

Allura activated the comms connecting her to the other lions and their paladins. The signals were grayed out, pulsing faintly as the lions slowly woke, but the paladins did not respond to her calls. Worry, amplified by the open bond between Blue and Allura, echoed in the emptiness where the other paladins were meant to fill. Voltron was well and truly down, injuries too great to sustain any substantial connection, and if Allura was hurting as badly as she was, even with Blue generously borrowing the pain, then the princess was afraid of what she would find. The other paladins were human, or mostly in Keith's case, and they did not have an Altean's natural durability. There was a chance that they hadn't…

Blue roared, bubbles bursting around them, and shot out of the waves. They remained low to the water, minds melded into one with a single purpose: find the paladins. So focused were they that Blue did not take enjoyment from her paws dipping into the waves. It was a necessary power boost and the only thing keeping the lion's core from shutting down completely.

The comms crackled with static.

"-llura? Allura! Can you hear me?"

"Shiro!" Allura breathed. She did her best to improve the connection, drawing her fingers along the controls and increasing the volume. "Shiro, it's me. Blue crashed in the ocean and woke me up. We're on our way to the Atlas now, but I can't feel the other paladins."

"We can't contact them either," Shiro said, his face appearing on a screen to her left. There were lines around his tense mouth, his forehead and nose wrinkled in a familiar frown. He looked exhausted and pale, the white hair doing his washed-out complexion no favors. Scrapes and bruises dotted his face and neck. Allura was sure that if they were to remove the armor, they would find copious amounts of burns and other wounds he had stubbornly left untreated. He scrutinized her with dark eyes, as she had him. "Allura, you look terrible. If you can, come to the Atlas, but don't push yourself or Blue. If you can't reach us, settle on the coast and we'll send a team out to get you-"

"We'll make it," Allura replied confidently. Blue rumbled in agreement, rising above the coast and approaching the mountains where Atlas sat like a monolith. "Find the others. There's no knowing what their conditions are. I cannot contact them and it was a stroke of luck that Blue landed where she did."

"We're working on it." Shiro rubbed his forehead, above his eyebrow, his face drooped with weariness. They sat in companionable silence, before he finally said, "Don't test your limits right now, Allura, I mean it. And don't go off looking for the others on your own. You need to rest. Having somebody deviate from everyone else is only going to make this more difficult in the long run."

Allura arched an eyebrow, taking no pleasure in Shiro's corresponding wince. "Take a hydration break before you fall over from stress, Shiro. You only just got that body back and trying your limits is asking for trouble. We can't lose you again."

He pushed the unruly tuft of hair out of his face, smiling wryly. "Understood, princess. Consider me scolded. See you soon."

"See you soon," she murmured, face softening as the connection closed.

The Atlas loomed in the distance, shoulders hunched and immobile, the very portrait of defeat. They may have won, but it didn't quite feel like it. Allura only hoped that they hadn't lost so much that they couldn't celebrate the hard-earned triumph.

Victory, in the end, left a sour taste in everyone's mouths.

"The princess is in the med bay and Coran's with her," Iverson reported stoically. "We've got word of the Yellow Lion and its pilot, Hunk, being retrieved by a few people who saw where he crashed near the city. He's being transported here and will arrive within the next few minutes. His injuries are bad, but not lethal, from what I've heard. The princess is taking a well-earned nap." The older man gave Shiro a pointed look. Shiro deliberately ignored it and drank a petulant mouthful of water.

Iverson heaved a tired sigh, bags under his eyes. He was not without his own bandages. They were the only ones still standing at Atlas's helm, which had yet to revert from its Voltron-esque form. All the other members had either left to perform different tasks, or left to the infirmary to have wounds tended to. "You should take a few hours to rest, Shirogane. You look like somebody shoved you into an oven and let you roast for awhile, and then got chewed and spat out like a piece of gum."

"Thanks," Shiro replied dryly. He pushed his hair up and out his eyes for the millionth time that day and tossed the empty water bottle over his shoulder, hearing it bounce off the side of the disposal and smack against the floor. He rubbed his eyes tiredly. It'd been a long time since he missed a shot like that, but his coordination hadn't been right since he woke up in this body. "Where are the lions?"

"Currently in a shared hanger," Iverson said promptly. "We tried to put them in separate ones, but the Blue Lion snuck out and into the Yellow Lion's, somehow. When we tried to move it, it woke up to growl at us, so we've left them there."

"She," Shiro corrected.


"The lions are 'she,'" he said. Iverson stared at him like a lunatic, which he was content to ignore. You would think that after the invasion, the man would be used to stuff like this already. "The lions want to make sure they're all safe, just like we do. Speaking of, is there any word on Lance, Keith, and Pidge?"

Iverson nodded, taking clear pity on him. "The Green Paladin was seen to have crashed in a wooded area a few miles from the city, not too far from where the Yellow Lion was. A team was sent for search and retrieval not a half-hour ago," Iverson said briskly, but not without sympathy underlying his tone. "The Red and Black lions are nowhere to be found, but were reported to have crashed in the same area several miles due west. The information has yet to be confirmed."

Shiro massaged his temples, hyper aware of the mental connection brimming with newfound sentience and minor pain. The crystal remnant from the Castle of Lions had given Atlas more than they could have ever anticipated. With the paladins out of commission, people looking for answers, and rogue Galra still in Earth space, there was so much to do in such a little time. He knew walking onto the bridge that people would start looking to him for answers, but he wasn't sure if he had any to give. He needed his team back and more than a few hours of rest.


Shiro startled, looking up to meet Iverson's concerned eye belatedly. "Sorry," he said. "Just got a lot to think about."

Iverson crossed his arms over his chest and narrowed his good eye at the younger commander. "Go to the infirmary and get checked out by a doctor," he ordered. There was a strictness to his tone that reminded Shiro, rather nostalgically, of his cadet days. "Sleep, eat, rest, and get bandaged. The world can run without you for a day, Shirogane. And," he added knowingly, cutting off any reply Shiro had opened his mouth for, "we will find your paladins."

If it wasn't for the fact that he had infiltrated a ship, had his brain used as a computer, fought Sendak in hand-to-hand-combat on a crashing battleship, and mentally bonded with a recently created Altean-Earth ship, then Shiro would have struggled more. As it was, he let Iverson lead him out of the command center with a heavy hand on his flesh shoulder. A large part of him dithered in protest, wanting to take control in his shaking hands and find his team, but an even bigger part knew that, as acting commander, he would need his rest. If he wasn't coherent, then nobody should be following his orders. Shiro was long passed compromised. Not that he could find it in himself to care.

The Atlas shuddered under their feet, shifting. Shiro thrust an arm out to both stop Iverson and to hold onto the wall as the massive ship transformed. When the trembling ceased and the knight that Atlas had formed was replaced with its normal shape, a faint relief tickled the back of Shiro's mind. It took all he had not to collapse against the side of the ship.

This time, when Iverson marched him away, Shiro let himself be led without a word.

Veronica held her brother's hand, hungrily drinking in his slack features with her eyes. The shuttle car bounced and jerked over the rough terrain, but Lance was strapped tightly enough to prevent unwelcome movement that might jar his injuries, and the car itself was built with remarkable shock absorption. The fact it was bouncing so much did not bode well for the landscape, but she determinedly shoved the concern to the back of her thoughts. She had other priorities to attend to, and making sure Lance survived the trip to the med bay at what was left of the Garrison was at the top of that list.

This was the first time she had gotten to really look at the changes in her younger brother since he arrived on Earth. There had been too much bustle and rush, too much planning and debriefs, to have the chance to sit and look at him. He was thinner, features sharper than they had been before he and his friends disappeared in space. His cheeks were more hollow, eyes sunken in slightly with bags taking up permanent residence like dark bruises. The hand in her grasp was calloused and flecked with grease, sweat, and dirt. His wrist was bony against her fingers where she measured his pulse. His skin was paler with pain and exhaustion, hair tangled and skewed at dreadfully wild angles.

She muffled a sob into her other hand, screwing her eyes shut to withhold the tears threatening to pour down her cheeks. Even his smile was different, now. Her little brother had grown up in a war, had gotten a bit taller, a bit smarter, a bit wiser, and she hadn't been there for him. She had well and truly lost him, God, five years ago. Now that he was back, it almost felt like he was a stranger who had taken residence in her brother's body.

Guilt and sorrow made for a hot mess in her mind. She loved him, would always love him just as the rest of their family would, but it was unbearably hard to see him this way. The video that had been released to the public had not prepared her for the real thing, for the familiar way he ducked his head with a shy smile at compliments, for the way he clung to her like he never thought he would see her again when they hugged. Veronica leaned forward, buried her face in his hair, and tried not to get snot in the strands.

She jerked back up when his hand weakly clenched in hers. Her blue eyes went impossibly wide and she felt stupidly like an owl, but that didn't matter as the slivers of blue peeked up at her through the absurdly long lashes that she'd been envious of when they were younger. She held his hand right back, biting her lip against her cries. Lance's face twisted anyway, obviously conscious enough to recognize her tears, but not enough to know the cause of them. His muscles strained against the sheets, but she pushed him down before he could even attempt to sit up.

"Roni? W'as goin' on? Why're ya cryin'?" he slurred. "Did 'e get 'im?"

She patted his chest reassuringly, sniffing and tracing his ribs. "We got him, hermano," she whispered. "We're going to the Garrison to get you and your friends fixed up."

"'ood," he breathed, the panic in his eyes easing as he relaxes into the bed. They had him on the good drugs and he probably wouldn't remember this conversation when he was fully conscious. Veronica stroked his hair until he fell into an undisturbed sleep. This was the best she could do, all she could give, but she would give it all she had, even if it wasn't enough.

On the other bed, unnoticed by the siblings, violet eyes watched them before closing. Softly, under his breath, Keith muttered, "Idiot. Like th're was 'ny doubt." A smirk curved his lips weakly when Cosmo whined, shoving his muzzle under Keith's arm.

It was good to be home.

The infirmary was jam-packed with the injured, civilian and military alike. Doctors and nurses hustled about in scrubs, stains from different types of bodily fluids on their sleeves and smocks. Shiro watched them with half-lidded eyes, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed as he stood in the doorway. His team was in the room directly behind him, taking their well-deserved rest. Their injuries had been severe, some deadly, but they would pull through against all odds. Voltron would live to fight another day.

Shiro smirked wearily. As if they would do anything less. His team was far too stubborn to be taken out by the likes of the Galra and their toys.

Lance snuffled in his sleep, rolling over and flopping an arm in the direction of Hunk, who snored like a freight train into his pillows. Pidge was curled into a protective ball, glasses tucked in her father's breast pocket until she woke up. Allura is completely still and on her back, appearing almost dead if not for the gentle rise and fall of her chest. Coran was slumped in a chair next to her bed, hand grasping hers. Keith slept with his back to the wall and facing the rest of his team, face soft in a way that Shiro's rarely seen. The sight of them made his lips quirk unwillingly. The warmth was a heavy, welcome burden in his chest. This one, he would carry, but he would also treasure it.

He couldn't help but wonder what Adam would have thought, if the man had lived to see it.

"You should join them."

Shiro jumped, whipping his head around and smiling sheepishly at being caught staring so blatantly. Sam looked at him knowingly, coming to a stop beside Shiro and sweeping his gaze over the battered paladins.

"I'm not as bad off as they are and I've already got my injuries treated. The people need somebody to direct them," Shiro protested. He rubbed the back of his head at the scolding look Sam shot him.

"Which you can do after you sleep and make sure your team is okay," Sam said firmly. His tone was kind, but hard with the expectation of obedience. It itched in Shiro's very being to follow the order, even if he knew that he was the engineer's superior now. "The world can wait for you another day. We have won, Shiro. It's time for the world to rest. We will move on, as we always have, and Matt is coming with more supplies and, more importantly, hands. We have time for reprieve, so take it while it's there. Who knows what's going to come next."

Shiro nodded grudgingly. After those weeks and months spent traveling in the lions, escaping by their toenails from the Galra and defeating the Druid through sheer luck, well. Shiro understood taking the chance to relax when it came. Such moments were rare in war.

Sam pat him on the shoulder once, then shoved him into the room, laughing at Shiro's indignant splutter. "Rest up, and rest well, Champion. We've got a planet to fix."

When Shiro looked up, his team looked back, sleepy smiles on their faces.

It was hard not to laugh, after that.