It had been a gift. Calling the creature in the box, “it” felt wrong. She had never had that trouble with other animals, aliens or not but as had been pointed out by the Galra who had sent the box, this alien looked an awful lot like an Altean. It was sometimes hard to tell with aliens but it seemed obvious that this creature wasn’t an “it” so much as it was a “he.” Or maybe she was just projecting Altean social standards onto a completely independent creature.
“Is it healthy?” Allura asked looking at the animal that they had laid out in an empty bedroom in a medical pod. He – it – the alien had scaring on his face and arms and the readout on the screen that the doctor was looking at was lit up with red marks. She didn’t try and read them.
“There’s been extensive medical work done. Head injury, broken bones, the amputation, these bones here were all shattered at one point and that injury would have come with massive internal bleeding given the placement of arteries and veins through that area,” the doctor said pointing at the screen.
“He came from the arenas?” she asked.
“That’s the best guess I have for the source of these injuries,” the doctor said.
The Galra held gladiatorial battles for their criminals where those who won would be afforded their freedom and those who didn't, died. Sometimes those battles included animals from other planets to be battled as well as other prisoners. It had always seemed barbaric to Allura but one did not judge the moral compass of other species.
This creature must have been one of those animals but he'd been retired after a rather catastrophic injury and rather than being released back to the wild or simply killed, Lotor had given him as a gift. It wasn't meant as a kindness. Allura had taken an even stronger view than her parents on the Galran gladiators. Everyone knew she didn't like it. But you couldn't refuse a gift without making a public statement and to make a public statement would have meant publicly judging the moral compass of another species.
And judging the moral compass of another species was not something one did when one was a princess or a diplomat.
So she had accepted it as graciously as she could and now had no idea what to do with it.
"Maybe he's trainable. He look's almost like a person. Maybe he'd make a nice pet. The Galra sometimes keep strange things as pets. It’s better than starting a diplomatic incident by refusing to keep it," one of the advisors had said.
Keeping something that looked like a person as a pet left Allura feeling disturbed but she wasn't even sure what planet he was from. Just sending him back and dropping him off there seemed like the best solution but that meant figuring out where in the galaxy there were near-Altean non-sentient animals and why no one had ever seen them before. It seemed like the type of thing someone would have mentioned if he came from a known species.
The alien had been in a drugged stupor of some sort for three days. He was still dressed in plain black prison clothes and she had him left locked up in the small bedroom until some plan could be determined. He was injured and battered though the Galra had technically healed him before sending him on to her. A prosthetic arm that her doctors claimed was state of the art by Galra standards had been installed after his had been lost. The scarring was extensive but healed.
As far as gifts went, this one had been put through a blender and no one had even bothered to tie on a bow. Maybe she could use that as enough of a reason to refuse it. Her advisors advised against that. There were issues with the Galra as it was. Zarkon had been pulling for greater control over Voltron and every conversation with the Galra over anything turned into a complex negotiation. Choosing a menu for the festival dinner at the end of the week had been a dramatic affair.
On the third day, a terrified looking maid came to tell her that her new pet awake.
She opened the door to the little room to find that he looked quite a bit bigger when he was standing and had a feral sort of intelligence in his eyes. He met her gaze directly but otherwise didn’t react. He'd come collared and the guards had recommended leaving it on. The other shackles had been removed over the course of the medical examination and hadn’t been replaced. The medical pod that the chain was attached to was heavy enough that he'd only been able to drag it about a foot away from the wall before he'd gotten tired. He still held the chain in one hand.
It was shockingly obvious.
He. Not it. He.
"You're not an animal," she said.
He met her gaze with a level expression that was furious and terrified and not altogether sane. It was utterly sentient. Lotor had called him an animal and she'd taken it at face value. The Galra picked up animals from different places around the galaxy to toss into their fighting rings. It was barbaric but legal. Moving sentient species from planet to planet without their consent was illegal. Locking them up in gladiatorial combat rings was more than illegal. It was the kind of thing that could get a species kicked out of the galactic alliance.
He answered her.
She didn't understand it, she had just gotten up and wasn't wearing her translators but the rhythm of the sounds were unquestioningly language. Sentient and with enough intelligence and culture to have developed language. His eyes were dark and steady. A person’s eyes in a person’s face. He was monochrome and tattered at the edges. His hair black and white and sticking to his face, his clothes black and torn around the edges. His feet bare because the doctors must have taken off his shoes at some point.
Allura turned and picked up the communicator on the wall and called her father.
The prisoner said something else to her but this had to come first.
"The Galra are breaking galactic law and just moved from hiding it to flaunting it, they're planning something," Allura said to the sleepy voice of her father's secretary who had answered the phone.
"That's a hell of an accusation to make before breakfast," he said.
"The gift that Lotor gave me just woke up. It's not an animal. It's a fully sentient but unrecognizable creature which means at best they ran across him on a trade route and he committed a crime for which he was arrested under Galran law for and someone just forgot to log his species. At worst, it means they're picking up slaves from among the outer planets and then killing them for entertainment. Either way, they sent him here and claimed he was an animal."
The voice on the phone swore. “Get as much information from the alien as you can, I’ll wake your father and the advisors,” he said and then hung up on her.
She turned back to the prisoner. Best case scenario meant that the Galra weren't angling to start a diplomatic incident that could lead to war but that best case scenario also meant that this creature was dangerous enough to have broken some Galran law and then survived the arenas. Allura was an Altean woman. She was one of the most physically powerful creatures in the galaxy and she’d been born into a heritage of magic that she was still learning but she was a force to be reckoned with all on her own.
She could win if it came to a fight but it was still disturbing to be standing in a room with someone who could potentially be that dangerous.
What sort of abilities did he have that she wasn’t aware of? Was this a cheap and messy assassination attempt? That disturbed her even more. She had grown up with the Galran royals. Jockeying for political power wasn’t anything new in the alliance. An assassination attempt from someone she’d known since she had been a toddler was quite a bit different. She didn’t like Lotor but she’d never thought of him as a threat to the alliance, to Altea, to her own personal safety.
The prisoner crossed his arms and was touching the metal arm with his normal fingers. Rhythmically tapping on it as he watched her. Some small edge of the fury had faded but there was nothing friendly in his expression. He looked dangerous. Tightly coiled and on the edge of something. Panic or rage or something else. Whatever it was, he barely had a hold of it and he set her teeth on edge. She drew herself up to her full height and then a little taller because she wasn't going to be intimidated in her own house.
"Do you understand me?" she asked.
He held her gaze for a long moment before bobbing his head once.
"Stay here, I'll be back in a minute," she said.
He answered her again in that language she couldn't understand but she didn't stop to try and figure it out. She heard a bang as he tried again to get the chain off the sleep pod and made the thing jerk across the floor. She winced a little but didn't turn back. She went back to her room and put on her translators and pulled her hair back. She had some food ordered up and then steeled herself and hesitated. It wasn’t just the anger and potential for violence in him that made her hesitate. It was the guilt. Criminal or not, he was a sentient creature and didn’t deserved to be chained up like that. She pushed all that to the side and went back into the room.
His head snapped up at the sound of the door. He looked at her with his lip curling and his eyes narrowing. He still stood at the edge of the range of the chain, tense and with his arms crossed over his chest. He was terrifying. Nearly Altean. So damn close. The ears were wrong. There weren't any silana marks on his face. Unusual coloring. Too monochrome, too few colors. Little differences. But close. He was even the right height for an Altean. He was close enough to Altean that the little differences made him more alien despite the similarities.
The food had arrived before her and she readjusted the table so that it was within his reach. Then she retreated to the desk by the door, far out of that reach, and waited. He didn’t move. He watched her like she was a threat and he barely glanced at the food. It was a breakfast plate. Fruit and porridge and cold drinks. She hadn’t realized she was hungry until the food was there and the nervous looking servant was being herded back out the room. If he was dangerous, better he come after her than someone else.
"Say something, I need to be sure that my translators can pick up your language," she said.
He said something and after a moment of static, the translators gave her: "How about you untie me?"
"Until I'm sure that you aren't going to try and kill me, no."
That lip curl again. Less like a person. More like an animal. Then he pulled himself together again and looked at her. Angry but once again, almost Altean. A person, a different kind of person than she was but a person nonetheless.
"You should eat, you've been on intravenous drip for three days. Maybe longer, I don't know what happened before you arrived here. Food will make you feel better."
"What are you?" he asked.
"Altean. What are you?"
"I was speaking more to species."
"Is this some new challenge?"
"Not for you. You just became a pawn in a political game that has been raging on for decades. This isn't about you. This isn't about the arena. This is about the Galra playing games with us. Where did they find you?"
He nodded again. That little bob of his head. He didn't look convinced and he didn’t show any interest in answering the question.
He still hadn't touched the food. That wasn't good. He was her damn responsibility and she didn't want him dead of starvation. Also she was hungry. He could stare moodily at the food but she was going to have some breakfast. She hadn't gotten within his arm's reach when she'd moved the table. Now she risked it. She stepped up so that the table was between them and took a piece of fruit out of the basket before retreating back to her seat. He hadn't tried to grab for her. She sat back and ate it. He didn't look away from her.
"Do you have a name?" she asked.
She raised her eyebrows at him but he didn't volunteer it. She went back to eating pieces of her fruit. He took the same one that she had and did the same. He seemed to struggle to use the metal hand. It had to be very new. He didn't sit down, and he didn't relax, but at least now he was eating. She took another piece of his breakfast, lingering in his range for just a moment before retreating. Once again, he didn't try and touch her.
"Where did the Galra pick you up?" she tried again.
She ran through her memory. That name didn't sound familiar. A moon maybe or an outpost. If he had come in off the far-flung trade routes, then maybe he’d be from a place that she wouldn’t recognize.
"What system is that?" she asked.
"I don't know. We don't have systems at home. The other prisoners talked about systems sometimes. None of the names I know make any sense out here. I don't know enough astronomy to tell you. It was the edge of the solar system. My solar system."
That was the most she'd gotten out of him yet.
"You're from an undiscovered planet."
"I lived there. I think we know where it is."
"Are you signed onto any of the galactic treaties?" she asked.
"Then by galactic standards, you’re undiscovered,” she told him.
He looked at her but his expression didn't change. Was he annoyed by that answer? She studied him. He had been watching her since she entered the room and now they were watching each other. How far from home was he? How long had he been with the Galra? How much had he suffered? How dangerous was he?
She stood up and his eyes followed her as she came back to the table to pick out something else to eat.
His hand, the metal one, snapped forward and caught her wrist.
He was faster than she expected and jerked her forward before she had got her footing.
She yelped in surprise and then went still and silent.
She had let him lull her into a sense of security that she should have known better. Too trusting. She had always been too trusting. The kids when they played war games while their parents had conferences had always played on Allura’s trust. There were some of them she would never trust again because they’d double crossed her too many times when they’d been little. She knew better. And yet. She still let her guard down too easily.
He held on with enough force that the bones in her wrist protested. She straightened and grabbed hold of his real hand and wrenched one of his fingers hard enough to make him flinch. He was silent but his expression was tight enough to let her know that she was hurting him.
"I can break every remaining bone in your body," she told him. "It won't be difficult. The collar might slow you down but don’t think it’s the only thing protecting me. Don’t imagine that I won’t hurt you if you leave me without a choice. You might have been powerful in the arenas but you don't scare me."
Her voice did not waver. He held onto her. She returned the favour. She bent the finger she’d gotten a hold of a little further. Still not to the breaking point but she was hurting him more than he was hurting her. She held his gaze. He loosened the crushing grip on her wrist but didn't let her go. She mirrored it. Not bent as far, not held as tightly, a little farther from the breaking point.
"I want to leave," he said.
"I want to avoid a war. Until my advisers tell me that I can let you go without starting one, you stay here."
"I am aware of that. You're just another piece on the game board but you're an important piece. Lotor turned you into an important piece when he gave you to me like a new pet. I will get you home. I will take you back to your solar system and your Kerberos. I will do that. I have the power to make it happen. But. Understand that I will not do it at the expense of my planet and my people. I will not start a war with the Galra over the wishes of a cranky gladiator boy."
She matched it.
"Fine. But I want the collar off," he said.
She studied him. He was still holding onto her but it was a weak enough hold that she could untangle him. She didn't. Not yet.
"Alteans are stronger than you," she said.
"Fine. Then I will be at a disadvantage. It shouldn’t matter to you so fucking take it off."
"I'm going to have you put on a limiter so you can't leave the grounds. You aren't free to leave."
"Fine. Fuck. Whatever."
"Any issues and we lock you up in a proper dungeon or just leave you in a stasis pod until this is resolved."
More silence then finally a sharp nod.
Allura untangled his grip on her. She did it gently but she could see his shock at being removed so easily. He hadn't believed her when she had told him that she was stronger than he was. Then she left the room. She heard him make an angry noise behind her but once again, she didn't go back. She leaned back against the door and buried her face in her hands and sucked in a few long slow gasps of air. She paused to flex her fingers and examine the finger shaped bruises on her wrist. Sinking to the plush carpet and just sitting there for a few minutes seemed like a good idea. Would she have broken his fingers if he’d refused to back down? It had seemed like such a rational threat but she’d never intentionally broken anyone’s bones in her life. That one time with her cousin and the tree didn’t count. She hadn’t expected him to fall.
The alien was dangerous.
He was dangerous enough that giving him any sort of freedom was going to endanger her staff.
And yet. He was a person. He was a person capable of rational thought and argument. He was able to make decisions and use strategy. It wasn’t rage that had led him to grab her. It had been an attempt to threaten his way to freedom. Not the best strategy in the world but he wasn’t going to go around mindlessly beating up strangers. She tapped her toes and covered her eyes again and thought. She made a decision. She called in to get a report from the advisors who of course had done a lot of advising but hadn’t decided anything. Then she went to fetch what she needed.
She stopped to gather herself together before she stepped back into the room. The bastard had hurt her. She flexed her fingers again and the bruises ached at the movement. He had hurt her but she wasn’t going to give him a chance to do it again. She’d break his jaw before she let him touch her again. She pushed those thoughts down and waited until she wasn’t scared any more before she opened the door.
"I'll keep the collar off when you're with me," she told him.
He had finally sat down. He perched on the edge of the sleeping pod, no more relaxed. He looked up at her but didn't respond. He did not belong in this room. The room had a white tile floor, a pink rug, yellow walls, and pink draperies. It had always been empty because it was too small to be a real bedroom or even a play room for children. Someone had put in a white desk and there were some books on it. Allura and Quill had snuck in here when they were little to eat candies and hide from their tutors. It was not the kind of place where angry men in black were meant to be chained up.
"This doesn't come off until this is all over. I can have one attached at the wrist or your ankles, it's your choice. You can spend the rest of your time either with an escort or locked up here with the collar or locked up in a prison cell."
"You're afraid I'll try and escape?"
"I'm more afraid that you'll go after one of the staff with that metal hand. I have combat training. They don't. If you try and hit me, I'll put you in a hospital bed. That isn't true for everyone in this building."
"I won't hurt anyone."
She held up her arm where the bruises were already starting to come into view, "I don't believe you."
"I'm sorry,” he said. That stopped her. He meant it. He held her gaze as he said it. He regretted hurting her. That earned him a few points but not enough to make her willing to renegotiate the deal. Free and in the company of someone who could take him down or locked up. He was too dangerous for anything else.
"I recognize that you've had a very trying time and I appreciate the apology."
"You're quite the politician."
"I'm a princess."
"Are you really?"
He didn’t respond to that.
She stepped up to him and he held out his wrist so she could attach the tracker. It would hurt him if he crossed the castle's wall and tried to get out into the city. It was a connected to a node in the palace's tech-core so if he went too far in any direction, it would shock him until he couldn't move. He listened to her explanation and while he didn't look happy about it, he didn't argue it either. She fit it to his wrist and set it to seal.
Unchaining him was scarier. She could take him in a fight. She knew that. She was stronger and better trained than he was. Probably. She had done a lot of training in her life. But, she'd still never been in a true fight in her life. Sparing in a training ring wasn't the same thing. Simulations weren’t the same thing. Her life had never been in danger. He had fought for his life and won. She'd never fought anything that didn't have a safety command that she could call if she needed it to stop.
"Princess?" he asked.
"Are you going to try and kill me?" she asked.
He looked at her and considered the question. She was close enough for him to grab but he hadn't tried. His metal hand rested beside him. He had let the newly banded wrist she'd just finished working on fall in his lap. He smelled like metal and worse things. He needed a shower and a new set of clothes. His expression was hard and defensive but not quite as furiously angry as it had been. He was becoming a person inch by inch, a little bit at a time. It was fascinating to watch.
"In the last year, I have been kidnapped, beaten, abused in ways that I can't even remember properly. I've had my arm ripped off and my face torn open. In all that time, no one has offered to untie me. Not even with caveats about tracking bracelets and escorts. I am not going to try and kill you because if everything else that happens to me on this planet is terrible, this morning has been the best thing to happen to me in longer than I can remember."
"We're going to get you home," she said. "This is temporary. You're going to go back to the place where you were born and see the people who love you. I'll make it happen."
"Ok," he said.
She was pretty sure that he didn't believe her but he was calmer than she'd seen him since he awoke. She stood and he didn’t recoil again as she had him turn his head so she could unchain him. Once the collar was gone, all he did was rub his neck and look at her. He had really intense eyes even when he wasn't furiously angry.
"Where do you want to go?" she asked.
“What do you want from me?”
“Information on what the Galra are doing in those pits. Coordinates of where you picked up. Eventually a full profile on your species so that they’ll be recognizable should they turn up on other trade routes. The advisors will have other questions too. None of that is immediately pressing. Until the advisors have finished the meetings they’re holding with my father, there isn’t anything pressing but to wait.”
“What do you want to do Pilot?” she asked.
"I want a shower and to see the sky” he said.
That phrase didn't translate so when she said it, she said it back to him in an imitation of his language. He didn't smile at her but she almost thought he wanted to. Not Altean. She couldn't read him like an Altean and assuming that she could would just embarrass her. With the chain gone, he was immediately calmer. He picked up another piece of food and then put on the boots that had been left by the door. Then he looked up at her and waited for her to open the door.
“Come along then,” she said.