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Chapter 3: Me Time

 

In Human terms, a feast generally involves a main dish, several side dishes, numerous sauces, gravies, and chutneys, and the really fancy ones involve as many as twelve courses. They are usually accompanied by numerous fine wines and followed by extravagant desserts, and the usual result is a mass food coma with bonus inebriation.

At this feast there was only stew, lots of it, and that was all that anybody needed. It made everything worth it, from the hazards and efforts of the hunt itself to the somewhat disgusting work of butchering the kill; the dragons had cleaned it out very effectively and had even removed the legs and neck, but there had still been a lot of work to do, and the carcass that they had left behind them once they were done was by no means picked clean. That was necessary, Lizenne had told them—there were creatures in the envirodeck that actively needed those leftovers for their own health, and by the next day, even the bones would be gone. Most of the meat had been packed away into cold storage for later, along with the hind shinbones and hide, but a large chunk of purple-blue haunch meat had been reserved for their meal. All of them had been required to step through a decontamination booth, and then help prepare the complicated recipe. It was worth it, all of it was worth it, and Shiro felt that he would do it all again for just one more bowl. He wasn't alone in that; all of his teammates and the Blades as well were nose-deep in their bowls, although he did look up at one time to see an odd little exchange. Zaianne had pushed her glass over to where the big Palabekan could refill it from the pitcher, and he had to lean over Pidge to do so. Pidge was bent over her stew like a hawk mantling over its prey, and the Blade's head wasn't far above her shoulders when he set the pitcher down again. He paused, sniffed the air with a faintly puzzled look on his face, and then bent his head to take a deeper sniff just above the back of Pidge's head. When he straightened up again, he did so with a look of mingled surprise and delight, and with an admixture of anticipation that irritated Shiro for some odd reason. Before he could object, Zaianne gestured a sharp negative at the man, which made him flinch slightly and give her an oh, all right, I'm sorry sort of look before turning back to his food. Pidge never noticed, her full attention fixed on the contents of her bowl.

Shiro thought back to what Modhri had said long ago, back when Lizenne was first teaching them how to deal with Druids, about how Galra men would catch the scent of their intended mates by sniffing at their hair. Pidge, despite her childlike appearance, wasn't a little girl anymore, for all that Zaianne had warned the man off. For some reason, the thought of any man faunching after Pidge stirred feelings in him that he'd felt once before and had never expected to feel again, and he had to sit there, nursing his glass of water for a minute or two before he could get those emotions firmly under control. He had been warned about this, numerous times, in fact; Coran had made it very clear that the bonding process naturally entailed a more... cohesive... arrangement than most fighting teams on Earth generally formed. On the other hand... well, it would be her choice in the end, and Keith was living proof that such unions were successful.

That's for the future, he thought, although his inner eye showed him no clues that day, nor in the days that followed.

 

Vennex settled into the couch in the main lounge with a long, tired sigh. Modhri had asked him if he'd like to participate in the yulpadi hunt, but he had politely declined. His adoptive uncle's wife still made him nervous, as did Zaianne and her fellow Blades of Marmora. So did the Paladins, for all that they had gone out of their way to be friendly. Somehow, that just made it worse. Adding the dragons and a very large, very strange, and very dangerous animal to the mix was entirely too much for his nerves. Instead, he had retreated to more familiar ground, meeting with people interested in support, supply, and shipping. That meant Trenosh, who knew more about transporting foodstuffs and household goods than he did, and the Captain and certain of the crew of the Osric's Quandary. His conscience had been nagging at him all day because of that, despite the fact that the dragonlike Elikonian had been far more polite and attentive than half of the Galra distribution and customs officials that he'd seen his own relatives wrangling with before he'd joined the Military, and that the Quandary's own chief Quartermaster was a thoroughgoing professional where it came to outfitting large ships. Jilphix-Farr the Xelocian was eager to expand operations into a Sector that might soon be removed from Imperial control, and even a few of the other rescuees had expressed an interest in the enterprise. The ship's best pilot and best astrogator, Kezz and Haswick, had pointed out shortcuts through odd bits of space that he was sure that even Trenosh's grandfather didn't know of, and there had been numerous others who'd had good ideas to share, so long as everyone got some of the benefit. There was a lot of potential there, and a lot of risk, and then he'd had to contact his family and run it by them.

It was tempting, very tempting, but it was dangerous, and a lifetime of Imperial propaganda was giving him some trouble. He'd been taught from an early age that Emperor Zarkon was the rightful ruler of the known universe, and that any who set themselves against him were bad and wrong and evil. It was right that Galra were supreme over all, it was right that all other races must either submit or die, it was right that revolution was punished with annihilation; it was all right and true because that was what Zarkon had decreed, and his word was law. The simple fact that he was still decreeing it after ten thousand years was proof of his power.

Vennex had outgrown most of that long ago, first through playing with non-Galra children when he and his brothers had been small, and then later when Modhri had rescued him from that Gantarash ship. He had not been returned to his family immediately, but had remained under his rescuer's wing for several weeks. He had seen how that brave man had treated peoples other than his own, and how he had protected them from the malice of his own men at times. Modhri had never spoken of how his views had differed from the norm, but he had lived them every day, and those around him had respected him deeply. Vennex had come to quietly idolize him during that time, admiring the calm, dignified demeanor and the stalwart heart of the man, and had almost refused to return to his family when it had come time to go home. He had burned to follow that example, and had joined up despite his mother's objections, intent on bringing glory to the Empire in ways that didn't involve breaking things. He had completed his mandatory five years as a common soldier with great anticipation of taking the training that would allow him to rise in the ranks, only to stop in horror when those upper ranks had betrayed and destroyed his hero for no better reason than greed. It was a breach of trust that had shattered his faith in the Military, and in the Emperor himself when the great one had condemned a good and honorable man to a hideous death in the arena on the strength of a lie. Vennex had been reluctant to go home after that, and just as reluctant to go on with a military career. Why bother rising, if it just got you cut down? His relatives would never let him forget his bad decision if he gave up and went home, and so he had continued in his present rank for three undecided years, drawing his pay and sending most of it home in a kind of vicarious apology.

And now this.

The irony of the fact that he was now doing more good for his own people by helping Zarkon's enemies than he had in the past eight years of military service was not lost on him. Or on his kin, for that matter. They had been relieved that he had survived, of course, but had been initially horrified at the company he was keeping. That had turned to fascination fairly quickly, and now they were intrigued by the possibility of new business contacts in an area of space where they wouldn't have to fight with the constant corruption, kickbacks, and graft that were endemic in the Imperial mercantile sector. He'd heard someone say once that there were no people more mercenary than merchants, but had not expected it to be proven by his own kin. Trenosh's folks, if anything, were even less inclined to give the Emperor the time of day, much less their loyalty. Not that he blamed them. Arcobi was not a rich planet and it had no voice in either the Center or in the Core Worlds, nor did it have much to offer their Governors and military protectors. There was a reason why most of the rebel forces were concentrated out here near the Fringes, particularly now that the Military was so torn between hunting around for Voltron, trailing after the Crown Prince, or struggling to quell the numerous uprisings. There simply was no profit in wasting time and resources on protecting those marginal colonies, not when there was favor and glory to be won elsewhere. Therefore, logic and tradition decreed that those abandoned worlds must find their own ways to survive. He'd helped with that today, setting up the framework for a line of business that would mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of innocent people in the near future, and he would have to be as grateful as they were that his loyalties, however artificially instilled, did not get in the way of their continuing to live.

At least he didn't have to wonder what it was all for—the prickling sensation of baby teeth gnawing on his shin provided a very clear answer to that. He leaned over and lifted Ranax into his lap, setting the toy aside; the cub was as tired as he was, having been brought along to the meeting because Nasty had run off to chase the mice, shouting something about silverware before disappearing into the ventilation shafts, and the cub had spent the entire afternoon playing with spare machine parts and biting pirates. It had done his own family good to see the brat trying to savage the enemies of the Empire, too.

“Long day, eh, lad?” Coran said, leaning his elbows on the back of the couch beside him. “Good work, though. You've made life easier for a lot of people today.”

Vennex nodded, absently stroking the sleepy cub's fur. “It's all I can do. I'm not the hero that I dreamed of being.”

“Oh, I don't know, you're doing fine so far,” Coran said, twiddling his mustache musingly. “You've survived a raging space battle, been captured by terrifying aliens, been miraculously rescued, fought another battle and actually won it, and now you've saved a lot of lives. You're also warm and dry and comfortable, and even have access to proper sanitary facilities. A lot of heroes have managed the first but not the second, believe you me. Alfor and his bunch included. A lot of their escapades didn't end very well, you see, and it was sometimes weeks before they saw a proper toilet, much less a decent medical facility. It's amazing that they'd lived so long, come to think of it. Our current batch has had better luck thus far.”

Vennex thought about that for a long moment, listening to the soft snoring of the cub in his lap. “Coran... did Zarkon and the others go out of their way to make alliances like Lance and the others do?”

The Altean gazed down at him in surprise, and then his brows pinched in regret. “No. It wasn't encouraged, and that suited Zarkon right down to the ground. According to those in charge at the time, Voltron was supposed to defend the people, not make itself available to them. Not directly. To the various governments, sure, but not the actual people. After all, one of those commoners might suggest to Alfor or Gyrgan—they had Views about this sort of thing—that maybe their government was filthily corrupt or repressive, and should be removed. No high official ever wants people like the Paladins talking to the general public. It gives them ideas. Zarkon was fine with that, since he felt that common folk were beneath him. Prince, you know.”

Vennex nodded. “And the Golrazi have always been proud. This team is very different.”

Coran chuckled. “You have no idea. All of the previous teams were the best of the best at what they did, even the fellow who'd been a janitor before becoming a Paladin. All of them were one-in-a-million sorts, all carefully screened by at least three boards of directors before even being allowed to set foot in the Paladin's Academy, and from that rare selection, the Lions would choose only one each, and keep them for however long they lasted. All but one of this current batch was gathered up almost by accident from a single world. Perfectly ordinary, most of them, and very young for this work. Allura was never intended for this job, either.”

“She wasn't?” Vennex asked, looking up in surprise.

“Ancients, no, she was destined for diplomatic work, like her mother, and an arranged marriage to one of the outworld nobles.” Coran shrugged. “Heroic, perhaps, but only in small, dull ways. Then everything changed, and all of us had to change with it. The universe still needs its small, dull heroes, though, the people who see to it that the plumbing runs properly and the files are in order. Welcome to the team, I suppose.”

Vennex puffed a faint laugh and allowed himself to relax. He could be proud of his efforts to stave off civilization's greatest enemies—famine, war, and chaos—for the time being. Itchy conscience aside, he felt good.

There was a rumble of conversation out in the hall a little time later, and the Paladins and their Galra companions strode in. They were clean and dressed in their usual attire, but he could see the successful hunt by the light in their eyes and in the way that they walked. It was like looking up from mulching one's garden one morning to see a troupe of mythical creatures going by: rare and beautiful and potentially very dangerous, magic and mystery wafting about them like perfume. Well, perhaps not perfume. There was a definite fragrance about them, but it smelled more like stew than like flowers. The legendary Ezoraimath that the group had reminded him of could be detected, it was said, by their customary aroma of winter wind touched with frost-blooms, but he doubted that those fantastical creatures ever sat down to a nice meaty bowl of stew. Well, perhaps. They were predators, after all, and Old Granny Kashtmehtz the Storm-Witch, a frequent figure in those same old tales, might have been persuaded to share her magical brews with them.

“There you are, team, ladies, gentlemen,” Coran said cheerfully, waving a hand in greeting. “Were you able to catch that bizarre, leggy beast?”

Lance grinned and patted his belly. “We sure did! We did really well, too! No injuries, lots of awesome visuals—get Chimera to play the vids for you sometime—Tilla put it down hard at the end, and the stew was great. We brought a bucket of it back for you guys.”

Hunk set a large tub on the table with a dreamy smile. “Still warm, too. How did your day go?”

Coran allowed Vennex to describe the day's small triumphs in favor of prying up the lid on the tub and sniffing in happy anticipation at the fragrant contents. The scent also brought Ranax awake, and the cub squeaked, hauled himself up onto the table, and toddled over to see what smelled so good. Coran, seeing that he had competition, crammed the lid back on and tried to pull the tub away, but Ranax wasn't having any of that. Galra cubs are surprisingly strong, and the little claws enhance their grip wonderfully; Ranax latched onto the tub with fearsome growls and attempted to claim it for himself. To his credit, Vennex managed to deliver his report in full despite the small war that was breaking out right next to him without so much as looking around.

“The Admiral's very pleased and has given us all the go-ahead to start on building those supply lines,” he finished up dutifully, “and has asked me to tell you that the other Fleet Captains will be back sometime tomorrow to plan out the next liberation effort. Kolivan, sir, you'll want to talk to Maozuh about the details—if nothing else, it'll be a good way to smuggle your people to and from odd spots along the way without being seen. Nobody looks at the people who haul freight.”

Kolivan nodded thoughtfully, and Allura gave Vennex a bright smile that went a long way toward making his efforts worth the strain. “You did very well today, Vennex, and thank you. We were about to head over to the kitchen for some ice cream. Would you like some? And you should really try the stew, it's... oh, dear.”

Coran and Ranax were nose-to-nose now, not least because the cub had gotten a good grip on Coran's mustache. They were both growling angrily at each other in a gravelly duet that was making it very hard for the onlookers to keep a straight face.

“My goodness,” Allura said. “I simply cannot imagine what having ten cubs at this stage is like.”

Vennex sighed and had to fight down a surge of homesickness. “It's noisy, you have to pack away anything breakable, and everyone winds up wearing shin-guards for months at a time. What's ice cream? I've heard it mentioned, but I don't think that I got any.”

There was a yowl from across the table as Coran extracted his facial hair from Ranax's fingers, and it was unclear just which of them had uttered it. Keith snorted in amusement. “It's a dessert, and it's good. You'll want to have some stew first if you haven't eaten yet. There's enough in there for Coran and Ranax, too. Ranax can have some, right?”

“Certainly,” Zaianne said, catching up the cub and picking tufts of orange hair out of his fists. “It will do him good. Where is Trenosh, Vennex?”

“In the kitchen, I think,” Vennex said, levering himself out of his seat; that stew really did smell very good, and breakfast had been a long time ago. “He said that he wanted some tea. We had to bring Ranax along to the meeting, and between setting up the business arrangements and keeping Ranax from eating Maozuh and Kezz, it kind of wore him out.”

“And you, too, from the look of it,” Modhri said quietly, beckoning with one hand. “Come along, then, and we'll give you a better description of where your dinner came from.”

Lance grinned and propped a hip on the table with a suggestive look in the girls' direction. “And of the people who caught it. Those hunting leathers sure show off a person's best qualities. Would you believe that Pidge here has some really nice curves under that sweater? You wouldn't think it to look at her now, but when she's—ack!”

Pidge had given him a push that toppled him over onto the floor with a crash. “Can it, Lance,” she snapped, and then cocked a dangerous eyebrow at Vennex. “Any comments?”

Vennex gave her a faint smile. “You remind me a lot of my sister, and I think that dinner is a good idea.”

Shiro bent down and hauled a crestfallen Lance to his feet. “Good choice of words. Coran, are you all right? Good. Now let's see about getting some bowls to put good things in.”

Hunk lifted the tub again, smiling at the dirty looks that Coran and Ranax were shooting each other. “Oh, I dunno, Pidge, Lance is right. You do look really good in those leathers. So did everybody else. I bet that those outfits could make even the mice look sexy. Speaking of that, I'm still waiting on those teddy-bear PJ's, Lance.”

Pidge glared at him, her ears flushing pink. “No fair, Hunk, I can't hit you.”

“I know,” Hunk said cheerfully, “you already got that out of your system during the last training session. We're good. Ice cream, now.”

 

Haggar looked up at the jutting shapes of the new transformation array as the main casing was sealed into place, and felt a certain grim satisfaction. In a way, the Paladins had done her a favor; she had spent the time after the events on Teravan redesigning and upgrading her machinery and equipment, with enhancements and abilities that simply would not have fit into the original science deck. The foundry and assembly apparatus had gotten their share of that as well, and it would not be long before she would be able to produce the first product. The Ghamparva had seen fit to bring her a captured rebel that would serve admirably as a subject as well, and she was eager to get started.

“How much longer, Meksant?” she asked, her voice echoing coldly in the vast chamber.

The elderly Master Engineer glanced up from the plans and gave her a tolerant look. While Haggar had not been capable of caring for much of anything or anyone for longer than even she could conveniently remember, she was still capable of giving respect where it was due, and was willing to admit that the old man had earned hers. Master Engineer Meksant was one of the very few people in all the starry universe who didn't hate or fear her, being old enough and having worked in the Center for long enough to have pretty much seen everything; he was also enough of a genius in his own right to be perennially unimpressed by any of it. She had only seen him angry twice—once when the Bagantush project had been canceled, and again when the Rogue Witch's man had erased the entire contents of the high-security data bank. Still, he continued undaunted, designing more and better weapons for the Emperor's use. As such, he was one of the very few people with whom she could speak frankly.

“It's going as well as can be expected, my Lady,” he replied firmly, casting a narrow glance up at one of the assembly drones as it fitted one of the conduit systems into the main structure. “You, at least, can be trusted to have all of the necessary parts and materials on hand and ready for installation. Everything is on schedule for the moment and the components test clean thus far. You should be able to start building the first Robeast within... hmm... oh, I'd say a couple of weeks.”

She cast him a suspicious glance of her own. “You seem unsure that this will be finished on time.”

“Insurance,” Meksant replied shortly. “There is always a chance that something will go wrong. If one does not leave a margin for error and mischance, then it is bound to happen. You taught me that yourself, Lady Haggar. Stop trying to make me nervous, it won't work.”

Haggar smiled faintly. “And if I should decide that you would make a good candidate for this apparatus?”

Meksant sniffed primly. “At my age? I should be glad to end my days as something so grand, fighting for Zarkon and the Empire in ways that won't give me a stress headache for once. Don't bother, my Lady. I am currently embroiled in the design work for a new line of Ghamparva-grade warcraft and six other programs, and quite a lot of dangerous people will be very cross with you if you turned me into a monster before I complete those drafts. If you absolutely must use me so, then wait until I'm done.”

Haggar's brow creased in a frown. “I had heard that the Ghamparva were upset about something. Why do they have you working on a new prototype for them? I had thought that they were well-enough pleased with Nelargo's shipwrights.”

Meksant pursed his lips in disapproval. “That pretty-boy Prince Lotor made off with an entire consignment of them. Thirty ships, which is more than enough to make himself a threat to just about anyone. He is not terribly fond of the Ghamparva themselves, and they feel themselves in need of something that can remove his advantages. A bright boy, but brash, and he lets his impulses do his thinking for him. Probably something he got from his sire; I know his mother's Lineage well, and they don't often run to that kind of foolishness.”

Haggar paused for a moment, remembering the bold young prince that she'd gotten attached to all those long centuries ago. “He is very much his father's son,” she mused. “It took Zarkon years to learn caution.”

The Master Engineer humphed and turned away. “If that boy of his keeps on making enemies such as he has been lately, he won't have those years. Well, he isn't the first young fool to make them, and he shan't be the last. He should have been at Bericonde, for instance, rather than playing the robber baron at Nelargo.”

Haggar grunted sourly. A message had been sent to the Prince, warning him of the likelihood that the trade hub would be attacked, but the boy had rather obviously disregarded it. Unable to produce a Robeast in time, she had been forced to send out three of her Druids instead, and the loss of them had come as an unwelcome shock to her aetheric senses. That they had torn a strip out of the Hoshinthra Warleader had been interesting news, but not nearly so interesting as a report of the Quandary's demise might have been. It was worrying, in fact; a mage-bolt that could have split a Sikkhoran Grand Freighter open like a culbar melon had only damaged the Warleader, and not enough to have taken it out of action. The sheer intransigence of the thing was irritating to say the least. Lotor and his fleet might well have won the day at Bericonde, if only by luring that maneating savage away from the battle.

“His father is aware of his activities,” she murmured darkly, “and, for now, permits Lotor to continue. He will have no further aid from the Military if he does not achieve the goals that his father has set him, and if he is captured or otherwise lost, Zarkon will leave him to his fate. The Emperor will not accept failure.”

Meksant frowned at the drone control board and made a few small adjustments. “Wouldn't be the first time. There was that one wild young prince... oh, it had to be back while I was still in initial training. Keprosh, I believe his name was. Brave boy, quite a fighter, and a dedicated explorer, but was a bit more ambitious than he should have been.”

“He was becoming a threat to his father, and when the Lelaspurths captured him, the Emperor let nature take its course,” Haggar concurred in a chilly voice; she had disliked that young man even more than she had disliked Lotor, and hadn't been inclined in the least to intervene when that alien race had taken it upon themselves to put him down. Neither had his father, nor had Zarkon lifted a finger to send aid when any number of similar princes had made themselves inconvenient in times past. “Small loss,” she continued, “the production of princes is a sop to the pride of the High Families, and no more.”

“Princes are expensive creatures,” Meksant agreed absently, nodding in satisfaction as a large and tricky component was settled properly into place. “Perhaps later on, the Emperor might consider doing away with the High Families entirely and simply install actual professionals to run their businesses in their place. They are close to becoming more trouble than they are worth. Then he wouldn't have to bother with that silly old custom, now would he?”

“They have their uses,” Haggar replied, thinking of possible candidates to replace her three defunct Druids; she had depended on those old High Lineages for the strong witches they produced. On the other hand, that number had fallen off in recent centuries. Perhaps it was time to reassess their utility. “In the meantime, we will continue in our present course. The Emperor requires the Lions, and we will use what we have on hand to capture them.”

“As we must, Lady Haggar,” Meksant said as another component slotted smoothly into its socket. “I'll do my part if you'll do yours, and we'll see whether or not we can settle this current muddle out without too much more collateral damage. I'd like a look at Voltron once the thing has been captured, if I may; as inefficient as gestalt engines are, it's a remarkable piece of work.”

Haggar had her own plans for the Lions, but Meksant's confidence was gratifying. “We shall see,” she allowed, and turned away to see to her own affairs. Perhaps a session in the scrying chamber would yield some useful information.

 

It was late, and the day had been very busy, and Lance was feeling the need for a little personal indulgence.

The dusty little solar system of Grashnur's Cloud had more or less filled up with returning Ghost Fleet ships, each of which, it seemed, had brought along prospective new members. Not the new Hoshinthra ships, thankfully, nor even the Talssenemai herself, although Zorjesca had promised to make sure that the results of the meeting were passed along. Even so, the Ghost Fleet's successes had tempted a large number of independent resistance groups out of obscurity, and the sheer variety of them had been remarkable. Lance had feasted his eyes on the rare and the strange, the horrible and the sublime, and had clasped manipulatory members in his own that had ranged from the creepy to the awesome. At times, the only thing that had allowed him to keep his cool had been Shiro's words of wisdom, whispered into his ear: just think of how weird you look to them, he'd said, you've only got one head, two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, and a single nose and mouth, after all, and you don't have a single feather, pseudopod, or scale!

Lance had had to admit that Shiro was right. His personal favorite had been the Cae'Ruuhns, who had been sort of velvety and slightly catlike, with eyes like best-quality jade and voices like pastoral flutes, and whose short, plush fur had glowed with its own amber light. Mind you, the Yuttops had been fun to watch, having been eight feet tall, covered in brilliant yellow downy feathers, and had looked, acted, and sounded as though they had been Muppets in a past life. Lance felt that he would have paid to see that show, although the chainmail bikinis that they had worn might have disqualified them for an appearance on Sesame Street. There had been the Guolppeks, sentient slime molds rooted in chunks of some sort of damp wood, that had produced glistening, neon-orange pseudo-heads and transparent air-manipulation chambers in order to speak in thin, whistling voices, and could carry on three conversations at the same time without getting confused. He had gotten along well with the Zrachi, who were only a little taller than Pidge and lizardlike, with brilliantly-patterned scales and a penchant for making bad puns whenever they could. The Huewhars, on the other hand, were as eerie as they were polite—taller even than Yantilee but impossibly thin and attenuated, wearing broad, dome-shaped hats and swathed in bone-colored robes and veils that showed only trios of blood-red eyes and pairs of spidery, intricately-jointed hands painted in dizzying patterns of black and white. Strangely, they smelled of apple blossoms and had voices like cellos, rich and resounding, and they moved with consummate grace. The Droheen had been sort of lumpy and ugly, with dorsal coats of long, barbed quills, but they had been cheerful and friendly and possessed a genius for mathematics that had impressed even Pidge. There had been more, from the balloon-like Fuooss that had hovered over the table during the meeting, changing color constantly and sending independent sense-organ clusters rotating in orbits around itself to keep track of who was speaking, to the Crolch that had preferred to lurk under the table, her hairy, dark-green eyestalk the only part visible, and her gravelly voice venturing cthonic suggestions from time to time.

Yantilee had observed them all with the famous Elikonian level-headed calm and had brought them to order in authoritative tones that no one could ignore, not even the Itrevolp, who didn't have ears. The subject of their discussion that day was the planet of Jeproba, which was next on the list for liberation, and was in desperate need of help. It was not a large world, but it and its solar system had huge lodes of metals and minerals that the Empire valued highly, and the native race had been enslaved some forty years ago to provide the labor for stripping them of everything of worth. The guest of honor at the meeting had been an escaped slave, a sort of pangolin-like person with chipped golden scales and angry dark eyes, who had pointed out the best places to strike. Despite the destruction of Jeproba's Garrison fleet at Bericonde, the system was heavily-guarded, with no less than three orbital forts; Clarence and Jasca, both attending via holoprojector, had provided information on those, and hammering out the details of the battle plan had taken up most of the day.

A very good day, Lance thought as he gathered up his bundle and headed back to the training deck; he and the others had had a quick sparring match to loosen themselves up after hours of sitting around and arguing tactics, and now he felt that he deserved a truly proper shower. Oh, his room had its own sanitary space complete with a shower cubicle, but it was not intended for the ablutionary luxury that he was set on indulging himself in. That cubicle had been designed for the single purpose of getting clean, and thus lacked scope. The shower room on the training deck had far greater possibilities, and even better, still had several bottles of Coran's hantic-extract-enhanced, all-in-one personal cleanser. Lance really liked that stuff. It made his skin feel good, made his hair glossy and manageable, and it smelled nice. More importantly at the moment, there was room to enjoy it. Most of the people that they'd rescued from the Gantars had transferred over to the Quandary to either sign up or to arrange for transport home, and he had the whole room to himself. With a happy smile, he patted the music player that Hunk had put together for him, and stepped into the echoing, white-tiled room.

This device he set on the bank of sinks on the far wall, placed his bathrobe, slippers, and towels where they wouldn't get wet, and positioned the various cloths, brushes, and scrubbers essential for a proper wash.

“'Me' time,” he said with immense satisfaction, turning the water to precisely the right temperature and turning on the player.

He lathered himself thoroughly to the songs from his favorite bands, all picked up out of that snapshot of Earth's internet that Lizenne had captured on that long-ago visit, and for a little time the rest of the universe didn't matter. It was just him and the music and the luxury of getting really clean. He rinsed himself off with a feeling of accomplishment, rubbed his wet hair thoroughly in the smaller towel and dried himself off with the larger one, and then knotted it around his waist and reached for his favorite lotion. Just as he picked up the bottle, the opening strains of his favorite song, the true gem of his collection, slid like best silk out of the speaker. He grinned, turned up the volume, and crooned along with the great Luis Fonsi as one of his best pieces proved once and for all that he was out of his world.

 

“Are you sure?” Hunk asked; it had been a long day and now he wanted a snack. “It's the sort of thing that Nasty would steal, just to keep you on your toes.”

“Positive,” Pidge replied, her amber eyes scanning the training deck's floor. “Nasty knows better than to steal my mail, especially message chips from Ronok. I had to have dropped it here, because I know for a fact that it was in my pocket when we came in. Come on, where is it? Where is it? Aha!”

She darted over to one of the benches pushed up against one wall and snatched something small and flat from underneath, brandishing the little blue card triumphantly. “Got it! Ronok's current class has been studying some of the more volatile recipes lately, and he promised to send me a play-by-play of the explosions. Did you reload the nutrifabber with sylth grain yet, Hunk? I'm going to need popcorn.”

Hunk smiled. “Did that first thing this morning, since Coran and Modhri did a general restock at that pirate's haven nearby. They managed to get the whole shopping list done this time, so we're good for all sorts of things. There's even a little bit of thelwisk seed in the haul, by the way, and yes, I did make sure to put it where the mice can't find it.”

“Thamst porridge,” Pidge said with happy anticipation. “That sounds really good right now for some reason. I'll want... huh. Do you hear something?”

Hunk looked around, and then pointed toward the shower room. “Sounds like Lance's music player. He must have forgotten it in there, or something. Come on, let's get it and give it back to him, or he'll tear the place apart looking for it.”

Pidge snorted. “Or accuse someone of stealing it. That's really annoying.”

“Hey, we'd miss it if he didn't wig out now and again,” Hunk said, moving off toward the shower room. “That's how we used to tell if he was coming down with something when we were kids. He'd go all quiet and mopey, and we'd feed him chicken soup and Grandma's special home-made cure-all until he perked up.”

“Huh,” Pidge said, following along. “What was in it?”

Hunk shrugged. “Dunno. It was a secret recipe. I'm pretty sure that it involved some of his Uncle Diego's best rotgut moonshine, though. Mom used the stuff to get stains out of the carpets.”

“I get it,” Pidge said, homing in on the source of the music. “It's the sort of remedy that you get well from, just so you don't have to take any more of it. I knew someone in high school whose aunt used to make her own home remedies, too, and she had a cousin who got busted twice for building meth labs... oh, wow.”

Both of them had to stop and stare. Lost in the music and capering about with surprising grace was Lance, lotion bottle held like a microphone and water droplets gemming his hair and body. “... Vi que tu mirada ya estaba llamándome. Muéstrame el camino que yo voy, oh...” he sang, completely unaware that he had an audience.

Pidge immediately whipped out her handcomp and began recording.

“That's a nice towel,” Hunk observed diplomatically in a low voice, unwilling to disturb a man in the throes of artistic expression, “I wonder if he embroidered all those little blue Lions himself?”

“Probably,” Pidge replied just as quietly. “Twenty cookies says that he loses it by the end of the song.”

“That's a pretty good knot,” Hunk said after a moment's study. “You're on.”

 

At that moment a few levels up, Shiro paused in the act of raiding a fridge. There had been refreshments at the meeting, enough to negate the need for an actual dinner, but he and Keith had eaten lightly and were feeling peckish. A new urgency had invaded his mind, and he was having a hard time quantifying it.

Keith looked up from putting the finishing touches on a sandwich to see Shiro's perplexed expression. “Are you okay?”

Shiro blinked and shook his head, putting the tub of leftover paslen back onto its shelf and straightening up. “I'm fine. I just got a hunch, is all. Something's going on back down on the training deck that we should see.”

Keith frowned. “That's all?”

“That's all. Nothing bad is happening, but we really should go down and have a look.” Shiro shrugged and gave his teammate a slightly embarrassed smile. “Want to come and find out what that is?”

Keith wrapped his sandwich in a napkin with a nod. “Sure.”

A short time later, they were following the sound of music toward the shower room, and found Hunk and Pidge lurking behind the doorframe. Keith frowned at Pidge's handcomp and said, “Hey, guys, what's--”

Shh!” Hunk hissed, not looking around. “Don't disturb him!”

Shiro and Keith shared a puzzled glance, and then had a look through the door. Prancing magnificently in time to the music and singing lustily along with the recording was the blue Paladin, fully engaged in his performance.

Shiro swallowed hard, his eyes following the young man's superb muscular definition without his conscious bidding. The hunting leathers had been one thing, but this was quite another. “Well, the strength training's certainly paid off.”

“Yeah,” Keith said weakly, struggling to control some unexpected emotions and blushing hotly under the force of them. He wasn't alone, he noticed; Shiro was looking a little pink across the cheekbones as well. “Wow.”

Despacito,” Lance sang hungrily, “Quiero respirar tu cuello despacito...”

A few moments later, Allura's voice spoke up behind them, sounding puzzled. “There you are! What's happening? I had the strangest feeling... oh, my!”

Allura stared. She couldn't help herself. Ever since they had met, she had seen Lance as gawky and awkward, and not particularly attractive by her own people's standards. She had never seen him in a truly uninhibited moment, she realized, other than when he'd gotten drunk, and no one looks their best when inebriated. Something inside her responded powerfully to the presence of the young, strong, and very healthy blue Paladin, and it wasn't just the side effects of the Lion-bond.

“Pretty, isn't he?” Hunk said, nudging her in the ribs.

She gulped, blinked, knew that she was blushing hard, and responded with an expression that she had heard from one of her aunts. “He... he has a very well-turned ankle.”

Pidge gave her a funny look. “Seriously? With everything else that's on display, that's what you take away from this?”

Allura gave her an embarrassed smile. “Not precisely. The implication of that statement is that everything above the ankle is superior... and... oh, my... there is quite a lot above the ankle, isn't there?”

“Yeah, he's all leg,” Hunk said happily. “Always has been.”

Sabes que tu corazón conmigo te hace bom, bom!” Lance sang, shaking his hips at the appropriate moments, giving them a fine view of those legs, plus a little extra. “Sabes que esa beba está buscando de mi bom, bom!”

“Callipygian,” Hunk said with relish. “Yeah, Lance, make those Lions fly.”

“What does 'callipygian' mean?” Allura asked.

Shiro blushed harder. “It's from the ancient Greek, and means having a... a nice rear end.”

Allura giggled. “He certainly does. I honestly hadn't noticed. I didn't know that he could dance. Or sing.”

Hunk smirked. “Yeah. He'll tell you any day that I dance better than he does, but he's got a good voice. He used to get pressured into singing at family events, birthdays especially, and he's got a big family. It wasn't until he started demanding a cut of the presents that he got some free time again. Carlos nearly had a personality failure when Lance told his mom that if she wanted him to sing, then he got that new game system that Carlos had been begging for for months. After that, he was home free.”

Shiro smiled. “Did Lance get the game system?”

“Nope. Carlos liked being sung at about as much as he liked finding garden slugs in his underwear, but he was red-hot where it came to video games,” Hunk replied. “Lance's Aunt Lucia opted for the route of less temper tantrums, and I don't blame her. Carlos could scream the house down.”

“Carlos sounds difficult to live with,” Allura observed.

“He's always been a problem kid,” Hunk sighed, remembering a few of his own scrapes with the designated black sheep of Lance's large and rambling family. “You're drooling, Pidge.”

“Shut up,” Pidge replied, wiping at her chin with one sleeve, not taking her eyes off of Lance for a second. “Recording, here.”

Unaware of this discussion, Lance continued, soaring on wings of melody and dancing on raw firmament, his imagination granting him the adulation of the cosmos. It came as something of a shock when he had crooned the final, aching word, and real applause and a few wolf whistles brought him back to stark reality. In later years, when describing the incident to crowds of giggling, red-cheeked youngsters, he would not be afraid to admit that he had screamed like a little girl. For now, he gargled, spluttered, and gabbled in horror. “Aaaaaaaaaagh! What the... where did... why are... what the heck, guys?!”

“That was very nice, Lance,” Allura said sweetly, “do keep it up, it's doing wonders for your coordination.”

Helplessly, he had to accept the accolade. “Thanks... I think? Um... Hunk's better than I am... Holy crow! Pidge, did you record all of that?”

“Yup!” Pidge said with an evil grin, waggling her handcomp at him. “The gem of my blackmail collection. I'm gonna call it 'Prancy Lance Without No Pants'.”

Lance did not take that well. “Aagh! No you're not! Gimme that!”

Pidge cackled and ducked under his grab, speeding away as fast as her legs could carry her. Squawking in protest, Lance charged after her, his feet slapping damply on the decking.

“Wait! Lance! You forgot your bathrobe!” Hunk called after them, heading over to retrieve the robe from the sinks, and then gave it an interested look. “Huh. He's embroidered his robe, too.”

Keith hummed thoughtfully, examining the rather elegant stitchery. “I wonder if I can get him to put Red on mine?”

Shiro snorted a laugh. “Maybe, after he's calmed down. Come on, we can't have him running around mostly naked, he'll scare the mice. Did you see where they went, Allura?”

“Toward the Invisible Maze room,” Allura replied. “Modhri needed to run a routine check on the force-screen generators earlier. Don't worry, it's disabled.”

“Not if Pidge wakes it up again,” Keith said, and headed for the door.

 

Scabolsa kaks-plogarthing knirx of a splething bolsucht,” Nasty swore as he removed the casing from one of the larger junction boxes. “You had to have stashed it in here, I saw you wiggling it through the vent. I will have that last napkin ring if I have to go through every one of these in the Castle! I swear, if we ever stumble across more of those mice, I'm going to smuggle a breeding group home as my revenge for banishing me. All Unilu on the Homeworld will know the horror of my wrath, so help me, Lawsy... aha! Got it—whoops!”

Nasty had to clutch at his stepladder as Pidge loped past, whooping with evil glee, closely followed by Lance, who was shouting threats and insults and clutching at his towel to keep it from flying away. Nasty smiled fondly and leaned against the wall to watch, flipping his screwdriver idly in one hand. “Star pupil,” he said proudly.

“Which one?” Keith panted behind him, and Nasty looked around to see the rest of the team as well.

“Oh, both,” the Unilu said happily, reattaching the casing, the silver napkin ring glinting from one slim wrist like a bracelet. “Back home, bathtime blackmail video-making is a spectator sport, especially after they made it legal for the record-ees to smack the record-ers with a folding chair if they could catch them.”

“Let me guess,” Shiro said, watching Lance chasing Pidge around in circles on the far side of the maze room, “folding chairs sell really well where you come from.”

“They're everywhere,” Nasty said cheerfully. “Anywhere you've got a fully-equipped bathroom, the folding chairs can't be too far away. Not so much here, but Kings don't go in much for cheap seating. All the same, it's almost like being home, watching that. I'm gonna miss you guys when I have to leave.”

Huh,” Keith said, tallying up the days since Nasty had joined them in his head. “Actually, shouldn't you have gone back to the Quandary by now?”

“Technically, yes,” Nasty grinned, twirling the napkin ring around his finger. “But that was before I found the loophole.”

Pidge's sneakers squealed on the decking, and she abandoned her fun to trot right back over to where the others were standing, Lance trailing after her in confusion. “What loophole?” she demanded. “I didn't leave you any loopholes in that contract!”

“Yes you did!” Nasty gloated, waving a finger under her nose. “I had to look real hard for it, I'll give you that, but there it was, standing there in plain sight with its pants down.”

She glared at him. “Explain.”

Nasty chortled. “That contract, and it was a pretty good one for a first try, said that I had to spend a total of one month on this floating madhouse, teaching you all of my hard-won secrets, right? You never said whose months.”

“What?” she squeaked in sudden chagrin.

Yes!” Nasty declared triumphantly. “By the Galran Standard Calendar, I've been here overtime, even with the vacations—unpaid vacations, mark you! But, by the Ulomnian Calendar, I've still got two weeks. So, there.”

Pidge buried her face in her hands. “Aagh! How could I have missed that?”

Keith gave Nasty a suspicious look. “Should I be throwing him out of an airlock, Pidge?”

Pidge sighed and shook her head. “No, no, we're playing by Unilu rules, and he's right. He's culturally required to twist any contract he signs to his own benefit.”

Allura cocked them both a puzzled look. “Shouldn't he be trying to shorten his term, then?”

Nasty made a rude noise. “Are you nuts? I haven't found all the silverware yet! She wasn't kidding about making it a challenge, which I can respect.”

“It's true,” Pidge informed them. “If he finds all of the silverware, he not only wins the bet, but he gets to keep the whole set--”

“And it's a really nice set,” Nasty interjected, “Altean-made, too, which makes it really valuable. I could retire rich off of this, if I can find the right buyer.”

“--So we're stuck with him until he finds all the pieces, his time by Ulomnian standards runs out, he gets bored, or Tilla eats him,” Pidge finished.

Tilla had indeed come ambling up the hall, complete with mousy passengers, and she paused with an amused rumble. Nasty waved a pair of hands at her. “Oh, come on, she wouldn't do that,” he protested. “I mean, look at her, standing there as sweet as she can be, with the mice on her back... and they've... they've got salt and plip-spice shakers... Oh, crud!”

“GRONK!” said Tilla, and charged, forcing everyone else to flatten themselves against the walls as she took a turn chasing Nasty around the maze room a few times, snapping playfully at his bandanna while the mice squeaked encouragement.

Shiro burst out into helpless laughter at these antics. Pidge grinned and said, “I wonder how long it'll take him to realize that those shakers are part of the set?”

Hey!” the Unilu yelled. “Give me those!”

“Not too long,” Allura said, putting her back to the wall as the dragon thundered by again, this time with Nasty in hot pursuit, screaming, “Come back here!” as he tried to catch her tail. “Observant, isn't he?”

“Usually,” Pidge said. “Situational awareness is—hey!”

Lance had plucked the handcomp out of her grasp and took off down the hall, using his long legs to his best advantage. Pidge sped after him, yelling her own stock of threats and insults at the top of her voice. Shiro slumped against the wall, howling with laughter and enjoying himself too much to stop.

 

“They're back, your Highness,” Lieutenant Tilwass said, “and they've got what they were sent to get.”

Lotor looked up from his screen, where he had been trying to find any references as to what that gigantic, red-scaled monster had been. So far, all he had found were a handful of rather vague old legends and folklore, a few images and vids taken from long distances away, and a good deal of wild speculation. In summary, the best way to deal with such a beast was to run away as fast as the ship's engines could be pushed, and to hope like hell that it wasn't hungry enough to chase you. Lotor had lost three destroyers and nearly his own flagship before the monster had given up on him, and he was fairly sure that the short, blurry video he'd found of one of those things taking a Weblum apart would haunt his dreams for a while. Even Imperial warships preferred to leave Weblums alone. It was a rather disturbing line of study, and led to dark speculations as to the true powers of the Paladins and their Rogue Witch; they had clearly summoned the creature, and he did not want that happening again anytime soon. Particularly not while a significant percentage of his most effective ships were out of action.

“Very good, Tilwass,” he said, putting aside his files and standing up. “Let us go and explain to our guests what their new employment entails. In retrospect, we should have done this before we left Nelargo.”

Tilwass puffed a black laugh. “Lady Inzera wouldn't have liked it, sir. She's awful possessive of her techs, and even the Ghamparva have to come to her for tune-ups and repairs. The monopoly on those ships runs both ways.”

Lotor's lips twisted in a wry smirk. “And the fact that she was able to wring that concession out of the Ghamparva is testament to her skill... and her ruthlessness. I will take care to see to it that she does not catch us. Has anything else of note happened while I was busy?”

Tilwass bared his teeth in a worried grimace as they entered the lift. “Yeah, and it's not good news. It's been put about to the Shipyards and Garrisons that you're not to be allowed to commandeer any more ships, and your Imperial dad is letting it stand. Doesn't surprise me, really, considering how many we've gone through already. If we need to fill out the ranks again, you'll have to get them the old-fashioned way.”

“Duels to the death with their commanders,” Lotor sighed, and then smiled. “That shouldn't be difficult out here. Father does not waste his best officers on the outer worlds, and it's been a long time since I've had a proper fight. We'll manage, Lieutenant.”

“No argument there, Sir,” Tilwass said as the lift doors opened again, letting them out into the fighter bays.

A few minutes' brisk walk brought them to one of the middling-sized landers, where a small group of frightened-looking men in engineer's coveralls were being herded down the ramp by a troop of Sentries. Hands bound, Lotor noticed.

“They wouldn't come willingly?” he asked.

“No, my Lord,” the lander's co-pilot said with a salute. “They're more afraid of Lady Ghurap'Han than they are of us, or of you, for that matter. Just be glad that we didn't have to stun them. She's forbidden them to help you in any way, and they take her orders seriously.”

Lotor turned to face his captives. Ten of them, mature and highly skilled in their craft to judge by the badges of rank sewn onto their sleeves, which showed good sense on the part of his two agents; looking after three ships each shouldn't be beyond their abilities. “Has she, now?” he asked them. “And how will she enforce that order, now that you are well away from the Shipyard?”

The oldest of them vented a soft sigh. “She's laid a hex into each of us. She does that to everyone who knows how to service Ghamparva craft. If we do not obey her, we die. You have made a bad enemy and have taken a great risk, and for nothing. That is all I can tell you.”

Lotor cocked him a calculating look. “And if I have the hexes removed?”

Wordlessly, the man shrugged, although his expression indicated that it might be worth a try.

Lotor hummed thoughtfully. “Tilwass, don't we have a woman of skill on one of the ships?”

“Yessir,” Tilwass replied, sparing a pitying look for the kidnapped engineers. “Sergeant Hokora, serving on the light cruiser Artash. Bad-tempered, but she can lift and lay hexes better than many. She's rumored to be Druid-grade, and she's threatened to have the hapleks off of the man who whispers a word of it outside of her ship. Her men don't argue with her.”

Lotor nodded. “Very good. Have her brought over to take a look at these gentlemen. I need them free of that termagant's will and added to the fighter-deck's roster as soon as possible. I will not let some spiteful old woman get between us and victory; I have had enough and more than enough of that from Haggar.”

As he turned to leave, he saw the first hints of hope blooming in the engineers' faces. Only in the youngest of them, though, and the older ones either looked suspicious or neutral. Once he and Tilwass were out of earshot, he murmured, “Tell Hokora to alter their hexes, rather than remove them. Have her bind them to my command; I don't want them trying to escape before they've taught my own engineers everything that they know.”

“Yessir,” Tilwass said.