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Chapter 8: A Little Work, A Little Play

 

The trip down to the planet was a little bit of a challenge for Modhri, who wasn't used to that level of traffic; Arcobi couldn't compare to the two great trade centers that lay on either side of it in the two nearest solar systems, but its orbits were bustling nonetheless. Still, he managed to work his way down through the shipping lanes, informing the control towers that he was delivering a special order to a respected local merchant; from the way that those busy officials waved him onward, this was too common an event for them to get curious about. The Paladins could easily believe that—there was an astounding variety of ships descending and lifting from the starports and docked at the various moons and space stations, and Coran, Pidge, Hunk, and Nasty amused themselves by playing a game of name-that-starcraft. Quite aside from the small, sleek Unilu ships and the blockier purple shapes of civilian Galra craft, there were rarer finds: a long, slender Palisoor ore scow with its distinctive pattern of pink lights; the bright red sphere of a Guanhop freighter; a Lipplipor merchanter that looked like a jumble of jeweled hoops; an angular, businesslike ship that Hunk said was a Throthinti heavy scout, and even a rather abstract-looking contrivance that, after some thought, Pidge was able to identify as a reconditioned Menoku exploratory ship. There was one smallish craft that made Nasty hiss through his teeth, though. It wasn't much to look at, being a sort of silvery-green, elongated-star shape, but the Unilu was looking at it as though he expected it to bite.

“Something wrong?” Coran asked.

“Ortakan ship,” Nasty said, pointing at the offending craft. “Just a scout, but Ortakan. I've never heard of them coming this far into Empire space. Arcobi doesn't have a slave market, does it?”

“No,” said Trenosh, “and we're rather proud of the fact. Our kind and the local peoples get along well enough without anyone being forced into submission.”

Zaianne humphed. “I'll warn Kolivan and the others to keep an eye on them.”

“Thank you,” Trenosh murmured, holding his son close.

They hit atmosphere soon after that, and conversation ceased as Modhri eased them down through a thunderstorm. Once through the cloud layer, he headed southeast, cities and open land rolling away beneath them in patches of mottled dimness and galaxy-like sprawls of light. Eventually, he zeroed in on a particular city, and then a particular suburb, merging expertly into the local air-traffic lanes for a little time before bringing the ship down as lightly as a feather in a large lot behind a broad, low building. Trenosh fidgeted impatiently while the jets cooled, and watched avidly as the covered loading dock extended to fasten itself to the lander's hatch. Modhri murmured something reassuring into his comm, and then opened the doors.

From the dimness of the loading dock, a woman's voice asked, “Trenosh?”

“Helitha!” Trenosh called back, and was out of his seat in a flash, Ranax squeaking in protest at the sudden jostling. Modhri watched him rush out of the lander with a smile, and then raised a hand when the others started to get up. “Give them a moment,” he said quietly. “It's very hard for a man to be separated from his mate for any time at all, and he's been away for weeks.”

Cubs didn't like being parted from their mothers either, and they could hear Ranax making shrill but muffled squee-yeep sounds that they'd heard before from Sarell's cubs, when they had wanted her but couldn't find her. Hunk sniffled emotionally at the tearful reunion that they could hear a little distance away, but they stayed put until Trenosh called to them in a voice that only shook a little.

“It's... it's all right, thank you. Come and meet the family.”

The loading dock led out into a large distributing area, but there was still barely room enough for everybody. There had to be at least four generations of them, most of them bearing a strong family resemblance to Trenosh, and at least two dozen cubs in various stages of development were peering curiously at the visitors from behind a forest of long legs. Trenosh was standing with his arm around a slender, very relieved-looking woman who was holding Ranax tightly, the cub clinging to her shirt with all four sets of claws.

“Helitha, everybody, these are our rescuers,” Trenosh said with a brilliant smile, waving his free hand at the team. “The Paladins of Voltron, who destroyed an entire Ship-Clan of Gantarash to save us and many others. Allura, Shiro, Keith, Hunk, Pidge, and Lance. The Rogue Witch and her man, Lizenne and Modhri. Zaianne of the Blade of Marmora, Coran, and Nasty, who has been teaching them all some very useful tricks.”

There was a polite rumble of greeting from the crowd, and a great deal of fascinated staring. Allura put on her most winsome smile and stepped forward to speak for her team. “I am very pleased to meet all of you,” she said sweetly, “Trenosh and Ranax have been excellent guests, and have done us and our allies a very great deal of good. I'm sorry that we could not bring him back to you sooner, but there were pressing matters that had to be addressed.”

Helitha nodded, shifting her son to a more comfortable position. “You've brought them back safe and unhurt, and that is enough. That we will profit from his work as well is secondary, although you should have heard Grandfather howling with laughter at the news of Jeproba's liberation. He'd met their Governor once, you see, and did not like him at all.”

Lance made a face. “Neither did the Jeprobans. Yantilee wanted to take the guy alive, but the Jeprobans had other ideas, and there wasn't much left of him by the time we got there.”

“There, now!” a gruff voice said suddenly, startling everyone, and the crowd parted to reveal a person who was obviously the family patriarch. He had been an imposing figure in his youth, very broad across the shoulders with long, powerful limbs; even in advanced old age, he was still impressive despite the fact that one arm was obviously mechanical, and the opposite leg creaked and whirred as he approached. Scars drew pale lines across his face from crown to jaw, narrowly missing the left eye, and the left ear had been notched during that same incident. The purple of his fur had faded to gray, with broad white streaks above the ears and over the back of his remaining arm. He might move slowly and leaned upon a cane as he did so, but there was an unmistakable grace to his carriage that told them louder than words that he had been trained in a very exclusive style of martial arts.

“Didn't I tell him that he would meet his end that way?” the old man continued, striding forward, his cane clacking sharply on the flooring with each stride. “Only a complete idiot mistreats his charges, I said, so I did, and only an idiot thinks that any people will submit meekly to such abuse forever. Did he never think that the bill might come due? He did not, and it has, and it has cost him his life, the lives of his cronies, and the Empire a goodly amount of valuable territory. Zaianne, girl, I see you've survived. Who's running the Order now?”

Zaianne had started in astonishment at the old man's appearance, and was now staring at him in disbelief. She wasn't the only one; many of Trenosh's kin were staring at the old man in shock as well. “Kolivan,” she whispered. “Kolivan leads us now. Drathann, we thought you were dead, killed in the attack on Tekura!”

“I almost was.” The old man came to a halt, gazing around at his surprised descendants with a wistful look in his eyes. “Fortunately for me, a very determined young woman had decided that I would not die that day, and she kept me alive in the following years despite my attempts to further the purpose of the Order. My daughters took up that duty after she died, with some success.” He rattled his claws on the handle of his cane, yellow eyes sizing up the Paladins. “Kolivan, eh? Always thought that the boy had potential. What of you, girl, and this peculiar group of yours, and what odd beast did you find to cross your good blood with to produce that cub, there? He's all pink and hasn't enough fur.”

Keith hissed in outrage, but any outburst he might have made was defused by Lance elbowing him in the ribs. “Told you so,” Lance whispered. “Grow some fuzz, man.”

Zaianne sneered at Drathann. “The man was Human, and among the best of them. My son Khaeth pilots the red Lion—the sword-arm of Voltron—and is accepted by the Order as well.”

Lizenne smirked. “Humans are genetically related to our kind, sir Blade, by a bit of ancient meddling, courtesy of some Elder Race or other. Very smooth work, too; I can't make out who did it, or which race was the original. They are all quite worthy of their status, regardless of origin.”

“Hah!” the old man barked a laugh, rapping his cane loudly on the floor and grinning fiercely at them, slightly gap-toothed where he'd lost a few fangs to his profession. “If you're going to custom-build a mutant, you might as well do a good job of it, eh? Purple or pink, it doesn't matter so long as the sword strikes truly, right? Right. Come and be welcome in our House, then, and we shall sit comfortably and have refreshments while you tell us all of how my grandson and great-grandson happened to fall into your hands. After that, Zaianne, you and I must talk, and I would be grateful for a chat with the Witch and her man as well. The rest of you will go shopping, and you will summon me when you are finished, for I have not had a good wrangle with a genuine Unilu pirate in years. Ah! Today, it is a good day, and I feel that it will soon be a better one.”

Drathann turned on his heel and led them toward a side door, chuckling richly. Hunk smiled as they turned to follow along. “What a cool old guy.”

“We certainly think so,” Trenosh murmured back, and then cocked an eyebrow at Zaianne. “You knew him, my Lady?”

She nodded. “He was one of my instructors during my first few years of training, and a warrior in very good standing with the Order. Losing him was a terrible blow to the rest of us. Kolivan... will be very pleased to hear that we did not lose him entirely. I wonder, Trenosh, if any of your kin might be interested in following in their grandfather's footsteps?”

Helitha gave her man an arch look. “Several of them have bred true, I'm afraid, and cause trouble if they aren't watched. If the Order is recruiting, Zaianne, I would be happy to recommend some of them!”

 

They were soon settled in a comfortable family room, although the storytelling was delayed a bit. A small furry purple blur shot into the room right under the feet of one of Trenosh's brothers, nearly sending the tray of snacks he was carrying flying across the room, and screaming a high-pitched paean of rage. Ranax gave a squeak of dismay and leaped out of his mother's arms in an attempt to run for the hills. The moment he touched the floor, however, the newcomer attacked, latching onto his shoulder with sharp little teeth and growling ferociously while he squealed in protest.

“His sister?” Keith asked.

Helitha nodded. “Askuri. We have great hopes for her. Morex, I did ask you to latch the door of the nursery, didn't I?”

One of the younger men, probably Trenosh's nephew, shrugged helplessly as tufts of baby fur flew. “I did, and I checked it three times, and even stuck the toothpick into the loop so that the latch couldn't pop open. She opened it anyway. That little girl of yours is going to be a terror in a few years, you know that? You've gone and spawned a safe-cracker.”

Ranax was fighting back now, and not all of the loose fur on the carpet was his. The family observed the whirling ball of angry fur with critical eyes. “Whatever he's been up to, it's given him courage,” one of the girls commented.

Allura giggled. “He spent most of his stay with us gnawing on pirates, heroes, and dragons. Perhaps a little of their boldness rubbed off on him?”

Pidge waved a hand. “If that didn't do it, nearly getting eaten by a Gantar brood-queen did. That little girl's mean, but nothing like as ugly as that death spider was.”

Drathann shot her a narrow look. “I will want to hear about that. Helitha, would you separate them, please?”

“Don't worry, sir, I've got it,” Lance said, opening up the small hovercrate he'd brought along and pulling out a strange object. “I made enough for everybody.”

The object hit the floor next to the brawling cubs with a loud “gloop!” that made Askuri halt mid-savage. Much as Ranax had before her, she approached the thing with care, swatted it experimentally, and then seized upon it when it made gross noises at her. Unlike her brother, she then picked it up and smacked Ranax with it hard enough to knock him over. Daunted by the fearsome ONK the toy made and defeated by his sister's ferocity, the boy-cub ran squealing for the safety of his mother's arms.

Drathann nodded in satisfaction and fixed Allura with a penetrating look. “Very good. Begin, if you would, young lady. How did you come to rescue my kin?”

Allura sat back in her seat, trying to remember exactly where that adventure had started and the previous one had left off. “One of our allies had managed to get us lost, and so we were forced to navigate back to familiar space through a very large region of anomalous space...”

 

“Wow,” Hunk said, looking with greedy eyes at the long aisles of culinary treasure.

It was just as well that they'd arrived early in the day, for Trenosh's family had not been satisfied with just one adventure tale. No, Grandfather Drathann had demanded the whole epic, and everyone in the crowd of fascinated Galra had had questions. Zaianne was now closeted with the heads of the family, along with Lizenne and Modhri for more in-depth discussions. Now, it was Hunk's turn to play. He intended to make the best of it, too; Trenosh hadn't been exaggerating when he'd described the family business. If anything, he'd understated it. The grocery was easily the size of the biggest Earthly supermarkets, but still retained that unique Mom-and-Pop atmosphere that was so rarely found there now.

“All right, guys,” Hunk said, suddenly all business. “Got the shopping list?”

Pidge held up her handcomp. “Yup!”

“Got the translator?”

Keith held up a small device specifically designed for reading alien labels and ingredient lists. “Right here, Hunk.”

“Got Ronok's do-not-eat list?”

Ronok's cookbooks had helpfully included a list of things that were toxic to Humans and Unilu, and Coran had added a long list of things that had evil effects upon Altean digestion. Lance waved it cheerfully. “On the job and ready to do it.”

“Tall consults and lift-and carry specialists?”

Shiro, Coran, and Allura raised their hands with simultaneous smiles, anticipating some very good meals in the future.

“Official spotter of hidden treasures on lower shelves?”

“I was born for this work,” Nasty said, cracking both sets of knuckles.

“Faithful native guides?”

A couple of Trenosh's nephews grinned and raised their hands.

Hunk's strong hands gripped the handle of a shopping cart, his aspect that of a roller-coaster afficionado at a new theme park. “Let's rock this place.”

 

Meanwhile, outside on the street, Officer Barzet, a veteran beat cop and expert trainer, was leading a rookie around in the finest tradition of suburban police forces everywhere. The boy was new, having transferred in from clear across the city; Barzet felt that the Koraston District Police Commissioner had reassigned the overeager young fool here in an attempt to get rid of him. It happened occasionally; they were only eleven miles from the busiest starport on the continent, and the residents were very diverse. As a result of that, the local cops had to be a little... flexible... and had to learn when to enforce the law and when to exercise a certain amount of discretionary blindness. The ones who didn't learn, well, they generally found work elsewhere, assuming that they survived the learning experience. Unilu only looked fragile, after all, and Arcobians were only placid up until they weren't.

They were passing a major hotspot for learning experiences at the moment, Old Man Pranvax'Lor's neighborhood market. Officer Barzet had been only a youngster himself when the broken warrior and his wife had opened the place, and had watched (and bought snacks there every day) as both the family and the business had grown and evolved into a major mainstay of the neighborhood, and then into an important member of the Mercantile Association. Their selection was reputed to be equal to or better than any other such establishment on the planet, and that drew in all sorts of odd characters. Old Man Pranvax'Lor was okay with Barzet and his colleagues giving the customers hard looks through the windows, but unless someone in there was either eating a cashier or setting the place on fire, the rule was “look, but don't touch”. The fierce old gentleman had had a word with the Mayor, the Mayor had had a word with the Chief of Police, the Chief had told the District Commissioner, and the District Commissioner had told all of the District's cops—leave the customers alone. Didn't matter who or what they were, it was hands off unless they started doing real damage. It was, in fact, unofficial Department policy to run all of this District's rookies past the store as a sort of intelligence test.

This rookie, the older cop thought, might or might not pass. He was Kedrekan with a fair amount of Golrazi blood in him to judge by the stiff, leathery hide, the fanglike extensions on the upper lip, and the hot, hasty temperament that such crossbreeding often produced. There was a fair amount of smarts in the lad, but it was buried under an awful lot of twerp. Barzet was contemplating just how many hard knocks it would take to remove some of it when the rookie stopped suddenly, turning to peer through the market's big armorglass windows. A bit excessive, Barzet had thought once, considering that common plate-glass was good enough for most shops, but past experiences had taught him that the extra expenditure had been worth it. A lot of the bolder thieves liked to make dramatic entrances and exits through such big, tempting windows. They never got anywhere with Old Man Pranvax'Lor's establishment, although the people here always thought it was really funny when they tried. The latest attempt, for example, had been a gang of Muellock desperadoes, a mucusoid, gastropod-like people that often got up to no good during the adolescent phase of their development. That had been an easy pickup, if mildly disgusting—the arresting officers had had to remove the would-be burglars from the armorglass panes with squeegees. Despite the stubborn sticky spots still adhering to the window, his trainee was pressing himself up hard against the surface.

“Leave be, boy,” he grunted to his young partner. “If no one's shooting the place up, it's not our problem.”

“Yes it is, sir!” the younger man said eagerly. “Look at those people, there!”

The lad was pointing at what looked to be a speed-shopping team darting up and down the aisles, dodging around the other customers like stunt pilots and stuffing items into one of the big shopping carts as if the world would end tomorrow. Or if it was the day before a major feast holiday. Same thing, really, with some of those holidays. The older man humphed. “Still not our problem, Kivrash. Those two kids there are members of the proprietor's family, and they're egging that group on, not trying to stop them. Look, even the other shoppers are cheering them on.”

The rookie groaned in frustration; he didn't much approve of his Department's selectively laid-back attitude toward law enforcement. “Sir, look at them! I've got a cousin who works in a space mall, and he sends me security footage of the troublemakers he has to deal with. Those four there—the little one with the eye jewelry, the big round one, the skinny tan one, and the dark-haired one with the weird jacket—those were pirates, he said, and they caused a ruckus and then escaped on a flying kaltenecker!”

Barzet refrained from rolling his eyes with an effort. He'd met Varkon once, and hadn't thought much of the man's ability to judge character. “Kivrash, if that lot causes a ruckus, the Pranvax'Lor kids will deal with it and hand off the leftovers to us. Just like last time, when that team of Gropindi burglars tried to stick the place up and got their asses handed to them. The Old Man was some sort of Special Forces agent, and he's taught his lot all the best tricks. Even Unilu won't try shoplifting here. Not more than once, anyway.”

“But sir, they might belong to the Ghost Fleet!” the rookie pleaded. “You know we've got a Be-On-The-Lookout order for Ghost Fleet pirates, they're a real hazard.”

Barzet shot him an exasperated look. “They're also not our jurisdiction. The Military's responsible for dealing with that lot, and they get nasty when civilian officers show them up for the slop-artists that they are. Yantilee himself could be in there buying pantyhose, and it still wouldn't be our problem.”

“But--” the younger man whined.

His senior wasn't impressed. “Oh no! Chain of command, see? We'd have to call the Commissioner, he'd have to call the Chief, and then he'd have to call the Mayor. The Mayor would then have to sit on hold for two hours until the Governor's Secretary would deign to answer the comm, and then the Secretary would have to sober up the Governor, who'd then have to sober up the patrol fleet Commander, who would then have to sober up his captains. Then they'd spend the rest of the day griping about having to come down into a gravity well, and by the time they came clomping around down here, the pirates—if that's what they really are—would be long gone. Then Old Man Pranvax'Lor would read the Mayor the riot act again for letting those soldier boys disturb his customers, and then the Mayor'd yell at the Chief, who'd yell at the Commissioner, who'd yell at you. That's assuming that the Pranvax'Lor kids don't head all of that off by hustling you right back out here for being a nuisance. Not worth it, boy.”

Sir!” the rookie protested, looking so crestfallen that the older man sighed.

“All right, fine,” Barzet said and waved him onward. “Try for an arrest if you like, but don't say that I didn't warn you.”

Kivrash wasn't listening. Full of righteous determination, he strode through the doors and toward the aisles, ignoring the dubious glances and anticipatory grins of the checkout crew, who had seen the officious young man stalking around the neighborhood before and knew that it was only a matter of time before he'd come here. Unaware of the wagers being made and settled around the registers, he headed off down the aisles, shouldering bystanders aside as he sought his natural prey. He found the group of alleged pirates clustered around an overloaded cart in Aisle Twenty, all but two of them holding armloads of goods while the big round one and the Unilu struggled with a particular box of imported items.

“It's not going to fit, guys,” the skinny tan one said as the big round one struggled to find a place to put that one last item. “We'll have to get another cart.”

“Nothing doing!” the villainous-looking Unilu shot back, frantically trying to reorganize their load, which had already been packed with the frightening precision of a true block-puzzle master. “They said that the first cart and anything we could carry was fifty percent off, and I am culturally forbidden to pay full price for anything!”

“We could just leave it,” the one with the weird jacket grunted under his own load of goods. “You've got three crates already.”

“I did not hear you say that just now,” the Unilu said dangerously. “Have you any idea of how hard it is to get pickled gropp outside of Unilu space? This is the first time since before I met Varda there that I've seen better than base-grade, which is only just barely better than pavement sealer. This is festival-grade, and if you put that crate back on the shelf, Hunk, so help me, I will--”

“Halt!” Kivrash barked, and they turned to look at him without any fear in their eyes at all. Curiosity, maybe, and annoyance, but no fear, which was not a good sign. “Stop right there, you--”

“Who's this guy?” Weird Jacket asked one of the two young Galra helpers.

The young man humphed disapprovingly and shifted his grip on his own armload of groceries. “That's Officer Kivrash. He's new, and a little dumb. Grandfather hasn't had a chance to yell at him yet.”

Angered by this insult, Kivrash drew in breath to lecture the boy, only to have it knocked back out when a heavy crate of large bottles was thumped down into his arms.

“Hold that, will you?” the big round one said. “We're almost done here, so this won't take long.”

“How dare you?” Kivrash blustered, “I order you to cease and desist, and to identify yourselves immediately! I have reason to believe that you are criminals, and--”

He stopped short. There was a dangerous look on the big one's face now that his group seemed to recognize and knew to avoid; all of them took a few steps backward, leaving them in a widening circle of empty space. That square jaw had come forward, the eyebrows cocked at spine-wilting angles of disapproval, and the dark, direct stare seemed to bore into Kivrash's eyes and right out through the back of his head. The alien straightened up and squared his shoulders in much the same way that mountains rose up over the landscape. He was big, Kivrash realized, not as tall as he was, maybe, but massively built, and he exuded an air of awesome authority; the young officer suddenly felt very small and alone.

“No,” the alien said in a voice that brooked no argument. “You're going to help us out here, 'cause that's what public defenders do. Just think of it as community service.”

There was something about the big one's tone that reached down into Kivrash's instincts and flipped a number of very specific switches, and he suddenly had to fight a terrible urge to obey. He hissed angrily and tried to toss the crate aside, but a broad, powerful hand had closed over his wrist in a grip that was immovable.

“Just do it, man,” the big one said firmly, every word a blow to Kivrash's resolve. “It's not hurting you, and you really don't want to drop those jars.”

“And why not?” Kivrash asked in one last show of defiance.

The big one let go of him and began ticking points off on his fingers. “Number one: those jars are full of pickled gropp. If you drop them, this Unilu will kill you. Number two: if you break the seals on those jars, the smell will kill you. Sorry, Nasty, but that stuff is rank. Number three: if you make a scene in here, we've been told that your boss will kill you. I get it, you're probably new at this, so let's make sure you live long enough to get good at it, okay? Now hold onto that and help us finish. What's left on the list, Pidge?”

The littlest one juggled an armload of sacks of dried mushrooms and peered at her handcomp. “Just the sylth grain, some mettic paste, and the cream of imsop. Hey, do you guys carry thelwisk seeds?”

“Yeah,” the second young Galra grunted from behind a stack of wangnarap pasta. “We may even still have some. Aisle Five, right next to the dakka nuts on the special-imports display.”

“Mine,” she declared, and trotted away, mushroom bags rustling furiously. The others turned to follow her, and Kivrash, defeated, trailed after them.

Kivrash soon found himself too heavily-laden to manage more than a knee-wobbling shuffle, and could barely see over the mountain of objects they'd piled into his arms. Great sacks of sylth kernels and flour had been piled atop the pickled gropp, along with big tubs of mettic paste, a large variety pack of pungent spices that had him fighting an urge to sneeze, and every last sack of thelwisk seeds that the littlest one could find. He was sweating profusely by the time that they headed for the registers, and was seriously considering some weight training. Even the slender, white-haired female was carrying a stack of stuff larger than his, and seemingly without effort. It was with great relief that Kivrash laid down his burden on the large-order register's conveyor belt, and leaned heavily on it, gasping for breath while the others laid down their own loads next to his.

“All right then,” the tall, orange-haired man said, twirling a truly fearsome mustache, “that was as fine a shopping trip as any I've been on, and I've been on some pretty good ones. Why, I was a member of the Commissary Corps during my first years at the Academy, and you would not believe how quickly a mob of cadets could go through even the biggest boil-ups of eploplia quorp, and we had to restock every five quintents. Even so, it took a good deal of creativity to make those supplies stretch that far, and they were glad to have me on the team for that alone. I was justly famed for my skill with the big condenser, too.”

The skinny tan one gave him a sly smile. “Oh, is that why your native cuisine smells like cafeteria food?”

The mustachioed man sniffed primly. “Well, it was a cafeteria. Quite a high-quality one at that.”

“Oh, yeah,” the skinny one said with a malicious grin. “They only dropped the most expensive sneakers into the gravy, right? To give it some kick.”

Orange Mustache took that poorly. “Are you suggesting that the Academy's Culinary Elite fed their fellows footwear?”

“That's what your cooking tastes like, man,” Skinny Tan replied.

“That's enough, you two,” sighed a tall, pale man with a white forelock, forestalling what looked to escalate into a noisy argument. “Pidge, Hunk, are you sure that you've got everything?”

“And then some,” the big one said, beaming over his mountain of food. “Ready, Nasty?”

The Unilu rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Bring it.”

The big one nodded to one of the young Galra, who tapped a pager and said, “Grandpa? They're ready for you.”

Kivrash frowned in confusion. What was going on here? In what kind of grocery store did the owner of the establishment make appointments with suspected pirates? Well, he had heard stories about the Old Man, but he'd thought they were just rumors...

There was a sudden clack that echoed around the store like a steel-shod thunderbolt, and then another, and another; he turned along with everyone else and felt the terrible, instinctive, and atavistic fear of... The Patriarch. Kivrash had never actually met Old Man Pranvax'Lor. His fellow officers had described the man as a juggernaut, a force of nature, and a dread figure right out of some of the more baroque old legends, and he'd laughed off their superstitious dread as an attempt to frighten him. Now, with each stunning impact of the cane against the flooring, it became more and more clear that his colleagues had not been exaggerating at all. As much as the big alien had loomed at him, the Old Man was ten times worse without even trying. Age and injury had not diminished his power, but had somehow enhanced it. Every movement he made was executed with perfect control and coordination, and he walked with an air of supreme confidence here on his own ground. Everything about him had an air of expertly-contained hazard; indeed, his expression was mild, a small smile playing about his lips, but the pale eyes gleamed with predatory anticipation. Following in his wake was a crowd of customers, all of them residents of the neighborhood and well aware that something interesting was going to happen any minute. Kivrash might have shouted at them to disperse out of sheer nerves, but the Old Man was taking up all of his attention.

He came to a halt at the register and propped both hands on his cane, looking at each face in turn with avuncular approval, and then rested his gaze upon the vast pile of goods at the checkout counter. “My word, what a heap,” he said gently. “Who shall run that order?”

One of the checkout crew and three baggers saluted, volunteering bravely for the duty. The Old Man nodded. “Proceed.”

Never before had Kivrash seen so monstrously large an order being run so quickly or professionally, nor had he personally seen a total quite so large. The person at the register took a deep and calming breath, and spake thusly: “Do you have any discount coupons?”

The Unilu struck a heroic pose and leveled a pair of index fingers at the Old Man. “Your boss said that we could have everything we could stuff into one cart or carry ourselves half off. That's everything here.”

He might as well have made a formal declaration of war. Old Man Pranvax'Lor's eyes flashed dangerously. “I dispute that,” he snapped in a tone that had reduced strong men to tears before this. “My grandsons and a passing policeman do not count as part of your group. You will pay full price for the items they carried.”

Kivrash noticed that the littlest pirate had pulled out a handcomp and was recording the budding argument, and he realized that one of the famous Unilu haggling sessions was about to take place right in front of him.

Right on cue, the Unilu slashed a pair of hands through the air in the classic Gesture of Absolute Negation. “We deputized the kids and the cop volunteered. Still within the rules, old man.”

Old Man Pranvax'Lor flicked Kivrash a glance like the lick of a flame. “Nothing of the sort. He did not volunteer. He was volunteered; this is no different from conscription, which is not legal upon this planet except when under orders from the Governor himself. He does not count. You also did not get written agreements from my grandsons, and by law, no contract is binding without such documentation.”

They're just warming up, Kivrash thought numbly. They're just warming up! I wonder if I can just sort of sneak away...

The white-haired woman laid a hand on his arm, gripping it gently... for the moment. He could feel astonishing strength in that slender hand, and knew that it was already too late for any chance of escape.

 

Outside, Kivrash's senior officer leaned comfortably against the wall, basking in the late-afternoon sunshine and picking meditatively at his teeth. A glance over his shoulder at the registers revealed a massive pile of bagged goods, a large and respectful audience, and the Old Man and an Unilu in a ferocious argument. He could hear them even through the armorglass, from the Unilu's vicious threats and sly insinuations to the Old Man's booming denounciations and statements of bald fact. That was a large part of what made him so frightening to the Mayor, Barzet mused. There was nothing that politicians feared more than smart, sober, forceful, honest, and incorruptible people who were in full possession of all of the facts.

The veteran cop sniffed reflectively. Maybe he could get one of the family to lend him the security recordings as a training vid for new recruits. This one sounded almost as intense as the haggling match that had erupted last year during the Unilu community's annual Festival of the Swindlers, when one of their best had faced down the Pranvax'Lor over possession of a whole frozen wuskor. Even he knew that wuskor was very difficult to find on any world other than the Unilu's own home planet, even as simple preserved cuts of meat. To find a whole, uncooked one, cryogenically frozen... yeah. That had been a real fight. This one was pretty good, though, especially once the other members of the Unilu's group had joined in, and the sun was sinking toward the horizon in a blaze of fiery color before the wrangle came to its natural conclusion. He glanced through the window again at the faint sound of cheers and applause, saw the crowd helping the Unilu's party to ferry the piles of groceries toward the rear exit, and viewed the Old Man shaking hands amicably with the rather worn-out Unilu. Once again, the Pranvax'Lor had given as good as he'd got. Seeing as the excitement was over, Barzet ambled inside to find out if they'd left his rookie intact.

He needn't have worried. Kivrash was sitting on one of the off-duty registers, looking vaguely poleaxed and sucking on a stick of hard candy. He nodded politely at the proud Patriarch. “Drathann. Had a good match?”

The Old Man's scarred face lit up with a satisfied smile. “Oh, yes,” he chuckled, “it has been a good day. Your new lad there came in handy, and one of them even bought him a treat. I have made it known to them that they are welcome here, Barzet, and that I would relish another wrangle with them.”

Kivrash broke down in tears.

Barzet nodded calmly. “I'll keep that in mind. By the way, were those people really pirates? Kivrash here was pretty sure of it.”

Drathann shook his head. “No. Aside from the Unilu—all Unilu being pirates of one sort or another—they are by no means nefarious. Quite the reverse. I might say that the Emperor would not approve of them, but he approves of very little.”

Barzet patted Kivrash on one shaking shoulder and cocked a suspicious look at the Old Man, whom he knew to have certain dangerous opinions. “They've done something, right? Something that'd get us in trouble?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Drathann replied, using that special tone that said that the subject was closed and would not be discussed again. “They have committed no crimes on this world, nor will they.”

Barzet nodded again and eased his junior to his feet. “Good enough, sir. Come on, Kivrash, walk it off. See what happens when you blunder into something cultural? Good evening, Drathann.”

“Yes,” Drathann murmured, looking up at the ceiling at the faint sound of a shuttle craft lifting off. “A very good evening, indeed.”

 

“So, what were you guys talking about?” Keith asked as he maneuvered the last sack of sylth flour onto a shelf in the kitchen's makeshift pantry, which had once been storage space for cleaning equipment and supplies.

The Castle had once been home to hundreds of people and thousands of mice, and actually had two kitchens. The one they were using now had been the domain of the chefs privileged to cook for the Royal Family alone, while the much larger one several levels below had furnished meals for the household staff, the palace guard, and the innumerable guests and diplomatic visitors that had inhabited the ship in its heyday. As a result, the smaller kitchen had been designed to be the very pinnacle of culinary science, with automatic systems that could produce most of the simpler dishes and items all by themselves. Dishes, alas, that were purely Altean. Hunk had had to make certain adjustments and reorganizations here and there, and refused to plod up and down miles of corridor whenever he needed a cup of sugar from the original main pantry. Coran had protested a bit the first time he'd seen Hunk's modified nutrifabber lurking next to the gel dispensers, but Hunk had plopped a bowl of freshly-made gnaleran with crumbled spikka in his hands, and that was that.

Modhri smiled as he placed the fragrant sacks of thelwisk seeds into the specially-built, mouseproof safe that Pidge had bolted into one corner; the mice had been very eager to see what they'd brought back from Arcobi, and Pidge had wound up chasing them all over the pod deck when they had stolen a sack of those rare and precious seeds. The safe probably wouldn't hold the little rodents off for long, given their level of technical skill, but Pidge was working on the problem.

“Drathann's been out of the loop for a very long time, and wanted to know what had been going on,” Modhri told his adoptive nephew. “His wife was dead set against him running off and losing any more body parts, and kept him very thoroughly grounded in his business and in building his status in his neighborhood. This has turned out to be a very good thing; Zaianne was able to contact Kolivan and bring him into the discussion, you see. Arcobi is not a terribly wealthy colony, but it is very strategically placed. That grand old man may well have given the Coalition the keys to taking those two big trade hubs in the neighboring systems without damaging either of them.”

Keith stared at him. “How are they going to do that?”

Modhri smirked. “Economic ties. What Trenosh did not tell us was that Drathann and his wife had been making very carefully-placed investments in the markets for well over thirty standard years. All he has to do is make a few calls, and the Rakshane and Poberantha Garrisons will find themselves abruptly without services, support, or supplies. Those warships are very expensive to maintain and operate, Keith, and it's not the Empire who pays the bills. The Market Hubs will be glad to see the back of them.”

Keith grinned and started stacking spice packs on their own designated shelves. “Cool. That's one less space battle for us to fight. How did Kolivan take the news?”

“He was delighted, of course. Drathann had been one of his instructors as well, and the Order has always valued its training staff highly.” Modhri handed him a packet of dried swiggot berries and started stacking the Unilu delicacies on the other side of the pantry. “He was even happier to hear that certain of Drathann's descendants would do well as recruits. He was one of their best.”

“Like Zandrus,” Keith said.

“Yes,” Modhri murmured, sobering somewhat. “Very much like my great-uncle.”

Keith cast him a sympathetic glance for his loss, and then stretched out his shoulders with a grunt; his arms were a little sore from carrying groceries. “So, what's next on the agenda?”

“We have a little breathing space, or so Kolivan told us,” Modhri replied, examining a jar of marlep preserves with interest. “The Beronites are having some success with their end of the resistance effort, and the Military is focused on them right now. We may have to go and lend a hand, but for the time being, they're doing well enough on their own.”

Keith smiled. “Enough time to see if Black will let Shiro get a little flight time in?”

Modhri chuckled. “Yes, actually. Let's just finish up with this, and we'll see if Allura's found us a safe spot to let him play in.”

 

And so it was that, armored and full of hope, Shiro settled himself down into the pilot's seat in the black Lion a short time later. He leaned his head back against the padding, eyes closed, his hands seeking the control beams. It was different from the last time he'd done this; Black had subtly reshaped his cockpit around Allura's height and reach, and he'd had to stretch to reach the controls. Not this time. This time, the seat fit him precisely, and the beams were right there under his hands. He smiled as he felt the Lion come alive all around him.

“Finally,” he whispered, and his eyes snapped open, his heart full of savage joy. “Are you ready, team?”

Ready!” five voices rang true in his ears.

“Launch!” he barked, and whooped with glee as the Lion surged upward.

He had missed this. Oh, God, he had missed this! He felt the Lion's power core pulsing as though it were his own heart, and when the Lions came out of the towers and into the infinite, star-washed expanse of outer space, open and free, it was almost an epiphany. The joy of the Lion was in flight, and both of them had been cooped up for far too long. He was aware of the others now, flying in formation with him, letting him get the cabin fever out of his system before calling him to duty. He was thankful for that. It felt so good to fly again.

They'd found a good place to do so, that was for sure. Off in the distance, a fearsome little sun was drawing sheets of fire off of an old red dwarf, like a child eating a roll of cotton candy. Out here in the further orbits were a choice selection of planets and asteroid belts to test his reflexes on, and he indulged himself in doing something that he'd always wanted to try. Wide rings like those of Saturn's encircled a large burgundy-and-orange gas giant, and he sent Black skimming just above the fields of dust as though they were a racetrack. He circled the planet twice, dodging larger asteroids and numerous tiny moonlets, before allowing himself to pay any attention at all to the rest of his team.

“--flying just fine, Allura,” Pidge was saying, “no signs of stress, and both of them are really happy. We're going to have to work out an alternating flight schedule for you two.”

To tell you the truth, I'll be glad of it,” Allura admitted with only a little reluctance in her tone. “The Castle has missed having me at the helm, and you must admit that the command deck is pleasantly roomy. It frees Zaianne to do other things as well.”

“Yeah, Mom's getting bored,” Keith said. “You'll need to work out a schedule with her, too.”

Allura giggled. “I can relate. Back when we were just getting started, I used to be terribly envious of all of you whenever you went down to a planet for a quick adventure. You still owe me a trip to that Space Mall, I'll have you know! Lanteschi was very pleasant, but I haven't been to a true Mall in ages.”

“Millennia,” Hunk agreed. “Tell you what, you can come with me when I go there to get my cow. Yes, guys, I still want that cow. I will have that cow. You can go and scare all of your favorite stores, but I'm getting myself a cow.”

“Heard and acknowledged, Hunk,” Lance said cheerfully. “Maybe you can check in with that fast-food guy you got tangled up with last time, and see if he's still doing it right. Hey, Keith, you want to poke that knife salesman into a running-with-scissors competition?”

“Been there, done that, got busted and rode away on a flying robot cow,” Keith grumped. “He tried to steal Mom's knife.”

“Well, yeah,” Pidge pointed out. “He's an Unilu. Luxite blades are really rare.”

There was a hmph from the Castle. “I don't see what relative scarcity has to do with a proper sharp-objects footrace, particularly ones with a decent obstacle course. My great-aunt used to run those regularly, particularly in the months leading up to the Feast of the Five Huoloptomar Quoquoids.”

Really, Coran,” Allura chided impatiently.

Every bit of it!” Coran declared irrepressibly. “That was a major gift-giving holiday, for those of you who've never heard of it, a bit like that one that happens on Earth... Crazed-Mess or Crashed-Mass or whatever they call it--”

“Christmas,” Lance said, sounding mildly offended.

Whatever,” Coran continued without missing a beat. “It's a pretty good name for that sort of holiday, I'll admit, at least from a retail worker's point of view, but the Feast traditionally involved getting the youngsters their first set of adult cutlery. Auntie used to do her shopping down in Altanis City, where the really big mercantile centers were, and you had to be as fast as a speeding tweltha, strong as an industrial freight-mech, and as nimble as a pilitrip on a t'voffi mip ploquez, just to get to the checkout line in one piece. Very dangerous, those holiday crowds, and liable to stampede without warning. We used to tell her that at her age, she should just be sending someone out or even ordering her items for delivery, but no! That fierce old lady was determined to do it the old-fashioned way for as long as she could still turbocharge a shopping cart, and—eek!”

Thank you, Zaianne,” Allura said gratefully.

There was a ladylike snort. “Every time Coran tells silly stories, his ears grow longer. I'm just keeping him from eventually tripping himself up.”

Madame!” Coran protested.

Shiro smiled at the ripple of laughter from his team.

“You've got that wrong, Mom,” Keith said, “it's the nose that grows, not the ears.”

For Humans, perhaps,” Zaianne replied lightly. “Alteans are a bit different.”

There was a chuckle from the Chimera. “Else he'd be forever catching his nose in cabinets and doorways, and he'd squawk even louder. Count your blessings, Brother Mine. How are you feeling, Shiro?”

“I'm fine, Lizenne,” Shiro responded calmly. “Black's glad to have me back, and to tell you the truth, I needed this. Both of us did. We'll be able to fight and to form Voltron without any trouble.”

Lizenne hummed thoughtfully. “Perhaps, but we'll still want to make progress with caution. You are still not up to strength, and I don't want you overexerting yourself if you don't absolutely have to. Don't argue! One wrong move at this stage could land you in the infirmary for a week.”

“She's right, Chief,” Lance chimed in. “We all had to go through the same recovery procedure after Haggar death-rayed us. Well, maybe not Pidge. She was too busy learning to pirate.”

Pidge made a rather smug affirmative sound. “Uh-huh! Of course, it helped that Doc's magic at what he does. We need to find his people's homeworld and liberate it, guys. Ophlicas are amazing people, and space needs more of them.”

“No argument there,” Hunk added. “When I took Pidge to—whoa!”

Alarms blared; three Galra ships had warped into nearby space without warning. This was probably just a patrol squad, being one heavy cruiser and a couple of light destroyers, by no means a real challenge for the Paladins these days, but they still came as a surprise. There was a moment of startled silence on both sides, and then the patrol's commander hailed them.

Paladins of Voltron, I order you to--”

It was at that point that the Black Lion did something unexpected. Broadcasting loud and clear on all channels, he belted out a challenge of his own, the message unchanged since the early 1990's. “Yo, I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want--”

Pidge!” Shiro protested, trying desperately not to laugh. “I didn't do anything!”

“Just making sure, Shiro,” Pidge said sternly. “Nothing wrong with a little positive reinforcement.”

Keith didn't much care for the old teen-girl band's music. “You call this 'positive'?”

“Well, I like it.”

So did Lance and Hunk, who began to sing along, complete with bad British accents. “I wanna really-really-really wanna zigazig ah!”

Allura groaned. “I cannot take you people anywhere, not even out to the depths of unexplored space! You simply cannot maintain the dignity proper to the Voltron Force.”

I can,” Keith complained, “but I'm surrounded by goofballs.”

Um... Paladins?” the Galra commander asked, sounding utterly mystified. “What is going on?”

Keith groaned. “Oh, god. Pidge, did you set the black Lion so that those guys could hear it, too?”

“Yup!” Pidge chirped.

“Crud. Just shoot me now.”

I won't be hasty, I'll give you a try, but if you really bug me then I'll say goodbye...” Hunk crooned tunefully.

Shiro burst out into hoots of helpless laughter. This was wrong on so many levels, but it was so funny. He could hear Allura trying to get the others to take their situation seriously, Keith's mortified protests, Pidge snarking at them both, the increasingly baffled enemy trying to get a word in edgewise, and Hunk singing backup while Lance proclaimed pompously, “So, here's the story from A to Z—you wanna get with me, you gotta listen carefully. We got Em in the place who likes it in your face, you got G like MC who likes it on a easy V—doesn't come for free--”

She's a real lady,” Hunk added.

And as for me, ha, you'll see,” Lance continued smoothly, and then they both sang together, “Slam your body down and wind it all around!”

This isn't some new kind of battle tactic, is it?” the Galra Commander asked suspiciously.

The thought of the Spice Girls riding into battle in the manner of the Ride of the Valkyries sent Shiro into fresh howls of hilarity. Some of them really would wear the brass brassieres and the flying helmets, and when one of that poor fellow's lieutenants asked, “Sir, what's a 'zigazig ah'?” it just got worse.

“Breathe, Shiro,” Pidge said.

“I'm... I'm trying,” Shiro gasped, unable to stop his mirth. “We... we should... really form Voltron... or something. Cut it out, guys.”

If you wanna be my lover,” chorused Lance and Hunk, ignoring him, “you have got to give. Taking is too easy, and that's the way it is...”

“Will somebody just start shooting already?” Keith yelled.

Keith!” Allura scolded, “We agreed that we weren't going to get Shiro into any battles, and he's laughing too hard to pilot the Lion effectively. Oh, dear, and we've set him off again. Shiro, please try to get that under control!”

Slam your body down and zigazig ah,” Lance drawled deliciously.

If you wanna be my lover,” Hunk sang, finishing the song with a grin. “Okay, we can fight now. Who wants to start?”

Shiro was still laughing.

Keith said something that he'd heard from his mother, which had the interesting ability to strip paint off of walls when pronounced exactly right.

Allura was muttering darkly about getting them all lessons in deportment.

Pidge blew her a raspberry.

Lance was snickering at the rest of them.

“Okay,” Hunk said, “maybe we should take a rain-check?”

There was a tired sigh from the enemy flagship. “Paladins,” the Commander said grimly, “where I come from, it is considered bad luck to fight crazy people.”

“Well, he's got us pegged,” Lance muttered.

“Shut up, Lance,” Keith growled back.

The Commander ignored that, and continued. “You will proceed on your current heading, and we will proceed upon ours; neither of us will ever speak of this encounter again.”

“S... sorry,” Shiro choked out.

Pidge giggled. “Yeah, and we'd have taken you apart, anyway. See you later, guys.”

“Cheers,” Lance said, waving them on.

The three Galra ships sailed past with what dignity they could muster, guns silent and running lights glimmering. Allura growled under her breath. “Well, that's the first time that I have ever seen someone actually being laughed off of a potential battlefield. Get back on board, all of you. I am very disappointed with your childish behavior.”

“Yes, Mom,” Hunk said meekly, which just set Shiro off into another storm of helpless chortles.

 

Meanwhile, on the deck of the heavy cruiser, the Commander of the patrol squad watched the Castle of Lions and the Chimera Rising diminish to tiny bright points in the rear-view screens. There was a flicker of watery blue—the teludav system creating a wormhole, he knew, and then they were gone.

“We aren't just going to let them go like that, are we?” one of his lieutenants asked uncertainly.

The Commander shrugged. “We already have. In any case, the green Paladin was right; the Lions would indeed have made short work of us. There are others who are better equipped to handle them; Perkaz, is the Prince still in the area?”

His comm officer touched a few controls, and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Very good. Tell him that we spotted the Castle here, but do not include any other details of our encounter. I would hate to ruin the surprise for either of them.”

Perkaz smirked. “I'll alert the Center, too. Between the Prince and his father, there should be surprises all around.”

The Commander snorted a brief laugh. “Yes, do that. It does not do to let the Emperor become bored.”