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Chapter 17: Party Time

 

You put your left leg in, you take your left leg out, you put your left leg in and you shake it all about! You do the Hokey-Pokey and you turn yourself around...”

Keith ducked as Tilla's huge spiky tail swung through the air at about head height, executed an athletic crouch-and-spin, and then sprang upright again, keeping an eye on the dragon the whole time to make sure that she wasn't going to keep whirling around in circles. If he focused on not getting torn apart by her various spikes and pointy parts or flattened under her huge clawed feet, he could safely ignore everything else. His life depended on that, as a matter of fact; if he let his mind dwell on the fact that he was doing the Hokey-Pokey while in formal wear, right in front of roughly two thousand alien high officials, he would probably die of sheer embarassment. The fact that everybody else seemed to be having fun did not help. He ground his teeth and continued with this travesty, even when he heard Lance's voice ring out with “You put your tail right in...”

Keith very nearly gave into the temptation to throttle his teammate, right there in front of everybody. Lance had been told very firmly that there was to be no twerking, and no, it didn't matter that his family had made a tradition of constructive bottom-waggling in their dance-offs. Unfortunately, it was too late to stop him, and Tilla was already performing the graceful about-face to show off her own particularly impressive tail. Perforce, Keith did as well, resolving to plant his foot very firmly in Lance's tail as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Very, very firmly, he thought, ducking again as Tilla took her tail out. He would kick Lance's ass so hard that he would carry the bruise for life. No, no, he would kick Lance's whole genetic code so hard that Lance's children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would all carry the mark of his wrath on their behinds. He would kick Lance's ass so hard that the impact would bend space and time. Not only would it be visible from orbit, but one day, Keith vowed, archaeologists would unearth the brittle bones of a two-million-year-old hominid that would have a boot-print clearly delineated on the right rear pelvis.

Tilla, grunting in amusement, waggled her hindquarters with no shame at all and executed another graceful pirouette.

Finally, finally, they ran out of body parts to shake all about, sang the final “Hokey-Pokey!” and were allowed to leave the floor while Lizenne and Modhri stayed back to make sure that the preparations for their own performance had been set up properly.

A big hand patted his shoulder, and he looked up into Hunk's smiling face. Hunk loved dancing and simply didn't care whether or not it was childish; his dark eyes glowed with confidence, and he was radiating happiness as only he could. “That wasn't so bad, now was it?” he said cheerfully. “How are you holding up, Keith?”

Keith scowled at Tilla, who had drifted aside and was rotating again with balletic grace. “I'm okay. What's with Tilla?”

“She really likes doing pirouettes,” Hunk said with a shrug. “Dragons don't get dizzy like we do—their inner-ear structure and visual systems are way different from ours, and they can take a lot of shaking around before their eyes start to cross, and their tummies don't get upset by it, either. Maybe we could rent her out as a carnival ride, or something.”

Keith couldn't help but smile at the thought of Tilla whirling gracefully, her back covered with excited kids while Hunk sold tickets. “I'd rather go charging after another yulpadi. This time, I want to ride the dragon.”

“Maybe later,” Hunk said, although his own gaze sharpened a bit at the thought of another bowl of the universe's most perfect stew. “Right now, we get a breather while Lizenne and the others take a turn. This is gonna be so cool. I asked Modhri about it, and he showed me a recording of a professional performance, and... wow.”

Keith opened his mouth to reply, but a low drumroll was sounding from the floor, and they turned to watch. The floor had acquired some scenery while they hadn't been looking, in the form of a holographic grassland bordered by forest, with a large rock formation on one side. That was probably a force-screen construct, for Zaianne had appeared atop it, resplendent in her burgundy-colored finery and her posture as proud as any queen's. Lights at the base of the faux rock formation lit her from below, making her golden eyes glow and her body seem half-made of shadow, like a spirit out of the night.

“Hearken!” she said in a commanding tone that immediately had everyone's attention, the sound system hurling her voice around the room and giving it an echoing effect that was very impressive. “Hearken, and behold this tale of the ancient days, when the First Emperor Modhri the Wise was growing old upon his Throne. Many were his daughters, and legion were his sons. Such was his skill and prowess that each and every one of his offspring were hotly pursued by the scions of the High Houses, that they might wed into the Royal Line and thereby gain a little of his greatness... and his favor. His daughters chose their men well, and great women chose his sons, save one only. One only—Prince Salchor, the last-born of Threonar, wife of Modhri the Wise. Indeed, he feared the women who came to court him, seeing that they sought him only to claim a portion of his father's power through his body, and escaped their eyes by guile. All unseen, he had taken an unmarked craft to the Great Mesa of Kochalpur on Namtura, homeworld of his grandmother, Queen Zaianne the Great. There, he thought to hide for a time in the wild, and to hunt, and to live as his distant ancestors once had, for such activity brings peace to the heart and soul of a troubled man.”

Zaianne gave the audience a naughty smile. “He soon found that he was not alone in his aims, and the Lady Kerolla, a woman of a minor House who had claimed that range for her own time of peace as well, soon took note. Like him, her House wished her to wed, and like him, she had not liked her choices. This man, all unlooked-for, presented a better option.”

The lights at the base of the rock went out, and Zaianne vanished; the music swelled, carrying a single, beautifully-trained male voice, singing in a language that had not been widely spoken for well over ten thousand years. Keith went very still at the sound of it, listening intently. He had never heard a Galra sing before, other than the song that Lizenne, Modhri, and Zaianne had sung during Shiro's resurrection, or when his mother was distracted enough to hum some random ditty under her breath. This was a professional in his prime, and something in the stately cadences and the way the words rang on the air spoke directly to his bones and blood. In answer to that music, Modhri appeared like a phantom out of the grasses.

Keith had seen his adoptive uncle move like that before, both on the training deck and in the envirodeck, and his heart ached to see the pensive and lonely expression on Modhri's face. He moved with a predator's grace, his every motion smooth and controlled as he swept the simulated grasses aside, looking for game trails.

As he bent down to examine what might have been a fresh track, a woman's voice joined the theme, light and ethereal, and Keith heard someone hiss beside him. He glanced down at Pidge, who was staring owlishly at the sound system. “That's Hantis!” she said very softly as the delicate voice wove into the music like threads of silver.

Allura suddenly pointed off to the left. “Look!”

In the shadow of a grove of simulated trees was Lizenne, nearly invisible among the slender boles and watching Modhri with considerable interest. She smiled, and Hantis laughed lightly, a soft and delicious sound that made the entire team blush hotly. Lizenne was no less graceful than her man, ghosting out of the trees to become one with the grasses, moving with the voice of the great Hantis Chalep'Thora to examine the very attractive intruder in her territory. She spent some time examining the oblivious fellow from all angles, and a ripple of amusement went through the crowd when she crept up behind him and tugged playfully on the tips of his ears.

Keith saw Lance raise a hand to his own ear out of the corner of his eye, and remembered how Helenva had done the same thing to his teammate before meeting Kelezar. Much like Lance had, Modhri jumped in surprise, yellow eyes wide and startled, and he whirled around to face his assailant. Too slowly, for Lizenne had vanished; Keith's nerves quivered as he felt Lizenne re-materialize behind Modhri, and he couldn't help but grin when she tickled his ribs. This time when Modhri spun around, she remained standing there, and he backed away in utter astonishment from this wild apparition.

The voice of Hantis took on a challenging tone, and Lizenne gave her chin that proud lift, her eyes flashing; the smile on her lips held both invitation and warning, and she drifted to one side in a movement as graceful as mist on the breeze. Her fingers brushed Modhri's cheek in passing, and he could not help but turn to follow.

The dance they performed then was not a pursuit. Modhri challenged her in turn with subtle gestures of his hands, and the bows they made to each other held nothing of submission. This was a mutual test of strength and coordination, of skill and grace, move and countermove that was as exacting as a battle. Still, they both slipped in affectionate touches here and there, from Modhri's expression of awe and delight, to Lizenne's tender caress to the underside of his jaw. When they came finally to embrace at the end of the music, the passionate kiss they shared was echoed around the room; no few of the people in the audience were similarly moved, and a squeak from Keith's left revealed Lance stealing a kiss from Pidge. Pidge was blushing hotly, but didn't seem repulsed, and Keith had just enough time to wonder why he hadn't gone up in flames at the sight of another guy kissing his girl before Lance wrapped his other arm around Keith's waist and rested his chin upon his shoulder. Keith turned his head to meet Lance's deep-blue eyes and surprisingly sweet smile, and thought, Oh, that's why, as the overhead lights dimmed to signal the end of the scene. He couldn't help but notice that Hunk had wrapped his own arms around Shiro and Allura, and neither of them looked unhappy about that.

Once again, the lights at the base of the stone came on, illuminating the elevated Zaianne, and once again her voice rang out over the enthralled audience.

“Kerolla and Salchor had chosen each other in the old way, and once such a promise had been made, there could be no breaking it. That he was a Prince did not matter. That her House was not among the High did not matter. They were together as one for all time. Alas, the High Houses did not share that view; that Salchor was a Prince mattered very much to the ambitious, and they hunted for him relentlessly. For fifty-one days and nights the agents of the High Houses sought him, until one such agent, a servant of the House of Hap'Banak'Tak detected his ship, and carried word of it back to his masters. The House then sent a daughter of great skill to fetch him, thinking that his capture might gain them the wealth and preference they sought. Telchamar it was who was sent, Telchamar the proud, Telchamar the fierce, Telchamar, whose powers were subtle and varied. Telchamar, who came to the Mesa to claim what she thought was her due.”

The lights below the stone faded, and the overheads came up again, showing Lizenne and Modhri cuddling by a campfire, looking entirely contented with each other. It was a pose that Keith and the others had seen a number of times before, usually late in the evening in the Castle's main lounge. Her arm was around Modhri's shoulders, the hand caressing the fur behind his ear, and her expression faintly smug. Modhri was totally relaxed, his arm wrapped around her waist, and that sweet, loving smile that seemed to make the very air around them glow upon his face. Keith was fairly sure that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Galra man looking like that. Modhri had told him some time ago that the Military was made up almost entirely of unattached men and a scattering of women who were too fearsome to settle down. Those few female soldiers who did find a boyfriend among the ranks almost always resigned once their choice had been made, and they took their men with them when they left. Since the Military was what most uncolonized subject worlds saw, Galra family life was a complete mystery to large portions of the Empire. Indeed, there was a soft murmur of surprise rising from the tiers at this tender scene.

The simulated fire was burning low, and Lizenne leaned forward to toss an illusory stick into the flames. That seemed to have been the last of the firewood, however, and she scowled, rose gracefully, and set out to gather more. Modhri gazed longingly after her, but fell to some small task instead, completely missing the ripple in the grasses to his right. At the foot of the stone, Erantha appeared, the severe cut of her attire making her look like the most unwelcome aspect of civilization and badly out of place in that setting. Her expression was also something to fear; Keith had seen the sort of look she was giving Modhri before, in a nature documentary. He'd seen it on the face of a cougar, just before it had pounced on a young deer, and he had to stop himself from shouting a warning. No few of the watching Councilmembers did it for him.

A third voice had joined in the music, a powerful soprano who sang with the same terrible focus as a lioness on the hunt. Modhri started up in surprise and dismay when she came out of the grasses before him, leaping to his feet and backing away. She danced toward him, every movement sheer poetry, but her expression was cold; she called him to duty, rather than to love, and she was not in the habit of taking “no” for an answer.

Modhri backed further away, gesturing a strong negative as the male voice in the music became forceful and wary; he would not go with her, he had made his choice already, her family's ambitions could go hang for all he cared, and his own family's right beside them!

Erantha pursued, her eyes intent; he had no choice, his duty to both family and Empire demanded his submission. She moved suddenly, as smooth and fast as a striking snake, and struck—a quick blow to the temple and another precise blow to the back of one knee dropped him like a stone, and she pulled out a cord and tied his hands behind him as he lay gasping on the ground. She had just gotten him secured when the voice of Hantis rose in a terrifying shriek of pure rage, and suddenly Lizenne was there. Fangs bared, hackles raised, and tambok-fang knife in hand, she leaped from the top of the stone and would have landed right on Erantha's back if the woman hadn't sprung away.

Erantha pulled herself up to her full and impressive height, viewing the wildwoman with cold and disdainful eyes, and her sneer was a work of art. Slowly, she drew her own knife, dark luxite blade glinting, and bared her own fangs in challenge. Lizenne exploded forward in a rush that Keith and his team knew all too well from the training deck, and Keith had just enough time to be relieved that she hadn't brought her spear along before he was too busy watching the battle to pay much attention to anything else.

Galra women did not have catfights. Even as a mere stage performance, it was a full-on magic ninja clan war or nothing. Blades rang and sparks flew, and blows were traded with devastating force; they snapped in and out of sight as they teleported back and forth, trying to outmaneuver each other, and hurled and deflected mage-bolts in terrible profusion. Lizenne even lifted the flames out of the campfire and flung them at Erantha, who brushed them aside with a silvery shield. How much was real and how much was illusion, Keith could not tell. Even the music was a duel, the white-hot wrath of Hantis's voice contending with the potent soprano, underscored with the male voice's anxious chanting. Dazed, Modhri struggled to his knees, watching the battle with unalloyed horror and fighting to get his hands free. He managed to loosen his bonds with his toe-claws in a painful-looking movement that made Keith reflect distantly that Galra were more limber than most Humans, and he scrambled up and back, looking for any way to break up the fight. Lizenne wanted blood, that was very clear, and Erantha would not permit some commoner to defy her and live.

Finally, Lizenne put a foot wrong, or overextended, or something—Keith wasn't sure which, but she wobbled for just a split second, and it was just enough of an opening for Erantha to whirl and deliver a kick that knocked Lizenne flying. She landed hard against the stone and slumped there, stunned, unable to move as Erantha closed in for the kill. Before her knife could reach Lizenne's throat, Modhri was there, standing between them with arms spread to ward her away, the knifepoint quivering perhaps a half-inch from his breast. Modhri's features took on a hard cast that Keith had never seen before in the man, eyes hot and dangerous, and he bared his fangs at Erantha in defiance. No, said his whole posture. No, said the music itself, carry this further, woman, and you must kill me as well. I have made the promise that cannot be broken.

Lizenne pulled herself painfully to her feet and took her place beside him, ready to continue the match if Erantha should decide to press the issue. Erantha hesitated, looking back and forth between them, her face showing dismay and no small amount of chagrin at Modhri's rejection of her. She backed away and sheathed her knife, pulling her self-control around herself like a cloak. So be it, everything about that movement said, and she bowed slightly and left, radiating dignity.

Modhri and Lizenne watched her go, and then sagged in relief; Modhri wrapped his arms around his wife and buried his face in her hair, his shoulders trembling. Lizenne sheathed her knife as well and embraced him, but her eyes remained wary. She would watch and wait, but the next time someone issued a challenge, she would not hesitate to kill.

The lights dimmed, and once again Zaianne appeared atop the rock, dramatically underlit. “Telchamar did not return to make a second attempt, and such were her words concerning the battle that no other woman challenged Kerolla. Salchor did not succeed his father upon the throne, nor did any of his sons, but his daughters carried their parents' greatness into a new generation, and his grandson and great-grandson both took and held the Throne in their time. Thus ends the Courtship of Salchor and Kerolla. Hail to the ancient days, and learn from them! Never forget that this very moment in time might well be seen as legendary in the following eons, so make no choices that your descendants will regret.”

The lights went out. Keith heaved a long, shuddering breath, and realized that he was sweating, his heart pounding in his chest as if he had been involved in that battle.

“Holy crow,” Keith heard Lance say, sounding just as shaky as he felt, “was that real? I mean, did that actually happen in real life once?”

“Roughly ten thousand, two hundred years ago, give or take a decade or two,” Zaianne said with a smile, ambling in off of the stage. “That sort of thing still happens occasionally even today, although it's very rare that two strong witches will face off both magically and with weapons at the same time. That was absolutely magnificent, you three.”

Keith turned to see the three Galra approaching, looking breathless and tired, but triumphant. Modhri still had his arm around Lizenne's waist, and Keith was unsurprised to note that she had positioned herself between Erantha and Modhri. Erantha, whether it was instinctive or not, was walking a full arm's-length away from the pair. Distance, he recalled, and he'd just seen the reason why maintaining that distance was so important.

Modhri waggled a hand modestly. “Passable. My brother would doubtless have had an entire list of demerits to read off to us, and a list of possible improvements that would be three times as long. All the same, we did not dishonor either the epic or the music, I feel. I take it that you'll want a copy of the soundtrack as well, Pidge?”

Pidge fixed him with a steely glare. “Gimme. That wasn't the original you brought with you, was it?”

“Don't be silly,” Lizenne said with a smile. “The original—and it's a signed original, I'll have you know, is safely aboard the Chimera. Guarded by dragons most of the time, I might add.”

Gronk,” Soluk said helpfully, looking very much the proper treasure-guardian.

“We will have perhaps ten or fifteen doboshes before the third dance,” Erantha said, and there was just a hint of smugness in her tone as she looked out at the milling throng in the tiers. “We have shaken no few of them to the very core, and they feel the need to recoup their strength, just in case the third dance is as potent as the second. You never showed us the correct steps for the all-inclusive dance, Hunk.”

Hunk waved a dismissive hand. “Keith and I were too busy trying to get Tilla to stop spinning, Lance was putting the finishing touches on the outfits, you and Modhri and Lizenne were too busy rehearsing, Shiro, Coran, and Allura had to ride herd on the repair guys, and keeping Pidge away from the repair guys would've been impossible anyway. It doesn't matter much, since the dance is really easy. Lance knows it by heart and I could do it in my sleep, and we'll have the original music video playing up on the screens, too. You guys wouldn't be standing here now if you weren't all fast learners. I'll lead off, and all you've gotta do is follow me. Simple.”

Erantha gave him a quizzical look. “We're to just... run onto the floor and join in?”

“Yup, just come on in however you want,” Hunk grinned at her. “It's totally in character, and you can do backflips or cartwheels or twirl along with Tilla... oh, crud, there she goes again. Soluk, would you stop her before she wears a hole in the floor? Or whatever else you want, and it would fit right in. It's all about having fun all together, and anyone can join in. It was super popular for a while back in the early Twenty-first Century, and it's come back on the retro circuit a bunch of times. It's a real classic.”

It sounds like fun,” Coran said. “Knew a few dance styles of that nature, back in the day. There was a fad for free-form figures back when Alfor was a lad, and some of his aunties and uncles got quite enthusiastic about it. Got so there was a sort of informal competition going on between the Royal Family and the higher Nobles. Well, I say informal, but things got pretty heated in some quarters. Got to be rather hard on the furniture, and the walls and ceiling, come to think of it. Alfor's mother eventually had to call a halt to the fun after the Grand Duchess of Thoquora and the Viscount of Pikrish-on-the-Heights wound up propelling each other right over the balcony rail and into the garden pond below. It was a lovely party, and I made off with an entire basket of brenthit tarts in the confusion.”

“How old were you at the time?” Shiro asked, smiling.

“Twelve, if you must know,” Coran replied with a nostalgic look in his eyes. “Alfor was more or less the same age, and we'd crept out of our rooms to hide under the liquid-refreshments table, the better to watch the fun, you see. And steal treats from the sideboards. We might have seen more, but we weren't the only two underage adventurers out and about that night. T'was a little girl who'd joined us, just as I was fetching the tarts, one of the many granddaughters of the Grand Duke of Southern Diramark. She and Alfor got into a fight over those tarts that tipped the table over, as I recall, and got us all grounded for a week, and she and Alfor swore never to forgive each other for the incident.”

Lizenne snorted. “A cub's sworn word is like flowers of frost; shining, pure, and lasting no longer than the sunrise. I take it that they reconciled in time?”

“Yes, I'd say so,” Coran said, tugging consideringly at his mustache. “Enough to eventually get married, in any case, although it still wasn't a good idea to get between Melenor and a fresh-baked brenthit tart.”

Allura giggled. “She did love them. Father and I had to make up batches in secret when she was out of the Castle if we wanted to get any of them at all.”

Hunk nudged her gently. “If you can dig up the recipe, I can run us up a few batches. We can sort of ceremonially offer your parents some and scarf the rest. Humans have a lot of rituals like that. It keeps them close.”

She smiled at him. “That would be very nice, thank you.”

They were interrupted at that point by an indignant squawk from Tilla; Soluk had caught her tail in his teeth, since trying to stop her rotations any other way had not worked. That backfired on him, alas, for she simply lunged forward and caught his tail in her own fangs and kept going, forcing them both into a double-dragon roundelay that threatened to knock over everything backstage. Trying to get them separated took up the rest of the intermission, and there was a great deal of muffled gronking that forced the official Granidlo to shout to get their attention.

“Hey!” the huge Drinth boomed, startling them all. “You're on in five. What's the holdup?”

Lizenne knocked a knuckle against Tilla's jaw, which was still clamped firmly on Soluk's tail. “Artistic temperament. Dragons can be a bit fractious at times.”

The Granidlo gave Tilla a dire look. “Reminds me of last week's diplomatic session. It was the Hwarks and the Nuppams fussing at each other over asteroid-mining rights again, and they looked exactly like that. Well, there's a way around this sort of thing.”

Before Tilla could duck away, the Granidlo's mallet smacked smartly against her nose, forcing her to open her mouth in order to vent a pained yelp. Soluk jerked his tail free and whirled around, intending to give her a nip on the ear, but he, too, was forestalled by a well-aimed bop on the snoot. Both dragons thumped down onto their haunches and gave the Granidlo injured looks.

“Very professionally done,” Modhri said.

“Practice,” the Granidlo replied, glowering unsympathetically at the sulking dragons. “Years and years of practice. It's not an easy job and you have to make a lot of snap decisions, but I love it. It pays well and I can smack people who really need smacking, and believe me, competition for the job is fierce. Now get out there and make the Council happy, you all. I overextended my shoulder a few weeks ago, and I'd prefer to keep the smacking to a minimum.”

Hunk drew himself up proudly, suspenders glittering. “I am so on this,” he said, and headed out onto the floor.

Keith watched him go with a certain unease. By and large, dancing had not interested him since before his father had died, and he had shunned the various school dances for good and sufficient reason. Even so, he knew of a number of freestyle dances that had been very popular on and off before they'd left, including one that had haunted him for much of his life. A nameless dread began to rise in the back of his mind as a single spotlight came on, illuminating Hunk in the dead center of the floor, and that dread gained a name when the opening bars of a very familiar song began pulsing out of the sound system. A ring of huge screens popped into existence high overhead, showing an equally familiar music video, and Keith watched in horror as a man with certain physical similarities to both Hunk and himself began to perform an act that had once made international news.

No!” Keith yelped, backing away as Hunk began to dance along, grinning hugely and moving his bulk with remarkable skill. “Not this! Anything but this! Guys, make it stop!”

His plea fell on deaf ears, alas; everybody, even the mice and the dragons, were beginning to move with the driving beat. Lance gave his wild-eyed teammate a confused look. “Keith, what's your problem? This is perfect.”

Keith shook his head in denial. “It is not. Dad was obsessed with this stupid dance, and he made me dance with him every damned time. Even in school, whenever someone found out that I was part Korean, they hauled this thing out of storage. Every time! I thought that I was safe after Blue kidnapped us, that it couldn't have possibly followed me all the way out into the cosmos, but no! Here it is again!”

Lance grinned at him. “That still doesn't mean that it isn't perfect. 'Scuse me, I've gotta go get me some of that perfection. C'mon, guys.”

Lance sailed out to join Hunk, the dragons, the mice, Allura, and Erantha following behind.

Keith watched them go in helpless horror. “Mom, Shiro, not you too!”

“It was part of the agreement,” Shiro said with a shrug. “Besides, it looks like fun.”

Zaianne smiled at her son. “Khaeth, this is how your father brought me back to strength and surefootedness after I'd healed up from the crash. Ridiculous as it looks, it is a good way of honoring your sire. Stop whining and come along.”

“Pidge?” Keith pleaded, but all he got was a hard look and a finger wagged under his nose.

“You guys made me dance the Hokey-Pokey. Suck it up, Keith. Look, the Delegates are already joining in. That guy there doesn't even have feet, and if that thousand-year-old Grandpa Turtle over there can do it, so can you.”

“She does have a point,” Lizenne said, observing the rapidly-filling floor.

Modhri chuckled. “Come along, Keith, it's only for a handful of minutes, and then it's over. We'll have a nice dinner where we'll watch the Granidlo cut the traditional nine boring speeches short, and then we'll go back to the Castle where you can pretend that today never happened.”

Keith groaned, but accepted his fate. Defeated, he fell in behind them, following them out onto the dance floor and under the screens where a round little man of great talent declared to the universe at large: Oppa Gangnam Style!

Face set in a forbidding scowl, he nonetheless danced perfectly, the motions as deeply ingrained as his sword training. If nothing else, it gave him an opportunity to observe what was becoming a first-class revel. Just about every one of the government officials and all of their underlings had come down from their tiers, and some of them were bizarre. As Pidge had pointed out, there were people with no feet, both snail-like and serpentine, and the turtle-like aliens were surprisingly swift-footed and agile dancers. On the other hand, there were people with far too many feet, or with wings, fins, cilia, pseudopods, or tentacles, and there was one group of people who looked like jeweled beach balls bouncing enthusiastically in time to the beat. Even the Granidlo, still standing on one side of the floor, was tapping a forefoot and looking interested, which was about as much as one could hope for from a Drinth.

All of them, thankfully, were giving Tilla and Soluk a lot of room. Not being able to stand upright, they had compromised with a sort of bowlegged prance that looked very impressive, but the odd position made their feet just a little clumsy; whoever it was who looked after the floors here was going to be upset later. Keith could see the mice dancing on the dragons' backs, apparently having a great time, and he looked around reflexively for the rest of his group. Hunk and Lance had noticed that Shiro wasn't very good at this and had come up on either side of him, correcting his hands and stance and dancing alongside him in a show of perfect unity. Coran was hamming it up, of course, his long legs particularly suited to this activity. Allura seemed to glimmer in the lights like a pearl, and she danced along gracefully next to Erantha, a light-and-dark pairing that was very striking in more ways than one. Pidge had found partners among the local delegates and was leading her own troupe of brightly-colored small furry people. Zaianne was engaging in some fancy footwork that was raising a collective blush on a group of elderly gentlemen, and Lizenne and Modhri were attracting envious stares from a number of unattached young persons who had obviously never danced with someone that they loved. Everyone was having a good time but him, Keith thought, and yearned heartily for the music to finish.

At last, the final stance was achieved, and the screens went dark. A storm of cheering went up from the crowd, and Keith fought his way through the press of overexcited aliens to Hunk, who was beaming like a searchlight. He caught his teammate's arm and hissed into his ear, “Gangnam style? Really, Hunk? I hate that thing.”

Hunk cast him an amused look. “You left it up to me, Keith. Besides, I'm good at it, and it doesn't take long for anyone else to get good at it, too.”

Lance caught Keith's shoulder and grinned as he gave Keith a little shake. “Hunk won the Galaxy Garrison's bi-monthly dance contest three times in a row with this one, Keith. Cool it, will you? You're as grumpy as Kolivan is. We're going to have to get you some remedial courses in having fun if this keeps up.”

Keith was about to deliver a stinging reply, but somebody nearby had started shouting, “Encore! Encore!”

NO!” Keith howled desperately, a part of him praying to whatever might be listening for something, anything to spare him from dancing again.

As if in answer, a shattering explosion ripped through the air, and the floor under their feet lurched and shook, sending many people tumbling to the floor. The cheers turned to screams of panic as one side of the room shuddered and collapsed, tearing open to show that the western wing of the Council Hall had been hit as well, and was now a pile of burning wreckage. With a tearing groan, the floor on that side buckled and collapsed, dropping many of the delegates into the basements below. The strain was too much for the false ceiling as well; with a great screech of tortured steel and sharp cracks as cables gave way, the light fixtures fell in showers of sparks, the canvas ripping into huge strips and falling in heavy folds atop the revelers as the room went abruptly dark. Sirens began to blare as tall figures rushed through the enormous hole in the wall, and through the Council Chamber's doorways as well.

“Yes!” Keith said, glad for the prospect of a real fight. “Thank you, God!”

“Keith!” Allura chided, but she already had her laser whip out and glowing hotly. “This is terrible! There are soldiers and Sentries everywhere!”

He flashed her a quick grin. “Yeah, but this is now my kind of party. Come on!”

“Savage,” she grumbled, but rushed to help him all the same.

This was not as easy as it looked; two-thirds of the crowd were in a frenzy of terror and the rest were bellowing demands for explanations at the tops of their voices, which is how high officials panic. The invaders ignored them entirely, moving to surround the entire floor as the emergency lights started to flicker to life. Those were no help at all; it was rather obvious that that particular system was original to the building; many of the lights sputtered out or failed to activate, and the ones that did come on did so with a sort of insipid green glow that did more to highlight the shadows than dispel them. As a result, it was nearly impossible to make out individuals in the murk. Nonetheless, a group of five burly figures pushed through the press of soldiers and Sentries, yellow eyes gleaming in the dim light.

“Aliens!” the biggest of them boomed in a harsh voice that made the crowd go quiet. “You are harboring the Paladins of Voltron, the foremost enemies of the Empire, and have gone so far as to aid and abet them. This is treachery against the Emperor himself, and the punishment is immediate execution. You will submit quietly, or--”

He choked off, staring down in disbelief at the small glowing hole that had appeared in his breastplate before sagging bonelessly to the floor.

“No,” Erantha said, her voice cutting clearly through the sudden shocked silence, and took aim at another officer.

The remaining officers scattered, barking orders to attack, and the soldiers started shooting, driving the crowd into a frenzy of sheer panic. Half-deafened by the screaming rising up all around him, Shiro shook his left wrist, and the shield generator concealed in the cuff came alive, deflecting several blasts.

“We've got to get the Councilmembers to safety!” he shouted over the noise, “Pidge, Keith, can you shut down the Sentries?”

Reflexively, the red and green Paladins reached out toward the mechanical soldiers, getting a feel for the harsh purple glare of the aetheric shielding they carried. This was an older batch, they discovered, and those shields were nothing like as strong as what they had faced only a few days ago. Pidge grinned, summoning not one single Spike of Hantis in her mind, but rather a swarm of smaller ones, like darning needles; Keith threaded them with cleansing fire, and then sent them on their way with such force that the Sentries nearest to them exploded. The rest dropped in their tracks, leaving only the living soldiers to contend with, and Lance knew how to deal with that.

“Tilla! Soluk!” he yelled, “Hokey-Pokey!”

The two dragons roared and began to spin wildly, their huge feet crushing the fallen Sentries and sending the soldiers and delegates alike scrambling for safety.

“Yes!” Lance yelled triumphantly. “Now, that's what it's all about!”

Shiro nodded in approval at the confusion that this was causing, and then spotted movement by the huge hole in the wall. There were things out there, very large things, and they were coming to join the fun. “Any idea of what those are, Hunk?”

Hunk glanced over at the oncoming monsters and groaned. “Cyborgs. Big ones. Just a few of them, but there don't have to be all that many around to do a lot of damage. Guys, I'm gonna need help with those!”

“Get to it, then,” Shiro said, looking around for Zaianne and the others and seeing them already in the thick of the fighting; the Council Hall's own security detachment had arrived, and was disputing the invaders' authority right alongside his friends. The Granidlo in particular was in rare form, felling soldiers right and left with powerful swings of dans mallet. Some of the Council members and their staff were fighting as well, which helped. “I'll help Lizenne and the rest. Close up that breach, too, if you can.”

“On it!” Hunk said, pulling out his bayard and heading toward the hulking figures at the far end of the room.

Shiro watched his team go, and then pulled out his own bayard and leaped into the fray.

Modhri had managed to get a blaster away from one of the soldiers and was firing with grim precision at their foes from behind the crumpled wreckage of one of the big arc lights, and was even managing to hold down a squad of troops. He wouldn't be able to keep that up for much longer, Shiro knew, and another group of soldiers was already hurrying over in his direction. Without even thinking, Shiro put himself between his friend and his foes, and they recoiled in surprise at the sight of him.

One of them gasped in recognition, fangs bared. “White forelock... the Champion. That's the black Paladin, I saw him fight once in the arena. Get him!”

They tried, Shiro thought in passing, they really did, but his technique had improved since those lost and desperate days of his first captivity, and he was no longer alone in his battles. Even as he smashed the leader to the floor, another was picked off by a burgundy ghost, and a wildwoman with eyes of golden flame dropped another. A little distance away, he saw Coran cutting a swath of his own through the enemy's forces by swinging on what was left of the light fixtures, laying his targets low with one of the prototype bayards and whooping in excitement. A darker shadow flickered briefly by to flatten two more soldiers, and Modhri dealt with the last with a solid punch across the face that the man would be feeling all week. Shiro nodded his thanks and continued on at their side, his bayard drawing blue-purple sheets of radiance in the air as he disarmed and disabled those who came to face them. Dimly, he felt the Lion-bond pulse with a quick sequence of colors: a hot red burst that burned something foul away, a tangle of green that halted something in its tracks, a surge of rose that fed those powers. A glaze of ice followed that, and a landslide of gold; when Shiro had time to glance over at the breach in the wall, he found that it had been barred off. Hunk had used the structural beams and broken plumbing in the walls themselves to seal that entrance, and Lance had added a wall of ice for good measure. With a smile, Shiro turned his attention back to the soldiers, who were starting to lose cohesion. One of their commanders was dead, another had been knocked flat by the Granidlo, and a third had fallen afoul of Soluk and was screaming for help from between the dragon's jaws. The fourth was trying to keep up with Zaianne and failing, and the fifth...

Shiro dropped, knocked another soldier to the floor with a leg sweep and bashed him unconscious with an armored fist before taking a look around. He hadn't gotten too good a look at the commanders when they'd first come forward, but one of them was missing. We'll find him eventually, Shiro thought, and then tossed Modhri the soldier's gun. They had work to do right now.

 

“Keep it busy, keep it busy!” Pidge shouted to the others and dove to one side as a metal fist that was almost as large as her torso slammed into the spot where she had stood a second before. “Look out for the other one!”

The mechanical monstrosity screamed at her and struck again, missing by inches, its massive fist hitting the floor so hard that the plates buckled, and something beneath them went crack. Its partner was trying to circle around to come at them from the other side in a pincer attack, slashing at them with long blades of glowing purple. The Paladins had gotten lucky with the first one, which had been large and bulky and not terribly well-coordinated, and Hunk's EMP-bomb bow tie had slowed it down considerably. These were newer, more advanced models, and were fast and agile enough to make Pidge and the others really miss their armor. At least they didn't have to worry about interference; the panicking politicians had fled in terror from the cyborgs, and the soldiers knew better than to get too close while the giants were enraged.

Hunk ducked under a swing that would have taken his head off and gave the cyborg an almost point-blank burst of fire from his bayard that left smoking craters in the thing's armor and made it howl in rage. “Not good,” he shouted to the others. “Feel that? Haggar's got a new lab set up somewhere, and she's upgraded.”

“We knew that already, Hunk,” Allura said, snapping her laser-whip out to entangle the other cyborg's legs. “She couldn't have just conjured up that last Robeast out of nothing, you know.”

“I know,” Hunk replied, jumping aside so that Lance could shoot out his cyborg's knees; the monster screeched and staggered, crippled but still dangerous. “But she's gotta have more than one lab. She's got Zarkon's favor, right? That means she gets all the labs. A big lab for big stuff, a medium-sized lab for things like these, a bio-lab for messing with people parts...”

“Don't remind me, Hunk,” Lance groaned in a sick voice. “I've had it up to here with people-parts labs, okay? That last one was really bad.”

“No argument there,” Keith said grimly; he still had the occasional nightmare about their retrieval of what had been left of Shiro. “Pidge? Are you seeing what I'm seeing?”

“Yeah,” she panted, dodging a massive overarm slash. “Their shields are in sync, just like those battleships we saw earlier. Hold on...”

It was almost reflexive now. Pidge generated the Spike and Keith set it alight. The shielding on the cyborgs exploded in a shower of purple fragments even as the impact of the fire-arrow staggered the cyborgs. Instantly, Allura pulled a big dose of Quintessence from their cores, purified it, and sent it along in a bright stream to Hunk and Lance, who froze their moving parts and fried their circuitry. The two cyborgs died instantly, collapsing in steaming heaps while Allura shared what was left of their Quintessence with the rest of the team. Performing aetheric methods of this nature was efficient, but wearying, and it was essential that they keep their strength up. They didn't have to like it, though.

“I hate having to do that,” Hunk grumbled, looking around for other threats. “It always makes me feel so guilty, but there's nothing else that we can do. How about after this we go find Haggar's new lab and crunch that one up too, okay?”

“Sign me up,” Lance said, giving one defunct cyborg a kick. “We'll make a rock tour of it or something. Yeah, we'll be Fantastic Lance and the Paladins, and we'll do Crash Industrial Death-Metal gigs on all of her best venues. The Lions can do that all day. They are that. Are we done here?”

“Not quite,” Allura said, scanning around the room and pointing at a knot of fighting. “Shiro and the others could use some help.”

“Then let's give it to them,” Keith said, and took off at a run, the others right behind him.

 

Shiro grinned and lifted a hand in salute when his team rejoined him, and breathed a sigh of relief when a touch from Allura's hand sent a pulse of fresh energy into his body, renewing his strength. The enemy was starting to realize that they had made a serious mistake, and the soldiers were beginning to lose heart. That didn't surprise Shiro at all—their leaders had fallen, their erstwhile victims had either made it to safety or were fighting back with unexpected gusto, and Tilla and Soluk were cutting wide swaths through their forces with their jaws, tails, and forepaws. Add in a pack of angry Paladins to that mix, and you had a real problem. The local garrison soldiers simply had not ever encountered this kind of resistance before and weren't ready for it, and Shiro was intent on pressing his side's advantage. Having two Blades, a witch, and an expert marksman helping only made it easier. He heard Lance's bayard bark out several quick shots, followed by the heavy chatter of Hunk's scattergun, and the subtler hiss and crack of Allura's laser whip. He smiled to see Pidge dance past him, using the knife lessons that Nasty had taught her to confound a hulking Galra—once inside his reach, all she had to do was stay right up close to have it all her own way. There was a crackle of green light, and the soldier collapsed with an agonized screech.

Shiro took down a few more himself before he heard Soluk let out an offended bellow. Glancing to one side, he saw that the dragon had been blindsided by a lean dark figure that was trying to hamstring him with a laser sword. No chance of that—dragonhide could shrug off blaster fire, and a kick from Soluk sent the offensive person flying. Surprisingly, his attacker rolled with the landing, sprang back up, and attacked again. Soluk roared, heaved himself up onto his hind feet, and brought his foreclaws down onto the floorplates hard enough to split the already damaged surface. The swordsman and at least a dozen more soldiers vanished as the floor gave way beneath them, and Shiro made a mental note that all three basements would have to be checked and cleared after the fight was over. That was for later; right now, a very large, fanged, and angry Galra was doing his best to knock him down. Shiro ducked under the man's swing, rammed his shielded shoulder into the broad chest, and followed up with a double punch to the gut, just where the upper and lower armor met and didn't quite overlap. The soldier's breath whuffed out explosively, and he wasn't able to stop the finishing blow that knocked him to the floor. Grim and full of purpose, Shiro soldiered on.

 

“Are we done yet?” Hunk panted, sagging down onto a heap of smashed Sentries. “We've sort of run out of enemies in here.”

Allura rubbed at her eyes and looked around. She'd lost her skirt somewhere during the fighting, and most of her brooches were gone as well. “I think so. The police and medical corps seem to have things well enough in hand. Oh, dear, what a terrible mess.”

Hunk patted her on the back in agreement. The sun was coming up over the horizon now, and the clear dawn light was shining through Lance's now-melting ice wall to illuminate a scene of destruction. Fully half of the tiers had collapsed in a jagged mass of wreckage on either side of the broken wall, and the smashed western wing of the building was still smoldering a bit. The floor looked like the bedrock in an earthquake zone, the light fixtures were a total loss, and there were long, ugly cracks in the walls.

“Structural damage,” Hunk muttered, his eyes following one particularly bad crack all the way up to the shadowy dome above. “Bad damage. They might have to tear down the whole building, and that's a shame. I could fix it, I think, but the Drinths will probably want to get us off of the planet as fast as possible before we attract any more trouble.”

Allura rolled her eyes and rested a hand on his shoulder sympathetically. “We do seem to attract calamity, don't we? You're probably right. They weren't exactly happy to see us in the first place, and will no doubt curse our names forever.”

“That's perfectly natural for Drinths,” Coran said, popping up at her elbow and handing her and Hunk a large slice of cake each. “They just don't feel right if a contract is completed without any reason to grumble about it. This will give them enough peeve fuel to last a decade. Eat up, eat up, you've all expended a great deal of energy, and this cake was all that was left of the after-party feast. Here, I've got some beverage packets, too.”

Hunk gratefully accepted a couple of packets and took a big bite out of his cake. “Thanks. What happened to the rest of it?”

Coran pointed a finger at the ruined floor. “The kitchens are right under this chamber, I'm sorry to say, and when the ceiling collapsed that first time, it dropped a whole passel of politicians right into the ready room—splat! I'm told that the cooks had a terrible time getting the Yipmo Ambassador out of the soup-pot. Bimic-root chowder's apparently one of his favorites. Apparently, it was raining high officials and startled soldiers for a while there, and they've all run off into the sublevels. Might be weeks before they find 'em all.”

Allura made a sour noise under her breath. “Lovely. And our ships? I cannot believe that the Galra would attack us without going after the Castle and the Chimera as well.”

Coran chuckled and handed her a napkin. “An attempt was made, right enough. According to the police chief over there, the fellow who's busy booking that Galra sergeant? They tried to shut down the entire repair docks in violation of at least thirty different contracts and treaties, and there was a bit of a fight between them and the dock's security corps. Might have gone badly for the defenders, but the Castle and the Chimera raised their shields, just like that, and the Chimera started taking potshots at the invaders! Just warning shots, perhaps, nothing big enough to do more than blast a few small craters, but it was enough to convince the blighters to keep their distance. They had a few of those big robot things there too, and... well, I did say 'had'. Are Hanifor AI's usually so belligerent?”

That last was directed at Modhri, who had come up beside them looking tired and slightly singed around the edges. “No. Hanifors are strict pacifists and prefer a well-behaved ship. They can learn from what they observe, though, and it's been learning things from us that its creators never anticipated. I'm not going to complain, although everyone else might. The Governor is going to get a truckload of official complaints and censures for this disaster. Are you two all right?”

“We're fine, just tired,” Hunk mumbled around the last bite of cake. “Is everybody else all right?”

Modhri nodded. “They're as well as can be expected. A few bruises, scrapes, and the odd singe is all, and I think that Shiro may have overdone it a little—I know that I have. Lizenne, Zaianne, and Erantha are livid at the invasion, of course, and the dragons will need a dip in the marsh and a good polishing. The mice took refuge up there--” he pointed up at the second-floor balcony, where a quartet of tiny figures were watching them, “--and are all quite unharmed. Those little antigrav strips that Lance sewed into their coats got them out of harm's way very handily.”

“Good,” Allura said, although her brows pinched in concern for the wounded delegates. “And our hosts?”

Modhri heaved a long sigh and sank down next to Hunk. “They were not so fortunate. Most of them had personal protection devices, but not all of them were up to deflecting blaster fire and structural collapses. A great many are injured, some seriously, and there have been a number of deaths. More importantly, a fairly large number of people are missing on both sides. Some of them went for height, up to the upper floors and the dome, and others ran and hid in the eastern wing. Thankfully, the western wing was empty. Everybody there had shut up shop early to come to the dance.”

“Small mercies,” Coran said. “I expect that the basements are full of soldiers and staff, eh?”

Modhri cast a worried look at the gaping holes in the floor. “Very likely, and they're not happy about that. One of the leaders of the invasion is still unaccounted-for, and it's possible that that one's still down there somewhere. Apparently, that particular officer has great skill with a sword, a filthy temper, and a serious mental imbalance that flares up in times of stress. At the very least, there will be a fair number of confused and frightened troops.”

“Great,” Hunk said sourly. “Let me guess, it's up to us to flush them out?”

Modhri pointed at a group of people a distance away that appeared to be embroiled in an argument. “That's what they're discussing now. Some are saying that this whole mess was our fault, some are saying that it wasn't, others are threatening to sue for damages, while others are demanding to know just why the building hasn't been maintained properly. It shouldn't have been so easy to collapse, you know.”

Hunk frowned and opened his perceptions a little, getting a feel for the bones of the building. “It's old, is all. Yeah, and whoever built it cut a few corners here and there, and they've been ignoring the upper floors and parts of the roof. Foundations... east and middle's okay, but the west end's hopeless. Shame, really. It was a nice building.”

Allura sighed and finished off her beverage packet. “I do feel somewhat responsible. We could certainly help with the rescue effort, if we were quick about it. I don't want to linger too long here; word of this event will travel, and I would very much prefer that we were well away before a fleet arrives and starts firing on the city.”

Hunk groaned, but stood up. “Yeah, like if Lotor shows up again. That Robeast didn't bust up his flagship, guys, it just dinged it a little, and he's good at stealing other ships for his fleet. I'm starting to get really tired of that guy, so let's go and sort this out before anything else happens.”

That was good enough reasoning for all of them, and they helped Modhri to his feet and ambled over to see who was winning the shouting match. So far, it seemed to be a draw between a spotty, pigeon-chested person in torn formal robes, the equally-disheveled Drinth First Speaker, a dignitary who resembled a huge twist of pink-and-blue spaghetti, and Shiro, who had a truculent expression on his face and cake crumbs on his chin. Standing nearby was the Granidlo, who had lost most of dans formal jacket but still had both dans mallet and wristwatch, and was prepared to use both.

“Sorry about this,” Allura said, sidling up to that worthy, “we didn't expect things to get so out of hand.”

The Granidlo shrugged, dans eyes never leaving dans watch. “No one ever does. It's okay, lady, I've racked up a load of overtime and hazard pay, and they've been wrangling over whether or not to renovate this old pile for years. They generally bring up the subject whenever there's something big and sensitive on the table that nobody wants to deal with. Well, no more excuses. I'll cut that wrangle short in another flenth or two, and then they can get down to cases.”

She gave the Drinth a perplexed look. “How can you be so casual about it? Quite a lot of people just died here!”

The Granidlo gave her an amused glance out of one eye, the other three still on the time. “Politics is a rough game around here, lady. The Councilmembers get elected for the job by their parties, not 'cause they're particularly skilled, but because they're expendable. It's the parties themselves that do all the dealmaking—the Members are just mouthpieces, and we've got an election coming up soon that would've replaced most of them anyway. It ain't all that uncommon for fights to break out while in session, and a lot of those guys come armed. For some of them, the only way to get a seat on the Council is to defeat the guy who's already got it in single combat. Election season is always noisy. Hold that thought.”

The Granidlo stepped up smartly and gave the Speaker, the pigeon-chested dignitary, and the spaghetti-person a smart rap on the head each, although Shiro was adroit enough to duck away before the mallet could connect. “That's enough, you lot,” the Granidlo said sharply, “now cool it and make a workable plan.”

Surprisingly, none of the three seemed to take offense at this rough treatment. Indeed, the Speaker waved a polite gesture dans way and continued in a normal tone of voice. “Yes, yes, thank you, you're quite right. Well done, dani. We'll discuss the legal and political ramifications later, gentlebeings. Right now, the focus must be on the search-and-rescue effort. Some of those politicians are quite expensive.”

“What?” Allura blurted, horrified.

Hunk nudged her in the ribs with one elbow. “This is bureaucracy in action, Allura, and at least these guys are honest about it. It's a lot like what we've got on Earth, only more efficient. We seriously need to get a Granidlo working in Congress.”

“She's right, you know,” Shiro said with a smile. “I've always felt that a big man with a mallet would do our governments a lot of good.”

She gave them a suspicious look. “Have you ever tried a monarchy?”

“Only for most of our recorded history,” Lance admitted. “It's just that Humans aren't really all that good at it. The royal families wind up marrying their cousins for fourteen generations at a stretch—when they weren't fighting them to the death, anyway—and start forgetting that the common people are actually people and not toys or robots or something. We invented democracy because it's cheaper and easier to get rid of an elected official when he starts making dumb mistakes, and nobody needs to chop anybody's head off or anything. Not usually, anyway.”

“You mean, that's actually happened?” Allura demanded.

“Sure,” Pidge said, wrinkling up her nose in distaste. “It used to happen all the time, right up into the modern era. One of the worst events was in France, when the citizenry decided to get rid of their inbred, parasitical aristocrats. They even built a special machine for it, called a guillotine, with a big weighted blade that dropped down when you pulled the lever. They got kind of carried away with that thing, though, and it didn't end real well. It sort of became the universal symbol of what happens when an oppressed population fights back later on. Around about the end of World War III, there were four or five of them in action. I think that the first one was built in the South American Republic, and the idea sort of spread. The Sovereign Nation of Texas built one, and it got so much use that the USA had to reabsorb them as a state again before they could dissolve into total anarchy. The other two happened in Europe and India, and there are rumors that China and the Pan-Baltic Hegenomy had some, but that was never confirmed. All we know for sure is that a lot of bad government officials went missing. People just get fed up after a while.”

“Fine,” Allura said with a disgusted sigh, and brushed the crumbs from Shiro's chin with quick fingers. “Let's find the others and get this over with so that we can leave. I'd rather not face any more upsets tonight.”