Keith was tired of being “short”.
The last time he’d been on a world where he was above average in size had been Falzor 7, ages ago. There most of the inhabitants had been around Pidge’s height and he had loved the unusual feel of being head and shoulders above most of the crowd.
But here on Laria, easily three-quarters of the population was his height or taller. It made navigating through the throng of shoppers annoying while he and Pidge tried to find the things Coran wanted. It was extra annoying because the inhabitants of this planet looked remarkably like humans. They were overwhelmingly fair and blue-eyed—it was like being in a tourism commercial for Sweden.
Except everyone else seemed to be built like basketball players.
He spared a thought for Pidge. She must be feeling it even worse than he was. They were certainly getting more than their fair share of suspicious looks as they worked their way through the busy commercial area. He reached over and put an arm around her, steering toward one wall of the lane they were on. The crowd was thinner there and it might be more efficient to go up one side of shops and down the other instead of fight to see both sides through the masses.
And if he could concentrate on seeing the stores, maybe he could shake the growing uneasy feeling he had.
Keith looked around, trying to pinpoint the source of his apprehension. There was very little diversity to the population in this smallish city: not much skin variation, no horns or floppy ears, no extra appendages or tails. No sign of the Galra at all, which was one reason Coran had chosen this place.
But something was off.
Most people were in groups. The very few who seemed to be alone were on the extremely tall side, approaching seven feet, and were almost all men. When it came to groups, they were pretty sharply divided on gender lines: groups of women or groups of men, but very few mixed groups. Of those, the balance was even and the impression was that of couples within the larger group. Two people together were most often a man and a woman, sticking close to one another.
And the very few men Keith could see that were around his size were either with another man or with a group of women, but never alone or with just one woman the way he and Pidge were.
As he continued to scan the crowds, he noticed something else. Any interactions outside of the groupings—greetings, waves, the touching of hands back-to-back that seemed to be their equivalent of a handshake—only happened between the men or tallest women. No matter the makeup of the group, those who were smaller either spoke to those with them or were silent.
Not a lot of noise for such a large crowd.
Not a lot of noise…and it hit him. There were no children anywhere. Pidge was probably the youngest person on the streets as far as he could see. Keith tightened his grip on her instinctively.
He felt Pidge’s arm slip around him and squeeze back. It was the closest she would get to admitting she was uncomfortable. Then she perked up and pointed.
“Hey, that place looks like it sells hardware. Maybe they’ll have these infracell things.”
Keith nodded and they headed for the shop in question. He was about to dig out the handheld comm to let the others know when a hand landed hard on his shoulder.
Keith moved instantly, dropping and spinning with one leg out. He got his foot behind their knee, breaking their balance, and Pidge immediately shoved the assailant over. They put themselves back to back, hands on bayards.
There were three men towering over them as some of the shoppers paused to see what was happening. One of the men helped the fourth man to his feet, laughing.
“Never thought I’d see the day you let an omega get the better of you, Cloi.”
On his feet again, Cloi scowled at the one who helped him. “Check for marks, he could be an off-world alpha.”
This time all three of his friends laughed and a few of the growing group of onlookers joined in. Keith scanned the area as best he could, searching for some kind of authority figure to defuse the situation.
The man to Keith’s left rolled his eyes. “You’re daft. Alphas don’t come that small.”
One of the spectators, a woman, glanced up at the man beside her. He nudged her forward, looking like he was giving her permission to speak but keeping a hand on her shoulder. The move raised Keith’s hackles and he shifted slightly to better shield Pidge from the crowd.
“You see?” Cloi shouted at his friends. “He’s acting exactly like an alpha with his omega. And when’s the last time you saw hair that dark? He’s not from around here.”
The woman nodded. “Yes, I was going to point out his coloring. And his eyes are a color I have never seen, not even in pictures or vids of those from other colonies.”
The man who had helped Cloi to his feet stepped forward, hands out in a non-threatening gesture. “Look, if this is all a big misunderstanding, we’re sorry. Just show us your marks. Alpha and his omega, two claimed omegas, makes no difference.”
“What are you talking about?” Keith’s frustration was tipping over into anger.
“Your mark, boy. Move that hair, show it to us.”
“We’re not the same species as you. We don’t have these marks you’re asking for,” Pidge cut in.
The air around them shifted from curious to tense. Several people were staring at Pidge in shock over the fact that she had spoken at all, not taking in what she was saying. Keith shifted his bayard to the other hand so he could easily yank the comm from the pocket where it resided. Or more easily reach his Marmora blade in its sheath at his back.
Cloi looked at his friends in triumph. “Told you they were unclaimed omegas!”
“And you still let him drop you.” The rejoinder came from the man on the left.
“Shut up, Stel!”
Keith snarled, impatient with these idiots. “Look, what she said is true. We’re not from this planet. We’re just here looking for supplies for our ship. We don’t do ‘marks’, we don’t have these designations you’re tossing around.”
“So how are we supposed to know that you two are mated?” Cloi demanded.
Keith blinked at that. “We’re not. We’re teammates, friends. Why would you think we’re mated?”
“You’re out in public together, aren’t you? Unchaperoned? The unmarked aren’t allowed out, it’s the law! You bring them to gatherings, chaperoned, and examine them to determine the best pairings.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” Pidge spoke up from behind Keith. “That’s barbaric!”
“Barbaric? How do you determine mates, then?” The second man still had his hands out to the sides, but moved forward. Keith backed into Pidge, guiding her to put her back to the wall. He felt her dig in his pocket for the comm and activate the silent distress beacon.
“We meet other people, get to know one another, go on dates. If we fall in love, we might get engaged and married. Or not. It’s up to the people in question.” Keith felt strange trying to explain something so obvious.
The woman who had spoken before reacted to that with a classic jaw drop before recovering. “No one…arranges the meetings? Checks for suitability? Organizes the courtship and marriage?”
Pidge snorted. “Not anymore. That died out on our homeworld centuries ago.”
“But how do you ensure that the proper pairing is achieved? An appropriate alpha and an appropriate omega?” The man with her tightened the hand on her shoulder and she stopped speaking instantly.
“We already told you,” Keith snapped. “Not a thing with us! Any two people who like each other are free to explore that relationship!”
Another woman’s hand rose to her neck and she touched a symbol that looked like a tattoo on her skin, some kind of stylized flower. “Free?” she repeated in a tone of wonder. “It’s all based on attraction?”
The man that was with her grabbed her arm and growled. Now that Keith knew what to look for, he spotted the mark on his neck that looked more than anything like the hammer from the Thor movies. That man almost shouted, “That’s impossible! You can’t just let that happen! What if two alphas acted on their attraction? Or two omegas? They couldn’t reproduce! They wouldn’t be able to control their heats!”
Keith heard Pidge make a choking sound behind him before sputtering, “You people have heats? Like animals? You seriously can’t control your sexual impulses?”
Keith’s heart rate skyrocketed as the mood of the crowd shifted again. Even the woman who had sounded wistful about their ideas looked offended. “Might need to apologize, Pidge,” he whispered. “Paladins of Voltron, remember? Ambassadors to all cultures?”
She was still trying to gather her wits. “The next thing they’ll say is that the men knot up like dogs!”
“Pidge!” Keith was taken aback.
The one named Stel roared and began to push past Cloi and the other men. Keith activated his bayard and brought the red-and-white sword up to keep him back. Parts of the crowd began retreating to avoid the conflict while others, mostly men, pushed forward to watch or help.
Shrill whistles sounded, cutting through the noise of the masses, followed by a loud shout. “Hold!”
Keith froze but kept the sword up. Pidge had ducked under his other arm and had her bayard out, the green katar glowing. All the men near them stopped in their tracks.
Relief flooded Keith as he saw Shiro pushing his way through, following a pair of men in uniform. “Shiro! Over here!”
“Stand down, paladins! I’m coming!”
The last of the crowd parted for them and Shiro strode forward. He reached out and put a hand to each of their heads. “Are you two all right?”
Keith let out a shaky breath and nodded, deactivating his bayard. Pidge replied, “Yes, now that you’re here.”
“How did you two manage to get into trouble? I’d expect something like this from Lance and Hunk before you.”
Cloi stepped forward, looking up slightly at Shiro and eying his neck. “You their alpha, then? Kinda stupid not to mark your omegas.”
At that Pidge nearly screamed in frustration. “Not Larians! We are not Larians! We do not have your biology and we do not have your rules! Please just let us go to that quiznaking shop and see if they have any quiznaking infracells and we’ll be gone!” Her voice trembled, showing how close she was to breaking down. Or breaking some ribs since she couldn’t reach their heads.
Keith moved before Shiro did and pulled Pidge into a hug. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” He ran his hands down her back, feeling the shaking of her body as it tried to process the adrenaline. His own muscles were twitching as well. His eyes swept over the Larians still around them, looking for anyone interested in continuing the fight. Mostly he saw confusion and speculation, hearing murmurs as people persisted in trying to identify them through their own labels.
How can he have two omegas? That’s not allowed!
Maybe he’s a brother, they’ve got the same color hair. But he’s acting like an alpha.
Could that one be a beta? I’ve heard of betas on other planets.
Is that omega even old enough to be let out yet? It’s so small!
Shiro addressed Cloi. “I’m not an alpha, whatever that is. I’m their team leader.” He looked at the two security officers who had helped him get through the mob. “May we go?”
One of the security officers replied, “Of course. We’ll escort you; make sure there’s no more trouble.” They started for the shop, the masses making way for them. Shiro pulled out his comm and instructed Lance and Hunk to return to the castle immediately. Keith doubted they would have the same sort of trouble, both being tall enough to pass for these alphas, but better safe than sorry. If Lance forgot himself and tried to hit on one of the women here…
The other officer spoke, “You said you needed infracells? If this place is out, I know another shop nearby that should have them.”
Pidge drew a deep breath. “Thank you. That’s super helpful. I’m sorry about what I said back there. It’s just…your society sounds really limiting compared to ours.”
“And in our society someone like you would have the most limits of all,” the first officer added. “I traveled to a few other worlds with my family when I was young, saw that some places were different. We even found one planet where the population only had one heart, can you believe it?”
Pidge snorted at that. “Yeah, I can believe it.” She nudged Keith in the ribs and took his arm. “Looks like we found Gallifrey?”
“Yeah, looks like it,” Keith agreed, glad to see his friend acting like herself again.