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You're Like Me

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Looking back on it, Lance couldn’t say how, why, or even when exactly he realized that the Shiro with them was not the real Shiro. He would like to say that it was because the Black lion rejected Shiro or that it was because Shiro’s advice for battle strategies kept leading them into further danger or another one of the signs that should have been more obvious, but that wasn’t it. It was the little moments – how, when Pidge talked to him about something they were working on, he merely acknowledged their words instead of encouraging them and offering feedback; how, rather than offering Keith support in leading, he would simply start giving orders anytime Keith faltered; how, instead of marveling at each new dish Hunk made and savoring the flavors, remarking even at the worst dishes that they were still better than the space food Shiro ate on the Kerberos mission, Shiro would just eat quickly and then leave without any real comment; how he pushed and pushed everyone in training by reminding them of what was at stake rather than lovingly encouraging them to push themselves harder like he used to… It was a million little moments that led Lance to believe that something was wrong.

The first person Lance mentioned this to was Keith. It wasn’t really a planned interaction, per se. Keith just happened to comment on something odd Shiro had done that day and Lance took the opportunity to point out all of the other weird stuff he’d been noticing. After they’d compared notes, they talked to Allura about it, who was skeptical at first but later came back to them and admitted that they might be onto something. Lance then talked to Pidge and Hunk about the matter – and Pidge noted that Shiro’s arm was a bit different – while Allura checked with Coran to see if he’d noticed anything off. After comparing notes all around, everyone could agree that Shiro was acting odd, but no one was sure why.

It was Pidge, of course, who discovered the problem… well, half of the problem. Hiding their motives under curiosity about the changes to Shiro’s arm, they installed a tracker/monitor device that told Pidge exactly where Shiro was and about any data that came through the arm. Most of the data was brain signals telling the arm to move, but… sometimes, an external signal was received by the arm and sent up to Shiro’s brain. Worse yet, these moments happened during fights and were always followed by Shiro giving terrible battle advice. Someone was subtly controlling Shiro, most likely without his knowledge.

The team confronted Shiro with this knowledge, and… one thing leading to another, they figured out that the Shiro they had was a clone and that he had no clue of this before they told him. He renamed himself Kuro. The team encouraged him to stay with them, but it quickly became clear that Kuro was being tracked, so his presence was a liability. Kuro… ensured that he wouldn’t make it out of the next fight with the Galra alive. It was better this way, he insisted. If he had left, the Galra would surely have found him, taken him back, and experimented on him.

“Better” still wasn’t good. And they still didn’t have the real Shiro.

*****

Lance blinked sweat out of his eyes. ‘Train harder!’ echoed through his mind. If it wasn’t Sh—Kuro’s voice, it was Keith’s. Lance knew, logically, that he needed a rest, but he felt so useless. If only…

“Paladins!” It was Allura’s voice, tinted with fear and… hatred? “Come to the bridge. We have a… call that everyone needs to be together for.”

Lance was about to tell the simulation to shut off, but it seemed that Allura already told all training and leisure programs to shut down so that the paladins could come right away. Lance allowed himself to spare the seconds he needed to towel the sweat off his face and hair before he grabbed his helmet and lightly jogged up to the bridge. He was the last one there, of course, and Allura’s annoyed expression didn’t make him feel any better about it. He was just… too tired. He’d hardly slept since Kuro died, and combining that with excessive exercise made for a terrible combination. Lance was so tired he wanted to die, but he felt so useless when he wasn’t actively helping or training that he still wanted to…

He was in a bit of a rough spot, to put it lightly.

“I see that everyone is here now,” Allura said, and it may have been Lance’s imagination, but he thought that her eyes lingered on him a little longer than necessary.

You don’t have to rub it in,’ he thought. ‘I know I took too long.

Either oblivious to or uncaring of Lance’s feelings, Allura continued, “We received a call from Prince Lotor, the acting Galra ruler. He has something to discuss, and he says that it is about Shiro.”

Shiro. The name lit up the room. Even Lance, tired as he was, felt his heart rate pick up. Shiro? Could it be… could they get Shiro back? A quick glance around showed that everyone else felt the same way as hope and apprehension mingled in the expressions of the others. The news was too good to be true. There had to be a catch.

Coran gave everyone a few seconds to process before continuing, “We have his call suspended. Now that everyone’s here, we can reopen the line.” His tone sounded softer than usual in deference to the serious mood that came over the room.

“Is everyone ready?” Allura asked the room, meeting everyone’s eyes, though Lance could not quite meet her gaze.

“Yes.” Keith’s voice was tense but determined. It was clear that he had no regard for whether anyone else was ready. Keith was prepared to fight Lotor himself.

As Coran starting touching buttons on the controls, Lance realized that he was fairly certain he had not yet seen Prince Lotor. It was common knowledge at this point that Lotor was currently ruling the empire while Zarkon did who-knows-what, but no one had put out headshots of him. Lance had only a fraction of a second to wonder what Lotor would look like before a face came onto the screen.

Lance wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but this was certainly not it.

Lotor was, in a word, handsome, but he was also cold. He looked too perfect, like a statue. He also looked like an elf. A space-damned purple elf. Unbidden memories of fantasy video games flitted through Lance’s mind as he tried to place what kind of elf Lotor would be. A high elf, maybe? He’d say dark elf, but most had grayer skin rather than that sweet lavender color. Lance also glanced to Allura. Lotor and Allura didn’t look very much alike, but there were more than a few traits in common, and the hair color and ear shape were basically identical.

All around him, Lance heard various sounds of reaction – Allura and Coran both gasped, Keith made a small grunt like someone had physically punched him in the gut, and Hunk let out a tiny whimper (probably at the sight of those piercing eyes). Pidge, bless their heart, outright scoffed and said, “So we go from space elves to purple space elves?” voicing Lance’s very thoughts on the matter.

Lotor only spared Pidge a brief glance as he focused most of his attention on Allura. “Princess,” he murmured, and a soft smile came onto his face. Lance couldn’t help but think that the smile looked nice on him. He looked less like a statue and more like an actual person.

“Lotor…” Allura whispered. “I… I should have realized.”

The soft smile turned into a smirk. “What, did you honestly forget about me? For shame, Princess. You wound me.” His tone didn’t sound wounded. It sounded flirty.

That, apparently, brought Allura back to herself. Her expression turned hard. “It’s been a very long time, and I have not seen you since we were children. When I heard your name again after all this time, it sounded familiar, but I could not remember why. I… I thought your cousin was supposed to be the heir of the empire.”

“It is true that my half-blood status would have normally interfered, not to mention my free-spirited nature, but my dear cousin met a most terrible fate a couple thousand years ago, leaving my father with no other choices for heir.”

A little gleam came into Allura’s eye. “So it’s true, then, that Zarkon is severely injured? Or dead, perhaps?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

The gleam vanished. Allura’s face was set into a hard scowl. “Fine then. What do you want?”

The smirk now turned into a small smile with hard edges, paired with eyes that spoke of kindness and promised pain. It was the expression of a manipulator who wanted to set his target on edge. “Dear Allura,” Lotor started, voice light and sweet with the undertone of a threat, “it has come to my attention that one of our little projects was found dead. I presume you discovered the truth about him, did you not?”

“Yes,” Allura replied, her voice clipped. “Your point?”

“It occurred to me that you and your little team might want the real one back.” His smile widened just a fraction. “That can be arranged.”

Out of this corner of his eye, Lance saw Keith start to move. Without even thinking, Lance put out his arm to block Keith, trying to silently tell him to wait and to see what Lotor said next. Keith let out a breath that sounded suspiciously close to a growl, but he didn’t fight Lance on the matter, taking a step back.

Lance looked over to Allura, waiting for her to reply. Everyone in the room besides Allura was looking around to everyone else, unsure how to proceed. Allura, meanwhile, just stared at Lotor with an unreadable expression, her face set like stone, though her eyes were murderous.

Finally, Lance couldn’t take the silence. “How?” he asked, his voice rough from disuse. How long had it been since he’d talked to anyone else on the ship? Days? Had anyone even noticed?

Lotor’s eyes flicked to Lance and Keith, looking from one to the other as if searching for something. “A trade,” he declared. “I will return the Champion to you in exchange for the Red Paladin.”

Tension filled the room. The Red Paladin? Why? Who did Lotor mean? Lance was sure that Lotor wanted Keith, but...

In an instant, Lance realized what he had to do.

“I am the Red Paladin!” Lance yelled. “And I agree to your terms!”

“Lance, no!” Pidge and Hunk cried, nearly in unison, joined by Coran’s simple cry of “Lance!!” Allura looked over at Lance with a stunned expression, her mouth slightly open to make way for words that weren’t coming. Keith started to put out a hand toward Lance but froze halfway, his eyes searching Lance’s face. “I think he means…” Keith started in a whisper.

I am the Red Paladin,” Lance repeated in the sternest tone he could muster. “And I choose to accept these terms.” He turned away from Keith and looked up at the screen, at Lotor’s smirking face. “I turn myself in, and you give my team the real Shiro. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Lotor’s eyes narrowed as he looked into Lance’s, though that smirk did not budge one bit. “Yes, that is the deal. I will send a set of coordinates and a time to your ship. Be there exactly in that place at that time. I will park my ship a little ways off. I will walk forward nearly to the midpoint with the Champion, and only one of your teammates may walk with you. Your teammate and I will stay 20 paces apart, and you and the Champion shall pass each other as you each walk to the other side. Then, your teammate and I will each have a moment to examine our side of the trade, and, if both parties are satisfied, your friends will be free to go. Are these terms acceptable?”

Lance’s mind raced, searching for the trap. This could not possibly be this straightforward. Lance was absolutely certain that Shiro was the bait so that Lotor could get Voltron.

Then Lance realized the truth. He smiled. Yes, it was a trap, but Lance knew exactly what to do. It was perfect. “Deal,” he declared loudly, letting his smile grow to match Lotor’s. A few murmurs rose up from his team behind him, but everyone seemed too confused or stunned to make any real protest.

Lotor raised an eyebrow, seemingly impressed by Lance’s decision. “I shall see you soon, then, Kit.” Then his face disappeared.

Kit. Lance had guessed perfectly. He felt a wave of genuine relief and happiness bubble up in his chest. He was in the perfect position to outmaneuver Lotor. He turned around to the team with a sincere smile.

Everyone else backed up a little.

Lance did have to admit that it was probably a little strange for him to be smiling after signing himself away to the enemy, but that just made it all the more important for him to explain his plan. He felt like he was bursting with energy, like the sheer force of all of the emotions he’d been bottling up was flowing through him right now, stretching his smile and his eyes too wide and coursing through his body like electricity. (This was a feeling he hadn’t had for a long time, and some tiny part of his brain unaffected by it suggested that he might be on the brink of a manic episode. He’d never really been diagnosable as bipolar, but he’d had a couple manic episodes in the past. He elected to completely ignore the part of him making that suggestion. This was different. Obviously.)

“Guys,” he said, pouring his emotion into his voice, “I have a plan.”

Allura, thankfully, was the first to recover. “Please, tell us what you have in mind.” There was a note of… was that desperation?... in her voice, as if she were just about to lose hope if Lance said the wrong thing.

Lance hesitated for a brief moment, smile fading a little as he looked at everyone’s faces. Were they… concerned? No, no, of course they weren’t concerned about him. They were just worried that it might be a trap. Time for some reassurance. “Okay, so, I’m certain that Lotor intends this as a trap because he thinks that we’re going to try to trick him.”

“What do you mean?” Pidge asked. Their voice was mostly just curious, but there was a strangled undertone, like their throat couldn’t decide whether or not to close up with emotion.

Lance tried to shift his smile toward the ‘reassuring’ side of the spectrum. “What I mean is that, knowing our track record, Lotor expects us to use me as a distraction to get Shiro back and then to follow me and bust me out.”

“I-Isn’t what we’re doing?” Hunk asked. “That’s what we’re doing, right?”

“Lotor’s expecting that. He’s probably counting on us to try to find a way to keep me and get Shiro back, and I’m sure that’s where the trap comes in. Once he gets his hands on me, he’s probably going to put me directly into the center of a giant trap specifically designed to beat Voltron. If you guys try to rescue me right away, it’ll be a suicide mission.”

“What are you suggesting?” Keith asked. His voice sounded loaded, though whether it was with suppressed anger or worry, Lance couldn’t tell. Possibly both.

“Simple. Lotor is not only expecting us to try to walk away with me and Shiro, he also thinks I’m you. We can use both against him.”

Allura caught on. “Oh. Oh. That’s why he called you ‘Kit’. But how did he know?”

Lance shook his head. “I have no idea. I’m pretty sure only we and the Blade of Marmora knew about it, but he found out somehow. That’s why I spoke up. If Lotor wants Keith specifically, it’s probably for nothing good.”

Keith looked a little pale as he realized what they were talking about. “You think that Lotor was requesting me because I’m… Galra?”

Lance gave a little shrug. “It makes sense. I’m not sure what Lotor had planned for you exactly, but we’ve fought against his little gang, and none of them are purely Galran. And Lotor himself--”

“Half-Galran, half-Altean,” Allura confirmed.

Lance nodded and then looked pointedly at Keith. “I’m sure the rumor that the Red Paladin was part-Galran would interest him.”

Keith shook his head. “If Lotor has something planned, thinking that you’re part Galra…”

“That’s just more reason why it has to be me. Look at me! I’m 100% human. Whatever Lotor has planned, it’s not gonna work on me,” Lance said confidently. He could almost convince himself that he’d be fine. Of course, it was likely enough that ‘whatever Lotor has planned’ would just outright kill Lance, but hey, better than losing Keith, right? Right.

The others shifted uncomfortably. Each seemed to want to say protest, but Lance hadn’t left room for argument in his explanation. Everything was strategic and logical. It was the best option.

“Why do we have to do this?”

All eyes turned to Pidge. They swallowed hard and looked at the floor, but they repeated themself. “Why do we have to turn Lance in? If this is a trap, we should wait for a better opportunity. I want Shiro back, too, but…” Their caramel eyes met Lance’s. “I don’t want to lose you in the process.”

A couple ticks went by. Lance’s resolve almost crumbled. He almost believed that the team would rather keep him safe and wait a little longer to get Shiro. He almost believed that the team valued him. He almost felt… loved.

But… well… there’s that old saying about ‘almost’. It didn’t count here.

“We have to do this,” Lance said. “Shiro is extremely valuable to the team.”

“Who’s gonna be our sharpshooter?” Keith asked with a small hint of a sad smile. Keith asked.

Lance hadn’t expected Keith to be concerned. Out of everyone… Lance closed his eyes, steeling his resolve. Almost, but no. He had to go through with this. The team needed Shiro. “You guys will be fine,” he said with a little smile. “You don’t need…” He stopped himself just in time. He didn’t want to make this about his insecurities. He needed to convince them with logic. “You don’t need sharpshooter assistance. What you need is Shiro and his knowledge and his skills and his arm, alright?” His heart felt torn. Whatever energy had filled him when he thought of this plan had already faded away. His smile now was completely forced.

It was Pidge who came to him first, wrapping their arms around him. Hunk, unsurprisingly, came right over, tears freely flowing as he hugged Lance tightly. Coran and Allura both joined in. Keith even reached between the bodies and found Lance’s shoulder, squeezing it in a reassuring fashion. Lance hadn’t felt this loved in…

He couldn’t even remember.

It was almost enough.

Almost…

Then, the moment was over, and the emptiness settled right back into Lance’s chest just like before. “Thanks,” he murmured. He meant it. He even almost felt grateful. He almost felt…

It didn’t matter. The only thing he needed to feel was determined. He could manage that long enough to make this rendezvous and rescue Shiro.

They received the transmission from Lotor with the time and place. They’d have just enough time to make it to the place without using a wormhole. It would take several varga, nearly a quintant, so they’d have one last night together before the meeting. Everyone seemed to want to use it to spend as much time with Lance as possible, but Lance honestly wanted to be alone. Better yet, he wanted this to be over with already. Normally, he liked sympathy, but these pitying looks from the others like he was a dead man walking (possibly true, but still) were not helping. Even so, he needed to stay strong. The last thing the others needed was an excuse to call this mission off. Besides, he didn’t want to drag them down just before leaving them.

Still, he was very grateful when he got the chance to head to bed. He couldn’t keep up a brave face any longer. He pulled his armor off and collapsed on the bed, feeling tired and overwhelmed and numb all at once. He wanted to scream or cry or do something to get his emotions out, but he couldn’t manage to find the energy. Sleep also eluded him. He just laid there and thought about everything and nothing.

Sleep came for him, but it came in light spells that ended too soon, leaving him feeling worse than before. And thus, the night went on. Lance hardly slept, and he did not dream.

Chapter Text

Lance opened his eyes again for the dozenth time that night. He noticed that the background lighting in the room was a little brighter now. He mustered up the energy to roll over and check the time. It was still very early, but it was technically the day part of the Castle schedule now, and Lance was certain that sleep would not return to him no matter how hard he tried. He dragged himself out of bed and into the shower. If this was his last morning of freedom, he was going to enjoy a nice, long, hot shower. He doubted that the others would begrudge him a little luxury this morning.

The shower helped a lot. His stress faded as the water washed away the sweat of training and the warmth relaxed the tension in his back. He almost felt… normal. Huh, it had been a while, hadn’t it? As Lance washed his face, he caught himself lightly scrubbing with his fingertips in small circles as his old skincare habits came back to him. He hadn’t taken the time for proper skincare in quite a long time now, and, even then, he’d only gone through his routine a few times since going to space. An ache settled into his chest as he thought of his family, remembering how his older sister would walk him through each step, how she would always look so radiant afterwards, like a princess, and how Lance felt like a prince every single time between the luxury and the fun he had with her. The ache hurt, but it was better by far than the numbness Lance had been feeling for too long now, so he embraced it. He spent the rest of his time thinking about happy memories of his life on earth. He missed his family. And now he may never…

Lance shut off the water, determined not to think like that. Lotor wanted Lance as leverage and bait, and that wouldn’t work if Lance was dead. After Voltron eventually won, Lance would be set free, and he would be able to return to earth. Right? Right.

Once he was dressed and ready, Lance stepped out of his room, putting on a mask of calm and optimism. There was no need to trouble everyone else with his own worries and doubts. Wasn’t this why Lance volunteered in the first place? To get himself out of the way make sure they didn’t have anything to worry about?

When he got to breakfast, he realized that everyone else had gotten up early, too. Everyone was sitting around the table, which was full of all of Lance’s favorite space foods. Hunk had really gone all out, that was for sure. Lance felt touched that Hunk had gone to so much effort and that everyone was there for him to say goodbye. He almost felt like they appreciated him.

Then, mercifully, it was time to prepare for the meetup. The castle landed at the point the coordinates indicated. Lance hugged and was hugged by everyone. Pidge and Hunk were first, squeezing him tightly like they never wanted to let him go. Coran gave him a hug that reminded Lance so, so much of his father, right down to Coran lightly ruffling Lance’s hair as he let go. The hug with Allura was stiff at first, a mere formality, but right as Lance was about to let go, Allura relaxed against him and pulled him closer… was that the first real hug she’d ever given him? Huh. More shocking still was Keith. Lance was prepared for a short half-hug with the traditional ‘no homo’ back pat to undercut the emotion. But Keith just gently pulled Lance close and held him firmly, not quite squeezing but not leaving any room either. They stayed like that for a moment, unsaid words hanging heavily in the air before Keith let go and stepped back, not quite meeting Lance’s eyes. Then, for good measure, Pidge and Hunk had to give Lance one last hug, and Lance’s resolve all but crumbled. He almost, almost regretted leaving them. He almost told them that he wanted to stay. But… no. This had to be done. They needed Shiro, not Lance. He had to.

Everyone but Coran stepped out of the Castle to watch the exchange. All but Lance were in their Paladin armor, though Keith wore the blue armor just to make sure that Lotor would not suspect anything. Allura and Lance stepped forward and started walking toward the midpoint. Before they got too far, Lance looked back over his shoulder and gave everyone a big smile that he really, really hoped didn’t look too fake. “I’ll see you all after you’ve won, okay? Ice creams are on me if you guys win and get me back to earth safely.”

Hunk was crying too hard to answer, but Pidge shot back a grin (and Lance wasn’t about to comment on the tears spilling from the corners of their eyes) and said, “I’ll hold you to that! And you’ve gotta buy ice cream for my dad and brother too!”

“Deal. See you later!” Lance called. Goodbye would be too final. This felt easier.

Just before Lance looked forward again, he caught Keith’s eyes. Lance had never thought of violet as a sorrowful color before, nor had he ever thought of Keith as emotional, but Lance could see the sadness in Keith’s moist eyes mixed with a sort of ‘you’d better come back alive or else’ look. Lance felt his fake grin melt into a nearly-sincere half-smile. Then, Lance looked forward, determined not to show weakness by looking back again. He could do this.

Lance’s gaze locked onto the ship ahead and the figures visible in front of it. As far away as they were, Lance could tell that the four shapes staying near the ship were Lotor’s generals, and the two figures approaching had to be Lotor and Shiro. A sense of relief and serenity filled Lance. Shiro was there. Everything would be okay.

As soon as the two parties were close enough to be able to talk without shouting (though with raised voices), Lotor and Shiro halted. Allura and Lance both stopped as well. Lotor’s smile looked a little too satisfied as he said, “Princess, stay where you are. I will stay right here. The prisoners can walk past each other. Agreed?”

Allura gave a tense nod. Without looking at Lance, she brushed her hand against his. Lance briefly took it, and Allura gave his hand one last, reassuring squeeze. Then Lance let go and started walking forward.

Halfway, Shiro was close enough to touch. Lance was going to just walk by, but Shiro stopped him by putting his hand – his human hand – on Lance’s shoulder. “I don’t know why you’re doing this,” Shiro murmured softly, “but we’ll come back for you, okay?”

“Go to your team,” Lance said. He put his hand over Shiro’s on his shoulder. “Win the war. Then you can get me and we’ll all get ice cream, okay?”

Shiro’s expression looked pained. He was always the best at reading others, wasn’t he? But Lance didn’t give him time to protest. He picked up Shiro’s hand and moved it off of his shoulder with a small smile. Shiro echoed that smile.

Then Lance looked right at Lotor, took a deep breath, and walked forward. Lance kept a steady pace, knowing that if he stopped again, he would not be able to resume walking. It was now or never. Lotor’s hand was outstretched like that of a gentleman asking a lady to dance with him. Lance did his best to keep his expression neutral as he placed his hand in Lotor’s and, as expected, Lotor immediately held onto it with a grip that was almost painful. Lance very deliberately did not turn around even as he heard Allura’s and Shiro’s voices carried by the breeze and heard the device that Pidge had created to scan Shiro give a happy beep to confirm that this Shiro was the real one.

“Are you satisfied with the trade?” Lotor asked politely, raising his voice only enough for Allura to hear.

“Yes,” Allura replied, though her voice carried a note of regret. Lance still did not turn around.

“Then it is settled. The temporary truce will hold for one quintant. After that, we are no longer held to the ceasefire.”

“Understood.” Allura’s voice was clipped, clearly masking emotion, though Lance couldn’t be sure which emotion Allura was trying to hide.

Lotor nodded, turned, and started walking back toward the ship briskly before Lance could react. Lance was pulled hard enough by Lotor’s grip that he stumbled and nearly fell, but he got his feet under himself and lightly jogged alongside Lotor to keep up with the Prince’s long strides. It was a fairly far walk filled with tense silence, which Lance considered breaking by speaking up, but Lotor’s expression kept him silent. As they got closer to Lotor’s ship, the grip on Lance’s hand relaxed a little. Perhaps Lotor figured that Lance would not be able to outrun him and escape back to the Castle, which was true. Lance wasn’t slow, but he also wasn’t at least 6’ 6”. Lotor wouldn’t even have to try very hard to catch up to Lance, he was sure. Besides, Lance wasn’t planning to try to escape, though Lotor did not need to know that just yet.

As soon as they reached the ship, one of Lotor’s generals – Lance didn’t know her name, but she was the big one who had the large, fluffy ears – took Lance’s other arm, allowing Lotor to let go of Lance. Thankfully, she wasn’t squeezing too hard, but her grip was far too firm for Lance to get out of. She held him still as another one, the one who was basically a blue elf and who looked the closest to “human” out of all of them, briefly searched him for weapons. Lance stayed still, trying not to give either general any reason to inflict pain on him. He stared at a point on the side of Lotor’s ship, resolutely not looking at any of Lotor’s generals and certainly not looking back toward the Castle. Once the search was complete, the blue elf walked away, leaving Lance with the big one.

“We can leave now,” Lotor told the others after a moment had gone by. “Zethrid, bring the prisoner into the ship.”

The general holding Lance immediately started moving, giving Lance’s arm a warning tug to make sure that he was following along. Right as he was about to cross the threshold, Lance couldn’t help but look back at the Castle and at the small figures he could see all clustered together, likely giving Shiro a group hug. Then Zethrid pulled Lance through the doorway and to the side of the ship, and Lance could no longer see his team… his former team now. They didn’t need him. They had Shiro now.

Lance felt a little ill. He was a prisoner on an enemy ship. He had just outright told his friends (former friends? Lance wasn’t sure) not to rescue him until they’d won the war, which could take years of fighting… or may not even happen at all. Lance was unarmed and completely defenseless. He was at the mercy of the prince of the Galra empire. Lance had reassured himself before that Lotor probably wouldn’t kill him, but Lance wondered whether he would end up in a position bad enough that he would want to die. Already, Lance felt like there was no reason to keep going and keep trying. It probably wouldn’t take much before he was pushed over the edge and he committed s…

No. No. Lance refused to let himself think like that. He would hold on, his friends would win, and they would free him, and they’d return to earth, and they would all get ice cream together. Lance wasn’t even sure why he’d randomly picked ice cream as a symbol of a happy future – after all, it wasn’t even his favorite dessert – but now he held onto that mental image like a lifeline. One day, they’d all sit down together and enjoy some good ice cream. It gave him some hope.

Lotor was giving orders to his generals as the ship’s engines fired up and the door shut. Lance didn’t bother paying attention. He noted the names tossed around – Acxa, Ezor, and Narti – but since he wasn’t watching, he had no idea which name belonged to which general. He felt the ship shift as took off. Soon, the sound of the engines changed from the dull roar of the power necessary to break the planet’s gravity to the soft hum of spaceflight, and Zethrid released Lance’s arm. There was nowhere for him to go, after all. He sat down on a box and then glanced around the ship, trying to pretend like he was mentally logging information to relay back to the team. Lotor noticed his glance.

“Do you like what you see?” the prince asked.

Maybe it was stress, but Lance found himself falling back on old habits. He looked directly into Lotor’s eyes and smirked, flirting, “Yeah, this view is nice.”

Lotor seemed a little confused, though not displeased. “Excuse me?” he asked.

Lance gained more confidence. “You know how I can tell you’re an alien?”

The prince’s eyebrows knit together in clear confusion, and his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “…because I am clearly not from your planet?” he said as the confusion leaked into his tone and turned the statement into a question.

With finger guns and a devilish smile, Lance delivered the follow-up line. “Because you’re out of this world!”

Silence. Probably not the best reaction. Still, it was certainly not the worst reaction Lance had ever gotten from flirting.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?” one of the generals ventured. She was the colorful one who looked like she could have been in Star Wars.

“Um…” Lance hesitated, unsure how to respond to that. “Kind of…? I mean, the line itself isn’t a joke, but the fact that I was trying to use a pickup line on Lotor was definitely a joke, so…”

The general looked at Lance with confusion. “Can you explain what you mean by ‘pickup line’? Not all idioms span the universe…”

Lance felt awkward, and he hoped he wasn’t blushing. “Like… flirting?”

“Oh!” the general exclaimed, clearly understanding. “Ohhh, I see.” Her grin turned a little too knowing for Lance’s comfort. “Yeah, Lotor has that effect on people. I don’t see the appeal, personally, since, well…” She shrugged lightly. “Males in general aren’t really my type. But I’ve been told on good authority that Lotor is quite handsome, for a guy.”

“Ezor, don’t encourage the prisoner to attempt a romantic connection with our commanding officer,” the general piloting the ship said, clearly annoyed. Lance looked over and saw that the pilot was the one he’d thought of as a blue elf.

“What? I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true,” the colorful general, who must have been Ezor, protested. She sent a somewhat pouty look at the pilot that left Lance wondering about the nature of their relationship.

Lotor, mercifully, completely ignored the conversation, looking instead at a tablet-like device. After a couple minutes of reading with only occasional glances up at Lance, Lotor finally spoke up, his silken voice filling the space. “Your name is Lance, is it not?” His eyes remained on Lance, his expression closed-off, as he awaited an answer.

Lance nodded before he had even consciously decided to respond. Lotor’s expression softened, though Lance suspected that this shift was calculated rather than sincere. It was funny, really. Lance usually wasn’t all that good at reading people’s expressions and body language, but now that his life potentially depended on it…

“So then, Lance, what do you think of this ship?” Lotor prompted, reiterating the question from earlier.

What’s his angle?’ Lance wondered. ‘Why does he care? Is he trying to figure out what I’ve noticed so far?’ Lance forced a shrug and a clueless look. “We don’t have anything like this where I’m from. Everything here is too complicated for me.”

Lotor’s expression flickered before coming back to a soft smile. “Ah, I see. Where are you from?” The prince turned a swivel chair nearby to face Lance and gracefully sank down into it.

“Nunya,” Lance answered quickly, falling back on the old joke he’d grown up with. “I’m from an island there called Buzz-Niece.” At least the part about being from an island was true. Between that and the old ‘Nunya Business’ joke, Lance would hopefully be able to keep his story straight, though he was more concerned about keeping the smirk off of his face.

Lotor had apparently noticed a hint of a smile, but Lance figured that Lotor must have misinterpreted it, because his smile widened marginally and he said softly, “You must really miss it.”

“I do. It’s a beautiful planet.”

“Yes, the pictures I have seen from earth are quite lovely,” Lotor said airily as Lance choked on air. As Lotor’s eyes met Lance’s, the latter noticed a triumphant spark in the eyes of the former. “Perhaps you should assess my knowledge before attempting to feed me lies.”

Damn purple space elf,’ Lance thought. He felt his face heat up a little. He never had been a good liar. “I wasn’t totally lying,” Lance tried, mentally grasping at straws. “Nunya is the name of the country I’m from.”

“Hmm…” Lotor hummed, looking unconvinced. Lance mustered up all of his willpower to hold Lotor’s gaze and not look down like his instincts were telling him to. Fortunately, Lotor looked away with a dismissive expression like he was no longer interested, and Lance bit back a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, not everyone was willing to drop the subject. Ezor smiled at him and asked in her rather energetic voice, “What’s earth like? Is it warm? Is it dangerous? How many life-forms are there? Are all earthlings like you?”

Lance looked over to Lotor with a silent plea, hoping that Lotor would tell the girl to be quiet and save her questions for later. Instead, Lotor smirked and added, “Yes, Lance, please tell us more about your home planet.”

Mentally, Lance was blasting that stupid smirk off the face of that insufferable space elf. Seriously? Just when Lance thought that Lotor had dropped the subject… “Well… uh…” Lance eloquently started, trying to find things to say that couldn’t potentially help the Galra take over earth. His confidence had already been knocked down by his failure to lie. “It’s… very nice. It’s pretty… or, at least, most of it is. Parts of it are warm, yeah, but other parts are pretty cold. Um…”

“Is it dangerous?” Ezor reiterated.

Lance shrugged. “Well, yeah, I guess. I don’t know how to compare the danger level to other planets, really, but I mean, yeah, it can kill you if you aren’t careful. Uh… my home island was hit with a hurricane once when I was younger. That wasn’t fun. It was pretty weak for a hurricane, but it still killed a few people.”

The general’s eyes sparkled like the idea of a storm killing people was exciting, which made Lance a little sick. Out of the four generals, this one seemed like the nicest and friendliest, so if even she was thrilled by the thought of death, that didn’t bode well for Lance’s fate. “What about other life-forms?” she asked.

Lance tried to think of how to respond. A joke? A lie? The truth? Nothing creative was coming to him – even his wit failed him. Resigning himself to whatever trouble this brought, he told the truth, “There are tons of different life-forms on earth, but humans are the only ones who can speak and stuff. The term is… uh…”

“Sapience?” Lotor suggested.

Lance frowned, unsure. “I… maybe? I’m not familiar with that word, but, uh, I’m pretty sure humans are the only ones with self-awareness and higher reasoning or something like that.”

“Lots of planets are like that,” Ezor commented, looking unimpressed. “They have a few different life-forms, but only one will be smart enough to talk and pilot ships and stuff.”

“Yeah that… sounds ‘bout right,” Lance confirmed uneasily. He realized that he’d been fidgeting as he noticed his shirt hem twisted in his hands. He quickly let it go and smoothed it down.

“I see.” Lotor had an air of passive disinterest so perfect that Lance was sure he was faking it. The real question was why. Why would Lotor want Lance to think that he wasn’t interested in—

“What contact has your planet had with others?”

– knowing more about earth’s people. Right. Lance swallowed hard as he tried to calculate the risks and advantages of lying versus telling the truth. If he lied, Lotor might be able to trap Lance in the lie by asking questions that Lance couldn’t answer, but if he told the truth, how was Lance supposed to keep up the charade that he was the part-Galra one on the team?

“Lance?” Lotor prodded verbally, making it clear that he was not going to drop the subject until he got an answer.

“Officially, o-on record, there’s no evidence of alien life and certainly no evidence of any interactions between humans and aliens,” Lance stated, trying and failing to keep the nervousness out of his voice.

“And off-record?” Lotor queried, looking into Lance’s eyes.

Lance had to avert his gaze. “There have been stories of aliens since way back in human history, and some humans claim to have met aliens. Some stories are probably fake, unless there happens to be race of spacefaring aliens who are green with large eyes?” He mustered up a smile at that last bit and managed to meet Lotor’s eyes.

The prince smiled back, eyes sparkling with a hint of amusement, as he shook his head a little. “I am not aware of such a species, no. One may exist, but if they were capable of interstellar travel, the Galra Empire would have noticed them.”

A strange feeling came over Lance that he could not quite identify. His breathing became shallower yet more even while his entire body seemed to tense up in a different way from the prior nervousness. He no longer felt nervous. He just felt cold as the realization hit him. “How long has the Galra Empire been aware of earth?” he asked, looking at Lotor’s feet instead of his eyes.

“I suppose the Empire has been aware of earth for quite a long time, since our scouting vessels have gone out beyond it,” Lotor answered with a small gesture akin to a shrug.

Lance felt slightly ill. “Then why didn’t they bother earth until the Kerberos mission?” he asked, bringing his gaze back to the prince’s.

Lotor kept the eye contact, and Lance would have felt exposed if not for the icy dread spreading through his veins. To confirm Lance’s suspicions, Lotor replied, “You just answered your own question.”

Lance felt… sick? Angry? Scared? He wasn’t even sure. He concentrated on the thread of anger and allowed it to fuel him. “You… you’re all…!” Lance couldn’t even think of a word strong enough. “What, you just leave a planet alone until its people are advanced enough?! And then you attack them before they’re even aware that they’re not alone in the universe?!”

Lotor nodded, and Lance found himself thinking, ‘Damn space elf!’ again. “What would be the point,” the ‘elf’ in question said in a reasonable tone, “of conquering a race too primitive to serve us? And why would we let one develop to the point where it could resist us? Once a scout ship noticed that your little earth vessels had made it out toward the edge of your solar system, the Empire sent a larger ship to capture the crew for examination and study. It will likely be some time yet before earth reaches a point of usefulness, but your kind advances very quickly.”

Lance’s anger flared up and then died, replaced by cold annoyance. So, if it hadn’t been for the Kerberos mission, the Galra Empire would not have come near earth yet, but it was inevitable that it would have happened sometime. Earth was not in immediate danger, but it would likely be fairly soon. Lance thought of some of what he learned in the ‘What’s Next: Planning for the Future’ class at the Garrison. Lance and his peers were told that they might very well be the ones to go out beyond the solar system, possibly within a decade. Lance wished that he could get a message back to earth and somehow warn everyone to slow down space exploration until Voltron defeated the Galra, but if the Garrison wouldn’t even listen to Pidge when they were simply trying to figure out what went wrong with the Kerberos mission, there was simply no way the Garrison would listen to Lance if he sent a transmission after disappearing for… however long it had been. Months? Lance had no sense of time anymore. Was he even 18 yet? If he had to guess, he’d suppose that it had been at least a few months, possibly as much as six, so he had probably passed his birthday at some point without even noticing. Lucky him.

Looking up, Lance saw Lotor’s eyes on him. “What?” Lance asked bluntly.

“You have a terrible diplomat’s face,” Lotor commented with a little smirk. “From your expression alone, I can tell that earth is already planning more exploration missions, and you are afraid that the Galra Empire may decide to attack soon. Do I have that right?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Lance mocked, throwing Lotor’s words from yester-quintant back at him. Lance didn’t feel like being diplomatic at the moment. He turned to the side, drew his feet up onto the bench, and hugged his knees. To avoid further conversation, Lance turned his head away from the rest of the ship, staring intently at the wall and trying not to worry too much about earth. Images of his home, of the Garrison, and of beautiful Veradero Beach came to Lance’s mind, but he kept imagining them being stormed by Galra.

The rest of the flight passed in uneasy silence.

Chapter Text

Lance didn’t look away from the wall of the ship, even after he felt it land. He listened as Lotor gave orders to the generals, “Acxa, Ezor, secure the ship. Once you are both done, Ezor, you are dismissed for relaxation time. Acxa, continue work on your projects.”

“Yes, Lotor,” the blue elf one replied, and Lance guessed that she must be Acxa. Wasn’t this the one that Keith said he had saved from the Weblum? Lance couldn’t be sure.

“Yes siree!” Ezor smiled at Lotor and gave a playful salute. Lance couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she was probably the one most like him out of all the generals. He had to forcibly remind himself of how unbothered she had been when Lance told her about deadly storms earlier. She was just as dangerous as the rest of them.

Lotor turned toward the other two. “Narti, Zethrid, you will accompany me while we escort our prisoner to his cell. Zethrid, cuff the prisoner.”

Lance forced himself not to flinch as Zethrid approached, looming over him. “Hold out your hands,” she ordered in her gruff voice, and Lance wordlessly complied. He braced himself for tight and uncomfortable restraints, but the cuffs were fairly light, and they perfectly circled his wrists without squeezing, leaving just enough room to allow him to turn his wrists.

The prince’s shadow fell over Lance as Lotor examined the paladin’s cuffed wrists. Lotor nodded in approval to Zethrid before turning and walking out of the ship. Zethrid took Lance’s arm and pulled him to his feet. Her touch was a far cry from gentle, but it was thankfully not punishing. So long as Lance cooperated and moved as her touch directed, he could avoid pain.

As they walked out, the fourth general followed. Lance assumed this one must be Narti. She had a long lizard-type tail and a small cat perched on her shoulder. Something about her put Lance on edge. He couldn’t get any kind of read on her; her body language betrayed nothing. At least with the others, Lance had some idea of what they were feeling and how they were going to act, but Narti showed nothing, and that unnerved him.

They walked in silence, though Lance hardly noticed the quiet as he looked around. The ship was fascinating, full of technology Lance had never seen before. Everywhere he looked, there were panels or wires or screens glowing in purple-pink or yellow, shining with quintessence, and Lance was oddly reminded of the teen dance club he used to go to not far from the Garrison. He tried to dismiss that thought, but it stuck with him, making him feel homesick. What he wouldn’t give for just a single night back on earth…

A ludicrous image of taking Lotor to the dance club flashed across Lance’s mind, and he cracked a small smile. There was no way that the haughty prince in front of him would ever enjoy something like dancing at a club .

“Something funny?” Zethrid growled at Lance, scorn obvious in her rough voice.

Lance tensed briefly, but he forced himself to relax. “It’s nothing,” he muttered.

Zethrid scoffed, but she didn’t press the issue. Lance tried to find a thought that would distract him from the situation again, but the lights around him seemed more oppressive than enticing now.

Finally, after walking through an absolutely dizzying number of corridors and descending in an elevator – well, fine, it probably had a different name, but it functioned a lot like an elevator, so that’s what Lance was going to call it – Lotor stopped in front of some sort of room. The two generals also halted, and Zethrid let go of Lance’s arm. Lance assumed that they must have reached their destination, so he looked over, and…

Lance’s first thought was, ‘ Why is there a luxury hotel room in the bottom of a Galra ship?? ’ It was posh, to say the least. His eyes were immediately drawn to the back, where he could see an inviting curtained bed that must have been at least king-sized. To the left of it was a large desk and rather comfortable-looking computer chair. On the opposite side, white walls obscured an area large enough to be a bathroom. In the foreground on the left, Lance saw a couple couches and comfy chairs arranged in a rough semicircle facing a wall with a screen. To the right, a dining table with six chairs had one spot set on it for a single person to eat, and there were some lovely art glass arrangements in the center. Lance could not quite place where the glass was from, but he was sure he had seen something similar in a shop in the space mall. The room was an oppressive white, but someone had countered this by laying down several rugs on the floor around the room, and all of the furniture and décor was in tasteful tones of red and black with silver highlights. It was not exactly to Lance’s taste, since he would much prefer blue tones, but the entire room had an aura of luxury or even royalty.

A rich voice broke through Lance’s amazement, “This is where you will be staying.” Lotor looked over at Lance with a self-satisfied expression, eyes glimmering as he watched for Lance’s reaction.

Lance couldn’t even try to hide his amazement. “ This is where I’m staying?! This is…!”

“If it is not to your liking, we could put you in a standard cell,” Lotor offered airily.

“No! No, this is just… amazing. Wow. Do you… treat all your prisoners like this?” Lance thought about Shiro. There was no way the Galra treated prisoners like this.

Lotor smiled amiably and answered, “These are not standard quarters for captives, of course, but I consider many of the old standards to be rather… barbaric.”

“So…” Lance started, though he knew he shouldn’t press his luck, “you were keeping Shiro in a cell like this?”

The prince pursed his lips slightly and looked down the hall, though Lance couldn’t tell if he was looking at something in particular or simply looking away. “The care of the Black Paladin was… not directly under my supervision at first, I’m afraid. Once I was made aware of his presence and condition, I did immediately improve his accommodations. However, this cell was designed specifically for you.” Lotor’s eyes moved back to Lance with a hint of curiosity.

Lance looked back over the room. It very well may have come right out of a movie. Was there any chance Lotor had gotten his hands on human media? Lance also noticed the red aesthetics. ‘ Of course, ’ he thought, ‘ Red Paladin. ’ Aloud, he replied, “It’s great. It’s… uh…” Lance hesitated, but, well, there was probably no harm in sucking up to the prince a little, right? Besides, the way Lotor was looking at him, curious and searching, Lance had the odd suspicion that Lotor was hoping for a positive reaction. “I’ll admit that it’s better than my room back on my ship.”

Lotor smiled softly, and, this time, Lance couldn’t detect any self-satisfaction or threat or pride or malice or anything else negative in it. If anything, his smile seemed almost sympathetic. “I figured as much,” the price said, and his voice was as soft as his smile.

Lance looked back at the prince and echoed the small smile, murmuring, “Thanks.” Their eyes met, and Lance looked right into Lotor’s striking eyes – indigo on yellow. Those eyes could look threatening, but right now they just seemed interesting and rather lovely. Lance briefly wondered what it would be like to have this guy as a friend. Seeing Lotor like this, softer and more seemingly sincere, Lance suddenly understood why Lotor’s team was so fiercely loyal to him.

Then the prince looked back toward the cell, and the moment shattered. His expression went back to being closed-off, though not unkind, at least. “On the wall,” Lotor said, his voice back to how Lance was used to hearing it, calculated and commanding, “you will find a button. If you press it, someone will come to check on you and take care of whatever you need. There is also a small technological device on the table for your amusement.”

“O-okay, thanks,” Lance replied hesitantly. Had he done something wrong? Lotor wasn’t looking at him at all now.

“The Black Paladin informed me that humans have many needs and that those may vary somewhat between different individuals. How often do you require meals?”

Lance thought quickly. This entire setup seemed too good to be true, which probably meant that Lance would be treated worse later on when they wanted information from him or something, so to make sure that he would still be okay at that point… “4 meals a day,” Lance declared confidently, “with snacks available between meals.”

“I see,” the prince said evenly, and Lance couldn’t tell whether or not Lotor believed him. “How much water do you need?”

Lance tried to mentally calculate how much he needed to figure out how much to exaggerate, but, to be perfectly honest, he had never really thought about it before. He usually just had a couple glasses between meals and whenever he was thirsty. “About… a gallon?” Lance guessed.

That attracted a disbelieving and mildly confused glance from Lotor, as if the prince was thinking, ‘ How could you possibly not know how much water you need? ’, but he did not comment on it. Instead, he asked, “How long do you need to sleep each night?”

“About…” Lance tried to quickly make the mental conversion between hours and varga . Each varga was slightly longer than an hour – about 5 varga to every 6 hours – but mental math was more Hunk’s or Pidge’s thing. “About 9 varga ,” Lance declared, hoping that was the equivalent of 10 hours. Of course, Lance didn’t need 10 hours of sleep, but with how insistent nearly everyone other than Lance was back at the Castle about having a proper ‘schedule’ that involved waking up early every quintant , he figured he could catch up.

Lotor gave a small nod, like he had been expecting this answer. Was that about how long Shiro had been sleeping? Lance remembered that Shiro usually only slept about 6-8 hours… 5-7 varga per quintant back in the Castle, so if Shiro had been sleeping more as a captive here, that meant that he must have been injured or sick, which made Lance worried. Well, at least Shiro was with the team now. If he was sick or injured, they could just put him in one of the healing pods.

“Is there anything else you need?” Lotor asked, interrupting Lance’s worries.

Lance hesitated before shaking his head. “I… don’t think so?” he answered uncertainly.

“If you do need something, you can use the button,” Lotor told him. “Now, please step inside.”

Lance squared his shoulders and kept his head up high as he strode in, trying to look like he was doing this because he wanted to and not because he was scared that Lotor would have Zethrid literally throw him in if he refused. Once he had gone a respectable distance past the entrance, Lance heard a buzzing sound behind him. When he turned around, Lance saw that a light purple-pink force field now covered the entire entrance, giving the image of the prince and his generals on the other side an ironically rosy tint.

“Please refrain from touching the force field,” Lotor warned. He sounded serious and sincere. “It is unlikely to cause you any serious harm unless you pressed yourself to it and remained there for some duration of time, but even a brief touch would likely burn your sensitive skin. We could treat you, but our knowledge of human medicine is very limited. It would be best if you avoided injury.”

Lance listened for a threat, but the prince’s tone carried none. It sounded like Lotor honestly did not want Lance to get hurt, which made him feel oddly touched.

It kind of felt nice to have someone…

“Thank you for the warning,” Lance responded, “and thanks for the exceptionally nice room.”

“It was no problem at all,” the prince told him. Lotor’s tone and gestures tried to convey nonchalance, but there was a slight hint of that earlier smile.

“You’re nicer than I thought you’d be.” Lance immediately covered his mouth. He could not believe that he’d just blurted that out. He stared at the prince, eyes wide, waiting for Lotor to take offense or to order Zethrid to punish him or something else bad.

Instead, Lotor’s mouth parted slightly in surprise for a moment as his eyes met Lance’s, and then his expression turned into a soft smile again. “As you are, too,” he murmured. He glanced down, then closed his eyes for a few ticks before meeting Lance’s gaze again. “I will be back tonight to check on you?” He probably meant it as a statement, but his tone turned it into a question.

…care.

“Sure!” Lance answered without even thinking. He felt flustered and incapable of making some kind of dignified response.

Lotor nodded, still smiling just a little bit. “I look forward to it.”

With that, the prince turned and walked away. Zethrid, confused, looked between Lance and the prince for a moment, also looking at the cat on Narti’s shoulder as if to convey, ‘ Did you just watch what I just watched? ’ The two of them then followed Lotor down the hall. A good 5 or so ticks later, Lance heard Zethrid’s voice carrying down the hall, “With all due respect, Lotor, what the hell was that?”

Lance held his breath, straining to hear as the retreating footsteps paused and Lotor’s faint voice answered, “ Honestly, Zethrid, I have no idea.

Then the footsteps resumed, and Lance was alone.

Wow, what had just happened? Lance allowed himself a few deep breaths to process. Then, he turned around to look at the room. His first impression had been that it was big, and now that he was inside of it, he realized that it was even bigger than it had seemed. Lance was pretty sure he could fit his room from the Castle in here six times over. It could probably comfortably sleep all of the paladins and Coran. To be honest, it was almost too big. Lance had always been used to small rooms – sharing a small bedroom with his brother, sharing a small dorm room with his classmates at the Galaxy Garrison, finally having his own small bedroom at the Castle – so the thought of all of this space being his and only his was a little dizzying. How did this fit in a ship anyway? Lance wouldn’t have been surprised if someone told him that the Galra had “bigger on the inside” technology. It basically a large square, probably at least 11 meters – like 35 feet – wide and long. He was pretty sure that, at over 1,000 square feet, it was bigger than a lot of studio apartments. He wandered around, touching all of the furniture to make sure it was actually real. Most of it wasn’t quite as plush as Lance would have liked, but it all seemed sturdy and comfortable, so he wasn’t about to complain anytime soon. Finally, he peered into the bathroom and… did that tub have jacuzzi jets?? Wow. Lotor really spared no expense, huh? Lance’s entire body started aching as he tried to remember the last time he’d had a hot bath. Still…

Lance couldn’t help but feel a bit on-edge. Why was Lotor doing this? Surely the prince wouldn’t go through the effort of making such an elaborate cell unless he wanted something from Lance. It was probably best not to get too comfortable.

Then Lance inspected the bed, and all resolve to ‘not get too comfortable’ flew right out of the ship’s hold and into open space. Objectively speaking, the bed was probably only medium-soft, but after the hard bunks on the Castle, it felt like a cloud. Lance flopped ungracefully right down on it and let himself melt like syrup across the smooth comforter. He let himself indulge in the softness for a dobosh , two, three… before forcing himself to get up. If he was going to enjoy the bed, he was at least going to take a warm bath first. Maybe everything would go terrible later, but for now, Lance was determined to enjoy the luxuries he’d been given.

Lance’s memory reminded him that he’d taken a hot shower just that morning. Lance ignored that fact. It had been a long enough day already and he hadn’t had a good bath in months, so why not? It took Lance a little time to figure out how to plug up and fill up the tub and even more time to figure out how to adjust the water to the proper temperature, but he got it all sorted out.

As he filled up the tub, Lance decided to scout out some clothes. He found a trunk at the foot of the bed filled with clothing articles of varying sizes and styles. Most were in shades of red and black, but Lance found a simple t-shirt in a tasteful shade of dark purple that would be comfortable enough to sleep in, and he dug around until he found a loose, lightweight pair of grey pants that were a little short but worked just fine as capris. To his relief and mild surprise, there were even several underwear options, though some looked suspiciously skimpy. He stared at these in disbelief as he tried to figure out why they would be here, since he really couldn’t imagine that as a Galra fashion. Then, suddenly, Lance realized that Lotor may have done “research” on earth fashions. The thought struck Lance as utterly absurd, and he burst out laughing. The mental image of the calm and poised prince looking over a lingerie magazine and being naïve about what these clothes were actually used for was so ridiculous, and it honestly felt so good to laugh after the day he’d had. After the…

Lance wasn’t laughing anymore. How long had it been since he really, sincerely laughed like that? The weight of stress from months and months of paladin work landed right back on his shoulders, and Lance clenched his jaw as he tried to ride out the tidal wave of emotions. He gave himself a few moments to regain his composure before grabbing the most reasonable-looking pair of underwear in sight and quickly heading back into the bathroom.

The tub was nearly full, so Lance decided to scout out something to add to the water. There were several different types of soaps and other bath products, but Lance couldn’t read any of the labels. Some looked like the ones he’d had in the Castle, but others were completely foreign to him. Finally, he found something that looked familiar. “No way… bath salts? ” he murmured aloud. He hadn’t had a chance to use real bath salts since he’d left earth. He felt himself smiling as he poured a generous amount into the water.

After a couple of brief mishaps while attempting to figure out how to operate the jets for the tub, Lance shed his clothes and slipped into the water, instantly relaxing as the familiar feeling of warm water surrounded him. He let himself simply soak for a couple of minutes before he turned on the jets and melted into bliss.

Lance wanted to simply relax, but his mind wouldn’t shut up. His thoughts looped through his mind. Why was this cell so luxurious? Why was Lotor being so nice to him? What did the prince have planned for him? Why exactly did Lotor want the ‘red paladin’ in the first place? ...well, Lance at least had a suspicion about that last one, but…

Wait. Could that suspicion explain everything? If Lance was right about why Lotor had wanted the ‘red paladin’, that might also explain why Lotor was being so nice… trying to get the paladin to trust him … of course! That explained at least most of what was going on. If Lotor heard that the red paladin was part Galra, perhaps Lotor thought that he could persuade said paladin to switch sides. Lotor was only half-Galra, and his closest generals were all only part Galra, so perhaps Lotor thought that the red paladin could fit right in.

But then…

“What the hell was that?” “Honestly, Zethrid, I have no idea.”

…how much of this was planned? The room had to have been put together ahead of time, most likely before the call, but if Zethrid was confused about Lotor’s words and actions, what had the prince originally planned to do?

Well. Regardless.

The theory that Lotor was trying to get Lance on his side mostly answered Lance’s question of what was happening and why, but it left a much larger question: What should Lance do about that? Of course, Lance couldn’t ‘do’ much of anything. He was trapped, and he’d specifically told his team to not come rescue him. Even on the slim chance that a Blade of Marmora member was aboard who could help him, that would ruin Lance’s previous idea of making Lotor think that he had a much more valuable bargaining chip than he actually did. So, that left Lance with two options:

Cooperate or resist.

Neither sounded attractive, really. Pretending to work for Lotor would be risky and difficult, while resisting could have severe negative consequences. There was also the small issue of Lance not actually being Galra at all. When would Lotor figure it out, and how would he react?

The image of an enraged Lotor cutting him down after discovering the ruse flashed through Lance’s head. With a sick feeling, Lance allowed himself to acknowledge the thought he’d had since the very start.

This is a suicide mission. I won’t make it out alive.

Suddenly, the bath wasn’t nearly so nice and comfortable. Lance felt far too hot in the warm water as his pulse elevated from fear. He immediately shut off the jets and let the water start draining, switching instead to a lukewarm shower to hopefully calm his nerves. He’d known the risks when he volunteered for this. It was a too late to be having second thoughts now .

Besides ,’ he thought, ‘ better me than Keith .’

He paused for a moment, examining that last thought from all angles. Then he realized that some of the conclusions he could end up drawing might not be helpful to him. He chose instead to focus on the fact that Keith was a better paladin and that Lance was a screwup who often dragged the team down. There. That was the reason. That and the fact that it clearly would have been a bad thing if Lotor had gotten Keith. Nothing more.

Lance finished up his shower, dried off, and put on the clothes he’d picked out. They were certainly comfortable enough. He found a decent hairbrush and worked on smoothing out the curls in his damp hair. Without better tools and products, he couldn’t quite get his hair completely straight, but it was passable. The repetitive motion of brushing grounded him and helped him to stay calm.

He stepped out of the bathroom and saw that the dining table had been set with a meal while he was bathing. On the one hand, Lance felt sick, and he had no way to tell whether or not the food would harm him. On the other hand, again, the cavalry wasn’t coming, and Lance couldn’t simply refuse food forever. Worse, if he went without food, Lotor might get the impression that Lance didn’t actually need that much food and might cut back the supply. Lance still wasn’t sure whether he wanted to cooperate or resist, but no matter what, deception would be necessary. He wondered what his teammates might do. If Keith were here, he’d probably refuse the food just on principle, so, considering that Keith wasn’t exactly the spy or diplomat of the group, doing the exact opposite was probably a safe bet. Better yet, Lance tried to imagine what Shiro might say. ‘ You need food to keep your strength up ,’ Lance’s mental image of Shiro advised. ‘ It’s quite likely that you’ll face some kind of torture or experimentation later, or even the Arena. You need to be at full strength if possible.

Having resolved his mental debate, Lance sat down and examined the food, which he immediately recognized as Altean dishes like those that Hunk had made from some recipes in the Castle. Lance tried a small bite, and he nearly melted as the familiar flavor washed over him. It was nearly as good as Hunk’s cooking; this was definitely no ‘prisoner fare’ type of food. The familiarity of it restored Lance’s appetite, and, before he knew it, Lance had eaten the entire meal. He also drank most of the generously large glass of water he’d been given, which left him feeling refreshed and relaxed. Even though he’d cut his bath short, he could tell that his muscles were a little more relaxed than before, and from the combination of that and the great meal, Lance was starting to feel sleepy. He’d lost any sense of time quite a while ago, so he had no idea whether it was about time for sleep or not, but he figured that it couldn’t hurt to lie down, at least for now.

Lance reached the bed and pulled back the comforter, revealing dark red sheets, which prompted the rather silly thought that blood stains wouldn’t show up on these, so hey, if he ever made it back to earth, he had gift ideas for his sisters. The thought was amusing enough that Lance actually cracked half a smile, though homesickness quickly overtook him.

Ignoring his feelings, Lance flopped down on the bed, relaxing and letting himself sink into it as he pulled the covers over himself. He turned his head into the pillow to block out light and quickly sank into the blessed darkness of sleep.

 


 

“Paladin. Paladin, I have arrived… Lance? Where…?”

A voice reached past the veil of sleep and started forcibly dragging Lance out of it. He tried to stifle a groan as his mind slowly left the haze of sleep behind one stage at a time.

“Lance? Oh, there you are.” The voice registered as familiar, but Lance couldn’t quite place it at first. “Were you asleep? My apologies. I simply intended to check up on you as promised.”

Lance tried to roll over, and this time he couldn’t keep back the small, sleepy groan of protest as his body simultaneously fought to wake up and to go back to sleep. He squinted up at the silhouetted form hovering above him, and his memory returned in a slow trickle. “Lotor?”

The prince smiled a little. “Again, my apologies for disturbing you. I shall return later after you have properly rested.”

“Mmkay,” Lance mumbled, unable to find the energy for a proper response, as he closed his eyes and invited sleep to take him down again. He felt the covers shift as they were pulled up to cover him better, and the light against his eyelids dimmed drastically as a “swoosh” sound suggested that Lotor had probably drawn the bed’s curtains closed. Just as sleep overtook him, he heard Lotor say one more thing:

“Sleep well, Lance.”