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It's Confusing These Days

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Lance strode down the hallway with a manly and decisive stride that -- wait, could a stride be decisive? He wobbled for a second, then decided -- decisively -- that of course it could be. After all, you could creep along all indecisively, like you didn't know where you were going, and this was the absolute opposite of that. Long, manly strides, because he was a heroic flying ace, pilot of the legendary Blue Lion, part of Voltron, here to defend the universe.

Wherever here was. On a spaceship that was really a castle, or a castle that was really a spaceship. Which was currently... somewhere. In space. A really long way away from Earth, from normal weather and normal food and his family and everything he considered home.

No, that wasn't going to help. Manly, forceful stride. This place could really use some more cheerful lighting. Maybe a couple of pictures on the walls. Lance looked hopefully at the hallway ahead, in case the spaceship-castle had decided to be telepathic and conform to his wishes, maybe with some sweet surfing posters, but nothing happened.

His long, energetic, manly strides had taken him all the way to his destination, which was the observation balcony overlooking the training deck. Lance intended to train, but he wanted to check first that Keith wasn't around, because then things got weird and competitive, and also Keith trained by hitting things with a sharp object until they stopped moving, which was a little unnerving. Couldn't he just shoot at things from a distance, like normal people did? Like Lance and Hunk did, anyway. This was space. It was all about the... space. Not the close combat.

Keith wasn't there, but Shiro was. Lance was about to head down, manly stride and all, because getting to hang out with Shiro was always good, but then he saw those peculiar little space mice that were always following the princess around, except now they were climbing out of a duct and marching straight for Shiro, and... was that what a manly and decisive stride looked like when you were that size? Mousely and decisive.

Shiro caught sight of the mice and crouched down, face a polite blank. The mice drew themselves up and squeaked at him. He looked even blanker. They squeaked some more.

Lance didn't speak space mice-ese, but it was pretty clear from the waving paws and twitching whiskers and curling tails, not to mention the tone of the squeaks, that those mice had something serious on their minds. The largest one began to march back and forth, shaking one paw in the air. Lance chuckled, because that looked just like one of the instructors at the Galaxy Garrison.

"Sorry, guys," Shiro said down below. "Guess I need Allura to interpret for me. I'll just go and--"

The mice squeaked louder, in unison for once, and the largest one stopped and shook both paws. Then they began some kind of rapid mouse pantomime that made even less sense to Lance, although it looked pretty funny, so there was that. Shiro shook his head slowly, but there was a grin tugging at one corner of his mouth.

The door flashed open and closed, and Lance thought maybe the princess had come to collect her wayward mice, so he looked at the right height for a willowy space babe and had to drop his eyes to see, instead, a big, black... cat?

Cat. Some kind of cat. Lance had no idea the spaceship-castle had space cats as well as space mice -- was there a whole space petting zoo hidden away somewhere that no one had told him about?

This cat looked strangely familiar, though. Not like a regular cat at all, more like, well.

The cat went over and sat down behind the agitated mice, and Shiro saw it and his jaw dropped, face showing honest astonishment for once, like the universe had actually managed to take him by surprise. Which was probably because the cat looked like the Black Lion, and the mice turned around and saw it, too, and squeaked and clung together, beady eyes wide with sudden terror.

The cat said something. Lance didn't speak space cat language any more than he understood space mice -- at least, he didn't understand anyone else's lion -- but if the mice had been giving Shiro a stern talking-to, then the black cat was scolding them right back.

Shiro looked baffled, which was pretty much how Lance felt.

The sound of doors opening in two places made Lance try to look in two directions at once. Down below, Allura came in, looking princessly and apologetic at the same time, and up here on the balcony, Keith stepped in to join Lance. Of course Shiro got the space babe company, and Lance got... whatever Keith was. Couldn't it have been the other way around?

He had an important question to ask, though, and Keith was probably a good person to ask it of. Lance gestured down at the black cat. "I didn't know they could do that. Did you know they could do that?"

Keith made a shushing gesture. Apparently Allura was already in the middle of a sentence. "...make sure they won't bother you again."

"I wasn't bothered," Shiro said. A tiny quirk at the corner of his mouth would probably have been a grin of astonished delight on an ordinary person. "Someone was apparently feeling a bit overprotective." He stroked the head of the black cat sitting next to him, which was now, holy shit, better than hip-high and looking every inch the Black Lion.

Lance drew breath to say I didn't know they could do THAT!, and Keith clapped a hand over his mouth and dragged him backwards out the door. He was very strong, Lance noticed. Maybe there was something to this sword-fighting business after all.

"They'll do better without you spying on them," Keith said.

"I wasn't spying on them," Lance said, incensed. "I was going to go down and train, and then the mice showed up." Keith looked unimpressed. "And then everyone was arguing, and then the princess showed up, and!"

"Of course she did." Keith started down the hallway, and Lance had to go after him if he wanted to keep the discussion going. "She probably wanted to stop the mice before they got to Shiro. She doesn't like being embarrassed."

"Nobody likes being embarrassed," Lance said.

Keith looked at him. "I thought maybe you did. You embarrass yourself often enough."

"Hey!" Lance reached out to slap Keith upside the mullet. "I don't know why anyone walking around with hair like that thinks he's got room to talk."

"There's nothing wrong with my hair," Keith said, sounding uninterested rather than defensive. He was a hard guy to mock properly, but Lance was working on it. "And the mice weren't there to complain about Shiro's hair, were they?"

"How should I know?" Lance said. "They just made space mice noises!" Keith looked ever so slightly smug. Lance sputtered. "You're not telling me you understand the space mice."

"A bit," Keith said.

Lance narrowed his eyes. "Well, that's not normal," he said. "Not even Shiro understands the space mice, he said so. Maybe that stupid hair of yours is some kind of space mice-ese translation device."

"Maybe if you shut up long enough to listen to what's going on around you, you'd start to pick up on things, too." Keith shrugged. "Or not."

Lance really wished his own lion would manifest and maybe trip Keith up or something. He had no idea how that worked, though. He just had the same sleepy murmur in the back of his head as always, a sense of the Blue Lion being present, not that far away, and not really paying him any attention. So yeah, nothing happened. Which kind of sucked, but on the other hand, the Red Lion didn't show up to shoulder him into a wall, either.

It only made sense that the lions wouldn't really get involved in the everyday lives of their pilots. Maybe it was just the Black Lion. Maybe it was just Shiro being special, and yeah, if anyone had to be special, of course it'd be Shiro. Maybe it was because of whatever the space mice had said.

"Well?" he said.

Keith shrugged again. "Well, what?"

"Since you're the great space mice interpreter, what did they say?"

"Something about pelting him with cheese rinds."

"Oh, ha ha." Lance wished he had a cheese rind so he could throw it at Keith. "So you don't actually understand the space mice, you're just making stuff up to see what you can get me to believe."

"That's what they said," Keith said impatiently. "If you don't want to know, stop asking about it."

"But cheese rinds?" Okay, Keith wasn't really the type of guy who'd make up ridiculous stories as a gotcha. It was hard to imagine him bothering with that kind of thing. "Wait, does that mean the space mice get actual cheese when the rest of us get nutritious green goop? Cause if it does, I'm eating with the space mice from now on."

"Sure. You tell Coran that." Keith turned right into a narrower corridor. Lance didn't want to go that way, and he definitely didn't want to run around after Keith in any way, shape or form, but he wasn't done with this, whatever it was, either, so he flailed a bit and tugged at Keith's sleeve.

Keith gave him a look that was mostly eyebrows. Lance waved an arm, because really, it should be obvious why this wasn't finished. "Cheese rinds?"

"Space mice probably don't have shovels," Keith said, and at first, that made as little sense as the cheese rinds comment had.

"Why would they have--" Then it clicked. "Are you saying the space mice just gave Shiro the shovel talk?" Except not. "Why would space mice even have shovel talks? That's just bizarre."

"Apparently they have cheese rind talks." Keith was looking at him like this conversation had already gone on way too long. "Maybe that's a thing in Altean culture. Or space mice culture." He grimaced. "And you've got me calling them space mice."

"They are space mice!" Lance tried to picture a tiny, mouse-size shovel made of cheese rinds. That was ridiculous. Kinda cute, but ridiculous. "Wait. Wait, wait, wait. If the space mice gave Shiro a cheese shovel talk, does that mean he and the princess are..."

Keith leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. "You're not very observant, are you."

"I'm plenty observant," Lance said, stung. "It's not like they've been running around hand in hand in showers of rose petals." Keith looked particularly stone-faced at that, and Lance's brows drew down. "Have they?"

"No wonder you're still single," Keith said.

Lance sniffed and drew himself up. "I'll have you know plenty of people have been after this fine ass--"

"Would you even notice?" Keith's voice was dry as space dust. "Or do you need them to throw rose petals at you first?"

"--but I'm not the kind of guy who's ready to be tied down like that."

"Nyma sure thought you were ready for it."

"Shut up." Right, that was it. Nyma had seemed like such a fun, exciting girl, and Lance definitely wasn't going to tell Keith that he'd liked having her cuff him to a tree, in a tingly sort of way that he'd really wanted to explore, only then she'd left and he'd looked like an idiot and now Keith was mocking him for it and really, there wasn't anything to do but shove at Keith's shoulder, hard, and hope he fell over.

But of course he didn't, because Keith was all compact muscle and aggravation. He shoved back hard enough to make Lance stagger back a couple of steps. "We're done with this conversation," he said. "You want to know what the space mice say, learn to squeak."

Lance totally hadn't fallen over when Keith shoved him, just backed up a bit and steadied himself against the wall, and it wasn't because it would take too long to push himself upright that he just stayed where he was and watched Keith leave. "You squeak," he muttered resentfully.

Why else would Keith understand anything the space mice said? He probably sat around and squeaked at them in his spare time, like a big squeaky loser. Short squeaky loser. All right, so Lance didn't understand them even when they started on the pantomime, and apparently he'd really missed something about Shiro and the princess, but at least he was taller than Keith, and more successful with girls -- so Nyma had cuffed him to a tree, so what, nobody had done anything to Keith, had they?

Lance slumped further against the wall. Unless he really was that unobservant, and Keith had a whole space harem trailing around after him. No, he couldn't have missed that. And why would anyone want Keith, anyway, who was annoying and hot-tempered and had unlikely-colored eyes and a stupid mullet?

He couldn't go back to train now, not when the training deck was full of Shiro and Allura and space mice and the Black Lion. Lance picked himself up and began to jog down the hallway. He liked running, and the endless looping hallways of the spaceship-castle were at least good for that. Being outdoors would have been better. He'd gone running in the open air on Arus, though back there he had to keep a wary eye out for Arusians who might decide to create a dance performance based on how he was doing in his training regimen.

It had been nice to run outdoors there, but also weird, because of all the subtle differences in the way the plant life looked and the way the air tasted. Being on actual Earth would have been a whole lot better, with actual Earth trees and an actual Earth sky, and actual Earth dirt beneath his feet.

That was a dangerous way for his thoughts to wander, and he knew it. Lance increased his speed a little. The spaceship-castle echoed around him, way too big to be filled up by seven people and four mice. He'd never imagined that being a defender of the universe would be such a lonely business. Didn't sound like it -- you'd think a defender of the universe would get to meet all the pretty girls in, well, the universe.

Lance was stuck here with a bossy space princess who apparently had something going on with Shiro.

And Pidge, he reminded himself. But he had long ago started to think of Pidge as a geeky younger brother, and a declaration of so yeah, I'm a girl wasn't really changing that. He could stretch to geeky younger sister, if he had to. Besides, Pidge was way too young to date anyone.

Hunk, of all people, had a girlfriend. Granted, she was on another planet, and she was made of rock, which seemed like it would be pretty uncomfortable if they ever decided to, well. Okay, not going there. Still, Hunk had a girlfriend. Hunk was a great guy, and Lance was happy for him, but meanwhile, here he was himself, ace pilot, defender of the universe, pretty darn smooth and handsome, if he said so himself...

And, as Keith had pointed out, single.

It just wasn't fair. Lance would have kicked the wall, except he didn't want to break his stride. He was in the zone now, running smoothly and easily. For just a moment, he thought he caught a glimpse, in the corner of his eye, of a large ghost-transparent blue cat loping along next to him.

When he turned his head to get a better look, there was nothing to be seen. Lance wobbled sideways a bit, straightened up, and kept running.

As huge as the spaceship-castle was, it was still laid out along pretty predictable lines, and Lance never had to worry about getting lost. When his legs told him they'd had enough of this running business, he was back at the training deck again. Figuring everyone had to be gone by now, Lance went inside to take advantage of the big shower room he'd found to one side, which was even sweeter than his own en-suite.

The training deck wasn't empty, though. One corner was crammed full of weight-lifting equipment, and Hunk was right in the middle of it, working away.

"Hey," Lance said, bouncing over and starting to stretch out his hamstrings. "Need a spotter?"

"Not right now," Hunk said, putting down a dumbbell and turning to adjust a lever on a machine for some kind of leg torture, or at least that's what it looked like.

Lance leaned down and casually tried to pick up the dumbbell with one hand. Then with both hands. "So are you trying to impress Shay here, or what?"

"What? No. No no no." Hunk got that look on his face that he always got when he was talking about Shay. Or thinking about Shay. It was kind of sweet, Lance admitted. "I'll never be as strong as a Balmeran."

"Huh." That made sense, though. Every single one of the Balmerans, even the bent-over grannies and the little kids, looked as solid as the rock they came from. "Yeah. Bet your girlfriend can pick you up and put you under one arm."

"She's not, I mean..." Hunk wrinkled his nose. "Probably, but why would she want to do that?"

Lance sighed. Hunk was kind of hopeless like that. One time Lance had tried to get a good discussion going of who would win in a fight, cavemen or astronauts, and Hunk had just wanted to know how cavemen and astronauts would ever even meet, let alone why they'd fight.

Still, it was pretty hard to believe Hunk had never thought about it. Dating someone who was a lot stronger than you were had to be a little... The whole picking up and putting under one arm thing wasn't really something that Lance cared about. But being with someone and knowing that they were strong enough to hold you down if they wanted to, that had to be interesting.

Not that he wanted to speculate about what Hunk and Shay got up to, which, knowing Hunk, was maybe hand-holding at most. Lance had never thought that Hunk would be the first of them to get a girlfriend. Then again, he'd never thought they would go into space and pilot flying lions, either. Not to mention this whole spaceship-castle business.

Which reminded him. "Did you know that Shiro and the princess are, you know?"

"They're what?" Hunk whipped his head around. When Shiro and Allura didn't suddenly pop out of a hatch somewhere, he relaxed again and sat down. "Jeez, I thought I'd have to get all this stuff cleared away," he waved a hand at the weightlifting equipment, "and I just got it set up."

"They're dating," Lance said. "Or something. The space mice were trying to give Shiro the shovel talk!"

"Really?" Here, at least, Hunk showed the stellar thinking that was the reason he was Lance's best friend in the first place. "Do space mice even have shovels?"

"I know, right?" Lance waved a hand. "They had to make it all about cheese rinds, or that's what Keith claimed, anyway."

"But what did you-- Wait, Keith was there? Was this a Voltron pilot thing and I missed it?"

"Of course it wasn't a Voltron pilot thing! I was up there," Lance gestured at the observation balcony, "and I was going to come down and talk to Shiro, but then the mice came in and started to squeak at him, and Keith came and dragged me away."

"And talked about cheese rinds." Hunk picked up the abandoned dumbbell and started to do biceps curls with the air of a man who was thinking hard about something else. "But what did you think they talked about, if it wasn't cheese rinds?"

"How should I know?" Lance had been leaning against a rack full of bumper plates, but now he straightened up again. "They're mice! They squeak! They don't come with subtitles! I don't know how Keith even--" He considered the look on Hunk's face. "Wait a minute, are you telling me you understand the space mice?"

Hunk waggled a hand. "Pidge is better with them." That at least made sense; Pidge had spent a lot of time with the mice. "I just get the gist. I think. Sometimes. Wait, I thought you were buddies with the space mice! You even let one eat from your plate that one time!"

"I don't have to understand what they're saying to feed them! Besides," Lance said a little sulkily, "Shiro didn't understand them either, even when they started to mime everything out for him."

"Mm. Was it funny? I bet it was funny. Maybe he wanted to see--" Hunk took a closer look at Lance and jumped right into another sentence. "I bet you'd understand them better if you bonded with them, spent a bit more time. You could knit them sweaters!"

"Uh, Hunk?" Lance bent forward a bit to peer at his friend. "Friend? Buddy? You didn't drop one of these weights on your head or anything, did you?"

"Like you said you wanted to do for that Arusian, remember?" Hunk barrelled on. "You said we should knit him a sweater, but now we're not on Arus anymore. That's a good thing to do for the space mice. They like it when you feed them, too."

"Of course they do!" This time when Lance gestured, he hit his elbow on one of the plates. Ow. Animals liked to be fed, that was a no-brainer, even if they were weirdly smart ten-thousand-year-old animals. "And I think you're missing the important part of the conversation here? Shiro and the princess?"

"That's nice for them, I suppose," Hunk said. He looked up. "Why are you all slumped over like that? Did you hurt yourself?"

"No." Lance pressed a hand to his chest, ignoring the bruise forming on his elbow. "But the princess, c'mon, I mean, I know you've got a girlfriend, but she's like the ultimate dream space babe." He sighed dramatically. "Figures only Shiro would have a chance with her."

Hunk's brows drew together. "Why would you care? You've got that thing for Keith, and--"

"Keith?" Lance drew himself upright so fast, the rack wobbled. "Since when do you think I have a thing for Keith?"

"Uh, since always?" The really horrible thing was that Hunk looked so completely sincere, with his earnest brown eyes and his wide mouth that couldn't lie worth a damn. "You were always talking about him back at the Galaxy Garrison like everything he did was aimed at you somehow, even getting expelled. And you recognized him at night across half the desert when he came back that night we rescued Shiro, like it couldn't be anyone else."

"That was just," Lance said, because of course he recognized people when he saw them if he'd seen them before, particularly if they happened to be arrogant mullet-heads who--

"I figured things would calm down when we had to work together and you noticed he basically didn't know who you were," Hunk went on blithely. "But that's not what happened. He just somehow started being the same way right back." Hunk shook his head. "Face it, Lance, the two of you are just scary-intense about each other."

That was it. Lance was seriously considering revoking Hunk's best-friend status, because how could a best friend misinterpret everything so completely? "No, we're not. We're not! He's just really... Keith." Lance crossed his arms over his chest. "Besides, I like girls."

Hunk switched the dumbbell to his other hand. "There's no reason you can't like both," he said reasonably. "Maybe not at the same time, though. I don't think Keith shares well."

This time, Lance jerked upright so fast the rack fell, and all the weights thudded onto the floor with an unholy racket. He jumped the other way, grateful for the reflexes that kept his toes un-crushed.

"Oh, quiznak," Hunk moaned. "Tell me that didn't dent the plating." He went down on all fours, with his nose practically next to the weights. "Phew! Let's hear it for super-tough alien floors!" Looking up, he added, "Maybe you should stand over there instead," indicating an empty area a bit away from the weight equipment.

"Like this was my fault," Lance said, setting the rack upright again. "You can't just say things like that!" He picked up the smallest of the weights, and hoped that Hunk would get started on the biggest ones. "I'm not going to-- There's not going to be any sharing!"

"Yeah, that's probably for the best," Hunk agreed without even looking at him. "So do you think you'll do any knitting for the space mice? Feeding them is good, too, but if you just give them your left-over space goo, it's not the same kind of personal, so it might not create the bond you need to understand them better."

"One of us has got some kind of space sickness in the head," Lance announced, "and I'm not naming any names, but it isn't me. I'll just be over here, taking a shower."

The Alteans had been dedicated to cleanliness in a way Lance totally approved of. The Castle of Lions had showers everywhere, with some kind of clever water cleaning-and-recycling trick that Pidge had gone on about for hours once, and a device that looked like a display cabinet but cleaned clothes in minutes if you just hung them inside. Also a little box that the princess swore was for manicure treatments, but so far, Lance hadn't stuck his hands inside to try it out. He didn't really think it would accidentally chop off his fingers or anything, but what if it decided to paint his nails with ten-thousand-year-old polish?

Ten-thousand-year-old soap hadn't sounded like a good idea to Lance at first, either, but everything on offer in the showers looked fresh and smelled good, and now he whistled as he scrubbed and lathered and washed and brushed, practically tying himself in knots to get every crevice of his body squeaky clean. Back home, he'd never been able to stay in the shower as long as he wanted. At the Galaxy Garrison training center, the instructors had dragged him out by the hair more than once.

Here, though, thanks to the super-fast recycling thing, that wasn't an issue. He could stay as long as he wanted, until his toes and fingers wrinkled, or at least until Hunk hit the door to his shower cubicle and shouted, "Dinner! Hey, if you're not coming, can I have yours?"

Lance turned the water off and stepped out wrapped in a big, fluffy space towel. "No." His clothes were nice and clean now, even if they didn't smell like his mom's favorite laundry detergent -- don't think about it -- and he got dressed and finger-combed his hair into place. "I'm ready to go if you are, buddy."

Dinner was green goop with extra goo on top, and for a moment, Lance wished he'd said yes instead; Hunk was welcome to this stuff. He missed real food. A lot. Back on Arus, at least there had been stuff to eat that wasn't Coran's goop surprise, especially after they got to know the Arusians. Arusians had kind of different tastes from humans, sure, but at least they also had different tastes from Alteans, and they ate stuff that they grew themselves. Hunk had been able to make some amazing meals out of that.

"Coran found some important news today," Allura said. "A way for us to begin striking back at the Galra empire."

"Let's hear it, then," Shiro said.

Lance darted his eyes from Shiro to the princess and back again. He couldn't see that they looked any different now than they usually did, or that they were any different in their manner to each other. Okay, so the princess always turned first to Shiro, but then, he was the leader of the Voltron pilots. And Shiro always listened to and supported the princess, but then, she was in charge of the Castle of Lions. It didn't seem strange to Lance. This was just how people acted with each other when they were--

When they were family.

"Yes, indeed!" Coran leapt out of his seat and called up a display to hang in the air so he could point at it. "I overheard a transmission on a frequency mostly used by cargo pilots, and it seems there's a Galra supply ship we can intercept about," he stabbed a finger at the display, "here."

"A supply ship," Keith said. "That doesn't seem worth our time."

"Now, that's where you're wrong!" Coran stabbed his finger at Keith instead. "If we can dismantle their infrastructure--"

Keith looked unimpressed. "By attacking one ship?"

"We must start somewhere," Allura said. "And the transmission hinted that this was a crucial cargo."

Hunk brightened up. "Maybe it's food." Everyone looked at him, and he looked back. "What? That's pretty crucial."

"Somehow I don't think the Galra robot drones eat that much," Pidge said.

"They're not all robots," Hunk argued. "And the actual Galrans are a pretty big people. They probably eat a lot."

"We don't know what this cargo is," Allura said, "but the fact that--"

"We need to strike at vital targets," Keith said. "Not waste our energy on chasing snacks for the Galra cafeteria."

"If we could capture the ship instead of blowing it up," Pidge said, "we might be able to get some useful intelligence about supply routes. That could help us pick targets less randomly." She looked sharply at Coran. "If this really is random, and not an intentional leak meant to trap us."

"Excuse me," Coran said, drawing himself up, "I think I have enough experience of typical space pilot chatter to tell an actual bored cargo pilot from a malicious--"

"Bored cargo pilot?" Keith's eyes gleamed. "Maybe Lance should go, see how he nearly ended up."

"Hey!" Lance decided it would be immature of him to hurl green food goo into Keith's shiny hair -- into Keith's stupid haircut -- the first thing he did. He was perfectly capable of using his words. "I'm not the one who got himself expelled and sat around in a shack drawing weird maps--"

"You should count yourself lucky I got expelled, or you'd still be a cargo-class pilot--"

Maybe the second thing, though. Lance scooped up some goo and took aim.

"That's enough!" Shiro glared impartially from one of them to the other. "You're both lion pilots now, paladins of Voltron. It doesn't matter what you did back at school, half a universe away. Be quiet and let Allura speak." His gaze swept over the rest of the table. "That goes for you as well."

"We don't know what this cargo is," Allura said, as if she'd never been interrupted, "but since it's important to the Galra, we can probably learn a lot from it, and from the ship itself. Pidge is right, we can get information about supply routes in general, and if we're lucky, about crucial cargoes like this one in particular."

"So you'd better eat up," Coran said, his gaze zeroing in on the scoop of goo Lance held ready to launch, "because you'll need plenty of energy tomorrow!"

Keith muttered something too quiet for Lance to pick up on, so Lance kept watching him for the rest of the meal, in case he came out with any more jibes about cargo pilots. Pidge and Hunk got absorbed in discussing the fastest way to decode Galra information, and if they'd do better to just try to download as much as possible and sort though it later -- Pidge -- or if it was possible to use a search algorithm that would choose data in order of presumable relevance -- Hunk.

"We've seen enough Galra files by now that we can extrapolate--"

"We've seen almost nothing!" Pidge objected. "We don't even know that their information systems map onto ours, let alone how they prioritize file retrieval from--"

"You've been in their computers, practically! You wouldn't have been able to do that if there wasn't an architecture that was clear enough for us to--"

It sounded like a friendly discussion, and probably good things would come out of it eventually, even if the volume got progressively louder and Pidge banged a spoon on the nearest plate for emphasis and some green goo splashed up on Hunk's chin. Meanwhile, Shiro and Allura and Coran talked about tactics for tomorrow, and what might be a useful long-term strategy if they did get information about the Galran supply routes. Lance listened with half an ear, and even added a word or two from time to time, although he wasn't always sure that what he said fit perfectly into their reasoning. Shiro gave him a couple of thoughtful looks, until the princess patted his hand with a small smile.

Okay, that was... something. That was definitely something, right there. And he'd noticed it, even though he had his attention split three ways, so take that, Mr. You're-So-Unobservant. Lance tried to make the slant of his eyebrows convey his utter disdain.

"You look bilious," Keith told him. "Don't vomit on the table."

"Now, is that any way to hold a proper dinner conversation?" Coran managed to sound mournful and energetic at the same time. "Maybe we should add a little something to your training routines, now that you're getting better at fighting as a team. Just a smidgeon of social graces, to let you talk to each other as a team, too..."

"There, there, Coran," Allura said, and now she patted Coran's hand the same way she'd patted Shiro's, before. So maybe it wasn't something, after all. "I'm sure the paladins will work this little problem out between themselves."

She looked at Lance, who nodded agreement without really thinking about it, because it was Allura and she was looking at him, and then she looked at Keith, who scowled and left the table. Well, that was rude.

"I'm sure some lessons on Altean court etiquette protocol would work wonders," Coran said, but then he and Allura and Shiro wandered off, too. Lance noted that Altean court etiquette apparently hadn't involved any formal end to meals, if Coran and the princess were anything to go by. His mom would have had a thing or two to say about that, after she got done with Keith.

And he'd give a lot to hear them, too. Lance slumped down in his chair. As hard as he tried not to think about home, and everything he missed about home, sometimes the feelings just ambushed him.

"Hey." Hunk nudged him in the side with a friendly elbow. "You should go after him."

"Go after Coran? Are you nuts?"

"No." Hunk had a surprisingly patient look on his face. "Go after Keith." Lance just stared at him. Hunk stared back. "You know, the guy you kept staring at all the way through dinner?"

"Okay, I did not do that," Lance said, because he hadn't started staring at Keith until maybe halfway through, at the most, and he had perfectly good reasons for that. "I don't want to see any more of him, he doesn't want to see any more of me -- didn't you hear that, he thinks I look bilious. Who even says that? What does it mean?"

"Liverish," Pidge said, which wasn't really helpful. Lance was pretty sure he had a liver, and so far in life, he and his liver got along great, mostly by not fussing at each other. He'd like to keep it that way.

"Lance doesn't think he has a thing for Keith," Hunk said, which was even less helpful. Lance sputtered, too late to clap a hand over Hunk's mouth.

Pidge gave him a profoundly unimpressed look. "You could have just stopped the sentence after Lance doesn't think."

"I'm really feeling the paladin get-along love, here," Lance said. "Go, Team Voltron."

"Yes, yes, we love you lots." Pidge plunked the laptop down on the table, which was definitely one way of signalling that dinner was really and truly over.

"We really do," Hunk said, and he at least sounded as if he meant it. Then he got a glint in his eyes. "Go tell Keith that you want to feel the paladin get-along love with him, too."

"Ew," Lance and Pidge said at the same time.

Pidge and Hunk got involved in pointing things out to each other on the screen, so Lance wandered off, wishing there was something for dessert, or a piece of actual fruit, or something like a juice box that didn't have Coran's idea of a sports drink in it. Maybe the green goo was meeting all his nutritional needs, but he was an Earth boy, and he had food needs the green goo didn't even come close to. Lance headed down the hallway, thinking about the taste and texture of a perfect flan.

He ended up in his own room, and sat down on the bed, because there wasn't much else to do. Lance thought there ought to be a way to call up one of those transparent screens, like Coran did all the time. Maybe then he could watch ten-thousand-year-old Altean soap operas to put himself to sleep.

Maybe he could get some stuff to put in the room, so it didn't feel so stark. Something on the walls. A few space candles here and there. At least the sheets were nice.

And the en-suite. Lance was already as clean as he could be, but he wandered in and out, brushing his teeth, fiddling with his hair, leaning into the mirror and poking at his chin, trying to decide if he needed to shave. Maybe tomorrow. When the only thing left to experiment with was the manicure box, he retreated into the room again and undressed for bed. The pajamas, when he pulled them on, were silky-warm against his bare skin. Lance snuggled down in the bed and fumbled for his sleep mask.

Ever since the time when the princess and Coran faked an attack on the castle as some kind of test, training exercise, demonstration of paladin ineptitude, whatever, Lance had stopped wearing headphones to bed, even though that familiar pressure and some nice soothing music put him right out. He wasn't giving up the mask, though. Didn't matter that a spaceship cabin could be made darker than his old room, than any room he'd ever slept in, and the sun obviously never came up. That wasn't the point. Routines were important if you wanted to get a good night's sleep.

And changing the routine just slightly from place to place was important, too. He already knew this from his time at the Galaxy Garrison. Trying to replicate his old sleeping habits completely just left him disoriented if he succeeded, as if he existed in two places at once, and out here in the spaceship-castle, he couldn't afford to do anything that would make him miss home too much.

He did, though. He missed home so much. The smell of real food. Sitting on the beach and sifting warm sand through his fingers. Rain falling on his face.

Most of all, he missed being in the kitchen of the old house, surrounded by family, people he loved, people who loved him. Talking, laughing, arguing, hugging and kissing and cuffing and cursing and always, always being there, just as he was always there for them.

Lance lay down flat on his back. The sleep mask let nothing escape. Then he curled up on his side, and the only reason he sniffed was because of the change in position. Then he sprawled on his stomach for a bit. He fumbled for a tissue, didn't find one, and sniffed again. Then he turned onto his other side and came right up against a large, warm, furry body. A wave of blue-tinged affection rolled over him.

Blue!

There was no doubt and no confusion. She was just there, next to his body and somehow next to his thoughts, in his mind, just as when he was bonding with his lion during flying exercises. Lance pressed his face into her fur. He wasn't crying on her. He was only sniffing to find out what she smelled like -- not like a cat at all, but like darkness and static and the emptiness between stars, like space would smell if it had a smell, maybe.

She was lean and rangy, and her long limbs tangled with his own. Her tail curved around his calf. He tucked his head in under hers. All he could feel from her at first was that steady outpouring of her feelings for him, a closeness and support that let him cry if he needed to -- that let him stop crying and just breathe, just be, resting against her physical and mental presence.

Finally he said, I didn't know you could do this.

A sensation like laughter. She was closer to him than anyone had ever been, she was part of him, or he was part of her. She was powerful. She was beautiful. He didn't need to see her to know that, and she purred softly inside him, acknowledging the compliment and the way his mind said it was nothing but truth.

Lance wondered if this was what Coran had meant by bonding. Maybe this kind of closeness between lions and paladins was the real goal. It felt natural. I'm sorry I got you stuck head-down in a sand dune, he said.

More laughter, and at the same time her tail swatted his leg, just hard enough to sting. Okay, so don't do that again. It was really Keith's fault, anyway.

Blue rubbed her head against his, like she was scenting him, only with that not-smell of hers. An image dropped into his mind -- his family, his home. It was so sharp, between one breath and the next he was suddenly on the verge of tears again. The next wave of sensation from her was love and apology mixed together, and something that he couldn't quite place. She dropped a second image: all the paladins, along with Allura and Coran, around the table, eating and talking and laughing and arguing and...

She was right, of course. Lance had already thought it about Shiro and Allura. They were like a family. A really weird family, but still. Back when Hunk had called Lance and Keith his brothers, it had felt strange, but maybe now...

No. Lance's feelings might be taking a roller-coaster ride right now, but one thing was very clear, Keith was not his brother. Hunk, sure, and Pidge, although Pidge was apparently a sister, but Keith? Nope. No way.

Blue laughed in his mind again. She toyed with the image of Keith like a cat batting a catnip mouse about, this way and that, upside down and all around, from all angles, and Lance hadn't realized he had quite such clear visuals of Keith's ass lurking in his memories. Or Keith's hands in those stupid fingerless gloves, or his shoulders, the way his tight t-shirt pulled across his chest, the fall of his shiny hair.

In its ridiculous haircut, Lance added quickly, Keith looked stupid and his hair was stupid and his clothes were stupid and his deep purple-blue eyes were stupid and his mouth was, was, was something Lance had never noticed or thought about at all, in any way!

And Blue wouldn't stop laughing.

Keith was definitely not his brother, though.

Eventually Lance fell asleep, snuggled up to Blue as close as he could get, with her love and laughter winding softly through his thoughts as they slowed for the night. When he woke up, she was gone, but her crystal-sharp non-scent clung to his sheets. Lance smiled.

It was nice to be one of the well-rested people in the morning, but Lance was still grateful to Shiro for telling Coran that the briefing for their upcoming mission could wait until after breakfast. With any luck, Hunk would have more than one eye open then. Shiro could probably pull off that alert, intelligent look even after a week of no sleep, but Pidge was sullen and yawning. As for Keith, well, Lance wasn't looking at Keith, since contrary to what some people -- and lions -- thought, he didn't spend all his time staring at the Red Paladin. So he had no idea. Really.

When they all gathered in the big, airy control roon, suited up and ready for whatever the day was going to bring them, Allura looked approvingly at them. "Remember, paladins, the important thing we're looking for here is information. Whatever cargo the ship is transporting may turn out to be a bonus for us, but your main goal has to be what the ship's computers can tell us about what Zarkon's forces are doing and how his troops are supplied."

Okay, so Lance was awake and he was ready to go, but being awake enough to listen also meant he was awake enough to think that this sounded really amazingly boring. "Do we really need Voltron for this?" he said. "Isn't that kind of overkill? One lion could just zip out there, grab the cargo ship, and be back here in time for lunch."

"We'd do better to be prepared for anything," Shiro said.

"Right!" Coran called up a pair of transparent screens. "This mystery cargo of theirs could turn out to be giant killer robots with poisonous claws!" He crooked one arm up over his head and made clawing gestures. "Who shoot missiles from their kneecaps!" He started to wriggle one leg.

Pidge elbowed Lance and hissed, "See what you made him do!"

It was true that Coran could be worse than a whole village of Arusians in full-on interpretive dance mode. Quickly, Lance pointed to the second screen and said, "So is that a blueprint of this model of cargo ship? We know what it looks like?"

"Yes indeed, young paladin! All of this," Coran pointed with rapid jabs, "is the cargo hold, and this is the cockpit and crew area -- the ship can actually jettison the cargo section and keep flying. Extraordinary technology, really."

It didn't sound all that extraordinary to Lance, but then, he hadn't been asleep for ten thousand years.

"If that happens," Allura said, "your first priority must be the flying part of the ship. Whatever the cargo is, it can't be as important as the information we could get from the ship's computers."

"I don't know, Allura," Coran said, "the pilot indicated that this was the most crucial shipment ever to come his way!"

"He could just be very new to piloting," Keith said. Which was actually a good point, Lance had to admit.

"Let's go find out." Shiro leaned towards the closest screen. "We can intercept the ship here -- there's a moon for us to hide behind, set up an ambush."

As they trotted down the hallway towards their launching points, Lance asked Hunk, "So did you and Pidge decide on the best way to extract information from a Galran system?"

"Yeah," Hunk said, "we've set up a whole new retrieval process based on our combined efforts and what we've learned about Galra tech so far, and it's based on a methodology that I extrapolated from-- Are you even listening?"

"No," Lance admitted.

Hunk made an annoyed noise. "Well, it's gonna work out great. Did you go after Keith?"

"No," Lance said again. He flicked his eyes ahead to check that Keith was out of hearing range, only to find that Keith wasn't nearly as far away as Lance would have preferred, and was actually looking back over his shoulder, having probably caught the mention of his name. "Oh, look, here we are at the launching capsules! See you out there, Hunk!"

Lance slapped Hunk on the shoulder and dove into his capsule, and then went through the whole long thrill ride that he had to admit he secretly loved, before being deposited in the Blue Lion's cockpit. Lance stroked his hands over the controls like he was stroking fur, and she started up with a purr. They were out of the castle and into space in an instant, meeting up with the others and taking off right away, with Shiro in the lead.

"Looks like the cargo ship is a little faster than we thought," Shiro said, and right away one of Blue's screens showed the ship they were planning to intercept, already drawing close to the ambush point.

"And there's company," Pidge said tersely as they swung up behind the moon that was supposed to hide them. "Wasn't this just an ordinary supply run?"

"That's what Coran said." Keith didn't sound like he was going to trust another word out of Coran's mouth, ever. Looking at the Galra fighters flying in guard position around the cargo ship, Lance wasn't sure he would, either.

Still, it didn't look like impossible odds or anything. "I can pick them off from here," he said. Blue agreed that they had a good angle, and could easily make most of the shots.

"Good," Shiro said, and now his voice had that firm and steady tone to it that meant everyone had better obey. "Lance, Hunk, take out the fighters. Pidge, Keith, as soon as the way to the cargo ship is clear, we'll go in and take it."

Lance was already setting up for his first shot, and he saw that Hunk was, too. "You keep this angle, Hunk," he said, considering what he knew of the cannon's range and flexibility. "I'll go higher."

"Don't be reckless, Lance," Shiro said.

"I'm never reckless." Recklessness was for Keith, with the poor impulse control and the rushing headlong into danger. Lance knew exactly what he was doing, and he grinned as he took his first shot and the first Galra fighter exploded. "Woo!"

He concentrated on the targets that were farther away, leaving the ones that were closer and lower to the moon to Hunk; they were getting pretty good at knowing each other's range by now. The cargo ship started to move faster forward, with a few of the fighters clustering up around it. "It's trying to get away," Keith hissed, and the Red Lion darted forward, followed by the Green and the Black.

"Now who's reckless," Lance muttered. He couldn't fire right into the mess of cargo ship, fighters, and lions. He darted around, trying to get a better angle, since they weren't exactly pretending to hide behind the moon anymore.

The cargo ship put on another unexpected burst of speed, and went straight towards the planet that the moon revolved around. That was definitely unexpected. "Isn't that planet uninhabited?" Hunk said over the comm.

"It's coming apart!" Keith yelled. "Lance, did you shoot at the cargo ship?"

"No," Lance said, offended. The cargo ship was definitely coming apart, with the bigger, heavier cargo section spinning away into the planet's gravity well.

"Coran said they can do that," Pidge snapped, "which you'd know if you two listened in briefings instead of just staring at each other."

"That's not--"
"Shut up--"

Lance started to yell something, and Keith started to yell something, and the middle of a firefight was the absolute worst place for this, and he wanted to strangle Pidge and point out that he had too been listening at the same time, and he didn't stare at Keith, and Keith definitely didn't stare at him, because he'd have noticed, not that he stared enough at Keith to notice anything, but--

"Quiet, everyone," Shiro said, voice sharp with command. "Pidge, Hunk, after the crew section of the cargo ship. I'll keep the fighters off you. Lance, Keith, get the cargo. Go."

Sure, it made sense to send Hunk and Pidge after the cockpit section of the cargo ship, since they were the ones that knew best what needed to be retrieved from it and how to do the retrieval. But the cargo? Lance was the sharpshooter ace of this little group, and he ought to be right there beside Shiro to keep the fighters off.

He wasn't going to disobey that tone of voice, though, so he veered off and sent Blue into a sharp dive, and saw that the Red Lion was doing the same thing, a little distance away. "You take that side, I'll stay over here," Keith said, "and we'll flank it."

"Flank it? It's a free-floating cargo unit!" Lance flung his arms up, realized Keith couldn't see him anyway, and quickly dropped his hands to the controls again at Blue's soft rumble.

"And what if Coran was right about the mystery cargo?" Keith said impatiently. Right then they dropped into the atmosphere of the planet, lighting up like meteors, which Lance had to admit looked better on the Red Lion. He hoped the cargo had decent protection and wasn't just burning up.

"Shyeah," Lance said, "poison-claw robots. It's probably just Galra coffee." Not that he'd say no to some decent coffee. Space roast. He spun Blue out a little to the right. The plummeting cargo section was doing something, hatches opening up, something coming out, unfurling. "Are those parachutes?" Lance stared. "What happened to all that advanced space technology?"

"It's working, isn't it?"

They had to slow a bit to keep pace with the cargo, going down, and it drifted a bit this way and that as winds grabbed it. The parachutes were Galra purple, and didn't look to be made of any kind of fabric Lance had ever seen before. If it was even fabric -- he could see now that there was a metallic gleam to it.

"We could just grab this on the way down," he said. "We don't have to land, that's just a waste of time."

Keith made a dismissive noise. "You want to drag a year's supply of space sporks and paper napkins back to the Castle of Lions? Better to get a look at it once it's down, so we know if it's worth our time."

"Yeah?" Lance glared in the direction of the Red Lion. "And just who put you in charge of decisions here?"

"Gravity," Keith said, and both their lions looped back as the cargo unit crashed to the ground. A cloud of dirt and dust exploded outwards, and the parachutes billowed one final time and settled, covering the cargo unit like a purple shroud. They'd come down in a dry, flattish area; something very like a prairie stretched out for miles in every direction, covered in something scrubby-orange that Lance was going to call space grass until he got a better name for it.

Lance leaned forward a bit, pressing the controls for Blue to go closer and down. The purple maybe-not-cloth shifted, and the big bay doors at the rear of the cargo compartment opened, and out came a stream of--

"Oh, crap."

Those were definitely robots. Not all that big, by Voltron standards; a Voltron-sized robot wouldn't have been able to fit inside the cargo compartment, of course, and it would be a tight fit even for just the Green Lion. These were more person-sized, with a band of glowing eyes all around their heads, and deep chests that could hold any amount of ammunition.

"They've got claws," Keith said. "I thought Coran was just making that up."

"They're not shooting anything from their kneecaps, are they?" Lance targeted the nearest robot and fired. It fell down, which was good, but all the others swung their heads his way, lifted their right arms, and began to fire back. Lance didn't even have time to swear as he and Blue started dodging this way and that, twisting out of the way of the shots. With the ground so flat and open, there was absolutely nothing to hide behind.

He got a second robot, and then a third one, getting nothing but a few grazes and scrapes here and there, and then a lucky shot from one robot hit one of Blue's legs a little too hard; she yowled in his mind as a warning message started to scroll up on one of the cockpit screens about damaged servos and hydraulic valves.

"I've got this," Keith said, and the Red Lion smashed right into the middle of the crowd of robots, a bright beam shooting from its jaws.

"Keith, you idiot," Lance growled, or maybe that was Blue doing the growling. He tried to pick robots off around the edges, so as not to accidentally fire at Keith, though it was hard with the way the Red Lion kept leaping about, never still for as much as a heartbeat.

"Guys?" Shiro's voice over the comm sounded a little strained. "You doing okay?"

"We're fine," Lance and Keith said in unison. Lance crept closer, though Blue was limping. There was nothing wrong with her tail lasers, and the robots couldn't hold up against more than a couple of shots at most.

Keith seemed to be doing fine, until several robots banded together and swarmed the Red Lion as a group, dragging it down and prying at the jaws as if trying to open it up and winkle Keith out. Lance thought it looked like nothing so much as unaccustomed diners faced with an oyster that fired back.

Unaccustomed, maybe, but far from unarmed. They hammered at the Red Lion, and it tried to wrestle free and shake them off. Lance couldn't fire without hitting Keith as much as the robots. He shrugged, felt Blue shrug in his mind, and leapt into the fray with a shout.

Close combat wasn't his forte, and with one leg damaged, Blue wasn't her agile self. All the weaponry worked fine, though, and Lance started pulling robots away from the Red Lion in his jaws, firing lasers at them while he held them and they couldn't avoid the blast, then dropping the remains.

The Red Lion got to its feet again, swatting robots this way and that with one large paw. It was acting a lot more like an actual big cat than Lance had ever seen before. He tried to keep a close eye on it while at the same time firing at the robots and avoiding the robots' return shots.

"Pull back!" Keith said. "Pull back and leave this to me," a robot shot came way too close, Blue leapt to one side to avoid it, and the rattle from the damaged leg as they tried to keep their balance drowned out the next words, "...cover fire!"

"Not when you're right in the middle of it," Lance muttered. He wasn't about to just leave the Red Paladin fighting in a crowd of robots, not when he couldn't offer any decent support from range, either. There were fewer robots now than there had been, but some of the broken ones were-- Lance stiffened. Were reassembling themselves from undamaged parts, arms slotting into the sockets of another torso where the paint job didn't quite match up, picking a head up and slamming it into place and then they could see to shoot again. "Oh, that's just great."

"We have to smash the heads," Keith said. "Targeting function's in the eyes." He blasted two robots apart, and the Red Lion stomped down on a third one, grinding the head into pieces.

Lance started to take headshots, which was slow work, because while the robots weren't all that agile, the Red Paladin was jumping around like a cat on a hot tin roof. Also, since they were smaller than the lions, the robots could take cover behind the cargo unit, which some of them had done; Lance didn't know what they were doing back there, but he was pretty sure he didn't like it. "Uh, Shiro," he said, "actually, if you guys are done up there, we could use some backup."

"We'll be there in a minute," Pidge said, sounding a million miles away. "This download is almost done."

Lance dodged a shot from one robot only to end up in the path of another one. Blue didn't feel pain, exactly, but the awareness of something wrong was clear and intense through the bond.

"It's just a few little robots," Keith snarled. "Why can't we just take them out!"

"Wait, you guys have robots?" Hunk said. "That doesn't sound good."

"We'll be right there," Shiro said, sounding decisive enough that Lance hoped Pidge really was done with that data download. Keith was right, it was just a few little robots, and two lions ought to be able to handle that without any trouble, even if the robots had a lot more firepower than Lance had anticipated, even if they could reassemble themselves to come back into the fight after it looked like they were done.

Right then, the ones behind the cargo unit stood up. And up. Several small robots had built themselves together into one large one, in a disturbingly Voltron sort of way, and Lance was horrified to see it lift an arm and fire a new kind of shot, a heavy bolt of energy straight at the Red Paladin. "Keith, look out!" Lance yelled.

Keith was fast, and he was good at dodging, but whatever kind of shot that was, it left a scorch mark all along the Red Lion's side. That didn't look good. Lance started to lift up, because he and Blue weren't ground fighters, and if he could just get clear enough to get a good shot--

The assembled robot reached out, before Lance could barely get his paws off the ground, and punched Blue in the head with a giant robot fist. She crashed down flat, legs splayed every which way, and Lance could feel that, the unnatural stretch of it, at the same time as he felt the rattling pain of his own body. The chair in the cockpit squeezed him tight, keeping him from skidding off and slamming into anything, but he didn't think his side was supposed to feel like that. Or his head, for that matter. The robot had hit Blue, but Lance felt as though it was his head that had taken the blow.

Blue tried to scramble up, Keith yelled something over the comm, and the robots that weren't part of the big assembled one started to draw together and climb up on top of each other, like they thought they could just build themselves together like the others had done, right there.

Not while Lance was watching. He blasted them with everything he had, and the robots fell apart like a badly-built Jenga tower. Whatever Keith was yelling started to sound really urgent, and in order to shoot the small robots he'd taken his attention off the big one for a moment, where was it--

A giant robot fist smacked down on Blue's head again, and everything went dark.