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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.

Chapter Text

Lance took a deep breath, and his ribs twinged. He realized he was awake, and opened his eyes to find that he was flat on his back in an unfamiliar bed with Coran leaning over him, waving some small hand-held instrument or other. Lance lifted a hand to grasp at Coran's sleeve.

"You're awake!" Coran's face lit up with a relieved smile. "Of course I knew you'd be awake soon enough -- paladins are tough! I was sure there was nothing to worry about, even though we couldn't put you in a healing pod. Sorry about that! The others should be here any moment. You're not experiencing any odd sensations from your left side, are you? I packed it in a Karneser wrap, traditional Altean medicine, but it should work fine on humans, I mean, here you are, awake--"

There was a lot there that Lance wanted to ask about, like why they hadn't been able to put him in a healing pod, or what a Karneser wrap was -- he could tell now that there was something sticky clinging to the left side of his torso, from armpit to hip -- or why no one else was around to stand watch over their fallen hero and worry about his recovery.

The most important question had to come first, though. His head was fuzzy and heavy, and that might be why he wasn't feeling things as clearly as he should have been. "Blue?" he got out.

"Your lion is fine," Coran assured him, looking up at where the others came bustling in all together in a big group, as if they'd been hanging out somewhere close. "Busy with self-diagnostics and auto-repairs, of course, after a fight like that!"

Lance drew breath to ask another question about that, but right then the others reached the bed and crowded around him. "Good to see you awake again," Shiro said. "I'm sorry we couldn't come faster, after your distress call."

"That was my fault." Pidge sat on the edge of the bed, next to Lance's legs. "If the interface with the Galra tech had worked better--"

"Hey, I wrote half of that interface," Hunk said."So it's half my fault." He looked earnestly at Lance, one arm behind his back, and then he brought out a plate and held it under Lance's nose in a ta-da gesture. "Forgive me?"

Slices of pink, yellow and orange were arranged in an artful spiral, with a sprig of green on top. "Is that fruit?" Lance stared. "Actual fresh fruit? Like, did you sell my kidneys on the intergalactic black market for this, because if you did, wow, I think it was worth it."

"That's what was in the other half of that cargo," Pidge said. "The half that wasn't robots."

Lance frowned. "Who ships robots and fruit together? That doesn't make any sense."

"Ah, well, you see," Coran said.

"It was a gift for Emperor Zarkon," Allura said. She stood at the foot of the bed, and wasn't smiling quite as much as the others. "The government of Ymrie sent the best their planet has to offer, in the hopes of allying with the Galra rather than be conquered by them."

"Nothing says alliance like big murder robots. Right." Lance could smell the fruit, and it smelled delicious. So maybe that did smell like alliance. He looked at his friends. Then he squinted more closely at them, to see if a short, grumpy, dark-haired person was hiding behind someone at the back. No, not that he could make out. "Where's Keith?"

Now Allura looked completely serious. "He's in the healing pod." She held up a hand in response to whatever expression was on Lance's face -- he wasn't sure himself. "He will be fine! We were just there, checking on him. He did suffer rather a lot of damage in the fight, and Coran thought it would be best to concentrate the healing pod energies on him, and treat your injuries by more old-fashioned means."

Lance frowned. "Okay, what happened?"

"We're not sure," Shiro said. "By the time we made it down to the planet's surface, Keith was out of his lion."

Lance groaned. Either the robots had succeeded in their oyster-winkling project, which was bad, or Keith had actually jumped out of his own free will, which was disturbingly like that impulsive dumbass, and also bad.

"Oh, man," Hunk said, "it was the coolest thing. I mean, it was horrible, but it was cool. He was using his bayard to fight the robots, keeping them off Red and Blue, and he was so fast!"

"The robots still hit him, though," Pidge said. "But when four of us were fighting them together, they didn't have a chance. We could scatter the pieces before they had a chance to rebuild themselves. The Yellow Lion headbutted the big robot."

"Yeah." Hunk rubbed at his forehead. "And Shiro cut it to pieces. Then Pidge watched the cargo transport while Shiro and I got you and Keith back here, and we brought the castle close so we could load up all the fruit and research material."

"Research material?" Lance picked up a slice of pink fruit and ate it. It tasted fantastic.

"Robot parts," Pidge said, very matter-of-fact.

"Wait, what?" Lance tried to sit up, and Hunk had to rescue the plate of fruit as it went sliding. "You brought crazy murdering self-assembling robots back here?"

"The robot parts are safely contained," Allura said. "It's important for us to keep this technology out of Galra hands, and to persuade the people of Ymrie that an alliance with Galra is not in their best interests."

"The Galra empire doesn't need more and better robots," Shiro agreed. "We haven't seen more than a fraction of the technology and the military power they can already bring to bear." There was darkness in his eyes. "I understand why Ymrie doesn't want to stand up to them."

"They don't have to stand up to them," Pidge said. "Just not actually stand with them."

"Like the Balmerans," Hunk said, with a hint of Shay-adoration in his eyes. He ate a piece of fruit from the plate he was still holding on to.

The princess squared her shoulders, like she was planning the best way to give these Ymrians a stern talking-to. It was weird, Lance thought. Maybe it was the angle, with him almost flat on his back like this, or maybe it was the lighting in this room. Maybe it was just knowing that she and Shiro were whatever they were. She was still the prettiest girl in this region of space, but now he was looking at her because he knew she had something to say.

"We're all very glad to see you awake again, Lance," and yes, okay, that note of real feeling in her voice did make him feel all warm inside, "but you need more rest, so the Karneser can do its job properly. Isn't that right, Coran?"

"I'm sure it's working as fast as it can!" Coran said. "Eat some fruit, get some sleep, and you'll be on your feet again in no time!"

That sounded good. Except that both Allura and Coran made it sound as though this traditional Altean medicine thing of Coran's actually had some kind of agency of its own, and that couldn't be right. "So what is this Karn-whatever thing that you're using on me," Lance began to say as he pushed the covers down a bit on his left side. Then he caught sight of the Karneser wrap and jumped. "Aaah! A jellyfish, there's a jellyfish stuck to my body, get it off!"

"Now, none of that," Coran said, catching Lance's arms as he flailed. "The Karneser wrap is healing you. Don't you feel better already?"

"It's a jellyfish," Lance said. "You put a jellyfish on me!"

Allura turned to Shiro. "Is there an Earth taboo about jellyfish that Coran and I were not aware of?"

Shiro looked amused. "Some of the ones on Earth are toxic to humans," he said. "But it looks like Lance just thinks they're gross."

"That's fascinating." Pidge leaned forward and poked at the Karneser with a finger. "How does it work?"

Coran slapped Pidge's finger away. "Don't confuse it! The Karneser bonds through skin contact."

"It will stay attached until Lance is healed," Allura said. "Then it will dry up and flake off."

"You mean it will die?" Lance said, dismayed. He really didn't like having a big jellyfish wrapped around his ribs, because yes, it was gross, and Shiro could just stop looking at him like that, but he didn't actually want to kill it.

"No, no, we'll just put the pieces in water," Coran said cheerfully, "and they'll grow into new Karneser. About time we got some generational turnover. This one's been sitting around since before I went into stasis!"

"You put a ten-thousand-year-old jellyfish on me?!" Lance stretched out a demanding hand. "Hunk, give me my fruit back. The antique jellyfish probably needs all the help it can get."

The others began to wander off. Shiro lingered a little longer, putting a hand on Lance's calf to give it a friendly shake-and-squeeze. "I'm glad you're better," he said. "Having two of the team out was worrying."

"About that," Lance said. "Is Keith, I mean, is he going to be okay?"

"Yes," Shiro said firmly. "You know how well the healing pod worked on you. He's going to be fine. It's just taking a while."

"Yeah, about that," Lance said. "Does this whole big castle-spaceship only have one healing pod? It's not that I want any of us to get hurt, but if we do, do we have to pick one person who gets the pod, and it's jellyfish and bandaids for the rest of us?"

Shiro shook his head. "No. There was only one pod in ready-mode when we brought you back here, but Coran has started up the others so they'll be ready in the future. He assured us that all you needed was the Karneser treatment, though. Looks to be working -- you seem better, you're a lot less bruised now."

What Lance had seen of his torso at the edges of the jellyfish wrap was mottled blue and purple and dark green, so if this was better, he was glad he'd been unconscious for most of the worse. The twinges from his ribs were nothing compared to what he'd felt when the robot-assembly was hitting him and Blue, so the Karneser probably was working just the way it should, even though it was a gross-looking jellyfish.

But if Lance had been chosen for the jellyfish treatment, that meant Keith had needed the healing pod, so he must have been more hurt.

Lance looked at Shiro. "You can tell me the truth, you know. Is Keith really -- is he really going to be okay?" He knew he'd asked it just a moment ago, and he didn't really think Shiro would lie to him, or that the others would, but according to Hunk, Keith had taken on all those robots, out of his lion, which sounded like a really bad idea, and it felt weird to wake up to the rest of the team and not have Keith there, arms crossed, glaring.

"Yes, Lance." Shiro shook his head, but he looked fond, with a hint of that amused little smile again. "Get some rest, and as soon as you can get up, you can see for yourself."

Lance fell asleep with his mouth full of fruit, woke up a little when someone came by and took the plate off his chest, and slept some more.

The next time he woke, his jellyfish-free side was pinned down by a long, lean, furry body. Blue. He lifted a hand to rub at her head and stroke along her neck and shoulder. The rumbling purr he got in return shook the whole bed. Are you all right?

The images and sensations he got from her had an odd overlap to them, as if she was showing him both her cat body and her robot one, but the message was clear: repairs were underway, healing was ongoing, she was in better shape than he was.

Good. Lance tucked himself more closely into her warmth.

With Blue's company, dozing and resting and healing was a lot less boring, and Lance wasn't surprised to find the jellyfish flaking off him soon enough. All that remained of the bruising was faint shadows on his skin, and one morning he woke to find Blue licking his chest with her raspy, tingling tongue as though she could wash the last traces away. Lance wondered if that was really good for her, but hey, with the jellyfish gone, that meant he could finally get out of bed, so he wasn't going to argue.

He was a little wobbly at first, getting to his feet, but Blue supported him.

"The ship told me you were up!" Coran bustled in just as Lance had managed to collect all of his uniform pieces. "I knew the Karneser wrap would do the trick. There's a bathroom through there -- full decontamination, too, but of course you don't need that now." He began to pick up the remains of the Karneser, and Lance went to have a shower.

The shower facility was excellent, as was only to be expected from the Castle of Lions. Lance washed away every lingering trace of jellyfish stickiness on his skin and put on clean clothes with a happy sigh. He hadn't spent a lot of time in the sickbay part of the castle, at least not while he was conscious, but it was easy to navigate, and he had no trouble at all finding the room with the healing pods.

One pod was lit up, with Keith inside it, eyes closed. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front, reading something off a pad, was Shiro. He looked up and grinned when he saw Lance approaching. "Good to see you up," he said, getting to his feet. "You can take over here. I'll tell the others."

"Tell them what?" Lance glanced at what he could see of Keith over Shiro's shoulder. "Man, did I look that bad when it was me in there? That blue-green light is so not doing his complexion any favors." Lance shivered a little, involuntarily. "Honestly, he looks dead."

Shiro clapped him on the shoulder. "He's doing fine, don't worry. I'll come get you for dinner." He strode off, and Lance realized that he'd been left on Keith-watching duty, and there wasn't even a chair. Did the ancient Alteans never watch at anyone's podside?

If Shiro could sit on the floor, he could sit on the floor. Lance sank down and realized as soon as he did that he apparently had lingering bruises on his ass that the jellyfish on his ribs had done very little for. He grimaced, and squirmed, and thought about standing up again. Then he noticed the space mice coming towards him across the floor, dragging something that was bigger than all four of them put together.

A cushion, he saw when they came closer. They dropped it on the floor right in front of him and squeaked.

"Uh," Lance said. "Thanks?" He really needed a cushion, and his ass was very appreciative once he'd wriggled it underneath himself, but the whole thing was more than a little unnerving; the mice must have started fetching that cushion long before Lance discovered that he wanted one. They squeaked at him again, and Lance shook his head. "You realize I can't understand you, right?"

The biggest mouse stepped forward and waved its arms emphatically. Squeak!

"Nope," Lance said. "Sorry." Something made him add, "Hunk thinks if I knit sweaters for you guys, it might help." All of them started to squeak at once. "But I don't have anything to knit with, and besides, are you guys even cold? I mean, do you need clothes?"

The squeaks took on a distinct note of, that's not the point! Lance grinned, because that was the closest he'd ever come to understanding the space mice since the first time he'd seen them. He was about to try to pet the nearest one, because it was pretty cute, when all four made an about-turn and loped off.

The room seemed a lot emptier when they were gone: just Lance and his cushion, which he was deeply grateful for, and Keith in the healing pod, unnaturally still and silent and, frankly, dead-looking. Not the greatest company. The room was dark, too, nothing at all like the well-lit bustle of an Earth hospital; shadows lingered everywhere, and even though the low blue-green light was constant, the shadows seemed to be moving.

Lance shook his head. Maybe that knock from the robot had been a bit too hard. Maybe he wasn't quite as healed as Coran and the Karneser wrap had thought. He definitely saw something shift from one shadow to another, a large shape creeping along the wall, ducking around the empty pods.

He closed his eyes, breathed deeply in and out, and slowly looked again. Yeah, that was definitely something moving. Half-transparent, wholly silent, head low and tail-tip flicking. That was the Red Lion, sneaking up towards Keith's pod.

Lance politely pretended he didn't see it. He wasn't anything like an expert on skittish animals, but he was pretty sure he didn't want to get accidentally clawed from startling a really big cat. From what he could make out in the corner of his eye, Red was built differently from Blue, more compact, stockier, with shorter legs -- probably outweighed her, though.

Red made short half-circles behind the pod, then lay down next to it, on the opposite side from where Lance was sitting. He could just make out a pair of crossed paws. When Lance looked up, there was no difference in Keith's still face.

Dinner-time wasn't that far away, it turned out. Lance was already on his feet, doing some careful stretches, when Shiro came to get him. "Hunk's done the cooking tonight," Shiro said. "That Ymrie transport had some stuff we're calling vegetables, as well as the fruit."

The food looked delicious, unsurprisingly, and Lance seated himself with the others and was just about to dig in when Coran plunked down a bowl of some really appalling-looking green and white goo in front of him. "I prepared this especially for you!" he said. "Full of the right nutrients for a recovering invalid!"

Lance stared at the stuff. "Maybe you should save it for Keith."

"Oh, don't you worry, there's plenty more where this came from! I'll make sure all you paladins are in tip-top condition!"

Fortunately, Shiro distracted Coran with some questions, and Lance was able to push the bowl aside -- because that stuff smelled even worse than it looked -- and try Hunk's creations instead. "This is great," he said enthusiastically. "What is this," he waved a forkful, "like a sweet potato?"

Hunk shrugged, with a small, pleased smile. "Tastes like it. We didn't get a lot out of that part of the shipping manifest."

"I thought this place," Lance tilted his head to indicate the whole Castle of Lions, "would have the best database of everything people eat in this part of the galaxy."

"It's ten thousand years out of date," Pidge said. "Guess the Alteans didn't believe in automatic updates."

Hunk shrugged. "Altea was destroyed," he pointed out. "It doesn't matter if Coran had a subscription to Fruit of the Month back there."

Lance nodded slowly. It was hard to keep in mind all the time that this spaceship-castle was so old. That the lions were so old; that Allura and Coran were so old; that everything he touched and used in here predated human written history by, um. A lot. That was kind of disturbing, and he ate another bite of not-quite-sweet-potato, which was reassuringly tasty and contemporary. "So we're hurtling through space in a ship that's flying according to what was the best idea ten thousand years ago."

"Space doesn't change much," Allura said, and Lance startled a little, because he hadn't known she was listening. "But political alliances have changed a lot. I've been trying to track down reliable sources for the time we spent in stasis, and I plan to read up on the history of those years while we travel towards Ymrie."

That wasn't quite what Lance had meant. More like, he was flying in a spaceship that was ten thousand years old, with an engine that was ten thousand years old, steered by an operating system that was ten thousand years old, and honestly, why didn't everything here fall apart as soon as he breathed on it?

That distant feeling of amusement had to be Blue laughing in his mind again. And okay, yes, everything seemed pretty sturdy. But it was so old!

Blue laughed again -- laughter with an interrogative twist. Did he think she was old?

Well, of course not. She was Blue. He loved her, he trusted her completely, and he certainly didn't think she was falling-apart old.

So the rest of the spaceship-castle probably wasn't about to fall apart, either. He was still going to think it was disturbingly old, though.

"That's a good idea," Shiro was saying to the princess. "The government of Ymrie should be reminded that there are other options besides Galra."

"Reminded?" Pidge's glasses gleamed. "Reminded like they knew it before -- you mean they were buddies with Altea once?"

"That's cool," Hunk said enthusiastically. "Good reason for them to be on our side now."

"Are they even going to remember that?" Lance had his doubts. Maybe the spaceship-castle wasn't falling apart, maybe people out in space had long memories, but realistically speaking, well. "A lot of things can happen in ten thousand years. A lot of things probably did happen."

"Yes," Allura agreed, and a little of the sparkle was gone from her eyes. "I've instructed the castle-ship to travel slowly enough that we'll have plenty of time to prepare our approach."

After dinner, Lance went back to sickbay. Keith would probably recover just fine on his own in the pod, with Red watching over him, and the mice in and out all the time, and Coran, and Shiro, and everyone. Really, Lance didn't need to be there at all. He went there all the same.

It wasn't that he was worried about Keith. Keith would be fine. Back to his annoying self in no time, glowering at them all in that frustratingly self-contained way of his, probably.

Lance wasn't concerned at all. Things were bound to be a lot more relaxed and easy-going for a while without Keith around -- without an awake Keith around, that was, to constantly prod at Lance and make it clear that he could do everything faster and better, if he cared to. And it wasn't as if Lance felt responsible because Keith had been hurt defending him. No one had asked Keith to do it, for one thing, and he was bound to have done the same for anyone else, for another, and getting out of his lion was foolhardy and stupid, for a third, and Lance was going to give Keith a piece of his mind about that as soon as Keith woke up. Which was why he had to be there when it happened.

He went into the bay with the pods and sat down again. Someone had been busy while he was away -- probably the space mice. Now, next to the cushion, there was an upright rod with a glowing bulb on top, as close to an ordinary lamp as Lance had come across in the spaceship-castle, and also a basket.

A really ordinary-looking basket, as low-tech as any Earth basket Lance had ever seen. He pulled it over to investigate the contents, and found yarn. Lance didn't know what he expected space yarn to be like, but this frankly looked like someone's collection of leftovers from a bunch of knitting projects that had been finished years ago.

Ten thousand years ago. Also there were stitch markers that looked like lion heads, and a bunch of knitting needles made out of different materials. Some seemed to be bone, which was disturbing, some were wood and some plastic and some metal.

Lance shied away from the bone ones; instead, he started pulling out balls of yarn and arranging them on the floor in front of him, trying to get a sense of how much there was of each type. Some felt like really soft wool, although it probably wasn't, and some was smooth and fine like silk floss. He sorted them by whether they felt like they were animal hair or plant fiber, even though he knew he was just guessing, plus some were obviously a mix of things, and some were probably a mix but he couldn't even tell. Maybe the mice could.

When Lance looked up, the mice had crept out and were sitting in an expectant half-circle on the other side of the yarn piles. He had to grin, because that was pretty cute. "So," he said. "If I were to knit you sweaters, what color would you like?"

One of the mice squeaked, and instantly dove for a fine pink yarn that had a bit of a shimmer to it. It was very silky and very thin, and Lance didn't think it was really good mouse sweater material, but before he could say that, the mouse dragged over a second ball of yarn, more of a faded-pink shading into grey. "Yeah, I can work with that," Lance said. "Both of them together, am I right?"

The mouse squeaked again, and did a little tail-chasing twirl. Lance laughed. The smallest mouse tried to climb up on a ball of something traffic-cone orange, which kept rolling away as the mouse scampered after it. The third mouse wanted red, but there wasn't a lot of that, and the mouse bared its teeth in an un-mouse-like snarl. "You can have red stripes," Lance said. "I'll pick something low-key that goes with it, so the red really shows."

The biggest mouse just shrugged, a gesture that looked surprisingly natural on a mouse, spread its arms to indicate the whole yarn collection, and then nodded at Lance. "My choice? Okay, I'll do something that looks good on you, don't worry."

The mice all squeaked and sat down again in the same half-circle, looking very calm, but at the same time, just as expectant as before. Lance wondered if they were going to sit there the whole time, and just how fast they thought he could knit. He picked a pair of wood knitting needles that seemed about the right size, pulled out an end of the traffic-cone orange yarn, and started to cast on.

The mice scattered when the Red Lion started to stalk around in the shadows again. Lance pretended he was absorbed in his knitting and couldn't see it, and after a while, Red settled down on the side of the pod away from Lance.

Blue came around a little later. She started to bat at some of the balls of yarn, and Lance fixed her with a narrow-eyed glare. That made her flick her tail haughtily, but she pushed the yarn closer instead of away, and came over to rub against him, her head nudging his.

Then she lay down between Lance and the pod, apparently intent on settling her head and front paws in the space where Red's head and front paws already were. They scuffled a bit, but it seemed friendly; Lance didn't even move his knitting basket, and they settled with their paws tangled up and heads leaning together.

Lance had no idea what time it was when he sat trying out his first attempt at a traffic-cone orange sweater on the smallest mouse and Shiro came in. "Just wanted to check on Keith before bedtime," he said, crossing the room. "You know you can--" Shiro broke off, and his eyes widened a little. "Oh."

Looking up, Lance realized it wasn't the knitting that had stopped Shiro in his tracks, it was the sight of Red and Blue lounging together at the base of the pod. Both of them looked up at Shiro's approach, and Red shifted a little. The lazy hum that Lance was getting from Blue started to take on more of an alert-but-soothing tone, and he figured that was mostly directed towards Red, not him, or Shiro, for that matter -- Red seemed to be both skittish and aggressive, which was not such a great combination, in Lance's opinion, and it only figured that Keith would have a difficult lion.

In any case, a bit of distraction seemed called for. "Hunk made me do this," he said, gesturing at the mouse, the sweater, the knitting basket.

"That doesn't look like Hunk," Shiro said, looking the smallest mouse up and down, which didn't take long.

"I don't think there's enough yarn for a Hunk-sized sweater," Lance said.

"Doesn't look that way," Shiro agreed, giving the basket a once-over as well.

Lance got to his feet, because if it was bedtime for Shiro, then it was probably bedtime for him, too. Blue opened an eye and thought a question at him, and he shook his head. No, you can stay. I mean, if you want. Red seemed a lot calmer with Blue around, and that was probably good for Keith, somehow. Lance wasn't going to drag Blue away just so he could sleep next to her, no matter how much he liked it.

Besides, she probably had other things to do, other things to be than the universe's biggest and fiercest teddy bear in his bed.

That thought got him the sensation of her laughter, a very clear feeling of feline amusement, and an image dropped into his mind that made him stumble and grab onto Shiro for support. "You cuddle up to the Black Lion when you sleep?" he blurted.

It was impossible to tell what the expression on Shiro's face meant, and it vanished almost at once, replaced with his usual non-committal calm. "No," he said, and then, almost in the same breath, "sometimes."

"Good way to bond," Lance offered, and sent a fond good night to Blue as he and Shiro left the room and started to walk back to their quarters. In return for what had apparently been an unintentional violation of Shiro's privacy, he said, "I had no idea the lions could be embodied as big cats before I saw you and the Black Lion together."

Shiro's sideways glance was just about readable as unsettled. "You've seen Black?"

Great, now he'd put his foot in it again, somehow. "Just once?" Lance said, trying to make it sound casual. "That's not weird, is it? I mean, you could see Blue and Red right now, couldn't you? And it seemed like Keith could see Black, too. So it can't be weird." And it was painfully clear that he completely sucked at casual.

"No, of course," Shiro said, sounding about as casual as Lance had, which was to say, not even remotely. "I mean, yes, I saw them, and no, it's probably not weird."

"Probably not weird?" Lance would have felt even more unnerved if Blue hadn't been such a soothing presence in his mind. She was most likely being all soothing at Red, not at Lance, but the effect was much the same, anyway.

"Poor choice of words." Shiro managed a half-smile. "I don't think it's weird. I'm not an expert, Lance. What's between a pilot and their lion is their business, and I don't think the lions show themselves to just anyone. Makes sense that they'd let other pilots see them, though."

Blue murmured something like absent-minded agreement in Lance's mind, and he wondered if Black did the same thing to Shiro; Shiro's face was really, really hard to read.

In bed, ready to fall asleep, Lance lifted his hand twice to brush away something on his shoulder before he sat up and took off the sleep mask and turned on the light. There was nothing on his shoulder except the usual layer of pajama top. He lay down again, lights off, mask on, and his hand rose to his shoulder. There was something. A warm pressure, a presence. It wasn't Blue; Blue wasn't here, and he could feel that she was practically asleep, lying snuggled up to... Oh.

Oh, great.

Lance was alone in his bed with the distinct sensation that the Red Lion's head was resting on his shoulder.

That was definitely weird, and if he hadn't felt so sleepy, he would have tracked Shiro down to tell him so. Seeing other people's lions, fine, but now he was apparently being snuggled up to by an invisible embodiment, and he was never going to manage to go to sleep like this, even though Blue was comfortable and content.

Lance twisted and turned a couple of times, trying to find out if he felt less touched by Red in any particular position. He didn't, and he could feel that his restless tossing was on the verge of making Blue stir. Lance sighed and held still. He didn't know if Red could feel what he was doing, either, and he didn't want to find out. Invisible lion snuggling it was, then.

Apart from being weird, it was actually pretty cosy.

At breakfast the next morning, Lance managed to eat quite a lot of fruit while Coran was trying to sell Shiro on the excellence of green goo as an everything-a-young-paladin-needs diet. He elbowed Hunk, who was sitting next to him. "So have you ever, um, seen your lion?"

"Yes, Lance," Hunk said. "So have you. Big yellow-and-white robot, remember?" He elbowed back. "Are you feeling okay? Maybe that Karneser thing wasn't meant for humans."

"Of course it wasn't meant for humans," Lance said, "it's a space jellyfish!" He waved a hand. "And you're getting me sidetracked, stop it. I meant, have you ever seen your lion as something other than a giant robot?"

Now Hunk was looking at him like he wanted to push him back into bed and plant a big jellyfish on him. "Uh, no. Because it is a giant robot."

"Sure," Lance said, "but they can be cats, too! At least, Blue can, and Red, and Black. I just figured that maybe everyone could see them and we weren't talking about it." Kind of like the way everyone apparently had been able to understand the space mice except Lance, and he wouldn't even have known if it hadn't been for the whole cheese rind shovel talk thing.

"Right." Hunk patted Lance's arm, then raised his voice. "Coran? I think the Karneser jellyfish gave Lance hallucinations."

"Really?" Coran abandoned Shiro and the goo and came bouncing over, pressing a hand to Lance's forehead. "He looks fine."

"I am fine," Lance said, trying to bat Coran's hand away.

"You're seeing giant cats!" Hunk said.

Coran looked delighted. "Already? That's wonderful!" He seized Lance by the shoulders and turned him this way and that, looking at him. "I wouldn't have expected you to be the first one, either, but that just goes to show that you never can tell!"

Lance huffed. "What do you mean, you wouldn't have expected me to be the first one? Was that an insult? I think that was an insult." Honesty compelled him to add, "And I wasn't the first one. I think that was Shiro."

"Ah." Coran did something with his eyebrows. "Two of you! That's even better news."

"I don't see how it's better that two of them are hallucinating," Hunk said. "And you were expecting them to do that?" He shook his head. "Shiro's been trying out the jellyfish, too?"

"What?" Shiro said from a couple of seats over, and Coran burst into a hearty laugh.

"No, no," he said. He let go of Lance to grab Hunk by the shoulders instead, which was a relief to Lance, because that stuff Coran used on his mustache always made him want to sneeze. "Paladins who are closely bonded to their lions have traditionally had the ability to see and interact with their lions in cat form. But it's unheard-of for this to happen so fast!"

"But they're robots," Hunk said again. "I mean, really awesome robots, but still!"

"Um," Lance said.

"If they were just robots," Shiro said, coming over, "we wouldn't have to bond with them."

Lance nodded. "You don't fly your lion by learning which buttons to push." He kind of expected Keith to say something snarky after that, and of course he was relieved when that didn't happen, not feeling like he'd missed the last step on the stairs in the dark. Wasn't as if he wanted Keith to pick on his flying abilities, which, by the way, were awesome.

"Exactly!" Coran agreed, mustache quivering. "And as it happens, I have some excellent training exercises for intensifying the paladin-lion bond, now that you're all on the way to developing a deeper connection!"

"Is this like that bonding visualization thing that Pidge hated?" Hunk said uncertainly. Then he looked around. "Where is Pidge, anyway?"

"Still asleep," Lance suggested.

"Pidge is watching over Keith," Shiro said. Lance shot him an alarmed look. "Not because Keith needs watching over. He's fine. But it's lonely to wake up on your own after an injury."

Lance opened his mouth to say Keith wasn't that close to waking, he'd know, and then he considered the complex chain of knowledge that lay behind that certainty: he'd know, because Blue would know, because Red would know, and when had they gotten so close, anyway?

Probably around the same time that Lance started sleep-cuddling someone else's invisible lion.

"Guess you'd know about that," Hunk said to Shiro, and managed to make it sound friendly and compassionate and non-intrusive, because he was Hunk.

"But now Lance can take over," Coran said, "so Pidge and Hunk can come with me to the training deck for the first stage of the exercises! And Shiro, you can help by showing them how you accomplished this!"

"I could do that, too," Lance said.

"We all know you'd prefer to be with Keith." Coran patted his shoulder. "Perfectly understandable."

Lance sputtered. "I'm not-- That's--"

He didn't even know where to start with that, especially since no one else was batting an eyelid. Okay, so he'd been staying at the side of Keith's cryopod since he himself got out of his sickbed, but there was a reason for that, and it had to do with knitting and space mice and not in any way with Keith, except that Shiro was right and it would be lonely to wake up on your own, even if Red was right outside the pod, and all of that was completely different from what Coran seemed to be implying.

"And I think Shiro would be more helpful," Coran went on. "Both Pidge and Hunk will probably appreciate a methodical approach."

Lance sniffed. "I can be methodical." Not that he wanted to be involved in this training exercise, whatever it turned out to be. He just didn't want to be shunted aside because Coran thought he wanted to sit at the foot of Keith's pod and yearn with big sad eyes like someone in a bad hospital series.

He did have knitting to do, though. Watching the way the marks on Coran's face moved when he talked, in relation to his mustache, hair, and eyebrows, had given him an idea for how to pattern the red yarn onto a mostly-tan sweater for the next mouse.

Nobody agreed with him, and Lance sniffed again. Hunk tugged on his arm. "Let's go get Pidge."

"Some best friend you are," Lance said, stomping along.

Hunk adjusted his headband. "What, like the kind who goes along with all your crazy ideas even when he ends up in outer space somewhere, and brings you plates of fruit when you're sick, and tells you what to do to start understanding the space mice?"

"Yeah, yeah, okay, you're awesome, I get it." Lance grinned, because Hunk really was awesome. "But you could agree when I say I'm methodical."

"I really couldn't," Hunk said.

Lance thought about sniffing again, but his nose was already beginning to feel weird from the mustache gunk. Someone was bound to start thinking he had a space cold. "Well, you could say Coran's wrong when he thinks there's something going on with me and Keith!"

"I really couldn't," Hunk said again. "Dude, even Shiro says you've set up camp in there and it takes a lot to get you to leave. I'm impressed you came to breakfast with us."

"Of course I came to breakfast!" Lance said. "And slept in my own bed. Don't get any funny ideas." He decided not to say anything about sleeping cuddled up with an invisible Red Lion. "It's all because of the space mice and your idea about knitting."

"You're doing sweaters?" Hunk beamed. "They'll be so cute!"

"Yeah, yeah." Lance pushed his shoulder against Hunk's arm in a friendly way and said, "I don't get it, anyway. You and Pidge are all besties with the space mice, you should be like that with your lions, too. It's the same thing."

"It is?" Hunk didn't look convinced. "The mice are small and cute and real actual mice. I think the Yellow Lion is completely awesome, but it's a giant robot!"

"That you talk to in your head!" Lance waved a hand. Then he looked at Hunk. "You do, don't you?"

Hunk looked back. "Just because the controls are so intuitive that it feels like there's a psychic component--"

"In that case," Lance pointed out, "you could just switch over and pilot someone else's lion." He didn't miss the look that passed over Hunk's face. "You couldn't, could you? Look, you were right about the mice, I'm gonna man up and admit that, so try to believe me when I say that there's more to the lions than you think, okay?"

"Yeah," Hunk said, but he didn't look completely convinced. "It's just, every time I think I have a grip on the hard science here, it goes all fuzzy."

Lance shrugged. "Everything out here is fuzzy. You just have to go with your instincts." They went into the pod room, where Lance's knitting basket had been pushed to the side and Pidge was hunched in front of the laptop, typing at a really scary speed. Lance shook his head. "You know you're killing your back, right?"

"This is important," Pidge said without looking up. "There's a lot of interesting stuff in what we got from the cargo ship. Hunk, have you got--"

"Coran wants us on the training deck," Hunk said morosely. "And Lance thinks we should go with our instincts."

"As long as it's not his instincts." Pidge looked around. "Oh, hey, Lance."

"Don't even, you knew I was here," Lance said. Pidge really was starting to remind him of his sisters more and more. "Better get up and get going, you have a training session to get to."

Pidge stood up, taking the laptop along. "And you don't?"

"He already knows this stuff," Hunk said glumly. "He gets to sit here and moon over Keith, and we probably have to do weird visualization exercises wth Coran."

"I don't moon over Keith, take that back," Lance said, digging out his cushion from where Pidge had tossed it. "I was going to feel sorry for you while I sat here and chatted with the space mice, but now I won't, you can just suffer."

"It's not like we could tell the difference," Pidge said. "You sitting here with good thoughts and happy vibes and non-denominational blessings like a greeting card rack wouldn't really help us, you know."

"Hey, it just might," Lance said, just on general principle. Then he thought about it. "Actually, you know, it just might." At least if the lions were as interconnected as he was coming to suspect. Blue seemed to have most of her attention on Red right now, but still.

Hunk sighed. "Let's just go take our chances with our own instincts," he said, and he and Pidge left. Lance arranged cushion and basket and lamp to his liking, sat down comfortably cross-legged, and started to work on the next mouse sweater.

It wasn't long before Blue and Red took their accustomed places at the foot of Keith's pod. Lance knitted on without paying them any direct attention, because Blue seemed calm and Red was at least not overtly hostile. After a while, he started to get the feeling that both of them were distracted by something, and he tilted his head that way and looked at them. "What?"

Couldn't be anything dangerous, or the whole castle-spaceship would be blaring with alarms by now. Blue wasn't quite laughter in his mind, but her cool space scent was more amused than anything else. He had no idea what Red was feeling, thinking, whatever, which was a lot like being around Keith, really. At least Red didn't make sarcastic remarks at him.

Blue didn't really answer the question, but her presence in his mind grew more intense and fond for a moment, like she was glad he was him. Which, yeah, Lance was pretty glad he was him, too, most of the time, but...

Oh.

He started to laugh. He didn't know how, and Pidge and Hunk would probably have said it was impossible, and that Lance himself was just crazy-guessing, but Lance would have put money down that Blue and Red were somehow paying attention to the training session, and that it wasn't going all that well.

When he met up with the team at lunch, Coran's mustache was drooping, Hunk slouched with his headband almost down over his eyebrows, Pidge was a bristling ball of irritation, and even Shiro looked a little tired. Allura, eyeing them, shook her head. "Perhaps it's too early," she said. "This aspect of the bond has been known to take years. Just because Shiro has the ability already--"

"And Lance," Pidge said from between clenched teeth.

"Right." Allura looked at Lance as if she wondered how that had happened. "Even so, you don't have to push yourselves. The important thing is that you can form Voltron and be a true team. Other aspects of the lion-paladin bond will happen in their own time."

"I agree," Shiro said, so firmly that Lance suspected the training session had been pretty trying for him.

"But it would look very impressive when we came to Ymrie!" Coran said. "All the paladins with lions at their heels, like in the old paintings from--"

"They're not pets," Shiro said, at the same time that Lance wondered, "But would the Ymrians even be able to see them?"

"Wait, there's paintings?" Pidge perked up. "Maybe that would help with the visualization Coran keeps talking about."

"The paintings were destroyed when Altea was destroyed," Allura said. "Coran, I'm sure we can make an impression on the Ymrians in another way. I've been reading up on recent Ymrian culture, considering the best way to approach them."

"Just ask them nicely to stop sending more robot fruit baskets to Zarkon," Lance suggested. "I'm not sure we even need to go there. We could just send them a message."

"Of course we need to go there," Allura said, stiffening a little. "This is a chance for us to create new alliances, to start building a real front against the Galra empire."

"Yeah." Lance rubbed the back of his neck. "I get that, I do, but are we really sure they're going to listen to us and not just try to blast us out of the sky? We killed their robots."

"That's actually a good point," Allura said slowly. Lance preened a bit, because he didn't get to hear that from the princess all that often. "Coran, we should speed up the pace of our initial communications. Diplomacy works much better face to face, but we want to make sure that we get to be face to face."

"If you're going to be busy with that," Hunk said to Coran, "I guess we won't have any more training sessions this afternoon. That's fine! Pidge and I can work on--"

"No need, no need!" Coran, already on his feet, leaned over Hunk. "Don't worry! Shiro can oversee the start of your session, and I'll be along in just a few ticks!"

"...great," Hunk said, sinking lower in his chair. Coran and Allura left, and Hunk turned beseeching eyes on Shiro. "Do we have to do this? It's not working."

"You can't force it," Shiro said. "These exercises are just to make you more receptive." He shrugged. "Relax and don't think about it, just let it happen."

"Great advice there," Pidge said. "We've got more useful things we could be doing, you know."

"Give it one more try, until Coran comes back," Shiro said. He looked at Pidge and Hunk. "Just... don't think of it as doing something."

Pidge made an exasperated noise. "Just so you know," Lance said, "my lion is laughing at you."

"That's very helpful," Hunk said and shoved him out of his chair. Lance chortled and made his escape, going back to his knitting. It was a nice change from Blue laughing at him, but he wasn't going to tell Hunk that.

The mouse sweater with the Coran-mustache pattern worked out pretty well, and there was enough red yarn to make one whole mouse sleeve out of it, too. The mouse who got it was really happy with it, zipping around and chasing the one in traffic-cone orange this way and that.

Lance measured the third mouse with his eyes, and got out the pink and grey yarn.

From where he sat, he could see the display panel on Keith's pod, although he'd probably have to crawl over and press his nose right up to it to find out Keith's blood pressure and stuff like that. He'd know if anything went wrong, though hearing about it from Blue when she heard it from Red would probably be faster.

Not that anything was going to go wrong. Keith was healing just as he should, and Pidge and Hunk would probably start seeing their lions sooner or later, and the princess was going to make nice with the Ymrians and persuade them not to sign up with the Zarkon plan for intergalactic dominance and fruit salad. It would be great, Lance thought, to have allies that apparently knew the value of fresh food.

He knitted peacefully until Pidge came in, glasses gleaming. "Well, that's not working." Before Lance could say anything, Pidge went on, "So we're trying some good old-fashioned bayard defence training, and that means you, too. C'mon."

"I was just getting to the tricky part!" Lance said, waving his knitting at Pidge. He was pretty sure Pidge didn't know anything about knitting and wasn't in a position to contradict him.

Of course, Pidge didn't care. "It'll still be there afterwards. Better get a move on, or Coran will think you need extra training."

"I'm still recuperating," Lance said as they jogged through the hallways of the castle-spaceship. "I could have a relapse. I was grievously wounded, you know."

"No, that was Keith," Pidge said. "You just got banged about a bit. You're fine now." Pidge looked down, and then quickly up again. "And Keith's going to be fine, too."

"Of course he is." They went into the training deck and took up positions, and Coran said something gleeful and punched the button that launched a training bot at them.

This was a lot harder without Keith there. Hunk and Lance were both ranged fighters; Hunk could hit things in the face if they got close enough to much better effect than Lance, and Lance could jump out of the way of things getting too close a lot faster than Hunk, but that didn't mean those were skills that were going on their resumes any time soon.

"You guys really need to get better at that," Pidge said. Pidge was fantastic at being sneaky and ruthless. Pidge was also extremely agile and dodged around a lot, and if it wasn't for the paladin awareness bond, would have got in the way of a lot of bullets, and maybe even swings from Shiro's arm.

Shiro was good. Shiro was very good, and could probably have dealt with their robot opponent all by himself. The challenge was to do it with Lance and Hunk and Pidge getting in the way.

While Lance thought all this, the robot beat them into the floor of the training deck.

"That was really rather pitiful," Coran said from up in the control station. "Let's try it again!"

"Get behind me," Shiro said, moving towards the door where the robot had popped out last time. Only this time a second robot came out of the opposite wall as well and swatted Pidge before they had even noticed. Hunk fired, Lance had to jump to avoid it, and Shiro tried to deal with the first robot and look back over his shoulder at them at the same time. That didn't go well.

"Honestly," Coran said, sounding earnest and slightly bewildered, "I thought you were past these little difficulties."

"We're missing Keith," Lance said. Then he stopped, because those were not words he'd ever imagine himself saying. Okay, he meant that they were short one fighter, not that they all yearned for Keith's presence -- because it was Keith, come on -- but still. They would probably do a lot better with Keith.

Pidge made a disgusted noise. "We're fighting around him and he's not even here."

Shiro looked at them all one by one. "Then let's use that. He's been hurt and we have to defend him. Coran, again!"

This time, three training bots came towards them -- two from opposite walls and one from a hatch in the floor. Hunk fired at the one from the right-hand wall, taking the legs off before it could properly launch itself at them. Lance got in a quick headshot, just in case these bots had been programmed with self-reassembling abilities.

Then he turned around and focused on the training bot coming at them from the left, taking shots at the joints while Pidge dodged around, jabbing the small blade of the green bayard into whichever weak point was exposed at the moment. That looked like a good idea, so Lance concentrated his fire on one side until the training bot turned fully around to attack him head-on, and then Pidge could get it from the back, cutting the headplate open and shutting the circuits down.

Shiro was going toe-to-toe with the training bot that had come out of the floor, leaving deep scores along its metal plates. When the bot took a low swing at him, he jumped up and back, and Hunk used that moment to fire, wrecking one of the training bot's feet. Shiro bared his teeth, and the purple glow from his artifical arm brightened until it was almost white, a blinding blade of light. He punched straight through the training bot's chest, and it collapsed on the floor.

For a moment, everything was silent.

"Well!" Coran said. "That was remarkably fast. Well done, paladins."

Lance looked at the wreckage of the training bots. He looked at Hunk, wiping his face; at Pidge getting in an extra kick to an unfeeling robot knee; at Shiro, staring blankly while his arm stopped glowing and looked like any other ordinary alien metal arm again. "Yeah!" Lance grinned brightly, because somebody had to do it for them. "Go, Team Voltron! I say Vol, you say..."

"You know he's never gonna get that," Hunk said with a tired chuckle. "Wait, did we just kick ass?"

"We did," Lance said.

"Of course we did!" Pidge came bouncing over. "You guys still need to work on what to do if an opponent actually gets close. But that was good!"

"Good work," Shiro agreed, coming back to them with just a little of that distance left in his eyes. "Bet we can do it again. Coran?"

"We need to repair the training bots first," Coran said. "Particularly the one that you put a big hole in."

"Sorry," Shiro began, "I just..."

"No, no!" Coran flailed an arm. "Excellent work, and if you're ever in a life-threatening situation," Hunk and Pidge and Lance should've gotten an award for synchronized snorting, "don't hesitate! But it might take some work to restore the bots to peak condition."

"I can help with that," Pidge said. "I have some ideas."

"Tell me your ideas don't involve the self-replicating robot parts that you swore wouldn't get into anything," Lance said.

The light reflected off the surface of Pidge's glasses. "Of course not."

"I'll help out, too," Hunk said. "Just to be on the safe side."

So Lance was free to return to his knitting, if he wanted. He did a fast cleanup, and when he started to walk back from the training deck, he fell in with Shiro, who still looked a little dazed. "You all right?" Lance said, though he didn't give him quite the same kind of friendly shove he would have given Hunk. "I didn't know your arm could do that!"

"I didn't, either." Shiro looked at his hand, his arm. "This is Galra technology. It might have all kinds of secrets and hidden abilities."

"Yeah, but you're the one using it," Lance pointed out. They came to the hallway leading to sickbay, and Shiro still looked a bit unsettled, so Lance said, "Hey, wanna come along for Keith-watching and trying sweaters on the mice?"

Okay, so that didn't sound like the most fun thing ever to invite somebody along for. On the other hand, they were stuck out in space somewhere, and if any of the aliens had amusement parks, they hadn't told Lance. And Shiro needed a distraction.

"No," Shiro said, and Lance wondered if he could recruit the mice, or Blue, or hell, Black to help him out here, but then Shiro went on, "I promised I'd spend some time with Allura, going through possible approaches to the Ymrians."

Lance relaxed, because if he was sure of anything, it was that he could leave Shiro in the princess's capable hands. "Okay, see you at dinner, then!"

Keith was getting better fast, or so the readout on his pod said, and the space mice were really getting into having sweaters -- the third mouse ran around in a pink pullover for a while, when Lance was still working on the sleeves. All mealtimes had become even more streamlined-to-a-purpose than usual, with Pidge and Hunk discussing how to build a better training bot on one side and Shiro and Allura making plans for their approach to Ymrie on the other, while Coran bounced from one conversation to the other like a mustachioed ping-pong ball. Lance grinned and ate and put in a few words here and there where he thought he could get the best effect, because it was fun to get Pidge riled up to the verge of explosion, but it was also fun to make Allura take him seriously.

He was getting used to sharing his bed with invisible lions. Blue spent most of her time with Red, and when Blue and Red were pressed together, Lance could feel it, as if Blue's body was his body and her cuddling was his cuddling. Which was probably weird and all, but Red could do with a bit of calming-down, and it was pretty good cuddling.

The sweater for the biggest mouse turned out to be a lot of fun. Lance used the smallest left-over balls of yarn he could find to make a lot of narrow stripes, and in a couple of places he added in fake patches of some other color, too. One of the sleeves was completely made up of the very last pieces from the other three mice's sweaters; traffic-cone orange and silky pink, in particular, clashed wonderfully.

"The Ymrians have agreed to meet us in Bathawes," Allura said. "That used to be their holy city back when they were allies with Altea, and from the information I've been able to access, it still is, to some extent. They've sent coordinates for a place where we can put the castle-ship down."

"It would be safer to at least stay in orbit," Shiro said. "We could take a smaller ship down, just some of us--"

"We need to show them our trust." The princess stuck her chin out. She didn't have nearly as much chin as Shiro, but she made good use of what she had.

"Ye~es," Coran said, "but is there a way of doing that without putting everything and everyone in danger?" The princess looked at him. "It just seems sensible to me! The Ymrians might be more upset than they're letting on about their robots."

"And their fruit," Hunk said. "But we appreciated the fruit."

"And the robots!" Pidge added. Everyone stared. "Well, I appreciated the robots."

"The robots that tried to kill us and hurt Keith so bad he's been in a healing pod for days and days?" Lance scowled. "Yeah, I'll stick with the fruit, thanks."

"They're really cleverly made robots!" Pidge said. "Ymrie has some smart engineers, and we definitely want them to be on our side, and that's a lot more important than fruit." Hunk gave her a sad look. "Even if it's good fruit."

"Be ready," Allura said. "I've timed our arrival on Ymrie to be synced with Keith's release from the pod. Whether you have lions at your heels or not," she side-eyed Coran before he could say anything, "the Ymrians are going to take note of seeing all the paladins of Voltron together."

"So they remember Voltron?" Lance just wanted to check. It had been a really long time.

Allura nodded. "Voltron and the paladins are mentioned in their oldest records, but we were nothing but legends to them up until we established communications. This is our chance to make the kind of impression that will sway them to our side for good."

"Yeah, that sounds like a good idea," Lance said. "We'll go in and charm them with our awesomeness, and then we have staunch allies that know how to grow a mean space banana."

"Mean Space Banana sounds like a fake punk band on a kid's show," Pidge said thoughtfully. Everyone turned that way. "What, it does!"

"Could be a sex toy," Lance said, considering the issue.

"Thank you for a mental image I really, really didn't want," Hunk said and punched his shoulder.

"I think we're all agreed that Allura should take point here," Shiro said, eyeing the three other paladins.

Coran nodded fervently. "And perhaps do all the talking."

Chapter Text

Lance finished up the last mouse sweater as they were descending towards Ymrie. The space mice stood over him -- well, next to him -- as he sewed up the last sleeve and fastened the last thread, and then the biggest mouse pulled the sweater on. "You all look great!" Lance said. He poked the orange-sweatered mouse in the belly. "You're so cute I could just eat you up."

The mice squeaked with pleasure and looked at their reflections in the surface of Keith's pod. They did a little fake marching this way and that, drawn up like toy soldiers on parade, and then descended into elbowing each other and chasing in circles before they all came over to Lance and squeaked an enthusiastic thank you.

Lance grinned. The mice really were ridiculously cute. He pushed the knitting basket towards them. "Time to put this away again, I guess." The mice squeaked agreement and started to pull things along, basket and cushion and lamp, although the smallest mouse really couldn't handle the lamp on its own. "Better let me do that," Lance said, catching the lamp before it could fall over and brain any number of mice. He stood up, turned around, tripped over a trailing end of yarn, and staggered forward. The hand he flung out to catch himself hit the control panel of Keith's pod. "Oh, crap."

Tiny mouse paws caught his legs and steadied them -- the space mice were strong for their size, even if Lance was a bit out of their weight class and had to do most of the work himself. He leaned forward and looked at the control panel, which was flashing in a disturbing way, went blank for one heart-stopping moment, and then started to slowly make its way through a series of diagnostics.

Glancing up, Lance saw that Keith looked completely unharmed and ready to wake up at any minute, provided the pod would let him out. He frowned. All the others came into the room, neatly uniformed and with their hair brushed, and Allura bent a disapproving eye on Lance. "You've got orange fuzz all down one leg. Keith should be ready to come out now." She caught sight of the control panel. "What's this?"

"I kind of accidentally tripped and fell," Lance said. "It didn't reset to start over or anything, right?"

"No," Coran said, coming up next to Allura to tap at the little screen. Nothing happened. "I'm sure the pod will go back to its normal function as soon as these diagnostics are finished!"

"Okay." Lance brushed at his legs, which were all over yarn and mouse fur and really old space dust, great. "But you can just punch a button and get Keith out of there, I mean, he's done, right?"

"You make him sound like a pie," Pidge said. "Aw, your little cutie-pie! Hey, Hunk, can you make a pie from those green berries that are starting to go a little mushy?"

"Yeah, probably," Hunk said. "I'm not decorating it with hearts and stuff for Lance, though. He can do that himself."

"I'm not, what are you even talking about, hearts?" Lance started to wave an emphatic hand.

"The mice can help you," Pidge suggested with an evil grin.

Allura clapped her hands sharply, and the paladins fell silent. "Coran?"

"No, I don't think I can," Coran said, leaning so close to the panel that his nose was practically pressed up against it. "But it won't take long, and then Keith will be back with us again! No need to fret!"

Which was a nice thing to say, but Lance would have appreciated it more if Coran hadn't looked at him, specifically. He wasn't fretting! Anyone would be concerned if they'd accidentally messed with a ten-thousand-year-old healing pod that one of their teammates was in. He wasn't doing any decorative hearts for the pie, either.

The castle-ship landed so softly, Lance barely felt it. He noticed the beep, though, and the screen popping up. "We'd better go," Allura said. "Keith can join us as soon as the pod releases him."

Coran produced a clothesbrush from thin air and kept whisking at Lance all the way down to the big entrance hall, so he was a bit less dusty by the time the ship-castle opened and Allura led them outside. Lance leaned over to Pidge and said, "So how come we can breathe on all these planets?"

"I don't know!" Pidge said, aggrieved. "If I could figure that out, I-- Oh, wow."

"Yeah," Lance agreed, staring at what had to be the holy city Allura had talked about. "Wow." It wasn't all that big, and none of the buildings were remarkably high -- nothing compared to the Castle of Lions. But it was made entirely out of semi-translucent rock that gleamed in the light of Ymrie's sun, bright but not harsh. Lance felt like he should be able to see through the walls and look at people having breakfast or whatever. "It's morning here, right?"

"Should be," Hunk said, shading his eyes and looking at the angle of the sunlight. "You couldn't see anything all shut up in sickbay like that, but when we were coming in--"

The princess waved a hand behind her back, and Shiro shushed them. Right, that group of people waiting to meet them had to be the Ymrians. Lance had kind of expected them to look like their robots, tall and thin and self-replicating, although he didn't really want to see them replicate right in front of his eyes.

"They're shorter than I thought," Pidge muttered next to him.

The Ymrians were more Pidge-sized than their robots, true, but Lance felt that really wasn't the most noticeable thing about them. They were like their robots, or rather, their robots were like them, in some more striking ways. They had claws. They also had a lot of eyes.

The robots hadn't worn loose tunics with colored stripes and dots on, though. That made the Ymrians look more peaceful.

"Greetings!" Allura said. "It's lovely to meet with you! I'm Princess Allura of Altea, and these are the paladins of Voltron." Coran drew himself up next to her and cleared him throat. "Oh, and this is the most noble and honorable Coran, also of Altea."

"Altea does not currently exist," one of the Ymrians said.

"No," Allura agreed, and her eyes grew shadowed. "Altea was destroyed in battle with the Galra empire. But before that, Ymrie and Altea were allies, and I hope we can be again. If we support each other, we can resist and combat the spread of Zarkon's power."

The Ymrians didn't look impressed, as far as Lance was able to interpret their expressions. "You ask us to ally with two people from a destroyed planet, against a galactic empire." And yeah, okay, that did sound a little stupid, when they put it like that.

Allura drew herself up. "I ask you to consider allying with Voltron, with the forces of Voltron, to keep Ymrie's independence. I ask you not to give over the freedom of your planet and become just another part of the Galra empire. Voltron is dedicated to stopping Zarkon, but all we want from Ymrie is your assurance that you won't support him."

The Ymrians looked unreadable.

"And some fruit," Hunk said. "You have fantastic fruit."

Which was a compliment, of course it was, but also a reminder that the paladins had intercepted Ymrie's little present to Zarkon in a less than completely friendly way. Lance kicked at Hunk's foot from behind, hoping the Ymrians wouldn't see it. Hunk gave him a hurt look.

"You do!" Allura smiled her best space-princess smile, just a little too bright. "Even back in Altea's time, Ymrie was famous for its agriculture."

"Our orchards are the pride of the Brethin continent," one of the Ymrie delegation said, and maybe it was just Lance's imagination, but they didn't sound quite as forbidding as before. Maybe Hunk's comment about the fruit had done more good than harm, then.

"Our tales of Voltron say that the paladins can turn into giant cats," another of the Ymrians said, and that one was definitely still hostile. "Even if that's true, it doesn't sound like the best way to fight a galactic empire."

A third Ymrian spoke up. "Ymrie values individuality and cooperation. If we cooperate with the Galrans, we may retain our individuality and autonomy."

Lance snorted. "Yeah, that always works out great." Shiro stomped on his foot, a lot harder than Lance had kicked Hunk. "Ow. Well, does it?" he said more quietly to Shiro.

"Maybe we can leave the discussion of historical precedent for another time," Shiro hissed back. "Especially since we don't know anything about the history of any planet except ours."

"Oh, point."

Lance had to admit to himself, once Shiro got off his foot, that he wasn't an expert on the history of his own planet, either. He was still pretty sure that making nice with the evil overlords wasn't going to work out the way the Ymrie hoped.

"What is this Voltron, exactly?" said the first Ymrian. "Our records are unclear on that point."

Lance was impressed they had any records at all, because ten thousand years was a long time for data to stay uncorrupted, or clay tablets unbroken, or whatever they had left from way back when.

"The paladins each pilot a lion," Allura said, "a large, cat-shaped robot. The lions can join together to form Voltron, warrior and weapon in one, a power that can stand against Zarkon."

"So they don't turn into cats?" the second Ymrian said, with the air of someone who wants to be absolutely clear on that point. "I told Rimeres that was implausible." Yeah, that was a smug grin if Lance had ever seen one. Some things really were universal, no matter how many eyes people happened to have.

"Let me tell you more about Voltron," Allura said, her voice warm and inviting. "I have several recordings that show the paladins' performance..."

Lance meant to listen to the princess as she went on, because it was always nice to hear someone talking about your heroic deeds and how awesome you were, but he got distracted by the soft hiss of the ship-castle's gate opening again. Keith came storming down the ramp, looking extremely fighting fit. He went right up to Lance and poked a finger into his chest. "You!" he said. "You're such a creep!"

Lance blinked. "What?"

"You touched me!" Keith snarled. "When I was asleep!"

"What," Lance said. This really wasn't how he'd imagined Keith's waking up, at all. "Dude, you were in a pod. I didn't crawl in there with you, if that's what you're thinking."

"The failsafe protocols wouldn't allow it," Pidge said. "Hey, Keith, good to see you back."

"And there isn't room," Hunk said. "Keith, I'll get you some fruit as soon as we go back to the castle!"

"And Lance isn't the kind of person who would do that," Shiro said, which made Lance wish Shiro had been the first one of the other paladins to speak, not the last. "Welcome out of the pod, Keith."

Keith didn't look convinced. "But I remember it."

"My lion touched your lion," Lance said, because it was probably better to get that out in the open. "You might have been able to feel that through Red. But it shouldn't feel like me," he added, annoyed, "that's just, I felt like I was touching Red, that was all."

Keith stared at him. "Where the quiznak do you get off touching my lion? What did you do, run down to the hangar and put stickers all over it? And why would I be able to feel that?"

"That's not what I said." Lance was sliding from annoyed to exasperated pretty darn fast. This wasn't the way he'd imagined it, no, but feeling this way about Keith was very familiar. "My lion, come on, Blue touched Red, and I felt like Red was touching me, so you should have felt like Blue was touching you, if you could even feel anything in the pod."

"I'm telling you, I did!" Keith snapped. Then the honest bewilderment under the anger came out. "What are you even talking about, with the red and the blue and the touching? The lions have their own hangars. They don't touch."

"Not when they're robots," Lance said. "When they're lions." Keith looked about two seconds away from exploding. At least the bright flush in his cheeks probably meant his circulatory system was working just fine. "Red's been sleeping at the foot of your pod for days, and Blue was right there with her."

"They were," Shiro put in. "I saw them."

Keith turned to Shiro, because he apparently believed Shiro, and his voice was all bewilderment now. "They're really cats sometimes."

"You were right there with me when we saw the Black Lion!" Lance said.

Keith turned back to him. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

And he probably didn't. Keith was annoying in a lot of ways, and one of those ways was his staggering honesty. Lance tried to remember if Keith had actually commented on Black, and maybe just had some kind of cryopod amnesia, but thinking back, all he was sure about was a lot of talk about space mice.

"Well, they're cats sometimes, deal with it," Lance said. "And my cat was touching your cat." Pidge snickered. "Shut up!"

"I would have thought Keith would be the second pilot to succeed in seeing his lion manifest," Coran said thoughtfully. Lance glared. "But since Lance can do it, of course it won't take long."

Lance wasn't sure if that was an insult or a compliment, to him or to Keith. To be on the safe side, he glared a bit more before turning back to Keith. "Yeah, of course you'll want to copy my amazing lion skills like a big old copycat. Heh, get it, copycat."

Keith stabbed a finger into his chest again. At least he wasn't using his bayard. "Shut up."

"I can give you some tips, if you want."

"You never offered us any tips," Hunk grumbled.

"Yeah, figures he saves that for his little cutie-pie," Pidge chimed in.

Keith looked from Lance to Pidge to Lance so fast he probably gave himself whiplash. "His what?!"

Allura had been doing her best to keep the Ymrians distracted with cat-robot videos and talking to her, but now they were all standing in a loose half-circle, their arms crossed, looking like spectators at a paladin tennis match. "They don't look all that unified and team-like now," the first Ymrian said. Or was it the third? They'd moved, and Lance honestly couldn't tell them apart either by the banding on their claws or the colored dots on their tunics. He had no idea if the dots signified rank or if they were just fashion, anyway.

"We'll give you a chance to prove what you've been saying," another of the Ymrians said. "These Voltron pilots will go in pairs into the temple of concord. If everyone makes it out alive, we will consider that a sign."

"The paladins of Voltron are a single team," Allura said, "and they're an odd number."

The nearest Ymrian shook its head. "They must obey the rules of the temple. Since you're their advocate, you will go with this one," it indicated Shiro. "These two," a claw gesture seemed to squish Pidge and Hunk into one, "will also go together."

Well, that all sounded good. Allura and Shiro made a formidable team, and Pidge and Hunk could probably disassemble the temple down to molecules if they had to. That just left one little problem.

"But first," another of the Ymrians said, "those two."

Lance and Keith stared at each other.

The temple of concord was close by. It didn't look very impressive. Lance had seen better temples. Mostly in pictures, but still. This was just the size of an ordinary suburban home. Built out of that semi-translucent crystal stuff, just like everything was, here. "So we just walk in the door on this side and walk out the door on the other side? Piece of cake," he said.

"Pie," Pidge said with an annoying grin.

"Yes." The Ymrian whose idea this was nodded. "Hand in hand."

Lance and Keith took a step away from each other.

"If you let go," one of the other Ymrians said, "you fail."

"If you don't start," the third Ymrian said, "you obviously fail as well."

Allura cleared her throat. Keith glowered. "He was touching me in my sleep, and now I have to touch him when I'm awake, too?"

"I was not," Lance said. "But hey, you decide here. If you don't want to hold my hand, I'm sure we can find another alliance. Somewhere. Somehow."

"This is the worst morning I've ever had," Keith said, then thrust his left hand out at Lance.

"No way," Lance said. The glowering intensified, and Allura coughed like the before in a throat lozenge commercial. "What if we need our bayards in there? I gotta have my right arm free."

Hunk looked unconvinced. "You think you'll need your bayard to run a few yards?"

"Yes," the Ymrian who insisted on hand-holding said, and most of its eyes turned towards Lance. "The paladin is surprisingly perceptive." Great, even an alien with claws wanted to stand around and imply that he looked dense. "The tests of the temple are different for everyone, but it's best to be prepared."

"Great." Keith marched over to the other side of Lance and thrust out his right hand instead. "Unlike you, I've practiced fighting with both hands."

"Actually," Lance said, "I kind of need both hands for my bayard--"

Keith grabbed his hand. It felt like being stomped by one of Red's paws. "Shut up." Lance decided not to point out that he still couldn't use his bayard properly, and Keith would have to fight with his non-dominant hand. Even if he'd practiced, that couldn't be optimal.

At least the temple was tiny, and maybe they would get lucky and all they had to do was run through it and maybe, Lance tried to think of anything that might be a temple trial, walk on fire or answer a few riddles or something along the way, if there was even room for that.

When he met Shiro's gaze, he could see that Shiro was worried, though. Lance grinned at him, because worried Shiro would just unsettle everyone. "Yeah, we'll be fine."

"That remains to be seen," one of the Ymrians said, way to be a downer, and led the way to the door of the temple.

That was nothing impressive, either. Okay, making a door from the crystal stuff was probably something special, Lance could hear Pidge make interested noises in the background, but apart from the material, it just looked like a sliding door with a big round handle.

The Ymrians pushed it open -- looked like it was kind of heavy. And okay, maybe the crystal wasn't actually semitransparent, just looked it, because the inside was completely dark, like the temple was built of ordinary solid rock. And had no windows. Lance couldn't see anything except the small patch of sunlight on the floor right past the door. He hesitated a moment.

"Enter," another Ymrian said, or maybe the same one.

Keith's hand squeezed his. Keith had a very strong grip. Lance was going to come out of this with a permanent imprint of the seams of Keith's ridiculous glove on his hand. "You're not scared, are you?"

"Of course I'm not scared," Lance said, "what kind of stupid question is that, let's go," and they stepped across the threshold. The door slid shut behind them, and they were standing in total darkness.

Keith made an annoyed sound. "How are we going to find the door on the other side?"

"Touch, duh. It can't be far." Lance put his free hand out in front of himself, because he didn't want to walk into a wall; it would be a tragedy to ruin a nose like his. He supposed he didn't want Keith to wreck his stupid face, either. "Come on."

They took two steps forward, and Lance jumped; the air around his right hand had turned icy cold, as if there was a meat locker right ahead. He would have felt embarrassed about his reaction, except that next to him, Keith had frozen into perfect stillness and was trying to squeeze the fingers of Lance's left hand off. "Maybe we can go around it," Keith said.

"Great idea," Lance said, "except we can't see it, so who knows where around is, and also -- ack! Urgh!" The cold flowed towards them and enveloped them. Keith made a sound like a hissing cat.

Lance would have, too, except that it seemed like too much trouble to breathe in just to make a noise. And why would he want to make a noise? Nothing would hear him. There was nothing here. There was just... nothing.

The cold and dark crept under his clothes, felt like it was creeping under his skin, bringing a sense of isolation so profound, Lance wanted to cry. A bare moment ago he'd been full of other emotions, his thoughts zipping this way and that, sparking against each other; now the cold and dark was everywhere, taking him over, slowing him down, until all he felt -- all he had the time and energy to feel -- was loneliness and the resultant deep grief.

This was space, Lance thought, the cold and dark between stars, the isolation of being very far from anywhere else. Far from where he wanted to be. Far from the people who mattered to him. Far from everything.

He was cut off from his family and friends. He was cut off from all things outside this temple, and couldn't even feel Blue. He was far away from everything he cared about and everything that cared about him.

Except not quite.

Cold and dark were not Lance's favorite things. Before this, he would have strenuously denied that holding hands with Keith was, either, despite what Hunk liked to imply. Okay, and Pidge. And apparently Coran. Anyway, right then, Keith's hand was his only point of contact with a world that had other people in it, a world that was something other than cold and dark.

He tightened his grip, just to find out if he could do it, and felt Keith do the same thing back. Ow. Yes. At that moment, Lance didn't care if Keith broke every finger he had.

"We have to go forward," Keith said, and just the sound of his voice made time start moving at a normal pace again.

"What, no," Lance said. "Two steps back and we can be out of this again."

"It doesn't work like that," Keith said, and what, he was an expert on cold, dark alien temples all of a sudden? "Come on."

Keith pulled on his arm, and Lance stumbled forward, so annoyed that he cursed out loud when he moved in the direction of what seemed to be colder cold and, impossibly, darker darkness. "This is ridiculous," he said. "You've got some mystic shtick going now? Maybe the healing pod did something to your brain."

"You mean like making me think you were touching me?" Keith snarled back. "Because that was creepy."

Lance frowned. "It shouldn't be creepy. I mean, I'm awesome, so obviously that shouldn't be creepy, but you were pretty much just feeling what your lion felt, and getting stuff from your lion really shouldn't be creepy."

"Something was touching me," Keith said, and his voice had gone from snarly to flat. "I hadn't agreed to that. I couldn't do anything."

"Okay, when you put it like that," Lance said, because that was, in fact, creepy. The cold crept into his chest when he spoke, little tendrils of cold and darkness twining through his lungs. That really helped with imagining the creepiness of it. He could have done with a little less help. "You should have a word with Red about that. Your lion doesn't want you to feel bad about stuff. Ow, dude, my hand!"

"Who's got a mystic shtick going?" The snarl was waking up again. "Don't tell me how to talk to my lion just because you can talk to your lion."

Lance squeezed right back, because he might not be as strong as Keith, but he wasn't just going to let the guy crush his knuckles. "You're the one who told me to pay more attention to what's going on around me. Now you're sorry it worked because I've seen some things that you haven't?"

"Yes!" Keith said. Maybe that was the painful honesty at work again. He made some kind of gesture, or at least it felt like he did. "And anyway, how do you know my lion doesn't want me to feel bad?"

Lance blinked. "It's your lion. Red loves you. She slept at the foot of your pod every night."

"It makes me really angry that you've seen that," Keith said, and okay, that honesty thing was starting to get unnerving. "Like want-to-break-your-jaw angry. I get all these weird dreams that weren't dreams about you touching me, and you say it was my lion and your lion, like we were having some kind of psychic robot sex," Lance's jaw dropped, "and when I wake up I get five minutes of trying to deal with that before I'm tossed in here with you and you're giving me advice on my lion like you're her best buddy now?"

Lance shook his head really fast, even though Keith couldn't see it. Not that he actually thought that Keith was going to break his jaw -- pshh, as if he could -- but this was serious stuff, and Keith might say he was angry, but he felt sad, too. This darkness really wasn't a good place to be sad. "No, no. No, no, no. I've never even talked to her. Just, Blue seems to like her a lot." He wasn't going to say it. He wasn't going to say it. He wasn't going to--

He said it. "Psychic robot sex?"

"Shut up." Now Keith definitely sounded more angry than sad. That was progress. Um, probably. "Let's get out of here."

"What a great idea," Lance said, unable to stop himself, "I never would have thought of that! That's so clever ow ow ow, Keith, my knuckles!" He wondered for a moment if his fingers were actually still attached to his hand. "See if I ever have psychic robot sex with you again."

"My heart is breaking," Keith snarled. "This way." He dragged Lance forward, as if he could actually see where they were going. Lance just hoped they weren't about to fall headlong into a scorpion pit, or whatever the equivalent was on Ymrie. Death by space scorpions wasn't his idea of a happy fun time.

"Is this the mystic shtick again?" Talking to Keith without being able to see him wasn't all that strange. They did it in their lions all the time. The unfamiliar factor here was their linked hands. "How do you know which way to go? Dude, can you actually see something in here?"

Lance could hear Keith draw in a breath, but then he didn't snap right back with a reply after all. His hand shifted a little in Lance's, but not quite like he was trying to let go or anything. He said, "I know what it's like to be lonely. It's not like this. This is just like space."

"And space isn't lonely?" Lance really wished he could see something. No, actually, he really wished Keith could see something, specifically the expression on Lance's face right now. "Space is just big and cold and dark and empty, Keith, it's as lonely as it gets!"

"No, it isn't," Keith's hand shifted again. It was starting to make Lance nervous, that shifting, so he tightened his own grip. Not because he wanted Keith to run with him through showers of rose petals or anything. He just wanted to be sure of where he was. "You know what happened when I went into space? I got something important to do and a way to do it. I got a lion. I got to fly as fast as I want and fight as hard as I can. I got to be part of a team, to work with people I can actually trust." There was a tiny pause. "And then there's you, but I suppose I can live with that."

"I'm wounded," Lance said, clutching at his heart with his free hand, even though Keith couldn't see. Maybe he'd feel it. "But okay, yeah, I guess. There's the whole Voltron thing. There's Blue." And she smelled like space, but she was warm and comforting, when she wasn't an engine of speed and destruction. "And there's you. I mean, collective you! Everyone! The paladins!"

"So you know what I'm talking about," Keith said. "Space isn't lonely."

Lance thought about it. "Doesn't have my family." Keith made a noise that was hard to interpret. "Yeah, you know what, you wanna think I'm not cool because I love them and I miss them, you go right ahead, you've got your whole weirdo loner thing going, fine. I'll just be over here thinking about my sisters fighting over the game controls, and my uncle playing the piano at family get-togethers, and my m-mom's cooking."

"Weirdo loner," Keith said flatly.

"You had a shack in the middle of nowhere!" Lance said, pleased to be able to talk about something else. "Full of conspiracy nerd stuff!"

"That I was right about."

"Yeah, whatever. Shack in the middle of nowhere, Keith. And a mullet. It's like you hatched from an egg or something, I swear."

"Chickens don't have mullets," Keith said. "And foster care doesn't usually give you the kind of uncles that play the piano." His grip wasn't as tight as before, but now his nails dug into Lance's hand, holy shit, sharp nails, he had to get Keith to use the manicure box. "There's nothing to miss. I even get called a weirdo loner out here, just like back on Earth."

"Yikes," Lance said, because it was like being small again and getting told by a series of teachers and parental figures that he had no brain to mouth filter and maybe he ought to try thinking before speaking, how about it, and he'd honestly thought he was doing better at that. But, yeah, clearly not. "I'm sorry, I didn't know that, I was just calling you the Keith kind of weirdo loner, and I bet if Hunk heard this he'd stop saying I have some kind of freaky thing about you, because apparently I don't know anything, and." He sucked in a breath. Apparently it wasn't just Keith with the painful honesty. "Is this temple making me talk with some kind of alien mind control ray or something?"

"You always talk," Keith said. "Like everyone always thought it was cute and you never got smacked down for it."

"You sound like you never even met the Garrison instructors," Lance said. "Which I know you did, and I'm doing it again, I'm sorry, I'm an asshole, can you please get your nails out of my palm, that hurts."

"I don't know what this temple wants from us," Keith said, but he stopped savaging Lance's palm.

"Maybe for me to apologize properly? That's what my teachers always wanted, you wouldn't believe how many times I had to do it over," Lance ignored Keith's quiet mutter of yes, I would, "they kept calling me on not doing it right, and my sisters, they're fierce about it, and."

"And everyone else who knows you?"

"Shut up," Lance said, but it was only half-hearted. "Look. I apologize, I am genuinely truly sorry that I made you feel I meant weirdo loner in a bad way that reminded you of the past. I didn't mean to, but I guess that just goes with the whole not thinking first thing. Also I was wrong, you're not a loner, you're a paladin of Voltron. You're still a weirdo, though. But you're our weirdo."

"Thanks," Keith said. "I feel so much better now." His nails weren't drawing blood, though. "And you're a paladin of Voltron, even if you're loud and annoying and thoughtless."

"Are we bonding?" Lance could even feel his fingers now. "We're totally bonding, aren't we. They should call this the bondage temple." Keith's hand clenched down on his, shit, so much for any finger-feeling. "That was a joke. I make them sometimes. You want me to explain it to you?"

"I really don't. And it wasn't funny." Keith's grip eased up a little. "So we're in space, but we're not abandoned and alone. Even if one of us is an idiot. Great. You hear that, temple? Are we done here?"

"It's probably--"

The lights turned on. They were standing in the middle of a huge arena, its floor stretching out all around them, perfectly smooth. Tier after empty tier of semitranslucent crystal benches rose up on every side. This place looked to be about twenty times as big as the temple they'd gone into. Or a hundred times. Or... Well, it was really hard to judge the size of it. The light was coming from somewhere overhead, and Lance tilted his head back to see if the impossible stadium walls were topped with impossible giant floodlights, but he couldn't really see anything, and had to blink and look away.

"This is a lot bigger than the temple," Keith said. "It can't all be real." That was such a staggeringly obvious thing to point out, Lance thought maybe Keith was more taken aback than he looked.

Lance stared out across the wide expanse of smooth floor instead. His eyes worked fine now, without any colored spots dancing in his vision, like the bright floodlight glare hadn't left any after-effects. He had no trouble seeing a couple of doors slide open towards the far end. "Yeah, you know," he said, "I'm still going to shoot those robots over there before they get close enough to demonstrate if they're real or not."

He raised his bayard, which had transformed while he wasn't looking, and dragged his other hand up to steady it, along with Keith's hand, which he was still holding on to. Remembering the way the cargo ship robots had managed to reassemble themselves, Lance took a headshot and one robot went down.

"Hey!" Keith said. He yanked at their joined hands, and the next shot went wide.

"Oh, man!" Lance tried a Keith-style glare. "Did you have to--" Keith yanked again, and Lance had to either turn or let go, and the Ymrians had been pretty clear on the whole hand in hand thing, so. When he turned, he could see the robots bearing down on them from the other direction. "Oh, crap."

Keith's bayard hummed in his hand. "Guess this is the part where they test our fighting skills."

"Yeah," Lance said slowly. Something came zinging through the air towards them. "Look out!"

Lance tried to dodge aside, and Keith tried to smack the missile out of the air with his sword. As a result of trying to do these things at the same time, Lance got Keith's elbow in the side and Keith scraped his face on the floor as they none-too-gracefully fell over. At least that way the zinging missile of unknown badness went over their heads and hopefully hit the robots on the other side.

"If we rush the robots on this side," Keith snapped, "we can take them out so we're not caught between two groups."

"Or they'll shoot us before we even get that close!" Lance glared at the floor of the arena. Hadn't it been smooth just a minute ago? Now it was sandy and uneven in patches, just perfect for putting your foot wrong and slipping. Great. When he looked up, he saw that a cluster of high, square blocks had shot up not far from them, like very random pillars or very deliberate stone formations. "C'mon, we can take cover here."

"This would be a lot easier if we could split up," Keith said, but his hand stayed locked tight in Lance's. They rolled, scrambled upright, and slid in among the pillar-stones.

"Yeah, but we can't." Lance wasn't letting go, either. He glanced very cautiously around the edge of a pillar, and saw that the robots were standing completely still, frozen mid-motion. "Huh." He leaned forward a little more, and the robot nearest to him completed its turn to the side and fired. Chips of crystal flew from the pillar, and Lance ducked back again. "They don't move when they can't see us."

"We can't cower here and hope they rust and fall to pieces," Keith snapped.

"Did I say we should?" Lance snapped back. "But we have to be able to use that somehow."

"If we can keep the pillars between us and one group of robots," Keith said, "I can take the other group."

Lance shook his head. "You move around too much." Keith in combat was anything but static, whether he was in his lion or out of it. "But if I shoot down that group," he indicated the robots that were farthest away, "we'll be free to concentrate on the other one."

"Why is taking one group of robots out a bad idea when I say it but a good idea when you say it?" Keith didn't look impressed. "And if I move fast enough, they won't hit me."

Lance pictured Keith in combat, a red blur of speed and aggression. Then he pictured himself, yanked along by Keith's grip like a handcuffed cartoon character, swinging from the end of Keith's arm. "You've got some extra baggage right now. They'll probably hit me." He tugged on their joined hands. "You had the same combat tactics classes I did. First you do what you can at range, then you rush in and kick Iverson in the knee."

"That was only once," Keith said stiffly. "And if you poke your head out to shoot them, they shoot you. Great plan."

"If we crawl over there," Lance said, tilting his head to indicate direction, "I can get a good view and probably pick off at least a third of them before they can see us."

Keith looked unconvinced. "And while we're arguing, the other bunch is sneaking up on us from over there."

Lance frowned. "You don't think they're frozen when they can't see us, too?" Keith shrugged. "All the more reason for us to do this right and do it fast, then."

Keith still looked unconvinced. "Didn't you fail your tactics sim?"

"I failed one tactics sim," Lance said. "And it was stupid. I aced the rest of them."

"Really." After the time they spent in the cold dark place, however long that had been, it was weird to actually see Keith when he talked. Lance thought Keith was maybe just a little impressed, but he wasn't sure. "Even the urban combat with the save-the-civilians mandate?"

"That one was easy!" Lance said. "It was just like the part in SynChroShock when you're chasing the agent with the briefcase into the--"

"It's not a game," Keith said. "This isn't a game. Or a sim."

Lance tipped his head back abruptly to stare up at the impossible giant floodlights. "Wait. It could totally be a sim. They could have started it when we went into the temple."

"Sims don't work like this." It wasn't that Lance had forgotten how stubborn and annoying Keith could be, because really, who could forget that. He'd just somehow glossed over how much it annoyed him.

"Fine, have it your way, it's freaky alien space magic," Lance said. "Either way, we have to solve the problem and get out, and I have a plan. You got something against me shooting robots?"

"No," Keith said grudgingly.

"Come on, then." Lance dropped down and started crawling, tugging Keith along, which was probably the most awkward and difficult thing he'd ever done. Not to mention the sand on the floor was more like gravel in places, digging into his knees. At least their bayards weren't currently transformed into weapons and getting in the way.

They got to the place Lance had chosen and sat with their backs against a pillar for a moment, shielded from both directions. "This is ridiculous," Keith muttered. "The robots should have swarmed us minutes ago. This temple isn't actually trying to kill us."

"You could sound a little happier about that," Lance said. "And, uh." He pointed at where a shot from a robot had blown off a chip from one of the crystal pillars. "I don't think it's in safe mode. But there has to be a way to defeat the robots and move on to the next level, whatever that is."

Keith snorted. "It's not a game, Lance," he said again. "But if the temple just killed everyone, there wouldn't be any point to having a magic obstacle course, it could just have dropped a giant block of stone on us as soon as we went inside."

"Yeah, don't give it any ideas," Lance said. "I've got this." Of course this wasn't a game. But as long as it worked by what Lance thought of as game rules, he was going to use that. That's what game rules were for -- figure them out, take advantage, max out the score. He brought up his bayard and started to twist to one side to get into the right position, then stopped. "And just so you know, you can totally-- No, wait." He'd been about to say that Keith could trust him, but that wasn't the point he had an actual example of. "I trust you," he said instead. "You kept me safe when that giant robot made of robots knocked me out."

"Of course I did," Keith said, and he managed to sound angry when he was saying that, too. Like it was either a personal failing of his that he'd done it, or a personal failing of Lance's that Lance had to point it out.

Lance was starting to figure out that the only thing you could do when Keith sounded angry when he said something was to ignore the angry and concentrate on the actual words. Maybe the paladin-bond feelings, if there were any.

"So now it's my turn," Lance said. Before Keith could say anything about that, he went on, "And then it's gonna be your turn again. You okay with that? Because we should probably get started."

"Yeah." When Lance dragged his left hand up to steady the rifle, bringing Keith's right hand along, that meant Keith was pressed right up against his side, and that could have been even more awkward than the crawling and dragging. But Keith just shifted his hand in Lance's to give him a better grip and folded along his shoulder and hip like some really advanced accessory made to fit like that. "I'm okay. Do it."

Lance grinned sharply. Keith was actually going along with his plan, and he got to shoot things. Today was looking up. "You're going down, freaky space temple space robots," he said and started to fire.

He still didn't actually know if these space temple space robots were the advanced kind that could reassemble themselves, like the ones that had been in the present for Zarkon, or if they were an older model that had been here forever, or-- Well, he didn't know if they were actually real, since this arena couldn't exist inside the temple they'd seen, but thinking about that made his head hurt.

The point was, better safe than sorry when it came to possibly self-reassembling robots, so Lance went for headshots like before, grinning as he took out robot after robot. He got as many as he could, as fast as he could, and then rolled back behind the pillar with Keith for a moment.

"You need to be up there for the last ones," Keith said, nodding at a crystal wall that Lance was pretty sure hadn't been there before.

And yeah, he needed to be up there, or at least on that little ledge to one side, somehow. Lance rolled to his knees next to the wall and looked up. "I'd have to brace myself right there, if I could get up without leaning too far out so they see me."

Keith just snorted. He knelt down like he was about to propose to someone, and when Lance didn't move fast enough, he slapped his thigh with his free hand. "Come on."

Lance moved and climbed, Keith lifted and supported and braced, and wow, he really was strong. Like, not Shiro-arm strong, that would have been disturbing, but Lance wasn't sure he could have managed this himself if their roles were reversed. Keith was in a really uncomfortable position, propping Lance up, and with his torso twisted to let Lance use their joined hands. His face barely showed any strain.

"Perfect," Lance muttered, because from this angle he could see the rest of the robots, and he blew off one freaky robot head after another, like targets on a training range. The robots didn't even see him at first, and when the last two noticed and started speeding towards him, blasting their own shots, Lance still had plenty of time to hit them where it counted. He watched them crash onto the sandy floor and then slipped backwards down next to Keith again. "There. Now let's do the other side."

"That was too easy," Keith said.

Lance rolled his eyes. "Or maybe I'm just that awesome, how about that?" He tugged at their joined hands. "We can get a good view from behind that pillar."

They crept forward, although Keith kept glancing over his shoulder like he expected the robots Lance had shot to reassemble themselves after all and jump out from behind the nearest pillar like something out of a horror movie. Lance, for his part, was hoping it wasn't that kind of game they were in. Movie. Whatever.

The pillar was wide enough that they could hunker down behind it, and cautiously look each around one side. At least, Lance hoped Keith was being cautious. Keith was not made for stealth, temperamentally. He could only manage very short bursts at a time.

Some of the robots were bunched together, some of them spread out along a line, like they'd been given two different sets of battle tactics. "Wish we had some explosives," Keith hissed.

"We have you," Lance said brightly. "I'll shoot as many as I can of the ones on the left. Let them rush this way and we'll fight them in here."

"You mean I will." Keith's grip on Lance's hand squeezed once, firmly, but there was nothing of the knuckle-crush about it, for once. "Sooner we start, the sooner we can be done with this."

"You gotta get over here so I can have our hands first," Lance said. His bayard turned into a rifle easily enough, but when he brought it up to aim, it caught the light from whatever was blazing away overhead, and the robots noticed the glint. "Oh, quiznak."

Keith hissed. "They're coming this way."

"I can see that," Lance said. "At least I can pick off a few on the way." The robots were very predictable moving targets, going directly for their goal, and they were coming straight towards Lance and Keith. Every one he brought down was one less that would get all up in their faces. One less for Keith to fight.

Because, okay, Keith was great with that sword thing, but he'd be fighting with his left hand, and with another paladin attached to his right, and Lance didn't kid himself that he'd be an asset like that. He'd count it as a win if he managed not to be too badly in the way. Not getting accidentally mangled would be good, too.

Another robot. Another. Still too many left, and Lance was completely absorbed in calculating angles and trajectories when Keith pulled him back. "Too close. Let's go."

"Wait," Lance said, and then he realized how close the robots really were. "Okay, don't wait."

"Just follow me," Keith said. He leaped into action, which would probably have looked a lot better if he hadn't been tugging Lance along like someone taking their kid brother for a walk.

Lance was agile enough, but Keith was fast, the kind of sprinter speed-burst fast that Lance never quite managed to keep up with. Now he had the pressure of Keith's grip on his hand to guide him, and he had to trust that Keith had the best idea of where they should be going, and Lance's aim had to be to follow him, and to keep any and all appendages out of the path of the sword.

He could do that. He had a strong interest in keeping himself in one piece, and preferrably not a piece that got shot by robots, either. Or pinched by their claws. So he went where Keith wanted him to, and ducked, and jumped, and side-stepped as fast as he could.

It was a bit like dancing, Lance thought, spinning against the steadying pull of their joined hands and kicking out at a robot that came sneaking up behind, while Keith cut open the head of the one facing him. Keith tugged and swung, and they traded places, so Keith could slice the kicked robot into scrap metal. Lance started to hum under his breath, he couldn't help it. Good thing his sisters had been unyielding on the point that he had to learn to follow as well as lead.

The next time he and Keith closed with each other, standing back to back for a moment, Lance asked, "So, do you come here often?"

"No," Keith said flatly. "I don't plan to ever come here again." Before Lance could ask him if he turned his sense of humor off for fights, he went on, "Duck!"

Survival took priority over conversation. Lance ducked. He wished desperately for a weapon, because Keith was doing all the work here and he was just deadweight -- no, correct that, he was just extra weight that really very much did not want to become dead. Keith's sword swept through the air over his head. He especially didn't want to become dead because he got accidentally decapitated by his fellow paladin. That would be terribly embarrassing for both of them.

His bayard trembled in his hand, and that tremble set up a faint echo inside his head, something like when Blue-as-a-robot communicated with him, but less clear. Lance glanced down quickly and saw that now he held a different weapon, or maybe a smaller version of the same weapon, with the same curve and colors, but much lighter.

Sure, he would have liked two hands to shoot it, but this was what he had. He fired at the nearest robot, and a steady pulse of blue light took the robot's head clean off. "Wow, did you see that!"

"I'm looking the other way, idiot," Keith snarled. Which made the whole sword-over-Lance's-head thing more unnerving. Lance tried to fire at another robot just as Keith turned them around 90 degrees, and the blue pulse turned into a beam that cut a crystal pillar in half instead. The top part fell to the side and flattened the robot, which was good, of course, just not what Lance had intended.

He clutched this new version of his bayard a little tighter. It wasn't quite a handgun, and it wasn't quite a lightsaber, but something in between. Would've been great to figure it out in a less stressful situation. Combat was one thing, but combat where he had to worry about either Keith or himself slicing parts off each other was new and disturbing.

Still, as long as they faced in opposite directions, they should be okay. Just as he thought that, Keith yanked forcefully on him, and he had to move. They were back to leaping and spinning, moving in an unchoreographed dance that seemed to depend entirely on Lance's ability to follow along with Keith's sudden shifts in direction.

It was a lot like forming Voltron. Lance had to trust, because there wasn't time enough to think about every move before he made it. But he did trust Keith. Every word he'd said before was true. Keith was fighting for both of them, just as Lance had been fighting for both of them before. And whatever you could say about Keith, and his stupid shiny hair and his stupid flashing eyes and his stupid hot temper, he was an amazing fighter.

Coming in low, Lance dared a shot at the robot they were facing, and took one of its feet off at the robotic ankle joint; the way the robot stumbled gave Keith time to leap and cut, destroying another robot head.

Lance grinned. "Hey, we're a good team. There's only one left now!"

Everything flickered around them.

It was only for a moment, super fast, their surroundings disappearing and reappearing so quickly that Lance couldn't say if he'd seen something different for a moment, or just hadn't seen anything at all. But after that instant of whatever-it-was, the area around them was empty, and the robots at the far end of the arena were back, standing in exactly the same formation as before, like the temple had loaded a previous save.

"What the--" Keith's grip on Lance's hand tightened.

"I knew this wasn't real!" Lance said.

Keith made a sound that that spoke volumes about his opinion of Lance's deductive abilities. Fine, Lance hadn't exactly heard him analyze the mechanics of this place, either. Random mysticism wasn't a way to say you saw through the alien tricks. "We're lucky it didn't happen when you were up on that wall."

"Oh, like you--" Lance broke off as the words registered. "Yeah, that would have hurt."

"Especially when the wall rematerialized inside you just when you started to fall," Keith agreed. His grip on Lance tightened just a little. Which still wasn't nearly as painful as having a wall suddenly manifesting in the same space as your chest would've been.

"Yeah. That would have... hurt." Or maybe just killed him. Like the robots that were coming at them right now were going to kill them, Lance realized, if they didn't stop talking and start shooting. He brought his bayard up in its first form, and pulled on Keith to get the use of that hand.

One shot. Two shots. Keith was a reassuring presence next to him, a stillness waiting to explode into action once it was his turn. This was a much worse angle than before, and maybe they could have taken cover behind the pillars again, to find out if the robots still stopped moving when they couldn't see any paladins to move towards, but Lance didn't trust those pillars any more, not after what Keith had said. And Keith was the one who'd said it, so obviously he didn't, either. Which meant they were out in the open, and the robots were just going to pick them off, the way Lance was trying to pick the robots off.

One of the robots fired. The shot didn't hit. Lance heard it ping off something, but he didn't look, he couldn't look, he needed to concentrate his attention on what he was doing. Another robot went down.

Reality flickered again. For a moment, it was just him and Keith, and Keith's bayard was a giant red shield. Then they were back in the arena, and the robots were back in their starting positions.

Lance glared at them, because he'd just shot the one to the left there with the slightly misaligned eye array, its robot head was in robot pieces all over the sandy floor, except that it wasn't, everything was back to the way it had been and the robots started to move towards them in just the same way as before, and Lance cursed under his breath and started to make the same shots.

A little faster this time, because he knew just what to expect, but then the robots spread out in a slightly different way and he had to slow down again -- not much, really, but it felt like he was suddenly moving through glue and the robots would be on them any moment.

"This is ridiculous," Keith said. At least he didn't get renewed-and-refreshed with every weird-ass reload; he had the same scrape on his cheek, and the longer strands of his hair were beginning to cling to his neck with sweat.

"You're telling me."

Everything flickered for the third time. Their surroundings vanished long enough for Lance to wonder how he could see anything, because they were standing in darkness, but Keith was still very clear to him, shield and snarl and all. And there was something to one side, a light, but very low down.

When the arena came back around them this time, two sets of robots were standing in pretty much the same place, in pretty much the same formation. Which meant that they were essentially standing inside each other, and that wasn't a good idea for them, just as Keith had deduced before. Most of them collapsed to the ground, useless heaps of too much metal. One had been lucky with the overlap and could still move, but it had three legs and just turned in increasingly awkward circles. Would've been funny, except it still wanted to kill them.

At the edges of the group, though, a few robots were clear of the chaos, and they started towards Keith and Lance as if they didn't even notice the wreckage of their fellows. "This is getting weirder and weirder," Lance said, shooting down one of them. "You think the next set will load with color inversion?"

"No," Keith said. The red shield flashed down in front of Lance, and he was about to protest the disturbance of his sightline when he heard the impact, and felt it in the way Keith staggered towards him. "And they're still trying to kill us."

"Yeah. Noticed that." Lance took half a step back so he and Keith were closer together and the shield could cover more of both of them. Not that he particularly wanted to get shot in the bits that stuck out, either. "Okay, they're getting close already, swap."

The next moment, Lance was holding a blue shield and Keith a red sword. It wasn't a seamless transition. Lance caught the next robot blast, but it pushed him off-balance, and when Keith pulled him along forward in a wild leap, his arm twinged and another shot passed entirely too close to his right leg.

"You okay?" Keith said without looking.

"Fine." Lance angled the shield to cover them against another blast. This was definitely more work than just jumping along, and that had been tricky enough. At least the shield wasn't heavy. From the corner of his eye, he saw that Keith was sword-to-claw with a robot.

Lance followed Keith, just as before, responding to the subtle messages of tug and pull in their joined hands, and he kept a robot from shooting Keith in the back, so that was good, but the next shot grazed his own calf, and it hurt. A lot.

"You okay?"

"Fine," Lance said again, maybe a bit less casually, "I'm just bleeding for the fun of it, it's not a party unless there's bloodstains, right?" He switched shield for weapon and got the robot in the left side of the head with a laser-type blast, which was all well and good, but another robot popped out of hiding from behind a pillar, and Lance wasn't fast enough to get the shield back up again. He felt Keith jerk. "Quiznak. Sorry. You okay?"

"Fine," Keith said, about as easily as Lance had the first time; Lance would probably have believed it if he hadn't been able to feel Keith's hand in his own, gripping hard and tight. "Keep the shield up."

"I said I was sorry," Lance snarled, but he tightened his hand right back in apology and support. He needed the shield against the attacks from that one robot, which was apparently programmed for long-range attacks, but he also needed his bayard to be a weapon so he could take the blasted thing out. Keith was very busy on his side, judging by the way he moved, and Lance tried to juggle three things at once -- moving with Keith, keeping the shield up so they wouldn't get any more shot than they were already, and figuring out how to get at the robot.

It was too much. They needed a break. They needed a... something, anything, to keep from getting overrun and mown down. Lance turned the shield and felt the impact of another hit bruise his arm. Something that would let them take the initiative. Keith was still fast and strong, but his movements were a little less smooth, harder to follow. Something that would help Lance to keep Keith from getting hit again, because he wasn't going to let that happen. Something--

Reality flickered. Or maybe what happened was that reality flickered in. They stood in darkness, blue shield and red sword high, and there was a light down below knee level, coming closer. Something went thump and click.

The arena rose back into existence like a big cage around them. Doors slid open at ground level on every side, any number of them, and the same group of robots marched out everywhere. Lance could see five versions without even turning his head. Behind him, Keith began to swear in a way that would probably make the temple wash his mouth out with sand once the robots had shot him.

Then he stopped. "Swap," he said. "I shield, you shoot."

"They're going to kill us," Lance said, but his bayard was up and firing even as he spoke. "This is a stupid temple."

"Yes," Keith agreed. "Coran's exercises to teach paladins to trust each other were better than this."

"Less death," Lance said. He felt like a cloudless sky inside, stripped down to almost nothing, but not the black emptiness of space. There wasn't much left, but there was something. "I might be able to clear a path. When they take me down, run for that door." He was shooting robots like his life depended on it. Or like Keith's life depended on it.

"Now who's being stupid?" Keith's grip on his hand was back to knuckle-crusher strength. "Start moving that way."

"That's what I'm trying to get you to do!"

A robot-fired shot was coming towards him, and Lance thought that he couldn't possibly see it, it should be far too fast, it should already have hit, he should already be dead, probably. Maybe it already had hit. Why wasn't Keith running?

Everything was frozen. Then the arena went away. They were standing in darkness, holding their bayards, and the low light coming closer was a flashlight carried by the largest of the space mice. The smallest one hopped along right by its side, looking like a mobile miniature traffic cone, and the other two were just behind, arguing. They were a completely unexpected sight, and so much better than being dead.

"They're wearing sweaters," Keith said blankly. "I hate this temple."

"Hey, guys!" Lance went down on one knee, careful with his wounded leg. "What are you doing here?"

The space mice crowded up next to him and all started squeaking at once. Lance flapped his hands in a slow-down gesture, and the largest mouse tried to imitate him and ended up bopping the smallest mouse in the head with the flashlight. That led to a lot more squeaking and then are-you-all-right head-patting and a mousely hug of reconciliation, which Lance thought was rather sweet. Meanwhile, the two other mice got into telling the story.

"I'm not surprised you were worried about this guy," Keith said, nodding at Lance. "He needs all the help he can get."

"Hey, I'm not the one who just fell out of a healing pod right before all this," Lance said. "You were worried about him, right?"

The biggest mouse managed a squeak that was really more of a basso honk, at least for a mouse. The smallest mouse sounded like it was laughing, and the other two went into a pantomime of arguing, pretend-fighting, standing back to back with crossed paws as if they were ignoring each other.

Keith snorted. "You broke the temple rules because you thought we might not get along."

"But how did you do that?" Lance tugged on Keith's hand, because now he was the one who looked like he was about to propose, and he thought if all of them were down on the same level they'd look less ridiculous, not that anyone could see them. "That was you, right, making the programming cut out."

That got him a lot more squeaking and a complicated reenactment that was really hard to follow. Lance got that somebody had dropped the flashlight and somebody else had stumbled and fallen over something, and then the mice had... built a sand castle? No, that couldn't be right. He looked up at Keith and saw that the other paladin was frowning. "I don't get it. And why are you wearing sweaters?"

"Because I knitted sweaters for them," Lance said. "Don't they look great?"

Keith was still frowning. "You know how to knit?"

"Of course I know how to knit." Lance shook his head and turned back to the space mice. "And you saved us from getting shot, so I'll totally knit little hats to go with the sweaters if you want me to."

The mouse with the red pattern on its sweater jumped up and down and pointed back the way the mice had come, squeaking rather emphatically. "I'm not sure that's a good idea," Keith said.

"Of course it's a good idea," Lance said. "Little hats-- Wait. You're not sure if getting out of here is a good idea. We went in, we didn't get killed, thanks to awesome help from awesome space mice, and now we're leaving. I don't see what else the Ymrians could want from us."

"The mice disrupted the temple rituals." Keith crouched down, finally, and looked seriously at the mice. "That's why our fight against the robots turned out so strange."

"Hey, they saved our lives," Lance said, "turning everything off like that."

"They did. But it was because of their interference that we needed saving in the first place."

All the mice started squeaking at once. One was apologizing, two were arguing, and one was explaining exactly what had happened again, which Lance didn't understand any more this time around. Somehow the mice had pushed something down and then tried to build it back up again, maybe.

He frowned a little, too. Maybe that thing Keith did with his eyebrows was contagious. "You mean whatever they did caused all those weird reboots." That wasn't good, but it wasn't like the mice had done it on purpose to harm them. "Whatever, it's all done now, how about we just walk out of here and let someone else get into trouble, if the Ymrians can even fix this. Maybe if the temple's broken we can all just sit down for coffee instead."

"Or maybe they'll be really upset that we broke their temple, how about that," Keith said. He didn't look relaxed down on ground level, either, he was like a runner in the starting-blocks about to launch himself forward. "They wanted us to do this ritual to show them we're the kind of people they should ally with, wasn't that the whole point?"

Lance thought about it. "Guess they did." And they'd tossed in Lance and Keith first, like if anyone was going to fail, it would be them. Yeah, thanks, guys. He really hated being sensible and responsible, but it was like he could feel Allura giving him a disappointed space princess stare from somewhere outside the walls. "Yeah, okay, so we don't want to show them we're the kind of people who broke their fancy super temple sim full of murder robots. How about if we go out and get them to send Pidge and Hunk in next, and they can fix it."

The mice squeaked enthusiastic agreement to this plan, and one of them started to race off towards what might be the exit. "Hold it," Keith said, catching the mouse by the edge of the sweater. "You guys have to stay in here and explain to Pidge and Hunk what they need to do." He dragged the mouse back, wincing as he did. "It's not like we can tell them what's wrong without the Ymrians hearing."

Lance looked a bit more closely at Keith, seeing him wince like that. He'd let a shot through from a robot, he'd felt it hit Keith, and yeah, sure, Keith's outfit had red color accents in places, but... not there, usually. That wasn't good.

"And we'll get going," he said. "Hope there isn't supposed to be a big temple ceremony thing when we come out. That way?" The mice nodded, and the biggest mouse shoved at his calf a little. Not the calf that had been grazed by a bullet, fortunately.

Lance and Keith both got up and got going, leaving the mice and their little flashlight-lit circle behind. The temple was dark, but not the complete darkness they had experienced before, and while their bayards didn't exactly light the way for them, they were at least safe from accidentally walking into walls.

Or into the sliding crystal door, once they found it.

"The mice can't have come in this way," Keith said.

"Who cares?" Lance put a hand to the door. He wasn't sure he could move it by himself, so no, the mice definitely had to have taken another way, but if the space temple had space mouse holes, that really wasn't his problem. "We're alive, we're hand in hand like they said, we've followed their stupid rules, now let's get out of here."

Chapter Text

They slid the door open and went outside. The Ymrians were sitting on a bench, the princess was standing next to them with her arms crossed, Shiro was pacing back and forth, and Coran and Hunk and Pidge were apparently watching all of the princess's paladin videos. Shiro was the first to react, and he was by their side in two long steps, squeezing their shoulders.

"You made it! Are you all right?"

"Fine," Keith said.

"Shut up, you're bleeding," Lance said. "Can we stuff him back in the healing pod again?"

"You're bleeding, too," Keith said.

Lance looked down at his leg. "You're bleeding more." It did hurt a bit, now that he thought about it. That was probably Keith's fault; he'd been managing just fine not thinking about it up until now.

"Not to worry!" Coran came bounding up. "I brought all the necessary first-aid supplies. I know how you paladins get." He waved a tube of something that was probably an Altean disinfectant. At least it didn't look like a jellyfish. "This will fix you right up!"

The Ymrians rose from their bench and came over in a group, and the princess went with them. "So you succeeded," one of them said. "Though it would have been even more impressive if you had remained uninjured."

"We didn't stipulate that they should have no injuries," another one said. Lance couldn't tell if the Ymrian was regretful about that or not. "Very well. Princess Allura and this pilot will go next."

Oh, that wasn't good. Lance had no idea how good the princess was with old tech, but Shiro was a pilot first and foremost. An excellent fighter, the leader of the paladins, but not the first man Lance would choose to hack into an alien non-Galra system and fix whatever the mice had broken.

"Wait, I thought Pidge and Hunk would go next," Keith said, apparently thinking the same thing.

"We choose the order," the Ymrian said. "It's our decision to change it should we want to."

Lance decided to take a gamble. He squeezed Keith's hand as a way to tell him to shut up, and turned on the most brilliant smile he could manage. "Of course it is!" he said. "And it's great that you've decided on Shiro and the princess! I didn't want to ask, but since you've already made up your minds, let me tell you, that was really the best idea you could have had!"

Keith made a noise that might have been a response to Lance's words, or to his signal, or just a reaction to whatever Coran sprayed his wound with -- it smelled like old gym socks marinated in soap. Whatever, if Lance couldn't tell, it was a safe bet that the Ymrians couldn't, either.

The princess met his eyes from behind the Ymrians' backs and quirked an eyebrow, then nodded briefly. "We're ready to go!" she said. "Much more ready than Pidge and Hunk are. Of course it's your prerogative to decide on the order, we're just appreciative that you chose to pick what we would have requested for ourselves."

"Wait," one of the Ymrians said. "We must confer." The Ymrians backed away and went into a huddle, hissing quietly at each other and clicking their claws together.

Everyone looked at Lance like they wanted to ask a thousand questions, but at least they had sense enough to not actually do it, because the Ymrians might hear. The Ymrians were, in fact, turning towards them again, after only a brief conference. Another of the Ymrians looked at them, with all available eyes, so it had to be serious. "We have reassessed the situation. These two pilots," there was that claw gesture at Pidge and Hunk again, "will go next."

Lance had to hand it to the princess, she was good at this. She slumped a little, then straightened up and raised her chin. "Of course it's your decision," she said, a world of unspoken reluctance in her voice, "but I feel I should point out that Shiro and I are ready and prepared for our turn. Pidge and Hunk aren't really--"

"These two," the Ymrian repeated.

The princess turned to Pidge and Hunk. "Be brave!" she said.

"Not like we have a choice," Pidge said in just the right tone of sulkiness and grabbed Hunk's hand. "C'mon, then."

Hunk just looked confused, but that worked well enough; Hunk's genuine, innocent bewilderment-face had been a great asset to Lance -- and Hunk himself, of course -- back at the Galaxy Garrison. Lance watched with what he hoped was the right degree of badly-covered nervousness as they all went round to the entrance of the temple and Pidge and Hunk slid the door open. The darkness inside looked just as it had when Lance and Keith had stepped in, and there were no space mice visible, thankfully.

"But really," Allura said.

"No." The Ymrian nearest to her snapped a claw in what Lance really hoped wasn't as much of a threatening gesture as it looked. "This decision is final."

Pidge and Hunk went inside, the door slid shut, the princess faked a nervous hand-to-mouth gesture, or at least Lance hoped it was fake, and they all trudged back around to sit and wait for Pidge and Hunk to come back out. The princess caught Lance's eyes and did an interrogative twist of her eyebrows. He nodded. He couldn't think of a facial expression that said the space mice broke the temple, and if he tried to mime it all out, the Ymrians would probably get a really weird idea of what the paladins of Voltron were like.

Or they would actually understand what he was miming out, which would be all kinds of bad.

"Do you perhaps have another bench?" Coran asked. "For our injured friends to sit on?"

"No," one of the Ymrians said.

Another one dug into a pocket and took out a small bundle, tossing it to Coran. "Here. Use this."

The bundle unfolded into a space blanket, way too big and too thick for the size it had been when it was all bundled up. Coran spread it out on the least-stony piece of ground available, and they all sat down to wait. The princess made one of her less-subtle faces at Lance, all grin and eyebrow-twitch; Lance guessed she was pleased at how their subterfuge before had worked out. He was pleased, too, because he hadn't really expected to be able to reverse-psychology the Ymrians.

Sitting on a space blanket outside a space temple wasn't actually nearly as weird as it should have been. Maybe because he was surrounded by people, the princess and Shiro and Coran and yes, all right, Keith, who he was fond of, who felt comfortable and familiar.

"This kind of reminds me of the last time we went to the beach," Lance said. "Except there's no beach."

"We?" Shiro was sitting pretty close to the princess, leaning back on both hands. "I don't think the paladins have ever been to a beach together."

Lance shook his head. "No, I meant my family back on Earth." Thinking about them didn't feel quite as painful as usual. "Last time I was home, before the term started at the Galaxy Garrison, we had this giant family picnic thing. Guess the whole group-on-a-blanket thing reminded me."

The princess looked intrigued. "It's an Earth custom to sit on blankets outdoors?"

"Sure, if you're having a picnic," Lance said. "With lots of food, and the kids running around and trying to see who can wade out the farthest without getting their pants wet, and everyone talking at once. My uncle was playing the accordion, and--"

"I thought you said your uncle played the piano," Keith said.

Lance blinked. "You ever tried to bring a piano on a picnic? Sides, he's good with anything with a keyboard."

Keith didn't look like that explained anything. "So he can't do those accordions with buttons?"

"Why would anyone put buttons on a musical instrument?" Coran said.

"How should I know?" Keith snapped. "I didn't invent it."

"There, there." Coran patted Keith's shoulder, which Lance had to say was actually pretty brave of him. "I'll go get you some painkillers from the castle."

"I don't need painkillers."

"Yes, you do," Shiro said.

"You know," Lance said to no one in particular, "I'm just going to give up on this story now."

"I found it very interesting," Allura said, leaning forward a little. "What's a piano?"

Shiro started to explain pianos, and Coran broke in every now and then to make comparisons with instruments that had existed back on Altea, and his own expertise with something that sounded a lot like a banjo, to Lance. Then he remembered about the painkillers for Keith, and went over to the Ymrians to explain, first, before disappearing towards the castle.

The Ymrians watched him go, or at least some of their eyes watched him go, and then one of them rose and came over to the blanket. "Princess Allura," the Ymrian said, "you and this pilot should wait separately from those who have already been through the temple trials."

"We were only speaking of musical instruments," Allura said reassuringly, but she got to her feet and hauled Shiro upright, too, like he didn't weigh more than a space mouse. Nice. She turned her head and winked at Lance before leaving.

Lance thought that was a little excessive. Sure, they'd been co-conspirators in getting the Ymrians to send in Pidge and Hunk, and he was really grateful that the princess had picked up on his cues, trusted that he was right, and acted along with him, but any winking and smiling now would probably just make the Ymrians suspicious. And now that the Pidge-and-Hunk thing was done, there really wasn't anything to wink and smile about.

He decided to just ignore any weird stuff going on and enjoy himself as best he could. He was sitting on a blanket in the sun, more or less, no one was shooting at him, Pidge and Hunk were fixing the temple, and they'd get an alliance with these weird people with claws and too many eyes who grew great fruit. The fruit was the important thing, there. Coran had bandaged his calf, and although he wouldn't say no to a little painkiller assistance, he wasn't dying without it, either. He definitely wasn't anywhere near as grumpy as Keith.

Turning his head, Lance saw that Keith was watching him. Grumpily. He tried a smile. Keith glared back and said, "So. Hunk thinks you have a thing for me."

All the good things Lance had been thinking about went clean out of his head. He sputtered. "Now you want to talk about this? I thought maybe you didn't even hear what I said!"

Which really would have been for the best, because he hadn't meant to say it. That temple had dragged a lot of things out of him that he'd have been much more comfortable keeping under the surface. That was probably the whole point. Stupid temple.

Keith was still glaring. "It's not like we had the time to talk about it then. We had more important things to deal with."

"We did," Lance agreed.

That much was definitely true. But now they were on a blanket in the sun with no one shooting at them, and Lance felt a lot less appreciative of that when it meant he had to deal with Keith asking about what was really only one of Hunk's stranger ideas. Okay, and Pidge's, and Coran's.

There was a feeling like soft laughter in his head, and a swift tumble of images that showed Keith in various poses, just like that night back when he'd been so homesick. There was no mistaking that presence, the non-scent of her, the way she felt in his mind. Or the way she thought he felt about Keith.

Okay, so Hunk and Pidge and Coran and Blue. And maybe Shiro, given the way he'd talked to Lance back when Keith was in the pod. But just because all those people thought it, that didn't mean they were right! Keith was Lance's rival, the person he competed with, argued with, measured himself against constantly and of course came out on top when he did.

Uh. Came out ahead. Lance tried very hard to wipe that first phrase, and the images it brought, out of his mind. It wasn't as if he wrestled with Keith. Which was probably lucky for him, because Keith was really strong -- he'd definitely noticed that during their temple adventure -- and yeah, would probably end up wrestling Lance to the ground and holding him down and that wasn't a thought that made his heart beat faster at all, shut up, Blue, it wasn't.

They'd been through the alien temple together. They'd learned all kinds of things about trust and companionship and blah blah, like an after-school special; maybe there'd have been even more if the space mice hadn't broken the temple, who could say, and that wasn't the point here. The point was, they weren't friends. Lance was very clear on that. It was like thinking about Hunk's emotional outburst that Lance and Keith were like his brothers. Hunk, sure. Pidge and Shiro were something like that, too. But Keith was not his brother. Or his friend. That was not the way he fit into Lance's life at all.

Blue was laughing at him again.

Next to him, Keith was sitting up very straight, brows drawing together. "Did you feel that?"

Lance's first thought was to wonder if he'd missed a tiny earthquake. He'd actually done that once, when he was visiting the west coast, and had to hear about it on tv afterwards. Or if he'd missed a not-so-tiny earthquake. That was the way Keith sounded, like something really profound had happened, something unsettling and intense.

Blue was still all amusement, though, and Lance didn't think she would be laughing if the planet was suddenly shaking apart under their feet. Not to mention, while he accepted that he could miss a tiny tremor, he would definitely have felt anything more than that.

"Uh, no. Feel what?" Lance looked around for anything else Keith might have meant. The weather hadn't suddenly changed; there was no cold breeze sneaking up on them. Maybe a ghost had crept up to Keith and put a ghostly hand on him. Though if it was an Ymrian ghost, that would be a ghostly claw.

Keith lifted his left hand to his temple and twisted his fingers this way and that, like his head was a radio and he was trying to fix the bad reception. "That doesn't make any sense," he said.

"You're the one not making any sense." Lance frowned. Keith was starting to worry him. Sure, Blue in his mind was like a calm blue smile, but she wasn't some kind of infallible Keith-trouble detector, any more than she was really a seismographic instrument.

She could talk to Red, though. Can you ask if something's wrong with Keith?

Laughter.

Exasperated, Lance turned his head to see if Coran was coming back with the painkillers any time soon. What kind of first-aid kit had the man brought with him, anyway, that didn't already have painkillers in it? Maybe he'd gone to get something more heavy-duty, for Keith, but Lance would really be fine with just your basic space aspirin. His calf didn't feel great, but it didn't feel completely awful. Could've been worse.

Which, coming from him, really did mean just that. He wasn't Shiro or Keith, saying he was fine when he obviously wasn't, ignoring pain because of some stoic code. If he hurt, people knew about it.

Lance thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye. He craned his head a bit more, but all he could make out was a blank wall. Now there was something in the shadows on the other side instead. He opened his mouth to yell a warning, and then he realized that the whole experience reminded him very much of something he'd experienced before that hadn't been dangerous at all. Lance closed his mouth again.

Something was making its way towards them, stalking, sneaking, something a little skittish that preferred not to be seen. Lance looked at the open spaces instead, and let his peripheral vision pick up on the movements of a big, semi-translucent cat, glowing red in the darkest shadows, its attention clearly fixed on Keith.

He turned his head away, then, because it didn't seem fair to spy on the first meeting between a man and his lion. Blue sent him a wave of affection in response to that. Lance smiled to himself and counted the colored circles on the closest Ymrian's tunic.

"Ow," Keith said, but not as if he actually minded whatever it was that hurt. Across the open plaza, on the other side of the Ymrians on their bench, Shiro looked towards them, and his eyes widened.

That intrigued Lance enough that he turned back to Keith again. Okay, so the attempt at giving his fellow paladin some lion-privacy had probably lasted all of ten seconds, but--

Oh.

Red was a kitten. A compact, red-furred kitten that had just climbed up along Keith's chest and was now sitting on his shoulder, nosing at his ear. Keith looked a bit dazed, and then he started rubbing the kitten under the chin.

Lance grinned. That was kind of horribly cute. "I don't think this is what Coran had in mind when he wanted us to impress the Ymrians with our lions."

"I don't care what Coran wanted," Keith said. The look in his eyes was softer than Lance had ever seen it before.

"I think he gets that a lot." Lance looked back in the direction Red had come from. "But we should probably be nice to the man bringing the painkillers."

Coran was with them again soon enough and slapped patches on them, close to the wounds. Keith's was candycane-striped and Lance's had butterflies on it. "There!" Coran said. "You look quite stylish now, if I may say so myself."

Looking down at his calf, Lance grinned. "Are these from when Allura was a child?"

"Ah, yes. But they're still fully functional!"

"I can feel it working," Lance said, because he could. Also, he didn't think an extra handful of years made any difference in the ten-thousand-year history of things. Kind of impressive that the colors hadn't faded. "Thanks."

"I'm not letting the paladins of Voltron suffer any unnecessary pain!" Coran declaimed. He was staring straight at the kitten on Keith's shoulder, and Lance tried to work out if he actually saw it or not. Probably not, since he didn't say anything about it, and Coran wasn't the type to refrain from pointing things out.

"What I need now," Lance said, "is a nap." He lay back on the blanket and closed his eyes. Sure, the ground was hard underneath, and there was a pebble digging into his butt, but the way his calf stopped throbbing was way soothing. All that jumping around and shooting at things in the temple had been pretty tiring. Blue sent him a wave of absent-minded affection, and Lance smiled and dropped off to sleep.

He woke up again because Keith was shoving at his shoulder. Lance grumbled, and Keith did it again. "Pidge and Hunk are about to come out," Keith said.

Lance yawned and levered himself up on one elbow. "How do you even know that?" Everything looked the same as before: the Ymrians on their bench, Red in kitten form draped over Keith's shoulder, Shiro and the princess across the plaza playing some kind of game in a grid they'd drawn up in the dirt. Coran hovered next to them and pointed, either giving advice or making note of a tactical error on someone's part.

The shadows were a little different, that was all.

"Because I saw the space mice sneaking away just now," Keith said.

"Oh." Lance sat up properly. That had to mean the temple was repaired, which was a good thing, because breaking people's temples in their holy city was not the right way to get an alliance going, he was pretty sure of that. Especially after Keith had pointed it out, because if even Keith thought so, that made it beyond likely. "Maybe we should--"

The door to the temple slid open, and Pidge and Hunk stepped outside. They didn't look hurt at all, just a little dusty and rumpled. Hunk was grinning. Everyone got up and moved towards them, but the Ymrians got there first.

"You are uninjured," one of the Ymrians said.

"Yeah, I hope getting shot in the leg wasn't mandatory." Pidge bounced a little. "Can we let go now? This really would've been easier with both hands free."

"That is the point," another Ymrian said. "Yes, you may let go now, if you choose."

Pidge and Hunk dropped each other's hands -- not like they were uncomfortable, but like they'd really wanted to use two hands for stuff for a while. Pidge started to mess with hair and glasses right away with an air of relief; the end result didn't look any different at all to Lance, but then, it wasn't his hair or his glasses. Hunk stared at Lance and Keith for a long moment, and then he elbowed Pidge. "Why are Lance and Keith still holding hands?"

Lance looked down at where his left hand and Keith's right were resting, tightly clasped, on the blanket. He looked up at Keith, who was looking at him with the same blank WHAT look. Then they sprang away from each other like two magnets placed wrong-end together, and ended up on opposite sides of the blanket.

"Look what you did," Pidge said reprovingly, slapping Hunk's arm.

"Princess Allura and the last pilot will enter the temple now," one of the Ymrians said, completely uninterested in what the pilots who'd already been through the temple might be up to. "The rest of you wait here."

Pidge and Hunk came over to the blanket, while two of the Ymrians and Coran escorted the princess and Shiro around to the entrance. Maybe the Ymrian who was left had super hearing, but mostly it looked asleep, and Lance felt pretty safe in mouthing to Pidge, "You fixed it?"

Pidge nodded. "I think so." The glasses gleamed in that completely unsettling way. "I'm not sure we got the difficulty setting right."

Lance groaned. "Tell me you set it to easy."

"No, but seriously," Hunk said. "You guys were holding hands the whole time Pidge and I were in there?"

Lance thought about saying that maybe they'd misunderstood the instructions, like they thought they were supposed to hold onto each other until everyone was done in the temple. Before he could start getting tangled up in made-up explanations, Keith bared his teeth, and so did the kitten on his shoulder. "So what?"

"Uh, nothing, I guess." Hunk jumped to his feet and went over to the Ymrian on the bench. "Excuse me, could you tell me more about those orchards that the fruit came from?"

Lance couldn't tell one Ymrian from another, and he definitely wouldn't have woken one up to talk about fruit, but it seemed that Hunk was right, because the Ymrian blinked most of its eyes open and said, "Of course. Fruit-growing is a highly-valued skill where I come from."

"Awesome," Hunk said, settling at the Ymrian's feet like he couldn't wait to hear more.

"I'm going to nap," Pidge said decidedly, then squinted at Keith. "Is there... something on your shoulder?"

"Yes," Keith said.

"Yeah, a nap sounds good," Lance said, even though he'd just had a nap -- while not letting go of Keith's hand even in his sleep, apparently. Maybe all he wanted was to lie down with his eyes closed and think about that for a while.

Sounded like Pidge would be the next paladin to see the cat-bodied lions. Closing his eyes, Lance wondered if he could do anything to help Hunk along as well. Hunk was probably the best best friend in the whole universe, no argument there, but he was so practical and rational, Lance wondered if he'd even believe in this level of space magic if his lion was standing right there licking his ear.

Then again, Pidge was practical and rational, most of the time, and apparently that wasn't an insurmountable obstacle. Plus, Hunk was easy-going, accepting, open-minded in lots of ways... Lance frowned to himself. So why wasn't Hunk off having happy play-time with his lion already? He'd have to ask Blue.

Pidge lay down on the blanket and promptly dropped off to sleep. Lance glanced across at Keith, and their gazes skittered across each other. Well. Awkward. Lance lay down, too, and he really meant to think seriously about this whole thing, but apparently there was something deeply soporific about the sound of Hunk asking questions about soil varieties and flavor changes, and Lance was asleep again before he knew it.

This time what woke him was a loud slam, and wow, he hadn't known you could slam a sliding door open. The princess and Shiro came out, looking like they were willing to take on the whole planet. They were scuffed and scraped and bruised, the princess's hair was coming down, and Shiro's hand was glowing faintly purple. If they did take on the whole planet, Lance would probably bet on them.

"Oops," Pidge muttered, blinking out of sleep. "Maybe I did get the difficulty settings wrong."

But Shiro and the princess were still hand in hand, and that was the important part. They marched up to the Ymrians, the princess took a deep breath, and then she managed a smile that was just as warm and bright as before she went into the temple, if a little more edged. "We have passed your test," she said. "We have delivered the sign you hoped to see. The paladins of Voltron have all gone though the temple of concord and succeeded at the challenge you set them."

Next to her, Shiro looked like he'd gladly slice everything to pieces if the Ymrians disagreed. Starting with the Ymrians themselves. Lance wasn't surprised at all when they started talking seriously about alliances. He was even less surprised when Hunk kept talking about fruit and vegetables.

"Looks like we did okay here," Pidge said.

Lance really wanted that to be it, alliance made, everything settled, let's get back in the Castle of Lions and move on to the next adventure! But of course things weren't that uncomplicated. There were other Ymrie leaders to meet with, talks to be scheduled, and a banquet to attend, as messy and dirty and sweaty as they were. The Ymrians assured them that bearing the evidence that they had been through the temple trials was better than the most stylish outfit they could come up with, and even the princess nodded her agreement, although she looked as if she'd really like to shapeshift herself into someone a lot cleaner and tidier and better-dressed.

Ymrie food wasn't made to appeal to humans. It was mostly seafood, which Lance loved, but so bland they might as well have been eating paste. All the recognizable ingredients were great, and Lance wished Hunk could've had the cooking of them. Judging by Hunk's expression, he wished that, too. But they chewed their way through to the tasteless end, and Lance even tried the small glass of after-dinner liqueur that the Ymrians offered him, and then wished he hadn't. All the flavor that wasn't in the food was in that mouthful of liquid, and he was pretty sure he felt steam coming out of his ears.

But the princess managed to put a positive spin on the way he ducked his head in the indoor water fountain, somehow, and after some more solemn declarations, and signings of important-looking papers, and the ceremonial gifting of a huge basket of fruit to Hunk, they got to go back to their space-castle home.

"I want a shower," Lance said. "Two showers. Three." That indoor fountain hadn't been scrubbed in a long time, and he thought he might have algae in his ears.

The princess turned to Shiro and caught up his left hand in both of hers. "I couldn't help but notice that your nails are a little too long," she said. "Would you like me to show you how to use the manicure box?"

"Show Keith, too," Lance said. "Uh, maybe later," he added, because everyone was suddenly glaring at him, and he hadn't meant to interrupt the princess's sweet, suggestive moment with Shiro, sheesh. Keith just had very sharp nails.

"You could show him," Hunk suggested, and Lance laughed and socked Hunk in the shoulder, trying not to notice that his laugh was like Keith's nails, a bit too sharp.

"Better to get an expert, am I right," he said.

"I suggest plenty of rest for the paladins," Coran said, popping up in their midst like a jack-in-the-box, and for once Lance was grateful for the way Coran never hesitated to hijack a conversation to make it go his way. "It's clear that you need more practice fighting in pairs or smaller groups, so as soon as those of you who were shot recover, we'll work on that so you don't get shot again."

"Wouldn't it be more useful if we worked more on fighting in our lions, and forming Voltron and fighting like that?" Hunk said. "That's the whole point of this paladin business, isn't it? We're not supposed to fight hand-to-hand as just us to defend the universe." He looked worried. "Are we?"

"You mean like you did today?" Coran shook his head pityingly.

"Yeah, that never happens," Lance said. He didn't like the idea of more of Coran's extra-special paladin training, but he also had to admit that Coran was right. "And we never try to infiltrate Galra ships, or have Galra try to infiltrate our ship, and Keith never jumps out of his lion to try to beat people with his fists."

"No," Keith said. "I use my bayard." The princess tried to muffle something that might have been a coughing fit against Shiro's shoulder.

"Lance has a good point," Pidge said. "Shower. I'll see you guys at breakfast tomorrow, and if you've stopped arguing about it, you can tell me when the new training's going to start."

Pidge stomped off in one direction, the princess dragged Shiro by the hand in another, and Coran and Hunk went off in a third, talking about paladin training (Coran) and Ymrian fruit (Hunk).

Keith chuckled rustily. Red was sitting on his shoulder in kitten form, either still or again, and he rubbed her under the chin. "Good kitty." She nipped his finger. "Hey!"

Red leaped down, transforming into her fully grown big cat self as she did, and dashed off in a fourth direction. Keith ran after her, swearing and laughing.

For perfect symmetry, Lance thought he himself ought to go off in a fifth direction, but he was honestly more interested in a shower and sleep than symbolism, so he went the way his room was, instead. The Castle of Lions was big enough that he didn't feel the need to take any extra detours.

He got to his room, went inside, and nearly stumbled over four small, dejected shapes. They looked up and squeaked woefully at him. The mouse in pink was trying to console the angry mouse, the smallest mouse was trying to hide behind them as well as anyone dressed in traffic-cone orange could, and the biggest mouse just stood there, mousely shoulders slumping in dejection.

"Hey, guys," Lance said, sat down on the floor, and spread his arms. The mice were a bit too small to hug properly, but when they looked like that, he was definitely going to try.

They leaped forward and swarmed up his body, clinging to his chest. Lance gathered them in an awkward embrace, feeling like that ancient Snow White cartoon. "What's wrong?"

That got him a series of squeaks and some very energetic wiggling from the angry mouse in Coran-stripes, who seemed to be trying to act something out. The smallest mouse looked like it was about to cry. "Aw, c'mon," Lance said, "you helped us! Keith and I would've been creamed by all those robots if you hadn't shut everything down!"

More squeaking. The angry mouse wiggled free again and did a little dance across Lance's thighs, mousely arms waving. "Yeah, okay, we probably would've been fine if the arena fight hadn't kept glitching and spitting more robots at us." The biggest mouse squeak-honked sadly, and the smallest mouse tried to crawl into Lance's sleeve. "And you did that. And you kind of broke the temple." The mouse in pink and the angry mouse in red Coran-stripes started beating their heads against Lance's midriff. It was like being hit with gently-thrown ping-pong balls.

"But it's all fixed now!" Lance sid quickly. "Pidge and Hunk fixed it up, good as new. And you didn't mean to break it, did you?" All the mice shook their heads. "And you're not going to do it again, are you?" The mice shook their heads even harder. "Good."

The next round of mousely squeaks was a bit less forlorn, and the smallest mouse gave up on the sleeve-crawling thing, which Lance was very grateful for, since his sleeves were not made with extra room for mice. "You can help us to make up for it," he said. "The princess says you help us lots. Just don't make more robots happen."

He carefully lifted the pink mouse off his legs before it could jump on his bandaged calf, and the others all scampered off him, too. "You could go apologize to Keith. He got shot worse than me."

The squeaks he got in response to that were pretty weak and hesitant. Lance looked at the mice, and the mice went into a whole pantomime routine with the angry mouse in red playing Keith, with perfect angry-Keith body language, which was the funniest thing Lance had ever seen, especially when Keith's cutting remarks came out as squeaks. The other mice cowered with their paws over their heads, and mouse-Keith just squeaked and gestured at them. "He's not really that bad," Lance said when he'd stopped laughing. "But yeah, okay, I get it. Why don't you go and help Hunk and Coran in the kitchen? They really need to find good storage space for all that fruit."

The mice squeaked agreement, and before Lance could get up to open the door for them, they'd dived out a small floor-level ventilation opening and pulled the grille closed behind them. That definitely explained how they got into Lance's room in the first place.

Lance levered himself up, went into the en-suite, and stared at himself in the mirror. "I'm too young to be a parent," he said.

Blue laughed in his head.

At least he slept well that night, exhausted as he was, and the next morning there was fresh fruit for breakfast.

"It's really cool," Hunk said with sleepy enthusiasm, "there are miniature stasis pods for food, so we don't have to worry about things staying fresh. The mice found them for us."

"They were very cooperative!" Coran said. "But they still wouldn't make me a sandwich."

Hunk looked a bit less enthusiastic. "Do you really want a sandwich that's had mouse paws all over it?"

"...Good point." Coran turned and pointed at Keith, who sat slouched over a bowl of probably-not-grapes, with a side dish of green goo. "I want to see you down in the infirmary after breakfast! A few quick sessions with the Risti and you'll be good as new!"

"The what now?" Keith looked even less enthusiastic than Hunk. "Is that another kind of jellyfish?"

"Of course it's not a jellyfish!" Coran's eyebrows twitched. He pushed the side dish closer to Keith. "Eat this, it'll speed up your blood regeneration!"

"Yeah, Keith," Lance drawled, "eat your getting-shot-and-dripping-blood-all-over goo."

Keith scowled. "And whose fault was that? Besides, you got shot, too."

"Oh, no." Hunk dropped his head on the table. "I thought you were friends now. Wasn't that the point of the whole temple hand-holding thing? Like, you're all buddy-buddy now?"

"No, we're not!" Lance said. "We're not friends." He had carefully not been thinking about the fact that he'd spent most of the day before hand in hand with Keith, but he was still very clear on one very important point, which was that they weren't friends. Or brothers.

Keith stood up, pushing bowl and plate aside. "I guess we're not," he said in a flat voice and walked away.

Hunk lifted his head from the table to stare reproachfully at Lance. In fact, pretty much everyone at the table was staring reproachfully at Lance. Even the plate of goo seemed to be doing its best.

"Way to be an asshole," said Pidge, who Lance had thought was asleep. "Congratulations."

"What?" Lance said. "We're not! I mean, you could see that for yourselves!" He stood up, too, but because he was a lot more practical and organized than certain mullet-headed emo grumps, he made a long arm across the table and grabbed Keith's abandoned bowl and spoon before he walked out of the room.

He didn't have to go far to find Keith, who was predictably standing at the nearest small observation window, staring out into the vast darkness of space as though he was trying to say something about the state of his soul. Before the moody music could start playing, Lance handed over the bowl. "You forgot your breakfast."

"Don't know why you'd go to the trouble," Keith said, though he accepted the bowl. "Since we're not friends."

"We're not! Come on, Keith! We're rivals and we argue and we have all this," Lance waved an arm in the air, trying to find words for something without using the words that would probably pop up if he actually thought about it.

"Tension," Keith said, which was one of those words. "So all that stuff you said yesterday about how you trust me, that was just to get the temple to let us out?"

"No," Lance said, exasperated. "I trust you with my life, that's not the issue here!"

Keith looked at him. At least the bowl of not-grapes was reducing his general air of menace. "What is the issue here? Exactly."

"I'll tell you when I figure it out," Lance said, starting to back away. "You have a breakfast to eat, and you're meeting Coran in sickbay, and shouldn't you be bonding with your lion anyway, and if the mice come to apologize to you, don't bite their heads off!"

"They probably wouldn't taste very good," Keith said. "Listen, Lance--"

"I gotta go,"Lance said and legged it down the hallway.

He thought about spending some time with Blue, but she felt like she was asleep, or whatever the big robot equivalent of that was, and he wasn't going to disturb her. Lance wandered around aimlessly, thinking he should have snagged breakfast for himself when he left, not just for Keith. After a lot of walking and grumbling, he ended up back at the dining room again. Hunk was the only person left; he sat at the table with a half-eaten fruit in one hand and a small screwdriver in the other, staring at a small piece of machinery.

"Hey," he said, waving the fruit absently as Lance came in. "Coran says I can hook this into the kitchen sequencers for better waste disposal, but I'm not sure it's compatible even if I take off the--"

"Can I have that fruit?" Lance said.

"No." Hunk took a big bite. "Get your own, they're on the sideboard. Didn't you steal Keith's bowl of fruit before?" He eyed Lance. "Where is it now? Tell me we're not gonna find it in three weeks all over mold."

"No," Lance said. "Or, I don't know, Keith's got it, so you can bug him about it."

"You stole Keith's breakfast so you could give it to him?" Hunk put the screwdriver down. "Is this like when you pushed Jenna Goldman's notes off the lecture hall desk so you could pretend to find them for her and she'd be grateful and like you?"

"No," Lance said.

"Good, because she hit you with her three-ring binder and I thought your eyes would pop out." Hunk grinned reminiscently. "You really have a thing for the fiery ones, don't you?"

"Why are we even friends?" Lance slumped down on a chair with a fruit of his own in his hand. "I could do with a bit of solace and commiseration here, you know!"

"Did Keith turn you down?" Hunk put his elbows on the table and seemed prepared to be at least halfway sympathetic. "That sucks, but you were pretty harsh before, you know. Maybe if you apologized some more."

"That's not what happened!" Lance thought about throwing his fruit in Hunk's kind and understanding face, except that would be a waste of a perfectly good fruit. "He didn't turn me down, there wasn't anything to turn down, it's all in your head!"

"It's really not," Hunk said.

Lance stuck his chin out, because that seemed to work for Shiro, but it just made his jaw hurt. "Still not what happened."

"Yeah, but why not? I don't get it," Hunk said. "You have a thing for Keith, you spent hours holding hands with Keith yesterday, why don't you just stop being ridiculous and start dating?"

Lance choked on thin air. "Because!" he said. "Because it's, I'm not, he's, c'mon!"

Hunk shook his head. "Nope. It's not still about the boys and girls thing, is it? I told you, it's okay with everyone if you like both."

"That's not it!" Lance protested. Okay, so maybe that was a little bit of it, because sure, it was fine for people to like girls and boys, he knew that, but he'd never thought of himself as being one of the people it applied to before. He could deal with that, though, probably. That really wasn't the biggest point here. "But Hunk, c'mon, it's. It's Keith."

Keith, who was hot-tempered and gloomy by turns, wore his hair in a mullet of his own free will, had no sense of fashion, and was, okay, a better pilot than Lance -- without even trying to be a better pilot than Lance, which was just insulting.

"Yeah, I admit I don't really get that part myself," Hunk said, "but it seems to work for you. That it's Keith, I mean."

Keith, who was unsettlingly pretty and intriguingly strong, who had a mouth Lance could lose hours thinking about, who was tough and loyal and not nearly as fearless as he seemed, but a lot braver. Who had warm hands and a strong grip. The nail marks had faded, but Lance still knew exactly where they'd been.

"I'm not sure I'm ready to think about this yet," Lance blurted out.

"Okay," Hunk said, bending down so close to the piece of machinery that his nose would've been inside it if he'd had a bigger nose. Then he looked up again. "Can you hold on to this part here? I don't have enough hands."

Lance pressed something into alignment, and Hunk pushed up some other little lever so he could get at the circuit board behind it. The small screwdriver suddenly looked a bit too big instead, but Hunk seemed to know what he was doing. Which was pretty cool, Lance thought. He had a friend who could fix ten-thousand-year-old space machinery.

Which reminded him. "The mice were really sorry they broke the temple. I think they just wanted to come in and help me. Did you and Pidge have a hard time with the repairs?" Hunk glanced up. "What am I saying, of course you didn't, you're space engineering geniuses, am I right?"

"Pidge did most of the work," Hunk said, tongue in the corner of his mouth. "Could you move your hand a bit to the right, yeah, like that. So, about Keith-- Don't let go of that!"

"I thought we were letting this go!" Lance said. "The Keith thing, I mean, not this, whatever it is." He thought he had his hand pressed down in pretty much the same place it had been, but Hunk nudged at his fingers to adjust them before getting back to the important screwdriver business.

"Just hold still," Hunk said. "Sure, but that's not really fair to Keith, is it? Like, one minute you're holding his hand and it's all sweet and the next day you pretend it never happened."

"It wasn't sweet!" Lance said.

"Holding hands," Hunk said relentlessly. "When you didn't have to."

"It's not like there were showers of rose petals," Lance said. Then he remembered the last time he'd said that, and remembered Keith telling him he wasn't very observant. Lance was starting to get a nasty suspicion that was actually true. "It's not like Keith thought I was sitting around and holding his hand because I was trying to be sweet!" Shit. "...Was he?"

"He did jump away just as much as you did," Hunk said. "Sorry about that, by the way. I don't know what's going on with the two of you, and honestly, I'm probably happier that way. I just want to know it isn't going to mess up Voltron, because we had enough trouble with that when we started out."

"Yeah," Lance said, scrunching up his eyebrows, "but that was back then, we're total pros at defending the universe with a big metal man now. It's not like a bit of unexpected hand-holding is going to get in the way of that. Right?" He un-scrunched his eyebrows and wiggled them in what he hoped was a debonair kind of way.

"Right," Hunk said, but it still sounded like a question. Lance was just going to have to show him. Not that he wanted there to be any kind of forming-Voltron level of emergency right now.

No, much better if things were quiet for a while. So he could... sit around and consider how he felt about Keith.

Right. Bring on the emergencies.

The next few days were no fun at all. The food was great, because Hunk really got going and showed what he could do with the fruit-and-veg selection from Ymrie, but Lance couldn't eat from space morning to space night, and he had no idea what to do with himself the rest of the time. Coran and Keith were busy with whatever healing technique Coran had dug up now. He had no idea what Shiro and the princess were doing, but if she'd managed to get this kind of mileage out of the manicure box demonstration, more power to her.

Pidge was putting the finishing touches to some project or other, and wasn't very communicative about it. Or that's what it seemed like. For all Lance knew, that laptop had some kind of space solitaire on it. He got the mice to bring him the yarn basket again and tried to knit hats for them, but he couldn't concentrate on what he was doing, and every new attempt came out worse than the last, too big and lopsided and lumpy. One of the mice tried one on, to be nice, and it slid all the way down to where the chin would have been if mice had chins.

"I suck," Lance said, and the mice all squeaked at him. Not in complete disagreement, either.

He did a lot of running, and got to know the Castle of Lions pretty well, at least the longer hallways. Lance was hoping for Blue to turn up and shadow him, since she'd done it once, but most of the time it was just him and his running shoes, and running gave him a lot of time to think. He tried to count his steps for a distraction, but he always lost track in the mid-thousands and ended up thinking about the way Keith's hand had felt in his instead.

The scratch on his calf gave him no trouble at all, and healed up really fast. Maybe that stuff Coran had smeared him with had been some kind of Altean secret super-healing ointment. Or maybe he was just a very healthy person who thrived better on fruit and vegetables than machine-made green goo.

Either way, it was a relief when Coran announced one night at dinner that paladin hand-to-hand training would resume in the morning.

"I hope you mean bayard to hand," Pidge said. "The only one of us who can sock a robot with their fist is Shiro."

Shiro looked down at his metal hand. He didn't look sad, exactly, but Hunk still elbowed Pidge and cleared his throat. "So everything on the training deck is repaired and ready, right?"

A shadow passed across Shiro's face at that, probably because he was the one who'd managed the most spectacular and thorough breaking of a training bot. So much for the distraction attempt. Lance stomped on Hunk's toes, or at least he hoped those were Hunk's toes. "Sure it is," he said. "And Hunk, I bet you could totally sock a robot with your fist, too!"

"Uh, no?" Hunk said. "At least, I really don't want to!" He kicked Lance back under the table. "That's not what we're planning to do, is it?" Hunk looked at Coran. "Tell me it isn't."

"No, no," Coran said with a reassuring arm-wave. "We'll start with the paladins of Voltron fighting as a group, until you're like a pack of yelmores, linked at the ears and ready to--"

"Not literally," Allura said. She reached out and patted Shiro's metal hand, and Lance was impressed, because that was like opening a window and letting the sunshine in. "That would be inconvenient."

Coran looked like he'd had a sudden idea. "But if we used a--"

"No," Allura said again, with all the weight of her space-princess authority in the word, and Coran deflated.

Not for long, though, because he was Coran. He looked brightly at the paladins. "Tomorrow after breakfast, then! I'll expect you to be suited up and ready!"

"I should join in, too," Allura said, and everyone turned to stare at her. She looked calmly back. "Not all the time, of course, but Ymrie wasn't the first time I was expected to fight, and it probably won't be the last. It would be useful to have some familiarity with the paladins' fighting patterns."

Shiro nodded. "Makes sense. So you'll be taking part tomorrow?"

The princess nodded back. "I'm sure Coran can set up the training session for six people."

"Of course, of course!" Coran said. "Nothing easier." He didn't look quite as enthusiastic as usual, though.

Lance lingered at the table when everyone else started to leave, absorbed in finishing his glass of delicious... well, water. It really was good, though, since there was a slice of fruit rind in it that made the taste tangy, but not sharp. He slurped up the last water and looked down at the piece of rind, trying to remember what the whole fruit looked like. Maybe it would taste good in muffins.

It was official: he was turning into Hunk.

Keith came back in, and Lance put his glass down with a click and jumped to his feet. "So, you're all better, and it's back to the Coran-special training course for us all tomorrow! I should probably get some sleep."

"Right after dinner?" Keith crossed his arms and watched as Lance sauntered casually across the room. "You need to stop avoiding me."

"I'm not avoiding you! That's ridiculous! What makes you think I'm avoiding you?" Blasted Keith and his blasted directness. It was useful, sure, but Lance strongly preferred when it was aimed at other people.

Keith snorted. "The way you're trying to leave the room right now, for one. If you don't want to be friendly, fine." He didn't sound like it was fine, though. "We're going to have a lot of trouble forming Voltron if you keep pretending I don't exist."

"I don't!" Lance said, appalled. Okay, so he was trying to leave the room, but -- no. "Seriously." He thought about it. "No, seriously. I haven't really hung out with anyone since we left Ymrie, okay? Not even the mice."

That made Keith uncross his arms. He didn't look quite so forbidding any more. "Since when do you spend time with the mice?"

"Since I did all that knitting for them, I guess. And now they want hats, and I can't do hats."

"Then you shouldn't have offered," Keith said. Okay, so he still looked pretty forbidding. Something about his jaw. Or maybe he looked pretty and forbidding. "It's cruel to promise something that you can't deliver."

"I know," Lance said grumpily. "I've tried, okay? Hats are freaking difficult, I've never done that before! It's not working out."

"Tell them that," Keith said. "At least be honest and stop avoiding them."

"I know," Lance said again. "I just--" He broke off and stared suspiciously at Keith. "Are we still talking about hats?"

Keith leaned back against the wall. "Maybe not," he said. "I don't want you to knit me a hat, though."

"I could probably do that," Lance said, sidetracked. "With the mice, it's the small sizes that are giving me trouble, and--" He looked at the way Keith was standing, more as if he was holding the wall up than the other way around, full of tension and strength. "Yeah, and that's not important and I'll stop talking about it."

"Good."

"I'm not pretending you don't exist." Lance marched right over to Keith and waved a hand, stopping himself just short of poking a finger into Keith's chest. "You definitely exist. I can't stop thinking about you."

"Good," Keith said, with the same inflection as before.

"You're the most annoying person I've ever met," Lance said. Keith looked unimpressed. "And I'm not avoiding you, but I'm going to leave now."

"You're avoiding me," Keith said.

"Fine!" Lance flung his arms up. "I'm avoiding you until breakfast tomorrow!"

Keith looked at him, really looked at him. Lance had a feeling the world through Keith's eyes was probably quite different from his own, and whatever Keith saw when looking at him wasn't at all what Lance thought he was showing.

"Fine," Keith said, a slow echo. "You want me to stop annoying you, I'll stop annoying you."

"No," Lance said, surprised into honesty. "That's not what I want. Besides, there's no way you could, I mean, you can't stop being you. The only time you were easy to get along with was when you were in the healing pod."

Keith's eyes sparked. "When you could touch me and pretend you weren't doing it?"

"I wasn't doing it," Lance said, "do you even listen to your lion, that wasn't, I didn't!" He lifted his hands to grab Keith's shoulders and shake them, and then realized that definitely wouldn't add to the credibility of his argument, so he waved his arms in the air instead. "Fine, I'll tell Blue it makes you uncomfortable when she touches Red, but it's not like she does whatever I say, she's not like some kind of big cat robot that only follows programming and orders!" Blue, who had been distant for a while, laughed in his head. "Okay, she is a big cat robot. Most of the time. But she's more than that. You've met Red. You know."

"Red's nothing like Blue," Keith said at once. "Stop talking about it."

"You're the one who brought it up," Lance said.

"No, you're--" Keith slapped his palm against the wall. "I said, stop! We went hand in hand through an alien temple and you said you trusted me, but after that you said we weren't friends and you've been avoiding me for days and now you're just talking about cats and hats like you were written by Dr. Seuss. I'm not saying we should be best buddies, but this is stupid."

"Your face is stupid," Lance said automatically. For a value of stupid that meant really pretty, anyway. Or something that made Lance stupid.

Keith's stupidly pretty face turned cold. "Fine." He started to push away from the wall. "I'll just leave now, make it easier for you to avoid me. But if you let this mess up Voltron--"

"No!" Lance flailed, reaching out with both hands to stop Keith. "That's not what I meant!" One of his hands caught Keith's arm. "Don't go!" His grip slid slowly down over Keith's sleeve, over his ridiculous glove. "Don't go," Lance said, suddenly breathless, as their fingers interlocked.

Keith stared down at their joined hands, and then raised his eyes to Lance's face again. "I never know if you mean it," he said. "The things you say and the things you do don't match up."

Which was a fair point. Especially since Lance didn't really know what he meant, himself. He gripped Keith's hand a little tighter. "It's like everything's changed out here in space," he said. "Or I've changed."

"No, you're still the same clumsy ass you always were," Keith said with mock reassurance. But he didn't let go, either. Instead he looked at Lance and said, "I want to trust you. That's probably stupid, too."

Lance shook his head. Everything seemed to be conspiring to teach him about trust lately. Voltron. Shiro's inspirational speeches that were more like orders. Coran's exercises. The Ymrian temple. That had taught him to trust Keith -- no, that had taught him that he already trusted Keith. With his life, sure, but this was about more than just the immediacy of the battlefield.

"No. I." He stared down at their hands, just as Keith had done. "I want you to trust me, too. I mean, I want to be someone you can trust."

Blue purred in the back of his mind. It was nice that she wasn't laughing at him for once. He wondered if she could do something about the whole Red and Keith and unwanted touching thing.

"That's nice," Keith said. "So does that mean you'll stop avoiding me?"

"I guess?" Lance rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. "Like, maybe not this second, because I have stuff to do and I really need to get some sleep, I wasn't kidding about that, and if we tried being around each other all the time, we'd probably strangle each other, and that would be bad."

"I guess it would be," Keith said, "but why would we do that?"

"Hello, because we're destined rivals with a lot of natural aggression?" Lance raised one eyebrow. He'd put some serious work into learning how to do that, and also into making sure that his eyebrow was worth looking at when he did it. Keith probably couldn't even spell tweezers. "If we're not careful, our inborn killer instincts might take over!"

"Right," Keith said. He could definitely spell sarcasm. "You realize you're standing here holding my hand right now, Mr. Bad Nature Special."

"Hush," Lance said. "Don't wake the inner dog-eat-dog mentality." He thought about it. "Or I guess it would be cat-eat-cat in this case?"

"And you call me a weirdo."

Standing around and holding hands with Keith was... actually really nice. In fact, holding hands with Keith and squabbling with him at the same time was such a great combination, Lance couldn't believe it had taken them so long to come up with it. They should have been doing this all the time. No wonder it had felt so natural in that space temple.

Hand-holding was seriously underrated. Lance admitted to himself that he'd thought of it as innocent and boring, a stepping-stone to more interesting things, even if he might not have done as much stepping as he liked to pretend. This was good, though. He was holding hands with Keith and he liked it. His head wasn't even about to explode or anything. So it might have been a while before they managed to split up and go to their rooms.

The Castle of Lions felt different during the time assigned as sleep cycle. It shouldn't, Lance knew that. Space was always the same kind of dark, and the lights inside the castle-ship were always the same kind of bright. Still. Maybe the difference was in him, in the way his body believed it was night. He walked quietly, looking down at his hand, which looked the same as always. No nail marks this time.

He could still feel Keith's fingers against his own.

Lance opened the door to his room. The lights were already on, and the mice were waiting in a mousely huddle.

"Oh, hey." Lance walked in and dropped down on the floor next to them. "I probably need to talk to you guys. Right." The aggressive mouse squeaked. "I'm sorry about the hats. Doesn't look like I can do hats. If I figure it out, you'll be the first to know!"

The biggest mouse squeaked sadly, but then patted Lance's knee and squeaked some more. "Okay, so you're not here about hats. I'm still sorry, just so you know! All right, go ahead." The mice went into a complicated pantomime of squeaks and gestures. The smallest mouse bounced up and down, and it took Lance a moment to realize that was out of nervousness, not part of the message. "Wait, wait."

Although it was part of the message, really. "You're worried about something. You're worried about us fighting? I think?" Squeak. One mouse fluffed its neck fur up in the back. "Wow, is that a mullet?" Lance was charmed. "Tell me you're not worried about me and Keith fighting, because we're not really fighting, I mean, not really really fighting."

The mouse in pink squeaked something reproachful at him. The mice went through a few more rapid changes, pretending to wear glasses, pretending to have a headband, a metal hand, long hair and an imperious demeanor. The angry mouse pulled its sweater up over its nose like a bandit, which confused Lance for a moment until he realized the red stripes based on Coran's facial hair were in just the right place. "So you're worried about all of us fighting?" The mice nodded. "But we're not fighting."

The mice all looked at him like he was being deliberately obtuse. Which was kind of not helpful, when he really wasn't getting it. The Coran-acting mouse started to pretend that Lance's boot was a control panel that it could lean over and mimic pressing buttons. The other mice held off an invisible enemy with invisible weapons.

"Ohh," Lance said. "The combat training!" The mice squeaked something at him that sounded a lot like finally. "But guys, that's just training. We're not really fighting. We'll be fine."

All the mice squeaked in unison, and the ones who were close enough thumped Lance's boot with bunched-up paws, which hurt about as much as being pelted with cottonwool. They squeaked reproachfully, but all he could get was that fighting was bad and they worried, and really, there was no need for them to worry about tomorrow's session. "We'll be fine," he said again, and the mice shared a look and then took off for the ventilation duct without even squeaking goodbye.

Lance put on some nice soothing music and got ready for bed. After he was done brushing his teeth, he spent a lot of time staring at himself in the mirror. (Which wasn't really a mirror, but some kind of Altean technology that Lance had tuned out the explanation for after half a sentence; it looked like a mirror, it worked like a mirror, he was going to call it a mirror.) He was the same as always. If space was changing him, at least it wasn't giving him floral-print skin or an early onset of wrinkles. This guy who'd spent hours holding hands with Keith -- again! -- was the same guy that had looked back at him yesterday. So that was okay.

Crawling into bed, Lance punched at his pillow and tugged his bedcovers around for maximum comfort. He closed his eyes, breathed out, and... something was touching him.

Something was touching him and purring.

It wasn't Blue. He'd know her, know her touch, anywhere. But if he could feel himself getting cuddled by a giant invisible cat, and it wasn't Blue, he was pretty sure it had to be Red, and what he was feeling right now was what Blue was feeling. And if he could feel Red, that meant Keith was feeling Lance, and wow, that sounded a lot dirtier, even in his head, than he'd really been going for.

He thought in what he hoped was Blue's direction, Keith doesn't like this. It makes him feel like I'm touching him, makes him uncomfortable.

The fragment of her attention that he got in return was mostly amused, because Keith didn't seem entirely averse to Lance touching him.

No, I'm serious, Lance said when his ears stopped burning. He really doesn't like it. And this was kind of a big step from hand-holding; Lance wasn't sure how he felt about it, himself. Okay, so it felt like Red to him, not Keith, so it wasn't the same for him, but getting this close to someone else's lion was weird, too.

Lance didn't think Blue would ever really be angry with him, or ever really hurt him. Not unless he did something horrible, anyway. But she dropped the next thought/feeling into his mind with a certain firmness: what was between her and Red was between her and Red, and she wasn't going to let either Keith or Lance dictate how they interacted.

She left him with a mental tail-flick, and Lance sent love after her just because he could, then sighed and rolled over. He was surrounded by psychic animals who not-talked to him. He had a fierce rival and at the same time maybe-boyfriend with warm hands who was going to be pissed at him in the morning. How was this his life now? And he could still feel the weight of Red, warm and purring, all along his back.

Since there wasn't anything else he could do, Lance went to sleep.

Chapter Text

He got through his regular routine next morning without really thinking about anything, and went to have breakfast, which he hoped would be more fruit-y and less goo-ish, but you never knew -- Hunk wasn't really a morning person, whereas Coran seemed to be an all-times-of-the-day-and-night person.

Keith eyed him darkly across the table, but didn't actually say anything. Since Lance had been half-expecting a repeat of what happened on Ymrie, this was an improvement. Probably. Maybe. Lance bit down on one of the pink-striped fruits -- score! -- and thought about the night before, leaning against the edge of this table and talking, arguing, laughing. Holding hands.

That sounded really sweet and innocent, the kind of thing you could tell your great-aunt about and she'd aww at you. But he could still feel his heart beating in his chest, remembering. Yes, that was definitely an underrated activity. Lance would have thought of it as kid stuff before, and he felt like he'd really learned something, had his horizons expanded or whatever, because holding hands with Keith was so not the peacefully bland experience you saw in pastel pictures of big-eyed children toddling hand-in-hand through flower meadows.

Then again, nothing with Keith was peacefully bland. Just sitting here at breakfast, they were eyeing each other like they were each waiting for the explosion. Lance decided he might as well get things started; he wasn't very good at waiting, anyway.

"I talked to Blue last night," he said, and wow, that made it sound like there'd been a long and serious conversation. "She said how she and Red do things is really none of my business, so." He shrugged. "I tried, okay?"

Keith looked unimpressed. "You're not very good at negotiating with your lion, are you," he said, and whoa, that was uncalled-for, that felt like an insult to both Lance and Blue. "Lucky for you we already sorted it out."

"You-- What?" Lance leaned forward across the table. "You and Blue?"

"No, idiot. Red and I got it settled. So you don't have to worry about it."

"Well, good," Lance said, although his eyebrows drew together as he was trying to work out Keith's tone. Keith sounded as if this was a problem of Lance's that Keith and Red had solved for him, and that definitely wasn't the case. Keith was the one who'd been upset about it. And Lance hadn't felt anything different on his end, so this solution, whatever it was, had to be on Keith's end. "What did you do?"

"Sensory exercises," Keith said curtly. "I only feel Blue now."

Okay, that... didn't really sound that much better. Sure, it was good that Keith didn't feel like an invisible Lance was touching him, but now he was being touched by an invisible lion instead.

Cuddling with an invisible Blue at night, just like Lance was apparently doomed to cuddle with an invisible Red. Not that it was horrible or anything, but it definitely counted as weird. And intimate, in a way that made him feel that he and Keith had rushed ahead into a closeness that maybe neither of them was really prepared for quite yet.

Not to mention if they ever did get to the point of, of something that Lance wasn't going to think about right now because he could feel his ears starting to burn, the bed would get really, really crowded.

"That's okay with you?" Lance asked. Keith glared at him. "Hey, just checking. Red probably has her own ideas about this, same as Blue. Doesn't mean you have to go along with it."

"It's fine," Keith said, not quite so curtly. "We're fine."

"Blue? Red?" Pidge looked from one of them to the other. "Are you guys making this up just to make me and Hunk feel even more like the slowest kids in class?"

"New one for you, isn't it," Lance said.

"You'd expect Lance to be the one who didn't get it," Keith said.

"Hey!" Lance tried to reach to kick Keith under the table.

"Stop it." Shiro leaned forward and put both hands on the table. "Closer contact with your lion isn't something you boast about. If it takes longer, that could just be because you don't need it as much. The lions try to support their paladins as much as they can."

"That is definitely true!" Coran chimed in cheerfully. "Your lions know you from bootstraps to Ryllian spheres, every little dirty secret!"

Hunk shot Lance a worried look. "What's a Ryllian sphere?"

"And it really shouldn't be a surprise that the Yellow Lion isn't manifesting yet. The personality type that gets chosen for the Yellow Lion doesn't need as much overt support, and I suppose--"

Allura put a hand on Coran's arm. "You're just guessing," she said. "Save it for another time. If everyone is done with breakfast," and it sounded as if they'd better be, "we can get started on today's training exercises!"

"You're still determined to take part?" Coran turned towards Allura.

"You know I am." She was doing the Shiro-chin thing again, too. "Everyone in the Castle of Lions needs to know how to defend themselves as part of a team. In fact, you should take a turn as well."

"Oh, be reasonable, Allura!" Everyone started to stand up with a scrape of chairs and clatter of plates. "I can't run the training exercise and take part in it -- I can't be in two places at the same time!"

As they started to file out of the room, Pidge fell behind to be next to Shiro. "So you were the first one to see your lion? I mean, like a cat." Shiro nodded. "Does that mean you needed it the most?"

Lance tried to keep looking back over his shoulder without being totally obvious about looking back over his shoulder. Next to him, Keith was doing the same thing. Hunk didn't even try to be casual, he just stopped and turned around.

"I suppose so," Shiro said. His attention was on Pidge, but Lance didn't think that meant Shiro wasn't aware of the rest of them. "You know there are things in my past that aren't easy to handle."

"Yeah." Pidge slumped a bit, as if Shiro wasn't the only one weighed down by that past. Then again, Pidge was the one with the closest tie to what had happened to Shiro.

"But we're all here for you now," Hunk said, without any pretense that he hadn't been listening. "Not just your lion, although that's great, man. But I mean, all of us. All of Voltron's got your back."

"We do," Keith said. He had that fierce edge to his voice again. He sounded as if he'd defend Shiro with his blade in his hand, if necessary.

Well, of course he would. It was Keith. Hunk was probably thinking more in terms of supportive hugs. Lance just nodded, the way Pidge did.

Shiro looked at them all. "Thank you. We're a good team," he said. "And we'll show it in this training exercise."

They all formed up around Shiro and went to get suited up, because as usual, Shiro was the only one in full uniform from the get-go. That didn't take long, though, and it was true they looked even more like a team once they were properly outfitted, bayards on their arms.

"But we don't have to wear the helmet, do we?" Hunk said, poking at his. "Not while we're in here."

Shiro had his helmet under his arm, ready to go. "Coran would never test us by setting off sleeping gas in the training chamber," he said. "Or let the training droids hit us over the head. Enemies would never do that, so why would we have to learn to defend against it?"

Pidge sighed. "You're getting sarcasm all over my uniform."

Lance was glad they'd all brought their helmets along when they caught up with Allura outside the door to the training deck. She was fully kitted out, helmet included, and grinned sharply at them. "Are you ready? I've told Coran not to go easy on us."

"He never does," Hunk said.

"Right." Shiro looked them all over with a sharp glance. "Lance, Hunk, you're taking lead with the ranged weapons. Keith and I will be ready to back you up as soon as it gets to close combat. Pidge, you're our saboteur. Try to trip them up."

Everyone nodded, including Allura. "And what would you like me to do?"

"You're not carrying any weapons," Shiro said with a slight frown.

"I thought it would be more of a challenge to try to take one from a training bot," Allura said calmly, as if she was talking about bumping the difficulty setting on a game up a little. Then again, Lance remembered her saying that the gladiator bot that kicked all their asses back when they'd first started training as a team was set at what an Altean child could handle.

Alteans obviously had very different ideas about child rearing, but also, if Allura had grown up on that, it had to mean she had a very good idea of what she could do. Plus, Lance reasoned, she had five paladins of Voltron ready to protect her if it turned out she was wrong. She'd be all right.

"Uh, I dunno," Hunk said, "are you sure about that?"

"Yes," Allura said, still calmly but with more of a snap to it.

The speaker over the door crackled, and Coran's voice boomed out. "Don't just stand there waiting like a herd of pretshaks at a watering hole! Everything's ready for you in here!"

"Pretshak?" Allura looked a lot less calm all of a sudden. "Who is he calling a pretshak?" She yanked the door open and stormed inside, and Lance and Hunk collided in the doorway trying to follow her; Shiro pushed them through.

So much for Shiro's battle plan. Allura seemed to have lost all her diplomatic zen as she stormed straight towards the back wall of the training deck, where Coran was looking down at them from the control center and laughing. When a bot popped up out of the floor, she bent and twisted, kicking one leg out with the full force of her momentum, and the bot went skidding backwards.

"Wow," Pidge said. "I want to learn how to do that."

"Me too," Lance said honestly. "She's awesome."

Keith thumped his shoulder. "Save the standing around and drooling for later. We're in the middle of something here."

"Incoming!" Shiro said at the same time. More training bots popped out of the floor, spread out in a half-circle around the paladins.

Lance swung his bayard up to his shoulder, and he and Hunk opened fire in opposite directions. These were just the training deck's standard-issue bots, and they didn't seem all that fearsome, not compared to the Ymrie's clawed versions with eye arrays and self-reassembling skills. Most of them looked the same as always, white with yellow decorative accents, although Lance noticed that the one he was facing was just plain metal from the left knee down, as if there hadn't been any replacement parts in the right colors. Some well-placed shots kept the bots from rushing either towards Allura or towards the group of paladins.

"Keith, you go left and I'll go right," Shiro snapped. "Pidge, you're with Allura!"

As soon as Lance noticed the others moving forward, he took a few steps back, into the space where they'd been, and he felt Hunk do the same, so they were standing back to back and keeping the bots at each end of the half-circle from turning their attention, and their weapons, towards the other paladins. "You know where the targeting system is?" Lance asked over his shoulder.

"No, but they can't move if they don't have feet." Lance could feel the thrum and recoil as Hunk fired.

He almost felt bad about targeting the plain-metal foot, because it had to mean that the Castle of Lions was running low on spare parts already, and even though the castle-ship was huge and full of all kinds of stuff, its resources couldn't be infinite. This was another reason they needed alliances. Food and spare parts. Fruit and robots.

Lance chuckled to himself. The Ymrians' gift for Zarkon really hadn't been as weird as all that. Fruit and robots was actually a great combination. Hot commodities. He lifted his bayard into the proper position, steadied himself against Hunk's back, and fired, not at the metal foot but at the single eye in the robot's head. The light blinked and went out.

"They can't get us if they can't see us," he said back to Hunk.

Down at the other end of the room, Allura was still fighting the gladiator bot with kicks and leaps and blows. As far as Lance could tell, she was trying to get its staff away from it, and the way she spun out of the way of blows and tried to close in from the side, the way both Allura and the bot dodged and turned around each other, was fascinating to watch. Allura was clearly trained in the same school, the same style, possibly by that very bot she was fighting. They had a rhythm going, and their fight was half performance.

By contrast, next to Allura, Keith was going sword-in-hand against another bot, and his style was completely different. The way Keith fought was a lot more direct, a quick series of aggressive slashes that the bot barely avoided. When he jumped back and leaped in again, the movement was straightforward and efficient. He was graceful, but he wasn't making a show of it.

And when he blocked and held a downward strike, it was clear that he was very strong.

"Lance!" Hunk wheezed practically in his ear. "Stop staring at your--" The bot on that side crashed into Hunk, he crashed into Lance, and they all crashed to the floor. Which didn't open and swallow them, the way Coran's drills usually ended, so they were still in the fight, at least. Lance wriggled out from under Hunk's shoulder and got up to half-kneeling, just in time to see the bot on his side start the same kind of rush. Since the eye was out, though, the bot's aim was off, and Lance just shuffled a little out of the way and stuck one leg out, tripping the bot up when it rushed past.

Then he pressed his bayard to the bot's neck and yelled up at Coran in the control center, "Get this thing out of here! Or I'll do something that can't be repaired for weeks!"

"Wow, man, that almost sounded macho," Hunk said from the floor, still out of breath as he pummeled the other robot. Lance had been right, Hunk really could hit them with his fists and make a statement. Although the statement might be ow, my hands.

The floor did open, then, and the eyeless bot fell through. Moments later, an opening appeared under the bot that Hunk had put the smackdown on, and Lance grabbed Hunk by the collar and dragged him backwards so he wouldn't end up falling in, too.

When he looked around for their fellow fighters, he saw Allura finally get the staff away from the bot she was facing, and once she did, she used it to deliver a quick series of blows that would have left a living opponent shaking and dizzy, before thrusting the end of the staff against what would have been solar plexus if the bot had one, sending it flying backwards.

"That is one strong lady," Lance said. Then he looked at Shiro and Keith, and glanced quickly at Hunk. "Where's Pidge?"

"Right there," Hunk said, squinting. "I think."

Keith finished a series of slashes against his bot, something that looked like a well-practiced routine, and jumped backwards to start over; Lance didn't know much about swordfighting, but he'd learned something about how Keith moved with a sword in his hand.

Right then, a flash of green spun out near ground-level. Thin ropes tangled around the bot's ankles, and it tripped forward, right into Keith's next attack. His swing took its head off, and it collapsed to the floor, and then down through the floor. "C'mon, Pidge," Keith said. "I had it."

"You were just drawing the fight out so you could impress Lance," Pidge said, and Keith sputtered.

"What, no!" Keith crossed his arms over his chest. "How come you're not helping Shiro?"

"Shiro doesn't need help."

That much was true enough. Shiro didn't fight with either Allura's elegant control or Keith's aggressive grace. Shiro was methodical and merciless, and Lance was reminded that this was a man who'd learned to fight for his life in a Galra gladiator arena. One arm was already missing from Shiro's bot-opponent, and the white paint had been scraped off down one side.

"Get the legs!" Hunk yelled, because that was apparently his favorite tactic, and Lance had to admit it was a good one.

Shiro didn't get the legs, though. He crouched and sprang like a lion, getting inside the bot's guard, and then put his glowing purple hand through the bot's chest and twisted. The bot stopped, shooting sparks from its eye and from the wires trailing out of its shoulder, and then it fell.

"Oh, not again," Coran said from up in the control center.

"Sorry." Shiro actually sounded apologetic.

"No, no!" Coran hit a button and the last bot vanished into a hole in the floor. "Well done, paladins. Well done, Allura. For the next exercise, maybe you can gather in a group in the center of the floor."

"Actually," Pidge said, "I have a suggestion. I lifted some programming from the Ymrie robots and modified it for ours. That ought to be more challenging."

"Uh, I dunno, Pidge," Hunk said. "Is that really the kind of thing you want our bots to learn?"

"They were self-replicating killer robots, hello!" Lance said.

"They'd be really good to practice against, though," Keith said. And if Keith could say that, after those robots hurt him enough to put him in a healing pod for days, Lance didn't want to be the wimp who protested the most.

"Everything I've got is on this memory unit," Pidge said, digging a small, square object out of one pocket and tossing it up to Coran. "You can just plug it in and if the bots start acting wrong, pull it out again."

"Huh," Lance said, watching as Coran hunted for the best port to plug it in. "I thought the bots had their own central processing unit in the head or something. And can you really stop everything just by unplugging that memory thing again? Doesn't the programming or whatever get downloaded into the bots?"

Pidge and Hunk both looked at him like he was wearing his underwear on his head. "What century are you from, again?" Pidge said.

"Don't worry," Hunk said, patting Lance's helmet, which was presumably as close as he could get to ruffling Lance's hair. "I'm sure Keith will protect you, just like last time."

"Keith went down last time," Lance said, while Keith made a snarling sound that didn't seem like a good sign for Hunk's continued health and happiness.

"All right, paladins, time to pay attention!" Coran said. He raised his arms, elbows high, and then brought both hands down in a dramatic crash, and Lance couldn't decide if he looked like a wild-eyed organist in a horror movie about to play the monster theme, or a beat-crazed DJ intent on making everybody dance faster than they ever had before. Maybe both.

Bots popped out of the floor, out of the walls, dropped down from the ceiling. For a moment, it felt like they were everywhere, and the paladin group drew together to face them. But instead of attacking, two of the bots got together and launched a third one up along the back wall.

Huh, that was weird. The bots normally attacked whoever was down on the floor. There wasn't anything back there except the--

"No!" Allura said. She turned to Lance. "Stop it!"

Lance got his bayard up, but the bot was already clambering over the balustrade and grabbing hold of Coran. If he fired, he'd hit them both, and Coran wasn't even wearing armor. The bot turned and flung Coran out like he weighed nothing, and Allura and Hunk both rushed forward, trying to catch him. Up in the control center, the bot hit a few buttons, and glowing shields came up over the doors, both out to the corridor and off to the showers and changing rooms.

Now that Coran was out of the way, Lance fired, but his shots ricocheted off the shield popping into existence around the control center. Lance glared at Pidge. "And what difficulty level did you set these to?"

Pidge glared back. "That bot probably reset everything! They're not supposed to be able to do that!"

"They are doing it," Shiro said. "How do we turn them off?"

Allura and Hunk dragged Coran into the middle of the group. He looked in better shape than you'd expect for someone who'd been thrown from a balcony by a murder robot, but that just meant Lance couldn't see any obviously broken bones or massive bleeding. The way he kept trying to stand up and failing was kind of a clue that things weren't so good.

"We've got to get that memory unit out again," Pidge said.

"Great, that'll be easy," Lance said. "There's just some reprogrammed fighter bots and a few shields in the way!"

"Oh, I'm sorry," Pidge said, getting up in Lance's face, "did you think you could just take a nap and this would all be fixed when you woke up again?"

"Guys," Keith said, sounding a little strained.

"We have to work together to fix this," Shiro said. "If you want to snap at each other, do it later."

"Guys," Keith said, and now he sounded a lot strained. Lance looked up and saw that Keith was holding off two of the bots; one had a staff and the other a sword. Shiro made a dark sound, and the next moment he was at Keith's side, metal hand starting to glow with a low purple light.

Allura bent to pick up the staff she'd claimed from the gladiator bot before, but before she could straighten up again, Coran clasped her arm. "Wait," he said. "You should let me take your place, Allura. I knew I shouldn't have allowed you to take part in this."

"Allowed me?" Allura looked less than amused. "You don't allow me to do anything, Coran."

"I have a responsibility," Coran said. "King Alfor would have wanted me to--"

"Don't bring my father into this." Allura set her jaw. She was getting better and better at the Shiro-chin thing. "And stop trying to protect me when you can't even stand up."

This was shaping up to be a big fight, Lance could tell from the way Allura's voice sounded, and he wasn't about to get involved in it. Particularly when he had a feeling they had more immediate problems. He turned to stand on the outside of the group and raised his bayard, and laid down a line of fire right in front of the bots grouping up by the far wall, to keep them from coming any closer. The longer they could avoid close-range fighting on two fronts, the better. Being in the middle of the room like this, completely exposed, was already bad enough.

Behind him, the argument went on, unsurprisingly.

"You're our hope for the future," Coran said. "The resistance against Zarkon rests on your shoulders."

"He's kind of got a point there," Pidge said reluctantly. "You're the only Altean princess we've got."

"Yes, and Coran's the only other survivor of Altea you've got, if that's what you think is important," Allura snapped, "and he could already have internal injuries!"

Hunk came up next to Lance, his weapon resting against his hip. "I can't break the castle's shields by firing at them, even with this," he said. "But maybe I can take out one of the walls, get us out that way."

"Whoa, wait," Lance said, putting a hand on Hunk's arm. "The walls in here are pretty reinforced. That's the whole point of a training deck."

"Plus," Pidge said from behind them, "hit in the wrong place and you could start a fire. Fire on a spaceship? Generally not a good idea."

Lance set off another round of keep-the-bots-off-us fire, first low and then high, and one of the bots went down when he got in a well-placed head shot. "Yeah, we should probably try to keep this place in one piece," he said. "Since we're living in it." The downed bot plucked its head off, and a replacement head came popping up out of a hatch in the floor. The bot picked the head up and slammed it into place, and the eye flickered and then lit with a steady red glow. "Oh, come on!" Lance would have turned and glared at Pidge, except he didn't think it would be a good idea to take his attention off the bots.

"This isn't good," Hunk said. "This really isn't good."

"Allura." Pidge's voice was a little sharper now, more eager. "Can you call the mice? We can't get up there, but maybe they can."

Lance remembered the mice, last night, telling him they shouldn't fight because it was dangerous. Seemed the mice had had the right idea. Maybe they'd seen Pidge's experiments with Ymrian bot technology. Maybe they could have been a little clearer in their warning.

Maybe, he thought, doing his best to damage as many parts as he could on the bots, maybe he wasn't as great at understanding the space mice as he'd hoped.

"They're already on their way," Allura said. "Let go of my arm, Coran." Lance could hear her moving behind him. The paladins and Allura formed a loose circle around Coran's fallen form. "I think they anticipated trouble."

"Yeah," Lance muttered. A bot shot up from an opening in the floor right in front of him, and he yelped. That was way too close. Allura leaped out to meet it, her staff swinging up, and she and the bot exchanged a flurry of blows while Lance tried to edge out of the way and not trip over Coran.

"Ow!" That was Hunk. Lance twisted his upper body around enough to see that another bot had popped up at close range to take Hunk on, hitting him over the head with its staff. He'd fallen backwards on his ass and was trying to get his dented helmet off. Pidge and Shiro came up to defend him, leaving Keith to hold that side alone -- oh, so it wasn't a ring now, they were standing in a triangle, sort of.

And the geometrical definition of this fight was probably not the most important thing about it. Lance stepped around Coran and Hunk so he could stand between Allura and Keith. Now it was a blobohedron.

"We have to get them out of here," Shiro said. "The middle of the floor is a bad place."

"A corner would be more defensible," Allura agreed. She didn't even sound out of breath. "Pidge, you take over here, and I'll move Hunk. I'm stronger than you."

"What, no, I'm fine," Hunk said. "I just need to..." He finally got his helmet to pop off, turned a shade of green that really didn't go with the yellow, and leaned sideways and threw up in it.

"If Allura brings the fallen paladin to safety, they should both stay there!" Coran said. "There's no need to consider me! Just leave me here! Er, and perhaps give me a weapon, and some support for my leg, and does any one of you have a little water to spare?"

"Shut up, both of you," Shiro said. "Allura, if you can handle Hunk, I'll take Coran." Allura and Shiro began to haul the injured away. A bot came towards them, and Allura picked up Hunk's helmet and threw it straight at the bot's head, where it hit with a clang and the contents covered the bot's red eye in a disgusting but effective manner.

"So we have to keep their attention on us," Pidge said, bouncing nervously at one point of the now much smaller triangle.

"And away from the Intergalactic Red Cross corner," Lance said, nodding. "Yeah, that's probably for the best. If we can drive the bots down towards the back wall--"

"No," Pidge said. "Don't look, but the mice are already there, trying to get into the control center. We don't want the bots to see that. We need to keep their attention on us."

"You people talk a lot," Keith said. "Lance, shoot the bot over there. Don't hit the mice."

"Since when are you in charge," Lance muttered, but he raised his bayard at the same time. The mice were doing something extremely adventurous, climbing in a mousely chain from a ventilation duct high on the wall to another, similar opening lower down. Lance wondered why they didn't just follow the ventilation system until they could get right into the control center; they were outside the shield, and since Hunk couldn't blast through those things, Lance figured the hammering of a space mouse paw wasn't going to have any noticeable effect.

While he thought all this, he fired at the bot that was still down at the far end of the room and might conceivably notice the mice unless it was distracted. Lance was good at being distracting. He hit the bot's knee joint, making a pleased sound when it had to stop and replace its entire leg.

"We're going to have to do a lot of repairs again," Pidge said.

"Yeah, and how about this time you don't experiment with self-reassembling subroutines," Lance suggested. "Or things that can-- Hey, they can't access the rest of the castle-ship, can they? Who's even flying this thing right now?"

"Thank you for pointing out the blindingly obvious thing to worry about," Pidge said between clenched teeth. "Keith, on your left!"

"I got it,"Keith said. Lance didn't turn to see how the swift thud of steps and clang of metal translated into Keith fighting. Weirdly, he missed he link of hand-to-hand, the way it had let him feel everything Keith was doing, as impractical and complicated as it had been at the time. He fired at the bots that were coming closer, coming a lot closer really fast, and then there was a different kind of metal impact sound and Keith said, "Lance, switch!"

So they did, stepping past each other in swift movements, as certain as if following footmarks painted on the floor. Whatever Keith had done to discourage the bot, it had fallen back, and was at an excellent distance for Lance to shoot at it, so he did. He was just about to try to take its head off when he saw the arms moving, and his bayard was a shield before he even thought about it, catching a couple of the tiny round drones that had attacked them during their first paladin team exercise.

"Wait, I thought these things could fly and fire stuff at people," Lance said. "How come the bot is just throwing them at us like they're snowballs?"

"I don't think they can interface properly," Pidge said. "The routine from the memory unit is probably overriding a lot of other stuff. Look out!"

"Yeah, yeah," Lance said. "I could do this in my sleep. Ow!" Another thrown drone hit his thigh, and it definitely hurt a lot more than a snowball. He angled his shield out and kept the next one from hitting Pidge. "Why don't you stop Barf-face there from getting to Allura and Shiro and the others?"

The bot that Allura had nailed with Hunk's helmet had managed to wipe the area around its eye clean, and now it was heading for her again, looking and smelling like a bad bar fight. "Ew," Pidge said.

"Glamorous life of a paladin," Lance agreed. The bot down by the wall got some more drones and started throwing them, harder and faster. They slammed into the shield and fell to the floor, and while Lance was glad that they weren't zipping around and shooting energy blasts, he didn't like the way the floor was getting covered with small round things that were perfect to stumble over.

Pidge made a pleased noise, though, and dropped down to get one of them. "I can work with this."

"Yeah, that's great," Lance said impatiently. He'd done some intense shooting at the bot by the wall before he had to bring the shield up, and now it was swapping an arm out. Something was happening down by the control center, but he didn't have the time to stop and stare, even if Keith hadn't already warned him to keep everybody's attention off the mice. "Maybe you want to do something about Allura and that bot, though."

"You think Allura can't handle herself?" Pidge already had a panel off from the droid's smooth covering and was doing something to its insides. Good thing Pidge had small hands.

Lance held the shield with one hand and bent down and scooped up a droid with the other, and threw it back at the bot. He didn't have the kind of muscle it would take to do any real damage with it, but he jostled the bot enough to slow down the arm-replacing process a bit. "Fine, she's Super-Allura," Lance said, which was sort of true, "and Shiro is Super-Shiro, but there's still wounded people in that corner."

"Going,"Pidge said, popping the panel back into place. The droid lifted into the air and took off, heading for the vomit-bot; Pidge swung out to the right, so they'd come in from both sides.

The bot by the wall had its new arm on by now, and apparently fresh initiative to go with it; it came running towards Lance, throwing droids as it went, fast enough that Lance didn't have time to switch from shield to gun and shoot its legs out from under it. He kept his focus on fielding all those throws, making sure none of the droids went past him to hit Keith, either. They were making the footing dangerous, whether they broke into messy pieces or rolled off to cluster here and there on the floor like high-tech bocce balls.

The bot came closer and closer, until Lance hissed, "Keith, switch!"

They moved smoothly past each other, not even looking, and Lance grinned as he heard the metal scree of the approaching bot running chest-first into Keith's sword. He hoped if anyone tripped on the droids, it would be the bot.

Taking over Keith's position also meant he took over Keith's enemies, one with a sword and one -- the same old familiar one with the plain-metal foot -- with a staff. At least they weren't both up in his face. In fact, old Metal Foot was moving backwards, apparently heading for t he back wall and the control center. "No!" Pidge yelled. "Stop it!"

The Pidge-reprogrammed droid came flying over Lance's head, going for the bot, but it wouldn't get there in time -- Metal Foot had the staff raised, apparently intending to sweep away the mice, who were abseiling down the wall from an open duct with a grid to an opening right above where the shield blocked off the control center's otherwise open balcony. Lance was pretty sure that had just been smooth wall plating last time he'd paid any attention, but it stood to reason that the droids had to pop out of something; he hoped this opening was connected to the entire invisible back structure of the training room, and not just a hole full of droids and bot parts.

Lance raised his own bayard and got ready to fire, wishing he'd spent more time practicing his sharpshooting. Sure, he was good, he defied anyone to say he wasn't good, but this was tricky.

Firing at the body of the bot, the largest target, might not actually do anything; the bots didn't feel pain, on account of being bots, and were only slowed by injuries that prevented their moving parts from moving properly. What Lance had come to think of as the Hunk Tactic, going for their feet, actually worked really well. The head was good, too, because destroying the bot's eye meant it couldn't see what it was doing. But Metal Foot had its back to Lance, and he wasn't sure how much damage he'd have to do to the head from behind in order to manage that. The arm and hand were comparatively small, and in motion. The staff was even narrower, and even more in motion. Not to mention getting way too close to its target.

Feet it was, then. Lance sent a burst of shots towards the bot's feet and legs. The bot was just trying to jump, but Lance's attack took care of that. Once the purely mechanical parts of the bot's feet and legs were disrupted, there was nothing to carry out the commands of its programming, and the steady artificial gravity of the training deck took over. The bot fell down instead of leaping up, but in doing so, it threw the staff at the mice.

Two of the mice were already inside the opening, and they hauled in the third with desperate tugs, just getting it out of the way as the staff crashed into the wall. The fourth mouse, though, was still out of their reach, and while the staff didn't hit it directly, the impact was still close enough and wall-shaking enough that the mouse lost its grip and started to fall.

Lance made a pained sound. The mice were light, sure, but that fall was way too high.

The droid Pidge had reprogrammed reached the wall just then. It zipped in underneath the mouse and caught its falling body, continuing to move sideways along the wall and slowly downwards. The mouse lay spreadeagled across the top of the droid, and probably wouldn't fall off unless either mouse or droid made any wild movements. Lance pumped his fist in the air. "Yes! Go, Team Voltron!"

"Move, airhead!" Keith shoved him out of the way hard enough that Lance went down on one knee, and the sword of the other bot came down just where his head had been.

Keith leaped into the fight, sword held high. He aimed a strike at the bot's arm, the bot jumped backwards, and then they were going at it fast and hard. Lance wanted to watch, because Keith had done so much fighting defending his back, out of his sight, and he wanted to see what it actually looked like. But there was a reason why Keith had been defending his back, so Lance turned the other way instead. He couldn't see the droid-throwing bot at first, just wreckage of droid parts strewn across the floor. Had the bot gone down to Keith's sword, and disappeared through the floor?

A clash and scrape of metal put an end to that pleasant idea. No, the bot had sidled along the wall towards the corner and attacked there, and was currently facing off against Allura, who wielded her staff in a way that made Lance think of goddesses and lightning bolts.

Lance couldn't fire that way without putting everyone in the corner at risk, but then again, he didn't think he had to. Shiro was standing next to Allura in a ready stance, prepared to leap in as the second line of defense, but so far, it wasn't necessary. Allura had the situation well in hand.

But there was movement down by the back wall. Lance turned his head that way to see that Metal Foot, who apparently never gave up, was busy replacing its legs. It didn't take much intelligence to deduce that once the leg-replacement was complete, Metal Foot would either attack the mice outside the control center, or attack the mice inside the control center, if they'd managed to get in.

It also didn't take much intelligence to find the simplest solution to this problem, which was to fire repeatedly at Metal Foot until every part of it stopped moving. The mouse was far out of the way now, carried off by its droid rescuer, so Lance didn't hesitate to shoot and keep shooting until Metal Foot didn't have anything to start reassembling itself with.

"Uh, Lance," Shiro called, "I think it's dead now."

"Of course it's not dead," Allura said, managing to sound calm and out of breath at the same time. "It was never alive to start with."

"I don't want it to start body-building again," Lance said.

"You're not funny," Keith hissed at him. "Try being useful."

"I'm not shooting bots to entertain people," Lance snapped back. "Duck!" He fired over Keith's head.

Something flickered in the corner of his eye. He wasn't about to take his attention off the bots, but he thought that might have been the shield over the control center. Good.

He and Keith were once again fighting in a rhythm, just as they had been in the temple on Ymrie -- back to back, more or less, and trading places when they needed to, moving as if they were following a well-practised choreography. The bots here didn't suddenly reload in a fresh group, but they kept rebuilding themselves long past when Lance thought they ought to have run out of spare parts. At least the remains of Metal Foot didn't move.

The shield flickered again, then went down. It was hard to see what was going on in the control center; Lance was kind of busy, thank you very much, and he definitely wanted to keep the bots busy as well, as far from the back wall as possible. He wished he could be down there to help the mice out, though, because there was a bot in the control center, and the mice were down to three now. Also, not exactly big bad bot-destroyers.

"Lance, hold your fire!" That was Pidge, going along the wall in a quick, crouching run.

Lance really didn't want to shoot Pidge, so he reached back without looking and only realized when he did it that he might be about to get his hand cut open. Or off. Fortunately, he made contact with a non-lethal part of Keith instead. "Switch!"

"Did you just grope me?" Keith grabbed Lance's wrist and swung them around, as if they were still linked together.

"It's not like I could look!" No one was sneaking around behind the bots on this side, so Lance was free to shoot at them as much as he liked, which was a lot. They were kind of close, though. Really close, when you weren't a close-quarters fighter at all. And they were bots, meaning they lacked any sense of self-preservation; one of them could easily rush him to give the other an opportunity.

Maybe this hadn't been his best plan ever. Lance squeezed his bayard tight and tried not to panic, and it changed shape in his hands. Now he was holding the lightsaber handgun, and when he squeezed the trigger, he got the same pulse of blue light as in the temple on Ymrie, and it was just as good at taking a bot head right off.

Lance really, really liked his bayard.

"Wow," Hunk said drowsily, off in his corner, and Lance grinned. That did seem to sum it up.

Pidge was down at the back wall now, throwing up a line and climbing towards the balcony with some assistance from the reprogrammed droid. It probably wasn't all that strong, but then, Pidge was light. Lance wanted to watch what went on down there -- how were the mice doing? -- but he knew if he stopped and stared, he'd just give the bots a reason to pay attention and head that way. Which would be bad.

So he only got glimpses, in between shooting and slashing at bots, getting yanked around by Keith like it was going out of style, and having criticism hissed in his ear. ("You're doing it wrong." "Shut up, we're not dead, are we?") He saw Pidge scrambling over the balustrade. He saw something drop from the ceiling and land on the head of the bot at the controls. He really hoped that wasn't a mouse.

Wait, if the droid had helped Pidge scale the wall, that meant there was a mouse on its own down on the floor somewhere. Lance couldn't see it; the mice weren't wearing their sweaters now, which was sensible of them, because those sweaters weren't exactly made for stealth.

Maybe that could be his next project for a rainy day. Camouflage knitting. Except space didn't have rainy days, and the mice were pretty much naturally camouflage-colored, and there was a bot coming right at him and he should probably pay attention to that and not to the sad little twinge inside that came with missing Earth weather.

Lance ducked under a swipe from that bot's staff and tried to fire his own weapon and sweep it sideways in the same motion, and hey, that worked: the blue beam sliced through the bot's metal calves, and it staggered to a halt, suddenly a foot shorter and seriously unbalanced. Lance straightened up again and kicked at the bot's chest, sending it reeling backwards.

He reeled a little himself, because maybe he hadn't hit the bot perfectly with the sole of his boot, the way he'd intended, but he still counted it as a win, since the bot wasn't all up in his face any more.

"Stop kicking things," Keith said in that sweet ray of sunshine way of his, grabbed Lance, steadied him, and swung them around to trade places. "You suck at it."

"Like you could do any better," Lance said on autopilot. He was facing Droid-Throwing Bot again, and it was starting to look a lot the worse for wear, which was reassuring. Especially since it had droid parts wedged in the join between the left arm and the torso, which restricted its movements a bit. "Wow." Lance, unlike certain pouty whiny emo crankypants of his acquaintance, could give credit where credit was due. "How'd you manage that?"

"Wasn't me," Keith said, and Lance could track the way he moved by his voice. "Shiro threw it when it rolled too close."

Lance drew breath to say something else, when sparks fountained out from the control center. "Quiznak!"

"Oh, no!" Allura said at the same time.

That couldn't be good. Mice were small, and couldn't take much in the way of electric shocks. He could hear Pidge yelling, which was probably a good sign, because it meant there was someone to yell to. Or maybe Pidge was just yelling at the bot. Hopefully to draw its attention away from the mice. Not that Lance wanted the bot to go after Pidge instead, but a paladin was a lot better equipped to defend against a bot than a few adventurous little space mice were.

Droid-Throwing Bot turned that way and started to walk towards the back wall. "Hey!" Lance yelled. "We're not done here!" He scooped up the nearest mostly-whole droid and threw it at the bot's back. When it came to throwing things, he was no Shiro, but he knew how to hit what he aimed at. "Get back here and face me, you big clanking loser!"

Okay, so he wasn't going to win any trash-talking contests. The bot still stopped and twisted its head towards him. Lance was about to grab a second droid, and then he realized he was forgetting the obvious solution. His bayard changed shape with a thought, and he fired.

Droid-Throwing Bot only had one droid to throw, the one Lance had hurled at its back. Instead of even trying, it started running towards Lance. He kept firing. The bot dove into a forward roll, faster than Lance had ever seen the bots move before, and came up really, really close. The bot's left arm was completely out of commission now, but all the other bits seemed to be working just fine.

"Change your bayard, Lance!" Hunk shouted.

That made sense, and he thought lightsaber as hard as he could, but nothing happened. Nothing happened to his bayard, that was; plenty of things were happening, all right. There was a lot of blurry motion up in the control center, probably a fight, although Lance didn't exactly have the time to stop and stare at it. The metallic clangs and panting breaths behind him told him that Keith was keeping Metal Foot and the other bot busy, or they were keeping him busy, whatever. Off to the right, Shiro's arm glowed purple as he started to charge towards Lance and his opponent.

And Droid-Throwing Bot tackled Lance to the ground, making his head bounce against the floor plates, which was extremely painful. The helmet didn't seem to help at all, or if this was helping, Lance really, really didn't want to know what the experience would be like without a helmet. Time seemed to stop for a moment while every part of him was busy dealing with the ow ow ow, and when he could pay attention to the world again, the bot was trying to get its metal hands around his throat.

"Meep," Lance said, getting his arms up to keep from being strangled as best he could. Sitting astride him, the bot was as heavy as you'd expect a big thing made out of metal to be. Lance tried to roll sideways and got nowhere. The bot was a lot stronger than him, too, and trying to punch it or headbutt it sounded like a bad idea, since, again, metal. Hitting it would hurt Lance a lot, and probably not do very much to the bot at all. What he needed was something that would cut through the metal surfaces, like if his stupid bayard would change the way he wanted it to--

Preferrably before the bot got a grip on his throat. The way its metal fingers dug into his arms was bad enough.

Right above him, a booted foot and a uniformed leg pistoned in to kick the bot in the head. It jerked back a bit, and its grip on him loosened. Moments later, a purple metal hand came from the side and punched the bot in the neck. "I've got this, Keith!" Shiro said. "Look out on your left!"

Lance was getting a little dizzy from the way the bot's weight was pressing his own arms into his throat, although he could breathe better now that the bot had reared back a bit. "Fine," he muttered, "talk to Keith and not to me, I'm just the guy lying here getting strangled, there's no need to pay attention to me." Shiro yanked the bot off him as if it weighed next to nothing. "Wow."

Then Shiro was going hand to hand with the bot, and Lance had a weird frog's eye perspective of it. He thought he should probably get up and join the fight again, but he only got as far as trying to raise his head. The minor dizziness he felt turned into the kind of massive dizziness that made the world dip and spin around him, and he hurtled back down again -- kind of impressive, in its own way, since he was lying flat and there was nowhere to fall.

Lance hoped he wasn't going to be sick, because there was no way he could get the helmet off to throw up in it. Happily, the dizziness passed. He managed to turn his head a little sideways instead, just in time to see Pidge and the bot in the control center struggle at the balustrade, slam hard into it, and finally fall over it. Pidge flung up a glowing green line that wrapped around one of the balusters, and managed a relatively controlled fall. The bot just went straight down with a thud that sent tremors through the floor.

Lying like this, Lance could feel everyone's footsteps like they were walking right on top of his head. Allura was still holding off a bot over in the corner. Keith was holding off two bots, the show-off. Shiro, Lance saw when he turned his head back again, bared his teeth and made his arm burn almost white-hot, and sliced most of Droid-Throwing Bot's head right off.

Which was impressive, and would have been even more impressive if he'd done it right away, instead of that neck-punch thing, but hey, Lance wasn't about to do any back-seat bot-fighting, not as long as he got his life saved.

Then, anti-climactically, the droids just stopped.

It wasn't so surprising in the case of the one Shiro had just lobotomized, but the others stopped, too -- the one attacking Allura froze mid-leap and then fell flat.

"They did it!" Pidge grinned so bright, Lance thought someone had turned on an extra spotlight. "The mice saved us!"

"Go, mice," Lance wheezed. He made another effort to sit up. Nope, still not happening. He did manage to lift his hands enough to strip his gloves off.

"That's wonderful!" Allura swept out of the Intergalactic Red Cross corner and down towards the back wall. "Please get the doors open, and we can get everyone the proper medical attention."

Just outside Lance's field of vision, but definitely not out of range of the tremor-sensing capacity of his head, which had apparently become the kind of extra-sensitive equipment that seismologists probably paid a lot of money for, there was a thump of Keith sitting down, and then the low-level impact of Keith lying down. After all that fighting, even Keith had to be tired. Lance considered teasing him about it. But flat on his back with a pounding headache probably wasn't the strongest position for that. Instead, he moved one arm a bit, so his hand was just lying there, open, palm up.

Lance was wondering if maybe he should say something after all, but then Keith's hand settled on top of his, and they shifted their fingers a bit until they had a comfortable grip. He sighed a little, and he thought maybe Keith did, too. This was comfortable. And comforting.

Very light thuds along the floor became a gentle impact and a not-very-heavy weight pressing down on one of his legs. Lance looked down his body to see one of the mice sitting there, the one he'd knitted a pink sweater for. That had to be the one who'd fallen from the control center and been saved by the droid.

"Hey," Lance said. "You guys are heroes."

The mouse squeaked shy agreement. It lifted its head and looked towards the back wall, and Lance rolled his head carefully so he could look that way, too. Pidge was climbing up to the control center again, and the other three mice were standing on the balustrade and waving their paws in welcome. Lance hoped Pidge wouldn't accidentally knock them over. He was a bit baffled himself at how protective he'd come to feel about the mice -- not that he'd have wanted them to plummet to the floor or anything, before, but he probably wouldn't have been quite so actively worried.

Pidge got up -- without knocking the mice down -- and started to punch buttons, and the shields over the doors went down. It was only when they disappeared that Lance realized he'd heard them all along, a hum at a slightly lower pitch than the usual white noise of the castle-ship.

"I never realized space would be so noisy," Keith said, low enough that Lance knew the words were meant only for him. Lance wasn't nearly as surprised as he probably should have been to find that Keith was thinking about the same thing. "Of course I knew we needed machines to get here, to be here, but I bought into that vast quiet emptiness myth you read about."

"The pictures look quiet," Lance said. "But they're just pictures. And nobody ever mentioned all the robots and mice and things going boom everywhere."

"Yeah, and then there's you," Keith said.

Lance huffed. All around them, floor plates were opening to suck down bots and droids with a cheerful rattle of metal on metal. "Trash day," he muttered. "I'm not that noisy."

The mouse squeaked affectionate disagreement at him. Lance hoped the mouse wasn't actually saying that he was as noisy as a bot falling into a giant space trash can.

Coran and Hunk came hobbling over to them, supporting each other. Coran was limping badly, and Hunk clutched at his head. "You guys shouldn't be walking around!" Shiro called to them. "Just sit down and rest until we fix a way to transport you to the medical facilities."

"I'm fine," Coran said immediately. "No broken bones, just a bit of shaking up to the old system. A Karneser wrap and a few riptimes of rest and I'll be fine!"

"Yeah, me too," Hunk agreed. "Uh, how long is a riptime?"

"That depends on where you are," Coran said, listing a bit more to one side. "A riptime is measured by how long it takes for the Pelarus stars to move from the first to the fourth quadrant, and for observers on the Caith continent back on Altea, that was a slow process! But on the nearby planet of Eleris, with quite a different perspective-- Oops."

He made a face and slid down Hunk's side until he was sitting on the floor. Hunk remained standing, although he looked a bit wobbly, and looked down at Lance and Keith. "That was kind of impressive fighting," he said. "And now you guys are holding hands again."

Lance tightened his grip, just in case Keith was about to pull away. Not that Keith couldn't pull away if he wanted to, of course he could, but Lance wanted to make it clear that he wasn't jumping to the other side of the blanket now. "So what?" he said.

"So nothing, I guess," Hunk said, smiling a little this time, and then he waved one arm for balance as Coran slumped against his legs. "Man, I hope there's some kind of wheelchair for him, I'm not carrying that guy all the way to sickbay." He looked at Lance and Keith again. "How about you two, can you move?"

"Yeah," Keith said, shifting and sitting up, but without letting go of Lance's hand.

"Probably," Lance said. He lifted his head to start with, and that went okay this time, so he rolled slowly sideways and started to push himself into a sitting position with the support of his free hand. The mouse on his legs ran up his body with a few concerned squeaks and started to push, too, which didn't give much practical help, but was a great morale booster.

Unsurprisingly, Allura was the one who sorted them all out. She sent Shiro to get a medical scooter, which turned out to be sort of like a golf cart with five wheels and enough space to transport both a patient and a lot of medical equipment. Shiro took charge of getting everyone to sickbay, while Allura delegated Pidge to sort out the mess on the training deck and get started on setting up repairs.

"Without any clever innovations inspired by the Ymrie robots," Allura said sternly, and Pidge nodded. "At least not until we know fully what they would do, and have an easier way to disable them." Pidge looked a little more cheerful again.

Since they weren't trying to fit in any medical equipment, there was room for both Coran and Hunk to slump down in the back, and then Shiro and Keith wrangled Lance onto the bench in front, next to where Shiro would sit and drive. "I probably don't need this," Lance said, waving his elbow at the cart while lifting a hand to pull off his helmet. "I'm feeling better all the time."

Shiro's hand on his shoulder and Keith's fingers poking his chest made it very clear that he'd better stay right where he was. And he did feel kind of bruised all over from hitting the floor, not to mention his head still throbbed, so he didn't push back very hard. He could do with a little medical care, probably, just so long as no one put a jellyfish on him again.

"Better safe than sorry," Coran said from the back of the scooter. He sounded a little wobbly, but as far as Lance could tell, only unconsciousness stopped Coran from talking. "I heard of a pilot who tried some fancy flying maneuvers too soon after a concussion and, well, his head exploded. Very tragic. And messy, oh yes. Took days to scrub out the--"

"You're making that up," Lance said. "You are, right? Right?"

Shiro chuckled. "Won't take long to get you checked out. We won't let you explode, Lance. I don't think you have a concussion, but it's just as well to be thorough." His voice turned serious. "I'm more concerned about Hunk being sick like that."

"Hunk always gets sick," Lance said. "In cars, in planes, when he's nervous, from eating too much, from running too hard, from watching instructional videos--"

"That was only once," Hunk said from the back. "It was about how to handle being sick in zero-gee, and three other people were sick, too, like you've never heard of sympathetic vomiting."

"Yeah, it's what I'm lucky I don't do," Lance said. "You get sick reading about vomiting. I've seen you barf way too much, buddy. The entertainment value is gone." He thought about it. "But when Allura nailed that bot in the head with your helmet? That was awesome."

"Yeah," Hunk agreed.

Shiro muttered something about still wanting Hunk to get checked out for various things, but he looked a lot less worried. Meanwhile, Keith had turned away from the vomit discussion and was trying to get Allura's attention.

"What would you like me to do?" Keith was tense and alert again now that he was upright, and his grip on Lance's hand was a little too tight. "We need to make sure that the Castle of Lions is safe and the contagion from the Ymrie bots hasn't spread beyond the training deck."

"Don't worry about it," Allura said, and somehow managed to twist her face into whatever the friendly, conspiratorial version of a leer was. "Everything's under control. I can see that you've got important things to attend to."

"All right," Keith said, as if the whole thing went totally over his head, and Lance might actually have believed that it did, except that Keith's hand squeezed his even tighter and the side of his face that Lance could see was a bit pinker than before.

"Time to get going," Shiro said, and the scooter started rolling, slow enough that Keith could easily keep pace with it. They didn't have far to go, although it was far enough for Coran to tell Hunk a couple of cheerfully horrifying stories about people who'd thought they were fine after accidents or illnesses and then something awful happened to them after all. Lance wasn't stupid, thank you very much, and he was pretty sure Coran was just trolling them with the earnest and then the hand melted, very sad, that, just as he had been with the whole exploding head thing.

But this was space, and space weirdness was weirder than any Earth weirdness Lance had ever come across. He turned his head and looked at Keith, who was coming along to sickbay even though he didn't have to, because he wasn't letting go of Lance's hand. Case in point: Lance had a boyfriend now, no maybe about it. That was definitely space weirdness right there, although obviously a very different kind of weirdness from melting hands and exploding heads.

Different and good. Lance shifted his grip a bit, just so he could rub his thumb over Keith's knuckles. He had a boyfriend. He was in space and he had a boyfriend and he was holding his boyfriend's hand, and this was somehow the ordinary part of whatever time unit Coran would insist on calling it, the part where everything shifted back to normal, the day had been saved, the mice were heroes and everything was going to be okay. And Lance had a boyfriend who, well.

He glanced sideways. Who had a mullet. Who probably wore fingerless gloves for practical reasons, which was somehow even worse than thinking they looked cool. Keith wouldn't know cool if it smacked him in the face. Who was cranky and whiny and stubborn and impossible to get along with.

Headstrong and annoying and oh yeah, really pretty. And that stubborn thing wasn't necessarily bad. And.

And he was Keith, and when had that stopped being an obvious reason against, and become an equally obvious reason in favor of?

"What?" Keith glowered at him, though his grip on Lance's hand didn't change.

"Nothing," Lance said. "Just, I liked it when you were fighting at my back." Because of the trust thing, although not just because of the trust thing, because he trusted all of them. Things just felt a little different when it was Keith. "And I like this, when it's. When we're. When there's no fighting."

Keith looked at him like he'd lost his mind, and the medical golf cart turned in through a wide doorway and came to a halt.

"Oh, we're here already!" Coran said and tried to scramble off the cart. Shiro stopped him, and instead, Coran started to gesticulate in several directions at once. "There's a scanner behind that screen, just get Lance to stick his head in it. And that blue box is actually a packet of, right, right, over there. Turn it down a bit, it's that lever with the finger-grip handle. And if you look in the third one from the right, that's where we keep the yardle checkers."

"The what now?" Hunk said.

Shiro tried to do everything at once, which didn't work, even for Shiro. And this, right here, was why they really had to keep Coran out of the fighting, because no one else knew where everything was, or how everything worked. Lance vaguely remembered passing a class in first aid early on in his time at the Galaxy Garrison; he could give mouth to mouth, which had sounded a lot sexier before he met the rubbery, legless practice doll, and he knew what to do if someone was on fire. Neither of those things, he suspected, would help him understand what to do with Altean medical equipment.

"Keith, I could use a little help here," Shiro called.

"Right on it," Keith said. He looked at Lance first, though, with a gleam in his eyes that wasn't quite a smile. Looked good on him, Lance thought tentatively. Annoyingly cute, with the emphasis more on cute than annoying. "You sure have a way with words." He leaned in and brushed his lips over Lance's, not a proper kiss, but not a casual smooch, either. "Guess I like it, too."

Then Keith released Lance and went around the scooter to give Shiro a hand. Lance sat where he was and blinked to himself. After a while he lifted a hand and touched his mouth. There was a distant ripple of amusement in the back of his mind.

Blue! She'd been very quiet all through the bot-fighting. She still felt very distant as Lance relaxed on the bench seat and watched Shiro and Keith move around each other, getting things out according to Coran's directions and putting them away again when they turned out to be the wrong things. Mostly he watched Keith, the way Keith moved, quick and assured, lifting and bending and stretching. Sometimes Keith turned his head enough that Lance could see his mouth.

He had a boyfriend. That had been their first kiss. There'd probably be more kissing from now on. Lance wasn't sure what his eyebrows were doing; he felt like he was caught up in a full-body twitch. His hand tingled, his mouth tingled, and his lion wasn't paying attention to him because...

Oh. Because the lions had been in charge of the castle, with everyone locked onto the training deck. Well, that made sense. There was just enough of a Blue-presence in Lance's mind for him to know that she loved him and she thought he was ridiculous. Knowing she was there, even if all the attention she had to spare went to laughing at him, made his headache lessen. In fact, he felt well enough that he thought about getting up and helping, but when he scooted to the edge of the bench seat and swung his legs out, both Keith and Shiro turned and glared at him.

Okay, then. Lance leaned back and listened to Coran's rambly instructions and Blue's soft, distant hum, and watched Shiro and Keith get a bed ready for Hunk and start helping him to it. Space didn't feel quite so big and empty and lonely any more. It was full of people -- and mice, and lions, like some kind of oddball cartoon. One of those people was his boyfriend, and he might have to think that a hundred times more before he got used to the words. Hold Keith's hand a hundred times more before he got used to the sensation.

Kiss him a hundred times more, and maybe he'd stop feeling like his ears were on fire just thinking about it.

No, space definitely wasn't all that lonely.