Actions

Work Header

Pride: On the Hunt

Chapter Text

The path to the Executor's Seat was long and stark. Black steel and dim lights lent what passed for the Galra throne room an eerie, oppressive quality, and a solemnity that could not be easily broken. Other races might have seen it as haughty or pretentious, but to a Galra its message was clear. The Executor had to walk this long, lonely path just as sure as those who sought an audience. A reminder of the grim duty of command.

She was there now, in simple battle armor rather than gaudy trappings: Executor Marmora, Arbiter of Justice, Grand Commander of the Galra, Overseer of the Search. Grand titles, but nobody to announce them as General Aurok approached. Her presence spoke for itself.

"Welcome, General." Her sharp gaze fell upon him. "I'm told you have troubling news."

Aurok didn't speak immediately, straightening before her and offering a salute. "Yes, Executor. It pertains to the Search."

That brought her up short. Pausing a moment herself, she leaned forward and removed her helmet; long blue-violet hair spilled over her shoulders, and her crimson eyes glowed faintly. The gesture was symbolic, granting him her full attention. "Proceed."

"The seeker ship Ruspathalos was lost in the middle of a search. We dispatched the hunter Vilakshi to complete its mission." All of this was routine. Ships were occasionally lost. Nothing worth bothering the Executor over. It was what had come after… "The Vilakshi has encountered oddities."

Steepling her fingers, the Executor studied him with glowing eyes. "I am listening."

"The Vilakshi followed a different route than the Ruspathalos, as is standard. On the first planet they reached, they made contact with a small Alliance vessel as they were departing. Per protocol, they ordered it to leave the system, and destroyed it when it refused." He made a face. "A relic was found on the planet, but was not secured properly and failed to reach the ship. When the Vilakshi returned to retrieve it, they could not find it, and there were footprints at the site that were not theirs. They found evidence of a landing site. Likely a similar vessel to the one they destroyed."

"It could not have been the locals?"

"No, Executor. The planet was uninhabited."

She nodded slowly. "Continue."

"There was nothing of interest on the next planet, but the site showed signs of recent disturbance. The third planet, the one where the Ruspathalos was lost, was heavily fortified. Orbital scans showed the site was overrun by the Alliance military. They chose to bypass it for the time being." Raiding small settlements in their path was one thing. Full scale military engagement was something else, and not to be conducted without higher authorization.

The Executor didn't seem concerned by that decision. "Good. Nothing to be gained by drawing further attention. Is there more?"

"Yes. There was a cache on the final planet." Over the centuries of the Search, they'd found many such facilities, used as waypoints or supply depots by the ancestors. "It too showed signs of being visited recently, and the data crystal was gone. It's unlikely to have held any information we lack, but…"

"…But it clearly means we are no longer alone in our Search." Marmora leaned back and closed her eyes. "What analysis can you offer?"

"It seems clear the Ruspathalos was taken intact. I have no doubt the crew will have done what was necessary, so the only information the Alliance might possess is what was stored in its computers. And now, presumably, whatever they manage to retrieve from the crystal—if anything. We have to assume a spacefaring race has the intelligence to at least partially decrypt it."

"Yes."

"The Alliance is young and warlike, despite its claims to work in the name of peace. They would be unworthy of the Defender. They can cause us inconvenience… but it also may benefit us to let them search, if they care to. At worst, and most likely, they'll do nothing useful. At best, they may blindly stumble over a stone we've left unturned."

Marmora considered this, closing her eyes for a few moments. "I agree," she said finally, quietly. "We will dispatch some Blades to listen more closely, and let the Alliance do as they will. Keep me informed."

"As you command, Executor. Vrepit sa."

She put her helmet back on. Symbolic, again. The audience was over, dismissing him to do what must be done. "Vrepit sa."

*****

Far across the stars, a very different scene was playing out before a very different throne. Vaulted golden ceilings framed an enormous room that seemed almost organic; the walls flowed and curved gently, not a single sharp corner to be seen. Where the walls met the floor, troughs of crystalline water fed by dozens of inset fountains smoothed the transition. A lush red carpet ran from the main doors to the throne, itself rising seamlessly from a high dais.

Standing at the throne's right arm, a pale blue-skinned Drule in ceremonial armor scowled out at the empty chamber. Prince Lotor, heir to the Ninth Kingdom of the Drule Supremacy, did not care much for wide open spaces. He preferred the sheltered privacy of his personal gym, or the confines of a cockpit. Places of power. Places where strength could be displayed and increased. Maybe the throne room would be better if it weren't so empty—it could hold a full legion of soldiers when necessary—but as it was? No, he didn't care for it at all.

"Stop fidgeting," came a gravelly voice from the throne. "One might think you find these proceedings beneath you."

Lotor winced, looking down to meet his father's glare. "I simply don't see what use it is to have me just standing here, when there are battles to be fought and wars to be won."

"Which is exactly why you're here." King Zarkon studied his son carefully. It wasn't the first time they'd discussed this. "Your position requires more than playing soldier, and you must rule as well as command. Now, be silent and learn."

Before Lotor could protest further, a page in royal silks stepped into the room. He walked to the very center of the carpet, bowed so low his forehead nearly touched the floor, and then spoke without making eye contact. "Announcing Admiral Yurak of the Anduslin's Fist armada, sire, as you ordered." Still bowing, he retreated, giving way to a grizzled old soldier whose eyepatch and battered armor looked very out of place here.

Immediately the prince was much more interested.

Admiral Yurak walked to the very foot of the dais before kneeling. "Lord Zarkon, we have reports from the front. The latest wave of conquest has gone almost wholly without incident."

Zarkon nodded approvingly. "Rise. Give me a full report."

Yurak saluted and stood. "Our intelligence operations were successful on Varfor, Kro, Arus, and Thusiorus. Each planet's defenders were routed easily. Preliminary actions against Olikk and Madre were unsuccessful, but fleet assaults were successful with only light casualties. We currently consider all but Arus and Madre pacified."

Zarkon's eyes narrowed slightly, and Lotor frowned more deeply. All in all it was a favorable report, but two planets in a single wave resisting was unusual. Aside from the upstart Alliance, very few powers in this galaxy could stand against a Drule fleet. "What exactly is the holdup?"

"Madre is only procedural, sire. It lacks a central power with the authority to surrender. Arus lies in ruins, but refuses to formally surrender; our ground forces will have to encourage them. You'll have the head of their King on a pike soon enough."

"Very well. Do you have anything else to report?"

"No, sire."

"Then go and see to the completion of the assaults. I expect to see plans for your next wave by the next moonfall." Zarkon paused a moment. "Remove the planet Pollux from the list of future targets. It will not require conquest."

"As you command, sire." Yurak bowed, then turned and departed.

Lotor felt his lip curling as he watched the admiral go. Turning one's back on the king in his own throne room? It would have been a mortal insult… unless one had the unflinching confidence in one's own service to know that the king would allow it. A champion of the Supremacy was accorded certain privileges, if they dared claim them. That? That was strength.

"Were you listening, Lotor?"

"Yes, Father. Our forces are victorious over the savages, as they should be."

"Not that." Zarkon gave an exasperated sigh. "Pollux. A planet on our new border. The armada will not be attacking it, because you'll be pacifying it alone."

What? Lotor turned to his father, eyes brightening. "Have they demanded a duel? A sol vandire challenge?" All this silly political posturing might be worth it after—

"—No." Zarkon bared his fangs in a mildly amused smirk. "They've offered up the hand of their princess in exchange for protection. She is far too young for my retinue, and it's high time you began to perform your diplomatic duties. You will court her."

Excitement turned to horror. Courtship? Had he really… "Father, you can't be serious?"

His father turned and speared him with a stern look, golden eyes glowing. "I am entirely serious, and I suggest you not test me. Pollux is a weak and insignificant planet. You will use this learning opportunity, because I won't have you embarrassing the Ninth Kingdom when more significant courtships are in play. Do I make myself understood?"

Staring longingly after Admiral Yurak, Lotor sighed. "Yes, Father."

Chapter Text

Explorer Team 686 was officially on R&R. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

It always seemed to be crowded on the Garrison. There was no real need for it, as best Sven could tell. Where were all these people going? Why were they just milling around the base housing like they had nothing better to do? Were they all on the way to go pick up their unit's grumpy medic for a fun night out?

Whatever that meant.

He was rather concerned about what that meant.

Stop worrying about it. Jace just wants to take you out for some fun… oh, god.

Truth be told, he was much too busy worrying about that to really care what everyone else was up to. He just wished people would stop jostling him. It was rude.

Finally he reached the barracks block he was looking for, a concrete rectangle identical to all the others around it. Short-term enlisted housing was even more stark than the junior officer housing, which at least had a couple feet of concrete passing off as a balcony. Sven felt a brief twinge of pity, but it didn't last… he was pretty certain Jace would not appreciate a balcony if he had one.

Knocking on the door of Unit 2-736 got him an immediate yell from within: "It's open! If you're not a Viking you'd better not try it, though."

He cracked a small smile at the familiarity of it all… which lasted exactly until he pushed the door open. The smile gave way to wide-eyed disbelief as he took in the room. Or more to the point, the boxes stacked around the room. "It's been three days and you still haven't unpacked?"

Jace was sitting on one of the larger boxes, tapping at his datapad. "Why bother unpacking? Just gonna have to pack again later…" He raised his head and dropped the datapad. "What the fuck are you wearing?"

Blinking, Sven looked down at himself; he was wearing a navy blue polo and crisp khakis, nothing unusual. "…Clothes?" His attention went back the boxes. The only nod to organization in the room was a single shelf that held a medical kit, a few pans, and what looked like it might have been a stuffed kitten. "You unpack so that it's all not so… cluttered."

"If the stuff isn't in the boxes, then it gets everywhere, and then it's cluttered." The medic's tone had been patient, if maybe a little dramatically so, but the patience completely disappeared for his next question. "Are those khakis?"

"Yes, they are." Sven matched his original patience. "And it doesn't get cluttered if you clean up after yourself."

"It doesn't get cluttered if I leave it in the boxes until I need it, either, and you are not coming to the Dancing Swan in a polo shirt and khakis what the fuck's the matter with you."

"It is currently cluttered, and—wait, the what?" Sven was certain he knew the name Dancing Swan. Something about an old political nemesis of his father, a low-level dignitary. One who'd been caught acting up at… his eyes widened in horror. "Y—you're trying to take me to a strip club?!"

One of Jace's eyebrows arched slightly. "You… look surprised."

"Well yes! You said fun, not… not being culpable in… debauched shenanigans!"

"Have we met?"

"…Yes. And I am now seeing my mistake."

"Hey, gotta learn sometime." Grinning, Jace jumped off the box he'd been sitting on. "New plan, we're going shopping. Move it."

Sven didn't move, instead narrowing his eyes slightly. He didn't trust this 'new plan' at all. "Why are we going shopping?"

"Because if this is what you wear out for fun, you wardrobe obviously needs an overhaul."

Oh, they were still on this. "What's wrong with what I'm wearing? This is perfectly functional clothing?"

"Okay, fine." Jace shrugged. "Onward to the strip club!"

Sven's eyes narrowed further. "I know what you're doing… but fine. Let's go shopping."

"Not trying to be subtle, Viking. Just effective." He grabbed the navigator's sleeve and started all but dragging him down the corridor. Was there any point in resisting? Unlikely, so Sven allowed the dragging. Once they got to the street there were some merits to it, anyway; Jace seemed to have a gift for parting the crowds.

He was probably jostling people. It was probably rude. Oh well, nothing to be done for it.

Galaxy Garrison was, in most respects, a city in itself. Not a small city, either. Though it was surrounded by all kinds of fine establishments that wanted nothing more than to help soldiers spend their money, about a dozen different contractors ran authorized exchanges on base. Just in case you didn't want to take the time to leave… or didn't trust your friend to go out there in the wider world where he could potentially escape from having fun.

"So what've you been up to since debriefing?" Jace asked as he shifted course, heading for the closest of the exchanges. "Unpacking?"

"Of course I was unpacking," Sven scoffed. "I like to be civilized."

"I'll bet you do. In your polo shirt and khakis?"

"…I'm not answering that."

The medic grinned. "Yeah, might be best. What else has been going on? Surviving the politics? Wine? Spoons?"

"No…" A blush sprang to Sven's cheeks. "None of that. Just relaxing."

And lying to your parents.

No doubt he would have been dealing with politics, wine, spoons, and everything else. But he might, just might, have fibbed a little bit about the team's return date. Only a little bit. It had given him a rebellious thrill. He was part of an Explorer Team! He'd finally left Earth, trekked through the Rim, fought pirates and boar-tahs, hiked on giant monsters… and that was without even discussing the temple of elemental evil or whatever it had been. He'd even dealt for a poker game. He could certainly manage to take a week for himself before telling his parents he was home.

Then maybe he'd be ready to deal with spoons.

Jace eyed him with a bit of surprise, then chuckled and gave him a slap on the shoulder. "Oh yeah? Good for you, Viking, you need to relax once in awhile."

"Yes. Yes I do." He started to ask the polite, reciprocal question in this conversation, then thought better of it. "Do I want to know what you've been doing while you haven't been unpacking?"

"Absolutely not."

"I didn't think so."

The nearest exchange was one of the base's several Warmarts—someone had thought they were funny, apparently—which really was probably the best option for this. Some of the others could get pretty high-end. From the look on Sven's face as they approached the building, Jace felt confident he did not routinely buy his clothing at Warmart. "So, is it even worth asking if you've ever been shopping for normal clothes before?"

"I am wearing normal clothing," he answered in a resigned tone. "What kind of clothing do you consider normal, exactly?"

That… was an annoyingly good question, actually. Jace did not spend a lot of time thinking about the underlying philosophy of dress codes, he just knew you did not wear khakis to the Dancing Swan. "Jeans? T-shirts? Fuck, just…" Rolling his eyes, he shot a pointed look at the perfect crease in Sven's pants. "If you have to iron it, it's too high-maintenance to be normal, can we settle on that at least?"

"I suppose so." He did not look convinced, though jeans didn't sound too terrible.

"Here." They were nearly to the door. "If you can find it in here and it's not a bathrobe, it probably counts."

"I already have a bathrobe."

"…Of course you do. See? This won't be too painful." The medic lowered his voice. "For you."

Sven did not lower his voice. "Somehow I doubt that…"

"I heard that."

"I didn't say it quietly."

Being sassed by the Viking never failed to brighten Jace's day; it proved they were headed in the right direction. With a laugh and a flippant salute, he headed in the doors. "Okay, let's get in and get out and maybe we can still hit the club by the evening show."

"I'd rather we didn't do that second part." Sven had indeed not done all that much shopping for cheap clothing in his life, and was looking around in bewilderment as he followed Jace into the men's section. There was so much. Most of it seemed perfectly respectable. Some of it did not. His attention was drawn to what looked like damaged merchandise on one rack… he paused, realizing there were several such pieces, and glared at the rack as though it had personally insulted him. "There will be no jeans with holes in them."

"With you on that, actually. We're in the military, we'll get enough holes in us without buying 'em premade…" After another few rows they finally stopped, next to a rack of jeans with no holes in them. "Okay, have at it."

Have at what? Looking around at a veritable sea of denim and cotton and who even knew what else, Sven resigned himself to doing something he would absolutely regret. "Um, Jace?"

"…What?"

"Where do I start?"

Oh yes, he was definitely going to regret this. Jace worked his jaw a moment, considering and discarding several options, then looked around himself and walked over to one of the racks. "Know what, if you have to ask that, you start with these." He picked out a pair of glossy black pants and tossed them over.

Sven caught them, if having them land in his arms could be considered 'catching' them. "What on Earth are these?"

"Pants."

"Obviously, but…" He ran his hands over the non-fabric. It was slick and rough and heavy and surely had to be uncomfortable, never mind the questionable appearance. "What are they?"

Jace stared at him, then sighed. "Leather. It comes from cows. People wear it. Ask Lance."

In any other situation Sven might have been offended by that—he knew perfectly well what leather was. And he was reasonably certain it wasn't appropriate material for pants. "Why do they wear them?" he demanded with wide eyes, his voice a little shrill.

"Because it's better than being nak—"

"—Sven?"

Both of them startled and looked up, Jace looking confused, Sven a bit horrified. A pale young woman with short blonde hair was standing there, wearing an aerospace division uniform with a Deep Space Recon patch and an expression of mildly inscrutable curiosity.

"…Ina?" Sven finally managed. Ina Leifsdottir was his oldest friend, a brilliant pilot and analyst, one of the very few people who could understand his upbringing… and probably the last person he needed to see him standing there holding leather pants. Not least because she might ask him to explain them, and he was wholly incapable of such a thing.

"Yes." She watched him as he approached and gave her a warm hug, which had lasted precisely three seconds when she spoke again. "We've discussed this."

Sven sighed and released her. She didn't sound annoyed—she never was—just a bit bemused, and he supposed he'd asked for that. They had discussed this. "Yes, yes, I'm aware. The standard hug only lasts three seconds." A small grin crossed his lips. It was good to see her again, quirks and all.

"…Viking, you've got a girlfriend?" Jace demanded. There wasn't even a hint of sarcasm in his tone, just pure shock.

"What?! No, no, no—"

"—We are friends," Ina interrupted, looking confused. "And I am a female."

Jace looked between them, and Sven braced himself for a new round of mockery. But then, to his surprise, the medic just laughed. "Oh, it's one of those things. Got it."

Sighing again, he decided that was the best he could hope for. "Jace, Ina. Ina, Jace. Jace, Ina is a childhood friend from Norway, and Ina, Jace is…" Several options came and went. "…well, my friend."

"Nice to meet you. Most people call me Leif." Ina offered her hand while turning her head slightly towards Sven. "Does this mean he is your boyfriend?"

"I'm his team medic," Jace snorted as he shook her hand. "I don't need to see him any more naked than I already do, thanks."

"Oh. Why not?"

For the second time in much too short a timeframe, Jace found himself at a loss for words. He looked between them again, trying to figure out if that was supposed to be a commentary on naked Vikings or just… "…Que porra?" he finally muttered helplessly.

"It's not—she just wants to understand—never mind." Sven looked as flustered as he felt. "Ina…"

"Inappropriate?"

"Yes. What are you doing here, anyway?"

"Purchasing tampons," she said matter-of-factly, displaying the box she'd been holding in her other hand.

Sven's expression twisted into something truly spectacular, and it was all Jace could do not to choke laughing; that would kind of suck, considering he was the medic here. A sly grin crept over his face instead. "So, Viking, remember what you're doing here? You gonna try those pants on or not?"

No. No he certainly was not. Recovering and shaking his head, the navigator tried another tack, ignoring the question. "I've missed you, Ina. I didn't realize you were back from your mission." She'd been deployed when he'd left, running recon flights somewhere in the Outer Reaches.

"But I am standing right in front of you."

By now Jace was biting his lip almost hard enough to draw blood. But he was also pretty sure he was understanding Sven a lot better. If this is his childhood friend, no fucking wonder he asks me shit like what normal clothes are. …How is she not his girlfriend, they're perfect for each other.

"I was also not aware you were back from your mission. Your mother called," Ina tilted her head slightly as if in imitation, "to chat, yesterday at 7:12 pm. She was not aware either."

All the color drained from Sven's face—there hadn't been that much to begin with, to be fair. "I… uh." He glanced over at Jace for help, which definitely wasn't something he'd have ever done if he were in his right mind, and saw the medic's dark eyes wide with new respect.

Not bad, Viking…

"Know what?" He approached and took the terrifying leather pants away, turning to the next rack over. "Maybe you don't need to try these after all, you're clearly making much better progress than I first thought." He pitched over a pair of nice normal jeans and went to put the leather pants back.

Catching the jeans, Sven let himself exhale; it had been enough of a distraction to at least get his wits back about him. A little. Maybe. "Ina. My mother doesn't know I've arrived back on Earth yet."

She tilted her head again. "I'm aware of that. She told me yesterday at—"

"7:12 pm, yes, I know." It was all he could do to keep his voice calm. Actually his voice wasn't the least bit calm, but at least he wasn't squeaking in the same panic he was feeling. He loved his parents, he did, but they'd been disappointed enough in his Explorer Team posting. If they found out he'd started lying to them, he might never escape their sight again. "Would it be possible for you to not mention that I'm back, if she calls again? And possibly not tell her when I actually arrived? Ever?"

"That would be lying," she observed with the same vague interest as one discussing the weather. "Both by commission and omission."

"Yes, I know." He said those words a lot around her. "Will you?"

"Yes."

"Thank you." With a long sigh of relief, Sven turned back to Jace, who seemed torn between wanting to rescue him or bury him. "I have jeans, can we go now?"

"Oh hell no. You need shirts too, and that's gonna be way more fun." Smirk. "So… Leif, huh? You want to help us out? I'm trying to help the Viking here shop for some clothes, and I'm pretty sure he's too smart to believe anything I say about how he looks."

Oh. Oh no. "Ina, you don't have to, you seem very busy with your… tampons…"

"I will." She looked curiously at Jace. "Why will shirts cause a higher level of enjoyment than pants?"

"Because pants are pretty simple. Shirts can be stuff like this." He'd been looking through a large rack of shirts, and tossed one in Sven's direction.

Looking between Ina's completely indifferent expression and Jace's obvious delight, Sven seriously considered just dropping the jeans and fleeing. But he knew he would never actually get away with that, so he caught the shirt and held it up. It was red, with the Alliance insignia and MANDATORY FUN SHIRT written in white block letters. "Oh." Glare. "Red's not really my color."

Jace shrugged and went back to searching; Ina peered at him. "Why not? The color doesn't clash with your skin pigmentation, or your hair?" Before he could even try to answer, another shirt came sailing at him; black this time, with WHISKY TANGO FOXTROT in even bigger block letters.

If Jace really thought he'd be caught dead in that, he had another foxtrotting thing coming. He'd sooner deal with his mother walking into the Warmart right then and there. No point actually saying it. Glaring even harder at them both, Sven vanished into the fitting room.

Still looking for other shirts, Jace had barely noticed the departure until he heard the door swing shut. Well, at least the Viking was trying. Shrugging, he moved on to a display of 'vintage pop' shirts, where he found something with very solid potential. Why not? It wasn't like Sven would know a dated reference if he saw one. Picking out a blue one, he tossed it over the dressing room door just as Sven came out in the first shirt and jeans.

Huh. Red really isn't his color. Crossing his arms, he studied the navigator carefully. "Hmm. It is kinda questionable. What do you think, Leif, how's he look?"

"He looks distressed," she answered without hesitation.

He glanced over at her, now a bit distressed himself. "I, uh… I meant how do the clothes look on him?"

"Oh." She tilted her head. "They look like clothes."

I probably deserve this. "Yeah, they sure do. Try the next one, dude."

The next one. Right. Sven looked at the Whisky Tango Foxtrot shirt again and shook his head. "I'm not wearing this." Tossing it right back out of the fitting room, he turned his attention to the third shirt that had appeared there; it was dark blue with the words KEEP CALM AND TRUST THE NAVIGATOR. Whether he was missing a joke there, or Jace was just taking pity on him, he couldn't say… and he wasn't going to worry about it. He could only regret dragging this on further, so he pulled it on and walked out. "I like this one."

"You would."

"It does seem to compliment you much more effectively."

"Wonderful." He changed back into his original clothing, found where the Mandatory Fun Shirt had come from, and replaced it perfectly straight on the rack. "Now can we go?"

"Let's do it." Jace grinned, turning towards the checkout. "Plenty of time to still make the evening show!"

Oh, so he hadn't forgotten about that. Sven made a face. "Is it possible for us to do something other than that?" That got the WTF shirt waved threateningly at him, but then Ina intervened.

"If he has taken you shopping, it would be fair and reciprocal for you to take him shopping also. Perhaps somewhere he will enjoy as much as you have enjoyed this."

…Now that sounded like fun. Even more so when Jace dropped the shirt and turned to her with a very disconcerted look on his face. It was obvious he was trying to figure out just how much hell Sven could make his life in the next five minutes. Coincidentally, Sven was trying to figure out the same thing. A high-class shop seemed very likely to backfire on him. But one idea was springing to mind…

"Then it's settled." He smiled broadly. "We're going to the bookstore. Ina, would you like to join us?"

"No. I have to purchase these tampons."

"Alright. Just me and Jace, then."

"A bookstore?" The medic had finally found his voice. "Who said anything about… do they even have bookstores around here?" He couldn't even find a damn cookbook without making special orders.

"There's one a few blocks away from the housing section they've put me in. It's wonderful." Smirk. "You'll love it."

Maybe he's getting a little too good at this sass thing. Jace knew when he was beat, and sighed, grinning slightly. "Fine, fine, whatever. Let's go to the bookstore." If there were nefarious plans involving the erotica section already starting to form in his mind, well, the Viking would have only himself to blame. Though it actually sounded like it could be entertaining regardless. "And why stop there? We can just shop all night, could be fun."

Sven grinned back. "Let's do that."

*****

Canaveral Comics was not the only comic book shop that catered to the Garrison. It was just the closest, biggest, and best. And like always, it was a bit of a zoo. The harried sales staff was getting people checked out as quickly as possible, but they could only do so much.

Lance was leaning against the front counter, flipping through a display comic with a frown on his face as he waited on his pull list. The art was questionable, and the story… well, there probably was one. Somewhere. Newer stuff is so hit or miss…

One of the clerks emerged from the back room, a small stack of comics in her arms. A moment later the signal bell sounded. "Lance McClain!"

He dropped the disappointing comic and crossed over to the clerk, flashing a brilliant smile. "That's me!"

She blushed a little—as she ought to, of course—before setting out his comics one by one. "Beyond Torchwood, Star Wars Falcon Legacy, Warpspeed, Into Andromeda?"

"Looks like that's everything." He eyed the Falcon Legacy books particularly eagerly, it appeared he'd missed two issues. He was very ready to get home and—

"—Yo, stranger!"

The voice was familiar, but definitely not one he'd expected to hear here. "Hunk!" Turning, he saw Hunk trotting up to the counter, carrying a very large stack of comics… it went up to his chin, if he were a smaller dude he'd certainly have tipped over. "Wow, you really like comics."

"Yeah, I always get kinda carried away while I'm waitin' on my pulls." Grin. "I like to read, yeah?"

"I thought I liked to read, too…" He stared at the stack for another moment, then turned back to his own small pile feeling slightly flustered. He covered it with another smile at the clerk, who blushed again.

"On your usual account, Lieutenant?"

"Uh, yeah, the usual," he glanced at her nametag, "Juanita."

Nodding, she rang him up and slid the books into a bag; Hunk gave a whistle of appreciation. "Hey, you've got good choices, bro!"

"Yeah, it's just my usuals, the basic stuff, nothing extra this go around…" Why was he babbling like he was intimidated by a huge stack of comics? By Hunk, no less. Hunk was awesome, not intimidating. "If I run out I guess I know where to go to borrow some, huh?"

The big man chuckled. "Any time, bro. You'd probably love Crash Buster, it's like Warpspeed but with crush cars instead of planes."

Planes, obviously, were the superior vehicle in that equation. Or pretty much any equation. That being said, crush cars were a solid runner up. "Yeah, that doesn't sound half bad. Have you checked out Into Andromeda? It's about a World War Two pilot that finds himself in the future, pretty new but it's awesome." He eyed Hunk's haul again. "You set to check out?"

Hunk glanced over at Juanita, who was scrolling down a datapad at her register. "Hey Comic Lady, where'm I at on the list?" Grin. "No rush, just wonderin'."

She actually blushed a little at that, too. "You're about ten down, Hunk." Somehow, Lance wasn't at all surprised to hear she knew him by name. "Do you want me to hold those while you're waiting?"

"Nah, I've got 'em. If you hold 'em I'll just end up with more."

Ten down sounded like a lot… but this, Lance decided, was a thing he could help with. "Oh Juanita, beautiful, couldn't he go next?"

Now her slight blush went full bright red, especially when he gave her that dazzling smile again. "Oh, I… really shouldn't…"

Of course she shouldn't. Like that ever stopped them. Lance poured on the charm. "It's just he and I are going down to the Rambling Barrel. Gonna get settled, watch a game or two, talk about the new Falcon Legacy… say, what time do you get off?"

It took her a very long couple of seconds to find her voice. "...I, um, I'm going to be in all night I'm afraid, the Sol Regulars are getting in tonight, it's all hands on deck, you know how it is…" She trailed off, looking between them, seeming to realize she was babbling.

"Aww, that's a shame." Wink. "Maybe another time."

Apparently she'd had enough blushing, because she giggled and turned away quickly. "Hunk, I'll go get your books." She vanished into the back room.

Hunk stared after her, then looked down at Lance. He was pretty buddy-buddy with Juanita, but she was strictly business when it came to the line. He'd never seen her do a favor like that for anyone. "Dude, how'd you do that?"

"It's just a gift. So far only that cat thing is immune." A little shudder ran through him at the memory.

"Oh, good." Hunk made a face. "I'd hate to have to put Comic Lady in a box, I like her."

Lance shuddered again. "Yeah, let's never have to do that box move again. Ever."

"I'm totally for it."

Juanita came out of the back room then, carrying another armful of comics almost as big as the stack Hunk had gathered up. "So you've got X-Men Eternity, Crash Buster, Warpspeed…"

As she counted out the comics, Lance felt one of his eyebrows raising. And raising. And raising. "Big guy, do you like, have a comic book wing at your place? Next time I might just ask to come over instead of, you know, buying stuff."

Hunk shrugged, maybe a little sheepishly. "I uh, kinda went through a phase of buildin' bookshelves outta junk cars… gotta have books to put on 'em, yeah?" Grin. "Plenty of money for comics when all your furniture is homemade junkyard chic."

"Huh?" Lance took a moment to parse that, because the words homemade junkyard chic were certainly not words he'd ever have imagined hearing in that order. But coming from Hunk, it didn't really seem at all strange. "Okay, that's something I need to see, dude."

"You can totally drop by any time! We can eat popcorn and read comics and rock out…"

Juanita was finally to the end of the pile. "…Gearbolts, Bunny Bomb Squad, and Legends of Metal." She smiled and started bagging the books—double bagging in fact, which seemed like a very good decision—as Hunk flipped her a credit chip without missing a beat.

"Wanna swing by after, uh…" He looked at Juanita and coughed back whatever he'd been about to say. "…after we get done at the bar?"

Lance grinned broadly, winking again at the clerk as she finished up with the comics. "I don't know, since we're gonna be deprived of Juanita's presence let's just skip the bar thing. Another time."

And now she was right back to blushing. "Oh, Lieutenant, I found something else of yours in the back." She produced an unfamiliar Falcon Legacy issue—a variant cover, he realized after a once-over. There was a strip of paper tucked inside. Another number for the collection, without a doubt, and one he would definitely utilize.

"Wow, this is great!" He flashed her his most brilliant smile in gratitude, tucking the comic into his bag. "I'll be seeing you sooner rather than later, Juanita."

Hunk looked between them, chuckling slightly. Dude's unbelievable. He accepted his bag from the very flushed clerk, grinning. "Thanks, Comic Lady."

"Enjoy your comics, gentlemen." Smiling back, she checked the list on her datapad and fled to the back room.

"That… was adorable."

"She was pretty cute." Smirking, Lance watched after her for a moment, then he and Hunk headed for the door. "The ones that babble are usually the most fun to talk to, and I know she knows her comics."

"Totally. She introduced me to half the stuff on my list." Hunk was still grinning. "Definitely gotta do that bar thing sometime."

"Yeah, maybe with Flynn or something."

"Drag Sven along too, find out how much he really knows about comics and bigger comics. It'll be fun!"

Lance shook his head. "Yeah, Sven needs beer and pop culture education as bad as Flynn, except for Iron Man apparently."

"Hey, it counts! Gotta start with one thing before you can be an expert on all the things, yeah?"

"Yeah, I suppose so. Hell, I wasn't even an expert at flirting when I first started, so…" Lance frowned thoughtfully. "Bet he'd love Thor, he's a Viking, seems like a no-brainer."

"That's definitely gotta happen." They reached the main street; the comic shop was tucked away in an alley. Pausing a moment to adjust his bags, Hunk pointed off to the left. "I'm down there in the bunker 'burbs. It's not much of a walk."

Huh. Lance arched an eyebrow. The bunker 'burbs were a section of military houses on the Garrison outskirts, catering to soldiers who weren't big into apartments. They had a reputation for being cheap, sturdy, and small. "You got room in one of those places for those car shelves you were talking about?"

Hunk just laughed. "They ain't that small, bro. And I've got a roommate that doesn't mind an old Jag chassis or three in the living room." It occurred to him right after he said it that maybe he'd buried a lede there. "Uh, she's not here though, been out on deployment since February."

"Damn, I love meeting new people." And anyone who could be roommates with Hunk had to be way more interesting than most. "She an engineer too, liking car parts and all?"

"She's a siege tanker. Loves her bolts and her BOOMS." He chuckled. "She's a kick, whenever she gets back I'll introduce ya."

"Awesome." They'd reached the bunker 'burbs, winding down several streets of identical little cottages. Every so often someone had put out flags or signs or something to differentiate their place from the rest. It was a cozy little neighborhood, really. "This must be a great location for parties."

Grin. "We do get some pretty good block parties goin' here. A whole street full of grills, it's the prettiest thing you've ever seen…"

Now that was pretty damn on-brand. "I dunno, seen some real pretty."

"Yeah, bet you have!" Laughing again, Hunk veered onto a short dead end street. "Right down this way." Looking down the street, Lance could immediately guess which house they were going to: it had to be the one with half a dozen inflatable Halloween decorations squeezed onto the front lawn.

October was still a week away.

Sure enough, that was the driveway Hunk led him to, and he gave a low whistle. "I love a house that knows the proper holiday to rock out for."

Hunk glanced over, shifted his bag again, and held up a hand for a high-five; Lance slapped it with a smirk. "You're on Team Halloween? Shoulda known you'd be awesome like that!"

"Best holiday there is! Free candy, great costumes…"

"You know it." The big man walked up to the garage and put his hand on the access panel, and the door started sliding up. "Welcome to Hotel Metalfornia!"

"Holy shit." Lance looked around the garage with wide eyes. Everything looked, sure enough, like homemade junkyard chic—the three grills along the wall, the four wheeler that looked like a crush car stripped down to be street-legal… "This is fucking awesome. You made all this?"

Hunk blushed. "Me'n the roomie. I uh, might smuggle some scraps back after jobs every once in awhile instead of 'properly disposing' of 'em. Next thing you know, this happens."

Lance burst into cackling laughter. "Do what you gotta do, big guy!" Looking around he felt pretty sure the scrap here had, indeed, been properly disposed of. "If I thought you gave a damn, I'd tell you this place could be a guy or girl magnet."

Now he blushed almost as bright as Juanita had earlier. "It's an epic magnet, that's all it's gotta be!" Motioning for Lance to follow, he opened the door to the house. The inside was somewhat less impressive than the garage, mostly just clean and sparse. What furniture there was, though, fit right in with the theme: car bookshelves, several beanbag chairs, and a huge overstuffed couch that appeared to have been framed with tank treads.

"I can work with epic." Lance went directly to the first bookshelf—they were large and colorful, with headlights and grilles on the top and wheels stuck to the sides. None of them were even close to full, but even so. "Your collection is fucking awesome."

"Gotta be awesome enough to match the shelves, yeah?" Hunk chuckled a little sheepishly. He wasn't actually used to company, let alone company that appreciated the decor. "I'll go grab a couple beers, back in a sec."

"Sure thing, I trust your beer abilities."

"Now that I'm gonna take as a heck of a compliment!"

"It's one of the biggest I give."

The fridge was pretty full—grocery shopping had been the first order of business after returning home, the mission had run him flat out of murder pepper sauce—but he was pretty certain something in here would meet Lance's approval, if he could just find it… aha! There you are.Pulling two cans of Rabblerouser out of the back, he returned to the living room and tossed one to Lance. He caught it and nodded his appreciation, cracking it open and returning his attention to the comics.

Hunk flopped into one of the beanbag chairs, grinning. It was always fun to find other people who were amused by his hobbies.

Moving on to the next shelf, Lance paused at the sight of a bit of plastic sticking out. Pulling it free he found himself holding what appeared to be a vintage X-Men comic in a protective sleeve. "Is this seriously what it looks like?"

The big guy looked startled for a moment, and tried to hide behind his beer can, which was pretty much a lost cause. "Oh. Yeah, uh… one of my brothers used to be a really serious collector, he kinda got me into it. I usually just hoard the modern stuff, yeah? But when he stopped he gave me a couple of my old favorites."

There had been a time, before deciding to just play along with the looks, that a comic about misunderstood mutants had really been what had kept him going.

"Yeah?" Lance was studying the comic still, though he'd taken in the cover twice over by now. A small frown that had nothing to do with the X-Men crossed his face. "How many brothers do you have?"

"Four!" Laughter. "I'm the runt, that's why they call me Hunk." That sent Lance's eyebrows up even higher than his pull list had, but he didn't get the chance to ask about it. "You got any?"

"Um…" He shook his head a bit, trying to clear it from the sudden onslaught of old memories. It didn't work. "One, kinda. I mean, well… I had one." A glimpse of the old living room table, rough-hewn wood, his father trying to convince Drew to do his reading homework while Charlotte giggled in the background. "He hated reading…"

Okay so that wasn't a good question. Hunk set his beer aside and stood, watching Lance carefully. "You okay, bro?"

"Yeah, just… I was the reader, comics, they were where I hid when I got here. Earth, I mean. Drew, he uh, liked frogs. Beau Terre had these huge ones, they were browner than the ones I've seen around here…" Coughing, he took a long drink of beer to try to steady himself. "Anyway, uh, you're born and bred on Earth right?"

"…Yeah." Hunk had absolutely no intention of asking what any of that was about, but he walked up and gave Lance's shoulder a squeeze. Hiding in comics, he did get that. "Mom's from Japan. Pops likes to say he's half Silitz and half Everything Else." Shrug. "Nothin' too exciting, probably."

Lance let himself relax a little, shaking his head. This time the memories retreated back where they belonged… far in the back of his mind. He looked at the comic again. "Mind if I borrow this one?"

"Not at all!" Something else occurred to Hunk, and he paused a moment. Would it help? Would it hurt? Impossible to say for certain, but he thought… "Here, got somethin' else you might like too, wanna give it a shot?" He went to a different shelf and pulled out a thin volume, offering it to the pilot with a small grin.

Hesitantly, Lance took the book from him; it was a colorful little trade paperback with the whimsical title The Adventures of Hopper the Brave. It looked cute. And the cover art seemed sufficiently badass—a combat helicopter with a pair of caped superheroes hanging from the skids. One of them appeared to be an anthropomorphic frog.

Stiffening a moment, Lance turned to look at Hunk, who was shifting a little nervously. Then he looked back at the book, a small smile crossing his lips. "Thanks, dude."

Clearly relieved, the big engineer picked up his beer and saluted with it. "Any time, bro."

Returning the salute, Lance's grin became an outright smirk. "Now, you mentioned popcorn?"

"Oh hell yeah, I mentioned popcorn. What's your thing? Butter? Caramel? Cheddar? Murder pepper?"

"Murder pepper?" he repeated in disbelief. On popcorn? Though really, why was he shocked? "That sounds awful, let's try it. But uh, also the caramel."

"Bringin' the sweet and the heat! Good choice!" Hunk disappeared back into the kitchen, and he could hear cabinets opening and closing.

"I've been accused of that a time or two, really."

Laughter from the doorway. "I'll bet you have!"

Grinning, Lance looked back at the comic in his hands before tucking it away in his bag. It was okay… it was all good here.

*****

Keith and Flynn had arranged to meet up at the personnel office; they had unit evaluations to submit. Which had surprised both of them, truthfully. What was the point in unit evaluations on an Explorer Team? Everyone had pretty well been evaluated.

Nonetheless, the reports were in and it was time to have a command retreat. Or something. Not like they'd had any time for social visits before they'd left the first time.

"So, a drink?" Keith glanced at his datapad. "Looks like the nearest bar is… the Twisted Candle?"

"We can't go there," Flynn said quickly. A little too quickly, really.

"Why not?"

"Because I'm not allowed back since the time I decked a bartender for hitting on me," his second answered matter-of-factly. "Turns out it's basically a gay—"

"—Gay panic, Kleid?" Keith arched a disapproving eyebrow. "You really didn't strike me as the type."

Flynn looked back at him with an expression that might actually have been even more disapproving. "…I'm gay and I was panicking, if that's what you mean." Scowl. "What I was going to say was it's basically a gay counterpart of the Hare Astoria, which… I suppose you might not get that reference, Commander Crystal Spur, but—"

"—No, I get it." The Hare Astoria was more often known on the Academy campus as the Harassatorium, and for good reason. Even Keith knew that. And he felt particularly foolish once the first part sank in. "I… sorry, I didn't realize you were gay."

"What, you haven't noticed me staring at your backside whenever Lance references it?"

Keith went bright red. "N… no, I haven't!" he sputtered. As if Lance wasn't bad enough on his own? "Have you really been—"

"—Well that's unfortunate, because I've only been doing it to annoy you." Flynn gave a rather exaggerated sigh. "Not that you're bad looking, but you're not at all my type."

…Was that supposed to be a compliment or an insult? Maybe it didn't even matter. Shaking his head, he started down the street. "Well, now I need a drink more than ever…" He stopped as what Flynn had called him earlier sank in, and turned back around. "And how do you know about that?"

"…Is it a secret?" It had not been that difficult to find, once he'd gotten around to going looking for the file he hadn't been given. The Alliance didn't usually keep medals quiet.

"Well, I don't advertise that I have that ridiculous thing."

"Kogane, you advertise it just by being you." Pausing at an intersection, Flynn got his bearings and looked off to the west. "The Whistling Arrow, you think? Lance tells me I'm no judge of beer quality, but I know they at least have a lot of options."

Keith shrugged. "I don't like beer, but I'm sure it'll do."

"You don't? Why doesn't he give you grief then?"

Grin. "Probably because I bought all his beer for the last mission."

"Oh. So you're not advertising the Spur, you're just gunning for another one." Smirking as they reached the Whistling Arrow, Flynn pushed the door open and motioned him in. Possibly just to see if he would actually go first.

He did, staking out a couple of empty barstools. "Commanding an Explorer Team? That won't happen."

"Explorer Teams aren't all that bad. Isn't that why we just had to do more paperwork?" He pulled the beer menu closer and glanced over it, looking for anything Lance would approve of. Or should he try to expand his horizons again? "I suppose you'll just be annoyed if I ask you how you came about the first one."

"Drink first. Then story." Keith flagged down the bartender.

"What can I get for you, gentlemen?"

"I'll take a rum and a lemon lime soda."

Flynn had not gotten any closer to deciding on a course of action, so he closed his eyes and pointed at, well, something. Looking to see what his finger had landed on, he blinked. "Elven Squirrel Ale?" He really did not understand beer at all. "Whatever, let's go with that."

Keith arched an eyebrow. "To hear McClain tell it, I figured you'd order something cheap and sugary. Maybe with a little umbrella for class."

Oh had he. Flynn started to object to that, then hesitated. "I mean… technically we don't know it won't be."

"Good point." Keith nodded slowly. "But if you turn into an elvish squirrel, I'm not taking responsibility."

"Be a hell of a way to get out of paperwork. Bit of a waste right after we've turned it all in, though."

"I suppose it would be, yes." Chuckling, Keith accepted his drink and stirred the ice slowly, nodding to the bartender.

Flynn's beer came in a glass with a picture of a little pointy-eared squirrel; it was carrying a fancy longbow. He stared at it for a long moment, then just shook his head. "That'll give me nightmares." Well, he had it now, so… he took a sip and shrugged. It tasted like beer.

They were both quiet for a minute, listening to the background hum of the bar. It was crowded, but not overly so. Most bars near the Garrison could be expected to have a crowd from sunrise to closing time, anyway. The Whistling Arrow was popular with Hydrans, so several of the largest screens were showing trekur and castimau matches along with the standard various forms of football. Flynn was trying to make some sense of castimau—it looked something like volleyball, but with a javelin—when Keith decided to go ahead and speak up.

"The Vesuvius… she was a big warship, a good one. Avenger-class. Good crew, for the most part, everyone has their quirks. I was the night shift lead." He'd been a step away from being groomed for his own warship command. Strange to think about that now. "We'd run several drills the night before, there were some issues, so my report was taking longer than usual."

Flynn nodded silently, sipping his beer. A few tables away there were several yells, someone somewhere had scored, apparently. Keith waited for the noise to die down before continuing.

"I cleared it with the skipper to have a subordinate take my next shift while I finished it up. Not like I would be that far away if anything actually happened." He stopped and took a very long drink.

"…Well that's not ominous," his second muttered.

"Yeah." He supposed he was leading a bit with that phrasing. "To make a long story short, we hit a hypermetric anomaly. Kelly didn't realize the severity, he thought he could handle it without contacting me or raising any alarms…" He closed his eyes, exhaling slowly. "There was damage to the ship. Three crewmen died. Because I was supposed to be the shift lead and I wasn't there, I stepped forward to take responsibility."

Flynn eyed him sympathetically, but still said nothing. Something about the sequence of events didn't sit right, but he was pretty sure the commander would get to that…

"I don't know why the skipper didn't just have me take the blame. Maybe because I'd cleared it previously, but… that doesn't seem good enough."

There it was. Leave it to Kogane… to blame himself for not being on a shift he'd been duly relieved from.

"There was a messy court martial proceeding. They bounced between blaming any or all three of us. In the end Kelly got the blame, Skipper got a reprimand…" Sigh. "And I got a stupid medal for exceptional chivalry. So yeah. I don't advertise it. It makes me feel a bit awkward."

"Sounds like they got it right," Flynn said quietly. "For whatever that's worth."

"Yeah, maybe it was right, but a medal? For doing the right thing?"

"No, for doing the excessively noble thing." His second's tone held just a hint of playful teasing. "It wasn't at all your fault, Kogane. You can't be everywhere at once. You cleared it." Flynn eyed him. "And you can't expect to do everything for your subordinates just to be sure it gets done correctly."

Now that might not have been a comment on the Vesuvius incident at all. "Yeah, I know. But I like to be accountable. To not ask anyone to do something I wouldn't do myself, you know?"

"I get it."

Keith had wondered at the time, and still wondered, what the correct way to deal with the situation was supposed to have been. The one that wouldn't have earned him a ridiculous medal. Surely not just throwing one of his people under the bus. "What would you have done, though?"

Flynn considered that for a minute, frowning at his glass. "The bay is very different from the bridge, you know."

That seemed like an understatement. "Yeah. But even so?"

He was quiet for a moment, choosing his words carefully. "There's a long tradition in engineering of not worrying about blame. You come in after something goes wrong and start throwing threats and charges around, people start trying to cover their asses instead of finding the problem. That's how more people get killed." He sipped his beer, eyes narrowing slightly. "I'd have told them even when everything is done according to procedure, sometimes things still happen. You don't need a damn court martial just for the sake of one."

That did sound like him. Keith nodded slowly. "Court martials are unpleasant."

"I didn't mind mine." His second laughed. "But I was right."

…That also sounded like him, really. "I'm afraid to open that can of worms."

"Probably for the best." Flynn drained his glass, making a face. "I'm sure you've seen all the important parts, anyway, you don't need to know how many times I called my Captain an idiot on the record."

Keith's knowledge of the incident that had sent Flynn to the 686 consisted of three main points: he'd blown up a trillion-alcred engine, he'd been exonerated for it, and his Captain had indeed been an idiot. "Given the situation, you were right. You have to trust your engineers. Nothing is worth risking lives for, especially not just making a cargo schedule." He sighed and took another long sip. "Anyway, I'm fairly certain we're getting to know each other better, but… I feel like it's dragging the mood down. So, how did you get into engineering?"

Answering that in any sort of detail would require either a much better reason or a lot more beer. Flynn caught the bartender's eye and signaled for a water, buying a few moments, then shrugged. "Born into it, you might say. What about you? What got to you into… piloting or commanding or whatever it is you do that got my ship so beat up last time out?"

That earned him a mild scowl, which he defused with a wink, and Keith chuckled. "I liked the challenge of command, or the thought of the challenge, anyway. It's harder than some people let on… but enjoyable. Seeing people succeed when you order them to get a job done." He leaned back and stretched for a moment. "Piloting, that's just the sense of freedom. Only other place I get that is my motorcycle."

Flynn visibly brightened. "Kogane… have you thought about what you're doing here?"

"Um… drinking? Talking?"

"You just said the word motorcycle to a mechanic." Smirk. "Which means I'm now obligated to ask you which model, pass judgment on it, offer several useless pieces of trivia, insist on coming to see it and probably upgrading the engine for you…"

Keith burst into laughter. "As long as you don't go off and tell Lance it was a date… it's a Ducati UltraStar. Top of the line."

Flynn arched an eyebrow. Did not see that coming. "Not bad at all."

"You look impressed."

"Shouldn't I be? You're going to completely ruin your boring reputation."

"Boring? Me?" Keith laughed and signaled for another drink, swatting his second lightly.

"Oh, you'd surely at least noticed that." Flynn sipped his water and grinned. "Nobody on an Explorer Team can really be all that boring, though. Probably."

"True." A challenging grin danced along Keith's lips. "So, the several pieces of useless trivia?"

"Only civilian bike—and one of only three civilian vehicles—made from pure voidforged alloys. The others that advertise voidforging only use it for critical components." Flynn took another sip of water, frowning thoughtfully at nothing in particular. "I'm sure you know it's heavily based on the Nova shuttle, everyone knows that… only problem is, it's actually not. Ducati had a contract with Centauri Sky, some lines got blurred in the design process."

The engineer telling him about the forging technique and the relationship to a spacecraft seemed pretty much on-brand. "Is that a distinction that people really worry about?"

"It is when your maintenance class is working on a Nova, and about sixteen different people want to tell Colonel Greyla all about the UltraStar…"

Keith chuckled as the bartender refilled his drink. "That must have been some class. Did Greyla have one or were they just trying to score some extra credit?"

"Oh, they were just trying to impress her." Smirk. "Imagine their expressions when she showed up the next day on a limited model."

Oh, that was very nice. "They were all drooling, weren't they?"

"That… and horrified." Flynn gave a mock shudder, then snickered. "An instructor and a superior officer who's smarter and cooler than them? How were they supposed to handle that?"

Most of Keith's instructors had been both smarter and 'cooler' than him, he was pretty sure. "Those are usually the best kind."

"Usually. Does make it inconvenient when you want to bitch about them, though." His second crossed his arms on the counter and leaned forward a bit, frowning at nothing. "In any case, I'm still much more impressed with your posting on an Avenger-class than with your motorcycle."

"It's just a ship." He shrugged and sipped his new drink. "A nice one, but still."

"Just a ship." Flynn rolled his eyes. "That's the Alliance's most iconic battleship you're slandering, Kogane."

"Yeah, but it's just a ship nonetheless." He could tell he was about to get an argument that would probably involve all of the Avenger's specifications and history, and opted to change the subject. "So, what do you like to do on your downtime?"

That got him a skeptical look; Flynn was not fooled by his diversion. But he laughed. "Engineering."

…Of course engineering. And people said he was too into his job. "All work and no play?"

"All play and no work." Shrug. "Some gunsmithing—never mind, that's also engineering. I play some lacrosse?" He hesitated a moment, looking up at one of the screens. "Not well, mind, but I threaten to hit people and it works out. Beats sparring."

Keith gave him the same look about lacrosse beating sparring as he'd received about the Avenger just being a ship. Though he knew something on this subject himself. "Lacrosse? Isn't that a First Nations game?"

"…Is it?" Flynn gave him a blank look. The extent of his background knowledge on the sport was that he'd needed an elective and it had been open. "What, the Kolaliri? Seems like them."

It was all Keith could do not to burst into laughter. The Kolaliri were one of the Founding Powers, the six civilizations that had originally banded together to form the Alliance. They were most certainly not one of the First Nations. "Um, no," he managed after a long drink. "The indigenous peoples of Canada. It's a very popular sport there."

"Oh." A slight blush crept over Flynn's cheeks. "I… don't know a lot of Earth history, outside of mechanics and mythology. Not a focus. More your speed?"

"Sometimes. Depends on how much downtime I have." Keith certainly did enjoy history, when he had the chance to read up on it, particularly the ancient tales of his own heritage. But he usually preferred learning through actions, not books. "But that's a tidbit I learned in grade school."

Grade school? Not that Flynn knew anything about Earth's regional educational system either, but that seemed like a very specific detail. "You're from Japan, aren't you?"

"I am Japanese… but I was born and raised in Vancouver."

Aha. "Got it. You just went back for the swords." He tilted his head and gave Keith a playfully indignant look. "Which you fight with for fun, and then you call me all work and no play."

"Well… yeah." Now it was Keith's turn to blush. "The sword is actually a family heirloom. I've trained with it since I was young. My parents insisted on me learning the old ways, discipline and honor and the history of our people… it's a comfort, you know?"

Flynn did know, sort of; he felt the same about his sidearm. Right down to the firing it off for fun, he supposed. Finishing up his water, he eyed Keith, who was getting close to the end of his own drink. "Seems reasonable. So about that motorcycle…"

"Not tonight, I've been drinking." He laughed. "Maybe tomorrow, if we don't have to go yell at intel about anything."

"What does you drinking have to do with me fixing your engine?"

"Because I'd want to ride it!"

"I guess that's fair." Though he'd been grinning at first, it became a scowl as he got to addressing the other point. "I hope intel is having a very, very hard time with all the stuff we brought back."

That wasn't the most professional thing Keith had ever agreed with, which didn't stop him from agreeing wholeheartedly. "They deserve a hard time. We had one, they should too."

Flynn laughed, rather humorlessly. "I'm sure it's poor form to want to throw a bunch of underpaid analysts into that lightning gauntlet. And yet."

"Toss them into that arctic water," Keith agreed; just thinking about it made him shiver.

"…You're Canadian, wasn't it just like home?"

"Oh, ouch." He scowled in a way that wasn't wholly convincing. "Just because I'm Canadian doesn't mean I'm into the Polar Bear Plunge."

Just the name of that was concerning. "Do I even want to know what that is?"

"A bunch of idiots who like to jump into large bodies of water… in the middle of the winter."

Flynn stared at him for what felt like a very long time. "…That seems like it ought to be a self-correcting problem."

"Usually they were just in and out, but still. Too damn cold for my taste."

"Entirely understandable." To be fair, Flynn's personal idea of inhumanely cold was somewhere around sixty degrees Fahrenheit. But still. Shaking his head, he looked around the bar's screens again. "Well, if we can't go play with motorcycles, may as well have another drink? Got to be some reasonably interesting game on soon."

"Sounds good to me." Flagging down the bartender again, Keith followed his second's gaze. "Between the two of us, you think we can figure out what's going on in a castimau match?"

"Unlikely, but it won't be the craziest thing we've ever attempted. Let's try it."

Chuckling, Keith nodded. "Not even close." And it probably wouldn't be the last crazy thing they attempted, either. No, surely not. May as well enjoy the break while it lasted.

*****

King Alfor knew the Arusian tunnels better than anyone. They were ancient construction, dating back to the War of Golden Revival or beyond; he had wanted to explore them long before the Drules attacked, but the duties of the High King had prevented any serious expedition. But he had sent scouts, and studied the maps, and learned all that he could… all in preparation for the day he could delve into their secrets.

This certainly was not how he'd have chosen to have the opportunity arrive.

Alfor took a deep breath in frustration as he pondered the current problem before him. The tunnels were all supposed to be connected. He'd encountered a few cave-ins already, and now here he was… standing in one of the connecting tunnels with a few trusted knights, before a heap of rubble that might have collapsed at any time in the last few centuries. Then again… he also knew there were some false walls in the system. If the enemy breached one shelter, it wouldn't do for that to compromise the whole network. He had yet to find one of those walls, but something about this location was tugging at his mind.

"All my information says this path continues on," he said quietly. “Somewhere there must be a switch, or something of that sort, that allows us to move on to other tunnels. Look around." The knights scattered, investigating the surrounding walls, while Alfor took a closer look at the rubble itself.

Wait… is that… aha! There it is.

Finding an odd depression in the rubble, he pushed a few rocks aside to reveal a small cavity with a gravel-covered lever. He gave it a cautious push. The sound of gears moving echoed through the tunnel, and Alfor smiled; triumphs were few and far between anymore. Off to the left a false wall slid open to reveal a large chamber, branching out into three separate paths that would presumably give them access to other shelters. Sending some men farther down to scope out what they held, he stepped through and scanned the area immediately around him.

It was an unremarkable-looking cave, featureless except for a few rocky nooks here and there. That, he knew, was a lie. Finding ancient glyphs by some nooks indicating something was hidden there, Alfor went to the nearest one and pressed on the glyph. Another rocky panel swung open. Beyond it, he was greeted with a sizable room filled with old fabrics, weapons, and mummified food. Sighing at the age of the supplies, no doubt left there from the last time the system was used, he noted that most of the weapons were still very much in usable condition. In this time of need, even the most basic of defenses would be valuable.

While seeing to it that every usable item was gathered, something caught his eye. A rock with ancient writing on it—ancient Arusian, and not just the signal glyphs being used elsewhere. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a clay tablet that had been repurposed as a tile. Parts were broken away, but a section was still legible. He gave it a quick but careful scan before moving on, pondering the few words he'd been able to read.

open… by the feet of Li-ten…

His mind keeping going back to the unfamiliar word. Li-ten. It could be nothing… but considering he was down here searching for lost knowledge, anything he didn't recognize could be critical. Either way, he would have to return to take a closer look when the day was over. For now, there were other rooms to search through.

*****

It was Larmina's sixteenth birthday.

It should have been a great celebration. She should have been walking down the grand staircase in that sleeveless gold-trained monstrosity, dancing with suitors she had no use for, fulfilling her royal duty to the Seven Isles. She should have been on display before a dozen noble Sons of Arus, a pawn to be bargained for. She should have been miserable.

Well, at least she was miserable anyway.

The tunnels were becoming cold and damp as autumn fell on the Crown Province—couldn't the Drules even have the courtesy to attack in the summer? People were sniffling in the chill, and those who weren't coming down with something were getting more and more on edge. Larmina herself occasionally wondered if the tension was getting to her; she kept seeing ghostly flickers on the edges of her vision, hearing voices she couldn't place. Stir crazy, no doubt. And trying to get information about anything specific on the surface was a lost cause.

No, nobody had heard from the Seven Isles. No, no scouts had dared go that far.

A small troop of the village militia had arrived to the tunnels earlier. They had been doing what they could to search for survivors, but when the Drule infantry had arrived they'd fled. The militia was basically a volunteer police force, not meant for real combat. If the Golden Knights were failing to stop the invaders, what chance did they have?

They'd brought useful supplies, at least. Some food, warm blankets, and a small stockpile of simple weapons. Larmina was holding one of the bows now… rough wood, a durable string. Nothing but the necessities. It could hardly be less like the bows Auntie had been training her with. But it was familiar in her hands, and could even have been comfortable if it weren't for the memories it kept stirring. The lessons, the laughter, the trick shots she probably would never master now…

Not so long ago it would have seemed impossible that she might be missing life at the castle.

"Hey! Hey you, girl with the bow!" She startled at the voice, the characteristic rough accent of the farm country coloring the words. Looking up she saw a trio of the militia members, an older woman with two young men, carrying bows of their own and pulling a transport sled. One of the men was the speaker, a dark-haired soldier probably around Auntie's age. "Yeah, you!"

It wasn't often Larmina was called out by a stranger—especially not by common villagers—especially especially not as hey you, girl with the bow. She jumped to her feet awkwardly, then looked at the weapon in her hands. "Oh, uh… do you need this?"

"You know how to use it? What we need is as many for the hunting party as we can get." He gave a sly grin, almost daring her to say yes.

She wasn't going to pass that up. "Oh, I'm pretty decent with it."

"Think you can hit a roli?"

Good question. She'd certainly never tried. Rolis were fuzzy leaping mammals common near the castle. Small and quick… but not too small or too quick. Maybe she couldn't bounce an arrow off a pillar, but how hard could a roli be? And if it would help, if it would get her out of here… "Totally."

He smirked. "Think you can hit more than me?"

…What? Oh no he didn't. "Bring it on. I hope you've got plenty of room on that sled."

The woman chuckled, waving for silence. "Welcome aboard, then. I'm Captain Sarial of the Dolce Vita militia. These two are Hanso and Allendar." Hanso was the one who'd spoken earlier, and he gave a cheerful smirk as Allendar smiled shyly. "And you are?"

They were all looking at her… businesslike, but welcoming. Not one was expecting a curtsy, or a title, or any of the frills that didn't matter anymore. Just a name for a fellow hunter. Almost like she were an equal.

The debut is a moment of transition. You are stepping from childhood into your new life, and your duty to Arus and your people!

Yeah. Yeah, maybe I am.

She managed a small smile. Small, but genuine. "My name's Larmina."

*****

Courtship.

Courtship!

Lotor had pummeled no fewer than seven holographic training dummies into submission with his bare hands as he contemplated courtship. His father was punishing him, he'd decided around dummy number three. What exactly he'd done to deserve punishment he wasn't certain, but it was really the only explanation. He'd rather have been back with Dayak, the royal governess, whipping him for any errors…

Of course, any errors in courtship might cause him even more grief. His father had made that quite clear as well. Very well then.

"Kalindra!"

"I am here, my Lord."

Kalindra was one of his favorite slaves; she was clever and loyal as well as strikingly beautiful. He was very particular about his personal servants. There were some who jokingly called his small collection of favored slaves his retinue, though that wasn't accurate. A Drule monarch's retinue was a living heraldry of sorts, a display of peaceful conquests: wives and husbands, duly courted and wed to acquire their territory, their health and well-being reflecting on the monarch's own honor. They were emphatically not mere slaves.

Lotor had always thought they sounded inconvenient.

"We will be receiving a guest soon," he muttered finally, not turning to the voice from the doorway. "You will see to it that appropriate clothing is prepared for her, and comfortable quarters in my personal wing. When she arrives you will be her aide, and treat her with the utmost respect."

Out of the corner of his eye he could see the motion as she bowed. "As you command, my Lord." There was a slight ruffling sound as she departed.

Scowling, Lotor finally turned to the empty door. That had better be sufficient. Was he supposed to tend to such preparations himself? Surely not. And he could think of no greater honor for this soon to be wife than placing her in the care of his most favored servant.

Yes, this was surely the correct approach… nodding to himself, he turned again and called up training dummy number eight.

Chapter Text

The day was perfect; bright sun, a soft breeze, not too hot or too cold—like it ever got all that cold here. Keith grinned as he pulled on his leather jacket, imagining the look on Lance's face, or even Flynn's. His second had been over the day before to tinker with his bike as promised. It honestly had been fun watching him work, even if Flynn had complained about him hovering. Now it was time to test it out.

He pulled on his helmet and opened the door to the barracks garage, then rolled his Ducati outside. One last check of the bike and his gear… okay, maybe two more checks… it was a pleasant ritual, and he wasn't about to neglect safety. He knew better. Finally satisfied, he climbed aboard and took off down the road for the highway.

He was headed for the Canaveral Shore, taking the long route there. It was quite the ride, over several canals, past towering palms, glittering lakes and the ocean…

The ocean…

It made him homesick sometimes, looking out over the ocean. But he knew he was where he belonged now. The Garrison, the Alliance… maybe even this crazy Explorer Team. Not to mention the weather here was much more enjoyable on a motorcycle, not having to deal with the chill rains and cold. Still, nostalgia always hit him hard.

Dad would have loved this ride…

His father had instilled the love of riding in him. Some of his earliest memories were in the sidecar of his dad's bike, watching the world rush by…

"You doing all right, son?"

Keith grinned at the voice in his helmet headset. "Doing great, Dad! This is fun!"

"Isn't it? Someday you'll have your own bike, and then it'll really be fun… oh, look! There's a deer ahead."

Grinning, Keith leaned forward, and gasped softly as he saw the deer ahead. It caught sight of them and took off running down the road, white tail flashing.

"Want to race it?"

"YES!" Keith exclaimed, laughing as they caught up to the deer and passed it. "This is so much fun, Dad!"

"I’m glad you like it, Keith."

Keith grinned at the memory. It was important to keep the good memories at the forefront. Not the others… his early days at the Academy, the call… how his mother had collapsed at work, and his father, rushing to her side, hadn't hit the brakes fast enough… he sighed. It still hurt, how swiftly his parents had passed, but he had to believe that they were in a better place. And while he knew some people might have been convinced to stop riding by that loss, he wouldn't. He couldn't. Dad wouldn't have wanted him to. Riding wasn't just a few moments of freedom, it was a way to honor those memories. Shaking the thoughts away he yanked harder on the throttle, testing out Flynn's upgrades and grinning as the engine purred.

After about an hour, he finally made it to the park. It was a rarely used lot, and as he jumped off the bike and stashed his keys in his pocket he headed for a very rarely used trail. He carefully picked his way down to the beach, pulling his boots and socks off, carrying them and his helmet. The tide was low; he went to the water and made his way down the beach until he came to a large rocky outcropping. It would have seemed like a dead end, but Keith knew better. Walking around it in the water, he grinned as a small stretch of pristine sand greeted him on the other side. Deserted as always. He liked to think of this secluded spot as his beach.

Walking up to the dry sand, he dropped his things, stripping off his jacket and t-shirt as well before stretching. Once he finished with the he picked up a length of driftwood. Smuggling his actual sword down here wasn't something he cared to try. So he gave the wood a few test swings and nodded; it would do. He whispered a traditional prayer for his family, then started on his katas. For a time he lost himself in the movements of his makeshift sword and the rhythmic sound of the waves.

After about half an hour he stopped and dropped onto the sand in the shade, looking out over the water. Something grey lept from the sea, then a few more, leaping and playing in the sun. He grinned, another wave of nostalgia washing over him. Porpoises. Tiny cousins of the whales he’d grown up watching from piers back in Vancouver. They came to visit this spot often; it was part of the reason he'd chosen it.

Keith rested there for awhile, watching the dolphins, listening to the waves crash on the sand. He did love it here. Peace, quiet, and solitude… things in short supply on a starship. But he couldn't stay long; there was work to do. Sighing, he got back to his feet, and did a few more katas before grabbing his stuff and heading back to his bike. They would have new orders soon enough.

*****

Needless to say, there was a shooting range or two on base. There were all kinds, really. Indoor, outdoor, strict military, relaxed recreational… the Perforation Station was, predictably, one of the latter. It was a large indoor facility with the cheerful ambiance of an arcade—in fact there were several retro shooting games scattered around the edges. You could blast pixelated zombies with neon plastic laser guns to warm up for the real thing if you wanted.

Lance was certainly not above doing just that. Nor was Flynn. But today they had just staked out a table in the waiting area to talk shop and admire each other's gear.

And maybe more than just gear.

"Anyone impressing you so far?" Flynn was sitting on the table, watching the nearest shooters. Everyone was decent, of course; they were trained soldiers. But nobody was really jumping out at him as someone to watch.

Lance was not watching the shooters all that carefully. No, you're just about it. For some reason the words didn't come out. "Not really."

Flynn laughed, turning to face him and crossing his arms over his knees. He kept glancing at the very impressive sniper rifle Lance had with him, but first things first. "So what are you carrying, anyway? I can tell they aren't standard." Nonstandard guns were fairly common in the Alliance; preference waivers weren't difficult to get. It came with the whole vast multicultural coalition thing.

Grinning, Lance drew one of his pistols and held it up for him to examine. "Axel 220 PC, had to nail some special proficiencies for it but it's functional as fuck."

Flynn's eyes widened. "You took an Axel test?" The Axel 220 was one of the finest pistols in the Alliance's arsenal: a product of Tandalari engineering and Kejon efficiency, individually crafted and painstakingly adapted to humanoid hands. They were strictly a military gun, but issuing them to everyone would be prohibitive. The only way to get an Axel was to apply for a grueling marksmanship test and ace it… and that was for one. Eyeing Lance's other holster he amended the question. "You took two Axel tests? …You would."

"Fuck yes I did! Took a lot of convincing, but no way I was only carrying one for my sidekick."

"Wouldn't be showing off nearly enough, I know."

"Hey, I gotta do what I gotta do." Smirking, Lance replaced the gun in its holster and leaned back in his chair. "Besides, standard issue is just a bad gun."

"It is that." Flynn made a face. "I get the principle, especially when you shouldn't have to use it much, but if my only option was hauling one of those relics I'd shoot for an Axel too."

"Oh yeah? You think you can shoot for an Axel?"

Shrug. "Haven't tried it, and I've heard the test is hell. But of course I could."

"The test is hell. But worth it. These babies are amazing." Lance grinned, tapping the barrel of the sniper rifle. "And you know the specs on her, I can tell by the way you're eyeing her."

Of course he did. "Steyr SSG 1580, Nightforce Sentry scope, integrated stabilization system… and that spear engraved on the stock isn't standard."

Smirk. "Had to put my name on it somehow." Lance reached down and ran his fingers along the engraving, which was not just any old spear, of course. He had a very similar lance tattooed on his back, and the thought of displaying it briefly came and went. "So, you going to show your gun off or not?"

Laughing, Flynn drew his own sidearm and shrugged. "Less reliable than yours, but if the mechanic has to fire his backup gun in combat I figure things have gone horribly wrong anyway. And one shot will do it."

"Yeah, no kidding." Lance laughed too. "So how did you get your hands on a Desert Eagle?"

For a moment the engineer just looked at him, but then he shrugged. "What the hell, you already know how I got to Earth."

"That I do."

"They send the Dathrean heretics through an integration program out in Phoenix. The locals have figured out how to take advantage of a bunch of teenaged mechanical prodigies with minimal social skills and no idea what to do with their free time…"

Oh really. A grin crossed his face. "You? Minimal social skills?"

Flynn grinned back, blushing slightly. "I'm a fast learner."

"I'll bet you are." Lance paused. "Wait, they send you from nuclear hell to a desert?"

"Nuclear hell was a desert, it's familiar."

"Guess that makes sense, green is nice though."

Now that was entirely a matter of opinion; Flynn snorted. "Not if you're descended from two hundred years of immune systems that haven't had to deal with pollen. Trust me."

Oh. Lance's eyes widened and he nodded. "Okay yeah, fair point. Go on."

"There's a range on base a lot of the heretics like to hang out at. This guy comes in one day with an armful of exotics, starts firing them off to see whose attention he can get." He raised his hand with a bit of a smirk, then indicated the gun. "He gave me this as a twisted mess and told me if I could fix it, I could have it…" A brief pause, then he laughed. "He did not tell me I was applying for a summer job by doing it."

"Wait, you rebuilt it?"

"Mostly. The important parts were there."

"Still." Lance whistled, impressed. "Handy hobby."

"It does help." Flynn gave a slightly sheepish chuckle. "Especially when it means you can fix your impractical but sentimental sidearm when it breaks." He indicated his own rifle, which was vastly less impressive than Lance's. "Built that too, after a couple summers of learning what I was doing."

Being able to build your own guns seemed very fun, Lance decided. Maybe he would ask for lessons sometime. "What are its specs?"

Shrug. "Standard scout specs, just a little extra—"

"—Lieutenant McClain? Hey, you shooting?"

They both jumped at the interruption. A young man was standing at a respectful distance, dark-skinned with short dreadlocks and a solemn aspect that, in Flynn's opinion, did not at all mesh with knowing Lance by name.

For his part, Lance wouldn't have been surprised if he hadn't outright forgotten where he was. He always got some attention around the Perforation Station, and Ryan Kinkade was one of his favorite cadets. "Uh, yeah, that was the plan…" He grinned slightly. "You?"

"I was just practicing some with the holo scope. You were right, it's coming easier."

"Good." He turned to Flynn, whose head was tilted curiously. "Cadet Kinkade here wants to be a sniper, and he's got some damn solid potential, so I've been giving him some pointers. Kinkade, this is Lieutenant Commander Kleid, my unit's resident grease monkey."

Flynn couldn't help the grin as he shook Kinkade's hand. "You're trying to learn something from this crazy flyboy? …You could do a lot worse. Nice to meet you."

Nod. "Learn from the best, be the best."

Oh, as if that was what Lance's ego needed. But it was undeniably accurate. "It's true."

A couple of firing lanes had opened next to each other as they were speaking, and Lance stood. "So, should we get shooting?"

"Let's." Flynn slid off the table. "I have to show someone I could shoot for an Axel if I wanted, apparently… and I think I promised you a few shots with something too."

"Fuck yes, on both counts."

Watching the two leaving the table, Kinkade briefly debated whether to follow or not—it seemed like a learning opportunity, and probably fun, though it also seemed like maybe these two were better left alone. But while he was contemplating it they both turned and motioned for him to come along. That answers that then!

"You'd better go first," Flynn was saying as they reached their lanes, handing Lance the Desert Eagle. "Mind the recoil."

Lance accepted the gun, testing the weight of it in his hands. "Heard they've got quite a kick." So did the standard issue—one of the many reasons he'd shot for the Axel in the first place—but he also knew, unlike the standard issue, this one was worth the kick. Stepping forward he sighted on the target downrange, eyes narrowing as he squared his shoulders, and squeezed off a shot.

Next thing he knew, he was on his ass on the floor and Flynn was laughing hysterically. Even Kinkade was trying to fight down a snicker.

"What did I tell you?"

"Now that's a recoil!"

"What did I tell you?" Looking up, Flynn's laughter abruptly cut off. Lance might have been floored… but so was whatever he might have been shooting at. There was a hole dead center in the target. "…Not bad."

"Not bad?" Lance repeated indignantly.

That got him a sly grin. "Do it again."

Oh, he wanted to be that way about it? No problem. No problem at all. Climbing to his feet, Lance squared up again, bracing himself better now that he knew what to expect. "Hell yeah, if you say so." With a smirk, he fired off a second shot, feeling the force of the recoil radiate through his arms and into his chest, but this time barely even stumbling.

The bullet had left a second dead center hole, overlapping with the first. Flynn's eyes widened slightly. "Very nice."

"Just nice?" Lance rolled his eyes.

"I'm not fool enough to compliment you too much," he protested with a wink. "Your ego is already overfed…"

"Excuse me," a sharp voice snapped from behind them. "But this range is for standard issue firearms only."

Flynn paused, setting his rifle aside, eyes narrowing slightly. Then he shifted a little, drawing himself to his full height. As he turned he flipped his hair back to make certain his rank patch was visible.

By the time he was facing the speaker—a cadet with short brown hair and a businesslike scowl—he was in full Officer Mode, and the interloper seemed slightly taken aback.

There was no need to hammer the point in too hard. Just a little. "Sorry, what was that, Cadet?"

Now the cadet was really taken aback. "N… nothing, sir." He retreated about as quickly as possible without looking like he was fleeing in shame.

He was totally fleeing in shame.

Now it was Lance's turn to double over laughing. Shit, that was hot. He'd tried to keep it in until the kid was out of earshot, but wasn't sure he'd actually succeeded. For his part, Kinkade wasn't sure if he really ought to laugh, and had been physically shaking for a few moments trying to hold it back—but as soon as McClain lost it, he gave in too.

"Standard issue firearms, honestly," Flynn muttered, shaking his head and smirking. "Should've asked him for a cite."

"Griffin's always like that," Kinkade managed through the laughter. "That was great." Not that there was anything inherently wrong with wanting to follow the rules… but he'd wondered more than a few times before why exactly his fellow cadet would come to the Perforation Station for that.

Flynn let himself snicker as Lance just laughed harder. "I aim to please! Mostly."

"Let's see you aim," Lance challenged, steadying himself enough to hand over one of his Axels. Not that he'd usually let anyone else touch one of his babies, but he was pretty certain the engineer had earned it.

Accepting the gun, Flynn tested its weight for a moment, swapping it between his hands before testing a proper firing stance. It felt like it was hardly even there. "Hell of a gun." With a grin, he sighted downrange and squeezed off three quick shots—if there was any recoil whatsoever, he didn't notice it—clustering them in the center of the target. "Hell of a gun," he repeated in admiration.

A devilish smirk crossed Lance's lips. "Not bad."

"Oh, going be like that?" Flynn eyed him with mock indignation, then raised the gun again, eyes narrowing as he lined up a new shot. This one wasn't fast, by any means… certainly not as quick as the flyboy had set up his follow-up shot. But as he slowly exhaled and squeezed the trigger the bullet buried itself right in the center of the first three holes.

"Fine, fine." Lance laughed. "Great shots."

"That's better."

Looking between the two of them, then at the tight patterns of holes in both their targets, Kinkade gave a low whistle. Which might have been a mistake, because it got Lance's attention again; he grinned. "So, Kinkade, think it's your turn now. Gonna show me what you've learned while I was gone?"

Oh. He gulped, suddenly nervous—and even more so when Flynn turned to him, leaning on the divider. "Yes, let's see what you can do." He offered an encouraging grin.

"Uh, yes sirs." He steadied his grip on his rifle—standard issue, though the standard rifle was much better than the sidearm—and looked nervously at the target. He had been improving, but wasn't too sure about his effectiveness with two officers staring over his shoulder.

"Take it easy, we don't…" Flynn hesitated. "I don't bite, probably shouldn't vouch for Lance here."

"Not cadets." Lance smirked. "Come on, kid, I know you've got this. And if you don't we'll help you get it."

Well, if they wanted to teach, who was he not to learn? Nodding, he stepped up to his spot.

*****

Six days. That was how long Sven had been listening to his mother go on and on about… things. So many things, he was having a hard time keeping track. One of the reasons he’d lied about his return date was that he was sure his mother wouldn’t let him out of her sight, and he wasn’t wrong. She wanted him to go everywhere with her. If it were socially acceptable for her to bring her adult son into the restroom with her, Sven was fairly certain she would.

Alright, so that was probably an exaggeration, but it was honestly what it felt like. If he weren’t feeling so smothered at the moment, he’d actually be impressed. His mother had fit an insane amount of activities, lunches, dinners, and brunches—oh god, the brunches—into six days. They’d even gone to the theater a couple of times.

He was exhausted, even more exhausted than he had been after getting attacked by those boar-tah things. He really shouldn't be surprised, though. Ambassador Rona Holgersson could organize entire galas in a matter of days, this was nothing in comparison—

"Sven honey, are you listening to me?"

Sven winced in guilt; he hadn’t been. They were at another brunch. Thankfully they were they only ones here this time. A couple of her friends had come to the others… they'd kept caressing his arms, it had made him uncomfortable.

"No, mom. I got distracted with my own thoughts, I’m sorry."

"Oh, it’s alright dear." His mother paused to give him a smile. "As I was saying, your father's friend Councilman Toth is thinking of running for Senator Coleman’s seat this next election, and your father is torn."

"Why is that?" Sven asked, though he really couldn’t care less.

"Well, Toth is a dear friend, but Coleman’s and your father’s politics line up better." His mother sighed. This was one of the reasons her husband hadn’t been able to spend much time with them this past week. Between deciding on who to support and planning his own re-election, he just hadn’t had much time.

Sven, of course, thought the answer was obvious. "Shouldn’t he back Coleman then?" Politics should be about, well politics. Not who was friends with who, though his father would make the argument that that having the most friends was 90% of what politics was, and he wasn’t technically wrong… he shook his head. This was why he hated politics.

"Possibly but…" Rona paused. She knew this could lead to a debate, a debate they’d had many times. Sometimes things weren’t so black and white, and most times Sven seemed to understand that, she thought. But sometimes… that boy could be quite hardheaded when he wanted to be. "Let’s talk about something else. Politics are boring anyways, isn't that right?"

Sven fought the urge to roll his eyes, torn between saying you brought it up and oh thank god. He decided on neither. It wasn't hard to tell when his peacemaker mother was trying to avoid an argument—or rather, a debate. They were never referred to as 'arguments' in the Holgersson household. They were 'debates'.

"What would you like to talk about?" That was a safe response.

"Oh! I forgot to tell you—" Sven rather doubted that. "—I reserved the tennis courts for us again this afternoon."

Oh. Great. Obviously "what would you like to talk about?" was not as safe a response as he had thought. Tennis was a great sport really, but even he knew how ridiculous he looked in those little bright green shorts his mother made him wear. And they’d already played tennis this week. Three times!

That was it. It was time to call for help.

"That sounds… interesting, but let’s come back to that in a moment. I have to go to use the restroom." Sven quickly got up and headed in the direction of the bathrooms, locking himself in a stall and pulling out his datapad. There was one person who could definitely get him out of this mess.

The connection went through without so much as a hello, of course. "What do you need, Viking?"

"I need for you to come save me!"

"…Spoons?" Jace sounded amused.

"Brunch. Much worse than spoons." Sven did not sound amused.

"Brunch, huh? Okay, I was gonna say no but you've convinced me. But I've already got somewhere I have to be this afternoon, if I come bail you out you're coming with me."

Sven didn't hesitate. "Deal. I’m at Tatiana’s Cafe. Just hurry please."

A pause. Apparently he recognized the name. "…You're uh, you're sure you want to be caught dead with me in there?"

"With every fiber of my being." Maybe Jace would appall his mother enough for them to make a clean getaway.

There was a long pause which was obviously the medic resisting the urge to spit out a smartass comment; Sven was appreciative. "I’ll be there." He hung up before Sven could even thank him.

Needless to say, he was not as quick getting back to the table as he had been to leave it. His mother welcomed him back and smiled. "So, tennis?"

"I don’t know, Mom… we’ve played quite a lot recently. I was hoping maybe we could just go home." Sven knew that wasn’t going to work, but all he had to do was stall until Jace got there. "I’m kind of in need of a break from all the activity."

"But honey, you know how much I love spending time with you. And who knows how soon I won’t be able to see you at all, again."

There it was. Passive aggressive comment about Sven not requesting a transfer number 112.

"Can we please not have this argu—conversation again?"

"You’ve made it perfectly clear that there is nothing to converse about, so I have no idea what conversation you are referring to." Sven did in fact roll his eyes this time, but did not respond. It wouldn’t help anything. Jace needed to hurry up.

His mother quickly changed the subject. Sven was only half listening, and was pretty sure his mother was aware, but she continued speaking anyways. Fine. Let her get it out of her system…

Jace stood outside Tatiana’s Cafe and shook his head. Brunch, really?There were Geneva Conventions for this sort of thing, weren't there? Walking through the door, he immediately waved off the greeter; it just took a quick glance around to spot the back of Sven’s head.

"Yo! Viking!"

Sven whipped his head around. Thank god. "Jace!" A relieved smile graced his face, and then he muttered a little more quietly, "…finally."

Jace flipped his mom a casual salute before turning to Sven and smirking. "So, you ready to go see some cute pussies?"

He hadn't even hesitated. And really, the question seemed completely predictable from him, but it still caused Sven to wince.

Ambassador Holgersson had not been expecting anything of the sort, and choked on her own spit. "Darling…" She quickly regained her composure. "Who is this?" Though she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

"Mother," Sven paused to give Jace a pointed glare, "this is Jace Cardoso Gregory. He’s the team medic. We’re friends." The navigator continued to glare. "Jace, this is my mother, Ambassador Rona Holgersson."

His mother stood to greet him. "It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Gregory." She held her hand out to shake.

Jace bowed, just a bit sardonically, in response. It seemed appropriate after all he'd heard. "Cumprimentos, senhora Your Vikingness."

Rona's brow rose at the title she’d just been given, but she chose to ignore it. Instead, she just smiled. "Olá, muito prazer em conhecê-la, Jace."

Sven’s eyes widened. "You speak Portuguese?" He supposed he shouldn’t be quite so shocked. She was an ambassador, she spoke a lot of languages. But even so…

His mother smirked. "You don’t know everything about me."

Jace, for his part, had stayed silent, just looking back and forth between Sven and his mother throughout the exchange. "Porra…" He wasn’t sure he was prepared for Sven’s family dynamics. Rona instinctively shot him a mom look for the language but didn’t comment, and he flipped another salute. That was twice she'd said it was nice to meet him. "I see why you’re a good ambassador, that was a damn good lie. Viking, we going or what?"

"I’m not sure what you’re referring to, Mr. Gregory." Rona smiled and turned to Sven, giving him a hug before he could respond. "Go on. Have fun with your… pussies."

Sven's jaw dropped. So did Jace's.

"NOW, VIKING. MEDICAL EMERGENCY!" That wasn’t a lie. He was choking, on his own laughter but it was still choking. When it became apparent the Viking was too shocked to leave on his own, he grabbed his arm and started dragging him. He needed to breathe, damn it.

Sven allowed himself to be hauled out with little resistance, and seemed to snap out of his shock when they got outside. "Who was that, and what have you done with my mother?" He wasn’t at all sure how to handle his mother saying that word, but blaming Jace seemed appropriate.

"See? I keep telling you I’m a good influence." Jace gave a giant smirk and started walking away from the cafe.

Sven questioned that logic, but went along with it. "And I’m sure one day I’ll believe you… where are we going?"

"You’ll find out when we get there, it’s not that far." He paused and raised his eyebrows. "You wouldn’t try and run away after I saved you, would you?"

"Of course not. I agreed to come." Sven rolled his eyes, though a worrying thought had occurred to him. "It’s not a strip club is it?"

"Are you wearing khakis?"

He was a little afraid to answer that. "…Yes."

"Then no." That got a sigh of relief, which he rewarded with another smirk.

"That’s good." Though really, even a strip club would have been preferable to another game of tennis. …Maybe.

"You’re lucky you were on this side of town." Jace gave a small grin. "Though you know I wouldn’t have said no anyway, that’s why you called… c’mon, down this way."

That was why he had called. There’d been no doubt in his mind that Jace would come to his rescue, and he had no problem admitting it. "I knew I could count on you to save me from…" My mother. "Spoons."

"And brunch." Jace shook his head. "Brunch is the worst. Just fucking acknowledge you couldn’t be bothered with breakfast until noon, no damn shame in it."

Sven couldn’t have agreed more. "Exactly! Thank you! And when you're invited to one you can't eat breakfast, because then you won't be hungry during brunch, and heaven forbid you not eat and be rude…" He continued to rant while they walked to the secret destination, and Jace was thoroughly enjoying every bit of it. By the end of the rant he was laughing hysterically.

"Porra… if I’d known you’d go off that hard I’d have brought up brunch earlier." Jace tugged at his sleeve and dragged him down a side street. There was a building at the end of it, with a large sign bearing the words HEAVY PETTING PLAYGROUND.

"Sorry, brunch is a frustrating—" Sven stopped mid sentence when he saw the sign. "This had better be an animal shelter or something."

Jace gave him a look, then a smirk spread over his face. "What clued you in, the cute animals in the windows?" Actually Sven had been too horrified to notice the cute animals in the windows, though now that the medic mentioned it, there were several large decals of cartoon puppies and kittens. Still smirking, Jace dragged him through the doors. "Hey Shaw! I brought help."

There were several more decals and posters inside—some more cute cartoon animals, some health tips, some lost and found posters. Sven looked around, a little surprised that it really was that… "You volunteer at an animal shelter?"

Jace shrugged. "Yeah, and?"

Sven paused. Was he really shocked? The more he thought about it, the more he realized that this actually fit Jace pretty well, considering his usual interactions with humans. The memory of the little cat plushie in his housing unit crossed his mind too, but he didn’t mention it. "Nothing."

A gangly man poked his head out of a staff door, with a small gray kitten attached to his face. It didn’t seem to bother the man much, but it didn’t look comfortable. Jace looked at him and shook his head as if he wasn't the least bit surprised.

"Captain Flufferface, you can’t do that to Shaw, even if he was asking for it when he gave you that name…" He walked up and carefully detached the kitten, scratching its ears and receiving several loud purrs for his efforts.

Shaw laughed and looked at Sven, and offered his hand; Sven shook it with a smile. "Hey, I’m Shaw the Shelter Dude. Welcome to the Playground. Jace, I’ve got a few pups needing walks, you got things handled here?"

"Yeah, we’re on it." Jace started walking towards a different staff door than the one Shaw had come through, as Shaw himself walked back through the first door. There were several excited barks as he did so, and after a minute they heard another door swing shut.

Sven had been eyeing the kitten in Jace’s arms, and decided to steal him. Jace didn't resist the theft, grinning. "Watch it, the Cap’s a face hugger."

"I’ll be careful," Sven assured him, scritching the little cat's chin. "He sure is cute."

"It's his other specialty." Leading Sven through the door a thought came to Jace, a bit belatedly. "You’d have told me by now if you were allergic, right?" Scowl. "Maybe Medical will actually give me everyone’s records before we ship out next time."

"I don’t have any allergies… and hopefully," Sven guaranteed, and then not-so-guaranteed

"Perfect." Jace turned towards the loud demanding meows. The hallway was wide and bright and lined with large cages.

"So what are we doing here exactly?" Sven asked.

Jace pointed down the hall. "Bunch of furballs need fed, cleaned up after, cuddled, told they’re pretty. You know, like the average trooper except with more fur." He paused and tilted his head a little. "I’m going to guess from that question you’ve never had a pet."

"Do you count?"

Jace snickered. "Have I mentioned lately that I like it when you’re an asshole?"

"Have I mentioned that I don’t like it when you curse?"

"It’s come up. Your mom seemed okay with it."

"She wasn’t." That mom look hadn’t even been aimed at him, but he had felt its effect. Somehow it didn't surprise him that Jace hadn't.

Shrugging, the medic opened one of the cages and pulled out a large fluffy gray and white cat, which immediately started licking his face. Looking past the cat between licks, Jace studied the cage. "Purrn Star, did you dump your water again?"

"Are you in charge of naming them?"

As if on cue Purrn Star mewed proudly, and Jace shook his head no. "Some of ‘em. Oddly, not including this one." Sven wasn’t sure if he believed him, because that was a very Jace name… but then, he knew Jace wouldn’t be bothered to lie about something like that. "Here, let the Cap down for a bit? He’s a roamer, it’s fine. Give Purrn Star some love while I dry out her cage."

Give Purrn Star some love. Really now…he reluctantly put Captain Flufferface down, but happily took the other one. The Cap immediately made sure they both knew he was not a fan of this new situation, yelling loudly.

"He… seems upset," Sven noted.

Jace had gone to the back, getting supplies to clean the cages. Coming back towards Purrn Star’s cage he shook his head at the little guy, kneeling to give his ears another scritch before focusing on the cage. "He’s not happy unless he’s the center of attention. Kind of like certain pilots we know."

Sven rolled his eyes. "Lance is not that bad."

"Yeah, sure. You’re entitled to your wrong opinion." Finishing up the cage, he gave Purrn Star a few scratches under her chin, then opened the can of food and put it inside.

"That phrase is so… nevermind." That sentence in itself was an opinion, but it wasn’t worth pointing out.

Not minding, as instructed, Jace ran his fingers through Purrn Star's fur. "We have to take care of her first because she doesn't get along with the others. The rest we usually just let out to play in the hallway for a bit, while we fix up their cages and put the food in." He grinned. "Ready for a lot of cats, Viking?"

A lot of cats sounded like fun, though he wasn't sure if Captain Flufferface would agree. "Yes I am."

Still grinning, Jace put Purrn Star in her cage and started walking down the corridor, opening all the cages along the way. Sven had not realized how many cages there were in here… before long there were cats everywhere. It took some effort to be sure not to step on any of them.

"All the food is in the upper cupboards in the back…" Jace trailed off as a calico kitten crawled up Sven’s pant leg and latched onto his shirt, digging in with tiny claws.

"They sure are cute," Sven cooed. He wasn't sure he could think of anything else right now, surrounded by all this mewing fluff… the little cat on his shirt wavered, and he cupped it with his hands to be sure it wouldn't fall.

"Aren’t they?" Jace came over to help detach the kitten. "There’s a reason we call this one Full Frontal Mewdity, she loves climbing clothes… and sometimes she takes trophies. Shaw has never lived it down." Grin. "Has he, you little delinquent?" He gave the kitten several scritches on the cheeks, then offered her to Sven, who gladly accepted.

"Now I know you named this one." There were zero doubts in Sven’s mind.

"Guilty!" Pride laced his tone. "Let's get the food put out, then we can make sure all these little fuzzballs get the—" Jace was cut off by one of the cats letting out a surprisingly loud meow. "—attention they're certain they deserve."

Sven had been intending to help. Really, he had. But he got so caught up playing with the cats that he didn’t really end up doing any feeding or cleaning after the first couple of cages. Not that Jace could blame him, and who was he to stop the Viking from interacting with a hallway full of adorable? Dude needed to relax. Maybe next time he'd insist on more even distribution of duty.

He was finishing up the last of the cages when another volunteer showed up. "That’s our shift, Viking."

Though he really wasn't sure he wanted to leave, Sven smiled at him. "This was fun."

Jace grinned back, tucking the the last cat—Probable Claws—back into his cage. "You can always come back."

"I’ll have to… and maybe I’ll adopt one. One day." Sven was seriously considering it. He loved these little guys.

"Yeah, a cat would be way lower-maintenance than the pet you’ve got, right?" Jace smirked, then started heading for the door. Captain Flufferface trotted after him.

"You’ve got a follower."

Jace laughed, turning around and kneeling to give the roaming kitten a last belly rub. "You can’t come with us, Cap…" As the Cap purred and stretched, he jumped up and they both snuck out the door.

Curiosity was overwhelming Sven by now, and he paused as the door clicked shut. "What is it with you and cats?"

Jace froze up for a moment, his mind suddenly elsewhere. A street bathed in Prox's nighttime sun, where you could never just sneak away so easily.

You can't come with me, Cat…

"…They’re adorable little assholes. What’s not to like?"

"They are adorable. I just noticed the stuffed kitten back in your quarters, and here with," Sven gestured towards the cat decals on the windows, "this. I was just wondering if there was another reason besides the cuteness…"

Of course he was. Shaking his head, Jace started walking back up the street, Sven trailing behind him. "I just left a cat behind at home," he said finally, shrugging. "Kinda miss her sometimes."

Sven quirked his head, but decided that was best left alone. The medic was usually pretty open about what he'd walked away from, no sense poking at what he didn't want to share. "Understandable."

"You wanna go grab a sandwich or something? There’s a great deli up the street. No brunch."

"Sounds lovely." Sven sighed in reflexive relief at the thought of no brunch. "Have to wash my hands when we get there…"

That had really just been him talking to himself, but it got him a glare and a light elbow. "Uh, yeah, you fucking better."

"Of course I will! I'm civilized."

"I guess that's as good a word as any?"

They fell into easy banter as they walked up the street, and Sven couldn't quite stop grinning. Despite starting with brunch, it had been a good day.

*****

Not everyone was having trouble getting away from their family. Some of the team was having trouble getting in touch. That was what happened when you had not just your parents, but four brothers scattered all across the planet to worry about.

Hunk had just finally gotten to the last one today. Kenji played professional football in Australia, and between practice and time zones, figuring out when to call was a trick.

"…we'll be coming to play Florida in December, if you're still on base then. But anyway, enough about me, you gonna tell me about your mission or what?"

No. No he wasn't. He'd been studiously avoiding doing much of that for this conversation and four others before it, because his family was still under the impression he had a nice safe back lines engineering job. "Ain't much to say, bro. We met bird people and cat people and explored a bunch of weird stuff." There was no need to mention the water gauntlet. Or nearly being killed by Galra and pirates. Or the box. Definitely not the box.

"You never tell me anything," Kenji grumbled. "How's the new unit?"

"Pretty awesome! We've got a cool pilot, and a Viking, and a boss who thinks he's a samurai or somethin', and a—" The sound of a door swinging open interrupted him, and he sat up straighter in bed. "Uh, was that on your end?"

"Wasn't me, bro…"

"Hunkie!" a familiar southern accent yelled. "I'm hoooome!"

A huge grin spread over Hunk's face. "Oh hey, roomie's back! I better go say hi. Call ya tomorrow? Will you be around?"

Kenji chuckled. "Same time, same place, little bro. Catch you then."

Hunk gave a slight sigh of relief as the connection cut. Post-mission check-ins were a struggle even when the missions weren't crazy. He loved his family dearly, he really did. But they had next to nothing in common.

His roommate, on the other hand…

"Yo!" She appeared in the doorway: a stocky young woman with ginger pigtails, muscular arms crossed, mock glaring. "Not even gonna come say hello?"

"I was gettin' there!" he protested, still grinning as he jumped up. "You didn't tell me you were gonna be back today! I woulda baked a cake. Or some wings. Or invited the whole block for a BBQ."

She laughed, holding a hand up. "The letter wouldn't have gotten here before I did. Gimme thirty-five!"

Hunk slapped her hand, launching into the familiar ritual. Their official secret roommate handshake consisted of three one-handed high fives, two double high fives, a KABOOM gesture… and no actual hand shaking. Oh, and a quick hug that literally lifted her off her feet. "Welcome back, Hammer."

"Good to see you, Crusher."

Bama the Hammer—Sergeant Alabama Kowalski, Andromeda Vanguard, Second Siege Battalion—was the only person who ever used his callsign. They'd met in a structural engineering class at the Academy, both learning how to bring down buildings more efficiently; her with artillery shells, him with demolition charges. It had been mutual admiration at first sight. Of course, being a siege tanker, she'd been sent off to guard the border of No Man's Land while he stayed home and punched COs and got sent off on crazy treasure hunts. At least unlike his brothers, he could tell her about all of it without her thinking he was crazy…

…Well, maybe not the water gauntlet, but anyway. "Have I got some stories for you."

"Oh yeah? What, you weren't just pushing more rocks around on Ganymede?"

"You've got no idea." He laughed. "But let's put on some ribs and some metal before we get to that, yeah? You need help with any bags or anything?"

"Wouldn't say no. We didn't see any action—you'd kinda know if we had—but I did smuggle back some scrap from exercises." She waggled her eyebrows. "Might be enough to get the new grill up and running."

Now that was real music to his ears. "I'm all over that!"

As he turned to grab his datapad, Hammer finally caught sight of the uniform patch on his shoulder: the falcon, globe, and star of the Explorer Teams rather than the lightning wrench of the Jovian Engineering Corps. "Uh, Crusher?"

"Yeah?"

"Just what did you do while I was gone?" She sounded half offended, half admiring.

He glanced back at her, chuckling. "I broke a dude's jaw. Dude outranked me. It was a whole thing." A sly grin spread over his face. "Not jealous, are you?"

"I might be."

"Let's get your stuff hauled in." He tapped a command in on the datapad, and heavy metal Ride of the Valkyries began blaring through the room. "Then I'll tell ya all about it, as long as you promise to tell me about all the kabooms that go on on the border. Fair?"

She grinned. "Fair!"

*****

It had been hard to gauge the passage of time between the many bombardments. Now that they'd stopped, it was easier in some ways to gather intel, though the occupying infantry was a constant danger. The few military personnel Allura had at her disposal had gathered to share with her as much as they could about the environment above ground. Information was limited, but it wasn't good. Cities leveled, stockpiles of resources razed or seized. A large number of survivors had made it into the tunnels beneath Falastol, but the Drules were crawling over what was left of the city; it was impossible to communicate with them. How many may have survived beyond those shelters, nobody knew.

"So… the royal court is most likely gone."

"It would seem so, your highness." Captain Telinan was the highest-ranking Golden Knight, and was handling the distant scouting parties. "The Crown Province is in ruins. We had one recon pairing reach the Seven Isles, but without our maps they wouldn't have recognized it. It would appear that the Drules have been very… thorough."

"And our attempts to reach out to those farther away?"

"We still haven’t heard back from the scouts yet. There are various reasons they could have been delayed, we're giving them more time."

Various reasons. Allura knew perfectly well that meant Drules. Or perhaps, more optimistically, survivors. The scouts could be delayed for quite awhile, should they come upon a group in hiding. The Arusian people were reeling. Enclaves of survivors had been known to greet scouts with anything from mistrust and hostility to desperate pleas to remain with them; a few had been brought back to the caves, though fewer than she would have liked.

"We'll hope the missing are doing the right thing, helping their fellow Arusians." She knew that might make her sound naive, but no matter. They needed whatever hope they could get. "How are our supplies?"

"The militia has been organizing hunting parties, but transporting water is trickier. Clothing and medication are well enough for the moment, but limited. We need to take every opportunity to gather more."

Allura frowned. The castle and the village might both have caches yet to be found, if scavengers could avoid the Drules. "Then let’s make sure we know what supplies we need most, and form groups to focus on seeking them out. When the enemy presence is lighter we can send them to search."

In the corner of her eye, she noted the hunched form with fiery hair poking out from her hood. Letting her men discuss possible locations to scout, she excused herself to quietly chat with someone she knew needed her right now.

Whenever Larmina hadn't been out hunting, she'd been trying to listen to the soldiers' reports. Now she looked stricken. "She’s gone, isn’t she," she whispered as Allura came closer.

Drawing the younger girl closer, the princess squeezed her shoulders gently. "They can’t say for sure. It sounds as though they only reached the outskirts, not the manor. And there are shelters all over Arus. She could be secured deep underground like we are." That earned her look of doubt, a suggestion she might be full of something foul. She brushed it off. "Larmina… you know if your mother had passed, she would try to reach you."

That only got her a blank look. "If she… what? What are you talking about?"

Allura hesitated a moment. She had seen the ghostly flickers in the caves, and she'd seen Larmina jump at their presence, or freeze as if hearing voices. It was a gift common to Arusian royalty, but… did she not know she had it? "Our ancestors have ways of making their presence known," she said quietly. "I truly believe if she'd passed, you would know it. So… until we have some form of confirmation, we can believe that she's out there somewhere, alive."

Larmina closed her eyes tight, thoughts of countless possible fates dancing before her. Allura sighed. She didn't want to humor thoughts of the worst, but she also couldn't pretend not to recognize the danger. So she just wrapped her up in a firm hug. "For now, you can make her proud. I know you've been hunting, and that's good. We have our duties… to give our best to our people, and get them through this, and get ourselves through it as well. How does that sound?"

One aquamarine eye cracked open. "Can I go smack a Drule if I see one?"

That was not the kind of hunting she'd meant. "No, I strongly request you not do that… now."

"Soooooooo… that means I might be able to later?" Larmina asked, raising an eyebrow ever so slightly.

Allura was mildly concerned that the hope of inflicting harm on another was what cheered her cousin from her gloom. Then again, inflicting harm—punishment—justice on the Drules for their crimes was a worthy goal. She smiled sympathetically. "Don’t raise your hopes for that too high. But I believe we will be able to rise up and return to the surface in time, and when we do, I'm sure there will be a Drule or two that needs a good smacking."

It seemed Larmina was willing to accept that; she took a deep breath before slowly exhaling. "So in the meantime…."

"When does the next hunting party go out? I heard a rumor you let Private Hanso bring back more rolis than you did last time…"

"One more!" she protested. "And he cheated!"

"Oh? How did he do that?"

"He… um…" Her cheeks flushed. "I don't know, he just did somehow. All the rolis jumped out on his side of the trail!"

Allura laughed, then arched a challenging eyebrow. "Sounds like you should be planning your revenge. I know better than to think you'll let a little thing like cheating stop you."

"Oh you'd better believe not." Larmina glowered across the cave, in the general direction of where the militia had set up their operations. "Do we need more food? I'll take him on right now."

Remembering the earlier reports, Allura shook her head. "Food is always helpful, but what we need more right now is water. Maybe you can challenge him on who can carry the most?"

"Oh I'm on it. Later, Auntie!" She tossed her hood back and was off, leaving her aunt chuckling behind her.

Sobering, Allura stilled as she heard an indistinct whisper around her, a gentle hand on her shoulder for an instant. There was no hand there… only a soft flicker of light. Nodding a silent thanks to whichever ancestor had come to comfort her, she returned to her duties.

*****

There wasn’t much fanfare when Romelle arrived on Korrinoth. She'd been sent ahead of the main Polluxian delegation, on a royal cruiser that had been well-appointed but lonely. Plenty of time to worry about what she was heading for. Now that she was here, she wasn't sure whether to be less or more worried… a pair of guards and a young Drule woman in a very skimpy outfit that was all gauze and gems awaited her as she got off the ship. Romelle inwardly grimaced, but forced a smile onto her face as she slowly made her way down the ramp.

The girl bowed as she stopped before her. "Princess Romelle, welcome to Korrinoth. I am Kalindra, and I am to be your handmaiden while you are here. Please, follow, and I shall show you to your rooms so you may freshen up from your journey."

Romelle nodded. "Thank you," she murmured and followed her, the guards falling in behind her as Kalindra led the way into the castle. The architecture was so very strange compared to what she’d known on Pollux, heavy and solid and almost organic in places. It was unsettling, but those they passed in the corridors seemed friendly and respectful. Perhaps this won’t be as bad as I imagined.

Seeing her own quarters reinforced her optimism. The suite was decorated with bright silks and strangely transfixing Drule artwork—the paintings were of no discernible subject, but the colors danced and blended from one frame to the next. The furniture was heavy stone, but inlaid with delicate patterns of gold. "It's beautiful here," she said truthfully.

Kalindra smiled softly. "I'm glad you appreciate it, Princess. Would you like to bathe? The castle servants are bringing your things from your ship, they should be here by the time you finish."

Bathing sounded wonderful; it had been a long journey. And the bath itself was as alien as everything else had been so far—an enclosed chamber where the water cascaded down the walls, rather soothing once she got used to it. She took her time, reconsidering her position. The Drules were certainly… different, but they hardly seemed like the ruthless savages she'd expected from a kingdom of conquerors.

Romelle stepped from the bath feeling much better than she had since leaving home. Kalindra helped her into a robe and led her into the bedroom. She paused, her optimism suddenly fading, seeing an outfit similar to what the Drule was wearing laid out on the bed. "Um, Kalindra?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"This outfit. Where did it come from?"

"His Highness, Prince Lotor, sent it over for you to wear to the coming festivities. It is a great honor that he sends you such a gift."

Romelle nodded, trying to keep her expression neutral, though she could feel herself blushing furiously. And as a gift, I would insult him if I don’t wear it, but when Father sees me in it, he will be insulted. She sighed. Maybe it is some traditional dress of their people. Think positive, right?

Kalindra was watching her carefully. "Is all well, Princess?"

"I just…" She paused, not certain how much she could confide in her new handmaiden. Or perhaps certain she couldn't. "Yes, well enough. A bit of culture shock, that's all."

"Understandable." The Drule bowed low. "Please, don't hesitate to ask me anything you require."

For a moment, she hesitated, then decided to test just how genuine all this accommodation was. Yes. Testing. That's what you're doing. "I don't mean to sound rude or ungrateful, but… perhaps I could have some time alone to gather my thoughts? I'm certain I won't have much time for that soon."

Her handmaiden gave a smile that seemed sympathetic, though the fangs it revealed didn't spark much confidence. "Of course, Princess. The bell at the door will summon me whenever you wish." Bowing one more time, she departed the room.

Immediately after she left, Romelle regretted the request. Did she really want to be alone with her thoughts? Here? Now? Looking at the skimpy outfit again, she sank back onto the bed and clenched her fists. This was what she had now, and she'd better get used to it.

For Pollux.

Chapter Text

They'd been called in with hardly any notice. Not a mission briefing, per se. Colonel Hawkins had called it just a follow-up. 'Just a follow-up' did not explain the information that had arrived to Keith and Flynn's datapads that morning…

"You read the files, Kogane?" Flynn asked under his breath.

"Yeah." Keith was sitting with a large mug of coffee, fingers steepled in front of his chin. "Will be interesting, that's for sure…"

There was a huge box of maple bacon donuts on the table; apparently that was a tradition now. Only Hunk and Lance were actually eating donuts, though Sven looked tempted. Hunk was starting on his second when the door opened and Hawkins walked in. "Morning, gentlemen."

"Morning, sir." Sven and Keith spoke at the same time, the others just saluted with varying degrees of seriousness.

Oh, and then there was Hunk. "Heya, big boss! Donuts are here!"

For a moment, Flynn's salute became quite indistinguishable from a facepalm.

Hawkins just chuckled, picking out a donut and taking a small bite before addressing them. "I have news for you all… and I don't have news."

"Oh, good thing you narrowed that down," Jace muttered. Sven elbowed him.

Keith was a little more circumspect. "News, but no news? That's not very… encouraging."

"Sounds about normal," Lance countered through a bite of donut.

"Totally." Hunk nodded. "Intel gonna intel."

"They're doing their best." Hawkins didn't sound wholly disapproving of the conversation track, and he wasn't—complaining about military intelligence was a tradition far older than the Alliance. But still. "On that note… firstly, I think you all deserve to know that they finished interrogating the crew of that carrier you helped capture at Echo Fox." That got everyone sitting up a little straighter. "Based on their information, Command discovered a massive breach at the New Brian Boneyard. At least a dozen ships missing, including multiple Leyte-class carriers."

Several jaws and one donut dropped.

"They took what from where?"

"The fuck!"

"What? That's… that's insane."

"And it took how fucking long for the brass to figure that out?!"

Hawkins let them yell—lord only knew he had when he'd heard about it. The New Brian Boneyard was a spacedock complex that served as the Alliance's primary ship graveyard. Hundreds of ships docked in a top secret location, ready to be reactivated in case of emergency. Needless to say, it was more heavily secured than some planets. Ships at the Boneyard did not just go missing.

He waited for the expletives to wind down before continuing.

"Obviously, Command believes it can only be an inside job, so I requested your unit's identity be redacted from the report and your records sealed until we know more." He smiled grimly. "I know, you're an Explorer Team, you can only get into so much more trouble… but we'd rather not give someone who's already sponsoring deadly attacks on Alliance personnel any reason to hunt you down."

There were a few nervous grins in response; Hunk looked down at the donut in his lap and blinked. "Uh, totally in favor of that."

"Safety first."

"One less thing to worry about."

"What about the pirates themselves?" Flynn asked after a moment, in a tone that wasn't entirely eager for an answer.

Hawkins shook his head. "A task force is being assembled to hunt them down. You're going elsewhere."

"Yay," Jace said flatly, and Sven elbowed him again.

"Elsewhere?" Keith repeated, ignoring the medic. He didn't like it when orders were that ominous.

"…That's where I'm afraid I don't have much information for you."

Oh. Well. That was certainly… a statement. "What do you mean, sir?"

"Intel has been working on decoding that crystal you recovered. It's slow going. What they are certain of is that it's pointing to something important. It may be what the Galra are searching for, so you'll be hunting it down."

"So more Galra treasure hunts?"

"Isn't that more or less what we just did?"

Hawkins looked at Lance and Flynn and shook his head slightly. "Maybe, maybe not. They're still working on specifics. But Command feels secure enough in the information they already have to assign you a new ship, one better suited for major cargo retrieval… and new teammates."

"…What."

"Oh yeah? Cool!"

The rest of the team's reactions fell somewhere between Jace and Hunk, manifesting as looks of more or less interest as Hawkins swept his gaze around the table. Keith exhaled, nodding. "Which is why Kleid and I received the files we received."

"Yes." The colonel absently juggled his donut between his hands as he spoke. "Your new ship is a Vagrant-class named Jupiter's Hammer. It's been mothballed for awhile—they're reinstalling the engines as we speak. You'll be operating out of midrange hangar L4-West. Command felt it was best to get you started early, so you can get acquainted with your new crewmates while you're getting the ship up to speed."

Flynn tilted his head. "A… Vagrant, sir? Not a Vanguard?"

Hawkins grinned slightly. "Yes, a Vagrant." Whatever that was about, it was clearly an engineering geek thing; Flynn and Hunk high-fived, while Lance arched an eyebrow at them.

"A mothballed ship that just got its engines back," Keith repeated, sounding wholly unconvinced. "You'll have your hands full."

"Sure, we'll have a ship to fix up while you're trying to deal with the new kids up front…" Flynn smirked, then muttered under his breath, "Jupiter's HAMMER? That'll be the first thing to go."

Keith eyed him. "You're getting just as many new kids as I am."

"Kids?" Lance broke in. That sounded like a kind of important point being glossed over.

Jace's eyes narrowed. "That had better be a metaphor."

"I would also like some clarification on the 'kids'," Sven agreed, looking between Keith and Hawkins.

Only Hunk, as usual, seemed unbothered. "Hey, plenty of room on the Island of Misfit Toys here, yeah? I'm good with kids."

Hawkins chuckled; he couldn't help it. "They are younger than usual for an Explorer Team, yes. But—and I'm sure this will shock you all—there's not a long list of candidates, and we're not exactly at the top of the list when it comes to requesting reinforcements. They're all very good at what they do, I assure you."

"They wouldn't have made it to this assignment if not," Keith said with a slow nod.

"Kinda don't think any stuffy old dudes could handle us anyway," Hunk pointed out.

Lance snickered. "Stuffy old dudes can't handle shit."

"Literally true," Jace agreed, getting yet another elbow from Sven.

Keith grimaced, eyeing Hawkins, who was after all the oldest in the room. The colonel noted his look and slowly raised an eyebrow. "Kogane, is this you calling me old?" he asked in a slightly chiding tone.

A round of snickers swept around the table, and Keith took a long sip of his coffee. "I said no such thing, sir."

"And I sure wouldn't," Lance chimed in with a smirk, looking Hawkins up and down. He really wasn't that old.

Eyeing Lance with his best don't even look, Hawkins cleared his throat. "In any case, we know two key parameters for this mission: you'll be traveling much deeper into the Interior Expanse, at the least, and what you're bringing back may need some diagnostic work. To that end you're being assigned a communications officer, a gunner, a systems analyst, and an electrical engineer. They'll be reporting tomorrow." He grimaced slightly. "When we have enough information for a full briefing, you'll be the first to know."

Keith nodded for the group. "Understood, sir."

"Any questions? Otherwise, dismissed. Kogane, Kleid, stay a minute."

A couple of odd looks fell on him. "Uh, if we did have questions, would you have any answers?" Hunk asked finally.

"…Probably not."

"We'll just have to figure out the details while they're shooting at us, big guy." Lance smirked. "As usual."

"We're a fucking Explorer Team," Jace agreed, sounding much less bitter than he once had; Lance grinned and slapped him on the back.

"Sure are!"

Chuckling, Hunk turned to them and held out both his hands for a high five. Lance obliged; Jace hesitated a moment, smirked, and hit his hand probably harder than necessary… then winced as pain shot through his wrist.

Lance burst into laughter.

"Fuck you, McClain." The medic grinned as he headed for the door, Sven giving him the obligatory disapproving look before following.

"You wish." Lance headed out too, with Hunk on his heels, leaving only the three ranking officers to stay and be businesslike.

Hawkins was amused, but became more serious as he looked at the other two. "I'm guessing from your comments that you two were able to look over the files."

"Yes, sir," Keith confirmed. Flynn just nodded quietly.

"I won't ask you to weigh in on Stoker's probation until you've met with him, obviously… but the sooner you can make a decision, the better. If you don't feel comfortable waiving him, we'll need to find you a different systems analyst somewhere."

"Aside from his disciplinary issues, he does seem to be the man for the job," Keith observed. Which really summed up the entire Explorer Team premise. "I like his qualifications."

Flynn nodded in agreement. "It would take something like…" He trailed off. He'd been about to say attempted murder, but that was actually kind of what had happened. "…it would take a lot to reject someone rated for his original posting, even if it didn't last."

The colonel nodded. "If you need anything clarified about the others, go ahead and ask. I know you didn't get much warning."

Most of the necessary clarification would come when they reported, of course… but there was one thing that had been bothering Keith quite a bit. "Brennan being assigned here I understand completely, and Hayes I suppose makes sense. But Starr? Top of his class, not so much as a citation for coughing out of turn?"

Hawkins gave him a look he didn't care much for; an odd mix of skeptical and stunned. "You don't know him?"

"Know him?" Keith looked to Flynn, who just shook his head, equally confused. "Am I supposed to?"

"…He requested your command, Kogane. Asked for you by name." Hawkins frowned. "We don't get many people who volunteer for an Explorer Team, we certainly weren't going to tell him no."

What? Keith could only stare in shocked silence for a minute. It didn't make any sense. "I'm fairly certain that I don't know him at all."

"Hmm. Guess you'll have something to ask him when he reports, then."

"Crystal Spur fanboy," Flynn whispered under his breath.

Keith made an attempt to shoot his second a death glare while also nodding respectfully to his supervising officer; it didn't go particularly well. "Yes, I guess I do."

Looking between them and laughing softly, Hawkins saluted with the hand that wasn't presently holding a donut. "Well, gentlemen… if that's all, I'll see you when we have more information. Here's hoping your new teammates will fit right in."

*****

All of the new kids—the new crew members—had been instructed to check in with Keith first. Which meant Keith was stuck in his office for the morning, waiting. Hayes had stopped by first, and he seemed fine. Nervous, but fine. The next appointment was more worrisome…

Stoker's qualifications were impeccable. Almost too impeccable. He'd graduated from the Academy at fourteen, and been assigned straight to the Dawn of Destiny—not only one of the Alliance's prized Unity-class dreadnoughts, but the flagship of the entire Orion Vanguard. He'd tested out at the highest levels in both systems engineering and special operations. It would have seemed like an elaborate joke, were it not for one key detail: Stoker wasn't human.

Baltans were a race of small, scientifically-inclined humanoids with a long tradition of ninja arts. They hardly ever turned up on this side of Alliance space; Keith had never met one. He wasn't sure he was looking forward to it. Apparently, at least in Stoker's case, the price of such remarkable talents was some… social maladjustment.

A lot of social maladjustment.

Someone knocked on the door. "Commander Kogane?" It was an unfamiliar voice, but she pronounced his name correctly. "Sergeant Faraday, MP. I'm here with Specialist Stoker."

Well, he was on probation. "Enter."

The door swung open, revealing a dark-haired woman in a military police uniform and… Keith tilted his head. The soldier with her was a slim young man with cold, catlike green eyes; he could easily have passed for human, if you didn't look at him too long. He flipped a short salute. "Specialist Stoker reporting, sir."

Here went nothing. "Have a seat." Stoker frowned but sat across from the desk while Faraday took up a post in the corner. "I've read your file, Mr. Stoker. But I'd like to hear your side of how you've come to be here."

"I stabbed one of my groupmates in a bar fight."

…He said that entirely too matter-of-factly. Keith arched an eyebrow. "Why?"

"He threatened me."

What now? That wasn't exactly what his file had—

"What the specialist means," Faraday broke in with a slight grimace, "is that his groupmate outright assaulted him with a bottle."

Immediately Stoker turned and scowled at the sergeant. "That's what I said. The clumsy idiot missed me."

In less than two minutes, this kid was already living up to his reputation. Keith sighed and held up a hand for silence. "How about you just tell me what exactly led one of your groupmates to go after you with a bottle?"

Shrug. "He's a fool. I told him so. Repeatedly."

Wonderful. "That… doesn't clarify the situation for me at all, Mr. Stoker."

"He didn't like me being smarter than him, sir." He said it slowly, patiently, as though speaking to a child. "We had words. Often."

Well then. "That being the case, one would think you could have found other ways to resolve the incident?"

Stoker gave him a look that was pretty clearly questioning his intelligence too. "Sir, I'm unfamiliar with other ways of resolving the issue of an idiot throwing a bottle at your head."

"Did you mention your issues with him to a superior prior to the incident?"

"Yessir."

That actually surprised him. "And they didn't do anything?"

Another shrug. "They told me I have issues with everyone."

I'll bet you do. Though that was hardly an appropriate response. "That's…"

Stoker seemed entirely unconcerned. "Accurate, sir. They did tell him to stop 'baiting' me."

Keith wondered just how much it would take to bait this kid, but saying so out loud didn't seem like the best idea. "And clearly he didn't, and as much as you didn't need to do that, I suppose he had it coming or it wouldn't be in your file as self defense. So, welcome to Explorer Team 686." He crossed his arms and leaned back. "We can only move forward, correct?"

"Experience says incorrect, sir."

"…That's the wrong answer." Keith arched an eyebrow. "Would you like to try again?"

Scowl. "I'm not planning to stab anyone else, sir, if that's what you're asking. I'm just here to do a job." Something in his tone made it seem like he'd had to say that a lot in his career.

Fair enough. "I'll take you at your word, then. I assume you've already seen the mission orders?"

Stoker's tone became delicate. "They weren't sent to me."

Keith highly doubted that would have stopped a systems analyst with a disciplinary record like Stoker's, but the young man's eyes darted over to the corner and stopped him just before he said so. Right. "Sergeant, you're dismissed."

Faraday startled. "But sir…"

"It's fine. Mr. Stoker isn't going to be any further trouble, are you?"

Stoker looked between the two of them. "I'm very dangerous, sir," he said flatly.

It was impossible to tell whether that had been meant as humor or not, and Keith wasn't actually sure which would worry him more. Faraday didn't seem convinced, either way. "Sir, you are aware the specialist is a trained ninja."

"I am very familiar with Mr. Stoker's qualifications, Sergeant. As he has promised not to stab anyone else, I am going to take him at his word. Dismissed."

She shrugged before saluting. "Yes sir. I'll be outside."

Watching her go, Stoker answered as soon as the door shut. "I have seen the orders, sir. They're very… vague."

Wasn't that the truth. Keith sighed. It had been worth a shot. "You know I need to waive your probation before you're actually permitted to deploy."

"Yessir."

"Is there any reason I shouldn't?"

"Probably several, sir." Stoker glanced at the door again. "But I am a ninja, and I've been letting Sergeant Faraday watch me anyway. She knows I've been humoring her. You can ask her if you need to."

He made a good point. Keith could think of worse Explorer Team members than a hostile ninja who was, at least, apparently honest to a fault… though he could also think of better. "All right. I won't make a final decision until I've heard what Lieutenant Commander Kleid thinks of you, but I'm inclined to give you a chance. Dismissed."

With a wordless salute, Stoker stood and departed. Keith looked after him for a few moments, frowned, then pulled his datapad over and typed in a quick message. May as well warn Flynn what he was in for.

*****

Hangar L4-West was on a quiet part of base. What were known as the 'midrange hangars' actually held the largest ships on the Garrison; they were the middle ground between small craft hangars and spacedocks. They were a bit of a niche, and that was fine with Flynn.

The Jupiter's Hammer was enormous, by atmospheric standards. It could quite literally have fit the Firecrown into its gaping cargo bay. In fact, it was quite literally designed to do just that. The Vagrant-class had originally been intended to rescue stranded small craft. It did make sense, for an unknown retrieval mission, if the Alliance wasn't going to try to give a ten-man Explorer Team an actual stellar cruiser. Which would have been ridiculous.

Imagine, the brass not doing something ridiculous.

He was finishing up an external inspection of the ship now, waiting on his new engineering crew to turn up. They worried him much more than the ship's condition. Only natural, wasn't it? They had an electrical engineer who tended to cause explosions when he was upset, and a systems analyst who was literally on probation. Was he supposed to not be worried?

Coming around the side of the ship, movement caught his eye. There was a young man standing underneath the nose, looking both nervous and a bit lost. Is that one of my wrenchlings? He did have the right rank patch… "Looking for something, Specialist?"

The newcomer startled, then turned to him and startled again. "Uh, um…" His amber eyes had gone very wide. "Lieutenant Commander Klay… er, no… Kleid?"

Yep, that's a wrenchling. "That's me." He saluted casually, which the specialist returned with a shaky hand. "So, you must be Hayes or Stoker?"

"Uh, Hayes?"

A very timid wrenchling. I don't recall reading a file for one of those. Shrugging it off, he grinned and offered a hand. "Welcome to the 686. You can call me Flynn, we're pretty casual around here."

Hayes did not appear the least bit reassured, but managed a very brief handshake as he nodded. "Yes, sir. Sir Flynn… Flynn. Vince, I like Vince."

"Vince." Flynn studied him more carefully. He didn't look like a mad bomber. He just looked like nervous new blood on a questionable new assignment… which only made Flynn apprehensive as well. Damn it, he'd just mostly gotten over having to wonder about Hunk's violence threshold, now he had another one? "You can relax, you know."

"I… I'll attempt that, sir."

Relaxing was the absolute last thing Vince felt prepared to do at the moment. He'd been apprehensive enough about the Explorer Team posting as it was. Checking in with Commander Kogane earlier that morning had gone well enough—other than mispronouncing his name, embarrassing—but he was definitely not doing much to endear himself to his direct superior here.

Maybe if his direct superior had been a little less huge he would have been a little less intimidated. But then, all things considered, maybe not.

Flynn seemed to take it well enough, just giving him a wry smile. "You could start attempting it by using my name, but that's alright." He leaned against the ship's front landing gear. "What have they told you about the mission?"

"Yes si—Flynn." This would take some doing. "All I know is, I was told my assignment was an Explorer Team and that I was to report today. Any more detail would be appreciated."

"…Honestly I was hoping they might have accidentally given you more details." Flynn crossed his arms and looked up at the belly of the ship, scowling. "All we know right now is we're going to be sent out to go retrieve something… somewhere… eventually."

For a moment sheer surprise outweighed Vince's nervousness, and he blinked. "We don't even know what?" Ugh. He hated not knowing things.

Flynn shook his head, the odd smile coming back. "I could tell you everything you've heard about Explorer Teams is wrong, but it's probably not. This is what we get. But it'll be fun… ever worked on a Vagrant before?"

"No, but I've read up on them." Vince looked up at the ship, then back down at his new boss; Flynn looked young enough that he'd probably never worked on a Vagrant either. "It's the model that preceded the Vanguard, the last one was produced a little over sixty years ago, but they're still known for being solid. Built for spaceplane rescue. It's one of only about half a dozen ships that are small enough for atmospheric operation but also large enough for hyperspace thrusters."

Talking shop seemed to make Vince more relaxed, Flynn noted. At least slightly. He could work with that. And him already having read up on the ship was an excellent sign. "Thorough, I like it."

"I like to be prepared, si—Flynn."

"Excellent." Motioning for Vince to follow, he started heading towards the aft landing gear. "What we do know right now is, they took this thing out of mothballs for us and we've got to get it spaceworthy. This is your first deployment, right?"

Vince felt his face flush. "Yes, it is… it's that obvious?"

"I mean, yes? But I've also read your file."

Of course he has. What a dumb question to ask. That flush got hotter as he considered what was likely to be in his file. Crap, he knows I blow things up, doesn't he. "Oh."

Whatever more Flynn may have said was interrupted by the metallic clang of the ship's hatch, and heavy footsteps on the boarding ramp. "Yo, pit boss! I've gotta go get some—oh hey!" Hunk came around the ramp and a huge grin spread over his face. "New kid!"

Oh holy hell! Vince gulped so hard it physically hurt as he stared at the new arrival. Flynn was big enough, and this guy was bigger. He almost didn't even look real. He's… bigger than… they're both giants…

Whoever the new giant was, his dramatic entrance only earned a mildly exasperated look and a brief facepalm. "Vince, this is Hunk. Hunk, this is…" Flynn trailed off at the expression on the new kid's face, moved forward, and worriedly poked his shoulder. "Vince?"

Hunk. Of course his name was Hunk. Because what else would it be? Most of Vince's effort was being expended on not fainting, but he finally managed a weak, "Hi."

"Nice to meetcha!" The huge man had an equally huge grin on his face; it looked like he wanted to go for either a handshake or a high five but realized either one might kill his new crewmate. "I'm the resident master blaster here. But uh, I fix stuff too. Sometimes. When I don't have anything to make go KABOOM." He turned to Flynn without so much as a pause for breath. "Anyway uh, like I was sayin', gotta go get another pile of plates for that hole on deck three. I'll be back." Waving to both of them, he headed for the bay door. "Later on, Vince!"

Later… on… yeah… holy…

All he could do was stare. And stare. And stare some more. And then the sound of an engine revving drifted into the hangar, along with Hunk's voice yelling "Vroom vroom!" as the sound gradually faded away.

He only got something resembling his wits back when the noise was completely gone. "Uh. Was he real?" Maybe the stress is making me hallucinate…

"Afraid so." Flynn smiled sympathetically. "Bit terrifying, isn't he? But you get used to him." He opted to keep the more or less that went through his mind to himself.

"Uh… wow. If you say so."

"I say so." He laughed. "You can even believe me if you like."

"Is that an order?"

…Oh not another one of these. Flynn arched an eyebrow. "Should it be?"

Vince laughed nervously. "I don't know. I'm still attempting to relax."

"Would it help if I gave you some wiring to fix? We have plenty of wiring to fix."

"Wiring?" Immediately Vince brightened, and Flynn gave him a knowing look. "I would love to wire, si… uh, Flynn." Please just give me something to focus on.

With a nod and a motion to follow, his new superior led him to one of the aft landing gear. It was huge, of course—six wheels nearly as tall as he was—and there were several panels open, revealing the retraction mechanisms and internal structure. A diagnostic tablet and several tools were sitting on a workbench that had been pulled up next to it.

"This gear has been showing several power faults. I believe it's a pretty standard system, but I'm sure you'll tell me if I'm wrong." Flynn smiled.

Studying the system and the wires, Vince gave a long sigh of relief. This he could handle. This was absolutely his wheelhouse. No pun intended. "Very standard, can I get right to work?"

"Absolutely." Flynn pointed past the rear of the ship; three doors were set into the back wall of the hangar. "If you need any other tools, the supply room is that open door on the left. If there's anything else you need from me, just yell—I have to go in and have a look at the engines." That wry smile again. "If all you need is for me to stay the hell back with the engines while you get settled, that's also fine."

At least he wasn't offended, Vince supposed. He cracked his knuckles, looking over the tools already laid out. "I'll get a few things and get right to work." Time to see about fixing this mess of a first impression… he headed for the supply room, feeling relief filling him all over again. He couldn't get lost in the wiring soon enough.

"Have fun." Chuckling slightly, Flynn headed back to the boarding ramp, stopping just inside the ship's hatch and frowning. That was… certainly not what he'd been led to expect from the new electrical engineer. At all.

Here we go again…

*****

The next time the buzzer to his office went off, Keith didn't even look up from the service record he was studying. There was no reason to keep poring over this file. He was about to get his answers. But he couldn't help it…

"Enter."

The door softly swished open. Keith slowly raised his eyes from the datapad he was looking over, blinking. He knew him, all right. Or at least, he remembered him. "You're…"

The young man straightened and offered a perfect salute. "Ensign Cameron Starr, reporting, sir."

You've got to be kidding.

It came rushing back to him in an instant. He'd been on shore leave from the Vesuvius, dropping by the Academy to visit some old instructors. Captain Arleone in Personnel Management had asked if he'd give the class a talk—how could he refuse? He was one of the youngest Commanders in the Alliance, his career already being cited as an inspiration to new students. He'd gladly agreed.

Starr had been in that class. More to the point, Starr had been there after that class. When Sky Marshal Wade's daughter, apparently a little too impressed, had grabbed Keith and kissed him out of nowhere… which in itself would have been an awkward embarrassment. Add the Sky Marshal walking in right then to pick up his daughter for lunch, and the next thing he knew he'd been off the Vesuvius and awaiting his fate at the hands of politicians.

And here he was.

With some effort, Keith shook himself from the memory. "Well, now I remember where I've seen you before."

Starr blinked. "You remember me?"

"Hard to forget, considering the circumstances." He set his datapad aside and exhaled. "So, Mr. Starr, why did you request my command? Most people wouldn't request an Explorer Team assignment, especially not with your qualifications. And I would think, after the last time we saw each other, I wouldn't be a very good role model."

"Not a good role model?" the new comms officer repeated, dumbfounded. "Sir, the talk you gave was amazing. I'd never heard anything like it." He paused a moment, frowning. "…Also, Jenna was an idiot."

Keith studied him carefully. Maybe it had been a good talk—he didn't remember much of it, considering what had happened afterwards. A good talk still didn't seem like enough. "You understand you're only raising more questions. What did I say that makes a promising young officer request an Explorer Team? I'm pretty sure that's the opposite of what Captain Arleone intended."

"Probably, sir." Starr shuffled his feet a little. "Um, it's just… I've got this family tradition, you know? There's been a cosmonaut or Alliance naval officer in my family almost nonstop since the 1960s." Keith's eyes widened, that was quite the pedigree. "I heard all this stuff about the family legacy growing up, then all my Academy instructors were all about ambition and doing what's best for my career. Then you went up there and talked about tradition and honor and duty and it just… it really hit home. So I was waiting to ask you some questions, but after Jenna, well…" He shrugged sheepishly. "I looked up all I could about you instead. Your records, your dedication, doing things the right way—you even earned a Crystal Spur! I just… wanted to serve under someone like that, sir. So here I am."

Blushing at the praise, Keith suddenly had a realization. My god, Kleid was right. He kind of is a Crystal Spur fanboy. Maybe he'd keep that to himself. "I see. Well then, welcome to the—"

He was cut off by the door bursting open, and a dark-haired kid in a rumpled Aerospace Division uniform barged into the room. He was wearing the single stripe of an aerospace cadet—distinct from an Academy cadet—and skidded to a halt as if he'd run the whole way here. "Brennan reporti…" That was when he seemed to notice there was one more person than expected in the room, and he trailed off with a sheepish grin.

"Um…" Cam eyed the intruder, but wasn't sure how to proceed.

"Uh… hello?" Keith seemed to have the same issue, but recovered much quicker. "Do you know how to knock, cadet?"

"Yeah…" Daniel made a face. He knew how to knock, he just… forgot sometimes. This is what you get for being early.

Keith looked between the two kids and sighed. He was pretty sure he knew who the cadet was, but it didn't hurt to double check. "I'm guessing you're Brennan?"

Daniel coached himself for a moment before answering. Be respectful. Be respectful. "If not, I'm not sure why I said 'Brennan reporting.'" That was totally respectful.

"…Right." Keith sighed. Definitely Brennan. Maybe if the cadet hadn't barged in like that, he would've actually heard the first introduction. "Well, the two of you are both bridge crew. So, since you're both here…" Keith trailed off as Daniel sat in the chair on the opposite side of his desk, smiling at him.

Though the commander didn't react immediately, Cam did. "Dude, you don't sit when your commander hasn't invited you to."

Daniel blinked. "Who the fuck are you?" Who did this kid think he was? The bar on his uniform was that of an ensign, the naval equivalent to an aerospace cadet. Screw that. He barely tolerated being scolded by superiors, he definitely wasn't going to take it from someone of equal rank.

"Especially when you're first reporting, and especially when it's someone like Commander Kogane," Cam continued as if he hadn't heard him.

"Oh god." Daniel couldn't tell if this kid was dishing out some cringy ass kissing, or if he was just a fanboy. Neither of those options impressed him much.

Before he could say anything else, his earlier question finally caught up to Cam. He narrowed his eyes. "I'm Ensign Starr."

"Daniel." He gave a small wave as he introduced himself.

Keith had been grimacing throughout the exchange. This didn't bode well for bridge crew efficiency. Maybe he should at least make an actual proper introduction, seeing as these two obviously didn't know how. "Yes, he's Ensign Cameron Starr. Starr, this is Cadet Daniel Brennan."

Cam looked between Brennan and the commander, scowling slightly. There was still a disrespectful smirk on the cadet's face, and he didn't like it. "Dude, you're crazy. Show the Commander some respect." How someone could disrespect protocol so blatantly was completely beyond him.

"And you're a kiss ass. That's a whole other kind of crazy," Daniel snapped back. Fanboy needed to chill.

"Excuse me?!" Cam growled. Who did this guy think he was?

"Are you deaf too?" Daniel had never understood that. Why did people always say 'Excuse me?' as if they hadn't heard him? It was clear they definitely had heard him.

"Boys, enough." Keith sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, a little frustrated with how this was going. Time to regain control. "As I was saying, you're both on bridge crew, which means you both report directly to me. Mind your manners and your language."

"Yes sir. Apologies, sir." Cam blushed, embarrassed by his behavior. The new arrival had just been so infuriating.

Daniel raised an eyebrow at Cam's blush before responding. "Yeah… real sorry." He wasn't, but oh well. With this guy, he was sure he'd be apologizing for lots of things he wasn't sorry for.

His insincerity wasn't at all lost on Keith; it was obvious how he'd gotten this assignment. "However, Mr. Starr is right. I didn't give you permission to sit, Mr. Brennan."

Mr. Brennan. Daniel rolled his eyes. He was one of those, great. "Noted."

Keith's eyes narrowed at his attitude, but for now he decided to let it go. Pick your battles. He's going to drive me to drink. "Regardless, I believe we're done here. You'll both report to the ship by 0800 tomorrow morning. Hangar L4-West."

"Yes sir," Cam said immediately.

"Sounds good." Daniel went back to smirking. "Won't be early this time. Promise. See you tomorrow, um…" He trailed off, realizing he'd forgotten the fanboy's name. "Fanboy."

Keith just wanted them to leave before starting up again. "Good. Dismissed."

Cam saluted and glared at Daniel as he left. Daniel just smirked and rolled his eyes at the glare, then shot Keith a mock salute before walking out. This was going to be a fun assignment.

*****

Pidge was nervous. He wasn't about to admit to being nervous, but he was nervous nonetheless.

Faraday had been called away soon after he'd left Commander Kogane's office. Suboptimal. He didn't generally like her staring over his shoulder, but he wasn't sure he liked her being gone for this, either. Going to a new assignment always felt a bit like… what was that game his old groupmates had joked about? Rushing roulette? Russian roll it? Something like that. He would just have to do his best and hope it was sufficient, which…

…Well, he'd been told there was a first time for everything.

The bay door of Hangar L4-West was open, revealing a ship that reminded him of a huge silver streamray. Only one person was immediately visible, working on the landing gear. He looked human—black hair, dark brown skin, unremarkable build—and did not seem to be at all aware someone was coming up behind him as he crouched next to an access panel.

To be fair, sneaking up on people was a talent of Pidge's. Much more so than interacting with them.

He stopped a few feet away from the other specialist, waited a moment to see if he'd been noticed, then spoke up. Quietly, so as not to startle him too much—that lecture had been drilled into him thoroughly. "Hey."

Nothing. Not even a twitch.

Humans. Fine. "HEY."

The voice snapped Vince out of his focus and he jumped, turning to see… what now? There was a rather angry face glowering down at him through slightly tinted glasses. "Um…?" He straightened, noting with a little detachment that someone here was finally shorter than him. In fact the stranger was very small, and looked a little too young not to belong at the Academy…

"I'm looking for Lieutenant Commander Kleid," he said with barely concealed irritation.

Vince was a bit irritated too, to be honest. He hated being interrupted. But he tried to push it aside… this must be the other guy Flynn mentioned. What had his name been? "Are you, uh, Stokes?"

The intruder did not seem sure how to respond to that. Finally he muttered, "None of your business."

"Uh…" It had been a yes or no question! "What?"

"Would you just…" Angry Kid paused, crossing his arms and scowling. "Would you please just tell me where to find the Lieutenant Commander."

There were probably opsec protocols here, but they were on the Garrison grounds, and letting Flynn deal with this guy sounded wonderful. "Oh, he's uh… with the engines. He said to just yell if I needed him."

Angry Kid didn't move. "So… yell?" he said impatiently after they stared at each other for a few more moments.

Why don't you yell? crossed Vince's mind, but it didn't seem like the correct way to deal with this. Who is this guy? Taking a deep breath, he turned to the boarding ramp and gave it the best he had. "FLYNNNNN!"

The other guy sprang back, eyes wide. "Komora sa kye?!" There was suddenly a knife in his hand. Vince hadn't even seen him draw it. But he saw the dark glint of the blade, felt adrenaline surging… the wire he was holding crackled and sparked violently, and he dropped it with a startled yell.

On the upside, the burst of lightning backed Angry Kid off more. On the downside, he'd been on this job maybe fifteen minutes and was already causing explosions. For another very long few seconds, they glared at each other through the faint ozone haze. What is wrong with this guy?

Evidently he wasn't the only one wondering that. "What was that for?"

"You're asking me?" Vince pointed to the knife. "What's that for?"

"It's a knife," the stranger answered immediately, dropping into a clear defensive stance. "It's for cutting things. Or stabbing, if necessary." His eyes flickered down to the burnt wire. "What the hell is your problem?"

"My problem?" Vince's jaw dropped. "Me?!" Angry Kid just kept glaring, and there was still no sign of the chief engineer. "If I yell for Flynn again you aren't going to stab me, are you?"

"If you—" He trailed off, staring blankly for a moment. "…Since when do humans take things so literally?"

"You said to yell!"

"Jalekya…"

Oh, now that wasn't nice… whatever it was. Vince frowned at him, eyes darting back to the knife, debating on whether he should really yell again or not; that answer had not been a no.

Flynn had actually heard the first yell, the Vagrant was just a large ship. As he reached the boarding ramp he heard an unfamiliar voice snarling an unfamiliar word in a decidedly hostile tone; that seemed less than ideal. He jumped off the side of the ramp and turned to see…

Faex. "Drop it!"

Oh thank god. Vince would never have imagined the sight of Flynn—let alone Flynn looking furious and holding a very scary-looking firearm—could fill him with the kind of relief it did right then. He caught his eye, trying with all his might to get help! across without speaking it, and got a barely perceptible nod in response.

Angry Kid did not drop the knife. He did calmly return it to its sheath as he turned, seeming neither startled nor particularly bothered by the large man with a large gun pointed at him. "Lieutenant Commander Kleid?"

"…Yes," he answered warily, lowering his gun… slightly. The stranger's nonchalance was unsettling. "Who exactly are you, and why are you threatening my electrical engineer?"

In response he drew up straight, saluting as though he hadn't just pulled a knife on Flynn's electrical engineer. "Specialist Stoker reporting, sir."

Vince blinked. Seriously? Okay, so he wasn't Stokes—but it seemed like he could have just said that earlier…

Flynn seemed to share his disbelief; it took him several long seconds to get words out. Finally he gestured to the back wall. "My office is on the right," he said icily. "Go and wait."

"Yessir." Stoker nodded calmly and brushed by Vince without another word.

That… had seemed way too easy. Flynn stared after him until the office door closed, then turned to look at Vince, who still looked stunned and slightly terrified. Understandable. Maybe this was the military, but having a crewmate pull a weapon on you in the hangar was rather outside the normal realm of expectation.

Then again, based on Stoker's file, maybe it should have been more expected.

Holstering his gun, he took a cautious step towards Vince. "Are you alright? What happened?"

Neither of those questions had easy answers right now; Vince opened his mouth and let out a couple of ragged squeaks before actual words came forth. "I'm in one piece, and uh, I don't know."

"You don't know why our systems analyst just pulled a knife on you?" He sighed, looking at the door again. "Honestly sounds about right."

"He said he wanted you, and I said you said to yell for you, and he said to yell. So I did. And he pulled the knife, and uh, well, full disclosure, the wire I was holding sparked."

…Oh. And here they were with the other problem. Flynn looked down at the wire, which was still smoking a bit, and the diagnostic screen it had landed on, which was bearing a quite large scorch mark. "Yes, yes it did." Looking between Vince and the door where Stoker had vanished, he shook his head in bewilderment. "Does the Academy not teach anger management anymore?"

"I've had a few lectures on it," Vince grumbled, feeling heat rush to his ears. It's just never really the problem.

Flynn studied him for a moment, then picked up the diagnostic tablet and rubbed the soot off with his sleeve before handing it back. "I'd better go deal with him… going to be alright here? That middle door is a break room if you need a few minutes, there are decent couches."

Though he appreciated the offer, a break was the last thing Vince wanted right now. Wiring calmed him. Thinking about stabby crewmates did not. "I'd rather just get back to the work."

"Okay." Flynn patted his shoulder; he seemed much less scary now. "I'll be back sooner or later."

Nodding, Vince watched him go before turning back to the landing gear. Better him than me.

*****

Cam was at the gym; he'd needed to blow off some steam. That… that Brennan guy had completely ruined his first impression. Barging in like that, really? He sighed, trying not to think about that brat anymore. The treadmill had done a pretty good job of helping him work through his annoyance. He'd taken a short rinse and now it was time for nice relaxing steam. Pushing on the door to the sauna, Cam smiled. This was just what he needed.

His smile disappeared almost as soon as it appeared.

Sitting in the corner of the room was none other than Brennan. Of course he was here. The universe was obviously punishing him for… well, for something. They made awkward eye contact for a minute before Cam decided that he wasn't going to let him ruin his steam too, and sat down on the opposite side of the room. He pointedly ignored his new crewmate; it would be good practice for the future.

Daniel, on the other hand, wasn't interested in being ignored. All he could focus on was the awkward silence. He wasn't a fan of silence in general, but awkward silence was the worst. It didn't last very long before he had to say something. "So, uh… you got the hots for Kogane or something?" It was an honest question, considering how he'd fanboyed earlier.

"What?! I am not—I don't—I'm not even gay! And certainly not for a superior officer!" Cam protested. Daniel smirked.

"Too bad, you're kind of hot. But for not being gay you sure did fawn over his ass in there."

Cam chose to just ignore the first part of that. "I admire him, okay? He's a good officer, and a good man, and if it weren't for… stuff… he'd still be at the top of the list when instructors are suggesting role models. Am I supposed to not look up to him?"

Of course that's all there is to it. Daniel rolled his eyes."Oh you're supposed to look up to him, I've heard all about it. More than once." Many of his professors had tried that shit. They'd told their classes to model themselves after a few different officers. Kogane had been one of them, but he'd never met the guy before today. "Didn't know anyone actually did it."

Nodding earnestly, Cam continued, either missing or ignoring his sarcasm. "He was one of the youngest Commanders in the Alliance! And then that stupid bitch…" He fell silent, cheeks going bright red.

Oh? "Ooooh, we gonna gossip? What'd the stupid bitch do? And which stupid bitch? There's a whole lot of them around here." Maybe he's not a completely lame fanboy.

"What? We can't gossip about our commander!" Cam shook his head. "It's against protocol."

Sigh. Nope, he was back to being a lame fanboy. Hot, but lame. But calling people stupid bitches was against protocol too, so maybe there was hope if he just pushed a little harder. "You're on an Explorer Team, dude. You can bend protocol a little. Hell, it's probably expected. Now spill."

"I don't like you much, just so you know." Cam glared.

"Really? Between the glaring and the scoldings I would've thought we were best friends," Daniel retorted, rolling his eyes. Then he sighed. He was doing it again. That thing where he'd be a complete ass and people, for whatever reason, wouldn't want to be his friend. It hadn't taken long at all.

Cam sighed too. Brennan was an ass, but they were going to be working together. A little bonding couldn't hurt. Hopefully.

"Okay, fine. Commander Kogane came to my Personnel Management class and gave a talk. I was really impressed, so I stayed after class to ask him some questions. But one of my classmates, Jenna—Jenna Wade, she's Sky Marshal Wade's daughter. She was always a bully who thought she could get away with anything." Cam's tone dripped bitterness. He'd met a few others like her; children of high officers who thought they were entitled to just coast through the Academy. He couldn't comprehend it, and he'd have matched his heritage against any of them. "She grabbed the Commander and kissed him right there in front of everyone… including the Sky Marshal standing in the doorway, it turned out."

"Wow…" Daniel winced. "Never met that particular stupid bitch. Met her dad though." His voice dripped with sarcasm. "Nice guy." They had in fact met more than once; the contempt was deep and mutual.

"Oh yeah. Great guy. The look on his face, I thought he was going to have heart failure."

"Too bad he didn't." Daniel paused a moment before smirking. "That explains how Kogane got this job. How'd you get kicked here?"

Cam took a moment to reply; he knew exactly how this was going to go over. "I… like I said, I admire him. I read up on his career and thought he's the kind of commander I wanted to learn from, even if it is on an Explorer Team."

Oh for…Daniel wasn't sure if he should laugh or roll his eyes. "You asked to be here?"

"Yeah, I did."

He probably shouldn't have been surprised, but he was. "You may not be gay, but you totally have a thing for that guy."

Glare. "You're horrible, Brennan."

"And that's why I got this assignment!" Daniel had been trying for a laugh, maybe even a smile. He got neither.

"…You're proud of that aren't you?" Cam asked after a few moments.

"Well, yeah. I don't fit military standards, but I'm too good to throw away." Those hadn't been the exact words used by his professors or the Commodore, but that had been the gist of it. "That's like a badge of honor." Daniel smiled, but Cam just rolled his eyes

"You're crazy."

"I think you've mentioned that before."

"Well it needed repeating."

"Probably." Alright, maybe the guy really wasn't all that bad. The fanboy thing would definitely need to be worked on, but he seemed scrappy. Daniel could work with scrappy.

"So, if you're such a runty brat with obvious issues with authority…" Between his behavior in the Commander's office and, well, his mouth, him not being a fan of authority hadn't been a big jump in logic. "…why the hell did you join up in the first place?"

"A runty—a what?!" Daniel had heard the question, but he was more concerned with the 'runty brat' part. What did that even mean? Was he being called small? He was taller than the fanboy was!

Cam eyed him slyly. "I didn't stutter. Maybe you should see a doctor and get your ears cleaned out? Could be part of your problem…"

Huh. That was actually a semi-impressive insult. "And here I thought you were just a fanboy with no redeeming qualities." Smirk. "I joined for the action. Mainly flying, but I guess there weren't any Explorer Teams needing a fighter pilot. Shooting is fun too."

Cam made another small but accurate jump in logic. "So adrenaline junkie."

"I prefer the term daredevil," Daniel corrected. Adrenaline junkie made him sound like, well, a junkie. "And what about you? Why'd you join? I'm assuming being Kogane's ultimate fan wasn't the initial goal?"

"…Would you stop? I just admire him! Maybe you should stop mocking and try learning from him too, you could sure use it."

Sigh. If they were going to get along he was going to have to nip that in the butt. "Alright, that's it. I'm declaring your love for Kogane a no-no topic."

"I don't love him!" Cam snapped. "For crying out loud, I just—"

"—Ah! Ah!" Daniel wagged his finger at him. "What'd I say?"

"Know what, fine." He pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled deeply. "You stop calling me fanboy, I'll stop defending myself with why he's worth looking up to, deal?"

"Deal. Now answer the question. Why'd you join the military?"

That topic could probably get him in trouble too; he doubted Daniel cared much about history. "Family tradition. Plus I needed off the moon."

Daniel's eyes widened slightly. Maybe he really was kind of interesting. "You grew up on the moon? That's pretty cool, dude."

"Yeah. Bazadva. Base Two." Cam didn't sound nearly so enthused. The moon had a certain mystique about it, to people who didn't live there. The original colonies had been kept almost fully intact. No domes, no terraforming, just a living relic being preserved for posterity. "There is nothing to do up there. My Granny raised me, she was Russian… very Russian. If I hadn't gone into the military I'd just be on a nonstop vodka bender."

"Yeah? My grandma's Korean. Hates me." Well really she hated his father—totally understandable—and him by association—not as understandable. Oh well. "And I don't care how boring the moon is, it has to be way cooler than Utah. Nothing but suburb-filled desert." He smirked. "Vodka wasn't my thing though. Breaking into abandoned warehouses and blowing shit up was more my style."

Cam just stared at him, again. "And you're back to showing that you're insane."

"I was bumped straight to an Explorer Team for a reason, y'know."

"Obviously." The steam, and this conversation, had done all it could for him. He stood up, hand on his towel to make sure it was secure. If it fell he was certain he'd never live it down. "Guess I'll, uh, see you around. Weird runty brat."

Daniel groaned, annoyed. "And by 'around' do you mean tomorrow at 0800? …And stop calling me that! What does that even mean?" He better not be calling me small.

"You don't want to know." Cam grinned. "Later, brat."

"Whatever man."

Cam hightailed it out of there at full speed. Just like always. He wasn't running from his new crewmate. Of course he wasn't.

Watching him disappear, Daniel just shook his head, snickering. They were going to get along just fine.

*****

Flynn had never seen much use in having an office. The bay was his domain, he didn't need a damn desk to sit and be bored at. All he'd even bothered to bring into this one was a heap of technical manuals and a neon OPEN sign that he may or may not have stolen from the Garrison Grill on a drunken bet. It wasn't exactly going to lend a lot of gravity to the situation, but it was what he had.

Stoker was sitting in the chair across from the desk, his knees drawn to his chest, staring quietly at the floor. His green eyes flickered up as Flynn entered, and he met them icily.

"You're off to a hell of a start," he scowled, closing the door behind him. "I've read your file, I know how you earned your slot here, and I know Kogane's talked to you because I got a message from him and all it said was 'good luck'. So let's get something straight here: I don't care what you want to do in bar fights, but stabbing is not acceptable conflict resolution in my engine bay. Are we clear?"

He expected hostility, and quite possibly a knife. Everything in Stoker's file, let alone his introduction, said that would be the case. Instead the young man shrank back slightly, lowering his eyes back to the floor. "Yessir. It was a misunderstanding."

A misunderstanding?

There were several things Flynn wanted to say about that, but he bit them all back. The kid—at this moment he suddenly looked very much like a kid—seemed completely sincere. No sense pushing until he got the expected hostility; he'd take this.

Figuring out how the hell that had been a misunderstanding seemed like a priority, though. "Explain."

Stoker nodded without hesitation, speaking in a quietly clinical tone. "I asked him where to find you. He said he could yell for you. I didn't expect him to mean literal yelling, and reacted poorly." Frown. "Then he set off sparks, which seemed wholly unnecessary."

How two identical stories could barely resemble each other, depending on the speaker, was fascinating. "You didn't think pulling a knife on him might also be wholly unnecessary?"

"Yessir. It was an overreaction." He looked back at the floor for a few moments. Somehow he seemed more focused than chastised, as if he were trying to remember something. "Do I need to apologize?"

"…That would be the best course of action, I think." What the hell?

Almost as soon as he'd said it, Stoker stood and turned to the door. Then he paused. "Should I do it now?"

Flynn rather doubted Vince would want to see him right now, but putting it off didn't seem likely to be productive. Maybe it would settle things down. "Best you do."

Nodding, the young man slipped out the door without another word. No way in hell was he going out there alone. Following a little behind the new wrenchling, he found his hand wanting to go to his sidearm, just in case… he resisted the urge. If he could not need to pull a gun on a subordinate again, that would be ideal.

Sure enough, Vince did not look thrilled to have Stoker turn up again; he gave Flynn a mildly betrayed look. Stoker ignored the tension. "I came to apologize for the knife," he muttered as it became evident Vince wouldn't speak first. "My name's Pidge." He gave a short nod of greeting.

It was all Vince could do not to let his jaw drop. Um… what was he supposed to say to that? The absence of the word sorry wasn't lost on him, but did he point it out? No, no. His mothers had raised him to be a gentleman. "I accept your apology," he said a little stiffly, then attempted a smile. "I'm Vince. Sorry about the sparks."

Pidge just nodded. Was that an acceptance? That was probably an acceptance…

"Can you two manage to not kill each other?" Flynn asked, looking warily between them. He still had to decide whether he was going to second waiving Stoker's probation or not, and clearly that decision would take some time.

"Wait, each other? …Uh, I mean, sure."

"I'm just here to do a job, sir."

…That was probably the best he could hope for right now.

*****

"You will be the last to enter, and expected to address the hall. Whatever greeting is customary for your people will be appropriate. Remember that you are an honored guest here, and have nothing to fear."

Romelle nodded as Kalindra ran her through the etiquette primer one more time. Earlier she'd focused on every detail. Now she was mostly asking for the familiarity… something, however slight, to ease her nerves. She had been self-conscious since she'd arrived, and now—standing just outside the banquet hall, waiting for the page to announce her—she felt very underdressed.

Truthfully, the skimpy outfit was not quite as unpleasant as she'd expected. It was surprisingly comfortable, the fabric feather-soft, the gold accents and strings of crystal separated from her skin by silky gauze. She certainly would not be comfortable wearing this in front of her family, but at least the discomfort wouldn't be physical… perhaps it really was some kind of Drule tradition.

The announcement seemed to come far too quickly. "Presenting Her Royal Highness, Princess Romelle of the House of Lachesis of Pollux."

No turning back now. I am a princess of Pollux. My dignity is not to be questioned.

Romelle squared her shoulders and held her head high as she walked into the room. She saw the upset looks on her father and brothers' faces, and the glance King Zarkon shot his son upon seeing her—perhaps he didn't approve either. However, the look on the Prince's face made her shiver.

Stopping before the head table, Romelle curtsied. "King Zarkon. Prince Lotor. Father.  Brothers. Guests. It is a pleasure and honor to be here with you this evening."

Zarkon rose to his feet. "Princess Romelle, we welcome you to our world, and soon to our family. Please, child, rise and join us."

Romelle rose and nodded her head. "Thank you, Your Majesty. It would be my honor to join you."

Zarkon held a hand out to her, waving her around the table to the open seat between him and Lotor. Her father and brothers were seated on the other side of the king. Avok, her oldest brother, was whispering furiously into her father's ear, who slowly held his hand up to silence him.

Romelle moved to the empty seat and Lotor stood, pulling the chair out for her. "Thank you, Your Highness," she murmured politely.

"You're welcome." He leaned closer to her and whispered directly into her ear. "You look ravishing."

She blushed. At least someone was appreciative of her attire? "Um… thank you, Your Highness."

He responded with a smile that bared brilliantly white teeth and glinting fangs. Immediately she had to fight down a flinch; it looked so predatory, but then, the Drules had fangs. They couldn't very well smile without showing them, could they? What else could she expect?

Lotor stroked her hair, then took his seat and lifted her hand, kissing it. It would be very rude to shiver, skimpy clothes or not… the heat in her cheeks was spreading to most of her face, anyway. The prince released her hand after a moment, and his gaze turned to his father, who was still standing and clearing his throat for attention. Which couldn't possibly have been heard throughout the hall… it seemed directed quite specifically at one prince.

"Friends and subjects, we are here for two important celebrations. We welcome the planet Pollux as valued allies of the Ninth Kingdom. A toast first to their wisdom, and a glorious future together!"

Voices rang throughout the hall. "To the wisdom of Pollux!" Romelle didn't raise her glass—she knew that would be a breach of protocol, being after all a subject of the toast—but it made her feel all the more conspicuous as everyone around her toasted and drank.

Zarkon smiled as the goblets clinked down, a smile somehow much less disturbing than his son's. "And now, my subjects, I ask you all to formally welcome the avatar of our alliance. Princess Romelle, the first a'kuri of my first and only son, who shall soon be an honored Princess of Korrinoth and our kingdom."

Now she felt even more self-conscious, as more cheers rang out through the hall. "To Romelle, a'kuri of Lotor! Long may she stand at his side!"

That word again. Romelle was much more confident in her fluency in Drakure than she was in either her clothing or her impending courtship, but some nuances escaped her. Swallowing hard and gathering her courage, she looked to Lotor. "Your Highness, if I may… what is an a'kuri?"

He set his glass down and raised an eyebrow, then smiled again. "You must feel free to ask me anything, Princess. A'kuri is the title of honor for one being courted."

Feeling free to ask him things was out of the question, but she did relax slightly. "Thank you," she murmured, and took a drink of her water to give herself an excuse to look away.

A first course was being served now, delivered by servants in fine vestments: some kind of pale, pulpy fruit drenched in a rich red sauce, sprinkled with… something else red and unidentifiable. Romelle had never seen anything like it. Her first bites were tentative, but she was again surprised to find it quite tasty.

"Meskotha," Zarkon commented beside her, and she jumped slightly. "A delicacy from our ancestral homeworld. Eating meskotha signifies the beginning of a great journey, and brings fortune to the endeavor. Do you like it?"

"It is delicious," she said softly, but truthfully. And I can use all the fortune I can get.

Once the fruit was done, servants brought water and wine around. Lotor took a long drink of his water, then looked at her. "Come with me, Princess. The most auspicious time to formally begin our courtship is immediately after the meskotha is eaten." This time when he bared his fangs she had no doubt it was predatory. "It's just a small ceremony."

A small ceremony. How bad could that be? She nodded and went to stand—he motioned for her to stop, then rose and pulled out the chair for her. Unsettling as he was, at least he was courteous… she would get used to his mannerisms in time. Wouldn't she?

The banquet hall was arranged around a raised stage. A hush fell over the guests as they approached it, and Romelle braced herself. She'd already been up in front of this crowd once. She could certainly do it again. Lotor extended his hand to help her up the steps, and she accepted with a slight blush.

That blush became much less slight as he pulled her forward and caught her in a deep, hungry kiss.

A small ceremony?!

Reflex was screaming for her to push him away. She might have even made a halfhearted attempt at it—he didn't react, but drew back a moment later. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her brothers looking stunned, her father grimly resigned. Bandor, her younger brother, looked away, and Avok turned to reassure him.

Lotor's voice drew her full attention back to him. "The first gift of many," he murmured, tracing his hand up her arm. "Did it please you?"

Her blush wasn't going anywhere, especially not when his fingers started playing with one of the fastenings on her shoulder. She'd never been kissed like that before, and this didn't seem like the place to try to figure out whether she'd actually liked it. Only one answer was acceptable here. "I… am honored, Your Highness."

He smirked slightly. She felt the fastening he'd been toying with give way, letting one string of crystal slide down her shoulder. "I could honor you further," he offered, moving on to another clasp. "We could fully consummate our alliance here and now, before the eyes of all."

What?! That didn't sound like a small ceremony in the least. No. You must be strong. For Pollux… she fought down the screaming desire to push him away and flee. There was nowhere to go, and no doubt she wouldn't pay the price alone. "If… if that is your custom, Your Highness…"

A flutter of gauze fell away, and he leaned forward to kiss her bare shoulder. "A ruler creates his own customs, dear a'kuri. Come, let us set a new tradition in motion today…"

She shivered as his lips touched her; she definitely didn't like that. Especially not here, not now, not like this… her eyes flickered up to the main table again. King Zarkon's eyes were narrowed in cold focus. Avok looked about ready to leap from his seat, while Bandor looked like he wanted to run away as badly as she did.

Her father's gaze was locked on his plate, and she gave him a smoldering glare of betrayal. You sentence me to this and won't even look me in the eye? For half a second, she lost sight of everything but fury. Then Lotor's hand went to her breast, and all hell broke loose.

*****

It had been coming on since Romelle had first entered the room in that ridiculous dress—dress was too generous, really. King Kova had been trying more and more desperately to keep his elder son under control, to not ruin the alliance with his temper. But some things couldn't be tolerated.

This treatment of Romelle was one of those things. In front of so many people, including her little brother? All the worse.

Avok himself wasn't certain whether the last straw was his sister's accusing look, Lotor's hands on her, or Bandor biting his lip and flinching away. Perhaps all of the above. Either way he was out of his seat before he knew it, hand on the hilt of his sword. "Enough! We were promised an alliance, not abuse and humiliation!"

His father grabbed his arm. "Avok, sit—"

"—No, Father. This was not the agreement!"

King Zarkon barely even reacted; one of his eyebrow ridges arched in a way that might have been skeptical, approving, or anything in between. He was difficult to read. His son, on the other hand, was not. He released Romelle and turned, placing a hand on his own sword with a scowl. "Insulting your hosts is a poor beginning to a working relationship."

"As is insulting your guests!" He vaulted over the banquet table without so much as knocking over a single glass, glowering up at the stage. "If you wish to make a vassal of Pollux you must earn it. Draw your sword!"

Lotor slowly looked him up and down, then nodded and turned to Romelle. If he'd touched her again Avok was sure he'd have lunged. But instead he calmly refastened her sleeve and murmured something to her; the low buzz of the other guests drowned it out, but she immediately rushed off the stage with a look of intense gratitude. Then he turned to him again. "Will you duel me for the honor of your sister and planet, Prince Avok? Come, then. I welcome it."

Avok stepped up to the stage, his eyes narrowed. "I will face you in any challenge, Prince Lotor."

The Drule prince sneered. "A battle to the death? We'll see just how—"

"—Lotor." King Zarkon scowled, slightly. "You are both royal heirs, and you will behave as such… and there is no need to so offend either Kusand or our new allies. A battle to the blood will suffice."

Though he'd known that was coming—Kusand, the god of hospitality, would certainly not care much for killing someone at a banquet being held in their honor—Lotor couldn't quite keep the annoyance from his tone. "Yes, Father." This Avok was large and strong and moved like a skilled hunter; fighting him to the death would be such fun. He drew his blade, flashing in the light. "To the blood, then."

The Polluxian drew his own sword. It was a dull gray, in contrast to the nearly glowing silver of Lotor's ceremonial blade. A weapon that had seen time and blood and battle. He respected it… immediately he lunged, trying to catch the other prince off guard, only to be easily parried.

Avok pushed him back and withdrew, his cloak billowing as he whirled around. The move reminded Lotor somewhat of a mongoose—that half-conscious thought made him halt in his second lunge, and Avok's worn blade arced just in front of his nose.

Baring his fangs in a genuine smile, Lotor stepped back and took a more defensive posture. This was enjoyable. Few opponents ever forced him to change his tactics. Almost immediately the Polluxian prince was bearing down on him, in a series of short slashes that were easy enough to block. He recognized them immediately. They weren't supposed to land, just to bait him into giving up an opening. Grinning, he parried just enough to keep Avok complacent, then feinted and lashed out with a strike that nearly caught his ribs.

A soft gasp that might have been Romelle caught his attention. Avok's, too, if the way his eyes narrowed was any indication; he wasn't enjoying this nearly as much as Lotor was. A shame, really. Maybe he'd come around in time.

All Avok wanted to do was end this as quickly as possible, but the Drule prince was skilled. For a moment he considered the possibility that he might lose this challenge. What would happen to Romelle then? What would happen to Pollux then?

No. Unacceptable. He gathered his wits a moment. Lotor had read his strikes before, and made it look so simple… he could use that. Launching into another series of very similar strikes, he met the other prince's eyes.

Oh, yes. Lotor knew what he was doing. Avok knew Lotor knew what he was doing. The only question was which of them would make the first move… but it wasn't a question. If Lotor was as good as Avok thought he was, he would move, and sooner than he had the last time.

Let him.

If he hadn't been anticipating it, the strike would have taken his blood and his hand. But he'd been waiting. Ready. As Lotor parried and moved in beneath his guard, he spun away and countered. There was momentary resistance, the tip of his blade catching either cloth or flesh, then Lotor was on him with his sword at his throat.

Both froze, staring at each other. Avok's eyes flickered to his blade for an instant. The slightest trickle of thick bluish blood was running down it from a scratch on the Drule's cheek.

Lotor grinned. "You're certain you don't want to fight to the death?"

Avok snarled. "I've defeated you fairly, according to your rules. Let my sister be."

"Oh, she's been safe since you challenged me. But I'm enjoying having a worthy opponent. Second blood, perhaps?"

A sharp clap interrupted them. Then another. King Zarkon was standing, slowly applauding as he looked over the combatants. "Very good, Prince Avok." He bared his fangs in an odd smirk. "Your strength is clear, and requires no more demonstration."

Lotor sighed, but grudgingly sheathed his blade. "Allies who cower prove themselves unworthy. Those who fight prove worthy of honor." He stepped down from the stage and knelt before Romelle, who visibly struggled not to back away as he took her hand and kissed it. "My apologies, my dear a'kuri. The test was necessary."

"Indeed. And instructive." Zarkon eyed Kova in a way that very much seemed to be asking why he hadn't stood up for Romelle; the king grimaced, while Bandor again flinched away at his side. "A new toast, my subjects, to honor Prince Avok and Pollux!" He raised his glass.

Immediately dozens of jewel-encrusted goblets rose up once more, catching the light, filling the banquet hall with flashes of brilliant color. "Honor to Prince Avok! Honor to Pollux!"

It could have been very gratifying… but the whole display only sent shivers down Avok's spine.

"That was a test?" he muttered under his breath as he took his seat. "A test? They would have humiliated Romelle before everyone here for a test? Barbaric."

"Hush," his father hissed back. "Don't ruin the goodwill you've won, or who knows what they might do?"

Who knows indeed? Avok went to sip his own wine, smelled something deep and coppery, and decided to drink water instead. And we're still going to leave her here with them? What happens when they want more? Will they take Bandor? Mother? How much more will we give up for this 'alliance'?

Servants were bringing the feast out now, making a point of bowing to him each time they passed the Polluxian delegation. Glancing down the table, he could see them treating Romelle with similar deference. It was all very impressive, and only served to make his skin crawl more.

What have we gotten ourselves into?

Chapter Text

The Jupiter's Hammer was a very large spaceplane. There was a whole lot of boring technical whatever involved in that, but Jace didn't know or care about the ship's history. What he knew and cared about was that the ship had a sick bay. A wonderful, beautiful, fully provisioned sick bay, capable of hosting up to eight patients with each in their own sterile quarantine.

Better not fucking come to that. But if it does, we're ready!

What the Jupiter's Hammer was not was, well… the Jupiter's Hammer. Or at least, when Jace had arrived that morning he'd found the Hammer on the ship's nameplate crossed out in red paint, with Bolt scrawled above it. Inspiring.

He'd gotten a pretty judgmental look from their chief engineer when he'd asked why the ship needed renaming. "Because it's wrong. Vulcan had a hammer. Thor had a hammer. Jupiter did not have a hammer, Jupiter had a thunderbolt!" A memo had gone out to the team with those exact words five minutes later.

What the fuck ever made him happy, Jace supposed. Wasn't his problem.

At least Medical had finally gotten their damn act together… mostly. Jace had requested both physical and digital files. The digital files were fine. The physical ones, well… he looked at the first one and his eyes nearly rolled out of his skull.

Name: Jace Inácio Cardoso Gregory
Species: H. sapiens
Age: 22 (1/9/2394)
Height: 5'9"
Weight: 181
Hair: Dk. Brown
Eyes: Dk. Brown
Skin: Dk. Tan
Medical History:

"I don't fucking need to read my own file," he muttered, tossing it aside. "I already know I'm allergic to stupid." But at least they were being thorough? Yeah, he'd stick with that…

Anyway, now that he had the records and an actual sick bay, he had history to discuss and pre-launch checkups to perform. Returning his attention to his datapad, he sent a note out to the others that they would be needing appointments. Preferably soon.

That's not a request. Doctor's orders.

He studied the message contemplatively, added a couple of smiley faces, and fired it off.

*****

It was early, too early. Vince was working on the Hammer—no, wait—Bolt's front landing gear and trying not to think about all the things that could go wrong with this assignment. It wasn’t going well. That was how it worked, he could fight his tendency to overthink, but it generally won… he felt wrong-footed. He’d already caused scorch marks on the equipment, it wasn’t an auspicious start.

Really he was thrown off by everything, and everyone. Lieutenant Commander Kleid seemed all right enough, but he was still intense and intimidating. Specialist Garrett was… odd, and even more intimidating to look at. He seemed friendly enough, though—maybe too friendly, which didn't help. Then there was Stoker and his knife…

Vince shivered, trying to force himself to concentrate on the wiring in front of him, and wondered if he was even going to survive this mission.

"Heads up, wrenchlings!" Flynn's yell from the entrance startled him out of his thoughts. "Got a job for you two."

"Wrenchlings?" Hunk repeated, poking his head out of the maintenance shaft. "Wait, when did we start being wrenchlings and how's come I wasn't informed?"

The chief had gone straight to the maintenance console, and didn't even look up at the question. "You've always been a wrenchling, I just didn't need to use a collective term for all one of you the last time out. Get out of there, we're going to do something crazy."

Ooh, something crazy! And with the new kid! This oughta be fun. He jumped out and grinned at Vince, who was approaching much more hesitantly, then turned his attention to the chief. "What's the plan? Big Wrenchling One is ready!"

Now Flynn did look up, and seemed to decide he wasn't brave enough to say whatever he was thinking. "…Kogane wants some extra armaments, in case we run into pirates that don't exist. Again. The brass approved upgraded missile tubes but apparently asking for a disruptor cannon was 'not a realistic requisition'." He rolled his eyes and muttered something about Command's lack of imagination, then studied the two of them. "How long will it take you two to build one?"

It was kind of gratifying how he didn't bother asking if they could, though looking at Vince, Hunk wasn't sure the kid shared that opinion. "Ain't that intensive," he shrugged. "A week or so, as long as little dude here's got the hookup know-how, and if he didn't he wouldn't be here, right?" He clapped the younger engineer on the shoulder.

That seemed to scare him more than encourage him. Okay, something to keep in mind.

"I… um… I mean it wouldn't take very long, no, the principles are pretty simple." Vince shook his head. "But they're right, it's not realistic. We wouldn't have near enough power to run a weapon like that."

Flynn smiled. "Wouldn't we?"

Vince gulped and edged back before answering. "No sir. The Vagrant-class carries next to no surplus power, it's designed for efficiency."

"Very true." The chief's smile became an outright smirk. "Unless we hook it directly to the backup generator."

"What? But that…" Vince's first objection died before he could get it out. "But what if…" Nope, that one wasn't good either. "If we…" Still nope. "That… that violates about half a dozen regulations," he finally protested weakly.

That all you got, kid? Hunk kept the chuckle to himself.

Flynn didn't. "Welcome to the Explorer Teams, Vince." He winked. "Get on with it."

*****

Name: Sven Holgersson
Species: H. sapiens
Age: 24 (9/10/2392)
Height: 5'11"
Weight: 182
Hair: Black
Eyes: Gray
Skin: Pale
Medical History:

"Your file is boring, Viking. I appreciate that."

Sven raised an eyebrow, leaning back slightly in the padded sick bay chair. "You're welcome?"

"I can't tell you the messes some of these other people have gotten into," Jace muttered, sighing and shaking his head. "Though I guess we'd better add 'susceptible to rift sickness' to your file until we can prove otherwise. About a 50/50 chance of it being a recurring issue or going away after a couple jumps."

The Viking made a face; it was the correctly uncomfortable face for the subject, in Jace's opinion. "Let's hope for the second option."

"Here's hoping." Smirk. "A navigator with rift sickness. Irony isn't dead."

"Yes… irony," Sven agreed flatly. "Very amusing." He was, without doubt, not amused.

"Could be worse. Oh hey! Before you go, got something to show you." Jace jumped out of his own chair and motioned for Sven to follow, leading him to a corner of the room. Opening a door and pushing aside a curtain revealed a sterile decontaminating shower—just one of the wonderful features of his fully equipped sick bay. "Isn't it beautiful?" he asked, miming wiping away a tear.

"…Yes it is," Sven agreed with a small laugh, eyeing the shower and shaking his head slightly. "That would've come in handy last mission."

"No kidding." Jace laughed too. "Hopefully you won't need this one, but you're the only person here I figured would appreciate it as much as I do."

Sven was very appreciative. "Yes… and hopefully." He didn't really sound optimistic.

"Hey now. That tone is uncalled for." Grinning, Jace waved him back towards the main door. "Now get outta here. I've got way worse patients to yell at."

"Yes, doctor." Also grinning, the navigator headed out.

*****

Since the midrange hangars were on a fairly isolated part of the Garrison, they were designed to be as self-sufficient as possible. That included their own sim rooms. Hangar L4-West shared a room with Hangar R4-West nextdoor, which was currently unoccupied. So Keith had free reign. He'd been there very early, setting things up, and was a little startled when Sven arrived.

Just in time.

They exchanged nods, standing side by side as they waited. And waited. And waited…

"They’re a bit late, don’t you think?" Keith crossed his arms.

The navigator eyed him, then checked his watch. "They’ve got a minute—" He paused when a blonde kid wearing an ensign's uniform came rushing in, barely on time. "There’s one."

Lance came in maybe half a minute behind him, already questioning the whole premise. "Sims, boss? Really?" It looked like Sven agreed with his questioning, but he didn’t voice it. Lance looked past him and caught sight of the ensign. Aha, new blood. For his part, Cam was visibly excited about the sims—it was his first mission, and he was ready to make the most of it.

"It’s more for the new crewmates than for you, but we do need to see how we all work together as a group," Keith answered. "Work out any issues that may arise."

"Real thing worked fine for us."

That was… a word for it. "I would have preferred to have been able to run sims with you all, too. We didn’t have that time."

"Not sure how it would've helped with the situations we ended up in, boss." Lance scratched absently at a scar left on his arm from the evil vines.

"Which is why I designed this sim myself," Keith admitted. That got him a small grin from Cam. Commander Kogane really was as thorough as advertised.

"Oh really?" Lance arched an eyebrow, looking notably less impressed.

Even Sven seemed momentarily doubtful. "This should be interesting, then." Interesting was this team's specialty. Speaking of the team… he turned towards the ensign and walked over to introduce himself. "Hello. I’m Lieutenant Sven Holgersson." He offered a hand, which the young man shook with a grin.

"We call him Viking," Lance cut in before the kid could actually speak. "I’m Lance McClain."

Cam nodded at him, giving a quick salute. "Hello, gentlemen. I’m Cameron Starr, I’m your new communications officer." He still had an eager grin on his face; Lance grinned in response, amused by his excitement. Sven smiled too, he seemed like a nice kid. "So, what do you two do?"

"I’m the navigator," Sven answered simply.

"I’m your extremely talented pilot," Lance bragged. Sven rolled his eyes fondly.

McClain did seem to have that cocky pilots' edge, Cam mused. But there was something calming about the navigator, which didn’t line up with what he’d heard about Explorer Teams. Of course, the same was true of their commander. And himself, for that matter. But then, neither of them were in jobs where half a millimeter and some complicated math were routinely the difference between success and fiery death…

"Lieutenant Holgersson, aren't navigators supposed to be… I mean, um…" He blushed, realizing a little too late that this was probably a very rude question. "…uh, you know, not… the usual temperament for an Explorer Team," he said finally.

To his relief, Sven just smiled. "No, not usually. But someone has to be the sane one around here. It's a burden I bear gladly."

"For now," Lance muttered, smirking.

Cam's pale cheeks had flushed bright red, and now the blood slowly drained away again. "You do seem very collected, sir. I apologize if I was out of line with the question, I was just curious."

"It’s alright. I didn’t mind." Sven’s eyebrows had raised a little in surprise; he wasn’t used to a member of this team being so formal. It was either a nice change of pace, or a warning sign.

"Who are we waiting on?"

"Brennan." Keith sighed. "He even promised to be late… after he burst into my office without knocking yesterday."

"Really?" Lance smirked. "Sounds like he has style."

Sven disagreed. "That’s not what that sounds like."

Cam agreed with Sven’s disagreement. "More like he needs a boot up his ass…"

As if on cue Daniel walked in with a bright smile on his face. "Sorry I’m late!" He wasn’t, but oh well. It was just a sim drill. Alliance sims sucked ass, he'd seen more than enough of them in training.

"Nice of you to join us, Mr. Brennan." Keith's tone was half scolding, half sarcastic.

And there he was with the Mr. Brennan again. Daniel made a face. "Nice to be here… I guess."

Keith ignored him and sat down at the command station. "So, shall we get this started?"

"Sooner we do, sooner it’s over," Lance responded with a shrug. And the sooner it's over, the sooner we can leave.He settled into his seat and eyed the new kids, then the boss, wondering just what he might have in store based on their last time out. Maybe this would be more interesting than the average sim.

"I’m ready here, Commander," Cam assured him as he looked over his station. It looked a bit messy, and there was a crack on one of the screens. Nothing he couldn't handle. This was his chance to impress his new team, he was ready for it. He watched his monitors carefully as they came to life.

"Yes sir." Sven sat at his station, ready to do basically nothing. Navigators didn’t usually have much of a role in simulator drills. This must’ve been how Jace felt at his battle station.

"Yeah…" Daniel sat at his station, sighing. Gunnery was fine, he supposed. He’d much rather be the pilot, but at least he got to shoot things. "Let’s get this over with. Sims are boring."

For a moment, Keith let a smug smile cross his lips. That attitude wasn't going to last.

"Contact," Cam reported abruptly as his console lit up. "Multiple unidentified ships bearing 312. Seems to be a capital ship and several smaller craft."

Here we go. Keith didn’t immediately respond. The fact that he'd designed this sim notwithstanding, in any real scenario he would need more information to make a decision. He glanced around the room. Daniel’s hand moved over the trigger, ready to shoot. The idea of action, even fake action, got his blood pumping. Lance on the other hand was fighting back a yawn.

"No IFF, no registration broadcast, no identifying markings. Probability says pirates. With… a Leyte-class carrier?" Confusion and surprise laced Cam's tone.

Lance laughed. "Yeah, that's pirates."

"You’ve… encountered them before?"

"Starr, you have no idea."

Daniel smirked as he started to track the approaching targets. "Maybe this won’t be completely boring."

"Work some magic, McClain," Keith ordered, cutting them off.

That wasn't very specific. "Orders to fly closer?" Lance asked, to clarify—he was already doing it, but it didn’t hurt to ask. It wasn't going as well as it could have, really. The huge Vagrant was much less agile than the Firecrown had been, and the sim's stick felt sluggish.

Flying closer to a carrier with a cargo ship sounded like a bad idea to Cam. He was fully expecting their commander to deny that request, but instead Keith nodded. "Stay on course."

…Well, he supposed as he blinked back the shock, this was an Explorer Team. He'd asked for this. And before he could think on it any further, movement on his own screen snapped him out of it—he had a job to do. "They’ve seen us. Incoming transmission." He flipped on the main comms as a message came through.

"Vagrant-class vessel, you are locked in our systems. We have superior numbers and firepower. Surrender now and prepare to be boarded."

"Starr, tell them we are non-hostile, but will return fire if provoked." Keith ordered.

"Yes sir." He took a deep breath; it sounded insane, but it wasn't his place to question. "Unknown force, this is the ACS Jupiter's H—uh, Bolt." He caught a glimpse of their pilot snickering. "Our intentions here are peaceful. But we have no intention of surrendering, and we will defend ourselves if necessary."

The pirates didn't respond, at least not over the comms. All of the smaller craft opening fire seemed like enough of a response. Smirking, Daniel immediately engaged the point defense systems with one hand and started returning fire with the other.

Lance and Keith both exchanged raised eyebrows. Lance was impressed; the kid was quick and fearless. Keith was less impressed, mostly because he hadn't given the order to fire yet. But it had been coming, so he set it aside for the moment. They could discuss it later.

He hadn't given orders for evasive maneuvers either, but that was kind of implied when the missiles started launching. Lance growled in frustration as he tried to bring the ship about. "Fuck, these controls suck." It wasn't all the controls, he knew that, but they weren't helping anything.

Daniel laughed. The enemy fighters weren't having any trouble maneuvering, but they seemed to be underestimating the Bolt's capabilities. Just because it couldn't move didn't mean it couldn't blast them out of the sky. As another fighter tried to cut in behind their wing, he loosed a missile and watched it vanish in a shower of flame. This wasn’t completely boring after all.

"One more small fighter down," Cam reported. "Three targets remain besides the carrier."

Lance spared a quick look over at Daniel, grinning. "Having fun, kid?"

"Yeah, think you can keep up?" their gunner challenged.

"Keep up with you? Don't make me laugh."

Sven rolled his eyes. At least they were having fun.

Cam wasn't exactly having fun either. Not that he wasn't enjoying the challenge, but… he blinked as his monitors started fuzzing in and out. There was a message incoming, supposedly. "Um, sir? I think something is wrong, I’m getting a message but it's all…" He trailed off as a garbled mess of numbers and symbols scrolled across his screen, earning a concerned look from the commander.

The concern only increased as the comms crackled. "—zzzbt or enginissiles bzzz render zzzbt down down down down—" Before Cam could hit the override the transmission cut out in a burst of static and a thin trickle of smoke.

Wait, smoke? That wasn't how comms worked. At all!

Lance eyed his own screens, which were starting to flicker a bit. "Fucking crappy Alliance simulators." He sounded bored again.

As more smoke started coming from the communications console, Cam stood up and started backing away. Sven, whose station was next to his, decided that was a good move and joined him. Keith was the only one to move towards the smoking console, placing a cautious hand on the side. He had no idea what was wrong with it, but it seemed to be getting hotter.

"Um… this isn't part of the the simulation, is it?" Cam asked. If the ship had been taking damage, maybe, though even then actual smoke seemed like a little much…

"No," the commander confirmed with a grimace. "No, it's not."

Daniel eyed him. "Dude, you broke it."

"I did not!" Cam yelled, glaring.

"Hostile much? Chill out!" Daniel shook his head. Cam didn't yell back, but he continued to glare, muttering in Russian to himself.

Lance sat back in his chair, amused by the new kids. And by the busted sim, really. "I think this is a completely fitting result for us."

Keith shut off the console. "Well, that’s true at least. Not the one I’d hoped for, but fitting." Hopefully they could reboot the malfunctioning station and… he hadn't even finished the thought when an odd hum filled the room, emanating from some unidentifiable source. Several lights went out. A few seconds later, with a low electrical whine, the entire sim room went dark. "Guess that’s that, then. Great. We Explorer Teamed a sim." He sighed, Sven shook his head, and Lance laughed.

"What do we do now?" Daniel asked, hopeful for a dismissal.

A dismissal was not what Keith wanted to do, but he didn't see much choice. "I guess we wrap it up for now. We'll get the sims fixed and try this one again, if we don't get shipped out first."

"Yeah. I’m sure it’ll go much better next time." Lance’s sarcastic tone didn’t leave anyone thinking it would go better next time.

"Not with these crappy sims," Daniel snorted.

"Lesson one kid, everything we get is crappy. They figure we're the only ones who can deal with it."

No sense letting that go on. "Get out of here, all of you," Keith ordered. "Before I put you on latrine. Again." He dropped back into the command chair and pulled out his datapad, starting to fill out a request for maintenance on the sim. Why did everything this team did end in him doing paperwork?

"Y-yes sir," Cam stuttered, flushed with embarrassment. Of course it would've been his station that malfunctioned. He headed for the door behind Sven, who was realizing a little belatedly that he hadn't formally introduced himself to their gunner. Next time, then. He'd never been on latrine duty before and didn't intend to start now.

"Catch y’all later, I’ve got a date." Lance nudged Daniel on the way out. "Not bad shooting there, kid."

Daniel’s eyes lit up at the praise. "Thanks. Your piloting wasn’t bad either." Smirk. "A little rusty though." Immediately after saying it, he actually thought about it. Aw shit. Don’t take that badly, don’t take that badly… Admittedly it wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever said, by a long shot, but this was a new team… and clearly the coolest person on the bridge.

"Rusty," Lance repeated, shaking his head and smirking right back. "You’re funny."

"I’m hilarious."

"And you know it, huh? Don’t get too cocky, around here that’s my line." Lance slapped him on the shoulder and walked off before he could respond.

Laughing, Daniel watched him go, then turned to see Cam's melancholy face. His expression was still matching his mood. They couldn't have that… "Yo! Fanboy!"

"I’m not a fanboy!" Cam glared. He thought they'd been over this.

Which they had, but it was still a perfectly good nickname and Daniel had no intention of giving it up any time soon. "Agree to disagree." He grabbed the ensign’s arm and pulled. "You look like hell. Come on, let’s go get that crappy look off your face."

"Hey! Wait, what?" Cam made a halfhearted attempt to pull free, but then allowed himself to be dragged. Which just proved how much the simulation had upset him. "Where are we going?"

Daniel just laughed. "You’ll see."

Oh, no.

*****

Name: Vincent Samuel Hayes
Species: H. sapiens
Age: 18 (9/1/2398)
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 180
Hair: Black
Eyes: Amber
Skin: Dk. Brown
Medical History:

"Now listen here, you little fuck. Let's get one thing straight. If you're gonna lie on your medical records I don't know what you expect me to be able to do for you."

Vince blinked, shrinking back slightly into the chair. "Lie?"

Glaring, Jace waved the paper in his face. "What exactly does it mean 'has never had a cold'? A cold! Just because you weren't hacking your lungs out enough to go to a doctor?"

"I've… never had a cold," he confirmed in a small voice.

The medic kept glaring. "Not one. Not even a few sniffles."

"Nothing." Vince shook his head nervously, not looking at him. "My moms, um… would joke that they got the sperm from Captain America."

Jace had turned away for a moment to make a note. Now he stopped, slowly turning back to face him. "Captain America," he repeated, dramatically burying his face in his hands. "Porra, not another one."

Wince. "Not me! Them!"

"Oh, okay." He sighed, looking at the file. "They never even gave you a genetic test to figure out which mom's medical history is actually relevant to your health? Someone should've done that, but whatever, I've worked with worse." There were people on this very team with no family medical history at all, but it was still annoying.

Vince sighed also. "I can tell you? They just have this thing where it doesn't matter, because they're both Mom."

Rolling his eyes, Jace pushed one of the records pages at him, along with a pen. "That's sweet, but not very helpful to your doctor. Circle one."

"They don't know I figured it out?" Vince murmured, frowning at the paper. Jace didn't bother to comment. Medical wouldn't accept anything but genetic confirmation as definitive, it was a thing, but at least this would give him somewhere to start. "So um…" He quickly circled one and pushed it back.

"Valeu." Jace filed it away. "So I guess we don't have anything else to talk about. When you're the first person on this ship to get mutant space flu, I'm gonna laugh so fucking hard."

"I… don't get the flu," Vince protested. "But I give you permission to laugh if it happens."

"Oh well that's nice of you." Waving him out, Jace stared at the doorway for a moment. "…Kid has no idea what he's in for here."

*****

The hangar was quiet without any wrenchlings. Hunk and Vince were taking care of things elsewhere; Pidge was on break. Flynn was sitting on one of the Bolt's lowered wingtips, watching the bay door. He was waiting for someone… before long he caught sight of a lone figure approaching. Right on time.

He had met Sergeant Faraday the day before. Since she wasn't authorized to be aboard the ship, she had to formally hand off authority over Pidge when her oversight shifts overlapped with his duty shifts. The nature of the handoff was such that he hadn't really had time to speak to her. Besides, he'd rather do it when there wasn't a ninja within earshot.

Since his rather disastrous introduction, Pidge had been… okay? Flynn had noticed him going for his knife a couple of times, though he hadn't actually pulled it. But all he had to do was look at Vince to make him nervously shuffle away, and even letting him and Hunk in the same general vicinity seemed like a terrible idea. It wasn't sustainable… he needed information. She seemed like the best source.

"Lieutenant Commander Kleid." Faraday saluted as she approached, which he returned before sliding off the wing. "You wanted to see me?"

"Very much so. Thanks for coming."

"Of course." She smiled faintly. "I'm sure I know what this is about, but I hope you aren't expecting too much."

"I'll take whatever I can get, at this point." Flynn sighed. "I've had this kid in my bay for three days and I'm ready to throw him down an engine core, and he's hardly even done anything."

The sergeant tilted her head. "Sir, didn't he pull a knife on your electrical engineer?"

"…I mean, except for that." He blinked. He'd seen no reason to bring up the misunderstanding to Pidge's probation officer. "How did you know about it?"

"He self-reported. Not that there's much I can do to him in the current circumstances. You and Commander Kogane have the reins."

Nodding, he motioned to one of the scattered workbenches. "Have a seat, if you like. How long have you been assigned to him?"

"Just a little over two weeks." She dropped onto the bench he'd indicated, sitting at attention. "He was my first case."

Flynn arched an eyebrow. "They gave you a literal ninja as your first case? Who did you either impress or piss off?"

Faraday laughed. "I've been wondering that ever since, sir. Though that aspect has been less trouble than I would've expected."

Now they were getting into what he needed. "How's that?"

"It doesn't seem he's inclined to use his powers for evil, so to speak. He's been nothing but obedient and honest the whole time I've had authority over him." She looked up at the ship, collecting her thoughts. "As a part of that, it has been made very clear to me that I'm only capable of monitoring him because he allows it."

Well, that was… something. Yes. Definitely something. "So what, he obeys but isn't happy about it?"

"Oh no, it isn't like that. If anything I'd say he's eager to please. I've seen several occasions where he'll attempt to pre-empt the orders he's expecting—it's just that his judgment on that count is sometimes questionable." She made a face. "For example, slipping his restraints as soon as he's released from the brig to save me the bother of unlocking them."

Aha. "That's… considerate of him?" A forgiving commander could probably call that admirable initiative. Flynn wasn't yet certain how forgiving he was going to be. "How many times a day does he usually pull knives on people?"

Faraday took a few moments to consider that; he hoped it wasn't just taking that long for her to count them up. Then she shrugged. "He'll go for a knife but think better of it… regularly. But I've never seen him actively threaten anyone."

Interesting. Maybe it really had just been a misunderstanding… "What else can you tell me?"

"Not a lot, I'm afraid. He's been manageable enough as long as he understands what's expected of him. But, I haven't seen him under any real stress."

Maybe it wasn't a lot, but it was more than he'd had before. Not knowing how long he had to assess this kid himself, he had to take whatever he could get. "Every bit helps. I appreciate it."

She nodded, standing. "Good luck with him, sir. I hope he'll work out for you."

"So do I, Sergeant," he said quietly as she departed. "So do I…"

*****

Name: Daniel Augustus Brennan
Species: H. sapiens
Age: 18 (7/27/2398)
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 163
Hair: Black
Eyes: Dk. Blue
Skin: Lt. Tan
Medical History:

"Okay let's get something straight here. I'm a medic, not a miracle worker." Jace was gracing the new gunner with his most disapproving look of the day. "I can't fix shitty judgment. Your two tetanus shots from a tattoo tells me that's gonna be your biggest health problem."

Daniel gave a completely unapologetic grin, rubbing the back of his head. "I'm not that bad."

"Yeah, I'll bet. The seventeen broken bones say otherwise." Frown. "Was the tattoo you apparently got in a fucking sewer somewhere at least worth it?"

With a shrug, the young man pulled up his left sleeve, displaying an angel tattooed on his bicep. Not just any angel. A bright yellow smiley angel that was nothing but head and halo and wings.

That… is an emoji. "No. No it was not." He looked between the tattoo and Daniel's face, then sighed and shook his head. "At least you're nice and fucking immunized against tetanus, I guess."

"Positivity isn't really your thing, is it?"

Oh, they had a master of observation here. "I'm positive I'm gonna regret having to deal with you, does that count?" He checked the file again and scowled. The kid had a very inconvenient allergy. "Any point asking if you hydrate properly? Take good care of your bladder? It's gonna suck for you if you get a UTI and can't have anything with cranberries."

A wicked smirk crossed Daniel's face. "I'll suck anything you want, Doc."

Jace stared at him for a long time. That hadn't even… no, not worth it. "I'd tell you to go suck on a tailpipe, but then I'd have to do a lot of fucking paperwork. So just try not to do anything to put yourself in mortal danger and we'll be fine."

"…I can't make promises like that."

That seemed like an admission that he really was that bad after all. "Guess we'll be seeing a lot of each other, then." Sigh. "Porra."

*****

Unity Common—not a creative name, but precise, which Pidge could appreciate—was the center of the Garrison. It was a grand circular plaza tiled in multicolored granite, split into six segments by smaller tiles of semiprecious gems. In the center, each of those segments hosted a small park of sorts, each dedicated to one of the Alliance's six founding powers. Sanctuaries, they were called—which was somewhat less precise.

It was always crowded on the Common itself, and it made Pidge uncomfortable. Every member planet of the Alliance had a sanctuary here, the others spiraling out from the original six. He had walked the path to Balto's many times by now… he barely breathed until he stepped from the colorful granite onto shimmering Baltan obsidian. The park was simple. The dark tiles, a few benches, a few native plants whose iridescent black leaves were hardly distinguishable from the obsidian around them. And the flag: black, with seven golden bladestars arrayed around a prowling silver panther, fluttering in the wind.

Balto. That was the English. In their own language, his people knew their planet as Shinor. And they called themselves Shinori, the Children of Shadows, who did not belong on this distant world of light.

But here he was.

Staring up at the flag, Pidge sighed slowly. He came here every Wednesday, just before noon. An old ritual. Not once had he ever seen anyone else at the Baltan sanctuary. He'd long ago stopped expecting to, but still, he kept coming back. It wasn't as if he had anywhere else to be on his off time.

A shrill, mournful wail started to echo in the distance. Just the weekly siren test. The people meandering around the plaza paid it no mind. But he listened, committing the sound to memory, analyzing its wavering pattern as he had many times before. Reflex. There was nothing to learn from it.

There had to be something to learn somewhere here. To understand these humans—they seemed so soft and undisciplined. Yet what they were doing seemed to work for them, and all he could do here was fail. Over and over. He'd failed to fit in on his first assignment, a Unity-class warship, its very name seeming to mock him. He'd failed at the Sibereal Prime Yard, where literally all he'd had to do was not try to kill anyone. He'd told himself the Explorer Team would be different, and ended up pulling a knife on a crewmate he hadn't even met. It wasn't optimal. He had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Alliance, and he was very well aware he was on his very last chance of fulfilling it.

"Keromya si daliar," he murmured to the flag. One of a hundred mantras drilled into him from childhood.

Failure is betrayal.

Not this time. This time, he would make it work… somehow.

*****

Name: Cameron Iosif Starr
Species: H. sapiens
Age: 19 (7/28/2397)
Height: 5'7"
Weight: 175
Hair: Blonde
Eyes: Blue
Skin: Pale
Medical History:

"So, you've still got your wisdom teeth! That's cute. I heard you volunteered for this assignment so they're clearly not doing you much good."

"Uh, yeah, I do still have them. They haven't bothered me…" Cam paused. "Wait, really? I was top of my class!"

"Which obviously didn't do you much good either." Jace gestured dismissively. "I'm not gonna second-guess your dentist. Wouldn't mind knowing how you react to general anesthesia but honestly if you need that on this job we're fucked anyway."

The kid had the nerve to give him a judgmental look. "You're… a charming person, aren't you?"

"Yes." Ask a stupid question…

He didn't seem quite sure how to react to that. "Um. Well, I haven't had general anesthesia before. But I don't have any known allergies, if that counts for anything?"

"I know." Jace waved the file at him. "I can read. It's boring reading. I appreciate that in my patients, keep it boring and we won't have a problem."

"Um… okay then. Am I okay to leave now?"

"No." Jace's eyes narrowed. "Your records say you're on prescription calcium and B12. That's good, being proactive with the quality control and all that crap." A flush crept over Cam's cheeks; he clearly knew where this was going. "Want to tell me why your last blood test doesn't seem to agree with that, Mr. Top-Of-Your-Class?"

"I'm… not very good at taking my meds regularly?"

"Well at least you're honest about it." Jace frowned. "There will be no 'not very good at taking my meds' on my watch, I will be checking in on you—by which I mean random blood tests. I hope you're okay with needles."

That was usually a pretty motivating threat, and Cam groaned. "As long as you don't go blowing my vein like the last three blood techs did…"

"I should take a sample right now for that, but I don't have my vials yet. Lucky you. Your veins'll be fine." Smirk. "You're good to go, when the rest of my supplies get delivered you'll be the first to know."

"Wonderful. Thanks." Cam took off before he could change his mind.

*****

It felt like the ceremonies had gone on forever, and yet they were over so quickly. All too soon Romelle found herself standing in the shadow of the Silver Touch, Pollux's royal shuttle, watching her family approach for their goodbyes. At least today she was wearing one of her own gowns…

"Safe travels, Father. I will bring honor to Pollux and your name."

"See to it you do," King Kova said gruffly. "I have no doubt." Almost before he'd finished speaking, he turned and started for the ship. He'd spent most of the ceremonies avoiding his daughter, which she took to mean he was ashamed. As he should be—not that she could say so.

Bandor pouted wordlessly up at her as their father departed, and she smiled. "Be good, Bandor. Stay out of trouble." She knelt to ruffle his hair, and he clasped her wrist for a moment. Then Kova yelled for him and he scurried away.

Avok had lingered behind, only approaching as they disappeared up the ramp. "Romelle…" All the encouraging words he'd been mulling over for the last hour died on his tongue. They sounded trite and patronizing now.

"Brother." She smiled sheepishly. "I never did thank you for… what you did for me the other night."

"Always." He nodded and squeezed her hands. "Pollux won't be humiliated so easily. Take care of yourself, Romelle."

"I will." She drew her hands back slowly. "Keep a close eye on Bandor, try not to let Father be too harsh with him."

Oh, he'd do that and more. Father should be worried about how harsh I'm going to be with him. "I'll do my best."

"Safe travels, Avok. Please, send a message when you all arrive home…" She trailed off as Prince Lotor approached.

That wasn't someone Avok cared to see just now; his eyes narrowed. "Prince Lotor. Treat my sister well. You'll answer to me, if not."

Was it his imagination, or did the Drule look taken aback for a moment? It was only a moment in any case. Then he chuckled. "What if I want to answer to you? Perhaps we'll have that duel to the death after all?"

Avok's eyes flashed as Romelle paled. "If you want a duel, send an invitation."

The thought occurred to Lotor that perhaps Pollux had sent the wrong heir for him to court. Romelle was beautiful and dignified, but her brother would be so much more fun. Ah well. "You have nothing to worry about, Prince Avok. Your honor is proven, and your sister is in safe hands." He nodded respectfully. "Have a safe journey home."

For another few seconds, Avok just stared at him. Then he whirled and headed up the Silver Touch's ramp, his cape billowing behind him.

As the shuttle's engines roared, Romelle clasped her hands in front of her. She would be the perfect picture of well-mannered dignity here. And it helped to hide that her hands were shaking just slightly.

Rather than watching the shuttle, Lotor was watching her. Her unease was clear. What was he supposed to do about that? Something, surely. But with her being neither warrior nor slave, he really wasn't sure how to interact… the ceremonies hadn't helped. They were, after all, ceremonial. This was the first moment they'd had alone.

"You seem nervous, a'kuri." There. That seemed like a place to start.

Romelle looked up at him and nodded hesitantly. Did she dare answer? The answer was respectful enough. "I… I am, Your Highness. An enormous responsibility rests on my shoulders." The fate of my planet. "And I still know so little of your culture, I don't want to offend anyone. So yes… forgive me, but all of that naturally makes me nervous."

"Naturally." He rested a hand on her shoulder. It did make sense. She came from a primitive world with a primitive culture, the majesty of Korrinoth could only be overwhelming… "But we will teach you our ways. I know that it takes time to learn, and I assure you I won't be offended by any expressions of ignorance. You have my word."

Maybe he isn't so bad… a smile, wary but genuine, slowly took hold on Romelle's face. "Thank you, Your Highness. That… means a lot to me."

Perhaps this won't be so bad… he smiled back. "Come, it's getting late. This shuttle terrace becomes cold quickly at night." He leaned over and gently kissed her lips, then a spark of inspiration came to him. "And I believe it's time you were allowed to come to my bed, don't you think?"

What optimism Romelle had been feeling vanished, her face flushing bright red. "Um, I…" She swallowed a few times, trying to recover her composure. That had not been dignified. "My Lord, um…"

He seemed truly concerned by her reaction. "It's alright, a'kuri. You are more than worthy." The words were followed with what was probably meant as an encouraging smile—those fangs were still not helping at all.

"Th… thank you, Your Highness?" Shivering a little, she decided to take a small risk. "It's only that… in my culture, we um, we wait until marriage to…"

"Ah! I see." He nodded and brushed a lock of her hair aside. "I have heard of such things. Cultures of needless deprivation. As I said, you will learn our ways… where better to start?"

Where better to start… Romelle looked up at him, the sincerity in his eyes and the smile on his lips. Suddenly she felt very cold, and it certainly wasn't from being on the shuttle terrace. You can't refuse. This is your duty… slowly, she nodded. For Pollux.

Lotor looked truly delighted. And as he wrapped an arm around her shoulder to guide her back inside, his touch was nothing but gentle.

It only made her feel sick.

Chapter Text

Name: Flynn Kleid
Species: H. sapiens (UAP 17)
Age: 23 (11/18/2392)
Height: 6'5"
Weight: 257
Hair: Dk. Red
Eyes: Violet
Skin: Fair
Medical History:

"How the fuck are you on a six month booster schedule?" Jace demanded as he stalked around the sick bay, filling syringes. "Did you fucking drink bleach as a child? Don't answer that. When were you gonna tell me you're fucking overdue?"

That wasn't totally fair. Dathreans—Unconventionally Adapted Population 17—had generally questionable immune systems, it was a thing. But he was too pissed about the chief being over a month late on his shots to be fair right now.

"Must've slipped my mind between dodging Galra death lasers and getting struck by thunderbolts," Flynn muttered spitefully. "Would you just get it over with?"

Jace paused, one eyebrow shooting up at his tone. "Don't tell me you're afraid of needles." The guy was a mechanic and was built, if not like a tank, at least like a decently armored scout car. Sheltered desk jockeys were supposed to be the ones who were scared of needles.

"No," he answered sullenly. "I just dislike them."

"Oh, okay, that's totally different. Take your jacket off." Fixing up the last syringe he turned and pushed up the chief's left sleeve, and was greeted by a black and purple scorpion on his shoulder. "…You dislike needles. You have a fucking tattoo!"

Flynn didn't look at him. "The two are related—ow!"

"Oh for fuck's sake, I haven't even stuck you yet," Jace snorted, setting aside the needle he'd definitely just stuck him with. "If you want to get measles, or pneumonia, or maybe Tyrian fever again, just go ahead and keep whining."

That shut him up.

*****

It was amazing to Vince how quickly the disruptor cannon had taken shape. It really wasn't that complicated, but it was still a very large chunk of metal and wires and electromagnetic capacitor coiling. Hunk had done most of the heavy lifting, while Vince had handled the delicate internal structure. Now they had a gray tapered cylinder about the size of a school bus sitting in the hangar off the Bolt's left wing, a single external panel still awaiting installation. Several holes dotted the metal. The cannon would hook up to the ship's systems through there, which meant this was arguably the most important part of the job.

Vince wasn't nervous. Of course not. Not at all. The faint buzzing in his ears as he worked was definitely not him being nervous.

Actually, maybe it really wasn't… he paused a moment after connecting one of the couplings, looking up from the panel. It sounded something like the noises a kid would make with a toy car, not the anxious hum he might have anticipated. It also seemed like it was coming from the lift Hunk was driving. Or had been driving, anyway. Right now he was just sitting there watching Vince do his thing, and…

"…Are you vrooming?"

Hunk startled, sitting up straighter. "Course I'm vrooming! Vroom vroom!" He mimed revving up the lift. "What's the point in drivin' the equipment if ya can't vroom?"

Vince blinked. He'd thought the point was to get the job done. "That's not a question most people would ask?"

"Yeah well, most people are missin' out then." The big man leaned back in his seat and threw his hands behind his head. "I can stop if it's buggin' you though."

Was it bugging him? Truthfully he hadn't thought that far, he'd stumbled to a halt over the fact that a grown man was vrooming. Which probably meant… huh. "Uh, I don't think it is bothering me." He turned back to the panel and started bundling wires together. The next few connections were tricky, but he put them together quickly.

"Good! I don't wanna bug anyone…" Hunk's voice raised suddenly. "Except for Number One Frenemy over there."

Vince looked up to see who Hunk was shouting about, banged his head on the upper panel, and couldn't help a small smirk as he saw their medic disembarking from the ship. Jace didn't even argue the point—he just rolled his eyes dramatically, shrugged, and departed the hangar.

Hunk burst into laughter.

"You were working together before?" Vince asked as the laughter died down. His medical briefing had certainly been… well, memorable… and between that and the vrooms his curiosity was overwhelming. Explorer Teams had always seemed like more of a myth than reality, at least until he'd gotten his orders. So far they seemed almost exactly as advertised.

"Oh yeah," Hunk confirmed. "He's one of the old squad. Thinks he's the only sane one on the team. Which is funny, cuz most of the old crew thinks they're the only sane one on the team." He chuckled again. "Except me, I know better."

Vince gave him a look that had a slight tinge of panic. Well, maybe panic was an overstatement, but definitely anxiety. "He doesn't randomly draw knives on you, does he?"

Oh. No question what that was about. "Nah, he just threatens you with needles. Knives are definitely just a ninja thing, as far as I know." He didn't know much, really. He'd spoken to Pidge exactly twice since he'd been assigned—both of which had been very one-sided conversations—and it was pretty evident Flynn was trying to keep the other kid away from him. Which he was probably okay with.

"Good, good…" The murmur sounded a little distracted. Vince had gone back to working on the wires. But he'd worked himself up now with thoughts of angry medics and stabby ninjas and—

ZAP.

An explosion of smoke and sparks erupted from the panel, wreathing Vince in lightning a moment before fading. A sharp scent of ozone lingered behind.

"Whoa!" Hunk had nearly jumped out of his seat. "You okay?"

"Yes, sir." Vince sighed. He was fine. He was always fine. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah you better be sorry, little dude. Callin' me sir? Do that again and bad stuff is gonna happen." The big man jumped out of the lift, glaring playfully, though he let up on it almost immediately as Vince shrank back. "I might make you eat some steak well done or something." He leaned over the younger engineer's shoulder to examine the scorched wiring.

Baffled and embarrassed, Vince took a moment to gather himself; this was better than the usual yelling, but he was still more than a little off balance. "Uh." He flailed for something to latch onto. "Well done steak is bad?"

Hunk slowly turned his head, one eyebrow going up. "You uh, you eat well done steak?"

Gulp. "My moms aren't the best cooks?" he offered weakly. It wasn't a lie…

"Now I know how Lance feels about Flynn and beer." A huge grin spread over Hunk's face. "Little dude, you're gonna be in for some education."

That sounded a little ominous; his eyes went wide. "Oh. Okay?" None of this was making him any less confused, especially not when he looked back at the smoking wiring and remembered where he actually was. "Um, I'm really sorry about this, I can fix it."

"I know ya can." Hunk patted his shoulder encouragingly. Lightly—he was figuring this kid out a bit—but encouragingly. "That's why you're here, yeah?"

"I think I'm here because I blow them up."

"That's okay. I'm the bomb guy, I appreciate a good kaboom. Keeps people on their toes!"

Vince blinked, but couldn't quite help a smile. "Usually I get told I have an attitude problem. So, uh, thanks." This was very weird, but it was also nice not to be railed at for once.

"Attitude problem?" Hunk looked from Vince to the disruptor cannon. That was about the last thing he'd have ascribed to this kid. "I don't buy it," he declared. "And if you can't notice someone havin' an attitude problem after buildin' a multi-ton weapon of mass disruption with 'em for a week, it ain't there."

Despite himself, Vince laughed. "You probably have a point there."

"Not as many points as Doc or the ninja! Blunt objects are more my style. And bombs." Grin. "Anyway, let's get this thing fixed up, yeah? I wanna do a test fire! …Not like we're really gonna get to do that for awhile, but you know."

Oh, he knew. He'd never really built anything like this disruptor cannon before. "I usually only get to work on the already built ones, this has been fun. It'll be great to see it in action."

"It'll be awesome!"

Nodding his agreement, Vince turned back to the wires he'd ruined and took a deep breath. One thing his little issue had taught him was how to work fast. He could do this. And it would be awesome.

Hunk seemed a lot less scary now, too.

*****

Name: Darrell Stoker
Species: X. shinori
Age: 16 (9/24/2400)
Height: 5'1"
Weight: 143
Hair: Brown
Eyes: Green
Skin: Fair
Medical History:

"I don't even know where to fucking start with you."

Jace was feeling much less confident than usual as he stared at the young man in front of him. Xenofelis shinori was not a race that got covered in standard Alliance medical training. He'd downloaded and read the database overview, of course, but a glorified textbook entry could only tell him so much…

For his part, Pidge looked bored. He'd probably been through this a few times before. "I know how to take care of myself in human environments, Doctor."

"Yeah, I'll bet you do." Scowl. "Okay, here's what I got from the database: you're susceptible to vitamin D overdose, your bone density fucks with some scans, and you'll get sunburn just from walking out the door if you don't use the right soap—I will be requisitioning a backup stockpile of that. Anything else that should jump out?"

"No."

"Great. Your personal history is a disaster. There's nothing wrong with your eyes."

The eyes in question narrowed fiercely behind his glasses. "There will be if I don't protect them from the light."

Okay, that made sense. His species was adapted to darkness. Though it seemed like something he should've mentioned after the last question; Jace wondered what else should've jumped out that he hadn't. "Got it. I'm not even going to ask about all the bone fractures and toxin exposure, I don't want to know. This 'tasakvar' thing, there's practically no info on it, what's its impact?"

For an instant Pidge froze, his eyes flashing again with pure fury. It was gone after a moment… but then he abruptly stood. "Absolutely nothing," he hissed, pushing past the medic and walking out the door.

Jace stared at the doorway for a long moment, too stunned to even yell after him before he vanished. "…What the fuck was that about?"

*****

Keith had been expecting a new summons from Colonel Hawkins any day now. The request that came in not quite two weeks from the first briefing was no surprise… until he read it. It wasn't a briefing, it was only for him and Lance, and it wasn't from Hawkins.

Other than that though, not at all strange!

The conference room was empty when he got there, and he wasn't all that early. It was in a Support Division building, which was interesting—didn't actually tell him anything, but it was interesting. Somehow. He found the room's coffee pot and got it started, checking the time as it finished brewing.

"Come on, McClain, you're supposed to be here too…"

As if on cue, Lance walked in, looking rather confused. He'd never been in this building before. He zeroed in on Keith immediately. "Why are we here?"

Keith shook his head. "Not sure."

Frowning, Lance looked around the otherwise empty room, checking the time himself. "Is it just us?"

"We're all the request came in for."

"Huh? I hate this stuff."

"Yeah." Keith frowned too. "It doesn't feel right, that's for sure."

Lance filled a cup of coffee and downed it, shaking his head. "Hope this doesn't take all day."

"Why? Somewhere important to be?"

Grin. "Always, boss. Always."

The clock hit nine; whoever had called them in was now officially late. Which meant, despite knowing he would probably regret it, Keith couldn't quite help the obvious question. "Like where?"

Lance laughed. "Where do you think? Don't you have anything better to do?"

"I do have a ship to run," the boss acknowledged. "Drills." He wondered how Sven and the kids were doing; he would probably owe their navigator an apology later. "And I wouldn't mind getting in another ride on my bike today."

"Bike?" Lance repeated, arching an eyebrow. "As in bicycle?"

"…No." Keith stared at him for a moment, remembering Flynn's surprise and wondering if he really did come across as that much of a stick in the mud. "My Ducati. Motorcycle."

The pilot's hazel eyes widened slightly. "Sweet, let me ride it sometime?"

As if he'd trust McClain with that? "No way. That's mine."

Smirk. "I thought learning to share was part of command training?"

"A man never lets another man ride his motorcycle."

That was definitely not a code Lance had ever been made aware of; he arched an eyebrow. "Huh? Guess all the dates I've let ride mine owe me, or something." He debated saying something else about riding that would really fluster the boss, but before he got there, a sharp series of avian clucks rang out from the doorway. It had the effect of someone clearing their throat for attention, and they turned. What looked something like a feathery gray linebacker in a Support Division uniform was standing there.

A Quasnot, great. They give me the heebie jeebies.

Keith immediately straightened. "Yes… ma'am?" The Quasnot were one of the Alliance's founding races, but he'd interacted with very few of them before. He was pretty certain gray meant female.

"Sorry for the delay. Technical difficulties." Her voice was a deep, musical whistle. "Commander Keith Kogane and Lieutenant Lance McClain, correct?"

Lance nodded, then groaned inwardly to avoid rolling his eyes outwardly as Keith went for full formality. "Yes ma'am. Are you who we were to expect for this?"

"Yes. Senior Specialist Turoa Tek, Intel Division, Galra Task Force." She saluted and bowed at the same time. "My overlords would like more information on your reactions to the metal artifacts you retrieved on your last journey."

The use of overlords for superior officers was a typical Quasnot quirk. It still made Keith shift a little uncomfortably. Lance, on the other hand, had to fight down a snicker—until he processed the rest of the statement, and rounded on his commander in shock. "You put it in the report?!"

"After Doc said that it could potentially be a tailored bioweapon?" Keith gave him a look. "You expected me not to put it in the report?"

That was a fair point, he decided, shifting uneasily himself before slowly nodding. Fair, but he didn't like it. Whatever that metal was, the warmth it had sent through him, it felt private… despite or perhaps because of the fact that he didn't understand it at all.

Turoa Tek was looking between them, seeming a bit concerned. "Will the two of you require an honor duel? We didn't budget time for that, but perhaps one can be arranged afterwards?"

Both of them turned to stare at her with just as much concern. "Uh… no, thank you."

"We're good."

"Apologies." Keith drained his coffee and put the mug aside. "What questions do you have?"

"No need for apologies," she said cheerfully. "The lab next door is set up to run some better scans on the artifacts. No dishonor to your engineers, of course—your assigned equipment lacked functionality."

"Pretty sure they'd be the first to agree with that," Lance commented.

Turoa Tek gave a chuckle that sounded like slightly off-key birdsong. "The universal lament." She turned, motioning for them to follow. Lance's eyes briefly went to the two peacock-like trains of feathers extending from her shoulders. He knew if she fanned them out they wouldn't be peacock-like at all, but a dizzying pattern more likely to induce migraines than impress. Just one of many things that made the Quasnot a bit… unsettling. Though she seemed nice enough.

Keith was unsettled too, though not so much from the Quasnot technician. More the whole principle of the thing. Great, we're going to be lab rats. He couldn't argue the necessity, but it didn't mean he had to like it.

"I hope there isn't a maze," Lance whispered, nudging him, and it took all he had not to laugh.

The lab was large and well-equipped. A maze, thankfully, was not part of the equation. Keith didn't recognize most of the equipment, though he thought he'd seen a couple of the machines over at Medical. "Doc would be jealous…"

"I was thinking Flynn," Lance countered, looking around with a low whistle.

"It is nice, isn't it?" Turoa Tek agreed. "I won it in an honor duel with the Border Anomalies department."

…Had that been a joke? It was impossible to tell if that had been a joke. Looking over her completely deadpan expression Lance decided it didn't really matter. "Impressive. I love a badass."

"Must have been quite the experience," Keith said uneasily, earning a slight side-eye from his pilot. If anyone could appreciate an honor duel, he'd have expected the boss to be it. Oh well.

The specialist led them to a table by a particularly large chunk of machinery. Two clear containers were sitting there, each holding one very familiar scrap of metal. Keith stared at them silently; Lance zeroed in on the red piece, his hand twitching briefly. He wanted to touch it again.

Turoa Tek let the silence linger a few moments before picking up the container with the black piece. "Commander, if you'd go first?" She removed the lid of the containment unit and stepped forward to place it in the deep scanner's main chamber. "I confess to not having a broader strategy. The initial scan results will provide one."

Nodding, Keith stopped forward as the Quasnot retreated to the monitoring panel. The memory already seemed to be coming back in full clarity. He reached out slowly, resting his hand on the metal, and shivered as static immediately seemed to race through his bones. What is this? He closed his eyes, breath catching slightly as he tried to focus on the soft whirr of the machine.

"Still tingly, boss?"

"Yeah… still tingles. But why?"

"Think that's her job."

"Katas mit-toras," Turoa Tek muttered in the midst of the nervous chatter, her shoulder feathers rustling slightly. That didn't seem like the best of signs. "You did not have lingering effects after touching these before, correct? No illness?"

"Nope," Lance confirmed as Keith opened his eyes and looked over at her. "Jace would've kept detailed records if we had, trust us."

She considered that, then looked back at her panel. "The metal does not react—statistically insignificant heat transfer, nothing more. But you certainly do." That sent a slight chill down Lance's spine, which wasn't helped when she turned to look at him. "Lieutenant, would you touch that for me? I'd like a control scan."

Blink. "Me? Touch what?"

"Yes. The black piece—the report says only Commander Kogane had a reaction to it, correct?"

"Yeah, sure." Lance moved up and placed his hand on the black metal as Keith moved out of the way. He'd known he wouldn't feel the warmth from it, but it was still strangely disappointing…

Turoa Tek clucked softly. "You felt nothing?"

"Nothing."

They were both fully focused on her now, all resentment at the summons forgotten. For a long moment she didn't say anything else, tapping at the control panel. Then finally, "You both had the same reaction."

…Of all the things Lance had expected he might hear, that wasn't even on the list. "What? But I don't feel anything."

"Let's try the other piece. I can't conclude anything yet."

Watching her switch the containers in the scan chamber, Keith stepped a little closer to Lance. "What do you think she means by that?" he whispered. The only answer he got was a shrug, which was probably all he should've expected, but still… the specialist put the red scrap into place and nodded to Lance, who moved forward again.

For a moment Lance couldn't help feeling uneasy, looking at the bright red metal gleaming in the lab's harsh light. But as soon as he touched it, the comforting warmth shot through him all over again. Just as he remembered it, or maybe even more.

"Commander, your turn."

Reluctantly, Lance pulled his hand away. He couldn't quite bring himself to step back as Keith came up next to him and reached out to touch it. "Nothing…"

"Mit-toras." Turoa Tek gave a soft, screeching exhale, her shoulder feathers ruffling again. "This request is irregular, but… if one of you could come here and watch this readout?"

That did sound pretty damn irregular. Lance shot Keith a look, and this time it was the boss's turn to shrug. Well, why not? He should probably walk away from the metal before the urge to touch it again overwhelmed him. "Uh, okay, sure." He crossed over to the monitoring panel, where she indicated a numerical readout labeled MDR LEVEL underneath one of the displays. He wasn't sure what that meant, but suspected he would find out sooner rather than later.

With a nod of thanks, the Quasnot stepped up to the scan chamber and rested a feathery hand on the metal.

The numbers shot up.

"It's doing something," Lance reported, eyebrows raising.

"Define something?"

"Oh, uh, big numbers. Right when you touched it."

Turoa Tek stepped back from the scan chamber, nodding slowly. "Yet I felt nothing… I see. We completely missed this, we were too busy scanning the metal itself."

Keith waited for a moment, but she seemed to be getting lost in her own thoughts. And strictly speaking those thoughts weren't their business, but after all this? "Does that mean you have a hypothesis, ma'am?"

"That may be an overstatement." She went back to the control panel. "Touching the metal caused each of us to display sharply elevated levels of metadynamic radiation. A sort of… paranormal energy that we can do little more than detect." Her shoulder feathers flared slightly. "We lack the science to analyze this, because it isn't science."

"It isn't science?"

She chirped in what seemed like frustration. "It usually comes about from the mystical traditions of certain civilizations. Common lacks a well-developed vocabulary for it… but in essence, magic."

Both of their jaws dropped. There were plenty of civilizations, both within and beyond the Alliance, which claimed to practice magic. Several of those could even show provable results. But it wasn't exactly officially recognized as existing. "Isn't magic just science we don't understand yet?" Keith asked after finding his voice again.

"That is the belief we work from."

"So you can't tell me why I feel warmth when I touch this?" Lance looked back to the red fragment. "It's just magic?" That seemed less satisfying than he'd hoped.

"Beings responding very differently to metadynamic radiation is well known. But past that, no. This isn't my field, and it isn't what our equipment was designed for." She paused thoughtfully. "I could attempt a basic explanation, but it would involve a great deal of string theory, instability theory, metaphysical cross-contamination theory, and many other theories we also didn't budget time for."

Maybe, Lance decided, 'magic' was good enough after all. "No worries, my brain never budgeted room for that stuff either." He looked over at Keith and shook his head. "Weirder and weirder."

"I'd have to agree, McClain." Keith scratched his head and grimaced. "Just weird."

"Between the three of us," Turoa Tek admitted, "weird is as good a word as any." She closed up the containment units and looked back at them. "I'm sure my overlords will dispatch this to one of the mysticism research units. I believe I can dismiss the two of you, unless you'd like to volunteer for further mystical research."

Eyeing the red metal, for a split second Lance was actually tempted to take her up on that. His sense of self-preservation kicked in before the thought could do much more than form. "Yeah, fuck no to that."

Keith, as always, was more diplomatic. "I think we'll pass on that… kind offer, ma'am."

"I thought you might." She gave the salute-bow again; that was probably another Quasnot quirk. "Thank you for coming."

"You're welcome." Lance shot her a wink. "May you win your next honor battle."

"I haven't lost one yet," she said with a musical chuckle. "May your next journey grant you either more or less 'weird', whichever you prefer."

As she departed, Lance looked back to Keith. "What do we prefer? That's a great question."

"I'd prefer some answers."

"Magic, bossman. The answer is magic." Keith snorted at that, and Lance shrugged. It wasn't much of an answer, that was for sure. But then again, looking back at what they'd run into last mission… he couldn't help wondering if it was really all that crazy.

*****

Name: Tsuyoshi Garrett
Species: H. sapiens
Age: 21 (5/4/2395)
Height: 6'9"
Weight: 342
Hair: Dk. Brown
Eyes: Hazel
Skin: Lt. Brown
Medical History:

"Somehow—fucking somehow—your entire body is not on the verge of spontaneous shutdown from too much salt and bacon. Congratulations, I guess."

Hunk looked unreasonably smug about that. "Doc, lemme tell you a little story."

"If I say no, will it matter?"

"Nope!" Grin. "Once upon a time, there was a big dude who liked grills who went to Berkeley for his chemical engineering prep. He decided while he was there he oughta have some fun, so he took a bunch of culinary science electives in between mixin' up booms and learned a lot of cool things about how much salt and bacon is okay."

Jace stared at him, looking distinctly unamused. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."

"Nope!" he repeated, grinning wider. "And then he catered the riots until it was time to transfer to the Academy, but that's a totally different story."

"…Of course he did." The medic felt a headache coming on. "Whatever, if it works for you I don't really care, but when you have a massive cholesterol meltdown I get to say I told you so."

"Totally."

He glanced over the records again and shook his head; he was absolutely going to regret this, but the curiosity was overwhelming. "One more thing. How the hell did you break your ear bones without massive head trauma? Not that you having massive head trauma would surprise me at all, but it's not on your sheet."

The big man paused, blinked, then chuckled a little sheepishly. "Yeah, uh. That. I was little. I had a bad ear infection."

Jace crossed his arms, debated questioning the idea that this guy had ever been little, decided there wasn't much point in it. "Right. That can cause some damage. It specifically says fractured."

"It hurt a lot, so one of my brothers decided to try to help me out… uh, with a drill." He frowned. "You can probably guess this, but it didn't help much."

…Yes. Yes, he absolutely regretted asking.

*****

The bridge crew had continued running sims, in the absence of more concrete goals to work towards. But today both Keith and Lance had been called away due to their 'metal allergy'. Which left Sven in charge. Keith had told him to make any needed adjustments to the drill, and in his carefully considered opinion, there wasn't much point running a bridge crew simulation at all without the commander and pilot.

So instead of bridge assessment, he was doing a sparring assessment. Hand to hand combat was much more his wheelhouse than space combat anyway. It was still a drill! Just adjusted as necessary. Very heavily adjusted.

The navigator had arrived at the gym early to reserve a sparring room, and was pleased when Ensign Star arrived a little early as well. He was even more pleased when Brennan walked in a few minutes later, right on time… he hadn't been expecting that.

"Hello, sir." Cam tossed his shirt and towel on a nearby bench, taking a sip of water.

"Hello, Starr."

"Yo!" Daniel called out as he trotted up. Both of them just raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged.

"Alright. Both of you warm up, stretch, and then square up on the mat. I want to assess how you'll do in hand to hand," Sven instructed.

"What kind of hand to hand, sir?"

"Whatever kind you wish to use." He'd had a glance at their files; neither of them had any martial art training listed outside of what the Academy taught. That would make it simpler, not needing to survey any particular fighting style.

"Sounds fun." Daniel's tone did not match his words. He wasn't a huge fan of sparring, he much preferred a comfy seat in a cockpit to a sweat-covered mat. "Ready whenever you are, Cammy."

Cammy? That was a new one. "Bring it, brat boy." Cam cracked his neck and stepped onto the mat.

"That can't be good for your neck." Daniel hopped onto the mat too. "And I've done nothing to you to deserve that nickname."

"How about the way you barged in on my reporting to the commander?" Cam was still fairly irked about that. "And flouted protocol the entire time you were there?"

Of course fanboy was still upset about that. Daniel had even tried to give him a new nickname to encourage better behavior! "How does that make me a brat? A little rude maybe. But brattish? I don't think so."

"Oh you're a total brat." Cam insisted. "I could go over every single thing you've done since, but we're supposed to be sparring." He had his fists up and clenched, waiting for his opponent to make the first move. Daniel was in a ready stance, but his hands weren't up, and it was becoming clear he had no intention of cooperating.

"Whenever you're ready, fanboy."

"So do something, whiny brat boy."

"Dude." Cam was obviously trying to goad him into attacking, but Daniel wasn't impressed. "I've been called so much worse."

Sven looked between the two of them, his face pinching up as he tried not to groan. This wasn't a combat drill, this was babysitting. "If the two of you could stop calling each other names and get on with it, I'd be highly appreciative."

Cam immediately responded to the order and dashed in, lightly smacking the side of Daniel's head as a distraction before kicking his legs out from under him.

The gunner landed on his ass and rolled away from his attacker, who didn't seem inclined to pursue. "Is that it? Bring it on, fanboy."

Cam smirked. "I think I just did."

"You're right, you did." He jumped up, tensing back into a defensive stance. "You learn how to do that watching Keith's ass?"

Glare. "You wish."

"Eh." Daniel shook his head. "I don't need to see that. You're kind of cute, but not my type." He darted forward and tackled him to the ground.

"If I'm not your type, why are you on top of me?" Cam shoved him off before he could answer, and kicked him in his stomach for good measure.

"Ack!" Daniel cried out, winded. "…You're reading too much into that. I'm very rarely on top." Smirking, he scrambled to his feet. His opponent was still trying to get up, and would have been an easy target… but his stomach still hurt as he went to take advantage, so he decided to wait it out.

For heaven's sake. Sven wasn't impressed with the banter, but at least their fighting wasn't terrible. Wasn't the best, but workable.

Cam had regained his feet, eyeing Daniel with a challenging grin. "You gonna hit me or just stand there and breathe?"

Smirking, Daniel lowered his head and ran towards him. Cam started a countermove but Daniel was faster and jerked to side, slapping his ass and spinning away. Sven shook his head. Maybe he'd been too optimistic.

"Oy!" Cam cried out as Daniel got out of range and laughed at him. He wants to play that way? Glaring, he darted in while the brat was laughing and punched him hard in the gut.

"Ugh!" Daniel grabbed his arm and yanked him to the ground—he was going down anyways, and holy fuck his stomach was definitely going to be bruised now. Apparently fanboy was pretty strong. Though not strong enough to pull off his next move, rolling and attempting to toss Daniel away; Daniel didn't go very far, and responded by slamming a knee into his arm.

"Ow, brat!"

"I really haven't earned that nickname."

"Oh yes you have!"

"How?" Daniel stood up, sore and breathing hard; he was getting tired of being punched. He really hated sparring.

Cam stood up too, scowling. "By being you!"

Oh. Daniel thought about that for a moment, then nodded. "…That's fair."

"More than."

Nodding again, Daniel rushed forward and tackled him to the mat. Apparently the floor was where most of this fight was going to take place.

Much like Daniel was tired of getting punched, Cam was very tired of being tackled. Grabbing Daniel by the shoulders, he seized whatever leverage he had and headbutted the brat in the face before rolling off of him and scrambling away.

He needn't have bothered, because Daniel wasn't chasing him. Blood was spurting from his nose, and he'd grabbed it with a shocked cry. "What the fuck, man?!"

"Oops." Cam blinked. That was a little more than he'd been going for.

Sven ran forward and gently started pulling on Daniel's hands, which weren't budging from his face. "Move your hands so I can see if you're okay." After a moment to comprehend that, the kid let him pull his hands away from his bloody nose, wincing as he checked to see if it was broken.

"He looks prettier," Cam commented lightly, still slightly embarrassed but certain the brat had deserved it.

"You're such a dick." Daniel was pissed. Who the fuck headbutts someone?

Shaking his head, Sven looked up at Cam. "Go get tissues or something to stop the bleeding." And so he won't yell at you while I'm trying to examine him.The comms officer returned quickly, carrying the towel he'd brought in with him; Daniel immediately snatched it and pressed it to his face. Sven gave him a mildly reproachful look, but he'd probably seen enough. "It's not broken, just bruised. You'll be fine."

"He'd be prettier if I had broken it," Cam said, and Daniel flipped him off in response.

Sven raised a disapproving eyebrow, but didn't say anything. Looking between the two, he sighed. They aren't that bad. No they are that bad, but Jace is just as bad, and I like him. They'll be fine. He fought down the smile that was trying to form, because it could only be misinterpreted. Explorer Teams. Standing, he offered Daniel a hand to help him up.

"Thanks…"

"You're welcome." He was pretty sure their hand to hand skills had been thoroughly assessed by now, and he was ready to get out of here. Before they started up again. "Alright, you're both dismissed." The idea of saying 'good job' came and went… not only was Jace that bad, he was apparently contagious.

"Yes sir," Daniel and Cam responded at the same time. Cam grinned, then looked over at Daniel and outright smirked. "Might want to avoid the Doc."

The gunner just glared at him, towel still on his face, and walked out the door without a response.

"…Brat." Cam shook his head and followed him out.

*****

Name: Lance Charles McClain
Species: H. sapiens
Age: 23 (4/7/2393)
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 190
Hair: Brown
Eyes: Hazel
Skin: Light
Medical History:

"So, Beau Terre spotted fever. Nineteen percent reactivation rate, that's pretty high among mutant chickenpox variants. Medical recommends re-vaccination after 20, which you haven't done, and they recommend the shot in the ass, which means we've both done something to piss off karma."

Lance stared. "You are fucking kidding me?"

"I fucking wish. It's the recommendation."

"I was talking about my ass."

"So was I." Jace snorted. "Which I promise isn't something I have any interest in talking about."

"You sure, Jace?" The pilot raised an eyebrow. "It's a fine ass… and man, I like sitting on it."

Crossing his arms, Jace raised his eyes to the ceiling and dialed up his most pious tone. "As your duly certified Qualification Level 4 medical professional, I am obligated to tell you the recommendation will give you the most rapid and efficient protection." He dropped the affect and shrugged. "But off the record it's not like stabbing your shoulder won't work."

"Good, you're stabbing my fucking shoulder."

"Not through leather I'm not." Jace filled the syringe—the quite large syringe, hence the recommendation. "Ditch the jacket."

Lance complied, grudgingly. "You sure you don't just want a peek at this fine physique?"

That was certainly the least of his interests. "If that's the way you want to play this, I can insist on the ass… this'll sting like a bitch, just pretend you're back on Sorthal."

"Memories of being stabbed and poisoned? Your bedside manner is fucking atrocious, you know that?"

"It's come up." Shrugging, Jace pushed up his sleeve. "I save asses, I don't kiss them. Or stab them, if I can help it, so let's not make it necessary." He plunged the large needle into Lance's shoulder, holding his arm tight in case he flinched; this shot really was no joke.

That had been a good decision. "FUCKING FUCKING FUCK FUCK!"

Jace opened his mouth to taunt him, took one look at his expression, and turned away to get a bandage instead. "I don't even have the heart to threaten to kiss it and make it better, my man. Go punch a bag or something, working the arm'll help."

Lance glared. "Can I punch your face?"

"No. Punching someone's face is bad for your knuckles."

"Too bad."

"Sorry." Smirk. "Now fuck off. Doctor's orders." He tossed Lance's jacket at him and nearly pushed him out the door; the pilot flipped him off as he left. Well, whatever. That would work the arm too.

*****

Hangar L4-West was in chaos. It was controlled chaos, to be sure, but chaos nonetheless. Trying to hook a multi-ton weapon of mass disruption up to a seventy foot high spaceplane was bound to be touchy enough. The late autumn thunderstorm that had rolled in for the afternoon wasn't helping. They were, after all, in a building with a wide footprint and a metal roof.

It had taken all of two minutes to resort to comm devices, because hearing anyone yell from more than ten feet away was a lost cause.

Vince was trying his best to tune out the pounding rain as he worked; it was going well enough. It wasn't actually the disruptor cannon he was working on right now. In order to install the cannon safely, two of the Bolt's centerline shield nodes had needed to be moved. So he was crouched on the ship's nose, carefully linking the node into a circuit with one of the point defense laser turrets, quietly grateful that nobody else was paying attention to him.

The cannon was being moved while he worked. Hunk was running the lift crane, and probably vrooming, if it could've been heard over the racket from outside. Though hooking it into the ship's power systems would be Vince's job, Flynn was handling the actual bolting it down. Pidge had volunteered to help with that, but someone had to monitor the safety systems, so he was leaning over the main floor systems console looking sullen. Maybe he could hear Hunk's vrooming.

"Steady enough, pit boss?"

"Go down about six inches and ask me again. Might need a little more rotation." Flynn watched the cannon lower towards the hull, frowning. The turret mounting was already in place. Now it was just the delicate process of getting two large pieces of complicated machinery lined up to the very millimeter. "Hold there. Let me get a couple of guide clamps set up."

"Roger that!"

Out of nowhere, an enormous CRASH shook the hangar. A screeching alarm started up somewhere in the distance, the sharp snap of a dozen circuit breakers tripping at once just barely audible. The lights went out with a crackle.

Vince jumped, yelping in shock. Part of him fully expected the shield node to go up in sympathetic sparks—it would be typical. But it didn't seem to… he had maybe the slightest fraction of a second to be relieved before his foot came down on the edge of the turret, and he stumbled backwards, skidding down the Bolt's nose.

Yelling again, for all the good that would do him, he scrambled to grip the smooth cerasilicate exterior of the hull. It wasn't working out. So he held his breath, waiting for the repulsion field to shove him back up onto the ship—it was an unpleasant shock when it happened.

Oh crap, the power…

It didn't happen.

He was falling.

Though intellectually he knew it was only a few seconds, the fall felt like forever. He tried to brace himself. But how did you brace for a fall like this? It was going to—

—Something hit him in the side, bleeding off much of his downward momentum. He felt himself go end over end, whatever had hit him seeming to drag him along with it in at least one full flip, then he hit the ground. Not the floor. Something much softer and warmer than the concrete, something that might have given a slight gasp as he impacted.

Flynn hadn't moved since the lights went out. He was crouched by the clamp he'd been lining up, mentally counting the seconds. It shouldn't be too long. Garrison hangars were built to protect the very large chunks of flying metal inside of them from lightning. Not so much their own structure; overloads happened sometimes. There was only so much you could do to stop a hundred thousand amps from wreaking havoc.

After precisely thirty seconds, the lights came back on. He exhaled and moved forward, flipping on his comms. "Everyone alright?" The words were barely out of his mouth when he came around the cannon far enough to see Vince. Or the empty space where Vince had been working, anyway. "…Vince?!" Sprinting forward, he was already typing in the comms code for Medical, anticipating the worst.

"I see 'im, pit boss. He's uh… okay?" Hunk had jumped out of the lift and was approaching quickly. It wasn't just the one kid sprawled on the floor. Their electrical engineer was in a heap on top of Pidge, who hadn't been anywhere near there when the lights went out. "Little dude? Dudes?"

Though he could hear them on the comms, Vince didn't feel at all prepared to answer. He was too busy gasping for breath and staring dumbfounded at Pidge. "H… h-how did you… I mean, thank you… but how?"

"I can see in the dark," the ninja answered as if that explained everything. "Don't move, you might have broken ribs, they took most of the shock."

Now that he mentioned it, his side did ache pretty badly from the impact. If anything was actually broken he'd think he would have noticed the pain earlier? Really he wouldn't know, the worst he'd ever had before this was a few skinned knees… okay, so he liked to avoid potential injury situations.

"I don't think anything's broken…" Not that he was in any hurry to move regardless, though it seemed like it would be polite to not keep sitting on top of his rescuer. At that thought he blinked. "Uh, are you okay?"

"Fine," Pidge muttered impatiently. "I knew what I was doing." What he had been doing, precisely, was monitoring the safety systems as ordered. When the lights went out he'd been well aware Vince was in a precarious position. Fortunately one of the access ladders had been near enough to let him intervene mid-fall, otherwise they both really would be hurt.

Hunk had reached them, still more than a little concerned. He could see they were talking, and neither seemed to be flailing in pain, but he'd sure have felt better if they answered him. "Little dudes?"

"Sorry, big guy. We're good. Ish." Maybe that was an overstatement. But Vince managed to move enough to give a weak thumbs-up; Pidge gave a reproachful glare.

"He shouldn't be moving until he knows his ribs aren't broken."

Tattletale.

Scrambling down the same access ladder Pidge had used, Flynn entered hearing range just in time to catch the tail end of that. "I already called the medics."

"Ugh, can you not? He's already just waiting for me to get space flu so he can laugh."

Hunk had to bite his lip to keep from chuckling. That sounded right. Flynn didn't bother to fight down his own grin. "Not him, he's on break, and you've suffered enough. Just the nearest med station. Just to be sure." He knelt next to the kids and steadied Vince enough for Pidge to crawl out from beneath him. "Do you need looked at, Pidge?"

"No sir. I'm fine." He'd gone from sounding impatient to mildly insulted.

Flynn eyed him for a moment, then nodded. No sense arguing. "Okay. Hunk, go back and get the physical harnesses, would you? Think we'd best switch." The restrictive harnesses were inferior in most respects to the electromagnetic safety systems… until the power went out, anyway. "Pidge, check the breakers, make sure they all closed back up properly."

"Yessir." He started for the back, then paused a moment. "If Vince is injured I'll do the wiring. Don't let him do anything stupid."

Oh really… watching him go, Flynn found the slightest smile trying to tug at his lips. Maybe they could make this work after all…

The medics came rushing in after a couple more minutes. Vince was fine, just badly bruised. Immediately he'd rejected the offer to go and rest—he'd rather work on wiring than go back and dwell on his brush with maiming or death. More than understandable. He let Hunk get the harnesses set up, turning his attention to Pidge as he returned from the breaker box.

"Breakers are all reset," the young man reported over the comms.

"Good." Flynn beckoned him into normal hearing range. "Once we finish up here, I'll submit your probation waiver."

"Sir?" The ninja stared up at him, looking confused and almost offended. "For what, not letting a crewmate die?"

Well, kind of. "You're here for stabbing a crewmate, aren't you?"

…That was true. Pidge lowered his head slightly, an embarrassed chill rushing over his skin. The bar was low, but it had been set there fairly. "Yessir. Thank you."

Flynn looked down at him, debating whether to elaborate or not. Somehow, he didn't think it would be appreciated. "You did a good job," he said quietly. Maybe that would be enough. He seemed pleased with it, in any case, if the way his eyes widened was any hint. Was it? He opted to assume so, for now.

As another crack of thunder rumbled outside, they got back to work.

*****

Name: Keith Akira Kogane
Species: H. sapiens
Age: 25 (7/25/2391)
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 225
Hair: Black
Eyes: Blue
Skin: Tan
Medical History:

"Everything looks good, except I think they made a mistake on your last round of scans. Or did they just remove that stick from up your ass before running them?"

Apparently, for some reason, the boss had expected something else; he glared. "Excuse me?"

"Oh, there it is." Jace nodded as if he'd just discovered a key symptom. "No problem."

Keith kept glaring, which he answered with the closest thing to an innocent smile he could muster. Finally the boss shook his head, maybe deciding walking out wasn't worth it. "Can we move this along, Doctor?"

"I have to be thorough, boss." Shrug. "You're up to date on your shots, you never miss a checkup, you haven't cut anything off yet even though you play with swords on a regular basis. Model soldier." He applauded, and Keith rolled his eyes. "Hey now. If you can't even take a compliment from your doctor, I hope I never have to stick a needle in your ass. …Honestly I hope I never have to do that anyway."

"Yeah, I'd rather you not do that either."

"Perfect." He smiled faintly, since Keith was still glaring. "You can beat me up for this later."

"Careful, I might take you up on that."

"That's why I offered. I might've learned some things from the last time, though."

"Might have. Might not." The commander cocked his head. "So, are we done? Or do you have any more rude remarks to make about my medical history?"

Jace considered that for a few seconds. "I can probably find some if you want."

"Thanks, Doc." He stood, turning to the door as the medic tossed him a casual salute.

"Any time you need someone to mock you though, come on back. Walk-ins welcome."

Keith paused a moment, looking back at him with narrowed eyes. "I'm only going to say this once, Doc, so listen carefully. Fuck off."

It took a minute for Jace to find words. "…Get the fuck back here, I need to check you for brain damage."

"Nope. Later, Doc."

Staring after him, Jace's dumbfounded look slowly turned into a satisfied smirk. He turned away and made another note on his datapad.

Treatment proceeding adequately.

*****

The castle tunnels, unlike other shelters on Arus, had been built with escape rather than only survival in mind. Several narrow passages ran for over a mile beneath the Meadows of Raimon, coming out in the foothills of the Kyva Mountains. It wasn't enough to put them in contact with any of the other shelters… but the foothills did offer plentiful cover, plentiful rolis, and somewhere to slip out and breathe without being surrounded by ruins and ash.

It was windy today, and Allura's enjoyment of the fresh air was interrupted by a large, spiky leaf suddenly plastered to her face by a gust. The spiny edges hooked into her hair and stayed there. "Ugh… yukol leaf."

"Here we see the feral leaf in its natural habitat!" Larmina whispered beside her as she carefully peeled it off. "Today it's attacking rare prey, an Arusian princess…"

Allura smiled, tossing the leaf at her. It fluttered harmlessly to the ground. Scowling in the direction of the nearby yukol tree just on principle, she moved on.

"Better be careful, Auntie." Larmina climbed up a small embankment, looking around. "The rolis are even more vicious. And fuzzy." She sighted one off to her left and carefully drew her bow. She was getting decent at hitting the little beasts, but she wasn't fast. "Viciously fuzzy."

"Mmm, don't forget cute." Allura came up next to her and took the shot, the arrow whistling straight into the roli's striped flank. "But cute doesn't always save one's rear, I'm afraid."

Larmina slowly lowered the bow and grinned faintly. "Showoff."

"You'll get there. I'm seeing the improvement." She moved forward into the brush to collect her catch. "Before you know it, rolis will know to fear all Arusian princesses."

"Hmph. Only one princess here." Larmina ducked under a yukol branch and looked around for any more twitches of movement. Nothing so far. "You didn't come out here just to make sure I'm handling a bow okay, did you? You could've stayed in the caves and done princess stuff if you wanted." It wasn't that she didn't like having Auntie out here with her… but she really wasn't worth it, if that was all there was. The people needed her more.

For a moment Allura was silent, looking up and scanning the sky. The Drule bombardments may have stopped, but scout patrols were still common. After reassuring herself it was clear, she turned back to the younger girl. "I am doing 'princess stuff' up here. Using my skills to supply food." Being the princess shouldn't exempt her from such duty, she was sure. Besides… "…and getting some fresh air, as well."

Another gust of wind howled around them. It put Larmina on edge, just a little. The wind felt different than it had in the forest, and now that she was here, she found herself almost missing the strange growl that had bothered her before. "They do say fresh air is good for you. For health. And stuff."

"Yes. As much as the caves protect us, we can't live in them forever."

"What are the options?" Another roli poked its head up out of some scrub plants, and she tried to take a quick shot. The arrow clipped one long ear and it bounded away, leaving a small trickle of blood behind. She scowled, not only at the missed shot. "I don't think the Drules are just going to apologize and leave."

"No… that is one thing they're not going to do. Somehow we need to gain back our land." Allura closed her eyes, muttering almost to herself. "Just the when, how, and where are the questions."

"…Well, yeah. Just a little detail or two."

Little details. Allura moved further into a stand of trees, shaking her head slightly. It wasn't just the caves themselves she'd needed to get out of. It was, truthfully, the princess stuff. With her father out searching, Tanner and even Nanny missing… she had to be strong for her people, but who was there to be strong for her? Perhaps she and her honorary niece simply had to rely on each other.

"I know. It seems obvious when I say it out loud." She laughed weakly, putting a hand to her forehead. "Maybe the caves have gotten to me. But we have to find hope somewhere, there's so little in this moment… we can't just give up because it seems impossible now."

That, Larmina supposed, was true. She slid down a small slope, taking a little time and space to gather her thoughts. "You really think there's a way out of this?"

Allura was silent for a long time. Much too long, in Larmina's opinion. "…I don't know," she admitted finally. "It's hard to imagine right now, but I still believe in my father. Somehow, he'll find a way." It had been so long since he'd even returned to the castle tunnels, but she knew they would have heard if he'd been captured…

"Yeah. What is he doing, anyway? Aren't the Drules looking for him specifically? Seems like he'd be better off staying underground, but what do I know."

But staying underground won't wake the Lions from their slumber. For a moment Allura was sorely tempted to confide in her completely. But… no. The years of having secrecy impressed upon her still weighed too heavily. "He's trying to find a way to accomplish the impossible." I hope it is possible. It must be possible.

Larmina frowned slightly at the non-answer, though it didn't surprise her. Can't tell the half-royal bastard child, got it. There were, no doubt, practical concerns at play. The more people who knew where King Alfor was, the more danger he was in. It was none of her business. She wasn't upset by it. Not at all. Nope. "Hope for the best, right?"

"It is better than the alternatives."

Also probably true. Whatever. Finally Larmina sighted what she'd been looking for—the trail of blood the roli she'd clipped had left behind. Motioning for silence she began to follow the trail, keeping her eyes open for any of its friends that might jump out. After all, rolis were vicious in their fuzziness.

The trail didn't go far before vanishing into some thick underbrush. She wasn't about to let that stop her, and pushed some brambles aside… and sprang back with wide eyes. "Dovayat polesta!" Immediately she slapped a hand over her own mouth, blushing bright. That had been way, way too loud. And using that kind of language in front of Auntie was probably not the best move.

Mercifully though, Auntie didn't comment, instead moving closer and raising her bow. "What is it?"

"It's, um…" Larmina hesitantly pushed the branches aside again, half hoping it had been get imagination. Nope, still there. "Someone, uh, has been having way more fun than us out here."

Well that didn't seem to be an answer. Allura came up behind her, pushing a few more branches out of the way, and her own eyes widened. A dead Drule was laying there in a pool of bluish blood; the delicately filigreed sword buried in his guts left no question as to how he'd wound up that way.

Her first instinct was to scan the skies again. Silent for now, but how long would that last? "Someone is bound to come looking for their missing scout." She'd heard more than a few tales recently of ambushes being counter-ambushed. "We may want to finish our hunt elsewhere."

"Yeah, might want to." Despite her agreement, Larmina didn't move. She looked mildly ill as she stared at the body. "I guess some of the Golden Knights are still out there causing problems, huh?"

"So it seems." Allura was still scanning their surroundings, but the only sound was another whistle of wind. "May they always be thorns in the Drules' sides."

"Damn right." And there was the language again. Oh well. Just leaving a perfectly good sword behind seemed silly, so Larmina carefully stepped through the brambles and pulled it out of the scout's stomach. Dark blood splattered around it. "Eww."

Chuckling, Auntie motioned for her to move it, but she hesitated a moment longer. She had been taught some Drakure—they were on the border of the Ninth Kingdom, and royal education was comprehensive. Very few of the words had stuck with her, and most of those were impolite. It was one of those words she scratched into a rock near the body.

Turning to follow Allura elsewhere, she kept a tight grip on the sword. She had very little idea how to use a sword properly, but it made her feel better somehow… a reminder that they weren't alone out here, maybe. Arus was still fighting. There was still hope.

The rest of the hunt was mercifully uneventful, and before they knew it twilight was starting to fall. That was their cue to return. Carrying a light would be insane with the Drules owning the skies. But they may have walked a bit more slowly than usual, and not just because of the rolis they were dragging along behind them.

A ruined shell of a cabin hid one entrance to the tunnels. It had always been ruined. The vines creeping over the crumbling stone had been planted centuries ago, deliberately haphazard. As they ducked beneath a curtain of green they stopped to count their catch one last time. A good day, without doubt; they'd brought down a dozen rolis between them.

Allura had more. But Larmina had a sword, not to mention a few branches full of berries she'd cut free on the way back. "You may have more rolis, but I have more variety!" she announced with a sly grin.

Checking over her arrows—even those were a precious commodity now, and they'd managed to recover nearly all of them—Allura chuckled softly. "That's perfect. We can always use berries, not to mention a good sword."

"Always." Larmina looked to the sky, where the moon was shining as a faint sliver. It would have been a beautiful night… "Guess we have to go in now, huh."

The princess nodded. "One day, we won't have to go back into the caves. I'm sure of it. Sadly, today is not that day." Looking not towards the moon but towards the mountains, she murmured under her breath, "Wake, oh Lions… please…"

Larmina shot her a sharp look, catching about half of the murmur. Lions? What lions? She'd heard tales of the ancient guardian beasts that had once roamed the plains of Arus, but nobody had actually seen a lion since the War of Golden Revival centuries ago. Lions were a myth. But then, so were banewolves… as if answering her thoughts, the wind howled around them.

In the distance, a low growl echoed in the breeze. Or did it? The moment she tried to grasp it, it was gone… shaking her head, she pushed more vines aside to reveal the tunnels beyond. "Come on, let's go. If they see us, it'll be way worse than the caves. Just… keep telling ourselves that."

"Yes." Allura nodded slowly, slinging her quiver back over her shoulder and gathering up her string of rolis. Once more she looked up at the mountains. The dark clouds of Thunder Ridge were sometimes visible from here on clear days; now there was just featureless night. But the image of Black Lion, silent and still in its den, flickered into her mind.

Please…

Reaching up to brush away a tear of longing trying to form, she turned and followed Larmina into the tunnels.

Chapter Text

 

It had been almost two weeks since the initial non-briefing when the summons came in. Intel had done all they could with the results of their last mission, and it was time for Explorer Team 686 to get their new marching orders. Flying orders. Whatever. In any case, they were finally going to learn what this mission was actually about, and most of the team was very ready for it.

Most of them. The veterans, at least. The kids were less impressed.

Daniel had been in the briefing room for all of two minutes, and was already bouncing his leg in boredom, trying to keep his mind off his sore nose. Pidge was sitting in a corner looking surly. Vince was hovering near Hunk, warily eyeing the ninja and the several members of the bridge crew he had yet to formally meet. Only Cam was sitting at attention, eager to show off how seriously he was taking his new assignment.

The room was quiet, and a bit uneasy—not tense, per se, but uneasy—when Colonel Hawkins walked in. "Morning, gentlemen." He looked around. Nobody seemed to have been murdering each other, which was often the bar Explorer Teams were held to. Though along with the new additions, he noticed something missing… arching an eyebrow, he turned to their bomb tech. "What, no donuts?"

"My roomie swiped 'em," Hunk answered matter-of-factly. "Take an IOU?"

Hawkins chuckled. "That's alright."

"I miss the donuts," Lance muttered, drawing a furtive nod of agreement from Sven. Jace glowered.

"In any case, it's time officially to give you all your mission. Unless you were enjoying 'you're going somewhere to look for something'... though," Hawkins turned and started to pace uneasily, "this is only marginally better."

"Marginally?" Lance snorted. "I'll believe that when I hear it."

Keith nodded. "Considering what we had before, sir, something is definitely better."

"Alright." The colonel kept pacing. "The crystal you recovered from Sorthal has been… about as decrypted as intel feels they can decrypt it. It is, apparently, a combination of historical archive and some kind of distress beacon."

"Distress? After what you'd have to go through to get it?" Jace muttered. "Seems legit."

"That's not a lie."

"No kiddin'."

"But having to go through all that to reach it, already being in distress?" Keith frowned. "It doesn't make sense."

Sven looked around at the others. They were good questions, but he couldn't help feeling everyone was missing the obvious. "A distress beacon for what, sir?"

Nodding his appreciation for the question, Hawkins stopped pacing. "The data discusses, and was apparently left there to signal, an ancient superweapon called Voltron. Intel believes this weapon is what the Galra are searching for. Command wants it first."

The team exchanged glances; Keith was the first to break the silence. "Voltron." He arched an eyebrow. "Must be some weapon, given the size of our ship."

Lance had other concerns. "Voltron? Sounds like Megatron's brother."

"That can't be a real name," Flynn agreed. "Can it?"

Vince looked uneasily around the room, debating speaking up in this Voltron's defense. He wasn't actually going to say anything. But he did remember learning about angels in a religious studies class, and a reaction very much like this to—

"If some angelic voice of God dude can just happen to be called Metatron, some ancient alien superweapon can just happen to be called Voltron, yeah?"

Several people turned shocked looks on Hunk, and Vince gave a small sigh of relief.

"The fuck?" Lance blinked. "Metatron is a real thing? I thought that was just for the movie."

"Totally is!" Grin. "There's a great documentary on the remake, it's called Rethinking Dogma…"

Hawkins lightly cleared his throat before anyone else could ask what they were talking about—though truthfully, most of the team knew better than that by now. Keith blushed slightly. "I apologize for my team, sir. Please continue."

"I don't think they're sorry, Commander." Hawkins looked more amused than anything. "But yes, let's move on."

"Okay, so, we go fetch this Voltron thing and bring it back." Jace leaned forward in his chair. "What's the catch?"

"It's a large one." The colonel sighed. "What intel believes to be the actual location data was in a completely undecipherable format—it isn't native to Sorthal, they checked. They didn't think they could trigger the beacon, which probably would have been a terrible idea anyway. That leaves us with the background data, which seems to indicate that this Voltron can be found on the planet Altea. We have no records of any such planet."

"You had to ask," Hunk scolded Jace, who obligingly flipped him off.

"So, go find an unknown planet with a weapon called Voltron." Lance shrugged. "Fuck, why not?"

"Yeah, wonderful." Keith shook his head. "Another wild goose chase."

Flynn crossed his arms and leaned back, looking thoughtful. "If I've learned anything from the movies these people have been making me watch, it's that this is where Holgersson jumps up and tells us he's the one navigator in the Alliance who knows where Altea is." He looked over at Sven. "Any chance of it?"

Lance snickered proudly; Keith gave him his best what have they done to you? look. Their navigator just blinked. "I'm afraid not."

Shrug. "It was worth a try."

Despite that, this was Sven's area of expertise. He felt responsible… which made the blank his mind was drawing all the more frustrating. And something else wasn't sitting quite right, something he couldn't put a finger on. "I'm not even sure where to begin. Do we have any other information? Or at least a starting point?"

"That's all we have, I'm afraid." Hawkins shook his head. "Intel did investigate thoroughly on Sorthal, trying to find any more leads, but they came up empty."

Keith didn't look enthused. At all. "So we just… go to every planet in range and ask where to find Altea?"

"Not exactly. Based on the age of the crystal, there may be folklore to be found regarding the planet. Stories or rumors that wouldn't make it into our stellar databases. Possibly even legends about the weapon—though if it is what the Galra are searching for, the less you can mention it, the better."

Somewhere in the middle of that, Sven found words for what was bothering him. "Sir, if I may, the crystal was quite large. Why do we have so little information?"

If he didn't know better, he'd have said Hawkins looked grateful to be asked the question. He probably didn't like all this vagueness any better than they did. "There was an enormous amount of data on the crystal. Much of it was structural, so to speak. Very little of it was relevant to the location of this Voltron."

Sven nodded his understanding, but Jace snorted derisively. "We're supposed to trust what intel tells us isn't relevant?"

"Fuck," Lance grumbled, "I agree with Jace."

"Hey, you're getting smarter!"

"No, that's you."

Hawkins looked between them and rolled his eyes. "Boys, you're both pretty."

Maybe it was just as well they didn't have donuts; the round of choked snickers that went through the room might have killed someone. Keith looked absolutely mortified. Lance, on the other hand, just raised an eyebrow and nodded respectfully, while Jace gave a casual salute.

Without missing a beat, Hawkins pulled out his datapad and called up a file. "Anyway, it's a fair point. I'll tell you what I can. First, the crystal included a historical record of events on Sorthal. Intel believes the bulk of that data was in a graphical format, hence the crystal's size. Much like the location data, the format was too alien for them to reconstruct the visuals. They did manage to pull much of the accompanying text. I can give you the overview, if you'd like it."

Several nods answered him. Even Pidge leaned forward, his surly expression fading slightly. Lance, having apparently recovered from his burn already, waved for him to continue. "Might be some folklore that could be handy in finding it, maybe?"

"Maybe." The colonel scanned his datapad for a moment. "Alright. Sorthal was originally home to two sapient races, the Sorith and the Thalesse. They evolved on different continents and were peaceful, but incompatible, so each pretty much kept to their own land. Then some kind of… deep space monstrosity descended on the planet. The Thalesse were almost completely wiped out within a week."

Deep space monstrosity? Keith, Sven, and Jace exchanged looks, the monster on Kithran immediately springing back to mind. Vince audibly gulped. Nobody said a word, and the colonel had everyone's complete attention when he spoke again.

"The Sorith were scrambling for a contingency plan when the Voltron weapon arrived… somehow. The record is clear that it was unknown to Sorthal at the time. But it arrived and destroyed the monster." Hawkins' dark eyes narrowed. "The monster, let me emphasize, that had just laid waste to an entire continent."

"Wow…"

"Holy fuck. It killed the monstrosity by itself?"

"Yes." He looked around the room. "We have no proof, of course, that this isn't an exaggerated myth. But we have no reason to assume it is. What we know of Sorthal supports it. The crystal confirms that the Voltron weapon's operators constructed the temple you found as a kind of waypoint, with the assistance of the few remaining Thalesse." Lowering his eyes, he paused a moment before continuing. "They suspected their population was too devastated to recover, but swore to protect the temple as long as they could. The Sorith promised to leave their continent as a memorial."

Flynn clenched his fists and hissed; Lance cleared his throat, blinking heavily. They glanced at each other and exchanged brief nods in the silence. Then Lance raised his head, eyes narrowed. "The fucking Galra can't have this thing." Answering nods ran around the room.

"Yes," Hawkins agreed. "To be clear, if you locate this weapon but find it unrecoverable, your orders are to deny it to the Galra at any cost. But that's very much a last resort."

"Uh, are we sure we've got a big enough cargo bay?" Hunk asked. "Kinda suck to hafta blow this thing cuz we can't fit it aboard, yeah?"

"You've been equipped with intel's best guess, as far as transport goes… not to mention the largest ship with any sort of versatility. If it's not sufficient, as long as the weapon isn't in immediate danger you'll contact us and we'll figure out a plan B."

"Intel's best guess?" Lance muttered. "Expect that plan B message."

"Sir, you haven't told us the nature of the weapon." Several people jumped as Pidge spoke up quietly from the corner. "Or what to do if Altea doesn't want us to retrieve it."

Keith eyed their systems analyst and nodded approvingly. Hawkins nodded also. "We don't know how long the Galra have been searching for this weapon, but we've seen raids from them for a bit over a century. That, combined with the lack of any other records of Altea or Voltron, leads Command to believe they are no longer active." He grimaced. "If that turns out not to be true, well… that's when we start looking for plan C."

Sven arched an eyebrow, exchanging glances with Jace. "We seem to have a lot of named plans without actual plans attached to them…"

Their commander seemed equally unimpressed. "I'm not liking this mission already, sir."

"We're gonna run out of alphabet," Lance agreed.

Flynn, for his part, had been wondering from the beginning why this whole mission wasn't an intel operation. Now it was starting to make sense. "The more backup plans you add to this, the more I see why it's going to an Explorer Team."

"You did all seem quite adept at improvising on your first mission," Hawkins said with a wry smile. "I'm sure it'll rub off on your new teammates."

"Always happy to corrupt people, sir." Lance grinned.

Daniel had been doing something unusual so far—behaving—but he couldn't help a smirk at that. As if he needed corrupting? He was already there. "Sounds like it's gonna be fun!"

Improvising. Keith's thoughts immediately drifted back to their escape from Sorthal. Is that what we're calling it now? For that matter, 'fun' was not the word he would've chosen for this either.

All of that had only answered half of Pidge's question, and it hadn't gone unnoticed by at least two team members. Hunk wasn't going to say anything—it would ruin his Big Dumb Hunk vibe. Cam, on the other hand, had been quiet and attentive through the whole briefing, and jumped at the chance to prove his usefulness. "Pardon me, sir, but you didn't answer the first part of the specialist's question. What is the nature of this weapon?"

Eyeing the comms officer, Hawkins exhaled slowly and tried to decide how to answer that. It was a fair and valid question, in his opinion, especially for the team that would be searching for it. The brass seemed to feel otherwise. "Intel claims they can't discern that—it's like nothing they've ever seen or heard of. They focused most of their efforts with the graphical format on getting an image of the weapon, but the results left… quite a bit to be desired." Calling the product of intel's best efforts wholly useless seemed strong, though he was certain nobody would disagree.

Cam frowned. "Can we see it?"

He'd already been pulling up the new file on his datapad. Maybe, he mused as he studied it again, it wasn't wholly useless. It certainly had one distinctive element… "Here you go." He linked the image into the room's projector system. A smear of five colors shot through with streaks of silver appeared on the screen.

Immediately, Lance's eyes fell on the bright red blur. It was exactly the same shade as that metal, the apparently mystical metal… he had no clue what it could mean, and went for sarcasm to ground himself. "What is that, a five year old's artwork?"

"There's no need to insult five year olds, caralho," Jace objected. "Especially now that we're working with some."

All four of the kids glared at the medic for that, but Lance nodded sagely. "Point, point. What is that, Jace's artwork?"

"…Well played. And fuck you."

Lance just smirked.

Hunk leaned forward, squinting at the screen as if that would somehow make it better, then gave up and shrugged. "So we're lookin' for some deadly abstract art? I'm up for it."

"But look at the colors," Keith said quietly. "Black… red… blue, yellow, and green. It matches the colors in that temple." It made sense, given what the colonel had told them about the temple's history, but at least it was something. Maybe. Hopefully?

It didn't reassure Jace at all. "If we run into another fucking Garden of Murder, we're calling intel out to walk through it. Call it plan F, for 'fuck this'."

"Fuck yes," Lance agreed.

Daniel perked up a little; that actually sounded interesting. "Garden of murder?"

Lance waved him off. "You don't want to know, kid."

"See, that makes me want to know."

"I was stuck with him." Their pilot jabbed his thumb at Jace. "It was horrifying."

Remembering his medical exam, Daniel nodded slowly. "That sounds about right."

Smirk. "Newbie is onto you, Doc."

"Hey, he's not as dumb as he looks." Jace shrugged. "I respect it, I guess."

Hawkins was usually inclined to give his teams plenty of leeway, especially after telling them they were going to be hunting down something they'd never even seen. Keith was less willing to let this go on. "Boys. Enough."

They fell silent, though Daniel made a point of rolling his eyes. Hawkins waited a moment, then took the picture down and shook his head. "I'll be straight with you, gentlemen. This mission is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, and there's no sense pretending otherwise. But hunting down this kind of long shot is precisely what the Explorer Teams were created to do. On the slim chance you find it? It could change everything." A slight grin crept over his face. "If you do, I did get Command to authorize you to attempt to restore and test it out. You'll certainly deserve that much."

"So we find it and take it for a test drive…" Cam laughed softly. "At least they trust us to give it back."

Daniel raised an eyebrow. "Ha, like you'd break protocol."

"Shut up, brat."

"Make me, fanboy."

The death glare Keith gave them both was something to behold. It was Flynn who shut them up, though, glancing between them and then between Lance and Jace. "Faex, there's more of them."

Lance eyed Jace, considering that, then shook his head slightly. Nah, we do it better. Jace looked back at him, debating flipping him off, but then just shrugged and tossed another salute.

"Sorry, sir." Cam blushed. Daniel remained silent; he wasn't sorry.

Chuckling, Hawkins flipped the projector off. "If you have no other questions, gentlemen… this room is open until six, if you'd like to use it to devise your strategy. Though if you have a conference room with a dead hydraulic line in your new ship, you're welcome to use that instead."

"It wasn't a conference room," Flynn said indignantly. "It was the crew quarters, they sprung a hydraulic leak in their bedroom—" He could've kept going, but Hunk slapped a hand over his mouth.

"What the pit boss means to say is, thanks, Colonel Bossman!"

"I don't think that's what he was gonna say," Lance observed lightly. Can he just say hydraulic again?

Keith winced. He'd nearly forgotten about Bob the hydraulic line. "Does this one have an RIP sign anywhere, Flynn?"

"Yeah," Jace snorted, "he RIP'd the fucking nameplate."

"…Huh?"

"Don't get him started."

"Oh, do get him started," Lance countered. That was accompanied by a playful nudge, drawing a blush that was mercifully mostly hidden by Hunk's hand.

Not that he was going to suffer that indignity for long. Rolling his eyes and making a mental note to give Hunk several extra shifts later, Flynn recovered and pushed the big engineer's hand aside. "I corrected the name. It needed it. Don't you read your messages?"

Keith did, in fact, read his messages. He just hadn't realized the nameplate had actually been changed. Hawkins, on the other hand, arched an eyebrow. "What was wrong with the name?"

"Thor had a hammer," the chief engineer answered flatly. "Vulcan had a hammer. Jupiter did not have a hammer, Jupiter had a thunderbolt. This is my hill and I will die on it, thank you very much."

"Ah, I see." He chuckled. Explorer Teams, never boring. "Well, gentlemen, if intel comes up with anything more I'll let you know. But I wouldn't count on it. Good luck." With that he departed the room, leaving the 686 to do their thing.

*****

Eventually, they'd managed to come to an agreement on the strategy session. First, they may as well use the briefing room Hawkins had so kindly offered. The Bolt did have conference rooms, several, but they'd be seeing plenty of those in the coming months. Second, they needed breakfast first. It was tradition. The briefing room's coffee pot had been set to work.

Food had fallen to Hunk, of course. There was a spirited debate going on about the merits of simulator training when he returned to the room. "Don't say I never did anything for you guys." He chuckled, plunking down a box of donuts and a tray of still-sizzling bacon. "I ordered a dozen delivered to Colonel Bossman too, wish I could see his face."

Cam, who'd been interrupted in the middle of arguing that the commander needed to see them work in a controlled environment, completely lost the thread as he stared at the donuts. "What the hell are those things? They're huge."

"They're beautiful," Daniel declared, grabbing one. Sven took one too, as did Vince after a long moment of contemplation. Donuts and bacon seemed like an odd mix.

Jace rolled his eyes. "They're circular murder. Eat up."

Picking out a donut of his own, Lance took some bacon as well and waved it in the medic's direction. "Sure you don't want some, Jace?"

"Stop waving your meat at me, McClain." That got him a wink.

Keith sighed, taking some bacon and glancing around the team. Somehow, Pidge had snagged a piece of bacon without anyone seeing him move, and Cam had given in and acquired a donut. That seemed to be everyone who was interested… "Well, once everyone settles down we can get started."

"Boss," Lance objected through a mouthful of donut, "us? Settle down?"

"We're settled enough," Flynn agreed.

Fair enough, Keith supposed. "In that case… everyone knows our orders. Our obscenely vague orders."

"Totally." Hunk took a huge bite of his donut. "We've got two names, what more do we need?"

"A fucking map," Jace snorted. "But okay, who's got ideas for where we go to find a planet that doesn't exist?"

"The super secret planet emporium?" Lance suggested with a shrug.

Keith frowned, dialing up his most confident tone. "There are places out there with knowledge and information." Hopefully. "We just need to decide which would be the most… fruitful. Suggestions?"

A few uneasy glances shot around the room; suggestions weren't coming easily. Finally Cam tilted his head. The veterans clearly had a low opinion of intel, so… "Maybe we should start at Sorthal anyway? See if intel missed anything?"

Six voices responded in unison. "NO!"

He flinched back into his chair, wide-eyed. "Why not?"

"We can't go back there."

"Ever."

"Also, fuck that place."

"There was lightning."

"And ice water."

"And murder vines."

"And boxes."

"And an illegal escape from the planet that I told them not to do."

"Okay, okay." Cam still had no idea what was going on, but was convinced he would only regret asking for further elaboration. "Not Sorthal."

"Absolutely fucking not." Lance hesitated. "If we're assuming the metal is related to this Voltron, how about Terina? They must have had a visit." Smirk. "Plus they're hot."

Sven rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "They didn't seem to have much interest in history. Even Ioan only knew something about beasts from the clouds."

"True, but we only talked to two of them. And it's not like we're overflowing with ideas."

"That is true."

"It's better than nothing," Keith agreed, entering it into his datapad. "Anything else?"

The mention of Terina had jogged Hunk's memory. "What about the Bataxi? They're like… door to door saleslizards, aren't they? Maybe this Altea's a planet they've got a port on."

Flynn nearly choked on his coffee at that description, and took a few moments to recover. "Have you ever tried to get information out of a Bataxi about where they set up their 'temples'?"

"…No?"

Keith looked to his second. "Is it hard?"

"It offends them. Back on the Magnusson we tried asking for directions once, we were never allowed at that port again."

"…Okay, so asking them is out. Any other suggestions?"

"That seems a bit over the top," Lance muttered so only Flynn could hear.

"They invoke five different gods to fill a fuel tank, you're expecting subtlety and nuance?" the engineer murmured back, then raised his voice. "What about Gliskor?"

Now that was an abrupt turn, though it made some sense. The Glis were the oldest of the Alliance's founding races—their interstellar empire had risen and fallen while humans were still living in caves. They had provided the star charts of the vast Interior Expanse that were still in use to this day. Keith nodded slowly. "I suppose that's a possibility."

"They might know something," Sven agreed, thinking carefully. "But they pretty much provided the stellar database, why wouldn't it be in there? And if this weapon wasn't around before their empire collapsed, they wouldn't be in any better position to know about it than anyone else. It would have to be what, 20,000 years old?"

Jace shrugged. "They did say it was ancient, that sounds ancient to me."

Lacking any suggestions or opinions on the matter of hunting down possible folklore, Daniel had opted to focus on the best donut he'd ever eaten rather than the meeting. He'd just finished eating and started listening again, only to be greeted with very large numbers and complicated ancient history… he decided to just grab another donut.

Vince, though, had been thinking. The Glis weren't a bad suggestion, but their information was old. But there were certainly other civilizations carrying the torch in modern times… oh. Oh. "Oh!"

When Sven turned to face him, he realized he'd spoken out loud and covered his mouth with both hands. He definitely hadn't meant to do that. Hunk eyed him too, offering an encouraging grin. "Got somethin', little dude?"

Welp. No getting out of this one. He cleared his throat of a stubborn bit of donut and nodded tentatively. "There is Kaliega."

"Kaliega…" Keith was obviously struggling to remember where he'd heard that name before. "That is an interesting suggestion."

"That is a wonderful suggestion," Sven corrected, eyes shining eagerly. Jace glanced over at him with some concern; the last time he'd seen that look on the Viking's face, he'd been talking about severing boar-tah spines.

Lance frowned. "What's a Kaliega?"

"It's the homeworld of the Lygoth. They're the best astronomers and stellar cartographers in the modern Alliance." Sven was trying to figure out how he hadn't thought of this himself; he'd wanted to visit Kaliega since the first moment he'd heard of it. "Their Cathedral of Stars is legendary."

Keith weighed the options for a minute. He remembered Kaliega now; the Lygoth had the opposite problem as the Glis. They were a relatively young race, and this Altea might very well predate them. But then, he didn't think the Sorith were anywhere near as old as the Glis, so… "We'll go to Terina, it's a long shot but a short trip. I think our first stop after that will be Kaliega. If we don't come up with something there, then we can try Gliskor."

"Why do star dudes trump 20,000 years of knowledge?" Lance asked, more curious than challenging.

"The Glis don't have 20,000 years of knowledge," Pidge said abruptly, sounding mildly contemptuous. "They lost 20,000 years of knowledge."

That was not an entirely accurate summary of the situation, but it was close enough. It got him a nervous look from Vince, a raised eyebrow from Flynn… and a broad smile from Sven, who was willing to take support anywhere he could get it. "I like that one."

Keith motioned for silence. "I'm sure we could do with exhausting all our other options before we go harass an ancient race." Under his breath he added, "because that's exactly what we'd end up doing, I'm sure…"

"Kaliega is also closer to Terina than Gliskor is," Sven added. That also was not entirely accurate, the difference was really negligible by interstellar standards. But the route to Gliskor from the Rim was more complex, hence slower… and he really, really wanted to go to Kaliega.

Flynn smirked. "Parikullax is closer than both of them, if we want to go get blacklisted by door to door saleslizards just to start this thing off correctly." Beside him, Lance snickered.

"How about we not." Keith gave them both a reproachful look. "The Bataxi are likely to be in charge of some of the ports we'll need to visit, it would be best if we not anger them."

"Besides," Jace snorted, "we'll get in enough fucking trouble as it is without going and looking for it."

Hunk chuckled. "It's our superpower." He grabbed another donut and looked around the table, shaking his head. "What's the rush, anyway? We're goin' on a sanctioned epic road trip for who knows how long and you're all worried about actually findin' the thing fast? Sheesh."

"Yes, we are," Keith answered with a frown. "We have our plan. Terina, Kaliega, and Gliskor. Hopefully at least one of them will have some information…" He exhaled slowly. "God help us if they don't."

"Yeah," Daniel snorted, "I'm sure we're on the top of God's help list."

"They'll totally point us directly toward…" Lance paused, making a face. "Boltron?"

"Voltron, McClain." Keith rolled his eyes.

"Oh, right. Because that makes much more sense."

"Yeah, the Bolt is the ship. Or something." Jace leaned back in his chair. "I'm kinda with giant donut dumbass, they're shipping us out on this crazy-ass joke of a mission, we may as well take a few rest stops. Who's gonna know?"

"We will," Cam answered, looking slightly scandalized. "And it would have to go in any reports we send back." Next to him, Daniel rolled his eyes theatrically.

The medic wasn't having it either. "I've already got reason to stab you at will, kid. Just saying."

Glare. "I took my meds. Leave me alone."

"Besides," Sven smacked his arm, "if you stab him, you're the one who has to fix him."

"Fix him? I didn't take that level of surgery, but I could arrange something."

For some reason, Sven had not expected that, and just stared at him with his most disapproving look. Most of the kids stared too. Lance snickered, though his mind was elsewhere. He should be with Hunk and Jace on the issue of side trips, but it didn't sit right, somehow. The memory of warmth tingled in his fingers… he wanted to find this thing. He really wanted to find it.

Which did raise another question… "If we actually find this Altea, assuming it is all ancient alien ruins and crap, how are we supposed to find this weapon when all we have to go off of is Jace's finger painting?"

Jace started to respond; Sven took one look at Keith's expression and elbowed him, hard. After a moment's thought Hunk spoke up. "Well, if we think the weird metal is actually part of this Voltron—that is what we're goin' with, yeah?"

"Probably?"

"Seems reasonable."

"I think that would be the best, at least until we find reason to think otherwise." Keith nodded. "What do you have in mind?"

"Well, we know it still reads as metal. Wouldn't be too hard to set up the scanners to look for a big chunk of metal that ain't givin' off any energy readings. And once we find that, we know what we're lookin' for is all technicolor, it oughta stand out. Hopefully."

That was a lot of hoping, in Keith's opinion, but so was everything else about this mission. It was better to have a nebulous plan than no plan at all. "Alright. Flynn, when will we be able to launch?"

"Soon?" Shrug. "The ship is about ready, we just need to do a weapons test and final hull inspection. It's probably safe to request a launch slot for next week."

"Good." After over a month of waiting and wondering, having a concrete task before them felt good—even if calling it a concrete task was a bit of an overstatement. Wet concrete, maybe. But they had their goal, now. "I want everyone to enjoy these last few days on the ground, but get packed sooner rather than later. When we get our slot I expect you all to be ready."

Answering nods went around the room. Pidge shifted. "Are we finished then, sir?"

"Yes. Dismissed."

With a few salutes of varying seriousness, and a few extra donuts to go, the team headed out.

*****

It was hard to tell how much time had passed since her arrival to the shelter, deep within the tunnels. Between a few cave collapses, and more than a few moments when it looked like the Drules had breached the shelter network, it felt like forever to Nanny. But there had finally been some movement, attempts to find the rumored extension tunnels that allowed for movement between shelters. It had taken some time for the few that were aware of such things to get their bearings after the shocking attack. More time yet to find the doorways that accessed the tunnels; they were well hidden for obvious reasons. Then of course, the wait to make sure opening the doors would not alert the Drules above.

Still, there was tangible progress, and it gave Nanny hope. Golden Gods willing, it would be soon that she could regroup with the young prince, and they could make their way back towards the castle.

In the meantime, she had made use of herself tending to the wounded and preparing food for others—what little they had. The shelters had been stocked with some rations, but it was only so much that was still edible. Now that the new tunnels were opening up, it offered some hope to gain access to fresher food from hunting or foraging. Risky, certainly. But necessary. Expedition teams were already being formed.

Nanny had an expedition of her own in mind. As the others had been making plans to improve conditions in the tunnels, she started to plan her departure. First, she made sure there was enough food prepared to last a bit, so her departure would not be too sudden for whoever was taking her place. Then she gathered some food for her own travel. After all, there could be a delay in getting back to the castle shelters. It wouldn't do to succumb to hunger as she traveled, and the young prince might need food as well when she caught up with him.

Finally ready, with focus in her eyes and a lantern in her hand, she started to make her way down the connecting tunnel. She had seen a few knights travel this one, and they had come back unharmed. It must be safe to travel. Humming softly to herself as she traveled, she watched the rough stone walls carefully, hoping to find a sign of where this tunnel would meet up with the next shelter.

Time seemed to blur together as she traveled the tunnels, the featureless walls, the packed dirt floors, the endless walking. It seemed to much farther than she'd hoped would be necessary. Checking her surroundings, she realized that it had been some time since she last saw a person rushing past her. When she'd started, a scout or two would rush by every so often, sometimes carrying food and water. Now, she couldn't even hear any echoes from distant reaches of the tunnel. Was there a turn somewhere she hadn't seen?

"Maybe others are sleeping… yes. Sleeping." Nanny swallowed hard, trying not to let nerves get the best of her. "Best keep moving, I’m bound to reach the end sooner or later.”

Sleep, though, was encroaching on her as well; she kept going for just a bit more before the need to rest found her. Fighting it more wouldn't help her, nor the prince when she found him. Setting down by the side of the tunnel, she dimmed the lantern to a low glow before sleeping.

When she woke, she became even more nervous; the light of the lantern wasn’t nearly as bright as before. Attempting to remember her basic survival techniques, it dawned on her that her sleep patterns might be off from the long weeks underground. Left to her body's own devices, she'd slept more than she should have. Even her lantern's low, steady burn had run its power down. Shivering slightly, she ate a small bit of her rations before continuing. She needed to reach the end of this tunnel before she ran out of water, food, and light.

Keeping her light on a lower setting, she hugged the side of the tunnel to keep her bearings. Pausing at times to listen for movement brought only silence. More endless hours of walking, her legs aching… she should have turned around when she first realized how extensive the tunnels were. No, she couldn't have, Prince Tanner needed her. She just had to keep going…

She was starting to get tired again. Surely she couldn't have been walking for a full day? But her body needed to conserve energy, of it needed sleep, she would sleep. But as she dimmed the lantern to near darkness, the tunnel didn't get quite dark enough. A sliver of light, just barely visible on the far wall. Stumbling towards it, she could hear voices. Low, hushed voices, a murmur on the other side of some rocks.

Her legs were on the verge of giving out, and she leaned heavily on the wall to steady herself. As her hand pressed upon one rock, it gave way. With a startled cry she tumbled into a new chamber, and a small group of equally startled people. Dazed from her fall, she didn’t fight as some of them gathered her up; others looked to see where she'd come from before closing up the hole. After pressing her for who she was and where she had come from, they brought her to an elder.

At once she recognized a former friend, Elder DeFlor. He used to visit the castle long ago, though he hadn’t for some time. Still, she breathed a deep sigh of relief. Maybe there was hope for her mission after all.

“Governess… how is it that you've arrived to these parts?”

“I was separated from my charge when the attack happened," she explained, wincing again at the memory. "The refugees from the city went to different shelters I was hoping to find him, and the rest of the group I was with.”

DeFlor seemed puzzled, calling for a map. Laying it out, he nodded to her. “Now… which city is it you've come from?”

“We were in Falastol." She gave him a pleading look. "Elder… please say I've found the others from there.”

“Governess…" He didn't need to say it. She could see it in his eyes, the mix of sympathy and worry. "We are from Halonia. Quite far beyond Falastol.”

Halonia? Nanny stared, uncomprehending, for a moment. She knew where Halonia was. She knew how far she must have traveled, and for nothing. Sighing, she gave in, burying her face in her hands.

I'll keep looking. I will find him.

Chapter Text

Barring any last-second issues with the ship, the 686 had been given a launch slot on November first.

Why. Why would they do that?

It was Halloween, and Daniel was having none of it. He'd been up late. Way too late. It wasn't his fault, Devil's Night was more his style, and for the first time he hadn't had to worry about being expelled if he got carried away. He was already on an Explorer Team. What was the worst that could happen?

Hangovers. Apparently. It wasn't fair, if he was going to have a hangover he should've at least had something to drink… he'd managed to stumble from his bed to a chair after waking up, around three in the afternoon. He might not leave the chair again until it was time to—

"Oi! Whiny brat!"

He blinked. The voice was familiar; it didn't belong outside his quarters. But he was too tired to care how it had gotten there. "I'm not answering the door if you call me that."

"Fine," Cam retorted. "No candy for you, then."

Oh no. Sighing, he stood and trudged to the door, but didn't open it. The security window showed someone in an old-fashioned space suit standing outside. If he squinted, he could just make out the features behind the faceplate. "I'm exhausted, and I don't want candy."

"Not my fault you were out all night getting into trouble." Spaceman Cam, or whatever he was supposed to be, reached up and pounded on the door. "Come on. Team bonding and stuff."

Ugh. Daniel really just wanted to go back to sleep, but clearly that was out. "Fine." He opened the door and glowered. "But I want all your Twix."

"Nope. You get your Twix, I get mine… no, wait. I'll give you all the left ones, they always taste burnt to me."

"The left ones are amazing. You heathen."

"Whatever." Cam waved that off, eyeing his rumpled pajamas scornfully. "Get your costume, we need candy."

"We don't need candy, you do." Get his costume? Why did spaceboy think he had a costume? He hadn't planned on dressing up at all… oh! I know what I'll wear. Last year's costume was still in his closet. He went back to the bedroom to pull it out.

"Yeah, I need candy," Cam grumbled after him. "We're going to be on a ship for how long? And free candy is always the best tasting candy." Really, if they had the opportunity to build a stockpile without paying for it, it would be downright irresponsible to pass it up… as he considered whether pointing that out would make his crewmate more or less cooperative, said crewmate emerged wearing a long white shirt, feathery wings, and a halo. "…You're kidding me. You are no angel, Brennan."

"Call me Daniel." Was his name really that hard? "And it's Halloween, I can be whatever I want. Let's go…" A sheepish look crossed his face for a moment. "But uh, let's avoid the Bridgewater district."

Handing him a sack, Cam pushed him out the door before he could change his mind. "Why's that? Did you egg the academic housing?"

"No, no." Daniel accepted the sack and the pushing, it was that much less effort he had to put into movement. "Um, something may have happened to Corporal Fuchs's car last night. And if he sees me he'll definitely think I did it."

And wouldn't that be a tragedy? Cam laughed. "Maybe I should make you walk up to his door dressed the way you are."

"So I can be wrongfully accused? No thanks!"

Cam scoffed. "You did it, just admit it."

"Second rule of not getting caught is not admitting shit."

That was the second rule? What was the first one? Maybe he didn't want to know that. "Fine, fine. I want to hit the Heights anyway." Grin. "Score big."

"Ugh, that's so far away…" That earned Daniel an elbow; he was too tired to deal with it and folded immediately. "Okay fine. All your left Twix, don't forget."

"I won't." Cam frowned as they exited the dormitory block. "We'd get even more with a bigger group. Who can we wrangle who'd want to hang out with you?"

"You keep insulting me and I'm going home."

"I think I'm starting to like you." Glare. "Else I wouldn't insult you so much."

"Fine…" Daniel glared right back. "Maybe the other new guys? You did say you wanted team bonding and stuff."

"Ooh, yeah. That'll work." Apart from the briefing they'd barely even seen the kids from engineering. Or really anyone from engineering, for that matter. "I think I heard something about a test fire today, they're probably on duty… but it's Halloween. To the ship?"

"To the ship."

*****

The Bolt wasn't fast on the ground. That was probably for the best.

Flynn was sitting in the pilot's seat, trying to keep focused on where he was going rather than the death grip he was maintaining on the controls. Alliance cross training meant he had some basic flight experience. Enough to know what things looked like from the cockpit. Enough, if called upon, to taxi the lumbering Vagrant to the test range.

He really, really didn't like it. But Hunk, who could usually be counted on for this sort of thing, was off having a Halloween party with Lance. Apparently running around the Garrison in a Godzilla costume was even more entertaining than blowing things up with a disruptor cannon? He would never understand that man.

Flynn himself had been invited to the party. Several times. But he'd had to fit the test firing in somewhere before launch—he hadn't expected Departure to schedule them quite so quickly—and the holiday wasn't really on his radar in any case. Part of him was disappointed; he didn't care at all about Halloween, but he did like hanging out with Lance.

Part of him was relieved to have the excuse, because well… he was noticing a bit too often that he did like Lance. Sighing, he brushed that thought aside. He really didn't need the distraction right now.

Vince was sitting at the gunnery station, looking about as on edge as Flynn felt. If it weren't Vince, he might've taken it as commentary on his driving, but that didn't seem likely. Pidge was back in the bay manning the diagnostic console… neither of them were too terribly upset to have him on the other side of the ship. Much as it seemed he meant well, he still wasn't all that pleasant.

"Almost there…"

It was not, in fact, lost on Vince how uncomfortable Flynn seemed at the controls. It was almost reassuring, in an odd way; someone around here other than him could be nervous! He shifted, watching the taxiway as the Bolt took a wide turn to the left and rolled onto the spacecraft weapons range.

The comms crackled. "ACS Jupiter's Hammer, visual contact. You're late. Subrange six is yours."

"We're late by two minutes, go to hell," Flynn snapped. Vince's eyes widened in shock… then he heard the soft click of the comm switch. "Sorry, Range Command. Traffic was heavy. Subrange six is ours, acknowledged."

Vince couldn't help laughing, and Flynn shot a wink back over his shoulder before pushing the ship forward again. Subrange six was on the far end—why wouldn't it be? Though really, the way the test range was laid out, only the ends could accept a ship as large as the Vagrant. On the plus side, nobody else was taxiing in the area. They rolled past a couple of Fractal fighters, probably checking out their notoriously unreliable pulse cannons, and a Tracker-class gunboat dousing a target with five simultaneous streams of plasma. Finally, subrange six's markings came into view.

He was not breathing a sigh of relief. No, certainly not.

Maybe a little.

"Ready for the fun part?"

Nodding vigorously, Vince looked down at the gunnery panel. Since Pidge was the actual systems analyst, it fell to him to do the shooting. It shouldn't take that much experience to line up the crosshairs on a stationary target. In fact he was inordinately excited about it, though he kept wondering… finally he dared broach the question he'd been debating the whole trip. "Surprised Hunk's not here, really."

"He's off dressed as a fire-breathing lizard, getting drunk." Flynn shrugged. "So, he'll get his explosions one way or another, I suppose?"

"What?" He knew Hunk was kind of crazy, but… oh. "Oh, right. Halloween."

"Not your thing either?"

"Not really." Vince hated crowds, and Ma giving out apples had never endeared him to the neighbor kids growing up. "Love candy, though." He would have to go raid the day-after sales before launch tomorrow. His moms weren't here, and what they didn't know couldn't get him lectured about rotting his teeth.

The Bolt moved slowly into position, orienting on the glowing holographic target about a kilometer downrange. That was considered the absolute minimum for ship-to-ship combat… among sane crews, anyway. Flynn remembered certain carriers and shook his head slightly, then looked back over his shoulder and grinned. "Well, the sooner we get this done, the sooner you can go find some candy. You set?"

Vince grinned back. "Heck yeah."

Nodding, Flynn flipped on the internal comms. "Pidge, we're in position."

"Yessir. Scans are set."

"Fire one when ready."

The gunnery panel was actually pretty intuitive. Multiple cameras fed the console with a 180-degree view, currently centered on a distant spark of azure light. A simple command increased the zoom, and Vince dropped the disruptor cannon's reticle over the target. "Firing!"

A low hum emanated from somewhere behind them, distinct from the idling engines. He immediately recognized it as the backup generator. The hum rapidly increased in volume, and the ship's hull rattled slightly. The backup generator wouldn't do that. The cannon rotating? Maybe, it might have needed a couple of degrees? Vince held his breath, it seemed like this was taking forever, and every moment the cannon didn't fire was—

—Lightning flashed forward, and a sharp crack of thunder rocked the ship. The glowing target vanished completely.

Oh, wow…

"Impact registered," Pidge reported. "Structural damage unknown. Disruption successful, target disabled in 1.08 seconds. Energy readings within expectation. Onboard systems nominal. Charge time 8.3 seconds, suboptimal."

"Not surprising, running it off backup power." Flynn frowned. That firing delay was acceptable—if not ideal—against capital ships, but against anything smaller and faster the cannon would be useless. "Let's try this… Pidge, put the backup generator on standby."

"Yessir."

The low hum sprang back to life, this time remaining steady. Vince nodded to himself; it was the move he'd have suggested, too. As the bright blue glow of the target flickered back to life, Flynn looked back at him and nodded. "Fire when ready."

"Firing!"

Compared to the last shot, the thunderclap was almost instantaneous. The poor target was gone again.

"Charge time 1.61 seconds. Probably sufficient." A disruptor cannon couldn't be expected to fire much faster than that under any circumstances. It wasn't the nature of the beast. "Sir, firing from standby drains the reserve capacitor. It can probably only handle four more shots before recharging."

Flynn nodded slowly. That's not so bad. The decision to put the disruptor cannon on backup power was calculated; if they lost engine power with hostiles present, the generator sure as hell wasn't going to save them. So long as the engines were in play, recharging the reserve capacitor was trivial. For now, though… "May as well take those four shots before we go home, then. Vince, fire two, let's see what the cycle rate is like."

"On it. Firing!" He was getting used to the thunderclap, at least, and set up the second shot without hesitation. "Firing!" The second call was not followed by a second flash of lightning for a few more seconds.

"You don't have to yell twice, mechka."

Vince blinked, turning to the comms and wrinkling his nose. "What did you call me?"

"I called you mechka," Pidge answered flatly.

"Doesn't sound nice," he muttered, rolling his eyes.

"That's enough, Pidge." Flynn's eyes narrowed. "Status?"

"Cycle and charge time combine for an 11.82 second minimum firing delay. Second shot registered less energy, impossible to gauge effect since the first shot removed the target."

"Hmm." The delay was acceptable, but he'd certainly like more information… he keyed up the main comms. "Range Command, can we get a second target on subrange six, about a hundred meters back from the primary?"

"Copy, Jupiter's Hammer, secondary target online." A red pinpoint of light flickered to life beyond the blue one.

"Okay, Vince. Two more."

Vince nodded, lining up the shots and thinking for a moment. Then a sly grin tugged at his lips. "Firing! Firing!"

Flynn had to bite back a very unprofessional snicker.

"Impacts registered. Both targets disrupted. Second target resisted 0.7 seconds longer than the first. Approximate efficiency reduction of 40% when firing at maximum rate. Data is banked for further analysis." Pidge's tone remained as emotionless as ever. "Also, mechka yelled twice again. Inefficient."

Indistinct grumbling came from Vince's seat; Flynn decided not to request a clarification. "He's efficient enough, Pidge. Let's get back to the hangar and do that analysis." He smirked as he brought up the main comms again. "Range Command, Jupiter's Bolt reporting test complete."

He wouldn't have bothered, but really, they'd just been shooting literal thunderbolts down the range.

Before braving turning the ship around, he turned back to Vince. "You and Hunk did a hell of a job on this."

Oh crap, a compliment. Vince felt his ears flush. "Uh, thanks, sir."

Grin. "Your weapon worked perfectly and your gunnery was fine, so if you keep looking that nervous I'm going to assume it's because of my taxiing." He swung the pilot's seat back around and started the Bolt into a wide, ungainly u-turn. "Wouldn't blame you, mind."

For a moment Vince just stared at him, putting that statement together. Then he laughed, relief flooding through him. "That's fair." He sank back in his seat and watched the taxiway go by. It was an uneventful trip, and soon enough they were rolling up to the hangar.

Technically, Flynn was well aware he should be backing the ship into its berth. One look at the turns he'd have to make was as long as that thought lasted. "Hell with it, Lance can turn it around, he'll appreciate the chance to show off…" Bringing the ship in forward, he soon caught sight of two people standing in the hangar. In the middle of the hangar. Brennan and someone in an old-fashioned space suit, presumably Starr. He glanced back at Vince. "Think I can hit them?"

The younger engineer blinked, stammering. "Uh… p-probably?"

"Probably can, as long as I'm trying not to." With a sigh he brought the ship to a halt halfway over the threshold. "Let's go see what's going on."

Cam and Daniel had been watching the ship's rather shaky approach, much too busy arguing to think about getting out of the way. "That's not McClain driving, is it?"

"I hope not." Daniel shook his head. "Nah, he was pretty good on the sim, and if he could handle those crappy things…"

"True." Cam smirked. "I should push you into the thruster wash, see if those wings will really help you fly."

"…What?" Even for Daniel that sounded excessive. "You're a weird dude, you know that?"

"Takes one to know one."

"Yeah, but I don't think about pushing people into thruster washes!" He hesitated. "Actually no, I take that back. I'd like to see Kogane get pushed into a thruster wash. That would be funny."

"What kind of angel are you supposed to be?" Cam flicked one of Daniel's wings. "The Commander is a great man, there's no reason to—"

"—Seriously? What did we talk about? No fanboy man crushing on Kogane in my presence."

Glare. "You brought him up first!"

"So? Just because his name comes up doesn't mean you have to go all weak in the knees."

"Radi vsego svyatogo…" Cam pushed his helmet up so he could glare better. "You're doing that on purpose, and it's not—"

"—Are you two trying to die?"

They both jumped a little; neither had paid any attention to the ship stopping, nor to the chief engineer jumping down off the boarding ramp. Vince was trailing a little behind him. Cam immediately saluted; Daniel didn't. "Sorry, sir. We were just waiting to talk to Hayes and Stoker."

Flynn stared at him. "Can't you do that without standing in the middle of the hangar when the ship is coming in?"

"Well we figured the pilot was decent enough, we could avoid it," Cam explained with a shrug, and Daniel snorted. That got them both a glare.

I'm so glad they're Kogane's problem

He'd barely finished the thought when his own problem came up from the rear boarding ramp. "Sir, we aren't even all the way in th…" Pidge trailed off as he caught sight of the other two. "Oh."

"Faex, I know we're not—I am not that bad! I just don't like turning!" Flynn glared at him too, then turned back to the bridge kids. "So what did you two need?"

Cam had briefly debated stealing Daniel's halo at the chief's glare. "Apologies, sir. We came to see if they'd like to go trick or treating with us, unless they're still on duty?"

"You were cool for like, half a second," Daniel muttered under his breath; Cam jabbed him in the ribs.

Vince's eyes had widened at the invitation. "Trick or treating? At our age?" But candy

"Never too old to get free candy," Daniel declared as if reading his mind.

Grin. "Good point."

"So, you two coming?" Grinning back, Daniel glanced over at Pidge for a moment. He didn't look at all impressed.

"I'm not going anywhere. I have work to do."

The chief looked between the grumpy ninja and Vince, who was looking back at him and obviously trying to appear businesslike rather than pleading. He smiled faintly. "Go ahead if you like, Vince. Pidge and I can do the analysis."

"Thanks!" With a huge grin, Vince hurried over to the others. He wasn't about to admit out loud to being relieved Pidge wasn't interested… but as he turned to toss Flynn a belated salute, the thought definitely crossed his mind.

"Have fun." Laughing, Flynn turned back to the Bolt's boarding ramp.

Pidge rolled his eyes as he watched the others leave. Humans. Dismissing Vince to go play dress-up, or whatever trick or treating was, struck him as poor prioritization… oh well. It wasn't his place to object, and test analysis wasn't that intensive. He could've done it alone if necessary. "I'll go get started, sir."

"Alright, I'll be there once I get this thing all the way in."

The diagnostics console had been pushed off to one wall. Not that the ship couldn't run its own diagnostics, but regulations said performance analysis should be run on an outside system. Logical. He walked over and started to download the testing data from the ship; numbers filled the screen. Pidge liked numbers. It was always easy to tell where he stood with them.

By the time the Bolt came to rest, he had the first level of analysis started. Disrupting a holographic target into nothingness was only a benchmark. It was up to the computers to turn the voltage data and wave patterns and milliseconds into a usable model of effectiveness. After that, they could—

"So what does mechka mean?"

Pidge glanced up from the screen, frowning slightly as his superior approached. "It doesn't translate, sir." He went back to watching the numbers, but could feel Flynn's eyes on him. After a minute it was clear that answer hadn't been sufficient. "…It was nothing inappropriate." Probably. As if he were really any judge.

Mechka were vaguely seal-like creatures native to Balto—cute, timid, and not particularly bright. It was common as a friendly insult, and he'd been given to understand that giving out mild insults as nicknames was a human social expectation. Vince had struck him very much as a mechka. He hadn't foreseen anyone asking about it; he'd never asked his old crewmates what a Pidge was.

"…Alright. I believe you." Flynn circled around, leaning over the back of the console and watching the wave patterns as the computer tore them apart. This part of the process was entirely automated, and slow. "You could have gone with them if you wanted, you know."

Of course he could have. Pidge scowled. "I didn't want to, and they didn't want me to."

That got a frown. "Have you even talked to Brennan and Starr yet?"

"They've said hello." He'd even said hello back! Human manners were inefficient and annoying, but he did mostly have the basics down. "I'm used to people not wanting me around, sir. No point expecting this to be different than anywhere else, kir sa tye? Better not to risk any incidents."

Flynn gave him a rather odd look then. It was part judgmental and part appraising, both of which he was quite used to. It was part sympathetic, which he wasn't. Immediately he decided he didn't like it; he liked his commander's response even less. "Sure. I get that, they didn't want me where I come from either. But it's not so bad here once you get the hang of it."

You get it? Pidge snorted. If the first part of that statement had been accurate, he wouldn't have said the second. Getting the hang of it was the problem. But there was no sense pointing that out, either… dismissing the conversation, he focused on the screen again. "Modeling is halfway complete. We'll have it in five."

"Alright." Flynn's eyes narrowed slightly. "How about you take your hand off that knife? Better not to risk any incidents, and all."

Oh. Pidge blinked, letting go of the hilt he'd started clutching somewhere in the middle of that. "Yessir."

"Good." Leaning back against the wall, Flynn fell mercifully silent, letting Pidge go back to focusing on the numbers.

He liked numbers.

 

*****

 

Much like his second and the resident ninja, Keith wasn't particularly interested in Halloween. Unlike them, he hadn't scheduled some inescapable duty for the evening. That had been a mistake.

He'd allowed himself to be talked into going to the Rambling Barrel for Halloween night. He'd even somehow allowed himself to be talked into dressing up—sort of—really he was just wearing his normal biker gear, but at least he'd made the effort. He had, within a few blocks of his housing unit, looked at the elaborate costumes up and down the street and been struck with a bout of second thoughts. He had, unwisely, hesitated.

Now he was literally slung over Hunk's shoulder being paraded down the street, and nobody seemed inclined to intervene. "Put me down, Garrett! This is undignified!"

"Boss, would you stop squirmin' already? I don't wanna drop you." Hunk's voice was slightly muffled, owing to the fact that he was currently a hulking eight foot tall reptile with claws and spikes that looked very capable of doing damage. It was really a remarkable costume. Keith was sure he'd have appreciated it more if he weren't a captive. "You got all dressed up and everything, too late to back out now!"

Walking alongside them, Lance snickered. He hardly looked any different than normal—he had on a black vest rather than his usual leather jacket, and his Axels had been replaced by a slingbolt rifle in a bulky holster. "Time to relax and have some fun, boss."

"Seriously. It's Halloween, who's worried about dignified?" Someone in a gaudy Elvis costume had stopped to give them an odd look. Hunk turned and pressed a button inside his glove, causing a five foot jet of flame to erupt from his costume's mouth. Elvis fled.

"What was that?" Keith demanded, feeling heat rush over his back.

"Just some fire, boss." Lance was suddenly right in front of him, grinning in a way that wasn't reassuring at all. "That dude's face."

"Fire?" Whatever said dude's face may have looked like, Keith was pretty sure he'd agree with it. "I'd better not be on fire!"

"Relax, boss," Hunk chuckled, as if there was any relaxing to be done in this situation. "It's cold-charge ionic py-faux-technics, totally harmless. Just a little warm." He pressed another button, and the suit gave a very convincing roar.

Kuso… "I can walk, Garrett. I'm not some damsel in distress!"

"But boss, you look so good as the damsel." Lance's eyes went to his leather-clad backside for a moment, and he felt his cheeks burn. Mercifully, he didn't continue on that track. "Almost there. Juanita's probably wondering where we are… you sure Flynn's not gonna change his mind?"

Hunk sulked, somehow, despite wearing a giant lizard costume. "He ain't comin' bro, he's gotta do work and stuff. Any holiday but Halloween and I wouldn't miss the test firin' either. Lousy scheduling."

Very lousy. Lance sighed. Be more fun if he was here. The bar was coming into view now, at least. He'd document things. Hell yeah he would.

A woman was waiting outside for them, but it wasn't Juanita. She was short and muscular, wearing a frilly dress made of camouflage silk and gauze. And eyeblack. And a tanker helmet with a glittery tiara fastened to the top. "Yo, Crusher! 'Bout time!" She trotted up and peered at Keith. "Who's the lightweight?"

Hearing the unfamiliar voice, Keith briefly wished he had caught fire. Of course Hunk took that opportunity to finally put him down, dusting him off with a huge greenish paw. "Hey, Hammer. This is Keith, he's my boss." He indicated Lance with his suit's tail. "And this is Lance, he's the crazy-awesome pilot. Boss, Lance, this is my roomie! Her name's Hammer."

"Ah-ah! That's Siegerella to you, Hunkzilla." She did an exaggerated twirl. "Nice to meetcha!"

It was some kind of miracle Keith's cheeks didn't explode from all the blood rushing into them. "Um, nice to meet you." He was glaring at Hunk the whole time he spoke.

Lance on the other hand was eyeing Hammer up and down, nodding approvingly. "Love the bazooka."

She saluted him with the bazooka, which was definitely made out of a pumpkin. "I can tell you'd appreciate a good gun. And shoot first with it!"

Grinning, he did a spin of his own and then gave an exaggerated bow. "I always shoot first, Siegerella."

"Yeah," Keith muttered under his breath. "Any time, anywhere…" Sighing, he stopped glaring at Hunk and straightened out his gear, stomping his feet to make sure the pant legs fell back into place. "So we're really doing Halloween… at a bar?"

Lance arched an eyebrow. "Did you wanna go trick or treating?"

"Pretty sure we're too old for trick or treating."

"Nah." He glanced at Hunk and shook his head. "I don't like candy, though."

If he'd been looking to Hunk because he expected backup, he didn't get it. "…You what, bro."

Even Keith seemed stunned. "You don't like candy? You're the crazy one."

"I wasn't aware anyone here wasn't crazy." Lance shrugged. "I mean chocolate's okay but what's the other stuff's excuse? Candy corn is gross."

"You don't like candy corn?" Hunk shrugged too, which had very little effect inside his suit, but made him feel better. "More for me! Let's go find Comic Lady, yeah? Hopefully she grabbed us a good seat."

"I'm sure she has." They headed in with varying degrees of enthusiasm; Keith almost froze again two steps in the door. The bar was filled with people in costume, orange and black decorations, jack-o'-lanterns and heaping bowls of candy corn on each table. He felt distinctly out of place. But it wasn't like he'd be able to escape now… he wouldn't be winning any contests, oh well.

Juanita had, indeed, been wondering where they were… but there was no mistaking the huge Godzilla that walked in the door. She gave a sharp whistle and jumped up on her chair. "Hunk! Lance! OVER HERE!"

It said something about the scene at the Rambling Barrel that she hardly even got any strange looks. Except for Lance himself, who raised an eyebrow. "I think Juanita started drinking without us."

"Eh." Hammer shrugged. "Bet we can catch up."

The table she'd grabbed was a good one, about midway between the bar and the stage; she was wearing a red and black jester's outfit and pigtails, which seemed appropriate for her job, but she'd thrown in glittery fairy wings and a comically oversized mallet-wand. "About time you guys got here…" She hopped off her chair and studied Keith and Hammer curiously, she'd been told the guys might bring friends. What friends had not been specified.

Hammer did a one-handed curtsy. "Hey, a Harley! I'm a fan of Harleys. Especially sparkly ones."

She giggled, blushing a little. "Love the tiara."

"Thanks!" Grin. "I'm Siegerella, and this," she slapped Keith on the back and nearly knocked him over, "is uh… Big Bad Biker Bro."

Juanita waved. "Isn't that just motorcycle gear?"

"Uh… I mean, yeah…" As Keith stammered, a server came by, and he almost desperately flagged her down. Time for a drink. Hopefully a strong one, at this rate.

Hunk chuckled and pushed one of the chairs aside; he absolutely couldn't sit in this costume. "His name's Keith, Comic Lady. He's me'n Lance's boss." He ordered a drink too, because what was Halloween without a little Jack… o'lantern? Lance didn't order anything, instead pouring from the pitcher of beer already on the table. It looked like Comic Lady had indeed started drinking without them.

She slapped him playfully on the thigh as he sipped his beer. "Really, Han Solo? Isn't that a little on the nose for you?"

Smirk. "It's a fucking classic."

"Ain't costumes all about gettin' in touch with your inner whatever?" Hunk triggered another Godzilla roar, and even Keith managed half a smile. He was okay with getting in touch with his inner motorcyclist, he supposed.

Hammer was reading the holiday flyer on the table. "Oh hey, DJ Flipz from Typical Hamster is the celeb judge for the costume contest! I didn't know she was local."

The drinks arrived; Keith winced a little as he sipped his. Clearly he should've been more careful what he wished for, someone had been way too heavy-handed with the alcohol. "Typical Hamster? That's a band?"

"What?" Lance looked at him. "I thought everyone knew Typical Hamster."

"They're a legend, boss!" Hunk pushed up his costume's upper jaw so he could drink, fumbling the glass a little in his claws before getting it sorted out. It also let him raise a disbelieving eyebrow at Keith, who gave a guilty shrug.

"I guess I… live under a rock?"

"Boss, that isn't a shocker."

"That's why you're here!" Hunk lowered the mask with a wink. "Broaden your horizons and stuff!"

Keith sighed, looking around the bar again. This is going to be a long night…

"I'm getting us the Spooky Shots Platter," Juanita declared, heading for the bar and returning with a tray full of pitch black shots. Those got several distrustful looks, then finally Hammer shrugged and reached for one.

Hunk swatted her hand. "Uh-uh. Han's shot first!"

Oh, well that was a challenge he couldn't pass up. Lance picked up a shot, also shrugged, and downed it. "Not bad."

"Cheers, lightweights!" Hammer raised hers in a salute before swallowing it.

It was definitely going to be a long night, Keith decided, shaking his head. "Thanks, but um, I think I'll pass," he muttered as the platter was pushed in his direction.

"No no no, boss, drink up. It's Halloween!"

"Come on Keith, have some fun. They're great, taste like licorice and smoke."

The two halves of that sentence did not seem to go together; he shuddered. "Licorice? The only way I drink licorice is…" He noticed Hunk and Lance perk up and immediately thought better of what he was saying. "…Well, I won't go there, but thanks anyway."

If he hadn't known better he'd have said even the Godzilla mask was frowning at him. "Boss, you can't just say that and not have us ask where you were goin'."

"Seriously, you can't stop a thought like that mid-train."

Sigh. They wouldn't let this go, he was certain of that, so what the hell. "Bombs. Uh, as in Jager. But that's a bit much for tonight, we have a launch tomorrow."

The admission got him a few looks of new respect, then Hunk doused him in 'fire'—it really was just glowing hot air. "Boss it's never a bad time for bombs. Any kind."

Now he was certain that wasn't true, but it also wasn't worth arguing. Juanita at least didn't seem too worried about convincing him. "More for me then!" She grabbed two shots, downed them both, and twirled around clumsily; her wings smacked Keith in the face and doused him with glitter. Lance and Hunk snickered.

"Come on boss, loosen up. It's a holiday."

"I am loose, McClain." He took a sip of his now sparkly rum and sprite. "Believe me, if I weren't I'd have run for it the moment Garrett set me down."

"We woulda caught you." Hunk signaled for a server, ordering them the biggest tray of Nacho Ordinary Nachos—a hangover tomorrow really wouldn't be great. "If you're not gonna drink you have to join the costume contest."

Keith held up his glass. "I am drinking!"

"That isn't fucking drinking." Lance snorted.

"And what is fucking drinking, McClain?"

"This shot!" The pilot grabbed one and pushed it into his hand.

Why had he agreed to come here? But he had. One won't kill me, I suppose. "Fine." He downed the shot, flipped the glass, and slammed it down on the tray, staring at Lance the whole time. "Happy now?"

Grin. "Now you're gonna be easy to get on stage for the contest."

Well hell.

Juanita took two more shots and twirled around again, managing to smack Keith with even more glitter. Lance snickered, surreptitiously getting a picture of the boss—Flynn had to see this—but also glanced at Comic Lady with a bit of concern. How long had she been drinking before they got there? He'd have to keep an eye on her.

Things settled down a little as the nachos arrived: black corn, orange cheese, pumpkin salsa. They weren't bad. Unfortunately, it didn't take much longer for the bartender's voice to crackle over a loudspeaker…

"All competitors to the stage for the costume contest!"

"And that's our cue!" Hammer announced, slapping Keith on the back again. As he nearly pitched over Juanita grabbed his arm and started dragging him along in a cloud of glitter. He managed to shoot a glare back at Hunk and Lance as they followed; he'd been expecting all his trouble here to come from them, not their friends. Neither had the decency to look guilty.

About two dozen people lined up on the stage, in all manner of elaborate costumes that had Keith feeling distinctly out of place. Even more than he already had been, anyway. When it became clear nobody else was coming up, the lights went out.

A spotlight flared to life, following what seemed to be a cardboard SUV or something similar rolling up to the stage. Then three people jumped out, dressed as hamsters wearing bizarre brightly-colored clothing, and launched into a techno-metal rendition of Dead Man's Party.

That had… not been what he was expecting.

"See?" Lance nudged him as Hunk danced along. "They're great."

Before Keith could find a response to that, Juanita spoke up. "Are they really hamsters?"

"…No." Lance took the glass she'd been drinking from out of her hand as Hammer gave a low whistle of worry.

As the song ended, the lead hamster waved to the crowd, then turned to the contestants. "Welcome to the party, everyone! Happy Halloween!" She gave the cardboard SUV a little shove; it went rolling off the stage and crashed in a fiery 'explosion' of orange confetti. "Whoops." As the crowd snickered she paced up and down the stage. "Everyone's looking good, let's get this party started, shall we?"

Getting this party started sounded wonderful to Keith, the sooner it started the sooner it was finished. It couldn't be that painful, probably. Then the first contestant was called over the loudspeaker—Count Sackula, a vampire in football gear—and he reconsidered that optimism. "Did everyone name their character something bizarre tonight?"

Lance scoffed. "Dude, it's Halloween."

"Don't worry." Hunk patted his shoulder. "I gave 'em a nice respectable name for you."

Oh no. "And that is what scares me…"

"Siegerella!"

He tried to shake it off, clapping and whistling with the others as Hammer stepped forward and twirled around. As she returned to the line, a sparkly glass army boot remained on the stage in front of her.

"Han Solo!"

Lance strutted forward, winking to the crowd and taking a few fake shots with the slingbolt. "Drama queen," Keith muttered, shaking his head with a slight grin.

"Quinnker Bell!"

That was Juanita, who stumbled forward but gathered herself enough to twirl around. More glitter rained down. As she staggered back into position, Lance and Hammer stepped up to steady her.

"Evel Keithnievel!"

Lance choked, Hammer laughed hysterically, and Keith shot Hunk—who would have outright doubled over, if his costume had allowed it—a death glare that put his fire breath to shame. "You didn't." Sighing, he stepped forward and looked out at the crowd. "Um… uh…" Well, may as well take a page from Hunk's book, since this was all his fault. "Vroom vroom?"

The crowd broke into just as many cheers as they had for the others, which struck him as completely absurd as he scrambled back to the line.I can't believe I just… ugh… at least Kleid wasn't here to see this. Commander Crystal Spur INDEED. He'd barely finished the thought when he noticed Lance tucking his datapad into his vest pocket, and groaned.

"Godzilla, Hunk of the Monsters!"

Hunk stomped forward, roaring and spraying orange and blue 'flames' everywhere. The crowd went crazy.

A few more contestants came afterwards, but really, who was going to be able to compete with that? After the last one—a pretty convincing mad scientist, complete with her own faux pyrotechnics—stepped back, Typical Hamster huddled to discuss. 

The bartender came up and handed out shots to everyone on stage while they were waiting. But it wasn't a long discussion, as well it shouldn't have been.

"Let's be real here, everyone." DJ Flipz broke from the huddle, carrying what looked like a pumpkin crown set with candy corn as she paced the stage. "It's Halloween, and everyone should be a winner, so we're buying a round for all the contestants—but only one can have the crown!" The crowd whooped in agreement. "We've got some really incredible costumes here, but if there's one thing Typical Hamster loves most in our music, it's authenticity. Who's with me?" More whoops. "So really, we can't help but award first place to the most authentic costume here…" She stopped in front of Keith, who was standing with his arms crossed and barely even looking at her as he awaited Hunk's inevitable victory. "Congratulations, Evel Keithnievel!"

Hunk's jaw dropped. So did his costume’s. Lance and Hammer both spit out their shots, and Juanita stared in confusion. But nobody was as shocked as Keith, who just stood there blinking as he tried to process what he'd just heard. "Wait… what?"

DJ Flipz motioned him forward. "Come and claim your crown!"

It appeared Keith had completely short-circuited. Hunk, though, was recovering very quickly. "Dude. I ain't even mad." He stepped up behind the boss and shoved him forward. "Go get your crown, bro!"

Hammer grinned slyly, gesturing with her bazooka. "Evel Keithnievel! Evel Keithnievel!" Hunk picked up the chant, then Lance and Juanita—well, Juanita was chanting Kevel Eithnievel, but it was close enough.

Blushing bright enough to match the pumpkin crown, Keith recovered from Hunk's shove and looked at the hamster in front of him. "Um… hi?"

DJ Flipz reached up to put the crown on his head, then kissed his cheek with the hamster costume's fuzzy nose. She turned to the crowd and lifted his hand up. "Your champion!"

They'd picked up the chant too. "Evel Keithnievel! Evel Keithnievel!"

Lowering his hand with a laugh, DJ Flipz winked at him before approaching Hunk. "I don't think they usually give second place in this contest, but all your drinks are on us." With a furry thumbs-up she retreated to her band, and they launched right into a techno-metal version of Thriller.

As the contestants dispersed from the stage, Keith tried to sneak off behind a pillar, but Hunk was having none of it. "Evel Keithnievel! Evel Keithnievel!" He was puffing flames in time with the chant.

"Oh, stop," he grumbled; he was blushing so hard he could hardly even feel his cheeks anymore.

Mercifully, Hunk obeyed as the others caught up. "Boss, where're you going? The table's that way." Lance pointed.

"To the bar. I need a drink…" And this time he didn't care how heavy-handed they went on the alcohol. Which was probably just as well, considering he somehow found himself holding another Spooky Shots Platter the moment he flagged down the bartender.

"All your drinks are on the house, champ."

"Yeah, um, thanks." He headed back to the table. Lance had ordered Juanita a large glass of water, and was getting her situated with it—as well as carefully ensuring no more alcohol was within arm's reach. He did snag one of the new shots. That was definitely just as well, Keith didn't need them all. Sinking into his chair, he downed one without even tasting it and shook his head. The pumpkin crown was still there.

What the hell just happened?

*****

Jace was packing. It wasn't hard, since he'd barely unpacked. Plenty of time to finish up, head out with Sven, probably have to explain to him what Halloween was and why it was ridiculous… someone knocked on the door as he was finishing up. "It's open."

The door swung open. "Are you ready to go?"

"Yeah, just gotta tape up this box…" He looked up and blinked. Sven was standing there wearing his usual polo and khakis. And a Viking helmet. "…Nice hat?"

"Thank you." Sven reached up and adjusted it slightly.

"You… have a Viking helmet. And you wonder how you got the nickname."

"I got the nickname before any of you saw the hat," he pointed out. "And I wear it every year, I wasn't going to break with tradition." In fact he usually dressed up in full Viking gear, but he hadn't felt like being ridiculed quite that much.

Had he shown up in full costume, Jace certainly would have mocked him. Him showing up in half-assed costume was having a whole different effect: he was actually feeling mildly shamed. If even the guy who didn't like funny t-shirts could do the Halloween thing… he shrugged, thinking fast. "Sure, why not? Uh, give me a minute, let me dig something out."

"Alright." Sven raised an eyebrow, watching the medic vanish behind a couple of boxes. He heard tape being cut, some rustling, some snipping.

Jace popped up from behind the box after another minute. He had not found a costume, exactly. He had stuck cardboard cat ears on a baseball cap, and drawn whiskers on his cheeks in black ink. "Meow."

"…Did you just meow?"

"Would 'meow, motherfucker' have been better?"

"It would have been more in character."

Smirk. "You're not wrong."

Sven couldn't help a smile. "You ready?"

"Let's do this." He closed up the box and joined him at the door. "Want to hit Vermilion's? They usually have a big Halloween bash, plenty of drunk idiots to laugh at. You can drink grog, I'll knock stuff off the bar, it'll be fun."

"Let's do it." Pause. "What is grog?"

"No fucking clue."

They headed out into the streets, which were nothing short of chaotic. Some younger Academy students were trick or treating. Most others were just taking the opportunity to dress up and act out. Nearly every corner hosted a street vendor of some sort—whether an exchange trying to make a few last holiday sales, or a soldier who did some arts and crafts on the side. It reminded Jace a little too much of home, but at least here it was only one night.

About halfway to Vermilion's, a familiar voice rang out behind them. "Hey! Aren't the two of you a little old for trick or treating?"

Vince was relieved to see familiar faces, even if one of them was Jace; it felt like Cam and Daniel had just been bickering nonstop since they picked him up. Not that they were stopping now, either. Daniel shot Cam a look. "Did we not already talk about how being too old for free candy is BS?"

"Yeah, but that's us. They are considerably older."

"Why do you get to decide what's too old for free candy?"

"Because you're annoying."

The point wasn't wrong, Daniel supposed, just irrelevant. "How does that correlate to this situation?"

"And who the fuck's trick or treating?" Jace demanded as they walked up. "We're just out to watch the idiots." He nudged Sven and grinned wickedly. "Looks like we found some!"

Sven sighed, looking over the kids before cracking a smile of his own. "How's your nose, Brennan? It's looking better."

"Much better, no thanks to fanboy over here."

"Excuse me, what?" Jace's eyes narrowed and Cam went pale. Vince blinked, looking between them in confusion.

Daniel cleared it up quickly. "He headbutted me. Like an asshole."

"Assholes don't headbutt, take a fucking anatomy class," Jace retorted, though they weren't listening.

"We were sparring! You were supposed to dodge."

"A headbutt? I was supposed to dodge you grabbing me and throwing your head into my face?"

As they started up again, Vince and Jace both gave Sven questioning looks. He sighed. "I was assessing their hand to hand capabilities last week…"

"They have capabilities?" Vince muttered, then his eyes widened and he slapped his hands over his mouth. Oops…

Jace snickered; Cam shot him a betrayed look. "We're gonna be besties too, huh?"

"We are," Daniel turned to Vince and smiled, "I like him."

"Not an endorsement…" Cam sighed and looked at their crewmates more closely. "Okay, I get your costume, Lieutenant, but Doc… chto za khren? What is on your hat?"

"They're cat ears," Jace answered, deadpan. "Meow, motherfucker."

Daniel and Vince laughed; Sven sighed, smiling faintly, though he was facepalming inside. Cam just nodded slowly. "Oh… okay."

"So, since apparently the kids are out here trying to make off with free candy, they need a couple of adult chaperones." Jace crossed his arms. "Can't have them headbutting each other and disgracing the good name of the 686 and shit. Where're we off to?" Frown. "And Hayes, where's your costume?"

"I don't have one," Vince admitted sheepishly. He hadn't planned to be out doing this, after all. "I'm in uniform, so uh, I guess I'm a GA officer?"

"Oh fuck that." Jace stalked over to the nearest corner vendor, handing over a credit chip and returning with a sparkly witch's hat. He jammed it onto Vince's head, maybe a bit more emphatically than necessary.

"Ouch!" Well, it was Halloween. He put the hat at a jaunty angle and grinned. "It works."

"Yeah," Daniel smirked, "now we can say you're Sky Marshal Wade!" That drew a groan from Cam. Vince just shrugged. As long as he got candy he really didn't care what they called him.

"Anyway." Cam slung his sack over his shoulder. "We're heading for the Heights. Rich people give out the most candy. So, we ready to move?"

"Lead on, Cammy." Daniel smirked.

About another ten minutes of walking was enough to reach the Heights—a misnomer, really, considering it was an artificial extension of the shore that barely stood above sea level. Local legend said the full name of the subdivision was actually the Hurricane Heights. That was how all the rich people ended up there; they were the only ones building on such precarious oceanfront property.

It was really very pretty, though. When it wasn't at risk of being swept out to sea.

Jace gave a low whistle, looking around at the perfect lawns and large houses. "These your people?" he muttered to Sven.

"My parents' people." The houses were all too familiar; the only difference was the occasional palm tree. "Not mine."

Grin. "Fair enough." His grin faded as they started for the first house, which had several plastic flamingos stuck in the yard at precise intervals. Each one was wearing a tiny witch's hat. "…Que porra."

"Rich people are weird," Vince mumbled. Sven nodded enthusiastically.

"Second that." Daniel reached up and adjusted his halo slightly—it hadn't been quite crooked enough. "Okay, let's go I guess."

"Just remember. Free candy!" Cam pulled down his faceplate and strode up the walk, ringing the doorbell as the other two caught up. Sven and Jace remained further back, exchanging small grins. The kids were kind of fun.

This house, as it happened, belonged to one retired admiral Maeve Audovacar. Trick or treating had been a little lighter than usual tonight; she arched an eyebrow as she opened the door, a little surprised by how old this group was. But no matter. It was Halloween, and she certainly wasn't short on candy.

"Trick or treat!"

Smiling, she distributed candy between them, taking in their costumes. "So, what have we here? An angel, an astronaut, and a…" She tilted her head at the young man in uniform, but the witch's hat… "What are you?"

Vince stammered a little, eyes wide, trying to force an answer out. I just want candy! Fortunately, Jace was standing within earshot and always ready to help.

"He's Sky Marshal Wade!"

"We gotta get him a nametag or something," Daniel muttered.

Audovacar had burst into laughter. She was quite familiar with Sky Marshal Wade—both from her time at the Garrison, and the fact that he called the municipal authorities in any time her grass got so much as a fraction of an inch above standards. "Here," she chuckled, distributing some more candy. "You boys can have extra for such creative costumes."

Vince's eyes somehow went wider. "Thank you!"

"Thanks, lady!"

"Thank you, ma'am!" Cam didn't even bother bringing up that he wasn't an astronaut. He'd probably be getting a lot of that tonight, anyway. "Your lawn is glorious."

Daniel rolled his eyes at Cam as they headed back down the driveway. "Would look better without the flamingos…" To his surprise, that didn't get a snarky response. In fact, though it was hard to tell for sure through the suit's faceplate, he thought their comms officer was smirking. Should he be worried? Eh, whatever.

Even more surprising, Vince's costume wasn't just a hit with the first house. Nearly every time someone asked who he was, extra candy seemed to follow. They really should've made that nametag. The trek through the Heights was long, but an easy enough walk, and soon enough they found themselves approaching a cul-de-sac with the biggest and fanciest house yet.

Jace gave a low whistle. "Someone's just daring the fucking hurricane." Sven nodded in agreement.

"Why does this house reek of pretentious?" Cam asked, stopping on the sidewalk and staring at the grass. Not a single blade was higher than the others, and the white concrete driveway was spotless. Probably-recently-pressure-washed spotless. Even the jack o'lantern looked kind of like it was judging them.

"Probably because some pretentious military guy lives here." Daniel groaned and tried to keep to his feet. It felt like they'd been out forever, and the bags under his eyes were much more pronounced than they'd been earlier. "Dude, I'm tired, can't we be done?"

"You're in the military, suck it up." Jace glowered. He was into this now. Just to test the new kids' endurance out, of course… "Go up there and get that candy!"

Groaning again, Daniel didn't have much resistance to offer when Cam grabbed his arm and started dragging him to the door. "Next year, I'm totally egging both of your houses."

Vince followed the two, shaking his head. They were something, that was for sure. Not that he was going to complain about the bulging sack of candy they'd hauled him out here to collect. He caught up as Cam let go of Daniel and pounded on the door, completely ignoring the doorbell.

A tall, broad-shouldered man in full dress uniform opened the door almost immediately, cool blue eyes giving them a quick once-over. A slightly too small witch's hat was perched awkwardly on his head. "Trick or treat!" Vince said with a grin, then blinked as he noticed something missing. Why am I the only one saying it? Glancing at his companions he noted they'd both gone very tense.

"Um, trick or treat?" Cam finally managed to stammer. Daniel did not. All he was doing was glaring at his fellow bridge kid as if to incinerate him where he stood. He had not signed on for this.

"Aren't you a little old to be trick or treating?" Sky Marshal Wade asked sternly. He shrugged it off before they could answer, dropping an Academy recruitment pamphlet in each of their bags. Then he turned away, reaching for a large bowl of candy sitting on a table next to him.

"Kids at heart, sir." Cam sounded like he actually had been run over by a Vagrant. "Thank you, sir."

"Never too old for free candy," Daniel agreed, swallowing hard. Don't recognize me, don't recognize me…

No such luck. As he turned back to them with the candy, Wade's eyes narrowed. "…Aren't you Daniel Brennan?"

Oh, no. Vince and Cam had both edged away from him slightly, so Daniel did the only thing he could really do. He smiled. Innocently. Angelically, even. "Yes, sir." This is all fanboy's fault. It was all he could do not to look back at Sven and Jace for help. One did not show the Sky Marshal weakness. One smirked confidently in his face, then punched whoever was responsible for the encounter later.

Wade looked between the three of them, eyes narrowing further. Then he dropped a heaping handful of candy into Cam's sack. "Excellent cosmonaut costume, young man. Exquisite detail."

Cam blinked; the first person to get it right all night, and it had to be him. "Um, thank you, sir. It's an old family heirloom."

"And you, impeccable style." Vince squeaked out a thanks as the man gave him a huge handful of candy too. He still wasn't sure exactly what was going on here, but the basics were clear enough.

As for Daniel… Wade scowled slightly and set the candy aside. "Why are you still here?"

Oh not good. Vince looked between them, grimacing, just wanting to get out of here as fast as possible but feeling somehow glued to the ground.

Daniel wanted to get out of here too. Not start a fight, not get into more trouble, just run for it and never look back. And yet, what came out of his mouth was, "Probably because you couldn't get me kicked out."

Fuck!

Wade's expression went white-hot, though in another moment nobody was even paying attention to him.

"You never know when to shut up, do you?"

"You dragged me here! I said I didn't want to!"

"Both of you shut up! Let's go!"

Sven and Jace had stayed back, as usual, and neither of them recognized the man who'd answered the door. But they could both recognize serious trouble when they saw it.

Casually, Jace sauntered up to the door and grabbed Daniel by the wings. "Don't mind him, sir. He's under medical supervision for defective brain cells." As the Sky Marshal sputtered he started dragging the kid away.

"Yeah," Cam agreed, "don't mind him, um…" He trailed off as Sven grabbed him, attempting to drag him along too.

Too late, he'd spoken too much. Wade squinted at him, trying to see through the faceplate. "Starr?"

Oh, crap. "Good night, sir! Thanks for the candy!" Grabbing Vince's arm, he turned and ran for it, Sven right on their heels. As they caught up to Jace, Daniel stumbled on the pristine driveway. Their medic wasn't having any of that. Slinging the kid over his shoulders without a second thought, he broke into a sprint alongside the others.

They didn't stop until the house was out of sight.

Sven leaned against a stop sign and shook his head, adjusting his helmet. "Definitely need constant adult supervision…"

"No kidding." Vince looked around at the others, panting a little. "Who was that guy?"

"Sky Marshal Wade," Daniel answered, kicking Jace lightly in the ribs. "Doc, uh, you can put me down now."

Jace complied, looking between Daniel and Vince. "Who? Fuck."

"No kidding. I'd throw away that candy he gave you two, it probably has razor blades in it." Their gunner sank to the sidewalk, groaning again. "I can't believe you made me go to that guy's house, he hates me!"

"He hates everyone," Cam muttered.

"He didn't hate Vince."

"He would've if he'd had enough time to." A sly grin spread over Cam's face. "Know what I think we need after that? A drink. Doc, Lieutenant, can you get us some beer?"

Sven and Jace exchanged skeptical looks. Technically, all of the kids were underage. But soldiers got a waiver—anyone old enough to potentially die in defense of the Alliance was old enough for the occasional adult beverage. Maybe that was why even Sven didn't look completely scandalized at the suggestion. The only question was whether they really trusted these particular kids with it.

Maybe they shouldn't, after that, but what was an Explorer Team for if not making bad decisions?

"Well, we were gonna go to Vermilion's until you yelled at us." Jace shrugged. "Plenty of time left in the night, if fallen angel down there can get his ass up. Or I can carry him again."

"I oughta take you up on that, it would serve you right…" With a great deal of effort, Daniel picked himself up off the pavement. "I'm game."

Cam grinned. "Let's roll."

As they started down the sidewalk, Vince slowly shook his head. His life had never been this interesting before. Maybe, if he was lucky, he'd even get used to it eventually.

*****

Analysis of the disruptor cannon had gone well. Getting back to his apartment had gone… well, it had gone. Yes. The streets were chaotic. What few holidays were celebrated on the Garrison were celebrated with unbridled enthusiasm.

What Flynn had unbridled enthusiasm for was his job, or things tangentially related to his job, or really basically anything that required him to crack open a complex metal object and improve whatever was inside. So while the rest of the world enjoyed their costumes and free candy, he was sitting on his floor trying to reassemble a damaged drone motor. 

It wasn't going terribly well… it would have gone better if he'd had all the pieces. He did have plenty of spare parts around here, it was just finding them. Projects upon projects littered the apartment—he always seemed to be deployed before he had the chance to put anything away.

Someone knocked hard on the door.

"…I didn't do anything this time," he protested to the damaged drone, standing and tossing his grease-stained sweatshirt into a corner. The Canaveral Chargers lacrosse shirt he was wearing underneath wasn't terribly dignified, but at least it didn't look like he'd spent the last hour wrestling with an internal combustion engine. "If that banshee upstairs called me in again, I swear—" Yanking the door open, fully expecting to see uniforms, he briefly short-circuited as the reality appeared. "…You aren't a cop."

Lance screwed his face up in abject horror. "I've never been more insulted."

"For what, thinking you might've been a cop? Or for saying you aren't one?"

"For thinking I might've been! Rude, Flynn." He laughed. "So, uh, gonna invite me in?"

He probably ought to, he supposed. "We haven't exactly established a secret identifying knock, flyboy. Get in here, I guess." He stepped back, eyeing his clothes. And his gun. "Does that slingbolt actually work?"

"Unfortunately, no. You wanna make me one? Then it would." Lance entered and glanced back at the door. "And we totally should have a secret knock."

Flynn rapped his knuckles lightly on Lance's forehead. "We launch tomorrow, don't think we need it. What are you doing here? Am I harboring a fugitive?"

"More like a gentleman." Though at least it was a more understandable mistake than thinking he was a cop. "I had to take Juanita home, she got sloshed, I mean sloshed. Left her with her roommates, and the streets are a total madhouse. So could I crash on your couch?" He paused, looking around the apartment with a small frown. His excuse might have a small problem—it looked more like he'd walked into a workshop than an apartment. "Do you have a couch?"

Flynn blinked, following Lance's gaze. "Um, somewhere. Who's Juanita?" He walked over to the far wall, which was the last place he'd seen the couch; it was buried under some metal plates and who knew what else, but he doubted it had run away. That would be worrisome even by his housekeeping standards.

"Oh, you don't know her, right." Lance grinned, appreciating the view of the engineer's backside as he started moving things around. "She works at the comic book shop, Hunk and I sort of made friends… what is all this stuff?"

Shrug. "Spare parts you couldn't pronounce, patching foil, spare parts I can't pronounce, ionic flux dampening array…" He paused at that last one, looking at the spindly device before setting it on a shelf. "Been looking for that, actually."

Lance looked around with new appreciation. "You're like a hot Doc Brown from Back to the Future, you got a Delorean in here too?"

Not one word of that—well okay, maybe one—meant anything to Flynn. And he knew what that meant. "I'm going to have to watch another movie now, aren't I?"

"Fuck yeah." He paused a moment, to sound casual. "You know, you should've come tonight. You missed a riot, the boss won the costume contest."

Flynn was still studiously trying to ignore the fact that Lance had just called him hot; he called everyone and everything that. And he'd been expecting the comment. So it didn't all register right away. "I had work to—what?" It finally hit, and he dropped the scrap he was holding. "Kogane? That boss?"

"Yep! He wasn't even in a costume. Hunk's breathed fire." Smirk. "I do have pictures of him covered in glitter, wait'll you see."

"Hunk's actually… of course it did. One thing at a time, I've almost got this." He'd reached a lumpy cover with quite a lot of engine grease streaked across it, and pulled it off to reveal an equally lumpy but clean and comfy-looking couch. "There we go."

The couch itself was not the first of Lance's concerns; he blinked a few times. "You have a couch cover?"

"Obviously? I'm an engineer, not a barbarian."

The pilot raised an eyebrow. "Only little old ladies have plastic couch covers."

"Good thing it's not plastic." Flynn tossed the mess of heavy fabric at him, and he staggered back a step as he caught it. "You can sleep on it if you want."

That sounded like a challenge. "I don't mind some grease," he said with a smirk.

Flynn smirked right back. "Your decision."

"Well, I'm here at the grease monkey's apartment, aren't I?" He put the cover aside and looked at the pile of parts on the floor. "So what're you building?"

"Trying to fix up a scout drone, figured it might be useful somewhere on this duck hunt. Think they forgot some of the motor when they tossed it in the scrapyard, though."

Sometimes, Lance mused, the curse of brilliance was only being able to use one of the many snarky comments supplying itself. "Right, how dare they throw something away without all the parts…"

"You know," Flynn shot back with feigned indignation, "I don't know how I'm supposed to be ready to launch tomorrow, if you're going to be here all night being all you and mocking my hobbies and questioning my interior decorating."

"I don't know where you're even gonna sleep. There a bed somewhere with another old lady cover on it?"

Making a mental note to buy some flowery plastic furniture covers and put them in the bridge at the first opportunity, Flynn gestured to a sleeping bag in a corner. "I thought about renting a garage instead of an apartment, but it seemed impractical." He dropped onto the newly excavated couch and shrugged.

"Of course you did." Lance dropped next to him, grinning. "Whatever works, really. My place is pretty spare, given I'm not there much."

"Suppose you would have to keep it presentable." The words had barely even finished leaving Flynn's mouth before he regretted them. Why would you say that?

"Presentable to who?" Laughing, Lance looked around the room again. There was some kind of organization to the chaos, he could see patterns… he shook his head slightly. He's fucking brilliant. "Your way of keeping busy is more respectable than mine."

"That's not saying much." The engineer winked, and decided the subject had gone quite far enough. Besides, he really did want to see this fiasco he'd missed. "So, Kogane covered in glitter?"

Lance burst into more laughter, digging out his datapad. "It was epic." He found the videos and handed it over—Keith covered in glitter, Keith wincing as another wave hit him, Keith sparkly and wearing the pumpkin crown as an oversized hamster kissed his cheek…

"…Faex." Whatever attempt Flynn might have made to keep his composure never had a chance. As he wound down from the laughter, Lance showed him a few more shots—Keith vrooming, Keith resignedly sipping his sparkly drink—and he started up all over again.

"Juanita just kept dousing him with it, it was great." Lance tucked the datapad away. "Best part of the night."

"Was he drinking glitter?" the engineer demanded as he got his breath back again. "And you and he both mock my drinking choices? Shameful. Also probably unhealthy."

Grin. "To be fair, it's her fault the drink was full of glitter… I think. We'll have to get Jace to check him for glitter-itis."

"Oh that'll go over well." He returned the grin. "Speaking of, I'd offer you a beer now but I'm sure you'd not approve of it."

"No problem, I'm still a bit buzzed anyway. And you know it's our duty to our commander to make sure he's well, whether he likes it or not." Sitting back a little, Lance gave him a playful nudge. "But come on, see? See what you missed out on?"

Yes. Yes, he saw. "I told you, I had work to do. I had to drive the ship without you, so I've been sufficiently punished."

Considering the layout of the hangar area, and knowing Hunk usually did the driving, Lance's eyes widened. "Shit, you parked the wrong way in, didn't you?"

Flynn elbowed him lightly. "You had to go get drunk and make Kogane get glitter all over him, you do not get to criticize my parking." Which was a lot of syllables just to say yes.

"Fair enough." He grinned wickedly. "I get to show off tomorrow."

"You're welcome."

"Always knew you had my back, Flynn."

"Fixing flyboys' problems is what I do best."

Oh, now he wasn't going to get away with that one; Lance arched an eyebrow. "Hey, this is a you problem I'll be fixing."

That got him a raised eyebrow right back. "No, your lack of opportunities to show off is definitely a you problem that I'm fixing." Flynn gave him another lighthearted swat and winked. "So is your being too… I don't know, whatever you are, to go home."

Lance waved that off. "Face it, you'd be getting bored yelling at those engine parts of I hadn't shown up."

"I wasn't yelling at them! How rude. You have to treat the engine parts with compassion and understanding." Frown. "…Also I really don't need the old bat upstairs to call in another noise complaint on me, I'm at seven this year and I wasn't even here for half of them…" He rolled his eyes and gave a long-suffering sigh. "You almost put one malfunctioning drone through a ceiling and everyone gets all paranoid."

Stop it, he is not endearing, what the fuck. "One drone, huh? Really only one?" Lance waggled his eyebrows in a challenge. "You can do better than that, dude."

Oh, he probably could, if he wanted more visits from the police. He and Sergeant Rollins were already almost on a first name basis. "What if I told you I had to shoot the one drone down?"

Lance hit his arm. "With what?"

He pointed to the other side of the room, where his scout rifle was racked. "The cops weren't impressed."

"I'm fucking impressed." Grin. "We've gotta take that to the range again when we get back, see you on some moving targets."

"Obviously." Stop blushing. "Anyway, am I supposed to be entertaining you now?"

There were a lot of things Lance wanted to say there, too. He had ideas for entertainment. But he didn't dare say most of them… so he bit his tongue until the first instincts faded, then shrugged. "How about we watch Back to the Future?"

Flynn stared at him, then shook his head and stood up, clearing a few things from in front of the television—which did not have a cover on it. "I suppose I knew that was inevitable."

Grin. "Figured that out all by yourself, huh?"

"I've been told I'm the smart one."

Hell yeah you are. That was what Lance's brain provided, but his mouth came up with something else. "That's why you couldn't find your own couch?"

At that Flynn chucked the nearest throwable object at him, just on principle. It happened to be a light screwdriver, and the pilot caught it just before it could smack his cheek. "Yes! That's exactly why."

"Geez, tough crowd." Lance was still grinning. "Just get that movie turned on, will you? You won't regret it."

"Somehow, that doesn't entirely reassure me." He tossed the controller over and retreated to the couch. "Have at it."

"What, you don't trust me?" Pulling up the movie catalog, he found what they were looking for quickly. The original, of course. None of the reboots had the charm.

"I'm letting you crash here, aren't I? Even though you're the last person I should be encouraging to crash anywhere?"

Oh now that was uncalled for; Lance stared at him, aghast. "I never crash!"

"Holding you to that." Flynn winked and settled in as the movie started.

It didn't take too long for him to have some objections, but he decided to save them for the end. Especially since he couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise, what with all the times he was nearly shoved off the couch because a good scene was coming up… though gradually that trailed off. He'd gotten distracted trying to sort out the theoretical physics at play when he realized there was light snoring coming from the other side of the couch… he blinked. Lance was curled up on the cushions, cuddling the remote and the screwdriver.

"…Guess Halloween is exhausting? That cannot be comfortable." He hadn't kept his voice down, but Lance didn't even twitch. Okay then. Shrugging, he carefully pulled the screwdriver away before their pilot put his own eye out, then went to the next room to fish a blanket out of the closet. It was a little chilly in the apartment, in his opinion. But as he draped the blanket over his impromptu guest, he felt a glimmer of warmth that had nothing to do with the ambient temperature. 

He was kind of adorable like that…

Don't. Don't you even begin to think that way. You are still his superior officer, you know better. He turned away, shaking his head slightly. Also, he's him and you're a grease monkey who uses couch covers. Let's not forget that either.

Shaking it off, he stopped the movie and retreated to his sleeping bag. It didn't matter, anyway. Tomorrow they launched, and he would have work to do. Things to focus on. Bomb techs and ninjas to try to keep under control. Getting caught up in work would help put this nonsense to rest. It had to.

"Good night, Lance," he murmured.

*****

A single oversized runway, designated 9/27-Heavy, served all of Galaxy Garrison's midrange craft. There weren't enough of them to merit more than one. There frequently weren't enough of them to even merit the one, but launching Vanguards or Condors or, god forbid, a Glis Aliktat off a standard size runway was out of the question. Never mind landing. They would overrun and plant themselves in the Atlantic and that would really ruin everyone's day. So Runway 9/27-Heavy it was, running just alongside the midrange hangars, controlled from the Garrison's main tower thirty miles away.

It was a pain in the ass.

Sergeant Steve Lincoln was on 'heavy duty' today, and he resented it. Enormously. Trying to track the various small craft was hard enough without having to keep a whole different taxiway system in mind, and he was over it before it had even started…

"Tower, this is ACS Jupiter's Bolt at Hangar L4-West, requesting entry into the pattern."

Bolt? What Bolt? His papers said Hammer. But screw it, there was only one midrange craft scheduled for takeoff today, and there was probably only one Vagrant active on the whole damn base. The Garrison didn't pay him enough to nitpick. "Jupiter's Bolt, radar contact. There isn't a pattern. You are the only craft on the midrange system, just get yourself to the runway however you see fit and call me back."

"Acknowledged, tower." He heard a muffled whoop before the channel closed, but didn't worry about it.

Maybe he should've worried about it, because the next time he glanced at his radar… "Jupiter's Bolt, why exactly are you doing donuts on the apron?!"

There was a crackle of static. "Just turning the ship around, Tower. Apologies. Moving to the runway now."

He was positive he heard someone in the background muttering about wanting donuts. Oh for god's sake. Sending an Endeavor on its way off the main runway, he found himself glancing back at the Bolt's icon, which was stupid. He didn't care what they were doing. It didn't matter to him one damn—

"—What are you trying to do, hit decision speed on the taxiway?"

A voice that wasn't the Bolt's comms officer responded. "Dude, you said however we see fit!"

There was a sound that might have been somebody being smacked, then the comms officer came back. "Uh, what he means, Tower, is sorry, we'll slow it down."

It was not within Lincoln's authority to revoke a launch slot, but hell if he wasn't tempted. Barring that, his other option was to get these assholes out of his control area as soon as humanly possible. So fine, they could do it like that. "No, go ahead. Get to the runway immediately, you have takeoff clearance for two minutes."

"…Roger that, tower."

Rolling his eyes, the sergeant returned his attention to the main system, where a second Endeavor was awaiting clearance. "Sunangel, hold short at 33, traffic will be taking off from 27-Heavy."

"Acknowledged, tower."

He barked a few more taxiing instructions to the small craft as he watched the Bolt race towards the runway. He'd never seen a midrange ship move that fast outside of a takeoff roll, and it was still handling the turns better than most. Maybe, he mused, he'd be tempted to show off a little off he could do that, too. But he couldn't, so he still wanted them off his radar.

"Tower, Jupiter's Bolt. Confirm takeoff clearance?"

"Confirmed, Jupiter's Bolt. Move your ass."

"Hell yeah! Moving ass!" That was the other voice again. As the Vagrant's engines fired up, a burst of music flooded the comms before they closed. It sounded like Ride of the Valkyries, though Lincoln was pretty sure the traditional arrangement didn't have screaming and electric guitars.

Watching something that big take off was pretty impressive, he had to admit that. A little over halfway down the runway the huge ship tilted upward, lifting from the runway and pulling up its wheels. A flash of blue flame erupted from the engines, a second-stage burst common to spaceplanes, leaving a trail of embers hanging in the sky for a few more seconds. Despite himself he smiled. A little.

"Jupiter's Bolt, godspeed and good riddance."

Shaking his head, he returned his attention to his nice, normal duties.

*****

With a heavy sigh, the old knight looked at his leg for the easily the hundredth time since he'd been awake today… which hadn't been all that long. It throbbed with discomfort, which was still better than it had been before. At least now he could move about for a reasonable period of time, though he still needed an equal amount of time to rest. Luckily, there were many good folks who were happy to offer him aid as he made his way to the castle shelters. It had been a long journey. But it was his duty. His leg may be injured, but his mind was still sharp and would be of good use to his king.

He felt grateful now that he'd worked with King Alfor on his hobby of hunting for Lion tales. Because of that work, he knew of several hidden tunnels he was able to help access to make his way about. That had gotten him most of the way here, and the last of the caves he had entered already had a tunnel open to the shelter of the Castle. He'd smiled broadly when he saw it, despite the circumstances… his travels would soon be over. And he hadn't come empty-handed. Many of the prized relics he'd been holding had been lost or abandoned in the attack, but he was sure the few items he'd been able to save might offer Alfor some slight relief from the weight of war.

Soon he could see the opening to the Castle of Lions shelter. The growing ache in his leg was becoming overwhelming, but the sight of the end of his travel gave strength to move until he reached the mouth of the cave. For a moment, he just leaned against the tunnel wall, staring out at the ragged mass of people. It looked like any of the other shelters, but he knew these tunnels well. This was where he needed to be…

“Coran? Is that you?” A familiar face suddenly emerged out of the corner of his eye, rushing forward from the crowd.

Smiling through his exhausted eyes, he turned to the voice and bowed as best he could. “Princess… I am so glad that you are well. I’ve come as soon as I could to hopefully be of service to your father.”

Allura motioned to a few nearby knights for assistance. “I’m sure you can be. For now, Father is out in the field directing troops and scouts. Please, let me find you a place to rest.”

Coran could hardly refuse that; the knights carried him to a spot near where the king's other remaining advisors were gathered. An equally sparse team of medics attended to him there, checking over his wounded leg and setting it as best they could. Settling in, for some time he just watched the movement within the shelter. Observing, getting the lay of the land. Noting how much his princess was rushing about, he made a motion to her when he was finally able to catch her eye.

“Princess, please… come and rest a bit by me. You will help our people more if you don’t overwork yourself to dust.”

Sitting down beside him with a slight smile, Allura took a moment to just stop and breathe. He wasn't wrong. “Oh Coran, I know, I just…” She lowered her eyes. “I'm just… trying my best to relieve everyone's stress and make sure they are well.”

“And you are doing admirably. But you must do the same for yourself, you know." He patted her shoulder. "Now my dear, tell me, what gives you some distraction from these events around us?”

Allura pondered that for a moment or two. Distraction? She'd hardly had time for distraction. “I’m not so sure I can be distracted from this… sometimes I do read a few of my father’s notes about the Lions' stories. Trying to make sense of the family hobby, you could say.” She laughed softly.

Coran chuckled as well. “It certainly would be a family hobby if you were to pick it up as well.” Tapping his chin, he smiled back at her, privately pleased he would be able to produce what he'd brought with him sooner rather than later. “Maybe that is something you should do more… the levity of it could be helpful.”

Giving him a look of mixed confusion and curiosity, the princess briefly pondered the suggestion. Levity wasn't quite how she'd have described the lions' mysteries… but then, compared to the reality of the tunnels, what wasn't? Still... “I’ve already read all his notes at least twice, Coran. I don’t see how I can add anything to his hobby at this point.”

Coran smiled and reached into his coat. “Ah, then perhaps you are not so curious as I'd hoped in regard to this little puzzle piece I was able to keep with me?” Pulling out a small book, he opened it up and pulled out a bit of paper. “I found this not too long ago, and I have to say, it’s quite puzzling. Since King Alfor isn't here, perhaps you'd like to see what you think of it?” He held it out towards her.

Allura took the piece carefully, inspecting the age of the paper. It felt strong, yet had the scent of some of the oldest pages within the family library. Looking at the texture, she then could see why it seemed to be holding up despite its age. Only those of the highest stature had access to such paper, capable of holding up to the rigors of time. Yet this was clearly a fragment of something larger. The edges were burnt. She could imagine that this piece was part of a book that was set to flame, but the paper would have been difficult to burn—bits could have flown off as the fire was stoked. To have found such a thing was remarkable.

The ink, if the original color was black, was now faded to a reddish brown. Reading it, Allura immediately grasped what Coran meant by ‘puzzle’.

“The point of view is odd," she said quietly. 'Most tales as old as this appears to be are framed from Black's perspective, but this seems to be Green speaking. And speaking in plural form… they never speak in plural. Or am I wrong?" She continued to study it, frowning at something unfamiliar at the bottom of the page. Voltron. "Is this a verb? I’ve never come across this word before.”

“I know, it is the first time I’ve come across it as well." Coran smiled. "So, while we wait for your father’s return, shall we ponder the mystery?”

Allura gratefully returned the smile. “Yes… I think this can provide enough distraction until then.”

Chapter Text

The Vagrant-class had five crew rooms, and they weren't all created equally. Flynn had flatly refused to take a senior officer's stateroom to himself, given the team dynamics, and apparently either logically persuaded or guilted Keith into agreeing with him. So they were sharing one, while Sven and Jace took the other; Hunk and Lance had laid claim to general quarters, which was much less comfortable, but had much more space. That left the two junior officers' quarters for the kids. Daniel and Cam were in one, and Vince… well… he didn't actually see much of Pidge, but his stuff was on the other side of the room. They were both being kept pretty busy.

At least the first leg of the trip had been short. According to Hunk, they'd taken a spatial rift the last time they'd traveled here… which sounded terrifying. The Bolt's hyperspace thrusters had gotten them there in just about the same time, no half-understood extraplanar phenomena required. The landing on Terina had been gloriously uneventful, and now it was time to get their marching orders.

Vince was the last one in to the briefing—not late, just not early, either—the conference rooms were fairly large, but the whole crew in one room was still a little much. There were donuts on the table, of course. He grabbed one and sat down next to Flynn, watching their commander pace.

"Okay, let's get things sorted out. Preferably better than last time." Their first trip here had been a bit of a rude awakening, and Keith had no desire to repeat the process. "Garrett, are your bombs taken care of?"

"Yup! Got 'em stashed in the smuggler's hold."

"Exce… what?" The commander looked at him, then over at his chief engineer, blinking. "We have a smuggler's hold?"

"No."

That didn't tell him anything. "Would you care to elaborate on that?"

Flynn sipped his coffee. "Not particularly."

"…Okay then." Plausible deniability it was, he supposed. "You'll be overseeing the inspection this time, you're the one who's going to end up in a cell if it isn't dealt with properly…"

"It's fine, boss." Hunk sounded mildly offended. It was true that they technically didn't have a smuggler's hold. Three heavily shielded storage lockers masquerading as empty bunks in general quarters seemed like it still fit the spirit of the thing.

"I'm holding you to that." Frown. "I want you in your quarters during the inspection. And if they need to look at the crew quarters, the word 'chicken' had better not so much as cross your mind."

Hunk shrugged. If he never had to deal with any alien inspectors again, he'd really be just as happy as his boss with the situation. "You got it."

"Now, our mission here is to get information. We have to assume there's somewhere we can go for answers, we just have to find out where. I'll be going, of course. Lance, Sven, I want one of you to come with me—you have experience with the Terinians." So did he, true, but their experience had gone substantially better.

"I'm in." Lance grinned slightly. "Hunk, can I borrow one of those Hawaiian shirts you brought along?"

"Won't fit you, bro, but if it makes you happy?"

"Oh, it will." He hoped it would make the locals happy. "Kid, you're coming along, right?"

"…No?" Daniel muttered, backing up a step. He didn't like birds. He really didn't like birds.

Cam brightened. "I'd like to go." He was eager to look around a real alien planet. Besides, as the communications officer he felt obligated to go assist with communications… even if he wasn't fully sure what he could do in this situation.

"I would, but I need to have a look around the spaceport, I'm afraid." Sven made a face. "My razor neglected to make it into my bags." He accompanied that statement with a glare at Jace; clearly the medic had either been responsible, or was having too much fun with it.

Keith nodded. "Okay. Brennan, you're coming with us, then. I'm not leaving you alone on the bridge."

In any other circumstance, Daniel would have had plenty to say about that. Not being trusted alone on the bridge was really kind of a badge of honor. But the thought of having to go out there superseded anything else. "Huh? What do you mean I have to go? I can stay here without staying on the bridge! There's rec rooms! Perfectly good rec rooms!"

Truthfully, Keith wasn't sure he trusted Daniel anywhere on the ship during the required inspection, either. Then again, he couldn't do much worse than they had last time. He was about to accept the protest when Cam spoke up, smirking. "Oh come on, Danny. Where's that daredevil spirit of yours?"

"Yeah, come on, kid. I'll keep you out of trouble." Lance winked.

"Dude, I can't go out there. I'm, uh, I'm allergic. Uh, to the Terinians."

He probably should have known better than to try to get away with that with Jace present. "Brennan, they're birds, not cranberries."

Great. "…Okay fine." He glared around at all of them; nobody seemed too intimidated. Nobody except Vince, who he hadn't even been aiming at. Whoops.

"The rest of you, I'd say to do as you see fit, but I know better. Just…" Keith shook his head slowly. "Just don't do anything that'll lead to us needing an illegal escape from the planet. Can you handle that?"

"Totally."

"Probably."

"Fifty-fifty?"

Keith glared.

"Easy, Kogane." Flynn drained his coffee and leaned back. "As long as the local wildlife doesn't try to kill us again, we'll be fine. The bar isn't high."

That was… probably true, actually. Sighing, he stopped pacing and looked over the team. "Okay. Fifteen minutes to get prepped, then we get to work. Dismissed."

*****

Vince had not been given any orders. So he found himself wandering the long corridors of the Bolt, searching for a reason to avoid going back to his quarters. Pidge would probably be there, and he didn't want to deal with him. That wasn't entirely fair, the ninja had saved his life as many times as he'd threatened to stab him. It was just uncomfortable.

Not that anything would've really prevented that, he supposed. He'd known going in that Explorer Teams were a bit on the crazy side, but it was the things he hadn't anticipated that kept throwing him. For instance, growing up with two mothers and the girl next door as his best friend, he was used to… a very different demographic than the one that existed on the ship just now. He'd have been reeling a little anyway. The presence of an unpredictable alien ninja as his bunkmate just wasn't helping anything.

Really he wanted to go outside, to get a look at an alien planet. But the thought of just going off alone made him nervous.

The sound of footsteps on the deck plating snapped him out of his musings; he looked up to see a very determined navigator heading his way. A small sigh of relief escaped him. A sane person!

A sane person who didn't seem to have actually noticed him, though. He spoke up hesitantly. "Sven, hey… what’s up?" Wait, was it okay to address an officer like that? He grimaced slightly. Awkward.

Sven startled a little before making eye contact. "Hello!" He'd been preoccupied with his own thoughts—he couldn’t believe he’d forgotten to pack a razor. He was becoming quite scruffy looking by now, Jace had mentioned it. A lot. As if he had any room to talk, Sven had never once seen him clean-shaven, and yet. He took a moment to rub his growing facial hair and shrugged. "I’m off to the market behind the spaceport, hopefully I can find a razor."

Oh, right. Vince touched his own face in response, wondering if that would start happening to him soon… he seemed overdue. In any case, the market sounded like it could be fun. "Can I come?"

"Absolutely!" Sven smiled. He'd be happy for the company, and of all the kids, so far he was pretty sure Vince was his favorite. Not that he'd say it out loud. But he had been the one to bring up going to Kaliega, that was worth all kinds of points.

"Awesome!" Vince grinned, excitement in his voice. He was going to get a glimpse of another world after all.

They left the ship and began making their way through the port, speeding past the docking stations to the open market behind it. Both team members were immediately thrust into a world of bright colors and trinkets. It was quite a bit to take in.

"Wow," Sven murmured, looking around in amazement. They'd passed by here the last time, but passing by hadn't prepared him for stepping into the midst of things; he was overcome with how breathtaking it all was.

"Wow…" Vince echoed, blinking and looking around in awe. His eyes bugged out at a few Terinians as they walked by, a rainbow of shimmering colors and bright eyes. Amazing…

Sven had slowed his walk, trying to take everything in, and smiled when he noticed Vince's expression. "A beautiful people, aren’t they?"

"Yeah, they really are." The whole place felt like it was humming from all the chirping around him. "It’s kind of surreal…"

"Yes, it is… and I hope I never get used to it." Sven shook his head, refusing to get any more distracted. He was here on a mission. "Now, which one of these shops do you think sells razors?"

Vince looked around for a minute before responding. "Would they even shave? I mean, I’d want to keep my feathers?"

"No they wouldn’t," Sven agreed, frowning slightly. "But with this market being so close to the port, they might sell things for other races. And the Bataxi certainly will."

Oh, duh, Vince. "True." He'd barely even noticed the scurrying saurians until Sven mentioned them—the Terinians kind of stole the spotlight. Looking around more closely he spotted an open stall with an array of glittering stones, and decided that looked like a great place to start the search. "I’ll check over there."

"Alright." Sven himself found a small shop that looked promising. "I’ll be in here if you need me."

Vince nodded, looking over all the trinkets and stones, trying to find anything that looked like a serviceable blade. He kept getting caught up in all the colors and glitter. It didn't take long for him to start to feel overwhelmed, and he decided to go find the navigator again. Safety in numbers.

Sven’s shop seemed to be a joint venture between a Terinian and a couple of Bataxi. It was filled with things that were obviously meant to be souvenirs, but many didn’t look to be of Terinian origin. Which was promising. Pausing at a small statue, he picked it up to have a closer look, immediately noting it was a bit heavier than it appeared. It had two birds, both colored in shades of black and dark purple. They were sculpted to look as if they were in mid-flight—the carving was less detailed than it was evocative, the sweeping lines making it look like the birds might lift off from his hand at any moment.

Wandering up to him, Vince took note of the small statue in his hand. "There are too many things to look at… what’s that?"

"It’s just a statue." He smiled. "It reminds me of some I’ve seen in Norway depicting Huginn and Muninn."

The young engineer paused a moment; he’d heard those names before but couldn’t quite place them. "Is that from Norse mythology?" he asked a little hesitantly, hoping he'd guessed correctly. He had, if the navigator's giant smile was an indicator.

"Yes. They’re ravens, helping spirits to Odin. They would fly around the whole world every day and report everything they saw back to him." Sven restrained himself to giving the brief description, slightly surprised the kid had even been able to place them in the correct mythology. Most couldn’t.

"Right." Vince nodded, it was coming back now. "I took a mythology overview course but I don’t remember much. If it isn’t electrical, a lot of the time it falls out of my head."

"I understand that. I took one engineering class and quickly learned that it was not for me." Sven chuckled slightly. He'd switched his cross-training focus to piloting very fast. "Mythology on the other hand always resonated. I love history, and the myths that go along with it."

"Well, I did enjoy the navigation class I took, but the math was too theoretical for me." Vince generally liked math, but that had been a lot of math, and there had been more letters involved than numbers.

Sven gave a small laugh. "The math is one of my favorite parts." Really everything about navigation was his favorite, but technically that did make the math one of his favorite parts.

"Myths are great, one of my moms is an expert in African history, and she talks about their myths a lot—guess I should have listened better," Vince admitted sheepishly, as the other man looked immediately intrigued.

"Oh, but that sounds interesting! You’ll have to tell me about the parts you do remember sometime." Looking at the small statue in his hand, Sven made a decision. "I’m going to buy this." They both started walking towards to the Terinian teller at the front of the shop.

Vince smiled and shook his head as Sven checked out… and nearly jumped out of his skin when one of the Bataxi took the expended credit chip and shattered it with one swift strike of her tail. Sheesh! He didn't speak again until they were out of the shop."I'll think on it, I'll tell you if I can remember anything specific enough. She thinks it’s important to know our cultural history…" His smile faded, a familiar pang running through him. It always did. Knowing he didn’t know where half of his genetics even came from… he loved his moms, obviously, but sometimes he couldn’t help but wonder. It kind of felt like something pulling constantly inside of him, but with no indication of where to go.

"It is important to know our history," Sven agreed. "It’s how society keeps from making the same mistakes over and over..." Finally he noticed Vince’s faded smile. "What’s wrong?"

He shrugged, trying to seem casual. "I just wonder sometimes. Where the sperm…" As soon as the word came out he blushed furiously, maybe that had been too casual. What did you just say to him? "…comes from," he finished weakly when it became clear the navigator wasn't going to rescue him.

Sven ignored the blush, and tried to empathize. "I’d wonder too, if I didn’t know where half of me came from. Have you ever considered having your DNA run for ancestry?"

"Oh… no, no. I can’t do that, it would hurt the moms' feelings."

Sven blinked. "May I ask why?" He wasn’t trying to be rude, but he was a little confused as to why that would hurt their feelings. It seemed like knowledge should be a good thing.

This time the casual shrug was a little more convincing. "They pretend they don’t know which of them I’m genetically linked to. Despite it being glaringly obvious. They’re just weird like that. Moms, you know?"

"Mothers can be quite… weird." Weird had not been the word Sven had wanted to use. Vexing worked much better for him, but he figured it wouldn’t be polite to lump Vince's mothers in with his own frustrating one. The kid's affection was clear in his tone.

"Tell me about it." Vince hesitated a moment, then decided what the hell, he'd already brought up sperm, may as well be completely honest. "It’s kind of strange not having any women around, to be honest."

That was an interesting point, actually. "I hadn't really given that much thought," Sven admitted, "but that’s probably because before I joined this team, I was in a room by myself studying asteroids." There hadn’t been anyone around him at all in his Deep Space Defense Agency cubicle, man or woman. So when he finally got an assignment where he’d be interacting with other people almost constantly, the fact that none of his teammates were female had never even crossed his mind.

"That sounds kind of fun, if you ask me."

"I did not find it to be fun at all. The math was fun, but otherwise it got incredibly boring incredibly fast. I became a navigator to get off of Earth, and somehow—" Ha. As if you don’t know how. "—I ended up stuck alone in a room on Earth."

"Well, now you’re in the middle of an open market surrounded by sentient birds." Vince gave a large grin, and Sven couldn’t help but grin back. Apparently this kid was an optimist.

"Yes, I am. It’s wonderful."

"Yeah, definitely a perk of being on an Explorer Team." Might even be worth putting up with weird demographics and deadly ninjas.

They looked around the market a bit more, studying all manner of trinkets and souvenirs, until finally Sven glanced at the time and blinked. "We'd better get back to the ship." He wasn't sure when exactly they were leaving, but it was better to be early back to the ship than risk being late. And if they stayed out here much longer he might go back with whole bags of shiny trinkets he didn't really need.

It wasn’t a long trip, and they wandered slowly back through the docking area, looking with interest at the alien ships around them. Sven was torn, he was almost sad to be leaving the hustle and bustle of the market, but a nap in his quarters after being almost blinded with color sounded lovely. Thinking of his quarters made him think of the statue, and where to put it, and after a moment he had an inspiration.

"Here." He paused and turned to Vince, holding the statue out to him. "I want you to have this."

"What?" Vince stammered, taking a half step back in surprise. "Why?" Oh, real polite, Vince.

Sven smiled, unbothered by the lack of manners. Jace was far less polite even when he was trying to be polite. "I’m not really sure.. I just feel like you should have it." A small smirk crossed his lips. "Maybe it’ll be a good reminder to listen to your mothers' stories."

All Vince could do was laugh, and it took him a few moments to stop himself. "...I mean, um, thank you very much for the gift." Taking it from the navigator he examined it a little closer, running his fingertips along the smooth lines of glossy stone. This really is a cool statue.

"You’re welcome." Sven gave a long exhale. The landing field where the Bolt was parked was coming into view. "This has been fun, it'll be good to rest for a bit before takeoff though. I'm glad you came along."

"Thanks for letting me come." Vince smiled, then something else hit him. He stopped, looking around at the ships, then back towards the market, then back at Sven. Or more to the point, Sven's scruffy chin. And his now-empty hands, since he'd turned the statue over. "Uh… Sven. You didn’t get a razor."

Freezing in his tracks, Sven turned back around and just stared at him for a moment. He looked at his hands himself as if to confirm it… no. Definitely no razor. "DARNIT!"

Vince giggled at the rare outburst. Which caused Sven to glare at him, but the glare quickly faded as the navigator realized he wasn't all that mad. It really is kind of funny. Shaking his head, he submitted to the inevitable, and just started walking back to the ship. Scruff it was.

*****

Sunwing Roost was the nearest real city to the spaceport. They'd gotten directions at the spaceport from a Terinian Portguard, and transportation on a cart driven by a dour male Bataxi. They were headed for something called 'the Kurcuri'. It had taken a few tries to get across to the Portguard what they were looking for, but apparently a Kurcuri was a sort of military college. Hopefully it would give them what they needed.

It took maybe twenty minutes to reach the outskirts of the Roost, and with a thanks to the Bataxi they disembarked from the cart. "Now, you had all better be on your best behavior." Keith eyed his team suspiciously. All three of them, really. Maybe Lance most of all.

Not that Lance cared. "Yeah, kids. Don't do anything I wouldn't do." In place of his usual jacket, he was wearing the most eye-searing shirt in Hunk's collection. Personally he thought he was really rocking the hot pink flamingos and random fruit.

Daniel eyed them both skeptically, then turned back to look at the Roost. It was an odd mix of simple wooden huts and large, arching stone structures. And birds. He tried half-successfully to suppress a shudder as a bright yellow Terinian passed them. "Fucking birds…"

"They're pretty nice, you know." Lance gave him a slight push as they started down the street.

"They're creepy."

A stunning male Terinian with iridescent blue wings took to the sky not far away, and he watched with appreciation. "I think they're hot."

"Stop whining, brat boy." Cam was watching for the landmarks they'd been given; he needed to focus. He also needed to not pass up an opportunity to call Daniel a brat, naturally.

Daniel ignored him, looking up at Lance with a raised eyebrow. "I think thinking that way is a good way to get your eyes pecked out."

That got him a laugh and a warm squeeze of his shoulder. "Risk is what makes things interesting, kid!"

In most other circumstances, Daniel would've agreed with that, too. These were not normal circumstances. "Not when it comes to birds, Lancey-pants. Not birds."

Someone up ahead snorted. If he didn't know better, he'd have said it was Keith… nah, no way. Their pilot snorted too, then his hazel eyes narrowed threateningly. "I never want to hear Lancey-pants out of your mouth again."

Smirk. "Or what?" This was way better than worrying about creepy birds.

Lance just pushed a sparkly pineapple aside and tapped one of his guns. "You'd never see it coming."

He did make a convincing argument there; Daniel laughed. "Fine, no more Lancey-pants. I'll just have to think of something else to call y—" Distracting himself had worked a little too well, and his words gave way to a shriek as he nearly ran into a neon purple Terinian.

"Whoa!" Lance grabbed him, then grinned brightly at the Terinian. "Sorry, he's not planet trained…"

It didn't seem like the Terinian spoke Common, but his tone was probably clear enough. She gave an amused chirp and rustled her wings before continuing on her way. Daniel didn't stop wincing until she was well past.

"Dude," Cam scolded, "don't hurt the locals."

"What about them hurting me?!"

"Oh come on, she was friendly. I told you they were." Lance grinned and clapped his shoulder again. "Just stick by me, kid."

Well, his taste was weird, but he had saved him from the one creepy bird. Daniel nodded. "Okay."

Turning a corner, a very different building came into view. Maybe it was multiple buildings, it wasn't easy to tell… either way, the architecture was stunning. Intricately cut wooden panels and swooping stone arches were seamlessly woven together, with what looked like brightly colored gargoyles in a few spots. Then one of those gargoyles spread its wings and took flight, revealing itself to be a Terinian in some kind of dark armor.

"That must be the Kurcuri." Keith paused a moment. They'd been told they wouldn't be able to miss it… this seemed to fit the bill. "Hopefully someone there will be willing and able to help us out."

"Hope so. They're a pretty casual sort of people." Lance frowned. "Where do you think we need to go, precisely? Doubt they have a Voltron office."

"A professor of history, I think. Get some information on those ruins and the battle that was fought there." He shook his head. "They have to know something. Let's move. Brennan, try not to get us in trouble with the locals."

Daniel scowled, trying to hide behind Lance without looking like he was hiding behind Lance. "You're the one that made me come!" Keith ignored him, and a passing Terinian chirping in approval at Lance's shirt sent him scurrying for cover.

Their directions had been to the administrative building, or at least the administrative section—it was still hard to figure out if the complex was all one building. Either way, they headed up a ramp and in the doorway, where a mass of white feathers was sitting in a small nest behind a desk. As they approached the Terinian drew its wings back to reveal its face, peering at them curiously.

"Excuse us." Keith bowed his head slightly. "We'd like some information?"

The Terinian at the desk considered that for a moment, then turned and gave a stuttering series of chirps and whistles. A small bright green one emerged from a doorway and gave a commanding squawk, motioning for them to follow.

Considering their last visit, Lance was a little surprised at how many of the locals here didn't speak Common. Maybe only those closest to the spaceport bothered to learn it. Seemed reasonable enough. Those here apparently learned other things, like cleanliness—the facility was spotless, a sharp contrast to Ioan's messy and disgusting hut, and he was more than a little relieved.

"I'd love to learn their language," Cam whispered as they passed a small group. They seemed to be deep in a melodic conversation, though a few paused long enough to chirp at Lance as they went by. "It sounds so cool."

"I was told I needed to sing if I really wanted to court one of them," Lance offered.

"Sing?" Daniel repeated skeptically.

"Yeah, think they like 1980's pop-rock?"

Cam blinked. He didn't even know if he liked 1980's pop-rock. "Well, I don't think I want to court them… just speak to them?"

Shrug. "You're our communications officer, maybe we can find you some books on it?"

Just then they reached where they were going, their guide indicating a door and stepping back. A large Terinian with glossy red feathers was sitting at a desk. She rose quickly, nodding to their guide and beckoning them forward. "Come in, Earthlings. I am Skyguard Ruxandra, the Common English interpreter and liaison. How may I assist you?"

Now they were getting somewhere. Keith smiled, bowing his head again. "Pleasure to meet you, ma'am. I'm Commander Keith Kogane, these are some of my crew. We'd like to speak to a professor of history, if possible? We have some questions about your planet."

Ruxandra paused, ruffling her wings in thought. "What sort of questions? We haven't such a thing as a 'professor of history' here, but if I know what you seek I can take you to the correct expert."

"This should be good," Lance muttered under his breath. Both the kids gave small nods of agreement.

Despite his crew's doubts, Keith had been ready for the question. They would have to explain it to someone eventually. "Well, we'd heard of some ruins in the mountains, and something about beasts from the sky?"

The Skyguard's silvery eyes sharpened, focusing on him much more carefully. "The Vanquished Nest? May I ask what brings Earthlings here with questions about that?"

"The Vanquished Nest?" Lance repeated. "Now that's a fucking cool name." He was trying not to think about what the name actually meant.

Daniel couldn't help it. "I still think Lancey-pants is a pretty cool name." Shut up! He's protecting you from the birds!

Fortunately, the pilot just laughed. "At your own risk, kid."

Keith had studiously ignored the whole exchange; he was getting pretty good at it by now. "We're mapping this region of space," he explained, "and are just worried about any possible dangers for travelers and such. If these… beasts are still in the area, they could pose a threat."

She gave an odd, subdued chirp. "They are no threat to travelers… those of good intentions, anyway."

"Really?" That seemed like a very concrete statement, compared to the ancient warning on the walls. "Could you tell us about what they are or anything?" He noted Daniel giving him a very skeptical look, but ignored that too.

"There are no scholars here who can help you with the beasts from the sky. No more than any others. They are legend, the reason this facility exists… come with me."

Apparently they were going to spend a lot of time following birds around today. Well, if it helped. They followed her through a few more hallways, then stepped out into a courtyard. It was bright and green, but the mountains and the overcast were just visible in the distance. The Skyguard stopped, looking up at the mountains, singing something soft and haunting. Keith couldn't help a shiver—Cam, on the other hand, was fascinated.

So cool…

"Our people fear the cold," Ruxandra said abruptly. "We once built great nests in the mountains to survive the winters."

"The cold does suck," Daniel mumbled, and Lance nodded in agreement.

"Long ago, fire rained from the sky over the Coldflight Nest. Our oracles took up their ceremonial arms and attempted to fight what seemed, at the time, to be mountains of steel." She wrapped her wings around herself, eyes still on the distant clouds. "We now know them to have been warships, of course. The oracles hadn't a chance. But as they died, the beasts appeared."

It sounds like a myth. Lance looked up at the clouds. But then, so does Voltron. Maybe that meant they were on the right track after all.

Keith was thinking the same thing. "The beasts… how many of them were there?"

"Four or five. The reports conflict." Ruxandra lowered her wings and shrugged. "Our people were mostly concerned with fleeing."

"Smart of them."

"Understandable." Keith nodded. "Do the… reports tell of anything else? What the beasts looked like? We'd like to know as much as possible."

She shook her head. "When one of them emerged from the clouds, it brought the lightning with it, and chased the attacking ships back for the other beasts to tear apart. It's said they roared fiercely enough that the mountain viermâţă trembled, and were as bright as the most beautiful plumage. But there were only glimpses."

"Bright red?" Lance muttered before he could stop himself. The Skyguard didn't seem to hear him, but Keith did. He'd been thinking the same thing.

"Their… plumage. Were there any specific colors?"

Now she gave him another curious look, and he flinched. Maybe that had been a bit much… but then she seemed to accept it. "Your mapping investigation must be very thorough, I see. The grand beast of lightning was blacker than space. Otherwise, the reports again conflict."

Lightning. Black. Keith shivered, exchanging looks with Lance; Daniel eyed both of them oddly and was summarily ignored again.

"What about red?" Lance had never been accused of quitting while he was ahead. "Was one of them red?"

"The most commonly accepted of the records says yes." Ruxandra pulled her wings around herself again, singing softly. "Five roars in the clouds. Black as space, gold as sun, red as blood, blue as sea. The fifth beast unseen, but its voice sings of death."

"Death singing." Daniel grimaced. "Sounds pleasant."

"What happened after they arrived?" Cam asked softly. "They destroyed the enemy ships?"

"Destroyed, or forced away. They vanished back into the clouds, but their roars took much longer to fade." She started walking again, heading for the center of the courtyard. They followed. "The Vanquished Nest was evacuated, but the few surviving oracles left offerings of gratitude. Which is how we know the beasts returned… when the oracles visited again, the offerings were gone."

Now they might really be getting somewhere. "Gone?"

Ruxandra nodded. She was leading them to a sort of pedestal, covered in feather patterns and colorful stones. Something was burning behind reinforced glass at its peak, a soft blue-white light. The team exchanged startled glances. It was a weapon. Its design was alien, but it was clearly some sort of plasma torch combined with a blade. "Gone. And this was in their place."

"Wow…" Even Daniel was intrigued now, staring at the flickering flame.

"We took their gift and learned to defend ourselves." She drew something from over her shoulder; a modified version of the blade torch. "That is when we stopped hiding in the mountains from the cold, and began training Skyguards. All our soldiers know the legend. But the beasts have never returned."

Keith couldn't take his eyes off the pedestal. It wasn't much, but it was something. Some concrete proof that the 'beasts' had existed. It had to be the Voltron weapon… he wondered where small arms, a blade no less, fit into a weapon that could destroy mile-long monstrosities. But they could figure that out when they found it.

Suddenly, finding it didn't seem quite so impossible.

"That's… an incredible story, Skyguard. Thank you."

She nodded, then tilted her head. "That is all I can tell you from the most common legend, but as I said, the reports did vary. There is a full repository… it is in our ancient tongue, but I could provide you with a copy and some translation resources if you feel it would help you."

He blinked. Just like that? The question wanted to come out, but he silenced it. The Terinians did seem like an accommodating people, and somehow he doubted everyone they met on this mission would be so helpful. Best to take advantage where they could. So instead he glanced over at Cam, who was trying and failing to contain his excitement. "Do you really want to learn their language? Sounds like it could be a challenge."

Grin. "I like challenges, sir."

Nodding, he turned back to the Skyguard. "Yes, ma'am. We would be most appreciative."

She looked to Cam with some interest, nodding herself and rustling her wings. "We have the capability to convert our records to your Alliance's standard data format, but it will take some time. If you tell me your ship—you've come from the port, I'm sure?—I'll send it with a courier."

Perfect. More perfect than they could have hoped, really. "We are in the port. Jupiter's Bolt, slot 3-C on field two. Thank you so much for your time, ma'am."

"I hope the information will aid you." Ruxandra clasped her talons in front of her chest, and spread her wings high, the tips touching over her head. Daniel yelped and jumped back a step. Keith, though, was pretty sure he could recognize the solemnity of a military salute when he saw it. He returned the salute, even if the human variant was less impressive-looking, and followed as she started to lead them out of the courtyard. Then she paused a moment and turned back to Lance. "And, may I compliment you on your fine plumage?"

A huge grin spread over Lance's face. "I wore it especially. Thank you."

Keith chuckled. "Yes, he is exceptionally… bright, isn't he?"

"Not the word I'd use," Daniel muttered.

Lance ignored that, winking at Keith instead. "Aww boss, I didn't think you noticed."

Oh, here it went. "Don't let it go to your head," he grumbled, rolling his eyes. "Your ego is big enough already."

"Yeah, I am awesome."

Mercifully they reached the exit right then, though Ruxandra was chirping in amusement. Keith shook his head and saluted one more time. "Thank you again for your time, ma'am. Come on," he gathered his team with a mild glower, "let's get moving."

"See?" Lance nudged Daniel as they headed out into the street. "Not all birds are bad."

"Yeah, I guess." Daniel smiled weakly. He wasn't convinced, but he supposed they had survived. "Your… plumage seemed to keep them pretty happy."

Smirk. "It's just one of my specialties, kid. So boss, we've gotta go find the door to door saleslizard with the golf cart again?"

Keith groaned. "Can we please not call them that, anymore? But yes. Let's get back to the ship."

*****

Something had been running through the ship since they came inbound to Terina. A decided unease among the veterans of the team. It wasn't hard to figure out what was going on, and the briefing had solidified it—they were anticipating trouble with the inspection.

Well, Pidge had wanted to watch the inspection anyway. He'd doubted the Lieutenant Commander would agree to his presence, though… and couldn't really blame him for it. Besides, much like Garrett's explosives, what his superior officer didn't know couldn't hurt either of them. No problem. He was a ninja. So he'd been silently shadowing the inspection, his chameleon suit's stealth mode engaged, ready to intervene at the first hint of trouble.

The Portguard, a diamond-white Terinian named Liandri, had greeted the ship itself as if it were an honored guest. He found her far more impressive than the scurrying Bataxi who kept trying to trip over him. Not that his opinion had any bearing on the matter—Flynn was keeping a very sharp eye on the reptilian inspectors. But there hadn't been any incidents.

He was more than a little relieved as the group headed off the ship. Nothing had gone wrong, no intervention had been necessary, nobody had to know he'd ever been here. That relief lasted just about until he turned back to the elevator by the forward airlock. Which opened without his input. Not even Pidge could get out of the way fast enough—there wasn't really anywhere to dodge in the cramped entry corridor—especially not when the person who barreled off the elevator practically filled it.

Calling what ensued a 'scuffle' would have been generous, but in any case the collision ended with Garrett on his back and Pidge crouched on his chest. The huge man didn't seem the slightest bit concerned with the ninja who'd appeared out of nowhere trying to pin him. The knife the ninja was clutching? That he seemed a lot more concerned about.

"Dude! Put that thing away before you hurt someone!"

Oh, sure, that was the problem here. "Me?" he hissed. "What about you tackling me?"

Blink. "You were invisible!"

…So he had been. Sighing, he sheathed the knife as his adrenaline crashed, but didn't move. "You aren't supposed to be here."  He was quite certain the big oaf had been ordered to stay in his quarters during the inspection.

"Inspection was over, yeah? I was keepin' tabs over the comms. And I needed somethin' out of cold storage." Garrett shrugged, as best one could shrug while flat on his back. "Can you get off me so I don't hafta just dump you?"

"Whatever." He rolled to the floor with a scowl. "Get up."

"Sure?" The other engineer stood up, eyeing him warily. "Uh, but seriously, sorry about the tackling. Didn't see you. Invisible and all. You okay?"

"I'm fine." Or at least he would be fine when this conversation was over. "Go get your cold storage and get out of my—"

"—Cevete, I walk off this ship for two minutes…!"

Both of them jumped. Flynn was standing in the airlock with his arms crossed, glowering. Pidge flinched back, mentally cursing; Hunk just grimaced. "Uh, hey pit boss! It was definitely more like five."

"That's not entirely an argument in your favor. Pidge, lay off the knife." The ninja blinked and dropped his hand from his sheath. "You come with me. Hunk, we'll talk later."

Gulp. "Uh, yeah, okay. Later, pit boss! Later, ninja!" He disappeared into the cargo corridors faster than anyone that big had any right to move.

Flynn walked into the elevator, but didn't activate it, just leaning against the wall and watching Pidge sharply. He seemed resigned. That seemed to happen a lot with him. "Misunderstanding, I trust?"

"Yessir." Sigh. "I was observing the inspection. The Commander made it sound like he expected trouble. Garrett came off the elevator and ran over me, it went poorly."

"You were what?"  Flynn repeated, the altercation briefly forgotten. "How?" Admittedly he'd been spending much of his effort on making sure no Bataxi slipped away from the group to scan any unknown hydraulic leaks. But clearly he hadn't been doing a good job of tracking things at all, if he'd missed an entire Baltan…

"Like this." He pulled up his hood, and in a slight shimmer, he vanished.

…Ninja. Right. "Okay, if you could never do that again unless you're told, that would be ideal."

"Yessir." He faded back into view. "Is that all?"

"Certainly not." It wasn't really Pidge observing the inspection that worried him, though that proactivity thing was going to get annoying really quick. Some other things were already annoying. "Have you considered, when you notice it's a misunderstanding, just walking away? Apologizing? Doing literally anything other than escalating the situation?"

At that, he actually looked confused. "I don't try to escalate, sir. It just seems to happen. And I was told just walking away from people was rude."

Really? That's where he draws the line? That raised questions he wasn't nearly brave enough to ask. "Maybe so. But if you can't interact with some semblance of civility, which you clearly can't, it's better if—" Pidge's hand had gone to his knife again, and Flynn frowned. He'd had about enough of the ninja and his knife fetish. "—You know what, give me that."

There was a brief hesitation. And then, to his intense shock, "No."

…No?

Had he just said no?

Not even a no sir?

That was new.

His immediate reflex was to repeat himself, perhaps making it a bit more clear this time that no was not an acceptable answer. But looking at the trapped-animal glint in Pidge's eyes, he hesitated. He still had yet to see the ninja actively threaten anyone. It was a passive threat, no doubt, but…

Maybe…

Flynn didn't look away. He dropped a hand to his holster, pulling his sidearm out and offering it to him by the barrel. "Trade you."

Now Pidge looked as shocked as Flynn had been a few moments before. "Sir?"

"Take it. Give me the knife." Pidge's file indicated he could hardly handle guns in general, and this one was pretty damn unwieldy. If he accepted it, that would tell him something. If he didn't… well, that would tell him something else.

Quietly, slowly, Pidge nodded. He flipped the knife around, handed it over, and took the pistol in both hands. For a few moments he seemed content to examine it. Flynn found himself doing the same with the knife… the blade he'd previously assumed to be black steel was actually the slightest bit translucent, and the serrated edge was visibly chipped and faceted into shape. Obsidian? But obsidian was much too brittle to be used in modern weaponry. The hilt was wrapped in iridescent blue-black cord, not wholly unlike the stealth suit he was wearing. This was clearly not a weapon from Earth.

"It's called a taisseli. Shard knife." He startled a little; Pidge was looking up at him again. "Every Shinori creates one early on in military training."

Do they really. He looked at the knife again, newly intrigued. "You made this?"

"Yessir. It's an old tradition. To teach warriors to respect their weapons, and those who create them… from back when not everyone was trained for combat."

Even more interesting, and not just what he'd said. The fact that he was saying it at all was fascinating. Flynn seized on it—if the ninja was suddenly discovering that semblance of civility, he couldn't afford to pass it up. "It's beautiful," he said truthfully. "What's it made of?"

"Obsidian." Perhaps reading his surprise, or perhaps just into the subject now, Pidge answered his next question before he could ask it. "While your people were creating new materials, mine were perfecting what they had first."

That did sound appropriate, somehow. He ran a finger cautiously along the blade; it scratched the surface of his skin with the slightest contact. He wasn't a knife person, himself. But he could appreciate the craftsmanship, the efficiency. Just as usual it raised a new question.

Why tell me any of that?

Pidge was watching him expressionlessly. He was still holding the pistol in both hands, with something that was almost reverence. Did he understand why Flynn had given it to him? Or was he just being, well, Pidge?

Either way… maybe he could use this little glimmer of understanding. Worth a try.

"That," he said with a small grin, indicating the gun, "is called a Desert Eagle. I didn't make it, but I did repair it from not much but a beat up base frame."

"Desert Eagle," Pidge repeated, tilting his head. "Did you name it? I didn't think humans named their weapons."

Hmm. Did Baltans name their weapons? Perhaps that was a question for later. "No, it's just the model name. I liked it, though. I grew up in a desert, it's where I felt comfortable." He laughed softly. "I'm sure you'll find this silly, but it felt… right, somehow."

"I don't think it's silly." Pidge turned the gun over in his hands again. "It's good to feel connected to your weapons. To think of them as something more than just tools. It shows respect."

Respect. Maybe so. Flynn studied him carefully, considering all he'd just learned, then decided to take a shot. "What if I asked you to treat your teammates with the same kind of respect you treat your weapons?"

Almost immediately, Pidge's right hand dropped to his sheath. His empty sheath. He knew it was empty, he was staring right at his own knife in Flynn's hand. But the reflex was there regardless… the ninja flinched as soon as he realized the issue, but he didn't back down. "In my experience, sir, people are much less worthy of that respect."

…People? Not teammates, not even humans… but people. He took that in for a moment, then pointedly lowered his gaze to the empty sheath.

Pidge flinched again. And Flynn was pretty certain that answered his question.

"What are you afraid of?" he asked softly.

Immediately Pidge's eyes narrowed, going back to that trapped look from before, and his hand tightened on the sheath. "I don't know what you're talking about, sir."

"I'm sure you don't." He looked at the knife again. "So you should be able to tone this down, right?"

"…Yessir."

We'll see. He handed the knife back, and Pidge seemed to visibly calm as he accepted it and returned the gun. Flynn holstered it and studied him for a moment. He felt like he should say something supportive or reassuring here, but he had no doubt it would be poorly received…

"I knew it wasn't loaded, sir."

His jaw dropped. "Excuse me?"

"It was a nice gesture. Mechaiska." He turned away. "I'm not afraid of you."

…Okay, so he'd known exactly what was going on there. But he'd still gone along with it. Was that significant? It had to be significant. Flynn closed his eyes for a moment, wishing for just a little bit more insight that could make some of this, any of this, make some sense. But maybe it was a start. "I'm glad to hear that, anyway."

"Is there anything else, sir?"

Plenty. "Not on that topic. I know you'll try to do better." He hit the elevator controls, and it started lurching up to the main deck. "You're on shift in twenty. I want full diagnostics on engine three, sounded like it had a dampening coil out when we landed. I'd rather not crack it open without confirmation."

"Roger that." Pidge slipped out of the elevator and vanished the moment it stopped, and Flynn looked after him as if, if he just stared hard enough, it could give him the answers he needed.

Who are you? Why are you like this? What do I have to do to fix you?

That last thought made him wince. He had definitely not signed up for fixing grumpy ninjas. But it was looking like he might not have a choice.

*****

Romelle was sore. Very sore. It turned out she had not been prepared for sex at all, let alone with a powerful Drule prince who seemed quite accustomed to the process. Mentally, she could remind herself of her duty, force herself to endure, accept the indignity and the violation. For Pollux. Physically, well… it turned out she could only handle so many nights of him before the bruises became too much. Last night, a cry of pain had finally escaped.

She'd been mortified. So had he.

Lotor had apologized profusely for being too rough, then assured her that Korrinoth would strengthen her in time. He said it like she was supposed to be encouraged. For the moment, though, he'd offered to give her some time to recover. His father had tasks for him, anyway. Kalindra was at her service, and whatever she desired would be hers.

What Romelle desired was to go home and never look back. That, she knew, was not included in the offer. So the next best thing seemed to be trying to learn. If she could find something, anything, in Drule culture that she could connect with, perhaps her duty would become more bearable…

"Princess, are you ready?"

She smiled slightly at the voice; her handmaiden's company was always pleasant, at least. "Yes, please come in, Kalindra."

The young woman entered, bowing low. "I've secured the Royal Sacellum for the afternoon. It honors me that you trust my judgment in this matter, and I believe learning of our gods would be the best place to start." She straightened. "His Highness has duties to perform for his father, but he hopes to find a moment to join us."

It would be quite alright with Romelle if he didn't, but of course she couldn't say so, so she simply put it aside and smiled. "Thank you. I'm eager to learn." That was completely true, at least. "What is the Royal Sacellum?"

"A place of worship." Gesturing for her to follow, Kalindra headed out into the corridors. "You will find little organized religion here, outside the conclaves of witches and priests. The sacellums are for worshippers to commune with the gods privately."

"Oh! It sounds like a lovely and quiet place."

"Indeed. The Royal Sacellum is always the most quiet in any case, but I thought you'd be most comfortable if we could be certain not to be disturbed."

Romelle wouldn't have even thought of that, but she certainly agreed with it. "I think so, thank you. I appreciate the effort you've put into this."

Smiling, her handmaiden guided her down a few more corridors, to a door with a curious sixteen-pointed sigil carved into it. There were tables on either side of the door, two bowls filled with branches of red and white blossoms. Kalindra took one of the branches and looked back to her. "Anshiru blossoms. They are placed by the shrines as an honor. Take one if you wish, though it is understandable if you aren't comfortable doing so."

Was she comfortable doing so? She'd certainly done far less comfortable things since she came here… "I think I should," she said softly, picking out a branch. "Perhaps I should honor them all, the first time I meet them. And maybe one will resonate with me?" That was her ultimate hope here, wasn't it?

Kalindra looked pleased, in any case. "If you feel that is correct, I'm sure it will be appreciated."

"I hope so." Steeling herself, wondering what to expect from a Drule place of worship, she stepped back and let the other woman open the door.

Light and color spilled out over them.

Romelle gasped softly, stepping into the room and looking around in awe. The sight was overwhelming. It was a circular chamber lit by torches in a spectrum of colors: blue by the doors, and gradually going through the whole rainbow as they ran around the circle. Lit by the colorful flames, exquisite statues lined the walls. Fifteen, maybe sixteen, if her quick count was correct. They were carved of some swirled gray and white stone, polished to a gemlike sheen, and swathed with delicate banners of gauze. Whatever she'd expected, this had not been it.

"This is beautiful," she whispered.

"It is, isn't it?" Kalindra's voice had become soft as well, perhaps in reverence. "All the Drule Supremacy worships the same Sixteen Domains. But different kingdoms emphasize different deities. I know this must be a lot to take in… we can begin with just those the Ninth is most closely bound to, if you wish."

Still overwhelmed, trying to look at everything at once, Romelle just nodded for a few moments before finding her voice. "Yes, that… that sounds like the best way to start."

They crossed the room, stopping before a statue lit by pink and purple torches. It was a hooded figure holding a sceptre, wearing heavy robes and a royal cloak; every thread of the cloak's fur lining was painstakingly carved into the stone. Kalindra bowed low to the statue, setting her branch at its feet among a few other branches and blossoms. The gesture snapped Romelle out of her awe, and she carefully detached one of the blossoms from her branch to set down as well.

"Kus'da, the God of Authority," Kalindra named it as she straightened. "Both monarchs and slaves bow equally before him, as do all in between… he watches over the social order that keeps society from crumbling." She touched one of the banners draped over his sceptre. "Each banner represents a subordinate deity of his Domain."

Bowing her head to the statue, Romelle sorted over those words in her mind. "Kus'da," she repeated slowly, earning an encouraging nod. "God of Authority." She considered asking for more information about his subordinates, but decided against it—she was going to have plenty to try to absorb today as it was.

"Some consider him the patron of the entire Supremacy. That isn't entirely true, but he is the one god all ten kingdoms revere equally."

That made sense, she thought. "Social order is important." Her eyes went to the fur again. "Your artisans are… amazing. This sculpture is lovely."

"That is something our kingdom prides itself on, Princess." Seemingly inspired to action by the comment, Kalindra led her back across the room. "What sort of arts do you have on Pollux?"

Nothing like this. "We have music, sculpting, painting." Trying to think of more to say she realized by now she largely tuned such things out. "I'd say it isn't anything special… I suppose one's own art forms start to seem old after awhile. Seeing other cultures' is refreshing."

"That is understandable." They stopped in front of another statue, this one framed by turquoise torches, though she didn't explain it immediately. "I'd be curious to see some Polluxian art someday. Your gowns are very unusual."

Heat rushed to Romelle's cheeks. "I'm sure it could be arranged. Your… gowns are very unusual to me, also. Does it get hot here? Is that why they are so… light?" Now that was a display of tact even your father would appreciate.

"Quite the opposite." Kalindra shook her head. "Korrinoth is a cold world by most standards, but we are well adapted to it. We show strength by not hiding from the elements."

"Oh, I see." She didn't entirely see. But she didn't really care to go further with it, either. So she looked up at the statue they'd arrived at: a woman with a remarkable number of banners looped around her four arms, each of which held a tool of some sort. Her simple tunic even had stains carefully carved in. "Who is this one?" she asked softly, setting a blossom at her feet. "So many in her… Domain?"

"Yes." Another encouraging smile. "This is Graxinal, the Goddess of the Arts. She has the largest of all Domains—what limits can there be to creative pursuits?"

"Graxinal…" Romelle was fascinated, and reeling somewhat. She'd never have dreamed these people valued such things. Trying to reconcile such beauty with the Drules' brutality in combat—and the aches deep between her legs—was nearly impossible. She exhaled slowly, looking up at the statue. If she could just see much more of this and much less of Lotor, she might come to enjoy her task. "Fitting that we came to her now."

"I thought you might appreciate it." Kalindra bowed her head to the statue.

"Very much so. Art is a relaxing thing on my world."

"As it is here. Part of why the Sacellums usually have particularly fine works… they are places of respite." The Drule smiled. "You see? There are commonalities to be found."

"There are indeed." Her hopes to find something she could connect with seemed to be going much better than she could've hoped, so far. "And commonalities are what builds excellent relationships. Which one is next?"

In response, Kalindra simply turned to the right. The statue there was a bit of a shock—tattered robes around a swirling vortex in a vaguely humanoid shape. "Thra'nik'ta, the God of Magic. He is rarely invoked alone, as magic is a tool. But it is an important and powerful tool."

Magic? Romelle studied the statue quietly before placing a flower and bowing her head. "Thra'nik'ta." She wasn't sure what else to say to that one. Pollux had no tradition of magic… in fact, much in their history made them suspicious of it. But she was here now, and she would be respectful.

Perhaps sensing her unease, her handmaiden turned away without saying anything further. They crossed back to the statue next to Kus'da, directly across from the doors. The two statues, actually, framed by deep violet torches—a male and female in identical armor, standing back to back as if to fend off enemies. The male was holding a scroll, the female a bloody sword. This was the statue that had thrown Romelle's count off earlier, and she was curious to hear it explained.

It was the female Kalindra indicated first. "Dra'ki'iri is the Goddess of War, specifically the heat of battle. She is more favored in our kingdom than her twin, Dra'sun'iri… the God of War, of strategy and preparation. Both are revered, of course. But the preference of our warriors is to overcome challenges with pure strength and skill."

Placing two flowers and bowing her head, Romelle found herself wondering if she should have brought something to write this all down. "Dra'ki'iri… and… Dra'sun'iri?"

Kalindra nodded, then smiled sympathetically at the look on her face. "It is a great deal at first, I know. Take in what you can. There are only two more that our kingdom considers patrons, but we can stop for now if you wish."

"No, please, let's continue." She returned the smile shyly, deciding to take a chance. "I know I'm not expected to learn everything overnight, but I feel like such an outsider here. I want to learn it all as quickly as I can, so I can be a worthy…" The word consort wouldn't come out. "…part of the kingdom."

For a moment, the other woman rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. And to her surprise, it was comforting—despite the sharp blue nails, and the fangs she bared whenever she smiled. Perhaps she was adapting… "You honor us with your determination to learn, and we will all be proud to call you our princess."

Heat rushed to her cheeks again. "I… thank you, Kalindra. I'm honored, as well."

They moved to another statue, lit in soft shades of green. This one was markedly different than any of the others her guide had yet named, though she'd noticed not all were humanoid. A graceful equine creature with heavy hooves, three branching antlers, and delicate feathery wings reared up before her. What looked almost like small rivers and mountains flowed over its body. "Zonjal, the Beast of Life."

Wow… It was all Romelle could do to find her voice as she bowed and set down a blossom. "Zonjal," she repeated in a hushed tone. "Life. This statue is exquisite." Hesitating a moment, she took care to keep anything that could be mistaken for disrespect from her tone. "A beast?"

Nod. "The primordial beasts are said to have been the first beings, and opened the way for the gods and goddesses to emerge from the ancient mists. Zonjal may have been the first of them all."

That did make sense. It was so much to take in, but at the same time, she knew that connection she was seeking was here. This beauty, this reverence… these illustrations of a whole culture, not just a machine of conquest. And it was only reinforced as they turned to the statue to the left.

The goddess there was beautiful in a way surely only a divine being could be, wearing gem-encrusted armor that glittered in the turquoise torchlight. She had wings too, two pairs of them, one feathery and one batlike. Some kind of small, cute critter Romelle didn't recognize—it reminded her of a furry fish—was held gently in her hands.

"She's… beautiful," she whispered. It was all she could really get out as she bowed deeply to the statue, and set what remained of her flowers at her feet.

"Because she is the grandest aspiration of our people." The voice came from behind them, and Romelle nearly jumped out of her skin. "Kistrial, the Goddess of Honor."

"P—Prince Lotor!" She spun and bowed her head as he approached, Kalindra bowing low next to her. "Hello…"

He smiled at her, kneeling before the statue and placing his own branch at her feet. For a moment he was silent. Then he stood, taking her hand and kissing it gently. "Hello, dear a'kuri. I hope I didn't startle you too badly."

"Only a little," she lied. "Kalindra said you hoped to join us at some point, but I didn't hear you come in." Returning her attention to the statue, she tried to turn the conversation back there. Far more comfortable. "Her name is… Kistrial?"

He nodded. "Kistrial the Pact-Keeper, the Benevolent, the Forbearing. I consider her my patron."

Honor. There was so much she wanted to say, so much she didn't dare. He seemed sincere; he always did. "I think I like her," she said finally, looking over the statue's wings. "Not that all of them aren't admirable, and the artists who created these statues… honor is important to your culture, isn't it?"

Lotor was still holding her hand. "Very. You've seen the dichotomy we live under, have you not? You are here to protect your planet, you know we conquer those who stand in our way. It would be easy to devolve into bloodthirsty savages, without honor and discipline to temper us." He smiled, bowing over her hand. "And honor helps us to find those worthy of alliance rather than conquest."

Worthy. He spoke of that a lot, too. Suddenly it was beginning to make some sense to her. Honor and worth. A race of conquerors, but only of those they found unworthy… a slight chill ran through her. "Thank you, on behalf of all of Pollux. I… I hope we will always be worthy of such honor."

"I am certain you will be." He kissed her forehead, then stepped back; he had a book tucked under his arm, and now held it out to her. "I only have a small break from my tasks, but I brought you a gift. One I think you may well appreciate."

Taking the book, Romelle squinted at the title. Written Drakure was much trickier than spoken. "The Delirious… no, no, that isn't right… the Divine Compendium?"

The prince chuckled. "It is a book of our pantheon. To help you learn more of our gods—and to practice with our written language." She blushed furiously at that, though he seemed to find it perfectly reasonable. "That particular copy was written and illustrated by some of the finest artisans of its time, and has been passed down among the royalty of Korrinoth for centuries."

"Oh!" Now the smile was genuine as she looked up at him. That did sound fascinating. "Thank you, Your Highness. I very much look forward to reading this."

"Shall I show you to the sitting room in my wing, before I return to my father? You may enjoy reading there."

Another wave of heat rushed to her cheeks as she nodded. This was fine. Moments like this she could deal with, to perhaps endure the rest. For Pollux… for honor. "I would like that very much."

Chapter Text

As it turned out, ships with hyperspace thrusters could take advantage of some much more interesting phenomena than those without. Their trip to Kaliega was being substantially shortened by something called a complex hyperluminal current. Nothing nearly as exciting as a spatial rift, but Lance had spent the last several hours hunched over the helm, jumping the Bolt from wave to wave with flawless precision as Sven called them out. It was fun… but damn, were his shoulders sore.

Now the wave jumping was Keith's problem for awhile, and he was off to loosen up. The gym was waiting. And he might have heard from his roommate that something particularly entertaining might be going on there today.

He spotted Daniel in the corridor ahead as he stepped off the elevator, and grinned. "Kid, hey kid! Come on, you're with me."

Daniel had been in his way to the galley; he was starving. But he wasn't really going to pass up that invitation. Or order. Or whatever it was. In any case, things with Lance were always interesting, so he followed. "Uh, where're we going?"

"Everyone's favorite medic is gonna be getting his ass handed to him in the gym. No one should miss this."

Ooooh. Yeah, that would definitely be worth the detour. "Awesome!"

Jace and Hunk were sparring.

In theory.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. The boss had said he wanted everyone to keep their hand to hand skill up, they'd had some overlap in their free time, they probably owed each other at least a few punches by now. Both of them had neglected to consider one minor issue. For Hunk, it was that his opponent wasn't going to just stay there and get hit—he hadn't even landed a punch yet. For Jace, it was a little less elementary. He found himself at a size disadvantage more often than not when sparring; ground fighting was an effective equalizer against people with greater strength and reach. But he had to get them to the ground somehow. And pulling this guy down on top of him would probably kill him.

That left him using his peripheral skillset, which still wasn't bad, against most people. Ducking a punch, he jumped up and landed a clean kick to the big engineer's ribs. It didn't accomplish much. He all but bounced off, landing gracelessly on the mat. On his ass.

Hunk looked down at him, rubbing his ribs with a slight wince. "That didn't look great, bro."

"That wasn't great. Fuck."

Lance had just stepped in the door, and begged to differ. "Beautiful ass fallage, Doc." Behind him, Daniel snickered.

Jace looked up, scowling. "…The fuck are you here?"

"Entertainment purposes."

"What the fuck did you think? No way we'd miss this."

He glared at Hunk, who offered him a brilliantly innocent smile. "I mighta mentioned we had plans?" He leaned over, offering the medic a have up. "He's my roomie, it happens."

No doubt. Well, whatever. He could take it, this whole sparring thing had been his dumb idea. "Okay fine, but this is a play-only tournament. We get to see how you two do later." He accepted Hunk's hand, attempting to pull him to the floor; he barely budged. "…Dude."

As soon as he stopped pulling, Hunk toppled over and hit the mat. "Oh no, ya got me, Doc."

Lance snickered. "Against you? After this? No problem, we've got this, right kid?"

Daniel raised an eyebrow. That was not what he'd been invited for. "No thanks."

"Don't think I gave you a choice, Brennan." Jace hadn't looked up from glaring at Hunk, who was still lying motionless on his back. It would figure if he'd done actual damage voluntarily falling. "Giant donut dude, you uh, gonna be okay there?"

"No. Help. Ouch. Save me."

"Okay, that's a yes." He stood up and shrugged. "We'll fight around you if we've got to."

At that Hunk hopped up, cracking his knuckles and grinning. "Nah, I'm good. Doc, go a round with Lance, yeah? I've gotta, uh, recover."

No fucking doubt. "Yeah, let's. I still owe him for the murder garden."

"Me?" Lance demanded. "Who got fucking stabbed?"

"You did! That's why I had to fucking carry you, because you lost a fight with a plant!"

Daniel's eyes widened. "The fuck…?" But nobody was listening to him. He was never going to find out about this garden of murder thing.

"Stabby evil plants," Lance clarified, removing his jacket and strutting onto the mat. Jace watched him, completely unimpressed.

"Have any popcorn?" Daniel muttered to Hunk as the huge man came over to stand next to him. This was fun and all, but he was still hungry.

"Was kinda countin' on you guys to bring some. Lance forgot?"

"I was in a hurry," Lance protested from the mat. "And snacks are your purview."

Jace smirked. "Oooh, big words."

"Yeah, I read things other than medical jargon."

"Go self-administer an orgasm."

"Like I would ever need to, you confusing us again?"

"Not on my worst day."

Daniel looked between the two of them, feeling a distinct sense of deja vu washing over him. Hunk leaned over and whispered, "We caught 'em on a good day."

"This is good?"

"'Fraid so." He raised his voice. "You two gonna punch each other sometime today?"

"He can try."

"Waiting on you, caralho…"

Lance snorted. "You want a fancy invitation?"

"Maybe, aren't they your—" Jace broke off mid-sentence and lunged. Lance dodged just in time; the medic stopped dead and spun around the moment he realized he'd been sidestepped, using the momentum to throw a punch into his chest. This one connected solidly.

"Ow!" Lance snarled, punching back.

Jace just managed to block the punch, though he didn't catch it cleanly; it stung his forearm. "Ow?" he taunted to stop himself from grimacing. "That's what you've got?" Ducking a follow-up strike, he grabbed the pilot's arm and dragged him to the mat.

"All it merits." Lance got in a good kick to his shins as they dropped, which resulted in him being called what he assumed to be several colorful things in Portuguese. He tried another kick, though pulling off any sort of accuracy from the floor was a bit harder. He felt his foot whiff past Jace's leg, then the medic grabbed his other arm and wrenched it in a way arms were not supposed to be wrenched.

Well, fuck. Breaking basic holds he was pretty good at, breaking locks he was somewhat less good at. He tried one of his go-to moves and immediately regretted it—not only did his arm in general protest the motion, his shoulders were not happy with it at all. This was the opposite of what he needed to be doing… he tapped the mat. "Fuck, I need that arm, asshole."

"For what?" Jace let go and jumped off him. "Thought you could fly with one hand behind your back."

"Never said it was for flying."

Done already? Hunk blinked and glanced down at Daniel again. "That was kinda anticlimactic."

"Yeah…" The gunner frowned. "Would've been better with popcorn."

"The Lieutenant has no technique," someone commented from his other side, and Daniel damn near jumped out of his skin. He wasn't the only one.

"Motherfucker!"

"Wh—I have fucking great technique!"

"The fuck? How many people did you invite?"

"Uh, not him?"

Pidge looked around at them, mildly bemused. He'd really just been coming to do some exercises. "The door was open. I didn't see any technique, Lieutenant."

Daniel snorted. "There was technique. Losing that bad totally takes skill." A little snark was always good to bring down the heart rate.

"I wasn't talking about…" Lance trailed off, shaking his head. It probably wasn't worth the protest.

"Nobody cares about your bedroom techniques," Jace snorted, leaning over and rubbing his sore shin. "Fuck."

He actually hadn't been talking about those techniques either, though he certainly did have them. "Yeah sure, let's see any of you try flying through an asteroid field."

Daniel's eyes lit up. "I would love to."

"Not as easy as it sounds, kid."

"All the more reason for me to practice!"

Maybe they could get a simulator set up, at that. Lance was thinking about it while Jace rolled his eyes. "I'd say I want to see it, but I don't want to be on the ship when it happens. Anyway, who was playing winner?"

Pidge stepped forward when nobody else did. Nobody had told him to leave yet; may as well make the most of it. "I'll fight you, Doctor."

That had certainly not been who Jace wanted to accept the challenge, but he couldn't exactly back out now. And who knew, it could be fun. Couldn't be worse than Hunk, probably… with a shrug he stepped back to the center of the mat. "Sure, I'm in."

Any thoughts of simulators fled Lance's mind immediately. Wait… He looked between the medic and the ninja. Oh hell yes. "I am so happy I'm here."

"Good, that's one of us." Jace fell into a wary defensive stance. "Let's see what you've got, ninja."

He'd barely even gotten the words out when Pidge darted at him, a dark blur in the gym's harsh light. He went into a rising punch, so Jace hit the deck—that was where he wanted to be anyway—reaching back he grabbed at where his opponent's leg should have been, only to swipe through empty air. Porra. Rolling to avoid any incoming follow-up strike, he got his feet beneath him just in time to see the ninja crouch and…

…Jump up and grab a ceiling girder?

"Um…"

"Wow…"

"The fuck?"

Jace stood up, looking at the ceiling. Pidge had completely vanished into the duct work. "That's… definitely cheating," he muttered, in the absence of… well, really any other ideas. He looked over at the others and shrugged. Only Hunk shrugged back. Daniel was staring blankly at the ceiling, and Lance was filming with his datapad, because why wouldn't he be.

A faint clatter came from above, and he spun to face the noise, bracing. He was ready to pounce at the first sign of a shadow. He was not at all ready for Pidge to drop onto his back and wrap an arm in front of his throat.

"Whoa…" Lance applauded as best he could, snickering.

"Fuck no you don't." Jace launched into a forward roll, which did less than he would have hoped to dislodge the ninja, though it did break the headlock. Apparently that was enough for the ninja to voluntarily disembark. He vaulted off in the middle of the roll with a parting kick to the ribs, landing in front of his opponent and watching warily.

Jace gave him a quite irritated look, even by his standards. "Nobody told me we weren't gonna keep this fight in the gym."

"The ceiling is part of the gym per the ship schematics, Doctor," he answered matter-of-factly.

Lance snorted. "I mean technically…"

"He's not wrong."

The thought of asking whose side they were on briefly came and went; wasn't like he actually needed to know the answer. "Okay, sure." He darted in at Pidge, who sidestepped, and jumped over the countering kick. They could play it this way. For a minute they danced around the mat, feinting and dodging, neither actually landing anything. Then finally Jace cut in under Pidge's guard and grabbed his leg, taking him to the floor.

Which… was less of a victory than it could've been. Great, you've got him, now what are you gonna do with him? He tried a leg lock. Seemed like the best option.

Pidge twisted around in a way no human's vertebrae could twist and dropped an elbow between his shoulder blades. Daggers of light shot through the back of his skull, and his whole body momentarily went numb.

"Fuck this!" Jace tapped out as soon as he could move his arm again. He had not been ready for that at all.

Immediately the ninja withdrew. "That wasn't that bad, for a human." It was clear to him the doctor didn't have much experience with smaller and faster opponents. Nothing to be ashamed of. Which was not stopping Daniel and Lance from cracking up; he scowled at them slightly, though neither seemed to notice.

The medic was also scowling at them, much more than slightly. Specifically he was scowling at Daniel. "Laugh it up, hell's angel, it's your turn now."

"That ain't what a Hell's Angel is at all," Hunk muttered under his breath.

Daniel stopped laughing, taking a step backwards. He wasn't exactly hiding behind Lance, but he wasn't exactly not hiding behind Lance either. "Uh, I'm good."

"Are you?" Pidge asked, more cheerful than anyone present had ever heard him. "Let's go then."

"Absolutely fucking not!"

"Ah c'mon." Hunk slapped his shoulder encouragingly. "Can't be that bad."

Oh yes it could. But nobody seemed inclined to bail him out… he glared at everyone and stepped onto the mat. This is gonna be so much worse than getting headbutted. "Whatever, just kick my ass already."

"That's a very inefficient combat maneuver." Pidge crouched and sprang at him without another word. But he didn't get too far. Other than bracing himself, Daniel was doing nothing at all to either avoid or counter the incoming strike. He stopped, frowning. "…You said you were good, and you're not taking this seriously."

"Ninja, that's his brand," Lance snickered.

Daniel was staring at him, more than a little surprised to not be on his ass. "I meant 'I'm good' as in I don't want to do this," he clarified, suppressing several embellishments that the ninja probably wouldn't understand.

Sighing, Pidge stepped back. "Jalekya…" English is stupid. For a moment there he'd actually been enjoying himself.

Hunk had noticed that, too. He looked between the two kids and considered the sacrifices he was willing to make for the team, then shrugged. Why not? "How 'bout this? I'll take you both on."

Both of them turned to him, startled. "What, me and the ninja against Mountain Man?" Daniel shrugged too. It definitely sounded better than him versus the ninja. Or really him alone against anyone. He seriously did not like sparring.

"Seems almost like a fair fight," Lance commented. Jace looked less convinced.

Pidge was still annoyed about good not meaning good; he shot Daniel a scornful look. "I'm sure you'll be helpful. I can handle this." He sprinted at Hunk as he stepped onto the mat, jumped up, and planted a solid jumpkick squarely on the huge man's chest… which earned him a mildly amused look and absolutely nothing else. He hit the floor, rolling clear before stopping to catch his breath, blinking in confusion. "Or not?"

Jace snickered.

"Got any better ideas?" Daniel asked spitefully.

As it happened, he did. "Distract him." Before the gunner could respond, he sprang up and clambered back into the ceiling ducts.

Lance doubled over laughing, and Daniel shot him a very betrayed look.

Through the entire sequence, Hunk had hardly even moved. Now he looked at Daniel and shrugged. "I'm just standin' here, yeah? Wanna talk the weather?"

"We're in space," the kid pointed out. "Not much weather."

"Yeah, true that."

Was this distracting him? Pidge hadn't exactly specified a method, and he seemed distracted enough. May as well go with it. "So, I don't really have any intention of trying to hit you. I feel like that would be counterproductive to not hurting myself, and I mean, Doc is standing right there."

"You're probably okay if you hit me." Grin. "Just gotta be worried if ya let me hit you back."

"See, I just don't feel like risking that. Plus I'm like, really hungry…"

Pidge was crouched in the crawlspace just overhead, listening and rolling his eyes. Though it did seem like the unconventional tactic was working… he wasn't sure how much credit Daniel really deserved for that, but whatever. He was certainly not going to attempt to get Hunk in a headlock—the other engineer's neck was about as big around as his waist—so instead he dropped and drove an elbow into the back of one of his knees.

"…Go ninja!" Daniel cheered.

Even though he'd known he was going to have a ninja dropping in, Hunk had not anticipated that. He stumbled back a few steps with a yelp. "Dude! I felt that one!"

"Temora sa kye…" He hadn't even fallen over! Pidge dodged easily as the big man turned and threw a punch, leaping over him and landing next to Daniel. Silently he pointed to Hunk's legs, beckoning his crewmate to join him before darting forward. We'll try this again then.

The instruction gave Daniel about a second, maybe two, to consider who he was more scared of: Hunk or the ninja. The ninja won out easily. And he probably knew what he was doing… sighing, he lunged alongside him, landing a decent punch to Hunk's right calf as Pidge hit his left knee again.

That did it. Hunk toppled backwards with another yelp. At the last possible second, Pidge yanked Daniel out of the way before the huge man could land on top of him. Honestly, what happened to his sense of self-preservation? It had seemed pretty well-tuned a minute ago.

Jace and Lance exchanged raised eyebrows. "I'm seeing the appeal of the popcorn."

"Definitely need to stock a machine in here."

The mat was comfy; okay maybe that was overstating the case, but Hunk wasn't really in any hurry to get up. He laid his head back instead, looking up at the kids standing over him, then gave a thumbs-up and tapped out. "Not bad, little bros."

Daniel smiled. "This is, by far, the best experience I've ever had sparring."

"Want to go now?" Pidge offered.

The smile fell off his face immediately. "What about this experience makes you think I'd want to fight you?!"

"…You have a lot of ways of saying no that don't include the word no."

"Yeah, I do." He retreated to not quite hide behind Lance again; the pilot was checking his datapad. He'd gotten this whole fiasco on video. Daniel looked at the screen and grinned. "Can I have a copy of Doc getting his ass kicked?"

"Oh don't you worry, everyone's getting that."

They weren't keeping their voices down at all, and Jace snorted. "Glad I can keep you two amused. Porra."

"Okay, knock that off." Hunk hopped up before they could start bickering. "That's all the sparring this gang can do without popcorn, yeah? Galley break!"

"Fuckin' finally!" Daniel took off instantly, Lance on his heels. Hunk trailed a bit behind them, motioning for the other two to follow.

Jace's eyes narrowed slightly; he turned to Pidge, who was back to his usual expressionless self. "…Popcorn is not a sufficient after-workout snack." Sigh. "Better go save them from themselves. You coming?"

Having just managed an entire social interaction—admittedly, one that had mostly been sanctioned combat—without pulling a knife on a single human, Pidge really felt like he shouldn't push his luck any further. He wasn't hungry yet, anyway. "No." Pause. Manners. "No thanks."

With a shrug, the medic headed out. He may technically have been off duty, but really, these people were a full time job.

Explorer Teams…

*****

Vince caught sight of Daniel and Lance turning into the gym, the word sparring catching his attention. "Nope, nope, nope," he muttered under his breath and hurried past the door as fast as he could. He wasn't getting caught up in that situation. What with falling and knives in his face, he was quite through already with physical attacks.

A few more steps away from the gym and he started to hear strange sounds, at first he thought it was beeping but then a whistle. Quickly, he determined it wasn't the ship, which was a relief… but curiosity had him following it until he reached the first rec room door and pushed through. He found Cam at a table surrounded by books and datapads, making some odd chirpy-whistle noises.

Well that's… something… "What are you doing?"

Cam was deep inside his own head, intensely focused on learning the Terinian language perfectly. He jolted at the sound of English and hit mute on the recordings he was listening to. "Dude! I'm… working. What are you doing? I thought everyone else would be in the gym watching Hunk and Jace?"

Everyone else? He was even more happy to have bypassed them. "Which will probably lead to a lot more sparring, which is why I'm anywhere but the gym. What exactly are you doing?"

"I told you, work." Cam didn't want to be interrupted; as he spoke he glanced back at the book and the datapad, comparing the information. "I'm learning and translating Terinian."

"Oh," Vince was intrigued, he remembered how pretty he'd thought their language sounded. "That could be useful. Is it fun?"

Cam shrugged. "A bit. I find it interesting, but the translating is time consuming. It's an interesting tale so far."

Curiosity winning him over, Vince sat down. "Tell me about it? Is it like music?"

"Kinda. Reminds me of listening to the birds out on that big square at the Academy... not many birds on the moon, you know?"

"Yeah, I bet not. At the open market on Terina could feel the vibrations from all the chirping." Vince pressed on. "You said something about a tale?"

"Yeah. Went with Commander Kogane to the Kurcuri, the military academy there, trying to see if we could find some more clues on where Altea is. With that temple the others found and what the Skyguard told us at the Kurcuri, I think we're on the right track."

"Really?" Excited, Vince leaned in to look at the books, then remembered it was in a foreign tongue and rolled his eyes at himself. "What's it saying?"

Cam indicated the datapad. "See these words? It says black, red, yellow, blue, and… I'm not totally sure about this one, I think it says green, but I haven't found it in the other materials just yet."

Vince was immediately taken back to the briefing and the bright smudges of colors they'd been shown. "Huh, seems likely it is something we could use."

"Like I said, it's a process. Some words they use are not in the same dialect… I think the Skyguard said it's their ancient tongue. So I'm having a bit of trouble finding the actual spelling that is used here, but if I'm understanding their linguistic construction it almost definitely says green, and it would make sense with that image the colonel showed us…" Cam's eyes were sparkling, he couldn't mask his excitement about the language.

"It all fits, really." Vince nodded. "What do they say the colors belonged to?

Now his enthusiasm faded just slightly, face falling in disappointment. "No idea. Just some big beasts that made a lot of noise."

"Beasts?" Vince wasn't sure he liked that word. "Guess they wouldn't call anything birdlike that? Would they?"

"Beats the hell out of me." Cam shrugged, eyes going back to the books.

Vince shook his head, he was curious but also a bit anxious. He liked facts. "I'm not really one for mysteries, but… gotta get used to it I guess? Maybe you'll find something less vague as you go?"

Cam responded with something in Russian and Vince winced a bit—what was it with people speaking to him other languages? It sounded more polite than Baltan, though. "I'm going to assume that was something nice?"

"From your lips to God's ears… Granny's favorite saying," Cam smirked, shifting into a fond smile. "Right before she opened a new bottle of vodka."

"Huh… growing up Russian sounds way more fun than my house."

"Oh, no." Cam laughed. "Only language scarier being yelled at you is German."

"Don't know, you've never seen my Mom yelling while she's cooking. Her knife is going every which way."

"Oh, that's not safe."

"I know, trust me." Vince nodded. "I stay well away from the kitchen when she cooks." At least if he'd had any say in the matter.

"Probably safer."

"I like keeping safe, as a rule."

"Same here."

Vince started to laugh as the absurdity hit him; here they were, both in deep space looking for a legendary weapon before space pirates could get at it. "We're in the wrong place, though."

Cam grinned at the laughter, though he didn't really hear him. His mind was back on the language in front of him, feeling impatient to get to know it better. He glanced up at Vince again. "Unless you want to get shanghaied into helping me, you might want to go find a better hiding place from the sparring."

Was that really supposed to chase him off? "Oh, I'll help!"

Arching an eyebrow, Cam considered that and nodded. He hadn't expected it, but another set of eyes could definitely help. "Okay, come join the fun. Bring your datapad. Maybe two."

Vince grabbed his datapad—he'd have gladly grabbed two if he had them. "Okay, so what do you need?"

Smirking, Cam shoved a book at him and sent a few files over from his datapad. "Pick a spot and go nuts, man."

Oh. OH. Vince gulped as the information downloaded, the feathery Terinian sigils staring back at him. What had he just gotten himself into?

*****

The Cathedral of Stars had originally been built upon the highest peak on Kaliega. A few hundred years later, and it was not only built on the mountain but into and around it: a vast complex of telescopes, receptor dishes, astroreflectivity arrays, and who even knew what else. It was clearly a working observatory. It was also clearly a work of art. Glittering skydomes arched over the walkways and transport paths, depicting the current state of the night sky even in the brightest daylight. The paths were also lined with intricate mosaics and exquisite murals, depicting celestial scenes as well as the construction of the Cathedral and what were probably famous researchers. It was all very impressive…

Or it had been for the first ten minutes. Flynn was long since over it. He was already mildly resentful of having to come along in the first place, and the transport path he was scowling at was not improving his mood. He didn't trust this lurching thing at all. "I would just like to know who in every. Conceivable. Hell. decided that a five mile long escalator was something that needed to exist."

Keith raised an eyebrow. "Would you rather climb the mountain or ride the escalator?"

"Those are not the only two options!"

"Maybe, but this does give you a nice view if you'd look around."

"The stars all started looking the same about a mile ago." Flynn sighed and looked up at the skydome disapprovingly.

Shaking his head, Keith decided it really wasn't worth arguing the point. Sven had been ignoring them both to begin with. He was looking around in awe, trying to see everything at once, occasionally rushing from one side of the path to the other and trying not to seem too giddy. Not that he was fooling anyone by now, if he ever had been. "It's gorgeous." It was at least the thirtieth time he'd said that.

Every so often, they would pass someone going down the mountain on one of the nearby transport paths. Most of them were Lygoth, which had been quite an experience at first. The Lygoth were monstrous—there was no other word for it. Well over eight feet tall, with sharp horns and sickle claws that sprouted from a shell of thick organic armor, they looked rather like someone had crossbred some sort of demon with a stegosaurus and thrown some fur on the result to try to take the edge off.

All of these fearsome features, of course, were the defense mechanisms of a peaceful herbivorous race… but they were still pretty creepy.

Finally, the long transport run ended, depositing them on a large terrace. An archway engraved with several constellations stood ahead. No actual doors, as best they could see. Keith looked around at the constellations as they passed through the entrance. "Well, at least they don't hide what they're famous for…"

"Absolutely breathtaking," Sven murmured.

"I'd hope a place called the Cathedral of Stars has a lot of stars." Flynn sidestepped their navigator as he turned to look at something else. "I'm just tired of them."

"How can you be tired of stars?" the navigator in question demanded, stopping dead and nearly getting run over anyway.

"They all look the same!"

That won him a look more disapproving than anything Jace had ever done. "I'm not even going to bother telling you how wrong you are, but even if they did look the same, their placement and designs are all different. And all breathtaking!"

Flynn shrugged. He didn't begrudge the Viking his excitement, he just hadn't wanted to come along for it. "You appreciate that, I appreciate fusion recombination cycles. It evens out."

"Okay, enough," Keith snapped as they entered the main lobby. "Before I have to call you both pretty like Doc and McClain."

They exchanged glances, suddenly unified. "Are you saying we're not?"

"I'm much prettier than Jace."

Not about to dignify that with a response, Keith turned his focus to the Cathedral's interior. There were more of the transport paths, looping about the place like a work of abstract art. Terraces up and down the central core seemed to lead to different sections. But everything was well marked, with signs in Common and half a dozen other languages, and it didn't take too long to find one that read INFORMATION in neat gold lettering. "Well, if someone here is going to be able to answer some questions, that one looks like a promising place to start."

They hopped the correct escalator, and were whisked away to a terrace a few stories up. A jet black Lygoth with a bone-white carapace was standing at a desk, and Keith paused for a moment to reconsider as they stepped off the transport. That one was terrifying.

"We sure we didn't want to go harass an ancient race first?" Flynn whispered, evidently thinking the same thing. Sven, on the other hand, didn't say anything. He'd noticed a sign labeled ARCHIVES as they stepped off the escalator. Archives sounded promising… for their mission. Yes. Absolutely for their mission.

Gracing his second with a glare, Keith took that reminder of their options and stepped forward. The Lygoth's bright crimson eyes fixed on him immediately. "Um, hello. We're looking for some information?" Yes, that's why we're at the information desk. Well done.

"Then you have come to the right place," she answered easily, crossing her scythe-like claws. Her voice was reedy and light, not at all what he'd expected. "I am Shu're of the Observers, at your service. What do you seek?"

Okay, maybe this wouldn't be so bad. "We're looking for information on a planet called Altea. Do you know anything about it?"

He'd expected her to go to the console on the desk. Or maybe to give an immediate yes or no, depending how well she knew the material. What he hadn't expected was a long, slow blink, and then her armor plates rippling in a chiming pattern. "Altea! Earthling, where did you hear of such a thing?"

Keith glanced over at Flynn, who was wincing. That sounded markedly less promising. "Um. Scholarly texts, mostly…"

"Scholarly…" Shu're shook her head. "I fear someone has played a cruel joke upon you, Earthlings. Altea is a fairy tale. It is much like your… ah, what is the name…" She tapped her claws on the desk in concentration. "Carmelhot?"

Flynn stared blankly; Keith blinked. "Camelot? As in the tales of King Arthur?"

"Yes, Camelot, I think. An ancient paradise of legend, not a true place."

Also not promising, but then, they'd been going mostly off of myths and legends so far. "Well, what do these fairy tales say about it?"

"I am not a scholar of myth." She seemed slightly agitated by the question, though it was hard to tell for sure. "The Observers concern ourselves with facts and physics, the movements of the skies and the pure light of the stars."

Wonderful. Keith glanced to his second for help, but didn't get any; Flynn was aiming a very focused frown at the floor. Just wonderful…

"You seem doubtful," the Lygoth observed.

Another try couldn't hurt, he supposed, looking back at her. "The name was given to us by people who claimed it is a real place. They had some… compelling evidence."

"Without a doubt." Now she seemed sympathetic, though that was also hard to tell. "Scholarship is ever-changing, ever-advancing. Many things which look convincing turn out not to be so." She gestured broadly. "Among Earthlings, there were once those who believed the stars revolved around your planet. Among our people, we thought them to be holes in the sky where the heavens could bleed through. These things were not without evidence."

Keith sighed. Leaving here with nothing at all didn't sit right. If she'd known the name so quickly there had to be something. "Physical evidence," he said hesitantly. "A relic from people who were from Altea, or at least claimed to be."

Shu're clicked her claws. She was definitely agitated now. "I am sorry, Earthlings. I cannot in good conscience encourage you on an unwise path."

Finally Flynn raised his head, murmuring under his breath. "Kogane, we've got to tell her the truth."

"What…?" That was absolutely out of the question.

Before he could say so, Flynn looked up at Shu're and pulled his identification tags out. "We're here on the Alliance's behalf. There's supposedly an ancient weapon of some sort hidden away on Altea…"

"Kleid, that's—" Keith's interruption was interrupted by a sharp elbow to the stomach.

"…we're hunting a fugitive from Earth, he's obsessed with this weapon, and he's extremely dangerous as it is. Even if the planet isn't real, we need any leads we can get as to where he might search."

"Oh…!" Shu're's armor rippled again, much less musically this time. "I see now. Yes… many deluded seekers have caused great damage searching for the riches of Altea."

Rubbing his abdomen with a grimace, Keith suppressed a lot of things he wanted to say to his second just now; his idea seemed to be working. "Yes, anything at all you can tell us would be beneficial."

"Has anyone else come here asking questions about it?"

"No. But your seeker may well know there would be nothing for him here. Your search will be among ruins and repositories of myth, not the stars." Shu're took a strip of what seemed to be gray fabric from a stack on the desk and ran her fingers over it. Several glowing glyphs appeared. "I can still tell you little, but I can offer a better starting point. The Great Library of the Ages on Alcieux… they may have knowledge that can aid you. Take this to them, I have acquaintances there who will gladly speak to you."

Keith accepted the strip of fabric, suppressing a sigh of relief. "Thank you. You've been a great help." He paused a moment. "If you could… keep our visit quiet? We don't want him to realize we're on his tail, if at all possible."

"Of course." She crossed her claws. "May the stars guide your path, Earthlings."

Nodding, he grabbed Flynn's arm, dragging him back to the escalator and out even after it became clear he wasn't actually fighting it. "Good grief, Kleid."

The engineer finally pulled his arm free. "I was about to say something similar. Honestly, Kogane…"

"I don't even know where to begin, but I feel like yelling at you for it."

"Yelling at me? You were doing so well!" Flynn shook his head. "You really must learn to lie, Commander Crystal Spur."

"You keep calling me that, I'm gonna pin that damn medal to your forehead," Keith snapped. Then he sighed as his second raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, she just… kind of freaked me out, if I'm being honest. And really, Altea, a myth? After everything we've seen and found? It threw me."

"She was nice." Shrug. "Absolutely terrifying, but nice. But yes… that temple was sure as hell no myth."

"Not at all." Keith frowned. "Wait, what do you mean I need to learn to lie? I've seen you play poker, since when can you bluff?"

"Well you gave me plenty of time to think about it." He shrugged again. "Wasn't that much of a lie, anyway. Fugitive from Earth, race of alien space pirates, not that far off…"

Disagreeing seemed unlikely to be productive. "Right. Okay, let's get back to the ship, get a route mapped out to this Alcieux… do we have enough fuel left to get there?"

"No idea where it is. Holgersson, you know offhand?"

No answer. Flynn hesitated. Now that he thought about it, they hadn't heard from their navigator in quite awhile, for someone so excited to be here… he stopped, looking around. No sign of him anywhere.

Keith had stopped too. "Where the hell is he? I expect this sort of thing from Lance and the kids, not him!"

"Was he even with us when we got to the desk?"

"I thought he was…" He'd been a little preoccupied. "Wasn't he?"

Sighing and shaking his head, Flynn wordlessly turned and started back for the Cathedral. Probably should've seen this one coming.

"We've lost our navigator," Keith muttered as he followed. "What kind of commanding officers are we?"

Oh no, they weren't taking the blame for this. "He's the navigator, it's his job not to get lost! Not our fault."

The boss chuckled. "And we're hunting a planet that seems to be lost…"

"At least we have a theme?"

"I swear if there's a yellow brick road anywhere, I'm going to hit someone." Flynn stopped walking again, staring at him blankly. "…Ask Hunk and Lance, I'm sure they'll educate you."

"Oh, one of those."

"Yeah." Keith sighed again as they walked back into the Cathedral. "Let's go find our lost flying monkey."

"…Rude?" Flynn muttered almost to himself, then looked around at the signs. Despite their thoroughness, "I don't think any of these signs are going to point us to 'runaway navigator'."

"No, probably not." Retracing their steps seemed like the best bet, so they hopped the escalator back to the information desk. 

Shu're was still there. "Ah, you've returned. You are seeking your lost Earthling this time, I imagine?"

Oh. Keith blinked. "Um, yes."

Her armor rippled, and she indicated a sign off to the left. "He departed from you when you first approached me, in the direction of the archives."

Of course he had. Why wouldn't he have? "Thank you, again." They stepped onto the transport path she'd indicated, passing through several archways before reaching an enormous room full of everything from ancient scrolls to cutting-edge projected holoscreens.

Sven was sitting at a large table, surrounded by charts and open books. A few small screens hovered at about eye level. He was completely absorbed in the information, the patterns, referencing and cross-referencing…

Walking up behind him, Keith leaned close over his shoulder. Still no reaction. "Anything interesting?"

That got a reaction—a startled jump and a Viking's shoulder smacking his nose. Well, he supposed he'd been inviting that. Sven recovered quickly enough. "Yes, actually." His eyes were bright as he turned. "They've been mapping parts of hyperspace, I've never seen such comprehensive surveys of spatial rifts or warp corridors, it's absolutely fascinating…"

Flynn snickered. "Should we just have you map us a route for Alcieux now, and come back and get you when we're done there?"

Sven dropped the book he was holding, mildly horrified. "And miss out on the Great Library? Absolutely not!" He'd downloaded every scrap of information he could to his datapad anyway, and taken pictures of what he couldn't. This would keep him busy for quite awhile.

"Oh look, he knows what it is. Immediately. I'm shocked." Flynn had never been less shocked in his life.

"Knock it off," Keith ordered, rolling his eyes. They could make fun of each other just fine on the long trip back down the mountain. "Let's get out of here. Holgersson, you can tell Kleid if we're going to need more fuel to get to Alcieux from here."

"We shouldn't need it, it's a short trip." Sven frowned slightly. "But Alcieux isn't part of the Alliance, so it might not hurt to refuel here anyway."

"That's an excellent reason," Flynn agreed. Independent spaceports were fine, but everything was so much less complicated on Alliance planets.

"Okay." Keith looked at the charts strewn over the table and shook his head slightly. "Pack it up and let's go."

*****

Larmina couldn't deal with the tunnels any longer. It wasn't just the stifling atmosphere, the smothering nervousness of the survivors, though that wasn't helping anything. It was the voices.

Voices she could have dealt with, if they'd been voices coming from anyone she could see.

The flickers that kept haunting her vision in the caves hadn't stopped. They were only getting worse, in fact… shimmering wisps of light from the corner of her eye, indistinct murmurs that seemed to become more agitated by the day. Not unlike her own temperament. Sometimes she wondered if she was going crazy down here.

Sometimes she could swear she saw Auntie following her gaze, startling at the whispers, reacting to the same flickers. Whether that made her feel more or less crazy, she wasn't sure.

Nobody else seemed to hear anything. She hadn't actually asked. No sense making anyone else think she was losing it. If she couldn't handle the pressure, they might decide she shouldn't be handling deadly pointy things, and if she couldn't go out hunting she really would go mad. It was her only escape from this place. But now it was the middle of the night, no time for a hunting party. No time for an Arusian to set foot outside these shelters, when they didn't dare carry light. And yet, here she was, creeping from one of the tunnels into the foothills.

Where are you even going?

She didn't really have an answer to that, but anything had to be better than here. As she emerged into the moonlight and looked around, she was struck by the silence. Distant scout ship engines, a common background hum in the daylight, were absent in the darkness. The usual sounds of the meadow, chirping birds and rustling grass, were replaced with a stillness nearly as stifling as the tunnels.

Silence was what she'd come out here for, wasn't it? Now that she had it, it didn't seem so attractive. The world seemed so bleak and hopeless like this.

Wasn't it, though?

Golden Gods, you can deliver your people from this mess any time now…

She looked up at the sky, exhaling slowly. The Golden Gods weren't listening. Or were they? She hadn't thought they were listening about the ball either, until suddenly the Drules had come blazing in. Maybe they were just waiting, for gods only knew what reason. Literally.

You don't really think the Drules attacked because of that, do you? As if you have that kind of power. You're not even important enough to—

"Larmina."

She jumped, broken out of her recriminations by a familiar voice. Too familiar, almost. So much so that she didn't stop to think as she whirled on it. "Don't do—"

No.

No, it can't…

A wavering shape was standing before her, gleaming brighter than the moonlight. A woman in tattered royal robes, gazing at her sadly. She fought to swallow the lump rising in her throat, and nearly choked on it. Words wouldn't come. Belief wouldn't come. She couldn't grasp what was standing before her, even when it confirmed all of her worst fears.

Queen Orla bowed her head slightly. "Larmina, I'm so sorry."

"H… how?" she finally managed to stammer out, her voice not much more than a squeak.

"There was a fire in the manor shelter. The smoke… everyone… it was very quick."

That had not been what Larmina was asking at all, and she took a step back. "Y-you… you're… you can't be… how are you…?" As she struggled to spit out the words she couldn't accept, another voice came back to her.

You know if your mother had passed, she would try to reach you…

It all made sense, one terrible moment too late.

The ghost reached out and touched her shoulder. It was a strange sensation—the barest sense of being touched, not enough to be truly comforting, too much for her to maintain her denial. "The royal blood of Arus has always been both a gift and a curse. You already knew this. I didn't feel it was right to burden you with ghosts so young. But you are a true Daughter of Arus…"

Larmina shook her head, stepping back and squeezing her eyes shut. "No. No I'm not. I don't want it, I don't want this!" She hadn't even wanted it when it was frilly dresses and boring etiquette lessons. She sure as all five hells didn't want to be here faced with her dead mother, unable to look away…

Orla smiled sadly. "What we want is so often denied us. There is so much you hadn't yet learned. So much I meant to teach you, when you were ready."

"I should have been there!" Tears were stinging her eyes, fighting to fall. "I should've been with you, I could've…"

"You would have died with us."

Would that have been so bad? Larmina couldn't seem to force those words out either, but from her mother's stricken look she had a feeling they'd gotten across regardless. "What am I supposed to do now?" she finally whispered.

"What you've always done." The ghost was flickering, starting to fade into the darkness. "Survive. Fight. You are the last of the line of Altair…"

Her voice was fading. She was still speaking, but Larmina couldn't hear the words, only the faint whispers that had been plaguing the caves. Flickers on the edge of her vision, as though other ghosts were trying to take up the words. But she couldn't hear them either, couldn't see anything but the maddening wisps.

In a faint shimmer of silver, Queen Orla was gone.

"Mother…!"

Larmina stood in the tunnel entrance for a long time, still and silent as death herself. Later, she wouldn't remember the new voice calling her name. She wouldn't remember the hands on her shoulders, the worried looks, her stumbling footsteps as Hanso and Allendar shepherded her back into the cave proper. She wouldn't remember them finding a blanket for her, or nibbling some bread without tasting it. All she would remember was the echo in the back of her mind. 

Survive. Fight.

For once, it didn't sound so easy.

Chapter Text

Explorer Team 686 had once again gathered in a conference room. It wasn't the same conference room as last time; the Bolt had four of them. May as well rotate for a bit of variety.

They were all identical, but that wasn't the point.

"Alright." Keith looked around and raised an eyebrow. Most of the group was sitting at varying degrees of attention, except for Lance, who was lounging with his feet on the table. It was clearly going to be one of those days… he shook his head and resolved to just ignore it. "Let's get this underway, shall we?"

"Yes sir."

"Let's, please."

"Whenever you're ready, bossman."

So far, so good. "First, any issues or complaints to report on the status of the ship?"

"Yeah," Jace muttered immediately, "that's gonna be fucking unsanitary next time someone brings donuts in here." He jabbed a finger at Lance before pushing his feet off the table.

Their pilot sulked, straightening up to sit properly. "The donuts go in the middle of the table."

"They go in your mouth, bro," Hunk countered.

Keith could already feel his resolve cracking; he allowed himself a withering look at them before clearing his throat and moving on. "So, no one has anything to report?" He shot Flynn a glance too, suggesting he might appreciate a bit of backup here.

His second caught it and shrugged. "Everything in engineering is fine."

"Good." He waited a beat, in case anyone else was inspired to speak up, then shrugged himself. "Then we can move on to the next order of business." Who are you kidding? It's the only order of business. They were between Kaliega and Alcieux, in what Sven had described as one of the emptiest stretches of space he'd ever seen; extra business wasn't too likely to jump them here, even with their luck.

"What business, sir?" Cam asked eagerly. The commander gave him an appreciative nod, and he couldn't help but grin.

"As you know, we need to keep our mission as quiet as possible. We can't go tipping our hands to the Galra." He frowned. "We should have developed a cover story to begin with, but hindsight is what it is. Kleid came up with one on Kaliega, and I think it's best we go along with it."

Lance raised an eyebrow. "Oh really?"

"Yes. We're on the trail of a wanted criminal who's searching for Altea and the weapon hidden there." He looked around the team. "Does anyone have any objections to that story?"

A few nods went around the room; Lance nudged Flynn and smirked. "Creative, it's all the movies, isn't it?"

Flynn smirked back. It certainly wasn't, but why shoot it down? "Sure, we'll go with that."

"Is his name Galra McGalraface?" Jace asked after a few moments, having clearly put together where the idea had really come from.

Lance snorted. "No, it's Jace McAssface."

Sven rolled his eyes and elbowed the medic before he could respond. "No problems here, sir."

"So we're like what, bounty hunters or somethin'?" Hunk asked, cocking his head curiously. "Can we have cool hats and someone with a parrot on their shoulder?"

Daniel's eyes lit up. "Oh hell yeah, I'd make an awesome bounty hunter."

"Thought you hated birds, kid?" Lance nudged him, too.

"Parrots are for pirates."

"Damn, and I wanted an eyepatch."

"Nothing's stopping you," Flynn pointed out, earning another smirk.

"I'd be hot with an eyepatch."

"Yeah," Daniel snarked, "only in the sense that it would be covering part of your face…"

"Alright!" Keith cleared his throat so loudly he was definitely going to need a lozenge later. "I suppose bounty hunters is an accurate description for what we're doing. But we'd need to come up with a more in-depth story, in that case."

"That's easy, we're mercenaries, someone hired us to find Jace McAssface."

"What do you have in mind, sir?"

Ignoring Lance yet again, Keith gave Pidge an appreciative look. At least someone is taking this seriously. "We would need false backgrounds for everyone. References, previous jobs, the works… and the ability to insert them into any databases required."

Several people looked at him blankly. Vince, though, immediately seemed a little more animated. "Oh! Like an RPG game."

Now it was Keith's turn for a blank look. "What… is an RPG?"

Vince was much too horrified to answer that—whether horrified because he'd said it out loud or horrified that the commander had asked that question, he couldn't quite have said. Either way Hunk bailed him out. "Rocket-propelled grenade, boss, aren't you in the military?"

Somehow, Keith didn't think that was what Vince had been referring to at all, but he decided it was better not to press the issue. "Okay, moving on. What else do we need to make this happen? Kleid, what do we display as on IFF?"

"We show as a Vagrant with an Alliance military cargo registration. That isn't unusual though. Most ships with any sort of noticeable anti-ship armaments aren't permitted to carry civilian registration, no matter who's operating them."

Something about that didn't seem quite right. "The Firecrown used a civilian registration, didn't it?"

"Yes, and our being more than mildly insane notwithstanding, would you say it had noticeable armaments?"

That, Keith supposed, was a pretty good point. "Okay. But if we needed to, could we change it?"

Flynn shrugged, turning to Pidge, who straightened slightly in his chair. "Yessir. Easily."

"Good. Come up with something and have it ready, just in case. Maybe more than one."

"Paranoid much?" Jace muttered under his breath. Sven looked at him and considered throwing another elbow, but he didn't entirely disagree.

Pidge looked at Flynn, who just shrugged again. "We needed to officially change the registration to Bolt anyway, make it happen."

Keith's mind was racing too much for him to sit still; he stood up and started pacing. "Gregory, you'll need to make a set of new medical records for everyone, more civilian ones, won't you?"

"…No?"

He didn't actually stop to register the answer. "In case we get boarded or closely inspected, we'd need to take steps to not be identified as connected with the Alliance. Our uniforms, records—"

"—Kogane!" Flynn was starting to get a headache. "I think you're getting bounty hunters and the covert ops agency confused, I literally told the Lygoth we were working on the Alliance's behalf…"

That got through. Or at least the round of snickering that went around the conference table did. Keith stopped and exhaled slowly, shaking his head. Maybe he had gotten a little bit carried away there. "You did, I know. So… the Alliance just hiring bounty hunters for some reason is our story?"

"If you think about it, isn't that pretty much what the Explorer Teams are?" Sven pointed out with a small frown. "Small irregular units to do odd jobs the line units can't do, without splashing we're the Alliance military everywhere?"

"We kinda did that last time, yeah?" Hunk agreed. "They even painted the Firecrown up to be less Alliance-y for us."

"And keeping a little bit of Alliance affiliation could be useful. You know, little things like any Drule ship we run into not attacking us on sight." Not that Lance was afraid of the Drules, but he did very much feel like saving their missiles for the Galra was the better option.

Keith nodded slowly. They were all good points. "Fair enough. The best lies do have elements of truth to them."

"Why don't we just say we're an Explorer Team, then?" Vince asked. It wasn't that he minded being a bounty hunter, he was just a little confused.

"Because bounty hunter sounds way more respectable than Explorer Team." Jace smirked. "What doesn't?"

"Definitely putting bounty hunter on my resume," Daniel said with a grin.

Flynn took the question a little more seriously. The initial idea behind the cover story had been a bit more about the fugitive angle and less about the bounty hunter angle, but he could see the merits in detachment, too. "Mercenaries wouldn't have the same sort of restrictions a formal Alliance unit has to deal with. This could take us into No Man's Land or the Fourth Kingdom itself, for all we know."

"Yes. The best of both worlds." Keith returned to his chair, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "We will still need to cover our tracks in some respects."

Nod. "Colonel Hawkins said he sealed our records because of the pirates. That'll work in our favor."

"It will. That just leaves what we have on the ship… the uniforms will need to be dealt with. Can we strengthen the encryption on the computers?"

Pidge took that one again. "Hardening the systems is easy enough, sir." Lance snorted, for reasons that had nothing to do with his thoughts on the ninja's technical capabilities; Sven and Jace both rolled their eyes in tandem.

"Very well. Do what you need to do, Stoker."

Hunk grinned. "We can stash our uniforms in the smugglers' hold."

"…I thought we didn't have a smugglers' hold?"

"We still do not have a smugglers' hold."

Sigh. "No fun."

Keith gave Hunk a look, then shook it off. "Well, we'll still need to stash them somewhere. Any ideas?"

"Dude, the smugglers' hold!" Lance didn't care what Flynn said about it—he might not know where this mythical smugglers' hold was, but he knew Hunk had to have hidden his contraband bombs somewhere. That was good enough for him.

"Can we just move on?" Flynn asked. "We'll figure it out."

That wasn't reassuring, but then, at least a couple of people here seemed to know what was going on. He had to trust his team… "Yeah, we can do that. Anyone think of anything else we might be forgetting?" Silence and a few headshakes went around the table. "Alright. Starr, how is the translation of those Terinian reports going?"

Cam looked a little startled to be addressed, though also pleased; he opened his mouth. Words didn't come out. A series of chirps and a light, trilling whistle did instead.

Daniel hit his head on the table before glaring across it. "One more fucking whistle and I swear to god, fanboy…"

That turned a few of the others' blank stares into laughter. Blushing, Cam coughed and took a moment to get his thoughts organized. "Apologies, Commander." He was not going to apologize to Daniel. "With Vince's help we're pretty much done with it."

"I didn't do much," Vince protested. Mostly he'd served as a sounding board, though he had been able to puzzle out one particularly fragmented document. Literally; he'd more or less reassembled it for Cam to translate.

Keith frowned. "Anything significant to report?"

"The Skyguard we talked to wasn't exaggerating about the multiple reports." Cam sat up a little straighter. "They did a pretty thorough job of collecting them, and nearly every one says the same thing about the presence of beasts in the sky. They don't agree on much else, though. Primarily the beasts reported were the ones she mentioned, but there are also reports of a green one, a silver one, one that says they were all black, one that says there may have been a multicolored one…"

"Multicolored?"

"Whole thing's multicolored, yeah?"

Shrug. "It's what was in the reports. But nobody could describe the beasts in any detail. It was night, and well, they were being attacked by alien warships of some kind."

"So basically we still just have Jace's bad artwork to go on," Lance clarified, "but now it's confirmed by some other sightings?"

Cam nodded, a slight frown on his face. "Unfortunately yes, sir."

Whatever Lance may have said there vanished into a look of stunned disbelief. Did he just call me sir? Beside him, Flynn bit his lip hard to keep from laughing—it was only mostly successful. Lance shot him a look, but couldn't really argue the point; he shook his head and chuckled silently himself. Sir! That'll never happen again. …Hopefully.

Flynn fought it down after a few moments. Something in Starr's report was concerning him. "Beasts, plural. But the information from Sorthal seemed singular. Unless one of the languages involved doesn't differentiate…" He gave their comms officer a questioning look.

"Terinian does, sir."

"Multiple Voltrons, then?" Even that didn't seem right. Multiple Voltrons for some conventional assault fleet, only one for a monster that had wiped out a whole continent? Everything they learned only seemed to raise more questions.

"Could be the opposite, yeah?" Hunk suggested. "Terinians saw a bunch of colors and figured a bunch of different pieces or beasts or whatever, but it's actually all one thing?"

"Right now, it seems like just about anything is possible." Keith waited another moment to see if anyone else had comments, then looked back at Cam. "Thank you, Starr. Make sure your translations are secured."

"You're welcome, Commander." He followed that with another whistle, and Daniel glared.

Lance looked over at him too, slowly raising an eyebrow. "That kid okay? Jace, maybe you should look into it."

Jace followed his gaze and matched the raised eyebrow. "Could be a sign of vitamin deficiency."

"No it can't." Daniel made a face. "That damn alarm of his goes off all the fucking time."

The medic took a moment to think that over. "…Could be a sign of vitamin overdose."

"I've been taking my vitamins EXACTLY AS INSTRUCTED," Cam snapped, "khuy tebe!"

Daniel grinned. "Sven, I'm not sure exactly what he just said, but I know it was a bad word."

"Language," Sven muttered obligingly, though there wasn't much enthusiasm in it. Immediately Cam responded in a series of whistles and chirps.

It wasn't hard to figure out what was going on there. "Wait, they taught you to swear in bird?" Hunk demanded. "For research?"

Grin. It hadn't exactly been spelled out, but it turned out birds swore a lot when they were under attack by unknown warships. "I'm just that good."

Hunk nodded in approval; Daniel scowled and threw a pen at him. "Seriously, would you can it with the fucking whistling!"

"You gonna make me, brat boy?"

"Knock it off," Keith barked. "Now."

"Oh sure," Daniel grumbled under his breath. "He gets to whistle til I wanna blow my damn brains out, but I throw one little pen and all the sudden boss man's panties are in a twist…"

Smirking, Cam looked down at his datapad and tapped out a quick message. Because he LIKES me.

Daniel sent back a quick doodle of a hand flipping him off.

"You're both ugly, kids," Jace snorted, and turned back to Keith. "So what's next?"

"Alcieux." The boss hadn't said so out loud, at least to him, but Lance had read the course data Sven had programmed into the computers.

He'd pronounced it alsee-you; Jace blinked. "You'll see who?"

That was enough to draw Cam's attention away from Daniel. "It's not pronounced that way."

Oh? Lance crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. "What is it then?"

"The Lygoth back at the Cathedral said it alsee-uks." Flynn shrugged. "It's alien, not French." 

Well that was dumb. "It should be more French."

Rolling his eyes, Pidge spoke up from his chair in the corner. This briefing had ceased to be interesting a long time ago. "It isn't a long trip, kir sa tye? I should start work, if you want the new registration ready for landing." He considered pointing out the rest of them should get to work too, but that wasn't really his place.

Keith took it up gratefully, in any case. "I think we're done, unless anyone has anything else to raise?"

"Nah, ninja's right. Better move." Hunk grinned. "Bring anything you guys want hidden over to general quarters, we'll take care of it."

"The smuggling hold is at your service." Lance smirked.

"Yup! Holdin' your smuggles for fun and profit."

Keith stared at them for a moment, then rolled his eyes so hard it actually hurt. They were definitely finished here. "Dismissed."

*****

Hunk was the first to make it back to the room, and the first order of business was flipping on some good montage music. One should never pass up the opportunity for a montage, after all—they weren't in a movie, but why should that stop them?

The cheerful synthrock of Bobblehead Avenger was just starting to pump through the room when Lance came in, looking somewhat betrayed. "Dude, why didn't you tell me we had the fucking smuggler's hold in here?!"

Blink. "You didn't ask, bro?"

"I didn't…" Lance stopped in the middle of his protest. "…no wait, that's a good point when it's you. Show it to me?"

"Totally would, if we had one. Which we don't. Here." He pulled the mattress off one of the empty bunks with a flourish—except there was no mattress, just a padded foam cover hiding a large box. Or, more accurately, a thin foam exterior and six different layers of various scan deflection materials hiding a large box.

Lance gave a low whistle. "Totally fucking fell for that." Maybe he was going to have to rethink his opinions on furniture covers after all.

"Good!" Chuckling, he pointed at two of the other bunks—there were ten in the room, intended for a Vagrant's standard complement of cargo workers. "Thought they might be handy, yeah? Last time I hid the bombs I had to use the engine shielding and uh, that ain't the best."

That sure as hell didn't sound like the best. "I mean it's really shortsighted of the Alliance not to build ships with smuggler's holds."

"Seriously. No imagination." Hunk was opening up the other two fake bunks as they talked. One was empty. The other was about two-thirds full of neatly blocked and packaged explosives.

Lance's eyes widened. "Holy hell!"

"Chill, bro! They're totally safe without a blastin' cap."

Eyeing the explosives warily, he calmed and looked back at the huge engineer. "And again, I should've expected it."

"Probably." Hunk paused to play some air guitar as the montage music hit its peak.

There wasn't a ton of space left with the explosives, but the other two fake bunks were actually pretty roomy. "Yeah, the uniforms will fit in here alright. Rather burn them."

"Not me." Snort. "You know how hard it is to get these things made in my size?"

"…Point." Lance flipped his collar. "I like my jacket."

"It's a good jacket," Hunk agreed, patting the leather before turning back to the bunk. He carefully tucked his uniforms away—they were folded and rolled into tight cylinders of fabric, if there was one thing he was good at besides bombs and barbecue, it was efficient packing—then accepted Lance's and stashed them. Frowning, he looked up and studied the general quarters. It was pretty stark. "Feels like we oughta decorate."

"Yeah…" Lance looked around, wondering what kind of decoration was normal for bounty hunters. Maybe he should've brought some more sniper rifles to hang on the wall or something. But he was pretty sure of one thing, as he watched Hunk close the bomb bunk back up. "We are meant to be smugglers."

"By the end of this we might be!" Hunk flopped back onto his own bed, throwing his arms behind his head and staring up at the ceiling. "Heck, think we might already be. We're smugglin' plenty of stuff, just cuz we ain't sellin' it…"

"True that." Lance sat on the floor and leaned back against Hunk's bed, looking at the ceiling too. "I mean we're looking for what? Some kind of beast weapon? It's not a person, but it is a bounty."

"Totally." Frown. "Keep tryin' to figure out what the Terinians would think were beasts. Some kinda ships, you think?"

The red metal sprang to Lance's mind again. "Has to be. She said they thought the attacking ships were mountains, they wouldn't know." He shook his head. "It's big, whatever it is. I can feel it."

"Yeah?" Hunk eyed him curiously, though he didn't seem to find the comment all that strange. "Like, the heat or whatever?"

"Yeah… yeah." Lance looked at his hands, trying to bring up the memory of the warmth. "Five beasts, all the same metal, right?"

"Is it the same metal? You'n the boss reacted different."

"Think it is." Snort. "We got called in about, you know, the reactions we had—'cause of course bossman put it in the report. The tech said it was causing the reactions, all mystical or whatever. It's fucking weird."

Hunk sat up straight, looking at him with double the confusion. "Wait, what?"

"Yeah, she did some tests, had us touch both metals, then she touched one too… had me looking at the numbers, they went ballistic." Even the summary felt like it was making things more complicated. "She didn't feel anything. Said it was magic."

"…Magic, huh?" Hunk fell silent, turning that over in his head. Did he even believe in magic? It probably wasn't that crazy… no, it was definitely crazy, but so was at least half of the chemistry he'd studied. Still… "Dude, I'm just the bomb guy. What're they throwin' us at?"

"I don't know." A shiver ran up Lance's spine. "But I'm telling you, whatever this Voltron is… big. Above-our-fucking-paygrades big."

"Kinda soundin' like it." Grin. "And Colonel Bossman says we get to try to figure it out, pit boss is gonna go nuts."

"Yeah. Him, me, all of us, dude. It's so fucking weird."

"Could be fun though. Hopefully. Kinda suck if it's anything else."

"I mean sure, less temples of murder and more asteroid fields and it could be fun, yeah."

Hunk swung his legs over the edge of the bed and gave him a look. "…Can we skip the asteroid fields? Maybe just some nice normal explosions, yeah?"

Lance burst into laughter. "Don't worry, I'll handle the flying. You just take care of the booms. But let's focus." He stood, shaking off thoughts of magic and beasts. "How do we bounty hunter up our quarters?"

Grinning, Hunk jumped up too. "Bro, I thought you'd never ask…"

*****

Keith was standing over his bed, folding his uniforms. Re-folding them, really, to neat military precision. It wouldn't do to have them get all wrinkled in this mythical smuggler's hold; they would need them again at some point.

His roommate was watching, unimpressed. "You know, it'd be easier just to pitch them down an engine core."

Sparing only a quick look over his shoulder, he went right on folding. "That seems like it would be bad for the engine core, wouldn't it?"

Flynn laughed. "Three thousand degree plasma does not care about your polyester."

No, probably not. Keith sighed and looked at the small pile of fabric—were they even made out of polyester? "I'm surprised nobody decided to have a bonfire in the cargo hold, honestly. Or throw them out of an airlock."

"Throwing things out the airlock is dangerous, haven't you heard the horror stories about space debris?" He briefly debated suggesting the commander could get rid of his Crystal Spur that way, but decided he really didn't want the thing pinned to his forehead.

"True enough on that." Keith sat on his bed and exhaled. The stateroom wasn't really meant for two people; it was very nicely furnished, but a little cramped with a second bed hauled in. The burdens of command. Speaking of which, "How are things going with your new crew?"

Flynn looked distinctly unappreciative at that question. "Vince is fine. Pidge is difficult."

"Well, given his record, that's not surprising. What's been going on?"

Tell me about it. "I just don't understand how he thinks—nor does anyone else—and when he has misunderstandings he tends to pull knives on people. I'm working on it." He wouldn't have minded an offer of help, truthfully. Kogane and his sword might be able to figure the ninja kid out a little bit. But he wasn't going to ask, and wasn't surprised not to get one. 

The commander nodded. "I know you're working on it. He is from a different culture, I'm sure he doesn't understand us very well either."

To put it mildly. Flynn snorted. "How are your kids doing?"

"Starr is alright, I think. Brennan… he just doesn't seem…" Keith looked for some kind of tact, gave up, and shrugged helplessly. "I don't know really, when it comes to him."

Sounded about right. "I think you felt that way about the rest of us once." His second paused, reconsidering, and grinned slightly. "I think you might still feel that way about some of us."

It was impossible not to at least chuckle at that. "Yeah, but I'm kind of getting used to the strangeness from the original crew. One hell of a learning curve, that's for sure."

"But you're learning." Flynn eyed the uniforms. 

"That I am…" Remembering he'd stashed a dress uniform in a different locker, just in case, he crossed over and opened it up… and the pumpkin crown fell out.

His second erupted into laughter. "Your finest moment!"

"No," he objected, cheeks flushing deep red, "I assure you it wasn't. I'd rather just forget about that night, really." He tossed the crown into the trash.

"Hmm." Flynn gave him a reproachful look. "Maybe you haven't learned as much as I thought."

"…What is that supposed to mean?" All that got him was an innocent shrug. "I should have just come and helped you with the test fire."

"Too late now. You had fun, it won't kill you… probably."

"Yeah." Once again, Keith was seriously starting to question his understanding of the word 'fun'. No, that wasn't quite right—more he was questioning everyone around him's understanding of the word 'fun'. Dropping his dress uniform on the pile, he looked over his shoulder again. "You already take care of your uniforms?"

"Sort of." By which he meant absolutely not, and pulled them out of one of his own lockers. They were already folded just fine, as far as he was concerned. 

A half grin spread over Keith's face. "If you want, I can take them over to our not a smuggler's hold on my way back to the bridge."

"Wouldn't say no." Flynn grinned back, then stood and delivered his uniforms to the boss's stack of fabric. "Maybe Hunk will actually show you where it is."

"No. I'm going to stick with plausible deniability."

"Think that's usually the best option with this crew. You are learning."

"Yeah, trying to." He adjusted his load of uniforms and headed for the door.

Flynn looked after him, frowning slightly as his mind went back over the discussion… the question came out before he'd fully decided to ask it. "Kogane?"

Keith stopped. "Yeah?"

"Does your sword have a name?"

Huh? That seemed like it had come out of nowhere. "…Why do you ask?"

"Just curious."

Well, why not? The sword had been in his family since before human spaceflight; when exactly it had picked up its name, he wasn't sure. But it did have one. "It's Raiden. Means…" He paused a moment, blinking as he thought of the black metal. "…Lightning strike."

Flynn nodded slowly. "Like I said, just curious." He glanced over at his rifle in the corner, wondering if it needed a name, then shrugged it off with a slightly sheepish grin. "Go smuggle our uniforms, would you?"

Not at all certain what to make of that, Keith decided not to worry about it too much. There was plenty around here for him to worry about. "Yeah… I'll do that."

*****

The other stateroom was playing host to a fairly similar scene; two stacks of uniforms, two Explorer Team members giving them judgmental looks. Why had they even brought so many? Wasn't like they wore them.

"We have to have somewhere better to put these than a nonexistent smuggler's hold," Jace grumbled, poking his pile.

Sven looked at his own pile and shrugged. "It was the only option presented. Do you have a better idea?"

"Shove 'em under the bunk? Seems like if we get boarded we're already kind of fucked." He rolled his eyes. "But sure, let's take this stuff to casa de donut dude and go do something useful."

Oh really. He wanted to do something useful now? "What did you have in mind?" 

"Fuck if I know. I should make sandwiches."

That wasn't precisely the wrong answer Sven had expected, but at least it was a wrong answer. "You should do that paperwork the Commander assigned."

"Pretty sure I told him I wasn't gonna do that." Frown. "Pretty sure I told him we didn't need me to do that."

"Pretty sure he didn't rescind the order. Come on, I'll help you do it."

"Sure you will." Actually, he probably would—Jace could have used a Viking back when he was struggling through Alliance history essays at the Academy. This, though, was not homework he needed help with. "Tell me something, what the fuck does 'more civilian medical records' even mean?"

"I'm not sure, but I'm not the medic." Sven sat on his perfectly-made bed and shrugged again. "I'm sure there's a difference, though? If we were civilians our records wouldn't have the mandatory military checkups, and probably not nearly as many vaccines?"

"Sure, unless we're ex-military. Or are we just a bunch of random-ass civilians who took up bounty hunting one day? That's less suspicious?"

…Oh. Sven hadn't thought of that. "Alright… how do we make them look less suspicious?"

"They don't look suspicious!" The medic buried his face in his hands with a few dramatically muttered Portuguese curses. "Everyone on this ship watches too many movies."

Everyone on the ship probably did watch too many movies, but that wasn't really the issue at hand here. "Official Alliance files could still prove we are active military. Which could blow our cover story."

"Yeah… tell you what, middle ground, we'll get rid of these." Jace pulled the physical files out of his desk and held them up. They did say Official Alliance Document in excessively large letters at the top. "Make it harder on whoever's really that worried about tossing our bunks. If they crack our computers, they're gonna have shit like… I dunno, we've gotta have some authorization codes or some shit we can't get rid of… anyway the medical files won't really be our biggest problem."

Sven opened his mouth to object, then hesitated. It was a fair point… the objection became a slow nod. "I can get on board with that. We'll at least be semi-following the Commander's orders."

"Totally. We're doing the spirit of the thing, just not the dumb parts." He looked at the files and frowned. "…Now how do we make paper disappear onboard a spaceship?"

"We could throw them out into space?"

Jace snorted. "I'm as excited about the thought of chucking annoying things out the airlock as anyone, but classified medical files floating around in the void forever doesn't seem quite like the spirit of the thing."

And there was another good point. "You're right. Any other ideas?"

Considering that, Jace found his mind wandering to the obvious. How did you dispose of classified files when you weren't on a spaceship? There was one standard. "Fire?"

Sven stared. Jace stared back. Neither of them was about to blink, but finally the navigator couldn't take the silence. "You want to start a fire onboard the ship?"

"How do you think the galley works?" No, that wasn't even the best example. "Fuck, pretty sure we've got six giant fiery things on our ass driving us around, though Chief might get pissy if we pitched paper in there without asking."

"I…" Sven briefly debated pointing out that only the conventional engines used anything like fire, but it really wasn't worth it. "…Don't we have a paper shredder?"

Oh. There was that. "No idea?"

Did Sven really want to search the ship for a paper shredder that may or may not exist? More to the point, did he want to explain why they needed one? No, not really. That could only result in more bad ideas. "Fine, let's just burn them."

"We could look for a shredder first." Jace shrugged. "That's the Viking way, isn't it? Pillage then burn?"

"Where do you suggest we look?"

He could see the medic going through exactly the same thought process he'd just gone through. "…Good point, let's just burn."

Dumping their uniforms off at the door of the general quarters, they headed for the galley. Jace passed the files to Sven and produced a large cast-iron skillet; that got him a skeptical look, which he answered by waving it threateningly. "We practice safe fire containment aboard this ship, Viking."

Somehow, Sven did not find himself reassured. "It's good to know that if we're going to be starting fires aboard a ship in the middle of space, at least we'll be doing it safely."

Jace rolled his eyes and started ripping the files into large paper chunks, dropping them in the skillet. "You're the same kind of person who doesn't like surgery because it involves cutting you open, aren't you."

"…You say that as if I'm supposed to be happy about being cut into."

"Rather die?"

"No." Sven watched, less reassured than ever, as the medic dug out a lid and a bottle of cooking oil, dousing the paper before turning the burner on. "Doesn't mean I'd enjoy it."

It was only a matter of seconds before the oil burst into flame. "And I'm not enjoying this preparation of papel queimado, a dish with zero intrinsic or nutritional value, but we do what the fuck we've gotta do." As the paper started burning cheerily, the galley's air scrubbers kicked in with a dull roar, shunting the smoke away.

"Language," Sven muttered without conviction. Being roommates with Jace had only hastened his giving up on actually changing anything—like he hadn't given up long before—but he still felt the need to say it every so often for the sake of habit. Plus whenever he let it go for too long he started getting threatened with medical tests.

This time Jace glowered. "It just means burnt paper, porra…"

It was definitely not worth answering that; they both knew perfectly well what he'd been referring to. He allowed himself a raised eyebrow, which was answered with a smirk. Then, exchanging shrugs, they fell silent and watched the medical records burn.

*****

Modifying a ship registration was not an efficient process. Shocking, truly. Pidge's objective had gone from untraceable modification to rewriting a whole new interface in about the first five minutes. Someone—whether the manufacturer or the Alliance, it didn't particularly matter—prefabricated the identification codes in a way that had probably been seeing minor tweaks for centuries, and now instead of a nice neat form, there were scattered fragments of source data all over the place.

Nothing he couldn't handle. But inefficient. He was sitting cross-legged on his bed, his datapad linked into the ship's systems with its holographic conversion mode on. The keyboard and screens it projected almost made it so he didn't notice his roommate.

Almost.

Vince was sitting on his bed, being wholly inefficient himself. He was reading a book… or at least he was trying to read a book. What he was actually doing was casting furtive glances over at his roommate who was usually not here. Having the ninja in close proximity was making him edgy, and knowing he shouldn't be only made it worse. Finally he sighed and gave up, flopping back to stare at the ceiling.

Get over it, Vince. He saved your life, he's not—

"There's nothing up there, mechka."

Sighing, he lowered his eyes again. "What does mechka mean?"

"It means I'm trying to adapt to human social expectations."

That didn't tell him anything; he snorted. "Guess that means it's not nice."

"It's not…" Pidge paused for a moment, searching for the exact English word he needed and concluding it didn't exist. "…not-nice," he finally muttered sullenly.

"Not not-nice?" Vince eyed him and shrugged; he'd bite. "How exactly do you think it fits with what's expected of human social interactions?"

The ninja looked back at him and frowned slightly. "Nicknames are that, kir sa tye? Mechka are… here." He swiped the holoscreen with the ship registration aside for a moment, calling up another screen and drawing a rough sketch of a cute seal-like critter.

Vince stared at it blankly. "Uh…" What the heck? He wasn't even wholly sure what he was looking at, let alone how to respond.

"…If I were trying to insult you, I'd do a better job of it." Scowling slightly, Pidge banished the screen and went back to the registration.

Something about his businesslike indignation made Vince laugh, though he stifled it quickly. It didn't seem polite. "Yeah, I guess so… that's not exactly how nicknames work."

"How do they work?"

Walked right into that one. Closing his eyes, he considered the question carefully. He'd never really thought about it before, were there actually solid rules? "Well, either it's something obvious about a person—like Sven and the Viking thing, or you and the ninja thing—or it's… something that has to do with the relationship you build up with a person? I guess?"

Pidge looked up from his screens again, considering that. Then he nodded with renewed confidence. "Mechka."

Welp. "Okay then, that's sticking."

Nodding wordlessly, his roommate returned to his work. Great. Were they done talking now? It seemed like it, so Vince made a valiant attempt to go back to his reading. It still wasn't working out.

Okay, let's try round two… "You working on the registration thing?"

"Yes. The Lieutenant Commander just wants it officially changed to Jupiter's Bolt." Pidge shrugged; even his shrug looked slightly unfriendly. "It'll be good enough. The Commander is excessively concerned."

Vince snickered. "Yeah, Flynn's really attached to Bolt, his logic is flawless. And Commander Kogane, uh, worries more than my moms combined, and that's saying something."

"I see his point, but the people who are going to question our legitimacy aren't the kind who'll be looking up our…" He trailed off, blinked, and looked up from the screens. "Komora?"

Vince blinked too. "Komor-what?"

"Yes, what."

"…Huh?"

The ninja shook his head, exasperated. "What did you say?"

"I said Kogane overworries." What had been wrong with that? Pidge had just said the same—

"How many mothers do humans have?"

And once again, welp. "Just the two?" he stammered, off balance. "Well, I mean, generally one… well no, really it depends on the family situation…"

"Just the two," Pidge repeated. "Komora sa kye."

Vince's eyes narrowed slightly. He had no interest in picking a fight with the ninja, but he also wasn't just going to sit here and let him take potshots at his parents. "Yeah, my moms are gay." He managed the slightest bit of defiance in his tone.

Pidge did not seem impressed by either his defiance or his words. In fact he seemed mostly bewildered. "What does that have to do with anything?"

Deep breaths, Vince. He took a few moments to try to steady himself. He is so confusing, ugh… "I have two moms because they're gay, usually how that happens. The same-sex parents situation, I mean."

All that got him was another very long few seconds of blank green ninja-stare. Then, all at once, understanding seemed to hit. "Oh, that's right, English uses the same word, they're your…" Suddenly he was visibly flailing just as much as Vince had been a minute ago. "…raisers, not, um, birthers?"

"Uh, no, my…" He cut himself off. This conversation was making a beeline right for him having to try to explain the in vitro fertilization process to an oblivious alien, and he was already blushing so hot it was uncomfortable. "Know what, that's not exactly it but we'll go with close enough."

"Okay." Nodding, Pidge turned back to his datapad. He looked perfectly satisfied with how that discussion had gone.

Vince, on the other hand, was still reeling. That was the weirdest conversation of my life. He watched his roommate quietly. Something was creeping into his thoughts. Someone else a bit more… belligerent… would probably have punched the ninja in the nose long before getting that resolved, when all it had been was a simple…

Misunderstanding…

He blinked at the realization, and wondered just how many punches Pidge had taken before now.

"I can stop calling you mechka if you want," the other engineer said abruptly.

Huh? To his own surprise, Vince found himself not jumping on that. He's trying, I guess? Maybe he should let him try. "Nah… it's okay."

Nodding again, Pidge looked back at his screens and typed in a few more commands. A soft beep sounded through the room. The ship was officially renamed.

"Success?" Vince asked.

"It's done," he confirmed. "Have to strengthen the main system encryption now. Unnecessarily inefficient, but ought to be fun." He packed up his datapad and stood. "I'll have to go to the bay for that. You can read now."

His roommate didn't seem quite as happy to be rid of him as he'd expected. Or maybe he'd just forgotten what he'd been doing before. "Uh, okay…"

Watching Pidge exit the room without another word, Vince slowly exhaled and lay back on his bed, staring at the ceiling. There was still nothing there.

I don't look like that seal-thingy though, do I? He closed his eyes for a moment, shaking his head slightly. One thing was for certain. This trip remained interesting.

*****

Daniel was hard at work. As with most things, he wasn't really working on something he was supposed to be working on. But he was working nonetheless, hunched over the small desk in the room he and Cam shared, sketching out a picture. Or more precisely, a wanted poster. Drawing was the one hobby he'd been able to acquire that didn't get him in trouble—usually, some graffiti'd buildings in Utah definitely had other opinions—which meant his opportunities to exercise it were limited. This situation seemed to call for it.

"What the hell are you doing, brat? We've got to get our uniforms squared away."

He didn't even bother to look up at the question. "My name is Daniel," he said flatly, "and I'm drawing a sketch of our make believe criminal. Figured it might come in handy."

"I know your name, brat," Cam snorted, pausing as he finished folding up his last uniform. "And that… actually might be handy, Commander ask you to do it?"

"No." He certainly didn't want to impress the Commander with his initiative. Or Lance. "I just figured it'd be a good idea."

"Huh." Shrugging, Cam turned away, eyeing his own bed and chirping a few things in Terinian. He was trying to keep up with the language—no sense learning it well enough to translate the stories but not sticking with it—and lacking a conversation partner, talking to himself was really his only option.

Of course, right now he was talking to himself when he wasn't alone… his roommate finally looked up from his sketch, glaring. "Are you fucking kidding me with the bird shit again?"

"What do you have against birds, dude? Did one shit on your face when you were a kid or something?"

"No! I just…" Actually, he was pretty sure he didn't want to answer that truthfully. "…I don't wanna talk about it, and my—" It's not a fear! "—DISTASTE for birds has nothing to do with your annoying as fuck chirping."

"Well I won't get any good at speaking their language if I don't practice it."

Who even cares? Daniel wondered; he didn't think they were going back there. But he doubted that question would go anywhere useful. "Well I'd appreciate it if you didn't practice around me, it's driving me nuts."

Cam wondered how he could tell. "You know, you could learn it too. Maybe it would help you get over your aversion to them."

"No thanks."

Big surprise. "Fine, brat." He gave a heavy sigh. "I'll try not to improve my education in your presence."

Brat this, brat that. Daniel rolled his eyes. He needs a bigger vocabulary. Still, it was a win, and he went back to his wanted poster. "Thank you." Somehow, his fugitive seemed to have picked up Cam's dimples. Whoops. He added a few last finishing touches and held it up. "Whatcha think?"

His roommate eyed the sketch critically. "Well, it's better than what Lance has dubbed Jace's artwork…"

"…That's not exactly a high bar," Daniel mumbled to himself with a worried frown.

"…I think a five year old still could've done better, but you're probably used to that." With a smirk, Cam picked up his uniforms and headed for the door.

Daniel, though, was suddenly not one bit inclined to let him go. "Can you not go two minutes without being a miserable snot?" he demanded, standing up and glaring. "What the actual fuck is your problem?"

Cam froze in the doorway. Had the brat really just called him a snot? "You," he snapped, turning back around. "You are my problem."

It was far from the first time Daniel had ever heard that, but… "The fuck did I do? You're the one who won't leave me alone." He'd thought being roommates would improve the situation, but so far not so much. "We're gonna be stuck together for awhile, so you should probably get over it."

"Get over it?" Glare. "The Commander roomed me with you because he hoped if I set an example for you, you might straighten out." The Commander had actually said no such thing, but it was the only explanation. "I've been trying since day one. But you just keep acting like a spoiled, entitled brat."

There he went with the brat again. "What did I even do to you?" he repeated, glaring right back. "And what example do you think you're setting, exactly? All you've shown me is that you're a major dick when the boss man has his back turned."

Cam snorted. "Oh, I'm a dick? Well I'm sorry you think that," he wasn't sorry, "but you sure don't act like you want it any other way."

"What exactly have I done to you that makes you think I want you to act like a dick to me, hmm? Was it when I repeatedly asked you to stop calling me names? When I let you drag me all over Garrison Island for team bonding? Asking you to stop chirping when you know it bothers me? Telling you to chill out when you take shots at me for no reason?"

Dropping his uniforms, Cam took a step forward, then thought better of it and leaned back against the door. "To me?" Of course this selfish little prick could only think that way. "You're just like all those damn entitled officer's brats at the Academy. Disrespecting superiors, rolling your eyes, thinking it's all about you… I can't stand that shit. It gets people in trouble, or worse, killed."

Oh for… this guy is fucking stupid. Daniel ran a hand through his hair in frustration, nails digging painfully into his scalp. "Get off your fucking high horse. If anyone is acting like an entitled brat it's you. You're mad that I'm not kissing your precious Commander's ass? That's it? You barely know me, don't act like you know shit about why I do what I do." 

"My fucking high horse? I'm not the one with problems with authority!"

Whatever self-control Daniel possessed was evaporating rapidly. His blood was boiling. If fanboy wanted to play suck-up he could have it. "Well authority doesn't screw you over every chance they get, do they? Nooo, Cammy the golden boy can do no wrong."

"Because I do what I'm told! I don't go mocking protocol or barging in on my commanding officer without knocking, and I sure as hell don't give my superiors smarmy fake apologies when they call me on it!" Cam shook his head. "I know this is an Explorer Team but fuck, if you're here you must be a smart kid, if you'd just engage your brain first once in awhile you probably wouldn't have ended up here!"

Oh fuck that. "It never matters if I do what I'm told. I could be the most well-behaved little kiss-ass ever and it wouldn't matter. Nobody gives a shit!" He'd just gotten told off for throwing one lousy pen, for fuck's sake. "I might as well do and say what I want, it's not like anyone cares." He never cared… he shook that off.

"Bullshit. If they didn't care they'd have sent your ass packing, not put you on an Explorer Team." Cam crossed his arms. "So this is just what, some sort of stupid rebellion?"

Golden boy really didn't understand anything, did he? Daniel's eyes narrowed. "Yeah sure, fami—people have to actually care what you do to be able to rebel."

He'd caught himself, but not before Cam caught where it was going. He blinked. "What? You're not making any sense…" That definitely wasn't the entitlement he'd been expecting.

Daniel had been prepared to yell back. He'd been prepared to take this shouting match as far as he had to go. The abrupt lack of hostility drained his own, and he took a couple of steps back. "I don't know how I can make that statement any more clear." Like it's any of your damn business anyway. The thought sounded more hollow than angry in his own mind. Post-anger crashes sucked ass. "I earned where I am. Fuck you for suggesting otherwise."

That was definitely a better thing to discuss. Cam was not touching that other slip if at all possible. "Yeah. You're proud to be here, I know. Why would you want to earn being on an Explorer Team?"

"…You know, sometimes you make me want to bash my own head in," Daniel muttered, his voice dripping with frustration. "I earned my spot. I earned being here in general. Wade wanted me gone, hell, he wasn't the only one—but I'm still here because I'm good at what I do, I worked my ass off to prove it, and I forced them to fucking keep me. Meanwhile you volunteered for this gig like you're God's gift to Explorer Teams, but I'm the entitled one?"

Cam stared at him for a moment that felt very long, slowly working his jaw without managing to force any words out. He slumped back against the door, sighing, lifting his eyes to the ceiling. What the hell was he supposed to say to that? He wanted to argue, but…

Shit, am I really the one who's been screwing this all up?

"…Yeah. I volunteered. I could've gone anywhere, I was even offered Wade's command."

Daniel snorted, sitting at his desk and looking at the sketch again. It really wasn't that bad. "And you're bragging about that why?"

Lowering his eyes from the ceiling, Cam managed a glare. This was hard enough as it was. "Because, brat, I'm trying to word this in a way that comes off as an apology."

And again with the brat! "Try harder."

"Will you just keep your trap shut for five minutes, for a change?"

It was very tempting not to agree to that. But Daniel supposed he couldn't just refuse an apology, no matter how bad fanboy was at it, after all that yelling about him being a dick. He sighed. "Okay. Proceed."

"You're… kind of right." Cam huffed in frustration. "I do have a lot of respect for authority… for Kogane in particular." He preemptively glared harder, and could see his roommate fighting back the smirk. "First impressions are everything, you know? I wanted to make a good one… and then you came barging in and ruined it. And that was yours, and I didn't like you right then. Not knocking, sitting without permission, half-assed salutes…"

There was a lot Daniel wanted to say there, but he was behaving himself. Mostly. His lip was almost bleeding from how much he was biting it, but he was successfully keeping his trap shut.

"…and then we got to talking, and sometimes I'd get to thinking we could be friends, good friends… then you go off and," he waved his hands in a gesture of exasperation, "do something else to put you right back in that entitled brat category, and here we are."

Daniel couldn't take it anymore. "First, that is by far the worst attempted apology ever made." Cam didn't even protest; he knew it was the truth. "Second, hold up. You think Kogane's a good guy, right? So like, he has good judgment, that sort of thing?"

"Yeah. He keeps you off the bridge when nobody else is around…" He gave a weak smirk that turned into a grimace. There you go again. "Sorry."

Brushing that particular point off—he still found it pretty funny—Daniel crossed his arms. "Okay, then do you really think he'd let me barging in on you affect how he views you?" Not that he'd never had any guilt-by-association incidents at the Academy, but it was only the biggest asshole officers that did that.

Cam blinked. He hadn't even thought about it like that. "…See, why can't you act like that more? Being friendly instead of, you know… things that make you look like an entitled brat?"

"Yeah, well maybe if you acted more like a friend I'd be more friendly, I'm not going to sit there and be nice if you treat me like shit. Two way street, dude."

They stared at each other for what felt like a very long time. Then, slowly, Cam nodded. "Tell you what, you act like that more, I'll be nicer."

"Deal." Smirk. "But if you start acting like a dick again, all bets are off."

Chuckling faintly, Cam nodded… then looked down at his uniforms scattered over the floor and made a face. "Guess I'd better get to refolding all this."

"Guess you'd better," Daniel agreed, going over to help him pick them up. "Oh yeah, and just so you know?" He paused a moment and pointed back at his sketch. "That is a fucking masterpiece."

Masterpiece was still an awfully strong word. But looking over at it again, Cam grinned. "It's good enough."

Maybe it was all good enough.

*****

Connected to the castle shelter by a long, narrow tunnel, an underground river flowed beneath the Meadows of Raimon. It sounded like a lovely thing to have nearby; it really wasn't. The water was thick with minerals, some mildly toxic, leaving it wholly unsuitable for drinking. Bathing was okay, if one was careful… and desperate… it was better than nothing, but the refugees weren't exactly flocking to the water. Not to mention the damp chill, and the slimy film of algae covering everything.

It was an excellent place to go to be alone, and Larmina sure as the five hells wanted to be alone.

She was sitting by a small diverted stream, staring at the back wall, trying to convince herself the sound of the water was drowning out the occasional whispers. They did seem to have let up a bit over the last few days, ever since… since, well…

Stop it. This isn't helping anything or anyone, least of all you. With a sigh, she slumped forward and tried to pick out patterns in the algae. If she squinted really hard, it looked like… no, still a gross slimy mess.

A noise that was not a whisper echoed from the tunnel behind her, and she stiffened, pulling her hood up and hoping not to be noticed. A moment later she heard a familiar voice muttering, "Of course it would fall to the bottom of the bag…"

Oh. Great.

Allura had been helping distribute some new supplies. The flow of scavenged materials from the surface was steadily decreasing as the Drules solidified their hold, and hidden stockpiles ran dry. The people were getting more anxious. Who could blame them? Some had even ventured to the surface, opting to try their luck with the occupation… despite her best efforts, they hadn't been dissuaded. She was exhausted, frustrated, and sore, and with any luck a good foot soak would at least help with one or two of those.

Flopping gracefully—as gracefully as one could really flop, anyway—by one of the larger pools, she removed her shoes and pulled a towel from her small satchel of personal possessions. As she dipped her feet in the water, she finally noticed she wasn't alone. A hunched figure in a dark gray-green cloak that nearly blended in with the rocks was sitting on the other side of the chamber, shifting just enough to look over their shoulder and catch sight of her.

"Oh…" A soft blush sprang to her cheeks. "Am I interrupting?"

"…A little bit, but it's okay."

Her eyes widened slightly. Larmina? She hadn't seen her honorary niece in days. Not since two of the militia had brought her back into the shelter, dazed and muttering about her mother. Allura had known what that must mean… she'd made herself available, but hadn't pushed the issue. She knew Larmina would need to deal with it on her own before she could speak of it.

This didn't seem like the best coping mechanism, but who was she to judge?

Smiling sadly, she ran her toes through the icy water and shivered. Cold though it was, the minerals did have some soothing effects. "Pity these waters can only be used to bathe," she murmured. "Even more so that they can't wash pain away as well."

Larmina snorted. "Yeah, too bad we can't drink it too, so we'd get to go outside even less." She turned again, looking mildly betrayed. "You didn't tell me there were ghosts!"

She blinked. "I was… not aware you didn't know about them," she said apologetically, sighing. "Perhaps it's one of the hazards of seeing them… one can forget that what seems common to me is not so much to others."

For a moment Larmina kept glaring, but it faded quickly. Too quickly for her tastes. She wanted to keep it up, but then, Auntie had said her mother would contact her… probably should've pressed the issue then. "I thought the caves were driving me crazy," she finally muttered, turning back to the wall. "Kind of wish that's all it was."

She could practically feel Allura's sympathetic look. "What other things are testing you now?"

"What isn't testing me?" She rolled her eyes. "We're stuck in a hole in the ground. A big fancy royal Arusian hole, but still a hole."

"Yes…" Frowning, Allura ran her fingers along the edge of the water. The algae came off on her fingers; she wrinkled her nose. "We are."

"Is King Alfor making any progress with his… whatever?"

There was another person she hadn't seen, this one in much longer. "I don't know for sure," she admitted. 

"Well good, that helps." Larmina glared at the wall as if it were personally responsible. Not that it mattered. It all seemed so pointless now…

Allura looked at her and sighed heavily, then scooted forward a little bit until the water was up to her knees. This soak, this conversation, was doing nothing for her own frustration. Why didn't they have these answers already? Why had they been hidden or erased? And what if…

We have to rely on each other. "Larmina… I'm scared."

Her niece whirled around at the admission, her startled look trying to turn into a glare. She didn't quite pull it off. "What?"

"I know what my father is trying to do, but the longer things go… I'm having a hard time. I keep thinking of our past. In all our history I can't think of a darker time than now. And if my father fails…" She trailed off, staring into the water. No, she didn't want to think about that, she couldn't.

As if anything could prevent it.

Under the circumstances, Larmina felt wholly inadequate to the task of reassuring the Crown Princess. But she couldn't help feeling like she ought to at least try. "I heard the War of Golden Revival kind of sucked," she offered after a few moments of hesitation. "Though," she made a face after another moment, "I guess at least we won that one."In a manner of speaking. Such optimism, young lady.

"Yes…" Allura tried to smile. She didn't quite pull it off either.

"…What is he doing? Why isn't he hiding? Why isn't he even keeping you in the loop?"

"He's…" Again she felt the pull to tell the truth, again she couldn't bring herself to do so. Especially not here, where someone could walk in on them at any moment… yes, that was it. "…he's trying to call upon a legend." The image of Black Lion, awakened with wings outstretched, flashed into her mind again. The thought of all of them… a glimmer of desperate hope in the darkness.

Larmina sighed. Still can't tell the half-royal bastard child, got it. For a moment, she considered telling Auntie about her own uncovered legend, the banewolves. But some mix of uncertainty, sullenness, and spite prevented it. "Guess that's all we can count on, huh."

"Yes. But it is something." This time she managed a bit more of a grin. "Even if it is the last little bit of hope out there."

That was cheery. But… Mother told you to survive and fight, not sit here feeling sorry for yourself. You could try to be a little more helpful here. "…And a little bit is better than none, right?"

"Right." Allura looked at her. "I have to believe he'll succeed, he will call the legend. It would be such a sight…"

"Yeah, legends are like that." Larmina's eyes widened slightly and she coughed. "I mean, uh, they're supposed to be anyway—they're legends, right?"

"Yes…" Auntie looked distant for a moment. Lost in thought, the legend coming to life before her eyes. 

Larmina's mind went back to her own myth. Could it really be a coincidence? The mystery King Alfor had charged her with, could it all be connected? But no… if she were supposed to be part of this legend, surely he'd have told her to do something by now. Shaking it off, she realized she was certain of one thing; she wanted to see the banewolves again. Badly.

"How's our food supply?"

The words startled Allura from her reverie, and she tapped her chin in thought. "Hmm. We are low on some herbs, and berries for sure. Could use a few rolis, we're not too bad off on meat, but we're going to need as much fur as we can get before the winter…"

That was all she needed to hear. "I think I'll go out and see what I can find. I know of a spot we haven't really picked over yet." Standing and stretching, she winced at the tingling aches that shot through her; she'd been sitting for entirely too long. But the Forest of Altair was waiting.

Allura stood too, approaching with a soft smile. "Before you go…" She wrapped her up in a tight hug, and the younger girl gave a startled squeak. "Hopefully you'll find plenty of what is needed."

"Yeah, here's hoping." She didn't think either of them were really talking about plants or rolis. "…Hang in there, Auntie. If I have to, you have to." She accompanied the words with a completely unconvincing scowl.

Chuckling, her aunt nodded. "Understood." She watched Larmina head out, then returned to the pool she'd been sitting by and closed her eyes. Suddenly it seemed very quiet…

She let her mind wander a bit. And as it always did, it seemed to wander to the storms, and a lion's roar echoing in the darkness.

Chapter Text

Daniel had the last shift before they hit the atmosphere of Alcieux. It was going poorly… well, the flying was fine.

He shifted uneasily in the less-than-comfortable pilot's seat. He was trying to focus on the monitors in front of him, he really was. Which was rare, because bridge duty? Boring, especially when you were by yourself. Usually he at least had Sven to pester for entertainment.

You’d think an Explorer Team would get more action. A little adventure, maybe a dash of excitement here or there, it would certainly make the time go by faster. Maybe then my brain would shut up.

He kept replaying his half of the screaming match he’d gotten into with Cam, and he cringed in embarrassment each time his words played across his mind. Can’t believe I said that. It wasn’t that he didn’t mean everything he said, it was that he had said it out loud.

Well authority doesn't screw you over every chance they get, do they? Oh god. He’d never actually said that before; he’d thought it plenty, but those thoughts had never made it out into the real world. At least not like that. Daniel winced once again, a dark blush gracing his face as his earlier words replayed in his head once more. What a pansy. You sounded like a giant crybaby.

A small growl made its way from his throat. He wouldn’t have had to say all that if Cam hadn't been such a dick. Relentlessly. Daniel knew he was a pain in the ass, but enough was enough; a person could only tolerate so much before they snapped.

Cam's half of the conversation began to replay itself in his head, and he reveled in the anger it sparked. What had he called him? Oh yeah, that's right. "Spoiled, entitled brat." He wrapped his hands around the yoke in front of him, his half-assed attempt to stop the anger induced rattle in his hands. He knew he should stop. He shouldn't be making himself angry all over again, it wasn't healthy, but he liked the hostility racing through him. It put his nerves on edge, which felt so good. Animosity had a way of covering all of his problems, small or big. Logically he knew it was like putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound, but it felt like lotion on a burn. And for however long he could make the temper last, he'd be in a state of bliss.

It wasn’t as exhilarating as flying, but not much was. Not running from the cops after tagging a building, not even canyon jumping brought the same sort of euphoria flying did. Street racing was close, but anger was closer.

"The Commander hoped if I set an example for you, you might straighten out." Daniel’s teeth clenched. And he says I’m arrogant? Who did he think he was? Speaking of which, who did Keith think he was? Daniel tightened his grip on the yoke to near painful and smirked bitterly, the resentment burning. He didn’t need anyone to set an example for him, he’d done just fine without one. Maybe he should show their dear commander what a great example his precious self-righteous dumbass was being… no, wouldn't be much point in that. The commander didn't seem like the type to put it together if he started lashing out. But still, Cam, a role model! It was a disgusting thought really, dude only knew how to be a dick.

That’s not completely true.

Oh no, not you.

Daniel felt himself twitch as his own conscience started to fight back against his barricade of bitterness. It was always doing that. He might not have understood—because he’s a dumbass—but he at least listened to what you had to say. Squeezing his eyes shut and shifting uncomfortably in his chair, he tried to cling to the ebbing anger. It wasn't working as well as he'd have hoped. His conscience, as annoying as it was, was right. Cam had listened to him, which was something nobody else really did. He guessed that counted for something, at least.

But that’s not entirely true either, is it?

Gripping the yoke harder, he started wondering if he could bash his head against the console enough times to get his brain to stop with the logic shit. Lance listens to you. Teaches you cool stuff, too. Daniel had learned more aboard the Bolt than he had the past two years at the Academy… okay maybe that wasn’t quite true, but he'd definitely been way happier about it. Learning from Lance was interesting and cool, not like some boring lecture.

That thought made him smile, but it only lasted for a second before insecurity twisted its way into his thoughts. How long before Lance started thinking he wasn’t worth the trouble? It always happened. For some it was right away, like his Academy instructors. For others like Commodore Rankin it took a little longer. But they all eventually stop giving a damn… the thought of Lance giving up on him too sent a pang through him. So far the pilot had gone out of his way to look out for him. It was nice, and Daniel had been lapping up the attention like a dehydrated puppy, but how long until it stopped?

Don't let it happen. Cut this off on your own terms, for once.

He closed his eyes for a moment. The thought of Lance giving up already hurt, and this arrangement was relatively new. How much worse would it feel when he finally decided to pull the plug, however long from now? It was only a matter of time.

No. No fucking way was Daniel going to put himself through that. Not again. He was going to end it now. Better to stop the attachment before he became too dependent, to not get used to counting on something that couldn't be counted on…

Once more he reached out and grabbed the yoke. It brought him a small bit of comfort as his stomach twisted with insecurity. This was going to suck, but… it would be for the best.

*****

It was winter in Alcieux's southern hemisphere, and the spaceport nearest the Great Library of the Ages was engulfed in near-blizzard conditions. Landing had been exciting. Naturally, the blizzard had tapered off almost the moment the Bolt had taxied into its berth, leaving the ship sitting amidst drifts of nearly two feet of snow. Flynn had flatly refused to leave the ship in such conditions, but Vince and Pidge had both volunteered in his place. Vince liked libraries; Pidge liked being useful. …And snow.

The library didn't look too impressive, at least from the street; most of the complex was underground. Sven had been telling them all about it as they trekked through the snow. It was, at its core, a museum of archaeology. The Alceites explored vast swaths of space—rumor said they even had a presence beyond the Orion Spur—in search of artifacts from long lost civilizations, cataloging and displaying them to be studied and admired.

They had very little interest in civilizations that weren't dead. This would probably be hit or miss.

Keith eyed Sven as they walked down the steps to the entrance. "No wandering off without saying anything, Holgersson."

"I didn't wander off," Sven protested with a sigh. "I was researching." Researching without saying anything, sure, but…

Pidge looked up. "I'll keep an eye on him, sir." He fell in a little closer as he spoke.

Sven eyed him with a bit of concern. He had overheard something about hey ninjerk, make sure they don't forget the Viking this time when they'd left the ship, but he wouldn't have expected the ninja to take it seriously. I hope he knows Jace was joking…

"Good idea," Keith agreed with a nod, completely ignoring his navigator's discomfort. "Buddy system it is."

They were nearing the bottom of the stairs. A set of double doors greeted them, quite plain except for several stripes of multicolored enamel. Pushing the door open rewarded them with a wave of warmth, and Vince scurried in eagerly with the others—his teeth were chattering. Oh good, it's warm in here. He took a moment to just let the warmth wash over him, then looked around… his eyes widened. "Wow…"

They were standing in a huge, hexagonal room, with hallways spidering out in every direction. Every wall was a bookshelf, and each shelf was painted in the same sort of rainbow of enamels as the doors had been; if there was a pattern to the colors he couldn't discern it. Not that he was paying much attention to the colors. He'd never seen so many books.

"It's wonderful in here," Sven murmured with a smile.

Impressive as the sight was, they had work to do. Looking around, Keith couldn't find any English signage. There were signs, several of them, but they all had those same rainbow lines and little else. A dazzling array of colors covered the floor, as well—solid paths that led to the various hallways. None of it made any sense to him.

The Alceites themselves were humanoid, with skin in various shades of rich brown and silver hair that most wore short and simple. In fact, they were all but indistinguishable from humans… until one looked carefully at their hands, each of which possessed an extra thumb. Those in the foyer were making great use of those thumbs, arranging and examining books with remarkable dexterity. Not a single one seemed interested in the Earthlings who'd just walked into their library—what few glances they attracted were cursory and quick.

"Anyone see an information desk?" Keith asked softly.

"That looks promising," Sven offered, pointing off to their right. A large desk with a fairly bored-looking Alceite was tucked away in a corner.

"It is a person behind a desk." Vince shrugged. He was fighting the urge to wander off himself; everything around them was so fascinating, but he didn't really want to pull a Sven.

Well, he was certainly right that it was a person behind a desk. With a slight shrug of his own their commander led them over, hoping this wouldn't be an insult. "Excuse us, but… do you work here?"

The Alceite looked up and blinked slowly, studying each of them in turn. "Yes?" Her voice was low and calm. "I am Aja. What do you require."

"Where might we find information on a planet called Altea?"

Aja blinked slowly again. "Spell that."

Is this a trick question? The Alceite was utterly inscrutable. "Which word?" he asked hesitantly. "That? Or Altea?"

She just stared at him. So did his teammates—except for Pidge, who thought it was a perfectly reasonable question. Vince finally dared to speak up. "I think she meant Altea, Commander." He turned to her. This he could do, he'd been through a few spelling bees in his life. "It's A-L-T-E-A."

"Yes," Sven muttered, raising an eyebrow at their commander and glancing down at Pidge. "I'm going to have to start elbowing him too…" The ninja didn't look at all impressed.

Neither did Aja, who had turned to her monitor. Despite her lethargic speaking demeanor, her movements were quick and efficient. After a few moments the computer beeped. "There," she said, pointing to one of the hallways, "red-orange ten to three parts. If there is anything to be found, that will be the correct section. You will find translator glasses for Common English at any of the resource desks. They are labeled."

"Thank you!" With a broad smile, Sven took off in the direction she'd pointed, eager to get to the books. A slightly startled Pidge followed right on his heels. Vince laughed, but didn't follow, noting that Keith hadn't left yet; it was only polite to wait with him.

The boss looked after Sven, shaking his head with a slight smile, then turned back to Aja and withdrew the strip of cloth from Kaliega from his pack. "Also, we were told to present this when we got here, does it mean anything to you?"

Aja looked at the glowing sigils on the cloth, and for a moment looked slightly less bored. "Lygoth trace bioluminescence. An Observer vouches for you." She took the cloth and nodded. "I will see that this goes to where it belongs."

"Thank you." Bowing his head slightly, Keith turned, heading for the… red-orange ten to three parts?… section. The line on the floor appeared to be dyed directly into the stone, rather than enameled like on the doors and the shelves.

"Think we'll find anything, Commander?" Vince asked as they headed down the hallway.

"I hope so." He shook his head. "It would be a horrible shame if we don't."

That language seemed a little strong, though it wasn't inaccurate. "Yeah, I guess. It's quite a mystery, huh?"

"Yes, it is. Just a wild goose chase…"

"Hopefully with a nice goose at the end, sir."

What they found first was Sven seated at a large table, with a stack of books and what looked like a strangely prismatic magnifying glass. And Pidge, who was standing maybe an inch behind his chair, watching over his shoulder. Uh oh. "Pidge?" Vince asked hesitantly. "Jace didn't mean you have to glue yourself to him."

"Yes, and really you don't have to watch me at all. He was joking."

Pidge didn't move. "I don't think he was joking, sir."

Probably really hadn't been, knowing Jace, but he probably hadn't been shooting for this either. "Well, either way you don't have to watch me this closely. I'm not moving."

Frown. "Sir, I think you not moving is what he's worried about?"

Sighing, Sven raised his head from the book he was studying. "Pidge, I believe you are skilled enough to keep an eye on me while not hovering over me. We're supposed to be researching, don't you want to look through some books? They're fascinating."

With a sigh of his own, the ninja stepped away and circled the table. He took a book and one of the magnifying glass things, sat across from Sven, and silently stared.

All Keith could do was grin. "At least we know we won't be losing you, Holgersson."

"Yes sir." Truthfully he didn't mind the staring. He was just happy to have his personal bubble back.

Shaking his head, Vince retrieved one of the translator glasses and sat next to Pidge—may as well keep working on getting used to him. He took one of the books too, and opened it to find what he had, subconsciously, maybe expected: rows upon rows of rainbow lines. The Alceites used colors instead of symbols as their alphabet. That already was fascinating, and it got even more so as he held the glass over the page and watched the colors shift, swirl, and refract into recognizable Common. "Ooooh!"

Next to him, Pidge succumbed to curiosity, opening his book and holding the glass over it. He wasn't nearly as excited. English. Yay. "There has to be a more efficient way to look through these," he muttered, starting to skim through pages on the fall of the Eltoral proto-empire. It wasn't likely to be what they needed.

"This might not be the most efficient, but it's fun." Sven set aside the book he'd been looking through—a cataloging of relics from a race called the Oltrik—and picked out another one. He wished he could have read all the way through every book here, but they only had hours, not weeks.

"It is," Vince agreed with a grin, as Pidge muttered something skeptical in Baltan.

"Starr would have enjoyed this," Keith commented as he picked out a book of his own.

"He probably would have," Sven agreed, turning a few more pages. "Why didn't he join us, anyway?"

Smirk. "Had to leave someone semi-responsible who could man the bridge in case of trouble."

Vince looked up for a moment. "But what about La… oh." He flushed as Keith and Sven snickered; even Pidge gave a snort that might have been amused. "I'll have to just tell Cam all about it, then," he decided as he went back to his book.

Discussion largely ceased as they got deeper into their research. There were so many books about so many remarkable lost cultures, and again and again, not one of them mentioned Altea. It was frustrating, if not surprising…

About two hours in, a tall, stocky Alceite walked into the red-orange ten to three parts section and studied the four people there with mild curiosity. "Friends of Shu're?"

Keith and Sven both looked up. Vince noted it and looked up too—was that them? It seemed so; Keith looked at the new arrival and nodded. "Yes?"

"How fares your search? I am Tana, the head of the archives. I am requested to give you all possible aid; the Observer sees value in your mission." She spoke as slowly as Aja had, but here it somehow came across far more as dignity than boredom.

Smiling, Keith turned to more fully face the Alceite. "We would certainly appreciate any help you can give us. Do you know much of the planet Altea?"

"Altea. It is spoken of in myths and rumors throughout much of the Orion Spur. An ancient paradise of splendor and mystery."

Oooh. Vince's eyes lit up. That sounded pretty solid.

"It does not exist, and may never have existed, though many claim to have seen it."

Boo. Vince's face fell.

It all sounded familiar to his commander, who nodded again. "We're actually pursuing an individual who believes in these myths and rumors. Has anyone else been here asking about them?"

"Not that I am aware. No searches are recorded." Tana looked quite grave. "Your quest is certain to lead you on many a branching thread."

No kidding. "That is very true… unfortunately. But anything might help us locate this individual. Do you know much on these myths?"

"Indeed." Pulling a chair over, Tana did not actually sit on it, just leaned over the back. Somehow she managed to do that and still look dignified. "The myths are as countless as the ancient civilizations themselves. Altea may have been anywhere—from a local star, to the galactic core, to a faraway galaxy linked here by their great magics. Much of that rings untrue. Our expeditions have never found evidence of them, but the rumors are widespread. The dissemination of the myth indicates that either Altea, or the civilization which originally invented the legend, must have been local to the Spur."

"Hmm." That sounded… promising, maybe? Sven wasn't sure. Though he was pretty sure that no matter how much he enjoyed navigation, he was just as glad he wouldn't need to be navigating great magical links to other galaxies any time soon.

Keith thought it sounded promising too, if less concrete than he'd hoped for. "Do you know of any possible candidates for inventing the legend?"

"That we are uncertain of. The Spur has gone through many cycles of close cooperation, which makes the sources of individual legends very difficult to trace."

Less promising, again. So far this search felt like one big exercise in taking one step forward and two steps back. "And you say you've never found any physical evidence of Altea?"

"No… but to be clear," Tana frowned slightly, "that is only to our knowledge. It is a peril of studying the lost and the forgotten. In this very library, we possess a vast number of artifacts we know nothing of except for where they were found. There may well be much evidence for Altea under this roof, that we simply cannot link to its makers."

"Really?" Vince blurted before he could stop himself. He wasn't sure if that sounded helpful or not, but it sure sounded cool. Please let us look at the stuff, please please…

Similar thoughts were running through Sven's head; he was trying to think of any viable excuse to see these relics, preferably one that might actually help in their mission. Keith came to it first, though. "We do have at least a couple of indicators, right? Those symbols we found on Sorthal, or the color pattern in general? And if they know where they came from…"

"Right!" the navigator agreed, perhaps slightly too quickly, but who could blame him? "We should definitely take a look if we can."

Nodding, Keith turned back to Tana, who didn't seem inclined to address the question until asked directly. "Would it be possible for us to at least take a look at these artifacts?"

Tana nodded. "The word of Shu're is sufficient to access the Hall of the Unknown. I will direct you to it."

Yes! Vince gave a tiny fist pump under the table, and Pidge eyed him strangely. He didn't care.

"Thank you!"

"Yes, thank you. We appreciate it."

"The Hall is quite extensive, and all its contents are well-labeled. I will leave you to your investigation there. But before I leave you, there are two other potential sources I can offer. I cannot speak to their likelihood of having information."

As if they could afford to turn that down. "As I said, any lead might help us, however slim it might seem. We would be grateful for anything you can provide."

Tana nodded slowly. "They are not without difficulty, but thus is your task. The first is a nearby world called Takrekul. They hold extensive knowledge of myth and legend, and fragmentary tales of uncertain truth. But they guard that knowledge jealously. If you can earn their respect, their libraries may be of use to you."

Keith nodded, writing that down in his datapad. The other three exchanged skeptical glances. That didn't sound ominous at all… how exactly they were supposed to earn the respect of an alien civilization they'd never heard of would have been nice to know.

"The other is one of our archaeological agents. A contractor of sorts. He does not work solely for us, and is careful to keep from us any information gained from his other benefactors. It is possible he may have heard rumors that would be useful to you." There was a hint of disdain in her voice when she mentioned him withholding information. "His name is Bokar. I believe he is on assignment on your Alliance's planet of Khoru, but I will confirm that and provide a letter of introduction. Consult with the reception desk before you leave."

"All right. Thank you very much for all of your help." Finishing typing all that into his datapad, Keith looked around at the others. "Anything else I might have forgotten?"

"Not that I can think of."

"Don't think so."

"Excellent. I will go and prepare the letter." Tana tapped a colored line on the floor with her foot. "The blue-violet six to five parts path will lead you to the Hall of the Unknown. Inform the guard there that Tana has spoken for you."

No question this was a long shot, but wasn't their whole mission a long shot? Keith tucked his datapad away and nodded once more. "Thank you again, Tana."

"You are most welcome. May your search be fruitful."

As she left, the team packed up their books and exchanged nods. Time to see what they could find. Pidge took up a position just off Sven's arm, watching him like a hawk; Vince grimaced slightly. "Pidge, he's with us…"

"Just making sure he stays that way."

For his part Sven had pretty much accepted that Pidge was now his shadow. And as long as he let him have his personal space he was fine with that. "It's alright, Vince. I'm choosing to think of it as having a ninja as my own personal bodyguard."

Grinning and shaking his head, Keith led them down the blue-violet path. It took them back to the entrance then looped around to a lower level, where an armored guard was standing before a heavy vault door. The commander gave him a bow of greeting. "Tana has spoken for us. We'd like to go into the Hall of the Unknown."

The guard nodded wordlessly, then turned and started opening the locks. There were several—some electronic, some manual, some that almost certainly could only have been opened by an Alceite's paired thumbs. As he worked Sven glanced over at Vince and whispered, "Even the name sounds awesome."

Vince did not whisper, as the excitement he'd been trying to contain burst out. "I know!" He slapped his hands over his mouth and blushed. That was loud. The navigator just gave a warm smile at his enthusiasm.

"You don't need to yell, mechka," Pidge muttered. But Vince didn't hear him. Because right about then the door swung open.

"You may enter."

Stepping in and looking around, Keith felt this shot getting longer and longer. "This… might be a bit more than we bargained for."

Like the lobby above, the Hall of the Unknown was a massive hexagonal room with corridors spidering off on all sides. Artifact cases were arranged in clusters, with all manner of relics—just from the doorway Vince could see some broken pottery, a weathered spacecraft model, and some sort of grayish blob he couldn't even guess at—and a new series of colored pathways snaking along the floor. He'd thought the Terinian open market had been overwhelming? He'd had no idea.

Pidge looked stunned too. "I think we'll find some colors in here…"

"Where do we even start?" Sven murmured, taking a few steps further in and looking around in amazement. There's so much. It was like heaven. An incredibly confusing heaven.

Nobody really answered that. But one by one they started splitting off into different aisles, studying the bewildering array of artifacts. All they could do was look at everything available… and hope.

*****

"Flynn, come on. Hunk's building a snowman. Hunk! It'll have pyrotechnics or something, come outside with me, man."

"No."

"Why not? Snow is fun, come on!"

Flynn was leaning back against the main engineering console with his arms crossed, trying to keep his expression neutral in the face of one of Lance's most convincing smiles. "Yes, being wet and cold and miserable is a lot of fun, but I'll deprive myself of it. It'll be a struggle."

Lance rolled his eyes. "You really don't wanna see what the big guy is making out there? You're really gonna miss Hunk doing his thing?"

"Hunk does his thing all the time!" The chief engineer shrugged helplessly. "That's why it's his thing! Next planet we go to it'll be raining and he'll drag home a pet whale or something and we'll forget all about the snow." You're not really going to say no to him, are you? Hell if he wouldn't at least try.

It wasn't an entirely bad point, and Lance laughed. But he wasn't giving up. "Okay, what if I promise you can stay on the ramp? You won't get wet then." That got him a sullen look. "And Hunk's gonna make cocoa later, there might be a no snow no chocolate rule…"

"…Thought you were trying to convince me to go."

Sigh. "You and food… fine. We'll stay here. In the boring warmth." Lance pouted.

Why. Flynn tried to look away, but it was too late. WHY. "Put those horrible puppy eyes away, I'm coming."

"Knew you'd see sense." The pout immediately turned into a triumphant smirk. "And my puppy eyes are stellar."

"Stellar was the last planet's area of expertise…" He scowled slightly at the pilot hovering over him as he went to get his coat. "It's like you don't trust me."

Grin. "Whatever would give you that idea?"

"You're smarter than the average flyboy?" Shaking his head, Flynn pulled his coat on and glowered. "Lead on."

"Nope! You go ahead of me, wanna make sure you don't veer off."

"Mentula…"

As they debated the issue, some others had already headed out. Jace was sitting on the boarding ramp watching Hunk making his snowman. Or more accurately, his snow Firecrown. His painstakingly accurate 1/18th scale snow Firecrown—ten feet long, ten feet wide, and at least three feet high—complete with icicles for its point defense weapons and little snow people representing the original members of the 686 standing beside it.

Cam poked his head out the airlock and winced as the frigid air hit him. "Damn, and I thought the moon was cold, at least there it's a dry cold…"

The medic looked up at him and either smirked or grimaced, it was hard to tell. "Yeah, welcome to the party." Having certainly never been exposed to snow on Prox, he found it interesting… in moderation. This was way past interesting. But he wasn't about to let giant donut dude be out here and not get made fun of… he was carefully adding a couple of modified flares to represent the Firecrown's missile launchers, and Jace frowned. "Hey, that one's out of position by a centimeter."

Circling around the front of the ship, Hunk gave his handiwork a critical look. "Yeah, it is, ain't it?" He was fixing it up as Lance and Flynn emerged from the ship, and as he finished he stepped away and pressed a remote switch on his belt. The flares spit little bursts of sparks a few feet ahead; Cam jumped, but Jace just shook his head slightly. "Oh heck yeah!"

Lance gave Flynn a nudge. "See? Say it's not awesome, I dare ya."

"It's not awesome?" the engineer answered, deadpan.

He rolled his eyes theatrically. "Liar."

"Guilty." Flynn grinned slightly, looking back out at the sculpture. It was pretty impressive… even if it was snow.

Daniel came out behind them, and immediately started shivering. His nice warm hoodie was not made for real cold. His regrets only doubled when he noted that Lance was already present. This was a bad idea… whoa! Catching sight of Hunk's project made him forget the cold for a moment. "Wow, that's awesome! Are those supposed to be us?"

"Hey, kid." Lance grinned. "Pretty sure they are."

"Think it's just the first batch," Jace pointed out, looking up at the new arrival for a moment. "Lucky you."

Ignoring them both—Lance because he was committed to his course of action, Jace because he was Jace—Daniel went down the ramp to stand next to Cam. "It's fuckin' cold."

"Yeah, it is cold," his roommate agreed, giving him a judgmental look. "Where's your coat?"

"This is my coat." He gestured to his hoodie and pulled it tighter around him. This was so not working.

"That's not a coat." Shaking his head, Cam pulled off his own coat and handed it over. "Here."

"Maybe you should get another hoodie to put over it?" Lance suggested at the same time; he wasn't too sure what Daniel had against coats, but he was ready to help enable it if necessary. "Or if you need a real coat you can borrow one of mine."

"Don't need your coat," he muttered flatly to Lance as he accepted Cam's. "Thanks man, you sure you don't need it?"

"Yeah… 'cause Cam freezing now makes a lot more sense," Lance agreed, blinking. Daniel made a point of rolling his eyes.

"Starr can have my coat," Flynn offered quickly, "and I can go back inside." He tried to move to that effect, but the flyboy who'd dragged him out here grabbed his arm to stop him.

Cam waved away all the concern. "I'm fine. I'm Russian, I'm from the moon, I think I can handle a little cold!" He was totally not fine, though it really wasn't that bad. He waved Jace's scowl off too, then snagged something out of his coat pocket before walking down the ramp to take a closer look at Hunk's work. "Sir, if those are us, which one is me?"

The big man gave him a very odd look, but opted to address the question first. "Doc was right, it's just the first six. This is our old ship. But if you guys want aboard…" He grabbed a handful of snow and circled around to the snow-Firecrown's boarding ramp, and a minute later four more snow people were gathered around the base. "There ya go!"

Grinning, Cam held out what he'd retrieved from his coat—a tiny toothpick Russian flag. His granny had given him a whole pack of them before he left, telling him to place them on worlds they visited for luck. Which was fine, except he'd been so excited to be visiting other planets that he'd kind of forgotten about them at their first stops. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to make up for lost time. "Could you have mine holding this?"

Hunk accepted the flag with a curious look, then chuckled. "Duh, Comrade!" He planted it beside one of the snow people, then shot their comms officer a dirty look. "Also if you call me 'sir' ever again I'll make you eat well done steak."

Oh. Oh right. Cam blushed furiously; he was used to thinking of all the team's veteran members as superiors. "I wasn't… um, I was addressing the Lieutenant."

There was only one lieutenant out here, and Lance snorted. "Ever call me 'sir' again, I'll have Hunk feed you well done steak." Flynn snickered.

"What he said! Cuz we totally believe that totally true statement." Winking at Cam, Hunk took the opportunity to refine the other snow people: a couple of snow jackets, a snow ponytail, some snow glasses, a snow crown…

"Who's the one with the crown?"

Grin. "That's the boss!"

Cam blinked. "Why a crown?" It seemed like there were other ways, more accurate ones, to represent command. Then again, their bomb tech had some very interesting outlooks on things. "You consider him a tsar or something?"

"Nah." The big guy chuckled again. "He won a costume contest back on Halloween, and I stuck the crown he won in his locker and it ended up in the trash, so I kinda have no choice but to put it there. It's a matter of principle, yeah?"

Wait, what now? "He went out for Halloween? He won a contest? How did I not get to see pictures of that, but got to see the ninja beat up Doc?" It wasn't even his particular interest in Commander Kogane that prompted the question—not entirely, anyway—it just seemed like that was the sort of thing the whole unit should know about.

Hunk arched a conspiratorial eyebrow. "I hear Lance has pictures."

"Better believe I do!" Pulling out his datapad, Lance beckoned the kids over. Only Cam actually approached, and he shot Daniel a concerned look. He should've been the first to jump… and he'd been weird about the coat, too. Something's off. "Hey kid, come on, you haven't lived until you've seen bossman covered in glitter." Surely that was an offer he couldn't refuse. But Daniel just looked at him and rolled his eyes again, then turned away.

What the fuck?

Noticing the tension, Cam took Lance's datapad and poked the gunner in the ribs. "Here, you'll be sorry later if you miss this." Though truthfully, he'd expected something much more scandalous than glitter.

Daniel looked at the pictures and snorted. "Oh, I didn't know he'd have clothes on along with the glitter. Big deal."

There was nothing, nothing, that could make Cam even admit to having heard that comment. He busied himself scrolling through the pictures. But Lance wasn't going to let it go so easily; he walked over to the kid and poked his shoulder. Lightly. "Hey, you alright?"

No, he was not alright. He was still cold, albeit so grateful to have a coat… and he also really needed the lieutenant not to make this any harder than it needed to be. A momentary instinct to answer him truthfully drowned in a wave of doubt and better judgment. "Would you just fucking stop?"

Lance did not fucking stop. He looked taken aback, but did exactly the opposite of stopping. "Fucking stop what exactly?"

"This!" Daniel half-yelled, gesturing widely. Oh yeah, he'll totally understand now. He rolled his eyes yet again, this time at himself, though that distinction probably wasn't any more clear from the outside. He really didn't want this conversation. He just wanted to get the inevitable over with. Quit acting already, you know where this goes.

"Okay…" Lance kept staring at him, which still was not fucking stopping. "Come on, you sure you won't tell me what's bugging you?"

Fine, they could do it like that. "You. You're bugging me."

The pilot's eyebrows shot up. "What?" What the fuck did I do? Granted, he was very good at bugging people, in fact he prided himself on his abilities in that area. But those were talents he employed intentionally.

"Just go the fuck away! Why are you making this so hard?" His yelling was starting to get attention from the others, but his earlier insecurity was giving way to a bubbling anger. He didn't care anymore. If he had to force the issue, so fucking be it.

Glancing back and exchanging confused looks with Flynn, Lance risked another step closer. Something is definitely wrong. "Look, Dan, just talk to me, alright? Making what hard?"

"Don't call me Dan!" he snarled. "It's Daniel, what's so fucking hard about that?"

"Watch it, Brennan." Flynn's tone was cool, though not hostile. This was rapidly getting out of hand. "What's the problem?"

Daniel growled in frustration; he wasn't the least bit interested in having this defused from the outside. "Stuff it, ponytail!"

"Whoa! Hey, don't take whatever the hell problem you have with me out on him!"

…Maybe it was already out of hand. Flynn's eyes narrowed. "I'll take this if you want," he muttered under his breath, "and only if you want."

"No. Not yet at least." Part of Lance's refusal came from a very reasoned and logical suspicion that whatever Daniel's problem was, the ranking officer present going after him wouldn't improve things. Part of it—maybe most of it—came from plain old stubbornness. He turned back to the kid and raised his own voice. "Talk to me!"

"There's NOTHING TO TALK ABOUT!" Daniel full-on screamed this time, clenching and unclenching his fists in frustration. And because they were cold. This was supposed to be simple. He was supposed to start the cascade, and Lance would cut him loose. Simple.

Jace had been trying his damnedest to ignore the drama behind him, but there wasn't much else to focus on now that Cam and Hunk were just staring blankly at the argument. So he glanced over his shoulder and scowled. "If you fuckers don't knock it off, I will turn this ramp right the fuck around—"

Flynn kicked him. That definitely wasn't going to help.

With a long, frustrated sigh, Lance decided it was time to try disengaging. At least a little. "Obviously something is fucking wrong, I just… okay, whatever the hell it is, you can talk to me. I can wait until you're ready."

Until I'm ready? Daniel stared at him blankly. Yet again he was realizing he wasn't good at arguments when the other person didn't argue back. Why isn't he yelling? Why isn't he telling me to screw off? "What is wrong with you?"

"What's bothering you?"

"Nothing!" They were going in circles, and—

"—Little dude, chill!" A snowball smacked Daniel squarely in the back of the neck.

For a moment, all the stunned looks turned from Lance and Daniel to Hunk. Then Lance gave the kid a sly grin. "You gonna let that stand?"

Daniel stared back at him, whatever he might have yelled back evaporating in an instant. The snow seemed to have short-circuited his thoughts and his anger, leaving only one certainty: "Fuck no!" Bending over, he packed a snowball of his own and chucked it back at the big guy; next to him Lance was doing the same.

Oh. Um. Cam wasn't entirely certain what was happening, but he knew he seemed to suddenly be directly in the crossfire… and he didn't even have a coat. Great. Real smart, Starr. He dove behind the snow Firecrown.

Hunk ducked behind the ship as well, eyeing Cam and frowning slightly. He had way more insulation than their comms officer did; he pulled his coat off and tossed it over. "You need the armor more than me, little dude!" Another couple of snowballs rained down almost immediately. "Oh no! We're under attack! Man your battlestations!"

"…Oh hell no. Fuck my battlestation." Jace slid down the ramp and grabbed a snowball, flinging it back over his shoulder without really looking where it was going. If he was going to be part of whatever the hell had just happened, he was damn sure going to be hiding behind the huge snow sculpture too.

Unfortunately for him, his unaimed snowball smacked a confused Flynn directly in the face. "…Okay, you know what? Fuck you, fuck snowballs, fuck snow in general, fuck this blizzard in particular…" Forgoing any rules of engagement entirely, he jumped off the ramp and tackled Jace into a snowdrift.

Cam stared. "Hey big guy, I think your boss is on our side… maybe? I don't know, I'm confused."

Everyone seemed more or less confused at this point, which had been exactly the goal.

Daniel jumped off the ramp too, using it as a shield as he lobbed more snowballs at the others. Lance hopped down next to him; it was a good spot. "Hell no, Flynn's on our team!" He turned to the gunner, handing him a snowball. "We've gotta win this."

For a moment, maybe half a second, the thought of taking that snowball and shoving it into the pilot's face came and went. Daniel could feel the anger draining away in the face of a challenge, and smiled slightly. "Yeah." He accepted the snowball, feeling a momentary pang of guilt, then brushed it aside. Screw guilt. They had an opposing team to mercilessly destroy.

Right about then Flynn came charging over to the ramp, yelling a lot of Latin profanity that may or may not have actually existed—Jace had unceremoniously flipped him face-first into the snowbank. For his own part the medic retreated and vaulted over the snow ship, packing a couple of loose snowballs and pitching them over the dubious shelter. "Sorry Camshaft, you're stuck with me."

Their comms officer eyed his unconvincing snowballs and shook his head slightly. "As long as you've got good aim, Doc. I'll make 'em, you throw 'em?"

"I like precision. Bring it." A snowball from Lance nailed him in the face. "Porra, not that much precision!"

Crouching behind the ramp, Flynn shot Lance a look that probably could have vaporized most of this blizzard in particular. "Flyboy, remind me to murder you later." He started packing the snow as hard as he could, pitching the resulting iceballs directly at the snow ship. They wanted a fight, they'd best be ready to deal with artillery.

Lance just laughed and gave him a thumbs-up. That's my… blink. …That's my grease monkey. Yeah, he'd roll with that.

Grateful as he'd been to have Cam's coat earlier, Daniel found it was restricting his movement a bit more than he liked now. The only valid solution was taking it off and tossing it into a snowbank—winning was way more important than little things like not getting frostbite. Laughing, he started hurling more snowballs over their shelter.

The snow FirecrownSnowcrown?—was taking an awful lot of abuse, and so were the people trying to hide behind it. Hunk grabbed one of the missile launcher flares and pulled a screwdriver from his pocket, making a few tweaks. "Hang in there, my dudes, we're gonna have some suppressive fire!" A minute later the modified flare began to spew waves of snow over the ship.

Lance dropped and covered his head. "That's cheating!"

"All's fair in snowball war, Lieutenant!" Cam yelled back, smirking.

"Yeah, what he said!" Hunk agreed… only to almost immediately be nailed in the chin with one of Flynn's iceballs as it bounced off the Snowcrown's top. "…Even that, I guess."

Lieutenant, again? "It. Is. LANCE!" He took careful aim and winged Cam in the forehead with a snowball. "Hunk, make that bad steak!"

Laughing madly, Hunk didn't even notice immediately that his snow flare was sputtering out. A few seconds later when it went out completely, he noticed. "Uh oh." Diving back under cover, though not before taking a few hits, he grabbed a couple of Cam's snowballs and chucked them over. Time to do things the old-fashioned way!

An hour later they found themselves pretty much out of usable snow, and the truce was signaled by waving Cam's tiny toothpick flag. Standing over the ruins of the Snowcrown, the others exchanged a few mildly guilty looks.

"Well…"

"It died bravely."

"Sorry, big guy?"

Hunk just shrugged. "Kinda knew we'd wreck the thing eventually, yeah?" He wasn't talking about the snow one.

"Does seem fitting," Jace agreed.

Finding one last snowball, Flynn picked it up and stuffed it down the back of Lance's jacket. "Won't get wet, you said. Cevete…"

Their pilot yelped. "How was I supposed to know Hunk would start Snowmageddon?!"

"Because he's Hunk?" A wicked smirk crossed the other engineer's face. "You're supposed to keep him under control, you're an officer."

Oh no he didn't. "You're an officer. I'm a flyboy." He turned to Daniel and put a tentative hand on his shoulder. "So hey, you doing better?"

"Define better," he answered through chattering teeth. His hoodie was soaked, really everything was soaked, and as he looked around he gave a slight wince. "Dude, Cam, I lost your coat."

"You'd better find it! I need that!" Cam himself was flexing and blowing on his fingers, hoping he might actually feel them again sometime soon.

Snort. "It's fuckin' cold, find your own coat. I can barely move."

He'd expected a glare; what he got was more of a pout. Fanboy really was trying. "And here I was nice enough to let you borrow it…"

Looking around the carnage, Jace caught sight of a bit of dark fabric poking out from beneath a layer of crusted snow. He went over and pulled Cam's coat from the mess, tossing it at Daniel. "Any of you people end up with frostbite or pneumonia, I'll quarantine your ass out of spite."

Quarantine didn't sound all that bad, really. At least it would probably be warm. Cam watched his coat hit Daniel and fall to the ground, and couldn't quite suppress a snicker.

"Hey, I found your coat!"

"Yeah, sure you did. Thanks, Doc."

Lance was grinning, though he was also starting to really feel the cold himself, now that he had ice water running down his back. "Come on, let's go get warm. Hunk, hot chocolate?"

"Oh you better believe hot chocolate, bro." They trooped up the boarding ramp, weaving around splatters of ice and snow. "We've got normal, extra dark, cookies and cream, chocolate mint, and spicy hot murder pepper!"

"Nobody wants murder pepper."

"Make mine extra dark, like my mood." Jace was grinning as he said it. "I'm gonna go grab my kit and get some warming blankets, because what the fuck." He split off from them at the elevator, leaving Cam staring after him with a bit of concern. The Doc was scary sometimes.

Lance leaned back against the elevator wall and closed his eyes a moment, exhaling. Then he stepped back next to Flynn as they headed for the galley. "That was a weird day."

"That's the word you want to go with?" Flynn grumbled.

"Fucking confusing work better?" His eyes went to Daniel, who was a little too obviously avoiding looking back at him as he started peeling off his drenched hoodie.

Now his friend nodded slightly. "Rings true…"

"Think the snowball fight helped, though." I hope so.

"Only thing snow's ever helped," Flynn snorted, dumping his own soaked coat on the floor and shivering. "Faex."

Biting back the offer to warm him up, Lance dropped into a chair and shook his head. He still had no idea what had happened out there, but at least he hadn't punched anyone in the face this time. For the moment, hot chocolate was waiting… but something told him they would be revisiting this. And probably sooner rather than later.

*****

The Hall of the Unknown had not held anything with the symbols from Sorthal. They knew, because they'd looked at everything. Everything. Or at least as close to everything as humanly possible.

Colors? Oh, there had been colors. Using that criteria as a clue had gone out the window by the end of the first room.

"I could use a nap after all that… stuff." Keith couldn’t think of another word to describe the sheer amount of artifacts they'd looked over. So much stuff.

"I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many things at once in my life," Vince agreed. It had been fascinating, but he was pretty sure his brain was actually sore.

Pidge resisted rolling his eyes. He wondered if they really expected to just walk in there and find a nice neat answer. He didn’t voice his opinion, though. It would probably just start a misunderstanding, and he was trying to avoid those.

Sven just nodded. Sifting through so many fragments of unidentified cultures and planets had left his brain in a state of overdrive. The cold snow they were trekking through was nice though. It reminded him of Norway, and was helping him unwind. Which he desperately needed. So much stuff.

As they got closer to the Bolt, the small group all stopped in their tracks. The ramp was covered in snow and ice, bits of snow were clinging to the hull, and what looked like it must have once been an elaborate snow sculpture was sitting ruined in the shadow of the ship.

"Uh…" Keith looked around and frowned slightly. "Do we want to know what happened here?"

"No," Pidge answered flatly.

"Um." Vince just blinked.

"Not particularly." Sven shook his head.

Keith supposed they were right, really. Maybe he should just take the ship being intact as a win. "Well, be careful going up the ramp. Don’t need anyone to be visiting Doc."

"Yessir." Pidge walked around past the bottom of the ramp and jumped, grabbing the top, climbing up and quickly disappearing into the airlock. Vince once again was left blinking. Keith stared after him, a little shocked.

"Wow, that was impressive."

"Ninjas." Sven was nodding.

"Yeah. Still, knowing and seeing…" Their commander shook his head slightly. "Anyway, let's get inside, shall we?"

Picking their way around the snow and the ice, they climbed back aboard the Bolt. Onward to the next… whatever.

*****

Alfor stood in the Black Lion’s den, everything he'd been able to gather spread out before him. Notes from his grandfather, bits and pieces collected over the years, some so unlikely to be helpful that even he had not looked at them closely yet… now his eyes scanned them carefully before dismissing them for what might be a final time. Arus couldn't afford to have him chasing false leads, not now.

Running his fingers through his beard, he huffed in frustration. He had hoped that at least something he had put in storage would offer a clue. It was like trying to find the lost pieces of a puzzle that had been sitting on the table for years. There was not much time left now… he would have to be on the move again. But perhaps he could be allowed something from the spirits, some guidance, however slight. Sitting down before the great lion, he entered a meditative trance.

The king had done a great many meditations, he was familiar with them. But this one felt very different. Almost as if it was not his body he was in…

He could feel himself moving. Not much, but it was movement. How long had it been since he could feel this? He tried to open his eyes, but found them still heavy. No matter. Even if he was feeling nothing more than stiffness, it was more than he had felt in ages. Surely it was just a matter of time before he could move further. How much time? Struck by the urge to sleep once more, he tried to fight it by focusing himself on a thought.

He quickly found that to be difficult in itself; his mind, like his body, was stiff and heavy. There had to be a better way to focus… perhaps his surroundings? Save for a chill, biting in his weakened state, there seemed to be nothing. Nothing but a faint sound. He twitched his ears to hone in to the sound, someone softly chanting in a gentle rhythmic manner.

A voice… yes… I’ve heard this before.

Focusing on the voice, he found himself straining to hear it better. It was hard at first, but he could start to hear the voice clearer. It was male, his tone full of worry and fear.

He tried to reach out to the voice, wanting it to be louder, or to come closer so he could understand more as it wavered from some great distance. But his own voice was so weak, he barely let out a breath. So he listened and slowly gathered his strength, testing his muscles, carefully checking for what he could and could not do. He had no plans to remain in this position.

Alfor's eyes blinked open. Startled, he looked about himself. He was awake now, still within Black’s den, the vision still sharp in his mind. The voice he'd heard in the distance… his own? Looking once more at the sleeping lion, he stood and touched one of its claws. "Was that you?" he murmured. "Trapped within sleep, trying to wake?"

Frowning as the Black Lion seemed unresponsive to his words, he lowered his hand. Perhaps his vision was the lion’s only response. Trapped… wanting to wake, yet unable. Sighing, Alfor gathered what notes he could make use of, preparing himself to leave the den. His people needed him. There were generals to work with, forces to move. But the answers for how to move the Great Lions were not to be found here.

Whispering prayers for the answer to be revealed soon, he started to make his way back.

*****

Morning didn't fall on Korrinoth the way it did on Pollux. No sunlight streaming in the windows—they were deep in the belly of the castle, a protected place for the royalty of a warlike kingdom. Not that this part of Korrinoth had a great deal of sunlight anyway. The constant overcast was hauntingly beautiful, in its own way. But Romelle would have given a great deal to be awakened by a sunbeam in her face again, just once.

Today it was pale blue fingers on her cheek, which was much less welcome. "Did you sleep well, a'kuri?"

"I…" She blinked. Much of the night was actually rather fuzzy. Lotor was being more gentle with her lately, which she appreciated, though she'd have appreciated having a choice in the first place even more. "I think so." Shivering a little, she pulled the thin sheet up further.

"Excellent." He smiled and wrapped an arm around her, which she gratefully accepted. If nothing else, he was warm. "I have an invitation for you today. Your people are being given a great honor."

…Why did that sound so ominous? Maybe because she knew what he considered an honor and what she would consider an honor didn't often have all that much overlap. "Are they?" she asked finally, hesitantly.

"Indeed. Our far border is being threatened by a powerful band of marauders, and your fleet will be the vanguard against them."

Yes, that was definitely not what she would have called an honor… though she suspected even her father would think otherwise. More interesting was the other element of what he'd said. The idea that the kingdom could be threatened was not one she'd entertained before. "Marauders? Do you have… marauders to deal with often?"

"Surprisingly so. There is a small null zone on that border; a place that interferes with sensors and extraplanar travel. Pirates use it as a haven. Every so often, they become bold and try to plunder the riches of their betters, and we are obligated to slaughter them." He eyed her curiously. "Does the thought of such attacks worry you?"

"Worry?" She blushed slightly. "I wouldn't call it worry, exactly. More that I just… hadn't thought anyone would be so brave, I suppose."

He chuckled softly. "Indeed. Their courage is admirable, but courage alone rarely wins battles. It is a pity they waste themselves so." Shifting a little and kissing the side of her head, he murmured, "Would you like to watch the battle? I will have a feed from the flagship, to witness the glory that unfolds."

To watch? Romelle blinked. The thought of observing a warship battle as if it were a spectator sport also hadn't occurred to her… then again, she was aware they watched gladiatorial combat as an actual spectator sport. Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised her. As to whether she wanted to watch…

Did she? It was hard to decide. On one hand, she was uneasy… people would die, possibly many people. Possibly many of her people. It didn't seem like appropriate entertainment. Then again, Lotor hadn't called it entertainment. He had called it witnessing the glory, as if to watch was to honor the fighters. Could she really refuse them that honor?

Besides, all her misgivings aside, it sounded… interesting. Her father had kept her sheltered from warlike pursuits, insisting she remain pure and innocent. It had seemed silly to her, even before he'd sent her off to wed the prince of a warrior race. For her people, both old and new, this was something she would need to learn of. So there was only one answer, really.

"I would be honored."

She hoped she wouldn't regret it.

Chapter Text

Takrekul was a very short trip from Alcieux. Not even Sven had heard of the planet before, and their database could provide only three pieces of information: Kulaphe, Type 3B, Neutral. Which meant the only things they would know going in were that the inhabitants were called Kulaphe, they were fully non-humanoid bipeds, and they would not give up whatever information they had easily. Not the most promising start, but the team was hardly in a position to pass up a lead. They'd been granted landing clearance at the northernmost of three small, crowded spaceports, and were greeted at the landing pad.

It turned out the Kulaphe looked a lot like kangaroos—kangaroos with silvery scales instead of fur, six ears, and no pouch, but kangaroos nonetheless. The one waiting for them was draped in elaborate copper chains and silk, and watched Keith walk down the boarding ramp with cloudy blue-green eyes.

"The deepest of welcomes to you, faraway creature." Its voice was resonant, almost hypnotic. "I am Cypha-su-anvirka, you may call me Ka. Consider me your liaison. Takrekul is not a forgiving place for the unwary."

…Well that was quite a start. Keith hesitated a moment, then pushed aside the unease. They had a job to do here. "Thank you for the welcome, Ka. I'm Keith Kogane, and we're here on the trail of a criminal and a legendary planet."

Ka's ears twitched slightly. "So you seek information."

"Yes, sir. We were told your libraries might be a good place to look."

The Kulaphe studied him for a moment, then hopped up the ramp and circled him, making a series of mildly judgmental-sounding clicks. "Were you told the price of entry?"

Here went nothing… he kept the slight wave of nervousness from his voice. "Not exactly. Only that we will need to earn it."

"Indeed you will. Knowledge is the most valuable of treasures, Keith Kogane. And valuable treasures are to be protected by the sword." Ka hopped back down the ramp. "You will be welcome to access our stores of knowledge, if your strength is sufficient."

By the sword? Keith blinked. That doesn't sound as bad as it could've… though it didn't sound likely to be pleasant. "All right," he said after a moment, nodding slowly. "How do we accomplish this… proving of our strength?"

"I will guide you to the Fortress. You will bring all that you think you may require. And you will be tested by the Protector." His lowest set of ears swiveled a moment. "If you wish for more knowledge of what the test may entail, you may duel me for it. But you may prefer to save your strength."

Oh boy… looking at the Kulaphe's sharp claws and metallic scales, Keith decided that was probably good advice. "Let me gather my crew, then."

"Of course. Take what time you need to prepare; anything less would be a disservice."

He turned back towards the ship—less because he needed to than to escape Ka's unblinking stare for a moment—and hit the button on his commset. "All hands to the ramp. Come prepared for combat. Kleid, on your way, stop by our stateroom and grab my sword."

Acknowledgments came in quickly and with varying degrees of confusion. Sitting on his bed and checking over his datapad, Vince did not acknowledge. "…Why do we need our weapons?"

"To fight, usually." Pidge considered the order briefly before deciding to take his own sidearm—a light flechette pistol, the only firearm he'd actually managed to qualify with at the Academy. He'd gotten a cultural waiver for ranged combat thanks to his proficiency with throwing stars, but they were quite a bit harder to replace than needler ammunition.

Watching him strap on his holster next to his knife sheath, his roommate shook his head slightly. "We're here to do research. In a library."

Grin. "The other library said we'd have to prove ourselves, kir sa tye?"

Oh god, he needs to not do that, it's terrifying. Sullen ninja was definitely better than smiling ninja. Sighing, Vince dug out his service pistol and followed him to the ramp.

The team's array of weaponry as they filed out of the ship was, to say the least, eclectic. Service rifles, standard issue sidearms, not so standard issue rifles and sidearms, knives of all sorts… and then there was Hunk, who'd come trotting out with an actual rocket launcher. Daniel eyed it with way too much interest. Jace didn't have any interesting weapons, but he had brought an extra medical kit, because he knew how these things went.

Flynn was the last out, stepping up to Keith and handing him his sword. "Raiden reporting."

"Thank you, Kleid." He accepted the sword, reverently running a hand along the sheath, and took a deep breath. "This is going to be interesting."

"I am in agreement, Keith Kogane," Ka said casually. "I am eager to see what happens." The band of hunters were a motley array, to be sure, but not unimpressive on the whole. Bowing his head again, he addressed the new arrivals. "Deepest greetings to you all. I am Ka, and I will lead you to the Fortress. Prepare yourselves, for the trek is not easy."

"All right, team. Lock down the ship and let's do this."

Leaving the spaceport was easy enough; they were loaded onto a curious sort of street-barge, which Ka drove with deft claws through the city outskirts. In only a few minutes they'd reached the trees. A lot of trees. Disembarking from the barge, they followed their guide on a rough path into the jungle.

Another few minutes, and the path began following alongside a river… of magma. Vince eyed it nervously, and wasn't sure whether to be less or more worried when he realized the river was artificial. At least to an extent. The banks had a ceramic sheen to them, and thin lines of pale blue coolant ran alongside them, creating a mist that seemed to be shielding the group from most of the convection.

Hunk gave a low whistle. "This place is hardcore…"

"No kidding."

"Fucking hardcore."

"I swear to fuck, if even one of these plants attacks us…"

Ka looked back at Jace and chucked. "It isn't the plants you need to worry about."

"What is it with the plants, Doc?" Cam asked.

"You'll never know. Ever. And you don't want to."

"The way you and the lieutenant go on about it? Yeah I do!"

"If you're super not lucky you'll find out," Hunk warned, "cuz we'll find more of 'em, and then you'll wish you hadn't."

"They're not gonna tell us," Daniel grumbled. "I've asked like five hundred times. Same answer every time. 'You don't wanna know,' like a couple of parrots."

Cam smirked and gave a sharp whistle in Terinian; Daniel glared daggers. So did Jace. "Polly want a cracker, motherfucker."

"…You understood me?"

Lance was glaring at Cam too, but for a whole different reason. "Would you stop calling me Lieutenant! It's Lance. Or McClain, if you must." He shook his head in exasperation.

Daniel eyed him. Don't do it, don't do it… "I still really like Lancey-pants." You did it. Next to him, Flynn nearly choked laughing.

Pulling out one of his Axels, the pilot twirled it around before pointing it in Daniel's direction and smirking. "Really?"

Now it was Keith's turn to glare. "Put it away, McClain."

"Saved by the Kogane, kid." He was still smirking as he holstered the gun. Daniel smirked too, but it faltered quickly. Guilt from the scene he'd made on Alcieux was still lurking; he'd been avoiding Lance as much as possible since, but he'd known he wouldn't be able to keep it up indefinitely. It was just a little awkward.

Mercifully, the discussion was silenced by a bridge rising up ahead of them. A bridge over the river of magma. It was covered in the coolant fog, with thick ceramic beams housing more coolant channels, and crossing it they felt little more than a slightly uncomfortable wave of warmth.

Beyond the bridge, the jungle opened up, revealing what could only be the source of the magma. The volcano wasn't large, as such things went, but it was still a volcano. At its base, a sort of open dome was visible; beyond that, a building that could have rivaled any Alliance fortification.

"Wow," Keith whispered as they approached. "Your planet is… quite amazing, Ka."

His middle ears flicked. "Deepest thanks, traveler. We have fought hard to come to peace with it."

Crossing over the threshold of the dome, most of the group froze. They were in a coliseum of sorts, or a parade ground. Rows of sleek turrets lined the walls, and bones littered the ground. "Um…"

"Oh boy."

"This is… interesting decor…"

"We're gonna need a bigger medkit."

What looked like a huge statue of a Kulaphe was sitting in the center of the coliseum, sheathes of chainmail draped over its scales, each arm bearing a double-bladed sword. Ka left them and hopped up to it, speaking in harsh syllables interspersed with high-pitched clicks.

The statue's eyes opened.

"…Well that's not worrisome at all," Flynn muttered.

"Nope, nah, not at all." Lance tightened his grip on his guns. Pidge drew his knife, quite certain this was the appropriate time for it; next to him, Vince stepped back and hid behind Hunk.

Hopping up to them, the definitely-not-a-statue studied each in turn with piercing gold eyes. "Welcome, challengers."

"Hello." Lance tried his most charming smile. Please don't kill us.

"Deepest greetings." She shook her scales out, ringing against her armor. "I am told you come seeking knowledge."

Keith met her gaze evenly. "We do."

"You must earn it. I am Toyle-marok-ci, the Protector. If you can best me, access to the Fortress and all its secrets will be yours."

Several uneasy glances passed through the group. 'Besting' the Hunk-sized lizard kangaroo probably wasn't the worst challenge they could have been given… but it was up there. Keith nodded slowly, drawing his sword and setting the sheath on the ground. "What are the rules of engagement?"

"I will match your strength. The battle must be fair. None of those," she gestured to the turrets, "will activate unless you wish to use those firearms." Almost immediately, Hunk set his rocket launcher down with an innocent grin.

Swallowing hard, the commander looked around at his team. "Do we all need to fight for the access? Or just one?"

The Protector looked them over again. "You are together. One unit, one entity. I will fight as many or as few of you as is your preference, and that will be sufficient for all to gain entry."

Flynn didn't like the question; he shot his boss a sidelong glance. He's about to do a Crystal Spur thing, isn't he. Keith looked back at him.

"The turrets?"

"I think they can be taken out with small arms fire," he offered. He had been anticipating the question. "But not fast enough."

Nodding, Keith took a step forward, and his second grimaced. Yes. Yes he is about to do a Crystal Spur thing.

"Very well. I accept your challenge." He saluted with his sword, murmuring in Japanese, "please don't fail me, Raiden…"

Flynn just gave him an exasperated look; he knew exactly what protesting would accomplish. Jace protested anyway. "Uh, ex-fucking-scuse me, boss, but there's a bunch of us here who can fight without guns." Pidge and Sven both nodded their agreement.

It was true and he knew it, but the Protector had said she would match their strength. Keeping the engagement as limited as possible seemed like the wisest choice… and he wasn't going to let anyone else take the risk. "Then if I fail, one of you can try." I won't fail. I can't fail.

"I will duel as many of you as required," the Protector agreed. "You may yield and depart at any time. Otherwise we fight until one of us is disarmed or dead." She hopped back a few paces and waited.

Keith paled slightly at that, though looking around at the bones littering the ground, the terms didn't seem half bad. He wondered how much time he would actually have to retreat if necessary… not that he meant to retreat. "Fair enough."

"Uh, even I know this is stupid," Daniel objected—not really expecting it to change anything, but feeling the need to get his input in for the record.

"Fucking idiot," Lance agreed, shaking his head.

Hunk eyed Flynn. "You're just gonna let him do this?"

"You think I can stop him?" All he could really do was let Kogane do his thing… and be ready to order the ninja in at the first sign of him being in over his head.

Keith ignored the votes of confidence as he stepped further into the arena and raised his sword. He knew this wasn't the brightest thing he'd ever done. But they'd all done some pretty ridiculous things in the name of necessity, hadn't they? "Ready."

In response, the Protector saluted with her own blades, then sprang forward in a powerful leap.

Sidestepping, Keith raised his sword to deflect as her blades arced towards him. He got the closer pair. The force of the block sent him spinning aside; he moved into the spin, circling around warily. Damn, she hits hard… sighting what seemed to be an opening, he moved in and attempted a disarming strike in between the two blades on her right arm.

Daniel pulled his datapad out; they were going to need pictures. "I should definitely get a free pass the next time I wanna do something stupid."

"No," Jace snorted, "you have to do something that isn't stupid now, to keep the universe in balance or some shit."

The Protector whipped around and lashed out with her tail. Eyes widening slightly, Keith leapt over it and hit the ground rolling, raising his sword to block another blade strike. Okay, so full contact! Got it.

One of her blades rattled in its mounting as he blocked it; she glanced at it for a moment before pushing down against him, trying to force him off his feet. Keith winced, shoving back. He couldn't hope to match her in a contest of raw strength, that was certain, but he could match her in precision. Slipping under her guard, he kicked at her stomach with all his strength, hearing the chainmail rattle as he vaulted away from the counterstrike.

Vince peeked out from behind Hunk just in time to see the boss charging, taking aim at the weakened blade. Then he retreated again—he didn't want to watch this after all.

As he rushed in, Keith couldn't help but notice the Protector was grinning. And as he stabbed at the blade mounting again, she reared up on her tail and kicked back.

Kuso! There was no time to dodge, so he twisted his sword, using the force of her kick as leverage on her own blades for an instant before he went flying backwards. He hit the ground hard, on his back, feeling a jolt of pain from a rock or a bit of bone beneath him. Can't stay here. Scrambling back to his feet, he took up a defensive stance as his opponent sprang at him.

"No one back home is ever gonna believe this," Lance whispered.

Flynn, who was unsettled for all the obvious reasons as well as one from back home—kangaroos were outright mythical creatures on Dathreil—eyed him doubtfully. "You think this is where they're going to draw the line?"

"…Good point."

It was clear the Protector was startled by how quickly her opponent had regained his feet. She didn't have time to alter her strike, and Keith blocked it easily. Pushing the brief advantage he threw a punch, aiming for one of the few places not armored by either scales or mail: her nose. To his surprise the punch connected solidly, sending her staggering back a few steps.

She was grinning again. That was worrisome. Then she crossed her arms and lunged, stabbing directly at his stomach.

No time to dodge. Not completely, anyway. Keith threw everything he had into his follow-through and managed to spin halfway out of her path, gasping as two of her blades grazed his side. He could feel the blood, but couldn't afford to think about it. Instead he completed his spin, taking one more slash at the blades he'd loosened earlier.

Again she didn't seem to have expected him to recover quite so quickly; it almost looked like she'd been anticipating an attack from somewhere else more than from him. With a sharp screech of metal, the mounting and double hilt shattered, sending the loosened blades in her right hand skittering across the ground.

Daniel was trying to get a decent shot of the battle, and was abruptly interrupted as Cam grabbed his arm. Hard. "Dude, it's okay, he'll be fine."

All he did was squeeze tighter. "He's hurt!"

"Ow! I'm about to be too if you don't chill." He awkwardly patted Cam's shoulder with his free hand. "It'll be okay, he can back out any time… and none of us are gonna let him die." What exactly they were going to do to prevent it if needed, he was admittedly unclear on, but someone had to have a plan.

Flynn did indeed have a plan, and his eyes narrowed as he saw blood trickling down to the ground. "Pidge, go help."

The ninja looked up at him and shook his head slightly. "I'm helping most by staying here, sir. He has an advantage. Watch how she moves, she's used to being surrounded. She'd rather be fighting more of us."

What? Frowning, he watched as Keith and the Protector briefly retreated from each other. Now that Pidge mentioned it… the Kulaphe sprang forward and took another powerful swipe with her tail, and her remaining blades swept through empty space. With another target or two, she'd be causing sheer chaos. He nodded slowly. "Belay that for now, then."

Keith jumped over this tail sweep too, striking at her other blades, but he didn't have much of an angle this time—he nearly disarmed himself, the impact shaking his sword's hilt. Panting with exertion more than pain as he landed, he fell back into a more defensive position and waited for her next move.

Instead of striking again, the Protector hopped around him, keeping her other blades shielded as she circled. He took a step back to keep her in front of him. Something about her calculating movements was worrying him… he kept his muscles coiled tight, ready to react in an instant. Without warning, she spun and swept her tail at him again.

Again, he jumped… and the Protector switched directions mid-spin, slamming her tail hard into his bleeding side.

"Commander!" Cam was digging his nails into Daniel's arm now.

"It's okay, dude!" Hopefully.

Jace looked ready to go running in himself; Pidge reached up and grabbed his arm to stop him from doing anything unhelpful. They were going to need their medic intact. Lance looked over at him too, trying for confidence. "He's got this, Jace." I think…

That was probably an overstatement. No, definitely an overstatement. But as he slammed hard to the dirt, Keith had no intention of staying down. Rolling back to his feet and away from her follow-up strike, he glared and rushed her. His sword arced towards her legs, and this time it was her turn to jump over an attack; he slammed a shoulder into her stomach in midair, then darted around her other side when she moved to react.

Her back was only to him for a second. That was all he needed. Ignoring the pain shooting through his side he leapt onto her back, bringing his sword to her throat. "Yield!"

She froze for a moment, adjusting to keep her balance with an Earthling on her back. Then she dropped to all fours, upper ears twitching. "Well done… but I do not yield, challenger. Disarmament or death!" Throwing herself into a forward roll, she dislodged him from her back and kicked him into the air. He felt her claws drive into his leg and his abdomen.

"Oh…"

"…Shit."

"Cevete."

If he'd been able to hear the gasps from his team, Keith certainly would have agreed with them. But it felt like he was in a fog. Everything around him seemed to be moving in slow motion as he flipped, watching the Protector regain her feet, swinging with all his might at her blades before she could shield them again.

For a moment, his sword met resistance, and he heard a short screech that sounded very far away. Then the fog faded and he collapsed on the ground in a heap. Kuso! Despite the wind being knocked out of him he struggled to his feet, feeling new pain shooting all along his leg—he'd come down with it awkwardly beneath him, not to mention the deep gash left by the Kulaphe's claws.

As he came up, he saw the Protector's blades hit the ground… with her left hand still holding them.

"Fucking fuck!"

"That's nasty."

"Holy fucking fuzzmuffins…"

"…I'm with giant donut dude, whatever the fuck he just said."

Vince opened his eyes and peeked out again, wondering what all the yelling was about. He immediately regretted it. The Protector was standing in the ring in a bit of a daze, staring at her severed hand as if wondering where it had come from. Then she turned to Keith, saluting with her good hand and shaking out her scales. "Disarmament it is, then. The victory is yours."

Keith was still in a daze too. He had all his weight on one leg, bracing for the battle to continue, her words only registering slowly. His adrenaline was still pumping. As Jace immediately broke ranks and ran up to him, he pointed his sword at him before realizing who he was actually seeing.

Jace slapped the flat of the blade away impatiently. "Don't stab your medic, it's bad for everyone's health. Sit down. Porra."

Sitting down sounded wonderful. Sinking to the ground, he finally let himself exhale. "Holy hell…"

"Hell? That's all you're going with here, Kogane?" The rest of the team came rushing up, and Jace started poking at the nasty wounds in his side. The disinfectant hurt worse than the blades had, and he hissed and flinched away.

"There are medical facilities within, if you would like a more sterile environment," the Protector offered.

Looking around at the dirt and bones, Jace nodded quickly. Being capable of working in these conditions didn't make them suck less. "Uh, fuck yes. Yes please. Let's do that." As he looked up at her bleeding stump, his medic instincts kicked in. "…Uh, I'm definitely not qualified on your species, but pretty sure I can still rig up a tourniquet for that if you need."

"I appreciate the thought, Earthling." With a light chuckle she closed her eyes, concentrating. After a moment a new hand burst free of the stump—the fingers and claws were little more than stubby vestiges, but still. "I will recover."

"…Que porra?"

"Dude…"

"Holy fuck."

The whole team gawked… except for Vince, who knew better than to just peek out without warning this time. "Can I open my eyes yet?"

Flynn eyed him, grinning slightly. "You're probably safe."

"You sure?" He cracked one eye open.

"Around here? Absolutely not." Vince laughed; it was a fair point.

Jace had decided he didn't want to think too much about Kulaphe regeneration abilities. Way outside his pay grade. "So yeah. Medical facilities! Brace yourself, boss, I'm gonna carry you."

"I can walk," the commander objected, standing. Or trying to. The second he put weight on his injured leg it gave out, sending him and his sword to the ground.

The medic rolled his eyes and slung him carefully over his shoulders. "Sure you can." Behind them, Pidge retrieved the fallen sword, looking at it with interest.

"Let the doc carry you, Commander. You're going to be alright." Cam spoke in his most confident tone, doing his best to pretend he hadn't bruised Daniel's arm during the duel.

"Yeah, he's pretty good at the carrying, boss," Lance seconded. "You're in solid hands."

No point arguing. "Just hurry up…"

Ka had watched the whole battle off to the side, and now he hopped up to them again. "Come." Beckoning for them to follow, he started for the stairway that led to the main structure. It was pristine—not a bone or rock or a single bit of dirt marring the dark stone. "Welcome to Andora-cha-engrizat… the Fortress of Ancient Tales."

*****

Patching their commander up had taken about half an hour, mostly because he was a horrible patient. Jace had finally gotten him in what he judged to be decent shape for traveling, but… "Boss, with the utmost fucking respect here, if you don't stop twitching and bitching I'm gonna let giant donut dude carry you."

"I'm trying." Keith grimaced, why was he always the one getting carried?

Eyeing the pair, Sven made the decision that he was never going to put himself in a situation where he had to be carried by Jace, or anyone, ever. It just never seemed to be enjoyable.

Pidge was walking beside Flynn and ignoring the argument, keeping an eye on their surroundings. Cam wasn't paying attention to their surroundings at all. He was much too preoccupied with their wounded commander… "Doc, I think his leg is bleeding again."

"It hasn't really stopped. If it isn't dripping on the floor it's fine." He said it like it was supposed to be reassuring. Cam was not reassured.

Lance looked around, then turned his attention to their new guide—Ka had left them with one of the librarians, what was his name? Shem, Shen… Shel, that was right. He'd said he would answer any questions. "I don't see any books?" They were in a library, there should be books.

"We have a few books," Shel answered matter-of-factly. "They are special artifacts, hardly things to be left out to be handled and damaged. We are nearly to the reading room… have you not used track-readers before?"

"Are they like datapads?" Lance waved his as an example, just in case Kulaphe didn't have them. Or called them track-readers.

"Not precisely. I will show you… here we are." A door labeled COMMON ENGLISH READING ROOM stood before them. Shel opened it, leading them into a small, cozy room. It was filled with squishy chairs that appeared to mostly be suited for Kulaphe, but then their guide hopped to one and flipped it over to reveal a much more humanoid-friendly configuration.

"This is cozy," Lance commented.

Shel chuckled. "We are a race that appreciates comfort. Battles not followed by rest and contemplation are battles that weren't worth fighting."

Flynn was pleasantly surprised by the room. It certainly wasn't what he'd expected after the circle of bones outside. Vince was surprised too, and a little disappointed when Shel flipped the chair; he'd wanted to try them the other way around, they looked really comfy that way.

Jace looked at the chairs for a moment before speaking. "Giant donut dude, pull a couple of those together for the boss, would you?"

"On it!" Hunk was thinking along Vince's lines, and pulled the chairs together without flipping them. The result was a comfy little kangaroo-chair nest; Cam helped Jace lower Keith into it, making sure they didn't jostle his injured leg.

Daniel plopped down into one of the humanoid side up chairs, pulled out his datapad, and began swiping through the photos he'd taken of the fight. There were also quite of few of Doc carrying Keith that needed to be sorted through. Vince saw what he was doing and moved to peer over his shoulder—he'd missed everything, since he was hiding behind Hunk with his eyes shut the entire time. Now that Keith was definitely okay, it should be safe to look. Daniel noticed and angled his datapad so that Vince could get a better view, marking a couple of photos here and there as he swiped.

Once they were situated, Shel clicked for attention. "Now, I will explain. The track-readers are on this shelf." He pulled one off to show them. It looked something like a wide tank tread made of thin glassy film; it fit very comfortably in his paw, though it didn't look like it would be unwieldy for human hands either. He hopped over to wall with a small keypad. "If you select a topic, the conveyor will bring you the appropriate crystals. You take a crystal and place it into the reader, as such." He demonstrated the process, letting them see the words as they appeared. "Then you scroll as such. Are you comfortable with the tool?"

"Seems easy enough." Lance gave him a winning smile.

"Thank you." Shel looked at Lance curiously, then barred a row of sharp teeth in an approximation of his smile. "I will leave you to your study. May you find something useful." He lowered his ears respectfully before hopping out.

"I'm unsure if that was hot or creepy," Lance muttered.

"That was kinda scarier than the Protector," Hunk agreed.

Keith shook his head, feeling reasonably settled and eager to get to work. "Okay. Let's get started, shall we?"

"Let's, please." Pidge grabbed a reader and a crystal. The system looked efficient and fascinating. Vince looked at one more picture before moving to get his own reader; they looked pretty cool. As the team moved to begin their research, they had to puzzle out the conveyor. The topic selection did not include 'Altea', or even 'legendary civilizations'… or in fact many normal-seeming topics at all. But there was one labeled 'Repositories of Ancient Fragments' which seemed… promising? They fetched some crystals from that one and got to work.

Most of them did, anyway. Daniel did not. Research had never been his forte, and the pictures were way more entertaining. He did however turn away from the rest of his very studious-looking teammates, to at least make it look like he was helping.

Vince noticed and snickered, dropping a reader next to him. "This might help your ruse."

Daniel gave him a grateful smile. "Thanks."

"The moms raised me to be helpful."

"They did a great job."

Lance eyed Daniel, perfectly well aware of what he was doing, but he shrugged it off. He still felt a bit awkward about the fight they'd had… and the more he thought about it the more baffled he felt. Sighing, he went back to researching.

Jace was next to Keith, one eye on him, the other on his reader. The boss had his datapad out, watching the others work, feeling weird about not helping… though he knew what would happen if he tried to get up. As if sensing his unease, Cam appeared next to him with two readers and a few crystals in hand. "Here, sir. Maybe it will help distract you."

"Thanks, Starr." Taking the offered tools Keith launched himself into the reading, and Cam finally looked away to do likewise.

Hunk was flopped in a kangaroo chair, hunting through his crystals. "This place ain't so bad." And it really wasn't… at least to start with.

A few hours later they were developing different opinions.

Lance sighed in annoyance. He was getting a headache; it felt like they'd been here forever, most of which he'd spent reading about bodies of water on ancient rocks. Sven was in a similar boat, he loved to read, but the fruitless search was starting to get to him. He'd been reading what was basically a large catalogue of ancient wars for quite awhile, largely because he had to keep re-reading sections after catching himself starting to skim without meaning to.

Finally scrolling down a bit more, he nearly jumped out of his skin in shock. There it was, staring right at him from the next paragraph. "Guys! This one mentions Altea!"

Vince nearly dropped his reader. "Really?"

"Huh?" Keith was startled and Lance jolted out of his seat, he had been falling asleep. Everyone was staring at Sven, waiting for an explanation or at least some more information.

"It's not much, just that they were participants in this war. It doesn't seem to say anything else, but it's SOMETHING."

"What war?"

"Who were the other participants?"

"Against who?"

"With who?"

Lance, Vince, Flynn, and Pidge all rattled off their questions at the same time. Sven had to take a moment to digest them all.

"It's called the War of the Infested. The Drules were involved. But this is only a summary, nothing else is mentioned."

"So we should look up the War of the Infested and see if we can find out more?" Vince asked.

Keith nodded, trying to keep some semblance of command despite being immobile. "I think that would be a good starting point."

"…I think one of the crystals I was looking at mentioned the war. Not Altea though." Flynn retrieved the crystal and began reading it over again.

Even Daniel, who had moved on from pictures to games, set his datapad down at the Altea mention. Briefly. Vince was already up and requesting crystals on the War of the Infested.

Flynn's crystal had been about early Drule encounters. "Got it. This says some very early Seventh Kingdom explorer ships picked up an extraplanar parasite and triggered a war between 'two coalitions of local powers.' It doesn't say who." He looked up. "But that confirms Altea is local, whatever exactly that means."

Vince had gone back to the conveyor and run searches for anything he could find about ancient wars. Now he distributed the crystals to the team, and they launched back into the research with a whole new enthusiasm. Even Jace was almost too invested in his reader to keep an eye on the boss… almost.

The enthusiasm was starting to fade after another hour. "I'm not finding anything else on Altea, at all," Lance announced as he finished with another crystal. "Seems like the war was pretty short and not all that interesting."

Daniel had only taken one crystal from Vince, and he was regretting it. Who could stay focused on all this… stuff? "Ugh, reading sucks."

Vince took a break from frowning at his crystal, which only seemed to mention the Drules, to frown at Daniel instead. "It won't kill you."

"You don't know that. I could read myself into a boredom coma."

"But we might find another reference to Altea!"

"The more of us who read the sooner we can leave," Keith added, and the gunner narrowed his eyes at both of them. Why did they have to be so logical?

"I've got one! Dude, I've never heard of any of these people…" Hunk shook his head before reading aloud. "'The Ondori banded with other nearby traders from Altea and Zyris to drive them away…' Any of that mean anything to anyone?"

"Zyris, I have mentions of the Zyris, none of which are fucking helpful," Lance muttered in frustration.

Pidge, though, snapped his head up in surprise. "…I've heard of the Zyris. They wiped themselves out five thousand years ago."

"And that is even less helpful."

"Haven't seen anything about any of 'em," Jace snorted, putting another crystal aside as he shared the fruits of his research… or lack thereof.

"Are the Ondori still around?" Vince asked, trying for a bright spot.

Keith sighed and held up his own reader. "No. They were taken over by the Drules. A long time ago."

"That seems to be the overall theme here…" Daniel motioned to his own reader. His one crystal was on Drule conquests of the Second Stellar Era, whatever that even meant, and it was long.

There was really only one word Lance could say to that. "Fuck."

"You uh… don't think Altea got waxed by the Drules, do you?" Hunk asked, a little nervous about the answer. They'd known that was a possibility, of course… but it was suddenly seeming like a much more likely one.

Vince frowned. "I hope not."

"Pretty sure if they had this Voltron we'd know about it, if that's what you're asking," Flynn mused.

"I mean it's possible, right?" Lance asked. "Drules renamed Voltron, whatever it is? Or destroyed it?"

"It's possible, but it's also possible that they didn't." Keith winced almost the instant he said it; that had been a lot of words to say absolutely nothing. Then again, the Doc had him on some pretty good painkillers.

"If the Drules had a Voltron and didn't use it in any of those sieges I had to write shitty essays about in the Academy, they're dumber than I thought." Jace looked through his next crystal; it wasn't very helpful.

"I'm sticking with the destroyed theory," Lance decided. Though even as he said it, something didn't feel right somehow… the memory of warmth raced through his fingers again.

"Maybe Altea beat back the Drules?" Daniel was going for optimistic, but he didn't sound all that confident.

"Maybe they did. Or maybe they're doin' the forever war thing like the Hydrans and Kolaliri, yeah? Holdin' out and we just haven't found 'em yet?" Hunk was going for optimistic too. He was a bit better at it; he'd had more experience.

Jace scowled. "We finally found them in an actual fucking book, or not-book, and it's just making it all MORE confusing."

"My head hurts," Lance muttered, rubbing his forehead.

"Mine does too," Daniel agreed. "Reading sucks." Sven was slightly horrified by the second half of his statement, but he was used to that feeling by now. He didn't comment.

Lance eyed him. "You're just not reading the right things, kid."

"Yeah?" Daniel sounded skeptical.

Hunk grinned. "When we get back to Earth we oughta introduce you to Comic Lady."

"Make sure she's sober," Keith warned.

"Ain't makin any promises…"

"Comics are the exception. They're awesome," Daniel admitted. He hadn't read many, but the ones he had were pretty cool.

"That's reading, kid." Lance smirked.

"Well, yeah, but it's… different." Daniel avoided the words they have pictures, figuring it wouldn't help his argument.

Lance made a decision. He did enjoy challenges. "Gonna find you a book you like."

At least he's not mad you. He should be mad you. "Whatever you say." Smiling, Daniel looked away and purposefully didn't call him 'Lancey-pants.' His smile disappeared a moment later, when he realized no one else would be able to appreciate the self control he'd just demonstrated.

Flynn finished going through the last of the crystals Vince had given him, and went back for another round, though he wasn't feeling too optimistic. Vince himself was slumped in his chair, frustrated with the lack of new information.

"Porra…" Jace's last crystal mentioned the War of the Infested… but didn't say a damn thing about it, except that it had existed.

Maybe they needed a new angle. "Okay. Do we have any idea where these other civilizations were located during this war?" Keith asked.

"Zyris was near Balto," Pidge offered. "All the way across from Earth, in the Outer Reaches." Keith typed that into his notes.

"Balto know anything about Altea?" Vince asked.

"Not that I ever heard of." Shrug. "I don't know about Ondari, but our maps might have it?"

Lance looked over at their navigator. "Sven, do they?"

"Do Baltan maps have Ondari on them?" Sven repeated, staring at him in disbelief. "How am I supposed to know that?"

"Baltan stellar cartography was integrated with the Alliance starmaps per section 8C-5 of the Alliance charter," Pidge offered helpfully; he'd meant the ship's maps to begin with, but it didn't seem worth making an issue of it.

Oh. Of course they would be; Sven shook his head slightly, he knew section 8C-5 by heart. The fleeting hint of hope had flustered them all. "I'll check the stellar database when we get back to the ship. It might be there, but I don't know offhand."

"And you call yourself the map guy, Viking." Lance smirked.

Sven narrowed his eyes at the taunt, positive he'd never called himself the 'map guy.' "Do I criticize your piloting skills?"

Lance blinked, puzzlement replacing the smirk. "Why would you?" Flynn snickered.

"Perhaps because they could use the criticism," Sven suggested, a small smirk on his own face. Daniel snorted.

"In what fucking way?"

"I'm sure he didn't appreciate the rift sickness," Keith offered.

"That has shit to do with my skills, Boss."

"Not that I want to defend him," Jace broke in as he gave up on his current crystal, "but he's right. Whether someone gets rift sickness is based on their biology, it has fuck-all to do with the pilot."

Sven ignored all of that in favor of defending his own map guy credentials. "The ride over here wasn't exactly smooth, and it had nothing to do with my chosen route." He'd picked the simplest route he could find, and yet…

"You can't appreciate some speed?" Lance shrugged. Daniel was trying really hard not to laugh, but wasn't succeeding one bit. His snickers set off Vince's giggling in a matter of moments, and Cam joined in not too long after.

Flynn eyed Lance, smirking a bit too. "A little constructive criticism won't kill you, flyboy."

Lance looked betrayed. "You were egging me on to be faster!" Now Hunk was giggling as well; Pidge just ignored everyone and continued reading.

"Yes, and you insulted my engines by saying they couldn't keep up."

"And you won the argument, why are you betraying me now?!"

"To avenge my couch covers…" Flynn replied under his breath. Even Lance had to laugh at that one.

With a heroic effort, in his own opinion, Daniel stopped laughing long enough to get his own dig in. "The only thing wrong with your piloting is that you fly like an old man."

"Old?" Lance demanded, officially very offended. "That's almost worse than having my piloting skills questioned."

"What? I'm not gonna lie to you and tell you that you don't fly like an old guy."

"Watch yourself, little dude," Hunk chuckled. "He'll throw you out as bait next time he's gotta thread a red-hot rock needle…"

Even Keith chuckled a little before trying to defuse things. "Okay, I don't think we're going to find anything else. We should get back to the ship." He tried to slide off the edge of his chairs and groaned, immediately regretting the exertion. His side only hurt when he moved… but damn, did it hurt.

Sven was smirking, oddly pleased with the scene he'd created. Jace caught sight of the smirk and grinned. "I'm so fucking proud of you right now, Viking…" Anything else he may have said was cut off when he noticed Keith trying to get free of his chairs. "Okay boss, stop moving."

"Just trying to make it easier…" That got him the medic's best glare.

Lance missed the entire exchange, he was still hung up on being called old. "Why did only two of you get to witness the asteroid field… OLD GUY."

"If you'd let me fly every once and awhile maybe I could show you how to not pilot like such a fossil," Daniel suggested. He got the occasional piloting shift, but he'd really like a few more.

"Fossil…?!"

"It's a metaphor. Those were around back in your day right?" Daniel's smirk grew into a full smile.

"Take a tip when you get one, kid." Lance shook his head. "I'm so setting up an asteroid simulator, and we'll see how cocky you are then."

"Bring it on, old man."

"Will you be selling tickets?" Flynn asked hopefully.

Both of them answered at once. "YES."

"Wouldn't want to miss me running circles around his little simulation," Daniel taunted.

Lance snorted. "Circles are a great way to get killed in an asteroid field."

"This time we sure as fuck won't forget the popcorn," Jace declared, and carefully lifted Keith over his shoulders as Cam put their readers away. "Let's get out of here."

Vince was still giggling madly; it seemed to offset the Altea disappointment so he didn't try and stop. Next to him, Pidge was shaking his head at the banter with a great deal of bemusement. He supposed this was funny, he just wasn't sure why. "Can we go? The Lieutenant's piloting is perfectly serviceable?"

Daniel just about died with laughter at Pidge's comment. Flynn choked. Hunk, Keith, Vince, and Jace all followed suit.

"SERVICEABLE?! FUCKING…"

Before that could go any further, Flynn grabbed Lance by the arm and turned him around. "That's ninja-speak for wonderful and flawless, don't worry, he's never called anything I've done serviceable…" As he spoke he was quite literally pushing Lance out the door, the pilot still muttering the words serviceable and old man under his breath. Though he was quite enjoying the Flynn manhandling.

Pidge looked after them, still confused; turning, he caught Vince's eye and shrugged. The other engineer matched his shrug, still giggling.

The team had left their weapons in the medical room with the Protector, figuring they were in good hands… well, a good hand, anyway. She was still there when they returned, soaking her newly-regenerated paw in a vat of medicinal fluid to speed its development. It was far from the first limb she'd ever lost. She looked up as the Earthlings entered; they seemed to be in high spirits. "Was your search successful?"

"A little." Sven answered, trying for optimism, as Vince deflated a bit at his side. "We have more information now than we did when we got here."

"Yes, we certainly found things." Flynn was not going to admit to the Hunk-sized kangaroo that none of it had helped much.

"Good." The Protector saluted them with her intact hand.

Cam poked Daniel, remembering something they probably should have remembered earlier. "Dude, the picture." His roommate looked confused for a moment before realization dawned on him.

"Oh yeah!" Pulling the wanted poster he'd drawn out of his pocket, he cautiously approached the scary—awesome, but still scary—alien. "Um, Miss…" Miss Kangaroo? No don't do that. He showed her the poster. "Miss Protector? Have you seen this man?"

The Protector tilted her head curiously, peering at the paper. "Hmm… no, I think not. He doesn't look like anyone I've killed recently."

"…Alright, thank you anyway." Daniel nodded, swallowing a little. That's good. It'd be fuckin weird if you did see him. Yeah, that was definitely the weird part of the exchange. Totally.

Hunk stared at her for a moment, then quickly began gathering up their weapons. Jace decided this was way closer than he really wanted to be to the scary lizard kangaroo lady, and began helping Hunk. Lance and Vince exchanged uneasy looks and decided they were very ready to go too.

How many people has she killed?

"I wish you success, though." The Protector removed her paw from the vat and approached Keith, lowering her ears and bowing her head. "It was an honor."

Keith grimaced. "I'm… sorry I had to take your, um, hand," he said a little sheepishly. "You're an excellent fighter."

The Protector chuckled. "Such wounds are part of the duty. Do not apologize for your accomplishments; be proud of your skill and your victory."

Well that was certainly… an outlook on the matter. But if it made her happy, who was he not to accept it? Keith nodded, saluting her once more, and the team departed from the library.

*****

The battle had been disastrous.

Pollux had an impressive warfleet, for a planet of its size and technology. It was something of a necessity. Before the Drules, they had regularly faced bandits and petty warlords, thinking the small backwater world would be easy pickings. But their defenses had been geared to stave off a greater threat, an ancient legend lurking in the dark…

Taking down a few raiders hadn't sounded like such a tall order. Taking them down alongside the mighty Ninth Kingdom, even less so. But the Drule ships had barely participated in the battle. They'd stayed back, allowing the Polluxian armada to charge into the teeth of the enemy alone.

Now the raiders were driven off, routed to the last shuttlecraft, and a full quarter of Pollux's fleet was disabled or outright destroyed. The death toll had been unconscionable. And the Drules had barely been scratched.

King Kova entered King Zarkon's throne room when his head held high, his sons trailing behind him. Avok was incensed and doing nothing to hide it. Bandor really wanted to be anywhere but here, but he put up his bravest front.

Zarkon seemed pleased to see them; he raised his wine goblet in greeting, motioning for servants to provide the Polluxians with drinks as well. "Ah, our honored allies finally arrive."

"Honored?" Avok spat. His father tried to silence him, but he ignored it and stepped forward. "What do you think you're playing at, using our people as your shields?"

The Drule king paused, looking more confused than offended as he set his wine glass down. "Your warriors were most impressive, Prince Avok. Surely no one has suggested otherwise."

"Yes, they were impressive. As your fleet stood back and watched them die!"

Zarkon studied them for a moment, keeping his puzzled affect up. He understood precisely what was going on here, but would afford their allies every opportunity to think better of it. "We gave you the honor of the vanguard, and your fleet was more than equal to the task. Surely you wouldn't have wanted our armada to steal your glory?"

That finally defused Avok, or at least stunned him enough that he couldn't respond immediately. His father took his arm and pushed him back. "Of course, Lord Zarkon, and we are grateful for the generous opportunity. We only wish we had been forewarned of the conditions of battle."

"Of course. What soldier wouldn't? But the reality of war rarely gives us what we want. Seeing how your forces adapted to the unexpected was valuable."

"Another test?" Avok had calmed a little, but he was still glaring daggers. "Just because we don't always have the luxury of knowing everything before a battle, what kind of strategy is it to further cripple your own side?"

"An understandable question." Avok's hostility and arrogance would need to be dealt with, no doubt. But Zarkon found Kova's obsequiousness much more irritating. The prince was sincere in his beliefs, and that could be worked with. Kova was just saying whatever he felt the moment needed. "Maybe you have a point. Maybe we made too many assumptions in the terms of this alliance…"

It had been a test, and the Polluxian king failed it spectacularly. "There is—there is no need to be hasty, my Lord, our warriors will learn what is required of them—"

"—Enough." Zarkon raised a hand for silence. "As our allies, your fleet will be treated as would any of our armadas. And we may not have made those expectations clear enough. Your ignorance can be forgiven… this time."

Kova swallowed, then regained his composure. "Of… of course, Lord Zarkon. We will do better."

"Our ignorance?" Avok scoffed. "A wise strategist learns the strengths of their forces and plays to them. Why aren't your commanders capable of that?"

That was quite enough. "Because you are now a part of the Ninth Kingdom, Prince Avok." He leaned forward, eyes narrowing. "Your sister is doing an admirable job of learning our ways. Perhaps you should follow her lead, rather than doing things that might compromise her position."

His tone had remained conversational, even affable. One allied monarch giving friendly advice to another. But nobody in the room missed the threat.

*****

Off to the side of the throne room, Lotor watched the proceedings with his lip curled. For once, he was in agreement with his father about something; Kova was hardly worth the title of King. He should do his planet a favor and place Avok on the throne, then retire somewhere out of sight. It would be the honorable choice. Once he and Romelle were wed, perhaps he'd be able to encourage it…

As his thoughts went to Romelle, he noticed her shifting uneasily at his side. "Calm, dear a'kuri. You are in no danger."

"I'm trying. I'm alright." She shook her head slightly, steadying herself. Then she gestured to the Polluxian delegation. "I don't understand why Father brought Bandor to be subjected to this."

Bandor? He blinked; he hadn't even noticed the young prince. No wonder, since he was all but cowering in his older brother's shadow. The expression on his face said he was trying to be brave and dignified, but his body language put the lie to it easily.

Romelle had a point. The boy didn't belong here. He should be with a governess yet, shouldn't he? Lotor wondered if he ought to offer Dayak's services, but quickly put that thought aside. King Kova might be useless, but Avok seemed to prove whatever royal child-rearing Pollux possessed was at least serviceable. Assuming the child were being raised, rather than hauled along to listen to his father's complaints…

Though perhaps there was something he could do to help. A way to strengthen the young prince, and likely irritate his father as a bonus. "Call him here."

She looked startled, but then nodded and hissed something in her own language. Bandor looked intensely grateful as he looked up and scurried over—Kova looked like he wanted to scold him, then saw who was calling and kept his mouth shut. The wisest decision he'd made all day, really.

Leaving the kings to their discussion, the prince led the two Polluxians into the corridors. Their destination lay only a few minutes away from the throne room… though it could hardly be more different.

The royal stables were chaotic. Certainly not Lotor's favorite place to spend time, though not the most unpleasant either. Soft shrieks and howls echoed around them, and Bandor's eyes seemed to be darting everywhere at once. Though he was uncomfortable with idle talk, one obvious and not-entirely-idle question came to mind. "Do you like animals, Prince Bandor?"

"I… think?" The young prince's Drakure was slow and abominably accented, but he was fluent enough. "I haven't seen many close up. Mostly Father's war horses." He stopped as a roaming moonhound darted up to him, yipped, and ran away. "I've never seen anything like this?"

Of course Pollux would have nothing comparable. He ought to have expected that. "This castle is fully self-sufficient; supply line disruptions were common in the early days of our empire. Most of the creatures here provide reagents for the witches and priests."

Bandor only half-heard the explanation. He wasn't trying to be rude, he'd just been distracted by a pen of tiny jewel-like amphibians hopping about. Romelle, on the other hand, was clinging to every word. She hadn't missed the earlier threat either. And truthfully, she wasn't sure where to be irritated or grateful for Lotor removing her from where her safety was being thrown about as a bargaining chip.

Soon enough, they reached an open pen filled with straw. A bizarre creature was roosting in the straw: it seemed like a seamless fusion of bird and lizard, with a beaked reptilian head, a ruff of dark feathers, leathery wings, and a long scaly tail that was curled around its clawed feet. As Lotor approached it jumped up and crowed excitedly.

"What… is that?" Romelle whispered.

"A calcatrix," he answered, reaching out and patting the creature's feathery crest. "Clever beasts, with a paralytic bite."

Bandor was staring at the calcatrix with wide eyes. "It's beautiful."

Smiling, Lotor led them through a door just beside the pen. "The castle's flock is raised primarily for their venom, but many nobles like to raise them as companions. It was never my calling, I fear." Romelle suppressed a startled glance at that. She'd never heard Prince Lotor admit so easily—or perhaps at all—to being unable to do something. "I still have some books on their care. So, little prince, my question to you." He turned to face Bandor. "Would you like one?"

The boy's eyes somehow widened even further. "I—really? I would…" Pause. "I… ought to ask Father."

Lotor waved that off. "He has more than enough occupying him, and he has no authority over what gifts I choose to bestow upon our allies." He studied Bandor carefully. "Calcatrix are not the easiest creatures to raise, but they are known for their intelligence and loyalty when well trained. I will give you one, if you promise me you will make each other strong."

Straightening, the young prince gave the most dignified salute that could be expected of him. "I promise!"

Motioning for them to wait, Lotor went forward and had a hushed discussion with one of the stable hands. Romelle glanced down at her brother. It felt like the responsible thing would be to admonish him, but he looked too excited… "You'll need to improve your reading of Drakure quickly," she cautioned finally.

"I know," he agreed, nodding quickly. "Lady Aldrys has been pushing it harder lately anyway. I'll do a good job, sis."

"Okay." She patted his head, then looked up again; Lotor was returning. He had a tiny ball of fluff cradled in his hands, pecking at his fingers. It could only be a calcatrix hatchling. Its eyes were closed and its beak was visibly dull, and even its wings and tail were covered with down.

Bandor gasped, successfully fighting down a very undignified squeal of excitement.

Chuckling, Lotor crouched before him and held the hatchling out carefully. "Your first task is simple. This is a newborn; its eyes will open in some five hours. You must ensure you are the first living thing it sees."

"I will!" Taking the hatchling equally carefully, Bandor patted its soft feathers, not quite certain at first what else to do with it. But it started nipping at his fingers, and in a matter of moments he seemed to have worked out a little game with it.

Lotor was still chuckling as he stood and stepped back, and Romelle studied him with some curiosity. The way he'd handled the creature was reminding her of something… the statue of Kistrial, the creature she'd been holding in her hands. From her book she'd quickly gathered that carrying something small and cute was a hallmark of the Goddess of Honor. Kistrial the Forbearing

"A'kuri?"

She blinked, returning to the presence. "I… thank you, Prince Lotor." She gave him a genuine smile. "I think my brother will be much better for your gift."

"I expect him to be." He smiled back, kissing her cheek. "Why don't you catch up with him more, while I send someone to go and fetch those books."

"Of course." That did sound much more enjoyable than returning to the throne room. Returning to Bandor's side, she couldn't help a smile as the tiny calcatrix fluttered its wings. It was a good gift… from an honorable Drule who'd had no need at all to do such a thing.

Not for the first time, she wished she knew whether she wanted to love Lotor or hate him. And she wished he would settle on making one or the other easier for her.

Chapter Text

The first order of business upon returning to the ship had been to look up Ondari. It was, in fact, on the Alliance's maps… in the middle of the Fourth Kingdom Incursion Zone, nowhere near Zyris or anything else. Which officially shot down their last hint of a lead from Takrekul. Onward to Khoru it was.

Daniel was lying on a couch in the upper rec room, playing a game on his datapad, to escape Cam practicing his Terinian. They had a pretty good system at this point: Cam wouldn't practice while Daniel was in the room, and Daniel would avoid their room for at least a couple hours a day to let him practice. He was fully focused on the video game in front of him when Lance poked his head into the room.

Lance was really looking for Flynn, but seeing Daniel made him pause. Things had been a bit strained and awkward ever since Daniel's big blow up—which was still baffling Lance. He watched him for a second and decided to see if he could make some headway. He liked the kid, he'd rather it not be awkward.

"Hey, kid, what are you up to?"

"Playing a video game." Daniel said, glancing up for a second before focusing back on his game. He was pointedly ignoring the small dash of shame Lance's presence brought out. The game didn't make him feel guilty and awkward, better to fixate on that.

"What's the objective?" Lance moved around the couch so he could look over his shoulder.

Daniel lifted the screen closer for him to see. "It's a racing game, but every time you knock an opponent off the course you get extra points."

"How many have you knocked off course?" Lance asked, biding his time and looking for an opening. The last thing he wanted to do was set him off again.

"Four…" Daniel knocked a car off the course. "Five. If I knock the other two racers off I automatically win." He eyed Lance warily. Him being so nice felt weird—Daniel knew he'd been awful to him.

Lance watched the game with interest, noting it wasn't too far off some fighter pilot training he'd been through. It seemed pretty useful to him, though he was sure many Serious People would strongly disagree with him on that. He grinned. "I'm thinking this is the sort of thing you find meditative."

"Yeah. I don't have to think, I can just play," Daniel said with a small grin.

"I get that when I fly, or at the shooting range…" He hopped over the back of the couch to sit next to the kid.

"I don't really feel it at the shooting range, but definitely when I'm flying." Shooting involved too much thinking to be meditative for Daniel.

That offered a way to lure him in a little more, at least. "Yeah… so I've been thinking I really might try to set up an asteroid field training sim. You'd be into that, right?"

Daniel grinned widely. That would be awesome. "Hell yeah… oh come on!" he moaned as his momentary distraction got him knocked off the race course in his game.

"Yeah, you're gonna fail at the sim too," Lance snickered. "So uh…" He scratched the back of his neck, trying to figure out the right way to bring everything up, and rolled his eyes at himself as he went for the direct approach. "We good, kid?"

That instantly cut short Daniel's attempt to mouth off about not failing at the sim; he felt ashamed and awkward all over again. He blushed and looked away, feeling like he should have seen that coming. "I… uh… yeah." That was real convincing.

Unsurprisingly, Lance didn't buy it either. "Just that… well, honestly, I'm kind of fucking baffled about it all? I'd like us to be good. So, if there is anything you need to speak up about, you're free to. I mean it's me here, not Kogane."

Another sharp of guilt crashed over Daniel, and he distracted himself with his datapad for a minute as he gathered his energy to do what needed to be done. But it was a struggle. Apologies and explanations weren't something that came easy to him. "I'm sorry," he mumbled, and started bouncing his legs nervously.

That was the last thing Lance had expected. His eyes widened for a moment; he quickly schooled his features, but Daniel hadn't actually noticed, because he couldn't even look at him. The pilot struggled for what to say. "That's great, I accept… but, uh, for what exactly?"

"For being a jerk." Daniel still couldn't look at him. He knew what came next, and he knew he couldn't explain that he was scared without sounding like some little kid.

"Alright… you were a jerk, all is forgiven, just… would like to avoid it happening again, so was there a reason why?" Lance swallowed a frustrated sigh. He felt like he was treading deep water; he'd never been in this position before, and he was sure he was sucking at it.

Growling to himself, Daniel jerked his head up to look at Lance. Just spit it out already! "It wasn't supposed to go like that! It was supposed to be a…" He paused for a second, trying to come up with the right words. "…A preemptive strike!" That worked. "Which failed! Miserably!" He winced a bit, realizing how loud he'd gotten, then fell into a bit of pout. "Because you're weird."

Lance found himself totally thrown again. Shaking his head, he tried to find words, but he wasn't quite processing what Daniel had said… and was gradually realizing that for what had to be the first time in his entire life, he'd been rendered speechless. That was new and he didn't like it. "Preemptive strike?" he asked finally, hoping it was a good start.

"Yeah. It didn't really work out. You're still…" Daniel awkwardly gestured between them. "Doing this…" Could the awkward swirling around them could get any more suffocating? He still didn't understand why Lance kept being so nice to him. "And I was being a complete asshole, and you didn't even yell. So weird." Daniel paused as something occurred to him. "What kind of superior officer doesn't blow a gasket when one of their subordinates is out of line?" It just didn't make sense to him.

You'd be surprised. "You wanted to piss me off?"

"Yeah."

"Well fuck, you've gotta try harder than that. I mean I know technically I'm a superior officer or whatever, but I don't give a crap about that bullshit. Probably why I'm here…" He shook his head, trailing off that track. "Why, though? Why did you want me get mad at you?"

Suddenly Daniel found himself absolutely offended. "Are you saying my asshole wasn't asshole enough!?" He wasn't yelling, but he was definitely being loud again.

Lance laughed, it was impossible not to, but he had to stay on track. "I'm saying I was confused and frustrated but not mad, and I did yell a little bit, I think? I just didn't get what you were mad about? And well…" Lance sighed and let the truth come out. "I don't want you mad at me, Kid."

"That wasn't yelling, believe me, I know yelling…" Daniel shook his head and decided to just tell the truth, nothing else seemed to work. "And well… you like me right now, but eventually you won't. And that'll suck. So I figured I'd just get it over with, you know?"

That was unsettling to Lance, there were layers there to unpack and it made him worried about the kid, not to mention making him feel like he was back treading deep water all over again. But his gut was telling him to make one thing perfectly clear. "Yeah, no way, kid. You're stuck with me."

Daniel snorted; Lance didn't get it at all. "You say that right now, but happens in a month or in six months when you change your mind? I get screwed. I'm tired of getting screwed. So I decided to screw you first."

"Look, I'm not gonna…" Lance stopped himself from saying screw you and sighed. "I'm not going to promise you something here, cause you won't buy it. But…" He nodded. This angle might work better. "How about if I'm still around in six months, I get to say: I fucking told you so, you're stuck with me. Cause I think I get what may have happened to you before, but I'm not most people." Damn right he wasn't. "I'm… what did you say? Weird."

Daniel eyed him for a bit and wasn't really sure he bought that either, but he also liked it when he and Lance were cool. Maybe he could give this a shot… he smirked. "You are pretty weird."

Lance snorted. "So, we're good."

"Yeah, we're good… I'm really sorry for blowing up on ya."

"I've dealt with worse and all is forgiven." He tapped Daniel's datapad. "Go on, knock cars off the track, seems like good fighting pilot practice to me."

Daniel smirked again. "See, I think so too… my professors didn't agree though."

"Professors are fucking short sighted, kid." The pilot stood up, watching him for another moment. That had gone better than he'd expected. Somehow.

Nodding, Daniel went back to his game, no longer feeling so guilty about everything… and silently hoping Lance would be around in six months.

Lance took one last look at him before leaving the room, promising himself he'd be still around for the kid in six months. It felt important, even if he couldn't fully place why, but he always trusted his gut.

****

The galley was empty when Cam walked in, which gave him a mix of disappointment and relief. Disappointment because Hunk wasn't there to feed him something insane, relief because the Doc wasn't there so at least nobody would be threatening to stab him. He was perfectly capable of making his own lunch.

If the ingredients would just stop disappearing on him…

"I just opened that jar," he muttered as he dug through the cupboards, "where is it this time?" Every time he opened a new jar of peanut butter on this ship, it seemed to vanish by the next day. He was really about over it. "Damn it…" Sighing, he dug a new jar out of storage and started grumpily slapping a sandwich together. It wasn't that big a deal, he knew… but every day? It was just irritating.

As he finished up and took a quick bite, he turned and nearly jumped out of his skin. Somewhere along the line, he'd stopped being alone. Now there was a ninja in the room. "Um… hi?"

"Yeah," Pidge murmured absently, then blinked. No, that was definitely not the correct response. "Uh, hi." He moved around towards the cupboard Cam had just been in, hoping that would be the end of it.

It wasn't. Cam had barely spoken to their systems analyst, and he'd heard things, but it all seemed overblown. "How are you?" Can't hurt to try to be friendly, right?

That earned him a slightly pained look. Pidge hated small talk, but at least he knew the correct rote response here. "Fine, you?"

"Not too bad, I suppose. If someone would just stop either hiding the peanut butter or eating it all…"

The ninja looked confused. "There's… no shortage of peanut butter on this ship?" He knew for a fact there was a whole crate of it down in cargo. A very large crate.

Cam knew that too, and sighed. "Yeah, just… it's annoying, you know? Come in off shift to grab something quick to eat, and the jar I just opened is gone. Half the time I find it in the trash."

"Yes, that's where empty jars go."

He couldn't help but grin at that, though he wasn't wholly certain it had been a joke. "Yeah, it is. But really, who uses that much peanut butter in one day?"

Pidge eyed him, unimpressed, then moved on to the cupboard and pulled the open jar out. "People with different dietary requirements than humans."

Even staring right at him, it took Cam a moment for that to fully sink in. "Wait, you mean you…?"

"That's what I said?" Pidge was not aware of any other aliens on this ship. Maybe their comms officer was a bit dense.

"Oh…" Cam blinked slowly. Now that he'd actually encountered the peanut butter thief, he was feeling a bit less eager for confrontation. "That's… a lot of calories and fat…"

"You have low metabolism."

He'd said that very matter-of-factly. He is different from you… well, fair enough, probably. "Well anyway, if you polish off a jar, could you at least be decent enough to put a new one back so the rest of us don't go hunting thinking it just walked off?"

Pidge looked at him blankly. "That isn't my job." In fact he was quite certain he'd heard the doctor yelling at someone for bringing things up out of cargo just a couple of days ago. Something about wanting to keep a handle on the supplies.

Cam stared back at him, equally confused. "Well it's not my job either." Yet somehow he always seemed to be the one opening new jars. "It's just common courtesy."

"It isn't my job," the ninja repeated, a little more emphatically. "It gets replaced."

"Do you… not understand common courtesy?" Cam could not, for the life of him, understand what was so objectionable about being asked to move a jar of peanut butter from one side of the galley to the other. "You empty it, you replace it?"

"Do you not understand delegation of responsibility aboard a starship?" Pidge retorted, muttering something probably impolite in Baltan.

"Yeah, I do understand it. And it applies to everyone, even you." It was all Cam could do not to call him an entitled brat. He was trying to tone that down. He did learn from his mistakes, and this was someone from a whole different culture… but hell if he wasn't acting like one.

Pidge was thinking something similar, really. What part of it isn't my job does this snotty human not understand? His hand had gone to his sheath, though he'd barely noticed. "What exactly is that supposed to mean, jalekya?"

"It means it's no one's actual job to replace things in here! We all do it out of respect for everyone on board."

Scowl. "Your understanding of delegation is incorrect. Don't take it out on me."

Cam scowled right back. Maybe the things he'd heard weren't overblown at all. "Well your…" He bit back his first instinct. "…understanding of respectful courtesy seems to be incorrect, too."

"Manners are inefficient."

That… actually was kind of true, Cam supposed, at least in certain situations. He wasn't too sure this applied. "They may be, but they keep people from getting upset when they're hungry and annoyed."

The ninja's bright green eyes lowered to Cam's sandwich. And the bite he'd already taken from it. "You have your food. Let me eat mine."

"Fine! I'm not stopping you." There was no point going on with this. Frowning, he dropped into a chair and took a large, dramatic bite of his sandwich.

Pidge rolled his eyes and turned away, heading for the door. "Ershakka eshal missen cha nye…"

That didn't sound nice. Cam lowered his sandwich and stood slowly, glaring. "Excuse me?"

Why was he still talking? Wasn't he supposed to be eating his sandwich? "I said humans are stupid," Pidge translated irritably, turning back around and half daring his teammate to argue.

The glare intensified. "Takes stupid to know stupid."

"…Is that an insult? You call each other stupid all the time." Things like this were exactly why he couldn't figure these ridiculous aliens out in the first place.

"You can take it however you see fit. You're even more of a brat than Daniel."

"Don't compare me to him," Pidge snarled, taking a step back. A moment later he became aware his knife was out. Not optimal… but he didn't sheath it, especially when Cam noticed and backed away with wide eyes. Maybe they could finally get this conversation over with. He really just wanted to eat his own lunch in peace.

As they stared warily at each other, the tension was broken by Jace walking in the door, juggling a jar of peanut butter between his hands. He'd long since gotten used to bringing one up after his shift each day. "Hey Starr, hey ninjerk, you better not be making a mess of my…" What he'd actually walked in on became apparent as he looked at Pidge. And his knife. "…Put that the fuck away, I'm the only person sanctioned to do any stabbing on this ship."

Cam breathed a sigh of relief; he'd never imagined he could be so happy to see their grumpy medic. "Hello, Doctor." Pidge, for his part, didn't say anything at all. He just sheathed the knife and vanished out the door with his peanut butter.

Jace turned to Cam and raised an eyebrow. "Que porra?"

The comms officer slowly shook his head. "What the hell just happened?"

"Uh, that's what I just asked you. Since you know, you're the one that was here."

As if that had helped him any. He sank back into his chair and sighed. "I came in to make a sandwich, couldn't find the peanut butter I just opened this morning… again. Apparently he eats the whole damn jar? I just tried to… impress upon him the decency of replacing what he takes…" He trailed off, grimacing. "It didn't go very well."

"Oh, he's the one who's been eating it so fast?" Shrugging, Jace put the jar he'd brought in the cupboard. "Should've known, none of the rest of you keeled over from sugar overload."

"Yeah." Cam rolled his eyes. "Apparently human metabolism is slow."

Jace snorted. "By any objective interstellar average, Baltan metabolism is fast." He pulled a pan out and started mixing things together. "How about you not fuck with the ninjerk, I don't want to have to fix a sucking stab wound in your chest if we can avoid it."

That… sounded like something he'd prefer to avoid too, Cam decided. "I'm not trying to fuck with him," he protested. "Am I wrong for wanting him to have common courtesy? If he takes it he should replace it… or at least get his own jar…" He set his sandwich down and sighed again, suddenly not all that hungry anymore.

"You're asking the wrong fucking person about common courtesy, Starr. Eat your damn sandwich."

Well. That, he supposed, was true. Absently poking his sandwich, he considered the matter… maybe there were better options. There had to be, didn't there?

*****

Hunk tried not to make a habit of being early for his shift. There was just no sense setting that kind of high expectations for himself; all it could do was limit his options later. But every once in awhile didn't hurt. Build up a little good karma for when he lost track of time cooking or rocking out… so it was about ten minutes before actual shift change when he clambered into the bay and looked around.

Vince was on duty. The console that handled the Bolt's cargo manipulator arms had been throwing an intermittent power fault. They didn't use that system for anything—maybe they'd need it when they found this Voltron thing, someday—but leaving power faults in place was just never a good idea. Minor issues had a way of turning into major ones if left unattended. So he was crouched beside the console with his tongue poking slightly between his lips, replacing several old worn-out wires and completely oblivious to the rest of the world.

"Yo, little dude! You want outta here early?"

"Aaah!" The yell snapped Vince out of his zone and into sheer panic. First from being startled, and then from the crack of electricity and the small flames suddenly racing down the wires. "No no noooo, don't blow up…" He leaned forward and tried to blow the flames out, though really, he knew better. A moment later there was a second sharp crack, and he jerked back just in time to avoid the surging electrical fire burning his face.

"Whoa!" Hunk had nearly jumped out of his skin himself. Seeing the flames, he grabbed a fire suppression bomb from the nearest shelf and tossed it into the wiring. The shell cracked open, smothering the fire with a large puff of pressurized argon gas, leaving a faint haze of smoke wreathing the younger engineer. He looked dazed. "You okay? Did the boom get ya?" Grabbing a first aid kit from the same shelf, Hunk approached to check things out.

Vince was still staring at the burnt wiring. "No, no, no, no, no…"

By about the third no it was clear to Hunk that the kid wasn't really talking to him. Should I poke him? No, startling him again seemed like a really bad decision. He edged forward instead. "Viiiinnnnce?"

Blinking, finally looking up at him, Vince recovered from the first wave of panic and launched headlong into a second. This was usually about as many chances as he'd had before being kicked out of a class, and this time it was on an actual mission. "I didn't mean to, I'll be more careful, I promise, it was an accident, I just, could we maybe, could we not tell Flynn?"

"I think he's gonna notice, there's big scorch marks and stuff." Shrug. "Are you okay?"

Of course there were big scorch marks; he groaned. "Yeah I didn't think so, oh god, what do they do with you if you get thrown off an Explorer Team?"

Hunk cocked his head. He remembered wondering something similar once, though admittedly not on his own behalf. "Hell if I know. You're not gonna get tossed for settin' a little fire though. Trust me, we've done way worse." Grinning encouragingly, he set the first aid kit aside; it seemed clear the kid was physically fine. He did seem way more freaked about this accident than the last ones, but then, they were in the middle of space now…

Or maybe that wasn't it at all. "But this is the third time I've… well…" He grimaced, sagging back a little. "Done a Vince."

Aha. Hunk chuckled. "And you fixed the other two up real quick, and this one doesn't look too bad either. Guessin' you were workin' on that fault we picked up earlier, yeah?"

Vince stared at him in confusion. "Uh…? Yeah, I can fix it, I always can, but…"

"…Lemme guess, but you don't usually get the chance."

He sounded remarkably unconcerned. Of course he usually did, he was Hunk. Vince closed his eyes for a moment, forcing himself to take a deep breath or two and slow down his racing heartbeat. Then he nodded. "Usually there's a lot more yelling. And telling me I have an attitude problem."

"Still not seein' the attitude problem," the big man snorted, "unless they really hate apologies or somethin'. And uh, this one's definitely my fault anyway, yeah?" He grinned again, a little sheepishly. "Kinda figured I made enough noise comin' in, sorry about that."

"I was too hyperfocused, not your fault…" Vince was completely off balance now. He'd have thought he would be happy not to be yelled at, and he was, but he didn't have much experience dealing with anything else. "Usually people think I'm lying when I say I didn't do it on purpose."

"Kinda like knowin' the wiring guy is focused on what he's doing. Both our faults?" Shaking his head, Hunk looked at the mess again. There really were some very impressive scorch marks. "Who the heck thinks you'd do this on purpose? There's way cooler ways you could blow stuff up if you wanted to. I could teach ya some."

"No, nope, I'd rather not explode anything to be honest…" Wince. "But that doesn't work out for more than a few weeks at a time."

"Well you've gotta be worth the occasional kabooms if they put you here, yeah? I mean, Explorer Teams get a crazy rep and we deserve every bit of it, but I don't think they'd actually give us someone they thought was gonna blow up our ship." He sat back and frowned slightly. "Hella paperwork."

Even on the trailing edge of panic, Vince couldn't help the snort of laughter at that. "Was hoping not to blow more things up, but… Flynn's not gonna be mad? You sure?"

"Doubt it, as long as it's fixed up. His temper doesn't actually match his hair." Hunk gave him a conspiratorial grin. "Ask him about the time Lance punched him in the face… uh, wait, don't ask him, I wasn't supposed to tell anyone about that."

Vince's eyes went wide. "He punched… but they're like best friends!"

"Yeah well, pit boss thought bein' friends meant he'd be the first person who ever calmed someone down by tellin' em to calm down, or somethin' like that. It didn't go so well."

"Huh… I guess all of us are pretty weird?"

"The official phrasing of the unit motto is 'we're a fucking Explorer Team'." The big man chuckled. "Anyway, speakin' of calming down, we should see what we can do about minimizing your unsanctioned kabooms, yeah? You need some zen in your life." Frown. "I'm uh, not the person to help you there."

Truthfully, Vince couldn't help thinking Hunk might be just the person to help him there. Nothing seemed to bother him. Then again, he might have developed that talent from being around a large number of explosions, which didn't sound like fun. "The moms tried to get me to do meditation. But I get anxious I'm not breathing right and it's a whole thing…"

"Well that ain't gonna help you. Talk to Sven, maybe? Nothing rattles that dude."

That was also true, and it probably had less to do with explosions. "Yeah, how does he do that? Maybe I'll ask him sometime." Maybe. He wasn't entirely convinced, but…

"Worth a shot."

…Yeah, that. Sighing, he looked at the mess again. "I'd better start fixing this up."

"Yeah, probably better. Don't worry about the burns on the floor though, they give it character." Hunk winked. "Can I help? Or you got this?"

Vince gave a more than slightly chagrined laugh, looking at the scorch marks. Maybe he'd go with Hunk's point of view here, for his own sanity's sake. "They kind of do give it character, don't they… I've got it, it's just, I was almost finished before."

"Practice makes, uh, practiced!" Hunk hopped up off the floor, grinning. "I'll go wayyyy over here and watch the engine panel, then, and I promise I'll make sure you aren't poking anything before I yell at ya next time "

Watching him, to his own surprise, Vince realized he actually did feel better. At least a bit. He'd feel even better if he could understand how these things kept happening, but… it was a start? "Thanks, Hunk." Exhaling slowly, he turned his focus back to the wiring. Time to get back to work.

*****

Rumors had a way of flying around the Bolt pretty quickly, even with such a small crew manning such a large ship. Rumor currently had it there'd been a little altercation with Grumpy Ninja in the galley. Flynn had mentally translated that to misunderstanding, and he was getting well and truly sick of misunderstandings.

Maybe he ought to try for a little more understanding himself? It could only help. Hopefully. And that was how he found himself in the starboard rec room, pulling the Alliance's diplomatic handbook from the Bolt's database. After all, he was at heart a mechanic.

When all else failed, he read the manual.

Balto was given a mere three pages in Volume 4, which was the last volume to actually deal with Alliance planets. Based on that, he was expecting to read about some fringe backwater. But that wasn't at all what he got.

Shinor, known in English as Balto, is a Class D member planet in good standing. Its civilization is highly advanced and highly isolationist; while always polite and receptive to their allies, the Shinori prefer most of all to be left alone.

"Well," he murmured. "There's a shock."

What's a shock, that they like being left alone or that they're supposed to be polite and receptive?

Moving on…

The Shinori are a small humanoid race primarily known for agility and intellect. They are telepathic (intraspecies, Type 3) and value logic, loyalty, and pragmatism above all. Military service is compulsory, resulting in a populace well trained in a mix of technologically-enhanced martial arts (colloquially termed 'techno-ninjutsu'). In popular imagination, to the extent Balto is popularly known, all Shinori are thus thought to be 'ninja scientists'.

Grumpy Ninja Scientist? Doesn't ring quite right. He returned to the beginning of that paragraph for a moment; the mention of telepathy had jumped out at him. Could that be part of Pidge's problem? Might the silence be getting to him? Flynn tried to imagine suddenly losing the utility of such a thing. Would it just be like learning a new language, or something deeper, like losing one of your senses? But it didn't quite fall together. Wouldn't the silence, the increased isolation, cause someone to reach out rather than withdraw?

Even research was only reinforcing that he really didn't know anything. Which… was distressingly similar to their primary mission. He was getting well and truly sick of that, too.

The rest of the article was fascinating reading, though he doubted the history of the Baltan caste system was going to help him figure Pidge out. Nor was learning that his people had replaced the core of their planet with a massive fusion reactor, though it certainly made him want to visit. But finally at the very end, something that might just be pertinent…

Given the strict conformity of their society, Shinori are notably poor at assimilating to other cultures and rarely leave their own planet. Those who do may not fully reflect the expected conformity. Baltan diplomats and explorers are well trained for outside interaction, and emigrants are typically either exiles or social outcasts.

Exiles or outcasts? He closed his eyes, another word briefly drawn to the front of his mind. Heretics… it seemed like he should be able to work with that, somehow. But Pidge didn't seem receptive to friendliness. Maybe he'd think on it…

Someone knocked lightly on the doorframe. Glancing up, he barely bit back a groan; the other half of the rumored altercation was standing there. Somehow he was certain it wasn't a coincidence. "Starr?"

"Sir." The comms officer saluted respectfully, though his voice held exactly none of that confidence. "I um, I… kinda wanted to talk to you… if you have a minute?"

"I have time." Flynn flipped off his datapad and pushed it aside, waving him in. "What's going on?" Don't say it. Please don't say it.

"It's about Stoker, sir."

Damn it. Well, at least he'd get the details on this misunderstanding, he supposed. "What did he do now?"

"It… it's not even really that big of a deal, maybe?" Cam shifted uncomfortably. Bringing this to a superior officer had seemed like the correct play until he'd started actually trying to explain it. "But… he eats a lot of peanut butter, and well… I was about to make a sandwich, and the jar I'd opened that morning was gone, and it always seems to disappear that fast, and um, I was just wondering…" Oh, this really sounded stupid. "…isthereanywaytogethimtojustopenhisownthingofpeanutbutter?"

Flynn stared at him silently. That was… not nearly as bad as he'd expected it to be. No, maybe that was far worse than he'd expected it to be, for given values of 'worse'. That's all this is about? Really? "Have you tried asking him?" he asked slowly. The urge to say he doesn't bite came and went; he couldn't really promise that.

"I did." Cam shrugged weakly. "He said it wasn't his job. I wasn't mad or anything, I just tried to, you know, convince him to try a little common courtesy, and next thing I knew he had a knife?"

"…And there's the part I was hoping you wouldn't get to." Of course he'd pulled a knife over something this pointless. Maybe he'd been trying to give it a point.

"I never even saw him pull it, I mean, we were in the galley but…"

"He's a ninja." Flynn sighed, exasperated. "Okay, let me see if I'm understanding this correctly. You want me to intervene with my knife-happy subordinate to convince him to… open his own jar of peanut butter. Even though you have plenty of peanut butter, you just don't want to keep opening new jars."

Cam winced. Somehow the chief engineer had made it seem even worse than it had been already. "When you put it that way, it sounds…" He trailed off, hanging his head. This was not a good way to endear himself.

Flynn let the silence hang for just a beat. "Completely ridiculous? Yes. But that's what we do best." He smirked slightly. What was he going to say about it, really? He'd gone on a personal crusade to change their ship's name to something more mythologically accurate. At least this didn't involve paperwork. "I'll talk to him."

That was not what Cam had been expecting, to put it mildly. "You… will?"

"I will. Kid's got to learn manners sooner or later." That, at the least, he was certain of. Though that being said… "You have to do something for me, though."

At that point Cam would have done just about anything, purely out of gratitude for not being laughed out of the room. "Yes sir."

"He's got to learn manners… but it's not your job to teach him." Not really mine either, but that is what it is. "He doesn't react well, as you've seen, and I don't need other people getting on him and making my job harder. Just leave him alone from now on."

And that was possibly the easiest order he'd ever been given; he would be just fine staying as far from the ninja as possible. "Yes, sir. I didn't want to cause any trouble with him. Honestly. I tried my best to keep it respectful, I really did—"

"—I believe you." Flynn eyed him. The kid was eager to be a good soldier, that was for sure. "He just sees things differently. This is for both of your benefits. I don't particularly want you getting stabbed, either."

Once again, Cam wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment. "Doc said that too. After he came in and broke it up because he's the only one authorized to stab people."

Flynn couldn't help the laugh. "Of course he did."

Though he was feeling much better about things now, Cam paused another moment before retreating to the door. "Stoker won't be in too much trouble, will he, sir? I'm really not upset, just… puzzled. I don't want him to get in trouble, but I know if anyone knows what to do here it's you…"

It was all Flynn could do not to laugh again. Wish I had that kind of confidence. "He won't be in trouble. I'll just talk to him about manners, alright?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you for your time." With another salute, the comms officer scurried away.

Flynn looked after him, then looked back at his datapad and exhaled slowly. What he'd just agreed to was sinking in, and it suddenly seemed just as ridiculous as arguments about peanut butter. "Teach the ninja about manners, I said. Faex, what have I gotten into…"

Flicking the screen back on, he decided to reread the Baltan diplomatic notes. He was going to need all the help he could get.

*****

Alfor was disappointed to be returning to the Castle shelter with nothing much to show in improving the situation of his people. Despite acquiring more weapons, food, and some medicines, his hopes that he would be able to awaken the Lions were feeling half dashed. But he wasn't admitting defeat. Once he settled some matters with his advisors and Allura, he could focus on his notes once more. There were other curious items that he needed to look over.

While his arrival to the shelter was met with quiet celebration, he could clearly see the worry in everyone's faces. Still, he did feel better knowing that those in the shelter were safe. The cavern by the southern tunnel was being used by his advisors as a hub for gathering information; he hoped to speak with them briefly there before resting.

Brief it certainly was, as there was little change in conditions on the surface. A few cities showing resistance to the occupiers had been leveled, their people gathered and taken except for a few who'd gotten deep enough into the tunnels. Resources were getting tight. The one bright spot was that a few more tunnels were being opened, and some passages to the top remained secure, allowing fresh resources to be brought down. After the exchange of information, he decided to withdraw for the moment so he could take in what he learned… and most importantly, to spend some time with Allura.

He found her talking with Coran, poring over lists of supplies and debating ways to replenish some of the more valuable items. Marveling over the maturity she was showing, part of his heart hurt over the fact that she was now having to deal with matters of war. "All the more reason why I must succeed," he whispered to himself as he made his way to them.

If the people had ever had any issue with Allura's impulse to give big hugs to her family, none gave any sign of complaint as she gave her father the biggest hug she had ever given at the first sight of him. "It is good to see you as well, my dear," Alfor said softly to her, then turned to the old knight. "And Coran, it pleases me greatly to see you among us, old friend." Still hugging his daughter, he extended a hand to his advisor with a smile.

"I am pleased as well, to be able to continue being in your service. We were just—"

"—I hope it can wait," Alfor interrupted gently, giving Coran's hand a firm squeeze. "It has been so long and, if you'll forgive me, I would like to indulge in some personal time with just my closest friends and family. I need to take stock of some of my most prized treasures."

Coran smiled and leaned into his best friend's grasp. "Of course. Let's head to your personal chamber, then we can rest for a time there."

Allura resumed her royal manners as she lead her father through a maze of narrow pathways, to the small chamber even most of the refugees knew nothing of. Having a place of the utmost secrecy for the Crown had seemed a necessity when the shelter was built. Early in the journey, Coran helped brush off various other advisors coming to inquire about the progress of matters; soon they had left all of that behind in the labyrinth.

As soon as they reached the private chamber, Alfor collapsed onto the bed.

"Father!" Allura cried out, dropping to his side.

"I'm sorry, Allura." He smiled weakly. "I'm just tired, and worried about so many things. I've not heard anything yet about your brother. The shelter at Falastol is like a maze… I fear he may be in the parts that have not yet been opened up to the bulk of the network."

"Then he is safe," Coran said encouragingly, offering a small glass of wine. Only a small one—such luxuries were dwindling by the day—but surely this moment called for it. "I'm sure his governess will make sure not a hair will be out of place when you are reunited with him."

Nodding in thanks while accepting the glass, Alfor sighed heavily. "Doesn't change the fact that I would rather know that he is well, and able to move about."

"I wish both he and Nanny were here," Allura confessed.

"It might be the best that you two are separated… to increase the odds that our house doesn't fall completely." Alfor grimaced as he spoke. It was the truth, and they had to be realistic, but it ached to be speaking with such pessimism. "I know this battle is hard on you, and very much so for your brother. I promise you, we will get through this. But for now… tell me, how have you been holding up?"

"It's been trying for me. The people are restless, and Larmina… learned that her mother was killed recently." Allura looked down at her feet. "I do try to offer what comfort I can… but I don't think I'm doing the best at it."

Coran nodded. "But she hasn't run completely off, so I wouldn't think you could be asked for anything more."

That was probably true, and Allura didn't really want to spend this precious time with her father feeling sorry for herself. Besides, they had more intriguing news to offer. "Oh… Coran has shared a few of the tales of Lions that he found before… everything happened. There is one we found quite unusual. Perhaps you might have seen something that could explain its strange nature?"

"Oh?" Looking towards Coran, the king raised a curious eyebrow.

"Yes, it's true. Let me read it to you and we can discuss the thoughts we had about it, if you don't mind."

Alfor nodded, settling in to listen. It was the oddest tale, as it turned out… and the debate over it gave him just the distraction from battle that he needed. Distraction, and more than that, hope. Maybe… maybe it could be useful to his search… and bring them one step closer to rising from these tunnels once more.

*****

"A'kuri?"

The voice seemed like it was coming from very far away. Romelle fought to grasp it. She knew the voice, she knew the word, but it felt like she was trying to think through a thick fog.

"A'kuri, are you alright?"

Where was she? It was warm, and not uncomfortable, though she was sore in several places. How had she gotten here? For that matter, why wasn't this confusion worrying her more? She felt far away, but not unsafe. Perhaps they were related…

A hand touched her cheek, and she blinked. Prince Lotor… Reality slowly broke over her, though there was still only a strange haze where she'd been. Had they had sex? They must have. Had she agreed to it? She didn't even remember coming into his room… no, there it was. She'd been reading, he'd come to talk to her, she'd followed him here, and…

Nothing?

Maybe she could force the issue. Maybe she could clear the fog. But did she really want to, even if she could? No. No she did not. So she exhaled slowly and looked up into the prince's golden eyes, flailing for an excuse. "I… I'm sorry, Prince Lotor. I was just a bit… overwhelmed by… enjoyment." She wondered if her smile looked as painful as it felt.

He smiled too, and his seemed quite sincere. "Were you? You didn't seem nearly so nervous tonight, either. Progress, don't you agree?"

Progress? Was it progress if she didn't remember? It seemed more unhealthy. Maybe she should say something. No, she definitely should not say something. He seemed pleased, and she didn't remember anything. A win-win situation, those were called, weren't they? "I think so, Your Highness."

He frowned slightly at that, and she tensed. Had she said something wrong? But then, "Why don't we dispense with this 'Your Highness' silliness? You are becoming stronger every day, and you will soon be an honored princess of Korrinoth. I think you've more than earned the right to use a more intimate name."

Romelle's eyes widened slightly. Oh… it was strange, really. She'd hardly even thought twice about using his title. Maybe it was a bit improper for a consort, but there was no question about who held the power here. Nor was there any question of the correct response, now that it had come up. "I… would be honored," she murmured. "Is there some… proper counterpart to a'kuri? Or something else?"

"Sincline." He ran his fingers through her hair. "The title of honor for a royal suitor is sincline."

"Sincline," she repeated slowly, nodding. "Thank you… sincline. I hope to continue to make progress."

"I'm certain you will, a'kuri." Still smiling, he leaned over and kissed her forehead.

Romelle closed her eyes, trying to keep herself steady. Whatever had happened, she knew it couldn't truly be a good thing. And yet as always, Lotor seemed to find it worthy. What would come next?

No… no. She couldn't think about that. She just had to endure it. This was her place, as an honored princess of Korrinoth.

Honor…

Sinking back into Lotor, feeling his lips move to hers, she felt the fog moving in again. She didn't fight it.

Chapter Text

Khoru was a small, mostly desert planet, inhabited by spindly humanoids called the Khorun Rhekolae. It had only been part of the Alliance for a little over twenty years. When the 686 arrived, the most visible sign of the Alliance's presence was a temporary spaceport set up in the sand near the northern pole. Helpfully—or not—the ping frequency Tana had given them to locate this Bokar was leading them right to it.

Landing clearance came from a very bored-sounding controller who didn't even ask who they were, and soon the Bolt was parked on a slab of dusty tarmac looking out over sand, sand, and more sand. The only sign of whatever this spaceport had been built for was a high fence cordoning off, well, even more sand in the distance.

This should be interesting.

Flynn was waiting at the airlock, with Pidge, who was looking slightly more surly than usual. They had discussed manners; it had gone remarkably smoothly, which made Flynn suspect the point hadn't gotten across. He was trying not to worry too much about it right now, but he had insisted the ninja come along for this just so he could keep an eye on him.

Keith showed up soon, with Lance and Daniel in tow. Lance grinned and shot the chief engineer a wink. "Fancy seeing you here."

"Strange coincidence, right?"

"So odd."

Rolling his eyes, Keith stepped in and activated the airlock; the Khorun atmosphere was breathable, but the heat was best left outside the ship. "Enough." Behind him, Daniel mimicked the order, drawing a short snicker from Lance. "Let's get down to business. Everyone ready to meet this Bokar?"

Nobody was really there because they were interested in meeting Bokar. Getting off the ship was the important part. "Sure, at least it's not a library."

"Yeah, ready to breathe some real air."

"Very ready. It's a desert."

As the outer hatch slid open, Keith and Lance slid on sunglasses. Pidge pulled his camo suit's hood up, flinching a little despite his own glasses filtering the brightness. And Daniel groaned as a hot wind immediately greeted them with a scattering of sand. "Sand sucks."

Lance eyed him. "Bring Hunk a pail of it and you'll have all the food you want."

Did Hunk really need to be bribed for that? "I'll keep that in mind."

Conversation trailed off quickly. It was scorching hot, though at least it was a dry heat… but not even Daniel really wanted to waste precious breath on talking. For a few minutes they simply followed the strengthening ping from Keith's datapad, leaving the relative shelter of the spaceport for a field of towering dunes.

Once or twice, they briefly lost the signal. Whether that was the dunes, the atmosphere, or their target not certain he wanted to be found, was impossible to say. The third time Lance couldn't take it anymore. "I hope that thing is right, cause we're wandering in a desert here."

"It'll be right," Keith answered shortly, sounding more confident than he felt. "This way."

"I'd feel better if Sven was the one with the map," Daniel not-exactly-whispered, earning him a slight glare but nothing more. It was too hot to really argue.

Finally, circling around a particularly large dune, they came upon a battered ship painted in haphazard blotches of primer and sealant; it was long and narrow, with stubby wings that carried large turbines on their tips. It looked aerodynamically questionable, so Flynn was immediately interested. "I've never seen a ship like that."

"Well… now you have?" Keith offered. His second shot him an annoyed look. Pidge glanced up briefly, wondering why he seemed so annoyed; it was a perfectly valid statement.

There was a large tent set up nearby, and they'd just barely turned towards it when the ship's boarding ramp extended.

The man standing there was pale and wiry, with flawless features and long blue-white hair that shimmered in the desert sun. He was… not what Keith had been expecting, to put it mildly. It didn't look like they were what he'd been expecting, either, if his pause before heading down the ramp was any hint.

Lance's eyes narrowed slightly as the stranger approached. Something about him seemed… off in a way he couldn't quite place, and instantly it was making him uneasy. Next to him, Daniel was having no such concerns, looking the man up and down with appreciation. He's pretty. Flynn and Pidge glanced at each other, and Flynn shrugged; he hadn't had any expectations to begin with. Except that it wouldn't be what they expected.

Keith took another step forward as the man reached the bottom of the ramp. "Hello."

"Hello." He bowed slightly. "And who might I have the honor of speaking with?"

"My name is Keith…" Maybe he wasn't ready to give his full name here, not until they figured out who and what they were dealing with. "This is part of my crew. We're looking for an individual named Bokar?"

The man crossed his arms, immediately looking more interested… and much more suspicious. Daniel also looked more interested. In his arms. "What business do you have with him?"

"Tana referred us to him, from the Great Library of the Ages. We're tracking a criminal, and we were told that this Bokar might have information that could help us."

"Were you now." The man's dark eyes narrowed slightly. "Dear Tana, always sending along the most interesting things… you're on the trail of a criminal, you say? Do tell me more."

Immediately Daniel pulled out his poster and walked up, eager to get a closer look at the stranger. He is hot. "We're looking for this guy."

The man accepted it and studied the picture carefully, then gave a long, slow exhale and handed it back… along with a smile that nearly sent the gunner reeling. "Ah, I see. Well, I haven't seen him. But I am Bokar."

Lance's gaze sharpened. Was that relief? Not liking this. He glanced around at the others to see what they made of the guy. They seemed noncommittal, except… is Daniel drooling? He liked that even less.

Relaxing a little, Keith withdrew the paper Tana had given them. "We have a letter of introduction…"

Bokar accepted the letter, looked it over, then pocketed it and nodded. "It seems in order, but you'll understand if I show some caution. Interstellar archaeology is a lucrative field, and the Alceites have been trying to learn of my other benefactors for years. How do I know you aren't just another of their ploys?"

"You think we're spies?" Lance asked, glaring.

"You think we'd tell you that's who sent us if we were?" Flynn added.

Keith raised an eyebrow. The Alceites they'd met had not seemed like the type to use such underhanded tactics, but then, he supposed building such an impressive library must occasionally call for some shady business. "We've no interest in your… benefactors. We're only looking for our criminal."

"One cannot be too cautious." Bokar gave a low chuckle. "But come now—let's speak in my cooling tent, out of the sun."

"That would be welcome."

As the group followed him to the tent, Lance found himself unconsciously angling to stay between him and Daniel. He couldn't say why, exactly, it just all still seemed off. In response Daniel kept angling to keep his eyes on the very pretty man in front of them. He'd have followed this guy anywhere at this point—out of the sand was just an added bonus.

Stepping into the tent, the blazing sun was replaced by a cool semidarkness and the soft hum of a conditioning unit. Pidge immediately pushed his hood down, trying not to look too relieved. It wasn't very convincing. Flynn eyed him and wondered if they also needed to have a talk about wearing black to the desert.

Bokar gestured them all to the simple stools scattered around the tent, and took a seat himself. "Now, shall we begin? Tana's letter spoke of your quest for Altea. You understand, I hope, that you're searching for one of the holy grails of my profession."

Keith nodded, glancing around the tent before taking a seat. "Yes, or rather, our criminal is. We've gathered it's quite the prize."

"Indeed. Even if I had information, I wouldn't share it lightly… and as it happens, I do not."

"You sure about that?" Lance challenged. He wasn't sitting, mostly because Daniel had taken the seat nearest Bokar and was watching him with unusually rapt attention.

If Bokar was bothered by the hostility, he brushed it off easily. "If I did have it, I wouldn't hesitate to tell you… and to extract a good price for it. However…"

Lance scoffed. "I believe that."

This wasn't helping; Keith shot their pilot a glare before leaning forward. "However?"

"You've come to me in the grips of a most… unfortunate predicament of my own." Bokar shook his head slightly. "Perhaps we can help each other. I lack information for your search. But what I can offer you is an introduction to a vast… network. A web of hunters and rumors that may be of far more use to you than I."

Standing back by the tent's opening, Flynn arched an eyebrow. Well that sounds both incredibly shady and incredibly useful. He could understand Lance's skepticism, though maybe not why Lance was the person it was coming from; shady and interesting seemed right up his runway.

The shadiness wasn't lost on Keith either, but they needed to get what they could out of this lead. He hadn't hesitated to duel a giant lizard kangaroo, he wasn't about to back off now. "What sort of predicament?"

Bokar gestured out in what was more or less the direction of all the Alliance activity. "There is an extremely valuable dig site here. I had the rights to unearth it, until the local authorities realized just what I'd stumbled upon. They moved in and seized the site, then called in the Alliance to help secure the area. They complained of looters." He gave a low, derisive hiss. "They are the looters."

…Oh. Well then. Even if they were to admit to being Alliance soldiers, Keith wasn't sure what they'd be able to do about something like that. But he kept his expression even. "And how are you thinking we might help you with this?"

The archaeologist smiled faintly. "I know when to cut my losses and run. But I have a valuable cache still hidden deep within the site, and my research assistant is with it… the guards are being quite uncooperative about letting me back into the dig."

"Valuable artifacts and your research assistant, got it," Flynn murmured under his breath; Lance snorted. Priorities.

"If you can help me retrieve them, I can take you to my primary benefactor and arrange an introduction."

"I'm all for helping people!" Daniel said immediately, and Lance shot him a withering look. He returned it as innocently as he could muster. What did I do?

Lance shook his head, then turned the look on Bokar. "Who is this benefactor, exactly?"

For a moment Bokar glared right back, then it shifted into a wry smirk. "Of course, you have no more reason to trust me than I have to trust you. Very well. My benefactor's name is Glethaun of the Sixth River. With a bit of research, you'll find his name is well known in certain quarters… and that without an introduction from one of his trusted agents, his name will be worthless to you."

"Of course it would be." Lance matched his smirk. How convenient. This dude had no idea who he was dealing with, they should just take the name and get out of here. But when he looked at the boss, he looked like he was taking that story way too seriously.

"I see." Keith nodded slowly. He didn't like this, though for wholly different reasons… he wasn't sure how much leverage they really had here, but he decided to test it. "We're hunting this criminal for the Alliance, you understand. So you're asking us to help you work against our employer to gain an introduction to your employer. That's the gist of it?"

Bokar considered that for a moment, then shrugged and shook his head. "Yes, but no. The Alliance has been duped by a corrupt local government. You'd be doing them a favor if you aided me, really… a certain amount of justice would be done."

Lance made a face. There was no way they were actually going to buy that argument, was there?

"…Okay. I think we may be able to help you with that, then."

Fucking…

"I could sneak in and grab your things," Pidge offered, "but probably not your research assistant."

"You'd need me to show you the way, anyway. The cache is well-hidden… the site is constantly shifting, and the markers I left are specifically designed so only I can follow them." Frown. "As I said, this profession can be very lucrative, and we must protect our finds."

Lance was swearing profusely under his breath, and Flynn elbowed him slightly. "Relax, flyboy," he muttered quietly. "We'll get what we need from him and go."

"He just wants to use us," Lance muttered back, "we can't trust him to give us anything!"

"He can use me any time he wants," Daniel whispered, overhearing.

"…We're talking later, kid."

"…But I didn't even do anything!"

Flynn had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing—both at Daniel's excessive admiration, and the thought of Lance of all people trying to teach him about caution, be it about flirting or really much of anything else. Though thinking about Lance and flirting only frustrated him, so he shook it off. "We have the name, that's something."

"Which is why we should just cut our losses here!"

While his team muttered behind him, Keith had been considering a plan. Coming up with underhanded plots wasn't really his forte, to put it mildly. But on an Alliance planet, with Alliance military guarding the site, one obvious option was springing to mind. "Alright. I think we may have a way past the Alliance personnel."

Flynn had been about to try to calm Lance down a bit more; he didn't particularly trust Bokar either, but they'd dealt with worse. Much worse. Whatever he'd about to say completely vanished as he heard their commander's words. "Wait, what? You're not going to make us drag you into this kicking and screaming?"

"Fucking fuck!" Lance threw his hands up in disgust. Daniel, though, was grinning. He really felt like Keith not being a pain in the ass should be encouraged. Meanwhile Pidge had completely lost the thread of what was going on around here, and had his hand on his knife just on principle.

Keith sighed slowly. It grated. But they had a mission, and their mission had to come first. Standing, he turned to face Flynn and nodded. "We have to catch our target. You know that. So we do what we have to do."

"That wasn't a complaint. What exactly is your plan?"

"Other than stupid," Lance grumbled.

Keith ignored him, a slow smirk creeping over his face. "Remember those uniforms we… found?"

"Uniforms." Bokar looked at them with new interest. "Alliance uniforms?"

"Yep!" Daniel grinned.

"We're bounty hunters. Have to be prepared for anything."

He's learning how to lie! Flynn gave Keith an approving look, then turned his attention to Bokar. "We've surely got something that would fit you and your assistant. We could walk right in and out."

"My assistant, ah, won't need a uniform. You'll understand when you meet her." Bokar stood, a devious smirk on his own face. "But I like the sound of your plan."

That smirk wasn't doing anything to improve Lance's mood. Walk right into a trap… "I want it on record that I think this is fucking stupid."

"Noted." Keith crossed his arms. "But let's get moving. The sooner we help our friend here, the sooner we're on our way to finding our fugitive."

That didn't do anything to improve their pilot's mood either. Nor did it calm the death glare he was shooting the other man. "We can't trust that guy."

"Chill, Lance," Daniel definitely didn't whine. Don't make the hot guy mad!

Flynn nudged him playfully. "Flyboy who fears no asteroid field is scared of a shady archaeologist?"

"Scared of him?" Lance scoffed. "No, he's just pulling a fast one, I don't trust him." The hair on the back of his neck was prickling, and it had nothing to do with the temperature in the tent. "It's off, he's off."

Pidge pulled his knife, flipping it casually between his hands. Social interaction may not have been his strong point, but he was pretty sure he could offer some reassurance. "I'll stab him if it becomes necessary, sir."

That got him a mildly exasperated look from Flynn, and a more than mildly wary look from Keith. "It's an option if we need it," their commander finally said as calmly as possible. No sense ruling it out at this point. "Let's go."

"Yes, because stabbing makes shady situations better," Lance muttered, trudging after the boss.

Bokar came up next to him and gave a charming smile. "I find it often does, actually."

There were many things Daniel wanted to say right then. Mostly regarding his very strong opinions on circumstances in which he'd let Bokar stab him—none of which involved a knife. He was pretty sure Keith would get annoying again if he said any of them out loud, though… and one look at the blistering glare on Lance's face erased any lingering temptation. He'd just have to think about them. All the way back to the ship.

Stepping out of the tent, the team headed for the Bolt.

*****

"It's a trap, it's a fucking trap! I'll bet you anything! The dude was shady as fuck, they all know he's shady! But nooooo…" Lance was storming around the general quarters, pacing and weaving between the bunks in some unfathomable pattern, waving his arms wildly. "Keith, Keith is all yeah, we'll sneak you in. KEITH! It was like he was working some shady mojo."

Leaning back on his own bed, Hunk was watching the display with something close to awe. "They all know he's shady, bro! You just said it! That means they're ready to deal with the shade, yeah?"

"No! No, no they aren't! It's more than just shady, it's…" He shook his head in frustration, running a hand along his neck as the hair there bristled. "It's off, it's wrong!"

"Dude, how much crazy crap have we gotten through so far?"

Fair enough, Lance supposed, but usually the crazy happened when they were out of options. "Why go through it if we can fucking avoid it? It's a trap of some kind, something bad is gonna happen. And we've already got the name! Might be harder without Shady McShady's intro but we can pull it off." That seemed like a much better use of their talent for crazy.

Hunk eyed him. "You mean Shady McShadyface."

Glare. "Yes, my snarknaming is the point to focus on." Shaking his head, he calmed down a little, exhaling for what felt like the first time in quite awhile. "I just… I've got a bad, bad, bad feeling."

"Sorry bro." Hunk shrugged sheepishly. "I'm just tryin' to figure out what kinda alternate universe I've gotten dumped into here, what with Keith sayin' sneak the dude in and you not wantin' to take risks…"

Lance stopped pacing, laughing, though the laughter didn't last long. "That, that right there. I don't want to take the risk!"

"Yeah, I got that. It's weird."

That got him another glare. "It's not gonna be good, and none of them are taking it seriously. It's fucking bad." He knew he'd said that a lot of times already too, but he couldn't completely explain it. It was just a visceral unease, churning in his guts, and he always trusted his gut—at least as much with creepy archaeologists as with snarky kids. "I don't like it."

Not even Big Dumb Hunk at his worst could have missed that he didn't like it. It didn't seem worth pointing out. "Well, there's one plus at least, yeah? You're not goin', so when they get in trouble you can go save their butts."

"They're gonna need butt saving."

"We usually do." Grin. "We're pretty good at it."

Lance tried to grin back, but the worry was making it hard. The knock on the door to their quarters ended the attempt. "Oh, let's get this farce on the road." Yanking open the door, he turned his best glare on everyone involved.

'Everyone involved' proved to be Keith, Sven, and Jace: apparently that was who they'd deemed most capable of looking and acting like respectable soldiers. Bokar was there too, of course, taking the brunt of the glare as they stepped in.

"Did you guys get the stuff out of the nonexistent smuggler's hold?" Jace asked immediately. "Or are we gonna get to see where it is?"

Like hell they were going to sacrifice the mystique of the smuggler's hold for this guy. Lance didn't actually say that, or anything else; he was busy glaring. But Hunk gestured to a pile of uniforms on an empty bunk. "Have at it, dudes."

"Thank you, Hunk." Keith smiled, heading over to the stack. As the others trailed in behind him, Hunk gave the man who had to be Bokar a curious once-over. He didn't seem any more off than anything else they'd run into on this crazy train. Looking over at Lance again, he noticed the pilot wasn't glaring at Bokar anymore.

He was, however, glaring at someone. "Why the fuck are you here?"

Daniel had been trying to hide behind Keith and Sven; he plastered on his biggest smile as Lance noticed him. "Emotional support?" With all his might he struggled not to look over at the uniforms; there had to be some way to get to his without Lance losing what was left of his shit.

It wasn't a very convincing act, and it didn't work for a second. "Oh hell no!" He grabbed the kid's shirt and yanked him back. "You. Stay. Put."

"What—ack!—the hell?" Daniel yelped, trying to shake the hold.

"Keith, tell the kid he's not going."

"You're not going, Brennan." Keith didn't even look up.

"Why not? I'm actually offering to be helpful. This should be encouraged."

"I said no," Lance grumbled, cursing under his breath. "None of them should be going." He couldn't do anything about the others, but he could at least keep the kid out of whatever the hell was about to go wrong.

"You're being weird again," Daniel grumbled back. This wasn't near as nice as Lance's other weird.

"He's just frightened," Bokar said pleasantly, shooting Lance a glare while nobody was looking. He quickly replaced it with a smile. "Nothing to be ashamed of, we can't all be heroes."

Right about then the hatch burst open again, admitting a sprinting Cam. "Sorry I'm late!" He rushed over to grab a uniform, mentally kicking himself. Way to prove you're the right choice to play responsible soldier. It wasn't his fault; the heat was doing weird things to the radar. It hadn't stopped squawking since the others came back.

Jace was looking their new 'friend' over carefully. "Toss him one of yours, Viking, probably the best bet." Sven did not in fact toss a uniform to Bokar, but he did politely hand him one. The other man nodded gratefully as he accepted it.

Cam's interruption had not really done much to break the tension in the room. Lance was gripping Daniel's shoulders to make sure he couldn't get away; no way was he letting the kid near Shady McShady if he could help it. After accepting the uniform from Sven, Bokar turned and shot him a slight sneer; he narrowed his eyes in response. "I'll kill you if any one of them gets even one scratch."

"I'm sure you will."

"It's a date." Lance got a very unpleasant smirk, his fingers digging harder into Daniel's shoulders.

"Ow!"

"We'll be fine, Lance." Keith had finally found one of his uniforms in the stack. "Ease up on Brennan."

"Yeah! Ease up on Brennan!"

"Oops, sorry." The pilot loosened his grip, a little, still watching Bokar like a hawk.

Even if they hadn't had a job to do, getting this mess broken up seemed like a priority. Keith looked around at the others, checking to be sure everyone had their uniforms, and nodded. "Let's go get changed." They filed out of the general quarters, Bokar tossing one last smirk over his shoulder as they left.

The second the hatch shut Daniel pulled himself free and sulked. "But he was so hot!" This time he most certainly was whining.

Lance stared at him, looked over at Hunk, looked back at him, and shook his head in disgust. "And I'm the weird one!?"

"Relax, little dude, not like you're missin' much. It's a desert, everyone's gonna be hot." Personally Hunk thought the guy looked a little too perfect to be attractive, not that he was really any judge of male attractiveness. Or female. Or really anything but grills and crush cars, for that matter.

The kid didn't seem to appreciate his reassurance, in any case. "Not that kind of hot." He looked back at Lance and pouted. "I can't even enjoy the fact that fanboy was late to something!" It was so unfair. He gets to go out with the hot guy and I don't!

"You'll be safe," Lance countered. "All that matters."

"Awwwwwwww!" Hunk clasped his hands together and grinned at them.

"Shut up."

Daniel's own usual reflex to mock the idea of safety didn't kick in. He was oddly okay with Lance being overprotective… he was not, however, okay with being okay with it. And now he was just confused.

Hearing the airlock activate, Lance breathed a sigh of relief. At least Bokar was off his ship. Though he was out there with four of his crewmates, so the relief was minimal. Turning, he eyed where his rifle was racked up against one wall, then headed over. May as well be ready when things went bad.

For once, he would've liked to be wrong about something. But he was certain he wouldn't be.

*****

The scientific term for what Keith was feeling, he was pretty sure, was 'deja vu all over again'. Once more he was forging through a desert, with the Viking and their medic, after making a questionable decision in the name of their mission. This time they just had a comms officer and an archaeologist tagging along behind them.

Hopefully this would go more smoothly than the Kithran expedition had. "We're coming up on the checkpoint. You all ready?"

"Yes sir."

"Totally."

"Ready."

Up close the fence was a reasonably effective construction: some ten feet high, with barbed wire and regularly-spaced warnings of high voltage. The locals were serious about keeping this place secured. The Alliance troops they'd called in, on the other hand…

Sergeant Kel Alisko had been stuck in this hell desert in full uniform for going on twelve hours. Oh sure, the checkpoint had air conditioning, but that was only so much help when you were stuck in a glorified tollbooth with the sun pouring in. He watched the approaching squad and counted his meager blessings; at least he wasn't out there wading around in the sand.

It didn't mean he actually felt like checking ID. Five other uniformed soldiers were as far from suspicious as it got, even if they did have Explorer Team patches. This mission was low priority, it got all types. "Patrol duty?"

"Yes, we've been sent to reinforce the site."

What the site didn't need was reinforcements, other than maybe a few more people for checkpoint duty. Alisko waved them in tiredly; wasn't their fault. "Sucks to be you. Happy melting." That got a snort from the one with the medical kit.

"Thank you." Keith nodded to the guard and led the others into the site, suppressing a low sigh of relief. He'd been ready to show his own tags and hope they wouldn't ask for the whole group, but he was just as happy not to have to put his name to this at all.

Once they were in, the endless stretches of sand started to resolve themselves a bit more. Several large excavation pits bustling with Khorun workers had been dug into the desert, with ropes and flashing electronic tags designating various subsectors. Other stretches of the site remained pristine. This operation would be going for a long time yet.

"This way." Bokar was watching the sand carefully, occasionally switching direction, though their path seemed to always be more or less leading to a valley between two towering dunes. As they reached it he started pacing in circles, hissing in concentration.

It all just looked like sand to Keith, but after a few moments their strange companion nodded and seemed to simply walk into the larger of the dunes. He blinked, glancing back at the others; there was a tunnel. With all the sand blurring together in the bright sun, he never would've seen it without stumbling right into it. "Nice trick."

The tunnel widened a little ways in, reinforced with what looked like some sort of structural canvas and lit by the occasional dim lantern. They were clearly going downhill, though it wasn't steep. Soon it brought them to a dead end, and Bokar started to pace again. A moment later, a wall of sand fell away to their left, revealing what looked very much like a gaping canine mouth with long, vicious fangs.

Jace jumped back. "Oh fuck no!"

"I agree." Sven hadn't jumped, but he'd definitely tensed.

"Great, another damn cave in a desert…" Making a face, Keith started checking around them for any other worrisome signs.

"Cave?" Jace repeated."Cave?"

"It's… only a doorway?" Bokar was looking at them all with a great deal of confusion. "This site is an ancient city. They had some… unusual decor."

Their medic wasn't buying it. "You're absolutely fucking positive this place isn't some giant-ass dead monster?"

Bokar stared at him blankly, then turned to Keith. "Is he… alright?"

That was a loaded question. "No. We had a bad experience before."

Cam stepped forward hesitantly, wondering if this was another thing like the legendary murder vines. "Sir, I can go first, if you need me to."

"No, Starr. It's alright." Keith looked at the other two, who hadn't exactly relaxed, but at least seemed to be wound a little less tight. "Just a city, right?"

"Just a city, I assure you." Bokar hissed softly. "The only danger here are the looters."

Following him through the doorway, they found themselves in a large chamber covered in colorful mosaics. It seemed otherwise empty. Another door on the far side brought them to a tunnel with a cobbled stone floor to it; it seemed they might be walking on the city streets. Every so often they would pass through another building, all of which seemed to be empty, though their walls were surprisingly well preserved.

The work was impressive, really. "How long did this take you to dig? All by yourself?"

"My assistant did most of the digging. She has a knack for it." Bokar paused briefly at a fork in the tunnel, then took the left branch. "Proper excavation is intensive… and expensive. We were attempting to map the site out through tunneling before hiring a full crew, we were a few months into the work when the Khorun moved in."

"And when was that?" Jace frowned slightly. "Or at least, how long has this assistant of yours been stuck down here?" He'd packed a light kit with the proper supplies for dehydration and exposure, but there was only so much he'd be able to do.

"Awhile… a few weeks. She did have supplies, but I fear they'll be running out any day now."

Keith's eyes narrowed. Whatever else may be ill-advised about this operation, they couldn't just let someone die down here. "Then let's hurry up and get her out." With answering nods, the others picked up the pace.

A few minutes later, entering another half-intact building brought them out into blazing sunlight.

"What the…?"

Bokar hissed something that was almost certainly profanity. "I didn't realize the main excavation had gotten this far. I hope you can talk our way through this…" A grouchy-looking guard with a plasma rifle was already moving in on them.

"Hey! What are you lot doing there, this area is off limits!"

Fantastic. Keith turned to face him and took a deep breath; maybe he should've made McClain come along, he was the expert on talking their way out of things. Then again, he'd also have been bitching this entire time. He'd just have to do his best. "We're surveying the site, exploring some tunnels we found. We have a mission."

"Ah." The guard lowered his gun. "You're here to check out the disappearances?"

Well if the guard was going to give him a story, he was damn sure going to take it. "Yes, we are."

"Disappearances?" Bokar repeated at the same time, worry clear in his voice. Keith winced.

The guard looked between them for a moment, then shrugged. "Don't blame you, man, I don't like listening to briefings either. Been a problem for a couple weeks now. Workers going missing, bones turning up later, fun stuff. It's cutting into the work here something awful."

Bones turn up later? Sven winced too. "Wonderful."

"All right." Keith fought down a sigh of relief. "How about you clear everyone out of here until we finish? To be safe."

"You got it," the guard glanced at his rank patch, "Commander. Good luck." He turned away and started yelling for the other guards to get moving, and Bokar led them back through another doorway.

Cam glanced over his shoulder, swallowing nervously. "Sir, if something is hunting the workers, it might try to hunt us too…"

"Yes, Starr. I know that."

"Won't be the first time." Sven shrugged. "We'll be fine."

"Won't be the first time?" Cam was not reassured in the least. "Um, Lieutenant, what are you talking about?"

"Terinian wildlife. It was handled."

"Kid, you are fucking adorable."

"Calm, Starr." Keith looked at Bokar, who seemed to have gone even more pale since hearing about the disappearances. "Let's go. Hopefully your assistant is okay."

"Yes, I… hope so," the other man agreed, gathering himself. Jace pushed him forward, more or less encouragingly.

"Move it, we'll find her."

Watching the others troop down the tunnel, Cam couldn't help the slow smile spreading over his lips. They're fucking badasses… I made a good choice! Still grinning, he rushed to catch up.

A few more twists through the tunnels brought them into a large, haphazard chamber being held up with rough wooden supports as well as the canvas. The ground was a delicate mosaic of the same canine creature they'd seen in the doorways; it looked like it might once have been a town square. A ramp led up to a large stone door with a crumbling hole in a bottom corner. Bokar stopped, nodding to the door. "In here."

Keith took one of the lights stuck to the walls and shone it into the hole, hoping to get a sense of whether they were about to be walking in on a dead body or not. What he got instead was a pair of glowing red eyes lunging for him.

"Kuso!" He stumbled and fell back, nearly bowling over Cam. Sven and Jace both jumped away as well, drawing their weapons, though neither moved to use them. Lunging at the snake to try to stab it seemed like a bad idea; shooting in this fairly precarious chamber seemed even worse. As they tensed, the enormous hooded serpent that had struck at Keith slithered free of the hole and reared up, hissing furiously, preparing another strike—

"—Senac! That's no way at all to greet our friends."

Immediately the snake froze, turning to face Bokar, then hissed softly and backed away.

Jace slowly lowered his gun. "…Really?"

"Bokar…" Keith stared at him as everything came together. "You really could have told us that your research assistant was a cobra."

"A Denorin burrowing cobra, to be exact." The snake slithered up one of the supports and draped herself over his shoulders. "She's extremely efficient, as you've seen."

"Really?" Jace repeated, shaking his head.

Cam moved up around Keith and looked up at him with concern. "Are you alright, sir?"

"Fine. Just shaken."

Bokar reached up and patted the cobra's head; she gave a hiss that wasn't wholly unlike a purr. "Have you been eating the workers, Senac? I know they're stealing from us, but that does seem disproportionate."

This time the entire team stared at him in disbelief, dead silence stretching for a few incredibly uncomfortable seconds. "She's been eating…" Keith closed his eyes. "I didn't want to know that."

"I was afraid she'd have to resort to it," Bokar agreed grimly, sighing. "Very unhealthy for her. Anyway, shall we gather my things? The sooner we get out of here, the sooner I can give you your… introduction."

Jace caught Sven's eye; the Viking looked just as incredulous as he felt. We're a fucking Explorer Team. We're a fucking Explorer Team. We're a fucking Explorer Team… The mantra wasn't helping a whole lot, and when Sven turned to give Keith a questioning look he followed.

"…Yeah." Keith let Cam help him up and dusted himself off, shaking his head slightly. What else were they going to do? They were in a labyrinth of tunnels under the desert, it wasn't the place to make an issue of things. We do what we have to do. He looked at Senac. "To get her out past the guards, it might be best if she… pretends to be dead? We can say we successfully found the threat."

He'd been a little worried about how the giant cobra might take that, but she seemed calm. Bokar chuckled. "She's quite adept at such stealth, Commander. Don't worry." He moved up the ramp and pushed the door open, revealing a grand foyer that still looked pretty impressive despite being buried in the sand for who knew how long. There were a few boxes and several satchels lying about… and some bones. Not a lot of bones, but more than enough.

Grimacing, Keith found an empty box and started gingerly placing the bones inside. "We should take them the remains."

"That would be a kind thing," Bokar agreed, moving straight to a smaller satchel that appeared to be full of tiny wriggling snakelings. Nobody was about to say a word about that; nobody really wanted to know if Senac also happened to be a proud mother.

None of the packages were particularly large or heavy, which did seem sensible for a one-person, one-cobra operation. They packed up quickly; Sven spoke for all of them as he waited by the door. "Let's get out of here."

"Yes, let's." Bokar gave a smile that Sven for one didn't particularly like, though he wasn't going to say so. That would be rude. "Thank you all for this." As they headed out, Senac went almost completely limp over his shoulders. She really did look very dead.

And scary. Still definitely scary.

Coming up on the breach in the tunnel, they found two guards waiting for them. That seemed like exactly the opposite of clearing the place out. The one they'd spoken to before eyed them suspiciously. "So what exactly are you people doing here? The Director says she didn't send anyone to look into the disappearances."

Keith went still. "…Well we found the creature," he tried finally, "and some more remains from further down in the tunnels." He offered the box of bones with his most businesslike expression.

The other guard gave a slight glare, flipping her pistol in her hand. "Let's see the rest of those 'remains'."

Sven and Jace exchanged glances; the boss was not that good at lying. He really wasn't good at lying at all. Even Cam was silently unclipping his holster, he could drop a pretty good pistol-whip if necessary…

Bokar tried to intervene, giving his most ingratiating smile. "You really don't want to see them, they're quite brutal, you know. Better if we just get them to the proper authorities."

"Yeah, just let us handle this. You don't really wanna fuck with it, do you?" Jace threw a friendly arm over the first guard's shoulders… and casually stabbed him with the syringe of sedative he'd palmed. He went down like a sack of bricks. "Whoopsie."

The second guard startled, bringing her pistol up. "Hey, what do you think you're—" Turning to Jace meant she'd turned her back on Sven, who quickly stepped up with a sleeper hold. She collapsed next to her squadmate.

Keith blinked, staring at them and reminding himself not to piss them off too badly. Ever. Jace looked about as stunned, looking at the empty syringe in his hand as if wondering how it had gotten there, then turning to look at the fallen guards. "…Well that was a couple of fucking bad ideas worthy of giant donut dumbass himself."

Wasn't that the truth. "Let's get out of here before more show up."

"At least we didn't put them in the boxes," Sven pointed out.

"True, true." As Jace recovered what he'd been carrying, the female guard started to twitch. "…Book it, bitches!" He broke into a sprint, the others right on his heels as they vanished back into the tunnels.

"What about putting them in boxes?" Cam demanded.

"You don't wanna know!"

"Don't ask! Just run!"

Though they'd passed through several branches on their way in, there was really only one way out of the tunnel network; the various forks had all been burrowed in one clear direction. Within a few minutes they burst out onto the surface, the blinding flash of the sun disorienting them all for a few moments; as they recovered, distant yells started to sound in the distance. More guards.

"Oh for fuck's sake." Jace did not have enough sedative for this. "Anyone else got any bad ideas?"

"Just go!" Bokar reached into his bag, grabbing a handful of the little snakelings and starting to run forward. The guards approaching them weren't shooting yet, at least. In fact they mostly looked to be trying to body block the group, and that was fine with him. As their paths were just about to cross, he threw the snakelings to the ground.

Suddenly there were a dozen giant cobras, identical to Senac, lunging for the guards.

"What the…?" Keith had a lot more he wanted to say there, but none of it seemed like a good idea. Instead he lowered his head and ran faster. Here we go again…

"What the hell are those?!" Cam yelped.

"You don't want to know!" Bokar yelled back, earning a remarkably sullen look. "Just run!"

Sven had momentarily frozen in shock. Only momentarily. He'd already recovered and started moving again when Jace grabbed his collar and yanked. "Do what the creepy motherfucker says, Viking!"

Shaking the medic off his collar—that had been totally unnecessary—Sven did as the creepy archaeologist said, and ran.

*****

It took another handful of snakes to get them past the checkpoint, and the spaceport might as well have been miles away under these conditions—never mind that the spaceport might also be on the lookout for them. The group found a cluster of large rocks and staggered into the shade they cast, all panting heavily. It was too hot for this. At least the heat would also work against their pursuers…

"Have we lost them?"

"Don't see 'em. Fuck…"

"Catch your breath. Probably haven't shaken them for long." Keith rubbed his side, gritting his teeth; he hadn't been officially recovered from Takrekul for all that long. Cam looked at him with concern, but he waved it off. They had bigger problems.

Bokar was gasping for air as much as any of them, but froze up as Senac suddenly thrashed and hissed in pain. "They're killing the decoys," he snarled, hissing himself as the snake twitched again. "Bastards."

For a moment Jace considered pointing out his snake had been eating the workers, but it didn't really seem like the brightest move. Glancing around he could tell he wasn't the only one having the thought.

"What do we do now?" Sven gasped out, still doubled over. It was much too hot for any of this nonsense.

"We have to get back to the ship." Keith looked around the cluster of rocks they were in, moving over to a boulder that masked a small crevice. It looked like a good hiding place… "We'd be faster without these boxes."

Bokar eyed the group, and Senac gave another pained hiss. They could hear shouting in the distance again—it sounded like their pursuers had gotten through the snakes at the checkpoint. Nodding slowly, he slipped the boxes he was carrying into the crevice. "Let's stash them. I can recover them once things are calmed down a bit…" A sly smirk crossed his face. "And I'll be faster without you."

Before anyone could react, he punched Cam in the face, dropped another handful of snakes, and took off towards his own ship.

"Ow! Chto za khren, dude?" Cam hit the sand, rolling to recover, and looked up to find a rearing snake in his face. "Der'mo…" It lunged and he just barely dodged, but a second later Sven drew his knife and slashed the cobra in two. Rather than slumping, it disintegrated; by the time its body hit the ground, it was reduced to a scattering of dust on the sand. Scrambling to his feet, Cam stared at the dust for a second—it was all the time he dared take. "Thanks, Lieutenant."

"You're welcome." He spun around and slashed at another snake, barely missing and getting his sleeve ripped open by gleaming fangs for his trouble.

Jace, meanwhile, was chasing after Bokar himself. "Oh fuck no you don't." He tried to tackle the backstabber, only to have Senac slither off his shoulders and strike at him. The medic retreated, trying to kick her—it connected, but she was a snake, it didn't do much but annoy her—or at least she seemed pretty annoyed when she reared up and hissed at him. "Yeah, fuck you too." He grabbed her by the… throat?… and made an attempt to toss her aside, which didn't work overly well either, but it gave him enough separation to get back to following the main target.

Running right on Jace's heels, Keith drew up short as Bokar threw down another handful of snakes. How many of these things does he have? Didn't matter. One thing was more than clear enough; he hit his comms. "We need backup! Heading for his ship!"

Cam and Sven caught up, shooting and slashing at as many snakes as they could, and they kept right on running.

*****

"We need backup! Heading for his ship!"

Flynn was in the engine bay with Pidge as the comms crackled. For a moment he just stared at the speaker, then took a long, steadying breath. "Fuck, flyboy's going to be insufferable."

"Yessir," Pidge agreed, nodding. "Is that different from usual?"

"I FUCKING SAID IT!" Lance's roar over the open comms silenced that discussion.

"Yep. You said it." Daniel had been watching their pilot pacing furiously around the bridge for the last hour. I'm never gonna hear the end of this. We're never gonna hear the end of this.

After another moment of exasperation, Flynn remembered he was currently in charge of the ship. Right. Time for that backup, then. "Guns now, yelling later. That means you, Lance." He took off from the bay, heading for his quarters to get his rifle. "Group at the rear starboard airlock and let's go see what they've gotten themselves into…" He didn't transmit the last part, but couldn't help saying it. "…this time."

Lance already had his rifle, and was halfway off the bridge before he reconsidered and turned. For a moment he just stared at Daniel. Then his eyes flickered to the helm, then the guns, then back to Daniel. It might just work. Oh, it would totally work. "…No. I have a fucking better idea."

That was met with what felt like an excessively long silence. Finally Hunk was brave enough to answer. "We're gonna do an Explorer Team, aren't we?"

"Fuck yeah we are!"

Despite the circumstances, Daniel couldn't help but smirk. He knew what that meant. This is gonna be awesome.

*****

Much like… several other things they'd had to do on this bullshit assignment, Academy training had not covered the proper manner of combat with dozens of giant cobras. Knife fighting was less than effective; Sven had more than a few bites and scrapes from his attempts. Sidearms weren't a whole lot better. Jace was doing his damndest to pick the darting targets off, and Cam was backing him effectively, but all they were really accomplishing was keeping back the tide. Barely.

Keith was wrestling with one that had gotten through. That was yet another combat discipline not intended for snake combat; finally he managed to get his sidearm free and shoot it in the face. It disintegrated.

"Kufot…" Sven slashed another snake, not managing to kill it but at least driving it back. They just seemed to keep coming.

Ahead of them, Bokar was aware of exactly how many decoys he could unleash, and it wasn't nearly as unlimited a supply as it felt like to his pursuers. He just needed to hold them off long enough to get to his ship, then he'd make these fools very, very sorry… drawing his own sidearm, he turned and took a few warning shots. He intentionally aimed wide, not wanting to hit his decoys, but maybe it would make them think twice.

Without hesitation, the commander hit the ground and opened fire in return, and his shots came quite a bit closer. Bokar winced, realizing the problem a second too late—if it devolved into a gunfight, they had nothing stopping them from shooting to kill. Didn't think that all the way through. To be fair, in all his long and often dangerous career he'd never quite been in this situation.

Spinning around, he increased his pace. His ship's weapons would solve the issue nicely.

Sven looked at the scorch marks Bokar's shots had left in front of him and made a face. He was deciding right this moment that he didn't like snakes; now he was also reminded that he still didn't like guns.

Cam helped Keith up, both of them firing on another snake as it tried to lunge at them. "Thanks, Starr." He hit his comms with a scowl. "Kleid, where the fuck is our backup!?"

"Working on it."

Working on it? "Work a little faster, will you?"

"Oh sure, now the boss drops the fucks," Jace grumbled, grabbing a snake by the tail and attempting to swing it at another one. That didn't work particularly well either. Mostly it just pissed the snake off, and he dropped it and darted to the side just in time to avoid a pair of fangs to the face.

Bokar's ship was coming into view now, the sun glinting off some exposed metal. He paused a moment, then threw down the rest of his reagent bag—he was so close, no sense saving any resources now. He'd have plenty of time to replenish once this little unpleasantness was dealt with.

A literal wall of snakes rose up from the sand, writhing and hissing.

"Sukin syn…" Cam jumped back, eyes wide. "They multiply like moonrabbits, don't they?"

Keith looked at him blankly. "Isn't there just the one?" He'd heard the tale of the moon rabbit pounding mochi—not so much the tale of the moon rabbit having a population boom—as a snake came at him, he decided this was definitely not the time to worry about it.

Just as well, because a few moments later, a faint roar became audible over the hissing of the snakes. A very familiar roar, getting closer, and quickly.

"…Is that what I think it is, sir?"

It couldn't be much of anything else. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Of fucking course they did."

"Of course!"

As the four of them turned, the Jupiter's Bolt appeared over the horizon, just barely skimming above the ground with its gear. "Yeah, the cavalry is coming…" Keith shook his head slowly, unsure whether to be relieved or just… well… "…and we're gonna hear it…"

The Bolt touched down in a spray of sand, rolling forward at a rapid clip, and Lance stuck his head out of the front airlock to see what was going on. His yell easily overpowered the engines. "ARE THOSE FUCKING SNAKES?!"

Pidge was on monitoring duty, and frowned slightly as the yell came over the comms. "They do seem to have been reproducing quickly at some point, sir, but it doesn't seem to be what they're doing at the moment." Next to him, Flynn opened his mouth to say something and immediately thought better of it. Much better.

Maybe mercifully, Lance wasn't really listening. "I. FUCKING. CALLED IT!" Cocking his rifle, he took aim and let loose. Even Jace forgot to swear as the ship came bearing down on them, raining lead over the snakes like some kind of crazy-ass avenging angel.

"About time!" Cam grinned. "Slowpokes!"

"Slow?" At the helm, Daniel jerked the ship forward slightly; he was certain he'd been pushing this thing as hard as it could handle. "Did he just call me slow?!"

"Daniel, I need the ship fucking steady!" Gritting his teeth, Lance re-aimed and started unleashing a second round of shots.

"Sorry! Blame Cam." He hit the brakes, in any case. Ramming the other ship would probably mean he didn't get to fly again any time soon.

Though the Bolt's entrance had been very impressive, it hadn't actually stopped Bokar from approaching his ship. The boarding ramp extended as he drew near, and he looked back at the mess of snakes he'd left behind. "Senac! We're leaving!" His familiar immediately detached from the swarm of her clones, slithering through the sand as quickly as such a large snake had any right to move.

The motion of the boarding ramp caught Keith's eye; he growled and took aim, but one of the decoys threw him off. "His engines!"

"Got it!" Lance narrowed his eyes, taking aim at one of the ship's huge wing turbines; his shot rang harmlessly off the metal, nearly grazing Bokar as he ducked away. Taking another equally ineffective shot, he noticed the one giant snake on Shady McShady's heels. That seemed like it might be important. Giving up on the engines, he dropped his aim over the snake and fired.

The bullet didn't hit cleanly, tearing through one of the snake's flanks. It jerked back, blood spurting over the sand. Lance took two more quick shots, and these hit true: one through the hood, one through the head. With a long, ragged hiss, the snake slumped over and went still.

As one, the rest of the snakes shriveled up and disintegrated as though they'd been shot themselves, leaving a pile of dust that swiftly began dispersing in the wind.

"What the…"

"…Holy fuck."

Bokar had reached his boarding ramp, and spun around as he heard Senac's last gasp. "…You're going to regret that!" With a look of absolute hatred, he darted forward, retrieving the snake's body, then raced up the ramp and slammed the airlock closed.

Lance rang another shot off the hull, but it was too late. "Fuck, need more firepower for the ship…"

Back in the engineering bay, Flynn was still technically in charge of the Bolt. Flyboy was kind of running this show. Not that he'd have required much convincing to use something more than small arms fire against a spacecraft. "Brennan, do it!"

"On it!" Daniel jumped up from the helm and ran back to his usual station, bringing up the missiles. The sensors didn't really want to get a heat lock here—fine, it was a stationary target. Hitting the guidance override, he took aim and fired.

The escort group was still staring at the remnants of the snakes in disbelief. "What the hell just happened?" Cam finally managed.

"No idea," Jace muttered, "but Lance is gonna have our asses for it…" He turned back to the ship just in time to see two of the Bolt's missile launchers blossom with fire. "Porra!" He dove to the ground beside Sven, as Keith shoved Cam to the sand and covered his head.

Both missiles slammed into Bokar's ship, one punching through the hull, the other hitting something inside… and the explosion was nearly enough to knock Lance off his perch. "Fuck yeah."

"Direct hit, fuel cell rupture," Pidge reported somewhat unnecessarily. Then he hesitated. "I think? It looked like a fuel cell, anyway." He'd never seen a ship like this before today either. Vince shot him a look from the other side of the bay and just shook his head slightly. It was another interesting day.

Daniel grinned as the strange ship burned. "Awesome."

Standing slowly, Keith helped Cam off the ground and sighed. "You alright?"

"I think so, you?"

"Yeah."

Sven took his time getting up; he really didn't feel like it. He'd have happily taken a nap right here in the too-hot sand, after all this… though on the other hand, maybe what he needed was a shower. Yes, definitely a shower. Beside him, Jace started trudging for the rear boarding ramp—the one Lance wasn't at. He knew they'd be hearing plenty about this, but he wasn't ready just yet. It seemed like a good idea; Sven and Cam both followed him.

"You're welcome, Jace!" Lance yelled over at him as he vanished into the airlock.

Keith took the ramp to where Lance was; may as well get it over with. Though Flynn spoke up over the comms first. "So here the fuck is your backup, Kogane. Want to tell us what the fuck we were backing you up against?"

"I'd be happy to, Kleid… as soon as we figure it out." All he was completely certain about was that there had been snakes, and…

"I TOLD YOU!" Lance yelled as soon as he was within earshot.

No point arguing that. "I know. Good shooting."

"Good? It was fucking amazing."

Definitely no point arguing that. "Who was flying?"

"Daniel." Lance finally let himself smile. "He did good."

Nobody had ordered Pidge to stop minding the sensors, so he was still silently watching the ship burn. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary… until abruptly something did. "Sir, some kind of biological signature spike from the wreckage."

Flynn whirled on him, rushing over to look at the screen. "What."

"Biological…?" Keith slowly turned back to Bokar's ship… just in time to see several fiery chunks of wreckage go flying. A very large, scaly green hand emerged from the flames, then another.

With a furious hiss, a snake person that had to be twenty feet tall came climbing out of the wreck, brandishing the leading edge of one of the ship's wings like a scythe. "Bassstardssss… that sssstingssss!"

"Holy fucking WHAT?"

"Holy shit!"

"Oh, fuck." Keith blinked; that was the second time he'd used that word today. Must have been something about snakes. "Get inside!"

Lance had opened fire—swearing the entire time—but it didn't seem to be having any effect. Whether because he was at the edge of his effective range or simply because the giant snake needed more firepower, he didn't know and probably didn't care. Emptying out his current magazine for good measure, he got his ass back inside.

"Completely. Fucking. Insufferable," Flynn muttered under his breath, sighing. Then he steeled himself. Kogane hadn't actually retaken command yet, and he was currently running around in a hallway, so… "Battle stations!"

Slamming the airlock door behind him, Jace started trudging for his battle station. "Fuck today."

"Brennan, somebody, shoot that damn thing!" Keith ordered as he ran for the bridge. "Kleid, I have command!"

"Thank you!"

"Don't think our missiles will lock on that thing," Hunk warned. "Any luck, little gunner dude?"

"No. Too small, no radar lock…" Daniel switched from the mass and signal scanners to infrared, though he already knew what he would get there. "And way too hot." That definitely hadn't just been directed at the targeting system.

"Next time you guys are going to fucking listen to me," Lance snarled, skidding onto the bridge. "What now?"

While the team argued, the snake man was moving… though he wasn't moving in on them. He may have been a twenty foot tall cobra monster, but the Bolt was a four hundred foot long spaceship. Bokar was many things, but he wasn't stupid. Glaring at them one more time, he ran for the city.

"Follow him," Keith ordered, eyes narrowing. "Get us off the ground, we'll drop the missiles on his head if we have to."

"We uh, probably ain't gonna be getting off the ground without goin' back to find a solid surface, boss."

"Kogane, he's heading for the dig site. No way we can fire on him in there with anything without collateral, and we don't have any way of knowing where the workers will take cover."

"Kuso…" It was a good point, but they couldn't just leave the snake monster alone. They were responsible for this mess. "Ideas?"

Vince hesitated. He really didn't want to contradict his superior officer, but he knew the disruptor cannon wouldn't cause splash damage. Trying to target with it would be iffy, admittedly… but it was an option… no, it wasn't a good option. He stayed silent.

Next to him in the bay, Hunk was also hesitating. But hesitating for long wasn't Hunk's style. "Uh… well, this thing can't take off from sand, but it can roll on it. And I've got a rocket launcher, and a bunch of us have got rifles, and we've got a hatch up top…"

Lance's eyes lit up. "Brilliant."

"…We're going to do another Explorer Team, aren't we?" Grinning slightly, Flynn slung his own rifle over his shoulder. "Kid wrenchlings, you have the bay. Don't break anything." He ran for the nearest elevator, Hunk on his heels.

Watching them go, Vince came to a decision. "You got this, Pidge?"

The ninja blinked. "Where are you going?"

"To take the gunnery console while Daniel's flying. Just in case." He tried for a smile that came out more like a grimace. "I did those test fires fine, right?"

Pidge stared for a moment, then shrugged. "Go for it." He could monitor the bay fine by himself.

With a quick nod, Vince ran for the bridge, just as the Bolt's engines began to roar.

*****

Bokar was, to put it mildly, displeased. He'd lost his ship, he'd lost his precious familiar, and he'd probably lost the use of this alias… damn it, he'd been fairly attached to this identity. Well, fine. He would just have to abandon subtlety, get off this miserable rock, and start again. Wouldn't be the first time…

Near the center of the dig site, he'd managed to find the Alliance's command post. Most of the soldiers stationed there were elsewhere, probably chasing him and the intrepid but none-too-bright bounty hunters somewhere they weren't. The ones that were left were raining fire on him; the plasma bounced harmlessly from his scales. The actual bullets were less harmless, stinging as they impacted, though more annoying than dangerous.

In return he took a swing with his makeshift scythe, knocking a couple of them over and leaving deep gashes in a couple more who didn't dodge fast enough. "I'll make thissss sssimple," he hissed. "You're going to get me a ship, and clearancccce to leave here. Or I'm going to make you very, very sssorry."

"Like hell we will!" The one he was pretty certain was the site commander took aim and bounced a plasma bolt right off his nose.

Well that was insulting. "Fine! We'll play thissss your way." He took another swing with the scythe, sending the cluster of guards scattering, and started moving in on one that had gotten himself cornered. Perhaps a hostage would clarify things for them.

A dull roar echoed somewhere in the distance. A roar he'd heard already today, not too long ago. He knew what it was, but surely he couldn't be right, because nobody could actually be that insane. Not even…

The bounty hunters' ship came howling over the horizon. Again. Its tires were kicking up huge plumes of sand, and there were large chunks of wire dangling from its wingtips; the fence hadn't stood a chance.

Poking his head out of the top hatch, Keith braced himself and sighted on the snake monster with his rifle. "This is such a bad idea."

"Our fucking specialty." Jace was crouched beside the disruptor cannon, holding one of the docking clamps with one hand and his duty rifle with the other. Marksmanship wasn't his specialty, per se, but it sure as fuck beat his battle station.

Lance was moving up the hull, finding a partially sheltered spot at the edge of the hyperspace thruster cowling. "This is the best idea." Dropping flat to the hull, he opened fire; opposite him, Flynn took a similar position and did the same.

A little behind Jace, Hunk was sighting with his rocket launcher. "Never BBQed snake before," he said casually. "Heard it tastes like chicken." As the medic snickered, he yanked the trigger.

Bokar had frozen in disbelief as bullets started pinging off his back. Yes, they actually were that insane. "You can't be ssseriousssss…" Turning to face the incoming ship, he promptly took a rocket to the face.

"Fuck yeah! That oughta do it!"

"The BBQ is on!"

The celebrations were cut short as the snake man swatted a few flames away, stumbling back from the impact, but otherwise just giving them an exasperated look. "Honesssstly…"

"The fuck? He's fire resistant?"

"You know," Flynn muttered, "we probably should've guessed that when we blew up his ship and he just walked out." Shaking his head, he took a couple more shots that glanced off the monster's hood.

"How are we supposed to kill this thing?"

"Apparently not with fire!"

Keith hissed as his next few shots had no more impact than anything else. "We need to find a weak spot!"

"Great idea," Lance snorted, "got a suggestion?"

"Where's a snake's brain?"

Jace shot their commander a look before returning his attention to his target. "In their head, where's yours?" Keith made a mental note to smack him once the opportunity presented itself, though in all honesty he'd probably deserved that…

"It's the fucking scales," Lance growled. As Bokar looked up at them, meeting his glare with a snakey smirk, he felt his focus sharpening. "Eye sockets lead to the brain, right?"

"Usually?"

"Worth a shot."

"A literal one."

That it sure as hell was. Staring into his scope, Lance breathed out slowly and squeezed off a shot… which missed, grazing the snake man's cheek. "Fuck!"

"Fine." Bokar was still staring at Lance as the Bolt rolled to a halt in front of him. "We can play. I'm going to enjoy thissss." He took a running leap and sprang onto the ship's nose, slashing with his scythe and leaving a respectable dent.

Flynn gave a hiss that could've given the snake man some decent competition. "Get the fuck off my hull plating, lizard." Setting his rifle aside in favor of his sidearm, he took a shot that actually made Bokar flinch… slightly.

Pidge was still monitoring from the bay. "It's not a lizard, sir."

"Not the time, Pidge! It's a snake, it has legs, it's a fucking lizard!" He took another shot, only to have the gun jam up. For something called a Desert Eagle, it really didn't like when actual sand got into its workings. "Faex."

The yelling had gotten Bokar's attention; Lance growled in frustration. He was trying to get another shot, but it wasn't going to work out with him facing the wrong fucking direction. Scowling, he opted for the direct approach. "HEY! Asshole!"

"Oh, hell's bells, Lance…" Keith shook his head and reloaded.

Bokar took another slash at the hull, this one leaving a gash in the armor, then turned and glowered. Crouching on the Bolt's nose, he took another leap… landing directly in front of Lance, forked tongue flicking merely inches from his face as he glared. "Yesssssssss?"

Smirking as the others scrambled to intervene, Lance pulled one of his pistols and dropped his sights straight over the snake's eye. "I told you so, too."

He fired.

This time he didn't miss.

With a shriek, Bokar staggered backwards, dropping the makeshift scythe and tripping over it as he clutched his bleeding eye. As he flailed to recover, he staggered right in front of the disruptor cannon.

Oh, yikes! Vince had been listening to the comms and hoping things weren't as bad as they sounded when suddenly scales filled his targeting monitor. Before he even realized it, he'd fired—was it his imagination, or had he seen a spark that actually hadn't set the console on fire?

Probably his imagination, considering the blinding light filling the monitor in the next instant. Bokar was flung bodily off the hull, sailing through the air, lightning arcing over his scales and turning them from bright green to an odd, dull brown.

After all they'd seen so far, Lance wasn't about to count on the bastard being dead this time either. Grabbing his rifle, he sighted again, squeezing off one more shot at the apex of Bokar's arc that ripped through the monster's other eye… and the rest of him. As the group on the hull watched in stunned silence, he fell out of the air, bounced off the Bolt's nose, and hit the ground hard.

"That was seriously badass," Hunk whispered.

Keith's immediate thought was Jace, who'd been right next to the disruptor cannon when it fired. "Doc, are you okay?"

"Que fucking porra!"

Snort. "Yep, he's okay."

Scrambling forward, nearly slipping on snake blood, Lance peered over the edge of the ship to see if he was actually staying down this time. What he saw was a motionless snake monster curled in a shallow pit of sand. Falling back, he exhaled, feeling it turn into a ragged laugh of triumph. "I hated that guy."

Flynn came up next to him, having a look at the scene. "We noticed."

"I was right."

"We've heard."

"Did you see that shot?"

"Sure did." Smirk. "Whoever's on the cannon nailed him."

Lance rolled his eyes, but returned the smirk, accepting Flynn's hand to stand back up. "Sure, they did good too."

"Shut her down, Brennan." Keith dropped back through the hatch, motioning for the others to follow. "Let's go make absolutely certain this snake is dead."

As the group disembarked, Daniel paused at the top of the boarding ramp and looked sadly at the snake monster's remains. "Is it wrong that I think he was still hot as a snake?"

Lance and Pidge both eyed him, one notably more disgusted than the other. "Kid, we need to have a conversation about your taste."

"Given the ambient temperature, it seems accurate." Both Daniel and Lance rolled their eyes at that; they'd heard that joke already today. Though the ninja probably wasn't joking.

"Dude." Cam shook his head slowly. 'You've got some strange definition of hot."

Lance was admiring his handiwork; that had been extremely satisfying. He could see and hear the guards approaching, but he really didn't care. They'd bagged a snake, nobody could complain all that much.

Hopping off the ramp, Jace walked up to Bokar and kicked him; the scales didn't seem very solid anymore. Flynn eyed him. "Is that a medical test?"

"Is now." Beside him, Sven snorted. It seemed valid enough.

Hunk shook his head slowly. "Dude… what even was that?"

"That is a Najari," a sharp voice snapped from behind them. The guards had arrived, with the site commander at their head. "Infamous as looters and smugglers."

Several of the team blinked. "Wait, giant snake-summoning snake-people are a known thing around here?"

"Around archaeological and historical sites, yes. They're known for their skills with quantum camouflage and decoys… and this was a very old and powerful one, based on the size." Of course, she wasn't preparing to thank them for ending the threat. "Why exactly did you bring it here?"

"Yeah guys," Lance grumbled, "why did you do that?"

Keith sighed, looking at the Director and saluting weakly. "We're on a mission of the utmost importance to the Alliance. We needed him to—" Flynn elbowed him. Hard. In the same side he'd had injured on Takrekul; he gasped slightly. "Gods dammit, Kleid…"

His second gave him a brief apologetic look before turning his attention back to the Director. "What he means is, we were here undercover trying to find your looter."

"Yeah," Jace agreed, giving Flynn a slight kick in the calf. Just to make it clear he'd noticed the elbow. "You know, the one that's been eating your workers."

"Nobody told you because they thought it might be an inside job. Looks like it wasn't. You're welcome."

"He ate people?" Lance muttered to Sven, who grimaced and shook his head. It wasn't worth explaining. "I fucking knew it!"

The site commander seemed to have been rendered speechless by their sheer audacity, which certainly wasn't the worst response they could have gotten. Finally Hunk decided someone ought to break the awkward silence, and looked up at the mess Bokar had made of the Bolt's nose. "So uh, you guys got a proper repair pad around here we can use?"

She stared at him for a very long moment. "…Yes. You can use our port facilities. As long as you promise to stay in your berth and not help us ever again."

A few of them couldn't quite suppress the snickers at that; even Keith had to cover it with a cough. "Yes ma'am." He gestured to the rest of the team. "Load up, let's get back to port."

"And on the way," Lance added, "I'm going to spend at least fifteen minutes expounding on the meaning of the words I TOLD YOU SO."

Sigh. "Of course you are."

*****

Tanner sat listening to the sound of the caves… every sound possible. From the drips of moisture from one side of the dark, to the mumbles of some of the elders sleeping on the other side. With the prince in this shelter and no word on his father or sister, his guards had been extra vigilant. Supposedly there was an expansion tunnel that led to other areas, but Tanner never moved even between caves unless someone had doubled checked it first.

He could understand it, despite being frustrated beyond measure. The shelter felt like a prison. He wanted to stretch his legs, move about, have some light… be useful. But it seemed like his guards, Captain Sherion especially, were second guessing themselves at times. If anything happened to him on their watch, it could be disastrous. So, no risks.

Perhaps it was their numbers. There were only so many of them available to look after him, and… Tanner shifted on his makeshift bed. There were many civilians with them that were in need of help. So many scared at times. This was as foreign to them as it was to him, and the tunnels and caves were strange. He could sense things moving about sometimes… it could have been people, it could have been creatures, it could have been ghosts. It creeped him out at times. But he would remind himself of his place and his duty. He would be strong, and he would see his family again.

For now… it was best to wait and listen. Making himself a burden would help nothing.

A sudden growl startled him, until he realized it was his stomach. He pulled a small bag to himself, retrieving a morsel from the last time he ate. It was some kind of processed ration, kind of bland, but it was filling. Being the prince didn't, and shouldn't, mean he had anything special under these circumstances.

He frowned at the bite he took, though. There was a kind of earthy aftertaste to it. Very slight, but enough to notice. Grabbing a small glow light to inspect his food, he didn’t see any odd growth or molds on it. There wasn’t even an off smell. He took another, smaller bite to see if he was just imagining it. Yes… there it was.

Letting it sit in his mouth for a bit, he finally shrugged. Maybe some dirt had been kicked into his bag and that was the reason. Didn’t change the fact that he was still a bit hungry and needed to eat.

He had to keep his strength up, to be ready when he finally returned to his family. That was the most important part.

Chapter Text

As promised, the team had been permitted to use Khoru's port facilities the repair the Bolt. They had not been permitted to use anything else, touch anything else, or leave their berth for anything but arranging the initial delivery of new hull plating. That meant no use of their subspace relay to report to Hawkins, who was probably going to get what Hunk had termed a 'nastygram' for their little adventure. It also meant no connecting to the Alliance's full intelligence database—they were limited to what the ship carried. Which was none too shabby, but didn't have the depth they might have preferred.

Pidge was sitting at the conference table with his datapad linked to the ship, trying to ignore the fact that everyone was staring at him. He didn't like being the center of attention at all. At least the research itself was keeping him focused… he was typing quickly, scanning through information as it came up, trying to get a solid overall picture before reporting his findings. It was all pretty much leaning one way.

"He did say the name wouldn't be any use to us without an introduction." Flynn was sitting on the table, watching him type, trying to catch any glimpse of the information—though it wasn't doing him any good, it was all in Baltan.

"Yeah, he even warned us we'd get nothing," Lance muttered from where he was leaning against the wall. "Snake."

"No doubt." The ninja frowned slightly. "But maybe he was a bit overconfident about how many people named 'Glethaun of the Sixth River' exist in the galaxy."

"Oh, he was over-con-fident," their pilot snorted, earning a glare from Jace.

"You've been insufferable enough about this without the fucking puns."

"I saved your asses."

Keith sighed. "We got it, McClain."

"Good. Hopefully next time I say don't trust a guy, I actually get listened to!"

"We will do our best to heed your warning next time," Sven promised before Jace could say anything else; Lance grinned.

"Heed? Good word, Viking."

Rolling his eyes and drumming his fingers on the table, Keith decided it was about time to get back to business. "So, Stoker. What do we have on this… Glethaun?"

"Drule, likely Seventh Kingdom origin." Glethaun was not at all an uncommon name among the Drules, it turned out. The Sixth River, though, was the sort of title one only claimed out of arrogance; it was a mythological reference to a paradise of extraordinary wealth. He'd basically named himself Glethaun the Filthy Rich. "Known to Alliance intel as a major underworld player rimward of the Fourth Kingdom Incursion Zone. Smuggling, drug running, blackmail, protection schemes. Possible assassinations, but that's never been definitively proven."

Several eyebrows around the table had risen progressively higher as Pidge went down the list. "So… all around bad guy, got it."

"What a lovely resume for the employer of Shady Snake Voldemort." As usual, only Hunk snickered at Lance's reference. "What a shock."

Pidge was still reading. "His opsec is tight. Intel believes his operation is based on a planet called Dradin, right on the edge of No Man's Land." He scrolled down a bit more. "He runs an organization called the Zengara Syndicate. Alias Boss Dread."

"Boss Dread," Keith repeated. "Doesn't sound very… welcoming."

"Kind of gives the game right away, doesn't he?" Flynn agreed.

Lance tilted his head. "Cool name…"

"Okay, now you sound like Lance again," Hunk snickered, earning a grin in return.

"…But do we really wanna contact the guy that guy told us about?"

Jace and Sven both eyed him. "You got any better ideas?"

"It's the most promising lead we have right now."

If he were being honest, Keith thought Lance was right. He also knew better than to actually say Lance was right; they were already never going to hear the end of it. Instead he looked at Pidge again. "Any known associates that might be easier to get in touch with? …And maybe a little less shady?"

The ninja was quiet for a few moments. "Nothing coming up. The Syndicate itself…" He scrolled a little more, then shook his head. "'Consult report U.Ops.539.2'. Nothing in the general database."

Lance shrugged. "Well fine, we can go to him. Just suggest not being stupid about it this time."

"We weren't that stupid about it last time," Flynn protested. "For us."

"You—well not you specifically—you all walked a criminal right to his goods!"

"A very pretty criminal," Daniel mumbled.

Luckily, Lance didn't hear that, because Jace had spoken up at the same time. "And how'd it work out for him?"

"I killed him!"

"Vince helped."

"I did?" Vince startled a little. He supposed he had, but it had kind of been half reflex and half panic.

"You did, it was pretty epic."

"Yeah, that was an awesome shot."

Heat was creeping up Vince's neck and ears; he wasn't sure how to handle all this attention. Maybe Hunk noticed. Maybe he was just being himself. "Daniel helped too!"

"Yes, epic piloting."

"I was pretty epic."

"And my kill shot was the most epic."

Keith smirked. "It took you two shots to bring him down. Not that impressive."

"Did you even do anything?" Daniel muttered, earning a jab from Cam.

"It was perfectly serviceable," Flynn murmured at the same time. Lance glared; he winked.

Unable to wholly hide his smirk, their pilot shook his head and turned his attention back to the boss. "He was a giant snake. It was impressive!"

Nobody seemed ready to keep that argument up; Pidge gave the silence a few seconds. "Dradin is interesting."

"How so, Pidge?" Sven was also eager to get back to the actual business.

"Yes, apologies, Stoker. Please continue."

"Independently held planet. No native life. The Alliance and Supremacy both acknowledged a diplomatic claim on it about twenty years ago, from a Karkinosi businessman named Argos Mansetti." The ninja leaned back slightly. "By 'businessman' I mean another smuggler."

"Argos Mansetti?" Lance grinned slightly. "I like it." It might not have had the badass points of Boss Dread, but given how things had gone with the snake that might be just as well.

"So Dradin is…" Keith trailed off a moment, trying to remember the exact phrasing. "…a wretched hive of… scum and villainy?"

"Ooh, Boss dropping the pop culture!"

"I do listen to all of you occasionally. Not much choice."

"It doesn't seem to be, sir." Pidge, as usual, simply opted not to acknowledge whatever nonsense was being thrown about this time. "Its primary industry appears to be tourism."

"Tourism?" For a moment he wondered if that was a euphemism, but no; if the Alliance knew there was smuggling going on, they'd say smuggling. It had caused the occasional diplomatic incident. "What kind of tourism?"

"Y'know, now that you say that, I'm pretty sure I've heard of Dradin…" Hunk leaned over Pidge's shoulder to have a look. It didn't help him, he couldn't read Baltan either. But a moment later the room's main screen lit up with a riot of bright colors and flashing lights.

"Welcome to fabulous Dradin!" an excited voice boomed. "Come for a relaxing getaway—or all the adventure you can handle! Visit the Spur-famous Leisuredrome, see the—" That was about when Pidge recovered enough to mute the ad, though it kept playing, splashing images of everything from fancy cocktail galas to huge twisted roller coaster tracks over the screen.

"…Really?"

"Holy shit, it's Vegas!"

"Wow…"

"We're going, right?"

"I remember now!" Hunk's eyes had lit up as he watched the commercial. "The galactic crush car finals were there a few years back, the place got all sorts of coverage, it looked epic."

Keith grimaced, wondering for a moment how this mission had gone from libraries to this. But… "Well, if that's where our intel is leading us, that's where we're going."

"Yes!"

"This is gonna be fucking awesome!" Lance nudged Flynn, who looked like he was still trying to sort out what he'd just watched. "Don't worry, I won't let an Elvis impersonator marry us, no matter how drunk we get." …Shut up!

"Yeah," Jace snorted, "wouldn't want to subject the poor Elvis impersonator to that." He turned his attention to Sven and smirked; the Viking in Vegas could be fun.

"Wait, who's getting married to an Elvis impersonator?" It was the first time Cam had spoken—he was trying to lay low around Pidge—but he couldn't keep that one down.

Lance breathed a long sigh of relief at the derailment, though he noted Flynn pointedly not looking at him and winced. "It was a joke, Cam, relax." It was just a joke.

"You need better material," Daniel snorted.

Vince had a whole different concern on his mind. "What's an Elvis impersonator? I mean, who is Elvis?"

"I would like to know that as well," Sven agreed. He was equally pointedly ignoring the smirk Jace had shot his way; he'd heard things about Vegas, and could only imagine what debauchery the medic was planning.

Since Lance had apparently been struck speechless, Hunk fielded the question. "He's the King of Rock and Roll, bro! People will try to tell ya he's dead, but don't believe it."

"…Ooookaaaay…" That clarified next to nothing.

"I thought that was Michael Jackson…?"

"Oh! I know him!"

"Michael Jackson was the King of Pop," Lance finally managed to grumble. "How do I survive with you people?"

Keith was wondering the same thing. "Alright, let's get back on track. Stoker, this Mansetti, anything else on him?"

Pidge had been working on that; he certainly hadn't minded having the rest of the team not breathing down his neck for a few minutes as he did so. "He seems pretty benign, as smugglers go. Most of his fortune was made sneaking through local restrictions rather than conventional contraband, so he's unwelcome on quite a few planets but never really ran afoul of any interstellar authorities. At least not enough for them to go after him."

That sounded way more attractive than a dude that snake had pointed them to. Lance crossed his arms. "I like this guy."

Keith nodded slowly. "He may be a safer option than this… Boss Dread."

"Dradin has undergone some major new development recently. Publicly he claims it's his retirement project. Intel doesn't believe he's retired. Further information in report U.Indv.48679." Pidge looked up. "He sounds less risky, but he does also seem to have a Drule mafia organization operating right under his nose."

"I would think he'd notice that," Vince muttered, drawing a few answering nods.

The ninja was typing quickly. "Intel can't confirm any operational links between Mansetti and Boss Dread. They also can't rule it out."

"Maybe not, but it's best to have options," Keith mused. "If he does have a link, maybe he can set up a meeting for us. If not, we're no worse off than we are now."

Flynn frowned thoughtfully. "If he owns the planet and is advertising it as legitimate entertainment, he must be more… restrained than a criminal overlord?"

"Wait, the famous smuggler who owns the planet might not be able to pull as much bullshit as the shady crime boss?" Jace demanded. "That's what we wanna go with?"

"…Possibly?"

"Yep."

"Unless we want to walk into the underworld blind, I think the planet owner is the best option," Keith said in a tone that made it clear the matter was settled.

Shrug. "Just checking."

"Alright. Pidge, what might be the best way to get in touch with this Mansetti?"

The pause was worryingly long this time. "Uncertain. I wouldn't suggest going through the Alliance's diplomatic channels. Relations appear strained."

"Understood. Bounty hunter personas and improvising, then."

"Strained between who?" Flynn muttered under his breath. "The Alliance and Mansetti, or the Alliance and us?"

"I definitely feel my relationship with the Alliance is strained," Lance agreed. "We're complicated on Spacebook."

Vince and Daniel eyed him. "People still use Spacebook?"

"Old people."

"Ahhh."

Most of the team snickered; Lance didn't. "Again. Joke." Maybe he needed to teach people around here some humor, along with pop culture and beer.

Hunk tried to back him up, at least. "Spacebook is definitely a joke."

"Alright, focus!" Keith barked. The thought of starting to run some early morning drills was wandering through his mind… they had a job to do. A bizarre job, but a job nonetheless.

"But focusing is so boring," Daniel whined. "And hard."

Their commander wasn't dignifying that with a response. "This could be our most dangerous stop yet, folks. Smuggler-owned planet, possible mob entanglements, who knows what we could be getting into here." Talking about something more dangerous than kangaroo guardians and giant snakes made his side twinge slightly, but he had no doubt it was the truth. "We need to find a way to get that report to Hawkins, sooner rather than later."

"Yes, definitely because this is going to be dangerous. Not because the Khoruns want our asses nailed to the wall."

"Why not both?"

"If they'd just listened to me…"

Keith glared. "Yes. Both. The point remains."

"We'll have to go through the Atlantis Sector to get to Dradin," Pidge offered. "It's on the other side of the Break."

"We can wait, then." The Break was the nickname for the small area where No Man's Land directly bordered Earth's Five Sectors. The sectors themselves were heavily developed; that particular stretch of the border even more so. Getting access to a subspace relay there for an 'important military matter' should be doable. "Though, I'd still like it to be as soon as possible. Sven, I want the quickest route to Dradin, ASAP."

The navigator was not wholly convinced he wanted to reach Dradin that fast. But they did have a mission to accomplish. "Yes sir."

"We're goin' to Dradin, baby!" Hunk crowed, high-fiving anyone willing to cooperate—so, Lance and Daniel. And smacking Jace lightly on the back of the head, just on principle.

I'm going to regret this, aren't I? Sighing, Keith stood. There wasn't really anything else to be done. We go where the mission takes us. "If there's nothing else, dismissed."

*****

The plan lasted about a week. Which was, to be fair, pretty good for the 686.

Sven was on the bridge prepping some contingency routes when a low beep sounded from his monitors; one glance gave him a strong sense of deja vu. He gave a deep sigh, mixed feelings churning in his gut. This wasn't going to be pleasant.

"Sir." The word summoned Keith's attention from whatever he was doing to his command chair. Sven remembered him saying something about it needing adjusting, but he was already focusing on the needed equations for the spatial rift forming ahead of them. If they decided to hitch a ride on it, the sooner he got started the better.

"Yes, Holgersson?"

"We've got a rift, sir."

Keith arched an eyebrow. "A rift? After last time?"

"It would shoot us past both Drule territory and No Man's Land, and shave our route time down significantly." The navigator hadn't looked up from his math during that entire statement.

Keith glanced between him and Lance, who had immediately started up some pre-rift stretching. "Give me some more details, Holgersson. What, how, where, when, and… why?"

Sven blinked. That was too many questions, a few seemed irrelevant, but orders were orders he supposed. "A rift, I don't have sufficient time to explain how a rift forms, close to our current position, in a few minutes, and as to why… to shave time off our very long trip?" His tone held a hint of annoyance; Lance snickered, while Keith glared.

"Doc would be proud of you, smartass, but he'll murder you for suggesting this if you do end up sick again."

Sven didn't feel the need to point out that Jace wouldn't murder him. Endlessly mock him, most definitely, but no murder. He did however feel the need to defend himself against the accusation that he was suggesting this nonsense. "I answered your questions, and I am not suggesting anything." He had little desire to heave out his stomach contents, again, but he'd be failing utterly at his job if he didn't mention it. "I am making my commander aware of our options."

…Well, nobody could accuse the Viking of insufficient commitment to his duty. Keith could appreciate that. Especially with how things had been going lately… he sighed and hit the comms. "Kleid, prep the bay for a rift. Doc, get your biometric sensors out, and find a place you can strap in." As he finished the orders he strapped himself in, with Lance finishing his stretches and doing likewise. "All hands, prepare for rift jump."

"Ooh, Viking gonna lose his guts again?" Jace snickered. "On my way."

"Copy," Flynn responded, turning to his wrenchlings. "Hunk, you take the hyperspace thrusters, I'll watch the main engines. Vince, you're on shield calibration. Pidge, monitor the main console."

"Yes sir…" Vince swallowed. "Are rift jumps as bad as they say?"

"Depends."

"On?"

"On if ya win the vomit lottery," Hunk offered.

"Oh… I'd like to stay not winning that. I've never vomited." For a moment everyone, even Pidge, turned to stare at him in shock; he nodded a little sheepishly. "I haven't."

"Some veteran advice then: don't start!" Hunk patted his shoulder, then took off for an auxiliary panel.

Daniel and Cam came running onto the bridge, taking their stations and strapping in. Cam looked over at Keith. "What exactly are we about to do here?"

Even if Keith had felt qualified to answer that question, they didn't have time. Someone could explain it properly later. "Just buckle in and pray you don't get sick, Starr."

"Viking, your math gonna tell me how hard this is gonna be on my shoulders?" Lance asked.

"It does not tell me that, Lance."

"Knew it was a long shot." Their pilot began doing a few more stretches in his chair, hoping his muscles wouldn't be too sore this time.

Flynn was working on the engine syncing. It was a bit more difficult on the Bolt than it had been on the Firecrown; having hyperspace thrusters to sync with as well really made a mess of things. "Send us those numbers when you can."

Right as he asked Sven was finishing them up. "They are on their way."

Not a moment too soon. Jace jogged onto the bridge, arms filled with bio monitors. "Big Brother is here for your biometrics."

"Just slap them on me and get it over with," Lance groaned, watching as Sven grabbed the bridge's trash can and moved it over towards his chair. "Viking, maybe you'll get lucky this time."

"I'm hopeful." He was. Very hopeful.

"Hope must always spring eternal—OW!" Lance yelled as Jace slapped his bio sensor on a little harder than necessary.

Daniel had been silently watching everyone, and as they talked his face scrunched up in slight worry. He strapped himself into his chair. "This is going to be interesting, huh?"

"It'll fucking suck, just pray you don't throw up."

Daniel looked at Lance and nodded; that was in no way reassuring. Cam wasn't reassured either, watching the exchange and tightening his straps in response. Jace moved away from Lance and walked over to Sven, quickly putting his sensors on, absently glancing over his shoulder as he did so. He blinked and did a double take.

"…Uh, Viking, is that showing where we're actually going?" His tone was unusually tense.

"Yes," Sven responded calmly

Jace looked at the bright yellow line going straight through the Fourth Kingdom Incursion Zone. "…Not to tell you your business, but that looks like a really, really long fucking way through space we're really, really not fucking allowed in." As he hooked up everyone else's sensors, he glanced back at the monitor every few seconds as if wishing that the image would change.

Lance, hearing him, pulled the image up on his own monitors. "Whoa…"

"Fuck," Daniel said with a raised brow, glancing at Lance's monitors.

"We'll be fine. We're not stopping for souvenirs," Keith told them. Sven nodded in agreement.

"It's not physically possible for us to actually stop there, so it will be okay." He opted not to explain the other half of that equation—any attempt to stop a ship in the middle of a rift jump would also smash it into a few tiny scraps of foil. That would definitely not help reassure anyone.

Jace eyed him warily, muttering under his breath as he put on Cam's monitors. "And this is why I fucking hate space travel, I'd bitch a lot more if it weren't you doing the math."

"Understood." Sven smiled.

"Just think, Doc, this was his idea." Keith grinned.

Sven swiveled his chair and glared, he'd had quite enough of this. He wasn't even sick yet. "Next time a rift opens up I will be sure to keep my mouth shut, sir."

Lance snickered at the Viking being sassy, and Keith chuckled. "Just make sure you throw up in the trash."

With a great deal of effort, Sven kept his mouth shut and fought the urge to deck his commanding officer. Is this what Daniel feels like all the time?

Speaking of Daniel, he was the last one Jace was hooking up. And he looked nervous. "What are you all jumpy about?" the medic asked. "This rift thing is reckless and stupid, you'll love it."

"I'm not jumpy, I just… I'm not the one piloting." Reckless and stupid sounded so much more enticing when he had at least some control of the outcome.

"Yeah, thank fuck." Last thing Jace wanted was the kid piloting them through this.

"It's always so nice talking to you," Daniel snarked.

"Hey, at least one of us enjoys it!" Jace shot right back, finishing with his monitors and heading off to the bay.

The Bolt was starting to rattle violently as they approached the rift well. Lance would have expected a larger ship to be sturdier, but he supposed it also had more surface area for the fluctuations to hit. Cam braced against the jolting and tried not to pull on his sensors. At least these don't poke us with needles, but… "These things suck."

"Don't fiddle with them, Jace will poke you harder," Lance warned.

"Are they supposed to itch?" Cam asked, rubbing one of the pads.

"Don't mention the itch."

"But they do itch," Daniel countered. Lance ignored him, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that. He had to focus on keeping the ship steady, not the fact that the monitors did indeed itch like a bitch.

"Send me the details on our entry when ready, Viking." Immediately the acceleration and trajectory equations appeared on his screen, and he nodded. Time to do some awesome. Though the numbers seemed… optimistic?

"How long will we be in the rift, Holgersson?" Keith asked.

"Can we really shoot that far?" Lance asked right after.

"We will be in the rift a little longer than last time, but not by much, and yes we can. The HPR drives have increased our speed which increases our rift jump range," Sven explained.

"Awesome." Lance grinned. This sounded even more fun than the last rift.

HPR drives? Flynn looked up from calibrating the engines to shoot a dirty look at the comms. "Honestly, Holgersson. You're getting enough grief right now without using the unrepresentative academic term for my hyperspace thrusters."

Sven shook his head; apparently this was pick on the Viking day? When did Jace become the most enjoyable person here? "I don't understand your issue with my usage of the correct terminology."

"Hyperspace thrusters sound cooler," Lance informed him. "By a fucking lot."

"After the jump we can discuss the differences between mass-burning engines and zero-propellant drive theories if you like," Flynn offered. "Might put you to sleep, but if you do get sick you'll need the rest?"

"I am sick… of all of them," Sven muttered to himself.

"Nah, Viking, you love me." Lance reached over and gave him a playful swat, then started skimming the rift well to get the Bolt into position. This was going to be good.

Jace entered the engine bay, glancing around quickly. There was not a place to strap in, per se, but there were bracing bars for the poor saps who had to be standing and running around in here during crazy maneuvers. "I'm camping back here with you assholes," he announced, starting to hook up monitors.

Shrugging, Vince just nodded at him. If I do get sick at least he'll be close.

"Fine, don't touch anything," Flynn ordered, watching the medic finish up and secure himself at an empty station. "Kogane, we're set back here."

"Alright. McClain, take us in."

In the back of the bay, Pidge and Vince exchanged looks as they braced themselves. Pidge was intrigued; he'd never been on a rift jump before. The Alliance frowned upon its line ships performing such risky maneuvers. Vince was much less intrigued; he was just holding his breath and telling himself over and over that everything would be fine.

Daniel and Cam were exchanging similar looks. But their attention was quickly redirected to Lance leaning forward slightly, hands tight on the control rods, as the Bolt's engines spooled up to full power. A moment later they were hurtling forward into a seething mass of color and light.

"WOOHOO!" Lance cried out, a huge grin on his face as he wrestled with the controls. This would never get old.

Daniel laughed, all his previous nervousness vanishing in an instant as the ship lurched. Cam's nervousness hadn't gone anywhere. "This is crazy. He's crazy. We're all crazy!" Keith had his eyes closed, focusing on his breathing, or he might have offered some agreement.

Flynn listened as the hyperspace thrusters made a deafening shriek, very unlike the standard engines as they tore through the rift. A few moments later they were drowned out by Vince's own shriek.

"Oh holy heck!"

"Fuck, kid, the word is ‘fuck'," Jace corrected, tightening his hold on the bracing bar.

"The word is WHEEEE!" Hunk re-corrected.

Vince considered that a moment, clinging tighter to his own bar. "I'm agreeing with Jace."

"Hey, you are smart."

"It's been mentioned."

Mercifully, Pidge missed the entire conversation; he had his hands over his ears because of the engine noise. His full focus was on the console in front of him, the occasional adjustments to the ship's power distribution, and trying not to be thrown across the bay as the turbulence increased.

"This is awesome!" Daniel crowed as they approached the final stretch. Sven cracked an eye open, glaring. He was already not finding this awesome; he half expected the hull to fall apart around them, the way the ship was being bounced about.

Lance was keeping them on track with all his might, and quickly called off the gunner's celebration. "Hold on, the hard part is coming."

At the same time Flynn heard the engines change pitch, indicating they were about to flame out. A deep rumble echoed from somewhere below the bay; as the engines sputtered, the breach drive was barely holding its containment field together. "Exit breach incoming!"

The Bolt burst back into real space, spinning to a stop with what Lance would call a fucking flourish. All of the engines went dead silent; the lights went out for a few moments before backup power kicked on.

"Fucking ow…" Lance threw his straps off and stretched, feeling like his shoulders had been encased in cement. The warm-up stretches hadn't helped even a little.

Daniel jerked around, his equilibrium a bit off, before managing to get out of his own restraints. He was laughing. "Still awesome!"

"Try flying it, kid… eh, never mind. It is fucking awesome," Lance agreed.

Keith slowly opened his eyes. Everything looked intact, but he'd believe it when he had confirmation. "Status reports as soon as systems come back up."

Pidge slowly pulled his hands away from his ears, looking around the suddenly dead silent engine bay. "Mijtairra…"

"Whatever you said, ninjerk." Jace unclenched his hands from the bracing bar, checking his scanners.

Vince cracked an eye open. He wasn't sure when he'd closed them; he was supposed to be watching the ship's shield calibration. Looking around, he flinched slightly as he noticed Flynn watching him. The chief looked amused. "Shields alright?"

He checked his monitors and nodded. "Minimal disruption. They're resetting now."

Pidge checked the main status panel without prompting. "Backup systems are optimal. Engines are down."

"…Yes. Thank you, Pidge." Flynn gave a half smile. "Keep an eye on things."

Sven's eyes were still shut tight, though it wasn't helping the nausea ripping through him. At all. He had absolutely zero intentions of giving any sort of status report, because holy Odin this had to be worse than last time. Finally he managed to yank his straps off and rush towards the trash can he'd moved earlier.

"Oh, ugh… Viking, you're cursed." Lance winced in sympathy, and then in pain as his own curse reasserted itself. He leaned back and rubbed his shoulders, wincing. "Damn it, those stretches were useless."

"Oh god…" Cam felt his stomach start to quiver, quickly covering his ears in an attempt to block out the sound of Sven retching. It wasn't working.

Sven for his part was oblivious to what was going on around him, he was far more focused on how an entire body could be nauseous. How did his fingers feel like heaving? If this was what an HPR-drive-assisted rift jump did to him, no way in hell was he ever going to mention a rift again.

As the bridge struggled with the aftereffects, Vince came to a realization. "Oh hey, still on Team No Vomit!"

"Good!" Jace shook his head slowly, checking Hunk's monitor. It looked okay. A certain other monitor very much did not. "Giant donut dude, if you get queasy, sit your ass down and I'll come back. Viking needs me, rapidamente."

Hunk grinned. "Awwwwwww!"

"Fuck you!" Jace snapped before bolting from the bay.

Lance was listening to the comms, and laughed as he overheard the exchange. "Don't worry, Sven, your man is on his way!" Keith blinked and decided to just pretend he hadn't heard that. Cam didn't hear anything except Sven—it was impossible to ignore, and he couldn't hold out any longer. He grabbed another trash can.

"Ew." Daniel swallowed back a wave of nausea that had nothing to do with the rift. "Oh, that's nasty. I'm leaving." He unfastened his straps and fled the bridge, nearly colliding with Jace as he entered.

The medic looked around, checked his scanner again, and raised an eyebrow. "Starr, knock that shit off, there's nothing wrong with you."

Cam looked up at him and grimaced. "I know. I hate being a sympathy puker…"

"Sympathy does suck," Jace agreed with a snort. He grabbed a couple of pills from his kit and handed them over anyway, then headed over to Sven. "Dude, your readings are fucked."

"Hnn." It was the only sound of agreement Sven could manage.

"Let's get you out of here." Jace handed him a sterile bag to replace his trash can. "Next time you're gonna navigate from the sick bay."

Sven leaned into him as they stood up. "Not doing it again," he managed before burying his face in the bag.

"Atta boy." Jace patted his shoulder. "That's our fearless Viking." It was so nice to have a real sick bay he could drag the dude to this time… and he really did pretty much half drag him from the bridge.

Hunk took a few experimental steps around the bay, waiting to see if the world would go all spinny on him. Everything seemed alright. He looked at the silent engine shafts for a moment. "What's the plan, pit boss?"

"We'll check the main engines. You take the left side. Vince, Pidge, basic inspection on the hyperspace thrusters," Flynn ordered. Vince nodded, and he and Pidge departed for the elevators—those maintenance shafts were on the deck below.

Inspection went quickly and smoothly, which was Flynn's favorite kind of inspection. Engine four took a couple of test fires to recover, but at least it hadn't undergone any catastrophic damage. Or non-catastrophic damage, even, it had just been a bit stubborn. He couldn't really blame it. After the abuse they'd just put this ship through, he might be a little stubborn too.

As he emerged from the engine shaft to wait for the kids, he glanced over at Hunk, who was poking at his datapad. A moment later, music filled the bay—he didn't recognize it, but he could make out the words we are the crazy ones, which seemed apt. "Is that entirely necessary?"

"Entirely, pit boss!"

"Okay, carry on." He smirked. "At least you wore pants this time, thanks for that."

Hunk burst into laughter loud enough to drown the music out.

Pidge and Vince returned a couple of minutes later, bearing good news: the hyperspace thrusters had survived the jump as well. "Kogane, the engines are fine, we'll have them firing at full in ten. Breach drive needs to reset itself."

"Roger that, Kleid. McClain, you alright to get us started towards Dradin?" Keith asked.

Lance gave a wide smile, the ache in his shoulders immediately forgotten. "Fucking good for planet Vegas."

Keith nodded, standing to check the navigation coordinates. They were right where they were supposed to be… then he hesitated, checking the map again and realizing where they'd actually turned up. Quite near to Dradin… on the other side of the Break. Closing his eyes, he mentally kicked himself; he really should have thought of that at the time.

Oh well. They would probably hit Dradin faster now than they would have made the Atlantis Sector before. "Good. Get us moving, then. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can move forward on our mission…" He shook his head. "And hopefully use their subspace relay."

Explorer Teams. As usual.

*****

Being the only person willing to brave the Forest of Altair had been serving Larmina well so far. It meant she wasn't competing for rolis with anyone else—which both meant more meat for everyone, and her kill count easily starting to surpass Hanso. But she hadn't seen any banewolves. And even in the forest, the oncoming winter was making its presence felt.

There was no sign of any rolis at all today, and she sighed, stopping to lean against a tree trunk. At the least she'd be able to bring some berries back to the tunnels, but berries would hardly make a dent in the problem…

A familiar yip sounded off to her left.

Turning, she saw two banewolves approaching—one blacker than the shadows around them, the other pure white and nearly glowing in the filtered sunlight. She froze for a moment, watching in awe. There they are. The same ones who'd helped her before? They had to be, didn't they?

They weren't alone, she realized after a moment. Smaller shadows were trailing behind them.

Are those… puppies?

One of the little shadows broke ranks and ran at her, growling and yipping excitedly, batting at the loose strap on her boots with one paw. Yes, definitely puppies. They were varying shades of gray, with darker paws and markings, unlike the adults.

"Are these yours?" she asked, as the white banewolf wagged its tail and watched her. The black one nudged a few others forward, and a moment later she was surrounded by tiny, leaping balls of fluff.

I guess that means I'm allowed to do this…

She knelt and ruffled the first pup's soft fur, giggling as it licked her face in return. "Nice to meet you." The other pups scrambled to her hand, tumbling over each other until she'd pet and scritched every single one… some probably more than once, that first one kept pushing its way back in for more.

A rustling somewhere nearby silenced them, and Larmina fell silent too. Whatever it was, it was large and loud, nothing like the graceful banewolves. The banewolves themselves bristled, the adults stalking forward slowly… the white one looked back as if to tell her to follow.

Really?

It kept staring at her until she obeyed, drawing her bow… just in case. There had never been any Drules in this forest before, but there also hadn't been Drules on Arus until all of a sudden there were.

The noise, it turned out, wasn't a Drule. It was a rock deer, chewing on a branch full of pale leaves. It briefly turned its head to her, but didn't seem concerned. Not that she would've been concerned either, if she'd been a hulking mass of strong muscle and sharp antlers that feared only…

Banewolves.

Suddenly the pups were deadly focused, charging forward as swift and silent as the wind. The deer tried to turn and run, but the pups were too quick. And clever. They surrounded it before it could do anything, driving it to the ground and…

Well…

Larmina blinked, watching as the pups gnawed at the deer's fur. Their sharp claws and teeth were still tiny, and they weren't actually getting through its thick hide.

That's a little… anticlimactic. She bit down a wholly inappropriate giggle. This was the savagery of nature she was watching, but it was also awfully cute watching the little fluffballs scramble over the huge deer, yipping in frustration.

It stopped being cute when the black banewolf abruptly sprang forward, ripping the deer's throat open with a single efficient strike from its claws.

Oh. She swallowed, stepping back as the pups crowded the kill. Maybe this would be a good time to get out of here and go find some berries. Or maybe just—

—As soon as she took another step back, the white banewolf snuffled and trotted up next to her, pushing her to the right. Well, she sure wasn't going to disobey after that display.

They walked together for a minute or two, then that loud rustling sound came again. Another rock deer. This one seemed not to notice her at all, fully intent on the leaves it was eating.

Okay…

The wolf nuzzled her hand with the bow in it, pushed its head forward to indicate the deer, then looked back at her.

This doesn't make any sense…

Larmina stared into the great beast's golden eyes, trying to understand what was happening here. How could it know what the bow was for? Why was it leading her to prey? This was a wild animal! And yet… the legends said the banewolves were creations of the Golden Gods, created when they overthrew the Usurpers and reclaimed Arus for their own. Could that be true? Were these creatures the agents of the gods even now?

Not that the Golden Gods had been any help to them yet. If her prayers had finally been answered, she wasn't about to reject it. Nodding to the wolf, she readied the bow and fired.

Her arrow flew true, piercing the beast's chest. It reared back, stomping and grunting in distress; she tried to line up a second arrow, but the way it was thrashing led to it only hitting the leg. That wasn't helpful. Wincing at the obvious pain of her quarry, Larmina reached for a third arrow.

She didn't have to use it. The banewolf sprang forward, striking a killing blow almost identical to what its mate had done to the other deer. Immediately it stilled and dropped to the forest floor.

Larmina hesitated, eyes widening as the wolf padded back to her and yipped. She knew what she'd just seen, but it was too crazy to accept. "Are you… teaching me to hunt?"

It jumped up on its hind legs, licked her face, then vanished into the undergrowth.

"…Thank you," she whispered after it, then looked back at the dead deer. With two arrows and some unbelievable help, she'd done better than a dozen rolis. This could feed the survivors for days by itself…

So how are you going to pull this off, exactly?

…Once she somehow dragged it back to the tunnels.

Slinging her bow over her back, Larmina grabbed one of the deer's legs and yanked with all her might, managing to budge it about an inch. Oh, this was going to be an adventure.

Chapter Text

There was good news, and then there was bad news.

Good news: the rest of the trip to Dradin went smoothly.

Bad news: using the secure subspace relay on Dradin required permission from the proprietor.

Good news: Argos Mansetti, proprietor, was in fact available for appointments with anyone willing to pay the surprisingly reasonable appointment fee.

Bad news: his schedule was quite full, and he wouldn't be available until tomorrow.

Good news: the spaceport's automated concierge system had not only been able to set up the meeting, it had been able to give them directions and a room reservation that evening for a bar a few miles from the spaceport.

Bad news: it was not even close to evening. Which meant Explorer Team 686 had a whole day on Planet Vegas to get themselves into trouble… and they generally didn't have much difficulty doing that anyway.

Jace was sitting on the Bolt's boarding ramp, watching the activity around the ship and wondering when he'd accidentally taken some psychotropics. This place was insane. It was like Prox's biggest Carnaval, Halloween on the Garrison, the actual Las Vegas, and Disney World had gotten together in some crazy orgy and ended up with the grandbaby from neon hell.

And that was just the spaceport. He wasn't quite sure whether he dared go beyond that or not. His tolerance for crazy had gone way up since this assignment started, but this was… a whole fucking lot of crazy.

"Doc." He heard the footsteps behind him, but didn't look up. "No Sven?"

"Hey, boss. Careful, it's a jungle out there." He snorted. "Viking gave me the slip. Here I complimented his math and nursed him back to health and hardly even made fun of him, and he runs off with Lance and the Chief because he thinks I'm gonna try to drag him to some glitzy strip club."

Keith arched an eyebrow. "Are you saying you wouldn't have?"

"Oh I totally would've, you fucking kidding me?" He glanced up, smirking. "Ought to haul you to one instead, you need to learn to have some fun."

"Hey! I'm fun." The medic just gave him a look. "Actually I was thinking of going to check out the big martial arts convention that's apparently going on."

"…Really?" That did sound like it could be entertaining. He turned around fully. "Both of you?"

"Both…?" Blinking, Keith turned, and jumped a little; Pidge was standing right beside him. Ninja, right. "Well, if he wants? I won't say no to a crewmate coming along."

Pidge had really just been coming out to have a look around, but this sounded as worthwhile as anything. "Sure."

"How about two crewmates?" Jace hopped up. There was safety in numbers, and maybe the convention would be slightly less insane than… well… everything else.

"The more the merrier?" Keith shrugged.

"Sure, let's go with that." He looked at the other two and shook his head slightly. "We're on Planet fucking Vegas and we're going to a martial arts convention, how fucking on-brand are we?"

"Very."

"Doesn't that just mean we're acting appropriately?"

Jace shot Pidge a look similar to the one he'd given Keith earlier. "Yep, and so did that. Lead on, boss. Assuming you know where this thing's at."

"Something like that." Keith glanced at his datapad, where he'd copied down some directions. "All right. This way."

By the time they got off the spaceport grounds, they'd already waved off half a dozen robotic taxis and nearly the same number of helpful guides. Dradin certainly was welcoming to guests. Nothing so far made it look like a smuggling haven… though really, if there were shady business going on around here, who could tell?

The planet really was on the very edge of No Man's Land, and not so far from Sixth Kingdom territory either; a number of Drules were walking the streets alongside dozens of Alliance and independent races. It took a little getting used to; Keith wasn't the only one who tensed reflexively as they passed the first few. But gradually they relaxed. By the time a couple of Drule children running down the street bowled him over, not even Pidge was on edge enough to pull his knife.

"You alright?" Jace offered a hand as the kids murmured something apologetic and ran off again.

"Yeah, fine." Accepting the help, Keith pulled himself to his feet and shook his head. There were a lot of kids on this street; the booths and kiosks around them were painted with cheerful cartoons, and the nearby rides looked geared towards younger guests. For some reason he hadn't expected Dradin to have a children's section… but why not? It seemed to have everything else. "This place is wild."

"That's a word," Jace snorted. They crossed through a gate, leaving the kids' zone and entering some kind of space-themed section. The pavement was jet black with tiny stars shining through, and starship roller coaster cars whooshed by them as they headed down the street. "Not sure it's the word I'd use, but it's definitely a word."

Keith checked the street sign—Interstellar Avenue, that seemed apt—then turned them down Supernova Boulevard. "What word would you use?" Immediately he winced. Probably don't want to know that…

"Louco como o caralho," he retorted. Pidge gave him a confused look; he shrugged and translated. "Crazy as fuck."

"…On brand," Keith murmured, and opted to focus on his directions for a bit.

It was twenty minutes later when they turned onto a street full of kiosks, and all stopped on some unspoken signal. Mostly because they had definitely turned onto this very same street five minutes before.

"Great. Now what?"

"I'm starting to think we should have just gone to the bar." Rubbing his forehead. Keith studied the directions again. "This place is crazy."

"You're halfway there," the medic said, frowning.

"Halfway to where?" They weren't anywhere near the bar, and if Jace knew where the convention was he should really help them find it…

Pidge was looking around at the kiosks, bewildered. They were mostly selling food. That seemed safe to assume by the fact that the patrons were eating their purchases; he'd never seen anything like any of this. One of the kiosks was literally on fire. Reassessing—slightly—just where humans really fit in on the scale of 'weird', he turned his focus back to his teammates just in time to catch the exchange. "I believe he meant halfway to 'crazy as fuck', sir."

"Ninja nailed it."

Keith blinked, then looked over at their excessively smug-looking medic. "You're a horrible influence."

"I was only helping him clarify?"

"I'm a fantastic influence." Smirk. "So are we lost or what?"

"…Might be," the boss admitted, sighing. "When I wrote the directions out, it didn't seem like they'd be so hard to follow."

"Commander can't read his own writing, got it."

Glare. "Mine's more legible than yours, I bet… Doctor."

Jace was too impressed by Keith actually sassing his profession to argue with that—he couldn't have done it in good conscience anyway. "Sure, but I can read mine."

"I can read it just fine." He looked at the datapad again, then turned back to where they'd come from. "It's figuring out where this Cacophony Street is, we should be close by now."

Glancing around his shoulder to have a look, Jace shook his head slightly. "Next time I'll tie the Viking down in the sick bay, we could use him."

"And then you'd be in a strip club?"

"Ideally."

Keith grimaced. "Poor Sven."

"Truth."

As they spoke, Pidge had found a large sign with a map on it and wandered over to have a look. The map itself was only marked in symbols; it offered a key for download in various major languages. He'd just finished cross-referencing the symbols to the names on his datapad when the other two walked up to him. "Any luck, Stoker?"

"We're here." He pointed on the map. "In between the Condor Coil Coaster, Palace of Grim Jokes, Jumbo Spire, Popcorn Potato Shack, and Enchanting Rapids of Death." While he was speaking, he indicated each of the attractions both on the map and in their surroundings, then paused. He looked slightly pained. "…None of those words mean anything in those orders."

"Jumbo Spire means something, but you don't usually talk about it in polite company."

Keith glared at Jace and seriously considered smacking him. Or perhaps pointing out he didn't constitute 'polite company', though that would probably backfire. Instead he turned his focus back to the ninja. "Enchanting Rapids of Death? Really?"

"That's what the map says, sir."

Sighing, Keith started to look between the symbols and Pidge's datapad, trying to sort out the street names. The ninja handed it over and looked up as the Jumbo Spire launched a train. Jace followed his gaze. It seemed to be some combination of launch coaster and drop tower… two things he could absolutely do without. "Crazy fuckers."

"It seems like a remarkably inefficient line-to-attraction ratio." Pidge had been counting; from launch to finish, the ride lasted exactly thirty-six seconds. He imagined it would feel even shorter in the moment. And the line was, well… very, very long.

Keith glanced up for a moment before going back to the map. "Yeah. It's very popular."

"There's way easier ways to induce vomiting," Jace snorted.

"You don't like roller coasters, Doc?"

"Fuck no. Like we don't get enough near-death experiences without strapping ourselves into some bullshit little train and getting slingshotted around? Especially with McClain piloting…"

Pidge gave him a mildly annoyed look. It got more annoyed when their commander had to cough back a laugh. "His piloting is perfectly serviceable." He didn't understand the human practice of downplaying others' skills. Not only did it cause unnecessary confusion, but he was pretty certain it ran afoul of those manners Flynn had lectured him on. But, whatever. He watched another train shoot up the vertical track and frowned. "It doesn't seem fun, though."

Keith nodded in understanding. "Depends on your definition of fun."

"How about not pulling five G's for no damn reason?" Jace suggested.

"That's fun… for pilots." The medic made a great show of rolling his eyes.

Having lost the thread again, Pidge looked back at the map, and blinked. There was a flyer nailed to one of the supports. He'd bypassed it initially, but… "Sir, I think I've found the problem."

"Yeah?" Turning and leaning over to read the flyer, Keith started frowning, and didn't stop.

DUE TO UNFORESEEN CIRCUMSTANCES, Cacophony Street and the Wild Fair district are currently inaccessible. The Dojo Dradin Martial Arts Fest has been relocated to Silversand Bay.

Both of them looked from the map to Pidge's datapad, and back again. Jace came up and looked over the ninja's shoulder. "Good thing that's not literally the opposite direction from the spaceport…"

"Darn it." Right then, Keith finally found Cacophony Street. And unless his sense of direction was more warped by the chaos than he thought, they'd walked right by it, and even commented on it… because it had been barricaded, and they'd debated whether the closed street was some kind of attraction or actually just closed.

That answered that.

"Honestly also feels kind of on brand," Jace said with a shrug.

"Yeah. Never a dull moment." Shaking his head, Keith looked down the street. "Well, should we try to backtrack to the convention, or just… look around and see what we find?"

"No sense backtracking. The bar's on this side of the spaceport too."

"True."

Wandering the streets without a destination in mind quickly became overwhelming. There was either too much to take in, too much neon to see, too many people for a clear view, or all of the above. After a bit longer they all ducked beneath a small overhang and watched the people passing by, exchanging bemused looks.

"Crazy as fuck," Jace repeated quietly.

Maybe he was right. Looking around where they'd stopped, Keith caught sight of a large, looping steel track with what looked like a fairly short line. "Now there's something that looks to have decent…" What had Pidge called it? "…line-to-attraction ratio."

Jace looked around for a sign, found it, and read aloud. "The Brass Knuckle Supreme, known for its twelve inversions and the perfectly vertical 450-foot Demon's Drop…" He stopped and stepped back as if the sign itself were toxic. "Fuck that."

Grin. "I'm going."

"Have fun," Pidge said as flatly as he said most things.

"Don't die," Jace added, then reconsidered. "Don't puke, either, Viking won't ever let you live it down after all the grief you gave him…"

"I've yet to puke on a coaster, Doc. You two going to wait or go on?"

"Hmph." The medic rolled his eyes even more theatrically, somehow. "Much as I'd like to be here to make fun of you, we may as well keep moving. See you at the bar?"

"Alright. Be careful." With a nod, he headed off for the line.

"…Be careful?" Jace repeated in disbelief. "Us?" He looked at Pidge for support, getting only a noncommittal shrug for his trouble. "We're not the ones running off to ride the Pain Train or whatever the fuck it—oh hey!" As they turned he'd caught sight of something much more attractive. "Scrambler! C'mon, ninjerk, here's a real ride for you!"

Pidge came up beside him, looking at the Scrambler. He didn't look at all impressed. "…Have fun, Doctor."

Snort. "Shouldn't be surprised you fuckers have no standards. Fine, catch you later." He tossed a salute and ran off.

Now Pidge was officially more confused than ever. Shrugging again, he headed down the street in the general direction of the bar; it wouldn't hurt anything to be early. But he hadn't gone particularly far when he came across a large booth surrounded by people. They seemed to be throwing small plastic rings at bottles… and missing.

Why are they having so much trouble? Curious, he stopped to watch. Nobody had any technique to speak of—no surprise, they were probably all civilians—but they were certainly getting angry enough when they failed. A gangly Quasnot nearly ran him over as it gave up and departed in a huff.

Why not? Maybe it'll be a challenge. Maybe it'll be… fun. Watching for a moment longer, Pidge stepped up to the vacated spot.

*****

Safety in numbers had brought two of the other kids together, with somewhat more success. Cam grinned over at Vince, who was being quiet as usual even in the face of Dradin all around them. That wouldn't last. Or maybe it would? He'd never gotten loud on Halloween. Either way, it seemed like it should be impossible not to have fun in this place.

"What is it you want to look at, exactly?" Vince asked. He knew Cam wanted to get to some shopping; may as well get started.

"Not real sure." He looked around and shook his head, there was no way to narrow anything down. "Anything strike you as interesting?"

Dradin was bright and busy and crowded. Vince looked around and it was almost too much shiny—a feeling he was starting to get used to. "Uh, everything."

"Ain’t that the truth," Cam chuckled. Looking around, he spotted something bright pink and felt drawn to it. "How about that? The… Flamin Gogh."

"The Flamin Gogh?" Vince groaned at the pun. "It’s shiny though, let’s look."

"What’s the worst it could be?" Cam asked as they walked inside.

Vince stared after him for a moment, wondering why anyone would ask that. Especially anyone on this team. But he followed him in, and his eyes went wide. "Oh my…" There were too many things, most of the bright pink and glittering or glowing.

Cam brightened at the sight of flamingos everywhere. Everything was amazing, and he was about to say as much to Vince when he got a great idea. "You think we should get a few for Daniel, since he couldn’t come with us?"

"Doesn't he hate birds? Or is it just you whistling like them he hates?"

"He does, well both… just a couple?" He grinned and hoped Vince would go with him on it, it would be fun.

Vince laughed, thinking about Daniel’s temper. "It’s your funeral, not mine."

"It seems to be an… unnatural phobia. Aren’t friends supposed to help their friends get over their phobias?"

Frown. "Unnatural is kind of the point with phobias, they don’t make sense." Vince was looking around, thinking this might be a good place to get his Gran Diva a present. She liked tacky things, and she already had some flamingos in her yard.

His companion wandered off a bit, having spotted an adorable flamingo stuffed toy, a lot like a classic stuffed bear. He came back holding it up almost plaintively. "How is this scary?"

Vince looked up from a figurine he'd found of a flamingo with wild purple hair. Which was odd, but he knew his grandmother would love it. He looked at the stuffed toy and grinned. "Well, I think it’s cute, but I’m not Daniel."

"It is cute," Cam insisted, because that was the point.

Shrug. "You wanna buy him the bird teddy, go for it…" As long as Daniel didn't blame him.

"They aren’t scary! Granted they can be annoying, but they aren’t scary."

"…But don’t say I didn’t try to warn you he might try to kill you."

"I won't." Nodding, he grinned as he spotted a big blow up flamingo, it was almost too tempting to resist. "We could totally have fun with this, putting it in random places on the ship."

Vince followed Cam’s gaze and cringed. "Why?"

"I’ve always heard stories that crews play pranks on each other all the time." It had always seemed a little odd to him at the Academy, truthfully, but now that he was aboard a ship with a team he completely understood. "Can you imagine? Have this guy sitting at the galley table with a bowl of cereal? Next day, hanging out in the showers?"

Okay, that did sound pretty funny. And at least one of their crewmates would surely be game. "Hunk would be up for it, I bet."

"Maybe we could even hide it in the decontamination shower in sick bay."

"Do you have a death wish? Jace will not be amused."

Cam frowned. "Second thought, you're right. Doc would kill it, if not me."

"Yep, punctured flamingo."

"Doc does like pointy things."

"Sure does."

Helpfully, right next to the inflatables was a stack of patch kits with bright pink medical symbols. "I’m gonna give him one of these kits, just to see his reaction, I think. He’ll probably stab me extra but…" He shrugged, happy with his plans. It would be worth it.

Vince stared at him. For such a dutiful soldier, he was kind of nuts. "Well, what’s a little risk of bodily harm?" he asked sarcastically.

When even Vince started getting snarky, that was enough to give Cam pause. "I’m not being an asshole, am I?"

"Well yeah, a bit," the engineer answered honestly.

"I don’t mean to be…" He looked at the stuffed flamingo and sighed. "To heck with it. I'm buying it and if he doesn’t like it, I’m keeping it."

"It is pretty cute."

"It is… how can anyone say no to this cute face?" Cam held up the toy, with a cute pout of his own that almost matched it.

Vince laughed again, but felt compelled to try to talk him out of it one more time. "Just don't forget, I warned you he might try to strangle you."

"We’re an Explorer Team, right? That implies risk."

"Yeah—why do I hear Lance swearing as he says that in my head? I guess it's true, I just like to try to curb risk when possible."

Cam laughed. "Cause that is what he does… I swear if we had a credit chip for each time he and Doc cussed, we’d retire in a week."

"Be billionaires," Vince snorted in agreement.

They made it to a register without further incident, paying for their flamingos and continuing to debate the profits from their crewmates' cursing. "We could buy a planet."

"This one seems shiny."

"Very shiny. So where to next?"

"Well, I got something for one grandma, still should look for the moms, Granny Bea, Granny Mel… Maybe we could find a place with a lot of shoes? Granny Bea loves shoes."

That made Cam look at Vince oddly. How many grandmothers does he have? But he was all for more shopping. "Yeah, we could do that. I’ll keep an eye out for something that Gran would like too. She’s kinda… kitch, you know?"

"No doubt we’ll find something kitch."

"In this place? Yeah."

*****

"…woulda come myself, but it was my first year of the Academy and some of my profs didn't think the biggest crush car derby in the galaxy was a good enough reason to skip classes, can you imagine? But Pops came in fifth, not bad!"

Hunk and Daniel were heading down a crowded main drag, with Hunk clearing the way for them pretty much just by existing. The fact that he was gesturing wildly as he told his war stories didn't hurt, though. Daniel was listening with rapt attention. "That's awesome! Well, not the not being able to go part. But him coming in fifth is pretty cool!"

"Totally." Grin. "Woulda medaled if I'd been here to keep the crew runnin' right, but there's always another time…" He paused in an intersection and looked around. It turned out the track from the galactic crush car finals Dradin had hosted had been converted to a bumper car circuit. No way was he missing that.

Neither was Daniel, though he'd lost track of where they were going a long time ago. "You know where we're at, right?"

"Totally. We're on Dradin." He looked up at a sign and frowned slightly. "On Besta Fiesta Boulevard."

Daniel nodded; good enough for him. "Where do we go from here?"

"I think this way." Taking one of the turns put them on a street dotted with model crush cars every couple hundred feet. Seemed like a decent hint. "Second car to the right, straight on 'til morning?"

"Huh?"

"…Nothin', little dude." Chuckling, he led the way down the road for a few more minutes. Soon enough they came within sight of a large, spiraling roller coaster track that looped halfway beneath the pavement. Hunk's eyes lit up. "Oh hey! I recognize that!"

"Oh yeah?" It looked impressive, though it wasn't a crush car track.

"That is the Corkscrew Blitz. They talked it up a lot on the broadcasts. C'mon, wait'll you see this." Giving Daniel's shoulder a light tug, Hunk ran for the loops.

Well, what the heck? Daniel ran after him. They passed between the high fences protecting the coaster track, finding a railing overlooking a road that went straight through the corkscrew. Almost the moment they arrived, about four dozen bumper cars came zooming down the pavement.

"Wow…" Daniel's eyes widened. This really was awesome.

A few stragglers came through a moment later; a brightly-painted bumper dragster slammed into two of the cars ahead of it, sending them skidding around and bouncing off the railing like pinballs. Hunk looked at Daniel, who was grinning wider and wider every moment. "Looks pretty much like real crush cars, but without the repair bills."

"It looks like fun! Where do we get on?"

"Pretty sure this was around the start…" He knew perfectly well this was around the start, he'd memorized the track layout at the time, but he wasn't here to show off his ability to read a map. "So I think if we just start walkin'," he pointed in the direction the cars had come from, "we oughta get to the start pretty quick!"

"Well come on!" Daniel took off in that direction at full speed.

The racetrack wound through several other attractions, and at one point even passed across a main street. There were crossing gates. More model crush cars pointed the way, and soon enough they came across a huge pavilion, declaring itself the Dradin Galactic Racetrack in bold neon letters.

The line didn't look too long, and they took up a spot at the end wearing matching grins. "This is gonna be awesome."

"Totally."

"I used to race the other kids in my neighborhood on dirt bikes." Daniel leaned over the railing to watch as a new wave of cars left the station, shooting off into the distance with a roar. "Nothing close to crush cars though."

"Yeah, definitely don't wanna crash on those." Hunk winked. "But you got some pretty good practice on Khoru, yeah?"

Daniel laughed. "Yeah… rolling through a desert wasn't exactly covered at the Academy."

"Little dude, nothin' we do was covered at the Academy."

It only took a few minutes to reach the front of the line. An attendant was waiting there, some sort of canine alien with a businesslike expression. It held two small digital pads out to them with one hand and held the other even with Daniel's neck; he stepped back slightly, startled, but the attendant didn't seem to even notice. "You must be this tall and sign this waiver to ride," it announced in a clipped accent.

Ohh. Smirking, Daniel accepted the waiver and signed off on it. "Good thing we didn't bring Pidge."

"True that." Chuckling, Hunk glanced over the waiver; eight languages of legal mumbo-jumbo he was certain he didn't really care about. Though the fact that it existed amused him. "You get a lot of use for these?" he asked as he signed and handed it back.

"We haven't had a serious injury in weeks," the attendant answered with a dismissive wave. "Just ensure you actually fasten your restraints, as detailed in paragraph 4."

"Yeah, Hunk. It's been a couple weeks, we'll be fine!"

"I was just curious!" They both laughed as they approached the pavilion proper, and he leaned over to whisper in the kid's ear. "Exactly like crush cars without the repair bills." Daniel laughed even harder.

Another attendant, this one a humanoid with shocking magenta skin, opened a gate for them. "Enjoy your race, sirs." Before either of them could snicker at being called sirs, the gate swung open and pushed everything else from their minds.

"Oh, dude…"

The lot had everything. There were rows and rows of bumper cars in nearly every form imaginable—from old Earth classic cars to Drule fighters, Vex-Cha freight hoppers to fuzzy animals. Tucked away in a corner was one that was definitely a roasted turkey with a glaring face painted on its front. Hunk was sorely tempted by that one, but opted instead for some sort of alien tricycle-racecar with giant chrome fins. Best for everyone on the track if they knew he was coming.

Daniel was torn between a gleaming purple racecar and a huge fluffy panda. As he wandered the aisles trying to make a decision, he spotted a sleek purple alien racing panda with a wicked smirk on its face; with a matching smirk he hopped aboard.

"We on the same side, little dude?" Hunk pulled up in his race-trike and grinned. "Or are we playin' King of the Bolt?"

Hmm. A good question. On one hand, Hunk was a professional… sort of. On the other, like hell Daniel was going to let that intimidate him. Maybe it would depend on the others filing into the lot. "Let's crush everyone else first, then we'll see."

"Works for me." The big guy revved his engine—it made much more noise then was remotely necessary for its horsepower, but that was part of the fun—and grinned broadly. "Vroom vroom! Eat my dust and feel your doom!"

Exchanging nods, they both floored it, shooting out onto the track in the midst of several other cars. "Woohoo!"

"Let's rock it!"

Immediately they were jostling for position with the others; a Vex-Cha bomber bumped Daniel from behind, sending him spinning into a wall. He recovered control and narrowed his eyes. "Oh yeah? It. Is. On."

At the same time, a sporty little… triceratops-looking thing?… breezed by Hunk, the Drule driving it giving him a mocking wave as she passed. He glared. "Oh it's so on. Switch 'em up, little dude!" He wrenched around and slammed into the bomber that had hit Daniel, sending it spinning away backwards down the track.

"Nice!" Laughing, Daniel gunned it, coming up behind the triceratops and ramming its side, making it plow into a carousel sled and leaving it—and Hunk—in the dust.

Oh, he wasn't going to get away with that. Punching his racer as fast as it would go, Hunk threaded the needle between two cars, leaving them to crash into each other as they tried to cut him off. King of the Bolt it was, then.

This was gonna be epic.

*****

The bar was called the Dizzy Blanket—something had probably been lost in translation there. It was tucked in between a casino and a laser tag park, and had the trio of worn-out explorers not been looking for it they might easily have missed it entirely. Which wasn't all bad. It was actually relatively quiet inside.

After spending the afternoon in the heart of Dradin's gaming district, even Lance could appreciate a little quiet.

The back room Keith had reserved for them was small and cozy, and empty. Apparently they were the first to arrive. Dropping into a booth, Flynn shook his head in bemusement. "We tried to play a game of throwing sharp objects… against a Viking. What were we thinking?"

Lance scooted in next to him, smirking. "I almost had him, speak for yourself."

"'Almost'. And I murdered you at ski-ball or whatever it was."

"I had a defective ball!"

Sitting across from them, Sven silently thanked the entire Norse pantheon that Jace hadn't been here to hear that. "Why is it that when people lose, it's never their fault? It's the equipment."

"Because maintenance is always the first thing to go," Flynn muttered. "Clearly." He probably wasn't even being sarcastic, but Lance punched his arm anyway.

"Yeah, yeah. I didn't say I had defective darts."

"And you were very close, Lance." Sven smiled. "We'll have a rematch sometime."

"Fuck yeah we will. Okay, let's see what we've got." He grabbed the beer menu and blinked; it was extensive. Extensive, as in, written in even more languages than the rest of Dradin's signage. He flipped through until he found the part he could actually read, which was still two large pages in small print. Closing his eyes, he dropped a finger in the menu, then checked out where he'd landed. "Okay, what do you all think of a beer called the Awesome Assassin?"

Flynn slowly raised an eyebrow. "I think we should make Pidge try it."

"It's not made of ninjas," Lance snorted. "I think."

"Well I'm certainly not touching it if it is." Shrug. "We should let Holgersson pick, he got us here in one piece." And they'd given him a hard enough time while he was doing so—he surely at least deserved a beer for the trouble.

"True, we do owe him one." Lance handed over the menu as a very attractive Hydran waiter appeared with glasses of ice water. Accepting his glass, the pilot looked the man up and down appreciatively. "Thank you."

Sven was quickly getting overwhelmed by the beer menu. "I never took Lance's class, I don't know which of these is any good…" Right about then his eyes fell on something called Snake Wine, and he handed the menu back with a flinch. It was too soon.

"I'm not even sure what any of these are," Lance admitted, pointing blindly again. "We could go with… Mabel and Yarddog?"

"That even sounds disgusting." Flynn took a long sip of his water. "If they're going to have a menu like this they really ought to do samplers."

"Oh they might." Waving the cute waiter over again, Lance gave his most flirtatious smirk; Flynn was briefly seized by the urge to dump his water over his head, but shook it off. "Hello, hi… do you have beer sampler platters?"

The waiter completely ignored the smirk. To be fair, he probably got them a lot around here. "We do. You can get a sample of eight, twelve, or fifteen."

"We'll go with the fifteen…" Looking at the menu again, the thought of choosing fifteen of the beers seemed oddly even more daunting than picking out just one. "Surprise us."

"We're going to need more water," Flynn murmured; Sven nodded in agreement.

"We will." Lance grinned. "Some of them have gotta be good."

"Bet they'll taste like beer."

"You're a lost cause." Good thing he's pretty. Shaking his head, Lance looked away and focused on… well, elsewhere… until the server returned with the tray.

"Wow…" Sven stared at the sampler and wondered if this was a good idea after all. Even without being full sized glasses, fifteen beers was a lot of beer.

Lance was having no such second thoughts. "Amazing, thank you. So, what's your best burger?"

"The Bacon Decadence."

"Yeah, that and loads of fries, please." Watching the waiter leave, he turned his attention to the tray of beer. Each glass had a beer name etched into the base, filled in with metallic paint in various colors. Not only did they have beer samplers, it seemed they were a serious thing. "Hey, there's one called Safety Hops. Maybe that's good for the newbies… or the hopeless."

Flynn eyed the Safety Hops doubtfully as Lance pushed it towards him. "Isn't that a song?" He was certain he'd heard Hunk blasting something to that effect before.

"Close. It's the Safety Dance."

"Makes just as little sense." He sipped the beer and fought down an immediate wave of revulsion. Even he could tell it was hideous… schooling his expression, he looked back at Lance. "Guess what?"

"Tastes like beer?"

"Tastes like flowers." He shoved it back at him with a disgusted scowl.

"Flowers?" Lance repeated in disbelief, taking a sip himself. He nearly spat it out; it tasted like walking through the Academy gardens in the middle of spring. "Huh? This is some next level beer."

As the other two debated the Safety Hops, Sven was studying the other fourteen glasses. He was sure he didn't want to drink flowers. One glass kept catching his eye; the liquid seemed to shift between blue, pink, and purple at the slightest flicker of light. It was beautiful, but it couldn't possibly taste good… could it? "Why not?" he muttered to himself, picking it up and taking a tiny sip.

Getting beer in the Viking was rare enough that it immediately drew the others' attention; Lance leaned over to read the glass. "Okay, so that's called Null Virus. Is it good?"

'Good' wasn't the word Sven would have chosen, though it wasn't bad either. He wasn't sure what it was. Taking a longer drink, he offered the only thing he could really determine. "Tastes like unripe blueberries."

"Blueberries isn't bad." A glass labeled Napalm Satan in fiery orange letters caught Lance's eye. No way was he passing that up. Taking a much bigger drink than was probably wise, he was treated to the brief sensation of his entire throat turning into a magma flow. "Whoa! That one has a kick." He took a more cautious sip and grinned. "I like it."

Sven finished the Null Virus, and still didn't know if he actually liked it or not. Didn't matter now, he supposed. Continuing with picking his beers by appearance—it was as good a standard as any—he took one that was almost jet black. "Sexy Gorilla…?" Something was probably lost in translation there too, he hoped. He took a cautious sip and nearly gagged. "Oh! That's disgusting."

"Taste like gorilla?"

"I'm not sure?" He took another drink, as if that would help—it was still disgusting, anyway. "I've never eaten gorilla."

"That even sounds like a terrible idea," Flynn commented, picking out a nice normal-looking glass and giving it a try. "Now this one tastes like beer… Opal Snapper?" Nothing about the beer seemed to have anything to do with opals or snappers. "Did we even need the beer? We could've just sat here laughing at the menu."

"I like both!" Lance declared, taking another glass. "This new beauty is called Dilapidated Baby… got a bit of a peachy finish." As he snickered at Flynn's mildly distressed expression, his burger arrived; he took a huge bite and grinned. "Ooh, yum."

Shaking his head, Flynn snagged a few of Lance's fries and looked over at Sven. "Viking, pick something worth buying you a mug of."

Sven blinked. He'd finished the nasty gorilla beer, and his head was spinning already. Did he really need a mug of anything? He was saved by someone else walking into the room—Keith, he determined after taking a moment for his vision to stop swimming.

"Oh, boy." The commander stared at all the glasses, noting how many were already empty. "This is going to be a long night…"

"Boss, my dude! Try this one." Lance pushed a glass labeled Buffer the DragonFly at him.

"Um, Lance… I don't drink beer." He was certain they'd discussed this before. More than once.

Flynn snorted. "We had to, you have to."

"Everyone drinks at least one tonight!"

"Unless you want me to throw it right back up, I'm passing on the beer." Keith took a chair and nabbed someone's untouched water. Probably Lance's; he was definitely keeping himself otherwise hydrated, chugging the beer Keith had refused while rolling his eyes.

Pretty much all of Lance's stuff was getting stolen, really. Flynn took a couple more fries—they were actually pretty good, and he was still trying to get rid of the aftertaste of flowers. Lance scowled at him. "Hey, sticky fingers, get your own."

"I've had six!" the engineer protested. "You ordered, and I'm quoting, loads!" He took a few more just on principle, earning a shrug and a wink.

Shaking his head, Keith flagged down the waiter. He needed a rum and cola, and clearly they were all going to need more fries. Though that was almost immediately undermined by a familiar voice ringing through the doorway.

"…not sayin' you weren't badass, little dude, but I definitely ran at least three more of those amateurs off the road than you did! It's math!"

"And I'm not saying you didn't bump into a lot more cars than me, what I'm saying is that I was way faster, therefore I won the race!"

"I mean sure, but it's called bumper cars, yeah? Ain't called speedy cars…" A grinning Hunk and Daniel came striding into the room, both carrying sparkly plush trophies; Hunk's grin only widened as he saw the table. "Oh hey! We're havin' the fun party, huh?" He snagged a glass—Hootenanny Rain—and downed it, sputtering slightly. "Good stuff."

"Welcome to the party," Lance said with a matching grin. "You gotta try this bacon burger."

That was the first time Hunk looked past the beer sampler, and his smile abruptly gave way to a scandalized look. "That's all the food you've got? That's how you get hangovers, my dudes. Yo!" He waved the waiter over; he hadn't managed to escape the room with Keith's order yet anyway. "Can we get burgers for everyone, and another of those beer platters? Thanks, bro!"

As they both dropped into seats, Daniel picked out a beer as well. Lit Iguana? He shrugged, wasn't like he was going to be picky. Taking a long drink of the vivid green beer, he went back to the previous discussion. "It's still a race, so I still won!"

"Ain't about what you call the game, little bro. It's about how you keep the score!"

That was… solid logic, really, and the Lit Iguana was tasty. Why argue when they could party? "Alright, how about we both won?"

"It'll do!" Hunk chuckled and clapped his shoulder as the new food and drinks arrived.

Sven gave his plate, or at least the blur he assumed must be his plate, a skeptical look. He'd been keeping to himself and drinking more beer this whole time; he was way past being responsible tonight, may as well try to erase the memory of the nasty gorilla beer from his taste buds. He'd gone through Friday Violence and Compulsive Duck—he felt a little bit like a compulsive duck himself just now—and was currently sipping very slowly on something cloudy gray called Jeering Miasma. He was way beyond buzzed at this point, and food was about the last thing he wanted.

Across from him, Flynn didn't look much more convinced by the Bacon Decadence. He was poking it with a fork, trying to figure out if there was actually anything on the bun except for bacon. It seemed like surely there must be, but he might have to dissect it to find out. It didn't seem worth the effort; he resolved to ignore it and focus on his fries.

Lance reached for a beer from the new tray. "Hmm. Bang the Cyclone."

Keith coughed on his own drink. "Bang the what?"

"Cyclone."

"Sounds dangerous," Flynn observed.

Lance swirled and sipped it, then shrugged. It wasn't much, really. If he hadn't known better, he'd almost have said it tasted like beer.

It didn't take much effort, at all, to find the 686's room by this point. Jace had wandered into the Dizzy Blanket with some trepidation, and the state of the tables confirmed every bit of it. "What the fuck kind of trouble did you people get in that made all of this necessary?"

"Trouble? This is just party 101, dude."

"I'm a sweet innocent angel, Doc. Pull up a chair."

"Not that we didn't get in trouble."

"Speak for yourself, we signed a waiver."

"A waiver?"

"Yeah, it was awesome."

As the medic shook his head at them all, Sven looked up from the beer he was sipping. "I wonagame," he slurred, then blinked. This definitely should be his last drink…

Whatever Jace had about to say to the others completely vanished as he stared at Sven. "Holy fuck, you actually got him drunk," he muttered under his breath. Looking at the navigator's untouched plate, he pulled a chair up and glowered. "Viking, I will force feed you fries if I've gotta. Open the fuck up."

"I really hope that's not in your seduction technique," Lance mocked. But Sven was much too buzzed to protest; he obediently opened his mouth. "…Oh wait, can't be, it worked."

Jace stared for another moment; even he hadn't really expected that to work. But since it had, he stuck a fry in the Viking's mouth and shook his head in bemusement. "Didn't even have to pay him."

"Payme for wut?" Sven asked as he munched on the fry, and Lance snorted so hard beer went up his nose.

"Fuck."

Finishing up the Lit Iguana, Daniel started on drink number two. He didn't feel all that buzzed… really he didn't feel buzzed at all. But clearly he had to have been, because when he looked up a moment later, he saw Cam walking in the door… wearing a huge sombrero with flashing lights, carrying a large pink flamingo under one arm and a bag of shoes in the other hand. "The hell…?"

Vince came in right behind him, wearing a gigantic pair of glittery sunglasses and carrying a pair of tiger striped stiletto heels. Flynn stared at him blankly, then looked around the table. "Okay, which of these got us drunk just by sitting here? It's the only explanation."

Looking between the new arrivals and Sven, Jace surrendered to the inevitable. "Fuckers driving me to drink after all, fine…" He took the most normal-looking glass of beer left and checked the name. "Yolo Days? Sounds right for this crew."

Chuckling, Hunk took a second beer—Angry Slang, that seemed more than a little appropriate—and clinked glasses with him. "Cheers, bro!"

"Saúde." The medic downed the whole thing in one gulp.

Cam reached the table and tipped his giant sombrero at them. "Hey guys, how's the food?"

"Amazing, little dude. Killer hat!"

With a sigh of relief, Vince fell into a chair. His legs ached like crazy; this may have been just one entertainment district, but it was huge. He set the shoes on the table and shook his wrist out, getting a look from Lance.

"Uh, Vince… um? No judgment, but I never took you for tiger prints and heels."

Vince wasn't entirely sure if that was a joke or not, though it probably deserved an answer either way. He pushed the sunglasses up and made a face. "They're for Granny Bea."

"Your granny wears stilettos?"

"All the time."

"I'm impressed." Smirking, Lance handed him a beer called Wild Robots; it seemed like his kind of thing. "Drink up."

Oh. The younger engineer eyed the beer warily. "I've never had one."

"Perfect timing, then."

That wasn't how Vince would have described it, but he supposed he couldn't really say no. He looked at the beer—it looked a lot like hydraulic fluid—and exhaled slowly. "When in Dradin…"

"What happens on Dradin stays on Dradin, little bro!" Hunk clapped his shoulder with a grin, and the beer nearly ended up in his lap.

"Yeah," Jace muttered, "especially if you throw it up…" He was still trying to force Sven to eat. Getting anything substantial in him seemed to be right out, but at least he was nibbling grudgingly on some more fries. "Better than nothing, dumbass, you'll thank me in the morning."

In the meantime Cam had dropped into a seat between Keith and Daniel. The gunner most definitely was buzzed now—starting right in on beer number three, a vaguely metallic-tasting concoction called Hundo Trombone, had helped with that—and eyed him suspiciously. A moment later his suspicions were confirmed as Cam held the flamingo out to him. "Got you something, bud!"

Daniel stared at it in horror, then downed the rest of his drink. "Why?" He didn't touch the flamingo, of course, because what the fuck.

"Peace offering? It's cute! Made me think of you."

The Hundo Trombone was going right to Daniel's head. He blinked it back as the flamingo started to spin a little in front of him, turning to Cam and narrowing his eyes. "Is this your sick way of declaring war?"

"I tried to warn him," Vince muttered, sipping his beer.

"No! It was a gift! But if you don't want the cute little fella, I'll keep him…" Sulking, Cam nabbed a beer from the tray. "Jupiter Mint?" It was a swirling mix of red and orange and green, and he wasn't wholly certain he trusted it… maybe he should just order some vodka.

Daniel was still glaring at the flamingo as though it had personally offended him. As indeed it had. "Birds bring nothing but pain. It's not staying in our room."

"But…"

A second wave of burgers came for the new arrivals, calming things down a bit. Gradually the rest of the beer vanished, but they were still missing someone… Flynn kept glancing at his datapad between slow sips of Gunmetal Fire, which tasted like beer. Every so often he glanced at the clock on the wall, too, even though he had all of zero idea how to read whatever alien time format it was displaying. It was a reflex. So was being on edge when the ninja was out of his sight for too long.

"I wanna go home," Cam was singing softly, "I wanna go home… Lord, I just wanna go hooommmme…"

"One too many vodkas, Starr?" Keith asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I'm from the moon…" He giggled. "Fly me to the moon…"

"…That's a yes."

"Youse singings are bad," Daniel slurred, giving him a bleary-eyed glare. Cam waved the flamingo at him.

Jace looked at the kid, considered an intervention, then decided he was too busy with the Viking. Sven was leaning back in the booth with his eyes closed. Really he was probably in about the best shape here… for now… the medic dipped a napkin in some ice water, pressed it to his forehead, and sighed. "He's probably never gonna drink again now, you assholes."

"Sure he will." Hunk was eating Flynn's burger. "Ain't gonna remember this at all."

"Point."

Picking up the last beer, Lance raised it triumphantly and cleared his throat for attention. "Last one! And the winner is…" He read the name and snerked. "Softcore Pond!" Several of the others couldn't help snickering as he downed it.

"So many bad decisions…"

"These are great decisions, what are you talking about?"

Flynn glanced at his datapad again. "Where is he?" he muttered. He'd really have liked to be able to sit back and laugh at his drunk teammates without worrying.

"Ninja can take care of himself, Flynn."

"It's not him I'm worried about," the engineer protested. "It's whoever he's getting stabby with."

"That's fair."

Vince was facing the door and nibbling the last of his fries, very glad he'd restrained himself to the one beer. Though a moment later he found himself questioning if even that had been too much.

A giant pile of stuffed animals walked into the room.

"What the fuck?!"

"Oh no… wows… itsa monser."

"Damn."

"I feel drunk for the first time in my life."

"Standing by what I asked about intoxication by proximity…" Flynn paused, catching sight of two hands poking out of the pile. Two hands in black gloves with a slight iridescent sheen, pretty much exactly like a Baltan stealth suit.

At the same time, a giant… fluffy turtle?… started to waver on the front of the pile. Hunk was closest; he reflexively reached out and grabbed it before it could fall. As he pulled it away, Pidge's face poked out of the hole.

"Aaahhhh!"

"Ninja monser."

"Kid, you should not drink… but you're not wrong, exactly."

Pidge sought Keith out, looking as businesslike as ever. "Sorry I'm late, sir."

"Really, ninja?" Lance demanded. "That's what you're leading with?"

"…Yes? I'm late?"

"You're a walking stuffed toy factory!"

"You can put those down, Pidge, we have the room…"

At Flynn's invitation Pidge immediately dumped the pile on the nearest empty table, more relieved than he cared to admit to offload them. Keith finally recovered enough to address his apology. "Um… you're forgiven, Stoker. Have fun?"

"I did, sir." He looked chagrined. "You might get a report, though."

"…What did you do." Flynn sounded resigned.

"I don't know." He shrugged helplessly. "The goal of the ring toss game is to land the rings on the bottles, kir sa tye? I just did what the rules said to do and they told me I had to leave."

Several of the team burst into laughter; Keith just blinked. "Oh dear. You cleaned them out?"

"They didn't seem unorganized."

"Dude, he means you won most of their prizes, right?"

"Oh!" Pidge nodded. "They ran out. But I still had rings left." He looked back at the pile in what looked like some distress. "I don't even know what I'm supposed to do with them."

Jace eyed the pile too. There were all kinds of alien critters represented, but they were all large and fluffy. "Can I borrow a couple? Gonna need something soft for the Viking to fall on when we leave."

"Whys 'Ven gonna fall?" Daniel asked blankly.

"…Let fallen angel over there borrow one too."

"He has one," Cam objected, patting the flamingo; Daniel gave him another unfocused glare.

"Whys are you s'mean to me?"

"He's gonna need something bigger than that flamingo," Lance pointed out. "Hand over a unicorn." He was pretty sure he'd seen a couple of large rainbow ones in the pile.

Pidge was looking at the flamingo, though. "I think I got one of those too." He pulled out a gigantic pink eagle and pushed it in Daniel's general direction.

Flynn nearly spit out his beer; Hunk practically choked on his bacon burger. Cam's eyes lit up. "Oh! It's adorable!"

"Ohmgods." Daniel was not quite scared sober—he was way past that—but he was sure as hell scared. Scrambling back to try to get away from the huge pink bird, he fell off his chair with a thud. A moment later he sighed, relieved. He couldn't see any birds from down here.

"…I think you were supposed to fall on the stuffed animal?" Pidge set it back down, looking confused.

"It's not real, kid." Lance shook his head, laughing, and bent down to have a look under the table. "You good? Need help up?"

"M'happy here."

Shrugging, Lance handed him some fries. Sometimes you really just had to roll with it.

*****

Since she'd returned to the tunnels lugging the rock deer behind her, Larmina had hardly been able to get outside on her own. The militia was convinced she was lucky. So she hadn't been back to the forest, hadn't seen any banewolves, and certainly hadn't tracked down any more deer.

She certainly wasn't actually lucky, either.

It was a much less triumphant band of hunters trudging back to the caves today, all three silent and shellshocked. Larmina wasn't sure if she was dragging Hanso and Allendar, or they were dragging her. Perhaps it was somewhere in between. Every few steps one of them would glance over their shoulders, making sure they weren't being followed, though surely they'd have heard it if they were.

All that was following them was in their own heads. Even blinking brought it back. There had been so many bodies. The Drules were supposed to be finished with that kind of barbarity, they were supposed to be content to threaten the people and plunder their resources…

Reaching the main cave, she immediately caught sight of Allura, who just as immediately started hurrying over to them. That was the last thing Larmina needed—the militia didn't know about her bloodline, and she'd much prefer to keep it that way.

Next to her, she felt the other two flinch. "We… have to tell Her Highness, don't we?"

"We have to report to the Captain first. Chain of command."

"But—"

A twinge of responsibility shot through Larmina as they muttered to each other. They were right, they had to report. And while she knew Allura wasn't nearly so intimidating as they might think… maybe it would go better if she heard it from someone she knew.

"Go on and report to your Captain," she said quietly, pulling away from the other two. "I'll tell Aun—uh, I'll tell the Princess what we found."

Both of them stared at her. "You sure?"

"Let us do it, we signed on for dealing with… this stuff…" Not even Allendar seemed to believe what he was saying. The militia had certainly not been formed with the thought of fending off alien conquest and occupation. They hadn't been trained for the horrors of war any more than Larmina herself had. "…It should be our job," he finished lamely.

Not so long ago, she might have said yes. She might have stepped back and run from the responsibility. Now she shook her head slowly. "It's okay. I should be able to do something other than argue about our roli numbers."

That part, at least, wasn't a lie.

With one last pair of concerned looks, they started off to the makeshift militia post, and not a moment too soon. Allura was within earshot. "Larmina, are you okay?"

She almost laughed at that. "Auntie…" Glancing around, she saw a few eyes darting in their direction. Nobody close, but the princess' movements always drew attention. "…um, is there somewhere we can talk that's quiet?"

Nodding, Allura led her back into the labyrinth of the private royal tunnels. She kept a close eye on her niece every step of the way. Larmina was shaking. She didn't seem to realize it, but it was clear in just a few moments of watching that she was trembling with each unsteady step. When they stopped she nearly collapsed against the wall; Allura offered a hand to steady her. "What is it?" she asked gently.

"Um…" Now that she'd insisted on making the report, words refused to come out. "We, um. We were hunting in the mountains. A ship was there, one of the big ugly ones—you know, as opposed to the little ugly ones and the medium ugly ones…" She made a face, she was just babbling now and she knew it, though Auntie only looked that much more worried. "It was over by Elauria. We saw it open fire…"

Allura paled, biting back a soft cry of pain. Elauria was one of many small villages dotting the mountains, so inconsequential the Drules had sent only a token force to keep them in line. That particular village was very near one of the furthest tunnel exits; a few of the villagers had been helping to smuggle critical medicines down to the shelters. "Are they…?"

Larmina squeezed her eyes shut and immediately regretted it; the burned-out buildings were there waiting for her. "They burned most of the village and rounded up most of the people. There are some survivors, the village isn't quite gone." Her tone had gone a bit numb—she had to get it out somehow. The village itself hadn't even been the worst of it.

Not that it wasn't bad enough. Why? Why them, why now? Allura blinked back a few tears, though it didn't stop more from falling. She had her suspicions. One slip from the silent resistance was all it would have taken… a pang of guilt stabbed through her, but she forced it aside as best she could. There wasn't time for guilt now. "Is there anything we can do to help the survivors?"

"I don't know. They wouldn't come back here with us, they were afraid of being tracked. We came the really, really long way through the foothills, just in case." She took a steadying breath. "Auntie, they're taking captives to…" What was the name? For the first time she wished she'd paid a little more attention to diplomacy lessons. "…Kronoth? They told the ones they left behind that's where all the prisoners were going."

"By the gods… they are?" That was the first Allura had heard of prisoners being taken from the planet, and it could really only mean one thing. "Our people…" Slaves. They're taking Arusians as slaves. The occupation had been bad enough. This was a whole new kick to the guts.

Larmina nodded, her voice going very quiet. "They didn't… they didn't really take all of them."

"No?" Why not all? For an instant, those words gave Allura a flicker of hope. Only an instant. Much darker possibilities provided themselves on the heels of that hope. She may not have heard of prisoners being removed to Korrinoth, but she'd certainly heard rumors of the occupying troops taking captives for comfort and pleasure… she tried to shake that thought away too. It doesn't matter. No matter what they were being taken for, they were her people. "We have to find a way to help them. All of them." Maybe if she said it with enough conviction, an idea would actually spring to mind.

Her niece's turquoise eyes raised slightly, then she shook her head. There was no help for the ones who hadn't been taken. "They told the survivors it wasn't a good example if nobody was left to tell about it. But then they… decided they didn't want all the ones they'd rounded up, I guess…" Even attempting to finish the report was making her feel sick again; her voice became a sort of ragged whisper-squeak. "…and that's what we saw the ship shooting…"

Another whole new weight slammed down in Allura's stomach as what Larmina was trying to tell her sank in. They… she felt tears trying to fight their way forward again, though they hadn't quite stopped to begin with. "Larmina…" The younger girl didn't seem to hear her. Carefully, she put a hand on her shoulder; she jumped, but didn't pull away. "We'll help the survivors," she promised. "We'll find a way to stop this from happening to any more of our people… somehow."

As if Larmina believed that for a second. Part of her wanted to flee the caves, to run back to the forest and track down the banewolves and stay where she didn't have to think about any of this anymore. But the other part of her knew better, and she collapsed against the princess, allowing one of Auntie's trademark hugs without even a little protest. All her energy was going into not crying, anyway. "We should… we should at least go back and… bury the bodies, or burn them, or something… shouldn't we?" Just leaving them out to rot felt wrong. That was what the Drules had done. One final mockery… they could at least fix that.

"We will. We'll take care of them. I promise." Allura wasn't about to let go. It hurt enough to hear about—she could hardly imagine having stumbled across it.

Maybe her niece's thoughts were tracking along the same lines, because after a moment she looked up fiercely. "No. We will. Me and the militia. You… you shouldn't have to see it, there's… we can't risk you going out there anyway. In case they are watching."

Allura hesitated. She didn't like that at all. She didn't want to send Larmina out to take risks in her place. But it was clear from the look in her eyes… she needed to do this, somehow. So she nodded. "Then be careful. I couldn't stand for something to happen to you as well."

"We will be. I promise." Looking up, Larmina attempted a smile. It was really the least convincing smile ever, but it was a smile nonetheless. "…Can I smack a Drule if we see one?"

Allura couldn't help but crack a hint of a smile as well. "Not yet. But we'll add this to the list of things you'll smack them for later." As they looked at each other, she felt tiny claws on her back, then a weight on her shoulder. Looking down she saw one of the mice had joined them, chirping and squeaking. "He's offering to lend an ear when you go back to Elauria," she translated as Larmina gave a questioning look.

A mouse? Why not? They'd helped her before, hadn't they? And it wasn't as if she was going to question the utility of wildlife around here. Luckily Elauria was a long way away from the forest and the banewolves… with a slightly more genuine smile, Larmina reached up and patted the mouse's nose. "I wouldn't say no to the help."

Squeaking happily, the mouse leapt over to her shoulder. Allura smiled and fed it a small ration cracker. "Do your best, Cheesy." It chittered its understanding.

Okay. We have a mouse on our side! We can do this. Larmina took a long, deep breath. "I should go talk to Captain Sarial then, I guess. We should… get it over with."

"I wish you the best of stealth and quickness." Allura squeezed her hands. "Stay safe."

Larmina hesitated for a moment. Just a moment. Then she gave her another squeeze back before pulling away. "You stay safe too. We've got this." She sounded far more confident than she was, but it had to start somewhere, didn't it?

Watching her go, Allura made a fairly futile attempt to wipe her tears away. They'd never entirely quit falling. Larmina's focus and determination seemed to have increased since her mother's passing… Queen Orla must be proud. A sad irony. Thinking of ghosts seemed to call them to her, and she felt the comforting presence of one of her ancestors as her own focus shifted to the issue at hand.

The Drules were taking slaves from Arus. A whole new escalation. The council, such as it was, needed to know… her father needed to know. Word had to get out to the other shelters, and the settlements. Elauria could have been targeted for aiding the Arusians in hiding… it could have just been targeted as a source of labor the Drules felt would serve them better elsewhere. Either way, something had to be done.

What?

…That was always the question. Closing her eyes, Allura started to go over what to tell the advisors about this new information. Something had to be done… something had to change. But with every new day, hope got just a little bit harder.

How much longer could they really hold on?

Chapter Text

Thanks to a combination of dumb luck and bacon burgers, only two members of the 686 had ended up with hangovers. Sven was not one of them.

Jace, on the other hand, was.

He'd only even had one drink! But something in it had evidently not agreed with him. So now he was sprawled on his back on one of the medtech beds, alternating between a game on his datapad and glaring at the occupied bed next to him. The other member of Team Hangover hadn't made a peep since he hit the pillow. He'd been moaning like he was dying before that, this was preferable… even as that thought went through Jace's mind, the kid started to twitch, and his eyes narrowed. His peace was about to be disturbed.

Daniel slowly blinked himself awake, mentally preparing for the misery to return, and a big smile graced his face when no such feeling came. "Hey Jace!"

Jace slowly turned his head. "What."

"I feel so much better!" Daniel all but squealed.

"Whoop-dee-fucking-doo for you." The kid's voice felt roughly equivalent to a hammer hitting his head. A loud, obnoxious, inexplicably high-pitched hammer. "If you're not sick, you can get the fuck out of my sick bay."

"You know, I always feel so loved when you're in the room," Daniel snarked.

The medic just looked at him. "I must be doing something wrong, then."

Daniel laughed at the response, and kept laughing longer than he probably needed to. It felt so good to laugh and not wish for death. "Are we the only ones who got sick?"

"Apparently. Viking sure didn't. He thinks this is fucking hilarious." Sven had been there earlier to check on them, and to nab Daniel's wanted poster. And to laugh at him a bit, which in fairness, he completely deserved.

"I thought for sure he'd have the worst hangover."

"Guess the one he got from the rift got it out of the way early." Jace grimaced. "Now shut up and get out of here before I have to say something I'll regret, like 'please'."

"You know you love me," Daniel told him as he stood up to make his way out. He paused at the doorway, a big smile back on his face. "Feel better soon!" he yelled, then took off.

Jace stared after him, then sighed. "Yolo Days. What the fuck was I thinking?" he growled, before getting up and flicking the lights off. At least now he could grumpily stare at the ceiling in peace.

Daniel walked into his quarters still wearing the big smile. "I'm cured!"

Cam blinked. He'd been reading, it had been oddly but pleasantly quiet with his roommate in the sick bay. "Oh. That's good…"

"Very." Daniel looked at him. "Whatcha doin?"

"Just reading." Cam shrugged. "Figured if the commander is out doing work, I should be doing something productive too."

Daniel shook his head. "At least you're consistent." He plopped on his bed and began trying to think of ways he could be productive. Which didn't last long, mainly because he realized that was boring. What he really wanted to be doing was going to the meeting with Mansetti. That would've been cool and productive. Stupid hangover.

His Mansetti thoughts eventually led to thoughts on Boss Dread, and how awesome his name was. Which then led to a metaphorical light bulb lighting up above his head. "Yo! I just had an awesome idea!"

Turning a page, Cam opted not to even look up from his book. "Whatever you're thinking, no."

Daniel kept talking as if he hadn't heard him. "We should go ask that Boss Dread guy if he knows anything about Altea."

Now his roommate did look up, staring at him in disbelief. "Not a good idea man. I mean, yeah, we might get something, but it's the mafia! Trust me, you don't mess with the mafia. I'm Russian, I know."

"You're from the moon. There's mafias on the moon?" Daniel was skeptical, and not just of the Russian mafia living on the moon, but also goodie-two-shoes Cam knowing anything about the supposed Russian moon mafia.

"Yes. Russians on the moon means mafia on the moon," Cam assured him.

Daniel raised an eyebrow. "Whatever." Alright, time to go at this a different way. "We'll be careful, and think about how impressed Keith will be if we find out something useful."

Though Cam felt like glaring, somehow he just ended up staring again. "You know, you said I couldn't talk about him in front of you, and yet you brought him up…"

"No, I said you can't fanboy over him in front of me. There's a difference." Daniel was determined; if it was the last thing he did, Cam would learn the damn difference.

"Man…" His roommate shook his head. He's got a point, but it's risky. "If, and I stress that big time, if we do this we have to tell someone. If we get into hot water we could end up dead."

Daniel popped off his candidate of choice immediately. "Lance." Lance would be on board… and if he wasn't right off, he was probably the only one who could be convinced.

"He won't go for this… after his reaction to snake dude? Going to this guy?" Cam was pretty certain even Lance wouldn't go for this insanity, or at least he was hopeful.

"He'll totally go for it…" Daniel smirked. "Hang on." He pulled out his datapad. Cam just picked his book back up, waiting for the 'OH HELL FUCK NO' to happen.

Yo! Lancey-Pants!

Lance heard the ding and checked his datapad; they didn't use texting all that often, the ship had perfectly good internal comms. His eyes narrowed at the message.

BANG YOU'RE DEAD.

Daniel laughed, then remembered Lance couldn't hear that and inserted a laughing face emoji. Can you come to me and Cam's room? I've had an amazing idea.

"Fuck…" Lance rolled off of his bed. Anything the kid thought was an amazing idea was questionable enough as it was, never mind something he wouldn't just say over the comms. I doubt that. But he was also pretty sure he'd better come hear this bad idea, because refusing wouldn't stop them.

Ye of little faith.

Okay, I'm on my way… for some fucking reason.

"He's on his way," Daniel announced. Cam ignored him, continuing to read his book.

Lance came barging in a couple of minutes later. "Alright, children. What is it?"

"You're not going to go for it," Cam told him.

"You're totally gonna go for it," Daniel countered.

That sent an eyebrow shooting up immediately. "Am I?"

"Yes. We wanna go ask the Dread guy about Altea."

Lance blinked. "You wanna do fucking what?" Somehow it was even worse than he'd expected.

Cam smiled, relaxing a little. "I told you it was a bad idea." A bad idea that would definitely be squashed now, surely.

Daniel smiled too. "We want to be productive, and Cam wants to impress bossman."

Oh, no he didn't. Cam slowly closed his book, glaring. "This was all you. I'm trying to not get killed here."

"And getting yourself murdered is the way you want to do that?" Lance responded at the same time.

"You semi-agreed, Cam."

"I only said 'if'! 'If' is a long way from even semi-agreeing."

"You know you want to. Just give in already!" Daniel rolled his eyes, he was always having to talk this guy into stuff he knew he wanted to do. Lance shook his head, letting them argue, and the kid looked back over at him. "Cam said if we did this we had to tell someone, so I'm telling you."

"If I say no, you're talking that other idiot into it anyway, aren't you?" Lance sighed.

As Cam watched, the conversation was turning from something promising into something that made him feel like banging his head against the wall. "Hey!" I'm trying to talk him out of going!"

"Yes," Daniel assured him, ignoring Cam.

"Yes, you're putting up just the right amount of protest to cover your ass…" Lance retorted, before addressing the bigger issue. "Alright, we'll all go."

"Wait, what?!"

"YES!"

"You're… Seriously?" Cam stared between the pilot and gunner and blinked. Did he really just say yes?

"Yep." Lance told him, shrugging. I just wanna see what the fuck they manage to accomplish. He hadn't heard anything resembling a plan accompanying this idea.

"Told you so," Daniel gloated.

Cam groaned and flopped onto his bed. "I hate you, man. I hate both of you. This is such a bad idea."

"Cam, there are no good ideas on an Explorer Team." Lance felt like that lesson should have gotten through by now.

"So I'm starting to figure out." Cam sighed. "So you're really okay with going to see the guy that snake guy said to go see?"

"I'll be supervising," Lance said as if that fixed everything.

"Would you stop?" Daniel rolled his eyes and shot Cam a scowl. "We got old person approval. That was your only condition."

"HEY!" Lance yelled. The kid really had to stop with this 'old person' business, especially if he wanted approval for dumb ideas.

"If this goes sideways…" Cam glared. "Flamingos for days."

"…That will start a war that I promise you won't win."

"Didn't I just tell you I'm Russian? We know how to wage a war."

"I'm me. I annoyed you by walking into a room early. Imagine if I was actually trying."

"Are you two gonna just argue like an old married couple, or are we gonna go on this mafia hunt?" Lance asked. The ill-advised mission was definitely safer than letting their headache-inducing bickering continue.

"Married… oh god, no. I'm not seeing that elvish guy!" Cam was horrified by the thought.

"ELVISH?" Lance was horrified by the words.

"Yeah, that elvish impersonator you were talking about? Some… king of rock and roll?" Cam was 90% sure he had that right.

"Fucking… Elvis. EL-VIS." Lance was absolutely getting a headache now.

"Yeah, not marrying that."

"He marries… you know what, never mind." It wasn't worth it.

Cam sighed and grabbed his sidearm, and after second thought, a knife. "I can't believe we're really doing this. Such a bad idea. Huge mistake."

Glare. "Shut it, debbie downer!"

"He's probably right. Anyway, Daniel, this is your idea. You lead." Lance pulled out his datapad; it would probably be a good idea to tell someone what they were up to. Flynn was probably the best choice. Unlike Keith, he wouldn't ask questions until it was over.

Off with Idiot 1 and Idiot 2, to be idiotic… sure it'll be fine. Am supervising. Don't ask for details.

"Okay…" Daniel grinned and nodded before grabbing his own sidearm. "Let's get out of here!" Checking his own guns—all four of them, he'd brought extras just in case, and clearly that had been a good decision—Lance shook his head and followed him out.

"Ve all going to be kilt," Cam muttered as they walked off the ship, emphasizing his accent. Just in case he hadn't reminded them enough about his being Russian today. He was definitely going to be bringing it up again when things with the freaking mafia went bad.

"I look stunning in a kilt," Lance responded.

"Cam, stop talking like a bad version of Dracula."

"Poyekhali."

Daniel ignored whatever he'd just said and eyed the colorful tourist map he'd downloaded. "This way." He wasn't certain where they were going, but he did have a pretty good idea of where to start.

Lance shook his head again as they forged into the chaos of Dradin. They're never going to find him.

*****

The meeting with Mansetti was scheduled for midday; Keith had originally planned to go alone. He wasn't too sure what the protocol was, and this was one meeting they definitely couldn't afford to botch. But he'd been convinced—it hadn't really taken all that much—that walking alone into the hands of the legendary smuggler who owned the planet may not be the best idea.

Hunk was tagging along precisely because he wanted to meet a real live legendary smuggler; it sounded fun. Sven had signed on because duty, adventure… and well, hungover Jace was significantly worse than regular Jace.

"Let's hope this Mansetti is an agreeable character."

"Can't be too disagreeable, dude built a planet into an amusement park."

"True. Alright, remember. Bounty hunters. Looking for a criminal. Did one of you happen to snag Daniel's wanted poster?"

"I have it." Sven had been thinking ahead. He'd nabbed the poster from Daniel when he went to visit Jace in the sick bay.

Hunk grinned. "Viking's on it."

"Good." Keith nodded, looking at his directions, which he'd double and triple checked this time. Though he really needn't have bothered. Once they came in sight of what they were looking for, it was impossible to miss.

The building was a towering round high-rise that shimmered in Dradin's neon lights. If Keith didn't know better—did he know better?—he'd have said it was plated with actual gold. The windows were tinted in various bright colors, and every few floors there was a band of a painted floral pattern that wouldn't have looked out of place on a Hawaiian shirt. The sign on the front was written in a language he couldn't read, but there was writing in several other languages around the edges. It took him a moment to find the Common, which declared the building CHEZ MANSETTI.

It was… quite a thing, that was for sure. "Wow…"

"Interesting design."

"I like this dude already," Hunk declared, eyes wide with admiration.

Of course he did. Keith took a slow breath to steady himself; he was a little nervous. Just a little. Especially after the whole giant snake escapade. "Okay. We ready to do this?"

"Yes sir."

"Totally."

The interior, or at least the lobby, was just as garish and wild as the exterior. Nine different clerks were standing behind a huge polished gold counter, and the human one quickly waved them over. "Welcome to Chez Mansetti, the Spur's premier source of high-rise high-fashion office space! How can I help you?"

"I believe we have an appointment with Mr. Mansetti."

"Name?"

Keith fought back the wince. Using his real name… exactly… had once again seemed unwise. "Ko-gain and party." He was not at all unaware of his companions glancing at each other with raised eyebrows.

The clerk wasn't even looking at them, busy typing away. After a few moments he nodded. "Aha! Yes, there you are, Mr. Ko-gain. Mr. Mansetti is expecting you. Take elevator four up to the Observation Suite, he'll be waiting."

"Thank you." Turning in the direction the clerk had pointed, they headed for the elevator bank. Keith took another long breath. He was very glad he'd allowed the other two to come along now… Sven's businesslike demeanor gave him a silent but deadly aura, and Hunk looked exactly like a huge mafia bouncer.

Hunk was also staring at the neon elevator buttons with childlike glee. "Can I poke 'em?"

Sigh. "Button, yes. Mansetti, no."

Bursting into laughter, Hunk sought out the button for the observation suite. "I promise not to poke the smuggler kingpin. Probably." As he pressed the button, the elevator immediately shot up with a jolt; he grinned wider. "Wheeee!"

Sven chuckled, and Keith just crossed his arms and shook his head slightly. At least he still looks scary.

Soon enough the elevator halted, and the doors swished open to reveal a room full of sensory overload. The first thing he noticed was the 360-degree windows, offering an incredible view of Dradin's chaos. The second was the jagged black and white carpet, potted palm trees, and half a dozen squishy armchairs with bright upholstery.

The third was the alien sitting in the largest of those armchairs. Keith had never seen—or in fact heard of—a Karkinosi before, and couldn't quite keep down the startled blink. Mansetti was a very large, portly creature with four arms, four eyes, and a pair of antennae that had perked up as they entered. His skin was a maroon carapace dotted with small spikes. He could have looked very intimidating… but it was hard to be intimidated by someone wearing what looked to be a gaudy brightly-colored bathrobe and a copious amount of bling.

"Ah, welcome!" He stood and gestured expansively with all four arms. He may have been smiling—his beak-like mouth made it hard to tell for sure—but his tone was friendly enough. "Mr. Kogane and associates, I trust?"

Whatever worry the bathrobe had banished came surging back in full force. Keith stared at him. Mansetti had a thick accent, but it couldn't account for that. "It's… Ko-gain, actually…" The words physically pained him. The other two snickering behind him didn't help.

"Ah, is it?" Two of the Karkinosi's eyebrows arched behind his sunglasses. "Hmm. Here I thought I was meeting with one of the Alliance's youngest commanders." That cut off the snickering immediately. But he just shrugged. "Well, please have a seat! We'll figure out who you are soon enough. You can call me Manset."

What the…? Keith blinked, suddenly off-balance, fighting to recover his composure. "It's a pleasure, Manset." He took a seat in a chair across from the smuggler's, eyeing the coffee table between them until he got his expression under control. Then he gestured to his teammates. "This is Hunk and the Viking. What made you think I might be this young commander?"

Sven blinked himself as he took a seat on Keith's right. We're telling other people my nickname now? Bounty hunting, he supposed…

Manset returned to his own chair and looked them over carefully. "A bit of research. I have many enemies, you understand. Some who'd be bold enough to send people after me in my own office." He shrugged again. "But somehow, I don't think young Commander Kogane would be the type, even if those enemies did hire Earthlings."

"Hmm." That was all Keith could really manage for a moment. He glanced at Hunk and Sven, who to their credit were giving the room a second sweep and not jumping into the middle of this, as much as he might have liked help. "Well, he sounds very honorable and… talented? But we're just bounty hunters." Now the other two shot him looks again, and he glared slightly.

It didn't seem to bother Manset, who chuckled and waved it off. "Don't worry, don't worry! I assure you, if you need someone to understand not being easily traced, you're speaking to the right Karkinosi." He was really quite convinced Commander Kogane had learned everything he knew about undercover work from holos, but he wasn't judging. "So, bounty hunting. What bounty might you be after? So long as it isn't my hide, perhaps I can be of help to you."

Though he was still a bit off balance, Keith decided the subject of his identity was best abandoned. Nothing here seemed threatening, and they were paying the man well for his time. No sense in wasting it. He nodded to Sven, who produced the wanted poster and handed it over. "We're searching for the man on this poster."

Leaning forward and lifting his sunglasses, Manset peered at the poster carefully. "Questionable-looking fellow." He chuckled. "I ought to know."

"He's apparently looking for some legendary weapon on a planet named Altea. We've been trying to track down anything we can about either him or the planet."

The smuggler studied the poster a bit longer, then shook his head. "I don't recognize the fellow, and I've never heard of a planet called Altea. What brought you to me, if you don't mind my asking?"

That question they had anticipated, at least, and the truth had seemed like the best bet. "We were… originally attempting to get an audience with a mafia boss based on this planet. We were supposed to get an introduction from an associate of his, but the associate decided to double cross us, and well…" Keith shrugged, trying to say the next part as non-threateningly as possible. "He met an untimely end."

"He was a snake," Hunk muttered. "Literally."

Nodding, Manset leaned back and adjusted his sunglasses again. "Ahh, I see. You ran into one of Boss Dread's agents."

So he did know of Dread, at least. Keith nodded, knowing they would need to tread carefully here. "We were told he had a network and resources that might be able to help us find our man."

"Of course, of course. But you came to me?"

Hunk grinned. "You sounded nicer."

"Definitely a more enjoyable meeting," Sven agreed.

Keith winced slightly, but calmed as Manset burst into laughter. He waited for it to die down, then shrugged. "We didn't know how to get in touch with Dread after his agent turned on us, and you do own the planet… and yes, you sounded nicer."

"Well, I won't pretend Dread hasn't been a thorn in my side since I acquired the planet." Manset was still chuckling. "Our contact is usually limited to my security teams chasing his people from the vendors. I haven't been able to get anyone embedded into his network." He paused, eyeing then curiously for a moment. "I don't suppose you're for hire for some side business?"

They had done some crazy things for this mission, but trying to run a sting operation on a mafia boss—one who was already a slim thread, for that matter—didn't seem like the most efficient use of their time. Maybe if their other ideas completely dried up. Though Hunk looked very interested in hanging around Planet Vegas awhile longer; Sven less so. "Unfortunately we need to put all of our efforts towards our current job, and time is of the essence. Or we would seriously consider taking you up on it."

"It never hurts to ask." Shrug. "Without any agents in his orbit, my word would hurt your chances with Dread more than help you. But I can't imagine, if he knew anything of some mythical weapon, he'd be interested in letting anyone but himself get his hands on it. Likes his firepower, does Boss Dread."

Frowning, Keith nodded slowly. It was a reasonable point, if unhelpful for their mission. "Would you happen to have any other ideas on where someone looking for a mythical planet might go?"

"I'm not sure." Manset rubbed his chin thoughtfully, shifting in his seat. "I can't think of any of my own contacts who would be more likely than any other to know something. And you'll understand I can't just give you a list. But I can certainly ask around… Commander Kogane, I'm sure, could vouch for my intelligence capabilities."

He probably could, at that. "We would be grateful, if you could." Gratitude may or may not get them anywhere. The credit chip he produced and set on the coffee table between them almost certainly would. "For your… discretion, of course."

The smuggler palmed the chip deftly, then nodded. "Discretion is assured, of course. How will I contact you, if my sources turn anything up? Or will you be back in the neighborhood?"

Sven again looked mildly distressed at the prospect of coming back; Hunk again didn't. "Please say we're comin' back, boss…"

"We will try to be back." The way this mission was going, Keith would be more surprised if they didn't end up out this way again. "If we aren't able to…" Hell. How would he be able to contact them? They couldn't even get a report back to their boss.

"Toss a snail mail to that Kogane dude," Hunk suggested. "It'll find us."

Keith shot him a disbelieving glare, though admittedly he hadn't had any better ideas… at least he hadn't put the Karkinosi in a box. "Yes, that would work. We are employed by the Alliance, I'm sure an officer could ensure it reaches us sooner or later." He knew the charade was long dead, but he wasn't going to be the one to drop it outright. "With a confidential seal, of course? For safety."

"You can never be too safe!" Manset agreed cheerfully. He wasn't going to be the one to drop the pretense either. "So, is there anything else I can do for you?"

And speaking of… "Actually, we do hope so… could we use your secure subspace relay? We haven't been able to contact our employers with an update for some time."

"You're quite welcome to use it, if you'd like to try your luck. The Alliance hasn't taken my calls for years." Manset sat back, steepling his fingers uneasily, his antennae waggling in a way that looked oddly like a shrug. "You import a few hundred kilos of illegal floral arrangements to Vdumak, and everyone gets all bent out of shape…"

It took a fair bit of effort for even Keith not to snicker at that; Hunk failed completely. "Out of shape over flowers? Shameful." Sven's eyebrows had arched for about the hundredth time this meeting, though he was amused. Not least because he knew that in some cultures, flower arrangements having so much as a petal out of place could be highly offensive… an act of war, even. He was kind of tempted to mention that, but thought better of it; it didn't seem directly relevant.

He'd been correct; Manset's problems had rested elsewhere. "I had a contract, how was I supposed to know they were hallucinogenic to the locals? Ah, the perils of the profession."

Keith blinked. Why hadn't he expected that? "Indeed. Well, as you said, it never hurts to ask." He stood, looking around the suite again; the view really was remarkable. But it seemed they'd gotten all they could here. "We thank you for your time, Manset, but I think we—" He was cut off by a chime rippling through the room.

"Ah, lunchtime!" Their host's antennae perked up again. "Would you like to stay? I don't eat fancy, I'm afraid, but the Bacon Decadence burger is a Dradin specialty."

"Well…" Keith looked at the other two as he considered it. Which may have been a mistake; Hunk was giving him a truly devastating pair of puppy eyes. So much for the fearsome mafia bouncer. "…It would be impolite to refuse such a kind offer."

Manset clapped both his sets of hands together. "Excellent! I'd be a poor host if I failed to ensure you enjoy everything Dradin has to offer." He snapped his fingers, and a section of floor on the far side of the room flipped over to reveal a dining table with a rainbow zebra-print tablecloth.

"The decor just seems to get more and more interesting the longer we're here," Sven murmured. It wasn't an objection, exactly; it really would be very impolite to refuse the meal. Besides, he hadn't eaten his burger the night before… or if he had, he didn't remember it.

At about the same moment, Hunk's eyes lit up. "Dude. Whenever we get back here, I need the name of your interior decorator."

There are two kinds of people, Keith mused, chuckling slightly as he looked at his crewmates. A chair with squishy rainbow-zebra upholstery came rolling up to him on some kind of automated gadget, and he took a seat. It wasn't exactly what he'd planned, but what could it hurt? Even if he couldn't help them with Altea, a contact like Manset could probably come in handy someday.

*****

Meanwhile, the other trio to be out and about had walked around for a good while to no avail. Though Daniel was still acting like he knew where he was going… soon enough, he led them to a brightly lit casino. The Lucky Lure, it was called; not Dradin's biggest or fanciest, but it was nice, and the map didn't show any security posts nearby.

It was the best idea he had, really. Where there was gambling, there had to be mafia, right? Right! "Let's go find a mob boss." Without waiting for a response, he walked right in.

Cam gave Lance a wary look. "It can't be as easy as he thinks, right?"

Lance shrugged. "I'm sure mob bosses often hang out in the open." Walking in right behind Daniel, they were greeted with yelling, ringing, and what looked like pure chaos.

"Awesome." Daniel couldn't think of another word to describe it; he reminded himself to come back and try the slot machines. And to look into Dradin for retirement. It was never too early to start making plans.

Lance looked around quickly, scanning everything. He was impressed by the casino's selection; shame he couldn't stop and gamble a little. Too busy supervising.

"So… where exactly are we going to find him?" Cam asked, stopping right next to Daniel.

"Yeah, kid, where to?"

"Hm." Daniel waited for a minute, hoping for some sort of sign. Not a single shady-looking bouncer to be seen in the place. Rude. A piercing scream rang out, though; no doubt just someone who'd lost a lot of money, but it was a good a sign as any. "That way."

"…He has no idea, does he?" Cam asked, looking at Lance, who just snickered and followed. So much for sanity. "My umrem…"

The pilot glanced back at him. "Say what?"

"My umrem," he repeated sullenly. "We will die."

Despite being a few feet ahead in the noisy casino, Daniel heard his comments just fine. But he chose to ignore it. He was totally gonna find the dude.

They'd been poking around for awhile when Daniel noticed a line of photo booths with various themes. There was the casino one, of course… also the Hawaiian one, the underwater one, some alien rock band one… and at the end, a spooky-looking one labeled Photo Booth of Dread. That was fitting. Another metaphorical light bulb lit above his head.

Cam stopped near the photo booths and glared. His feet hurt. "We're not going to find him."

Daniel ignored him, looking at Lance instead. "So I'm in charge, right?" He wasn't really sure how serious that had been.

They're right, I am insane. "Yep."

"Awesome. Okay. We're taking a group photo in the perfectly named photo booth," Daniel ordered, and smirked. He liked giving orders.

"It is aptly named…" Lance shrugged. "And I do take an awesome photo."

Daniel jumped into the booth, and a scare chord played; the lightning went blood red. This thing was cool. Though there was one small logistical problem… as Lance sat next to him, he offered his most ingratiating smile. "You got some spare credits to pay for the pictures?" He may have forgotten to bring money.

Lance rolled his eyes, but handed the kid a chip as Cam scooted in beside him. As Daniel accepted the chip and paid, the booth crackled with scary lightning. None of them paid it much attention, but the ambiance seemed about right.

"Okay guys, give it your best Blue Steel."

"My what?" Daniel asked, confused. Lance was always talking about old stuff he didn't get.

Lance shook his head. "Only Hunk understands me." They all prepared their best photo booth faces—a smile, a wink, some bunny ears—but instead of a flash the photo booth started to shudder and make a weird noise. The shutter clicked several times, but no picture. It seemed to be malfunctioning.

"Oh, come on…"

"These things are always iffy."

Cam wasn't wholly convinced about the photo, but they were here now, so he decided to kick it. Kicking things was usually an excellent tech fixer.

Almost immediately, the booth's floor dropped out from under them. "The fuck!?" Lance yelled as they flew down what seemed to be a metal slide, or a very large vent? It was kind of hard to tell as they tumbled down it.

"WOW! Haha!" Daniel screeched, while Cam simply screamed.

Upon landing Lance checked to make sure his guns were still on him. The boys did the same. They all seemed intact… he looked up from the floor and frowned slightly. The chute had dumped them out into what appeared to be a nicely furnished sitting room.

"This probably looks like Vince's house," he commented, for lack of any better things to say.

"I could see that." Daniel nodded.

"I can't believe that just happened…" Cam just kept staring at the floor.

None of them saw the imposing Drule woman standing in front of them with her arms crossed, at least until she spoke. "There's no 'Vince' here, round-ears."

Lance's head snapped up. Oh. Uh oh. He looked her up and down, she wasn't bad looking at all, for a Drule.

Cam had something similar in mind. She is cute… but I'm too young to die.

"Um…?" Daniel's eyes were wide as he looked up at her. He'd never been called 'round-ears' before. "Hi?"

She glared. "You're in the wrong part of town. I can fix that for you."

"What part of town are we in?" Daniel asked, shrugging. That got him one of the most impressive is this kid for real? looks he'd ever seen, and that was saying something.

"My umrem," Cam whispered again, wincing. They were so gonna die.

The Drule gave an exasperated sigh; their lack of fear seemed to have thrown her. "Okay fine. What's your business here? We don't deal with your kind."

Daniel looked at Lance expectantly; usually by now he was already talking them out of these kinds of situations. Not that they'd been in that many of these situations together, but still. Lance looked back at him and raised an eyebrow. "You're the boss."

The one day we let Daniel lead, and we're going to die.

"So I'm like… In charge in charge?" Daniel got a giant smile on his face, because Lance had said he was in charge but people never ACTUALLY put him in charge. "I never get to be in charge in charge!" Lance fought off a grin and kept an eye on the woman.

"He's your boss?" the Drule snorted. "How did you monkeys ever make it out of trees?" She drew her pistol and started flipping it around in her hands, eyeing them with a slight smirk. "Now how about you start talking."

She likes a show, Lance thought as he watched her. That's good, just stay amused. He moved slightly forward, so if he needed to he could get the kids behind him. Cam sidestepped a little bit, in case the pilot needed more room to save them. They were definitely going to need saving.

"We, uh… we were looking for Boss Dread," Daniel explained, hoping not to be shot. The scary Drule lady beneath the Photo Booth of Dread seemed like the best lead they'd had so far, no sense not trying their luck. "We heard he could maybe answer some questions about a guy we're hunting."

She almost dropped the gun. "You think you can just come in here and ask to see Boss Dread that easy?"

"…Was kinda hoping, yeah."

She eyed them for another moment with total disbelief, then shrugged. Walking over to a speaker, she hit a button and began to speak in Drakure.

Cam had learned Drakure, of course—at least the diplomatic basics. What she was saying included some things that definitely weren't diplomatic, but he got the gist. Something to the effect of hey boss, some idiot humans want to ask you some questions… wait. "You're going to let us see him?" he asked, shocked. Glad they weren't being shot, but still shocked.

Lance was thinking along the same lines.How the hell did the kid manage this? Keith and Flynn are gonna kill me.

"The boss is a busy man, round-ear. Just because I'm asking doesn't mean he'll bother to—" She was cut off by a voice over the comm system.

"Bring them in."

The Drule fell silent, staring dumbfounded at the speaker. Daniel just smiled. This was awesome.

"What the fuck," Lance mumbled under his breath. This was totally not awesome.

"Kak, chert voz'mi." This was so not-awesome Cam was forgetting English.

Scary Drule lady didn't seem to think it was all that awesome either. Finally she waved for them to follow her—with her pistol, attempting to cover up how flustered she was. But the boss usually did have his reasons, she supposed…

She led them through several small airlock-like rooms that rotated, completely torpedoing any sense of direction they may have had. Apparently security was tighter than just a crummy photo booth with a cool punny name. "I can't believe we're doing this," Cam whispered, but Daniel ignored him as they entered the final room.

Boss Dread was sitting at a huge, gleaming desk with his feet propped up. Six heavily armed guards flanked him. He gave them a broad smile as they entered, and waved them further into the room. "Ah! Welcome! Please, have a seat. Can my aide get you anything? Tea cakes? Blood wine?"

"A large glass of vodka?" Cam asked before he could really think about it, sinking into a chair; he needed something for his nerves. Daniel sat next to him, contemplating why anyone would want to drink something called blood wine. Lance inwardly groaned at Cam, and decided to stay standing, just in case. He eyed Dread carefully. He wasn't bad looking either; much more attractive than his nasty snake friend. His clothes wouldn't have looked wholly out of place in an old Earth gangster movie; pinstripes were very much in among the Drules these days.

"Of course, of course." Dread waved off their annoyed guide, and gave an unpleasant smirk. "It's not every day a few Earthlings have the nerve to walk right into my stronghold. You should be honored for your… how do you say… 'chutzpah'."

"Thank you." Daniel smiled.

"We thank you for your time, sir," Cam agreed, swallowing ha