Chapter 1: Meet on Screen and in the Lab
Lance sighed, long and languid, dragging a hand from his collarbones down his chest, and ending with it splayed over one thigh, fingers just barely digging in. He opened his eyes, just a little, and smiled. “You had fun too, right?”
He waited for a moment, and when no answer came, smiled. “Thought so. Next week, same time? Bring a few friends, maybe; I’m always looking to make the party a little bigger.”
He raised a hand, fingers curling into a coy wave, and bit his lip. “Bye~!”
“And we’re good,” Pidge said, and Lance collapsed back with a groan. Pidge looked over, one eyebrow climbing. “You okay?”
“Peachy,” Lance muttered, throwing an arm over his eyes. “I went too fast, didn’t stretch enough.”
“Ass or flexibility?” Pidge asked.
“Ass,” Lance groaned again. “Fuck, I’m gonna have to hide this when I go to class.”
Pidge winced. “Need some help?”
“Water?” Lance asked, peeking at her from under his arm. “That session lasted longer than I expected, I’m really thirsty.”
“Got it,” Pidge said, pushing away from the desk on the rolly chair and over to the minifridge. “Want me to go get the cream stuff?”
“I think I’m good,” Lance said. He caught the bottle that Pidge tossed him, opened it with a loud snap of breaking plastic, and took a few long gulps. He wiped off his mouth with the back of one hand and took a deep breath. “So, how’re the numbers looking?”
“Pretty good,” Pidge said, rolling back over to her laptop. “Minor dip in viewing, but we got a few new subscribers, so there’s actually a little more money rolling in. I think it might be because we kept it pretty vanilla this time.”
“Stick to the kinky shit, got it,” Lance said. He laughed when Pidge rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on! You said it yourself, vanilla made the numbers drop.”
“I said it might have, and honestly, if even vanilla is hurting you, I’m not sure we should go back to kink next week,” Pidge said. Her fingers tapped against the chair arms. “Maybe something soft? Pet play, maybe. Something kinky that isn’t going involve further abusing that asshole of yours.”
“Aw, you do care,” Lance crooned. He started laughing when Pidge threw a wadded-up paper towel at him. “What, not one of the pillows?”
“If you think I’m throwing a pillow at you when you’re covered in your own semen, you’ve got the wrong girl,” Pidge sniffed. “I’m your tech gal, not your maid.”
“I’m the one doing my own laundry, thank you very much,” Lance sniffed right back. “You get to keep your hands clean.”
“Unless you get some ‘bodily fluids’ on the camera again,” Pidge sniped.
“That was one time,” Lance protested, rolling over on the bed to swing his legs over the side. “Ugh, I’m all sticky. It’s gross. I should shower.”
“You should,” Pidge agreed. “I can smell it from here.”
Lance stuck out his tongue at her and got up, frowning down at himself. He poked at one leg. “Think I should start going to the gym more?”
“Nah, the subscribers like you looking like a stretchy twink.”
“What?” Pidge asked, spinning a pen through her fingers and putting on a moue of innocent confusion. “I’m just telling you the truth.”
“Oh my god.”
“It’s in so many of the comments.”
“Oh my god.”
“A few people are very interested in seeing that flexibility again.”
“I’m going to take a shower and pretend you didn’t say that,” Lance said. “Help me strip the bed so I can start the Panda while I’m in there?”
“You could just call it a washing machine,” Pidge said, leaning over to untuck the foot of the bed without leaving her chair. “There, I helped.”
Samurai1023 sent a post
Take a look at this one.
I know, right?
I didn’t know humans could bend that far.
I absolutely cannot bend that far.
Too bad. It would probably help in a fight.
Please don’t suggest that to my mom.
I promise I’m not going to tell your mother that you send me weird porn to laugh at and I thought it could be useful in a fight.
That isn’t anywhere near reassuring and you know it.
I live to please!
Allura scrolled up and down the post that Keith had sent. It was very cinematic, black and white, lots of leather straps and lace and—
Allura could appreciate that sort of thing, even if it also had the misfortune of taking place in what was apparently silicone tentacle central.
There were… quite a few very rubbery, very fake-looking tentacles. Not acceptably fake, either, but in-your-face fake, in hot pink and flopping around like the entire point was to make someone laugh hard enough to forget their arousal despite the actual actions on the screen.
Yeah, this could go to the sideblog.
Allura bit her lip and scanned over the open tabs on her laptop.
Email, school email, blog, five or six tabs that she’d been meaning to get to for… anywhere from three weeks to three months, music, calendar, four tabs of internship applications, BlackBoard, and a research tab for that one math problem she still hadn’t managed to figure out.
Not an inspiring list.
Allura was very tempted to just switch back to tumblr and find more weird porn to send to Keith in hopes that he’d think it was as funny as she did. She knew that what she was supposed to be doing was her readings for the first day of the semester. It started tomorrow and she’d done plenty of the preparatory work, but there were still a few of those math problems to do, and one article on Porter’s Five Forces and SWOT analysis.
(Maybe double majoring in International Business and Quantum Physics wasn’t the best idea.)
Or she could just… look for more silly porn.
That was definitely an option.
Math and international business… or funny sex.
Allura stared at the research tab.
She opened a new one and typed in a cam site.
Shame was for more important things.
New favorite? New favorite. Definitely a new favorite.
Allura knew what she liked. Lithe was better than beefy, boys more often than girls, though not exclusively, a willingness to experiment, a playful demeanor and a minimum of consent play.
This guy had pretty much all of it in the bag.
It wasn’t weird porn, just… camboy stuff. Kinky, but not to the degree that anyone would really find it egregious.
She was already a premium subscriber to the site itself, and she’d watched everything available for SharpshootingBlue. She had cash to burn.
She subscribed to his channel, just five bucks a month to start, and then went back to her math problem…
No, she went and watched every other video on the site.
Keith fumbled with his keyring, trying to find the one that opened his parents’ door. With a muttered swear, he finally found the right one managed to get it unlocked.
“Hold the door,” Acxa reminded him.
He glanced back at her and the casserole dish she’d brought for tonight, and acknowledged that yes, it would probably be a dick move for him to not hold the door open.
He pressed himself against it to let Acxa through into the small hallway, and Acxa immediately headed for the kitchen to put the heavy dish down, with a quiet ‘thanks’ as she passed him.
The high-pitched squeal warned Keith before the tiny blonde mass slammed into him.
He coughed. “Okay. Hi, Romelle.”
“We thought you weren’t coming!”
“Why would you think that?” He asked. He managed to unwrap her arms from around his neck and started taking off his coat. “We promised we’d come.”
“Krolia said it’s snowing too hard for it to be safe.”
“Safety is a minor concern in the face of coming to see my family,” Acxa said, swooping in behind Romelle to give her a hug. “How’s my favorite little sister?”
“Only sister, and I’m nineteen, I’m not little,” Romelle protested, though she didn’t exactly fight the hug. “What did you bring this time?”
“Malai Kofta,” Acxa said. “Don’t know if it’s any good, but I followed the recipe, and it smells like what my grandmother used to make. I think it’ll be okay.”
“Can you go get Dad?” Keith asked, finally managing to wrestle his boots off.
“Is Mom home yet?” Acxa tacked on.
“Krolia’s still at work,” Romelle said. “But I can go get Tex, yeah!”
She raced off, socks sliding a little on the hardwood floors, and into another part of the house.
“She’s doing well,” Acxa said, her voice quiet. “Think she’ll be ready to move out soon?”
“What, so you can go live in sin with N—hey, knock it off!”
“Obnoxious brats get noogied,” Acxa informed him, not letting him go from the headlock. “Are you worried about your hair? It’s already a rats nest, don’t bother.”
She snickered and let him go…
Just in time for him to be bowled over by Kosmo.
“Hey boy,” Keith wheezed. “Acxa, I hate you.”
“I’m used to it,” she said. Keith couldn’t see her, given that his field of vision was currently occupied mostly by a very excited dog, but he could hear the smile in her voice. “Hi, Dad.”
“Come give your old man a hug,” Tex said. “Romelle, can you help Keith?”
“He seems fine to me.”
“Stop bullying your brother, Acxa.”
Romelle managed to pull Kosmo off, and Keith sat up, feeling like his entire face was covered by slobber.
“Want to go wash up?” Tex asked, rolling his chair a little closer and holding out a hand to help Keith get to his feet. “You’re looking a little… drowned.”
“Like that cat that Kosmo found in the pool a few years ago!” Romelle chimed in helpfully.
Keith gave her a sour look and headed for the bathroom.
He hoped Krolia would be home soon, and that Uncle Kolivan would be stopping by. He could use someone in his corner that wasn’t going to make fun of him.
Kosmo shoved his way into the bathroom and sat down next to Keith’s legs, whining softly as Keith finished washing up.
“Okay, boy,” Keith sighed, drying his face and dropping one hand to pet Kosmo. “Missed you too.”
The shout startled Allura out of her thoughts, and she turned to the space between the tables to find a guy that had just eaten a face full of tile.
He pushed himself up slowly, groaning, and Allura scrambled down from her chair to help pick up loose papers, a calculator, a—was that an X-Wing keychain? Cute.
“Ow,” the guy groaned, rubbing at his nose. “That was… wow, that sucked.”
“Are you alright?” Allura asked. “That was a nasty spill.”
“I think so?” the guy said, finally turning to face Allura. Her heart nearly stopped. “Oh man, and in front of a cute girl, too! First day of class and I’m already making a fool of myself. So, uh, hey, the name’s Lance.”
Allura stared at him, and his bright grin fell. “Uh… is something wrong?”
Shit, shit, shit, okay she needed a-- “Your nose is bleeding.”
Lance’s eyes widened and he fumbled his recently-gathered things in an attempt to reach up to his nose and see if she was right. He ended up setting them down on the table Allura was at, and swore when his fingers came away from his face with red sticking to the skin and seeping into all the tiny cracks.
Allura wasn’t glad that he was bleeding, but at least it gave her an excuse for having been completely blindsided by his face.
His uncomfortably familiar face.
“Here, let me help,” Allura said, pulling out a pack of paper tissues and… hesitating. She pulled out a few and handed them over instead of going for his face with them directly, and then bit her lip as Lance dabbed at his nose and winced. “Do you need some help? I have a spare water bo-- no, don’t tilt your head back!”
Lance immediately dropped his head, eyes a little wide with what might have been fear. “Um, okay? Why, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do with nosebleeds?”
“No, it’s just an old wives’ tale,” Allura said. “You’re just redirecting the blood to your sinuses and throat instead of letting it out. You can end up swallowing it, and that’ll irritate your stomach. Just tilt it forward a little.”
“Oh, okay,” Lance said. He did as she’d said. “Think I can get past you to the other seat? Just, since my stuff’s already on the table and everything, so--”
“Of course!” Allura said, moving out of the way so he could get to the other chair. “Sorry about that.”
“Nah, it’s good,” Lance said. He sat down. “So, you doubling with pre-med or something?”
“What?” Allura asked, thoughts still on his face and the fact that class started in a minute and a half. “Oh! Oh, no, I just did competitive martial arts for a number of years. Kempo. I, ah, I’ve had enough bloody noses myself.”
“Oh man, sweet!” Lance said, still dabbing at his nose. “So, I don’t think I got your name, and just calling you ‘the pretty girl with the cute accent in Modern Physics Lab’ is going to get weird.”
“Allura Altea,” she said, and held out a hand.
Lance grinned and shook it. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Allura.”
Class started, they turned away from each other, and Allura’s heart finally calmed down.
Her tablemate for the lab, possibly for the entire semester, if the teacher was serious, was her favorite camboy.
Oh, by the ancients, this was going to be awkward.
Chapter 2: The Name of the Game is: Complain
Everyone has crushes and nobody's happy about it. Romance is a pain.
(This is a lie. Lance is perfectly okay with having a crush. Allura's mostly embarrassed. Pidge is dying. Keith isn't involved in this mess.)
Unfortunately, Hunk has to listen to basically all of it.
Allura had already expected this class to be a little odd, since Coran was teaching. He was her surrogate uncle, her second father in all but name, her legal guardian, and now her physics professor.
It didn’t help that her tablemate, probably for a good portion of the semester, was a camboy she really, really liked.
The cherry on top was… well, okay. She’d known the third part was going to happen.
It didn’t make it less awkward when Lotor walked into the room.
“Uh… you know that guy?” Lance asked, leaning over to whisper.
Allura nodded. “Our parents were friends, so we were, too.”
“You look kinda… scared?”
“I’m not scared,” Allura said. “Just… uncomfortable. I had something of a crush on him. I don’t doubt he remembers.”
“Ooooooh,” Lance said, and then laughed. “That’s actually kind of funny, not gonna lie.”
Allura closed her eyes and scrunched up her face in an attempt to somehow get the emotions out instead of keeping them in, and then gave up dropped her face into her arms. “I know. It’s still embarrassing.”
Lance laughed quietly, but didn’t say anything more as Coran started taking roll call.
Allura busied herself taking notes on the syllabus after it was done, trying to ignore Lance beside her and Lotor sitting bored at the teacher’s desk in the corner. First day of classes probably meant that TAs like him didn’t have much to do, she figured, but he still had to be here.
They finished the syllabus within the first half of the class, and then the second half was spent going over a handful of very basic exercises with levers and weights, just “something to get them in the groove,” according to Coran. Given that the syllabus had outlined that the rest of the semester was going to be spent in small groups building some personal projects with advanced concepts they’d learned in the last few semesters, the intent to test who worked best with whom was obvious. It was more obvious once Lotor and Coran both got clipboards and started walking around the room, taking notes.
The students started with their tablemates, which meant that Allura got to work with Lance first. It was… fun.
Her hand touched Lance’s once, when she asked him to pass her one of the little weights. There weren’t any sparks, like in those trashy romance novels she’d snuck from her mother’s room when she was fourteen and still trying to figure herself out, but the spot held a phantom warmth for several minutes after, and she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Lance didn’t seem to notice. He just gave her a grin and tried to juggle the weights, promptly failing and forcing himself to scramble and grab the little metal cylinder before it rolled under someone else’s table.
She laughed at him, and he smiled sheepishly, and blushed, and offered her the weight without actually getting off the floor first. She instead pulled him to his feet, took the weight, and did her best to cleverly quip at him instead of making a fool of herself.
Then they switched partners, and Allura got to work with young woman called Ina who didn’t speak much, but had clever insights and suggestions on the occasions she did.
Class ended without incident.
After class, however, Coran called her name and asked her to stay a few minutes.
(That didn’t exactly go poorly, but Coran managed to make even ‘how is your first day of the semester going?’ embarrassing. Given the rest of the day, that wasn’t much of an achievement, but still.)
“Allura,” Lotor said as he passed her on the way out the door, with a slight nod. “Nice to see you again.”
“You too,” Allura said, waiting until he was gone before she relaxed.
Coran raised an eyebrow. “Still?”
“No! A little. I’m mostly over it, but it’s still embarrassing,” Allura muttered.
Coran hummed a little, twisting his mustache. “I’ll take your word for it. Now, if you don’t mind…”
Coran smiled. “Would you like to grab lunch before your next class? I know a lovely little Thai place a few blocks away.”
Allura relaxed. “Sure, Coran.”
The door slammed open.
Pidge screamed a little as she fell off of her bed, shocked out of her coding hyperfocus by the slamming door and shouting.
“Oh my god, dude, are you okay?”
“I landed on the beanbag,” Pidge managed. Her head had actually hit the floor, but her room was the one that had the supremely fluffy carpet, so that wasn’t actually a huge deal. The cushioning was superb. “Is my computer still on the bed?”
“Then I’m good,” Pidge said, leveraging herself to her feet. “Why are you screaming? Is something on fire?”
“Nothing’s on fire.”
Pidge squinted at him, and then nodded sharply. She hopped back up on her bed and crossed her ankles. “I’m going to assume you have a good reason for not knocking.”
“There’s a girl in my lab,” Lance said. His eyes were shining. Why were his eyes shining. “Oh my god, Pidge, I’m in love.”
Pidge looked down at where Lance had grabbed one of her hands, and then back up at his face. She lifted her free hand, and put her pointer finger on his nose. He went cross-eyed.
She pushed him away.
“Okay,” Pidge said. “Let’s try that again, without all the hyperbole and weirdness. What happened?”
“I sat next to a really cute girl in my lab and she’s got amazing hair, and a really nice giggle, and she’s gotta be smart to be in that class, but she also knows some medical stuff? And she used to do competitive martial arts, isn’t that totally wicked?”
“Medical stuff?” Pidge asked. “How did that come up?”
“Oh, yeah, I tripped and got a nosebleed,” Lance said. He shook his head. “But that’s not important. Pidge, oh my god, you should have seen her, I think she might be the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met.”
Lance stuck his tongue out at her. “She’s so cool, Pidge. And pretty. And she rolled up her sleeves at one point and I think she could bench-press me without even trying.”
Pidge rolled her eyes, ignoring the sinking feeling in her stomach. “Pretty sure it’s too soon to say you’re in love, Lance.”
“Okay but still.”
“I’m glad you made a friend,” Pidge said. She sniffed and turned back to her computer. “But also I’m in the middle of a project that’s due by midnight, so I need to work on that. Maybe talk to Hunk?”
“Wait, you have a project already? It’s the first day of classes!”
“Uh… this is… a paid project. Kind of.” Pidge paused. “You know how sometimes you don’t want to ask too many questions about the stuff I do?”
“…Yeah, okay, I’m going to Hunk’s.” Lance headed for the exit. “Please don’t break too many laws while I’m gone.”
“This isn’t illegal!” Pidge called after him. “It’s just cryptid stuff! And close my door when you leave the room, dammit!”
Lance skidded back in, grabbed the door handle, and once again left.
Pidge turned back to her computer.
It took less time than she’d implied to actually finish the project, at which point Pidge called her brother.
“I’m sorry, Lance what?” Matt asked. The video quality wasn’t great, but it captured his ratty t-shirt and unbrushed hair well enough.
“He met a girl,” Pidge whined. “And he was gushing.”
“Like, ‘most beautiful girl he’s ever met’ bad,” Pidge moaned. “Ugh!”
“How can you just tell me to chill?” Pidge demanded. “My own brother!”
“Pidge, he’s known her for like. Two hours. That’s not exactly grounds for a relationship,” Matt said. “Or are you just thinking he’s gonna never shut up?”
“Argh!” Pidge let out a wordless yell and flopped back on her bed. “I hate everything!”
“Wait,” Matt said. She couldn’t see him from this angle, but she could feel his teasing grin. “Oh my god, wait, is this because you still have a crush?”
“What do you think?”
“Oh my god, I thought you got over him,” Matt groaned, but there was a laugh in there. “Do you need help? Do you need me to help you get a boyfriend? A girlfriend? A partner in general? Do you need me to convince Lance this girl isn’t worth it? I have no idea who she is, but—”
“No! I just need you to listen to me bitch for a few hours,” Pidge said. “Or at least a few minutes.”
“You’ve been crushing on Lance for how long, now?” Matt asked.
“Just let me vent. It’s your duty as an older brother.”
“I didn’t sign a contract.”
“Okay, fine. Engaging older brother mode. Tell me your woes.”
“Wait, but after this, you need to let me complain at you about Shiro and Adam putting everything on the top shelf.”
“Didn’t you say you were hitting a growth spurt again now that you’re on T?”
“They’re still really tall, Pidge.”
Lance threw himself backwards on Hunk’s couch and shoved a pillow over his face, screaming.
“People sit on that,” Hunk told him. “It’s probably full of years of farts.”
Lance took the pillow off his face and frowned at it unsurely. “It’s a decorative throw pillow.”
“People still sit on it.”
“You’ve… you’ve definitely washed this before.”
“Washed the covers two weeks ago, and the pillows a month and a half ago. Still. Nothing can erase the shame of farts.”
Lance groaned and tucked the pillow under his head. “That’s gross. You’re gross.”
“You’re the guy who shoved his face into it,” Hunk pointed out. “I’ve got brownies in the oven and you’re shoving your face into a fart pillow. There are much better options for shoving things into your face.”
“Can we please stop talking about the fart pillow,” Lance groaned. “I will gladly shove your brownies in my face if we stop talking about the fart pillow.”
Hunk considered this for a long moment, too long to be anything other than a joke, and then sighed. “Well, if we’ve gotta.”
“Gasp,” Hunk said, voice flat. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“I’m a sex worker, Hunk, my mouth says and does a lot of things I don’t want my mom finding out about,” Lance retorted. “Also, did you just say ‘gasp?’ Am I not even worth an actual shocked inhale? Am I limited to tragically bored mockeries?”
“Do you want a brownie or not?”
“I’ll be good,” Lance said. He waited a few seconds, and then he just had to talk. “Okay, so, there’s this girl in Advanced Physics Lab.”
“No, listen, shut up,” Lance rattled off. “She’s awesome.”
“Is this gonna be like Jenny Shaybon?”
“Hunk, dude, you have not met this girl. She’s, like, okay, so she’s gorgeous, and she’s gotta be smart if she’s in that class, right? And she apparently used to do competitive martial arts, okay, that’s awesome, and she gave me advice on how to deal with my nosebleed—”
“Your what? Lance!”
“I tripped, it’s fine, it stopped bleeding pretty fast, we’re good,” Lance waved it off. “And she’s got this really cute laugh and I saw her blush because apparently she used to know the TA and there’s a whole story there, and we got along really well when we did a lab together, and Hunk I am so done for.”
Hunk came over to stand by Lance’s head and, after a second, patted him on the shoulder. “You’ve known her how long?”
“Just a two-hour lab,” Lance admitted. “But we’ll be seeing a lot of each other, and I don’t know if we’re going to be working together for the big project but I really want to.”
“Oh jeez,” Hunk muttered. “Well, did she seem into you?”
“I think so? She kind of ignored me for part of it, but when we were working together, she laughed at my bad jokes and stuff, so I think there’s a chance,” Lance said. He let his head drop again. “Hunk, do you believe in love at first sight?”
“I think I believe in you making bad jokes to cover up the fact that you just scared yourself about liking someone for real,” Hunk said.
“I’m not wrong,” Hunk pointed out. “If I asked you what color her eyes were, would you be able to answer?”
“Pretty sure they were blue?” Lance scratched the back of his head.
“…is there a reason you were paying that close attention?” Hunk asked. “Because most people don’t actually notice eye color that fast.”
“Stood out because her skin’s pretty dark,” Lance said. “So I think there are some extenuating circumstances here. I promise I wasn’t being creepy, it was just something that was more noticeable than usual.”
“Ooooooookay,” Hunk said. “So. Classmate in Physics, you’re rocking a massive crush after just one class, and you were paying lots and lots of attention to her, even when you probably should have been paying attention to the teacher. Am I right?”
“What? Psh, no, nuh-uh, I was totally paying attention to the teacher and being a responsible student,” Lance affirmed. “Yep, Mr. Responsible, that’s me.”
Hunk was quiet for just long enough that Lance got uncomfortable.
“Okay, so I looked at her a few times, but I was mostly paying attention, and I wasn’t being a creep about it, and it was just while we were going over the syllabus anyway.”
Hunk snorted. “Yeah, okay. Brownie?”
“Can I tell you about her hair?”
“You can tell me about her hair while you have a brownie.”
“Somehow I missed the patch where I can heal through walls,” Allura muttered, taking a sip of her soda and leaning back in her chair. “That was exhausting.”
“It’s what you get when you play healer,” Keith said, pushing away from the desk and spinning to join her at the other one. “Just do what I do.”
“Play McCree and then mimic the way he says ‘It’s High Noon’ so closely that the other team freaks out?” Allura asked.
Keith shrugged. “Hey, if it works…”
Allura jabbed him in the side with her elbow. “Half the time it doesn’t because your voice cracks!”
“It works enough!”
“I can not be worse than some of the people you know,” Keith said. “You’ve met Ezor.”
“Ezor’s adorable,” Allura told him. “Also probably a criminal, but…”
“Oh, she is,” Keith said. “Acxa’s told me some stories there.”
Allura blinked at him, and then shook her head. “Okay, then. Hey, I have a… question.”
Keith looked at her sideways.
“I need advice.”
“And you’re coming to me?”
Allura shrugged. “It’s not a situation I can really talk to anyone else about.”
Keith raised an eyebrow. “O…kay?”
“I think,” Allura said, rolling the words around in her mind. “That I recognize one of my classmates. From porn. They do… camwork.”
Allura shrugged. “I don’t think you’ve seen it, and I’m not going to show you, because that would probably count as outing someone as a sex worker? But the person is very sweet and cute, and I’m not sure how to approach the situation. Do I tell them?”
“Uh… no?” Keith said, scratching the back of his head. “At least, not yet? If you end up friends, maybe, but if you’re just working together on a project, it would make things weird.”
“That sounds… reasonable,” Allura said, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms. “But…”
“It’s still awkward,” Allura muttered.
Keith shrugged. “Yeah? That happens. Just imagine how much more awkward it would be if you said something.”
Allura made a face.
“Yeah,” Keith said. “It’s like that.”
“Hold still,” Allura said. “Need to get this right…”
Romelle tried not to fidget as Allura dabbed some more paint on her cheek.
“You look great!” Hunk called over, still fiddling with the camera. “Okay, how… how do I do the long exposure thing again?”
“I think it was on the instructions?” Allura said. “Romelle, hold still.”
“It’s cold,” Romelle insisted. “And all wet.”
“I know,” Allura said. “But I can’t get the paint on right if you keep moving.”
“Got it!” Hunk said. “How close are you guys to being done?”
“Not very,” Allura mumbled. “Okay, let’s change this up. Get on the floor.”
“Get on the floor,” Allura repeated firmly. “And lean against the bed. That way we can at least get rid of some of the movement. Hunk, do you have anything for her to fiddle with in her hands?”
“Uh, I think I have a fidget toy somewhere,” Hunk said. “Gimme a sec.”
“Stop that,” Allura muttered. “Here, lift your chin a little, and—yes, like that.”
“You two look adorable,” Hunk told them.
“Thanks,” Allura said absentmindedly. “Do you have the light thing?”
“Yeah,” Hunk said. “Right here.”
“Awesome,” Allura muttered quietly. “Okay, I think Romelle’s done.”
Hunk leaned over her shoulder so they could examine the makeup together. “Looks good. I like the cracked glass effect.”
“That’s most of it,” Allura said.
“It’s good, though.” Hunk shrugged. “Anyway, roof?”
“Roof,” Allura sighed.
The actual photography took half an hour or so, with Romelle backed by the stars and the distant city, light trailing about her from the lightbox that Allura waved around. They got a few different shots, wrapping Romelle in a thick coat between takes in deference to the February night chill.
They trooped back downstairs to Hunk’s apartment, and Romelle headed for the bathroom to clean up.
“I’m gonna make some soup,” Hunk decided. “She looks like she needs it.”
“Why did we think putting the freshman in the night air was a good idea?”
“Because she’s cute,” Hunk said. “You want some soup too?”
“Sure,” Allura said. “What kind?”
“…French onion?” Hunk suggested.
“Works for me,” Allura said. “So, while Romelle’s washing up, I have… a question.”
“…okay,” Hunk said, pausing in preparations for just a moment. “That’s worrying, but okay.”
Allura rolled her eyes. “I don’t ask you weird things, Hunk.”
“Rude,” Allura said. “But anyway, Keith’s been asking about whether Romelle’s doing okay since I grabbed her for the project. Should I tell him he’s being overprotective or is this normal? I’ve never had siblings.”
“Depends on the details,” Hunk said. “If he’s just asking for if she’s okay, then that’s fine. If it’s more than that…”
“It’s not,” Allura said.
“Then it’s all fine,” Hunk said.
“Also,” Allura said, drawing out the ‘o’ as she thought. “Do you think Keith gives good advice?”
“On how to hide a body, sure,” Hunk said. “Other stuff, maybe not so much.”
Allura snorted. “On relationship stuff.”
“…maybe run it by me?” Hunk said.
“I think I recognize one of my classmates in another class as… well, as a sex worker,” Allura said. “And I like them quite a bit, but I’m not sure if I should mention that I know. Keith said that it would make things weird so I shouldn’t bring it up unless we become close enough friends that bringing it up would provide some form of relief that they don’t have to keep hiding something like that.”
“Sounds about right,” Hunk agreed. “I know a few sex workers. Most of them don’t really want to talk about that in like… professional contexts? If they have another job that isn’t related, or school, then they usually don’t want to bring it up there, definitely. Other than that, it would probably be a little anxiety-inducing that someone knows before they really trust you enough to have told you themselves. It would feel kind of like unintentional blackmail? So yeah, maybe don’t bring it up unless it’s actually relevant.”
“Okay,” Allura said. “Cool. I can do that.”
The door swung open.
“This stuff,” Romelle said, rubbing at her hair with a towel. “Is impossible to get out.”
“Yeah,” Allura said, trying to infuse her tone with as much sympathy as possible. “Spirit gum can be like that.”
“How long did you say it would take?” Romelle asked.
“Well, since I’m worried the remover would damage your hair since you already have some trouble there…” Allura trailed off and winced. “It’s going to take at least a few more washings, sorry. Did you at least get all of the liquid latex out?”
“Mm-hm,” Romelle said, clambering up onto the stool next to Allura. “This feels weird. And gross. I don’t like it.”
Allura patted her on the back. “Sorry. At least you look really cool in photos?”
Romelle considered this. “Yeah. I do.”
Hey quick question
Why do ALL of my friends come to me with their relationship problems
Kind of want to know what this is about kind of don’t
I know it wasn’t me though
I’m not burdening a child with that knowledge
Okay first of all no, I’m not a child
Second of all: three people
THREE DIFFERENT PEOPLE HAVE COME TO ME TO COMPLAIN ABOUT SOMETHING
TWO OF THEM ABOUT THE SAME SITUATION
Pidge came to talk to me about some stuff the other night
Wait did she talk to you too
Is that why she isn’t in this chat
There’s only four people in this chat but she’s involved in the situation
No more details at the moment on who’s involved and how but why
And honestly, Hunk. Don’t pretend you don’t love the drama.
Shiro you’re fired
Matt you too
He’s right though
Chapter 3: One, Two, Three, Four: I Declare a Bidding War
Doot doot doot doot; we all need that cha-ching.
There are some references to this world's approach to how Lotor, Haggar, and Zarkon have impacted the people around them, much of it from Romelle's perspective. Tread with caution.
Allura doesn’t stop watching Lance’s videos.
She feels a little guilty about it, but, well, he’s doing this as a job. He’s good at it. He knows what he’s doing and why and she really, really likes watching him.
She boosts her subscriber level, leaves a little more every time, and ends up among the top five of his subscribers, and… well. He has a lot of subscribers.
Allura claps a hand over her mouth and stifles a little moan when he reads off the list of top-tier subscribers that he’s thankful to and winks at the camera at the end of one session.
“Boom, guess who’s got cash to burn!” Pidge yelled, slamming open Hunk’s door and jumping forward to pump both fists in the air. “This bitch!”
Hunk stared at her, then down at the chart on the table and scattered rocks, and then back to Pidge. “Good for you?”
“You’re late,” Shay told her.
“Oh, yeah,” Pidge said. She stepped back, propping the door open with her foot, and grabbed something from the ground. She popped back up, tray in hand. “I brought coffee.”
“With the new cash?” Hunk asked.
“Hell yeah,” Pidge said.
“So, what illegal thing are you doing now?” Hunk asked.
“Nothing!” Pidge protested. “But Lance and I… that partnership we’re doing, we’ve gotten an… investor, recently.”
Hunk stared at her for a few minutes, and then facepalmed. “Okay, that was vague enough that you’re clearly avoiding the subject, and you can tell me after Shay leaves.”
“Okay,” Pidge said, plopping down next to Hunk. “Hi, Shay.”
“Hello, Pidge,” Shay said, with an amused smile. Her earrings swung in the light as she leaned a little across the table. “Are you well, other than the money?”
Pidge shrugged. “Could be worse. Thanks for helping out, by the way.”
“It is no problem,” Shay said. “Hunk said that you could use a more experienced set of eyes.”
“And nobody knows rocks like you do,” Pidge finished cheerily. “I guess if you ever need help with a programming class, poke me.”
“I will do so,” Shay said. “But right now, the charts. I am here to help, not to do the work for you.”
“…yeah,” Pidge said. “Hunk, pass ‘em over.”
“These look great,” Acxa said, sifting through the high-gloss photos that Romelle had brought home. “I like this one, with the pink.”
“Me too,” Romelle said, leaning over to take another look at it. “Allura’s really good at makeup.”
“You had fun working with them, then?” Keith asked, setting down the one he’d been looking at.
“Of course!” Romelle said. “And I know you told Allura to look after me.”
“I didn’t—I mean—” Keith shook his head. “She decided to have you join her group herself. I just asked if you were okay.”
Romelle eyed him doubtfully, and then shrugged. “Okay.”
“Stop digging that hole, Keith,” Acxa said, smiling a little when he groaned and fell back against the wall. Kosmo took this as an opportunity to wriggle his way into Keith’s lap. Keith accepted this and started petting.
“Soooooooo,” Romelle said, falling against Acxa’s side. “How’s things with Narti?”
“Good,” Acxa said. “Lotor and Ryou are… also well.”
Romelle made a face.
“Lotor’s a dick,” Keith called over. Romelle nodded sharply.
Acxa sighed. “I know you don’t like him, but you do remember that most of that was his father’s doing?”
Romelle turned her face into Acxa’s shoulder.
“He could have told you earlier,” Keith muttered.
“He’d only just gotten out of the program, Keith,” Acxa reminded him. “He couldn’t tell me while he was in Witness Protection; whistleblowing on his father netted him too many enemies. You know this.”
“Still,” Keith said.
“He was working up to it,” Acxa said quietly. “It just… happened at a poor time.”
“Shit,” Keith whispered, launching himself across the room to sandwich Romelle between himself and Acxa. “Hey, it’s okay, we’re here.”
“I want to be angry at him,” Romelle whispered. “But Acxa’s in love with him and he’s not even that much of an asshole. He even tried to get all of us holiday presents. He researched for them.”
“Yeah,” Keith said. “But the way your parents died, and what happened to your brother, you’re allowed to be angry.”
“He makes it hard,” Romelle spat. “He’s all… nice and stuff. And he freaked out when he found out who my parents were, and I just… I want to keep being angry and he’s making it so hard.”
“Find someone else to be angry at?” Keith offered helplessly.
“He’s the only one that’s actually here.”
Keith slipped his fingers into Romelle’s hand and squeezed.
Acxa looked incredibly uncomfortable.
(That was probably fair. She’d been dating Lotor for almost a year when she first brought him home, just barely a few months shorter than Narti. Things were serious, had been for ages, and then… well.)
(He’d actually been a whistleblower. He’d been the one that reported the massive OSHA violations that his mother had been allowing, violations that had led to radiation poisoning in so many of her employees, including Romelle’s parents and, as her mother had been pregnant for part of her time at Galra industries, her little brother Bandor as well.)
(Romelle had years of memories of her parents and brother getting inexplicably ill, getting cancers and wasting away while Romelle herself was fine, and it had left a mark.)
(Lotor was the reason that wasn’t happening to anyone else, but he’d apparently known for years before he’d reported it. He’d only done so five years ago, after getting away from his parents for college and finally being far enough away from his father’s influence to actually take the step and blow it all open.)
(Keith knew this. Romelle knew this. Lotor had told them everything after the disastrous dinner where Romelle’s story had sent him panicking into another room.)
(That didn’t make it any easier.)
“Tell me about him,” Romelle finally said, after a pregnant silence.
“What?” Acxa asked.
“Maybe if you tell me more about him being nice and stuff, my brain will shut up,” Romelle said.
“Oh,” Acxa said. “Alright, then.”
She paused, and then said, “Did I tell you what they all did for my birthday?”
“You said laser tag,” Romelle said. “And pizza after? Not a lot of details, though.”
“Right,” Acxa said. “Lotor organized it, for the record. We did that part while Narti was in class so she wouldn’t have to sit out for safety while we had fun. And then pizza with all four of us, and then we went to this bar Ryou found that had live jazz music.”
She had a soft smile on her face, staring at a spot on the floor.
“Did you win?” Keith asked.
Acxa grinned at him, sharklike. “Absolutely. Those boys can’t shoot worth a damn.”
“Can they shoot better than Keith?” Romelle asked.
“Well, they’re not that bad…”
The girls snickered while Keith fumed, and he gave up on fighting it. After some more silence, he said, “At least they aren’t almost getting you arrested like Ezor and Zethrid.”
Acxa groaned this time, and Romelle giggled.
“Listen…” Acxa said.
“I’m listening,” Keith prompted.
Acxa wrinkled her nose at him. “You’re doing this on purpose.”
“Yeah, I am.”
She reached over to flick him in the shoulder. “You’re one to talk, after what happened when we were still living in Arizona.”
“What happened?” Romelle piped up.
“No,” Keith said. “No, you’re not getting this story.”
“I’ve been part of the family for four years,” Romelle protested. “I deserve to know if you’ve been arrested before!”
“It was for a dumb reason!” Keith said. “You don’t need to know about it!”
“I do!” Romelle insisted.
“Ezor tried to convince me to help her rob someone last week,” Acxa interrupted.
“…you said no, right?”
“Yes, Keith. I said no. She laughed at me for it and called me a goody two-shoes.”
“…did you tell the cops?”
“Absolutely not, I know the kinds of people she targets and I’m not going to stop her.”
“Here, I’ll get it,” Allura said, slipping her arms under the large steel tube and lifting it with what she hoped look like minimal effort. It was actually quite a lot of effort, but the looks she was getting from her teammates were priceless.
“Holy shit,” James Griffin whispered. Then he seemed to remember himself and scrambled to start screwing in the parts they needed to add.
“Oh my god,” Lance squeaked, staring at her with wide eyes and a blush to rival the one he’d had when she told him his hair looked nice.
“I only make it look easy,” Allura said. “Please hurry.”
“Right!” Lance said, scrambling to help James.
“You are much stronger than your frame suggests,” Ina observed. “People twice your size would have trouble with that.”
“I know,” Allura said, with what she knew was a smug grin.
“It is very impressive,” Ina decided.
The boys finished up, and Allura lowered the tube to the table. She shook out her arms and flexed her fingers, and caught sight of Lance staring at her.
“Something wrong?” Allura asked.
“That was amazing,” Lance gushed. “Oh man, I knew you were strong, like, those are some awesome biceps, but I didn’t expect that!”
“Oh,” Allura said. She looked away and tucked her hair behind one ear. “That’s very flattering, thank you.”
Was it hot in here? It was hot in here.
“Seriously,” Lance said. “Amazing.”
Allura looked up and flashed a grin at him. “I could probably bench more than you.”
“You definitely could.”
“I could probably bench you.”
Lance’s face twitched, going red. “Um, uh, yeah. Yeah, you probably could.”
Allura fished for some words to say something back, and failed. The awkwardness grew, and she dropped her gaze again after Lance obviously attempted to say something, and failed just as much as Allura did.
James coughed, drawing their attention. He held up a soldering iron. “Shall we?”
Ina took it out of his hand and moved forward before Allura or Lance could respond.
Allura studiously avoided Lance’s face, and felt rather a lot like he was doing the same right back.
“Pidge, Pidge, Pidge,” Lance said, sliding into their shared room with a massive grin. “Pidge, she smiled at me!”
Pidge stared at him. “Uh. That Allura chick?”
“Yes!” Lance said, jumping on the spot. “And okay, she smiles a lot, but this time she said ‘It’s nice to see you looking well,’ and it sounds so dumb when I say it but Pidge I swear she was flirting with me.”
“Do you maybe want to take a seat?” Pidge asked, and Lance threw himself on the bed. “Okay, walk me through it. What happened?”
“So we had to get the big pipe up at this weird angle to screw it in properly, right? And I thought that maybe Griffin and I were going to have to lift together, or stack up a bunch of books to hold it in place, but Pidge, she just. Allura just lifted it and held it up like it was nothing.”
“Are you okay?”
“No,” Lance said, with zero hesitation or shame. “She was so badass.”
Pidge shook her head. “Okay, so, you’re being a useless bisexual bottom—”
“And she… smiled then?”
“Well, obviously, I complimented her on it!” Lance said. “I told her she was awesome, and then she said thank you and smiled at me and joked that she could lift more than me, and then joked that she could bench me, like, using me as a person as her dumbbell or whatever, and…”
Pidge waited as Lance trailed off, staring at the wall, a growing blush in his cheeks.
She snorted. “You almost went subspace in—”
“I’m listening,” Pidge said flatly. To really sell the bit, she grabbed a potato chip and tossed it into her mouth, trying to make the crunch as loud as she could. “So, middle of class, you go gaga over some girl talking about how she could totally dom you—”
“That is not what I said, or what she said, and—”
“Yeah, but it’s where your brain went, isn’t it?” Pidge asked.
Lance grabbed Pidge’s pillow and pressed it over his face, screaming.
“Nice going,” Pidge snorted.
“You’re a jackass!” Lance yelled.
“I’m a jackass that happens to be your best friend,” Pidge reminded him.
“One of your best friends,” Pidge amended. “Also your roommate and business partner.”
Lance lifted the pillow, pouting at her.
“You know I’m right,” Pidge said, rolling her eyes. “Now, do you want to hear my news or keep being… yourself.”
“Why do you want to hurt me like this.”
“Because I know you,” Pidge deadpanned. “So, news or not?”
Lance sighed dramatically and tucked the pillow back under his head. “Let’s hear it.”
“So that spike in donations? It’s been almost all one person,” Pidge said, jabbing a thumb at the computer. “I’ve been looking over the list. Remember Lion_Goddess?”
“That one really big subscription a few weeks ago?” Lance asked.
“Yeah, that one. They’ve been basically 90% of the jump, and they’ve been steadily increasing, too, not just one time to access content and then backing off again,” Pidge said. “And no interactions other than the donations, too.”
“Okay?” Lance said. “So, we have to be on guard in case they suddenly leave, because we’ll be back to baseline again, can’t get used to it or expect it forever, because it’s all based on one person.”
“Well… yeah,” Pidge said, wincing. “But I’m also a little worried that this might end up being someone really… entitled?”
Lance gestured for her to continue.
“Well, if someone has this much cash to burn, then they might… not be entirely reasonable? Like,” Pidge paused and gestured vaguely. “You know. Making requests and trying to justify it because they’re donating the most money?”
Lance hummed a little. “Any sign of that so far?”
Pidge shook her head. “No, but I’m still worrying. It’s happened to other people.”
“By this user?!” Lance yelped.
“No!” Pidge said. “No, no, definitely not by this person, I checked. And we’re behind enough bounced signals that nobody can find out where we are just by tracing the signal or something, but… you know. Paranoia. I don’t want to ruin your life because we weren’t careful enough.”
Lance bit his lip and stared at the ceiling. “Hm… okay. What if we establish actual rewards for highest donations, so there’s a set expectation instead of wiggle room, and… maybe a bidding war next time? So we can drive up donations across the board instead of just from Lion_Goddess, and don’t have to worry as much about the income boost being mostly dependent on a single person?”
Pidge made an unsure noise, well aware of how it must have looked, and then relented. “Yeah, probably the best option. I don’t want to lose that income stream, but making them one of many instead of the sole high donator is probably a good step.”
“And it nets us more money by pitting people’s jealousy against them,” Lance pointed out.
Pidge snorted. “That too.”
“Alright viewers,” Lance purred at the camera, sitting back on the bed with his legs crossed, propped up by locked elbows and smirking as coyly as he could. The entire vibe was so different from class that Allura almost didn’t recognize him. “We’ve noticed that we’ve had some very active subscribers recently, and one person has been consistently leading the pack… So today, we’re going to play a little game, hm?”
He looked past the camera for a moment, head tilted, and then laughed. “No, no, DeeDee47, I’m not using the royal we for the role. I have an assistant. They’re behind the camera, and staying there. As for the rest of you, asking about the game… well, here’s how it works. My friend there is going to pop up a list of special awards if you donate a certain amount. Whoever donates the most overall today gets to pick three from a list of available kinks at the end of the session for what I’ll do next time. We’ve also got some fun, fun new options for highest tier subscribers, so do take a moment to check those out, hm?”
Allura felt her mouth go dry. A bidding war. There was basically about to be an online bidding war to decide what Lance would do next time he had a show.
“Now…” Lance drawled, tossing his head, uncrossing his legs, and recrossing them. He grinned. “The current highest subscriber is Lion_Goddess. If you’ll just provide a nickname in the chat, I’ll be sure to call that out as I perform, okay? And if someone overtakes you, well… time for a new nickname, yeah?”
Oh, by the Ancients.
He was going to…
Allura dashed for the chatbox.
Allura won the bidding war.