Lotor had observed Allura glancing at Keith and sighing throughout the evening. He was about to suggest that she just go over there and ask him to dance (he wouldn't get in the way) when Allura groaned.
"You see that lady in the green gown? That," Allura said, wrinkling her nose, "is Princess D'nom A'id of Meg. She's the biggest gossip in the galaxy. Be careful what you say around her!"
D'nom A'id was threading her way through the crowd toward them. She was rather pretty, Lotor thought to himself. Her red hair was styled to frame her face, and her large, brown eyes held a perpetual look of polite worry and interest. As she passed groups of talking people, she would occasionally stop, tilt her head to one side, and listen intently. Finally, she was just in front of them.
"Allura, I hear you have a bodyguard with you this evening. Should I be concerned?" Her voice was slightly nasal and she spoke in a quick, clipped manner.
"It's just an extra precaution," Allura explained.
D'nom A'id nodded. "Isn't his costume rather controversial," she asked, gesturing toward Lotor. "I've heard that the Prnce of Doom is missing."
"Really?" Allura feigned surprise.
"He's been gone nearly a month. Some think he's dead. Others, including myself, think he's hiding out somewhere..." She trailed off meaningfully.
She suspects I know something, Allura realized, I must choose my words carefully.
"Well," she answered after an awkward pause, "I suppose he could be anywhere."
"Indeed." If she hadn't suspected anything before, D'nom A'id was definitely piqued now.
"Rather interesting character, Lotor. Don't you think, your highness?" Lotor had shifted the slant of the conversation. Allura could have kissed him just then.
"Certainly," she agreed.
"Rather sad," D'nom A'd added, "after his original return to Doom a while back, his track record took a rather terminal plunge."
The comment had struck a nerve. Lotor stiffened almost imperceptably; Allura only noticed because her hand was on his arm. "Well," Lotor replied, "you've got to admit he can be very persistant. Obviously, he doesn't like to give up on anything."
D'nom A'id scoffed. "Stubbornness. Or just plain obsession. Disturbing, really."
"So," Lotor prodded, "there isn't ANYTHING you like about him?"
"Well, he is quite the looker. Other than that, though," she shrugged.
The volume of a discussion nearby increased, and D'nom A'id turned to look. She excused herself and headed toward the fresh action.
"'M NOT obsessed!" Lotor grumbled, scowling.
"Don't let her get to you," Allura soothed. "Come on, let's go get some punch."
It was only after Lotor had almost finished his cup of punch that he remembered there was something he had been going to say. What was it again? Allura sighed mournfully next to him. Ah, yes... that.
"You know, you COULD go ask him to dance."
"Oh NO," Allura blushed, "I couldn't! I'd feel so awkward. He'd probably say no anyway... Besides, what about you and Miss Eckert?"
Lotor shrugged. "Do you think she'd dance with me?"
"Lotor, I'm being serious!"
"So am I," Lotor frowned, "I'll dance with Miss Eckert so you can dance with your Captain!"
Allura blinked. Was he actually serious? "Hold on," she narrowed her eyes, "why would you want me to dance with Keith? Something's fishy here..."
Lotor met her gaze and his eyes spoke volumes. Allura broke the contact first. She felt extremely humbled by what she had seen in those golden orbs. "Dancing with Keith will make you happy," he spoke softly, "and that's what I want."
Allura opened her mouth to reply, but the lump in her throat blocked all speech. She felt Lotor's hand on her shoulder and found it oddly comforting.
"I think he returns your feelings," he continued, the effort clear in his choked tone, "but he would never make the first move. If it's what you really want, I promise to stay out of the way as much as I can."
Allura stood up on her tiptoes and kissed Lotor on the cheek. "Thank you."
"Well," Lotor sighed with a wry grin, "let's go, then."
"Pardon me, but may I have this dance?" Keith started at the voice and turned around. Lotor? What in the world?
"Certainly," Miss Eckert grinned and took Lotor's proffered arm.
"How about it, Keith," Allura smiled warmly, "will you dance with me?"
For a split second, Keith was almost certain his heart had stopped. Allura reached out her hand and Keith could feel the eyes around him watching expectantly. "S-Sure."
The two dance pairs moved out onto the floor. It was a waltz, Keith noted numbly. His legs worked automatically while his eyes remained riveted on Allura's smiling face.
Lotor skillfully maintained an appropriately small distance between himself and Allura while trying hard not to stare or look jealous.
"That was kind of you."
"Hmm?" Lotor glanced inquisitively at his dance partner.
"Asking an old lady to dance so that Keith wouldn't feel guilty about dancing with the princess." There was a sly glint to the old teacher's eyes.
"It was nothing, really." Lotor didn't even sound convincing to himself.
"By the way," Miss Eckert continued in a low tone, "you dance beautifully. Are all bodyguards this well taught?"
Lotor flushed at the compliment. "I'm not exactly a conventional bodyguard."
"I know," the teacher said mysteriously as the music stopped and they headed off the dance floor.
Lotor eyed Miss Eckert curiously as Allura thanked Keith for the dance. As they moved away, Lotor guided Allura toward one of the curtained balconies off of the ballroom.
"I think Miss Eckert has figured it out," Lotor informed Allura after they were safely behind the curtain.
"Don't worry, Lotor," Allura reassured him, "I'm sure she can be trusted."
Both prince and princess jumped as someone in a shadowed corner of the balcony gasped. Princess D'nom A'id emerged, eyes gleaming. She had been hoping to catch a few interesting couples alone together. This was far more than she had expected!
"You really ARE Lotor!"
Allura frantically wracked her brain. What could she say? Surely not the truth! Almost before the story was straight in her own mind, Allura found herself blurting out a lie.
"Lotor came here for political sanctuary. He's decided to leave Doom for good. We were planning to make a formal announcement at a more appropriate time."
It was said. There was no taking it back. Allura could feel Lotor's eyes on her, but she couldn't bring herself to meet his gaze.
"Really?" D'nom A'id's voice snapped Allura back to attention. "Who would have thought you'd let him stay!"
"He's here conditionally. If he breaks any part of the agreement, he'll have to leave. Um, right, Lotor?"
"I guess," Lotor said it softly, but Allura could feel the undercurrent of his anger like an impending lightning strike.
"You won't say anything, will you, D'nom A'id?" Allura knew the words were pointless.
"Of course not," D'nom A'id smiled broadly, "your secret is my secret." She disappeared in a whirl of curtain.
"How could you?" A chill ran down Allura's spine as she turned to face Lotor's fury and outrage. "How COULD you make a life-changing decision like that for me without any discussion?"
"Life-changing?" Allura feigned ignorance. She watched as Lotor's body trembled with the effort not to yell.
"Within a few hours, most of the known universe is going to know what you just told her," his fists clenched and unclenched. "What do you think my father's reaction will be?"
"He'll probably believe it. He already suspects everything about me. In his mind it won't be much of a leap from incompetent idiot to traitor!"
"He'll know Hagar's been lying," he cut her off again, "but she'll worm her way out of it. She always does, somehow."
"I had to tell her something!"
"Yes," Lotor snapped, eyes flashing, "but heaven forbid it should be the truth! We wouldn't want anyone to believe that Arus or its princess were less than perfect, now would we?"
Allura gasped. The comments were getting really personal now, but they were very close to the truth and that made Allura mad. "Listen, Lotor-"
"No," he silenced her with a slicing gesture, "YOU listen! Do you realize that I can never go back? I won't say I was perfectly happy there, but Doom WAS my home. I grew up there; it was all I knew until I was sent away to the academy. Do you think they'd let me come back, now? Would you really want to keep me here?
"I've cooperated with you, Allura. I've done everything I was asked since this whole thing started. I've even gone beyond that! I actually encouraged you to go dance with Keith! Is this what I get in return? My whole world is falling down around me."
Allura could feel tears coming, but she refused to break down. "What do you want me to say? Sorry won't cover it, I can't take it back, and I don't regret defending Arus."
"I don't want you to say anything," Lotor turned his face away from her, but not before she saw the hurt beneath the waning anger. "What I really need is time to sort this out for myself. I want you to leave me alone. Just let me be for a while."
Light flashed as someone walked through the curtain behind them. "The whole ballroom is buzzing about Lotor switching sides," it was Lance, "Keith wants to talk to you."
"Give us a moment," Allura told him with a smile that never reached her eyes. She turned in time to see Lotor lift his mask, run his arm across his face, and take a deep breath. When he turned toward her, his expression was carefully blank and he avoided her questioning gaze.
Keith knew something was wrong as soon as he saw Allura.
"So, it's true," he wasted no time getting right to the point, "someone found out. What's all this about Lotor switching sides?"
"I was ashamed to tell the truth," Allura admitted, "so I made up a story."
"Unfortunately, my actions were rash. I fear I may have caused some trouble."
Trouble, Allura thought bitterly, is a bit of an understatement! This evening started out so well, too.
Keith's voice broke into her thoughts. "Is it possible to arrange for the guests to leave early? We need to have a strategy meeting."
"I'll see what I can do."
"So," Keith turned to Lotor, "nothing to say?"
"I've already said all I have to say tonight." Lotor's voice was flat and empty of emotion. Keith could tell something was up, but he decided it might be wiser not to try and figure it out just yet.
The Voltron Force met in Castle Control after Allura had dismissed her guests under the pretense of feeling ill. It wasn't hard to pull off, as she really had developed a splitting headache! She was trying to pay attention, but her thoughts kept wandering.
"So, basically," Lance was saying, "Doom could attack any day now. Are we going to let Allura fly?"
I could really use a quick flight right now to clear my mind, Allura thought glumly.
"Do you think you could manage it?" Keith was looking at her. "Allura?"
"I don't see why not. Lotor can't exactly turn me over without coming along." She winced, that hadn't come out right.
Lotor flinched at her words. Does she really think that little of me? Could be that she's still mad. Oh well, it's not like it matters... He knew that was a lie. He did care what she thought. I've been a fool, thinking anything could change between us.
"Alright," Keith grudgingly agreed, "I still don't like it, but we're running out of options."
"You know, Keith," Lance shook his head, "you ought to take a break from being such a worry-wart all of the time!"
"It's not like things'll be THAT different," Pidge pointed out.
"Yeah," Hunk added, "we just keep watching each other's backs. No sweat!"
Keith was watching Lotor and Allura. Lotor was staring off into space dejectedly, while Allura stood facing the opposite direction, arms crossed. "Yeah. No sweat..."
When Allura woke up the next morning, Lotor was sitting in the same position he had been in when Allura had finally fallen asleep. He was staring fixedly at the wall.
"Did you sit like that all night?"
"Still not talking to me, huh," Allura was embarrassed that she kept talking to fill the silence. Why did it bother her so much?
She tried one more time. "Well, I guess we'd better get up. Don't want to miss breakfast!" That earned her a blink AND a sigh. Progress?
Lotor placidly followed Allura around the rest of the morning, but he still said nothing. It was like having another shadow. After a while, Lotor's mood started to rub off on Allura.
They were both sitting on the couch in the rec room, staring at nothing, when Keith and Lance walked in the door.
"Are you alright, Princess?" Allura flinched inwardly- she hated it when Keith called her that! She had a first name like everyone else.
"No," was all she said.
"What's wrong," Keith asked, "is this still about whatever happened last night?"
"He's mad at me," Allura sighed mournfully, "and he has a right to be. The more I think about it, the more I feel like I was incredibly unreasonable. I would love to talk it out, but..." She gestured to Lotor.
"I don't think you should blame yourself," Keith tried to reassure her, "just give it some time."
"He's off in his own world, look!" Lance waved his hand back and forth in front of Lotor's unblinking eyes. Lance, Keith, and Allura all jumped when Lotor's hand shot out and grabbed Lance's wrist. Lotor pushed the hand aside and let go. His apathetic expression never faltered. "Creepy," Lance concluded.
They all jumped again when the door flew open to reveal Hunk and Pidge.
"Guess who came to play," Hunk panted.
"More importantly," Pidge added, "guess what she brought with her!"
Keith's first impression of the robeast was that it seemed, well, rather unimpressive. It was tall and thin with two large, curved metal claws at the end of each of its unusually lengthy arms. Where its face should have been was a blank expanse of the same odd iridescent metal that composed the rest of the monster. It moved fluidly and almost soundlessly toward the castle, its eyeless face pointing purposefully ahead. The lions hovered in the beast's path.
"Well, team," Keith broke the silence, "let's see what it's made of. Allura, launch proton missiles."
In a blinding blur of speed, the robeast side-stepped the missiles and kept coming.
"He's fast," Lance noted, "but let's see him didge this!" Red lion darted forward to attack with the lion knife. The robeast batted the attacking lion away like a fly.
"Are you alright, Lance?"
"He's got us beat on speed and reach," Keith mused, "we'd better keep our distance. Let's try another round of missiles."
Allura was reaching for the controls when she felt Lotor's hand on her shoulder and jumped.
"Don't," he said softly.
"Allura," Keith's face appeared on the console, "why aren't you firing? Is something wrong?"
Allura opened her mouth to reply, but Lotor beat her to it.
"Why are you wasting ammunition?"
"Lotor," Keith was surprised to see that Lotor was talking again, "what are you talking about?"
"The robeast dodged the first time, why fire again?"
"Because," Keith responded, "like I said, he outreaches us, and he's faster."
"Think over that statement again, slowly." Lotor's tone was utterly reasonable, and that both irritated and unnerved Keith.
Obviously, Kith reasoned, I'm missing something. What is he trying to get across, and why can't he just come out and say it? Let's see... it's faster and-
"I see," Keith said aloud, "to overcome the reach issue, we've got to get in real close. To do that, we'll have to either distract it or attack from several sides at once."
"So let's surround it," Hunk was getting impatient.
"It may be stronger than it looks," Keith shook his head, "we'd better use Voltron. Pidge, contact castle control; see if they have any more of those smoke screen missiles."
Moments later, Voltron and the robeast stood facing each other. The robeast finally made a noise. It was a high, sibilant laugh that sent shivers down the spine.
Keith swallowed and took a deep breath. "Everybody ready?"
A chorus of replies answered.
"That robeast is toast!"
A hail of missiles from the castle rained down around the robeast, blanketing the area in smoke.
"Now," Keith commanded, "form blazing sword!"
Sword in hand, Voltron charged toward the hazy outline of the robeast. Voltron thrust the blazing sword toward the monster's chest. It saw the blowe coming just in time to block the strike with both hands, halting the blade inches from its chest.
Both robots strained, but nothing was happening. Voltron and the robeast appeared to be equally matched in strength.
"Well," Keith shrugged, "any ideas?"
"Yes." Keith blinked. Was that Lotor? "Follow Allura's lead."
Voltron's right leg snaked forward and wrapped around the robeast's left leg. With a sharp tug, Voltron pulled the robeast's leg out from under it. They toppled to the ground and the robeast's own weight spitted it on the blazing sword. Voltron pulled up both legs and kicked the robeast off the blade and into midair, where it exploded with a blinding flash.
"You know," Lance quipped, "the best part about this job is the fireworks!"
"Good work team," Keith congratulated everyone. "Was that last bit your idea, Lotor?"
"Sword combat is one of my strengths."
"Good thing, too," Hunk sighed, "we were deadlocked for a while there."
"Let's go home," Allura smiled.
Once back in the castle, Allura waited eagerly for a moment alone with Lotor. Unspoken apologies had passed between them in the cockpit of the blue lion, but there was still a lingering feeling of awkwardness. It was not until after dinner that Allura got the opportunity she had been anticipating.
"I'm glad you're not upset any longer. That silence was really getting to me!"
Lotor favored Allura with a small smile. Then, his expression turned serious.
"Allura, I can count on one hand the number of people I can truly call my friends."
"I'm on that list, right," Allura joked, hoping to lighten the mood somewhat.
"If you would like to be..."
"I would be honored."
"There's something else I need to say," Lotor made direct eye contact with Allura. "At first, I believed that I was head-over-heels in love with you. I was only partly correct." Lotor ran a hand through his hair as he struggled to put his emotions into words, a task he had never been particularly good at performing. "I... I do love you. Just in a very different way than I thought..."
Allura smiled up at him reassuringly. "I know exactly what you mean because that's how I feel, too!"
Lotor sighed in relief. "Okay! Oh," he grinned mischievously at the princess, "just so you know, my offer not to interfere with you and Keith still stands. Are you going to act on it?"
"Maybe," Allura said cryptically, "I'll have to sleep on it."
As had become typical lately, Allura and Lotor were up early and waiting in the rec room. Keith found them there, in the middle of a very odd conversation.
"Tell me another one," Allura giggled. Keith's entrance behind them had gone unnoticed.
"A mushroom walks into a bar. The bartender says, 'Hey! We don't allow your type in here!'
"So the mushroom says, 'Why not? I'm a fun guy!' Get it?"
Allura made a face at the pun, but laughed all the same.
"What are you two up to this early?"
"Oh," Allura turned to Keith and smiled, "good morning, Keith! Lotor was just sharing a few jokes. I bet him he didn't know ten 'clean' ones."
"I proved her wrong, and then some," Lotor finished.
What neither of them told Keith was that they were waiting for him, and Allura had made the bet to keep her nerves in check. Lotor nudged Allura with his elbow, nodding toward Keith.
"So, Keith," Allura said brightly, "it's supposed to be a beautiful day. Would you like to have a picnic later?"
"I don't have anything planned. I don't know about the other guys, though."
"Well," Allura flushed slightly, "I meant just us..."
Keith was a bit taken aback. Had she just asked him out?
"Of course," Allura continued, disappointment evident in her tone, "if you WANT to bting the guys-"
"No," Keith reassured her, "it sounds nice. Just the two of us, I mean." Then a thought struck him. "What about-"
"Lotor? We'll hardly know he's there," Allura looked crestfallen again, "unless that bothers you..."
"Um, no," Keith lied, "not at all! It sounds like fun."
"Oh, good!" Allura rose and Lotor followed suit. "I'll have Nanny make up a basket!"
Keith looked after them as the exitted the room. This afternoon looked to be quite interesting indeed...
Allura spread the blanket on a grassy hill with a beautiful view of the landscape around the castle. Lotor retrieved his lunch and a book from the basket and sat with his back to the couple. True to his word, the Prince of Doom made himself inconspicuous, and Allura and Keith almost forgot he was there.
For a long time, the conversation was just chit-chat. Finally, Allura breached a more sensitive subject.
"Keith, why didn't you ever ask to spend time with me before? Don't say because of rank, you know that doesn't matter to me."
"Um," Keith floundered, "are you sure you want to talk about this, now?" He cocked his head toward Lotor. Allura rolled her eyes.
"He stopped listening ages ago. He's absorbed in his book. Watch. Lotor. Hey, Lotor! Hello," she tossed a grape at the back of Lotor's head. It bounced off and into the grass. He turned his head.
"Do you NEED something?" Lotor scowled, irritated at the interruption.
"No." Lotor went back to his reading with a sigh. Allura put her focus back on Keith. "Satisfied? Now, quit evading my question. Is it because you don't like me? You nkow, LIKE like..."
"No! I mean, I do! I guess I just didn't know what to say. Or if you felt the same." They shared a moment of understanding.
"Hey, Keith, you there?" Lance's voice broke into their reverie. "If you're there, please respond."
"Yes," Keith responded into his communicator, "go ahead."
"I'm really sorry to interrupt, but we got a message from Garrison HQ. You're supposed to call back ASAP."
"Thanks, Lance. I'll be right there. Keith out." He gave Allura an apologetic look. It seemed duty was always looming over him. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Allura grinned, "it shouldn't take too long. I'll wait here and enjoy the weather."
Keith hurried off toward the castle and Allura hit Lotor with another grape.
"What now? Hey, where'd Keith go?"
"He got a call from Galaxy Garrison," Allura frowned.
"Well, how was it up until then?"
"Pretty good, actually. By the way, you did a great job of not interfering."
"Thank you," Lotor grinned.
Keith cursed softly under his breath as he hiked back out to the hill. The "quick call" had taken over an hour.
Galaxy Garrison wanted a full report on the 'Lotor situation' and what Keith was doing about it. Keith had informed them that Allura had granted Lotor amnesty. The Voltron Force Captain then received a lengthy lecture about informing his superiors promptly. Headquarters shouldn't have heard about the "masquerade incident" through outside sources first. He had apologized profusely, as was expected.
Keith heard voices and laughter as he approached the hill. Lotor and Allura lay on their backs, facing away from him. They were looking at clouds.
"What about that one?" Lotor pointed to a particular cluster.
"Hmm," Allura pondered briefly, "a short, stocky warrior with a sword?" Lotor seemed to find this extremely funny. "What?"
"I was going to say Nanny with a rolling pin, but close enough!"
Allura gasped and punched her companion playfully in the arm. "You're terrible!" She promptly began laughing again.
Keith felt both a little guilty and a little jealous watching them together. They look so happy... Would Allura be that open with me?
He cleared his throat and the cloud-watchers sat up and turned to face him.
"Hey you," Allura smiled warmly, "rough call?"
"I took care of it."
"Come watch the clouds," Allura invited, and he did.On to Parts 13-16