A few days after the picnic, Allura noticed a new side-effect of the Shackles. She and Lotor were sitting in the rec room, as usual, when Keith entered. He took a seat at the far end of the room, a cup of coffee in hand. Allura felt an inexplicable surge of annoyance. It had happened several times before, and always when Keith was around.
I don't understand, Allura mused, Keith doesn't annoy me. In fact, I love having him around! But, if it's not me... She turned to look at Lotor, whose face was impassive.
"Lotor," Allura nudged her companion, "does Keith annoy you?"
"Not hiding it very well, I guess."
"No," Allura elaborated when Lotor gave her a bemused look, "it's like I can sort of feel what you feel."
"You mean empathy?" Lotor pondered the idea. "I wonder if I can do it, too. Let's give it a shot!"
"Alright, what am I feeling now?"
"Sad, but I may have been able to tell from your expression."
"Okay," Allura concentrated on maintaining a poker face, "what about now?"
"Anger." Allura raised her eyebrows and Lotor grinned. "Make that surprise."
"Wow," Allura was awed, "how intriguing! Speaking of intriguing, why does Keith still bother you? I thought you were trying to get along with everybody."
"I AM trying," Lotor protested, "there's just something about him that irks me. At least the other guys are trying to be civil! All I get from Keith are negative vibes."
"Well," Allura attempted to lighten the mood, "I guess I can't blame you for EVERYTHING."
"Darn right," Lotor affirmed with a smirk. All further conversation was cut off by the castle alarm, and they all hurried to Castle Control.
"What's the situation, Koran," Keith asked, "robeast?"
"Not yet," Koran muttered distractedly as he hit a sequence of keys on the control panel. "A perimeter alarm was tripped."
The main screen showed a small area of the castle wall where a side entrance was located. Several guards were restraining a villager who struggled and shouted. "I must speak to the princess! Please!"
One of the guards stepped forward and addressed the camera. "I apologize for the false alarm. This man tried to force his way past us and tripped the alarm on this door."
"Why does he wish to speak to me?" Allura made a quick decision. "Escort him inside. I will grant him an audience."
"Yes, your Highness," the guard bowed and then saluted, "it will be done."
Once seated in one of the castle's conference rooms, the villager calmed down considerably and had the grace to look embarrassed about his earlier outburst. He shifted uneasily, glancing furtively at those in front of him. Allura smiled encouragingly at him.
"Please," the princess requested graciously, "tell me what you came to say."
"Well, yer Majesty," the man began, "it's about this monster, see..."
"Monster," Lance broke in, "a robeast is more likely!"
"An' there was this old woman with it," the man continued, unfazed by the interruption, "they were hidin' in the woods! Animals started goin' missin', and then-" his voice cracked. The room went totally silent for a few long moments. "My daughter," the man's eyes brimmed with tears, "I know if anyone can get her back, it's Voltron!"
The Voltron Force exchanged concerned glances. "We've got work to do." Keith turned to the distraught villager. "We'll get right on it!"
"Wow, that's a lot of forest," Lance observed as the lions landed on the outskirts of the woods.
"Hagar could be hiding out anywhere," Pidge frowned, "so, what do we do?"
"Split up," Keith sighed, "I don't like it, but it's the best way to cover such a large area. Everybody check in periodically, and don't take any unnecessary risks!"
"I'm serious, Lance."
"As usual," Lance teased. "Let's get this show on the road!" With that, Red Lion soared off over the trees. The other lions followed, quickly branching off to cover separate swaths of forest land.
Blue Lion landed in a small clearing. The hatch opened and both Allura and Lotor poked their heads out.
"We ought to stay in the lion," Lotor insisted in an exasperated tone, "it's safer!"
"But I saw something in the trees!"
"Well, I didn't see anything..."
"Look," Allura rolled her eyes, "the lion is too big to go into the thick of the forest! Besides, there's two of us, and I'll bring my laser pistol."
"I have a VERY bad feeling about this," Lotor lamented as the duo leaped down from the lion and headed off into the woods.
"Oh, quit whining!"
"At least you get a helmet!"
As their voices faded off into the forest, two yellow eyes blinked languidly. The blue cat stretched and trotted off into the shadows, tail twitching.
Lotor and Allura were passing a small cave when Lotor stopped and cocked his head to one side.
"Did you hear that?"
"No," Allura frowned, "what is it?"
"It sounded like crying," Lotor strained to pick up the faint cries again, "like a small child."
They both listened intently for a few moments. Allura was about to suggest they should move on again when she heard it- small, whimpering sobs. Where were they coming from?
Lotor and Allura reached the same conclusion simultaneously. "The cave!"
The cave ceiling was high enough that Allura could walk normally and Lotor only had to stoop slightly. About twenty yards in, the roof vaulted and they found themselves in a large chamber. The crying was definitely closer now!
"Maybe you had better check in before we go any farther," Lotor suggested, "just in case."
Allura nodded and reached for her communicator. Then, they both saw something move near the back of the chamber, along one wall. Allura opted for her gun instead.
The duo crept closer, eyes focused intently ahead. As they moved closer, they noticed a crevasse in the cave wall. The sounds were coming from inside the small, shadowed fissure. Half a small face peeked out at them, visible eye wide.
"The missing girl," Allura sighed in relief, "she's alright! I'll let the rest of the team know, you try and get her to come out."
"Me? I'm not exactly great with kids..."
Allura had already pulled out her communicator and was attempting to hail one of the other lions. Lotor shrugged and kneeled down by the crevasse.
"Um, hi," he attempted a disarming smile, "what's your name?"
"I'm Lotor. Why are you hiding in here?"
"'Cause it's safe. The monster's too big to fit."
"The monster isn't here right now, so how about coming out?"
Elsie shook her head and moved farther back into the shadows. "You better hide. It'll come back soon!"
"It's already here," an all too familiar voice cackled.
Lotor and Allura whirled to face Hagar and her newest creation. The robeast was red and scaly, with long, snapping jaws studded with teeth that would be the envy of any crocodile.
"Tell me you got through to someone, Allura," Lotor pleaded.
Allura licked her suddenly dry lips. "Briefly. They should be on their way."
"Let's hope so." Lotor grabbed Allura's arm and they ran further into the cave, the robeast in hot pursuit.
They didn't get very far. They skidded to a stop at the top of a sudden drop-off. The robeast snarled behind them.
"What now?" Allura squeezed Lotor's hand, mostly for her own comfort.
"Now you die," Hagar grinned wickedly. "Would you prefer my beast, or the cliff? It's up to you."
The decision was made for them; the rocks under them crumbled, casting them over the brink. Hagar would have personally confirmed their deaths, but she had bigger fish to fry.
"You heard them," the old witch addressed the robeast, "the other lions are on the way. Let's go greet them."
Allura groaned and opened her eyes. What had just happened? She remembered being in the cave... The next thing she noticed was that she was lying on top of someone else.
"Oh no! The cliff! Lotor!" Said prince did not respond. "You broke my fall... Why?"
"I didn't do it on purpose," Lotor's voice startled Allura. "By the way, you can get off now."
"Oh! I'm sorry!" She gingerly scooted off of her companion. "Are you alright?"
Lotor hissed through his teeth as he pulled his right arm out from underneath himself. "This arm took a beating, and I hit my head. Other than that, I think it's just scrapes and bruises. What about you?"
"I think I'm a little bruised, but mostly just shaken."
Lotor sat up, his eyes widened, and he promptly turned away from Allura as he heaved up his stomach contents.
"That's not good," he mumbled.
An explosion sounded and the ground shook beneath them.
"The robeast," Allura reasoned, "it must be fighting the other lions! We have to go help them. Can you walk?"
Lotor stood slowly and wavered slightly. He shook his head when Allura reached out a hand to steady him.
"Just give me a minute," Lotor said, cradling his right arm to his chest. "You worry about getting us back up there and out of this cave."
Allura eyed the cliff before her. It was about twenty feet high, give or take. A faint glow of light showed over the top. It looked difficult to scale, even if they could both use both arms! Suddenly, she heard footsteps behind her. When she turned around, Lotor shrugged.
"I have no idea how, but..." he trailed off and pointed to his left. Allura followed his finger to...
Lance cursed under his breath as he dodged a fire blast from the now giant robeast.
"We could really use Allura and the Blue Lion right about now!"
"I sure hope she's okay," Hunk added as he fired a volley of missiles at the beast.
"We can't spare anyone to go looking for her," Keith ground out between clenched teeth as he dodged and fired, "or believe me, we would!"
Just then, the robeast was hit with a blast from behind and Blue Lion soared into view.
"Sorry I'm late," Allura apologized, "we got a little side-tracked in a cave."
"Well, now that we're all here," Keith grinned, inwardly very relieved, "I think it's time to form Voltron!"
"Let's go, Voltron Force," they all chorused, and soon the mighty Defender of the Universe was squaring off against the robeast, blazing sword in hand.
The lizard beast lunged, but Voltron side-stepped the attack. Before the robeast could turn to charge again, the blazing sword impaled it from behind. It exploded in a ball of flame.
"That was almost too easy," Pidge noted.
"I think Hagar was counting on us being short handed," Allura mused, " she used the little girl to bait us. It was all a trap to separate the lions."
"Do you have the girl with you?"
"Yes, Keith. In fact, she helped us find our way out of that cave. Let's bring her home."
Allura smiled as she watched Elsie's reunion with her parents.
"Doesn't that make you feel great?" She playfully punched Lotor in the arm- he whimpered. "Oh my! I'm sorry! I forgot that you were injured! We must get you to Dr. Gorma at once..."
Lotor shook his head emphatically at the suggestion. He hated doctors. "I'm okay, really!" He waved his right arm in demonstration. His eyes teared up and his next word came high and strained through clenched jaws. "See? I can move it and everything..."
"Nice try," Allura quirked one eyebrow, reached out and grabbed Lotor's right wrist, which was noticeably swollen. He yanked his hand away, spitting a string of curses that was enough to curl Allura's hair- and she couldn't even understand them! She shook her head. "Come on, it won't be that bad."
The force returned to the castle, another battle won.
Allura looked over at her companion and was caught between a sigh and a giggle. The way Lotor was pouting, complete with jutting lower lip, made him look very much like a sulky toddler.
"Stupid doctor," the prince fumed under his breath, "what does he know? I'm just fine!"
"He knows a LOT more than you do about medicine," Allura rolled her eyes, "so just deal with it! You have a recovering dislocated shoulder, a sprained wrist, and a mild concussion. No matter how hard you try, you can't whine them away!"
Lotor scowled at his sling and wrist brace before retorting sullenly. "I still don't like his 'doctor's orders' one bit..."
Dr. Gorma had ordered that Lotor should remain awake for the next 24 hours. He didn't exactly have cheery memories of his last adventure in sleep deprivation. Allura had agreed to sit up with him and had promised it would be fun. This seemed highly unlikely!
They entered the rec room, where Allura greeted her companions and then headed to a closet.
"If I recall," she mused as she scanned the shelves, "there are some board games in here. We also have a collection of movie discs."
"What's up?" Lance queried, as he peered over the princess's shoulder.
"Lotor and I are staying up all night," Allura responded disractedly.
"I have a concussion," Lotor added for clarification.
"Sounds FUN," Lance smirked.
Allura missed his sarcasm. "You all can join us if you'd like!"
Lance was about to reply in the negative when Pidge broke in ahead of him. "Hey, really? Wow! This'll be great!"
"Hold on, Pidge," the Voice of Reason, aka Keith, scolded, "we have lion practice bright and early tomorrow."
"Oh, poo," Allura scoffed, "it will take the forces of Doom a few days to recover from the last battle! A night of fun followed by a day off couldn't hurt! You don't want to be a party pooper, do you, Keith?" Allura plunked a stack of boxes onto the coffee table.
"Didn't you know? Every party need a pooper," Lance grinned broadly, "that's why we invite him!"
"Please, Keith?" Pidge put on his best pitiful face.
"Oh, alright," Keith sighed, grinning, "looks like I'm outnumbered anyway. What's up first?"
"Ooh, ooh! Let's play 'Clue!' I love that game."
Moments later, the game board was set up and everyone huddled around and prepared to select characters.
"I'm Professor Plum!" Pidge quickly snagged his favorite piece.
"Colonel Mustard," Hunk decided.
"I'll take Mr. Green," Lance added.
Allura selected Ms. Scarlet. Lotor and Keith Looked at the remaining tokens, then each other, and the tokens again. Keith grudgingly claimed Mrs. White. Lotor picked up and eyed the remaining piece.
"Mrs. Peacock. Joy." So far, the evening was off to an interesting start...
"So," Hunk concluded, "it was Kei- er, Mrs. White, in the Billiard Room, with the lead pipe. I win!"
Lotor glanced plaintively at the clock on the wall. It was only 9! He slumped forward dejectedly, knocking his head on the table.
Allura patted his shoulder sympathetically. "Well," she said cheerily, switching gears rapidly, "Hunk won, so he can pick the next game!"
"Okay. Umm... How about 'Trivial Pursuit?'" Everyone stared at him in surprise. "What? Can't I like trivia?"
"Nothing," they all muttered.
The castle had the most recent copy of the game- Genus XXX.
"I don't believe it! This is so unfair," Lance snorted at the question before him.
"Oh, come on," Lotor, who had become involved despite himself, urged, "I'm going for my yellow wedge here!"
"'Born May 16, 2543, this heir to the Doom Empire graduated at the top of his class and conquered his first planet within a month.'"
Lotor blinked and then grinned. "Hey, that's me! I'm in this game!"
"Yeah, yeah," Lance rolled his eyes, "take your wedge and roll already!"
Game play continued until Keith beat Lotor, Allura, and Hunk by a narrow margin. Keith's game selection was Risk.
Pidge's green army and Allura's pink troops were quickly eliminated. Hunk's yellow forces fell next, followed shortly by Lance and his blue army. They all eagerly watched the shifting tides of the red, Keith, and black, Lotor, pieces scattered across the board.
Lotor smirked as he commenced his turn. "Well, Keith, it was fun while it lasted, but I've got a trade in!" Lotor triumphantly displayed his cards and used his reinforcements to dispatch the last of Keith's troops.
Much to everyone's surprise, Lotor chose Pictionary as the next game.
"Um," Lance blinked in confusion, "Lotor? How are you going to draw with your arm in a sling? Aren't you right-handed?"
Lotor shook his head. "I'm ambidextrous. I just prefer to use my right."
After Lance objected to Lotor and Allura being on the same team, he ended up with Lotor, Allura with Keith, and Hunk and Pidge on the third team.
"So," Lance turned to his partner, "can you draw?"
"I don't know," Lotor retorted, "can you guess?"
"I guess we'll just have to wait and see..."
"What the heck was that supposed to be?!" Lance pointed at Lotor's drawing after their time ran out.
"What do you mean," Lotor was defensive, "I can't believe you couldn't tell! It's a potato!"
"Looks like a blob with dots to me!"
"Oh yeah? Mr. 'It's SO obvious that's a marmoset!'"
"Calm down you guys," Allura groaned, "it's just a game!" She was beginning to regret putting them on the same team.
"Yeah," Keith agreed with the princess, "besides, you two are winning!"
Just then, Nanny bustled into the room. "I was wondering if you all would like some lunch!"
Everyone turned to the clock. It was almost noon!
"That sounds wonderful! I think some of us could use a break," Allura looked pointedly at Lance and Lotor.
After the meal and the rest of the game, which Lotor and Lance won, they decided to watch a movie. Not even an hour into the film, everyone but Allura had nodded off, including Lotor, who had passed out on her shoulder. Allura looked at the time.
"Well," she smiled at Lotor's peaceful expression, "it's close enough to 24 hours for me!"
Allura yawned and snuggled up to Keith's shoulder, as he was sitting on her other side. In his sleep, Keith moved his arm so that Allura's head was on his chest and his arm was behind her. Of course, this left Keith's hand resting on Lotor's head. Luckily, they were all too fast asleep to know or care!
Time flew by, with the occasional attack from Doom, and before Allura knew it, it was Christmas-time. This, to the chagrin of many of the castle residents, meant another ball. Every corridor was abustle. Each little detail had to be approved by Allura.
Eventually, Lotor had dragged the frazzled and exhausted princess in a forced retreat to the rec room. Lance was already there, brewing a fresh pot of coffee.
"We're NOT here," Lotor instructed the curious pilot. "If anyone asks, you haven't seen us."
Allura was already half-asleep standing up, slumped against her companion. "No more... Never wanna' see garland again," she mumbled.
"Coffee?" Lance held up the pot. "Looks like you could use some."
"Yes, thank you," Lotor sighed, "one with cream and sugar and one black."
When Lance set the mugs on the table, Allura's eyes snapped open and she snagged the mug of strong, black coffee. Lotor sipped from the other.
"Mmm..." Allura sighed contentedly.
"So," Lance sat down across from them, "how much have you got left to do?"
"Invitations, menu, arrange for music, then of course there's what to wear..." Allura trailed off. Lotor had flinched at the mention of clothing. "What?"
"Tell me you're not planning to agree to that hideous gown Nanny picked! You told me you didn't want any pink. Besides, it makes you look about 6."
"What am I supposed to do?" Allura frowned at Lotor. "I'd like to see YOU talk her out of it..."
"Maybe I will..."
Nanny was in the kitchens, decorating cookies and supervising the baking, when Allura and Lotor found her. Lotor put on his most charming smile, hopelessly distracting several members of the kitchen staff in the process.
"Hello, Nanny ma'am! You're looking well today."
She didn't even look up from her tray of sugar cookies.
"Whatever you want," Nanny scowled, savagely dotting red icing, "the answer is no!"
Lotor managed to look deeply hurt. "You mean you won't even hear me out?" Nanny continued to ignore him. "Okay," he turned as though to leave, "I just thought that since it was about Allura, you might want to put a word in. Guess I was wrong!"
"Stop RIGHT there, young man!" The bit about Allura had caught her attention. "Just what is this about?"
Bingo! Lotor mentally patted himself on the back before turning back to the perturbed woman.
"Well, you see, Allura and I were talking about her image. See, since we KNOW Allura, we know what an intelligent, strong, mature, and beautiful lady she is," Lotor lowered his voice conspiratorially, "the thing is, we've got to make sure everybody else sees that, too!"
Allura was shocked when Nanny nodded in agreement. "I'm sure you have some point to this?"
"I know most of Allura's wardrobe decisions are left to you, and she always looks fantastic!"
Geez, Lotor, Allura fought to keep from rolling her eyes, laying it on a little thick, aren't we?
"I though that this once, though," Lotor continued, "that we might want to see how a more mature style goes over. What do you think?"
"Well..." Lotor noticed the woman beginning to crack and pounced.
"It doesn't need to be anything drastic," he reassured Nanny, "perhaps a slightly different style, and maybe another color."
"I suppose it couldn't hurt..."
Going in for the kill! Lotor crowed inwardly.
"Excellent! Why don't you meet us at the dressmaker's when you're done here and we'll all pick something together." He grabbed Allura's wrist and began dragging her from the kitchen.
"Nothing too revealing," Nanny yelled after them, "and nothing gaudy!"
"Like she can talk," Lotor muttered, picturing the frilly, foofy dress Nanny had previously selected.
"Where are we going?" Allura inquired.
"The dress shop," Lotor grinned, "if we're going to pull this off, we've got to be prepared! Here." He handed her a cookie- it was still warm!
"When did you-? How..."
"No big deal," Lotor shrugged, taking a bite of his own cookie, "I used to pinch stuff from the kitchens back home all the time as a kid."
Lotor pulled Allura to the side just before she entered the shop.
"Are you familiar with haggling?"
"Not really," she admitted, "I always figured the store owners had a right to set their own prices."
"Well, you're about to get a complimentary crash course from a master," he grinned. Once inside, Lotor turned to her again. "Which one do you like? Don't even think about what anybody else wants. It's YOUR decision, after all."
Allura headed for a dress she had spotted two days ago when they were here with Nanny. She had been afraid to even suggest it then, but maybe now... The gown was a deep sapphire satin and the bodice was embroidered with black beads in a whorling pattern. She knew Nanny would oppose the scooping neckline and clinging cut.
"Nice," Lotor's approval reassured her. "Time for lesson one. Always start with extremes."
Allura turned and gaped at the dress Lotor was holding out on a hanger. He smirked at her shocked expression. The dress was black, sleeveless, would fit like a second skin, and was barely long enough to be decent.
"Are you CRAZY?! I may as well go NAKED as far as Nanny and that dress are concerned! She would NEVER let me-"
"I know! Chill, Allura," Lotor sighed in exasperation, "that's the point! We want Nanny to realize your selection is a good one. That's how this kind of negotiation works. If we start with this one, she'll counter with her original selection. Then, we move one step closer to the middle and your blue gown. Get it?"
"Oh," it made sense. "You really think it'll work?
"Well," Lotor shrugged, "it usually does. Besides, you can hardly do worse than the pink monstrosity! Oh yeah, lesson two. Don't let on which is your favorite. If possible, we want Nanny to think it was her idea."
They spent their remaining time while they waited for Nanny chatting and pointing out other dresses that could be used in the bargaining.
"So," Allura addressed Lotor, "you like to haggle?"
"Are you kidding? It's a big part of Drule culture. You NEVER buy anything for its asking price in a Drule marketplace. Know what I just realized?"
"That may be one of the problems between the Drule and Galaxy Garrison. I think the Garrison higher-ups take Drule demands literally and refuse instead of making a counter offer like the Drule expect them to do."
They pondered this for a few moments. Allura broke the pensive silence. "Is there a lesson three to haggling?"
"Be willing to make some concessions, if they'll help you reach your goal. That's it for basics. Besides," Lotor made a face as he glanced over her shoulder, "Nanny the Terrible is here."
Allura couldn't believe it! She was actually going to wear a dress she had selected herself! Standing up to Nanny had felt good. Allura was on cloud nine and had completely tuned out Lotor's grumbling about the tux he had been fitted for while they were out. Neither noticed Keith until he cleared his throat.
"Oh, Keith," Allura smiled at him, "wait 'til you see the gown I got!"
Keith suddenly looked nervous. "Um, about the ball..."
"If you don't mind, er, if no one else is, you know..."
"Aww," Lotor grinned malevolently, "that's so CUTE! I think he's trying to ask you out, Allura."
"Really?" Allura blinked and then flushed. "Oh, Keith... I- I..."
Lotor snorted. "You two are sad. You know that, right?" He elbowed Allura. "Say 'yes.' Just spit it out already!"
"But," Allura could feel her ears burning, "won't that be awkward? I- I thought I'd just say YOU were my escort, Lotor, since everybody knows about you now, and all..."
"WHAT?!" Both men were shocked.
"We can still dance, Keith," Allura went on, "this will just help explain why Lotor is right near me all night. Don't you see?"
"Oh. I see," Keith flashed a glare at Lotor. "I'm sorry I said anything..."
Lotor glared right back. "What are you lookin' at me for? I was just as surprised as you!" Keith turned to leave.
"Keith," Allura called after him, "wait..."
He looked back over his shoulder, pain evident in his eyes. "For how much longer, Princess?"
With that, he left.
The night of the Christmas Ball arrived. Keith had been pointedly avoiding Allura whenever possible, and she was miserable. She managed to keep it hidden from everyone but Lotor. The former Prince of Doom had proven to be a surprising comfort and an excellent confidant. Currently, however, he was complaining as Allura fixed his bow tie.
"How come I gotta' wear white? You know you're just ASKING for me to spill something!"
"Hold still! You're wearing white because it looks nice, and you'll just have to be careful. Quit being such a big baby..."
Lotor stuck his tongue out at her and then grinned. "Meanie."
"You know it," she playfully punched his arm. "So, are we all ready now?"
He shrugged. "I suppose." Lotor's expression suddenly grew pensive and he chewed his lower lip agitatedly.
"I'm sorry you couldn't be going with Keith," he silenced her protest, "I know you really wanted to. I feel like I'm always in your way. So promise me you'll try and have fun tonight. Don't let me hold you back, okay?"
Allura sighed and managed a small smile. "I promise to try."
"Okay, then. We're all set!" He winked and offered Allura his arm. "Let's go knock 'em dead!"
Keith hadn't brought an escort. He was a little surprised by the number of ladies who asked to dance with him. He politely declined each offer, content to stand against the wall, tracking Allura with his eyes.
As always, she was beautiful. He noticed that she seemed rather sad at first, but Lotor and Lance soon had her laughing melodically.
You should be over there, too, he mentally berated himself. He wanted to talk to her, badly, but he didn't trust himself not to pick a fight.
What are you so jealous of, a little voice in the back of his head prodded him, deep down you know they're just friends!
That's the problem, though, isn't it, Keith, another, far nastier voice jeered, Hmm? YOU don't make her laugh. She's never that carefree with you, is she? Why do you suppose that is?
Keith shook his head, trying to banish the needling voice. It didn't work.
Look at them, the nasty voice ordered. Lotor said something and Allura giggled. She stood on tiptoe to whisper a reply in his ear. Keith tore his gaze away. They just keep getting closer and closer... And you let them! Have you given up then?
No! He quashed the malevolent little voice. It's none of my business anyway...
He watched as Allura pulled Lotor out onto the dance floor. Keith recognized the song: This Night by Billy Joel.
Didn't I say
I wasn't ready for romance
Didn't we promise
We would only be friends
And so we danced
Though it was only a slow dance
I started breaking my promises
Right there and then
Didn't I swear
There would be no complications
Didn't you want
Someone who's seen it all before
Now that you're here
It's not the same situation
Suddenly I don't remember the rules anymore
This night is mine
It's only you and I
Is a long time away
This night can last forever
I've been around
Someone like me should know better
Falling in love
Would be the worst thing I could do
Didn't I say
I needed time to forget her
Aren't you running from someone
Who's not over you
How many nights
Have I been lonely without you
I tell myself
How much I really don't care
How many nights
Have I been thinking about you
Wanting to hold you
But knowing you would not be there
It's only you and I
I'll tell you
To forget yesterday
This night we are together
It's only you and I
Is such a long time away
This night can last forever
Is such a long time away
This night can last forever
As the last notes faded into the murmur of the guests, Keith took a deep breath. He needed to talk to Allura- Lotor or no Lotor.
Allura could remember, vividly, the last time she had been on this curtained balcony. She fervently hoped this conversation turned out better!
"Yes, Keith?" Her voice was very quiet.
Keith shifted nervously and ran a hand through his ever unruly black hair. "I really wish this could be a PRIVATE conversation..." he mumbled under his breath. Allura heard him.
"Well, we can get pretty close." She looked pointedly at Lotor.
"Hmph," he mock pouted, "nobody ever wants to talk to me. Oh well!" He shrugged, turned away from Allura and Keith, placed his fingers in his ears, and began to hum. The tune sounded suspiciously like "Taps". Allura poked Lotor in the ribs.
"Sorry," he couldn't suppress a chuckle, "just kidding!" Lotor began humming again, and this time Keith didn't recognize it.
After an awkward silence, Allura decided to start the ball rolling. "Look, Keith, I'm real sorry I upset you. I don't have a whole lot of options. Whether or not I want to, I have to do what's best for both of us," she inclined her head toward Lotor's back.
"I know that," Keith sighed, "but I don't have to like it. I feel like you're changing somehow..."
"People aren't static," Allura defended, "we all change. I mean, look at Lotor-"
"Does it all have to come back to HIM?!" He hadn't meant it to come out that harshly.
"It does if that's your problem," Allura bristled, "because we need to deal with it! He's my friend now, Keith, and I'm not about to abandon him just because it makes YOU uncomfortable!"
Neither noticed Lotor stiffen when they raised their voices. He could feel Allura's frustration and anger. It took a great deal of effort to continue tuning them out.
"Keep your voice down," Keith hissed.
"Why? I'm not ashamed anymore! You know what else? I'm glad this happened! GLAD! Do you hear?"
Keith took a step backwards. He had never seen Allura blow up quite like this! He was shocked and angry, but at the same time he felt deep admiration for the woman before him.
"Lotor HAS changed. I would trust him with my life! I'm beginning to think he's the only person around here that really cares what I think!"
"Don't 'Allura' me! I will live how I choose." She took a moment to compose herself. "Now, if you'll excuse us..."
Allura turned sharply on her heel and left the enclosed balcony. It took her a few stunned moments to realize that she had left ALONE. She dashed back through the curtain. Keith gaped at her and then turned to Lotor, who was still humming. At his feet, the shackles glinted dully. Allura reached out and poked him in the ribs.
"Hey," Lotor turned, grinning, "all done? What? You look kind of pale..."
In response. Allura bent down, picked up the shackles, and held them out to Lotor. His shocked expression mirrored hers so perfectly it was almost comical. Then their eyes met.
With a whoop of joy, Allura launched herself into a massive bear hug. Lotor swung her around, laughing all the while.
People outside the alcove were probably staring, but they didn't care. It was hard for Allura to think of a time when she'd been happier. That's when she noticed that Keith was gone. Suddenly things weren't so perfect anymore...
"You should go try talking to him again," Lotor placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. "Only this time, you can go alone."
"What about you?" The idea of going anywhere without Lotor suddenly seemed very foreign.
"I'm sure I'll find some way to amuse myself," he winked. "I may just go find a dark corner and skulk so I can enjoy the feeling of being alone!"
"You think he'll even want to see me?"
"I would avoid ME as a topic," Lotor grinned ruefully as Allura winced, "but yeah. He can't avoid you forever, and I don't think he wants to."
"Wish me luck?"
"Always. Go get 'im!"
After a final hug, Allura set off to do just that.
Allura finally located her quarry in the castle gardens. Apparently he had not heard her coming, as he jumped when she spoke.
"Shouldn't you be off celebrating your new-found freedom?" His voice was bitter. It didn't suit him, Allura thought. She took a steadying breath.
"Maybe THIS is what I want to do with my freedom." She twined her fingers in his and leaned her head on his arm. He didn't pull away.On to Parts 17-20