* PART THREE *
Cold as Blood
“What seest thou else in the dark backward and abysm of time?” The Tempest, 1.2.49-50
Altea and (briefly) Arus
THE WIND HAD risen, gathering almost to gale proportions, singing through the bleak crevasses with a ghostly, almost human voice. Even so, Lance’s sharp intake of breath was audible. He actually fell back a pace in complete astonishment. “Erik!” he spluttered. “Not Erik-your BROTHER? That’s not possible!”
At the same time Romelle’s voice rang out: “Have your wits completely frozen? How can he be your brother? He looks exactly like you!”
Sven shook his head, his mind spinning, staring down at the figure who once again lay limp in the snow, eyes closed. It was impossible, he knew well, and yet for half an instant there had been something in that shallow, level gaze, a look of familiarity and kinship he would have known anywhere.
Ekatia was saying, “Whoever he is, WHATever he is, he’ll die if he stays out here any longer. Correction: we will all die-the storm will be here any minute and it will wipe the entire mountain range clean. We need to seek shelter.”
Romelle’s head snapped up. “What about your sled?”
Ekatia shook her head bitterly, her eyes hardened. “With the five of us? We’re too heavy; we’ll never make it ahead of the storm. But there are caves-”
A blast of freezing air rattled across the ledge, freezing their very blood. Romelle clung to Sven, but Ekatia was sent reeling back against Lance, who was also caught off balance. Pulling Ekatia under his arm, Lance climbed to his feet and stood over the motionless figure in the snow. “We already have shelter,” he said through clenched teeth. He seized the unconscious man by the collar and jerked him upright, roughly. “I don’t give a damn WHO or WHAT you are at the moment. If you are Haggar’s pet, or, well…I never much liked Sven’s brother, anyway,” he spat. “WHERE THE HELL IS THE DAMN BLUE LION?”
“Lance!” Sven began warningly, but he was ignored.
“I’m bloody tired of this!” Lance snapped. “I’m freezing, I’ve been marooned on some snowball at the remotest edge of the Galaxy, I’ve been shot at, attacked by monsters, not trusted, and I’m bloody tired! Wake up, damn you!” shaking him roughly. “Where’s the Blue Lion?”
“Lance, stop it!” Sven thundered, seizing him by the arm and whirling him around. “You’ll kill him.”
“Lance!” Ekatia burst in. “Lance, come with me back to the sled. I’ll get the med kit, and a fleece. I need you…as an anchor,” indicating her slight frame against the growing ferocity of the storm. She put a hand under his elbow, and led him away, slowly at first, then they both turned and ran.
Sven caught his double as he fell, lowered him gently to the ground. The princess slipped out of her jacket and wrapped it about his shoulders. “He can tell us nothing if he dies,” she said in explanation, but the truth was, in her heart, even knowing what he had done and tried to do, when she looked at him she saw only Sven. It was the same face-the SAME!-from the high, prominent cheekbones to the long, coal-black lashes sweeping that waxen, bloodless face, to the short, jagged scar underlying the right eye. Furious at her own sentimentalism, she tore her eyes away and stared the real Sven directly in the face. “You really thought he was your brother,” she said. It was not a question.
“I don’t know,” Sven said softly, in a hard voice edged with bewilderment. “You’re right-it makes no sense. Yet… Never mind. We’ve got to find the Blue Lion, if it’s here.” The slightest of shudders went through his body, but Romelle, attuned to him as she had become, noticed and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
A vague muttering brought their attention back to the wounded man between them. He was awake again, and his feverish dark eyes sought their faces intently. The corner of his mouth twitched as he stared up at Romelle. “I keep waking to your face. Not that I’m complaining,” he murmured in a dry, scratched voice and Romelle stiffened. He glanced at Sven. “Well,” he breathed, “this doesn’t happen every day.”
It was a struggle to keep his voice tight. “WHERE is the Blue Lion?”
Again, that ghostly smile, but no humor at all flickering in the deep, darkened eyes. “Not far. Help me up, and I will lead you there.”
“Follow you?” Romelle demanded contemptuously. “Into yet another trap?”
“I have no desire to die here, princess,” he said acidly, but weakly, and looked again at Sven.
Lance and Ekatia were returning. Sven glanced down at the wounded man, then back up at Romelle. “We have no choice,” he said.
Between them Sven and Romelle got the man to his feet, just as Lance and Ekatia rushed up to them. Ekatia wrapped the fleece about the man’s shoulders while Lance regarded the trio skeptically. “Well?” he said.
Sven and Romelle looked to the man they supported. “This way,” he said.
The way was steep and treacherous, especially in the gathering storm. The wind shrieked through the passes like a mad coloratura. Romelle half-sobbed in frustration as a mighty gust of wind slammed into her, nearly tearing her grip on the wounded man’s arm. Twice he lapsed into delirium and incoherent mumbling, leaving the companions stricken with the fear that he would not regain consciousness, that they would never find their way back to the sled or to the Lion and die there. But Ekatia’s foul tasting, throat-searing restorative drink, urgent words from Sven, and dire threats from Lance and Romelle pierced through his fevered haze and he led them onward.
A good five kilometers from where they had left the sled, and across a deep, snow-filled crevasse crossable only via a narrow, jutting ledge, there was a deep socket on the side of the mountain. Therein, like a great metallic bear in hibernation, the Blue Lion rested, giant robotic paws folded under its lowered head, its eyes dull. Only Romelle noticed Sven’s wary, guarded look up at the Lion, his barest of hesitation as they passed through the hatch and into the dry, windless cabin.
Gently, Sven and Romelle helped the man they supported to the low couch that ran along the side of the central cabin and saw to wrapping him tighter in Ekatia’s fleece blanket and anything else they could find in the store closet at the back of the Lion.
While Sven and Romelle worked, Lance glanced from the wounded man to Ekatia, who was standing in the entrance to the main cabin, staring about in wonder. He watched in bemused silence as she moved slowly about the cabin, letting her fingers brush lightly over the intricate control panel. It was the same wherever he went: nowhere else in the Galaxy had anyone seen the strange combination of high-level technology and true magic that fashioned the Lions of Voltron. And each Lion was different; each gathered its energy from a different force of nature. The Red Lion not only rested in the lava heart of a dormant Arusian volcano, it drew strength from the very magma itself. The Blue Lion, Allura’s Lion, once Sven’s, was powered by clear, free-running water. It also, he remembered, had power over water in its three guises: liquid, gas, and solid ice. He realized belatedly that this must the reason this Lion had suffered no ill effects from the storm, indeed had seemed to pass through it like a knife through the sea, while his own had been battered to bits and lay in a heap on some alien plain. He tore his thoughts away to Ekatia, who was inspecting the key-interlock-which could only be activated by the proper key, which the stranger had revealed to be on his person-with vast interest.
He crossed his arms over his chest and said with an air of indulgent superiority, “Incredible, isn’t it? See, once you insert the proper key-”
“…The dynotherms and cable-thrusters are connected, yes I know,” Ekatia said sweetly, and flashed him a sunny smile. “Don’t gawp, Lance Turniev; I’ve used this sort of thing, before.” Her tone, her nose in the air, her cocky, haughty smile matched his gesture for gesture.
Lance regarded her wonderingly. “One day, and one day SOON, before I die, Lady Kat, you will explain all this to one poor mortal, won’t you?”
Her smile turned dazzling. “Far be it for me to deny one poor mortal’s last request. Once we get to my Uncle Raibal.”
“Why your uncle?” Lance said. “Why not YOU?”
Ekatia said nothing, only gave him a brief but searching look, then turned back to Sven and Romelle and the wounded man they tended. He was awake again, propped up on his elbow. The warmth of the cabin had returned some color to his face, but he was still pale, and an occasional shiver rippled across his frame. He turned guarded, hooded eyes, dark and deep and just as readable as the bottom of a deep, night-pitched lake, on each of the companions, resting lastly on Sven. His dark brows knitted together over those imperceptible eyes.
“Who are you, and why did you steal the Blue Lion?” Lance demanded.
The dark eyes glittered. “I don’t imagine you would believe me if I told you I was Sven Bjørnsen.”
“Not this time,” Romelle snapped.
The man smiled up at her dryly, then rolled his head around on his shoulders to stare up at Sven. “After all these years, and you don’t know me…storebror?”
Sven stared, his skin completely drained of blood. “Erik! No-that is not possible.”
“Why shouldn’t it be?” His voice had risen, but it was still barely above a hoarse whisper. “Why, Sven? Why not? By everything sacred in the Galaxy, why not?”
“You look nothing like Erik Bjørnsen!”
“No, I don’t,” he spat out with sudden vehemence and bitterness. “I look like you. Like you-because the witch Haggar needed me to look like you. That was the next part of your question, wasn’t it? Why I stole the Blue Lion of Voltron? Because only the Blue Lion could have passed unharmed through the ice storms of Altea. Of all the ships in the bloody Galaxy only the Blue Lion could come far enough to destroy the generator that controls the storm, making it possible for the witch and her thugs to land on the planet unharmed and steal…whatever it was she came to steal.”
Ekatia’s hand flew to her throat. “Destroy the generator?”
Erik Bjornsen, if indeed it was he, nodded savagely. “It is already done, dear lady. No heroic rescues this time. By now Haggar and…he…will already be upon the laboratory you guard-if they can find it.”
“That’s impossible!” Ekatia contested hotly. “We came here to escape a storm!”
“It will never reach a full storm,” Erik said quite pleasantly. “I made quite sure of that.”
“Liar!” Ekatia hissed and turned to her wrist com. Her brows knitted and her mouth worked tensely as she tried to raise a connection. “I’m not getting anyone!” she cried desperately. “No one is responding! I didn’t call before because I thought the storm would interfere. Where are they? Why do they not respond?”
Lance looked from Ekatia’s distraught face to Erik. “Why are you telling us this?” he demanded. “Planning on leading us into yet another trap? The witch, ha? She’s your ally! Do you think we’re stupid? Why should we trust you?”
“You have no reason to,” Erik answered in a voice that was almost a growl. “But the witch is not my ally. I did what she asked, and she betrayed me.” He looked down at his bandaged wounds.
“Start from the beginning. RIGHT NOW,” Romelle advised, her hand once again hovering over her knife hilt.
Erik looked up at Ekatia as he spoke: “I don’t know what your people covet, and I don’t care. My mission was to destroy the generator and then find and capture some laboratory. For that purpose, I was sent to steal the Blue Lion.” He turned to Lance. “It worked perfectly. Even with your interference. I found the generator easily enough, and took it out. Then…a very strange thing happened. The Lion stopped working.”
“You BROKE the Blue Lion?” Lance demanded, livid.
“I broke nothing!” Erik rejoined hotly. “I didn’t do a damn thing. It just stopped working. I don’t know why. I’m not a damn mechanic. The power stopped going to the engine, as far as I could tell and the thing just stopped. In this cave. It was as if…it died.”
“So you set out on foot?” Lance said. “To find the lab?”
“The lab?” Erik laughed humorlessly. “Forget the lab. I was off to find help-or Haggar-to inform her that her little scheme had failed. She found me…near where you found me. Only she was not alone. There was another with her.”
Erik’s eyes fairly glittered. “I did not know him. He was part-Drul, with…lavender skin…and white hair. He wore black armor…”
“Lotor,” Romelle breathed, her face ashen.
“Lotor is here?” Sven asked tonelessly.
“So you’ve met him,” Erik continued in a brittle voice. “He seemed to know me. Haggar said nothing, just sort of nodded and this…Lotor…attacked. He was insane! I’ve never seen anyone so strong. He kept screaming about how ‘I’ had gotten in his way for the last time, how I had stolen ‘her’ from him. I got away from him eventually, but I did not get far.”
“He mistook you for me,” Sven said in a hollow voice. He wasn’t looking at Erik or at anyone, but his eyes seemed to focus on a middle distance somewhere beyond all of them. “And Haggar knew, and said nothing. She meant to give him me…as vengeance…for stopping her. So, she would have let you be killed.”
“Under the circumstances,” Erik said softly, “I’m not feeling as loyal to Haggar as I might.”
“That doesn’t explain everything,” Lance said into the brief silence that followed. “See, I met Erik Bjørnsen, a few years ago. And he didn’t look THAT much like his brother.”
“I could hardly go as myself for what I meant to do!”
“Why not?” Lance asked heatedly. “Princess Allura and Keith would have welcomed you with open arms!”
“But you would not,” turning to look directly at Romelle.
“I?” The princess’s eyes flashed dangerously.
“You, oh my sweet, darling and beloved Princess of Cats. Can’t you guess what I was promised for aiding Haggar? You don’t imagine I’d have served that hag for nothing. Princess, I was promised you as my wife, and the Crown of Pollux. A sudden and tragic accident, courtesy of the witch, was to deprive Pollux of its current heir.”
“You,” she hissed, in a voice of pure venom, her eyes seeming to shoot of sapphire sparks. “You snake! You would have murdered my brother, seduced me, and stolen my crown. Just what makes you think I could ever consent to wed a bloody-handed backstabber like you?”
“Change of heart, darling?” he drawled. “I thought you made your…royal favor…abundantly clear in the garden that day.”
Romelle shot him a look of pure and utter hatred, then her face suffused in crimson and she whirled and stalked away.
Lance shouted, “And you expect us to believe, as Sven’s brother-SVEN’S!--that you would consent to such a thing? When did you become so friendly with Haggar? Didn’t you find it strange when people called you by your brother’s name-while he languished in Haggar’s prison and would have been killed by Lotor-as you should have been?” Lance was bristling more violently than any Terran porcupine, his face white as stone and just as hard. He had risen to his feet and his hands were clenched into fists.
Erik shouted with equal furor, “I didn’t know! Don’t you see? I didn’t REMEMBER! I didn’t know who Sven was-I didn’t know who I was-or any of you, not until Haggar allowed Lotor to attack me. The witch broke her own spell. Suddenly-I saw what she was, saw you all again. Lance, I remember you from Terra! Sven…oh, God, you’re my brother, Sven! My big brother! What could I do?”
He sank back against the couch, completely spent. His breathe came out raggedly, and all memory of color had drained from his gaunt cheeks. He looked from Lance to Sven helplessly, his expression suddenly much too young for the face that wore it. Tears glistened in his eyes and Sven remembered that when last they had met, his brother Erik had not been more than sixteen.
Lance’s soul, however, was almost entirely unsentimental. He sneered. “You’re his brother, huh? You’re not worthy of such a brother! When you woke up in a featherbed on Pollux, were you aware he was a prisoner of that…witch? Did you know what he endured, while you were trying to steal his reputation, his woman? Did you?”
Ekatia had the sense, finally, to pull Lance aside. He went reluctantly, glaring over his shoulder at Erik with a look that would have singed an icicle.
Sven watched his brother in silence. Erik looked down at his own hands for a long time before speaking, very slowly, in a low voice: “I didn’t know. Honestly, Sven, I didn’t.” He paused, then plunged on desperately, quietly, in a voice meant only for Sven. “I went looking for you. Two years ago I left the Academy in a stolen ship and went looking for you because Hoshi-san said you were not dead.”
He nodded. "Admiral Sura herself called to tell us you had died in the Massacre at Ebb. Our parents, our sisters, they all believed it, but our grandmother, she never did. She said,” and here his eyes turned accusing, “ ‘Don’t you think I would know when my Sven-san died? I would know before he did, before any jumped-up admiral. I know when the sun rises and sets in Osaka, I know exactly how long tea leaves should seep, and I know my Sven is not dead.’ She was so full of those stupid Asian-grandmotherisms. I think she got a kick out of saying them. So I went to find you. I knew if you lived you would have been taken as slave to Planet Doom, so that is where I went. Only…only I did not get far. I was shot down before I got within ten parsecs of the planet, boarded and taken prisoner. I think I must have spent a week in the upper levels, by the arena. I was waiting to fight, or die, but I knew I had to find you. So I asked everyone. No one knew you.”
“I wasn’t there,” Sven said quietly, distantly. “I suffered massive nerve damage when I was attacked by Haggar’s ro-beast, was taken before I had recovered fully. They threw me into the Pit of Skulls, with neither food nor water, thinking I’d die soon enough.”
Erik continued: “It was only for about a week. Then Haggar caught sight of me. I didn’t know what she saw at the time, or why she took such interest, but suddenly I was moved from my cell to her laboratory. She said..." He frowned. "She said, 'You remind me of someone.'" He shuddered suddenly and his long lashes swept downward, shadowing his eyes. "After that…I really don’t remember that much. It…was horrible. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You forgot who you were.”
“I didn’t care who I was! I didn’t care about the new face she gave me, or whose it was. I didn’t know where I had come from, or why. I was as much her slave as any dumb ro-beast.”
“But we raided the laboratory when Romelle and the Polluxians and I stormed Doom…”
“I wasn’t there. I barely remember her telling me my mission. Then…nothing. No, I remember something else. I remember drowning. THEN nothing. I awoke to find myself on Planet Pollux.”
Sven said in a quiet tone: “She must have switched us when I fell into the moat with Lotor. I’ll never understand how she could have known…but somehow she did. I remember falling from the tower, and then the next thing I knew I was Haggar’s prisoner.”
“It was you Keith and the others pulled from the moat.” Sven had not even noticed when Romelle had come to stand behind him. Her voice was far from empathetic, but her words were no longer congealed in ice and her eyes appeared less hard. “You I resucitated.” She ducked her head in embarrassment. “You I threw myself at in the garden.” Sven turned to glance up at her sharply. “And all the while,” she said softly, almost to herself, but looking at him, “YOU were suffering at Haggar’s hands, again. You awoke to darkness and to pain, with no one.” Sven knew then, from her tone, that she would never forgive Erik, would never see him as anything but one who had benefited from Sven’s misfortune, who had used her and betrayed her, however unwittingly. To him, kin had always been sacred, but at the moment he was not about to question her vehemence. The look she was giving him now spoke from her heart and all at once he shuddered, imagining what it must have been for her, to have been betrayed once more by someone who had vowed to serve and protect her. He dared not ask how deep that betrayal had been, could not bring himself to guess at it.
“Romelle,” he murmured. “Ah, Romelle, I’m so sorry.”
“You?” she demanded in a ferocious, trembling voice. “Why are YOU sorry?” He stared wordlessly, helplessly, and with a small cry she fell to her knees and threw her arms about his neck, hugging him to her tightly. He felt her honey-soft hair against his cheek and breathed deeply, raggedly, inhaling the spicy scent of her, a delicate, lingering scent, like a gentle breeze through an herb garden, a scent he had not known in weeks and weeks, something he had long thought lost to him, even after his escape from Haggar’s cell. For her part, Romelle clung tightly, in her mind, against her will, replaying her last true vision of him, lifeless, bloody, plunging through the choked air of Doom to his possible death. She had been powerless to save him, but she had stood there, eyes locked on his tiny, plummeting figure as if by willing it she could break his fall, guide him safely back to her. Now as she felt his lean arms tighten about her, she buried her face in his shoulder, as if by doing so she could banish from her mind forever that hungry, overpowering feeling of loss and utter helplessness. As if it were still possible to lose him.
For THEIR part, Lance and Ekatia moved to the side and tried to appear bored.
Erik, for HIS part, watched his brother and the blonde bitch through guarded, secretive eyes. She was beautiful, he granted. And spirited. And clever, to find him all the way here. He had wondered on Pollux whose place he had been filling, who had laid claim to this prideful, willful woman. He should have known, then. Trust his brother to find the one woman in the Galaxy as self-righteous as he.
Even Erik understood the unfairness of such thoughts. If he disliked the woman and less than impressed with this reunion, still he knew he owed Sven something. He said, raising his voice, “I should have mistrusted the witch from the start. She never meant to give me a crown. She told me how to fly a Lion, and who you all were, but she hadn’t the decency to let me remember loving YOU,” he said pointedly to Romelle.
Sven crimsoned and pulled away from Romelle. She regarded him with wide eyes, but he turned away. What did Erik seek to do?
Romelle climbed to her feet hastily.
That was it? Erik was disappointed. Or perhaps he had been wrong.
In the interruption, Ekatia said quickly, “I’m really sorry, guys, but as long as there’s no storm, can we not go? The lab is well-hidden, but if your witch found HERE…”
“We can’t go anywhere,” Erik said contemptuously. “The Blue Lion doesn’t work.”
“Yes it does,” Lance said. From the look on his face it was clear he was about to get back some of his own from Erik. Looking directly at Erik, he said, “The Lions of Voltron are powered by…the wonders of technology. And by magic. Not just anyone can fly one of the Lions. This was proved repeatedly when people tried at various times to STEAL one of the Lions-usually this one-and as we saw from the-success-of the new recruits a week ago, only certain people seem to…mesh. I don’t know the extent of the Lion’s powers, but it always seemed to me, in my own, that it was almost alive, or at least aware. Doubtless Blue was somewhat miffed when you tried to use it to steal a secret weapon from these nice people, and shut down on you.”
“I should tell you,” Ekatia said hastily, “it’s not just any secret weapon. It’s the secret of Voltron.”
This time Sven and Romelle gawped. Ekatia looked to Lance. He winked widely. “You!” she exclaimed. “You knew all along!”
“Well, not at first,” he said gleefully, clearly pleased with himself for having gotten one over on her. “Several key things you said to Sven, your recognition of the interlock, the technological level of your people. We’ve been searching for this, too, you know. It just seemed to fit into place.”
Ekatia looked furious, but Lance continued, ignoring her, “Getting back to what I was saying about meshing with the Lions. The Lion must have sensed it should not be attacking its hometown and simply refused. When Princess Allura was having so much trouble flying the Blue Lion in the beginning, I sometimes wondered-not that I’d ever admit it to her-if part of the reason were not that the Lion was getting adjusted to HER. I can’t fly the Blue Lion, and Erik can’t. But there is someone here who can and HAS.” He held the key out, to Sven.
Sven’s shoulders had stiffened the instant he sensed what Lance was getting at. Romelle’s hands slid up his arm. “It’s true,” she murmured. “You’re the only one. You must.”
Sven never looked at her, or at Lance, but kept his eyes locked upon the pilot seat in front of him. “Ah, Ren’ai,” he said softly, “you don’t know what you’re asking.”
“But I do, Sven,” said Lance. At his friend’s startled glance, he grinned. “You guys think I’m so obtuse. Allura explained it to me. How she felt, I mean. I think it’s probably the same thing. I do understand. But we need you to save the day right now, so, if you wouldn’t mind…” He gestured grandly toward the pilot’s seat.
Sven moved stiffly, took the key from Lance’s outstretched hand without looking at him. Wordlessly he sat in the pilot’s chair and for a moment he simply stared at the control panel, a curious expression on his face. For a long moment he remained thus, unmoving. Romelle would have started forward, but Lance forestalled her with a tart: “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how to fly, ol’ buddy. Once a member of the Voltron Force, always a member!”
“Shut up, Lance…” Romelle warned, but his sharp words seemed to have broken the spell on Sven.
“It’s all right,” he said, looking at them over his shoulder. He gestured toward Ekatia. “I’ll need you up front with me, to direct me.”
“Right,” she said and slid next to him.
As if waking from a deep dreaming state, the Blue Lion rumbled softly and came to life, lifting from the ground in one fluid motion. Not a stone rattled as it sprang up into the jade air of twilight and took to the sky. Sven said nothing as he guided the Blue Lion over the knife-sharp peaks, but Ekatia murmured, occasionally, almost to herself, “It’s not far, it isn’t,” in between directions, her eyes locked on the screen before her.
Lance, of course, could have flown the Blue Lion. He had before, used it to fly to the planet Lyra to retrieve the magical, healing roses native to that planet. Watching the hard set of Sven’s face, he was filled with remorse. He could only have guessed at what Sven must have felt for all those long months, severed from the team he had become a part of. He had only begun to understand it when he spoke with Allura the day after Keith had given HER the boot. Inwardly, he flushed. Why did it never occur to anyone that he should feel some guilt and responsibility for what Sven had endured? If he had not gone alone after Haggar’s devil-cat…well, the past could not be changed. Even after Sven’s restoration, despite the fact that he professed a strong desire to remain on Pollux with Romelle, Lance had not felt absolved. That his friend still felt he did not belong, that he, Lance, was almost directly-in his own mind-responsible for that notion…stung. If he could convince Sven NOW that his place was on Arus…
It did little toward easing Lance’s guilty conscience when Sven gave a sharp gasp of pain and the Lion faltered unexpectedly, dipping downward and causing them all to lurch forward. Sven recovered their balance, but his shoulders hunched and he flexed and clenched one hand stiffly. With a soft cry of concern Romelle was at his side, massaging his shoulders with strong, deft fingers.
Lance asked: “Are you in much pain, Sven?” He received a very taut and unconvincing headshake in reply.
Erik, all but forgotten, half started up in what could be construed as concern. “What’s wrong?”
“Souvenir of my fight with Haggar’s ro-beast,” Sven muttered, then sighed, leaning back and reaching up with cover Romelle’s hand on his shoulder with his own. “It’s all right,” he said softly.
Lance glanced sharply at Erik, who was watching Sven and Romelle, sullenly. It was not right, he thought, that this man who had kept Sven, his friend, and Romelle, cousin to his other friend and a woman he greatly admired, apart should get off so easily. Moreover, Lance had always had a strange and innate ability to determine who deserved his trust. Despite his talk of broken spells and faithfulness to his brother, he did not trust Erik. So he said, as casually as he could, “I still think it’s amazing two Bjørnsen brothers should just happen to wind up on the same planet at the edge of the Galaxy. In fact,” he went on scornfully, “I seem to recall another instant where someone showed up on Arus looking EXACTLY like someone else. He was later revealed to be a clone in league with Haggar. If she’s so smart I wonder why she keeps using the same pathetic trick.”
The look Erik shot Lance was pure malice, but Romelle said, “How could he be a clone? They have the same scar. Under the eye.”
Of course SHE would have noticed, Lance thought glumly, when Ekatia added, “Well, if she’s a powerful witch-and you’re claiming she changed you to look like HIM--” (to Erik, indicating Sven), “she could just…well, make whatever adjustments she wanted, right?”
Erik, deliberately ignoring Lance, said, “I was wondering about this scar. Since I’m stuck with it, too, now.”
“Is it from fighting Haggar’s ro-beast, or her cat?” Romelle asked, playing with Sven’s hair where it brushed his collar.
He actually grinned. “No… Actually that one comes from my…Academy years.”
Ekatia remarked impishly: “Lance, you’ve turned the most interesting shade of red. Are you all right?”
“Is it from dueling, then?” Erik wondered.
“I have never been injured in a duel,” Sven said, so matter-of-factly that Ekatia could not suppress a giggle. Equally unusual, a light seemed to shine in his eyes. “Actually, this one comes courtesy of Lance.”
“Lance!” Romelle exclaimed and the guilty party bristled and shot Sven and murderous glare.
“Do tell,” Ekatia encouraged, propping her chin up with a small fist.
“Don’t,” Lance said sharply.
“You shouldn’t have protested, Lance,” she rejoined, flashing him a bright smile. “Now he sort of has to.” Lance turned his murderous gaze on HER.
“YOU know-” (to Romelle) “-that I met Keith and Lance at the Academy. We were in the same class. I don’t remember why, but one day in our third year we had gone down to the mess hall-”
“It was after a game, remember?” Lance supplied angrily. “Keith was on the soccer team. You had Deanna with you.” Suddenly feeling extremely petty for dredging up the woman in front of Romelle, he leaned back against the wall and shoved his hands in his pockets, hunching his shoulders.
Romelle didn’t bat an eye, and Lance was relieved he had not disrupted their fragile tranquility. If Lance had succeeded in nettling Sven, the only result was the decidedly wicked lift of his eyebrows as he continued his story:
“We weren’t there fifteen minutes, when a group of first-years started brawling in a corner. One of them, a skinny kid, was getting pretty badly beaten, but that didn’t stop him. He kept right at it, hurling insults as…staggering…as his shots.”
“Flattery won’t save you,” Lance muttered.
“I think he would have kept going till they killed him,” Sven went on with a bemused grin. “But Keith took charge. He strode into the middle of the brawl, shoved the other kids away. I was right behind him. I guess it was battle-rage, Lance? When Keith seized you by the shoulders, spun you around, you struck out at your would-be rescuers. Only, Keith ducked in time.”
“So, you took the blow aimed at this other person. Very gallant,” Erik said dryly.
“I always thought it sort of typified our relationship,” Sven replied with a shrug.
“I think it sort of typifies your life,” Romelle said softly.
Lance said nothing. Ekatia watched as he smiled grimly, opened his mouth as if to speak, thought better of it, then turned on his heel and stalked out of the cabin. She had been smiling before, delighted at having been admitted into the alien world these people came from. Now her face fell. He feels very guilty about something, but not this, she realized. He’s very protective. There was more to him, much more, than she had at first thought.
Before she could consider this new discovery further, Sven called her attention back to the matter at hand: finding her home, if it still stood!
Ekatia’s city was a hollowed-out mountain whose very entrance was almost entirely concealed from view. Had Ekatia not assured them that it WAS there, they would have passed directly over it and never known. The Aerie was a dome-shaped structure set high on the sheltering side of that tall, hollow mountain. From its great windows, one could look down and view nearly the entire range of the Lion’s Teeth, and the sprawling valley and plains beyond. There was a small landing platform just outside it, but Ekatia gestured toward the ground.
“No one will be there,” she said quickly. “And there isn’t time to take you to the real landing bay. It’s actually not near here.”
“NOTHING is convenient on this planet, is it?” Lance, who had returned composedly a few moments ago, wondered.
“No, it isn’t,” Ekatia agreed in a truly dreary tone.
The Blue Lion set itself down in the snow at the foot of the mountain and the companions made ready to leave. Ekatia was anxious to be assured her family and friends were safe, but Lance was reluctant to leave Erik in the Lion, as he insisted should be done.
“I don’t trust him,” he said to Sven, not bothering to lower his voice. “Even if you do have the key.”
Erik looked up at him searchingly. “No one’s asking you to,” he said in an equally terse, clipped voice.
“You need to see a medic,” Sven began in a worried tone, but Erik cut him off sharply.
“There isn’t time! Go, already. I’ll be fine. Anyway, I’m sure every medic will be needed at the Generator.”
“You really did a job on these people,” Lance said sharply, starting forward.
Sven pulled him back.
Erik’s eyes flashed. “Go already, damn you! You’re wasting precious time.”
Ekatia strode through the Gate into the main hallway, her followers in stride behind her, and called out to the first person she caught sight of.
“Kat!” he shouted somewhere between delight and amazement. He ran to her side quickly and caught her up in his arms. “Lass, praise the Ancients you’re here! Your aunt and uncle were so worried; we’d about given up hope.”
“A silly thing to do,” Ekatia said blithely, extricating herself from his embrace. “I never did.”
The man was staring past her at the three behind her. “Ah, Kat, who are these people?”
Ekatia seized his hands and said intently, “Cordan, there isn’t time. Where are my aunt and uncle?”
“Damn right there isn’t time!” Cordan exclaimed. “Didn’t you know-the Generator’s been sacked. And the laboratory is under attack. Everyone is there. Including your folks.”
Ekatia stiffened. “How long has there been fighting?” she demanded.
Cordan shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know! We lost contact with the guys at the Generator hours ago, didn’t know the Lab was under attack until Morella led a group there. There’s been no word since! I’m to stay here,” he added dolefully.
“Cordan,” Ekatia said in a tight voice, “we’re going over there. This is VERY serious. We have something that may help, but we need weapons.”
Only minutes later, armed with rifles, knives, and swords, the four returned to the Lion.
Erik was gone.
“I knew it! I knew it!” Lance shouted accusingly. “We shouldn’t trust him, not when he started acting so brotherly and remorseful. He’s off to betray us-and help Haggar!”
“Be quiet, Lance!” Sven said angrily. “We don’t know that yet. We’ve got to find him.”
“But there isn’t time,” Ekatia protested. “He won’t get far.”
“I’m afraid of that, too,” Sven said tersely and ran back out into the snow. The others followed him and though they searched for as long as they dared, they found no sign of Erik Bjørnsen.
“Damn you, Erik,” Sven muttered, fist clenched, glaring out into the bleak, grey air. “Perhaps I was a fool, but I truly trusted you!”
Romelle put a hand on his arm and he turned reluctantly back to the Blue Lion. A grim reckoning lay ahead.
Allura stood in the shadow of the Castle gate, watching silently as Pidge and Hunk ran for their Lions which they had left waiting just beyond the gate as she told them what Runan had revealed. Keith hesitated.
Allura seized his moment of apparent indecision to grasp his arm and say in as steady and insistent a voice as she could, “I’m coming with you.”
Keith opened his mouth to deny her, then stopped. Her wide blue eyes, nearly level with his, gazed into his own so earnestly that he realized she was not commanding him at all, despite her choice of words; she was still asking. She NEVER demanded, always asked, he thought with a curious mixture of bleakness and tenderness. She could, he knew, and probably by now she knew that too, and perhaps it was for that very reason that he found he could not turn her down, as she clearly expected him to. For a very brief moment he was torn. If he did not allow her to accompany them, the breach already between them would become so wide it could never be mended, and for all his iron training and sense of duty, he would not have that for the world. So he said, mustering a reluctant sigh, “In this I think we’ll need all the help we can get, Princess.”
The dazzling and entirely spontaneous smile she bestowed on him then was more rewarding than any accolade he’d received from Galaxy Garrison, he thought with a curious twinge.
Together they ran to the Black Lion and joined their comrades, rocketing skyward.
Go to Chapter Ten
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