It was finally over.

All the years of fighting. All the lives lost, the worlds destroyed, the histories forgotten. All of it, in the end, was for nothing.

Only the Fates could decree that things should fall as they did, that Zarcon and his witch should finally create the ultimate weapon out of a terrified slave only to have the newly made monster turn on them and take out most of Castle Doom. The scattered forces of the Empire made a last ditch effort to halt the inevitable downfall and the loss of their glory, but the odds were stacked against them. Prince Lotor wasnít capable of ruling with the ferocity and iron fist of his father. In truth, leadership in general had always more or less eluded him.

It wasnít any surprise, then, that the scattered remnant of the once feared forces soon surrendered to the Galaxy Alliance. The ships were dismantled. The slaves were freed. The leaders, such as they were, were taken into Alliance custody to await trial. Planet Doomís allies immediately announced that the alliance had been maintained by a coercion of force and, given the choice, they would never have aided those dread space pirates. It was no surprise to anyone that the Galaxy Alliance granted every planet to renounce the crumbled Empire full pardons. After all, what else could they do?

Everything fell into place so neatly. The new peace was hailed throughout the galaxy. Wars and bloodshed were forgotten in favor of peace and brotherly love.

Isnít it amazing how, in the middle of a celebration of new peace and freedom, the past can still come back to haunt you?

*

The last of the major Galaxy Alliance conferences intended to establish a new Confederation Constitution was currently underway on Planet Arus. The ballroom, the only room besides the formal audience chamber large enough to hold all the delegates, had been mostly dismantled. The performance stage was gone and the antique hardwood dance floor was covered with makeshift carpeting and dozens of long wooden tables. A podium and microphone were centered at the front of the room to allow the speaker to gain the attention of the entire audience and provide at least a semblance of order to the almost festival-like atmosphere.

The Voltron Force and their close allies had been given pride of place, a table directly in front of the podium. An honor, but one that had begun to wear thin on warriors more attuned to fighting for peace then the long and often painstakingly boring process of diplomacy. Princess Allura and her advisor Coran attended every session, usually accompanied by the leader, Keith, but the other three young men tended to filter in and out more frequently, citing other obligations. No one truly minded. Even the most aged and experienced diplomat fondly remembered when anything was more important than listening to a bunch of long-winded bureaucrats arguing about fair trade rights.

This morning was no exception. Not only was the diplomat from planet Maru currently holding forth on the previous Doom-supported piracy of his neighbors, planet Demoran, but he was demanding a fairly high trade reimbursement for said piracy. He had been doing so for at least an hour. Lance, the only member of the Voltron Force currently in attendance besides Keith, was sure of that. Heíd been checking his watch every five minutes. How Keith and Allura could sit here all day every day and listen to this was a mystery. Fighting the urge to tap his pencil against the table, he glanced at both of them from the corner of his eyes. Just as he thought, they appeared to be fascinated by the current topic of discussion.

Unable to help himself, he glanced down again, keeping the watch carefully hidden under the table. Make that an hour and two minutes. If he didnít escape soon, heíd scream. Heíd grab a gun and take the whole room hostage. Heíd site extreme mental and sexual frustration and jump on Keith, which would probably result in someone else pulling a gun and thereby putting him out of his misery. This was beginning to sound like a promising plan.

The pencil started to tap entirely of its own volition. Without even breaking eye contact with the podium, Keith reached out and snatched it from Lanceís restless fingers. Lance sank slightly down in his chair and fought back a sigh. He could feel Keithís glare of warning even if he couldnít actually see it. This was worse than an assembly at the Academy. At least there he could have sat in the back row and snuck out early with no one the wiser.

He was so lost in his own misery that the murmur of sound from the back of the room didnít immediately catch his attention. It took the sudden loss of the droning nasal voice that had faded into senseless white noise and the feel of Keith shifting in the chair next to him to bring his senses back to the here and now.

"WhatÖ?" he whispered softly, turning slightly and trying to peer over the heads of everyone assembled.

Keith shrugged. "Beats me. I donít care so long as it shuts him up for a few minutes."

Lance lost all interest in the disturbance and turned to stare incredulously at his best friend and commander. "What did you just say?"

Keith shot him the look, the one that said he was being particularly slow today. "I donít exactly want to be here any more than you do. Itís this amazing thing called duty, Lance. You should really look into it."

Whatever reply Lance could have pieced together that didnít involve kicking something, most likely Keith, was lost as one of the Alliance Aides dropped down by Alluraís side and began to report something in a frantic whisper.

Keith leaned closer to hear, but Lance didnít need to. The answer was already drifting around the room in a hushed whisper.

"Firenz. Did you hear? The Ambassador from Firenz is here. They actually let him in. Can you believe the audacityÖ?"

Lance sat perfectly still and stared at the now-empty podium. He fought the urge to shiver as the whispers drew all the warmth from the stuffy air of the ballroom-turned-conference room.

ĎFirenz.í The one word he never wanted to hear spoken aloud. The one place that he never wanted to see again, much less have to face a delegate from at the short distance between him and the podium without a weapon in his hand. ĎDonít be ridiculous, Lance. Itís an entire planet. What are the chances that it will be anyone you recognize, much less anyone who will recognize you?í

The whispers faded into the background, retreating in favor of the voice from the past that still invaded his dreams on a nightly basis. The chances were actually pretty damn good, in all honesty. Firenz had many people who considered themselves rulers, but only one man truly held the reins of power. Renard Miboshi, leader of the Free Syndicate, controlled every whisper that left the planet surface. He never would have allowed another to be chosen delegate.

The delegate made his way to the microphone hidden amidst a flurry of activity. Aides ran every which way to deliver messages and receive new ones. A table was immediately made ready for the new arrivals. Regardless of the tight ties between planets Doom and Firenz, the Alliance had promised every former ally complete amnesty. To draw back now, from this the first and closest ally, would only serve to make the rest nervous and possibly rebellious. Of course the delegate would be given a place, and of course he could interrupt the proceedings to announce his arrival.

Lance pulled his leather jacket tighter against his thin frame and leaned back in the chair in the hopes that he could disappear into the thinly cushioned backing. He was shaking despite the frantic knife-edge of control that prevented him from bolting and the room seemed to be lurching crazily around the edges of his vision.

The delegate finally reached the podium. He turned to face his audience with a welcoming smile that crinkled the corners of his large dark eyes. The tanned face barely showed a trace of his age despite the silver threading through his jet-black curls. He was a handsome man, athletically built, but not overpoweringly so. His smile was warm and inviting. The entire audience immediately smiled back. They were all his captives from that first instant, ready to grant nearly any concession he put forth.

Renard Miboshi always affected people that way.

His gaze raked over Lance as quickly as it did everyone else, but it was enough. He remembered. No, more than that. He knew. Heíd probably known all along.

The room started to spin more quickly and bile rose in his throat. Lance dropped his head on to his clenched fists, no longer caring the slightest bit about appearances. Nothing mattered more than the cold fear and his survival instincts screaming at him to run.

It was hopeless. He couldnít run anymore. The universe just wasnít big enough to give him a new place to hide from those eyes and that voice.

Keith shook his head as if emerging from a spell and leaned closer to Lance, dropping his voice into a whisper that wouldnít carry over the lyrical baritone of the Ambassador bidding the Alliance hello. "Lance? Are you okay? You look like youíre going to be sick."

Lance forced himself upright and waved the question away. "Daijoubu." The whispered word caught in his throat, cutting off a rapidly indrawn breath. He quickly waved one hand vaguely, trying desperately to ignore the honeyed voice emanating from the speakers all around him in Hellís version of stereo. "Iím fine." He could feel Keithís worried stare, but for once he wasnít interested in his best friendís sympathy. This was not something he wanted to talk about.

Besides, how exactly did one go about telling the people who knew you best that the kindly looking Ambassador from Firenz still legally owned you?

*

The assembly broke up immediately after the Ambassadorís greeting. No one seemed to have the heart to follow the warmth of that welcome with another petty argument concerning ancient codes of territorial rights or yet another trade dispute. Besides, every delegate present immediately recognized that having the delegate from Firenz take their side in the ensuing arguments all but guaranteed victory and not one of them was willing to give up the opportunity to make an appointment to see him before their rival did. The Ambassador and his Aides were swallowed up in a deluge of humanity that allowed one mostly insignificant Voltron Force pilot the chance to escape undetected.

Lance slipped out one of the side doors while Keith, Allura, and Coran were still distracted by the sudden onslaught of people. He didnít actually run, not that it mattered. He could have stripped naked and cartwheeled to the door and no one would have paid him any mind in their rush to welcome Ambassador Miboshi. Regardless, he forced himself into a casual if extremely rapid walk and saved the run until he broke through the door into the illusory safety of the hallway.

Thatís all any safety really was, just illusion. Heíd thought himself safe here on Arus. Miboshi had let him go, or at least he hadnít made much of an effort to stop his escape. Didnít that amount to the same thing?

No, it didnít. He should have known better. Miboshi had likely known exactly where his wayward possession was every second of every day since heíd left the compound. He knew every movement in and out of the capitol city if not every thought that went through the peopleís heads, and most people had their doubts about the latter. Why he chose not to simply send someone to reclaim him was a mystery, but Miboshi had his reasons. Maybe he was simply bored. The sight of one of his slaves completely ripping his life apart on the streets of the city he so longed to escape probably qualified as riveting entertainment. MaybeÖ

Lance stopped running, panting and leaning one hand against the wall for support. Maybe that wasnít it. The Alliance ships didnít patrol Firenz, obviously, not with the Syndicateís pact with planet Doom. Miboshi had to have known that he would take the first chance that presented itself to leave. What were the chances that he would be caught by someone from the Alliance so soon after arriving on a world like Aster that was only under Alliance rule by the mere barest of margins? What if everything was part of some master plan?

Lance shook his head and forced himself to start moving. ĎThatís ridiculous, Lance. Heís just a man. An extremely powerful man, maybe, but still just a man. That level of planning would require a minor god at the very least.í

He could almost hear Keithís disgusted appraisal ringing in his ears. "Not even you can possibly be that paranoid."

Fine. Miboshi didnít plan this. That did not mean that he wasnít going to use the situation to his advantage now that he was here on Arus. Arus. The name cut through his mind, driving the hysteria that was bubbling just beneath the surface back into hiding. There wasnít time for that now. He could break down later. Now he needed to be able to think. If there was one hard-earned lesson heíd gleamed through all those years, it was that survival depended on alertness. Panic would bring nothing but death. There had to be something he could do.

He just had no mortal idea what that something might be.

*

He eventually gave up on the futility of aimless wandering and made his way back to the most secure part of the Castle of Lions: the control room. The two soldiers currently on duty looked up in surprise at his entrance. He waved them both away with an air of indolent casualness that he couldnít remember ever actually feeling.

"Itís all right. Iíll take watch. Someone might as well enjoy the afternoon."

"Yes sir!"

"But the CaptainÖ"

A real smile appeared on his face at the uncertainty in the soldierís voice. "Itís all right. Iíll deal with the Captain, assuming that he even notices your absence."

The soldier glanced back at the door with a look of awe. "He notices everything." His head snapped back as if just realizing to whom he was still speaking. "Sir."

"True enough, but if he feels like he needs to yell at someone, he has me. That should make him happy. Especially since Iím skipping out on the mass chaos in there." He gestured at the image of the ballroom on the monitor. "If youíre really feeling guilty, it looks like he may need a little helpÖ"

The man snapped him an eager salute and took off with renewed purpose shining in his eyes. The second soldier grinned and shrugged before disappearing down the hall to enjoy his unexpected freedom.

Lance dropped into the command chair, craning his neck back to stare up at the monitor. Miboshi stood in the center of the screen, smiling jovially at the throngs of delegates straining for his undivided attention. All of them seemed completely unaware that their behavior had passed out of the realm of the ordinary. Then again, maybe they just didnít care. He had vivid memories of the things heíd been willing to do just to see a spark of approval in the swirling depths of those eyes, to hear the warmth imbued in his name.

He realized that he was staring at Miboshiís face as if heíd been starving for the sight of it. Disgusted with himself, he turned his attention back to the other delegates. Most blended into the background in a cheerful sea of anonymous faces, but a few jumped out immediately. Princess Allura stood at Miboshiís right hand side, smiling regally out at the assembled delegates as Miboshi leaned closer to whisper something for her ears alone. She glanced at him with laughter shining in her huge blue eyes before turning back to answer a question from somewhere in the throng. He momentarily blanked out everything else and focused on the two of them with a chill of foreboding. Night and day they looked, or darkness and light. Possibly even good and evil, though that was pushing the cliches just a bit. Most frightening of all, they looked the very picture of royalty as they stood together smiling in front of the throng of admirers.

Lance fought off the chill with a vengeance. That was ridiculous. Allura tended to wax eloquent on the subject of marriage. Even if she had the common sense of a styrofoam cup where the men in her life were concerned, surely one morning hadnít cleared her mind of her most vehement arguments.

His gaze drifted to Coran, standing behind Allura and beaming at his princess and Miboshi, looking for all the world like a proud father. Maybe there was cause for concern there after all. If Coran started pushing her again, she might very well back down, especially in the face of Miboshiís renowned charm.

There was no way in hell he was going to allow Miboshi to so much as lay a finger on Allura.

His thoughts otherwise distracted, his eyes wandered over the assembled crowd until they picked out the familiar form of his captain. Maybe he didnít need to worry about Miboshi hurting Allura after all. Judging by the expression on Keithís face, the Ambassadorís interest hadnít gone entirely unnoticed. Miboshi was either losing his touch or didnít consider Keith much of a threat. Then again, maybe he just hadnít had time to charm Keith off guard yet.

A hidden part of Lance ached at the fierce expression on Keithís face. He would give nearly anything to have that look directed at something that might harm himÖ

He growled deep in his throat and flipped on the external castle monitors. That was a useless line of thought, not to mention one that heíd all but worn out over the past eight years. It was pointless to lament about the cruelty of fate now, when he needed a clear head to survive. Besides, it was all for the best. If he was going to fall, at least he wouldnít take anyone down with him.

The quick check of the external monitors took all of five minutes and proved absolutely fruitless. Despite the shivers of warning trailing in a nonstop tap-dance through his nerves, the war was over. There was no one left to attack, no enemy left to hide in the afternoon sunlight and try to catch them off guard, no unseen dangers waiting for the coming dark. The only danger currently threatening the conference was inside the castle in plain sight.

His gaze drifted back to the main monitor just as Miboshi turned to face the camera. His dark eyes seemed to bore directly into Lance, chasing away all other thought as his consciousness spiraled down the path of memory.

*

The scene in front of his unbelieving eyes was so alien that it utterly defied description. Men and women with hard dead eyes and outlandish clothes mixed with creatures of every description on the floor of the huge arena. From his raised vantage point on the stage the movements and yells in alien tongues made no sense and blurred together into chaos so absolute that no patterns could possibly exist. The air blowing from vents in the high ceiling was cold, raising goose bumps along his skin and blowing errant strands of shoulder-length auburn hair across his pale eyes.

One of the blue reptilian-looking guards raised an arm and issued a command at him in their odd guttural language. He shook his head and tried to look helpless. The guard snorted in annoyance and motioned to someone behind his back. Before he had a chance to brace himself, the barrel of a gun slammed into his spine and knocked him forward to the center of the stage. Casting a glare of defiance over one shoulder, he climbed shakily back to his feet and stared over the heads of the assembled crowd, searching in vain for the one face he might recognize.

The stares of the audience crawled over his skin, but he refused to flush, refused to let them see that their regard bothered him. If they wanted to stare at his naked body, so be it. Who cared as long as they left him alone?

The crowd parted as a man pushed his way forward. He tried to look over the manís head, but something, some presence, drew his attention despite all his attempts to resist. The man took the steps up to the stage and stood towering over the captive, looking down with amusement. He looked away, his gaze coming to rest on the manís escort.

It was him.

The one responsible for the destruction of his home, the deaths of his family. The one he was going to kill. Bound fingers spasmed around the poisoned needle tucked between them.

ĎThatís it. Just a little closer.í

His entire world seemed to narrow until the man, the leader of these people, was the only thing that truly existed.

"Look at me, child. I would see your face."

The flush heíd been fighting spread over his cheeks and he tried to force his face away, but something in the manís mellifluous voice commanded absolute obedience. Helplessly he jerked his gaze away from the murdering alien and stared directly into the manís eyes, twin pools of drowning soothing darkness, the kind of darkness that could chase all pain and thought away.

His hands went utterly limp and the needle slipped from his fingers to fall to the floor behind his feet. He could hear the distant outrage as the glint of spiraling silver caught a guardís eye, but the man simply cupped his face gently in one large hand.

"My, you are a fiery one, arenít you? You just might be worth the trouble." He released his face and turned back to the leader. "How much for this one?"

The alien leaderís voice was contorted with rage. "This one should be executed."

"Now, now, Zarcon. Sometimes one has to make concessions. After all, the boy doesnít know any better. How about 50 minots and Iíll take him off your hands?"

His eyes widened. The man released him and gestured to a guard off to the side. The man grabbed his arm warily and yanked him down the steps, but the precaution wasnít necessary.

There was nothing like realizing youíd just been sold to take the fight momentarily out of you, particularly at a price that couldnít even buy a half-dead goat. Surely he was worth more than that.

*

"Lance? What are you doing in here?"

The question tore him out of the memory with such force that Lance shot out of the chair and nearly fell off the command platform. Keith ran forward and grabbed his arm to steady him, but the touch was too reminiscent of the guardís grip in the distant memory. Lance snatched his arm away and fell back into the chair, wrapping it possessively around his chest.

"Shimatta!"

"Lance? Come on, look at me. Youíve been acting weird all day. What the hell is wrong with you?"

Lance took a deep breath and forced his eyes back open, digging desperately for some kind of retort that would stop that line of questioning before it began. The real concern in Keithís eyes stopped him dead in his tracks.

Keith reached out one tentative hand like he desperately wanted to touch him, but drew it back when Lance automatically flinched away from the contact. "Lance, whatís wrong? And donít you dare tell me nothing!"

"It is nothing, Keith. Iím fine." He laughed and hoped it didnít sound half as forced to Keith as he was afraid it did. "Iím not used to the idea of peace yet, thatís all. Iím just jumping at shadows."

Keith narrowed his eyes. "Youíre lying."

Lance couldnít stop the cocky smile that automatically crossed his face. "Isnít that my line?"

"Stop it, Lance!" Keith jumped up on the platform and leaned over the chair, resting his hands on the arms so that their faces were mere inches apart. "Why wonít you tell me whatís wrong? Itís something to do with that delegate from Firenz, isnít it? I know you know something!"

"What?" The question came out as a startled whisper. He wasnít being that obvious, was he?

Keith refused to release his gaze. "What is it? Is he a danger to Allura?"

The normalcy of the question released Lance completely from the shock. He shoved Keith away and stood, glaring up into his captainís dark eyes. "I wonít let him be a danger to Allura. Is that a good enough answer for you, Sir?" He couldnít stop the malice from creeping into his voice. For just a moment, he had actually thought maybe Keithís concern extended beyond a possible threat to Alluraís safety.

Keith glared right back at him. "No, itís not. If you know something youíre not telling meÖ" The threat hung in the air between them, increasing the tension until the very air seemed to glimmer with a patina of frost.

Lance felt his chest tighten and decided to fall back on the one tactic that always seemed to work: arrogance. He leaned back against the control panel, crossing his arms and striving for a look of absolute boredom. "Youíll what?"

Keith actually lost control enough to slam his fist against the side of the panel. "Damn it, this isnít funny!"

Lance raised an eyebrow at the outburst and jumped down from the platform. "Donít worry so much, Keith. Everythingís under control." He sauntered out the door without so much as a backward glance, although he could feel the just barely controlled rage in Keithís scrutiny like a dagger between his shoulder blades. He even managed to keep his outwardly cool composure from slipping until he made it all the way downstairs to the lion docking bay, away from anyoneís prying eyes.

*

Years of life in the castle combined with group explorations over every square inch of their new home had rendered the once secret hiding places and rendezvous spots a thing of the past. Knowing this, Lance didnít even make an effort to hide. Instead he wandered around the docking bay, searching frantically for something that would serve as a good excuse to remain there for the rest of the afternoon. Unable to find anything at all in need of repair, he decided to remedy the situation. It was the work of only a few minutes to pry apart the motor of one of the aqua-speeders and spread the components across the floor of the work area.

He was still trying to remember exactly how to put it back together again when Hunk found him taking out his frustrations on the engine block with a hammer a couple of hours later.

The big mechanic stood in the doorway with a look of weary consternation on his face. "Lance? What exactly are you doing?"

"Fixing the engine." The hammer blows never faltered.

He could feel rather than see Hunk sigh and close the door behind him. "What happened to it? There wasnít anything wrong with it this morning."

Lance put down the hammer and looked back up with a glare of annoyance. "There is now."

Hunk nodded evenly. "I can see that." He dropped down to his knees amidst the scattered remains of the engine and took a deep breath. "Need some help?"

Lance forced the glare off his face with effort. None of this was Hunkís fault and taking all his frustration out on the big man would only get Pidge and Allura up in arms as well. He really didnít need the entire castle angry with him right at the moment. "Yeah, I guess." He pried his fingers off the hammer and offered it to Hunk with what he hoped was a helpful gesture.

Hunk took it without a word and deposited it back safely out of reach. He turned to the mangled mess on the floor and sat back with a sigh. "So, did you see the new guy that showed up this morning?"

"Which one?" Lanceís attempts at control faltered and he flushed bright red as the words emerged before he could stop them.

ĎSmooth there, Lance. Way to keep the conversation neutral.í

Hunk blinked with astonishment before turning his attention back to reassembling the drive shaft. "Which one? There was more than one?"

"Iiee, no, Iím sorry, Hunk. My mind must have been wandering."

Hunk nodded absently. "So, what was he like? Heís all Iíve heard about all afternoon."

Lance shrugged with affected nonchalance even though he knew Hunk wasnít looking. "I donít know. Heís just another ambassador. All I know is that he made the damn talks stop long enough for me to escape. Nothing else really matters, does it?"

Hunk grinned and grabbed a wrench from the toolbox. "I heard he never stopped flirting with Allura."

Lance froze, fixing his gaze carefully on the floor. "Oh?"

"Mm-hmm. Romelle went on about it for a long time."

Lance wiped off his hands and climbed back to his feet. "I donít know. I must have slipped out before then. Iíve got to go." He bolted before Hunk had time to put together a reply, the guilt at leaving his friend to clean up his mess overridden by the need to run. This was one conversation that he just couldnít handle yet, not without slipping.

*

The decision to hold a welcoming banquet for the Firenzi Ambassador as a sign of goodwill for the finishing of the Peace Accords was a unanimous one, but was put off until the next day for logistical reasons. There was just no way even the capable staff of the Castle of Lions could put together a celebration of that magnitude in a couple of hours. A break was called in the never-ending hammering out of the actual Articles until after the banquet as delegates gathered in small groups to plot coups and plan speeches and toasts, to locate appropriate clothing and gifts, and to take general advantage of a pleasant lull in an otherwise endless round of negotiation. The hallways of the castle were filled with scurrying aides and castle maids and cooks frantically trying to make the coming gathering appear as effortless as possible.

The Royalty of Arus had always proudly considered themselves to be detail-oriented and this was to be no exception. There was, therefore, absolutely no way in hell that a member of the Voltron Force was going to talk his way out of attending.

Lance crossed his arms and leaned back against Alluraís bedroom wall, watching with rising anger as she held dresses against herself to critically admire the effects in her full-length mirror. "Iím not going, Allura. Why do you need me there anyway? You and Keith are the diplomats. The rest of us are just in the way."

Allura swept a cascade of long blonde curls over her shoulder and held up a dress in a shade of blue that perfectly matched her eyes. "Thatís not true and you know it. Everyone will notice if youíre not there. Youíd hate to disappoint your admiring public, wouldnít you?"

Lance glared at her back. "Trust me, they wonít notice. Besides, theyíll get over it if they do."

Allura discarded the dress and held up another, her eyes narrowing critically. "Why does everyone always want to dress me like a little girl? Look how high this neckline is!" Shaking her head in disgust, she dropped it on the floor and grabbed another, this one in a darker shade of the ever-present pink. "What do you think?"

"Itís fine, Ally. Theyíre all fine. You could show up in rags and still be the most beautiful woman there."

Allura let out an exasperated breath and turned on him. "Youíre not even looking. What is wrong, Lance? Why are you trying so hard to avoid one banquet?"

Lance shrugged. "Iím tired of it, thatís all. I just want to do something. I canít stand sitting around and listening to people talk much longer."

Allura shook her head sadly. "The warís over, Lance. Youíve got to learn how to live with that."

"I know that. But this is your fight, princess, not mine." He pushed himself away from the wall and started pacing. "Do you really need me there?"

Allura turned back to the mirror. "Yes, I do." Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "But I think thereís someone who needs you there more than I do."

"Who?"

"Keith."

The soft answer stopped his pacing immediately. "Thatís not fair, Allura."

"Maybe not, but it is true. Heíll be more relaxed if youíre there, and I need him to be focused, not tense."

Lance sighed in defeat. "All right, Iíll be there." He shook one finger threateningly in her direction. "You owe me one, though."

Allura smiled brightly at his reflection. "Sure. I think that stacks up nicely against everything you owe me. Now get out of here before Nanny arrives and starts screaming about propriety, will you?"

Smiling slightly and shaking his head, Lance headed back to his room to search for his dress uniform in the mess he called his closet. Maybe Allura was right. How bad could it be? All he had to do was stay mostly out of sight.

*

The irony of that statement didnít truly register until he was already dressed and checking over his appearance in the mirror. He paused in the act of tugging one of the thickly embroidered sleeves down to completely cover his wrists and raised his eyes to stare at his reflection with disbelief. All he had to do was stay out of sight. Right. How exactly did one accomplish that from the main table in the center of a crowded dining hall? Allura wouldnít let her four "knights" be seated anywhere else. They were likely to be in the spotlight all night.

How exactly did the Princess of Arus always manage to reduce arguments to ashes without any visible effort?

A soft knock on the door pulled him out of his reverie before he could even begin to distract his nervousness with a contemplation of revenge. He sighed, gave the uniform jacket one last tug, and surrendered to the inevitable.

The door slid open with a quiet rush of air to reveal the person heíd been expecting. Lance grinned impudently. "Hi Keith. Allura send you to make sure I didnít try to find someplace to hide?"

Keith rolled his eyes. "Someoneís got to make sure you behave like a responsible adult. God knows you canít manage it on your own." He frowned slightly and bit his lip, reaching over hesitantly to straighten the jacketís collar. "LanceÖ"

Lance held very still as Keithís fingers brushed accidentally against his throat, resolutely ignoring the tingle of contact that spread in an electric shock down his spine. He tried to catch Keithís dark eyes with his own, but Keith kept his gaze safely locked on the vicinity of Lanceís shoulder.

"Öabout this afternoonÖ"

Lance shrugged uncomfortably and pulled away. "Just forget about it, Keith. Itís not like itís the first time weíve ever argued about something, is it?" The words came out much more sharply than he intended. He kept his eyes carefully averted, but he could see Keithís flinch in the mirror.

"No, itís not. Look, justÖyouíd tell me if something was really wrong. Wouldnít you?"

Lance considered the floor for a moment longer, then sighed in defeat and raised his eyes. Keith was staring at him with an odd expression on his face, one that Lance couldnít place. He flushed slightly as their eyes met, and Lance could feel an answering warmth spread through himself. "How about this? If I find out that any harm is going to come to the princess from anyone, youíll be the first person to know. Is that good enough?"

Keithís gaze was steady. "Alluraís not the only person Iím worried about."

Lance felt his eyes widen. He was saved from trying to answer by another knock on the door.

"Hey guys? You in there? We really need to get moving!"

Lance sighed in relief and pushed the button to open the door, smiling out at Pidge. "Yeah, weíre ready. Arenít we, Keith?" He turned to find Keith just reopening his eyes, his expression oddly tight.

"Yeah, sure. Letís go. Wouldnít want to keep Allura waiting." He shoved past Lance and headed down the hallway without a backward glance.

Pidge turned to stare speculatively at Lance. Lance shrugged helplessly and turned to follow Keith down the hallway. Itís not like that statement could possibly have meant any of the things it seemed to, at least on the surface. Keith was in love with Allura, hopelessly maybe, but in love nonetheless. Anything else he thought he saw was pure fantasy.

*

The banquet stretched on for hours, all the participants glad for any excuse to celebrate. The delegates spent much of the time rearranging alliances and jockeying for position with those who appeared to currently hold the most power over the direction of the Assembly as a whole. This meant that the newly arrived Miboshi spent the entire evening surrounded by a fluctuating group of people.

Lance slipped into a chair at an abandoned table near the edge of the high dais and poured another glass of wine. Heíd already had a few too many, but relief was blurring the edges of his already questionable caution. Everything might actually be okay. All his worries seemed to be for nothing.

Allura had made a point of introducing everyone at the high table to Miboshi personally and the presentations had gone without a hitch. The ambassador had done little more than smile politely at him and make a few comments on the work theyíd done to bring about the current peace. None of his words could be taken as double entendres by even the most astute observer. Miboshi had actually seemed not to recognize him. Sure, heíd changed his name and grown up in the last few years, but he didnít think heíd changed all that much.

Maybe he was really actually free. The thought was strangely bittersweet for reasons he didnít particularly want to contemplate. Taking another deep gulp of the wine, he stood back up and leaned nonchalantly against the platform behind him. His eyes raked over the brightly dressed crowd, tracking through the swirling motion for the dark confident figure that stood at the eye of the storm.

Miboshi was currently turning all his charm on Keith. His captain was standing transfixed by whatever Miboshi was saying, a warm smile lighting up his face. Allura was standing by the Ambassadorís side, a position sheíd assumed for most of the evening. Again the chill of foreboding ran up his spine. He drained the rest of the glass and moved to fill it again.

ĎIím free. He doesnít remember me.í

The thought came unbidden as he began to search the table around him for a bottle that wasnít empty. The fact that the thought was coherent meant that he was still way too sober. He found a half-full bottle and poured a new glass, one hand fidgeting absently with the collar of his uniform. He could see one of Alluraís ladies-in-waiting trying to catch his eyes from the corner of his vision, but he decided to ignore her. He wasnít quite ready to give up his vantage point yet. A flash of jealousy shot through him as Keith started to laugh at something Miboshi said, reaching out to gently touch Alluraís arm. The memory of the touch of those fingers on his neck still lingered as phantom warmth against the sudden chill of the room. He blinked and swallowed the rest of the wine in a gulp. He was free, and there was nothing he could do right now. He didnít have to save everyone, did he? Heíd done his part. The universe was free. Hallelujah. And if Keith wanted to spend the rest of the evening "protecting" Allura that was just the way things were. Hell, it was practically his job description anyway.

"But I think thereís someone who needs you there more than I do."

Lance snorted to himself, dropping the empty glass down on the table. Keith hadnít said two words to him all night. He just kept giving him that maddeningly unreadable look.

"Alluraís not the only person Iím worried about."

Lovely. This little bout of fantasy was getting him absolutely nowhere. Maybe he needed to get away and lose himself in the press of the crowd after all. It wasnít like Miboshi was going to do anything right here in plain sight. Maybe he wouldnít do anything at all. Maybe all this obsessing was entirely for nothing. Maybe his memories really were painting things much worse than reality. How much objectivity did a kid have under those circumstances?

Pushing away from the obscurity of the wall, he tore his gaze away from Keithís intently smiling face and searched desperately for anything that could serve as a distraction. For once, someone on high seemed to be listening. One of the courtierís daughters grabbed his arm in a surprisingly tight grip before he managed to walk three feet into the crowd. "Lance! Youíve been hiding all night! Thatís not very nice."

Lance forced a smile across his face at the scolding tone of her voice. "No, I guess not. Whatever can I do to make it up to you?"

She giggled in response, her eyes darkening with a thousand nameless promises. He let himself be dragged towards the dance floor, steadfastly ignoring the suddenly painful old memory of warm brown eyes sparkling with laughter.

*


The party finally began to wind down sometime during the deepest hours of the night. Lance managed to extricate himself from the small group of people on one of the balconies overlooking the lake with a minimum of excuses. He staggered up to his room, one hand trailing along the metal wall for support and humming softly to himself. All his earlier worries had been completely drowned under a liberal application of alcohol and good cheer, ensuring that the dreams that would otherwise have haunted his sleep were going to have nothing understandable to work with. He didnít need answers tonight. He needed oblivion. Answers could come later.

He managed to hit the correct sequence of buttons to unlock the door to his room and stumbled towards the bed, trailing what was left of his uniform on the floor behind him. He collapsed onto the cool sheets, running one hand over the soft fabric almost absently as the room spun out of control behind his closed eyelids.

He cracked one eye open as his hand encountered a small square of thick paper. Fumbling for the light, he propped himself up on his elbows and squinted, trying to bring the neat words into focus.

Of course I didnít forget you, Malachi. Iíll expect you in my room tomorrow evening. I donít imagine youíll be much use to me tonight.

The short letter wasnít signed, but then it hardly needed a signature. Lance sat up abruptly, the room lurching crazily beyond the letter in his hands. The fingers of his free hand strayed automatically to rub the blue band of the Firenz slave tattoo circling his right wrist, a nervous gesture it had taken him years of vigilance to suppress. He reread the words over and over, an odd mix of horror and elation chasing away all other thought.

*

"Whatís your name, boy?"

He kept his gaze locked firmly on the thick white plaster walls in front of him as he silently willed the voice to stop asking him that question. He didnít have a name anymore. Why couldnít they understand that?

Kurogane Isamu was dead.

The shell that was left in his place wasnít worthy of a name. They knew that. He was sure they did. They knew everything about him as if they could pull every secret shame and fear from his soul through some ethereal open window.

So why did they keep asking him that question?

He heard a hiss of frustration from somewhere off to his left, but he refused to move his eyes. They couldnít hurt him if he didnít acknowledge them, like the ghosts in the old abandoned villages back home. Surely the ghosts of his ancestors wouldnít desert him now. All he had to do was keep his mind somewhere else, somewhere safe.

A hand came up and roughly gripped his chin. The boy allowed the muscles to go slack enough that the grip no longer hurt.

ĎDown in the valley where the green grass grows, there once was a girlÖí

"Listen to me carefully, boy. You will answer me. You will learn obedience if I have to beat you within an inch of your life!"

ĎÖas the mountains rise, be careful if you find where he now liesÖí

The nursery rhyme continued to run through his mind, the words utterly meaningless to him except in their comforting familiarity, as the stinging blows of the whip once more began to trace a path of fire across his unprotected skin.

It didnít matter, really. If he concentrated hard enough, it didnít even hurt.

*

Lance snapped awake with a start, the sweat running in rivulets down his back still stinging with phantom pain as it crossed the almost invisible network of scars. He sat upright in the darkness, listening to the rush of blood pounding through his ears and the strangled sound of his own breathing as he fought down the sobs trying to force their way out of his constricted lungs. He hadnít cried then and heíd be damned if heíd cry now.

Very slowly the dark room began to come back into focus, the shadows of the furnishings losing the sinister appearance night gives to everything. His chest loosened enough to allow his breathing to slow back to normal. It wasnít until he raised one shaking hand to wipe the sweat from his eyes that he noticed the sheet of paper still tightly clenched in his fist.

The room spun dangerously a second time before years of iron control managed to reassert themselves. Crumbling the note into a ball, he hurled it towards the opposite wall and reached out to turn the clock on the bedside table. The glowing green numbers informed him it was only 5 A.M., much too early to get out of bed. Climbing shakily to his feet, he ransacked his dresser until one triumphant hand reemerged with his hidden flask. He couldnít remember when heíd last filled it, but he was rewarded with the sound of sloshing liquid as he stumbled back to bed.

Curling back up underneath the covers, he took a long drink of the bitter amber liquor and watched the last hours of his freedom slowly tick away.

*

Most of the inhabitants of the castle were late in rising that morning. The hours stretched quietly forward, broken only occasionally by whispered conversations and the moans of someone lamenting the extent of the festivities of the night before. Even those who had managed to escape entirely unscathed seemed to give in to the subdued atmosphere, most choosing to remain in their quarters and take full advantage of a day of relaxation.

Regardless of the state of misery or smug self-righteousness of the varied inhabitants and guests, the sun managed somehow to rise and chart its normal progression across the bright blinding blue of the Arusian sky. It was well on its way towards its final inevitable descent before Lance managed to drag himself out of bed.

He lay quietly for a time, squinting in the faint hazy golden light of late afternoon that was sneaking through the tiny window high up in the wall and trying valiantly to convince himself that his head would stop hurting so badly once he managed to crawl to the shower. That wasnít precisely true, of course, but it hardly mattered. There wasnít much room for the remainder of the day to go anywhere but up. Down seemed to be well and truly spoken for.

The shower did help, the warm water easing away most of the aches and helping to clear his head of the fog that permeated every attempt at coherent thought. By the time he reemerged, what little light was still slanting through the high window had taken on a crimson tinge. The message light on his phone was blinking frantically, but Lance decided to ignore it. Palace intrigues, much less the skinning Allura and Keith were likely to give him for drinking so much and being generally unsociable for most of the previous night, were completely beyond his present capabilities. He grabbed his favorite leather jacket off the chair at the desk and glanced hesitantly towards the crumbled slip of paper lying in the middle of the floor. Shaking his head slightly, he snatched it up and shoved it inside one of the jacketís pockets. It wasnít likely that anyone who found actually would- or, for that matter, could- read the local dialect spoken on Firenz, but why take chances?

*

The light of day was well and truly dying by the time he found a quiet hiding spot away from prying eyes. True, the balconies off the main ballroom werenít exactly off the beaten path, but the chances of anyone wandering by and noticing him accidentally were at least greatly reduced. He leaned back against the cool stone of the castle wall with a sigh, indifferently closing his eyes on the majesty of nature unfolding before him. One hand absently pulled the crumbled letter from his pocket again, his fingers tracing blindly over the words that were already burned into his mind.

He wasnít going, of course. That was entirely out of the question. Miboshi just couldnít order him around that way anymore. Too many years had passed in the interim and Lance didnít take orders from just anyone, no matter how important they might think themselves to be. Besides, what exactly could the Ambassador do to him? Announce that Lance was his slave and therefore had to be returned to him? One of the first and most widely debated post-scripts to the Articles of Peace had been the absolute abolishment of any type of slavery.

Not even Miboshi could charm his way through that one.

There was only one solution, really. He had to tell the others. His friends had to know the truth. That was the only way to save Allura from what looked like her rapidly building fascination with the man and avert what could only become disaster.

There wasnít any particular reason to go into too many details, however. Just knowing that Miboshi had bought him from Zarcon when he was a child might be enough. Allura loathed the idea of slavery in any form, but she became particularly vehement when children were involved.

So that was it, then. All he had to do was get up and find the members of his team. That was easy enough. They were probably still at dinner. Getting them alone wouldnít be a problem.

He forced himself to his feet, every muscle in his body tightening with something frighteningly close to panic. No matter how many times he told himself that it would be fine, that his friends wouldnít look at him any differently, that this was the only way, the feeling of foreboding refused to go away.

*

Somehow things had a way of going completely astray from his plans. He found the rest of the Voltron Force easily enough, relaxing at a late dinner in the small personal castle dining room with a few close friends, namely Sven, Romelle, and Bandor. Coran had taken dinner in his room, siting exhaustion from the night before, so there was absolutely no one present to maintain even the outward bounds of propriety. Predictably enough, things had deteriorated almost immediately.

Lance sat quietly at the edge of the large table, smiling wanly and praying that everyone would just write off his lack of enthusiasm as a lingering hangover. The plan seemed to be working beautifully; after a couple of jokes that involved dropping anything that would clatter down on the hard metal of surface of the table, everyone left him more or less alone.

Conversation kept drifting back to the one topic he most wanted to broach, but somehow he just couldnít do it. Thoughts of days past, of the supposed Prince Bocar of Senac, of the Omega Comet (?), kept stopping him every time he worked up the courage. He honestly didnít know what was worse: the thought that everyone would believe him and all his failings would be out in the open, or the fear that once again no one would listen. So he laughed at everyoneís jokes and even managed a few of his own, the only outward sign to betray his anxiety the spasmodic grip of his hands on his still full mug.

He wasnít even really aware that heíd finally relaxed until a new topic cut through Hunk teasing him about his attempts at reassembling the engine heíd dismantled earlier in the week. Itís was Bandorís voice that cut through the fog, nearly unfamiliar with the deeper tones of command that showed more than anything else that the child King of Pollux was truly now an adult.

"I donít know, Allura. Do you really think that itís going to be this easy?"

Allura smiled back, her eyes lighting up with silent delight. "I do, Bandor. I think itís finally at an end. Every world that once suffered under Zarkonís dominion has finally seen the light, now that Firenz has put in a bid to reenter the Alliance."

Bandor shrugged noncommitently and stood to refill his own coffee cup. Sven leaned back in his chair, turning considering eyes on Lance. "How about you, min vän? Youíre being awfully quiet tonight. Do you think itís finally at an end?"

Lance felt the chill rush back in, stealing the warmth and life from the room. This was it. This was exactly the moment heíd been waiting for, the perfect opening. "IÖ"

And he couldnít do it. He just wasnít sure he wanted to know the answer. He pulled his eyes away from Svenís, dropping his face and swirling his cup absently with both hands. "I donít know."

He could feel the weight of Svenís frown even without raising his head, and he struggled for anything that would pull that attention away from him. Turning back to Pidge with a falsely bright smile, he grasped for the one thing in earlier conversation that came to mind. "Did you say you heard from your brother? Howís everyone doing back at home?í

Pidgeís eyes lit up instantly, and he settled back into his chair and began to recount the entire conversation practically word for word. It didnít take that much feigning to lose himself in news from home and old friends, and he felt almost normal again by the time Pidge finished.

By then everyone was ready to drift off to bed, and the lateness of the hour made prolonging things impossible. So he continued to smile and make the little jokes everyone expected of him, taking extra care to try to alleviate the concern still lurking in Svenís eyes.

Finally he was alone again. He sat back down and picked up his cool mug, staring into the dark depths in search of answers. If he couldnít talk about it, what was he going to do? Let it go? Maybe everyone was right; this really could be the chance the Alliance needed to make the Peace Accords work. What right did he truly have to meddle with that hope? After all, he didnít know what the note was about, when it came down to facts. Keith was forever claiming that he always blew things out of proportion. This could very well be just another clear-cut example, couldnít it?

Whatever, truth or a childís lingering nightmare, he knew he couldnít face meeting with Miboshi tonight. He needed more time, more space to sort out his own thoughts, and that freedom wasnít going to come to him in the castle dining room. He needed to get away, and there was only one conceivable way to grasp for escape.

*

Riding the elevator down to the lion bay always brought a burst of pure adrenaline. There was something about dropping down from the cool calm metal-enclosed world of the castle proper to the red burning hell that was Red Lionís lair that was pure exhilaration. He hit the ground running, the familiar waves of heat billowing past him and brushing the hair back from his face. Red Lion raised her head with a welcoming roar, and the joy in the sound made him laugh out loud. He stopped halfway across the bridge, thrusting one hand into his jacket pocket and throwing the letter out over a pool of fire in one smooth motion. The lava in the pool popped, sending up a tiny gout of flame that incinerated the fluttering paper into a lingering trail of ashes.

The laughter grew in volume, hitting him with giddiness that bordered on hysteria as he sprinted across the remainder of the bridge and dove into Red Lionís open hatch. He was free, damn it, and no one was going to take this away from him!

*

Later, as he lay beneath Red Lionís shadow in a hidden cove between one of Arusí endless forests and the gentle pounding of the surf, he stared up into the stars and wondered. He couldnít put off the coming confrontation forever. Or rather, he probably could, but only if he truly decided to run, and that was absolutely out of the question. He wasnít running away anymore. He had a life here, and he wouldnít leave. Leaving would mean losing everything important to him- his friends, his work, Keith, Red, hell, even Arus itself- and that was more than he could take and still stay sane. If anything was worth fighting for, it was this.

Still, just for tonight he could lay back and bask in the last vestiges of peace. Out here, alone with his Lion that served almost as the other half of his soul, he could ignore the tingling warnings and threats and worries and just be himself. There wasnít anyone to convince, anyone to please. He was safe as it was possible to be.

Tomorrow would bring what tomorrow would bring, but for tonight maybe he could let everything go and just enjoy a few more hours of real peace.

*

The boy huddled in on himself, trying desperately to pull the thin long-sleeved tunic tightly enough around him to ward off the unseasonable chill in the air. The cold seemed so ingrained in the damp stones of his cell that not even the faint light of day that filtered through the tiny window could ever erase the chill. There were new noises filtering in from the world beyond the heavy door, but he couldnít rouse enough interest to investigate. No one ever came for him anyway. It seemed like days since the last time heíd looked upon another human face.

The sounds outside came closer until they separated into the heavy fall of boots on stone and the steady jingle of a ring of iron keys. The boy scooted further back into his dark corner, wincing involuntarily as the movement pulled on torn scabbed flesh still healing from the last visit from beyond.

A heavy click was his only warning before the door swung open. The boy ignored the sharp stabs of pain and pulled his knees to his chest, hiding his face beneath a curtain of tangled dirty hair to block out the blinding light from the hallway. Weakened by pain and hunger, he could only put up a token protest as hands grabbed him and swung him up into a rough embrace.

"Youíre a filthy one, boy. Got to get you fixed up if youíre going to visit the Master."

The words didnít sound at all promising, so the boy let himself fall back into the twilight of apathy that colored most of his waking moments. If he looked inside himself deeply enough, he thought he could almost remember his motherís face and feel the gentleness of her touch as she softly sang away the worst of his hurts. Everything faded away under the power of that ghostly voice until the warmth invaded his private world of dreams.

He jerked fully awake, hands unconsciously clenching tightly around the edges of the soft blanket cocooned around him. The warmth was so unfamiliar after the constant cold that he was almost frightened.

But then he heard the voice.

"Youíre finally awake, child. Iím glad to see that."

He slowly forced his eyes to open and glanced warily from the safety of his covering. A very handsome young man was sitting perched on the end of the bed, his dark eyes twinkling with amusement and good humor. There was something almost familiar to him, something that kept slipping just beyond his reach.

The man slid towards him slowly, murmuring softly all the while, until he finally reached out and enfolded him in the circle of his arms. The boy stiffened at the alien comfort, but the man just held him more tightly, gently stroking his hair and face. The boy finally went limp, tears of fear and longing streaking down his face as he wrapped his arms around the stranger, his savior.

"Itís all right now," the man whispered. "Everythingís going to be all right."

The boy couldnít answer, the sobs that heíd been holding for weeks finally tearing their way out of his thin shaking chest. The man held him tightly until the tears began to slow, rocking him silently. Finally the boy pulled back slightly, his hands once again reaching for the comfort of the blanket.

The man smiled down at him. "There now, see? Isnít that better?" He paused for a moment, those eyes locking on his face. "I donít think I even know your name, child."

He shook his head, too tired to give in to the new surge of grief that threatened to erupt at that question. Always that same question. The urge to fight it, powered by pain and fear and grief, seemed oddly out of place and quite beyond his grasp in the present surroundings. "I donít have one. Not anymore."

"I see." The man looked at him gravely, reaching out to shove a lock of hair back from his face. "I do need to call you something, I guess. I think Iíll call you Malachi." His eyes glowed as he beamed down at him. "My angel. Yes, I think that fits you extraordinarily well."

"Malachi." The boy whispered it back, trying the feel of the word on his tongue. It wasnít really a proper name, but it would do for now. At least it gave him a place, a beginning.

The manís smile widened and he pushed the boy- Malachi- back on the bed and gently kissed his forehead. "Now get some sleep. We can talk more in the morning."

The man left and shut the door behind him, returning the small room to darkness. It didnít matter to the boy, who cuddled deeper into his cocoon of blankets and let his eyes slide shut. For the first time in weeks, he wasnít afraid.

 

 

 

 

*

"You have got to be kidding."

Lance stared fixedly at his clasped hands, wishing with all his heart that he was somewhere- anywhere- else. In the middle of a heated battle with a robeast would be nice. Hell, heíd even be willing to take another one of Alluraís endless state banquets over the stifling air of disbelief that had settled over the castle rec room after his quiet announcement.

Finding his four teammates relaxing with Sven and Romelle after dinner had been easy enough. Maybe it had been too easy. The familiar teasing and open concern as they asked him where heíd been hiding made broaching the subject and getting the truth out into the open that much more attractive. Now it was all he could do not to laugh the words off and run.

This scenario had played out through his mind repeatedly during the quick walk from the ballroom, but even his warped imaginings hadnít touched the horrifying reality. Pity heíd been expecting, maybe with a touch of anger in the best possible outcome. He wasnít prepared for open disbelief.

Lance knew that he had a lot of faults. He was way too quick-tempered. He almost never really considered the consequences of his actions. He was even willing to grant that he could be selfish at times. In spite of all that, he was not dishonest. The fact that his closest friends were always so quick to doubt his word stung at the best of times, but now that open suspicion was twisting like a poisoned dagger in his guts.

He forced himself to shake his head very slowly, but raising his eyes to look into Pidgeís normally open face was beyond him. "Why would I lie about something like this?"

"Itís not that we donít believe you, Lance. Itís just a bit of a shock, thatís all."

The quiet strength that always seemed to emanate from Sven reached out to Lance like a caress. He forced himself to look up into his friendís calm dark eyes. If anyone would understand, it would be Sven. His friend had been through hell himself at the hands of Zarcon and his slavers. He knew what it was really like from firsthand experience.

"Why didnít you ever say anything before?"

Lance kept his gaze on Svenís concerned face, afraid that the panic would give way to anger if he gave it even a second of leeway. "Why do you think? Itís not exactly the kind of thing that normally comes up in a conversation. How are you this morning? I remember back when I was a slave on FirenzÖ"

"Why bring it up now?"

That hurt. He tore his gaze from Sven and stared at Keith, searching for something- anything- that would negate the suspicion in his best friendís voice. "Because you have to understand. Thatís why. You have to see what heís really like."

Keith shook his head slowly. Lance decided heíd been wrong before. Open disbelief was fine. They could all call him a liar and run him off the planet, anything to take away the cold pity that settled over Keithís face. He dropped his head quickly enough to make his hair fall over his eyes like a curtain, hiding the glittering veil of unshed tears that suddenly stung behind his tightly closed eyelids.

"Lance, look at me." Keithís voice held the familiar tint of command that signaled the automatic descent into Captain Keith mode, but Lance forced himself not to respond. He couldnít meet those eyes again, not like this.

It was Alluraís soft voice that struck the final blow. "I know itís hard, Lance, but thereís nothing we can do. It was a war. People do awful things to each other during wars, and itís always unfortunate. You know that the Alliance granted everyone involved full pardons. Pardons involve total forgiveness, and we have to respect that if we want to remain an active member of the Alliance."

He could feel the overwhelming agreement even without raising his head.

"Yeah, and besides, youíre here, arenít you? You survived and youíre fine. It wasnít like you were scarred for life or anything, right?"

Lanceís head shot up and he stared at Pidge in shock, but the young man just stared back, confident as always in the strength of his own logic. Lance glanced quickly around at all of them before letting his eyes come to rest on Sven, pleading silently for understanding one last time, but there was nothing to save him in his friendís closed expression.

It was just too much. He couldnít deal with this. Heíd tried to warn them. There wasnít anything else he could do.

He pushed himself abruptly to his feet. "Yeah, I guess youíre right. Excuse me."

"Lance-"

"Lance, wait!"

He turned his back on everyone and hurried out the door, running for the relative safety of his quiet balcony. He even managed to restrain the fresh bout of angry tears until he was leaning against the balustrade, hands gripping the edge of the stone so tightly that his knuckles turned white.

*

He wasnít alone for very long.

Lance could feel Svenís presence in the doorway at his back without turning his head, but he continued to concentrate on the ragged sounds of his own breathing as he fought back desperately against stinging tears of shame. None of them was going to see him break down. Not now. Not ever.

After a bare momentís hesitation, Sven walked forward and joined him at the balcony. They both stared out at the sparkling reflection of the castleís floodlights glittering on the surface of the lake, reflecting the deep bottomless blackness of the night sky above. Finally Sven broke the silence, his soft voice little more than a whisper.

"Lance, I know this is hard for you. Believe me, I know how you feel." He paused. Lance could feel the heavy weight of his gaze, but kept his attention firmly on the lake. The quick hot anger had already drained away and shame so intense he wasnít sure heíd ever be able to look anyone in the eyes again was rapidly rushing in to fill the empty void left behind.

This- this- was exactly why he usually kept mostly to himself. Years went by with no one really listening to him, writing off his outbursts as temper alone without really listening to his words, and now all of a sudden people start to listen.

And they didnít believe him. Not really. They thought he was exaggerating, blowing things completely out of proportion all over again.

A gentle hand on his shoulder jerked his mind back to the present. "I know it hurts, but youíre got to let it go. Alluraís right- no matter how any of us feel, no matter how angry we might be, thereís nothing we can do right now. Just give it a bit more time."

Lance finally looked up at Sven, his anger crashing back home with a vengeance. "Time? Give it time? What the hell do you think Iíve been doing? Itís been years, Sven. The past doesnít fade, no matter how much you want it to."

Sven just looked back, a rock under the wave of Lanceís anger. "I know, but youíve got to try to let it go. At least for now."

Lance stared at him a moment longer then turned back to the lake, jamming his hands into his pockets to avoid the overwhelming urge to throttle one of his best friends.


"Lance?"

"Just leave me alone."

Lanceís fingers curled around the slip of paper in his pocket as Svenís soft footsteps retreated back across the balcony. He almost called him back. That one note was proof that he wasnít crazy, that is wasnít all in the past. Somehow, though, he just couldnít.

Any more rejection at all would be more than he could stand.

Instead, his anger and betrayal burning him up inside, he found a pack of matches the cleaning crew had missed and lit the note on fire. A bitter smile crossed his face as the incriminating words were reduced to a scattering of ashes.

Let it go? How could he let it go?

It was the only thing he had left.

*

The boy huddled in on himself, trying desperately to pull the thin long-sleeved tunic tightly enough around him to ward off the unseasonable chill in the air. The cold seemed so ingrained in the damp stones of his cell that not even the faint light of day that filtered through the tiny window could ever erase the chill. There were new noises filtering in from the world beyond the heavy door, but he couldnít rouse enough interest to investigate. No one ever came for him anyway. It seemed like days since the last time heíd looked upon another human face.

The sounds outside came closer until they separated into the heavy fall of boots on stone and the steady jingle of a ring of iron keys. The boy scooted further back into his dark corner, wincing involuntarily as the movement pulled on torn scabbed flesh still healing from the last visit from beyond.

A heavy click was his only warning before the door swung open. The boy ignored the sharp stabs of pain and pulled his knees to his chest, hiding his face beneath a curtain of tangled dirty hair to block out the blinding light from the hallway. Weakened by pain and hunger, he could only put up a token protest as hands grabbed him and swung him up into a rough embrace.

"Youíre a filthy one, boy. Got to get you fixed up if youíre going to visit the Master."

The words didnít sound at all promising, so the boy let himself fall back into the twilight of apathy that colored most of his waking moments. If he looked inside himself deeply enough, he thought he could almost remember his motherís face and feel the gentleness of her touch as she softly sang away the worst of his hurts. Everything faded away under the power of that ghostly voice until the warmth invaded his private world of dreams.

He jerked fully awake, hands unconsciously clenching tightly around the edges of the soft blanket cocooned around him. The warmth was so unfamiliar after the constant cold that he was almost frightened.

But then he heard the voice.

"Youíre finally awake, child. Iím glad to see that."

He slowly forced his eyes to open and glanced warily from the safety of his covering. A very handsome young man was sitting perched on the end of the bed, his dark eyes twinkling with amusement and good humor. There was something almost familiar to him, something that kept slipping just beyond his reach.

The man slid towards him slowly, murmuring softly all the while, until he finally reached out and enfolded him in the circle of his arms. The boy stiffened at the alien comfort, but the man just held him more tightly, gently stroking his hair and face. The boy finally went limp, tears of fear and longing streaking down his face as he wrapped his arms around the stranger, his savior.

"Itís all right now," the man whispered. "Everythingís going to be all right."

The boy couldnít answer, the sobs that heíd been holding for weeks finally tearing their way out of his thin shaking chest. The man held him tightly until the tears began to slow, rocking him silently. Finally the boy pulled back slightly, his hands once again reaching for the comfort of the blanket.

The man smiled down at him. "There now, see? Isnít that better?" He paused for a moment, those eyes locking on his face. "I donít think I even know your name, child."

He shook his head, too tired to give in to the new surge of grief that threatened to erupt at that question. Always that same question. The urge to fight it, powered by pain and fear and grief, seemed oddly out of place and quite beyond his grasp in the present surroundings. "I donít have one. Not anymore."

"I see." The man looked at him gravely, reaching out to shove a lock of hair back from his face. "I do need to call you something, I guess. I think Iíll call you Malachi." His eyes glowed as he beamed down at him. "My angel. Yes, I think that fits you extraordinarily well."

"Malachi." The boy whispered it back, trying the feel of the word on his tongue. It wasnít really a proper name, but it would do for now. At least it gave him a place, a beginning.

The manís smile widened and he pushed the boy- Malachi- back on the bed and gently kissed his forehead. "Now get some sleep. We can talk more in the morning."

The man left and shut the door behind him, returning the small room to darkness. It didnít matter to the boy, who cuddled deeper into his cocoon of blankets and let his eyes slide shut. For the first time in weeks, he wasnít afraid.

*

Lance only hesitated for a second before his fist rapped twice on the steel door of one of the most hidden guestrooms in the castle. It wasnít subterfuge that had given the delegation from Firenz a room tucked away out of sight; it was simply timing. The room was in a mostly disused corridor and had been one of the few vacant ones remaining upon their arrival. Much had been made about the unintended slight, but the Ambassador had graciously waved such comments away. One can afford to be gracious when one receives exactly what one is hoping for.

The door slid open a moment later to reveal one of the castle maids. She looked startled at his obviously unexpected appearance. Lance forced himself to smile and wink at her, hoping that at least the outward appearance of normalcy would stave off unnecessary gossip.

She stepped aside to allow the Ambassador himself room to glance out the doorway. "Ah, yes. Itís quite all right, Kayla. Iíve been expectingÖLance. We have some business to discuss."

The girl shot Lance a hard look before turning back to the Ambassador with a simpering smile. "Yes sir. If you need anything, anything at all, just ask for me." She giggled and blushed furiously at the bold daring of her words before ducking quickly out of sight.

Lance lingered in the safety of the doorway, letting his eyes dart around the small confines of the room. "You wanted to see me, Miboshi-san?" The familiar words were out before he gave them any thought.

Miboshi smiled warmly and pulled him inside, reaching out to lock the door behind them. "Yes, of course I did. Iíve missed you, Malachi." His raised an eyebrow sardonically. "Or should I call you Lance now?"

Lance jerked his arm away and glared, biting out his words as anger flared anew. The image of glowing ashes blowing from his open hand out over the lake, totally free, crossed his mind for the briefest moment. "Itís only a name."

"That it is. I think I prefer my own name for you. Itís much more suitable." Miboshi advanced another step on him. "I did miss you, Malachi. Didnít you miss me?"

"No!" His voice cracked on the vehement exclamation and he took another step away, backing himself directly into the closed and locked door. "No. I have my own life now. You canít take this away from me."

"Oh?" Miboshi reached down and took his chin roughly in one hand, the long-remembered touch burning itself into Lanceís soul and freezing him in place more effectively than a rabbit cornered by a snake. "Then why did you come?"

Lance stared back helplessly. Protests were trying to fight their way to the surface of his thoughts, but the only thing he could remember was the almost cold indifference on his friendís faces. They didnít even care enough to try to understand. He really was alone here, even more so than he had ever imagined. Why was he even still trying to fight against the only person whoíd ever truly wanted him?

"Youíre wrong, child. You belong to me. I can take everything away from you. Or have you forgotten your lessons so quickly?"

The words came unbidden to his lips, and he could no more have stopped them than he could have halted the relentless onslaught of gravity. "No Master, I havenít forgotten. Itsu mo, my life is yours."

Some part of him fought to regain control, to break the hold this man seemed to exert over him, but in the end the promise of oblivion and sanctuary from the pain was just too great to pass up.