Bonds of Love
Warnings: brief mention of sexual assault, sprinkling of profanity
Author note: A million hugs and heartfelt thank you to my fabulous beta Shannon (aka Lance's Kitten- go read her stories!) for the tremendous help she gave me with this chapter. Her suggestions (like giving Lance an inner voice) were absolutely on target. :D
Chapter 15 – Valley of the Shadow
As the red mist clouding his vision cleared, Lance found himself to be stark naked and standing in the rock strewn center of a valley at the bottom of a deep gorge.
Feeling uncomfortably exposed, he looked around for any means of cover. Everywhere he looked, he saw the color of dust, mud and stone. The browns and grays prevalent in the landscape didn't display signs of vegetation, nor was there a boulder big enough to afford shelter. There may have been a cave in the cliffs somewhere above him, but the sides of the gorge were steep and too smooth for secure footholds- not that he was eager to attempt an ascension in his present state of undress.
Ha! Like I'm gonna try rock climbing without so much as a jock strap! Common sense applies even in dream quests, doesn't it?
Being stripped of the barest of protection shouted that his reaction to his physical vulnerability was a challenge to surmount. Which was fine, honestly. His nakedness allowed for analysis of the atmosphere, which was pleasantly warm and still. The ice blue sky was cloudless, and there weren't any insects to bite him in bad places- and for all appearances, there wasn't another living soul around to see his bared assets, so no societal norms were being violated. The one and only adverse element he could think of was lack of comfortable seating- but he was built for endurance, and there was flat space to be had here and there if he absolutely needed to sit.
Guess I'm the solitary rock star in this nudie show. Talk about anticlimatic. Heh.
Not that he was complaining. All in all, he was pleasantly surprised the scenario playing out was a snap to deal with, especially when he compared it to the special ops trials he'd endured; tests of will that had laid him bare to dozens of platoon mates slogging through pits of mud in cold, driving rain while drill instructors shouted taunts at him about expecting his failure due to his masculine shortcomings.
This landscape was harsh in its barrenness, but if he looked closely, he could see stripes of bright color beneath the surface of the broken stones that lay around him, and the occasional sparkle of quartz. Hunk the rock hound would probably love it here. The gorge was peaceful; its high cliffs shut out the clamor of a deeply imperfect word. It was profoundly quiet; a silence that demanded reflection and contemplation.
Yeah. It's too quiet here. Where to go? Where's Red gone? What's my next move?
His eyes narrowed as he spied a potential clue.
He'd glimpsed the shadowy form of a lion coming to meet him when he'd initially gone under. That lion was nowhere to be seen, but he presumed that the evidence of its presence had been left in the trail of paw prints wending its way between a field of rocky depressions resembling moon craters. All indications were that he should follow them, but he hesitated, looking at his feet and assessing the ground he'd be hiking over. In contrast to the crater pocked field on both sides, the ground beneath the lion tracks was smooth, like paved patio stone.
As long as I stay on the path, I shouldn't have a problem walking barefooted.
He started forward, adopting a cautious, measured pace. So far, so good, he'd almost reached the first set of tracks. This was pretty easy, almost disappointing. But as he was gaining confidence, hell broke loose, ensuring this hike was one he'd never forget. Whether triggered by his proximity or stepping directly into the impressions of the paw prints, he didn't know, but flames erupted from the two craters that bracketed his path, shaking the ground and shooting skyward with the explosive force of geysers.
As thick showers of sparks and flame rained down upon him, he yelled obscenities and dropped to the ground, unconcerned about bruises as he rolled to snuff out the flames that had encompassed his flesh.
It was a bit of time before he realized that his flesh remained unscorched and intact. Breathing hard, he sat up, giving thanks that his bowels had stayed under control.
Fire and brimstone, eh? So what level of hell was this?
I definitely gotta reread Dante's Inferno when I get back to reality...
But he wasn't quite in hell, he decided after a moment. The sulfuric stench of evil mixed with the rot of damned souls wasn't present. The flames didn't burn. There were no signs of a tormenter or intent to torture.
So what was the purpose of this little surprise? Where's the challenge, other than being freaked out by flaming geysers or maybe having to avoid a rockslide?
His intellect said that he could not be harmed in a spirit quest; after all, this world was created in in his mind. But then again, a recollection of a scene in a book he'd loved as a kid, with a great old wizard saying to the boy hero that just because something was happening in his head didn't mean it wasn't connected to reality, also rang true.
There was more to this whole deal than I'm seeing or understanding right now. There has to be.
With that thought, Lance got to his feet. The columns of fire still burned, but after careful observation, he saw they didn't equate to hellfire. Fire was to be feared when it was out of control or a punishment. These fires had made a dramatic appearance, but weren't destructive. The heat they gave didn't sear or scorch.
Fire was used for sustenance and protection. Its essence inspired imagination, artistry, innovation. Flames were symbolic of power and passion and rebirth. Walking with fire, showing he was unafraid of it...was this the way to find if he was worthy of bonding with Red Lion?
Nah, that's way too easy. There's more to it than not getting burned.
His gaze returned to the path. Flooded by showers of sparks, the paw prints were now outlined in glowing gold.
Nice touch, Lance thought. So I'm Dorothy, and this is the Red Lion version of the yellow brick road. Is he leading me to the Emerald City and getting my wish ... or to the Wicked Witch?
Only one way to find out.
The twin columns of flame shrank back into the earth as soon as he moved forward, the roar of the fires reduced to crackling snaps.
Treading cautiously, he came abreast of the next set of craters. Even though the appearance of fire wasn't a surprise, he still gave a violent start and cursed once again as three more more conflagrations went shooting upwards.
So they react when I'm near. Okay, once I get used to it, I'll be walkin' like a boss!
But that notion was torpedoed as he discovered not all craters he encountered spewed fire. Some of them spit sparks at him, some smoked; others did absolutely nothing. Adding to his vexation was that they were unevenly spaced, and unevenly timed, keeping him on edge as he took pains not to walk too close to the openings.
He had yet to be burned, nothing had indicated he would be, but there was always a chance something could change. It was like waiting for toast to pop out of a toaster- you knew it was going to happen at some point, yet you were never totally prepared.
Now that he thought of it, this whole exploding crater scenario was reminding him of a favorite prank of his older sister's, one she'd loved to play on him when they were kids. She'd always beat him home from school, and she loved nothing more than hiding and jumping out to scare him when he arrived. He knew she was going to do it, he knew all of her favorite hiding spots...and yet she always managed to surprise him. Even now, he could hear her laughing as he shrieked!
Annoyed by the memory and his inability to remain unruffled, he returned to counting craters; after passing a dozen of them, his step had slowed. Two dozen, with no end in sight, and doubts began to surface. This was his vision, why was it so repetitive? Didn't he have a say in this? What was taking so long for the action to start?
What's the purpose of being here? What the hell's supposed to happen for me to earn my prize kitty?
Three dozen craters gone by. Now four. By his approximation, he'd covered well over two miles and his throat ached with something akin to thirst. How dumb to be walking a path to nowhere! Didn't Red think he could handle more than a naked hike? What was the insight to be gained in exposing his swinging twig and berries to the world while being serenaded by flaming geysers?
He had no idea how much time had passed- minutes or hours, it didn't really matter, he supposed. Maybe this was a trial of patience, something that he didn't always have in great supply. The temptation to throw in the towel was certainly there, but nevertheless, he kept going.
He let out a cheer when he saw the end of the path, thinking he'd been rewarded for his persistence. But excitement was short lived as he realized the end was at the base of a cliff.
He stared at the last few lion prints, the final step bisected by a solid wall of rock.
He looked upwards, rubbing his neck, vexed but unsurprised to see no openings, no ladder or climbing points.
Of course he can walk through stone. This is not a normal lion. I suppose it's a metaphor for my life or something. I fucking hate metaphors.
He walked up to the wall, rapped his knuckles on a section and shouted, "Knock knock!"
He waited. No answer, so he continued.
"Who's there, you wonder? Why, it's Lance, who's also wondering why the hell he's here."
Still no answer, but he liked hearing a voice, so he kept talking.
"I take it my trial is to do the impossible? Well say no more, I aim to please! It's my bonding quest, right? That I'm even having one means you think I've got what it takes to bond with you. I've overcome my doubts with the power of belief. No clothes means I'm vulnerable and open to possibilities. The fire hasn't burned me, so it stands to reason that I could walk through solid stone if I believe I can, right? Yeah? All right!"
Clapping his hands, and squaring his shoulders, he strode forward, armed with the strength of absolute belief. So strong was that belief, he was shockingly and wholly unprepared to be gobsmacked by the reality of solid granite. The profanities on his tongue were brutally cut off as his man parts rammed against a part of the stone that jutted out.
He doubled over, falling to the ground, rolling from side to side, unsuccessfully trying not to vomit.
When the pain had lessened, he stayed on the ground, curled into a fetal position. Epic fail in his own dream? Fire couldn't hurt him, but stone was another matter entirely? What the fuck did it mean?
He'd discarded his cynical skepticism and it hadn't helped. What could he take away from that?
Was I delusional to think I could bond with a lion that easily? That cliff might as well be a brick wall!
The trail, and he, had come to an impasse. He was a great pilot, but mad flying skills didn't translate to having the kind of mindset it takes to form a truly special bond. If the stone wouldn't let him pass, that had to mean he must have flunked whatever test he was being given. If he couldn't go on, all that was left to do was give up, admit to failure, wake up, and this nightmare would be over... no one would know what happened here, or that the cost was having loser angst for the rest of his life.
Would he even be able to pilot Red Lion after this humiliation?
That thought was too much to bear.
"I don't know what to do!" He yelled, tears of desperation trickling from the corners of his eyes. "I'm your pilot, but how can I be worthy of your soul if I can't fucking understand what it takes? What didn't I do? Or is that what you expected? Dammit, did you want to see me fail?"
His words echoed around the chasm, mocking him until the ground begin to shake. All of the craters he passed were now shooting fire. He clambered to his feet, but was promptly knocked right on his backside as a fissure opened in front of him, running up to and cracking open the wall of stone as easily as if stone were an eggshell.
There was a silhouette standing in the opening. As it emerged from the shadows with lumbering steps, he saw the form of a huge and heavily muscled warlord wearing an executioner's hood and wielding a battle axe.
Lance stared in silent horror as a nightmare from his past was ressurected. Nakedness rendered him as vulnerable as a newborn; he had no armor or weapon to use against this enemy. There was nowhere to hide. A choked moan escaped his throat. He was powerless and ineffective, a cypher frozen by fear and failure.
The hooded man laughed; a deep, nasty, derisive chuckle, one that said that this beat down would be so easy, he wouldn't even break a sweat.
That laugh should have sent his intended victim running for his life.
Instead, the victim got angry.
Memories of the day his village was attacked rose like flames, searing his brain. His big sister jumping out at him from nowhere- not to scare, but to protect him from the warlord's men. Her desperate bargaining with the hooded barbarian looming over them, and his own helpless shriek as his sister was carried behind a farm shed. Her cries of pain... her hobbling walk as she returned, her clothes bloodied and ripped asunder. Her fierce embrace, her saying not to cry, that everything was worth it to keep her little brother untouched…
He had been too young to understand what she'd given up to protect him. When he was old enough to figure it out, he knew he should have been the one protecting her. He should have been stronger, smarter, braver! He hadn't been good enough and she had paid the price.
Having lost their farmland, his family gave up terraforming, and had taken the next ship back to Planet Earth. From that day onward, his sister changed. She'd never tried to scare him again, and was prone to panic attacks. And he'd enrolled at Galaxy Garrison, determined to get away from the daily reminder of his failure, to learn the skills he needed to make sure no one would suffer on his behalf ever again.
And no one had, until Sven. It had happened again, someone making a sacrifice for him because he couldn't defend himself. The feeling of helplessness he swore he'd never feel again...
Something (his heart?) felt like it was trying to punch its way out of his chest. Physically, spiritually, emotionally, he was laid as bare as he could be. He was marginally aware of the red haze that surrounded him, of the burning inside him, an inferno that had sprung from some unknown reserve.
Even if this quest for a bonding with Red was a hopeless cause, even if his mind and his body were his only weapons and defense, he wasn't going to quit. This was his fight. Red wouldn't intercede like his sister had- but he wasn't that powerless, scared little kid any longer. Even if he wasn't worthy, that didn't mean he'd walk away, quietly or easily.
He bent to grab a pointed stone, thinking its blood red color very apt for his purpose. Holding his weapon, he stared death in the face. "Newsflash for ya, asshole- killing me ain't gonna be a cakewalk!"
There was no laughing now. He had the brute's full attention- dude was going all stiff and threatening. Despite the overwhelming odds against victory, he gave a savage smile that boded ill for his opponent.
Battle axe and stone were raised. The combatants circled, then stopped, neither wanting to make the first move. They circled, stopped, circled some more. Neither had an inkling of the blue cloud that was rapidly approaching from behind until it was upon them.
Lance's eyes widened at the feeling of being touched by a warm and loving essence. It circled him, mingling with his aura, turning it to a royal shade of purple. Her presence within the aura held a question...and without a second thought, he opened his mind, his body and his heart as the answer.
A blue shield formed in his left hand, and the pointed stone clutched in his hand became a sword of fire.
He wasn't a failure! He would be redeemed! No one was going to take that away!
He turned to the nightmare of his past, his Harbinger of Doom, and parried the thud of a falling axe by raising his sword. As the axe drew back for a second blow, Lance struck.
One slash, and condemned became executioner. Sliced in half, the apparition crumbled into ash, and blew away into the mists from whence it had come.
A lion's roar filled the gorge and Lance's ears, followed by a thunderous, growling voice within his mind.
You have earned your second chance. Well done, warrior!
Then everything went dark.
Coming out of his trance with a jerk, Lance reached out, trying to touch the essence of the spirit who had arrived to redeem him, intending to share and savor its secrets. The essence fluttered away as if to tease him, and with a smile he followed, determined to possess it.
"I think he's coming to, get some water!" A man's gravelly voice boomed.
An adolescent boy's voice was asking plaintively. "Is Princess okay? She's breathing awfully hard."
A cultured voice replied, "their vitals are stabilizing, Keith."
The voice that answered carried a command. "Great! Let's give them some room."
Lance opened his eyes and focused on the tiled floor beneath his knees. Blinking rapidly, he struggled to pull himself out of the fog and back into reality.
The sensation of his hand being held by two that belonged to a woman penetrated his consciousness. He took a deep breath, and the scent of plum blossoms filled his nostrils. His blurry blue gaze sharpened and fixed on the lovely mouth tantalizingly close to his own, before encompassing the rest of the picture.
Allura knelt before him, her court dress billowing out around slim hips. She was bent torwards him as she fiercely grasped his hand, which still gripped the amulet of Blue Lion. Her breathing was shallow and rapid; magnificent breasts lifted and fell with the exertion, bringing them perilously close to brushing his forearm.
Lance jerked his gaze back to her face, which was set with a look of pained concentration. Her eyes were closed. He noted the fine sheen of perspiration underneath her circlet, and the pallor of her skin and that despite her paleness and agonized expression, fierceness, strength and peace were present.
In the background he heard the sounds of male voices, sounding as if the men had moved further away to have a discussion. He heard his name being mentioned, but ignored it for the moment so he could focus on the Princess, whose eyelids had started to flutter. Her tense facial muscles relaxed and he watched as gossamer eyelashes slowly lifted to reveal the quiet pools of blue. Looking into their depths centered his thoughts and brought an epiphany with rapid and stunning clarity.
She had wanted to remain connected to him, even without his being bonded to Red Lion. What was more, the infusion of her warm, giving spirit had passed through the fortified defenses of his heart with unchallenged ease.
To have communion with the soul of a human being was the most powerful and incredible connection he'd ever experienced. What once would have frightened him off now had his mind and body singing with renewal and feeling a new power stirring within it; a sense of peace that could never be taken away...
He was a better man for having had this link. And being a better man meant being honest, at least with himself, about a lot of things. Had he really been able to conjure a sword? And had the Princess of Arus just seen him as a buck naked warrior? Had she liked what she'd seen?
Dammit, why did it always come down to twig and berries with him?
So much for peace and tranquility.
A soft groan escaped him.
"Lance, you're awake!" Allura's whisper was urgent. "Are you all right?"
"I'm good." He whispered back. "What about you? And why are we whispering?"
"I don't know." She huffed a laugh, and then answered in a low but normal voice. "I'm fine, but I owe you an apology, Lance. I shouldn't have interfered in your quest without your consent. I got worried and acted without thinking how it could affect you..." She hung her head.
"It's all right." He assured her, gratified by her concern for him, but sorry to have been the cause of her worry. "Friends and teammates have each others' backs, and you really had mine."
She looked up, her eyes full of tenderness. "You'd do the same for me. And have."
"Damn straight." He said with forced gruffness. "You make a great shield, by the way."
"Thank you!" Her smile was wobbly, and she gave his clenched hand a little squeeze before releasing it. "And you make a very impressive sword!"
Lance opened his mouth and closed it abruptly; surely letting that one liner go was solid proof he truly was a better man?
That thought brought realization that he still had a death grip on her sapphire amulet. He released it, muttering an apology as his lowering knuckles accidentally brushed the side of her breast. To deflect the awkward moment, he looked at his other hand and blurted, "hey, what happened to that red stone I was holding?"
Allura stared at his hand. "It's not here? But I thought it was your-" She broke off.
"Amulet?" He closed his eyes. "I thought that too, but guess not."
"I heard Red Lion speaking to you. You may not have the stone right now, but you will!" Allura declared.
He reached over and straightened her circlet, which had slid slightly askew on her brow. The gesture brought a shy smile to her face. "I'm glad you believe in me that much."
"Of course I do! You are the Red Lion!"
She was so certain he'd prevail; the belief was in her eyes, her smile, her whole being exuded it. And at that moment, Lance knew that his trial was far from over.
An open declaration of his feelings for the Princess would sabotage the peace. Accepting that Keith was her choice and working to make it happen between the two while remaining passionately committed to the team was the challenge. Putting another's well being before his own. Just like his big sister, whose sacrifice was his weakness, and also the reason he'd been able to fight the battles he had.
'You must always look for the greater good,' she had said.
Remembering that day she'd acknowledged his guilt and absolved him of any blame...she'd forgiven him for his failing, but he'd never forgiven himself for it, or for Sven. A wave of unexpected emotion hit him that he'd begun to face that weakness and the fear of failing that sprung from it. He'd not been able to save his sister from a horribly traumatic event...but because of that sacrifice, he'd now be able to save the woman standing next to him whenever called upon.
"Lance? Are you sure you're-"
The Princess's words were squeezed into a gasp as he wrapped his arms tightly about her and buried his face in her hair, hoping to conceal the tears burning tracks down his face.
"Allura, forgive me, but I need this."
She didn't hesitate. Her arms immediately went to his leather clad shoulders crossing behind his neck to hold him to her. Her fingers stroked the fine tendrils of chestnut hair curling below his collar as she crooned in gentle tones, soothing him. "Lance, it's okay! I'm here. We're all here for you..."
His throat was too clogged with emotion to respond. He just nodded and clung to her as a half drowned man clings to his rescuer.
Coran and the other members of the Voltron Force watched the tableau unfolding before them in mute astonishment. They all knew Lance felt things more deeply than he showed, but his deepest feelings usually came out in the guise of anger. The last time he'd openly shed tears was when Sven had been critically injured.
"The vision challenge must have been a traumatic one for him to react like this." Coran murmured.
Keith harbored deep concern for his friend, but as he watched Lance hide his face in Allura's hair, their conversation over coffee came back to haunt him. There were some emerging facets of the Red Lion pilot that he wasn't sure he understood. Lance had always prided himself on his toughness, both mental and physical, and even in the rare displays of open emotion, Keith hesitated to offer any form of comfort, lest he alienate his best friend.
Allura looked at him over Lance's shoulder. The message was as clear as if she'd spoken aloud. Help me help him.
The movement of his legs felt involuntary, and he found himself down on his haunches, placing a tentative hand between Lance's shaking shoulders. The amulet beneath his uniform sparked to life, signaling the channel was open to the guidance of Black Lion. He made his wish by instinct, directed by the prayer that the connection to Lance would succeed.
The chi pulsed from his palm to Lance's shoulder, and Keith felt his friend's body give a tremendous shudder.
Allura put her hand over Keith's and bent her head, adding her quintessence to the bond.
Crackling power, tempered by refreshing coolness; a soft dewy breeze after a savage storm. Passion was present, but controlled. The calm serenity of Blue mixed with the electrifying energy of Black, bolstering the life force of Red.
Immersed in the new sensations, Lance acknowledged that he had a lot to work through about the bonding process, but one thing was crystal clear- this sense of fulfillment would not happen without unconditional trust and love.
When Allura felt Lance regaining his equilibrium, she drew back slightly to check his physical reaction. The tears had stopped and his face looked pale but composed. Her eyes turned to Keith and she beheld the extraordinary effort he was expending to reach his friend. The sweat was beading upon his brow, as he directed his positive energy into Lance.
Keith knew that he had to stop before he exhausted himself mentally, but he stayed connected with Lance until he was sure things were all right with him. He finally had to let go and the sudden break from the bonding caused Keith to slip to his knees, feeling more drained than he ever had after a battle.
Coran, Pidge and Hunk watched, their expressions revealing conflicting emotions.
"I'm not sure about this Dream Quest thing." Pidge murmured.
"Neither am I. " Hunk responded gruffly. "But I suppose we should try. I mean, we don't know that ours would be as tough as Lance's seems to be."
Coran, who had withheld commenting on unfolding events, decided it was time to speak. "In past quests, the subjects often have faced manifestations of self-perceived weakness." He paused to smile at Hunk and Pidge. "It's never easy to with one's own shortcomings. If there's one thing I've learned about you young men since you arrived it's that you will surmount any challenge you set your mind to overcoming. For whatever it's worth, I believe that you're very worthy of bonding with your lions, and I deeply apologize if I ever gave you an impression that you aren't."
There was a silence.
"Well...thanks, Coran." Hunk said, after clearing his throat. "With that vote of confidence, I definitely have to go for it."
"Your belief in us is worth a lot." Pidge added. "Thank you."
"You're very welcome." Coran replied, pleased to see the young pilots' expressions had lightened and that resolve shone in their eyes. Almost at once, his mind turned to working diligently on a plan for the entire team to visit Althene, and as soon as possible.
"Hey look, they're standing up!" Hunk cheered. "Lance's got his color back!"
Lance had a slight tension headache but felt much better, thanks to Keith. His friend had somehow used the Black Amulet to help him regain control. It was a gesture he'd never forget, one that solidified their brotherhood in a way that battle never could. It also gave him hope that his ability to accept that connection meant that Red Lion still had plans for him.
Rubbing his neck, he faced his Commander and friend, and saw the worry. Dropping a hand on Keith's shoulder, he managed a reasonable semblance of a smile. "Thanks for the assist. I owe you."
His expression of thanks gave little hint of the churning mix of humility, relief and gratitude he was feeling, but he was sure it was conveyed through the connection.
The churning became even more pronounced when he dropped his arm from Keith's shoulder and turned to face the Princess. He paused a moment, feeling the surge of his friend's rampant curiosity just before it was abruptly cut off. Like the good guy he was, Keith had chosen discretion and closed their link. Hopefully he'd learn that technique if he were blessed with a stone. Not because he wanted to hide anything...but because he'd been through a bit of a trial and it was a relief to have his thoughts be his own in this moment.
Well, almost his own.
He looked down at Allura, his dear friend, and now, his protector. She hadn't completely disconnected from the link, and his heart warmed with the knowledge even as it pounded at the thought of a permanent merger with her spirit.
His mouth opened as he searched for words that could convey the magnitude of everything that had happened and how he felt about it, but there weren't any coming to mind that he could safely convey without the threat of crying.
Clearing his throat, he made a valiant attempt to be his wise-cracking self.
"Princess, you have the dubious distinction of being the first woman since my mother to have a Hartwell male bawling on your shoulder."
Allura's somber expression was transformed by her smile. "I'm honored. And my shoulder is available for you at any time!" She turned to the group. "And for the rest of you too!"
Her gaze included Hunk, Pidge and Keith, whose nods and grins gave warm affirmatives to her offer.
"So now what?" Lance said. "I defeated my self created monster, I think I did what I was meant to do-for now. But don't know if I failed or succeeded."
Coran spoke up. "You have succeeded in bonding with two of your teammates, but it appears you've not yet completed the trial for bonding with Red Lion." He stroked his chin, looking thoughtful. "Which is not out of the ordinary. As I recall, Red was always one to make things difficult...it's in his elemental nature, I think."
"You mean temperamental." Lance sighed. "So he wants a rematch. Figures."
Allura patted his arm. "You're through the worst, I'm sure."
"Maybe." The Red Lion pilot shrugged. "But if I'm considered warrior material, Red's giving me a bit of a break doesn't mean he's going any easier on me the next round."
"Can you talk about it?" Hunk asked. "I mean, it must have been tough."
"Yeah...kinda." Lance said, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Give me time to decompress and then I'll fill you in."
"Are you certain you want another go around?" Pidge asked, tentatively.
"It'll be the hardest thing I've ever done," Lance said, " and the best. So yeah, I'm sure."
"Red knows what he wants in a bondmate," Allura asserted quietly, "and that fire suits you best of all."
Lance gave her a wide eyed look. "You sound so sure."
She grinned. "'Cause I am sure."
Keith clapped a hand on Lance's shoulder. "No doubt in my mind you're gonna succeed. "
"Thanks, Chief. Let's hope Red Lion feels the same way."
As the young people talked, Coran's assessing glance confirmed that Lance's mood was stabilizing. The Red Lion pilot was dealing with some emotional fallout, but he was resilient, and the Royal Diplomat trusted that things would remain stable while he contacted Varten on the private communicator. "Excuse me, everyone. I'm afraid I need to see to a pressing diplomatic matter. Will you be all right, Lance?"
The Red Lion pilot waved a dismissive hand. "I'm fine. Go do what you need to do."
Coran gave a little bow, then turned, saying in an undertone to Hunk, "Please keep on eye on him. Call me on the comm if I'm needed."
"Sure thing." Hunk promised. "Speaking of breaks," he said loudly, addressing Lance as Coran left the room, "no offense, buddy, but you look as wiped out as after you ran the Academy Marathon after only two weeks of training." He shook his head. "Still can't believe you took that dare."
"Not one of my brighter ideas. " Lance grimaced. "Tomorrow there's practice in the morning and a wedding to go to. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to go to my quarters and kick back a little."
Pidge and Hunk exchanged glances, and Pidge said, "I think I'll do that too. I'm kinda tuckered myself."
Hunk yawned and stretched. "Sounds real good to me."
Lance smirked. "Guess it's naps for everyone."
Keith's brow furrowed in sympathy as he saw Lance to the door and watched his wingman walking slowly down the corridor between Hunk and Pidge. It was clear Lance had needed every ounce of that damn fool cockiness of his. Whatever the vision had held, it had sapped the Red Lion pilot.
That energy drain and the fact that Red hadn't given Lance the bonding amulet concerned Keith. His expression darkened as he contemplated the consequences of Lance not succeeding in bonding with his lion.
Allura came up beside him; her light touch on his arm, her warmth and her scent were caresses to his senses.
"That was an extremely intense quest. He's wiped out in every respect." She murmured, echoing his own observations.
He gave her a sideways look. "I'll say. What happened to shake him up that bad?"
She clasped her hands in front of her and sighed. "I...no, I really can't say."
"But you saw what happened to him? And you helped him through it?"
He meant it as a casual question, but realized his tone had been off when Allura stiffened and stared at him.
"It's his quest, Keith, done of his own free will. Just as it was with us, it follows it should be his choice whether to share or not."
The rebuke was clear but gentle. What stung was realizing his motivation for wanting to know was selfish.
"You're absolutely right, Allura. I'm sorry."
She softened. "There is no need to apologize for being concerned. Like he told Hunk, once Lance has time to process what happened, I'm sure he'll be able to talk about it."
Keith nodded, but doubts about that assertion kept him silent.
After seeing Lance to his room, Hunk and Pidge stood off to the side and spent a few minutes sharing observations about what had transpired.
Both agreed that Lance had had a rough go of it, but was recovering. They also agreed that something dramatic had happened with Lance and the Princess, and that something else was going on between the Princess and her newly appointed personal bodyguard.
"The three of them were in their own little world when the quest ended." Pidge said, frowning. "I don't think they even realized we were still there, watching them."
"That's what having a bond is like, maybe." Hunk speculated. "I get the feeling a lot is being said without being said, if that makes sense."
"What are they talking about, and why can't they share it with us?" Pidge groused, then brightened. "But when we go through the bonding, we'll be able to talk to Princess anytime we want!"
Hunk laughed at Pidge's blatant satisfaction and slapped a big paw on the back of his much shorter friend. "That's the spirit! And you know it's gonna be great!" He confirmed. Growing serious, he added, "but even if she's already bonded with Blue, Allura still has a lot to deal with. So for now, little buddy, I'm thinking it's probably a good idea for us Space Explorers to give her some space."
To be continued…