Bonds of Love
By Lynne (aka KittyLynne)
Chapter Six: Night Magic
Keith stared at himself in the sheet of highly polished metal that served as a mirror, trying to decide if he was about to make a mistake.
It wasn't that he had anything to be ashamed of in the looks department, he actually took pride in his appearance. And it wasn't being conceited to think that he looked pretty damn good, it was a fact, thanks to his self discipline in the dining room and the hours of strenuous work outs he put himself through every week.
Wearing the tropical version of a kilt wasn't a big deal for him either; his ancestry included men who had worn kilts for all kinds of occasions and managed to keep their dignity (although he wasn't prepared to take it so far as some did and forgo his skivvies; his privates were being kept private.) And he wasn't self-conscious about showing his upper half as a rule; he'd gone bare-chested in front of the Princess several times when they were swimming with the team without thinking anything of it.
The problem was practicality. His military dress whites at the castle had provision for carrying a weapon. His present garb? No way. Oh sure, it had a hidden pocket, but that was only big enough to hold the key to Black Lion, which wouldn't do much good if he couldn't get to Black in a hurry.
A shadow darkened the doorway, accompanied by a polite but firm knock on the lintel. After Keith's summons to come in, Varten Carlac stepped into the room, with an ease of movement that spoke of years of wearing a sarong. With his tall, noble bearing and a toned physique that was shown to advantage by his mode of dress, the Governor of Althene cut an impressive figure, Keith thought. If he didn't know the man was around Coran's age, he would have guessed he was at least fifteen years younger.
"Very nice Captain! Now you are truly an Althenian!"
"Thank you." Keith gave an experimental tug on his waist. "Would you mind checking to see if I tied it right? I wasn't sure if there was a particular knot I should use."
"The strongest knot is best." Varten said, grinning. He stepped forward to visually inspect the garment. "It looks as if you did an excellent job. How does it feel? If there's any discomfort, there are other options for length and material- "
"It fits fine." Keith assured him. "It's really comfortable."
He'd thought it sounded convincing, but the shrewd look his host gave him said he knew something was amiss.
Keith sighed. He should have known he couldn't fool an empath.
"It's too comfortable." He admitted.
Varten looked puzzled. "How can that be?"
"Comfort means not having a place to conceal a weapon."
"I don't want to alarm anyone or to send the wrong message. But as the Princess' protector, if something were to happen while I'm unarmed-"
The other man held up a hand.
"I understand and appreciate what you're saying, Keith." He said with quiet dignity. "But you're not alone in taking responsibility for her protection. We have a proud tradition of defending the safety of our royals, and we have the means to do it. It is not an idle boast to say that if a threat to the Princess would present itself, we will make certain that it will not prevail. "
Though his worries had not been out of line, Keith still felt abashed. To have questioned the prowess of the lion warriors...well, it went against the grain. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean any offense."
"And none has been taken." Varten replied warmly. "You are a dedicated young man and a great champion for our Princess. You have every right to be concerned."
"But not every right to be an idiot! Should have known you wouldn't have let her stay here without backup."
The older man's eyes twinkled. "Do not castigate yourself for something you couldn't have known unless I told you. Ours is a very special security system that has been highly effective due in part to so few having access to the knowledge. Our region escaped the vast destruction the rest of Arus endured partly because Zarkon never suspected what we had."
Keith looked troubled. "I appreciate the trust you're placing in me, but you probably shouldn't have told me about it."
"Really? Why is that?"
"Because as much as I fight for Arus, I can't forget I'm still working for Galaxy Garrison. And I'm living proof that GG is good at tracking down rumors in search of what they need. If they somehow got wind of your system and asked me outright, I couldn't lie."
Varten looked amused. "I have absolute confidence in your discretion and judgment."
"I would not be telling you if I thought it would endanger our people. If such an occasion arose, giving confirmation that we have a security system in Althene is not a betrayal or a risk to us. Knowing there's a defense plan is one thing, but details of what it is and how it works is quite another."
It was the second time he'd put his foot in it, Keith acknowledged silently. He was fortunate that the Governor was a diplomat to the core. "And I won't be asking for any information." He said emphatically. "That gives me plausible denial."
Varten chuckled. "I don't think it will come to that. They are men of technology and science. The chance is minimal that they'd believe that such a remote region could harbor a protection that wasn't known to them. And if they would hear something about our defense, wouldn't they assume it was the lion ships of Voltron?"
The man had a point. When it came to dealing with Arus, Garrison policy was all about Voltron and nothing but. "You're right. They would."
"So, does that mean I've put your mind at ease?"
"Good." The Governor nodded in satisfaction. "How about Allura? Do you think she will have any concerns with the two of you being out of uniform?"
Keith couldn't hold back a snort. A problem? Hardly. This was the bikini wearing Princess they were talking about! "No. But her governess might have a few choice words."
"Is there a rule that makes it necessary for either of you to inform the Royal Governess of any of your choices of clothing while you're off duty?"
"No! But she's going to ask. She knows we didn't plan to stay, and if she hears there was a feast, she'll be all fussy about what we wore."
"And of course you can't avoid an answer if you want to maintain her trust."
Varten thought for a moment. "If it were me, I'd tell her I wanted to please my venerable hosts by following a royal precedent set in the past by their majesties King Alfor and Queen Alana. If she demurs, I'd inform her that every highly respected diplomat in the galaxy knows that sharing traditions has been a cornerstone to fostering understanding and friendships between people. It's a basic tenet that the Princess learned from her parents and Coran, and she did them proud by following it."
By now, Keith was grinning and shaking his head in admiration. "You're good. I can see why they made you the governor."
Varten laughed and inclined his head in thanks. "And now, if you will indulge me, I have one last detail I wish to add to your attire."
Reaching into a hidden fold in his sarong, he withdrew a glossy obsidian disk suspended from a chain of golden links and held it up for inspection. A mounting of gold in the shape of a lion's head was worked into the center of the pendant. The big cat's eyes stared sightlessly, and its mouth gaped open in a silent roar.
Keith's eyes narrowed. The style in which the lion's face was rendered was unique, and one he'd seen somewhere before. He just needed to think where...
An image snapped into place, making his eyes widen.
The lion's head on the doors to King Alfor's tomb. This was the same head, done in miniature.
His startled gaze flew to Varten's as the older man continued to speak.
"This talisman has been handed down through the generations of lion warriors in my family. It's tradition for it to be worn by a worthy warrior at our most important gatherings. You would honor my family by consenting to wear it to this feast."
"But I'm not a lion-I mean, shouldn't you or another member of your family be wearing it?"
"I am the last surviving warrior in my family line, and for years I have been its keeper rather than its bearer. You are the Black Lion, one of this planet's greatest guardian heroes. Your acceptance of my request would bring me great joy."
Though the Governor was smiling, the man's deeper emotions were coming through loud and clear. This meant far more than a ceremonial nod to tradition or a bow to sentiment and past days of glory. Saying yes meant accepting, if only for a little while, the awesome responsibility of representing an ancient vow of duty and honor, a legacy that generations had passed on to the next.
What could he do but say yes?
"I'm greatly honored. Thank you."
He bent his head so that the metal chain and stone amulet could be slipped around his neck, surprised to find that he could barely feel its weight. The disk slipped easily into the hollow of his collarbone, bringing another surprise as it made contact with his skin. Where he would have expected a hard chill of stone, there was warmth that seemed to ebb and flow with the rhythm of his breathing.
"I've chosen well." Varten's voice was gruff, and his eyes held a telltale glint of moisture. "It suits you."
"Thank you." Keith felt his emotions welling in sympathy with his host's. "I will do my best to honor your ancestors. I hope that they would feel I'm worthy of this."
"There's no need to wonder. The talisman will tell you if they approve."
"It will?" Keith was dumbfounded. "How?"
"Does the stone and its chain feel quite heavy?"
"Not at all. To be honest, I can barely tell I'm wearing it."
"How does the stone feel to the touch?"
"Warm. And I can feel some kind of current...almost like a heartbeat... running through it."
He cast a wary glance at his inquisitor, but found no sign of incredulity in the older man's expression. He simply looked pleased.
"There is your answer, Keith. As long as you are wearing the pendant, you are connected to the spirits of those who went before. If they didn't approve of you as its bearer, the necklace would have felt like a cold and heavy burden around your neck."
"So this stone has...spiritual properties?"
"That's a very good way of putting it." Varten said, smiling. He took a step back, surveying Keith from head to toe. "Yes, I believe you are finally ready for the feast. Shall we depart?"
Keith wanted to say no, he wasn't ready, he had a lot more questions. But politeness and the strong sense that his host would prefer he put off satisfying his curiosity until a more opportune time had him biting his tongue. "All right."
As soon as they had stepped out of the building, Varten came to a stop and listened.
"Everyone is waiting for us at the Commons." He said, then interrupted as Keith started to apologize, "this is according to plan, so don't be concerned that you're late. The guests of honor are the last to arrive because this allows for an all inclusive cheer and welcome from the people as they make their entrance. It ensures that no one will feel slighted at not having been presented to you, or disgruntled that they must be standing in a receiving line to greet you while the children fidget and the food gets cold. Getting right to the business of enjoying the eating, drinking and planned and unplanned entertainment is the goal."
"That's a good goal." Keith said, flashing a thumbs up. "And I'll be doing my best to uphold it."
Varten laughed. "Good man! It's time that I go and join the gathered, while you go attend to Allura. I believe she is waiting for you over by the herb garden?"
After ascertaining that his guest knew exactly what path to take, the Governor cheerfully took his leave and Keith turned down the path to the gardens.
The going was a bit tricky, as the fabric of his sarong pulled and restricted his thigh movements. With a smirk, he adjusted his stride to a slower one. Going barefoot brought home how well maintained the path was- pebbles, splinters or any other dangers to unwary feet were nowhere to be found. Confident that he wouldn't stumble by doing so, he looked up at the sky above the tree line as he walked along. It was tinted with the bright reds, oranges and purples of what was most likely a breathtaking sunset...or the lingering atmospheric particles of explosions.
Keith grimaced. Allura was right. He was woefully out of practice when it came to having fun.
He needed to trust that the peace would hold.
He needed to savor the feast. And life.
Stopping in the middle of the path, he put his palms together in front of his chest, closed his eyes, and breathed in deeply, using a yoga technique to clear his mind.
After a minute of concentration, he could feel his thoughts quieting.
Another thirty seconds, and his heart had slowed to a sedate throb.
But the stone against his skin still pulsed, a reflection of the inner excitement that he could not tame with any amount of meditation.
This was as relaxed as he was going to get. Like a recumbent lion with the potential to pounce.
Resigned to the thought, he started out again, only to have his walk brought to another quick halt as Allura emerged from the lengthening shadows.
He wanted to greet her, but suddenly his throat felt too tight for words. He watched intently as she moved to a point that was a few paces away.
She stood as still as a statue as the remaining light from the setting sun formed a nimbus about her, turning her unfettered hair into a cascade of molten gold about her face. Her expression was as soft as velvet, her smile was a glint of white in the dusk. Her shoulders were smooth and soft above a lithe, supple body clad to spectacular advantage in a sarong painted in a myriad of blues.
His eyes lingered at the swatch of material stretching across her flat stomach and sweetly rounded hips, and then trailed down the length of her legs to her dainty bare feet.
She was beautiful and primal. A lioness to his lion.
Suddenly, his body was suffused with a feeling so hot and raw it made his fists clench. The stone against his collarbone pulsed in time with his increased heart rate. He swallowed hard, willing a certain part of his anatomy not to betray his arousal.
Allura was too transfixed by the appearance of the man standing before her to think of anything else.
Barefoot, chest bared, he stood with the bearing of a warrior. Her gaze moved to his broad shoulders, over his sculpted chest and down to his tightly muscled abdomen. The sarong wrapped about his lean hips ended just above his knees, and fit as well as if it had been made for him. The golden rearing lion embroidered on the black field was a skillful replication of the ones adorning her family's coat of arms. The fading rays of light that crowned his raven hair with amber also kissed the medallion hanging around his neck, setting off a glimmer of gold that drew her gaze. As long as she'd known Keith, she'd never seen him wearing jewelry...but she liked it.
They stood studying each other until Keith finally spoke in a voice so low it was almost a growl.
"Princess. You look amazing."
Hearing her title spoken like a pet name sent a delicious shiver through her.
"Thank you." She was struggling to keep her voice steady. It was a gamble to return the compliment, since past attempts at such personal comments had gone awry and resulted in his retreat. But she said it anyway.
"So do you, Keith. You're every inch a Lion warrior."
She waited with bated breath.
"Thank you." He said softly. "I want to live up to that compliment."
The warmth in his expression caused color to rush to her face, but she didn't look away.
"You already have." She said.
A gust of breeze brought sounds of laughter and the aroma of grilled meat to their nostrils, gentle but insistent reminders of their intended destination.
"Sounds like the whole village is there already." Allura said, swallowing a sigh. "We don't want to be late."
"Varten told me not to worry. We're supposed to arrive last."
"Oh. That's good, then."
By unspoken consent, they turned in the direction of the festivities and fell into step.
"So how was your tour, Keith?" Allura asked.
"I had a great time!" He replied enthusiastically. "Met a lot of interesting people. And Varten told me a few things about the lion warriors that I never knew." He cast a sidelong look at her. "They were a lot more progressive in their thinking about female warriors than some people we know."
Allura grinned. "Coran really used to hate it when I brought that fact up in my lessons."
"I bet," Keith chuckled. "And it also made me realize that my knowledge of Arusian history isn't nearly what it should be. I'll be hitting the Castle library when we get back."
"I have books I can lend you." She offered eagerly. "Or, if you prefer, some good downloads for your computer."
"Either or both would be great." Keith touched the pendant resting on his collarbone. "One of the things I'd like to find out more about is this lion's head that's on the amulet that Varten gave me to wear tonight."
She leaned over to get a closer look and sucked in a startled breath. "Keith! It's-"
He nodded. "You recognize it?"
"Yes, it's the same as the carving on my Father's tomb!" She exclaimed. "You said it belongs to Varten?"
"Yes, it's been passed down for generations in his family." Keith shook his head. "I can't believe he asked me to wear it instead of him or another lion warrior."
"It's a great honor given because you embody the ideals of his clan." Allura said firmly. "You've given the Carlacs and all of the people of Arus every reason to hold you in the highest esteem."
Keith was glad his blush was camoflauged by darkness. "I couldn't have done anything without you and the rest of the team." He said, shrugging off the compliment. "What are you wearing on your arm? It's very pretty."
"Sarita gave me the honor of wearing her arm band tonight." Allura held her arm up for his inspection, and he brought them both to a stop as he examined the band. "She told me that she has worn it on many occasions when she was at court."
He ran a curious forefinger over the lion's head, noting how its lines glimmered with blue fire as he touched it. "Varten told me she's a healer. But do you think it means she's a lion warrior too?"
The Princess' smile was full of affection. "It wouldn't surprise me in the least."
"They're good people, aren't they?"
"Yes." She agreed, wondering when he'd release her arm. Seconds had become a full minute and he had made no move. "Keith?"
"Oh. Sorry. " He said, finally letting go of her arm. "I was just thinking that I've gone about this all wrong."
Allura felt her stomach turn over. He looked so serious. Was her night about to end before it had even started? "What...what do you mean?"
"It means that I'm going to make it right."
As she gaped in surprise, he stepped back and gave a low bow.
"Princess, if it would please you, would you grant me the pleasure of being your escort to tonight's feast?"
It took her only a few seconds to recover.
"That would be delightful, Captain." She said brightly, wondering if he had any idea of just how delightful. "I am happy to accept."
She held out her hand to him.
Straightening, he took it and placed it with the crook of his arm. Like a proper escort, Allura thought, as they began to walk. Yes, it was probably done out of politeness and protocol, but now that he'd asked her officially, she could at least pretend that this was a real date.
But Keith wasn't done surprising her.
"There's one more thing." He said.
The rules, she thought. Of course. There would have to be rules. "Yes?"
"Let's drop protocol and titles tonight. I'm Keith, and you're Allura, a man and a woman going out to have fun together. What do you say?"
Happiness exploded in her heart.
She placed her free hand on top of the other on his arm, making their connection an unprofessional loop.
"I say that sounds great." She said.
They kept walking, their conversation now ebbing and flowing as easily as the tide.
Even as Keith silently congratulated himself on maintaining his outward composure, the touch of the hands curled around his forearm were instigating an onslaught of intense feelings and thoughts about the woman walking beside him.
He wanted to protect her.
He wanted to help her help Arus.
But that was only part of the equation.
He also wanted to make her happy.
He wanted to show her what living was about.
What looked like the entire population of the village was waiting for them in its beautifully landscaped center. This was designated as the place for community gatherings, as evidenced by the music pavilion and the dance flooring placed at one end. At the other end were rows of long plank tables decorated with colorful arrangements of candles, flowers and fruits, amongst which had been set bowls and platters full of steaming food.
After a extremely boisterous, communal cheer of welcome, Keith and Allura were led to the head table and seated at its center on cushioned benches. There they were joined by Vartan, Sarita, plus all ten village elders and along with their spouses, children and some grandchildren. The rest of the village populace was seated on braided rugs scattered around several smaller, low slung tables. Everyone was in native dress, and several of the women and children had threaded orchids and other exotic flowers in their hair. Bamboo torches had been implanted in the ground surrounding the entire area, bathing the celebrants in their warm glow of firelight.
Keith looked out into the night, wondering where the local sentries might be stationed. As if in response, a flash from amongst the highest trees caught his eye, and he caught a glimpse of a rangy but muscular silhouette lurking in the embrace of branches. The figure, sensing his regard, gave him a tiny salute before it disappeared with ninja like stealth.
Satisfied, Keith relaxed and looked around him. The contentment and happiness in the faces of the people as they shared the fruits of their labor with guests and each other was contagious.
His interactions with them today revealed so much. Given the knowledge and wealth of intellectual curiosity that he'd encountered today, he shouldn't have been surprised that they were an educated people that had developed alternate means to protect and defend. Althenians were not to be dismissed as backwards or isolationist in any way.. They were a peaceful people, but their history showed that they were willing to fight for the freedom of their fellow citizens of Arus whenever that freedom was threatened. They were as gracious, as cultured and as confident of their place in the world as someone that had been raised in the most privileged circumstances, but who happened to live a simpler way of life that focused on what they valued most.
They had roots. They stuck together in both good times and bad.
He admired that.
He had been brought up in the military tradition, moving from place to place whenever his dad and mom had gotten new assignments for the Garrison. It had been wonderful when they were all together, less so when he and his siblings had to give up friends and homes that they liked to become the new kids in a new place. Sharing the trials of separation and displacement made him appreciate the bonds of family, but it had also taught him self reliance.
He had very few specific memories regarding his mother, mostly impressions of a kind and fun loving person. She had gone on a trip when he was six and never returned home. His dad had refused to discuss where she had gone or why, other than to say that despite what he might hear, his mother wasn't gone, just no longer on Earth, that she loved them so very much that she had left to help make the world a safer place. Someday, his father promised, someday, when the time was right, Keith would understand and forgive her for not choosing to stay with him.
Everyone else thought she'd died in a space transport accident. Even when he'd broken down and disagreed, people thought he was a little kid in the throes of grief refusing to accept reality. Eventually, he grew tired of the pity and whispers and decided that the best way to deal with it was to stop crying and keep his mouth shut.
Right after that, his father had been promoted to a position on the Galaxy Alliance General Council, something that allowed him to stay close to home and his kids. This was a blessing in that it had set his feet on the path to following in his old man's footsteps...and a drawback in that he'd had to work harder than anyone to prove he wasn't getting preferential treatment in getting into the Academy. Failure was not an option.
In the midst of academia and training, he'd focused on the future. The times he'd given his mother a thought these past years were few.
But being here, surrounded by people who could relate stories of family history for a hundred generations, had him wanting to know more.
He made a mental note to email his father at first opportunity, and then gave a start as a bunch of purple grapes were dangled in front of his face.
"Try one." Allura urged.
He pretended to eye them with wariness. "I don't know...they look too good to be true. They're probably sour, or have those infernal little seeds..."
"I can vouch that they're seedless and sweet." She coaxed, pressing an especially plump grape to his lips.
He kept them closed, teasing her.
'Please?" She asked, giving him a look that made it impossible for him to refuse.
He opened his mouth, and she popped the fruit inside.
He chewed, savoring the explosion of flavor on his tongue. Yep, it was as good as she'd promised- extra sweet, juicy...and no seeds.
"Well?" She prodded. "What do you think?"
He deliberately kept his expression bland. "They're not bad."
She sighed. "Your enthusiasm overwhelms me."
"Maybe I can do better." He said. "Would you feed me another one?"
She gave him a suspicious look, but did as he asked. Long, elegant fingers plucked a grape from its stem. There was a tentative brush of fingertips and then a pressing as she brought the fruit to his partially opened lips.
His hand came up to hold hers as the grape slid between his teeth, and his tongue caressed the tip of her index finger before it collected her offering. It was the sweetest thing he'd ever tasted.
The grape came in a very distant second.
Allura was blushing.
Neither of them noticed the golden glimmer from the band encircling her arm or the subtle glowing of his medallion.
Sarita and Varten, unlike the young couple they were observing, had not missed the white flash from the medallion around Keith's neck, and the answering glimmer from Allura's arm.
"It looks as if things are progressing." Sarita said.
Varten nodded. "Keith has the nobility and courage of our ancestors. He was made for her and she for him."
"On that I have no doubts." Sarita agreed. "But I confess I am concerned for Allura."
Sarita hesitated, and then sighed. "In many respects, she is no longer an innocent. She has been a warrior in battle. She has been exposed to depths of depravity that no one should ever have to witness and she has dealt with it with a strength beyond her young years. But despite her ability to thrive in a violent and uncertain world and having her childhood brutally stripped from her, life has left her less than prepared for a relationship of this nature. She's an innocent when it comes to the joys and perils of being in love with a man."
"He would never hurt her." Varten declared.
"Not intentionally." Sarita agreed. "But he has much to learn. We must tell them about Alfor and Alana before they progress to the next step. They need to understand what is in store for them should they accept the legacy."
By all accounts the feast was a huge success.
Allura was enjoying it thoroughly, most especially the attentiveness of her escort.
In the rare moments of Keith's attention being diverted, she relived the grape incident in her mind, over and over.
The only way she had managed to keep her composure so far was to remind herself that it had probably just been an accidental slip of the tongue.
'Slip of the tongue'. Ha. Good one.
Too bad she couldn't share that little nugget of wit.
When they finished eating, they decided to visit some of the other tables. Even as Allura enjoyed the company and conversation of the villagers, her gaze constantly strayed to her companion. Keith's quick mind, quiet humor, genuine interest in people and impeccable manners served him well. She watched him with unconscious pride, her admiration growing for him minute by minute.
When the performance part of the evening had come, they went over to sit on cushions by the Pavilion along with the villagers. The display of culture, which ranged from singing to instrumentals to dancing, was thoroughly enjoyable. At one point where the musicians were playing a lively folk tune, an adorable little girl wiggled off her mother's lap and ran up to Keith and Allura. After giving a curtsy to the Princess, and loudly informing her that her name was Tara and that she was four, she turned to Keith and exhorted him to come dance with her, to the chagrin of her parents and the great amusement of everyone else.
After consulting with his companion, who gave her smiling assent, Keith allowed the child to tug him to his feet and lead him to a open spot for dancing. As Keith twirled her around and dipped her in a dramatic fashion, the little girl's joyful giggles had Allura laughing out loud as she watched and clapped along with the music.
When it was clear that the child's legs were growing tired, Keith scooped her up in his arms and danced around until the song had ended. Applause and cheers rang out as he returned the girl to her grateful mother.
Allura felt a glow of pride and happiness when he came back and sat down next to her.
Tonight, he was all hers.
She wished that they could stay in Althene forever.
The feeling became almost painful in its intensity after Varten stood and spoke briefly, welcoming and thanking them once again with a humble sincerity that brought a prickling of tears to Allura's eyes. When he asked if she would like to address the assembled villagers, Allura did so gladly, thanking them for their hospitality and communicating her heartfelt pleasure in having this contact with such a remarkable and beautiful group of people.
The evening drew to a close with a song Varten had written and dedicated to his wife. Sarita's eyes were misty as she beamed at her husband. He sang in a fine baritone voice of the power and timelessness of love.
Allura wanted to lean into Keith as she listened to the ballad. She could feel him looking at her, and sensed he wouldn't object, but yet she resisted the temptation. Despite the informality of their surroundings, the warnings against public displays of affection were too ingrained in her psyche for her to be the one to make the first move.
She sat with her legs to one side and her hands in her lap, longing for contact.
When a warm shoulder pressed into hers, she kept her eyes forward and returned the pressure.
Then his arm went around her waist.
The world seemed to stop for those few precious moments.
When the music ended there was a final toast, and then the feast was over. Hugs and farewells were exchanged, villagers packed up leftovers, and children of all ages were bundled off to wherever their beds awaited. Keith and Allura lingered, and were among the final stragglers heading into the night beneath a sable sky dotted with stars. Varten and Sarita preceded them, walking far enough ahead to give them the sense of privacy they never would have known in the castle.
It had been a truly wonderful evening, Allura thought dreamily, the best she could remember. Yet if someone had asked her to describe her state of mind in that moment , she would have compared herself to a duck, serenely gliding along on the water's surface while its flippers were paddling furiously beneath it.
This day had been full of surprises. There was a sense that more might be coming, but she wasn't sure what they would be. A talk about future outings? A kiss on her hand? Or...
Keith walked alongside Allura, liking the way she'd automatically put her hand in the crook of his arm without him having to offer it. At present it was the only point of contact between their bodies, but the fact that she'd initiated it emboldened him to envision more.
In the last few hours, he'd broken every single rule he had set for himself in dealing with his feelings for the Princess. Not once had he given a thought to deportment or conduct codes. And he didn't give a damn that he hadn't. Whatever was in the air here had cleared his mind of all thoughts except what he was feeling for the woman who had become the center of his universe.
The pulsing sensation on his collarbone that he had felt earlier in the evening was back, too, even stronger than before. If he didn't know better, he'd think he saw a sparking of light from the medallion. He couldn't blame the consumption of alcoholic beverages for that...he had had only one glass of honey wine.
Reflection of firelight? Doubtful, it was too intense for that. An overactive imagination fueled by tales of legends? Perhaps.
Whatever it was, there was no denying that this place had him under its spell.
The shutters had been opened by the time they drew near to the Carlac's home. The glow of interior light and the sound of Varten and Sarita's conversation spilled out into the night, intermixed with a few bars of song.
Keith wasn't anywhere ready to say goodnight, and judging by her expression, Allura wasn't either. They arrived at the front door, stopped and stood on the doorstep,wrapped in silent, mutual contemplation of any credible reasons they could give to not go in just yet.
The door opened, and Varten came out, two bedrolls in hand. Sarita followed, carrying a small overnight bag.
In a flash, Allura's expression changed from one of shyness and regret to chagrin.
"Are we going somewhere?"
"Not you and Keith, dear, just us." Sarita smiled at the young people standing before her as she and her husband set down their provisions. "Varten and I will be staying at our friend Lora's house across the way. She's visiting her daughter at school in Arusia."
"Everything has been arranged for your safety, Princess." Varten added. "Keith will be with you here, and the village patrol is vigilant."
Keith looked from Varten to Sarita and back, unsure of how to react. Of course he wouldn't think of leaving Allura to her own devices, but to be completely alone with her in a place where they'd be sharing sleeping space? He didn't expect the Carlacs to be like the castle chaperones, but dammit! A married couple, young at heart if not in age, certainly understood what they could be enabling by leaving, didn't they?
The Princess hadn't said a word, and it was impossible to tell what she was thinking, because her head was slightly turned away from him and her hair was hiding her face.
Sarita looked at the Princess for a long minute, appearing to be debating a silent issue. Then she spoke.
"Allura, would you come with me for a moment? I have some instructions I need to give you."
The Princess followed Sarita inside without uttering a word.
Keith watched them go with an inscrutable expression.
"Shall we go sit?" Varten asked, putting his hand on the young man's broad shoulder. "You never know with Sarita. A moment could be awhile."
"Come right in," Sarita invited, as the two women reached the master bedroom. "The bathroom is over there," she pointed to a partially opened door in a corner alcove then to a large antique chest. "And there are night clothes and extra blankets and pillows in there."
"Thank you." Allura looked around the homespun room with appreciation, all the while trying to think of a tactful way to express her reservations about this unexpected arrangement.
There was an old earth saying- 'be careful what you wish for'. Now she could appreciate what that meant. She'd always wished for more private time with Keith. They were never truly alone, not even on the night shift in Castle Control. But now that the wish was about to be granted, she felt as jittery as if she'd consumed eight shots of Arusian espresso.
"I feel as if we're kicking you out of your house." She began.
"Not at all!" Sarita said cheerfully. "We'd planned on looking after Lora's place far before we knew of your arrival- and she would be the first to insist that it just makes sense for us to stay there to give you more room." She paused. "You and Keith should find that a feather bed is much more comfortable than camping out on floor pillows, yes?"
Allura stared at the king sized bed, unable to form a response.
The older woman turned, took one look at her guest's face and immediately sank to one knee in apology. "My dear Princess, forgive me! It's been so long since my days at the castle, but that's no excuse for forgetting my manners! I am wrong to tease you..."
"No!" Allura reached out a hand and brought her to her feet again."No, don't! You haven't done anything wrong! This is a thing that any normal woman would be giggling and gossiping about with her close friends." She smiled shyly. "And since I've been here, I've been so happy, because I've felt like I finally have that with you. It's not your fault that I'm a case of arrested development."
Sarita gave her hands a squeeze. "I feel the same. And I think that we girlfriends need to talk." Pulling Allura over to the bed, she bade her to sit on its edge, then followed suit. "First of all, do not mistake inexperience for immaturity. It takes bravery and resolve to open your heart to the unknown possibilities."
"Allura, if you were truly a case of arrested development, you would still be hidden away in your castle instead of having this conversation with me."
That brought a wan smile. "I suppose."
"You don't suppose, dear, you know. You have followed your instincts to embark on this quest-and you're prepared to go forward and find the answers that will lead you to the ultimate fulfillment of womanhood." Sarita hesitated. "And I believe that in Keith... you've already found an answer, haven't you?"
"I...maybe." Allura stammered and blushed. "Since our arrival I've felt as if something is waiting for us to set it in motion. But if Keith went along with it just because he feels it's his duty..."
"You say that like it's a bad thing." Sarita said gently. "Duty is always going to be a part of your relationship with him. You are the leader of this planet. Keith is your protector. His sense of duty is what brought him to you and you to him. That sense of duty allowed you to trust each other as members of the Voltron Force and to save your people and planet countless times in the face of overwhelming odds, yes?"
"Yes. And I wouldn't change that. But I can't help feeling that it's so-"
"Unromantic? It's a mistake to think a sense of duty is an unfeeling thing. In fact, it's at its very best when driven by the deepest emotional connections. A duty to love and cherish and honor, no matter what...that is the foundation for the strongest and most lasting romantic relationships."
"I hadn't thought of it that way." Allura said, after a long pause. "For me, it's not just about duty. Even if I know why he's protecting me, he could still hurt me…here." She placed her hand over her heart. " A small part of me says I need to protect myself. But a bigger part of me wants wants to give him everything I can. "
Sarita nodded. "It's good and important that you fully understand what giving everything entails. Including the physical."
Allura clasped her hands in her lap. "Arus will need an heir, so Nanny told me. I know what happens when a man and woman are trying to make a baby."
"Fundamental information." Sarita said, with a slightly pained expression. "Did she happen to mention that there are are other reasons for having sex other than procreation?"
"No." Allura acknowledged ruefully. "But I've done some reading on my own. There have been many novels written about romance. Earth authors have related many excellent tales."
"I wholeheartedly agree." The older woman chuckled. "Though as resources go, romantic fiction of any kind might be going to the other extreme in its presentation of physical love. Not every kiss is filled with heated hunger, and not every sexual encounter brings earth shattering pleasure. " She paused. "And as much as I disagree with it myself, I must be honest in saying that it's possible to have full enjoyment of being intimate without having any kind of personal attachment to your partner."
Allura crossed her arms. "That was Lotor's way. He didn't care about feelings, just how he could use sex to intimidate and to control."
"Sex gives one power over another in many ways. Just as it can be used for evil purposes, it can be the ultimate expression of love and trust. And because it does that, it makes a person vulnerable to being terribly hurt if their trust is ever betrayed. That's the risk we take in loving someone." Sarita tipped her head inquiringly. "How do you feel about Keith?"
"I...I admire him. And respect him. I'm strongly drawn to him. I get frustrated when the time we've spent together as friends doesn't seem to bring us any closer to being more..."
"And you want to be closer?"
"Y-yes. I know it's not proper to say it...but I want that very much."
Sarita patted her arm reassuringly. "It's fine to say that. It is a normal and healthy part of caring for someone to express those feelings through physical contact."
"Not for me." Allura said, shaking her head. "In my life at court, any displays of affection I've given or gotten have been kept chaste and appropriate to my role. The most daring thing I've ever done with a man is to give Lance a thank you kiss on the cheek. Apart from the I- swear- fealty -to- you pecks on the hand, I've never been kissed. I can only imagine what it will feel like. Reading about it only makes me realize how hopeless I am in showing Keith how I feel. I don't know if I should even try, in case it makes him uncomfortable. And I'm afraid that if you leave, and he does take the opportunity to kiss me... he'll find me lacking. And that will be the end!"
"So many worries for one so young." Sarita said kindly. "Poor dear. Perhaps you need to stop thinking so much."
"How can I when I feel so stupid and awkward?"
"Everyone does with a first kiss- I did! But you know what? It isn't going to be easy for Keith either. Whether he's kissed other girls before you or not, he's never kissed you before. Knowing the kind of man he is, he'll be concerned about doing his best for you, believe me."
Allura was silent, pondering the advice. Keith had to have his own set of concerns. Focusing on that instead of her self consciousness could help diffuse her anxiety over doing things right. If she waited too long, he might think she wasn't interested at all, and the window of opportunity would close. Before that happened, she needed to act, to take a chance, to quit thinking and simply let things take their natural course.
She turned to her mentor and friend. "This talk has helped so much. I'll be all right now."
Sarita surveyed her, and was satisfied. The wan, lost little girl look had been replaced by a rosy cheeked, womanly resolve. "Good girl." She said warmly. "Do you know, I've been watching Keith watch you this entire evening, and from the way he has been looking at you, I can guarantee that you won't be saying you've never been kissed by this time tomorrow."
After an open-mouthed stare, Allura began to giggle. "Really?"
"Really! I have no doubts that he'll be making the move and that you won't have to do a thing but respond. And since that puts all the pressure on him...why not relax and enjoy the experience of being romanced?"
Allura smiled. Why not indeed?
When the women returned to the living area, it was to find Varten waiting alone. He stood, and answered their unspoken question.
"Keith is outside. I believe he's making sure the premises are secure." He winked. "A very thorough and dedicated young man, your Captain."
"Now Varten, don't be a tease." Sarita said in a reproving tone. "I've given this poor dear all she can handle tonight."
"It's all right," she said, coming forward to clasp the older man's hands. "Thank you so much, Varten, for the feast, for letting us stay in your home...for everything."
He beamed. "It's been a very great pleasure."
"I hope you will consider a visit to our kingdom of Altaire so that we can return your hospitality."
"We would love to come and visit you." He smiled at his wife, who was nodding enthusiastically. "Please don't be shy about poking about this place to find whatever you might need in our absence. We'll be back in the morning to make breakfast and have our talk about your mother and father, yes?"
"I'll be looking forward to it."
"As will we. And now, it's time we said goodnight." He glanced out the window. "Keith is close by. He will hear us leaving."
Sarita came forward. The two women exchanged a brief but heartfelt hug.
"Goodnight dear. Sweet dreams."
"Goodnight Sarita. And thank you."
The older woman winked. "That's what girlfriends are for."
Smiling, Allura followed them to the door, stood and watched until the lights went on in a dwelling across the clearing.
When she turned back into the house, she was greeted by a hush that was unfamiliar and yet welcoming.
It was the first time she could remember being left to her own devices in a strange place without having a cadre of guards stationed outside her door. With Keith temporarily occupied, it was an odd but exhilarating feeling to think that she could step out right now and wander around without him if she so chose.
Ironic that now she had the opportunity, she didn't want it.
Feeling a restlessness that had nothing to do with wanderlust, she moved to the window. She had no idea how long she stood there, gazing into the night before a warm breeze wafted past her, ruffling her hair and setting the flame of the pillar candle on a nearby shelf to dancing crazily on its wick.
No sound betrayed his presence. But she could feel it, and it made her insides tremble in a way that was as acutely pleasant as it was disconcerting.
Keith stood in the entrance to the kitchen, having come in the back way almost as soon as their hosts had left. He moved to the doorway between the rooms, leaning one shoulder on the lintel as he took in the sight of the woman standing in front of the window. Her back was to him, so he allowed his gaze to roam freely over her fair form.
There was a suggestion of anticipation in her posture, and a hint of worry.
Was it for him?
His eyes dropped to the white lily he held in his hand. Hopefully it would deliver a more eloquent message than he would in expressing his admiration and his good intentions.
A breeze picked up the tips of his hair as he padded across the room with cat like stealth to stand directly behind her. He left a foot of space between his chest and her back; a respectable distance yet intimate enough that he could smell the plum blossom scent that clung to her skin.
He breathed in, closing his eyes.
Allura kept motionless, every nerve ending registering and relishing the warmth of his body along her back and the woodsy hint of aftershave mixed with a more delicate scent that teased her nose.
The scent intensified, and suddenly, something soft was tickling her right cheek.
"Hi." He said.
She reached up, and her fingertips lightly brushed the petal of a flower. "Hi. What's this?"
"You'll have to turn around to find out."
Allura turned, and felt a wave of hot blood rush to her face as Keith took her hand within his own, spread her fingers and placed a blossom in the center of her palm.
"On Earth, this is called a stargazer lily. I thought it was fitting, and that you might like it."
"It's just beautiful. Thank you..." Her voice trailed off as she looked down at the flower and their touching hands. She could feel his gaze on the top of her bent head, but she was too shy to look up with him standing so close.
"It looks like a star." She said softly.
"Want to go for a walk?" He asked. "The real ones are looking pretty spectacular."
"I'd like that very much."
It gave her a pleasurable kind of pain to keep her eyes averted as she moved past him to the kitchen door while knowing he was only a pace behind her. His arm reached past her and pushed the screen door open as she reached it, and they stepped out onto a deck and then down the steps that led to moonlit gardens filled with the magic of the night.
They strolled the paths at an unhurried pace, accompanied by a retinue of fireflies and an orchestra of crickets. Allura idly twirled the lily between the fingers of her free hand and took in the natural beauty all around her, including that of her companion. His torso reflected the shimmer of the moon, she noticed. His chest was toned and taut, and the well defined muscles of his stomach made her stomach feel oddly light and fluttery.
When they reached the end of the path, they stopped, standing shoulder to shoulder, Allura pretending an interest in the flight of a gypsy moth and toying with her flower as Keith stared down at her.
The moment had come.
She turned towards him, still avoiding his eyes. "Yes?"
He captured her chin in his hand and lifted it until she was looking into his face. Her gaze skittered off his, coming to rest somewhere to the left of his chin. Her breathing quickened, and the flower fell from her hand, unnoticed.
"Does being here with me make you nervous?" He asked.
She stared past him, uncertainty written in her expression.
"A-a little." She said, after a moment.
"Tell me why?"
"Because...I don't know what to expect. Or what to do..."
He could see what the admission cost her. But she'd made it anyway.
The headstrong and independent Princess had made herself vulnerable to him.
His heart was pounding so loud, he was sure she could hear it.
"Do you trust me?" He asked huskily.
Her voice was close to a whisper. "With my life."
"Then may I kiss you?"
She finally met his gaze, and her eyes gave the answer before her lips formed the words.
He eliminated the space between them with a step as his hand moved from her chin to cup the nape of her neck. His thumb moved over the smooth skin of her throat in gentle circles, providing a distraction as his other curved around her waist.
His head bent forward.
She tipped her chin up and met him halfway.
His mouth brushed tenderly against hers, settled for an exquisite moment of full fledged contact, and then drifted away as he leaned back to gauge her reaction.
Allura blinked up at him, her expression full of wonder and longing.
"Okay?" He asked, knowing, but still wanting to hear it.
"Wonderful." She breathed. "That was a wonderful first kiss."
He'd been the first, the only one to put that look on her face.
But he could do better. So much better.
Possessiveness and passion surged through him, propelling him forward.
This time he pressed his lips fully against hers from the start, moving back and forth, exploring the surface, nudging a little here and there, patiently coaxing a response.
Eyes closed, she began to counter the motions of his head. He increased the pressure against her mouth, not so much a demand as a silent request for more access.
Her lips parted, and he took in her indrawn breath and smooth, liquid warmth as his tongue slipped within her mouth.
Hesitantly, the tip of her tongue touched his. He wasn't prepared for the onslaught of emotion that single touch brought. He released her nape to wrap both arms about her waist and sweep her up against him. His hands traversed her spine, up to her shoulder blades, then down to hollow beneath her ribs, pressing her to him as he savored the softness of her curves flattening against his taut muscles. Her hands were in his hair, fingers combing furrows in the mass, delighting in the contrast with a stubble roughened jawline that scraped at her skin in a delicious way. Pulling her hands from his hair, she placed them on his chest; it was warm and smooth. Her fingers and palms skimmed over its breadth before her hands slipped to his waist and then around to his abdomen. She caressed its flatness, then traced the flat, honed muscles with the pads of her thumbs, feeling them tremble beneath her touch.
She wasn't expecting the deep sound her action elicited, or the speed with which his hands curved around her hips and yanked her flush against him. Pelvis to pelvis, she couldn't miss the feel of something lifting and hardening under his sarong.
As inexperienced as she was, she knew enough to realize what that meant. Her knees were shaking, and wanted to give way, but somehow she still stood. His breathing was coming harder and faster, and she heard an answering whimper from her own throat as he gently rocked his hips and the hardened ridge of flesh into her. Her eyelids flickered open and then closed in submission. How could anything be wicked that felt so wonderful?
She slid her arms up and around his neck, a flower blooming in the sunlight of passion. Their tongues danced an erotic ballet, and she arched into his touch as she matched the motion and the rhythm he had set for their bodies. She was immersed in sensation, lost to reality.
It could have been seconds or several minutes before Keith pulled away.
With an inarticulate sound of protest, she immediately tried to pull him back, but he resisted, hushing her with the tips of his fingers over her lips as he spoke.
Taking her hand, he drew her along behind him, deeper into the shadows of the night.
When they reached a place that seemed to satisfy him, he dropped to his knees in front of her, then tugged her down as well. Then he pulled her to him, kissing her with a fervor that had her feeling as if she were in danger of being swept out to sea in a giant wave of exhilaration. She shifted, trying to get closer, and then the world tilted and she found herself on her back with Keith lying partially across her.
He bore his weight on his forearms as he continued to do wonderful things to her mouth. She stroked his shoulder blades, and the caresses grew more confident when he growled his pleasure. Daringly, she trailed her hands down the flexing muscles of his back, stopping just short of the jutting curve of his buttocks. He shifted and she felt his need pressing into the cradle between her thighs. Only a two scraps of clothing between them and heaven, she thought dazedly. Her loins felt full and heavy, and she had a fierce need to be rid of the material that separated her yearning flesh from his.
In the back of his mind, he was aware that things were getting out of hand. But at that precise instant her hips lifted to caress his and his control slipped a little more. His pelvis returned the pressure, and so began a slow undulation of give and take as his hand stroked her rib cage in tantalizingly close proximity to her breast. The nails lightly scratching his back and her moan of pure arousal were the stuff of his dreams. Everything in him was urging him on, faster, closer, deeper...
The knot of her sarong was digging into his chest, and his ardor-filled mind centered on it. One tug. Just one tug, and the garment would be out of his way.
His hand moved to carry out the thought, then froze in place as another thought came, unbidden.
What? After five years and fighting through a war together, how could it be too soon?
No dice. He would ignore the voice of reason.
All right, that one was tougher. A kiss in a moonlit garden was one thing, but a roll in the grass?
But when they were smack in the midst of a place that some would call paradise, was that so bad?
~There'll be consequences. Are you prepared for what happens after? Is she?~
Damn his sense of honor.
Damn it to hell.
It was right.
Even so, he had to fight to let her go as he carefully and slowly stopped all motion, prolonging the sweet agony for himself as he let her down easy.
The sensual timbre of her voice was like a hit to his gut. Lifting himself up on his elbows and away from her yielding warmth, he stared down at the golden hair that fanned out around her, took in every curve and hollow of her fair form. She didn't hide from his scrutiny; her eyes remained steadily on his face. When he met her gaze, there was impact much like being doused by a wave. He was being swept along in a flash flood of feelings, feelings that he hadn't dared to look for too closely for but now was willing to share even as he struggled to keep his head above the torrent.
He needed a connection, a connection with her. His body, his heart, his entire being craved it.
"Keith! The talisman!"
The palpable shock in her voice yanked him back to the moment and realizations that she had reached up and grasped hold of the medallion, and that her awestruck expression was now illuminated by flames of white fire that emanated from the lion's head.
"Drop it!" He didn't wait for her to obey the directive. His knees made divots in the earth as he bolted upright and pulled the necklace out of her grasp. Without a word, he grabbed her hand and began examining it, front and back, for scorched skin.
"I'm fine! It didn't hurt!" Allura assured him. She was scrabbling to sit up now, tugging her sarong into place, and attempting to smooth hair that was in sexy disarray.
Her lips were a rosy red, stained from his kisses.
He averted his gaze as he let go of her hand.
"Varten told me the stone was linked to the spirits of his ancestors, but it didn't react like this earlier." He said gruffly.
"I'm certain Varten wouldn't have had you wear it if it posed any danger." Allura said anxiously. "But it might be better if you took it off until we can ask him what it means."
"Good idea." He said. The once gentle pulsing of the stone had become an insistent, throbbing heartbeat, but he said nothing, not wanting to worry her any more than was necessary. Was it a warning that he shouldn't remove it, or a sign that he should?
There was only one way to find out.
He grasped the chain.
The moment his fingers closed around the links, a surge of exhilarating power rushed into his body, tensing his muscles and setting every nerve ending to crackling with electric awareness.
"Feels strange…" He managed to gasp, as his vision began to fade to white.
From a great distance, he could hear Allura frantically calling his name.
Then the aura closed around him, completely separating him from reality.
To be continued!
Author's note: Anyone who may have read the original version of Bonds will notice that, although the pacing and plot remain the same, there have been many changes to the original dialogue in this chapter. These changes were made in the interest of improving the writing and characterizations, as well as for providing clarity for some plot points that weren't made clear enough in the first draft of the story.
As always, concrit is welcomed. I hope you enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, this rewrite.
Every good wish,