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Flames of Voltron

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. . . there are seven known types of Dying Will Flames in the known universe, and each has its own fascinating property: Hardening for Lightning, Tranquilizing for Rain, Disintegration for Storm, Activation for Sun, Propagation for Cloud, Construction for Mist and, lastly, Harmonization for Sky, which brings all other Flames together and forges metaphysical bonds that go beyond academic comprehension and are more alike to mysticism and magic than scientific. If even things on Earth are still unknown to humanity, it is therefore logical to assume that life on Earth is not, in fact, the only life out there, which brings up an important question: do aliens also possess Dying Will Flames or is it something uniquely found in humans?

—excerpt from “Aliens? With My Flame-Type? It’s More Likely Than You Think,” an essay by Pidge Gunderson


 

It’s chilling hour in the dorm room of Hunk and Lance. It is a sacred hour (that can sometimes turn into multiple hours) where Lance and Hunk essentially do nothing after a long period of doing something. Two hours worth of physics homework due the next day? Redbull is consumed, coffee is inhaled, and what would have been two boring hours of homework is instead completed in a single epic hour. Following that victory, with the last dregs of energy, Lance and Hunk pull all the blankets and pillows off their beds (as well as any secret plush toys) and pile them on the floor. Netflix is them set up on one of their laptops and either an ocean documentary (Lance’s choice) or a Disney movie with cute and cuddly talking animals (Hunk’s choice) is chosen for mindless entertainment.

Lance and Hunk are amid a heated debate between Blackfish and Zootopia when they hear something crash in the hall outside their room.

“What was that?” Hunk asks in a whisper.

Lance waves a hand languidly and rolls onto his back. “Probably a raccoon. Don’t worry about it.”

Another crash is heard, followed by vehement swearing.

Lance raises his head. “Is that . . . Pidge?”

“Oh no,” Hunk says. “Not again.”

Lance gets to his feet and prods Hunk with a toe. “Come on, buddy,” he says. “Time to get up.”

“But it’s chill time,” Hunk says plaintively, “and Pidge is, like, never chill. And he’s been even worse ever since the whole flamenco thing came out—”

“Flamingo,” Lance corrects.

“They’re called Flames,” Pidge calls through the door. “Now could you two dummies come and help me before you get the attention of the whole floor with your obnoxiously loud voices?”

Lance opens the door and leans on the frame, arms and legs crossed and obviously trying to look cool. “If anybody is going to the one to alert the neighbours of your shenanigans, it’s going to be a certain Tweety Bird carrying double his weight in junk and dropping it in front of innocent people’s doors.”

Pidge looks at him blankly. “There is so much wrong with what just came out of your mouth that I don’t even know where to start.”

“Better to just ignore it,” Hunk says, peeking around Lance and yawning. “What are you doing anyway?”

“None of your business,” Pidge says.

“Uh, yeah it kind of is,” says Hunk. “We’ve seen you so now if you get in trouble and people find out that we didn’t stop whatever illegal thing you’re planning on doing then Lance and I would be taken in as accomplices and get in trouble too. May as well just tell us.”

“Well? You heard the man,” Lance says. “Start talking.”

Pidge looks at them and sighs. Sulkily, he tells them, “I was planning to plant a bomb in Iverson’s office.”

“A BOMB?!” Hunk shrieks.

Lance slaps his hands over Hunk’s mouth. “Shush! We don’t say B-O-M-B in a government facility unless what proceeds it is ‘da,’” Lance hisses, then slowly removes his hands.

“DA BOMB?!” Hunk shrieks.

Lance pats him on the shoulder. “Good job.”

“Oh my God,” Pidge says, rolling his eyes. “You guys are so dramatic. It’s just a paint bomb.”

“Phew,” Hunk says, his whole frame sagging in relief. “On your way, then.”

“We’re coming with,” says Lance. He's already putting on his shoes.

“What? No!” Hunk cries. “I don't want to bomb Iverson’s office!”

“It’s a paint bomb,” Pidge reiterates.

“It's still a bomb!”

“Pidge, you stay there for a sec,” Lance says authoritatively.

“You can't order me around,” says Pidge.

“It'll just be a moment, promise.”

“Whatever. I need to sort out my stuff again anyway.”

“Thanks,” Lance says, then pulls Hunk back into their room and shuts the door.

Immediately, Hunk says, “I don't want to plant a bomb, Lance.”

“Okay, one: boring. Two: it's only a prank, no need to get so worked up. And three: if we don't go with Pidge he’ll get caught. That boy has no chill and is way too mouthy with Iverson to not be on some special Garrison watch list. He needs us there to keep him from doing something even more stupid.”

“So you admit the bomb is stupid!” Hunk says.

Lance drags a hand down his face. “Not the point Hunk.”

“I know,” Hunk says. He frowns thoughtfully before groaning, and says, “You’re right.”

Lance grins. “I'm always right.”

Hunk scoffs. “You definitely aren't.”

They go back into the hallway. Pidge is standing there, all his gear packed away and staring at them while looking distinctly unimpressed.

“I can hear you guys through the door, you know,” he says.

“Uh, no you can't,” Lance says.

“Uh, yes I can,” Pidge says mockingly.

“No you can’t. Know why? Because I said so,” Lance says triumphantly.

“Nice save,” says Hunk.

“You guys aren't coming with me. After I plant the bomb, I have . . . something else I need to do.”

“Oh? And what's that?” Lance asks.

“Probably his girlfriend,” Hunk says casually.

Lance cackles. “Dude,” he says, wheezing.

“What?” says Hunk. “What’s so funny?”

“You said that the ‘something else’ that Pidge needs to ‘do’ is his girlfriend.”

Hunk blushes. “I-I-I just meant, like, a secret date or a call or something.”

Lance shakes his head, still chuckling. Softly, he repeats with the highest respect, “Dude.”

“My point is,” Pidge interrupts loudly, “that I don't want you guys there, so go away.”

“Yeah, no. Too bad, so sad. Sorry, not happening,” Lance says. He inspects his manicured nails for imperfections. “May as well resign yourself to our presence.”

Pidge makes an inarticulate noise of frustration. “Can't you just mind your own business and leave me alone?!”

Hunk steps forward and puts both hands on Pidge’s shoulders. “Look, how about Lance and I tag along for the bomb part, but leave afterwards so you can do your . . . something else by yourself. Would that be okay?”

Pidge visibly relaxes. “You're doing that Rain thing where you calm me down again.”

Hunk lifts his hands up and chuckles nervously. “Not on purpose,” he says, looking shifty.

“Fine,” says Pidge, “you guys can help me bomb Iverson, but after that you're leaving me alone.”

“Deal,” Lance says, sticking out a hand and smiling smarmily.

Taking Lance’s hand, Pidge already looks like he’s regretting it.


 

Getting into Iverson’s office is the easiest part. Things get slightly dicier after that – mostly because Pidge and Lance get into an argument.

“Why do I have to be the lookout?” Lance demands. “Nobody wants to be the lookout. It’s the most boring role!”

“Look, you’re the one who wanted to come in the first place,” Pidge says. “This is my idea, my plan, and we’re doing it my way. If you don’t like it, you can go back to your room.”

“But why can’t Hunk be the lookout for once?” Lance whines.

“Because Hunk is the one who won’t mess everything up,” Pidge snaps.

“Hey now,” Hunk says nervously, eyes darting to Iverson’s open door every other second, “let’s just calm down and get this done. Lance? Can you please watch the door? If Iverson or another teacher comes along, you’re way better at stalling and talking your way out of things, so it only makes sense for you to be the lookout. And Pidge, Lance totally knows how to make paint bombs. His older siblings and middle school teachers would definitely back me up on that.”

Pidge and Lance are silent.

“Fine,” Lance says finally. “But you guys better hurry. If Iverson’s the one to spot me, I won’t be able to stall for long. That guy hates me.” He turns away and takes his standard lookout position under the frame of the open door. Behind him, he can hear Hunk and Pidge getting the supplies ready.

“Have you already broken up the dry ice?” Hunk whispers.

“Of course,” Pidge hisses like a cat whose tail is being stepped on. “What do you take me for? A noob?”

Lance slowly scans the hallway, right to left, back and forth.

“Why do you have so many bottles? We won’t be able to get them all set up and get away before one of them blows!”

“It’ll work,” Pidge says stubbornly.

“It won’t,” Hunk wails quietly. “It won’t work with two of us. How were you going to do it by yourself?”

“Are you a noob?”

“Pidge, you have five bottles!”

“Then we just won’t use all of them! Jeez. . . .”

“Uh-oh,” Lance says.

“Uh-oh? What uh-oh? I don’t like it when you say uh-oh,” Hunk frets.

“Iverson incoming,” Lance reports. “Coming from left field, walking in step with a potential civilian casualty.”

“Stop trying to talk in code and do your job!” Pidge orders. “And be quiet Hunk! You’ll give us away!”

Hunk and Pidge go quiet just as Iverson spies Lance. He starts to walk more purposefully towards Lance, forcing his companion to catch up.

“McClain!” Iverson barks, eyes squinted in suspicion. “What are you doing loitering outside my office?”

Lance clasps his hands behind him, tilts his head innocently, and grins. “Waiting for you, of course, Mr. Iverson. I wanted to ask you something important,” he says. “It’s actually really lucky that Mr. Sawada is with you too, ‘cause it actually involves my late Flame essay.”

Mr. Yoshisato Sawada, a mixed Japanese-Italian-American man, raises an eyebrow. “Oh?” he says. “You mean the essay that was due last Wednesday?”

“The very same,” says Lance. “I seem to have lost my only copy, so I’m retracing my steps and trying to find it.”

“Uh-huh,” Mr. Sawada says.

“That doesn’t explain to me why you’re out past curfew, McClain, or outside my office,” Iverson says harshly.

“I wanted to ask you if I could look for it in your office Mr. Iverson, in case I might have dropped it the last time you called me in for reprimanding,” Lance says. He’s mentally patting himself on the back for his A+ bullshitting skills. “And Mr. Sawada told me that if he didn’t have my essay in his hands by the end of today, then I would get a zero. He also said that he would be very disappointed in me, and I always hate disappointing my favourite teacher.”

“Uh- . . . huh,” Mr. Sawada says. He’s probably thinking back to last Wednesday when, right at the beginning of class, he collected the class’s essays – including Lance’s.

Behind his back, Lance makes frantic gestures with his hands and hopes that Hunk and Pidge get the message to hurry up.

“So . . .” Lance says, cold sweat beginning to break out across his forehead. “Can I search your office Mr. Iverson?”

“No,” Iverson says, swift and immediate. “And tomorrow you have detention with me for staying out past curfew. Now get out of my sight, McClain.”

“But Mr. Iverson—”

“Out of my sight!”

Lance glances over his shoulder, sees Hunk and Pidge’s wide eyes, the dry ice shards primed to drop and bottle caps ready to be screwed on, and mouths, On three.

“You’re right, Mr. Iverson.”

One.

“Sorry Mr. Iverson.”

Two.

Lance skips jauntily past Iverson and Mr. Sawada, drawing their eyes with the incongruity.

Three.

Creeping out of Iverson’s office with haste, thinly shrouded in Lance’s Mist Flames and going in the opposite direction as Lance, were Hunk and Pidge.

Lance, Pidge, and Hunk start running.


 

The three of them meet up in front of Hunk and Lance’s dorm room, hysterical with laughter. Whenever they start to calm down, they remember Iverson’s scream of rage echoing down the halls, nipping at their heels as they ran, and acting like an extra dose of adrenaline.

By the time they have all calmed down, Hunk is leaning heavily against the wall, Pidge is nearly brought to his knees, and Lance is sprawled on the floor.

“That was great,” Lance says.

“I thought I was going to die,” Hunk says.

“Iverson’s not even activated his Flames,” Pidge scoffs. “There’s no way he could kill you.”

“I don’t know,” Lance says. “My older sister hasn’t activated hers and I’m pretty sure she could murder me with her pinkie finger.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re a toothpick. I could kill you with pinkie finger.”

It’s Lance’s turn to scoff. “As if, midget.”

“Hey,” Hunk says in concern. “Lance, Iverson is going to think you’re the one to prank him because you were outside his office. You’ll get in trouble.”

Lance shrugs. “I figured,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Lance. . .” Pidge says.

Lance laughs lightheartedly. “Seriously,” he says, and sits up to pat Pidge on the head. “Iverson would’ve found some other excuse to punish me anyway, so it’s not a big deal.”

Pidge looks down. Quietly, he says, “Thanks.”

“No problem, midget,” Lance says. “Now, didn’t you say you had something you wanted to be doing now?”

Pidge looks up. “Right,” he says, mouth set with determination. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

“See ya,” Lance calls out to Pidge’s retreating figure.

“And now,” Hunk says, with great feeling, “it’s back to chilling hour.”

“We’re following him,” Lance says, still looking in the direction that Pidge disappeared to.

“Not again,” Hunk complains.

Chapter Text

Lance and Hunk follow Pidge the old-fashioned way: ducking around corners, hiding behind plants, and diving into trash cans every time Pidge glances behind him – which he does frequently.

“I don’t know why that guy is so paranoid,” Lance says, crouching behind a wall with Hunk.

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe because certain people follow him all the time,” Hunk says.

“Nobody asked for your sass, Hunk,” Lance says distractedly as he peeks around the wall.

You were asking for it,” Hunk mutters.

Lance ignores him. “Coast is clear,” he says. “Let’s go!”

The two of them inch their way slowly around the corner and, when it appears that they really are in the clear, they pick up their pace. However, they are soon forced to hastily skid to a halt as Iverson rounds the corner.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Lance breathes in disbelief and, behind him, Hunk seizes up in fright.

Iverson is heading straight towards them. He hasn’t looked up yet, too busy trying to futilely rub the pink and green paint off the starched fabric of his uniform with a damp paper towel and growling curses. If he looks up, Lance and Hunk are dead. They might even be expelled on the spot considering Iverson doubtlessly believes that Lance is the one to bomb his office. He’s not exactly Lance’s biggest fan right now (not that he ever was). Hunk will just be collateral damage.

Lance conjures his illusory Mist Flames faster and with more desperation than ever before. Hunk and I are invisible, Lance thinks firmly. Iverson can’t see us. Iverson can’t hear us. He repeats this mantra to himself as he slides out of Iverson’s path, dragging a petrified Hunk after him. Lance and Hunk flatten themselves to the wall, and wait with bated breath for Iverson to pass them.

“Iverson!” a voice calls. “Hey, Iverson!”

Iverson stops. He turns around with an impressive scowl directed at the person calling out to him, directed at . . . Keith?

“I’m about to McFreaking lose it,” Lance says loudly.

Hunk squeaks in alarm but relaxes when neither Keith nor Iverson twitch.

“That’s Commander Iverson, Kogane,” Iverson says ill-temperedly.

Keith makes a face. “Commander Iverson,” he says reluctantly, “I wanted to talk to you about the Kerberos mission—”

“You’ve already said more than enough on the subject, Cadet,” Iverson snaps.

“Sir, if you would just listen to me—!”

“I’m done with this,” Iverson says dismissively.

Keith reaches out and grips Iverson’s wrist tightly. “I’m not done with this!”

“Iverson’s having a rough night,” Hunk whispers.

“I’ll never be done with this!” Keith continues. “Not until Shiro’s found, because Shiro’s not—he’s not—!” He chokes up.

“Wake up boy!” Iverson barks. “Shirogane is gone. Dead! And it’s past time that you accept that; it’s past time that you realize your precious idol was a mediocre pilot whose only legacy is going to be taking the rest of his crew down with him due to his own incompetence!

“As for you, the next step, the next toe, out of line and the only thing we’ll be ‘talking’ about is your expulsion!”

Keith’s hand slips from Iverson’s wrist to hang limply by his side. Iverson turns to continue on his way, and his footfalls as he walks away ring like a death knell. Keith stares after him unseeingly, his face a picture of devastation, though only for a moment. As Hunk and Lance watch, Keith pulls the pieces of himself back together, bit by bit, until all visible emotions are replaced with determination.

“Fine,” Keith says to himself. “I’ll find Shiro on my own.” His hands tighten into fists, and he stalks away.

Hunk expels a great sigh of relief once he and Lance are alone again. “Oh thank goodness. Man, that was close. Your Mist Flame is a life saver, I don't know why I'm always forgetting that you have Rain and Mist Flames, especially since I also have two Flame types. Haha, crazy what sticks and what doesn't, huh?” Hunk rambles.

Lance doesn't respond.

“Lance?” Hunk asks. He tugs on Lance’s sleeve. “Come on, buddy. Let’s find Pidge. Or, better yet, let’s go back to our room and go to bed.”

“There’s been a change of plans, Hunk” Lance says lowly, expression odd and intense.

“Bed?” Hunk says hopefully.

“No,” Lance says. “We’re following Keith instead.”


 

Keith is packing when Lance bursts in and exclaims, “Aha!”

Keith pauses in stuffing his spare fanny packs into his duffel bag. “. . .What?”

Lance jams a finger in Keith’s face. “You!” he says triumphantly. “You’re going to do something stupid!”

“I am not,” Keith says automatically.

“Yes, you are,” Lance accuses. “I can tell just by the fact that your mullet looks even more dumb than usual.”

“Who are you?” Keith says, confused and outraged.

Lance pulls back and flails in offence. “What do you mean, ‘who are you?’ I’m Lance, your rival! You know – Lance and Keith, neck in neck!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Keith says. “Now get out of my room. I’m in the middle of something.”

“You’re trying to find Shiro,” Lance says knowledgeably, crossing his arms and cocking a hip. “Well, too bad for you, because if anybody’s going to find Shiro it’s going to be me.” He points a thumb to his chest, either ignoring or ignorant of Keith’s darkening expression.

Hunk, who has been hanging back right outside the entrance to Keith’s room, does see it. “Uh, Lance. . . .”

“Shiro’s, like, my hero,” Lance says. “So, if there’s a chance he’s still alive, and there’s a search-and-rescue or something, I’ll totally be the first person to sign up. What were you planning on doing? Stealing a spaceship? Well, newsflash! The Garrison doesn’t have some super secret garage where they conveniently store all the ships that aren’t in use.”

“Lance. . . .”

Lance continues, tone matter-of-fact, “Even if you somehow actually got your hands on a ship, what are you gonna do? Just fly to Kerberos alone and risk your life for someone you can’t even say for certain isn’t already dead—?”

With an enraged cry, Keith lunges for Lance. He slams Lance into the wall, forearm pressed to Lance’s throat and hands engulfed in red Storm Flames.

“Lance!” Hunk shouts.

“You don’t get to talk about Shiro like that!” Keith shouts aggressively, right up in Lance’s face. “You have no right to talk about Shiro like that!”

Lance raises his hands cautiously until they’re parallel with his head. His eyes are wide and, when he speaks, his voice is slightly choked.

“Whoa,” he says. “You need to calm down, dude, before you do something that we’ll both regret.”

Keith applies more pressure with his forearm. “Don’t tell me what to do! Leave me alone!”

“Hey,” Hunk says, serious enough to get Keith’s attention. “If you don’t chill out in the next five seconds and stop threatening my friend, then the only thing that’s going to happen is me Tranquilizing you so hard you might slip into a coma.”

Keith looks back at Lance, whose eyes dart nervously between Keith and the Storm Flames disconcertingly close to his face. Keith drops his arm with a full-body flinch, and takes three steps back. The Flames covering his hands extinguish.

“W-what?” Keith stutters. “I wasn’t—I wasn’t threatening to—I wouldn’t—!”

“What the cheese was that, mullet?” Lance squawks after taking a few deep breaths. “You could’ve Disintegrated my face!”

Keith flounders, looking spooked. “I’m . . . I’m sorry. . . .” He looks between Lance and Hunk, then grabs his duffel off his bed and flees the room.

Lance stares after him in disbelief. He huffs. “Can you believe that guy?” he says to Hunk, then runs right after Keith.

“I can’t believe either of you,” Hunk says under his breath.

He runs after Lance.


 

When Hunk catches up to Lance and Keith, they have already exited the Galaxy Garrison building and are close to the edge of school grounds. The sun is nearly down, and they cast long and stringy shadows over the dry desert landscape. Hunk approaches Lance and Keith with staggering steps, wincing from the stitch in his side and fervently wishing to never run again for the rest of his life. He likes walking, he’s good at weight-lifting, and biking is acceptable; running, however, is the bane of his existence.

“You’ve lost your nut!” Hunk hears Lance shout.

“Guys,” Hunk wheezes.

“What do nuts have to do with anything?” Keith demands.

“Can we please go back to the Garrison?” Hunk pleads. Thankfully, Lance and Keith decide to stop running so they can argue with each other more easily. “We’re really close to being out of bounds, and we’re already way past curfew.”

“My God,” Lance says, throwing his hands up in frustration. “What are you, an alien? Seriously, what rock did you crawl out from under?”

“I’d rather be an alien than whatever you are,” Keith shoots back. “Now stop chasing me!”

“Dude—” Lance says.

“Stop calling me that,” Keith says. “I don’t even know you!”

“What the heck’s going on?” Pidge says, suddenly right beside Hunk.

Hunk shrieks.

“Whoa,” Pidge says. “Chill.”

“When did you get here?! How did you know we were here?!”

Pidge holds up a pair of binoculars. “I saw you from the roof,” he deadpans. “What’s up with Lance and the other guy?”

“The roof. . . ?” Hunk murmurs, then shakes his head forcefully. “Uh, Keith – the other guy – is . . . running away? And Lance is . . . trying to stop him?”

Pidge makes a skeptical noise. “Doesn’t sound like Lance.”

Lance notices Pidge then. “What are you doing out here?” he asks.

“What’re you doing out here?” Pidge counters. “Following someone else now? You’re so nosey.”

“Well,” Hunk says, “in the beginning we were following you again, but we got sidetracked and started following Keith.”

“Hunk,” Lance groans despairingly.

“What?” Hunk asks. “What did I do?”

“Nice to know that you stalk everyone and I’m not getting special treatment,” Keith says hotly. “Now go away.”

“No can do, mullet,” Lance says. “If you’re left alone, you’ll end up doing something stupid like stealing a rocket and blasting off to Kerberos all by yourself.”

“Kerberos?” Pidge says sharply. “What does Kerberos have to do with anything?”

Keith crosses his arms and looks away with a pout. He completely ignores Pidge’s question. “So what if I did that?” he says, tone sulky. “Shiro’s not dead, and the Garrison is lying!” He turns around and starts walking away.

“Hey! Hey, wait!” Pidge calls out, and starts after him.

“What are you going to do after you leave the Garrison, huh?” Lance asks tauntingly. “Will you live in a shack in the middle of the desert like some kooky hermit and come up with crazy conspiracy theories all day long?”

“Maybe I will!” Keith calls back defiantly.

The four of them are on the very edge of school grounds now. Beyond, the desert is scarred by deep canyons and blemished by large boulders. One such boulder towers right in front of them; Keith heads straight towards it, then walks around it. Pidge follows him intently, Lance doggedly, and Hunk trails behind all of them unsurely.

Tucked away behind the boulder is a red hoverbike partially covered by a tan tarp.

Keith pulls off the tarp, gets on the bike, and starts the ignition.

“Oh no. You’re not going anywhere without me, mullet,” Lance says, and hops on behind Keith.

“What? No,” Keith says. “Get off.”

Pidge climbs on next. “What do you know about the Kerberos mission?” he pesters Keith. “How do you know that the Garrison is lying?”

“Both of you get off!” Keith cries.

Hunk sighs heavily. “I’m going to regret this,” he says, then gets on the bike.

“Oh my God,” Keith says in exasperation. “You’re all so annoying.”

He revs the engine in defeat, and guns it.

Chapter Text

After maneuvering evasively around giant rocks and plunging off a cliff, Keith finally slows the hoverbike to a stop. Hunk lurches off the bike and staggers behind one of the many beige stones that loom over the four teenagers. His heaves echoed gruesomely. Lance slips off the bike and makes a sound in the back of his throat like he’s dying. A desert bug of some sort had flown into his mouth around the fifth time he asked Keith where he was taking them. Pidge seemingly teleports off the bike, pushing up his glasses and looking unruffled.

“Ugh. Ew. Nasty,” Lance says, complexion green. “The buggy aftertaste is even worse.”

“Bugs are a good source of protein,” Pidge says.

“I’d rather have a shake,” says Lance.

“A bug protein shake,” Pidge says thoughtfully.

“You’re unholy.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but – can you guys please-please-please stop talking about food?” Hunk asks, staggering over to the Lance and Pidge and rubbing his stomach soothingly.

“Technically,” says Pidge, “we were talking about drinks.”

Hunk gags. “Just stop talking about anything that can be consumed when everything in me wants to be expelled.”

Lance looks around. Keith had brought them to the middle of nowhere, where all that surrounded them were boulders taller than all four of them put together and the only thing that would hear their screams were desert critters and the cave mouths that periodically dot the outcropping of giant boulders.

Lance spots Keith up ahead. “Hey!” he calls, and bounds over to Keith. “Where do you think you’re going? And where are we? Where have you taken us? You know, this seems mighty suspicious. . . .”

“You didn’t have to come, you know,” Keith says.

“Yeah, well, neither did you!”

Keith shoots Lance a flat look. “I drove us here.”

“Why did you come here?” Pidge asks. “Does it have something to do with the Kerberos mission?”

“You’re really harping on that, aren’t you,” Lance says.

“Shut up!” Pidge snaps.

“Whoa, whoa,” Hunk says, waving his hands peaceably. “Let’s not fight. Hey, uh, Keith was it? Was there a specific reason you decided to run away to the desert and not, I don’t know, a circus?”

Keith stares at him blankly. “Who are you?”

“Savage,” Pidge says under his breath.

Hunk introduces himself. “—and these are my friends, Lance and Pidge.”

“Keith,” Keith says.

“Yeah, we kind of got that,” Lance says. “Now can you please explain why we’re here?”

Keith scrutinizes them individually. Lance tries to appear as genial as possible.

“Let’s walk and talk,” Keith says finally. He turns about-face and starts walking.

Pidge hurries after him.

Lance and Hunk exchange glances. Resignedly, Hunk says, “Guess we’re walking and talking.”

“Guess so,” Lance says, and starts walking.

“Why couldn’t we rest and talk?” Hunk complains.

“Less talking, more walking!” Lance calls over his shoulder.


 

“Let me get this straight,” Lance says. “You’ve been sneaking out of the Garrison to lurk in caves that have caveman graffiti because you can ‘feel’ something ‘drawing’ you out here.”

“Yeah,” Keith says. “And all the cave drawings have something to do with a blue lion.”

“Uh-huh,” Lance says indulgently. “Cavemen graffiti. Mystical feelings. Lions that are blue.”

“That’s what I said,” Keith says tersely.

Lance falls back to walk beside Hunk. “I don’t trust this guy,” Lance whispers loudly. “He’s definitely been eating some questionable desert mushrooms.”

Keith’s shoulders bunch up around his ears.

“I don’t think mushrooms grow in the desert,” Hunk says diplomatically.

“Cacti, then,” Lance says, not bothering to try and keep his voice down anymore. “Hallucinogenic cacti are a thing. I saw it in a movie once.”

“If you saw it in a movie then it must be true,” Keith says under his breath.

“What was that, mullet?”

“Lay off a bit Lance,” Pidge says. He’s nearly bent double, hunched over like an old man losing his battle to gravity. It’s because of his backpack, filled with tech and other miscellany, that he refuses to let anyone else touch, let alone carry. Hunk had offered first, soon after they all started walking, but Hunk is a known snooper to Pidge and Lance. It wasn’t a surprise when Pidge declined, and Lance wasn’t surprised that he was snubbed when he offered after.

“Thanks,” Keith says awkwardly.

“No problem,” Pidge says, smiling winsomely. “So . . . does this blue lion have anything to do with the Kerberos mission?”

“I don’t know,” Keith says.

“You don’t know?” Pidge says, sounding disappointed and irritated. “Then why are you even bothering with it? It’s a waste of time.”

Keith rakes a hand through his hair in frustration. “No, I – it’s just . . . I feel like it’s important. And . . . I don’t know that it doesn’t have anything to do with what happened to Shiro during the Kerberos mission, so.”

Keith looks at them expectantly, waiting for a response.

“I guess,” is all Pidge says.

Hunk yawns.

“Well, I still think you’re crazy,” Lance says. “And you know what else I think? I’ll tell you what I think. I think—AAAH!”

Keith, Pidge, and Hunk never find out what else Lance thought, however, because he is cut off by his own scream when the ground crumbles beneath him and he falls through a newly created hole.

“Lance!” Hunk shouts in panic.

“Whoa,” says Pidge. He pokes at the jagged edges of the crumbling rocks. “How did that even happen? Lance weighs, like, less than a string bean.”

“Lance?!” Hunk calls down the hole, looking ready to jump in himself. “Can you hear me?!”

“I’m fine,” Lance says, his voice made faint by distance. “But you guys might want to come down here and see this.”

“What is it?” Keith demands. “What have you found?”

“It’s a little hard to explain.”

“Okay,” Keith says. “We’re coming down.”

“Hey now, who’s this ‘we’ you’re talking about?” Pidge asks. “If I jump down there, my tech might get damaged!”

“Yeah, and . . . I don’t think I’ll – uh – fit, you know?” Hunk says, eyes darting nervously to the hole that may as well have been a black hole out in space for how dark it was.

“Fine,” Keith says dismissively. “Just stay here then.” He jumps and disappears into the hole.

After a silent moment, Hunk says, “We’re going to jump, aren’t we.”

“Yep,” Pidge says.

“I hate this.”

“Yep.”


 

When Keith jumps down the metaphorical rabbit hole, he is not expecting to have a mechanical blue lion looming over him once he reaches the ground. He is the one that saw the signs, the “cavemen graffiti,” and yet he still feels like the metaphorical rabbit hole he just jumped down must have been literal; he must be in Wonderland to have come across something this bizarre.

“Well, here’s your blue lion.” Lance says, sounding smug and startling Keith out of his gawking. “Your welcome.”

“Yeah. Thanks Alice,” Keith says, clapping Lance on the shoulder.

“Alice? Who in the heckies is Alice?” Lance asks.

Keith ignores him and wanders closer to the lion mecha. “It looks like there’s some kind of force field protecting it,” Keith murmurs, but still makes an involuntary noise of surprise when he presses his palm against the glowing blue force field and meets solid resistance.

“A force field, huh?” Lance says, suddenly and obnoxiously right beside Keith. “Are you sure?”

Keith knocks his knuckles against the force field a few times. “Pretty sure,” he says dryly, the low clunk-clink-clunk of his knocks still echoing.

Lance hums skeptically. “Maybe the lion’s just shy,” he says.

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever—”

“Yoo-hoo!” Lance calls, cutting Keith off.

Keith tries to ask who he’s talking to, but Lance makes a “Bzzt!” noise and mimes zipping his lips.

“Hello!” Lance says, staring up at the blue lion. “No need to be shy! You are a very beautiful lion! If I was into that sort of thing I’d totally be asking for your access code, if you know what I mean.”

“What do you mean?” Keith asks, flabbergasted.

Lance hushes Keith, then turns back to the gigantic robot lion. “I’d still like us to get to know each other, though, so will you please let us in?”

“That’s not going to work,” Keith says decisively.

“Pretty please?” Lance asks entreatingly, then he knocks on the force field, and it immediately drops.

“What,” Keith says flatly.

“Hah!” Lance crows. “I told you it would work!”

“You did not,” Keith protests. “You can’t just sweet talk a robot!”

“I can sweet talk anything,” Lance says with a leering grin.

Keith crosses his arms and scoffs. “As if,” he mutters.

Their argument is cut short – thank God, Keith thinks – by two high-pitched, harmonizing screams of terror that are abruptly cut short with a thud followed by an “Oomf.”

“Hunk! Pidge!” Lance says, and goes to help disentangle them.

Now that the force field is negated, Keith takes an unimpeded look at the lion. It is truly massive, towering over Keith and taller than a lot of houses that he’s encountered. Its eyes are lit a dull yellow from above a white, protruding muzzle, and its body is both blockish and streamlined, with a thick whipcord for a tail.

Keith frowns up at the lion, then turns around to look at the others.

“What do we do now?” he asks, looking specifically at Lance and interrupting Pidge and Hunk’s exclamations of amazement.

“Why are you asking me? It’s your lion!” Lance squawks, affronted.

“But you’re the one who got it to drop the force field,” Keith says.

“There was a force field?” Pidge asks, pushing up his glasses and squinting interestedly.

“You made a force field disappear?” Hunk asks.

“Yes,” Keith says.

“Where was it?” Pidge asks, coming to stand by Keith. Lance and Hunk follow.

“It was right around here,” Lance says, stepping forward and gesturing into empty space. He takes another step forward, into the space previously protected by the force field, and suddenly the ground lit up with electric blue markings. An image invades Keith’s mind: five lions (red, black, blue, green, and yellow) that come together and transform to make a giant humanoid robot, five times larger than the blue lion, that brandishes a sword of fire.

“Whoa,” Keith says after the image dissipates. He’s not the only one to voice the sentiment.

“You mean there are more giant robot lions?” Hunk asks excitedly. “Oh man, oh man. This is so cool!”

Then the blue lion robot seemingly comes to life and lunges, face first, towards Keith and the others. They all cringe away in unison. Pidge makes an inarticulate noise of apprehension and Hunk, when the lion starts to unhinge its jaw, retracts his previous statement: “Okay, I take it back! Not cool – not cool at all! Please don’t eat us!”

With an electrical whirr, the robot cat sticks a ramp out of its mouth like a metal tongue before it settles and makes no further movements.

“Calm down buddy,” Lance says, patting Hunk on the shoulder. “Even if it was going to eat us it’d still be cool.”

“Wow, thanks,” Hunk deadpans, looking not at all comforted.

“All aboard?” Lance says with a smirk before he heads straight up the ramp, into the lion’s mouth, and down its throat.

The ramp, Keith finds out once he enters the lion’s mouth with Pidge and Hunk, leads to the head of the lion – not the stomach.

“Why doesn’t this lead to the stomach?” Keith asks, frowning.

“Who cares about that?” Lance says.

Lance is sitting in the sole chair, right in front of the controls that Keith supposes control the lion robot, and Keith is trying to tamp down on the anxiety that Lance’s position inspires in him. Lance doesn’t seem to be the type of person to take anything seriously, if the short amount of time Keith has spent in his presence is anything to go by. It doesn’t inspire any confidence in his flying ability – not for Keith, at least – and it doesn’t help that the flight controls are unlabelled and out-of-this-world high tech.

Lance hums, eyeing the buttons on the control panel contemplatively. “I wonder what this does,” he says, and presses a button.

The wall in front of them appears to dissolve into blue pixels and what’s left is a view of the cavern where the blue lion was hidden.

“Very nice,” Lance says approvingly. He seems to take his success to heart and starts pressing buttons at random.

“Okay,” Hunk says. “It’s only just hitting me that we are inside a futuristic alien space cat right now. Are you guys freaking out? ‘Cause I’m freaking out!”

“Hunk, buddy, this is without a doubt the coolest. . .” Lance trails off, face slack and eyes vacant, before snapping back to awareness and exclaiming, “Whoa! Did you guys just hear that?”

“What are you talking about?” Pidge asks. “We didn’t hear anything.” Keith and Hunk nod in agreement.

“I think – I think the lion is talking to me,” Lance says. He eyes the controls critically, pushes a few buttons, then takes hold of the handles on either side of the control board and thrust them forward. The cockpit rattles as the lion gets to its feet, and Pidge and Hunk scream.

“Nice! Now let’s try something else,” Lance says. Then, before Keith can steady himself, the blue lion is taking off, breaking through the stone cavern walls like they’re a small inconvenience and flying out into open space. Lance pilots like he’s taking them on a joy-ride, weaving between towering boulders, diving towards the ground and activating the foot thrusters at the last minute, and flying in disorienting loop-de-loops.

Keith has never experienced motion sickness in his life until this moment. It’s not an experience he’s enjoying. Holding back his heaves and trying to settle his stomach through force of sheer will, he grits out with feeling, “You are—the worst—pilot—ever!” He’s not sure he’s heard over Hunk and Pidge screaming.

Lance pulls into a dive, and then they’re running on the ground and every bound the blue lion makes feels like it’s jarring Keith’s jaw loose.

Lance whoops, and Hunk begins to pray, “Make it stop. Make it stop.”

“This isn’t even me all my doing,” Lance says. “It’s like it’s on autopilot and I’m just along for the ride.”

“How much of it is your doing?” Pidge demands.

The lion shoots straight up into the sky.

“Uhh, not this,” Lance says apprehensively.


 

Yoshisato Sawada is in his assigned office at the Garrison and picking paint out from under his fingernails when, in his peripheral vision, he sees a large object moving outside his window.

He turns to look, and even before he sees the flying blue cat robot his intuition is filling him with dread. “Oh no,” he says faintly.

“What?” asks Fuku. Sat on Yoshisato’s chair, booted feet propped carelessly on Yoshisato’s desk, he doesn’t bother to look up from the trashy Harlequin romance novel he’s reading.

Fuku is a long-time friend of Yoshisato’s who regularly and randomly bypasses the Garrison security to visit Yoshisato. Together they make a peculiar pair from an outside perspective. Where Fuku’s face is sharp and intimidating, Yoshisato’s is rounded and inviting; where Fuku’s hair is a ridiculous blue (which is generally assumed to be the result of an expensive dye-joy and questionable taste) in a style that reminds people of a blueberry, Yoshisato has ordinary brown hair that is cut and styled in a military regulation haircut; where Fuku wore high-heeled boots and floral button-up shirts, Yoshisato stuck to his Garrison uniform. Regardless of their differences, the two maintain the close connection of friendship and the distant connection of family history.

“I get the feeling,” Yoshisato says, then swallows audibly. “I get the feeling I’ve just failed in my sacred duty.”

The Harlequin snaps shut. Fuku takes a moment to mourn the fact that the book isn’t a hardcover, which would be much more suitably dramatic, before he speaks.

“You only have one duty that is sacred, Yoshi,” Fuku says, low and accusing.

“I know,” Yoshisato whimpers. “They’re going to kill me.”

“And you’ll deserve it!” Fuku exclaims. “You lost their son! My apprentice!”

“Lance is not you’re apprentice, and it’s not my fault he’s gone off on some giant robo-cat!” Yoshisato says adamantly, then, muttering, “I bet Daemon’s behind this.”

“Daemon’s dead,” Fuku says, in such a tone that it suggests this is not the first time he’s had to say as such to Yoshisato and he’s getting tired of repeating himself.

Yoshisato scowls darkly. “That’s what everyone thought last time too.”

Fuku opens his mouth to say something cutting about Yoshisato’s useless grudge, then pauses as part of their conversation replays in his head on repeat. “Wait . . . did you say ‘giant robo-cat’?”