The mission goes to hell less than an hour in.
It’s supposed to be a simple in and out: infiltrate the enemy base, swipe some information on the trafficking routes of the dozens of Kthani prisoners detained from their homes, return to the castle. Pidge is in charge of downing the security systems long enough for Keith and Lance to get inside the more heavily monitored areas undetected, and Shiro and Hunk are on standby in case they need covering fire or a distraction in order to make their escape.
The base is disguised as a normal hotel, situated on the extremely hospitable Telk. The Galra haven’t made their rule known here yet, instead invading the government and controlling it from the highest ranks. The move isn’t anything like the Galra’s other tactics; they’re an empire, and want every species, every planet to be aware of their conquering. The Galra don’t do subtle, and the whole mission gives him a bad feeling.
He brought this up at the debriefing, mentioned how it didn’t quiet fit in with what they know about the enemy. And the others had agreed with him: the situation was odd. Keith may once have felt awkward telling the crew about his hunches, but, as Allura had said, the Red Lion has to be piloted by someone who relies more on instinct than on skill. Keith’s hunches aren’t always right, but he makes an effort to make them known. It’s better that they be over cautious than to be unprepared in the face of an attack that they could have prevented.
He isn’t willing to risk lives over something as dumb as a little insecurity about being right. He makes valid points when he presents his arguments, and the occasions that they manage to save the team some time, effort, or even lives well make up for the times that his predictions don’t come true. The others do the same; they’re a team, pooling their knowledge together for the greater good. There’s no room for hesitation in this war. They don’t have the luxury of holding back; if they don’t strike first, as hard as they can, then the Galra will overwhelm them and it’ll be game over.
If he’s being honest, he doesn’t know why Allura and the Kthani leader, Merian, decide to send him in with Lance. They do make a good team, when it comes to battle (when there’s no time for petty disagreements because there are lives and the liberty of the universe on the line), but they aren’t particularly suited to this mission. There’d been no room for arguments when Allura gave them their roles, however.
He ponders this as he prepares for the mission. According to the images provided by Merian, the planet looks like Earth does in cartoons, with its bright foliage and friendly inhabitants. Clouds drift lazily across the faintly purple sky, though they aren’t made up of evaporated water. Although, if Merian is to be believed, they rain a liquid toxic to all but the native peoples. Keith isn’t going to risk it. If the cloud cover becomes too heavy, they’ll either have to make a hasty retreat or find cover until the shower passes.
They’re to hitch a ride in the Green Lion, because Pidge hasn’t had the time to rig up cloaking devices in the other lions yet and they need to stay hidden from any watching Galra.
The people of Telk are humanoid, outwardly resembling humans in everything but skin tone. Telks are a range of colors. He finds no discernable pattern in the coloring, no obvious link to gender or age. Thankfully, the intel Merian and his advisors had provided prepared them for this. Before leaving the castle, Keith had been made to slather himself in dark purple body paint. When he’d gone to the hanger to meet up with Lance and the others, he’d found the other boy in the same state, looking vaguely harassed as Coran rubbed more paint over a spot on his face that he’d missed.
“My Aunt Grendelle used to vacation to Telk every so often,” Coran informed them, a slightly faraway look in his eye. “Her favorite part of visiting was tallying how many people of different colors she saw. After the last few visits she took, she said she was surprised by how many purple Telks she saw! It’s likely that the planet hasn’t changed much, so it’s safe to assume that you’ll go unnoticed if you’re purple.”
After being checked over for gaps in the coloring, he and Lance had boarded the Green Lion and listened to Pidge complain about the possibility of having to clean purple off of Green’s upholstery.
“Relax, Pidge, Coran sprayed us with sealer. We won’t get paint on anything.” Lance’d reasoned.
“You’d better not, or you’ll be the ones scrubbing it out. I don’t know what this seat is made of, but I don’t want to find out if it stains.”
“We’re only holding onto the seat because there’s no other way to stay upright. Right, Keith?” Lance looked at him expectantly, so Keith threw him a bone.
“Green’s pretty small, and we’re flying pretty fast. There’s not really another option.”
“Exactly!” He pointed at Keith, like he’d made a great argument instead of offering vague reasoning. “We should look into installing straps to hold onto, or something. Like on the subway.”
Most of the rest of the flight had been Pidge and Lance debating the usefulness of putting in bars. (“How often do we take passengers in our lions, Lance?” “Okay, I see your point, but they would be really useful for when we do have other people flying with us!” “You’re not tinkering with my lion!” “Well, we can put them in my lion, then, Blue wouldn’t mind!") By the time Telk came into view and Pidge activated the shielding device, he was itching to get the mission started. The faster they got the information, the faster they could rescue the Kthani.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Pidge says when she drops them off in a clearing, which Keith figures is as close to ‘good luck’ as they’re going to get from her. “Contact me when you need to be extracted, but try not to use your comms unless you have to. The Galra could be tracking the air waves.”
He and Lance should fit into the crowd fairly well, but Keith still finds himself worrying that they’ll be easy to spot, as members of a different species. They don’t know much about the culture here. They could botch the mission immediately if one of them says the wrong thing. Usually it isn’t a problem, because the aliens Keith is used to interacting with already know that the Paladins of Voltron are humans. They don’t do undercover missions often, and Keith curses Allura vaguely for sending him, the worst with words out of all of them, with Lance, who both never shuts up and has that weird, one-sided rivalry with Keith.
They walk for a short time until they reach the city, dragging fake luggage behind them. From there, it’s a simple matter of finding the hotel, checking in with the reservations Pidge hacked for them, and waiting for the right moment to infiltrate the Galra system. All they have to do is avoid talking to people for long periods of time, lest they be revealed as outsiders.
Their instructions really couldn’t have been any clearer, but they still manage to be screwed over nearly as soon as they enter the busy square a few streets over from their destination. Almost immediately, the attention of every Telk in the square is drawn to them - why, Keith has no clue. People of all colors look at them with something like awe. “Keep going,” he whispers to Lance. “This might be normal for them, but if it isn’t we need to clear out as soon as possible.”
“Right,” Lance agrees, turning towards the road that’ll lead them towards the hotel. “Just two normal Telk dudes, doing things that normal Telk dudes do. Nothing out of the ordinary he-RE!”
A family stands a few paces behind them, laden with shopping bags and, Keith notes with displeasure, clearly interested in them. The mother, skin bright orange, admonishes her daughter for staring at them, which neither he nor Lance had noticed amid the more blatant stares.
“I’m so sorry! It’s been such a long time since any Matched have visited the city, I don’t think she’s ever seen a pair before. Especially not a pair that are so similar! You must be identical!” She nudges her yellow daughter. “Chanya, apologize to these young men.”
Chanya makes an elaborate gesture with her right arm, pushing it straight to the side and looping her wrist around. “Please forgive me! Staring is rude, and even if I’ve never seen a Matched couple before, I shouldn’t have bothered you!” She looks at her mother as if wondering if her apology met her standards.
“Don’t worry about it,” Keith says, but Chanya keeps looking at him, like she’s waiting for something.
Beside him, Lance makes a little noise of understanding. He repeats the arm movement, smiling when the girl relaxes. Must be a cultural thing, Keith thinks, and files the information away for later. “Just be more considerate next time,” he says, smiling at her kindly, like he knows what’s going on. Then again, Lance has a better grasp of social situations than Keith does, so maybe he’s figured it out. In any case, he pulls off a sense of brotherly sense of wisdom and chiding that Keith could never hope to imitate.
Just to be safe, Keith makes the gesture too, and then the ladies are off, back to running whatever errands they’d been doing. “Alright,” he begins, after they’ve made their way to a significantly less crowded street. “Do you have any idea what just happened?”
“Not really,” Lance admits, tugging the sleeves of his commandeered shirt. They’re both outfitted in clothes from random closets in the castle, which they’d looted in search for the closest matches to Telk fashion they could find based off of Merian’s information. He suspects that the intel isn’t much fresher than what Coran had been able to offer them, because he and Lance are dressed noticeably fancier than most of the people in the square.
“What do you think she meant by identical?”
“No clue,” Keith admits. “I don’t know what ‘Matched’ means, either. But I think we’re standing out a lot more than we want to.”
Lance nods in agreement. “Good thing we’re here, then.”
The hotel looks nothing like the surrounding buildings; where the others are low to the ground, as if they’re trying not to be noticed, the hotel juts upwards into the sky proudly. Sculpted balconies overlook the streets below, the red tiles glittering sharply in the afternoon sun. Elaborate almost-columns decorate the front of the building, crooked in a way that seems to be by design. The tile is bright gold, complementing the earthier tones of the walls. It’s the grandest building around, with its tiny turrets and gleaming windows. Keith can see why the Galra chose to set up shop here, though it isn’t very discreet.
The receptionist perks up when they enter the lobby, sending a tired smile their way. She does a double take when her eyes catch up to her brain, then gapes, caught up on some detail that eludes Keith.
Lance clears his throat, and she starts, blushing and pushing her short hair behind her ears. “Hey there,” he says, leaning against the counter and smiling in a way that’s far too familiar for Keith’s comfort. “What’s a beautiful girl like you doing working in a place like thi-”
Keith stomps on Lance’s foot, causing the other boy to yelp. “Not the time,” he mutters, then turns to the receptionist. “We’d like to check in,” Keith says, handing her the paper with the information about their reservation. “Sorry about him, he’s an idiot.” He adds, shooting a glare at Lance. They’re here to get information, not to flirt.
“O-oh, it’s not a problem,” she says, typing the names on their reservation into the computer. She hands them a keycard and wishes them a nice evening, sounding apologetic for having been caught off guard by whatever it is that’s attracting attention to them. Keith would almost feel bad about the fact that they’re actually there to root around the hotel if it wasn’t for the Kthani relying on them.
“Dude,” he says when they’re out of earshot. “Can’t you take this seriously?”
“I wasn’t hurting anything! How could a little flirting go wrong?”
“Did you already forget about what happened with Nyma?”
Lance makes a small choking noise. “First of all, low blow. Secondly, I’m sure Nyma was appropriately charmed, despite being a lying space thief.”
“Right,” Keith says, not bothering to hide the doubt he feels. “Whatever, let’s just get going.”
They manage to get into the staff only sections of the hotel with relatively little trouble. Lance picks the lock while Keith keeps watch for any staff members. Pidge is supposed to have taken out the cameras, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no one around to catch them in the act.
“Hunk and I used to sneak out all the time at the Garrison,” Lance says, smiling widely. It takes Keith a moment to register that Lance is offering an explanation as to why he knows how to pick locks. “We’d try to get Pidge to come with us, sometimes, but she always said no. I know why, now, but at the time we just thought that she was hardcore antisocial.”
Keith isn’t quite sure what to say to that; even if he’d wanted to keep the conversation alive, a stealth mission wasn’t exactly the place to be discussing teenage antics. He settles for giving a flat hum, then ducks into the reserved section.
At first, it seems as if their mission might have been in vain. They don’t find anything suspicious, no signs of battle or Galra occupation. Not even a computer they can hack.
Then they find the office.
It looks like it belongs to the manager, and after Lance busts the lock, it doesn’t take them long to uncover an access port. Keith isn’t a tech genius like Pidge, but between the two of them they manage to do a system download of all files.
As they retreat back towards the foyer, Keith and Lance exchange a look. It feels too easy, to stumble across the computer system and find it completely unguarded. Either the Galra were extremely confident that their plot wouldn’t be discovered, or -
A door slams open just ahead of them, revealing a string of Galra soldiers.
Or it was a trap. Lovely.
After they take out the Galra tailing them, they run down the streets back towards the crowded square. It’s darker than when they went in, and Keith is alarmed to see that the clouds above them have thickened. The air is heavy with a scent that’s not unlike how it smells before it rains on Earth.
Lance seems to have the same realization as he did, skittering to a stop underneath the awning of what looks like a café and pulling Keith with him. A moment later, the rain starts. It sizzles on contact with the earth below them. Keith huffs, catching his breath.
“Put your bayard away,” Lance pants between breaths, his bayard already deactivated and on its way back into his coat.
“What? Are you nuts?”
“Put it away! If the Telk see them, our cover will be blown! Well, more than it already is.”
As much as Keith hates the thought of not having his weapon handy now that the Galra know they’re here, he can see Lance’s point. There’s no time to argue, anyways. With a sigh, he deactivates his bayard and pushes it into the folds of the weird overshirt he’s wearing.
There’s not really much to do but go inside. The Galra would expect them to make a break for it, not to hide in plain sight. At least, that’s the best he and Lance can come up with; they’re stranded here unless they find some sort of umbrella, and they’ll look suspicious if they just stand outside.
Inside is empty save for the wait staff. Keith panics momentarily when they’re approached by a barista with blue skin, but Lance just smiles at him cheerfully.
Keith watches in mild horror as Lance talks, certain that he’s going to get them thrown out. They don’t have any money, and if Telk customs are anything like human customs, the owner isn’t going to like that they’re hanging around and not buying anything. But, to his surprise, he manages to talk around that issue and bring up the possibility of them borrowing rain protection gear, if they had any and wouldn’t mind lending it to them too terribly?
“We don’t mind helping you,” says the barista, looking slightly enamored. Keith can’t believe that Lance’s flirting actually worked on an alien. Or anybody. It must the a first. “But would you mind - could you possibly - ah, nevermind! I was about to ask something incredibly invasive of you, my apologies.” He makes the gesture from earlier, and this time Keith beats Lance to the punch in replicating it.
“I’m sure whatever it is isn’t that bad, as long as it won’t take too long,” he says cautiously, looking at Lance. He shrugs almost imperceptibly. There’s not really much of a way around doing whatever is asked of them - they need to get back to the extraction point sooner rather than later. Every moment they’re here is another that Keith feels like a sitting duck.
The barista brightens, shoulders relaxing and grinning openly. “It wouldn’t take long at all! As you’re Matched, I’m sure you get asked all the time, so while you may be used to it, it would bring us great pleasure if you would… you know…”
Keith doesn’t know, but the baristas behind the counter all sigh dreamily. Without really knowing why, he breaks into a cold sweat. Dread pools in his gut, but he ignores it. How bad can whatever the barista has in mind be?
He blinks. “You know. Kiss?”
Very bad, apparently.
“Just a small one, of course, I would never dream of asking you to do more than that in a place like this!” He laughs, as if it was totally normal to ask strangers to kiss just so they could borrow an umbrella. It must be, for the Telk, but it makes Keith’s face burn.
“O-oh! Of course,” Lance stammers. How is his face not red? He doesn’t even look that surprised, managing to cap his nerves by giving Keith a look that he guesses is supposed to convey fond exasperation. It falls somewhere around affronted panic. “We get that all the time.”
Keith has never been that great at reading people, but it’s blatant that the baristas all think that he and Lance are… whatever this planet’s equivalent of dating is. What did the lady on the street call them? Matched? The barista said it too. He doesn’t want to think about why they’ve come to that conclusion.
His floundering must be evident to Lance, because the other boy takes the lead. “Just a small one, right?” He says, and though he’s addressing the barista, Keith feels as if he’s asking Keith for permission. Their eyes lock, the message in them clear as day. Is this okay?
Surely they could find some other way to get through the rain, or just wait it out. But they don’t have the time for any of that, so Keith forgoes nodding and rocks up on his toes. Keith has always done things on his own terms, and even though the decision has been taken out of his hands this time, he’d still rather be the one to initiate it. There’s less suspense that way. Lance makes a tiny sound of surprise when their lips connect and something in him twinges.
The barista claps; in the background, the others make their own noises of celebration. Keith can’t really focus on them; he’s preoccupied with the press of Lance’s lips against his own. It’s a little sloppy, because Keith has never kissed anyone, let alone kissed Lance, and he hopes it isn’t too obvious that they’re unfamiliar with doing this.
He pulls back almost immediately, clears his throat before he tries speaking. “About that umbrella…” His voice sounds weak, and Lance avoids his eyes by watching the barista expectantly.
“Coming right up!” He gestures to one of his coworkers, who disappears into the back room. “We so seldom see such lovely couples around here, and it's really something special when Matched show affection for each other. It's really not too different from the rest of us doing it, I suppose, but half the fun is knowing that the people are incredibly well suited for each other, you know? The last time anyone of your color came to our city, my great grandfather was still a boy! That was thousands of years ago, can you believe?” The barista’s chatter does little to disperse the tension in the air, not that he seems to notice it.
“Ah. Then it’s lucky we came here, I guess.” Lance says, voice sounding odd. Keith barely places the tone as stifled irritation before he realizes that instead of blending in by being purple, they’d made themselves a spectacle. He’s going to kill Coran.
“Indeed! Good luck getting home, boys. Come visit again soon!”
They have to squeeze together under the umbrella, and as soon as they’re out of view of the café, they run. Keith rings Pidge up on the comms, omitting everything except that they needed a pickup stat. “‘Of course’?” He repeats as they push through the Telk crowding the streets. “Aliens ask us to kiss for them and you say ‘of course’?” Now that the moment’s over, his embarrassment is eclipsed by anger. Of course this would happen. When did anything ever go right for them?
They turn off the roads and back into the forest. “What else was I supposed to do, be rude to them? We would have never gotten out of there!”
Lance is right, Keith knows that, but he feels like fighting. Embarrassment and anger were closely associated emotions for him, and Keith doesn’t think that he’s ever been this embarrassed before. But the mission isn’t over yet, they’re stuck under a tiny umbrella together, and there’s nowhere for Keith to go to cool down. They keep moving in a terse silence that neither of them bother to break until they’re back in the clearing, waiting for Pidge.
“Let’s never mention what happened in there to anyone, ever.” He blurts, deliberately not looking at Lance. He doesn’t want to know if Lance is avoiding his eyes or not. He determinedly doesn’t feel bad about the fact that the Telk barista isn’t going to get his umbrella back. It’s the only form of revenge Keith can get against him, and he’ll take it. He's never claimed not to be petty.
“Oh thank God, I thought I was going to have to say something.”
They don’t say anything else until the Green Lion comes into view and Pidge demands the details of their mission.