"Come on come on come on, gotta move, gotta move faster."
The other paladins would laugh if they could hear Lance talking to himself. Well, muttering. He was trying to keep it low, quieter than the sounds of soft, heavy weight scraping over rock. Sweat beaded on his forehead, his arms straining as he hauled the unconscious weight of Coran backward through the tunnel with both arms wrapped around Coran's chest under his armpits. Quiznak, Coran was heavy. He didn't look that big, but he must be made of solid muscle or something. Maybe Alteans were more dense than humans. Made sense, with their shapeshifting abilities.
Another small explosion back the way they'd come had Lance cursing and speeding up, then righting himself after a minor stumble. He kept looking over his shoulder to make sure he wouldn't run into anything, but it was getting harder to see back in this tunnel. The mining lamps along the walls were getting farther and farther apart as he traveled downward.
"Coran, my man, you getting closer to waking up?" Hope perked up Lance's voice. This would be much easier if Coran could help move himself, even if he still needed support. Lance's back and neck were beginning to throb.
Holy crow, Lance hurt. It felt like his entire body had sustained a horrible sunburn, the kind that didn't seem that bad at first, but would get worse and worse until by midnight you were whimpering in your auntie's lap asking for the pain to stop while she smoothed aloe over your back. It took a lot for Lance to get a sunburn, but his love for the ocean and all things watersport-related had made him push his limits too far more than once.
But he was wearing his full armor, everything but the helmet, so it couldn't be a sunburn. Lance had only meant to take his helmet off for a few moments so he could get a better look at the refinery setup. It was totally cool, and he had been glad that he had volunteered to accompany Coran on his tour of the mines. Every machine had been working in such perfect harmony, picking up the carts off the conveyor belts at exactly the right times, moving them and dumping them into the blast ovens, and so on and so forth, more stuff than Lance could understand. He had been in the middle of turning to ask Coran to explain it to him when the explosion went off.
Still, Lance's armor must have saved him at least a little, because he was conscious while Coran, wearing no armor, had gotten knocked out. And he had been unconscious for... Quiznak, way too long. It was really starting to worry Lance. Did Alteans go into hibernation or something when they were injured?
Lance wished he was heading toward the surface right now, toward help, instead of deeper into the mines. But he couldn't risk it. After the explosion, they'd been separated from their tour guide, and a voice had started blaring about a radiation leak and how they had to all get out, and there were lights flashing, and Coran was on the ground, and Lance knelt down to shake his shoulders and nothing happened, nothing... And then people with guns emerged from the tunnels and the guards started shooting at them, and Lance knew they had to bug out.
The government leaders had mentioned something about a dissident faction causing problems on the planet, but they had said it was contained. Any fighting was supposed to be far away from the capital. Team Voltron really should stop taking what politicians said at face value.
Lance's entire face felt hot and itchy, and he was panting. Radiation leak... Maybe that explained the burnt feeling all over his body. Heck and darnation, this was probably really, really bad.
He could still hear shouting and yelling, but it was more muffled and distant now. Lance's arms were shaking, and he knew he couldn't do this much longer. He looked around and saw an off-tunnel that looked entirely dark. No lamps that way. It would have to do.
He hauled Coran the last distance into the darkened mouth of the tunnel. Except it wasn't a tunnel. It was more like a storage room, a circular space hewn out of the rock, piled with crates and barrels. Must be mining equipment or something.
Perfect. This was exactly what he needed; a semi-hidden place off the main passages where they could hole up and wait out the fighting, then figure out what to do afterward. Lance dragged Coran back behind the crates, hidden from the opening but still with some light filtering through. He tried to set Coran down gently, but it was closer to a drop as his arms gave out at the last second.
Lance fell to his knees beside him, heaving and trembling. He hurt. Hurt all over, and it wasn't getting better. Panic began to rise in his throat. He didn't know what to do.
Hide. Hide them better. Lance forced himself to his feet and started rearranging the crates, pulling some down from stacks and piling them in a row at least two high to block off the entrance. His arms shook. His skin burned. He was getting weaker by the second, and he didn't know why. But he had to hide Coran. Had to keep him safe.
His armor felt wrong. Everything itched against his skin. Lance sat beside Coran and rubbed his hands up and down his arms, trying to catch his breath. He felt hot and cold at the same time. Mostly itchy, though. He wanted to find a pile of sand and roll around naked in it. Everything felt...off. His entire body, even his brain as it buzzed inside his skull.
Something was wrong. Something was seriously wrong.
Lance stared at Coran's face, barely visible in the dim light. "Please wake up, please wake up." It was a whisper, or maybe a whimper. Coran would know what to do. He would whip open these crates of equipment and figure out how to make a powerful communication device that could punch through the miles of rock and get a message out to the team or something. Lance couldn't do that. He could hardly breathe now, throat tightening up.
The armor didn't feel right. Barely thinking, barely aware of what he was doing, Lance started to strip it off. The cool air of the tunnel felt good on his face, so he took off his gloves, too. He left everything in a messy pile, like when he got home after a day at the beach and wanted to take a shower to rinse off the salt. Day at the beach...was that why his skin felt so tight and painful? Did he get a sunburn?
His thoughts were starting to run together. Soon they wouldn't make any sense at all. Down to the black undersuit, Lance crawled further into the storage room, leaving behind the unconscious man in the middle of the floor next to the pile of blue-and-white armor. He curled up on his side and covered his face in his hands, trying to block out his surroundings. Everything was weird and scary. Everything hurt. Why did it hurt so much?
Lance panted for breath, fighting to keep down the noises of pain that wanted to escape his lips. He knew he needed to hide, though he wasn't sure why. Bad things were happening. Bad people were out there in the dark. He heard scary noises, confusing and far away. What if they got closer? What if they found him? A tiny whimper of fear ran away from him, and he bit down on the edge of his hand to stifle himself as tears slipped out of his eyes.
The pain was getting worse, not just on his skin but everywhere, inside him, every part of him. It all hurt. It ached and burned and stung and tingled and itched. Lance curled up as tight as he could and tried to muffle the noises that kept getting out of him despite his best efforts.
The pain got worse and worse. It built to a crescendo, terrible and overwhelming. Lance wanted to scream, but he didn't have the strength. Everything was wrong, wrong, wrong. He wanted to tear his skin off, but he couldn't move his hands.
Finally, thankfully, blessedly, it all went dark.
Coran woke. He sat up like a soldier on alert and found himself somewhere he didn't know, dark and crowded with dim shapes, cold rock underneath him. He could feel the tremors in his body that meant his Altean physiology had been forced to adapt to some large change. Perhaps he had recovered from an injury?
He looked around, trying to put the pieces together. He was surrounded by rock, and the dim shapes were crates piled in front of him, blocking off the entrance of a cave opening. He strained his ears but couldn't hear anyone nearby.
Not a cave opening. A tunnel opening. He and Lance had gone to inspect the operation of the Kazostian mines. This was why they had sought out this planet looking for an alliance—Kazost was still free of Galra rule, and they had resources needed on the castle-ship for maintenance of some of their key systems, including a particular mineral both mined and refined here, raanthium.
He remembered an explosion, then nothing. Where was Lance? Wait a second... His paladin armor was here, piled next to Coran. Coran picked up the breastplate and ran his hand over it. No scorch marks, so they must not have been too close to the blast, but the concussive effects still might have been dangerous.
In any case, Lance must have been here not long ago. He had dragged Coran into this room and hidden him behind these crates. Which meant Lance thought there was a reason to be afraid. Coran tilted his head and strained his ears, but he still couldn't hear anything from outside. The fighting must be over, for now, but that didn't mean it was safe to emerge.
Coran heard a tiny, muffled sniffle. He whirled around, heart racing. It had come from inside this room. It had to be Lance, but it didn't sound right. Didn't sound like him. It sounded like a child. Peering through the dimness, he saw what looked like a bundle of dark cloth at the back of the room, huddled on the ground.
Coran got up on his hands and knees and crawled over, moving slowly and cautiously. The bundle of cloth shivered and shook, and a tiny sob sounded. Coran hadn't even seen whoever this child was, and his heart was already breaking for the poor thing. Maybe Lance had rescued a civilian and hidden them with Coran while he went to find help. But why would he leave his armor behind?
"There, there," Coran soothed, reaching out. His hand touched down on the bundle, which jerked with a sharp intake of breath, then went still as stone. Coran smiled painfully. The child was holding their breath to not make a sound.
Then Coran frowned. This cloth felt familiar, at a brushing touch. It was...it was the undersuit that came with the paladin armor. Not only had Lance abandoned his armor, he'd left his undersuit behind? Had he changed clothes to blend in with the natives for some reason?
Coran rubbed his hand over the lump that he thought was the child's head, firm enough to be comforting but soft enough not to pressure them. "Are you all right? My name is Coran, and I'm with Voltron. We're here to defend you and protect you. Can you tell me your name?"
The child shuddered, then drew in another breath. "C'ran?"
Coran wasn’t certain, but the child sounded male. He smiled widely, making sure that it would show in his voice. "Yes, that's me. Coran. Would you mind showing me your face? I know it must be very scary and strange here, but I promise that you're safe with me. I won't let anything bad happen to you."
For a moment, he thought the child might not respond. But under the sheltering cloth, the child pressed his head into Coran's palm resting against him as if desperate for comfort. "Okay." Such a tiny voice.
The cloth rustled and began to move. After a few seconds, a head popped out of the proper hole, and the suit sagged around small shoulders, drooping down one arm. The person thus revealed was indeed a small boy. A small boy with lovely brown skin and curly dark hair and beautiful blue eyes, blinking up at Coran. His chubby face was solemn but not, for the moment, afraid.
Coran's breath stuttered. This face... It looked familiar. The native Kazostians were a mammalian species, but they still had most of their fur. This face was hairless, like that of an Altean. Or a human. In fact, the ears were small and round like a human's, too. And those features, that coloring...
Oh. Oh dear.
Coran moved his hand again, back up to the child's head to sweep carefully through his hair. The boy let his eyes fall half-shut with a small sigh. He had been terribly afraid, yet he trusted Coran now with very little prompting. Such naivete could be dangerous in such a perilous universe, but it was also ridiculously endearing.
"That's a good lad. Thank you for showing me your face." Coran bent close to the boy and spoke lowly, as if sharing secrets between friends. "Now, do you think you could tell me your name?"
The boy blinked, then shifted closer to Coran. He was shivering. He was naked under the loose cloth that covered him, no longer a fit, no longer doing enough to warm him. Coran pulled the boy into his arms and cuddled him close, wrapping both the flexible armor and the white coverall beneath more closely around him. The boy pressed his face into Coran's shoulder and mumbled his answer there.
"'M Lance. It's scary here. You mean it, Unka C'ran? 'M safe with you?"
Coran swallowed. His heart felt fair to burst. "I mean it," he murmured. “You're safe with me. I guarantee it."
Coran turned his back to the wall and settled down, cradling Lance on his chest. Lance nestled against him, still sniffling now and then, but his tears had all but stopped. His body was limp and relaxed against Coran's, one small hand sneaking out of the bundle of cloth to touch the hollow of Coran's throat. The simple touch seemed to steady him, a constant reminder that Coran was literally at his fingertips.
Coran's mind was racing. He remembered an explosion, but nothing after that. Had it taken place in the main blast oven? If so, it would have caught the raanthium in its most unstable state. If a large amount of raanthium had been ignited by a high temperature in an unstable state, it would have caused a radiation leak.
Raanthium radiation could have odd effects, but mostly it was dangerous, causing painful burns not only on the skin but on internal organs. If the radiation was a large enough dose and wasn't treated in time, the organs could break down, leading eventually to death. Kazostians were resistant to it, having evolved on this planet, and Altean physiology also adapted to most forms of radiation without incident. It was a useful trait for a space-faring race, since strange and dangerous forms of radiation could be encountered in many unexpected places in the universe.
But he'd never heard of raanthium radiation having an effect like this. Lance did not seem to be burned or injured, and indeed didn't even seem to be in pain, otherwise his cries would be much different in note and intensity. Lance's tears had been caused by fright and confusion, and now they were subsiding with the comfort of Coran's presence.
Coran nudged his fingers into Lance's hair and gently rubbed against his scalp. Lance made a small noise of appreciation. "Lance?" Coran kept his voice soft. "Do you know where we are? What do you remember?"
Lance shivered and whined, pressing his nose into Coran's neck. "Dunno. Woke up here and it was scary and I was scared."
"Do you remember falling asleep? Where were you? Was it here?"
Lance shifted uncomfortably but didn't pull away. Coran could feel the fear and tension in his body, in the bow of his back. He rubbed his hand up and down the child's spine, slow and steady. "Umm… ‘Sall fuzzy. I 'member... Hot. It hurt. I was scared. Had to hide. Then just...hurt. It hurt and hurt. Went all weird. I think I fell 'sleep then."
Coran hummed in acknowledgement, but did his best to give no indication of how distressing this was. Lance remembered the moment his body had changed, at least vaguely. And it had been extremely painful and frightening. He pressed his hand on the child's back more firmly, and Lance relaxed somewhat, though he was still tense.
"Let's try a different question, all right? I'm sorry if this is hard or painful for you to remember, but I'm trying to figure out what happened to you. It seemed like you didn't know me when you saw my face. Is that true? You didn't know who I was?" How many memories had Lance retained?
Lance shifted, but again made no move to pull away. "Didn't 'member your name. But you told me, so now I know. You're Uncle Cranberry."
Coran's heart leaped in his chest. Well, this was adorable. Much, much too adorable. He choked it down and tried to speak reasonably. "Ah, yes, that is... That is acceptable. Perfectly acceptable. You can call me Uncle Cranberry. Would you like that?"
Lance nodded enthusiastically against his shoulder. His arm moved farther out of the sheltering cloth to wrap around Coran's neck, though he shivered when he felt the cool air on his bare skin. "Yes, please. Uncle Cranberry."
"All right. Good. That's good. So you didn't remember my name, but you remembered who I was? You knew that I was your friend somehow, even though you didn't know why? Does that sound right?" It would explain why he had trusted Coran so quickly and easily. Also, Coran thought Lance had had a slight lisp earlier, but now it had all but vanished. Perhaps his memories were slowly returning to him after the traumatic change had overwhelmed him. This current...deageification might heal on its own with no intervention.
Lance sighed uncomfortably and shrugged against him. Good enough. Coran petted his hair. "Do you remember anyone else? A lady with white hair, perhaps, or a big friend of yours who likes to dress in yellow?"
"I...I think so."
"Okay. That's very good, my boy. Thank you. You don't have to try to remember anymore if you don't want to. I know it's hard."
Lance blew out a big breath of relief and relaxed completely, going boneless in Coran's hold. Coran maneuvered him to rest more snugly against his shoulder and chest, then lifted his head and craned to look over the crates that blocked the entrance of the storage room. He still couldn't see anything, and if he wanted more information he was probably going to have to get up and look. He didn't want to expose Lance, though, and he also didn't want to put him down, so he was stuck for the moment.
He strained his ears, and this time he thought he heard distant voices. They were definitely Kazostian, but he didn't recognize them, so he had no idea if they were friendly or hostile. Whoever had set off a bomb in a highly dangerous and unstable area was no foe Coran wanted to tangle with, not with a vulnerable child to protect and his own body still recovering.
The voices slowly drew closer. Coran's shoulders tensed against the wall behind him, but he did his best not to telegraph his unease to the child in his arms. Lance was still and silent without being told, aware that they were hiding here. He withdrew his arm from Coran's neck and tucked it back into the blankets, shivering and hiding his face under Coran's chin.
Coran hoped that the voices would choose a different tunnel, but luck was not with them today. They continued to come closer, and now he could make out the tone. They sounded hushed and worried, and he couldn't be certain, but he thought that they were female. That didn't mean much—terrorists could certainly be female as well as male—but it might give him a physical edge if he had to face them.
"Are you sure that it was this tunnel system that Vrax saw someone flee down?" the first voice asked, worry clear in the tone. "If it wasn't this one, we might be wasting our time."
"I'm sure it's this one," the second voice said, much more confident. "Can't you smell it? Fear pheromones, and not Kazostian. The aliens were here."
"Oh." Sniffing. "Yes, I smell it now. The raanthium residue was obscuring it. I forgot how sensitive your olfactory senses are."
Pride in the second voice. "I've always been a good sniffer."
"Ah, it's over here."
The voices had almost reached the storage room. Coran held his breath, though he knew it wouldn't make a difference. They were going to find him no matter what he did. He should set Lance down and prepare for a fight.
But Lance whimpered and shuddered, pressing his face even harder into Coran’s throat. Coran's heart juddered, and his arms tightened around the child in pure reflex. The sound was tiny, almost inaudible, but as soon as it left Lance's lips, the voices in the tunnel outside stopped.
"Did you hear that?" The first voice was solemn now.
"I did. They are here."
Two figures stopped outside the row of crates that blocked the entrance of the storage room, obscured at this angle. They paused. Coran drew in a breath, then shifted Lance to rest against his hip in one arm and pushed himself to his feet. He moved to stand over the pile of armor, not that it could offer any sort of protection. He just felt better being near it.
When he rose tall enough to be seen over the crates, the two Kazostians on the other side turned to face him immediately, eyes widening. One was slightly shorter and rounder than the other, with darker fur, but both appeared to be female. Their short, round ears on the top of their heads pulled back in a sign of intimidation, as Coran towered over them by more than a head, but they held their ground.
The shorter one looked at the taller one. "I told you." This was the owner of the second voice, the one who had proclaimed herself to be a good sniffer. The other one nodded shortly, not taking her eyes off Coran.
"Ah, you are the Altean advisor, correct? Coran?"
Coran saw no point in denying it. He nodded carefully, then hefted Lance up on his shoulder as the child pressed into him, trembling at the proximity of the strange voice. "Yes, that's me. Are you with the mine? The Kazost government?"
The Kazostians looked at each other, then both bobbed a bow to him, deep and apologetic, their hands on their knees. Still bending low, the taller woman said, "We do most strenuously apologize, Master Coran. If we had known guests from another world would be visiting today, we would not have attacked the refinery."
Coran sucked in a breath. So these two were part of the group that had set the bomb. But they had not attacked him yet and did not even seem to be bearing weapons. If the group had wanted to capture him and Lance, they would have been better served sending well-armed soldiers, not what appeared to be two civilians, one of them trained in diplomacy. What was going on here?
The women straightened, and the taller one gestured at herself, an elegant movement of the hand with all four digits closed. "I am Thorlia." She indicated the other woman. "This is my companion, Aneen. We are with a resistance front called KAGT. Would you please come with us? We vow that we mean no harm to you or to your..." She paused, blinking at Lance with her big, dark eyes, almond-shaped and set back in her furry face. "Is that...a child?"
Aneen looked around, sniffing the air conspicuously with her snub, whiskered snout. "Where is the Blue Paladin? He must have accompanied you. I'm almost certain that it was his pheromones that led us here. Is he hiding back there on the floor? We promise we mean no harm to him, either."
Coran wrinkled his nose. There was no help for it. His best option at this point was to trust these women and hope for the best. If they were lying or trying to lead him into a trap of some sort, he would have to fight his way out later. For now, he and Lance needed assistance.
He sighed and shifted his weight to angle Lance a little closer to the women, then turned his head and spoke directly to him. "My boy, can you look at the nice ladies? There's no need to be shy."
Lance was still hiding his face against Coran's shoulder. At this he shivered and shook his head vigorously, then pressed even closer, his shoulders hunching up around his ears. Coran sighed and looked back to Thorlia and Aneen. "This may strain your credulity, but the child here is the Blue Paladin. Lance of Earth. I'm not sure what happened, as I was unconscious at the time, but I believe the raanthium radiation had an...unusual effect on him."
Aneen gasped, and Thorlias hands rose to cover her mouth, eyes wide with horror. After a moment, she mastered herself and lowered her hands so she could speak again. "This is...this is terrible news, Master Coran. I assure you, we never meant to do such harm to a hero of Voltron."
Lance whined, and Coran rocked him on his hip. "Well, I don't know that he's been harmed, really. He doesn't seem to be in any pain. He's just...young. For some reason. And he's frightened and confused by these events, which I think is quite reasonable."
"Oh dear. We must rectify this immediately." Thorlia waved her hand, and Aneen jumped to shove the crates aside to make a hole. The Kazostians were a tough, strong race, even the females, built for digging and moving. The crates were rearranged in a twinkling, and Thorlia and Aneen stepped back to make room for Coran's egress.
Thorlia waved her hands, beckoning him out. "Come, come, we need to get back to our headquarters. We have medical equipment and scanners there to figure out what happened to the Blue Paladin and how to reverse it. The effects of raanthium radiation have been well-documented on Kazost, even rare ones like this. One of our doctors is sure to know what to do."
Coran raised his eyebrows, but stepped out of the storage room. Lance's small hands moved up within the bundle of cloth to grip his shirt. "You've heard of this happening before?"
Thorlia shook her head reluctantly. "Oh, not this effect, exactly, but raanthium does so many strange things... I'm sure someone has heard of it."
"Ah." Coran paused and looked back at the pile of armor on the floor. He cleared his throat. "I hate to impose, but could we bring Lance's things? They're cumbersome to carry now that they won't fit on him, I'm afraid..."
"I've got it." Aneen moved back, all practicality, and started gathering the pieces in a mesh bag she retrieved from her belt. Thorlia was already trotting down the tunnel, waving for Coran to follow. Coran jogged after her. Kazostians moved fast.
He caught up with Thorlia and kept pace. Lance had wrapped his legs around Coran's waist as much as he could, and Coran kept his arm tight around his back to hold him steady. "You know, Thorlia," he said in his smoothest, most rational voice. "If you would truly like Lance and me to trust you, you might want to explain exactly what you were hoping to accomplish by setting off a bomb in a dangerous refinery while there were people present."
Thorlia darted a glance at his face, and while Coran was not as skilled as Allura at reading Kazostian expressions, he did believe that was guilt in her eyes. "No one was supposed to be there. The refinery is fully automated, after all. It was just supposed to be...a message. We found out too late about the arrival of Voltron and your trip to inspect the mines, and we sent some runners to try to shut down the bomb we'd planted several turns ago, but we were too late."
Coran hummed. She seemed sincere. It might be deception, though. Or she could be saying what she wanted to believe, while the truth was different. "It was unwise of your faction to set a bomb without an option for remote disarmament."
"That's true. We will have to review our procedures for the future." Thorlia looked down at the ground ahead of them, then up when they reached an intersection of tunnels. Without pausing, she turned to the right and kept going.
Aneen had caught up with them, the bag full of Lance's armor rattling over her shoulder. When Thorlia seemed downhearted, she gave Coran an unmistakable glare. Quite protective, this one. Coran wondered what exactly her relationship was with Thorlia. "Companion" did not seem to capture all of the nuances. Childhood friend? Bodyguard? Both?
Thorlia drew a breath and looked back to Coran. "I must beg your forgiveness and indulgence again, Master Coran. We are a very young resistance front, unfortunately, and we are still learning our way."
Coran's mustache twitched. "And what exactly are you resisting, young lady? We were under the impression that the Kazostian government was friendly to Voltron. They certainly broke out all the party dishes the moment we arrived. If you are fighting the government, it seems to me that you are against Voltron, too."
Thorlia shook her head violently, mouth dropping open in horror. "No, no, not at all! If only we had time to talk to you before all this happened..." She grimaced, leading the way through another turn. The tunnels were getting darker now, less well-hewn. They seemed to be leaving the more traveled part of the mine behind.
"As soon as we heard that Voltron had arrived and Governor Latris had opened the capitol to you, we tried to move our agents to talk to your team. Latris and his faction are not in favor of Voltron at all. They have been negotiating with the Galra for over a decade, planning a capitulation to the Empire. Before Voltron returned to the universe, it seemed like the most reasonable route to take. If we did not surrender to the Empire, they would simply conquer us with their mighty fleet. Kazost has stood as an outpost world for millennia, and we can protect ourselves well enough from bandits and such, but we don't have the firepower to resist the Galra. Or so we believed for a very, very long time."
She looked at Coran again, her eyes wide and hopeful. Over her shoulder, Aneen was staring grimly ahead as they moved, but she didn't seem to disagree in any fashion. Coran nodded, accepting what she'd said so far.
"When rumors reached us that Voltron had returned out of legend and was fighting the Galra...and winning, no less...the perceptions of many of our people changed. Another faction rose within the population that said we should no longer surrender to tyranny, but should ally with Voltron and fight back instead. Unfortunately, Latris's faction was in power, and remains so, and he had control of our military and police force. He proclaimed far and wide that trust in a legend was pure foolishness. Then, worse, that wishing to ally with Voltron was not only foolish, but traitorous. His government made new laws criminalizing dissent, then backed them up with imprisonment and the threat of execution, though so far any deaths have been accidental. Or so they say. It's been a very tumultous time for our planet, Master Coran, I'm sure you can imagine."
"Yes," Coran said softly. He remembered the turmoil on Altea when the war had freshly broken out and many could not believe that Zarkon had turned against them. Many could not face the truth, and some favored flight, some taking the battle to their new enemies. In the end, Alfor had final say as the king of Altea, but he still had to take the people's wishes into account. It had been a terrible, destructive time. In the end, Coran still wasn't sure they had made the right choice.
He understood the positions of both Thorlia's faction and the ruling government. More than once, he and Allura had worried to each other that their entire fight now was based on wishful thinking and not a real chance. They kept on because they had no other choice, but they did not blame any planet or culture for being unwilling to throw in their lot with them.
Silencing dissent, though, using the violence of the government to enforce it... That was evil. If Thorlia was telling the truth, Coran was suddenly very worried for the rest of his team back at the capitol building.
"So your faction was forced underground, I take it." Coran offered a smile, though it was far from his usual sparkling version. He wiggled his eyebrows, but Thorlia stared at him confusion and didn’t catch the pun, unfortunately. “You know. Underground?”
Thorlia cleared her throat and pointed to the left. "Elevator. Our headquarters are quite far underground, yes."
The climbed aboard a mine elevator, sturdy and stable but with open sides that revealed exposed rock. Thorlia entered a very long code in the keypad, then hit a purple button, and the elevator began to descend. Aneen and Thorlia stood side by side, facing forward with almost a look of boredom on their faces. This must take this journey with fair regularity.
Coran found the quarters close, but not cramped. This was the point when Lance began to stir and look around, though. He lifted his head from Coran's shoulder, his pupils large in the dim light. His breath started to come faster, and his little hand rose out of the bundle of cloth to grip tight in Coran's collar.
Coran turned his head and tried to catch his gaze, but Lance was staring at the rocky walls as they rushed by and didn't look back at him. "Lance? My boy? Is something wrong?"
Lance looked to Coran's face and visibly gulped. "Small," he said, his voice high and tiny. He sounded frightened, edging on terrified.
"Small?" Coran looked around, eyebrows bending as he tried to understand what the child meant. "You mean this...room? The elevator? It's too small?"
Lance nodded, squirming against Coran's hold in discomfort. "Tight," he said even more quietly. His lovely brown skin had taken an ashy hue, and Coran was afraid that he might be sick.
"It's all right, Lance," he murmured. He lifted a hand and rested it on the back of Lance's head, guiding him to hide his face on his shoulder again. "You don't have to look at it if it bothers you. Shall I talk? Would that help?"
Lance nodded and huddled against him. Coran began to talk about nothing and everything, just words to drown out the mechanical sounds of the elevator clanking along, the faint rush of the cold air as they descended ever deeper into the dark, the smell of icy water and frozen rock that had never seen sunlight. So little Lance had claustrophobia, then. He must have grown out of it at some point, since as a teenager Lance had actively sought a career that would have trapped him in small vehicles with other people for a prolonged period. Or maybe this was another symptom of the transformation and the mark it had left on Lance's mind.
Coran could not take Lance somewhere wide open and clear to the sky at the moment, so he talked about such places instead. Fields on Altea, oceans on Earth, sights they had seen together on dozens of worlds far away from both of those homes. Lance's tiny fingers trembled against Coran's neck, and his body shivered in Coran's arms, but he was still and quiet, listening. At some point Coran realized that Thorlia and Aneen had turned to look at him, too, listening to his tales with interest.
The trip seemed interminable, but it ended at last. Thorlia's code had taken them much deeper than the public levels of the mine, that was certain. They exited the elevator into an enormous natural cavern lit by both artificial lights strung everywhere and by faintly luminiscent raanthium deposits in the walls. Raanthium in its raw state existed in a plethora of colors, all blending into each other and painted over the brown and gray rock, and it was a beautiful, arresting sight.
Inside the cavern was something of an outpost or a tent city. Temporary shelters and buildings were erected everywhere, as well as prefabricated structures that might have been built by the exploratory mission that first dug the shaft this deep and discovered this cavern in the first place. Coran saw the logo of the mine in several places, including on crates and pallets of supplies piled against a wall and prominently displayed on some of the tents and other structures.
A few people were visible here and there, going about ordinary tasks. Members of KAGT, Coran presumed. Thorlia led the way toward a cluster of prefab permanent buildings in the middle of the cavern, moving swiftly and purposefully. A few residents called out to her, but Aneen shook her head at them, warning them off. Coran caught some stares as the resistance members noticed him and the little bundle in his arms. Fair enough. They were aliens here, and they were quite a novelty.
Now that the elevator ride had ended and they were walking again, Lance had lifted his head from Coran's shoulder and was looking around with more interest. He craned his head to see all over the underground compound, leaning over in Coran's arms to peer around corners as they passed buildings with one hand still fisted in Coran's collar. After a bit, he even started to squirm.
"Are you getting tired of being carried, Lance?" Coran asked.
Lance nodded, staring with big eyes at a small Kazostian walking between two buildings. Coran didn't think the Kazostian was a child—he didn't think he'd seen any children down here so far—but they might have looked close enough that Lance wanted to go play with them. Lance had no doubt been as social as a child as he was as a young man. Not to mention too energetic to accept being carried for long.
Coran patted his back. "Hold on a little longer, all right? We need to get you examined, then hopefully we can find some clothes for you that will fit better." Altean clothes were meant to shapeshift with their wearer, which was why the bundle of cloth around Lance's body wasn't completely unmanageable, but this big of a change was too much even for that technology.
He looked at Thorlia. "Is that right? Will we be able to procure something for Lance to wear from your supplies?"
Thorlia looked him over with an assessing eye, then nodded. "I'm sure we can find something. It might still be a little large, but we'll do our best." She looked forward with a sigh. "More importantly, I hope we will be able to communicate with the other members of your team and bring them here to safety before any harm befalls them."
Coran refrained from pointing out that at least it was unlikely that any of his teammates would be caught in a bomb. He still wasn't sure that they could trust these people.
Thorlia led the way into a central building. It was set up like medical clinics the universe over with a small reception area and hallways leading back deeper. No one was currently in the waiting area, and Thorlia led the way down into the guts of the clinic without hesitation. At a certain door, she stopped and knocked.
"Mellen? We have guests who need medical treatment."
The door opened instantly, revealing a Kazostian with pink eyes and orange-tinged fur, a white blotch of fur over one eye. He was relatively tall for his species, though the top of his head only reached Coran's chin. He ushered them inside and greeted Thorlia and Aneen, then looked over at Coran and the child in his arms. “You are Master Coran of Voltron, yes? You are welcome here.”
Coran nodded. “A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Mellen.”
Mellen’s shoulders relaxed subtly, though his hands fidgeted together as he looked to Thorlia. "So you found the aliens, eh? At least one of them. But why did you bring him here? Joram is expecting you to check in with him."
Thorlia shook her head. "This is urgent." She reached out a hand toward Lance, but stopped short of touching him when he shied away. "This is the Blue Paladin, Lance. He was affected by raanthium radiation."
Mellen's eyes widened. "Oh. I see." He stepped forward and leaned closer, peering at Lance with intense interest. Lance stared back at him unabashedly. For some reason he didn't seem as nervous of this Kazostian as he was of Thorlia and Aneen.
Aneen set the armor down in the corner. "I'll inform Joram of the news."
Thorlia gave her an absent wave as she pushed out the door. She was looking at Mellen. "What casualities did we suffer in the fight after the explosion?"
Mellen leaned back, expression grim. "No injuries, no one here under care. Several KAGT fighters were captured, though, and they might have been hurt in the struggle. We don't know for sure."
Thorlia sighed, then shook her head. "I'll talk to Joram later. More importantly... Have you ever heard of raanthium radiation doing this? Is it harmful? Can it be reversed?"
"Hmm." Mellen's nose twitched. "I haven't heard of this precise effect, no. The body physically reverting to a childlike state... Very odd. There have been some age-related effects documented, but nothing this severe." He looked to Coran. "Do you know the extent of the change? What was his physical age before the incident, and what is it now?"
Coran considered. He had never learned the paladins’ exact ages, neither by how they would reckon it nor by Altean measurements, but he had gathered that all of them besides Shiro were still in training when they left Earth, not yet with commissioned assignments, so they most likely had not yet reached the age of majority for humans. As for how old Lance was now... Coran had no idea. Young enough to be terribly, frighteningly vulnerable, old enough to communicate and fend for himself at least a little bit.
Maybe Lance knew better. If his memories were kind. Coran looked to the boy. "Lance, do you know how old you are now? What does it feel like?"
Lance forehead wrinkled deeply. "I'm...five. Four? I think I'm four." His hand tightened in Coran's collar, suddenly trembling, and his breath sped up. "Why can't I remember? I can't remember my birthday. Why..."
Coran could only imagine how terrifying this must be for the poor child. He wrapped both arms around Lance and shifted him to his front so he could hold him against his chest in a full body hug. Lance's legs held tight around his waist, and he pressed his face under Coran's chin, tears beginning to leak out to wet Coran's shirt.
"Shh, shh, little one, it's all right." Coran rocked him back and forth, his voice low and tender. "You don't have to think about it. I know it's hard. Don't worry. You were in an accident, all right? There was an accident, and it's making your head feel fuzzy and strange. You were big before, and now you’re small, and there are things you can’t remember. But you're going to be okay. We have a doctor now who's going to look at you and figure out how to help you, and everything will be okay. Just relax. Uncle Cranberry will take care of everything."
Lance nodded against his chest, sniffling. He was still trembling, though, and no longer seemed to have any desire to escape from Coran's arms.
Coran heaved a breath and looked at Mellen. "I'm not sure the precise measurement, but he's lost more than half of his lifetime, that's for certain. Perhaps three-quarters. Before the bomb, he was a young man, not quite grown but very close. Now he is at about the age that humans would start their formal schooling, or just before. I think."
Coran and Pidge had had a few conversations about human schooling conventions when she expressed interest in learning Altean and he pointed her toward some resources. He was pretty sure that humans began a thing called "kiddy-garden" at about Lance's age where they learned foundational skills. It was likely that Lance as he was could neither read his own language nor do simple sums. At least he seemed to have retained his vocal skills.
Mellen nodded thoughtfully, then moved to a supply closet and opened it. He rummaged around, dug deeper, and came up with a plain light blue medical gown with ties on the back. small enough for Lance though it would still be baggy on him. "Let's get him into this for now." He brought the garment back to the boy and held it out to him with a gentle smile. "Would you like to get dressed, kit?"
Lance nodded. He pushed his hand out from the opening around his neck and grabbed the garment. Coran set him down on an exam table, then helped Lance strip out of the loose Altean clothing. Lance found the armholes in the medical gown on his own, but he put his head through one of them by accident. He grunted and pulled back, frowning petulantly at the wad of cloth that was not cooperating with him. Coran chuckled and reached out, gently rearranging the garment to show Lance where to go, and Lance ducked his head into the right place with a noise of satisfaction.
Lance stood up on the table, bare toes wiggling, and Coran fastened the ties to afford him some modesty. Meanwhile, Mellen had been warming up a scanning machine in the other corner. Now he wheeled it over the exam table, holding the scanning wand in one hand.
"Good job, kit," Mellen said, giving Lance a big, warm smile. "You got dressed more quickly than most adults I've seen here." Lance puffed up with pride, beaming back at him, and Mellen patted the table next to his feet. "Why don't you sit down, now, and I'll have a look at you. It won't take long, I promise. I'm going to wave this shiny stick over you a few times so we can get some readings of your cell structure. Would you like Uncle Cranberry to hold your hand? He's a good uncle, isn't he?"
Lance nodded. "The best." He plopped down on his rear on the table without further prompting and held his hand out for Coran, fingers squeezing into his palm several times. Coran gave him his hand immediately. He wasn't surprised when the tightness of Lance's grip showed how nervous he was, despite his easy attitude with the doctor. Coran was grateful that Mellen seemed to have some experience dealing with children. This ordeal could be much more unpleasant for all of them if he was brusque or impatient.
Mellen continued to explain what he was doing as he turned some knobs and dials on the machine to adjust it for Lance's species type and apparent age. The wand in his hand glowed brighter, then began to hum, and Lance's shoulders tensed, his eyes going wide. His grip on Coran's hand bordered on painful. He didn't try to get away, though, didn't even shift his position. Brave even at this age, of course he was.
"There we go," Mellen said cheerfully. "All set. Are you ready for me to examine you, Lance? I'm going to move this wand up and down your body. Sometimes it will get very close, and you might feel some warmth. The lights will change, too. If it hurts, even a little bit, you must tell us right away. If it hurts, something is wrong, and we will have to try a different method."
Coran stepped closer and wrapped his free hand around Lance's upper arm. His own heart was beating faster now. He'd never heard of a scanning method that could cause pain to the one being examined. Perhaps it had something to do with the raanthium exposure and the changes it could have made to Lance's cells.
He bent his head closer to the boy. "You're being very brave, Lance. I'm so proud of you. Please do speak up if this hurts even the tiniest bit, you understand? We will stop it immediately."
Lance nodded solemnly, then looked to the doctor. "I understand." His voice was small, trembling, but clear and brave.
"Very good." Mellen gave him a broad smile, then stepped closer and brought the wand within a hand-length of Lance's face. The flesh around Lance's eyes flinched at the proximity and the brightness of the light, but he did not move.
Mellen began to move the wand downward, slow and careful. He kept glancing between Lance and the readouts on the machine. Lance was absolutely still, barely seeming to breathe, and his hand trembled in Coran's. In the corner, watching, Thorlia seemed to be holding her breath, too. She had been working with Lance’s armor, packing it into a small case that would be easy to carry, but that task was done now.
The light from the wand changed shades on the second pass from a pale blue to a warm gold. Lance's face twitched, but he didn't move away, just held Coran's hand tighter. On the third pass, the wand turned a rosy pink, and Mellen went from watching the readouts to watching Lance's face anxiously. Coran guessed that if the procedure was going to hurt, this was when it would happen. Lance's shoulders hunched up and his breath hitched, but he didn't flinch, didn't move.
Mellen moved the wand away and set it on top of the machine, still looking into Lance's face. "Did that hurt, little kit?"
Lance blinked, as if surprised to be asked, then shook his head. "It felt all prickly. Like...being poked with lots of needles all over." Coran wasn't sure how that didn't equal "hurt," but apparently Lance had a different definition of that word.
Mellen frowned. "That's enough with the scanner then." He turned back to the machine and hit a button, and the wand stopped glowing. "Let me analyze these results, and I'll decide if we need to do any further examination. This might be enough."
He walked over to a console in the corner and sat down in front of it, and Thorlia moved to stand behind him, staring at the screen. Coran badly wanted to go over there, too, and see if he could figure anything out, but Lance's hold on his hand was still tight. Coran looked to the boy and found him staring up at him. His expression was almost blank, but Coran saw the fear behind it.
He gave him a warm smile and scooted closer, then hopped up to sit next to him on the exam table. "I'll sit here with you, shall I?"
Lance nodded, greatly relieved, then slumped into his side. Coran patted his head with his free hand, and Lance took that as permission to slide down until he was draped over Coran's lap. He heaved a sigh, then went still.
Coran rubbed his back in big circles. "That was scary, wasn't it?" he asked quietly.
Lance nodded against his thigh.
"You were very brave, and I'm proud of you. But next time you feel something unpleasant, even if it's not quite painful, I would like you to let me know. All right?"
Lance considered this solemnly for a moment, then rolled his head over and looked up at Coran. "My head hurts a little."
"Does it?" Coran moved his hand up to his forehead and brushed back his bangs, feeling him for fever. Lance seemed fine, for the moment, but Coran didn't trust it. A massive physical change like this was sure to have repercussions. "I'm sorry to hear that. Does trying to remember things make it worse?"
Lance looked away, but he nodded.
"Then I would like you not to do that anymore, all right?" As soon as Mellen was done analyzing the scans, Coran would have to ask him about this symptom and if there was a way to mitigate it.
Before Mellen announced that his analysis was done, though, Aneen returned. And she wasn't alone. They could hear the argument while she was still in the hall, and Thorlia looked up from the console with wide eyes. "Oh dear. That's Joram's voice."
Aneen's voice was loud, strident. "He's a child, Joram, don't you dare treat him like a threat, don't you dare..."
A male voice answered, deeper than Mellen's, peevish. "I have to treat every newcomer to the base as a potential threat, you know that, this is war we're waging..."
"Don't you... Oh, just stay in the hall, would you?" There was a sound of a scuffle, like Aneen was shoving Joram back, a few small, harmless-sounding thuds, and then Aneen pushed into the room. She looked ruffled and harried, but as soon as she saw Lance watching her across the room from his position curled up over Coran's lap, she paused and gathered herself, then brought out a smile.
"Hello, Lance. I brought something for you." She held up the bundle of cloth in her hands. "Hopefully something here will fit you. Would you like to see?"
Lance didn't answer at first. She crossed the room to them, and Lance looked up at Coran with a weary, harrassed look. "But I just got dressed."
Coran chuckled and ruffled his hair. "Yes, but this is just for the medical exam. Wouldn't you like to wear something warmer and better fitted, so you can run around and have fun?"
Lance perked up. Coran had been right to peg him as an energetic youngster. Aneen reached the exam table and set down her bundle next to them, and Lance sat up to watch. She sorted through the pile and held up a small garment in the Kozostian style, more like a tunic than a shirt. It was dark gray with bright blue trim, quite appealing despite being a bit ragged around the collar.
Lance leaned over to poke it, then rubbed the fabric between the pads of his fingers. "Soft..." he murmured.
"Do you like it?" Aneen asked. It was the most gentle Coran had heard her voice yet.
Lance nodded hugely, and Aneen gave the tunic to Coran, then dug out a small set of trousers almost like hose from a bygone era of Altea's history. Coran helped Lance change out of the medical gown into the new clothes, and Aneen also produced a pair of leather slippers. They looked too big for Lance, but when she tugged them onto his feet, then pulled on a small string at the heel of each, they tightened to fit. The soles were something like rubber, sturdy and protective, while the material covering the top and sides of Lance's feet was soft and pliable.
Lance sat at the edge of the table and grinned. He propped himself on his hands behind his back, then stretched his legs out as far as they would go and beamed at his new shoes, eyes sparkling with delight. He flexed his feet up and down, then laughed, high and sweet.
Coran's heart gave a little throb. Thorlia made a small noise of heartfelt distress in the corner. Even Aneen seemed affected.
"You like them?" Aneen asked again, her voice higher than it had been the first time she asked.
Lance nodded again, in enormous, exaggerated movements of his head, and turned to look up at her. She seemed dazzled in the full force of his smile. "They're so cool! Thank you!"
Aneen's mouth drop opened. She closed it, then managed to speak in a strangled voice. "You're welcome, Blue Paladin."
"'M not a pallow-din. 'M Lance!"
"Then you're welcome, Lance."
Lance looked up at Coran with those huge, sparkling eyes. "Can I play now, Uncle Cranberry?"
Coran coughed into his fist. "Let's wait and see what the doctor says, first, all right?" He dearly hoped that they hadn't given Lance these new clothes prematurely. If Mellen made Lance get back into the medical gown again, he thought the child's small, bright heart might break.
He was turning to ask Mellen how that analysis was coming along when there came a muffled boom in the distance, and something shook the earth beneath their feet. It was so sudden and unexpected that for a moment he couldn't quite believe it had happened. An earthquake? Some sort of accident in the mines above?
The Kazostians in the room had fallen utterly silent, and their ears were uniformly pressed back against their heads, eyes wide and bodies frozen in a fear response. Coran looked around at them, then toward the door. "I say, was that..."
An alarm began to sound in the rebel base. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. A light above the door blinked red. Mellen drew in a sharp gasp, and Thorlia covered her mouth with her hands.
The door burst open and another Kazostian pushed inside, eyes wide and whiskers twitching. His fur was a deep, rich sable with streaks of white along his cheeks, striking and unique. The other Kazostians looked to him immediately with a hint of relief in their body language, as if they expected him to know what to do.
"Joram, was that..." Thorlia started.
Joram nodded, crossing the room to grab her wrist and drag her back toward the door. Thorlia barely had time to scoop up the case with Lance’s armor in her other hand. "Everyone out," Joram ordered brusquely, waving his other hand at Mellen, then the room at large. "Forget whatever you were working on, Mellen. There's no time. We have to go. We have to go now." Mellen nodded, but took a moment to grab a datapad from the storage space under the console he was working on.
Coran stood from the exam table and scooped Lance up in his arms. It was easier now that he was in more form-fitting clothes. Lance was silent and let himself be manhandled without a word, all of his simple joy at his new outfit hidden under wide eyes and a frightened expression again. Coran hated that this kept happening.
Joram led the way out of the clinic, choosing a back hallway rather than the way they'd come in. More red lights were flashing, more alarms were blaring, and another muffled boom shook the cavern. Coran thought now that it was coming from the direction of the mine elevator.
"The government found you, didn't they?" Coran asked. He truly didn't mean it to be an accusation, simply a statement of facts.
Joram glared over his shoulder at him, small, sharp teeth bared in a signal of aggression. "It's probably your fault. They're coming after you."
Thorlia tsked and slapped his shoulder. "Don't blame our guests! They are victims in this situation. I told you that we gave too many people the code to the elevator. We were bound to be betrayed sooner or later."
"Wasn't my decision," Joram said shortly. They had reached a back door. He shoved it open, then poked his head out and took a quick look around before leaning back and waving for the others to exit. He stood at the door, holding it, until everyone was out, then ran out and trotted to the head of the pack again.
He led them on a back path between the buildings of the hastily constructed base. Coran caught glimpses of other people running too, but they all seemed to be going in different directions. Shouting and laserfire lifted in the air from the direction of the mine elevator, so someone was mounting a resistance, but the majority of the rebels were fleeing.
It was more organized and quiet than he might have expected, from his observations of KAGT so far. Everything had seemed rather haphazard and thrown-together, but this evacuation was picture-perfect. Everyone knew exactly where they were going and moved quickly and silently on their marks, with only a few fearful glances over their shoulders. The small, round Kazostian ears were pushed back on the sides of their heads, and their faces were twitching with nerves, but the mood was much closer to calm tension than hectic panic.
Coran looked to Thorlia, who was scampering along at his side. "Everyone is fleeing in a very orderly fashion," he murmured.
She nodded. "We evolved from a prey species. It is instinct to always have an exit plan. Whenever a group of Kazostians gathers, even just a few for a friendly gathering, the first conversation is about how to get out and get safe if something bad happens. We prefer multiple exits, the more the better. So when KAGT took over this cavern, yes, we knew that the mine elevator was a massive vulnerability, and we took steps to protect ourselves."
"Ah. Very wise."
Lance had one arm wrapped around Coran's neck to hold himself steady, but leaned out from his body and looked around curiously. Their group neared some kind of tunnel or passage, and he craned to see it, eyes wide and mouth open. Coran shifted his grip on the boy to give him more leeway, and Lance almost overbalanced. He caught his breath, and his free hand flashed up to seize the fabric over Coran's shoulder in a death grip. Coran grimaced and shifted his hold again to pull him closer.
The last building and the passageway they were aiming for had a small gap between them. Joram chose the shortest open area possible, looked around, then darted across to the wall of the cavern. He stopped and caught his bearings, ears lifted alertly as he peered around, then looked back to the others and waved for them to join him. They crossed one by one, Thorlia, Coran and Lance, Mellen, and last Aneen. Once they were against the cavern wall, they ran along it to the passageway, half-bent in a crouch that was quite uncomfortable for Coran, though the Kazostians seemed to take to it naturally.
Lance had been mildly frightened by the alarm, then curious and mystified by all the running and activity of the people moving around them. Now, though, the tension of the situation seemed to get to him. He pushed his face against Coran's shoulder with a whimper, both hands tight in his clothes. Coran murmured something meant to be soothing and pressed his hand against the back of Lance's head to help him hide.
Finally, they reached the passageway and traveled a short distance down, past where the light from the cavern behind them penetrated easily. Aneen and Thorlia both produced hand-held lanterns that they shone ahead of the group, lighting the way. Coran wondered how long they would have to travel before they made it outside the mountain. Remembering the trip inside to the mine, and then the escape afterward, and the long elevator ride down to this level, he had a sinking feeling that it was going to be a long, long way.
But before they had gone far enough for the noise of fighting in the cavern to entirely fade behind them, the light of Thorlia's lantern illuminated a shape ahead of them in the tunnel. Joram made a noise of satisfaction, and they swiftly approached the shape, the lights illuminating more of a sleek, silver-gray surface until Coran realized that it was a speeder, hidden back here in the dark.
They reached the vehicle. It was built for passengers, narrow but long, with two front seats and six more in the back. Coran wondered who else should have joined this particular escape route. Someone who was still back there, fighting the government to give the rest of them a chance to get away?
Joram climbed behind the steering yoke in the front, Aneen took the seat beside him, and the rest piled into the back. The top of the vehicle had been open, but once they were all seated a roof telescoped up from the back and covered them, protecting them from the wind as Joram lit the powerful headlights in the front of the speeder, then took off.
They sped down the tunnel, which was almost entirely featureless, straight and cramped, as if someone had punched a tube down into the mountain and taken all of the stone in a perfect cylinder. Thorlia explained in a hush that it was an abandoned exploratory shaft that had yielded no results and been sealed off. The rebels had reopened it, as they had done with many other tunnels in the mine to provide the culturally required number of exits.
When the vehicle started up, Lance raised his head and looked around, but at the sight of the tunnel pressing close all around them he whimpered low and tight and ducked down against Coran's shoulder. He was shaking now, and Coran remembered that he had been claustrophobic in the elevator. This passageway must also be uncomfortable for the poor child, especially with the added stress of all of the adults around him being tense and wary instead of relatively relaxed. Coran shifted him from his side into his lap and cuddled him close, petting his hair and speaking softly to distract him.
Another muffled boom sounded behind them, one that managed to shake the mountain. Coran saw the tunnel walls shivering and gave them the ol' side-eye, unconsciously clutching Lance a little closer so there was no chance he would see it. Next to him, Thorlia whimpered and covered her mouth with her hands.
Mellen looked devastated. He reached out to Thorlia and gripped her arm with one hand, his other arm curling around her shoulders. Coran gave him a questioning look, since Thorlia's eyes were welling with tears and he did not want to ask her to speak. Mellen looked back at him, ears and whiskers drooping. "The last defenders hit the fail switch," he said quietly.
"A last resort?" Coran asked with the same quietness, acutely aware of the small head pressed against his shoulder. Lance didn't need to hear this.
Mellen nodded, somehow looking even gloomier. A last resort. Some kind of self-destruct measure to prevent the government from getting KAGT's secrets. And judging by Mellen and Thorlia's grief, and the grim silence of Joram and Aneen in the front, someone had to be there to flip that switch manually. Someone had just died behind them, another victim of the Galra. Perhaps more than one.
"We'll mourn later," Mellen said, gently rubbing Thorlia's back. "For now, we must simply survive."
Thorlia nodded, then straightened. Her hands fell from her face, folding in her lap, and she looked forward to watch the tunnel. Her eyes were damp, but no tears fell. Coran ran his hand through Lance's hair and looked forward with her.
The tunnel stretched on and on, the lights from the speeder illuminating just far enough ahead to see that there were no obstacles in their way. Coran kept expecting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but none appeared. Eventually, after what seemed like a very long time, the angle of the tunnel changed. The noise of the speeder did, too, as Joram slowed to a less breakneck pace. Coran looked around at the tunnel walls and saw that their composition had changed. The walls were no longer raw, roughly hewn rock, but something that seemed manufactured and textured. It looked like tiles, as a matter of fact.
Coran looked to Mellen and Thorlia. "Are we beneath the city now? In an old sewer tunnel, perhaps?"
Thorlia nodded and dredged up a smile. "You are a perceptive person, Master Coran."
Coran shook his head. "It’s fairly obvious. I suppose we are heading for a safe house?"
"Yes," Mellen said. He had let go of Thorlia and was clutching the datapad he had contrived to bring along from the exam room, resting carefully in his lap. "We'll have to go out into the open for a short period, most likely. Only Joram knows which safe house this vehicle was assigned to. We have many in the city."
Coran approved. "Your group's exit strategy was much better planned and executed than that bomb attack, I must say."
Mellen looked uncomfortable, Thorlia ashamed, but neither disagreed. Movement from the front had Coran looking back to the driver's compartment. The speeder slowed to a near crawl as they moved into a sewer line that was much better and more well-maintained than the one they had been traversing. They must be near the surface now. Aneen had half-risen in her seat, holding a large laser rifle in both hands. Perhaps it had been stored in the vehicle, since Coran hadn't noticed her holding it before this moment.
Joram's shoulders were hunched, his hands tight on the steering yoke as he nudged the vehicle up a stairway, then into a hallway that was barely wide enough to accomodate them. It seemed to belong to some sort of facility, perhaps a water treatment plant, and outside light filtered in through frosted windows. Aneen was crouched on her seat now, looking all around with her gun held at the ready. Coran hunched over Lance almost on instinct. No telling if this exit had been compromised as the base had been, if there would be enemies waiting for them to emerge.
Lance wiggled in his hold and knocked a fist against his shoulder, not painfully but enough to let Coran know that he was uncomfortable. Coran reluctantly loosened his grip enough for Lance to stick his head out and pull in a breath. The child's eyes widened as he looked around the hallway they were traveling down, then forward and saw Aneen and her gun. His eyes sparkled, curiosity and awe overtaking his features. Did he remember his skill with a gun like that, the way he had frequently made near impossible shots in order to protect his team and the universe? Or did he just think guns were neat?
The retractable roof on the speeder slid away, and immediately they could hear that an alarm was sounding over the city. Coran looked to the four Kazostians, and they seemed tenser at the noise but not overly concerned, so perhaps it was expected. If the government had started actively hunting rebels, it made sense for there to be a public alert.
The speeder reached the end of the hallway, from which the only egress were doors too small to accommodate it. Joram settled it down in idle mode, then opened his door and hopped out. Aneen followed, gun at the ready, and Joram produced a pistol and held it pointed at the ceiling as he moved. Coran reached for his door, and Lance craned to see. Aneen turned back and waved her hand downward in a "stay there" gesture.
Coran nodded and leaned back, reeling Lance in with him. Lance huffed in annoyance and wiggled in Coran's lap. He was getting sick of being forced to stay still. If he was younger, he might be whining at this point, but this Lance was old enough to understand that they were in a tense situation and certain things were required of him. He wasn't happy about it, though. Coran smoothed a hand over his head and hummed something he hoped was soothing. Lance heaved a sigh that seemed almost too large for his child-sized body and leaned back against Coran's chest.
Aneen and Joram disappeared through one of the doors, crouching low and keeping their shoulders against the wall. The rest waited. Coran opened his mouth several times to ask if there were anymore weapons in the car, in case Joram and Aneen were overwhelmed and outflanked and enemies found them here, but was reluctant to frighten Lance.
Thorlia and Mellen both sat stiffly, staring at the door their comrades had gone through almost without blinking. Coran had the impression that if anyone came after them, both would fight with their teeth and claws, if necessary. Well, and so would Coran, if it came down to it. He forced his shoulders to relax and settled back against his seat. No more harm would come to Lance if he had anything to say about it, and these two allies seemed to feel the same. Lance rolled his head back on Coran's chest and swayed his feet back and forth where they hung over Coran's lap, thoroughly bored.
After a fraught, silent wait, the door began to move. Coran caught his breath and straightened his back, hands clutching Lance against his body. Then the door swung open, revealing Aneen. Her body language was relaxed, her rifle hanging loose in one hand, and she waved for them to come. Coran blew out a lungful of air and popped to his feet along with the others.
Lance wiggled in his hold, stretching his legs so they stuck out from Coran's body. "Wanna walk, Uncle Cranberry. 'M tired."
Coran glanced at Aneen, and she nodded, so he let him down. He kept a firm hold on that little hand, though. "Stick close to Uncle Cranberry, all right?"
Lance nodded, chin bending all the way down to his chest. They moved, and Lance kept his word. He did not stray from Coran's side, not even far enough to stretch their arms to the limit, but he did hop and skip a few steps to work out the wiggles. Thorlia walked in front of them and Mellen behind, and Thorlia kept looking back to give Lance smiles of fond amusement. Lance didn't notice, absorbed in looking around and taking in their surroundings.
They walked through the halls of the facility, moving from drab, utilitarian decor to brighter and cleaner areas. The place seemed to be empty, no workers or visitors anywhere, which led Coran to think that the place was abandoned. Perhaps it was firmly in the resistance's control, though, or Joram knew it well enough to choose pathways that were unused at this time of day. Straining his ears, Coran heard sounds of machinery in some of the rooms they passed, so perhaps it was an active building.
At last, they reached an outside door. Joram led the way, popping open the door and sticking his head outside to survey the area, then moving back to let the others out, Aneen first. They exited into an alleyway paved with grayish bricks, narrow and dirty but not crowded with debris. Aneen led them confidently, seeming to know where she was going. Joram didn't jog up to head the pack this time, but acted as rearguard instead.
They moved swiftly, but not at a run, trying to be casual. Lance was able to keep up, though eventually his skipping and hopping stopped. After several turns, more alleyways, and a short jog down a secluded street, Coran could tell that Lance was tiring. His grip on Coran's hand had loosened, and he was staring ahead with none of his earlier curiosity and eagerness.
"Lance?" Coran kept his voice low. "Are you tired?"
Lance shrugged, small shoulders lifting around his ears. Then he looked up Coran as if judging his face, trying to see if it was okay to be tired. Coran made a conscious effort to show nothing but concern and caring, and Lance looked forward and nodded.
"Would you like me to carry you again?"
Lance shook his head. "M'okay." He sounded weary, but determined to stand on his own two feet.
Coran hummed. “Very well. If you change your mind, be sure to let me know.”
At long last, they reached another door in another building. Joram entered a code in a keypad, and the lock disengaged with an audible kachunk. Joram pushed the door inward, and they stepped inside. It was a small home consisting of several fairly spacious rooms with the low-slung ceilings and arched doorways that the Kazostians favored in their dwellings. A few rounded windows allowed outside light to filter inside, but they were frosted, so no one could see inside.
They let out a collective sigh of relief as Joram closed and locked the door behind them. Thorlia set down the storage box she'd been carrying with Lance's armor, Aneen put her gun on a table, and Mellen flopped onto a seating unit with his datapad in his lap. He didn't look at the datapad for the moment, though, simply going boneless where he lay and staring up at the ceiling with an exhausted sigh.
Lance halted with Coran just inside the door, looking around. After a moment, he tugged on Coran's hand, and Coran looked down at him. "Yes, my boy?" Lance gazed up at him with big, pleading eyes.
"Are we safe here?" Lance asked. Coran's heart gave a painful throb. It wasn't a question that a child should need to ask. He nodded, this throat thick, then looked to Joram for confirmation.
For the first time, Joram took a good look at Lance. He seemed wary and cautious, not as charmed by the tiny human as Coran and the other Kazostians were. Perhaps Aneen had had good reason for admonishing him in the hallway back at the clinic. Coran cleared his throat, and Joram looked at him.
"Ah." The sound seemed startled out of him, but he nodded readily, then looked down at the boy. "Yes, this house is safe. Perfectly safe. Just don't go outside."
Lance looked at Coran with a hopeful smile, shifting from foot to foot. "Then, can I...?"
Coran smiled and gently released his grip on Lance's hand. He'd forgotten how tightly he'd been holding him. "Yes, Lance. Go and explore. It will do you good to run around a bit."
Lance beamed at him, bouncing on his toes, then ran off. He explored each of the rooms in the modest living quarters, throwing open each door and rushing inside, then going back. The thunder of his small feet on the wooden floors let them know where he was at every moment. And he laughed, small voice high and piping in delight. Coran smiled, listening to him. It was good to hear Lance sounding more like himself instead of the frightened, wary little thing he'd become during the last few hours.
Coran sighed, feeling the weariness and ache in his body. Now that they were safe, all of the fatigue of the past day caught up to him. Belatedly, he remembered that he had been caught in an explosion, too, and had been unconscious for quite some time. He probably should have gotten a scan back at Mellen's clinic when he had the chance, but at the time his mind and heart had been too full of worry for Lance.
He moved over to the seating unit where Mellen was resting and plopped down next to him, making an effort to keep his eyes open. He had a feeling that there was still more to do, more to discuss. He couldn't rest yet.
He looked across the room where Thorlia and Joram were conversing in low voices, Aneen standing by. Probably discussing how and when to contact everyone who had escaped. Then Coran looked to Mellen, who had recovered a bit and was now listlessly tracking his fingers over the surface of his datapad, though he still slumped against the back of the seating unit.
"Dare I ask how far you got in your analysis of Lance's scans?" Coran asked. "Were you able to come to any conclusions before we were so rudely interrupted?"
"Oh." Mellen looked up at him, raising the eyebrow ridges over his eyes. "I'm sorry, I forgot that you were waiting for that analysis, too. Unfortunately, no, I was not able to finish before the alarm sounded. The scans were very...odd. To say the least. But I did manage to bring them along."
He swept his fingers sideways over the pad, making another screen appear. Coran stared at the graphs and figures thus displayed with fascination. He couldn't read the Kazostian script, but he could tell from the diagrams that these were medical readouts of a small humanoid. Lance.
Coran waggled his finger at what looked like an aura around the simplistic outline of the humanoid figure. "Is that a representation of the radiation damage?"
Mellen nodded. He moved his finger over the outline and tapped, making it expand. Numbers appeared along the edges of the aura, and the color became a spectrum, showing a range. "As you can see, there was some variation in his exposure. His head received the most, I presume because he wasn't wearing his helmet."
Coran hummed. He didn't remember Lance taking his helmet off, but perhaps it had been dislodged in the blast. He hadn't noticed it in the armor pile when he woke up, but he hadn't been looking for it, either. "Looks like his abdomen also took a slightly higher dose."
Mellen's mouth worked in either thought or worry. "If human anatomy is like most mammalian species, I presume that the major organs are in that region of the body."
"Indeed." Coran tugged at one side of his mustache, deep in thought. It was bad to be exposed to radiation in any portion of the body, of course, but it did not bode well that the heaviest doses Lance had received had been to his head and abdomen. Maybe that had something to do with why his head had been hurting him.
"Any indication for why his body physically regressed?" he asked.
"Not on this diagram." Mellen tapped it again, and the image zoomed out, back to the original screen. He sighed and rubbed his hand behind his ear. Coran took it to be a self-soothing gesture, much like his mustache-pulling. "I'll need to do more study."
"I'll leave you to it." Coran leaned back so he wasn't looming over the fellow's shoulder anymore. He sat for a moment, gathering himself, then pushed to his feet. One more thing to try.
He approached Thorlia and Joram, who were still deep in a hushed conversation. They went quiet when they spotted him, and Coran cleared his throat. "Joram, is there a communicator in this dwelling?"
Joram blinked. "You want to get in touch with your people."
Coran nodded. "I don't think that's too much to ask."
Joram shook his head. "There is a communicator, yes, but it's not safe. The government will be monitoring all communications in the aftermath of the attack on our base. They'll be waiting for us to poke our heads up so they can snatch us from the sky. I can't let you call out, not until the surveilance has died down."
Coran's nose wrinkled. "How long do you expect that to be?"
Joram hesitated. "At least a few days."
"Unacceptable." It burst out of Coran's mouth without thought. He caught himself short and tried to regulate his breathing. Thorlia was looking at him with sympathy, but Joram's eyes were hard.
Coran wasn't a diplomat, not like Allura. But he had spent enough time around diplomats to understand that he needed to see from the other side's perspective before he could effectively negotiate with them. He closed his eyes for a moment, then looked steadily in Joram's face. "I understand your need to protect your people. Your organization, still fledgling and testing its abilities, has just borne a major blow, one that you're afraid you won't recover from. But my people are in danger, too. Didn't Thorlia say that you were trying to get in contact with them to warn them that the government was not on their side? I cannot let them languish in danger, not for one moment longer than necessary."
Joram looked away, then back to Coran. "It's too dangerous right now."
Coran nodded. "You are a cautious species. I commend you for that. But at least let me look at the communicator, would you? I may be able to encrypt it in a way that you will find acceptable. Altean equipment uses channels for communication that might be less vulnerable that normal Kazostian modes. I promise, I will not call out unless you approve, and you are free to stay by my side the entire time to ensure my cooperation. But let me try. It can't hurt to let me have a look at the equipment."
Joram hesitated. He and Thorlia exchanged a look. Aneen stepped forward, though. "I'll stay with him. I'm more skilled at tech matters, anyway. He won't get away with anything on my watch."
Thorlia visibly winced at the undiplomatic verbiage, but Joram's eyes softened, appeased by this solution. He nodded slowly, then looked to Coran. "Keep your word."
Coran straight and gave him a salute, then turned to Aneen and swept one hand sideways. "After you, my lady."
She rolled her eyes, but in a friendly way, he felt. She led him to a room little larger than a closet, stuffed full of electronics. Coran picked out the communicator right away and bent down to study it.
"Hmm. This doesn't look too different from the technology back on Darthenus, a planet I visited often in my youth. My friend and I used to alter each other's communicators as a prank, making them pitch our voices up or down, that sort of thing. Do you have...?" Coran looked around. Aneen had anticipated his need and was holding out a toolcase. "Ah, thank you."
Coran opened the toolcase and found a wedge he could use pop off the casing of the communicator to get at the inner workings. In moments he was sitting on the floor, totally engrossed as he took apart the machine and set the parts down on the floor around him. Aneen crouched at a respectful distance, watching but not interfering.
Eventually, Coran registered the tippy-tap of small feet, and another presence arrived in the small room. Lance appeared at Coran's back, his little face curious and questioning. Coran glanced at him over his shoulder and gave him a welcoming smile. "How are you, my boy? Done exploring?"
He turned back to his work as Lance drew nearer to his back, then put his arms around Coran's neck and hooked his chin over his shoulder, standing on his toetips so he could peer down at his work. "Yeah, 'm done. 'Snot a big house. Whatcha doin', Uncle Cranberry?"
Coran popped off yet another tiny component and held it up in one hand, tilting it back and forth so both he and Lance could look at it. "I am hopeful that with a bit of work, we might be able to use this communicator to contact our friends."
"Yes, our teammates. You remember I mentioned a big fellow who is your friend, and a lady with white hair? Those are two of our very good friends. It's all right if you don't remember them. You don't have to try. In fact, please don't, if it makes your head hurt."
Lance grunted, his pointy chin digging into Coran's shoulder as he sagged against him. Now that he'd worked off his restless energy, he seemed tired. Perhaps he needed a nap. Did human children need naps?
"Please tell me 'bout them, Uncle Cranberry." Lance's voice was soft and weary. And sad. Ah. He wished that he could remember them.
Coran smiled softly and continued to work. "Well, there's the lady with white hair. Her name is Allura. She is my very good friend. We've been together for a long time, and we are the only ones left of a much larger group of friends we used to have. But we have found new friends with you and the other humans, and we are learning to love all of you just as much."
Coran nodded. "That's right. You are a human. You came to us with four others of your species. Shiro, Hunk, Pidge, and Keith. Hunk is your especial friend. You enjoy each other's company and lean on each other when you need support. The two of you are also close to Pidge, who is the smallest of our friends. Well, she was the smallest before you had this little accident, but I suppose that's you now." He reached over his shoulder to tweak Lance's nose. The child giggled and scrunched up his face, but didn't try to get away.
"You and Pidge and Hunk were all in a team together when you were back on Earth. Some of those same bonds still remain now that you've come to us and joined Voltron, though all five of you have gotten to be quite close to each other."
"What 'bout the other two? Sh...Shee-row? Keef?"
"Shiro and Keith, yes. You and Keith didn't get along at first, though now you are fine friends. You still tease each other in fun. Shiro is the oldest of you humans, and he is very strong and kind. I'm sure everyone has been very worried about us since they heard about the explosion in the mines, and I hope I can tell them that we are safe soon."
Lance sagged against him harder, breathing softly in his ear, and Coran leaned forward to support his weight. He was aware of Aneen still sitting there, listening to everything he said. The small room felt warm and stuffy with the three of them so close to each other. At last, he finished up his work on the communicator and put back everything he could, though a few pieces didn't find a home. He left them on the floor with a thoughtful frown, and also left the case off so Joram could inspect his work.
He leaned back carefully, testing Lance's weight against him, and angled his head to lean his cheek on the head of dark hair slumped on his shoulder. "Lance, my boy," he murmured. "Do you think you can wake up for a moment? I don't want you to fall on the floor when I move."
Lance stirred, sluggishly rolling his head on Coran's shoulder. His little arms tightened around his neck. "'M not asleep."
Coran chuckled silently, trying not to jostle him. "Of course not."
"'M not sleepy. Just...resting."
Somehow this did not seem much different from Lance in his older form. "No, I can see that. But how about you stand up, just for a bit?"
Lance grumbled and let out a slow sigh, but reluctantly loosened his arms from Coran's neck and leaned back, then stood swaying on the floor. Coran got to his feet and stretched out the kinks from long sitting, then reached his hands down for Lance. "Even if you're not sleepy, would you like me to carry you?"
Lance considered, blinking solemnly, then nodded and reached back to Coran. Coran scooped him up, and Lance put his arms around his neck again and went limp with his face bent over Coran's shoulder, now from the other direction. The soft, breathing weight of him was strangely heavy in Coran's arms.
Coran looked to Aneen. "Can you fetch Joram here? I'd like to show him what I've done so I can get his approval to make the call."
It took longer than Coran would have liked, but Joram finally finished inspecting the communicator. Coran wasn't sure if he actually had technological expertise enough to understand what he'd done, or if it was merely a psychological test, pretending to know what he was doing as he watched Coran's face for signs. Any leader of a resistance, no matter how young, had to be good at reading faces. Finally, though, Joram straightened and gave Coran a nod. "I'll trust your work. Use an Altean frequency only, though."
Coran nodded curtly. "Always planned on it." He hesitated, then looked around for a place to set Lance down. He didn't want to shock their teammates with the sight of him before they were prepared. Lance was limp and heavy, breathing regularly. It seemed that human children did need naps, and Lance had had a very long, very tiring day.
Before he could consider laying the child down on the dusty floor, Aneen reached out her hands. Coran couldn't help giving her a doubtful look, but Aneen's face was oddly determined.
"I can handle him." She bared her teeth in a ferocious grin. "I'm strong. I'm not good with kits, but he's asleep. It'll be fine."
Coran hesitated no longer. He passed Lance into her arms, watching for a moment as she adjusted his little body. She wrapped him securely and hefted his head up on her shoulder as her own head tilted instinctively, protectively over him. Satisfied, Coran turned to the communicator and punched in the frequency for the black lion, who had been the team's transport down to the planet while the other lions stayed at the castle in the care of Slav and their Blade of Marmora detachment. He didn't know if anyone was currently with her, but she would know where to direct the call if not.
The screen connected instantly, and Shiro sat staring back at him, eyes wide and hair frazzled. "Coran!" Relief cracked his voice, high with stress. In the background of the call were mechanical noises that told Coran that Black was currently flying. "You're okay! Thank God. Is Lance with you? Is he all right?"
Lance stirred at the noise and rolled his head on Aneen's shoulder, peering at Coran sleepily. Coran gave him quick smile, then turned back to Shiro. "Um. Yes. In a manner of speaking. What are you doing, dare I ask?"
The wildness in Shiro's eyes hadn't receded. "We've been dropping BLIP sensors all over the city, trying to find you after Lance's armor went offline. Governor Latris told us that you two were injured in the explosion and were taken to a hospital, but when they refused to tell us where and take us to you, we got suspicious. I'm pretty sure the governor and his people are lying to us, Coran."
Coran was tempted to laugh, but held himself back. "That's certainly true, my boy." As quickly as he could, he gave him a rundown of the situation. The explosion, the rebels, going into hiding, the government attack on the rebel base, the safe house they were now sheltering in. "And one more thing I'll need to show you..."
He turned to Aneen and held out his arms, and Lance reached back to him sluggishly, making grabby motions with his fingers. Coran pulled him close, relishing in the warm weight and comforting scent of a sleepy little child, then turned to face the communicator again. He found himself smiling proudly, as if he was showing Shiro something amazing. Well, he was.
Shiro's eyes grew impossibly wider. "Is that..."
Coran tilted his head to look at Lance, rocking him on his hip as he nudged him to look at the screen. "Can you say hello to Shiro, Lance?"
Lance lifted his head about an inch from Coran's shoulder and blinked at the screen. "'Lo, Shiro."
"Hello, Lance." Shiro's voice had gone incredibly soft. He looked at Coran, and a thousand questions were warring in his eyes, but he hid them away for now. "We're going to come and get you."
"What? No!" Joram squawked and shoved into Coran, pushing him to the side so he filled Shiro's screen. "Do not compromise our safe house! Are you insane?"
Shiro's eyes narrowed, and his face went stony. "You. Are you the one responsible for setting that bomb?"
Joram leaned back, thrown off balance. Coran wouldn't swear to it, but it sounded like Aneen was laughing into her palm. Coran chose to intervene, shoving against Joram to push his way back into the frame where Shiro could see him. Lance whimpered at the jostling but didn't move, small fingers linked over Coran's shoulder to cushion his cheek. "This is Joram! He is the leader of that resistance group, or so I've been told." He looked at Joram. "KAGT? Is that the name?"
Joram nodded warily, arms crossed over his chest. "Kazostians Against Galra Tyranny."
"A worthy cause indeed."
Shiro held himself back from snorting, but only barely. Now that Lance in his tiny form had been revealed to him, his protective instincts had gone even more into overdrive. "Be that as it may, Joram or whatever you name is, your cause jeapordized the well-being of my team members, and harmed one of them. You'll forgive me for not caring very much about compromising your safe house, since you haven't done a very good job of keeping my people safe up to this point."
Well, that was certainly undiplomatic. But no one had ever accused Shiro of being a diplomat, especially when any of the younger paladins were in danger. Coran lifted a hand and patted the air. "Now, now, I'm sure we can come to some sort of agreement. Joram, would compromising this safe house put any of KAGT's other boltholes at risk?"
Joram pressed his lips together, stubbornly silent. Aneen coughed into her fist and answered for him. "No. Not if we took a moment to destroy a small amount of information. All of the safe houses are separate for a reason."
"Excellent! Then we'll take the four of you with us." Coran looked to Shiro. "You'll have room for four Kazostians when you come to pick us up, yes? They don't take up much room."
Shiro eyed him grumpily. "I suppose."
"And you'll send the green lion for maximum stealth, yes?"
"Yes. That's a good idea."
"There!" Coran looked to Joram, patting Lance's back as the sharp movement made him sway. "The green lion is equipped with a cloak. The government may still notice the movements, but hopefully not till we're gone. Is there any way we could get up to the roof of this building to facilitate the pick up?"
Again, Aneen answered. "Yes, though we'll have to move through some locked floors."
Joram huffed and looked grudgingly at Shiro. "It won't be an issue."
"Good, then,” Coran pronounced. “Let's set a time, and Aneen, if you could give Shiro the coordinates for this address, please."
Coran backed away and let Aneen handle the rest, since she seemed perfectly willing and capable. He turned his attention to Lance, worried by how limp and unresponsive he was. He would have expected the child to perk up at being introduced to Shiro, perhaps ask questions, at least listen with interest, but he had barely been able to say a couple of words.
"Lance, dear boy, are you feeling well? Does your head hurt? Or are you just tired?"
Lance grunted and snuggled his head into Coran's neck, shoulders tensing at the questions. Coran sighed and rubbed his back. Perhaps simple exhaustion, then. Or was he too warm? Coran concentrated on the feeling of Lance's forehead against his neck, but he couldn't tell if he was feverish.
They needed to get back to the castle. There, Coran could run his own scans, and he would have all of his usual tools at his disposal. He could admit, now that the urgent press of the escape was behind him, that he felt a bit lost and out of his element here on an alien world with a new and very precious responsibility on his hands.
Well, hopefully he would be back there soon. He just had to hold on for a while longer, and the others would come for them. Then he and Mellen could figure out what had happened to Lance and how to fix it, and everything would be all right.
"Lance is a what?" It came out as a yelp. Pidge stared at Shiro with her hands clenched at her sides.
After the explosion, Shiro, Pidge, and Keith had taken Black to the castle to fetch their lions so they could drop BLIP sensors and provide air support, leaving Hunk and Allura to deal with the Kazostians. About halfway through the operation, Shiro got an outside call and went off comms. When he came back, he was wide-eyed and looked about ready to pop. He told Pidge and Keith to come back to the castle for a debrief in person. Pidge presumed that he didn't trust this information to the open airwaves.
So now they stood in the middle of the lion hangars, Pidge and Keith gaping, Shiro grim and agitated. Shiro nodded. "I know it's hard to believe, but I saw him. He's tiny. He's a baby."
"Oh man." Pidge tried to fit this information into her view of the world. Well, they knew magic was real, or at least what most people in the universe called magic, though Pidge was convinced that it was just science, insufficiently understood. Why not deaging, too? Everything was possible, apparently. "Hunk is going to die. He's going to have an aneurysm and die from cute."
She might too, honestly. Pidge was a nerd and a scientist, and computing and robotics were her passion. But she was also a human. Those little caterpillar fluff balls at the trash nebula had been about as much cute as she could stand. Most human babies didn’t do much for her, but when it was someone she knew or was related to, she had been known to drop everything she was doing and just stare with her head tilted to the side.
Shiro tilted his head to acknowledge Pidge's interjection, then went on with the plan. "The Kazostian rebels will allow us to approach their safe house only with the green lion under cloak, so Pidge, that will be your job. You will be bringing back four Kazostians in addition to Lance and Coran. I'll return to the capitol building to pick up Hunk and Allura, and Keith, you fly cover in case something goes wrong. There's a lot of unrest in the city, but it's not our job to deal with that right now, you understand? Our people come first. Once we're all back at the Castle of the Lions and everyone is safe, we'll decide how to deal with the situation on Kazost."
Pidge and Keith nodded. The three ran back to their lions, then leaped toward the city below. Black had already communicated Lance and Coran's location to Green. Pidge took a couple of passes over the city, then activated the invisibility cloak and flew toward the coordinates. Hopefully the people below would be too distracted by Keith, and by the rest of the stuff going on down there, to notice that a giant green robot lion had disappeared in midair. If not, well, they could pass it off with some excuse later.
She brought Green in for a landing on the roof of a small apartment building. It was rounded slightly on top, fitting Kazostian architecture, but Green was able to perch comfortably on four nimble feet. A small group of people was waiting by the stairwell, holding on to each other and bracing themselves as the displaced air buffeted them. Green lowered her jaw to let down the ramp, and Pidge leaned forward in her seat to watch them through the screens as they entered. She could see the bright orange head of Coran leading the way. He waved the four Kazostians inside while he carried a tiny child that had to be in Lance in his other arm.
Green raised her head, passengers safely aboard, and Pidge took off for the castle. Once they were in flight, she trusted Green to take them the rest of the way and stood up from her chair to greet everyone when they reached the cockpit. "Coran! I'm glad you're okay!"
He grinned, but she barely noticed, her attention taken by the little boy in his arms. Shiro had called him a baby, which was only a slight exaggeration. He was toddler-sized, barely big enough for school, if that, and he was clinging to Coran with both hands and looking around at everything with enormous blue eyes. His face still had that soft, baby roundness, complete with tiny button nose and cherub pink lips. Pidge's heart gave a skip her chest. Quiznak, he was stupid cute. Hunk really was going to die.
Coran introduced the four Kazostian. She nodded to each in turn, mentally cataloging their coloring and apparent genders so she could try to attach them to the names that Coran was spouting. The Kazostians reminded her of Earth hamsters, and she usually had to repress the urge to go awww around them, too. But Lance was more important.
Coran finally stopped talking, and Pidge gave him a smile, then scooted closer to Lance. "Hey, buddy," she said softly. "My name is Pidge. How are you doing?"
Lance eyes went wider at her name. He glanced up at Coran questioningly, and Coran gave him an encouraging nod. Lance looked back to Pidge, leaning forward in Coran's arms to stare at her. "P...Pidge...?"
By all that was holy, his voice was adorable, too. Pidge placed her hand over her chest and pulled in a deep breath. "Yeah, that's me. Do you remember me?"
Coran frowned. Lance looked sad and shook his head, curly hair bouncing. "Uncle Cranberry told me 'bout you."
"Uncle Cranberry?" Pidge gave Coran a sideways smile, and he grinned back, unashamed. She turned back to Lance and reached out with one hand, slowly in case he was nervous about being touched, but he showed no hint of fear. She ruffled his hair, and he giggled and ducked away, squirming in delight. "He's a good uncle, huh?"
"The best!" Lance threw his arms around Coran's neck and squeezed.
Coran stopped breathing for a moment, face blushing bright red, then choked out a laugh. After a moment, he gathered himself and pointed forward. "Look, Lance, that's the Castle of Lions!"
Pidge popped into the pilot chair for the landing in the hangar. A glance at an informational screen told her that Red and Black were also landing, Black with two additional life signs aboard. They were all here, all safe, and Pidge breathed out a sigh of relief. After hearing from Shiro that the government was actually on the side of the Galra, she'd been afraid that they might try to capture Hunk and Allura for leverage. Thankfully, that hadn't happened. Maybe they'd been trying to pretend they were on Voltron's side right up until the black lion landed in their courtyard, and by then it was too late. Shiro would kill anyone who got between him and his teammates.
After they landed, Pidge led the group down into the hangar. She ignored the Kazostians as they gaped around at the castle, drawn back to Coran and the bundle in his arms. Lance seemed to be tired, or maybe hiding, curling up with his head tucked under Coran's chin. Coran's fingers carded through the hair on the back of his head, and he gave Pidge an understanding smile.
"He's worn out," his voice was low and seemed practiced. He'd been taking care of baby Lance for hours now, so he knew what he needed. "This is all very overwhelming for him, I'm afraid."
Pidge nodded. She badly wanted to reach out and take the child into her arms, but she didn't want to make him uncomfortable. She could only imagine how scary it would be to suddenly find yourself in a small, fragile body with no memory of the people around you. Lance trusted Coran, that was clear, but from his perspective he had only met Pidge a few minutes ago.
They went the lounge on the main floor, Pidge in the front with the four Kazostians trailing behind, Coran bringing up the rear. Usually in this sort of situation Coran would be using his tour guide voice and describing the wonders of the castle to their visitors, but he was occupied with Lance, so Pidge reluctantly took the job.
Her descriptions were more vague and used the phrase "and whatever" a lot more often than Coran's did, but they got the job done. The Kazostians were thoroughly impressed. Along the way, she figured out that Joram was the puffy one who thought he was in charge, Mellen was the meek one whose fur looked like a creamsicle, and the other two were probably dating or married or whatever Kazostians did to declare life partnership.
By the time they reached the lounge, the others were there, too. And Pidge was totally right. Hunk came very near to dying.
The instant he laid eyes on Lance, his hands flew up next to his face and clenched into fists the way they did when he was overcome with excitement. His mouth stretched wide with delight, his cheeks went pink, and his voice rose at least two octaves. "Holy crow, look at him! Are you seeing this?" He looked right and left at Shiro and Allura, who gave him looks of weariness and amusement, respectively. He pointed at Lance. "You're seeing this right? I'm not the only one? Look how unbelievably cute."
Lance had been hiding under Coran's chin up to this point. But at this noise he stirred grumpily, then popped his head up to look in Hunk's direction. His eyes were half-lidded and droopy, face flushed, hair fluffed and expression pouty. He clearly did not appreciate being disturbed, but Hunk didn't notice.
Hunk tromped right over to him with all the delicacy of a freight train roaring in on Station Cute. His hands were reaching, fingers wiggling. "Aw, c'mere, little guy! It's Hunky Bear! Your best friend!"
Lance squawked, eyes flying wide with alarm, and jerked back against Coran's shoulder as he tried to escape Hunk's grasp. Coran had to swing his body around to avoid dropping the child, letting out a cheerful "Whoops!" as he readjusted his grip. Hunk halted abruptly and pulled back, hurt flaring over his features.
Pidge caught her breath and charged in. She put an arm around Hunk's waist and steered him away. "It's okay, Hunk. He just doesn't remember you. He doesn't remember any of us."
"What?" All of the delight had fled from Hunk's face, replaced with insecurity and dismay. He looked down at Pidge, then back to Lance, who was hunching against Coran and eyeing him warily from under the fringe of his hair. "He doesn't remember us?"
Coran shook his head with a sigh and patted Lance's back with his free hand. "I believe he has vague recollections of who we are, but trying to remember makes his head hurt, so I told him not to anymore."
Hunk's hurt faded, replaced with sympathy. "Aw, man. It makes his head hurt? Poor baby Lance." He looked back to Lance and this time kept a respectful distance as he raised one hand and waved to him gently. "Hi, Lance. My name is Hunk. We're really good friends. I wish you remembered me, but don't make your head hurt, okay? That's the worst. I'm sorry I scared you."
Lance's shoulders relaxed from their tight hunch, though he still leaned heavily over Coran's shoulder, one arm wrapped around his neck. He stared at Hunk for a moment longer, then looked up to Coran's face. Coran nodded and stroked his hair. "Yes, that's Hunk. The one I told you about. He didn't mean to startle you." He pointed at the other side of the room, where the rest of the team was watching. "And see there, with Shiro? That's Keith, and that's Allura. They are very special friends of ours, too."
Keith waved, almost shyly, and Allura smiled and gave the baby one of her genteel bows, which was kind of hilarious. Lance watched them both carefully, as if he wasn't sure whether he could take Coran's word that they were harmless. Then he abruptly went limp and heaved a sigh that moved his entire body up and down. Decision made and comfort level achieved, he turned back to Coran and tucked his head under his chin again.
"Oh dear." Coran rubbed his back. Pidge didn't miss the weariness on his face. Coran was getting worn out, too. "Is your head still hurting, little one?"
Lance was still for a moment, then answered with a single word that was muffled against Coran's shirt. "Tired."
Coran looked up to the rest of them. "He's said that several times now when I ask how he's feeling. Tired. I think the events of this day have been too much for him."
"I'm sure a nap would do him good." Hunk took a step closer, careful to leave some distance in case Lance got scared again. "But have you fed him anything? Like, even a juicebox or something? It's been hours since the explosion, and little tummies empty quick."
Coran's face lengthened in dismay. "Oh dear. That hadn't occurred to me. We were too busy running and escaping to take the time for food and drink." He ducked his chin to look down at the boy on his chest. "Lance? Are you hungry?"
Lance shook his head, rubbing his hair against Coran's face. "Tired." His voice sounded petulant now.
Hunk bent over closer, bringing his face within a foot of Lance's head. "Are you sure you’re not hungry? Not even a little bit?" he wheedled. "You don't even want a cookie? I can make cookies, you know. I'm a great cook."
"That's true," Coran said cheerfully. "Hunk is a wonderful chef. Wouldn't you at least like something to drink, Lance?"
Lance was still for a moment longer, then turned his head to look at Hunk with one eye. "Cookies?"
Hunk nodded enthusiastically. "Yep, cookies. They might be a little different than the ones your mama makes, but I promise they're yummy."
Lance thought about it for a moment longer, then shook his head again, slow and weary, and hid his face on Coran's chest. "Tired." This time his voice sounded sad and regretful. He wanted a cookie, but didn't have the energy for it. He must truly be exhausted.
"Oh." Coran stared down at him with realization on his face. "Lance, dear boy, does your stomach hurt?"
Lance held still, then nodded. He seemed almost too weary even for that small gesture. Coran's breath hitched, and he looked over to creamsicle-colored Mellen. "I assume that nausea is a symptom of raanthium radiation exposure?"
Mellen's eyes went wide. "Oh. Oh no. Yes, it certainly is."
Coran fought to keep his voice steady for Lance's sake, but Pidge could hear the tremble underneath. "Very well. I believe Dr. Mellen and I will retreat with Lance to the infirmary now. The rest of you, if you could please stay here and deal with the Kazostian situation? Thank you."
He spun around and all but fled, Mellen on his heels. Pidge's stomach dropped into her feet.
Baby Lance was sick.
Hunk tried to pay attention to the conversation Allura and Joram were having, but it was hard. His mind kept wandering to the infirmary and what was going on there. He understood that Coran and the Kazostian doctor were running scans and tests on Lance to find out what was wrong and didn't want to be interrupted, but he couldn't help wishing he was there, even if he would be useless.
Always before, when Lance was sick or wounded, it helped him to have Hunk nearby. Though blood and nasty injuries made Hunk sick to his stomach, he could at least stand by and talk to keep Lance company. He'd been getting better at being around gross medical stuff lately, too, probably because he'd been exposed to it so much. They all got injured on a regular basis. When Hunk was hurt or sick, Lance was always there for him, too.
Hunk rubbed the knuckles of his fists together, remembering with a swirl of nausea in his gut the way Lance had flinched away when he reached for him. He knew Lance hadn't meant it, that he just felt small and scared and vulnerable now, but it still hurt. It was going to take time for Lance to get used to Hunk in this state, and Hunk was impatient to start spending time with him. But no, he had to sit here in the lounge with a whole bunch of other people who would probably rather be somewhere else, too.
He tuned into the conversation again, though it took effort. Allura thought he had potential as a diplomat, because of his good instincts and his open heart, so she'd been bringing him along for most of her political meetings lately. Even if he had nothing to contribute to this one, he should at least pay attention.
"So it was a matter of sending a message?" Allura asked.
"That was the intent." Joram's arms were folded defensively over his chest. Thorlia sat next to him with her hands her lap and was giving him a longsuffering look. If Hunk had to guess, he would say that Thorlia had political or diplomatic training, and Joram didn't. She was annoyed with him for his bluntness and seeming intractability but was trying not to show it in front of everyone.
"Was setting a bomb truly the best way to express that message?" Allura asked, her tone neutral and accepting. Allura was a good diplomat. Hunk knew that she disapproved most heartily of this resistance group's tactics—she had told him so in private—but if he didn't already know that about her, he wouldn't have been able to tell from her tone, expression, or body language.
Joram's hands moved away from his body and lifted in a gesture of exasperation and helplessness. "Nothing else we tried seemed to work! We have informed our politicians multiple times that we do not approve of their decision to ally with the Galra, but after they started treating dissidence as criminal behavior, all official channels were cut off. Anyone who protests would be arrested and incarcerated without trial. We resorted to violent tactics only because they made peaceful routes illegal."
Allura tapped her chin, a signal in most cultures that she was deeply considering the thoughts of her conversation partner. "What is the public feeling on Kazost? Do you have an estimate on the percentage of the population that disagrees with the government?"
Joram shook his head helplessly. "I couldn't say. Before disagreement was made illegal, there seemed to be a lot of people talking disapprovingly about the Galra and their rule, but all discussion has dried up. Before that law, the majority was against allying with the Galra. But since then, there have been no new polls. It could be that everyone agrees with KAGT, or only ten percent. I have no idea."
Thorlia cleared her throat. "If I may interject."
Joram shut up, and Allura turned her attention to Thorlia, offering a pleasant smile. "Yes, please."
"I do not believe the majority disagreement with the government has gone away just because we're not allowed to talk about it anymore. If anything, it’s probably becomestronger. Our culture leans strongly to conformity, it’s true, so the words of our leaders matter a great deal. But despite our deep societal desire to be safe, we also value our freedom above all else. Governor Latris and his faction may have decided that Galra rule is the best option for their personal freedom and well-being, but I would be surprised indeed if most of the population saw it the same way. We have heard stories of what the Galra do to subjugated worlds. They will mine our resources and take our people and suck our planet dry of life, then leave us to die. It is the pattern they have followed all over the universe."
Allura nodded. "So the people are staying quiet now simply because that is the safest route for the moment, for their personal safety. What if we offered an alternative?"
Joram leaned back against the couch, watching her warily. "What do you mean?"
Allura all but ignored him, giving him only a glance before looking to Thorlia. "Is there another faction of the government that prefers to side with Voltron? KAGT seems fairly well organized, from what we've discussed. Are you in contact with officials in position to take over power who are currently silent for their own safety, but would be the voice of the people if the opportunity arose?"
Thorlia nodded slowly. "I believe so, yes. I would need to make some calls... Timing would be important."
Joram gaped at them, staring first at Thorlia, then at Allura. "You're talking about a coup."
Allura looked at him, head tilting slightly. Hunk knew it for a sign of annoyance, though to the Kazostians it should look merely curious and questioning. "You lead a rebellion. Is that not what you are seeking, ultimately? A change in government power?"
"Yes, but I thought..."
Aneen snorted inelegantly. "You thought that setting some bombs and causing some minor destruction would be enough to make the current government faction listen? For all of your talents, Joram, you are stunningly naive. Governor Latris and his people will not listen to us. They proved that when they passed those anti-dissident laws. They have to be replaced. It's the only way."
Thorlia gave her a grateful look. She hadn't wanted to smack Joram down, but she was glad Aneen had done it for her. Joram was silent, absorbing this, and Thorlia looked to Allura. "You mean for us to reach the silent majority, those who have held their tongues for fear of their own lives, and encourage them to rise up against Latris with the backing of Voltron. How do you propose to accomplish this?"
"In a word: Communication." Allura sat forward, now looking only at Thorlia, her hands clasped over her knees as if in an effort to hold herself still. "If the majority of the people are afraid to speak their opinion, then they most likely do not know that they are the majority. I have seen this on other planets before. Some kind of pressure, whether from the government or in society, supresses certain opinions. But those opinions don't disappear from the populace. They remain. They build and build until someone has had enough and speaks up, regardless of the consequences. Then another person speaks, encouraged by the first voice, then another, and another, until suddenly it becomes a cascade. Once the majority knows that they are the majority, nothing will be able to stop them."
Partway through this, Thorlia began to nod, and then she nodded more and more enthusiastically. When Allura finished, she smiled, broad and brilliant, and looked to her fellows, first Aneen and then Joram. "It's true, isn't it? She's right! You must know it, too!" Aneen reached out and grabbed her hand, and Thorlia squeezed back, shoulders lifting to her ears in happiness.
Joram nodded slowly. He looked to Allura. "How do we...how do we start this? How do we communicate with the majority?"
Allura turned to Hunk. He blinked, dazed. He had been following the conversation, but barely. "I think this would be a question for someone with more technical expertise. Hunk, the government of Kazost is monitoring all communications and disallowing dissident speech. Is there a way we can bypass that?"
Hunk raised his eyebrows. "Uhh..."
Joram sat up straighter, suddenly excited. "Master Coran did something like that back at that the safe house. He modified the communicator to reach you without letting the government overhear. He said he was using an Altean frequency."
Shiro nodded. "Yes, he reached me directly in the black lion. It wasn't a channel I recognized, but as soon as I saw his face, I knew it was safe."
"Then it's possible." Joram looked at Hunk, too. "Could we communicate with everyone on Kazost?"
Hunk wanted to sputter and protest that he had no idea, but then he thought about it. He looked at Pidge and saw that her mind was turning over the problem, too, picking at it with all of her clever little synapses. He looked to Joram. "I'll have to talk to Coran, but... Yeah. I'm pretty sure. Pidge, you getting some ideas?"
Pidge nodded. "Plenty." She looked at Allura and sat up straight. "We can set up a broadcast, no doubt. Do we want it to go everywhere on the planet? If so, we might need to make a jammer to prevent the government from interfering."
Allura nodded. "Yes, please. No interference. We want to speak to the people directly."
"Then that's what we'll do." Hunk nodded confidently. Between him, Pidge, and Coran, he was sure they could pull it off.
But Coran was currently busy. Hunk's eyes strayed to the doorway where Coran and Mellen had disappeared with Lance. Part of him wanted to concentrate on this new mechanical puzzle Allura had given him, but he was still getting distracted by worries about Lance.
Keith shifted where he sat, then abruptly stood, ignoring Shiro's attempt to grab his elbow. From his face, he was even more bored and unhappy with the current conversation than Hunk was. He looked to Allura. "Could I please go check on the infirmary? We need Coran for this, and..."
Allura smiled gently and reached out to touch his arm. She grabbed his jacket with deceptive strength and dragged him down to sit again. "I know you're worried about Lance. We all are. We have to trust Coran and Dr. Mellen to take care of him. When Coran has news, he'll contact us."
Hunk sighed. "Yeah, but..." His eyes strayed to the door again.
"Hunk." He felt Allura's eyes on him and looked over to meet them. She looked at him levelly, sternly, but with compassion. Her voice softened. "I know how you feel. Truly. Seeing Lance in that vulnerable state was...alarming. I want him to be safe and healthy, too. But we need to trust Coran. There's nothing we can do for him right now."
Hunk sighed and looked down. "I know. I just..."
Aneen let out a hearty sigh and popped to her feet, as agitated as Keith. "No. You know what? We're all worried. That little kit stole our hearts. Every single one of us. We need to go check on him before we all go crazy." She looked around the circle with narrowed eyes, daring anyone to disagree. No one did, not even Joram, though he shifted uncomfortably.
Aneen put her hands on her hips. "All right? All right." She looked at Allura. "Thank you for your efforts, Princess of Altea, but let's put this very important, very political conversation aside for the moment and go make sure that Lance is going to be okay. None of us can concentrate like this."
Allura hesitated for a moment, then let out a breath, a small chuckle escaping her lips. A line of tension in her back let go, and Hunk realized that she truly had been just as worried as he was this entire time. She nodded to Aneen, then stood up and brushed down her skirt. "Yes. You're right. Let's go. We'll finish this discussion later."
They all hopped to their feet as if they'd been waiting for the excuse. Hunk was closest to the door, so he led the way.
Hopefully all the worrying was for nothing. Hopefully they would get to the infirmary and find Lance napping and Coran watching him and Mellen playing with his datapad because everything was fine. Nothing was wrong. It had been a false alarm all along. Hopefully.
Hunk’s gut told him differently.
Somehow, Hunk wasn't surprised when they reached the infirmary and found Lance bawling at the top of his little lungs, clinging to Coran's neck while Coran sat on an infirmary bed and patted his back. Coran’s eyes were wide with dismay, and Mellen bustled uselessly around them, fussing with blankets and scanners and computers and accomplishing nothing at all. Coran looked up when the rest of them burst into the room. He didn’t seem upset that they had come despite his instructions, though he didn’t exactly look relieved to see them, either.
"Ah, hello, everyone.” Coran raised his voice to be heard over Lance’s cries, still keeping a measure of calm though his tone was strained. “I, er, I'm glad you came. I was about to call you, as a matter of fact. We need to...we need to discuss..."
Lance's voice lifted into a frantic wail, cutting off Coran's words. Coran winced and hefted him higher in his arms as Lance curled up almost convulsively around his stomach, still without loosening his grip on Coran. His tiny knuckles were white, nails digging into Coran's neck and leaving small red scratches behind. Hunk grimaced, shoulders rising up in a painful hunch, and he resisted the urge to cover his ears.
"Lance, Lance," Coran murmured, desperate to console him. "Please calm down, little one, please..."
It was no good. These were cries of pain, and Lance was too small and vulnerable to suppress himself. Teenage Lance might have been able to fight it, at least enough to swallow down his verbal reactions, but baby Lance was overwhelmed. His nausea must have gotten much, much worse in the past varga or so. Hunk knew exactly how that felt, and his face screwed up in sympathy.
He stumbled toward the two, hands reaching out impatiently. "Here, let me... Let me try. Please, let me try to help..."
Coran gave him a desperate glance, the look of an exhausted parent at the end of their rope, then peered down at Lance. "My dear child, please, will you let Hunk hold you? He knows what it feels like to have an aching tummy. He may be able to help."
Lance shook his head desperately and squeezed Coran's neck even tighter, making him choke. Coran cringed, and his face lengthened in misery. But he reached up and grabbed Lance's small, soft hands with his large, work-worn ones and carefully began to pry him free.
"I'm sorry, Lance, I'm sorry, little one..." He apologized over and over again, hoarse and defeated. Lance kicked and squirmed, reached out for him with grasping fingers, but Coran carefully, inexorably pried him free and passed him over to Hunk's waiting arms.
"Lance, Lance, I'm so sorry, buddy," Hunk murmured in the gentlest voice he could muster. He had changed out of his sweaty armor before they began their diplomacy talks, and he was never so grateful for his soft body and comfortable clothes. Even the smallest thing to help Lance in this moment was utterly worth it. He sat down on the infirmary bed a few feet away from Coran with Lance pinned in his arms. Working quickly, he pulled up Lance's tunic-like shirt to bare his stomach, then pressed his hand down on the small, writhing abdomen, spanning the entire width with his palm.
"Calm down, kiddo, please. I swear, sweetie, everything's gonna be okay." Hunk began to rub his palm around Lance's stomach in firm, careful circles. His mother used to do this for him when he was a child and got stomachaches from anxiety before he had to go to school or an appointment or some other social activity that frightened him. It usually helped, whether because the pain literally diminished or just because the contact was soothing. His mother's hand had always been so large and warm, and he had felt safe and protected under her touch.
Of course, this Lance didn't know and trust him the way Hunk had trusted his mother, so it might not work the same way. Hunk closed his eyes and prayed, holding Lance wrapped up in one arm while the other hand rubbed slow and strong on his tummy. Lance continued to struggle, his agonized sobs piercing the air and constricting Hunk's heart.
Slowly, gradually, Lance's writhing and sobbing began to slow, then taper off. He went still in Hunk's lap, eyes pasted shut and tears still trickling down, and little whimpers and cries continued to jerk out of his lips at regular intervals. But he had calmed a great deal, accepting Hunk's comfort. At least it was quiet enough that they could hear each other, though no one spoke yet, standing around the bed in a tense semi-circle.
Eventually, Lance went limp against Hunk's chest. He blinked his eyes open, squinting like the light was too bright, and shut his lips tight in an attempt to keep it all in. It didn't work, and small, hurt whimpers escaped his trembling lips, but he was trying. His face was covered with tears and snot, he was shaking, and he was an awful mess, but he was trying to be strong. If Hunk's heart hadn't already been broken by hearing his child-sized best friend in such awful pain, it would have shattered now.
Lance looked across the circle to where Coran was standing, blinking rapidly as tears continued to fall. "Uncle Cranberry." The words squeaked out on a series of hiccuping sobs. "Uncle Cranberry, make it stop, please please please."
Coran closed his eyes, exhaustion and pain overtaking him for a moment, then opened his eyes and gave Lance a soft smile. "I'm going to try, my boy. I promise." He reached out and patted Lance's knee, careful not to interrupt Hunk's rubbing. Then he stood straight and looked around the circle. Every face was aimed at him, anxious for answers.
"As I was saying," he said with incredible calm. "I was just about to contact you. We need to discuss our options."
Allura's hands were clasped in front of her chest in worry. "What do you mean? What options?"
"We need to decide whether to put him in the cryo-replenisher, which may make his current state irreversible, or give him enough sedatives and painkillers to ride this out, which, in the worst-case scenario..." Coran paused, swallowed, and went on in a mere whisper. "He may not survive."
Silence. Shiro broke it, his voice raw. "Please explain."
Coran's eyes went to Mellen, pleading. Mellen straightened and drew a breath. "I wasn't able to discover the cause of the Blue Paladin's current...state...using just the scans we procured down on the planet. Once we came up here and were able to use the excellent diagnostic equipment on this ship," he gestured around at the room, "the reason became clear. Lance's body reverted to an earlier age not only because of exposure to raanthium radiation, but also because of quintessence."
Coran took up the tale. "Raanthium radiation... As you're aware, raanthium has effects on the fabric of space-time, which is why it is essential in several key ship systems, including the faster-than-light engines we use when the teludav is not called for. Apparently, the dose of radiation Lance received in the explosion this morning not only caused damage to his brain and several internal organs, but also destabilized his position in time. The blue lion reached out with her quintessence and stabilized him, which meant, well, moving his physical form backward in time, to this point."
"But the damage was not healed," Mellen said. He called up a scan on his datapad and showed it to them, a diagram of a human body surrounded with a colorful aura that was particularly bright around the head and abdomen. "This is what confused me the most."
Coran nodded grimly. "Blue saved Lance's life when his injuries should have overwhelmed him. But it was, essentially, a patch job. A bandaid, you paladins might call it. And it's degrading now."
Hunk looked down at the child in his arms, still rubbing his stomach in slow, measured circles. Lance had turned his head sideways to hide his face against Hunk's chest, and Hunk felt his tears soaking through. One little hand was fisted in the fabric of Hunk's sleeve, pulling it tight. "That's why he's feeling the pain from the radiation damage again," Hunk said, his voice strangled.
Coran pressed his lips together. He had never looked so old. "Yes," he murmured, almost too low to hear. He cleared his throat and raised his voice, speaking calmly and factually. "If we put Lance in a cryo-replenisher, the damage will be healed. But I'm not sure how the quintessence patch will respond. The replenisher is designed to heal wounds of quintessence, as well, so it's possible that the patch will become permanent, trapping Lance in this state. If we let Blue's efforts degrade entirely, Lance will return to his natural age. But the damage may be too much for us to counter without the use of the replenisher. We have other methods, of course, but...the damage is extensive, and raanthium radiation is terribly dangerous. Especially, it seems, to humans."
"Then the answer is easy," Shiro's voice rang out. "Put him in the pod."
He looked around the circle, jaw firm and tears standing in his eyes, daring anyone to disagree. Allura opened her mouth. He shook his head, and she closed it again. He stared at her, resolute. "We'll deal with it. Whatever happens, we'll deal with it. If he's...stuck..." His mouth worked, and a tear spilled down. He raised a hand and swiped over his cheeks almost angrily. "We'll miss him, yes, and we'll have to figure something out for Voltron. But I cannot accept a path that could lead to losing him altogether, not when there's another option available. Never. Put him in the pod."
We'll miss him, Shiro had said. Hunk looked down at Lance, hand going still on his stomach. How could they miss someone who was right here?
Then it struck him in a landslide of emotional force. They would have Lance, yes, small and vulnerable but still here, still Lance. But they would miss him. His older self, all of his memories, the time they spent together, the victories and losses and shared fears and bonding moments. Hunk loved Lance, small or large, and he always would. So would everyone else. But if older Lance, his best friend, was gone...
Yes, Hunk would miss him. Desperately so. He would miss him every day, every time he looked at this little child and saw the marks of his older self within him, his smile, his laugh, his turn of phrase, his insecurity, his kindness, his need for praise, his heroic nature. No matter how Hunk would love tiny Lance and care for him and protect him and help him grow, he would always miss the young man inside the boy.
And his family... Holy crow, how would they even begin to explain this? Hunk's heart ached, imagining the pain on the face of Lance's parents, the confusion in his siblings who had suddenly lost a big brother and gained a little one. That was a conversation he very much did not want to have.
But the alternative was worse. Infinitely worse. That conversation with Lance's family was the last thing Hunk wanted in the universe.
He looked up, his hand pressing firm and steady on Lance's warm flesh. "I agree. Put him in the pod."
Pidge nodded, sharp and hard, then Keith, though he frowned and looked away. Of all of them, Keith came the closest to sharing Allura's vision for the bigger picture. But they all knew how important Voltron was, they all knew that the loss of the Blue Paladin would be crippling, devastating, and they all agreed that Lance's safety was more important. Even the chance that he might die was enough to have them all veering to another solution, no matter what the consequences might be to them and to the universe.
Allura said nothing for a long moment. Her lips were tight, and her face was conflicted. Then her shoulders relaxed, and her folded hands fell down to her waist. She looked at Coran, her expression pained but open. "We're agreed. With these options, we prioritize Lance's well-being."
Coran nodded, relief in every line of his body, then moved over to Hunk with his hands outstretched. "Come, little one. Let's get you ready. We’ll pop you into a nice cool pod, and all the pain will go away. Just need to change you into a medsuit."
Lance's eyes opened, and he reached back to Coran with one hand, though the other kept gripping Hunk's shirt as if he couldn't decide who he wanted more. "Not again," he complained.
Coran laughed and scooped him up. "This is the last time you'll have to change your clothes, at least today. I promise." Lance let go of Hunk and went boneless on Coran's chest with a soft sigh.
Hunk stood up and smiled, tears in his eyes. "See you soon, buddy."
The others crowded around. Shiro ruffled Lance’s hair, Pidge stroked his arm, Keith touched his knee, and Allura laid her palm over the back of his tiny hand, once again fisted in Coran's shirt. Even the Kazostians moved closer, murmuring soft words and telling Lance that everything would be okay, there was nothing to worry about. Hunk's heart clenched, watching and listening to it all. It felt too much like a good-bye.
But it wasn't. It was hello. Whatever happened next, he was sure of that.
Soft, furry Kazostian snores filled the infirmary as Allura walked inside. She kept her footsteps quiet and light, gliding over the floor. The illumination was dimmed, and a bundle of orange and white fur was curled up on one of the spare beds in the back corner. Dr. Mellen, asleep.
Coran sat at a console with several screens open, information flowing. Allura recognized the scans from earlier, as well as a readout of Lance's current condition. Lance himself floated silent and still inside one of the cryo-pods, his skin washed out in the pale blue radiance. It was still startling to see him in such a small and vulnerable form.
Coran slumped where he sat, one hand rising to rub between his eyes. Allura moved closer, taking care to scuff her foot on the floor so he would be alerted to her presence. Coran had been a soldier for a long time, and he was quick to respond to unexpected stimuli. She didn't want to startle him.
He raised his head and gave her a smile, more strained than his usual version. His face was drawn with exhaustion, and Allura thought she caught a tremble in his hands. She positioned herself beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder, warm and steady, as she looked around at the screens. "Everything seems to be going well."
Coran slumped under her hand, and a sigh slipped out. "So far, yes. I don't know yet how the quintessence patch will respond to the cryo-replenisher, but the damage is healing. I expect it will be done sometime tomorrow."
"You should rest. It's been a long day for you, too."
Coran shook his head. "Not yet." He stared at the screens. "I can't rest until I know for sure. Lance might not necessarily be trapped in this body. It could be that Blue meant her fix to degrade and deposit him back in his rightful time once the radiation wounds healed. The replenisher might help with that, speed up the process. Or it might not. It might ruin everything."
Allura held his shoulder tighter. "You've done everything you can. Were you ever treated for your own exposure to the radiation? You were caught in that explosion, too."
"I'm fine, Princess. Takes more than that to rattle these old bones."
"Still." She let go of him and fetched a scanning crystal from another table. "Let me at least make sure. Lance will be upset if his 'Uncle Cranberry' is not in good health when he awakes."
Coran chuckled and leaned back from his console, spreading his arms so she could wave the scanning crystal over his body. "Well, we can't have that."
Allura finished her scan and tapped the crystal against another screen so the results showed where she could see them. She reached out with a delicate fingertip and swiped through the pages of information. The scans revealed signs of exhaustion and hard use on Coran's body, as well as hairline cracks in his aura where he had been recently injured, then healed without intervention. "You were unconscious for a time?" she asked.
Coran nodded, eyes straying to Lance. "He dragged me to safety. By the time my body finished healing and I was able to wake up, he had already reverted to that small form."
Allura sighed and put the crystal away. "So he went through the transformation alone. That's disheartening."
"I don't know how long he was alone, terrified and confused, before I woke."
"It's no wonder he latched onto you so firmly and irrevocably." Allura moved back to Coran's side and began closing screens. He made a noise of disapproval and snatched at her hand to make her stop, but she laughed and slipped away. "Consider this an order from your princess, Coran. Get some sleep. Your body may have been able to handle the radiation, but there are still cracks in your quintessence that need to be healed. I'll watch over Lance. Everything will be all right."
Coran's nose wrinkled, releasing a gruff noise of discontent, but he sighed and dragged himself up from the chair. He swayed on his feet, confirming his need for rest. "Very well. You know I can't refuse an order from my princess. But I'm going to stay nearby, just in case." He waggled a finger in an attempt to be scolding, but largely failed when he had to stop midway for a cavernous yawn.
Allura laughed and shoved his shoulder hard enough to make him stumble toward the beds. "Go join Dr. Mellen, then. I'll wake you if anything happens."
Coran grumbled, but went. "Good night, Princess. Do take good care of the boy."
"Of course I will," she replied, much more gently now. "Sleep well, Uncle Cranberry."
She expected him to scoff at the name, or at least acknowledge it as a moment of teasing. But no. He made no reaction at all, simply bundled himself into another cot near Mellen's and was instantly dead to the world.
Allura smiled softly and sat down at the console, her eyes going to Lance, healing and at rest. Hunk and Pidge, along with Slav, were working on a device to bypass the Kazostian government, and they expected to be done in a few vargas. Keith and Shiro were showing Joram and Aneen the training deck while Thorlia crafted the message they would send to their people. Lance and Coran, missing not long ago, were both safe and resting where she could keep an eye on them. Even if the healing did not go well, and Lance remained as he was instead of changing back to the warrior they needed, the team would take care of him. No matter what.
There was nothing else Allura needed to do, not for the moment. Allura closed her eyes, allowing herself a moment of relief, then focused on her vigil again. Her family was safe, and she was going to make sure they remained so.
It was cold. Lance didn't hurt anymore. He shivered, and the cold faded. When he opened his eyes, everything was foggy, but the place he was in felt small. Too small. His breath hitched, and he squeezed his eyes shut so he didn’t have to see. He heard voices, strange and confusing. They sounded happy to see him. They asked him why he didn't come out. He was too scared to move. He shook his head and pressed his hands over his face so he wouldn't have to look.
A voice he knew came closer. Uncle Cranberry. He moved until he was right in front of Lance, close and warm and safe. His big hands rested on Lance's arms and rubbed up and down. "Lance, little one, what's the matter? Are you frightened?"
Lance nodded his head jerkily up and down. "Small," he forced out in a tiny, shaking voice. It sounded weird. His voice had sounded strange to him ever since he had the accident that Uncle Cranberry had said made his head hurt and his body small, but he couldn't remember what his voice had sounded like before the accident, so he didn't know why it bothered him. Maybe he would get used to it.
"The pod is too small?" another voice asked.
Lance nodded. Uncle Cranberry leaned closer and pulled him into his arms. Lance felt himself being lifted and moved. The air felt different, the space around him larger, and Lance dared to move his hand away from one eye and crack his eyelid open. He wasn't in a tiny space, now, and he sighed in relief and slumped against his uncle. There were lots of people standing around, people he had met, but he couldn't remember all of their names. He knew Hunk, though, Hunk was nice. Dr. Mellen, too. He was like a pet hamster Lance's big sister had back at home, all furry and soft and squishy. Lance wanted to pet him, but he had the feeling that you weren't supposed to pet doctors.
"There we are. I've got you." Uncle Cranberry shifted his grip on him. "I'm going to set you down on this table here, all right?"
Lance nodded and lowered his hands from his face as Uncle Cranberry rested him on a cool surface. As soon as he let go, though, Lance was overwhelmed by a feeling of being small and alone. He shivered, and his hand shot out and grabbed Uncle Cranberry's sleeve. Uncle Cranberry stopped moving away and put his hand on Lance's shoulder. "All right," he said gently. "I won't leave you. Allura, would you fetch the scanning crystal?"
The pretty lady with the white hair agreed and moved away. All of the other people stood around, looking at Lance, smiling and nodding when he met their eyes. Lance felt like they maybe wanted him to smile back, but he didn't know them and it was too much. His shoulders hunched up to his ears, and he ducked his head to hide behind Uncle Cranberry's arm.
The pretty lady came back with a big, glowing rock. She waved the rock all over Lance's body, and it didn't sting or tingle at all, not like the scanning wand Dr. Mellen had used under the mountain. Then she tapped the rock on a big window in the air, and a bunch of words and images popped up. She and Dr. Mellen and Uncle Cranberry all started looking at them and talking about them, and Lance knew it was about him, but he didn't understand it and it was kind of boring, so he stopped paying attention.
His eyes wandered, and he found himself looking at Hunk and the green girl, Pidge. She had piloted the big awesome lion ship that brought them to this place. Piloting was awesome. Pidge was awesome. Lance watched her with his mouth open. He hoped that he would get to go flying with her again sometime. Pidge and Hunk were whispering to each other and nudging each other with their elbows.
When they saw Lance looking at them, they smiled. Hunk came closer, holding out one hand. Lance leaned against Uncle Cranberry's arm a little harder, but he didn't try to get away. Hunk was nice. After a moment, he reached back and put his hand in Hunk's big, warm one. Hunk closed his hand around Lance's and held on to him, then glanced back at Pidge. Pidge gave them a thumbs up, then turned around and ran off. Lance looked up at Hunk, wondering what was going on.
Hunk scooted closer so he leaned against the table next to him. Lance felt safe, sandwiched between Uncle Cranberry and Hunk. "Pidge is going to go get a surprise for you," Hunk said. "You'll like it, I promise. Then after that, and after Coran and Mellen have cleared you, we'll go get some food. Are you feeling hungry, now? The pod should have made your tummy ache go away."
Lance thought about it. He looked down and pressed his hand against his belly, trying to feel what it was like in there. "Tummy ache is gone," he said, then looked up at Hunk with a grin.
Hunk grinned back, eyes wrinkling up. "I'm glad to hear that. It was pretty bad, huh?"
Lance nodded solemnly. "Pretty bad," he echoed. He shuddered. His tummy had hurt like it was trying to eat his insides, his head had ached, and his whole body had felt burned and itchy. That was all gone, now. He looked behind himself, trying to see the "pod" Hunk was talking about, but all he saw were some circles on the floor.
He leaned his head on Hunk’s side and looked around the room. The other three hamster people were sitting together and talking about something called a “broadcast.” They sounded hopeful and happy, and Lance relaxed, listening to their voices. He remembered how tense they had been in the city and how scary it had been to keep running away all the time, so he was glad that they were feeling better now. Aneen and Joram had both looked really cool with their guns, but Thorlia had been worried. He hoped they wouldn’t have to run around with guns anymore unless they wanted to do it for fun.
Guns were cool. Maybe someday Lance would get to shoot one. Maybe he would get to pilot a big awesome lion, too. At the thought, Lance felt a deep rumbly purr down in his bones. He’d been feeling it ever since the accident, so he wasn’t scared of it. He’d been confused at first, but now he knew that the purry voice was friendly. It cared about him, and it was kind of part of him, too. Lance didn’t understand that thought, but he knew it was true.
Lance looked at the other two with curiosity, the man with the scar on his face and the dark-haired boy who stood near him. He sort of remembered meeting them before the pod, but not really. His head had been hurting a lot and he’d been really tired when he saw them then. But he knew they were important. Important to him, and important to the purry voice inside him, too. Maybe Uncle Cranberry or Hunk could explain it to him later, once all of the important conversations with big words were done.
Pidge dashed back into the room, holding her hands in front of her like she was cradling something. Lance craned his head to see, and he caught a glimpse of something small and multicolored. Pidge flashed him a smile, then pulled up to a halt next to the table and held out her hands. Four tiny, colorful mice sat in her palms, waving at Lance with their paws.
Lance gasped in delight. He let go of Uncle Cranberry and reached out, still holding onto Hunk with his other hand. "Can I pet them?" he whispered. "They're so little."
Pidge nodded, smiling so big that all her teeth showed. "They're even smaller than you, aren't they? Don't worry. They like being petted."
Lance carefully closed his hand so one finger was sticking out, the way his sister with the hamster had taught him, and ran it over the back of the chubby yellow mouse. The mouse arced its back like a cat, pushing against Lance’s finger, and he caught his breath at the soft, silky warmth of its body. The other mice crowded around, demanding their fair share of petting. Lance pulled his other hand free of Hunk so he could hold out his palms, and they climbed on. Two mice stayed on his hands while the others climbed up onto his shoulders. They tickled his cheeks with their whiskers, making him giggle and close his eyes.
He was thoroughly distracted from the conversation of the adults going on over his head. Hunk and Pidge gave each other smiles, pleased with their success. Lance barely glanced up when Uncle Cranberry cleared his throat to get everyone's attention, though when Hunk and Pidge went still, watching, he paused his playing with the mice and looked up, too.
Uncle Cranberry was looking at Lance. When he saw him looking back, he gave him a big smile. "Everything is okay, little one." He looked around at the group. "The radiation damage is completely healed. And the blue lion's intervention was successful. On further study and analysis, we have determined that the quintessence is meant to degrade gradually. The pod stabilized it, so it will now work as Blue intended it to. Lance will age back to his natural state over a period of time, perhaps fifteen or twenty quintents. He will be this apparent age for a while longer, then he will transform to a slightly older version of his body, and so on. We expect him to regain all of his memories as well."
He looked to Lance, his expression gentle. "Do you understand, Lance? You are going to get big again. I don't expect it to be painful, but if you start to feel strange or scared, let us know and we will do everything we can to make sure you're as comfortable as possible."
Lance swallowed, then nodded. "I understand." He looked down at the furry creatures in his hands. "Can I still play with the mice?"
Uncle Cranberry laughed and ruffled his hair. "Of course. They are very fond of children, so I expect they will be at your side throughout the process. But they enjoyed your company when you were big, too. We all did."
Hunk put his arm around Lance's shoulders and squeezed him into his side. His voice was excited. "So we get to keep cute baby Lance for a little longer?"
Uncle Cranberry nodded and grinned. Hunk scooped Lance up so he could hug him, and the mice ran to the top of Lance's head just in time to avoid being squished. "You hear that, little buddy? We're going to have so much fun together!"
Lance considered that for a moment, then decided that it sounded good. "Can I have cookies?" he asked hopefully.
Hunk laughed and squeezed him tighter. "Of course! All the cookies you want."
Uncle Cranberry made a noise, and Hunk reconsidered and lowered Lance back down to the table again. "Well, maybe not all the cookies you want."
Lance nodded. His mama had warned him about eating too many cookies. He didn’t want his tummy to ache again. He looked around at all the people, smiling hesitantly when he saw the way everyone was watching him. The big man with the scar across his nose caught his eye and carefully moved closer, holding his hands where Lance could see them.
"Hi, Lance. My name is Shiro. I'm not sure if you remember meeting me or not." Lance shook his head, and he smiled gently. "I'm another one of your teammates, like Hunk and Pidge." He put his hand on the shoulder of the boy next to him. "And this is Keith. We're all going to take good care of you for as long as it takes for you to get bigger, okay?"
Lance looked at him for a moment, taking him in. Shiro seemed nervous and scared, too. Of Lance? That wasn't fair. Lance reached up and took the mice off the top of his head, then handed them to Pidge. Then he held out his arms for Shiro to pick him up. Shiro said they were teammates, so that meant Lance was supposed to take care of him, too. Lance didn't remember very much, but he knew what a team was.
Shiro hesitated, then stepped forward and lifted Lance into his arms. Lance put his arms around Shiro's neck and hugged him tight. "Hi, Shiro," he said in his ear. "Thank you. I think I have the best team ever."
Shiro's breath hitched, and he didn't move for a second. Then he hugged Lance back so tight that he couldn't breathe for a second. "I'm not going to let anything bad happen to you," he whispered. "Not ever."
Lance nodded and relaxed, resting his chin on Shiro's shoulder. After a bit, though, it started to feel confining, and he wiggled back so he could look in Shiro's face. "Can we go get cookies now?"
Shiro laughed and wiped the corner of his eye. "Sure, buddy. Let's do that."
To Lance's immense satisfaction, that was exactly what they did.