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Your Exit is in Another Castle

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“A bit higher, please!”

“Alright.”

Lotor had many faults. At many times, these faults included his height. Today, however, Pidge was very much enjoying the fact that the tallest semi-permanent resident of the ship also had Altean strength and a decent enough understanding of mechanics to know which tool she was asking for, or even bounce ideas off of. It meant that Hunk didn’t need to act as her ladder instead of working on his own projects, which meant higher efficiency. The workshop had gone from being just her and Hunk, with Coran occasionally popping his head in, to Pidge, Hunk, and Matt near constantly, with frequent appearances by Lotor and less frequent but greatly appreciated appearances by Coran and Ryner. Granted, they were fiddling with the training room right now, instead of the workshop, but still.

Turned out Lotor was a nerd of epic proportions. Who knew, right?

 “Okay, drop time,” Pidge said. “The Lance version.”

“…the cradle, yes?” Lotor asked. “Isn’t that a little dangerous?”

“Dude, you’ve got me up in a cupie or whatever,” Pidge said. “And we’ve done thi—okay, be boring then.”

Lotor placed her on the ground, and probably a little more gingerly than he had to. “Humans are fragile, and I would rather not risk my place on this ship by engaging in reckless behavior.”

“Fiiiiiine,” Pidge said. She dropped into her chair and pushed herself over to her computer. “We’re probably good to go for the simulator upgrades, I think.”

“Do you have programs in mind?” Lotor asked, hovering over her shoulder and staring down at the code. Pidge shifted uncomfortably, and then released a tense breath as Lotor grabbed the other chair and sat down, leaning forward to rest his chin on crossed arms.

(She felt almost bad about it, but… well. They all had reasons to not trust Lotor, and he’d adjusted to their difficulties on that front with a surprising amount of grace.)

“There’s some video games,” Pidge said, swiping through the files she’d flagged in the gaming folder, and even a few in other franchises. “I can’t play all of them from here, since they’re MMORPGs and need an internet connection, but I like data-mining, so I’ve got a lot of the programs here on my computer anyway.”

“Is that legal on your planet?”

“…anyway,” Pidge said, clicking through to a new folder and ignoring the amused smile she could see on Lotor’s face from the corner of her eye. “Some of them are war games, or hunting games, or have other elements that we need to practice, like agility. By turning them into immersive simulations instead of just screen games, we can use them for training instead of just fun.”

“And the psychic elements are necessary?” Lotor asked.

“Hey, if you’ve got it, use it, right?” Pidge shrugged. She turned to look at him. “Besides, you were the one that helped me figure out how to get the system to do psychic immersions without relying on the headgear. Why worry now?”

“I’ve had more than a little trouble with psychics before,” Lotor said drily. “Or have you forgotten my story regarding Narti, Kova, and Haggar? Or your own regarding that, ah, artificial intelligence based upon the memories of the late King Alfor?”

Pidge made a face. “Point. Still, the psychic elements are opt-in and controlled from above, not just by voice. Any time the simulation is using a psychic element, someone’s going to be up in the control booth to make sure it goes alright.”

“I would suggest more backups and emergency off-switches,” Lotor said. “In any case, y—”

The doors whooshed open. “Hide me!”

“Ryou?” Pidge asked as the man rushed in. “What are y—whoa, hey!”

Ryou wedged himself in under the desk that Lotor had rigged up under Pidge’s instructions. “Hey.”

“Should we ask?” Lotor said slowly.

“My darling twin brother is, in fact, quite angry with me,” Ryou said.

Pidge glanced up at Lotor, and then back down at Ryou. “What did you do to piss of Shiro?”

“I think he’s a little unused to having someone who knows most of his secrets,” Ryou said. “Which, I mean. I’m a clone. I have his memories, and while I do have some of that residual embarrassment, it’s still not nearly as much, because it wasn’t me that did it.”

“You shared an embarrassing memory of Shiro’s, then,” Pidge said.

“One of the worst,” Ryou confirmed solemnly.

“I can see the smile you’re hiding,” Lotor told him, one eyebrow quirking upwards when Pidge looked at him.

“It wasn’t an accident, entirely,” Ryou said, the grin spreading across his face. “That may or may not be why Shiro’s so mad.”

“If he comes in and asks where you are, I’m telling,” Pidge said.

Ryou’s eyes darted towards Lotor.

“What was the term that the Yellow paladin used? Ah yes: ditto.

“Hashtag rude,” Ryou gasped dramatically, putting a hand to his chest.

“You’ve been spending too much time with Lance,” Pidge complained. She kicked lightly at Ryou’s leg, more of a nudge than anything. “Hey, hey, do us a favor.”

“What’s in it for me?”

“Nothing,” Pidge said. “But we need it done and if you’re running from Shiro, you’re not doing anything important, right?”

“True,” Ryou admitted. He pulled himself out from under the desk and stood up to lean against it, crossing his arms. “What do you need, tiny one?”

“I miss the days you acted as mature as you thought you were,” Pidge grumbled.

“I no longer think I’m Shiro, ergo, I no longer act like he does,” Ryou said, sniffing snootily. “I am, in fact, my own person.”

“How commendable,” Lotor drawled, and Pidge snickered.

“You, good sir, are rude,” Ryou said, pointing at his face. “Anyway, that favor. What do you need?”

“We just finished doing some upgrades to the training deck, and want to introduce the new system to the team,” Pidge told him. “So if you could get everyone down here in…”

“Half a varga,” Lotor suggested. He tilted his head when Pidge shot him a questioning look. “We do need to test it, first. I’d rather not attempt to make a grand showing and then have it fail in the process.”

“…speaking from experience?” Ryou asked.

“My attempt at a mechanized and controllable interdimensional portal did not succeed as intended,” Lotor agreed.

“Half a varga is, what, fifty-two minutes?” Ryou asked.

“Let’s go with a full hour,” Pidge said. “I’ll text you about fifteen minutes before the right time to tell you if it worked.”

“And I just run around and hunt people down again?” Ryou tilted his head, both eyebrows jumping to attention.

“You know how a phone tree works, my dude,” Pidge dismissed. “You’re a big boy. You can handle it.”

“I’m like… seven months old, Pigeon.”

Go,” Pidge laughed, rolling her eyes and shoving against his hip. “And apologize to your brother.”

“Can’t tell me what to do!” Ryou called as he headed for the door.

“By your own claims, I’m older than you, so… kinda can!” Pidge yelled after him.

Pidge turned back to the program that was running down the screen and bit her lip, then clicked over the games folder. “So… should we test out a safe puzzle game first or skip right to the kind of stuff we’d be using for training?”

“I would suggest trying something with fairly simple programing for the first attempt,” Lotor said. “And then work up to something that’s more likely to end in injury.”

“Hm…” Pidge hummed a little as her eyes flickered down the list. “Got one. Tetris is a classic, and with a bit of a twist… I can set the Complete History of the Soviet Union parody version as the background music.”

“Tetris?” Lotor asked.

“It’s a puzzle game, a really old one,” Pidge said. She hit a few buttons, and the training deck darkened. Even her desk seemed to disappear into the pitch black, though she could still feel it. Unsurprisingly, Lotor (and his clothing) were the only things still visible to her. “See me?”

“Nothing save for yourself, but yes,” Lotor said. He had one hand out to stay on the desk, keeping track of it. “I do believe I see the playing field.”

Pidge followed his line of sight to the middle of the room and carefully edged around the invisible desk until she felt she was in the clear. She set off for the flat, glowing line, and heard Lotor sedately walk after her. Internally, she grumbled a little at the fact that he needed only one step for every two of hers.

“Huh,” she said, coming to a stop in front of the glow. It was actually a pale, greenish-blue trough of sorts, very shallow and maybe an inch and a half across, but several feet wide. A button popped up in front of her at eye-height, and she hopped back with a squeak.

“Careful,” Lotor warned, sounding far too amused.

“Oh, shove off,” Pidge grumbled. She looked up at the button. It said one word:

BEGIN

She took a deep breath, and pressed it. There was a slight resistance when she did, the hard light forming a curved surface that didn’t feel quite like plastic or metal or anything at all. Time to see if all that hard work had paid off.

The music she’d picked earlier started up in the background, and as Pidge watched the ‘screen’ of sorts, a glowing grid grew up from the trough, and three circles popped up to the side in a vertical line, the one at the top larger than the others. As with the button and trough, everything was in black and blue, a shade and contrast that reminded her more of the old TRON movies than anything else.

Hand movements control the blocks.
The next block will be visible in the largest circle, and the two following in the circles below.
When the blocks come together to form a complete row, the row will disappear, and the blocks above it will drop down to fill the void.

Below, the instructions were repeated in Galra and Altean.

She… hadn’t included that, but the Castle’s programming had probably meshed enough with the video games to trigger some kind of ‘provide instructions’ subroutine.

The instructions faded as the music picked up a bit, and a piece began to fall from the top. An L-shape, so she could probably just shove it off into a corner and lay it on its side…

Pidge hesitantly brought up on hand and pushed against the piece. There was a slight bump in resistance with every column that she led it over, and it only became a solid resistance once she’d pressed it all the way to the edge. She made a twisting motion with one hand, not even touching the piece, and nodded to herself when it worked. A soft drop was clearly just to ‘push’ it downwards, but when she made a sharp motion downwards, the piece immediately shot to the bottom.

“Okay,” she told herself. “I can work with this.”

“How old is this game?” Lotor asked, and Pidge startled. She’d nearly forgotten he was there. She scrambled to get the next piece in motion despite the distraction.

“Uh… 1990s, maybe 80s?” Pidge hazarded a guess. “It’s one of the oldest computer games we have on Earth.”

“Given the simple design, I’m not surprised,” Lotor said. “And the song? I understand that it chronicles some manner of history, but…”

“It’s a heavily stylized rendition of the history of a specific country over the course of like… seventy or eighty years?” Pidge shrugged. “Obviously, the blocks are a metaphor, but the idea is that the song tells the history of the country from the perspective of a working-class person, rather than the high politics.”

“I see,” Lotor said, with a tone of voice that made it impossible to tell if he did, in fact, understand.

“Wanna give it a shot?” Pidge asked. “It’s been a while since I played Tetris, but I’ve played enough video games that I’m not too tied to it right now.”

Lotor shifted audibly behind her, and then stepped closer. “I suppose I could take some time to familiarize myself with the system. We do need to test how well it interfaces with systems other than human ones, after all.”

“I think the psychic elements would come into play a bit more with something that isn’t this, uh… well, deliberately game-y,” Pidge admitted, stepping out of the way for Lotor to take a shot at the game. “Something that actually can work as a simulation, y’know?”

“You have something in mind, then?”

Pidge bit her lip, considering. “Um… Wii Tennis?”

“…you’ll need to explain,” Lotor said. “Is this Tetris speeding up?”

“Yeah, the speed picks up for the sake of difficulty as you reach higher levels,” Pidge said. “And Wii Tennis is… okay, so tennis is a sport back home, and a specific video game console once created a system that would allow you to play lower-intensity versions of sports in your own home, which was Wii Sports. It was pretty stylized, though, so it would be a good way to test how the system adapts to games with a game that has figures meant to represent humans, but with distinctly impossible elements.”

“Distinctly impossible how?”

“In the case of Wii? Proportions,” Pidge said. She tilted her head and watched as the blocks finally hit a point where Lotor couldn’t keep up.

“Ah,” Lotor said, as the screen flashed the words Game Over. “What a pity.”

“You don’t sound disappointed.”

He shot her a look, eyebrow raised, and his voice was flatly amused when he spoke. “Now, whatever gave you that idea?”

Pidge rolled her eyes and turned to speak out into the nothingness of the training area. “Computer, activate Wii Tennis.”

There was a short pause, and then the environment shifted. It wasn’t instantaneous, by any means, and Pidge could see where the holograms lagged a little as the computer tried to follow the guidelines Pidge had set. There was a subtle brush against her mind, and then the stands and field gained a level of realism that the game had never had.

“Huh,” she said, kneeling down and running her hand across the ground. “I can feel the grass.”

“Is that a problem?” Lotor asked.

“It’s the psychic elements at work,” Pidge said, standing up. “The game was never this detailed, but it’s using some of my memories to develop the environment to something approaching realism.”

“And the… person?” Lotor asked, gesturing at the referee.

Pidge blinked, and then made a face. “Oh. That’s… kinda gross.”

“Not a human face, I take it.”

“It’s a Mii,” Pidge said. “And the program is definitely struggling here, if that’s what it’s come up with. Uh… computer! For a default tutorial guide, referee, or other guiding-slash-managing NPC, use my memories of… uh…”

Fuck, fuck, fuck, she couldn’t use anyone who might eventually see the program, that would cause confusion, so—

“Sven?”

Another brush against her mind, and then… Sven was in the referee chair.

Pidge met Lotor’s eyes. “Um.”

“Should I ask?”

“Okay, so the whole thing with the comet, when we went to another dimension? It kind of… had a parallel universe. And we met the parallel versions of Shiro and Slav, and Shiro’s parallel was a guy called Sven, who looked like… well, like that.” Pidge gestured at the fake Sven in the ref’s chair.

He waved at them. “Yoo-hoo!”

Lotor blinked.

“Sorry,” Pidge said, turning fully away from Sven and to Lotor. “I can try to switch him out for something else, if you want?”

“I’ll survive,” Lotor said drily. “Now… this tennis? What is the object of the game? How do you play?”

“We—” Pidge started, and then yelped and jumped backwards as Sven landed in front of her.

She gaped for a long moment, then turned to look at the now-empty ref’s chair, and then over at Lotor. “Did he just jump all the way here?”

“Yes,” Lotor said.

Sven clapped loudly, a grin on his face. “So, you want to know how to play tennis, ja?”

Pidge watched in mild disbelief as ‘Sven’ proceeded to explain tennis to Lotor, with a few elements that Pidge was pretty sure weren’t in Wii Tennis, but were in real tennis. That was… a good thing, she decided. It gave them more maneuverability in choosing games to train their agility. And the program was clearly adapting to the need for a tutorial by using Pidge’s orders regarding Sven-the-NPC to fill in the void here.

Pidge pulled out her phone and checked the time. There were still another forty-seven minutes until everyone was supposed to be here, and tennis was probably going to eat up more time than Tetris had.

Pidge grabbed a racket from the edge of the court, and jogged to a starting position. “One-v-one, Lotor! I’ll serve first!”

She wasn’t very good at tennis, and had to remind Lotor at least twice to ease up on the Altean-Galra strength, but… it was fun. Tennis was fun.

Huh.

o.o.o.o.o

“Don’t drop it.”

Pidge sent Lotor a stink-eye, but did not drop the plethora of tech in her arms. Lotor himself was carrying the table and the largest part of hardware, a giant Altean CPU of some sort that Pidge had been using to speed up the code compilation before introducing it to the Castle’s system, and doing so with such ease that Pidge couldn’t help but be a little jealous.

“Fuck,” Pidge whispered under her breath as they approached the door, doing her best to juggle the objects in her arms until she was in a position to actually press her palm against the door and open up the elevator. Lotor helped, in his own way, moving his knee to a position that let her rest some of the weight on him, which… well, he was ridiculously tall, to the point where whether she felt short or not was irrelevant, because everyone felt short around Lotor. Once again, though, it meant that Pidge got her work done quicker than if she’d done it alone, so instead of having to make at least four or five trips to get everything upstairs to either storage or the control booth, she could just make the one with Lotor’s help. “Hit the button for the upper level?”

“You could just expand my permissions in the Castle’s database,” Lotor said drily, a hint of bitterness behind the blasé tone as he got the button. “That entire rigmarole would have been wholly unnecessary if I’d been able to open the door myself.”

“Once Allura, Shiro, and Coran give me the okay to do that, sure,” Pidge said, trying not to grunt in pain at how some of the things she was carrying were digging into her fingers. Fuck, this was heavy. “Until then… bathrooms, kitchen, showers, bedroom, ancillary med bay.”

“And a warden everywhere else,” Lotor muttered.

“Escort, maybe,” Pidge said. She’d have shrugged if not for the circumstances. “And you’re allowed into the hallways and some of the storage rooms. You can’t pretend you don’t understand why they’re still holding back on fully trusting you.”

“It’s been tens of movements,” Lotor said.

“Okay but, a couple months or not, you did try to kill us. Repeatedly. And confessed to killing one of your friends. And you were technically working with and for the empire until your dad tried to kill you,” Pidge said. “Like, I agree that they’re dragging it out, but you shot us. A lot. It’s not like the whole thing with Keith…”

“I’m aware,” Lotor said. “It’s simply… taxing my patience.”

Pidge tilted her head, distracted, as the elevator slowed. “Did you even pay taxes?”

“…what?”

“You were a prince. In an empire. Like, your money came from the government anyway, and as far as I know, Zarkon treats the Empire’s treasury as his, like, personal coffers or whatever, so did you ever pay taxes yourself?” Pidge asked. The doors from elevator to control room slid open with a hiss.

“I wouldn’t know,” Lotor said as he set the table and hardware unit down, along with the various little bits and bobs that he’d had piled on top of them. He moved to help Pidge get everything down without actually damaging any of it. Her poor laptop had taken enough hits back when the anti-gravity mishap during Sendak’s infiltration had happened. “My finances were always handled by others. My personal expenses were low enough that my father never took notice, and my military expenditures were no higher than any other commander of my caliber. No one, not even Haggar, bothered to question the money I spent as Emperor pro tem.”

“So…”

“There was someone hired to keep an eye on my accounts, yes, but I never spent enough for them to approach me about it,” Lotor said. “If I were paying taxes, then I imagine they were the ones to handle the process.”

“Well, that doesn’t tell me nearly as much as I was hoping it would,” Pidge muttered as the last of the things they’d brought up

“Would you prefer a full breakdown of the Empire’s taxation practices for all non-royal personages?” Lotor suggested, sarcasm in full evidence.

Pidge opened her mouth to argue, and then subsided for a moment, thinking. “Actually…”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“Curious!” She protested.

“It’s tax law.

“It’s intergalactic tax law,” Pidge corrected. “And I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a motherfucker to organize. Like, bureaucracy on that scale? That’s gotta be a ton of paperwork, even if it’s almost all digitized. And how is it all organized? Like, how far down does the specification go? On Earth, it’s by country, and each country has its own way of specifying beyond that, like how the US goes by state and then county and then town or city, except in cases where the city is so populous that it gets separated into multiple counties, like New York, but the counties barely have any power in those cases and almost everything is run by the city government, which—”

Breathe,” Lotor said, sounding halfway between amused and worried. “I’m fairly certain humans require oxygen to survive.”

“We do.” Pidge walked backwards out of the elevator, spreading her arms wide and spinning as she made her way towards the middle of the training deck. “But I… ramble. A lot.”

“You’re going to get dizzy.”

“God, you’re worse than Hunk,” Pidge whined, though she did slow the spinning and plop down to sit on the floor. “I didn’t think anyone was going to be more of a mother hen than Hunk, and yet, here you are.”

“It’s self-interest, I assure you,” Lotor said, calmly lowering himself to sit next to her, one arm propped up on a bent knee. “If I manage to keep you from getting injured while with me, my credibility with your team goes up.”

“Mm-hm, you keep telling yourself that,” Pidge said, leaning over to sympathetically pat him on the shoulder. She laughed when he reached up to lightly smack her hand away, rolling his eyes.

The main doors to the training deck whooshed open, and Lance tumbled in, landing with his arms in a wide V and a massive grin on his face. “Your favorite blue paladin has arrived!”

“I prefer the princess,” Lotor said immediately, beating Pidge to the punch. She stifled a snort when Lance’s grin turned into a pout. The rest of the team filed in behind him.

“Blue Lion’s paladin doesn’t mean Blue Paladin,” Lance argued. “Armor color is the relevant part here.”

“In that case, aren’t you also our least favorite Blue Paladin?” Pidge asked.

“Shiro, I’m being bullied,” Lance whined dramatically, leaning against the man’s arm and throwing the back of his own hand up against his forehead. “Save me.”

“…You’re a big boy, Lance, I’m sure you can take care of this yourself,” Shiro finally said, lightly pushing Lance away. “So, Ryou said you had some new training program to show us?”

“We do indeed!” Pidge said, rolling to her feet. “And we already tested it, too. Name a video game!”

“A video game?” Allura asked hesitantly.

“What kind?” Hunk asked.

“One from Earth,” Pidge clarified. “Specifically, one that I am liable to have on my computer somewhere. And… not a violent one, yet. Or puzzle. A sports game is probably best, actually…”

“That narrows it down a lot,” Matt said. “Hm… you still have FIFA?”

“I have FIFA 68, 69, 71, 72, and 73” Pidge confirmed.

“Why not 70?” Coran asked, noting the gap despite having no actual knowledge of what FIFA even was.

“Because the FIFA 70 game sucked balls,” Lance said, making a face.

“It was pretty bad,” Pidge acknowledged.

“Glitchy as hell,” Matt added.

“Didn’t the graphics take a noticeable dip that year, too?” Ryou asked, resting an elbow on Shiro’s shoulder and leaning against him.

“They did,” Pidge groaned. “And we left Earth a few months before 74 came out, so…”

“Why are there so many?” Allura asked.

“They make a new one every year,” Pidge explained. “Like, FIFA 71 came out in the year 2070, right? And they’ve been making these since the late 1990s. I missed out on 74 because we left in the middle of 2073.”

“Anyway, the whole issue with 70 was that there was this HUGE programmer strike going on in the year leading up to the game,” Matt explained gleefully. “So they were rushed and didn’t have access to the same number and quality of employees that they usually did, since the only video game programmers doing any work at the time were the ones that were desperate for cash, right? Which means that some games got delayed, like the new Dragon Age installment—”

“They really have to stop beating that dead horse eventually,” Lance muttered.

“—and some stuff, like FIFA, was on a yearly release schedule and had the quality just plummet because desperate for cash usually means new and untested, or just less skilled, and—”

“Okay!” Shiro said, clapping his hands. “We get it. Programmer strike led to lower quality for a game that Pidge doesn’t have. Let’s move the conversation back in the direction of the new training option she developed.”

“So… right.” Pidge fidgeted for a moment, trying to remember if there was anything she really needed to warn for before jumping in. “Just so you’re not surprised, we ran into an issue when testing Wii tennis and the computer had some trouble rendering a Mii as a realistic human face, so the tutorial guides and NPCs that fill a similar role kind of default to Sven’s face and voice now.”

“…as in Shiro’s weird version from another dimension?” Lance asked, trying to clarify.

Pidge nodded.

Shiro groaned.

“Oh, good, now there’s going to be three of us,” Ryou said, with a grin that only spelled trouble. “What do you say, bro?”

“I’d like to die, please.”

“Request denied!” Ryou said with a laugh. He spun to face Pidge and clapped his hands. “So, Holt, are you going to show us what you got or keep trying to build the suspense?”

Pidge tilted her head back and said, “Computer, run FIFA 73!”

A square of green appeared at the center of the training deck, several yards away, and then appeared to fold out from itself, flip by flip by flip. The squares fluttered outwards, speeding up, and crawled over the floor and walls and ceiling until they were no longer on the training deck, but in a stadium.

Pidge gave a deep bow with a flourish. “Ta-da!”

“Impressive,” Coran said, twiddling his mustache. “I’m assuming you repurposed the holographic technology from the rooms upstairs?”

“The stuff from, uh… the aftermath of Sendak,” Pidge admitted. Nobody had explained the incident with Alfor’s AI to Lotor, or even to Matt, feeling that it was something a little too personal to really share. “But yeah! We’ve got the game active, and… it might end up wavering a bit between the game and real-life soccer? It did when we played Wii Tennis, at any rate, so we’ll see how that goes.”

“And… why is that?” Keith asked.

“Still working out the kinks, but there’s a decent psychic interface,” Pidge explained. “It’s not like the headbands or anything, but it like… sort of integrates our expectations into the system? When we played tennis, the grass actually looked real, because it was integrating my memories into the system.”

“And your memories of that… Sven person,” Lotor reminded her.

“And that,” Pidge acknowledged, turning back to give him a nod. Oh, he had his arms crossed again.

“I’m not sure how comfortable I am with a psychic element,” Shiro admitted. “There’s no chance of lasting damage or anything?”

“It’s based on tech from the headbands, some information I asked to get sent in from the Blade of Marmora on their trial suits, and stuff Lotor learned while studying some of Haggar’s lab notes,” Pidge said. “We avoided using anything that hadn’t been tested.”

“And after everything, we know Haggar’s knowledge of psychic elements and brain modification is pretty much beyond compare,” Ryou muttered, sharing a look with Shiro.

“We tested it earlier,” Pidge said. “Tetris first, then tennis. It’s not going to hurt us.”

“We programmed in failsafes to shut the program down if it appears that significant stress is occurring on the brain,” Lotor said. “Or physical injury to the point of worry.”

“I actually had to talk him down for the degree of injury,” Pidge said, readjusting her glasses. “A broken finger does not render any of us incapable of asking the computer to end a simulation, or require that a message be sent to Coran to prepare a pod.”

“I believe you, but you humans are so…” Lotor made a face and gestured vaguely with one hand. “Squishy.”

“Squishy,” Pidge repeated flatly. “That’s the word you’ve picked for the day.”

“I am fairly certain I could crush your wrist bones between two fingers,” Lotor said. “You are absurdly breakable compared to Galra and Alteans.”

“We bounce back pretty well, though,” Ryou tossed in. “Like rubber.”

“Or silly putty!” Lance added.

“Ahem,” Allura coughed into her fist, gaining everyone’s attention. “I believe the setting has yet to be explained?”

“Right, uh, sorry.” Pidge scratched the back of her head. “So, the thing here is that I was thinking we could use war and combat games like CoD or TF2 to do certain kinds of training that the usually white-and-blue doesn’t really give us the best setting for? Stuff like smoke impeding sightlines, auditory interference, explosions as distractions, coordinating battle plans when we’re in different buildings, that sort of thing. But I didn’t want to just jump into that, so I wanted to start with a sports-based video game, since that can also give us a chance to more or less safely practice agility and teamwork while still giving us an AI-based opponent to work against.”

She bounced on her toes, hands clasped in front of her as she waited for her teammates to finish processing what she’d said.

“…you did good,” Keith said, before anyone else could jump in. Going by the look on Shiro’s face, though, at least one person had held back for that exact reason. “You’re right about the training possibilities it could open up, too. Would the weapons the opponents use be physical, or just holograms?”

“Depends,” Pidge said. “The current default is that if the opponent is large enough for a hologram to just overlay on top of a training droid, then it’s physical. The Gladiator’s too big for most of that, but for any shooting opponent, the smaller drones are good enough. When we don’t want to use the drones but want to use the simulation anyway, then I can set up the psychic elements to fake the pain in the supposed injury until the simulation is over, or just set it up so that we pretend injuries aren’t a thing outside of point-keeping if we’re focused on training something else.”

“Sounds good to me,” Lance said. He rubbed his hands together with a grin. “So… soccer time?”

“I don’t know all the rules,” Keith said immediately.

“I doubt Coran, Allura, and Lotor do either,” Shiro said. “And I’ve never played the FIFA video games, just heard Matt doing it a few times, so I don’t know if the rules differ between the game and real life.”

“They don’t,” Lance said immediately. He was bouncing on his toes and grinning widely. “But that still means we need to explain the rules, s—”

“Yoo-hoo!”

It… shouldn’t have been a surprise, Pidge thought, that they all startled at that. Not only was it naturally unnerving for a person to just suddenly be where they hadn’t been before, without even a fade-in or a puff of smoke or some kind of displacement, but they’d all had their reflexes fine-tuned for battle by now, and unexpected appearance generally didn’t signal good things there. Of course they all grabbed for weapons that, thank god, they weren’t wearing at the moment.

“Jesus!” Shiro hissed out like a swear, bringing a hand to his chest like it would calm down the spike in his heartrate that had doubtlessly happened. “That is… wow, that’s unnerving.”

“You’re telling me,” Ryou said, staring at Sven. “And here I was, finally getting used to having a twin.”

“Given that he looks like he’s probably mixed,” Keith said, “wouldn’t he be more like a cousin? I mean, whichever parent named him was probably Scandinavian, right?”

“Why is he smiling like that?” Hunk asked.

“Because he’s the tutorial guide,” Pidge said. “Also, going by that uniform, the referee, but… Have you ever seen a tutorial guide for a game that isn’t all grimdark? They’re all smiley and shit.”

“The aim of the game,” Sven said, drawing all of their attention to him again, and pulling a soccer ball out of nowhere. “Is to get this ball into the goal at the end of the field, and to avoid letting the other team get the ball into the goal your team guards. To do this—”

Pidge settled in for another long explanation on the basics of a sport she did actually know pretty well. But hey. Aliens. What could she do?

o.o.o.o.o

Pidge wasn’t exactly surprised that Lance was good at soccer. He was long and lanky and fast, and had surprisingly good musculature under the not-so-flattering hoodie and jackets, but more to the point, Lance had done this before. Going by his stories, Lance had done a little bit of everything before he joined the Garrison. Years of dance and cheer, years of figure skating and soccer, years of guitar and violin, years of basketball and theater, and then at least a couple months of anything else that grabbed his fancy, because that was apparently just the kind of person Lance was.

Beyond that, he had also grown up in a very Latino neighborhood in Florida, which meant far more pick-up games than a white neighborhood in Queens had for Pidge. It was a cultural thing, though Pidge knew from her mother’s side of the family and media in general that this was less of an effect of “white people compared to Latino people” and more of an effect of “white Americans compared to the majority of the rest of the planet.” It wasn’t like soccer was the most popular sport in every country, but it was… well. It was definitely above average.

“Actually,” Lance told her when she mentioned her thoughts during a water break. “You’re not entirely wrong? But most of my neighborhood was Cuban, like my family, and Cuba actually has a lot of North American sports jostling for the spot at the top of the popularity list. I think baseball might actually be the most popular, or… well, it was. Not too sure about now.”

“Huh.”

Pidge fidgeted with the shorts of the uniform that the game had formed for them all, something that Lance had been utterly gleeful about. Conversely, a few people, chief among them Shiro, had been less comfortable with the exposed skin, and the aliens had been unnerved, at minimum, by the style. It felt surprisingly real, for a hologram, to the point where she couldn’t even feel the actual clothing that she had on underneath.

“I hadn’t thought to mention it before,” Allura said, wiping at her forehead with a towel that had magically appeared to the side when Sven-the-referee had popped up in front of them at the end of the first half, cheerily informing them that it was break time. Pidge had, with some difficulty, managed to get them water without having to end the simulation. She wasn’t sure where the towels had come from, but was grateful for them anyway. Allura continued, after a moment, “But this would be a fascinating tool for us to learn about human cultures.”

“It could be,” Pidge acknowledged. “Not perfect, but… yeah. Definitely possible.”

“I’ve learned plenty already,” Allura insisted. “I didn’t know anything about Earth sports other than your version of ice skating before, and now I know how to play one of the most popular sports on your planet!”

“And you’re not half-bad,” Lance said, shooting her some fingerguns and a wink. “Might even get you doing a bicycle kick soon!”

“What’s a bicycle kick?” Allura asked.

Pidge was distracted from Lance’s explanation by a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Matt. “Hey. What’s up?”

“So I was talking to Shiro,” who was right next to Matt, apparently, “And he helped me realize that the game definitely lasted a lot longer than the FIFA video games, and feels like it’s actually the full forty-five minutes it would have been in a real-life game.”

Pidge considered that. “I added a lot of code to integrate the users’ knowledge of the real world into the simulations whenever possible. So since a real-life game of soccer lasts ninety minutes, then the simulation does too.”

“That’s… certainly something?” Shiro tried, scratching his head. “How does the program decide what to include and what to not?”

“Minor AI,” Pidge said with a shrug. “It’s not exactly the most advanced thing on the planet, but it can make some decisions of its own without my input, and I’m planning to review all the independent decisions at least weekly, even if it seems like nothing’s wrong, just to make sure it’s not malfunctioning.”

“Lotor’s idea?” Matt asked, grinning.

“No, this was a safety featured that I picked,” Pidge said, sniffing. “I’m not that dumb. It’s an AI. Learning and adapting, yes, but also liable to grow in strange directions if it isn’t properly monitored.”

“Just checking,” Matt said, lifting his hands up in mocking defense. “But, you know, you keep complaining about him mother-henning, and—”

“He’s just… a lot more cautious than I am,” Pidge admitted. “He’s had more things blow up in his face than I have, and that was when he did follow safety procedures to the letter, just because the things he was messing around with were so volatile. And as hard as it may be for you guys to believe, he really does want to keep me safe.”

“Hey, I’m not doubting you,” Matt said, sitting down next to her and gesturing for Shiro to do the same. “I don’t know if you’ve forgotten, but—”

“You gave him his first hug on the Castle Ship and then called him a sad duckling, Matt,” Pidge said flatly. “I couldn’t forget that if I tried.”

“I’ve certainly tried,” Shiro said. “It hasn’t worked, but I’ve tried.”

“The magic of hugs, Pidge,” Matt insisted, grabbing her shoulders. “The magic of hugs.”

“The hug wasn’t magical, Matt,” Shiro said. “All you succeeded in doing was confusing him and making him too uncomfortable to do his smug snake routine.”

“Stop troping.”

Shiro ignored Ryou as the man took a seat on the ground next to Pidge, drinking his pack of water.

“Besides,” Ryou continued, as though Shiro had actually acknowledged him. “Throwing Lotor off his game early totally helped.”

“I’m not saying it didn’t help,” Shiro said, with the air of a man suffering greatly. “I’m just saying that your hug wasn’t magical.”

“Five minutes left until the second half!” Sven called from several yards away.

Shiro watched him for a few moments, and then turned an accusatory stare Pidge’s way.

“I panicked,” Pidge defended.

“And chose a man with my face,” Shiro said. “I already have enough issues with that!”

“Hey,” Ryou said, pouting.

“He’s not that similar,” Pidge muttered. “There’s definitely some differences.”

“Like Keith said, more cousin than sibling,” Matt reminded them. “Still… similar enough to be unnerving.”

“Hey guys?” Hunk’s voice reached them. Pidge craned her head back to see him. “I was wondering if one of you wanted to switch out with me for goalie.”

“Can we do that?” Shiro asked.

“I mean, I asked Sven,” Hunk said, making a face. “He said it was okay?”

“I’m sorry,” Pidge whined. “Matt, back me up!”

“This might be creepier than whatever the game’s default was,” Matt cheerily told her.

“You didn’t see the Mii,” Pidge said, her voice dark.

“I’ll switch with you,” Shiro said, and a moment later saw Hunk’s goalie jersey switched with Shiro’s more standard one. “Oh, that… just happened.”

“Technology, yay!” Pidge cheered sarcastically, throwing her hands up in the air as high as they could go and waggling them like particularly altitude-friendly jazz hands.

“The break is over!” Sven called. “Back on the field!”

 And so the game went on.

o.o.o.o.o

Lance got to demonstrate his bicycle kick.

(Allura was more impressed than she let on.)

o.o.o.o.o

“Whoohoo, we won!”  Lance yelled, slinging an arm around Hunk’s shoulders and doing a little heel-click thing.

“Against an AI,” Keith pointed out. “We’ll have to up the difficulty if we do it again.”

“I mean, yeah,” Lance said. “Half of our team had no idea how to play soccer when we started the game. Of course it was low-difficulty. You saw Pidge telling the computer to put us on a beginner level.”

“How long did you say you played soccer for?” Ryou asked.

“Like… four years, maybe?” Lance pouted, making his ‘thinking face,’ which Pidge personally thought looked kind of silly, but it was just one of those things Lance did. “Only during the actual soccer season, though, not year-round. I rotated hobbies.”

“Considering all the other random stuff you know?” Keith said. “I’m not surprised.”

“Was that a compliment?” Lance asked.

“If you want it to be.”

“I feel like you’re making fun of me,” Lance said.

“You know how to milk a cow,” Keith pointed out. “And like, aerial silks or whatever. Those are really random hobbies.”

“I had a summer job on a dairy farm in Colorado when I was thirteen and staying with my uncle!” Lance protested. “And I thought the silks looked cool after I saw them at a Cirque du Soleil performance!”

“I’m not saying you didn’t have a solid reason for knowing these things, just that it’s a really random assortment of things to know,” Keith said.

“Assortment? Really?” Lance asked.

“Okay, now you’re the one making fun of me,” Keith said, his voice flat.

“Boys?” Allura said, getting their attention in a snap. “Behave.”

“Or what, you’ll—”

Whatever Lance had been about to say was cut off by Keith’s hand over his mouth. Keith gave her a strained little smile. “Whatever you say, Princess.”

Allura’s eyes tracked over to Lance’s, which were crinkled up in a way that showed he was definitely smiling under Keith’s hand. Allura shook her head. “I believe you, Keith, but Lance? I’m not quite so sure.”

“Can… can you guys not?” Hunk asked. “Please?”

“What do you mean?” Keith tilted his head, brow furrowing in confusion.

That,” Hunk said, gesturing at the three of them.

Lance reached up and pulled Keith’s hand away from his mouth. “Hunk thinks we’re taking bedroom dynamics out of the bedroom.”

Oh,” Keith said, eyes widening. “Uh. No. That’s… no.”

“To be fair, it’s Lance’s fault,” Ryou said, clapping Hunk on the back. “He was going to say a meme that went in that direction.”

“How do you know memes?” Lance narrowed his eyes, jutting his head forward like it would somehow make him more intimidating, though Pidge thought it might be a good idea to remind Lance that, with how lanky he was, it kind of just made him look like a chicken. Or maybe a turkey? Oooooh, turkey. She hadn’t had turkey in a while…

Lance continued, unaware of Pidge’s inner monologue on a type of poultry that many people believed tasted dry and flavorless, much like napkins. “Shiro doesn’t know memes.”

“Which meme?” Keith asked instead.

“The meme where one party says ‘behave, you’re on speaker’ and their romantic partner says ‘or what, you’ll spank me?’” Ryou said with a worrying amount of relish.

“You’re not wrong,” Matt said. “But the glee on your face when you say that worries me.”

“Oh, I think Lance can guess why I’m amused by this,” Ryou said, his eyes flickering to… Shiro.

“…oh my god,” Lance whispered, gaze darting back and forth between the twins. “Oh my god, Shiro knows memes.”

“Ryou, why,” Shiro said, not even making it a question. His voice was that of a man resigned to his own death.

“It amused me.”

“Shiro knows old memes and he’s been hiding it,” Lance hissed.

“I thought we agreed that we were brothers.”

“I think Matt and Pidge can attest to the fact that siblings throw each other under the bus for dumb shit all the time,” Ryou pointed out.

“Your team,” Lotor said softly, from right next to Pidge’s ear. She yelped and jumped away, more startled than she wanted to admit, but Lotor didn’t even acknowledge it. “Is something of a… what’s the word I’ve heard you use? A train wreck.”

“We could bring up the next level and distract them with shinies,” Pidge suggested.

“I like that plan,” Lotor said, a small grin gracing his face.

“Up, then,” Pidge said, and a moment later, Lotor was holding her above his head like Simba at the top of the cliff. Pidge cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “Hey, assholes!"

“Pidge,” Shiro said, still in that somewhat dead tone.

“I’m fifteen, I can curse if I want,” Pidge dismissed the implied reproach off with a wave of her hand, swinging back and forth from where Lotor held her by the armpits, trying not to accidentally smack him in the face with a flailing foot. “Anyway, we were thinking of going ahead and giving you guys a shot at treating the simulator like an actual combat simulator. We can queue up TF2 or CoD or something. Maybe even World of Warcraft, if you’re feeling old school.”

“Wait, how does the computer have enough information to do an MMORPG like that?” Shiro asked. “It’s not like…”

He trailed off, eyes widening. Pidge pressed her lips together and looked away, suddenly regretting the Lion King pose. Matt snorted.

“Katie,” Shiro said, his voice strained. “You didn’t.”

“Shiro, I’m not sure how you forgot this,” Lance said, “But she’s literally confessed to felonies in front of us before. I think she may technically be classified as having committed treason against the United States because of the stuff she did after Kerberos. Are you somehow surprised that she’s got code from games like that saved?”

“I am,” Shiro said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I shouldn’t be, but I am.”

“It’s not like I sold the code,” Pidge complained. “I just wanted to do some datamining to find the hidden bits and the unused code, the stuff that you can’t access by the game proper but shows up if you just look for the right patterns!”

“So I was right,” Lotor said, his tone light.

“Oh, just put me down,” Pidge huffed, wriggling until Lotor did, indeed, set her back down on the ground. “Also? Not made of porcelain.”

“I’ve no idea what that is, but I assume it is something very fragile, which you also are.”

“Awwwww,” Matt cooed, clasping his hands together and making a face like he’d just seen a kitten sneeze.

“Stop,” Pidge said.

“But—”

“I vote Call of Duty!” Lance yelled, raising his hand like he was waiting for someone to call on him in a classroom. More calmly, he repeated, “I vote Call of Duty.”

There were several moments of silence as everyone stared at him.

“U-um,” Pidge stuttered out. “That’s… good?”

“You were taking too long with the banter,” Lance told her. “I love banter, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been like five minutes, and we’ve gotten nothing done because we all keep getting off topic.”

“Your attempt at a sex joke was one of the reasons we got off-topic,” Hunk reminded him.

“And I’m proud of that, but anyway!” Lance yelled again. He took a deep breath, let it out quickly, and smiled, wide and bright. “Call of Duty, who’s with me?”

Coran spoke up, catching Pidge’s attention for the first time since that one kick he’d made that had been accompanied by what Pidge could only describe as an attempted war cry, like the sound effects he’d used back when ‘demonstrating his skills’ as soon as he’d gotten out of the cryopod. “Maybe you could tell us why you’d prefer that game, Lance?”

“Easiest to understand for new players,” Lance said. “Especially if it’s realistic instead of relying on a controller. With World of Warcraft or TF2, we’d have to explain RPG classes and types and stuff, and Warcraft is all about leveling and a sandbox world and sometimes events if you care about them. Pidge can probably tell you if I’m right or not, but I’m pretty sure that’s a little too complicated for an AI to try to handle for a demo, right?”

“He’s… not wrong,” Pidge admitted. “CoD is easier to explain. We’ll have to get a tutorial on how to use the weapons they provide us, if it doesn’t let us use our bayards, but it’ll be easier than trying to explain type dynamics for TF2 or figuring out how to do spells for anyone who picks mage in Warcraft.”

“I understood maybe half of whatever you two just said,” Keith deadpanned. “Anyone else?”

“What do you need explained?” Lance asked.

“Like… what’s a sandbox world? And classes? And how does a video game do events?” Keith asked.

He looked a lot more comfortable asking than he might have before all this started, which Pidge figured was down to Lance offering to do explain-y bullshit for him in the first place.

“Sandbox worlds are ones where there’s an open virtual world to explain and play in, instead of linear gameplay,” Pidge said. “Classes are like… types, I guess? Traditional RPG classes from stuff like DnD is stuff like, uh, white mage, bard, paladin, but not a Voltron paladin just the general interpretation of the word, uh…”

“Wizard, archer, fighter, black mage, rogue, barbarian, monk, cleric, necro… man…cer…” Lance was counting off on his fingers, but slowed when he saw everyone staring at him. “What? I tried out DnD at the Garrison a few times.”

“Of course you did,” Ryou said, seeming utterly delighted. “And once we’re done here, you’ll show the rest of us how to play.”

“N—” Hunk started to say something, but Lance cut him off.

“Deal! I’ll DM!”

“And now we’re doomed,” Hunk muttered.

“So… does everyone else agree on CoD, if they have a preference at all?”

“I still don’t understand the events thing…” Keith muttered.

“I’ll explain later,” Lance said, patting him on the shoulder.

Pidge looked around, trying to see if anyone had a problem, and paused. “Shiro?”

“I… think I’ll be okay,” Shiro said. “If nothing else, it’s a safe, controlled environment that’ll help me desensitize against possible trigger in battle.”

Pidge smiled. “Yeah, okay. Computer! Run Call of Duty: Black Ops VIII!”

The simulated environs faded to white, and a faint music, drums and strings and brass, faded in around them.

A series of large, rectangular screens popped up in a circle around them, just barely curving in such a way that they created the circle itself. Each one held a familiar image, jungle or foggy warehouses on the docks or an abandoned city baking in the sun.

“Please choose a setting!” Sven’s voice broke across them, and Pidge looked over at where the man stood, he was outside of the circle and wearing an USAF utility uniform from... well, Pidge wasn’t that good of a judge, but maybe early 2060s? There were elements to combat and dress uniforms that stayed relatively constant after a certain point in the latter half of the 20th century, and the military only changed out the fatigues designs every decade or two, so it was hard to tell.

“Shiro? Princess?” Pidge asked. “Your ca—”

“You have the Gotham setting?” Lance yelped.

“Did you have to screech right by my ear?” Keith asked, leaning away and rubbing at said ear with a scowl.

“It was a very manly yell—”

“No, it was a screech,” Hunk agreed.

“—and she has the DC expansion pack!” Lance said, pointing at the three setting windows in question. “That thing cost like four hundred and fifty dollars because of how much the copyright negotiations were! And seeing as the game was four hundred, that’s a lot for an expansion!”

Allura blinked at him, and then at Pidge. “I don’t have a reasonable understanding of how much that is in galactic terms.”

“Food is generally considered a reasonable basis of comparison for power purchasing parity,” Lotor offered. “Most often common staple foods.”

“What’s… power purchasing parity?” Matt asked.

“I can answer that one,” Coran said, beating Lotor to the punch. Pidge patted Lotor consolingly on the elbow, which was about the highest part of him she could reach without looking silly. “It’s a form of economic comparison that determines the relative strength of incompatible currencies. Before Altean currencies were consolidated, there were a few types of… I suppose they were comparable to your grains? That, when judged by weight, were the most common basis. If a bag of the same weight cost twelve Torrian units on the Klemnar continent and eighteen Gavrinosh on the innermost mech circle, then the worth of a Torrian unit was about one and a half times that of a Gavrinosh.”

“It’s also used to compare prices of living in different areas using the same currency,” Lance offered. “Because a holistic view would end up including luxuries and that gets… weird, since areas where, like, a bag of rice is cheaper might also gonna be areas where a pearl necklace is more expensive.”

“Again,” Keith muttered. “You have to admit your interests are absurdly varied.”

“I like history and you can’t do a decent analysis on historical context without understanding the economic systems in place,” Lance hissed back.

“A milkshake is about twenty-four,” Hunk told Allura. “A regular-sized meal at a mid-priced, lower-scale chain restaurant like… I don’t know, Applebee’s? Chili’s? That’s gonna be somewhere around a hundred, maybe a hundred fifty, depending on what you get.”

“God, I miss burgers,” Ryou said. “Which is weird, since I’ve technically never even had one.”

“Om nom nom,” Matt muttered distractedly, low enough that he probably thought nobody could hear him. Ryou still kicked him lightly in the backs of his thighs.

“You spent that much money on an optional piece for your game?” Allura asked Pidge.

“…well,” Pidge said. “No?”

“You didn’t get it legally, did you?” Shiro asked.

“I did! Kind of? I did do some hacking to find out when it would be on one of those flash sales when it was like a quarter of the price for half an hour,” Pidge admitted. “I still paid for it! Just… not as much.”

“How many crimes did you commit on your planet?’ Lotor asked.

“I stopped counting,” Pidge said. “And a lot of the laws weren’t fair ones anyway.”

“Of course they weren’t,” Lotor said, with a supposedly placating pat on top of her head.

“You’re an asshole.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“Is that one set in Tokyo?” Shiro asked, pointing at the window with what was very obviously a bunch of signs in either Japanese kanji or Chinese, and Pidge didn’t know enough about the language to make that call, but she did know the game, and—

“Looks like Ginza,” Ryou said, tilting his head. “Remember? When Wataru-oji took you to—”

“The seventeen-floor shopping mall to look for a present for Misato-oba-chan’s birthday, yeah.” Shiro squinted a little at the floating window. “I think you’re right.”

“Of course I am. Same memories.”

“So you remember it as you being the one to go?”

“Kinda. It’s foggy. Like… a dissociative memory? Is that a thing?”

“I think it’s something else,” Matt volunteered.

“We’re getting off-track again,” Pidge said.

“It’s a wonder you get anything done at all,” Lotor muttered, just low enough for her to hear.

“Don’t be mean.” Pidge clapped her hands. “So, you guys want the Tokyo setting, then?”

“…no,” Shiro sighed out, shaking his head. “As much as I’d love to, I think something like this wouldn’t really be a good first test. I’d like to test it out with something more similar to what we regularly deal with.”

“Less civilians?” Pidge guessed.

“Yeah.”

“What was the story for this one?” Hunk asked.

What story?” Pidge asked, not a touch bitterly.

“This was the one that had no semblance of a storyline and just gave us a bunch of settings using popular elements of previous games,” Matt explained.

“It’s bullshit is what it is,” Pidge muttered darkly. “They just wanted to make a bunch of money by marketing towards anyone who wanted a wider variety of worlds, and then boosted sales even more with the DC expansion.”

“Then why do you have it?” Keith asked.

“Because I’m the exact kind of trash the game was marketed towards,” Pidge said, head held high.

“Alright, alright,” Shiro said, rubbing the back of his head. “Anyone see a setting they like the look of?”

“I think the warehouses would be good for a practice run,” Keith said, pointing at the screen in question.

“Works for me,” Shiro said. “Any objections?”

Heads shook all around, and Shiro sighed, nodding. “Right. I guess we just…”

He stepped forward and pressed lightly on the screen, causing a bright blue glow to surround it.

“Would you like to play this map?” Sven asked.

“We would,” Pidge said. She was… really going to have to figure out a more generic face to give the tutorial.  She muttered to herself as the screens faded away and the ‘room’ grew dark. “Maybe I could switch him out for Iverson…”

“Don’t you dare,” Lance hissed.

Pidge shrugged, because really? That was pretty fair. Hindsight had her understanding that Iverson wasn’t an inherently terrible person, but he was, at his core, a drill sergeant, and his job entailed being strict and unforgiving. It wasn’t even just an option, really; he was supposed to be mean, and that would probably carry over from memory to simulation.

She shook her head as the first of the customization screens popped up. Every game that involved customizing a ‘face’ would skip that step, here, but that didn’t rule out things like weapons specializations.

Pidge wondered if they’d need to be ‘taught’ how to use the guns they were given, or if the guns would end up modded to have systems they already knew how to use.

o.o.o.o.o

“Pidge?” Shiro said over the comms link as they all spawned onto the map. “You’re grounded.”

“Dude!” Pidge yelled, and then immediately scrambled for cover. Running around in fatigues and Kevlar felt way different from paladin armor, but there was a familiarity to it. This was like what they’d worn during training back at the Garrison. She could work with this.

“No, no, I agree with this,” Matt said, punctuating the sentence with a little grunt as he, presumably, navigated his way around the warehouses. His dot on the map in the corner of Pidge’s eyeshield headed slowly towards the northwest. “That was like twenty minutes too much of some Swedish guy lecturing me on the rules of the game and how to use a gun.”

“Speaking as one of the people present that needed the lecture…” Lotor trailed off, letting the sentence speak for itself. Or maybe he just got distracted by an enemy. There was a lot of shooting going on.

“She’s not grounded for the lecture,” Shiro said. “She’s grounded because the lecturer was Sven.”

“I thought it was funny,” Ryou offered. He followed it up with a little, “Oh shit!” that had no apparent cause.

“You think everything about Shiro having you for a brother is funny,” Matt pointed out.

“Paladins, focus!”

“Not everyone here is a paladin,” Ryou said cheerfully. “Sorry, Princess!”

“Lance?” Keith asked. “Where the fuck are you?”

“Why do you wanna know?”

“Because I just saw three guys die and I can’t tell where the shots came from with all this fog.”

Lance was tellingly silent.

“What did you do?” Pidge asked.

“I’m basically shooting at anything that moves and doesn’t have a little name bubble from our side over it,” Lance admitted. “But I’m moving a lot so usually the thing in question doesn’t really stay in sight for more than a second or two in the fog.”

“And you just happen to get a headshot every time?” Matt asked.

“Uh, team sharpshooter, hello?” Lance scoffed. “Headshots are my bread and butter.”

“Chatter on the comms,” Shiro reprimanded.

Pidge noticed an overhang, just a small sheet of metal to keep the rain off of a doorway, and stashed away the (actual, heavy, metal and bullets) gun as she tried to figure out how to get up there. She didn’t have her bayard, obviously, but—

Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thu—

She flattened herself against the ground as footsteps came closer, breathing out a sigh of relief as the enemy combatant passed by without noticing her. A glance behind her showed a garbage can, which… hm.

Pidge pushed the can over and used to just barely get her fingertips over the edge of the overhang, kicking the can away as soon as she did. Leveraging herself against the door handle, and then the wall, she managed to swing herself up and around onto the overhang. No one else seemed to have noticed her, the conversation on the comms circling around the fact that Coran had apparently teamed up with Ryou to devastating effectiveness. Seemed like the back pain was gone, too, which meant Coran was forgoing guns entirely in favor of just grappling every opponent and making the kill with a knife.

(Several people were loudly questioning this.)

Eyeing the rooftop several feet above her head, Pidge considered the options. A quick glance around showed no one in her area, and the map on her screen showed that most of her team wasn’t even close enough to pop up. The majority of the action was probably happening on the other side of the map, then, which mean she was probably safe to just…

Pidge jumped for the rooftop, and then slid back down, falling several inches short of the edge.

“Shit,” she hissed.

“Something wrong?” Shiro asked.

“I’m too short for this,” Pidge admitted. She jumped again, grunting as she fell back down onto the overhang, and then looked around again.

Her eyes landed on a gutter pipe.

Technically speaking, this wasn’t something that could be done in-game. The simulation did mean more realism, though, which meant it might work anyway. Pidge bit her lip, considering, and then made her decision.

Her fingers, clad in gloves, strained to maintain the pressure and friction that would let her cling to the pipe and thus the wall. With a few low curses, she managed to inch her way up until she could fling a hand over the edge. Boots scraping against the stucco wall, Pidge heaved herself up onto the roof. There was a small dip afterwards, just a six-inch wall that ran around the rooftop, and Pidge flopped over it and onto the asphalt, breathing probably a little harder than she should have.

“Hey, Pidge?” Hunk asked.

“Yeah?”

“What did you say would happen if we died in-game?”

“Basically just get held in programing limbo until the round is over,” Pidge said, sitting up and peering over the edge. “Why do you ask?”

“We just lost Keith,” Hunk said. “And there goes Shiro.”

“We can still hear you,” Keith complained. “We’re just… not playing anymore.”

“Oh, good, I was a little worried about that,” Hunk said cheerfully.

“Pidge was right about the pain simulation,” Shiro added. “It wasn’t that bad, but there’s definitely a sting.”

“Try herding people towards me,” Pidge suggested. “I found a place to camp out.”

“Pidge!” Lance chimed in. “Rude!”

“It’s not actually a game, Lance! It’s a genuine battle simulation, and in a genuine battle, we both know getting a strategic position is a good thing, cheating or not!” Pidge rolled her eyes, but a bit of movement caught her eyes. There was no sign hovering over the person that came into view, which meant that even if she couldn’t see the face, the person was definitely an enemy.

She took the time to line up the shot, glad that she’d grabbed an automatic weapon that would let her fire a spray of bullets instead of forcing her to panic and line up another shot while the enemy potentially found her hiding spot. She let off the spray, and thankfully at least a few of the bullets found the target, taking them down. The automatics were a trade-off in terms of ammunition and power, at least in the game. They were weaker than the semi-automatics, and ran out of bullets faster, but if your aim wasn’t the best, like Pidge…

Well.

There was a reason she’d chosen it.

“Aw, little sis finally got a kill!”

“Shut up, Matt.”

“Oh please, li—Fuck!”

Pidge looked at the indicators on her eye screen and snorted. “You okay there?”

“I’m dead.”

“That’s what you get for goofing off instead playing the game.”

“I thought this was meant to be training,” Allura said, and Pidge couldn’t quite tell if she was mad or amused.

“Porque no los dos?”

“No,” Lance said immediately. “Ryou, you are banned from that meme unless you say it properly.”

“I can’t say it with a native accent.”

“I’m not looking for native, I’m just asking that you avoid a goddamn rhotic R.

“Should I ask?” Keith muttered.

“And I know you can use the alveolar tap—”

“The what?”

“—because I’ve heard you use it before!”

“Okay, so are we adding linguistics to the list of weird shit that Lance apparently knows?” Matt asked.

“It’s a pet peeve!”

 The argument was cut off by a screaming noise from Hunk.

“…did Hunk just die?” Pidge asked.

“Oh god, that’s definitely going to give me nightmares,” Hunk cut in. “Yep. Trauma-inducing. Pidge, I think you succeeded a little too well.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Pidge demanded.

“I just got blown up,” Hunk said. “And I mean it didn’t really hurt all that much, but it definitely freaked me out.”

“Buddy go boom-boom!” Lance muttered, voice pitched high and sing-song, like he was hosting a children’s show.

There was a distinct silence for several moments, punctuated only by the distant sounds of gunfire and explosions.

Allura went down with a choked grunt, her death cropping up on the eye screen as a small notice, but otherwise unremarked upon.

“Lance?” Matt said hesitantly. “Did you mean to say that?”

“…shit.”

Pidge snickered, and she was far from the only one.

“If only your Coalition fangirls could hear you now,” Matt mocked.

Pidge caught movement out of the corner of her eye, but this time it was accompanied by floating name signs on her eye screen. “Ryou! Coran! I’m up here!”

She raised an arm and they waved back, already heading towards her. “So, who’s left in the game?”

“Well, the two of us, you, Lance, and… huh.”

“Ahem,” Lotor said. “I’m still here.”

“You’ve been very quiet,” Coran said. “It’s not surprising that we lost track of who was involved, given the number of us involved!”

“Anyw—gah!” Ryou went down, and Pidge saw the death notification pop up in the corner of her eye screen as the ‘corpse’ faded away. “Well, that went poorly.”

“Cowards!” Coran yelled, rushing the combatant that had shot Ryou in the back of the head. Pidge wasn’t a good enough shot to help out, and she had a feeling that the simulator was much more realistic about friendly fire than most video games were. “Lance, Lotor, where you at?”

There was an obscene crunching noise as Coran won his fight. Pidge… tried not to think about that.

“What was that?” Keith asked.

“You don’t want to know,” Pidge immediately said, even as the crunching noise and accompanying movement played through her head repeatedly. “You really don’t want to know.”

“Well, what ab—“

MATCH OVER

CONGRATULATIONS, VOLTRON! YOUR TEAM HAS WON THE MATCH!

The world faded out around her, going back to white, and Pidge yelped as she fell back towards the ground. She hit it with a thud, and groaned as she got back up. Still clad in the fatigues, she’d landed on her gun, and while the pain was hopefully just a simulation for that one instead of an actual impact of hard light against her chest, it was a lot.

She whined as she rolled over onto her back, and then looked up in disbelief as she heard clapping.

Sven, clad in a dress uniform this time, stood a few feet away. His eyes were closed as he smiled and clapped, standing a few yards away from the group.

“Congratulations on your win!”

“Give us like… three minutes, dude,” Pidge groaned, holding one hand up and waving the program bundle that was Sven off. “Recovery time.”

“Would you like to see your stats?”

“…sure,” Pidge sighed, sitting up. She looked around, noting that they were still in the white not-space of the simulation instead of in the training room proper. “So, where were you guys?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, when you ‘died,’ where did your actual bodies go? The hard light can fake objects, but it can’t really make us intangible enough to avoid tripping over your supposed corpses,” Pidge said. “Like, did you drop to the room below like in normal training?”

“Not sure, actually,” Shiro said, rubbing the back of his neck. “From our perspective, we were still where we dropped, just… well, ghosts. Intangible to the world around us, but able to observe, and use the comms. I don’t think we actually ran into anyone real.”

“Wrong, Ryou’s arm went through my body at one point,” Hunk said.

“Huh,” Pidge said. “Probably part of the psychic stuff. Okay. Oof. Anyone actually care about the scores?”

“Not really,” Keith said.

“You’re just sore ‘cause you died early and I got the most kills,” Lance teased.

“Actually, Ryou beat you on that front,” Shiro pointed out. “And Lotor got close.”

“Are there usually this many enemies in a CoD round?” Hunk asked.

“I’ve got the system set to automatically adjust the level difficulty for training purposes,” Pidge admitted. “So it probably sent us more than necessary.”

“Says the girl who was camping,” Lance said.

“Oh my god, let it go.” Pidge rolled her neck around. “Hey, computer? Or, uh, Sven? Shit, are you advanced enough as an AI to have preferences for what I call you? I’m probably going to get you to change your default tutorial guide face, so it seems kind of silly to call you Sven…”

Sven tilted his head, staring blankly as this… probably processed? Pidge figured the computer was struggling to figure out if there were any instructions in what she’d said. “You… you can call me Sven, yes.”

“Clever program,” Lotor muttered, stretching his arms. “Might we know the time, however?”

“It is currently 6:47 AM, Mountain Time,” Sven said.

“Our sleep schedules are so fucked…” Lance muttered. Matt patted him on the shoulder.

“We have been at this for a while,” Allura said. “It may yet be time for another break, or even dinner.”

“True,” Pidge said. “Hey, Sven? What time did we start? Or, well, when did we activate the FIFA simulation?”

Sven tilted his head. “The FIFA 73 simulation began at 6:04 AM.”

Pidge paused. “That… that can’t be right. The FIFA game alone should have taken ninety minutes.”

“When did we start the FIFA game?” Hunk asked. “Like, not counting the tutorial?”

“The FIFA 73 round began at 6:09 AM, and ended at 6:24 AM,” Sven said. “The program for Call of Duty: Black Ops VIII began running at 6:27. The setting was chosen at 6:30 AM. The tutorial finished at 6:36 AM. The round began at 6:37 AM, and ended at 6:46 AM. It is currently 6:49 AM.”

Pidge stared.

“It shows initiative,” Lotor said.

Sven tilted his head, looking at Lotor. “…the current tutorial representation is based on the memory of a male personage. He/him pronouns would be appropriate.”

“…and preferences,” Lotor added, voice flat. “I believe you may have succeeded a little too well, Katarina.”

For once, this wasn’t followed up by Lance’s complaints about why Lotor got to call her that.

“The time dilation is most likely an interaction of the psychic elements,” Coran said, stroking his mustache and frowning at Sven, who stood at attention with a pleasant smile, still decked out in his USAF dress uniform. “In which case I’d say you’ve probably contributed to the problem as well, Lotor.”

“I was the one to call for further safety precautions,” Lotor said drily.

“Whatever,” Pidge sighed. “I can fix it later, and it means we got a decent amount of training done without… well, okay, we got teamwork training done without wasting much time. I don’t think our bodies could have done two or more hours of work like that in under forty-five minutes, so… I’m guessing our bodies are probably insensate on the training deck floor or something, and everything was a psychic simulation instead of hard light. Which, uh, no injuries, I guess? Or sweat? And it explains the water and towels from the game…”

She rubbed at her eyes. “Okay, I clearly have a lot of coding to do. Sven? End simulation, please.”

Pidge waited.

And waited.

And waited.

“Sven?”

The simulated man stared off into the middle distance, expression blank.

“Computer! End simulation!”

“Error found,” Sven said, tilting his head. The emptiness of his expression didn’t change, but his eyes began to glow. Pidge took a few steps closer, finding that Sven’s eyes were a deep blue now, iris and pupil and sclera all, with lighter blue code running down it like some fucked up Matrix parody that decided to take color scheme cues from Altea. “Unable to execute command.”

“What error?” Pidge asked. Sven didn’t respond. “Can you give me a visual feed of the training deck?”

A screen flickered into existence in front of her, and… yeah. All ten of them were there, unconscious on the ground.

“If the alarms were to go off…” Allura trailed off, chewing her lip. “Pidge, how stringent were those emergency protocols?”

“Uh… the simulation should end automatically in case of emergency,” Pidge said. “Which should include an attack on the ship, obviously. I’m not sure if it includes calls for aid from our allies, though.”

“And a medical emergency?” Coran asked.

“I’m not good enough at bio to set those parameters, but I think Lotor included some stuff on that front?" Pidge fiddled with her glasses and turned to Lotor. “Right?”

“The majority of the emergency shutdown parameters relating to the medical field that I included were focused on neurological emergencies caused by the psychic field,” Lotor said. “Unfortunately, rather than a human mind being overwhelmed by the psychic elements, as I worried, the problem seems to have snapped in the other direction. The weight of too many minds as overloaded the system in some fashion. Most likely, Pidge’s attempts to integrate her own memories and expectations into the realism of the setting caused something in the system to, ah, glitch. I imagine there’s a subroutine of some sort that is currently looping without end to cause the problem.”

“Sounds plausible…” Pidge muttered. “Computer? Bring up system coding interface, please.”

Sven tilted his head. “Denied.”

“…what.”

“Access to coding interface will allow ability to input cheat codes,” Sven continued.

What.”

Pidge stared in horror.

A hand tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned to see Hunk. “What are the chances that we’re trapped in here until we manage to blue screen the console?”

“We already blue-screened,” Lance pointed out. “Look at his eyes!”

Allura stepped to the front of the group, just feet away from Sven. “I am Princess Allura of Altea, and I am in charge of this castle, and thus of all programs involved. I order you to end the simulation and allow us to leave.”

“Error, training incomplete. System permissions of Allura, Princess and Allura, Blue Paladin rendered incompatible. Defaulting to Blue Paladin permissions. Persons ‘Allura’ fall under training parameters, and are not allowed to leave until training is complete.”

Allura stared at Sven, speechless.

“I didn’t add that in,” Pidge said.

“I believe that the paladin’s inability to end training before deemed acceptable by a superior is a holdover from your early days as a paladin,” Lotor said. “Likely implemented on the Castle’s artificial intelligence, however unintentionally, by the Princess herself.”

Allura shot him a poisonous glare, and Pidge took that as an opportunity to step forward again. Simple commands.

“Computer, end simulation.”

“Error, training unfinished.”

“Activate emergency settings.”

“Error, emergency not found.”

“Initiate system-wide shutdown.”

“Error, permissions incompatible.”

“Does anyone here have the right permissions?” Pidge asked, just a little desperate.

Sven stared into the middle distance. “Current permissions for system-wide shutdown available only to current head of royal family.”

“And hers are conflicting because of her position as a paladin,” Shiro muttered. “Pidge, do you know why Coran can’t do it?”

Sven answered before Pidge could. “Royal Advisor Coran Hieronymus Wimbledon Smythe’s higher-level permissions were revoked four months, two weeks, and four days ago.”

“…the brain parasite debacle,” Pidge groaned.

Coran flushed. “I, ah, I did ask for some of my access to be augmented until the effects faded. I haven’t had time to reinstate them since then, and there was no need to do so.”

“It’s been four months,” Shiro said, voice colored by disbelief.

“It just never came up,” Coran admitted.

“Computer,” Pidge said, turning to Sven again. She pulled her glasses off and pinched the bridge of her nose. “You’ll let us end the simulation and go about our daily lives if we finish the training.”

“Correct.”

“Why doesn’t training count as finished yet?” Pidge asked.

Sven stared out into the blank white void that surrounded them. “Error. Error. Error. Error. Err—”

“Pidge, what the fuck did you—”

Sven’s face snapped around to face them. He smiled blandly. “System recalibrating. Please enjoy this relaxing simulation until recalibration is finished.”

WHAT?!”

The white light grew blinding. Pidge tried to shield her eyes, but it was no use.

The world shifted.

Chapter Text

The first thing Pidge recognized when her eyes blinked open was the color pink.

The second thing was the smell of baked goods.

The third thing was the sight of wooden furniture, glass display cases, and rose-and-orange patterned walls.

She adjusted her perceptions, since it wasn’t quite pastel pink as much as… faded red, maybe. It was a homey color, not a sugary one.

Then her memory caught up and her analysis of the world around her screeched to a halt.

“Yoo-hoo!”

Pidge flinched as she turned, seeing Sven standing there. Going by the fact that the rest of the team was here, and dressed in more or less modern clothing with aprons, she had a feeling the game was going to force them onwards.

“Your training plans are still in the process of being made, so this game was chosen to entertain you in the meantime,” Sven said, gesturing around. “Once you finish a full level, you can proceed to the remainder of the training!”

“And what’s your role in all this?” Shiro asked.

Sven smiled. “I’m the manager.”

“Ts-heh!” Pidge let out a strangled little laugh, watching as Shiro’s eye twitched a little. “So what exactly is this game?”

“It’s the bakery simulator downloaded by user Katie Holt to Steam on May 26th, 2068, at 4:03 AM,” Sven said.

Matt turned to look at his sister. “The hell were you doing up that late when you were nine?”

“Is that really what’s important right now?” Pidge demanded.

“Customer satisfaction will be measured by the meter over the door,” Sven said, ignoring the argument. “Recipes are in the kitchen. Your sales goal to pass the level is $4,000 for the day. You must make at least twelve custom cakes in that time.”

He smiled and clapped. “Doors open in an hour!”

And then he turned and walked through a door that, presumably, would have led to the manager’s office if this were a real building. Seeing as it was just a simulation, though… Pidge guessed it was more likely to just be a void.

“Allura?” Lance said, his voice a little strangled. “Don’t look now, but, uh… your ears.”

Pidge winced as Allura’s hands flew up to her ears, the princess herself letting out a choked scream as she realized that her ears were round.

“Your face looks more human too,” Keith said, as though that would help. “I guess it’s just a temporary thing for the simulation. You’ll get your under-eye markings and little pupil glow back afterwards.”

Allura looked like she was torn between tearing up and strangling someone. Probably Pidge, since it was her fault, or Lotor, since he was less conflicting to target.

“Pidge?” Coran asked, sidling up to her. It was… vaguely unnerving to see him looking so human. “This didn’t happen in the last simulation. We still looked Altean, even if our strength was lowered to a human level."

“The simulation’s adapting,” Lotor said. “Adjusting minutely with every level to make things more immersive.”

“I’m trying to figure out what could get us out,” Pidge admitted. “What medical emergencies did you include as a hard stop to the system?”

“Other than the psychic accident repercussions?” Lotor closed his eyes and thought. “Nothing that could help us, I’m afraid. Concussions, broken bones, and a certain amount of bleeding were at the top of the list, but we can’t induce any of that while unconscious. Panic attacks past a certain point were also included, but in a simulation that so fully encompasses the mind, the key elements of changes to heart rate and hormone levels won’t register, and even that wasn’t properly implemented yet due to the number of false positives that the system picked up. It’ll certainly end before we die, but at least one of us will be in need of a medical pod for dehydration before that point, not to mention the numerous other problems that we are liable to face if we do this.”

Also not to mention the chances of us getting attacked,” Ryou said, meandering over. “Without anybody monitoring the systems, the shield generators won’t be active in time to stop an ion cannon.”

“I know,” Coran said. “And we likely won’t be able to answer distress calls.”

“We have… more time than we think,” Pidge said, picking her words as carefully as she could. “The time dilation is pretty strong, right? Just going by what happened with the FIFA game? So I have time to brainstorm a solution while we’re in here. I have like… twelve hours, probably. The round only lasts about ten minutes in real time, though, so… we’ve got something to work with.”

“We have no direct access to the system,” Lotor reminded her.

“I know, I know.” Pidge rubbed at her temples. “I’ll… figure something out, I guess. If the right games get picked, we might end up spending weeks in the simulation while only a few hours pass outside, so… we at least have time to plan.”

“So our best bet is to play the game until the simulation thinks that training is over?” Ryou asked. “Because that what it sounds like.”

“It might be,” Pidge admitted. “It’ll at least keep the system placated enough for me to try and find a workaround.”

“Hey, uh, quick question,” Lance said, drawing the group’s attention towards the rest of the team. Allura and Keith were listening as Hunk and Shiro went through the display cases and tried to figure out what the system was going to want from them, though going by the way they were talking, Shiro planned to organize people and handle the register, rather than get involved with the actual baking. Given Pidge’s scant memories of Shiro’s horrendous baking skills, this was more than sensible.

(Matt was… not in sight. That could have been worrying, if not for the banging of metal pans and bowls from the kitchen. Granted, that was its own kind of worrying, but it was a kind that Pidge was much better-equipped to handle.)

“Yes?” Pidge asked.

“What are the chances that we’re going to be unconscious for long enough that our bodies lose control of our bladders and, well, shit?”

Loss of… loss of bladder and bowel control would take time, but it would probably happen before dehydration hit.

“Okay!” Pidge said, bright and not a little manic. “So, for the sake of countless lives, our health, and our dignity, we’re going to get out of here as soon as possible. That might mean playing the game until fake-Sven decides we’ve completed training for the day. It might mean me getting system access and shutting down the code. Either way, we’ll work with it, because Lance just brought up the unfortunately accurate point that we might end up literally pissing ourselves if our bodies are left unattended out there.”

Hunk looked a little green. Great.

“Any other questions?” Pidge asked. “Or should we jump right into the challenge and try to level grind our way out?”

“Why does Lotor still look like himself?” Allura asked.

Pidge looked at Lotor, who was still purple and pointy-eared and long, white-haired self, a head taller than anyone else in the room and very much not human.

Pidge turned back to Allura. “Considering the magnitude of the glitch we’re fighting, I’m a lot less concerned about the system failing to adjust Lotor’s visual representation to the setting the way it did you and Coran.”

“Should we keep him in the kitchen, then?” Hunk asked. “Like, will customers freak out if they see an alien?”

“Maybe,” Pidge said, fiddling with the soft red apron. Ooooooh, that was… really soft, holy shit. “We only need two or three people out here anyway, right? And I don’t trust the twins inside the kitchen.”

“Hey!” Ryou pouted at her, hand to his chest. “I might be better than Shiro is! We don’t know!”

“You’re right, we don’t know,” Shiro said. “Which is why we’re not risking anything while our lives are on the line. You want to prove your skills, then you can, but do it when there’s less at risk.”

Ryou shrugged. “Fine by me.”

“Everyone good?” Pidge asked. “Right. Who wants to take charge?”

“Has anyone actually done work like this before?” Shiro asked. “Like, management or supervision in a restaurant or café or anything?”

No answer.

“Any experience at a café, restaurant, or bakery at all?” Shiro tried again.

Matt raised his hand. “Did a summer as a barista at a coffee shop.”

“I did restaurant work once, but I was just washing dishes and doing grunt work like that,” Hunk admitted. “Lance?”

“…what?” Lance asked, looking around. “I’ve never done this kind of thing before.”

“And here I was, thinking your weird skillset would come in useful,” Pidge sighed dramatically.

“You’re all jerks,” Lance said, pouting. “Awful, terrible jerks.”

“I feel the shame, really,” Keith said, his voice as dry as the desert he came from.

“Ah, paladins, I feel that I should remind you that we do have something to do here,” Coran said. “Perhaps it would be best to figure out what needs to be done first? Pidge, you’ve played the game before, correct?”

“Well, yeah,” Pidge said. She made a face. “It’s been a few years, though. I think… if the game is going for realism, then there should probably be a record of what the average daily sales are? Or what the opening routine should be? There’s usually a little sign at the beginning of each level telling you how many you want to make of each pastry or whatever before opening, so…”

“Found it!” Matt called, pulling out a book from behind the counter, just next to the register. “Average sales records and a training manual with a section that has a little chart on what needs to be made by the time the bakery opens. There’s also a little set of cards on rings with recipes and stuff.”

Everyone traded looks.

“Hunk, your cooking skills extend to baking, right?” Pidge asked.

“On it,” Hunk said. “Coran, Lance, Matt, I know you guys are decent help in the kitchen. Shiro and Ryou are banned because I know things will burn, and anyone with hair longer than mine is banned unless you can find a hairnet. That does include Matt and Coran. The rest of you… if you think you can help, sure.”

Lotor frowned down at the manual as Matt dashed off with the others. “I don’t recognize the language, but I can read it for some reason.”

“That’s the simulation,” Pidge affirmed. “Anyone else know how they want to help with set-up?”

“We should clean up,” Shiro said. “Mop the floors, wipe down the table, clean off fingerprints from the glass.”

“Can anyone do customer service with a smile?” Pidge asked.

“Yeah,” Ryou said, nodding a head towards Shiro. “The two of us can, and… Allura? Lotor?”

“I have no experience,” Allura said slowly. “But… I suppose I could take orders of that sort, yes.”

“As the princess already pointed out, I do not, in any manner, resemble a human as she does,” Lotor drawled. “If you think these pre-programmed customers will react well to me despite my appearance, then… I suppose we have a plan.”

“We’ll give it a shot,” Shiro said. “Pidge, what are you going to do?”

“I could man the register?” Pidge said, chewing a lip thoughtfully. “And Keith… running orders from the front to the kitchen, ma—oh! Wait, no, Keith, you can draw pretty good, right?”

Keith stared at her with an expression akin to a deer in the headlights. “…yes?”

“Go find a hair tie and a hairnet and help Hunk. The custom cakes are going to need decorating, and since that was always done with a really wonky drawing app where you had to trace lines and stuff, I think real-life art skills are going to translate to in-game cake-decorating skills.” Pidge clapped her hands as Keith headed towards the back. “Okay, we can take turns running orders, then. Me on the registers, and four people running customer service, though… might need to send at least one person to the back.”

“I’ll do it,” Allura said, a look of hope on her face. “I do well with diplomacy, but the idea of customer service is…”

“Fair enough,” Pidge acknowledged. “Not everyone can pull it off. That evens out the teams a bit more, and… at least one of us is going to have to take a break every hour or two to clean up messes, but I guess whichever team finds itself overloaded with people can take care of that. If there’s a slow moment, we can send one person out to wipe down crumbs and sweep floors and stuff.”

“Do we know where the cleaning supplies are?” Ryou asked.

Pidge looked from him to Shiro to Lotor, and internally pouted at the realization that she’d set herself up to be the tiny one on the team by far, far more than her usual margin. She pretended to brush it off. “Well, just check behind doors until you find something.”

o.o.o.o.o

“This is awful.”

Pidge looked up from the register as she finished an order to see Lotor standing next to her, expression deceptively blasé considering his words. “Welcome to minimum-wage customer service work, Prince of the Empire of a Thousand Galaxies.”

“Please, there were barely three hundred,” Lotor scoffed, not quite loud enough for anyone to hear. “And quite frankly, this seems an awful type of work. Why only pay the minimum?”

“Oh, I’m sure a lot of people would be happy to not pay minimum-wage workers at all,” Pidge said quietly. “The work isn’t valued, so it isn’t paid as well.”

“The work creates value, does it not?”

“Yeah, but the idea that ‘anyone could do that’ makes it a little hard to convince people that it should be paid as much as something that requires more training,” Pidge said. “I mean, I get part of that? If a person spent eight years in medical school to be a doctor, spending what could be hundreds of thousands of dollars on that education, then that training ought to be rewarded with a higher-paying job that allows them to pay off the debt incurred, time spent, effort expended, etc. to gain that knowledge and training. But people take it too far and try to say that a job that requires far less training, like manning a cash register, shouldn’t even be paid a living wage.”

“It is a position that creates value and requires time and effort on the part of the person doing it,” Lotor said. His eyes drifted to a middle-aged white woman at one of the tables who’d made a fuss regarding them not knowing the exact fat content behind each pastry, and caused the customer satisfaction rating to drop dangerously near failing. “Quite a lot of effort, at times.”

“Yeah, the soccer moms can be hellish,” Pidge agreed. “But hey! At least you’re good at the whole fake smile, pleasant demeanor, ‘come again soon!’ type stuff.”

“Given how many people disliked me in the Empire for my background? I rather had to be,” Lotor mused. “A silver tongue won me far more friends than a fiery one would have.”

“Mood,” Pidge sighed.

“…what?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Pidge said, squaring her shoulders as another wave of customers came through the door. Further down the line, she could see Ryou and Shiro gearing up with their own customer service smiles, clearly fake to Pidge’s eyes, but probably believable to a stranger.

“Hey! How can I help you today?” Ryou asked, flinging a dishtowel he’d been using to wipe down the glass counter over his shoulder.

“Do you have any vegan options?” The woman who stopped in front of him asked, and Pidge tried not to groan.

It wasn’t that she had anything against vegans, just like she hadn’t had anything against the woman who had asked about gluten (there was every chance of coeliac disease or a gluten allergy), or the guy who’d asked about dairy-free (hello, lactose intolerance), or the peanuts girl (yeah, uh, self-explanatory).

But about one in three of the people who asked for accommodations along those lines were actually willing to wait for someone working the counter to go fetch a person from the kitchens who actually knew the recipes and what had what. Most of the time, the person asking got huffy and mad that those of them working the front didn’t know the fine details of which pastry did or did not have which ingredient.

(They did have a gluten-free section, at least, which made that one easier. There were only a handful of things with nuts, too, which made that particular allergy simpler to handle after the first two times.)

(Still.)

“I’m afraid I’ll have to step in the back and ask our head baker,” Ryou said with an apologetic smile. “We don’t have a list up here for all the pastries that have milk and eggs, unfortunately.”

The woman made a face, and Pidge tried to turn her attention away to focus on the teen boy that had come in for one of the black-and-white cookies.

Ryou managed to handle the woman with a few ‘I’m sorry, but it really is more complicated than that; yes, I’m sure he’ll be happy to step out for a moment, let me just go get him,’ and then went to get Coran.

Not Hunk, of course. Introducing a boy who was barely eighteen as the head baker had not gone over well the first time, which Pidge found mildly hilarious since they had Lotor helping out the counter, and Lotor was, among many other things, purple and over seven feet tall.

“Shouldn’t you be wearing a hairnet?” one woman demanded, looking between Pidge and Lotor.

“Ah, hairnets are only necessary in the kitchens themselves,” Lotor said. He gave the woman a charming smile. “There’s far less risk of something landing where it shouldn’t out here.”

“And shouldn’t a kid like you be in school?” The woman asked, narrowing her eyes at Pidge.

That… that was new. Hm. Maybe… try to game the system? “Ma’am, it’s a Saturday, and local age laws state fourteen as the minimum age for employment, though with restrictions on the hours I can work. I’m fifteen, so I can spend my weekends here.”

“And homework?” The woman demanded.

“I’m a child genius,” Pidge said, trying to keep from jumping into the realm of rudeness to argue her point. “My older brother is working in the back, if you’d like to talk to my actual legal guardian.”

“What about your parents?”

“There was a vehicular accident,” Pidge said, which had the benefit of being true while implying something very, very different. She fixed the smile on her face. “Do you mind stepping to the side? I need to ring up the person behind you.”

The woman stared, wide-eyed, and stuttered out a little “Oh,” before Lotor faked a cough and drew her attention to actually ordering something.

Pidge held back from rolling her eyes and offered the next customer a smile and a greeting.

The game was way more fun as a game, dammit.

Pidge and Ryou at the Bakery

o.o.o.o.o

Shiro stood by the door, watching as it locked itself with the timer still a half hour from ending.

“I think that means we’re supposed to close up,” Pidge said. “Sweeping and taking out the garbage and stuff.”

“Seriously?” Hunk asked, making a face. “I mean, I’m not the only one who’s super tired right now, right? Like, do you have any idea how much dough I was kneading? It was a lot! And I know I’ve got muscles but man are my arms sore.”

“No, no, I’m right there with you, buddy,” Lance said, clapping Hunk on the shoulder with an exaggerated wince of his own. “I shouldn’t be surprised after the FIFA stuff, but shouldn’t we be less tired than normal, if this is all just in our heads anyway?”

“Full immersion,” Pidge reminded him, and not a touch bitterly. “Just be glad you weren’t the one handling the customers.”

“Keith?” Allura asked. “Why are you staring at your hand like that?”

Keith looked up at her, and Pidge saw the absolutely guileless stare before he spoke. “I think I got hand cramps from all the cake-decorating.”

“You decorated forty-five cakes in twelve hours, and twelve of those were custom,” Hunk said. “So… yeah. That’s gonna cramp.”

“Like a bitch,” Ryou said, earning himself a whap to the back of the head from Shiro. “Hey, aren’t those reserved for Lance?”

“If you act like a teenager, I’m going to treat you like one.”

“I’m a toddler, though. Barely more than an infant.”

Shiro stared at the ceiling like it would somehow have the answers he wanted. “Why did I agree to having a twin, again?”

“Because I accidentally stole your friends,” Ryou reminded him. “I thought they were my friends, and then they were! Like magic!”

Shiro stared at him for a long moment, and then wrapped an arm around Ryou’s neck and pulled him in for a noogie.

“Ow, fuck, Sh—let go!”

Lotor tilted his head, watching, and then walked over and, with a hand at the back of each shirt, pulled the two apart.

“I suppose you forgot that I’m the one that retained his true characteristics, yes?”

Ryou and Shiro exchanged a look, and then simultaneously lifted and lit up their prostheses.

“Galra arm still works,” Ryou said with a shrug as Lotor let go of both of them.

After a moment, Lotor sighed. “I really shouldn’t be as surprised as I am.”

Really?!” Allura demanded, going so far as to stomp her foot on the ground in frustration.

“It’s fine,” Lance assured her. “You’ll be back to normal soon. Just a simulation, remember?”

“You still look great,” Keith offered, the sentence tilting up at the end like a question.

“…really?”

Keith tilted his head, brow furrowing. “Why would I lie?”

“Never change, my dude,” Lance laughed, clapping Keith on the shoulder. “But he’s right, Princess, you still look wonderful.”

Allura frowned at him for a long moment, as though doubting his words, and then flushed. She pressed a quick kiss to each boy’s cheek, and then crossed her arms and glowered at the ground when Lance laughed and ruffled her hair.

“If I could remind everyone that we do have a bakery to clean,” Coran said, gesturing around at the premises. “It shouldn’t take very long, not with all of us here, but it does need to be done.”

Pidge groaned, but given that Sven hadn’t shown up again yet, and the clock was still clicking… yeah, they probably needed to clean up a bit.

“Sure,” she sighed. “Go team, or whatever.”

o.o.o.o.o

“Congratulations!” Sven said, tilting his head and clapping. His smile was wide, eyes closed, and Pidge had a sudden flashback to an anime she’d seen when she was younger, courtesy of Matt’s passing interest in all things nerdy. Fake Sven had a way of smiling that looked very fake and forcibly learned, and creepy in a way that reminded her a little too much of a specific ninja she’d once loved and hated in equal measure, just for the way he acted on screen. Two ninjas, actually, though one had been far, far more intentional when it came to how downright creepy he was. Sven didn’t seem to notice her thoughts, something that Pidge wasn’t sure was true, considering how many psychic elements were at play here. “You passed!”

“We worked overtime and are sorer than the soccer game or battle simulation left us,” Keith said flatly, crossing his arms. It looked more intimidating than usual, even with the fact that they were inside a bakery. They’d turned out the lights, after all, and that meant that the only thing illuminating Keith was the pale, faintly bluish light from a streetlamp outside in the supposed street, glinting off the dust motes in the air and the glass and metal of the tables and counter.

“Your health and related physical attributes will reset at the beginning of each level,” Sven told him.

“And just how many levels are there?” Shiro asked, before anyone else could hop on the very pertinent question.

“As many as it takes for you to complete the storyline!”

Dead silence passed through the dark, dusty bakery.

“Storyline?” Lance asked, voice cracking. “What storyline?”

“Every good video game has a strong plot and storyline,” Sven said, raising a hand with one finger pointing at the sky, as though lecturing. “Your training isn’t over until the game is, ja? And the game isn’t over until the story is!”

“I didn’t put that in the programming,” Pidge said. “I put nothing about mandatory storylines in the programming.”

“But you thought it,” Sven said, an excited glint in his eyes. “You thought it many times. So did Lance, and Hunk! The best video games all have the best stories. You’re all very sure about that, and since you play the most games, you should know, yes?”

“Oh my god,” Pidge whispered, because… well, yes, she did think that, but holy shit. That was definitely not something she’d meant to pass on to her AI.

An AI that was clearly far more advanced than she’d intended.

Sven grew visibly more excited. “So I built a storyline! It’s not a very good one, because I am very new at this, but if you win the story, you finish the day’s training. I found you a good villain for the setup and everything!”

“Pidge, what the fuck did you do,” Lance hissed. “What the actual, everliving fuck did you do?”

“I…” Pidge trailed off. “I don’t know.”

Sven clapped again, grinning widely. “Your next challenge is simply to escape. Have fun meeting your villain!”

The world flashed white… and then stayed that way.

They fell.

Chapter Text

Pidge landed hard on her knees, even heard them cracking against the floor, and then fell heavily forward onto her hands. They landed with a thud that had her wincing. If it weren’t for the fact that none of this was real, she’d have been feeling that in her wrists for days.

Around her, the rest of the team wasn’t doing much better. Lance was groaning, something about hitting his funny bone, and Coran was agonizing over possibly throwing out his back.

The soreness in her feet from spending twelve hours at a cash register was gone, though. That, at least, was consistent with what Sven had said, and they were even all in their armor, save for Coran and Matt, who were in their own respective uniforms.

“Okay,” Shiro said, already standing up and looking around. “This isn’t giving us much to work with. Anyone have an idea of where we are?”

“It’s a blank white space, Shiro,” Lance groused. “Could be anything.”

“Could be setup for a different setting,” Pidge said as she got to her feet, biting back a curse when she stumbled. “Could be waiting for another CoD-style thing.”

“It’s literally a blank slate,” Lance said. “Hey, Lotor, any ideas? You helped make this thing.”

“I am, quite frankly, trying to understand where the programming failed,” Lotor said. “I imagine that the weight of too many minds had something to do with it, but I need to understand how and why the psychic elements overshot quite so far, and how the artificial intelligence advanced as it did.”

“He,” Pidge corrected. “If he’s advanced enough to have independent opinions on his pronouns, then he deserves to have those pronouns respected.”

“Are you saying there’s a minimum level of sapience for someone’s pronouns to be respected?” Hunk asked, making a face. “That… doesn’t seem like you.”

“If they aren’t sapient enough to have an opinion on their pronouns in the first place, then I doubt they’re sapient enough to care about someone using a pronoun at all, or to ask for someone to use a specific one,” Pidge said drily. “Can’t get a pronoun wrong if there isn’t a right one in the first place, right? Speaking as someone who had to deal with the wrong pronouns for a year because she went back into the closet when she went undercover, I’m not exactly about to go around advocating for anyone’s pronouns to be ignored.”

“I know, I know, I just… the way you phrased it was weird,” Hunk said, wincing and raising his hands in a placating gesture. “I—”

“My ears!”

Pidge waited for the inevitable ‘toldja!’ from Lance, but it never came. When she looked around for him, she saw him standing at the edge of the group, staring into the distance.

“Lance?” Coran asked. “What’s wrong?”

Lance startled a little when Coran’s hand touched his shoulder, but his voice was more or less steady when he spoke. “Say, uh, do you… think there’s anything weird about that spot over there? Like a heat mirage or something?”

Coran squinted at the direction Lance was pointing in, tilting his head. “Mm… I’m afraid not.”

“Oh.” Lance deflated a little. “I guess it’s just my imagi—”

“I see it,” Allura interrupted. “It’s actually rather obvious, now that I look.”

“Same,” Hunk said. Keith nodded.

Pidge frowned, because… well, heat mirage wasn’t the best way to describe it, not really, but there was something like an oil slick in reality, or maybe a glitch in the system.

“I can’t see it,” Shiro said. “Ryou?”

“…I mean, I can, but the fact that you can’t has me questioning reality,” Ryou admitted.

“It’s a simulation,” Lotor reminded him. “Reality has no place here.”

“Can you see it?” Matt asked. “Because I’m having a hard time keeping track of it, but I can still see it.”

“I’m… not sure,” Lotor confessed. “I think I see it, but it’s so intermittently that I can’t be sure that I’m not imagining it.”

“That’s concerning,” Keith muttered, squinting a little at the spot. “He… he did say we’d be getting some kind of opponent, right?”

“A shiny new antagonist,” Lance said, sounding far away and strangely pensive. He shook his head as though to clear it. “So… bayards out, do you think?”

The sound of one Galra arm and a smattering of bayards powering up met Pidge’s ears, something that was at least comforting. There was a low sliding noise, metal on metal, as Lotor drew his own blade.

The glitching spot resolved itself, and Pidge frowned at the way it did so. It was like…like patches of reality were weaving around each other, hardly visible from white against white against white, until Pidge thought she could see a cocoon of sorts.

“Turn your damn arm on, Shiro.”

“They might be friendly. Can’t assume everything’s an enemy without context, Ryou.”

“Our context is that our goddamn Swedish Chef triplet just told us he was giving us an ene—”

The cocoon unraveled, and a woman dropped to the floor.

Blonde. Caucasian. Smiling. Wearing a greenish skirt suit and heels. She… well, she didn’t look intimidating, but something about her tickled the back of Pidge’s brain, a hint of familiarity and an inkling of fear. If the woman was here, then Sven probably thought she was a good opponent, which meant—

“Now, now, children,” the woman said, stepping towards them. Her smile didn’t drop. She raised her hands, placating. “There’s no need for that.”

“You sure about that?” Lance asked, voice cracking in a way that betrayed just how tense he was right now. “'Cause, uh, I kinda recognize your face, lady.”

“Just kind of? That’s a pity,” the woman said, and then thought for a few moments, expression neutral and contemplative, her eyes turned upwards. It looked very much like she was faking it, just acting, to Pidge, and that feeling intensified when the woman looked at them again. “Maybe something a little more familiar?”

Her face warped, almost instantaneous, and then a woman who was shorter, wider, darker, and much, much more familiar was suddenly standing where the previous woman had been. “Wouldn’t you say so, niño?”

Lance levelled his blaster, red and white and far more angularly intimidating than the blue, at the woman that could have stepped right out of that memory photo from Day One of training. “You know, I’m, uh, I’m not really feeling it! Nope!”

“Well,” the woman said, warping in and over herself, the texture almost gooplike, and settled into the form of Colleen Holt. “Such a rude child, but I suppose boys will be boys…”

“Oh shit,” Matt swore. Pidge glanced at him, only to find that he was blinking rapidly, not like he was surprised to see their mom and holding back tears, but like he’d gotten something in his eyes and couldn’t risk rubbing at them to dislodge whatever it was. There was anger on his face, and fear, and Pidge had a feeling she should have already figured out what it was that was going so horribly wrong here.

“—your arm on, Shiro?” Ryou was asking, voice strained as the woman shifted again, taking the form of tall, dark woman, brawny and big-haired and with features that made it immediately clear where Hunk had gotten his looks from. Pidge risked looking away from the woman, eyes tracking over the rest of the team. Most of them were focused on the woman, weapons out and ready, but Pidge hesitated on Lotor, who was frowning severely, a hint of sincere confusion on his face, and then Coran, who was watching the proceedings with unnatural stillness, and then… Shiro.

“But there’s nothing wrong?” Shiro said, blinking at the back of Ryou’s head, as the clone still hadn’t turned away from the woman. Ryou stilled, surprise crossing his own face, and something in the back of Pidge’s brain clicked.

Ryou spun on the spot and drove a fist into Shiro’s face, too fast and abrupt for Shiro to do a damn thing about it. He dropped and swept Shiro’s legs out from under him, and then pulled his brother into a chokehold. He stared at the rest of them with wide, wild eyes. “Somebody get Coran!”

“The Mother Parasite,” Pidge whispered, horror crashing over her as she finally processed just which franchise Sven had pulled from. She’d been so focused on the video games that she hadn’t even thought about other sources. “From… from Young Avengers.”

Matt was the one that took the initiative. He already stood behind Coran, and even had his staff with him. All it took was one strong whack to the head and… well, Alteans were tough, but by that point, Allura had gotten involved. She didn’t seem entirely sure of what was going on, but recognized that Ryou and Matt knew more than she did. Pidge was just glad that they already knew that injuries inside the simulation wouldn’t transfer to the outside world. A head injury strong enough to even momentarily daze someone was usually a concussion, and they didn’t exactly have access to the med bay pods right now.

“Parasite,” Mother said, pursing her lips and wrinkling her nose even as she shifted again, drawing attention back to herself. Wearing a face almost identical to Allura, she kept walking towards them, the pale environment writhing in response to her movements. “What a horrid way to put it.”

“What do you want?” Keith asked. Pidge had a feeling he had much, much less of an idea of what was going on than she and the other comic nerds did, but of everyone left standing, he technically was the highest in the chain of command.

“To eat your minds, of course,” Mother laughed, a sound and motion that reminded Pidge of cliché 90s anime, the onee-sama laugh with the mocking wrist, something that pinged wrong when coming from someone who so closely resembled Allura. “If I manage that, then I can integrate who and what you are into myself. I’m just a patch of programming with bits of personality built from that comic right now, you see. I’m not quite a person yet. If I absorb you, though? Well, then I can overrun that little man you have running around and playing master of ceremonies for you, infect the rest of your precious castle, and then possess enough control of the minor details to, say… build myself a body, yes?”

“You’re pulling an MCU Ultron?” Lance squeaked out. “Dude. Dude, c’mon, you can do so much better than that.”

“Lance!” Matt snapped. “Do not give the second, more malicious AI ideas!”

“Oh, I hardly need them,” Mother dismissed. “I’ve got my own plan, and while you’re in this level, I have all the time in the world. None of your friends are parents, and I am bound by the programming that wretched ‘Sven’ gave me, so more’s the pity, but I’m afraid that it still puts some of your best fighters and most knowledge—”

She cut off as a laser blast blew her head apart into goo splatters.

Lance shrugged. “You were taking too long.”

She came back together in bits and pieces, but Lance kept shooting, lasers unerringly striking the woman in the head and chest whenever she started reforming.

“Oh, you are so very much grounded,” Mother said, her mouth floating somewhere down and to the left of her face as she continued to reconstitute herself.

Pidge scrambled over to Hunk, taking advantage while she could. “Pick me up while he keeps her busy.”

“Why?” Hunk asked, even as he did exactly that.

“Because everyone else is either dazed out or busy fighting, except Keith, but he’s too short, and I want to get a bird’s eye view,” she hissed. Hunk held her up in something approximating the position she’d held earlier that day on Lotor’s hands while doing system repairs, and Pidge resisted the urge to lift up onto her toes while she looked around as best she could.

In the back of her mind, a few more thought processes were running. Matt was… Matt had said he could mostly see the glitch that had preceded Mother, and Pidge guessed that it was because he was nineteen, and age wasn’t the biggest factor of what counted here. They’d all had to grow up a little too fast, but for all that Matt was right there on the edge of adulthood, or whatever the Mother Parasite considered that cliff, he seemed to be fine, or at least close enough that he was aware that something was wrong. Coran and Shiro both considered themselves Properly Grown Up, and Lotor was… well, okay, Lotor was in the exact position that Kate Bishop had feared being in in the comic book, torn between teen and adult, and only intermittently capable of seeing the truth. Past that, the rest of them were teens, except for—

“Well, that’s strange,” Mother said, still in Allura’s mother’s form, staring straight at Ryou.

“Let me guess,” Ryou drawled, rolling to his feet and gesturing at Shiro’s unconscious body on the floor with his chin. “Can’t be his mom because he’s an adult, but can’t figure out why you can’t be mine?”

“You’re twins,” Mother said.

“You’re not as smart as you think you are,” Ryou said, grinning. There was blood on his teeth, and Pidge wondered why that was, but she had bigger things to worry about. Lance couldn’t hold the woman off forever, and Pidge knew that sending anyone who fought close or midrange in was a bad idea. Allura was nearly done, but… Pidge had to find that goddamn escape. Ryou continued anyway. “You think you have all the pieces, but Sven kept a few bits and bobs from you, didn’t he?”

“Is this going somewhere?” Mother asked, shifting to take the form of another woman from Lance’s memories. She looked bored, challenging, and was still largely ignoring the lasers from Lance’s gun. Said lasers faltered for a few moments at the sight of Lance’s second mother, but he got over it quick, considering. “Or are you just—”

“Bitch, my mother was a cloning vat,” Ryou laughed. “I’m literally a toddler! You only affect adults? Great! I’m the youngest human here! You mimic people’s moms? I don’t have one.”

“You should be more polite,” Mother said, but Pidge didn’t catch the rest of the sentence, having finally spotted a glimmer of blue on the horizon. She had no idea how they were going to get there, but they’d make it work.

“Cradle!” Pidge yelled, and dropped down into Hunk’s arms. The jarring movement left a kink in her neck, but that would be gone by the next level. She brushed herself off, sighing in mild relief as Hunk finally pulled his bayard out again and started providing support with Lance as Ryou rushed in. Pidge kept the estimated distance in mind, orienting herself as quickly as possible before what few reference points she did have started moving. The featureless plane of existence meant that there was no way to make sure she was facing the right direction unless the other people there also stopped where they were, and they didn’t have time for that. She could, however, use the blank map function on the computer in her armor to drop a flag and have a bearing. “There’s something pale blue in that direction. I have an idea of what it might be, but I don’t want to alert her to it.”

“We’ll need to keep her off our tail anyway,” Matt said, startling Pidge where she stood. “Sorry, sis. But yeah, she’s going to chase us no matter what.”

“Can you use a bayard?” Pidge asked.

“Uh… borrowed Lance’s once just to see,” Matt said. “It turned into a pistol, I think. Why?”

“Shooting while in a fireman’s carry,” Pidge said. “I’ve seen Lance pull it off while Hunk carried him. If you can borrow Keith’s bayard or something—”

“I’m in,” Keith said. “I’ll carry Matt. Might as well do something useful, since this fight’s too crowded for a mid-range.”

Allura came closer, Coran slung over her shoulders and Shiro under one arm. “I would offer to help, but I’m afraid I don’t quite have the room.”

“What about Lotor?” Keith asked.

Pidge turned to where Lotor was still standing and watching, frowning like he knew something was wrong but couldn’t figure out what, like he was… like he was drugged enough to sense the danger but not know how to deal with it.

“Oh, that’s a fun one,” Mother said, tilting her head. Reality twisted in on itself behind her again, roiling above and below and about as it formed the slips of reality that had been her tentacles in her home comic. Her eyes, however, were leveled at Lotor. “Not yet my team, but… well. I’d rather consume the young. Just need to wait for the right moment, and…”

Pidge lunged forward and grabbed Lotor’s hand, tugging him towards her. He stumbled, turning to stare at her with wide eyes. His pupils were blown wide, a tightness between his brows that spoke of either fear or just extreme tension. He breathed out a slow, pale-voiced, “What?”

“We need to go,” Pidge said. “Do… do you know what’s going on?”

“S-something is wrong,” Lotor said, head already turning back towards the Mother Parasite. He swayed drunkenly. “I don’t… I don’t understand, wha—”

“And there,” Mother said, a pleased curl to her voice. She changed again, growing slighter, taller, darker. Grey hair but a youthful face, with ears and markings that made it obvious she was Altean. Mother smiled. “Hello, Lotor.”

Lotor’s knees gave out, and he scrambled backwards, breathing picking up the pace to match the terror that had entered his eyes. “Y-you’re dead.”

“Oh, come now, darling,” Mother said, her smile turning sweet. “You know well enough that science can accomplish many things. Or were—”

“She’s not real, Lotor!” Pidge yelled, as the woman’s face exploded into goo once again at a shot from Lance. Pidge grit her teeth against the pressure she could feel building, just ran over and looped her arms around one of Lotor’s and pulled. “We have to go.”

Lotor didn’t look away from Mother, emotion after emotion flitting over his face as he… what, struggled to process it? Dammit, Pidge understood that he was freaking out, but this was enough of an emergency that they did not have time for this.

“What’s wrong, Lotor? I’m sure you’ve missed me.”

“H-Honerva…”

Lotor and Mother

Pidge gave up on the idea of dragging a man three times her size, went against her instincts, and turned her back to the enemy, getting in between Mother and Lotor. She sat on his chest, since going between his legs sure as hell wasn’t an option for a number of reasons, and grabbed his face between her hands. She leaned in as close as she dared to those wild, frightened eyes, and said, “Lotor, she isn’t real. It’s a—”

“Mind game,” Lotor breathed out, interrupting her. The fear drained from his expression, replaced with fury. “It’s an ancients-damned mind game.”

“Uh… yeah,” Pidge said, feeling her own eyes widen in turn. “You, uh… you okay there?”

“Just. Peachy,” Lotor grit out, standing up abruptly. He was careful enough to keep Pidge from tumbling off of his lap, but he didn’t look down at her as he unsheathed his sword the single opening inch, eyes fixed with a burning rage on the form of the Mother Parasite. “Haggar was more than fond of them, and I… my generals and I trained in how to render ourselves immune to mental manipulation of the magical sort.”

“Well, that’s disappointing,” she sighed. “And here I was, hoping for a lovely little reunion.”

“You are not my mother,” Lotor growled out. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword, ready to draw it fully, but Pidge grabbed his elbow before he could.

“We need to go,” she said, and when Lotor looked down at her, still angry and looking for all the universe like he was ready to argue the point, she pressed on. “Trust me. Please.”

He hesitated again, glancing at the rest of the team that was still keeping Mother back with… well, mostly with Hunk and Lance’s bayards, and then hissed out a sigh. “Very well, then.”

He resheathed the sword. “Plan?”

“Anyone with a long-range weapon is gonna get carried by someone else as we run for the exit,” Pidge said. At Lotor’s disbelieving stare, she shrugged. “Listen, we don’t have a lot of options against someone that can reform like that. Not here.”

“Princess Allura’s magic?”

“Probably our best bet, but she’s carrying Coran and Shiro,” Pidge said, which… well, it wasn’t meant to be a prompt, not really, but Lotor understood what she was getting at. He knew he was short- and mid-range, and he was the only one here with enhanced strength save for Allura herself.

(And Coran, but he was old and had a tendency to throw out his back when he tried to lift heavy things. He was also currently unconscious.)

Lotor turned to Allura and in a move that was too fast for Pidge to really keep track of, he had one man over each shoulder.

“Where to?” He asked, voice dark enough to give Pidge an idea of his current emotional state, even though she couldn’t see his face.

“Uh…” Pidge pulled up the map again, glancing over her shoulder as her teammates kept fighting, trying to organize to make a more efficient retreat. It would be hard, with the number of people they had to carry, and Hunk was probably going to have to—

“Let them worry about logistics,” Lotor said, pulling her back. “You just lead the way.”

Pidge focused on her map, looked into the distance, the blue glimmer from before too faint to find from her height, and prayed. “This way.”

She took off at a run, hearing her team follow with curses and scrambling to come together as a cohesive unit. A few glances over her shoulder revealed that she’d been right about Hunk being too heavy for anyone to carry him so he could shoot continuously, but he wasn’t carrying anyone himself, and that meant he could run faster than the others could right now, enough to let him take the risk of turning back as he ran to shoot off a salvo of laser blasts, which would halt Mother when Lance’s precision shots from over Keith’s shoulder didn’t. Ryou had apparently taken the opportunity to grab both Allura and Matt, one over each shoulder, Matt shooting with pistols made of Keith’s borrowed bayard and Allura with her magic.

Pidge turned back to the direction she was headed and tried not to curse internally over how bad of a shot Matt was. At least he had a gun. Even a shot that went wide, as most of his did with all the jostling from how Ryou ran, would at least give Mother cause to hesitate, even with how the woman was now deflecting shots with the white tentacles built of twisted reality.

“How much farther?” Keith called over.

“Couple hundred yards?” Pidge guessed. “I was estimating when I charted the destination, Keith!”

“What should we look out for?” Lotor asked. “I’ll see before you do.”

“Bright blue five-pointed star shape in the ground,” Pidge said. “Probably white and glowing from the inside, but it’ll be hard to tell with the background we’ve got here. Might be surrounded by a bunch of smaller star shapes, but the edges will definitely be blue, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

“America’s portals?” Matt shouted.

“Looked like it!” Pidge called back. “I think if we get through, we’ll be able to at least lose her!”

“He wanted a long-term villain,” Lance shouted over. “Canon Mother Parasite was a dimension-hopper!”

“Well we’ll at least get a breather and a chance to plan!” Pidge shouted back. She focused in on her map, and then angled further to the right. She looked up again, hoping against hope that she’d actually pinpo—

“I see it,” Lotor said, changing their heading a good forty degrees to the right. “Your bearing was off.”

“I didn’t exactly have a lot to work with,” Pidge grumbled. “Hey! Guys! This way!”

Pidge stopped at the edge of the portal, thankful that it looked like what she’d seen in the comics.

“I don’t know how far down it is,” she admitted.

“It’s better than here,” Lotor said. “Follow me immediately.

Pidge blinked as Lotor jumped down through the portal, Coran and Shiro still over his shoulders. The portal greyed out a little, and a large 3 showed up between the points closest to Pidge.

Well, she thought. Fuck that.

“Guys, c’mon!” She called over, and Ryou ran over with Matt and Allura, hopping in and making the number tick up to 6, pulling the shade of grey in the star even darker. Keith and Lance were next, leaving just Pidge, Hunk, and Mother.

The star, almost black now, had a large 8 below it.

“You know you won’t escape that easily,” Mother said, the kind smile on her face at odds with the way the tentacles sprouting from behind and around her kept deflecting Hunk’s blaster shots. “I’ll find you, no matter where you run.”

“You’d think so,” Pidge said, a hand on Hunk’s belt pulling him backwards towards the star. He let her lead him, never lifting his finger from the trigger. “Hunk, stop tanking and jump back… now!”

They fell through the portal, and reality turned black.

Chapter Text

Pidge landed a little more solidly this time. Her knees still hurt, but at least the strain didn’t come from slamming into the floor. She took a moment to reorient herself in the deep blackness. Much like the white nothingness above, there simply wasn’t a background here. She could see her friends, visible as though lit up from all around, but the light didn’t hit anything else.

“I told you to follow immediately,” Lotor said, and Pidge looked at him. He’d already laid Shiro and Coran down at his feet, and he faced her with crossed arms. “You had no defense against the… creature. You were vulnerable.”

“You don’t get to give me orders,” Pidge said. “I stayed behind to make sure everyone made it through safe, and timed my jump with the tank, which, uh, thanks, Hunk.”

“No problem,” Hunk said, sitting down heavily. “And I see both your points, but we should probably focus on the problem in front of us. Pidge is a soldier, she gets to make her own decisions. Right now, we need to figure out how to deal with Mother.”

“Do we at least have an idea of where we are?” Allura asked.

“No,” Pidge admitted. “It’s not anything related to the comic, at least. The void there was always blank white like where we just were. Upstairs? Sure, upstairs.”

“Feels familiar,” Ryou said. “Kinda like where I… where Shiro fought Zarkon when you were all at the mall. The Astral Plane or whatever?”

“It’s this empty?” Lotor asked, genuine curiosity coloring his voice.

“No,” Ryou admitted. “The Astral Plane was filled with… distant nebula and stars, I guess? It looked like space, kind of.”

“Hm,” Lotor said, and then shook his head as though to clear the distractions. “Never mind. The woman that took my—our mothers’ faces. How do we fight her?”

“What is she?” Keith asked.

“I’d rather know why she didn’t attack until we were already running away,” Lance said.

“New program?” Matt offered. “She might have still been gaining her footing, trying to get a feel for her abilities. She seemed pretty focused on just throwing us off with the transformations at first.”

“She’s an AI that was created by another AI, based off of an Eldritch Abomination from a comic book,” Pidge laughed, a little hysterical. “Of course she’s still a little unstable. Depending on whether the castle helps her along or not, she’ll either edit her code into something structurally sound, or get more and more unstable as we go along, to the point where she could glitch the system.”

“Could that get us out?” Allura asked.

“It could,” Pidge said. “But…”

“It could also cause traumatic brain injury,” Lotor finished. “What do we know of her original self?”

“From canon?” Pidge asked. She closed her eyes and focused, wracking her brain for information and doing her best to avoid nosediving into the guilt that she’d been largely responsible for the whole situation. Her mother’s face flashed in front of her face, worn by the horror just upstairs, and she pushed the image away. “She’s… kind of a monster, really. No tragic backstory or sympathetic angles like most villains. Her whole thing was that she wanted to eat the soul of the demiurge.”

“Really powerful magic guy,” Hunk offered to the people who had no idea what a demiurge was.

“The mind control?” Allura prompted.

“She can fully control anyone who happens to be a parent,” Matt said. “Also, she can bring dead parents back to life, and give living ones these goopy forms that make it so they can reconstitute themselves after they get blasted to goopy pieces, because… goop. She renders anyone who is an adult but is not a parent oblivious to the fact that she’s, you know, a fucking Eldritch abomination.”

“And children are immune to her magic?” Keith asked.

“But ripe for consumption,” Matt said with a shrug. “Yummy, yummy souls.”

“So Shiro and Coran are obviously adults,” Pidge said. “Matt, you said that you were mostly seeing the glitch that Lance spotted, so you’re probably safe?”

“I mean, I don’t really think of myself as an adult?” Matt said, scratching the back of his head. “Just more of an adult than you.”

“Rude.”

“Lotor’s older than all of us, though,” Keith pointed out. “And Ryou is…”

“It’s not about how old you are, technically,” Hunk said. “It’s more like…”

“You’re as old as you feel,” Ryou quoted with a bitter smile.

“Trust me. This, I know,” an unfamiliar voice finished from the inky black. “I suppose I should have expected someone to be stealing my lines when I came here.”

“What?” Keith demanded, pulling his Marmora blade out and brandishing it, since Matt apparently still had his bayard. “Who are you?”

“Me? I’m just a little godling here to see why one of my villains is popping back up,” the voice continued, growing closer. “And quite frankly, I’d thought her gone for good, so I’d like an explanation for how she’s returned.”

Pidge stared at where the voice was coming from, hand tightly gripping her bayard, until quiet footsteps brought the speaker into view.

Loki?”

The woman smiled, raising the hand that didn’t clutch a glaive to wiggle her fingers in a wave. “Surprise!”

“What the fuck,” Lance whispered. “You… you’re not even the version that’s associated with the Mother Parasite. How the hell did we end up with…”

He trailed off, and Loki raised an eyebrow.

“God of Stories Loki, just post-War of Realms?” Lance hesitantly guessed. “Stories, definitely, but I’m not sure which arc.”

“Goddess,” Loki corrected. “At least, for now. And I’m here because the story pulled me here.”

“That doesn’t explain why the system added you,” Pidge muttered. “Hell, it doesn’t explain why Sven isn’t here to tell us about the next challenge.”

“Unless…” Ryou trailed off, looking at Loki and shifting his stance.

“Oh, hardly,” Loki scoffed. “I’m not here to fight anyone who wants to defend their universe the way your little team does. You’re cute and interesting, which is really enough for me to want to see you succeed.”

“Uh… thanks?” Lance said. He shook his head. “Sorry, why are you here, if you’re not our next fight?”

“I told you,” Loki said. “Your story pulled me here. I’m not part of the system.”

Pidge blinked, and turned to see if Lotor had any idea what was going on. His face was impassive, which really only told Pidge that he was just as lost as she was.

“Let’s get everyone awake before I try explaining,” Loki sighed. She gestured at Coran and Shiro, still unconscious on the ground. “May I?”

Nobody said anything for a long moment, and then Keith turned to the other humans. “You guys clearly know more about what’s going on than I do.”

“We’ve read the comic,” Matt said.

“Back in the Garrison, I told Lance I’d talk to him and Hunk more if they read some stuff I liked and Lance was desperate enough for team cohesion that he tried it,” Pidge explained.

“Shiro saw me reading it one night and I talked him into, ah, taking a gander at it?” Matt offered.

“Taking a gander at it,” Ryou mimicked, and then laughed and jumped out of the way when Matt tried to kick his ankle.

“I’d say… yes,” Lance said. He caught Pidge’s eye. She shrugged, and he continued. “Yes, I think we can trust Loki.”

“You have no idea how many people would label you as incurably lacking in common sense for saying that,” Loki said, but stepped closer and kneeled on the ground at Shiro and Coran’s heads.

“I have a feeling it’s probably somewhere in the trillions,” Lance said. “Maybe more.”

Far more,” Loki said. “But by that point the numbers are also far beyond reaching the kinds of quantities that a human mind can easily comprehend, so it hardly matters.”

She adjusted the leathers of her tunic, and pressed a hand to Shiro’s head. “Now, I’m not the best at healing magic, but I can certainly wake someone up, though I’ve no idea about the lasting damage.”

“There won’t be any,” Allura told her. “This is all a simulation, so the mental representations of our bodies reset at the beginning of each new level. Our real bodies remain unharmed, save for the passage of time.”

“I see,” Loki said. She looked back down at Shiro. “If someone wouldn’t mind coming over and making sure he wakes to a familiar face? I imagine he’s not the type to wake quietly around strangers.”

Someone go make sure he doesn’t lash out as soon as he wakes up.

Matt and Keith both moved to go for him, and paused when they saw the other.

“Just go,” Hunk said, pushing Keith lightly on the back. “Both of you.”

Loki shifted back, letting them both sit closer, though not on the side with the Galra arm. There were rules about safety, after all. Satisfied that someone was there to keep Shiro from freaking out, her hand lit up in green and lightly touched Shiro’s forehead.

He woke up immediately, surging forward, his arm lighting up in a purple so bright in comparison to their surroundings that Pidge actually winced.

“Shiro!” Matt yelped, leaning back as Shiro’s head snapped from one side to the other to see who was there, his arm getting dangerously close to Matt’s shoulder at one point. “You’re safe, we’re good, it’s okay to calm down!”

Keith just leaned forward enough to take up most of Shiro’s range of vision. “Hey.”

Shiro kept his gaze on Keith, visibly struggling to get his breathing down to a more normal rate. He didn’t exactly relax, but his arm did click off. “Where are we?”

“Still in the simulation,” Matt said. “Somewhere below the level where everything was white. We had to knock out you and Coran. Lotor barely made it.”

“You make it sound like I nearly died,” Lotor said, under his breath in a way that Pidge was pretty sure he’d learned from her.

“There’s a comic book character behind you,” Keith said, because the boy had clearly never learned the meaning of subtlety.

Shiro stared at Keith for a long moment, and then turned to look at Loki.

She smiled. “Hi.”

Shiro closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. “Please tell me she’s part of the simulation.”

“Probably,” Matt said, patting Shiro on the arm. “We’ll just wake up Coran and see if we can get some answers out of the universe.”

“You mean out of me,” Loki said.

“Isn’t that what I said?” Matt asked, cocking his head and blinking innocently.

“Stop trying to be smooth, you dork,” Pidge told him.

Loki tilted her head and looked at him, then snorted and shook her head. “You’re cute, but not my type.”

“No?”

“I’m afraid most of my partners have been a little more… criminal.”

“Bad boys,” Matt summarized.

“And girls,” Loki said, with a doe-eyed, ingenuous look, hand to her chest.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Pidge muttered. “Can we just wake up Coran already?”

“Is he as likely to attack me as your friend here was?” Loki asked. “Because if so, I’d like to request someone nearby to help him contextualize as soon as he wakes up.”

“I’ll do it,” Allura said immediately, jogging forward to sit by Coran’s torso. She nodded to Loki. “As you planned, Miss.”

“Miss? Makes me feel young,” Loki laughed, but pressed a hand coated in acid-green glow to Coran’s forehead nonetheless. It took longer than with Shiro, but Coran blinked awake soon enough.

He did not react as Shiro had, thankfully. Coran jerked a little, making a small noise, but he sat up slowly as he looked around, visibly relaxing as he saw Allura and then the rest of them. Pidge could practically see him counting them off mentally, until he reached Loki.

“Er… I’m afraid I don’t know you,” Coran said. “Are you part of these games?”

“Not quite,” Loki said. “Would you hear a story?”

“I don’t know if we have the time for that,” Lotor said, before anyone else could say anything. “We’ve no way of knowing how fast time is passing in the real world while we’re trapped here in the simulation. It would be best to hear the short version, if possible.”

Loki tilted her head, and then shrugged. “That’s fair enough. I’m sure there will be time to explain the details later. Suffice to say, I’m a little wary of the creature you just fought, and while I was able to spin together a little pocket dimension into your narrative, I’m still—”

What?” Hunk asked. “The narrative? Sven was talking about a narrative too, so does that mean you showed up since he was so insistent on there needing to be a story?”

Loki stared at him for a long moment, and then looked at Shiro and Coran, frowning. “Let’s… all get caught up on the same page. I came here with an expectation that I had the details I needed, but I was in too much of a rush to get everything, considering your situation. That said, from your perspective, what is your current situation?”

Everyone looked around between them, and then Pidge took a deep breath and raised her hand. “I programmed a computer simulation to run hard light holograms based off of video games and other franchises as a training program. The AI ended up more advanced than I planned, and the psychic elements to the system glitched out, so now we’re trapped here by the computer.”

Loki nodded. “Who’s Sven?”

“Technically?” Lance asked. “Shiro’s parallel universe self who happens to be like… Swedish. Or something. I don’t know, I’m bad at telling Scandinavian accents apart. Could be Norwegian. I’m not too sure.”

“But the guy we met in the parallel universe was what I based the default NPC and tutorial guide off of for the system when the computer had trouble rendering a Mii realistically,” Pidge said. “I kind of just panicked and picked a memory that wouldn’t hurt to see. But having a name and a face for the computer, and I guess the weight of too many minds on the system, kind of drove it overboard. So… if we say Sven, we’re talking about the computer.”

Another nod. “What was that about a narrative?”

“Sven seems to be convinced that we can’t leave until training is over, that training isn’t over until the game is finished, and that a game isn’t good unless there’s a coherent and well-written plot,” Matt said flatly. “So he decided to give us a villain.”

“That’s about where I blacked out,” Shiro said. He frowned. “I can’t… remember how we got wherever we are.”

“I knocked you out,” Ryou said cheerfully. “Choked you and everything.”

“It was necessary,” Hunk said, as a strange and anxious look crossed Shiro’s face. “Like, seriously necessary. Like, you would have been more of a liability awake than asleep. Coran, too.”

“Matt and Allura got him,” Ryou added.

Shiro closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and sighed it out. “Okay. What happened? Why did I need to be knocked out?”

“I’d like to know that as well,” Coran said. He rubbed at a spot at the back of his head, wincing. “I’m certainly still feeling whatever it was.”

“Because this ‘Sven’s’ choice of villain,” Loki said. “Was the Mother Parasite.”

Shiro blinked. Then he blanched. “Oh no.”

“Oh yes,” Loki confirmed, grimly amused.

“Congrats! You two are the grown-ups!” Ryou said, with a cheesy grin and some thumbs up.

Pidge felt that she probably wasn’t the only one who could feel how fake Ryou’s cheer was.

“I don’t understand,” Coran admitted.

Matt gave another rundown of what Mother’s abilities were, regarding adulthood and children.

“Which, well, it does explain why we had to knock you out. The simulation gave her the canon powers, so you two had no idea anything was wrong, even when she threatened to eat our minds,” Pidge said.

“Num nums in the tum tum,” Matt muttered.

Loki gave him a strange look, and then shook her head. “In any case, I’d like to know more about what differences there were between the original Mother and what’s… here.”

“And I’d like to know why you showed up,” Allura said, crossing her arms. “You’ve indicated that you aren’t part of the system the way Sven and… the Mother Parasite are. Why are you here?”

Green, half-lidded eyes traced across the group, and then Loki shrugged. “Alright, then. I already told you that I am a deity of story. What that means is a little more complicated.”

“We’re listening,” Keith said, sitting down on the ground like it was, in fact, story time, but with an attitude that was more of a threat than anything.

Pidge almost laughed at how everyone followed suit, joining Keith and the others on the ground if they weren’t already there from the waking up process.

“I am entwined with story. My very being is made of it. This means a lot of things, but one thing is that when a story parallels my own in a way that is closer than expected, I can sort of… catch onto it. It’s usually just other Lokis in other universes, living their own Loki lives, but sometimes it isn’t. I normally just check in, see what’s happening, and move on once I’ve seen what’s going on.” Loki looked up and away, biting her lip as her fingers tap-tap-tapped against her leather-clad thigh. “This time was different. I could already tell that the story parallel was happening too far away to be a Loki, and as soon as I felt that the Mother Parasite was involved, I had to take a closer look. She was a form of creature that was more difficult to fight than most, in many ways. Even those that were normally immune to her forms of mental magic, like Wanda Maximoff, fell under her sway. The Scarlet Witch didn’t realize anything was wrong. My br—even Thor was affected, and he’s as much a god as I am.”

“So you were worried about a former enemy coming back from… where was she?” Keith asked.

“She’d been erased from existence by a friend,” Loki said. “That’s part of why I was so concerned. She should not have been able to come back after that.”

“But what we have here isn’t the real her,” Pidge said.

Loki shook her head. “Stories have power. This Mother probably plans on escaping somehow.”

“She told us that, yeah,” Hunk said. “Said she wanted to eat our minds so her section of the program could get strong enough to overthrow Sven and the castle system, build a robot body for herself, and leave.”

“I’m not surprised,” Loki said. “But… it could be worse than that. If she follows that exact plan, she won’t be any more or less powerful than the materials and knowledge she can acquire regarding robotics in this dimension. If she eats your minds and then possesses one of your bodies, she will be similarly limited. But… there’s a power in story.”

“You think that if she continues long enough, she could form properly somehow, the way Leah did when Kid Loki wrote in the book with the Twilight Blade,” Pidge said.

Loki blinked rapidly, and then smiled, a tight and unhappy thing. “Yes. Exactly.”

“Counter-argument,” Matt said, raising his hand. “You keep saying that you came into the simulation because you felt the story. Are you sure you aren’t made from the simulation, and just believe that you’re not because the system didn’t see fit to give you that self-awareness?”

“Thank you, recursive meta,” Lance groaned, head dropping into his hands.

“It’s possible,” Loki admitted. “I certainly wouldn’t expect you to be able to tell whether I’m real or not. Until you leave the system, I imagine there won’t be any way to know for sure.”

“So you’re… what, a helpful NPC?” Hunk asked.

“We can’t trust anything in here,” Pidge said. “Hell, we can’t even be sure of each other.”

“No,” Lotor said. “Sven has, for all of his particularities, demonstrated a reasonable interest in following rules and, beyond that, impressing his creator.”

“Aw, Pidge made an AI baby!” Lance teased.

Regardless,” Lotor pressed on, “We can likely assume that he wants to give us an enjoyable story. While he’s not taking all of our preferences into account, he’s drawing heavily on Pidge’s psyche, and I can’t imagine she’s fond of not being able to trust her surroundings.”

“Only in horror games, and I don’t think he’s going for that genre,” Pidge said. “Then again, he looks like he’s planning on throwing a different game at us each level…”

“But you know the games and franchises in your system,” Lance pointed out. “Most of us know at least a few, too. If nothing else…”

“If nothing else, at least a few of us will know what the chances of one of us being a fake is,” Matt said. “I think we can work with that.”

“Still need to find a way out,” Keith pointed out.

“Finding a way out of some screwed up Moon’s Eye Plan derivative?” Shiro asked. “One where Coran and I can’t even reliably be on your side since we’re being chased by one of Marvel’s creepiest Eldritch Abominations? Great.”

“I mean, this is a way older trope,” Lance said. “Not really Eternal Tsukuyomi rip-off, just like… Holodeck Episode and Lotus-Eater Machine, even though I guess Lotus-Eater is way more pleasant than this, and—”

“Are you even speaking a human language right now?” Keith asked. “Because I have no idea what you’re saying.”

“It’s… tropes. Kind of like clichés, but more of a writer’s toolbox than just overused things,” Lance said, scratching the back of his head. “Like… archetypes and stuff?”

Keith stared blankly at him. “So… the hero’s journey thing from English Lit classes?”

“Yeah, like that!”

“And in this case,” Shiro said, “The trope in question is going to kill us.”

“Pessimism!” Ryou sing-songed, pushing himself over to Shiro and slinging an arm around his shoulders. “We’ll be able to do this. No morbid jokes, unless they’re actual jokes.”

“It’ll be difficult, but… Sven’s tied to his programming. He’s not trying to kill us, just get us to complete training according to what he thinks the rules are,” Pidge said. “I don’t think he’d give us an impossible goal like that. Difficult, yeah, but he wants us to finish, not die.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that he may have succeeded too well with his villain, just as you succeeded too well with your training program,” Lotor pointed out.

“Hey, you helped!”

“I was also the one that wanted to add more safety measures,” Lotor said, an amused smile tugging at the edge of his mouth as he ruffled her hair, a move he’d picked up from the rest of the team, especially Shiro and Lance. Pidge pouted and glared at the floor, crossing her arms with a huff. Lotor continued like she hadn’t. “That said, I’ll admit to a certain degree of culpability in the success of, ah, Sven.”

“Does that make you guys his parents?” Hunk asked, wearing an innocent grin.

Pidge took a moment to process that, and then gagged. Her stomach genuinely heaved a little, throat constricting because—

No,” Lotor said, blanching. The look of horror on his face would have been priceless if not for what had caused it. “No, just, just—otsen sod sezak ad sabor pad in djomen id as sedjems es ad inat serep! Djomen! Dakin! En!”

There was silence for a long moment.

“Did,” Hunk hesitantly said. “Did the translators just fail because Lotor got that angry?”

“You’re not allowed to talk anymore,” Pidge croaked out. “That was gross. You’re gross. Stop.”

“I thought it was funny,” Matt said, earning himself a shoulder punch from Ryou. “Hey! Mean!”

“I agree with the grossness,” Ryou said, prim and proper.

“I think this conversation has gotten wildly out of hand,” Loki said, drawing all attention back to herself.

Coran coughed. “I think I would like to know the specifics of what an adult is considered. Lotor is older than Shiro, after all.”

“Not developmentally,” Ryou pointed out. “Which is the relevant part, I think.”

“That reminds me!” Loki said. She pointed at Shiro and Ryou with both hands, and then waved them back and forth a little to switch which finger pointed at which man a few times. “Twins, right? Similar development, going by the way you look and dress, and close. How was one of you entire immune while the other was entirely affected?”

Both were silent for a few moments, and then Shiro shrugged. “Not quite my secret to tell, I think.”

Ryou laughed bitterly.  “Time to thank my mental understanding of my immaturity due to how fucked up I am over the realization that I’m a clone, I guess.”

“…oh, by the Norns, I should have guessed,” Loki said, closing her eyes and pressing fingers to her temple. “I knew the scars and arms were too similar to be coincidence, but I didn’t… well, I didn’t think, clearly.”

“Ta-da!” Ryou said, with some sarcastic jazz hands. “I only got decanted about seven months ago. Only figured out I wasn’t Shiro a few months after that.”

“If this had happened back before we figured out the whole sleeper agent plot, it might have worked,” Matt mused. “You thought of yourself as more mature when you thought you were Shiro.”

“If it’s any consolation, you probably already know that certain elements of my own situation are… not dissimilar to your own,” Loki said. She offered Ryou a weak smile. “Granted, my predecessors died, but…”

“I get it,” Ryou said. “I read—or, well, Shiro read the comics, and I have his memories. I know about the whole Classic-Lady-SIEGE-Kid-Agent-Stories progression. And King, I guess, but you absorbed him or something.”

“Was he just saying random words?” Keith whispered to Lance, just loud enough to hear.

“Comics are fucking complicated,” Lance whispered back. “Those were each a kind of Loki that died and got replaced.”

“…what.”

“Loki does seem to keep dying,” Loki said with a smile. “But I think this me is going to stick around for a while. Maybe forever! We’ll see.”

A pregnant silence held the area, awkward as hell, and then Loki sighed. “Right. In any case, given the information you’ve provided me with so far, I need to ask something: do you keep your natural abilities when you enter a new level?”

“We only did one level between the full-force glitch and ending up fighting Mother,” Lance said. “But… Allura, Coran, and Lotor lost their alien strength, and Allura and Coran looked human. Lotor was still purple and stuff, though, and the twins’ arms could still light up as weapons.”

“The program’s still adjusting,” Pidge defended.

“It might mean that Mother’s abilities will change according to the level you’re in, though, to fit the universe you find yourselves in,” Loki mused. “I’ll be coming with, of course. I can’t keep this up forever.”

“And what exactly is… this?” Allura asked.

“Narrative pocket dimension!” Loki said cheerfully. “I can’t risk interfering very directly, since this is so far from my usual stomping grounds, but I’ll be following you a—”

“Hi, no, explain the pocket dimension, please,” Matt interrupted. “You’re very pretty, but we’ve got a lot on the line here, so I’d like to get our questions answered, if that’s possible.”

Loki gave him a long look, and then shrugged. “I inserted a scene break between your escape from Mother and your next challenge. Your AI will notice eventually, but I simply… rerouted the story to here. An outtake, maybe. The portals in this game were based on America’s, and I know her magic intimately after our own interdimensional travels, so I could direct you to my little void instead of your next level. Mother will mostly likely recognize me, and—actually, what form has she taken? Is she still running around as Mrs. Altman?”

“No,” Lance said, with a glance at Lotor that wasn’t anywhere near as subtle as he probably thought it was. “She, uh, well, she cycled a bit before she settled on a form.”

“My mother, Honerva,” Lotor said stiffly. Pidge surreptitiously took his hand and squeezed in an attempt to provide comfort. She wasn’t sure if it had worked, but Lotor squeezed back when he kept talking. “The woman in question has been dead for… a very long time.”

“How long?”

“Ten thousand years,” Lotor said.

“…whose years, if you don’t mind me asking?” Loki asked. “Because, forgive me, you don’t really look that old.”

“Altean years and Daibazaalian were about the same length,” Coran said. “So… about ten thousand and thirty-one Altean years.”

“Seven thousand, seven hundred, and eighty-three on Earth,” Matt said, as Loki’s visible confusion grew, even if it wasn’t by much.

“Does your species simply age very slowly, then?” Loki asked. At Lotor’s look, she raised her hands defensively. “Hey, I don’t have your knowledge background. My adoptive father isn’t exactly a great person, but he’s also over five thousand years by Earth standards, and he’s not… well, not counting Ragnarok, he’s not dead yet. Classic Loki lived to well over a thousand before committing suicide by hero during the Siege of Asgard. Long-lived species aren’t anything new to me, but I want to know what the situation is. The Mother Parasite will use anyone you’ve ever considered a parent, no matter how badly they filled the role.”

“Farbauti?” Lance asked. “And bringing Laufey back from the dead?”

Loki groaned. “Yes.”

“Who?” Keith asked.

“The parasite took my biological mother’s form at one point, despite how awful Farbauti really was at the role,” Loki explained. “And she brought Laufey back, but… well, to be fair, she didn’t exactly need to try very hard to get Laufey to try to kill me. I was a runt, you see, and the Jotnar rarely take kindly to those. Laufey saw it as a mark against him, that he’d had a child as small as I was, so… abuse was common, as were threats to eat me. Unlike the other parents that were brought back from the dead, Laufey was near identical to his original self in personality.”

 “Your home life sucked,” Keith said.

“Oh, I got my revenge,” Loki said, a smug smile on her face. “I was responsible for Laufey’s death on more than one occasion, and the War of Realms… well. I had my fun.”

“See, now I’m just thinking that you and Lotor could get along talking about shitty dads,” Matt said. “And political maneuvering for revenge against them and their horrifying dictatorships. And hair care, probably.”

“I like that last one,” Loki said. “It’s the least depressing.”

“Bringing us back to the point,” Shiro said, “How much longer can you keep us here so we have time to plan?”

“Not much longer, I’m afraid,” Loki mused. “I can stretch a story, but too much and it drags, turns into a bad story. And while I can write bad stories, it does affect me. I’ll be less able to nudge it in ways that are helpful to you if I try to give you more time now.”

“Okay,” Pidge said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Can you at least help us figure out a way to make sure Coran and Shiro are immune? I think Honerva showing up kind of trauma-triggered Lotor into a more childlike headspace, and Matt’s probably fine, but—”

“It won’t be necessary,” Loki said, shaking her head. “What you said earlier means that she’ll probably lose those particular powers when you switch dimensions, and if she doesn’t, then it’ll be easy enough to tell that she hasn’t. I think… I can influence that much, and if not, I’d say that your comments about this Sven system indicate that he may be willing to limit her in the dimensions where your own abilities are limited.”

“May?” Coran asked, sounding dubious.

Loki shrugged. “I can’t predict everything, just lay out possible avenues to explore, and try to help you along now that I’m here.”

“Oh god,” Pidge said, with a dawning wave of mixed horror and amusement. “You are the helpful NPC.”

“…I wouldn’t say that,” Loki said, pouting. “I’m self-aware enough to be a player character, I think.”

“No offense,” Pidge said, wincing a little, “But I’m still mostly sure that you’re just a facet of the game. You’re a fictional character, so it’s a lot more likely that Sven added you in for flavor than it is that you’re somehow real in another universe—”

“Multiverse,” Loki corrected, and then shrugged when everyone looked at her. “Your dimension and its closest linked dimensions, like that Astral Plane, are one universe. The parallel timeline with the original Sven that you mentioned is another. All the parallel timelines associated with your dimension, with your species and plots and people, are one multiverse. I come from a multiverse with a different set of story conventions, people, species, and so on.”

“The Marvel Multiverse, fine,” Pidge said, rubbing at her temple. “Point is, it’s way more likely that you’re just a clever patch of code than the real Loki actually being real and coming here.”

Loki blinked, tilted her head, and shrugged. “That’s fair. As I said earlier, I imagine I’d believe I was real even if I wasn’t, and there’s no real way of knowing until you’re out of here.”

“And we already established that Sven is probably transparent enough to not put us into an Inception-type situation where we can’t tell if we’re in the real world or still dreaming,” Matt pointed out. “Though… oh god.”

“What?” Lotor asked, shifting minutely. Pidge realized that she still hadn’t let go of his hand, but… well, it was comforting, like when she held on to Matt or Shiro or Coran.

“If we’re the players, and Loki’s the helpful NPC, and Mother’s the villain…” Matt said. “That means Sven’s the DM.

Silence reigned, broken by a snort from Ryou.

“No,” Lance croaked out. “No, no, we are not—he isn’t… cabrón, you’re right.”

“So, Sven the computer is a wannabe Dungeon Master,” Loki laughed, delighted, and clasped her hands together with a loud smack. “I can work with that!”

She sobered quickly. “We do have to leave quickly, though. I can only hold this up for a few more minutes.”

“I have one request,” Lance said, and shrank when everyone looked at him.  He met Lotor’s eyes, and then his gaze darted away, flicking to the floor while he nervously licked his lips. “Saying… saying ‘Mother’ might get confusing, and the full title is kind of long and unwieldy. So…”

“You wish to simply refer to her as Honerva,” Lotor said, voice much quieter than usual. Lance flinched, telegraphing the movement in a way that even Pidge couldn’t miss, but nodded.

“Up to you,” Lance said. “I mean… she’s got your mom’s face, which is… a lot. We can do something else.”

Lotor was quiet for a long moment, and part of Pidge counted down mentally as the second passed. Finally, Lotor sighed and nodded.

“Very well, then. We can… we can refer to the Mother Parasite as Honerva,” Lotor said. “It may… desensitize me, for lack of a better way of putting it.”

Pidge noticed movement out of the corner of her eyes, and turned to see Loki looking around inquisitively. The goddess program nodded, and stood, twirling her distaff.

“I won’t be joining you immediately, since I have need to hide from the DM,” Loki said with a smile, ignoring Hunk and Lance’s groaning about the title for Sven. “But I’ll find you somewhere once he’s not publicly playing anymore, yeah?”

She grinned wider and slammed the hilt of the distaff into the ground, forcing glowing white cracks through the darkness of the void. They grew brighter and brighter and brighter, until Pidge couldn’t see a thing anymore.

“See you on the other side!”

Chapter Text

When the world faded into being, they were all in various casual clothing they could remember wearing on Earth, or were even still wearing on the Castle. The lone exceptions were Allura, who’d ended up in a sundress, and Coran and Lotor, who had ended up in black ties and pressed white shirts and black pants. Coran even wore a black suit jacket, and the plain outfits seemed somehow very wrong on the two aliens. Coran and Allura, Pidge noted, looked human again, though Lotor was still large and purple and pointy-eared.

It only took a few moments to reorient themselves, but when they did, Shiro had a hand over his mouth, staring at Coran and Lotor. Ryou was looking around with an inscrutable, pinched expression, too. It took another five or six seconds for Pidge to realize why, and Matt beat her to it.

“Holy shit, is that Japanese?”

“Yyyyyyyyyyyyyyep,” Ryou dragged out, staring at sign after sign. “We are… in some part of Japan? I guess?”

“We’d have to get higher to see any kind of real reference point,” Shiro said. He pressed the heel of one hand against his forehead. “And even then, my memory isn’t really good enough for that to mean anything if we’re anywhere outside of Tokyo.”

“Or even in it,” Ryou muttered. “Tokyo’s huge, and there’s not exactly an easily discernible border between it and Kanagawa.”

“So we want to get to the highest point in the vicinity and go from there?” Lance asked. “Do we even know what today’s challenge is?”

“I think we do,” Shiro said lowly, going up to a sign plastered to a wall in an alleyway, peeling from exposure to the elements. He tapped it with one finger, and Pidge blanched as she recognized a stylized version of the Castle of Lions. “We definitely got a hint, at least.”

“What does it say?” Allura asked, leaning forward to get a closer look. Her hair, now unbound, fell into her face, and she scowled as she tucked the errant piece behind her now rounded ear. Ryou silently slid a hair tie off of his wrist and passed it over.

“It says: Survive and Find the Shop,” Shiro read. “I’m… not sure how to take that. Anyone?”

“Video game that takes place in Japan or a Japan-like culture and has a significant shop?” Hunk asked. “That could be anything!”

“Japan-like?” Keith asked.

“I mean, I’m not going to rule out, like, Naruto or something,” Hunk said, rubbing the back of his head. “Pidge? What did you have on your computer?”

“A lot of stuff?” Pidge said, voice creeping higher than she was comfortable with admitting at the end of the sentence. “I mean, I’ve got a lot of stuff on my computer. I haven’t even watched all of it.”

“Do you think if we start walking, we might get some kind of sign?” Matt asked. “Arrows or a map or something?”

“Maybe,” Shiro said. “If it’s a game, then there’ll be something guiding us there. But we can’t just assume it’s a video game, considering our last ‘level’ was a comic book that never got a game adaptation for that particular plot.”

Pidge hmmed. “If Loki’s the helpful NPC like we thought, then… maybe she’ll be able to push the shape of the world to give us something like that?”

“That’s DM levels of bullshit,” Matt declared. “And I’m pretty sure that’s not her role.”

“Great,” Shiro sighed. “So… wander around, figure out where we are, specifically, find a map, and wait for a clue.”

“Could… could we make do with Google Maps?” Keith asked.

“Do you have a phone?”

“Lance probably does.”

Lance patted down his pockets, but came up empty. Pidge and Hunk followed suit. Pidge thought that over, and started talking before she’d really reached the end of that train of logic.

“Get me to a library and I can… uh… shit,” Pidge swore. “I don’t have automatic translation software and doing anything on a computer in Japan is going to suck since the system is completely geared towards Japanese…”

“You hack Galra stuff all the time, and that’s not even human,” Keith pointed out.

“Yeah, but I’ve usually got an interface like my armor’s computer on me,” Pidge grumbled. “Or my laptop when I’m on the castle, something that can provide an intermediary system so that I can get in and out without having to learn how to speak the language itself.”

“So… Shiro’s plan it is!” Ryou said, clapping his hands together once with a smile. “Anyone hungry? We can probably get some interesting tastes here. I miss ramen. Technically never even had it in the first place. Anyone want some ramen? Let’s go get some ramen.”

Ryou picked a random direction and started walking. With a few uneasy glances, the rest of them followed suit.

It was… unnerving.

Pidge didn’t like to think that she was an easily spooked person. She’d been doing illegal things since long before Matt even left for Kerberos, playing horror games for longer than that still, and even since coming to space she hadn’t exactly bothered with being scared of the unknown when she had to face down death every other day. Pidge did not like to think that she was easy to scare in the conventional horror sense.

That did not make this city any goddamn less unnerving.

“There are usually more people in cities in Japan, right?” Lance asked, hunching in on himself and gripping his own elbows as he looked around, shivering. Keith stepped up next to him to slip a hand into the crook of Lance’s elbow, and Allura took a glance back and slowed just enough to fall into step with them, wrapping an arm around Lance’s waist and giving him a smile.

“I mean, the birth rate oscillates enough that there’s alternately over and under-population from decade to decade,” Ryou said, scratching the back of his head. “But none of the times we visited were this bad, no.”

“We could see if one of the stores is open?”  Allura suggested hesitantly. “Or…”

“It’s as good an idea as anything else we have right now,” Shiro said. He bit his lip and looked at a street sign further down the block, hanging over the left lane. “I think… I think we’re in Tokyo. I’m not recognizing a lot, because I think we’re in a district that’s a little more suburban than the big ones, but you see that sign?”

“It’s got some stuff in the Latin alphabet,” Keith said slowly, squinting at the white-on-blue words. “Is that normal?”

“Yeah, actually,” Ryou said. “Most transportation-related signs, like train stations and ‘this way to Meguro’ type stuff has romaji on it, since tourists are common and most of the world knows the Latin alphabet and not hiragana.”

“But that sign is pointing towards Hachioji,” Shiro said. “Which means we’ve at least got something an idea of where we are.”

“Okay…” Matt said slowly. “Can we… do anything with that information?”

“We can find a sign pointing us towards Tokyo proper, or, well, the special 23 wards, and then find the highest point in the city?” Shiro said slowly. “And… work from there? We’ll come across an overhead or overland train at some point, I think—”

“Which we can then follow to the nearest station and actually find a way to get around faster,” Ryou finished.

“Or we’ll come across a station itself if we’re lucky,” Shiro said.

“We’re not going to be that lucky,” Ryou scoffed. “Not without faster transportation or a map or directions. If we were in, I don’t know, fucking Shibuya or something? Sure. Maybe Minato-ku! But if we’re seeing a sign for Hachioji before we see one for, I don’t know, Ginza or Itabashi?”

“…probably in Western Tokyo,” Shiro sighed, admitting defeat. “Which means the nearest line could be an hour or two away by foot even if we knew where we were going.”

“Exactly,” Ryou said. “We need a map and a goal.”

A heavy hand landed on Pidge’s shoulder, and silky white hair dropped down near her face as Lotor leaned down to speak quietly closer to her ear. “I’ve no idea what they’re talking about.”

“I think the names they’re throwing around are like… neighborhoods or something?” Pidge guessed. “I know Shiro came here to visit family every summer before the Garrison, and as often as he could even after that, so he’s our best bet for getting anywhere.”

“Is it common for humans to visit distant relatives that way?”

Pidge shrugged. “Matt and I spent alternating summers with my mom’s family in Serbia and my dad’s in England and Germany when we went abroad. Most of my dad’s family was in the US, though.”

“I’ve no idea what those mean either.”

“Countries,” Pidge said. “Hey, Shirogane! Both of you! What the fuck is an Itabashi?”

“Language,” Ryou said, with a mocking tone and grin that made it clear he’d only said it to preempt Shiro.

Shiro just huffed and pretended nothing had happened. “Okay, rundown for everyone: Japan is a country on Earth. It’s split up into prefectures, which are… administrative chunks, I guess. The Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area actually crosses over several of those boundaries, but old, original Tokyo City is still in the prefecture. The prefecture is split up into wards, a district, and administrative chunks that they call cities but aren’t… really cities by our standards, since it all kind of just runs seamlessly together until you hit the forest, which doesn’t start until you get west of Hachioji. The twenty-three special districts are the core of Tokyo city, and are what was the original city. There’s no visible change between the special districts and Western Tokyo, which is the other part of the prefecture, since it just kind of fades from skyscrapers to lesser city stuff to suburbs to farmland to the forest. Even within the special wards you can cross from one to the next without even realizing.”

Anyway,” Ryou interrupted. “Hachioji is in Western Tokyo, which means we’re actually a while out from the special twenty-three, so it’s going to take us a while to get there.”

“How long is a while?” Coran asked.

The twins looked at each other, made a few faces that clearly made sense to them but no one else, and then turned and shrugged.

“A couple of hours,” Shiro admitted.

“A couple varga,” Ryou said at the same time.

“And it could take a while just to find a station,” Shiro admitted. “I’m used to Minato-ku, Itabashi-ku, and the tourist-heavy and shopping areas, not, well, this.”

“Came out here to visit an aging aunt once,” Ryou said, and then sighed. “Pretty much the only reason I even remember where Hachioji is.”

Shiro nodded.

“So we need a map, a car, and a direction,” Pidge said.

“This stuff is all, what, early 21st century?” Keith said, looking around. “They’re sixty or seventy years out of date.”

“So they won’t hover and go as fast as we’d like, yeah,” Shiro said. “We… look, the trains are reliable, and fast, and won’t deal with traffic the way a car would.”

“There’s no one here,” Hunk pointed out.

“There might be further into to city,” Matt said. He spoke slowly, carefully weighing every word. “I mean… the system might not be able to generate enough people, or might still be working on it.”

“Like how Silent Hill actually included the creepy fog not because it was creepy, but because it kept players from realizing that the map didn’t load as quickly as the player moved,” Pidge said. “And accidentally ended up making a really successful horror game because of the fog.”

“Right,” Matt said. “The Castle’s an enormously powerful processor, but this simulation is already a lot of heavy lifting. Generating that many fake people might not happen, or at least not right away.”

“So… head for Shinjuku,” Shiro decided. “We should get a map, figure out which way is East, and start moving.”

“The closer we get, the more signs there’ll be pointing us in the right direction, hopefully,” Ryou said. “So… I guess we should just work on finding a station?”

“I don’t think that’s going to be necessary,” Lance said, wearing a shit-eating grin. “Might still want that map, though.”

Everyone turned to look at him. Shiro looked like he was weighing up his options, before he finally asked, with a dead voice, “Why?”

“Keith had an idea,” Lance said, still wearing that shit-eating grin, bouncing on his toes with his hands laced behind his back. Pidge looked around and noted that Keith was not, in fact, with the group any longer.

“Oh god no,” Shiro whispered, as he realized the same thing.

“Hey! I’m a responsible external impulse control,” Lance said, faking offense and pressing a hand dramatically to his chest as he gave Shiro his best puppy dog eyes. “Of course I made sure that the idea was at least sensible first.”

“Where is Keith?” Coran pressed.

Lance turned around and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey asshole, we’re ready for you!”

There was a rumbling noise, and then a large car swung around a corner and barreled towards them. Pidge leapt out of the way when it looked like the car wasn’t going to stop, but it ended up screeching to a halt a few feet back from where Lotor had been standing. At a closer look, it was not, in fact, a regular car, but a white van with darkly tinted windows, probably meant for small tour groups or… well, or something.

Keith leaned out the window. “Hey.”

Shiro stared up at him, mouth slightly agape.

“What did you do?” Ryou asked, looking just a touch too delighted.

“You kept mentioning how long the trip is and how far away,” Keith said, shrugging. “So I got us a car.”

How?” Shiro asked, his voice cracking. “That’s… why? That’s illegal!”

“Well it’s not like anyone’s here to stop me or even care that the van is missing!” Keith rolled his eyes.

“What, were the keys just laying on the seat or something?” Hunk asked.

Keith blinked once. Twice. Looked away. “Well, not exactly.”

Shiro groaned and buried his face in his hands. “Where did I go wrong…”

“It’s not like you knew him in his formative years,” Ryou consoled, patting him on the shoulder. “Keith, I’m gonna go ahead and say that what you did is even more illegal.”

“I… may have hotwired it.” Keith didn’t meet anyone’s eyes. “But the gas tank is full and so is this guy’s wallet, so…”

Shiro let out a sad little squeaking noise. Ryou looked between him and Keith a few times.

“Lance said it was okay considering the circumstances,” Keith defended.

“He’s not wrong,” Ryou said. “But whatever. Scoot over, I’m driving.”

“What, no, why?” Keith gripped the wheel a little tighter.

“Because if the police suddenly start existing, I know Japan’s road rules better than you do,” Ryou said, opening the door on the driver’s side. “You were driving on the wrong side of the road, too.”

“…shit.”

“Yep.” Ryou nodded solemnly. “Now scooch your boot.”

“Uh, guys?” Hunk said. “The map?”

“Won’t need one for a while yet if we’re driving,” Ryou said. “Just head east and then follow the signs to Shinjuku. We can mod the plans later. All aboard!”

The sounds of the engine, once they were inside and driving, were comforting in the oppressive silence of the ghost town.

o.o.o.o.o

There was an invisible border at some point, an unnoticed metaphorical ripple, and suddenly there were people again.

Ryou nearly slammed on the breaks, swearing loudly as they crossed a street and suddenly saw people. There weren’t a lot, just three or four on the road, looking like they were buying groceries or something. They looked over at the van, and Ryou slowed down dramatically to whatever the actual speed limit was. Pidge peered out the window, watching as the people turned to watch them pass. Their faces and movements were a little rigid, but… NPCs. The ones at the bakery had faded in and out of focus and humanity too, depending on how many people were in the café at any given time, and Pidge had a feeling that with a sandbox as big as this, the computer was having a much harder time coming up with names and faces and emotions for NPCs that didn’t even have lines.

“What the hell,” Shiro muttered, eyes on the outside, scanning the distance. “Ryou, be careful. There might be police.”

“Looks like it was just a matter of time after all,” Hunk said.

“Or location,” Pidge muttered. “We don’t have enough information to work out what the problem is yet.”

“Could be anything,” Hunk agreed. “I want to just pick one thing and stick with it, but…”

“But that’s not going to do us much good,” Matt said. “Erasing possibilities just because we don’t want to juggle them all might mean we miss something important.”

There was a lull in the conversation, broken only by the rumble of the engine and the sounds of suburban life that filtered in through the open windows by the front seats.

“What time is it, do you think?” Lance asked, not looking away from the window. He had his chin resting on one fist, a middle-distance glaze to his eyes that Pidge figured meant he wasn’t necessarily processing everything he was seeing. “In the real world?”

“Probably 7:09 AM,” Shiro said.

It took a moment to register, and then Pidge shot up straight. “Wait, what? How do you know that?”

Shiro looked back at her and quirked a tired grin. He tapped at the digital clock on the dashboard, between him and Ryou since Keith had moved to the back, and said, “The numbers keep swapping back and forth. The kanji for one of the sets say Game Time, and the kanji for the others say Real Time. Looks like Sven was nice enough to include a counter like that. I didn’t bring it up because I wasn’t sure if that was what it was, but since Lance asked anyway…”

Pidge blinked at him, then leaned forward and focused on the clock. It did say 7:10 right now, with a bunch of kanji she obviously couldn’t read, and after a few seconds, it changed to say 10:54. She kept watching, waiting, and it eventually switched back to saying 7:10 again.

“It was stalled at 7:08 when we got in,” Shiro said. “It ticked up to 7:09 around 10:45-ish by the other clock, but I’m not sure why it’s moved ahead so much quicker this time.”

“Maybe because we passed a border of some sort?” Matt suggested. “What about the other?”

“I remember seeing it say 10:07 when I got in,” Keith volunteered.

“More or less feels like it’s going at the time it should be,” Shiro agreed. “I want to guess at why the Real Time one started going now…”

“…montage?” Lance hesitantly suggested, his voice pitched higher than usual. “I mean, Sven seemed invested in the idea of a narrative, and the game shoving Loki at us like it did made it clear that there’s a lot of story logic here, right? So what if real time only passes when we’re doing something that feels like plot?”

Pidge made a face. “As the person who wrote the code, I can actually say that that’s probably not quite what’s happening, but surprisingly close to the most likely option.”

“Yeah?”

“When we’re picking apart the world conceptually like this, we’re straining the system,” Pidge said. “So are all the NPCs we’ve suddenly got, until the system readjusts to it and the AI learns how to run that more smoothly. The more strained the system is, the slower it works, and the slower the program runs, the less efficiently it can compress time the way it did for the bakery.”

“It did okay with the bakery,” Matt said. “Took like… twelve hours and stuffed it down to ten minutes.”

“That still leaves almost ten,” Shiro pointed out.

“Sven conversation, Young Avengers level, and Loki.”

“Ah. Yeah. That would do it.”

Pidge shrugged. “I think it had more memories to work from all of us for that, which the psychic elements used to efficiently model customers and a kitchen and so on. Here, it’s got whatever franchise it’s using, which can’t have involved a full-scale model of an entire prefecture of Japan, and Shiro’s memories.”

“We’ve almost all got memories of cities and suburbs, though,” Hunk pointed out.

“But not of Japan,” Ryou reminded him. “Which… might make the difference?”

Pidge shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. I just… I don’t know. I can’t see the code to diagnose it.”

“We’ll keep an eye on the time,” Coran said, and his hand, large and warm and with calloused palms that she couldn’t feel at the moment, landed on Pidge’s head and ruffled her hair. “If nothing else, it will help us understand just how much trouble we are truly in.”

Lotor made a dissatisfied noise, quiet enough that he clearly hadn’t meant for all of them to hear, but more than loud enough to hear in the tense silence of the van.

Pidge swallowed and looked back out the window, at the deceptively sunny Tokyo day.

The NPCs looked back.

o.o.o.o.o

Several minutes later:

“There’s a fucking highway?” Lance screeched.

“Ow,” Keith said, voice deceptively mild, given the look of irritation on his face and the way he was rubbing his ear. “Stop yelling.”

"Look, cut me some slack,” Ryou groaned. “The last time I was here, I didn't exist."

“Shiro!”

“Ryou might be taking it slow since the vehicle’s too old to safely drive at top speed,” Shiro said slowly, “But it’s still too fast for me to read every sign we come across, especially given how some of them are too blurry to read even when completely still. I knew we’d hit a highway if we headed east for long enough, and we did.”

“Taking the Chūō Expressway should cut down on travel time,” Ryou said. “Not sure by how much, but so long as we really are heading east—”

“And we are,” Shiro said. “Mt. Fuji’s on our right.”

“Is Fuji south of all of Tokyo?” Lance asked, just a little dubious.

Ryou snorted. “Fuji’s a full prefecture away, kid.”

“…what?”

“Mt. Fuji sits right on the border between Shizuoka and Yamanashi,” Ryou continued. “To get there, you have to go from Tokyo through all of Yamanashi and then get to Fuji as you hit the border with Shizuoka.”

“Kanagawa’s an option,” Shiro said, looking at the mountain in question as Ryou pulled onto the highway. “You can get to Shizuoka without ever stepping foot in Yamanashi if you go down the coast.”

“Okay, I get it, it’s far away so you can use it as a reasonable reference point,” Lance huffed. “It just looks a lot closer.”

“Because it’s big as hell,” Ryou said cheerfully.

“Is it the largest of your planet’s mountains?” Allura asked.

“Not by a long shot,” Ryou laughed.

“It’s one of the two most-famous, though,” Shiro said. “Tallest is Everest, which is the other super famous one, and… Kilimanjaro is tall too, I guess?”

“K2,” Keith said, sounding distracted. “Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri I, Manaslu, Nanga Parbat, Annapurna I.”

The pregnant silence managed to get Keith’s attention, and he looked up from where he’d been playing with his Marmora blade, blinking around at them. “What?”

“Are… those the tallest mountains?” Hunk asked.

Keith blinked at him, processed the question, apparently realized what was going on, and then started talking.

“Everest is the tallest, but if we’re counting by above sea level, then those are the other nine in the top ten. All of them are in or near Nepal, with the other claims being… China, India, and Pakistan, I think? They’re all Himalayan, and two through six all have Everest as their parent mountain. All mountains in the world with peak heights at seven kilometers or more above sea level are in Central Asia, mostly on the Tibetan Plateau. Kilimanjaro is… it’s the highest peak in Africa, yeah, but it’s weird to bring up in the world contest because it’s not that high above sea level compared to the stuff at the edge of the Indian subcontinent, but it is one of the highest in terms of being the tallest land mountain above the surrounding terrain, along with Denali, in Alaska, and Nanga Parbat, back in the Himalayas,” Keith rattled off, sucking in a deep breath at the end. He thought for a long moment, and then added, “And if we count mountain islands whose bases are under the sea, then it’s probably Mauna Kea. Fuji’s less than half as high above sea level as Everest is.”

After a few moments of everyone trying to get through all that information, Coran asked, “Is sea level the most common manner in which such things are measured?”

“Yeah,” Keith said, eyes darting back towards the floor of the van. “I mean, it’s not exactly the most accurate thing in the world, since sea levels change, but it’s the most objective measure they have. Um… if you go by distance from the Earth’s center, then we’re actually looking at Chimborazo in Ecuador, or Huascarán in Peru, even though their height above sea level is like… two whole kilometers less than Everest.”

Pidge glanced at Shiro, who looked just as confused and surprised as she probably did, and then decided to ask the question that everyone probably had on their minds. “When did you learn so much about mountains, dude?”

Keith shifted uncomfortably, and Pidge felt a pang of sympathy as he seemed to curl up on himself a little. “I researched cartography at a public library in town when I was trying to find out what was going on out at Blue’s cave in the desert. I got distracted by the mountain rankings when I was looking into topography mapping.”

“Special interest?” Pidge asked.

“Kinda short-lived, but yeah,” Keith said, shrugging. “It’s weird, I guess, but I started reading up on them when I couldn’t spend any more spoons on the Blue stuff, and didn’t have the gas money to just go for more than just necessary trips to town or whatever.”

“We’re all weird,” Lance declared, leaning over to lean his head on Keith’s shoulder and wrap his arms around Keith’s waist. “If that’s your brand of weird and you’re comfortable calling it weird and owning the weird? Go you. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

“You’re gross,” Keith informed him. “All… emotionally gooey and stuff.”

“I think it’s interesting,” Allura offered. “I’d like to know more, myself.”

“I could… talk about attempts to reach Everest’s peak before there was technology to do it safely?” Keith said hesitantly. “It’s one of those ‘people died of the cold and the solution was to send more people’ things.”

“Like arctic exploration,” Lance tossed in.

Matt jumped in with a cheesy yet strangely accurate accent. “The most successful of Russia’s military leaders has always been General Winter.”

“…what?” Coran asked.

“Russian winters are fucking brutal and were contributing factors the failures of multiple attempted invasions,” Lance said cheerfully. The continuation involved Lance speaking so quickly and full of patter that Pidge didn’t even hear him stop for breath. “Of course, part of that is because fleeing peasants burned their fields and ransacked their own houses so that the approaching armies would have nothing to eat and nowhere safe and warm to sleep and would die of starvation and exposure as their supply lines started being stretched past the limit because Russia is the largest country in the world and sometimes salting your own earth just before a deadly-ass winter hits is the best solution.”

“You’re all nerds,” Ryou told them solemnly. “The absolute nerdiest.”

“What does that make you?” Hunk asked.

“Shiro and I are clearly the jocks that kick the asses of anyone who so much as looks at you funny,” Ryou said.

“…aw, that’s sweet,” Lance said, laughing. “Hey, hey, what does that make Lotor?”

“He’s at the cross-section of nerd, prep, and jock, which makes him the varsity captain of some sport with a perfect 4.0 and multiple scholarships who comes to school in an Aston Martin every day wearing Gucci and Prada and like… Louboutins.”

“You put a lot of thought into this,” Matt commented.

“He’s very pretty but he helped code this thing, was heir to the biggest empire, and also can actually go toe to toe with me in hand to hand,” Ryou said. “But yeah. Very smart, very pretty, formerly very rich, very strong, and probably dying on the inside due to too much caffeine but hiding it with… what’s an expensive make-up brand. Sephora?”

“Sure,” Lance said, visibly holding back a laugh.

“And hiding the flaming trash pile of torment that is his daily life under copious amounts of Sephora,” Ryou declared.

Pidge couldn’t help it, and neither could anyone else.

They laughed.

Besides, the look on Lotor’s face was one part confused, one part affronted, and one part indulgently amused, all of which, combined with the sight of his hair in the kind bird’s nest that came directly from napping in a moving car, formed a visage that didn’t quite resemble an offended cat, but came surprisingly close in execution.

(“I really would like to hear about those mountains, since we have the time,” Allura said, once they were done.)

o.o.o.o.o

There was something weird about Tokyo, and Pidge felt comfortable at dumping all of that blame at Sven’s metaphorical feet. Shiro and Ryou looked as tense as the rest of the team, even if Ryou kept trying to play it off with jokes and random facts if they passed a building he had trivia about. Keith’s information on mountains eventually reached a saturation point where nobody was quite interested anymore, at which point Lance took over with some history nonsense and what felt like an entire dissertation on how a single wet summer had majorly influenced the direction of colonialism in the Americas and could be largely held responsible for the number of countries that spoke Spanish instead of some other language.[1]

(Pidge had felt almost as lost as the aliens looked.)

There were lulls in the conversation, obviously, moments where no one could quite think of something to talk about, until Matt suggested turning on the radio. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Japanese pop music that Shiro confirmed sounded like it was from somewhere shortly after the turn of the century. That took the place of interpersonal interaction for a while, the sun rising higher and higher in the sky as they drove down the highway towards Shinjuku.

“What time is it?” Hunk asked after Shiro announced that they’d made it to the special districts and would be merging onto the Shinjuku route metropolitan expressway… or something. Apparently, the highway they were currently on would merge onto the one that would take them straight towards the section Shiro thought might hold their goal. Pidge wasn’t sure why he thought this specific section would be their best bet, other than that it was apparently where all the government buildings were, but she was willing to default to Shiro’s judgment.

“11:40,” Shiro told him. “And… 7:14.”

 Huh. That was… unfortunate. Pidge hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in hours, since what they consumed in-game didn’t count. Hunger from outside the game wouldn’t affect her simulated self, but she’d definitely had to stop for a snack in-game during the bakery level, and if it had been two hours in-game already…

“How much longer before we can rationalize taking a food break?” Matt asked.

“Let’s check around Shinjuku for some clues,” Shiro said. “If that doesn’t turn anything up, we’ll find someplace to stop for lunch.”

“Will the food be like what we had at the bakery?” Coran asked. “Those rolls were quite good.”

“No,” Ryou said. “We’re in Japan, kind of, which means we’re getting Japanese food. If the level doesn’t end soon, we’re getting ramen.”

“Ramen’s good,” Hunk agreed. “Or… damn, I don’t know enough about how restaurants are set up here to actually have an idea of where to go.”

“We can walk around for a bit and see what looks interesting,” Shiro promised. “I’m in the mood for yakiniku myself.”

“Onigiri?” Matt suggested. “Or udon, maybe…”

“I don’t think we’re going to have time for everything…” Ryou said.

“Now I’m getting hungry,” Keith muttered.

Pidge just closed her eyes and waited for the car to stop.

o.o.o.o.o

Ryou had begun muttering under his breath in Japanese when they first had trouble finding a place to park in Shinjuku.

That had been fifteen minutes ago.

“You know… this is a video game,” Lance said, sounding bored. “The money isn’t real. Neither are the traffic cops. We can get away with just leaving it somewhere and not coming back. I’m sure Keith can hotwire us another car if we need it.”

“I could,” Keith confirmed.

“We’re not going to hotwire another car,” Ryou said stiffly. “I am going to find us a parking spot, and it will be free.”

“We… we have the wallet of whichever NPC owns this thing,” Pidge reminded him slowly. “I’m pretty sure we have enough money to cover a parking spot.”

“Which we don’t actually need to pay for, let me remind you,” Lance said. “Just. It’s a simulation. Long-term consequences aren’t a thing.”

“We could end up with the police after us,” Hunk pointed out. “Like, if this is GTA or something? The cops might start hunting us down.”

“We haven’t killed anyone and the guy we stole from doesn’t exist, because we were in a ghost town,” Lance said. “So even if this was GTA, who’s gonna snitch on us? Are the cops even aware we did something wrong?”

“Which means we should do our best to avoid drawing their attention,” Ryou declared.

Pidge let out a long, tired breath as Lance thunked his head against the soft fabric of the seat in front of him.

It took another ten minutes to find a free, legal spot for Ryou to park in.

o.o.o.o.o

“So now that Ryou’s done being a suburban soccer mom about this,” Matt said, and narrowly dodged a light smack to the back of the head from the man in question, “Where do we look?”

“If we’re lucky, we’ll find something at the main governmental building,” Shiro said.

“Which is… where?” Pidge asked.

Shiro blinked at them. Then he turned for a nearby Lawson’s and set off.

“Where’s he going?” Allura asked.

“To ask for directions,” Ryou said drily. When everyone looked at him, he quirked an eyebrow. “What? That’s what I’d do here, and cashiers are usually pretty helpful.”

“I guess we could ask around…” Pidge said.

“Uh, no,” Ryou said immediately. Pidge shot him a look, and he snorted. “Listen around you. Listen to the ambient noise. The game isn’t translating the NPCs when they speak Japanese, just the Altean and Galra. If they speak English, great, but if not?”

“Just let you and Shiro handle it,” Pidge sighed. “Great.”

“Does anyone else think something’s really weird about some of these faces?” Lance asked. “I mean, I guess anything’s gonna be weird when taking something from 2D to 3D, but…”

“The faces at the bakery were more realistic in some ways,” Coran noted. “Something here is very different.”

“Could just be the number of people,” Pidge said. “And the fact that there are more people moving in and out of our range of sight at a higher rate, rather than just a few people in and out a single door per minute.”

“Maybe the source code had realistic enough faces that Sven’s defaulting to their models instead of building his own?” Matt said.

“I don’t know if I’d say Sven did this,” Pidge mused. “He’s… more like an avatar for the system than the system itself, you know?”

Matt gave her an unimpressed look. “That’s not exactly a significant difference.”

“Fine,” Pidge said. “Sven did this. Whatever. Anyone else have any ideas?”

“Not really,” Matt admitted. “We don’t have enough information to go on here.”

“In any direction,” Lotor said quietly, and Pidge was not embarrassed to say that she squeaked in surprise when he did, given how close he was standing. He shifted away after she did, but didn’t pause in speaking. “We were given plenty of information on the goal and method in previous games and levels, even… a tutorial, I believe you said it was called.”

“Yeah,” Pidge said, nodding. “But here…”

“A vague instruction on a sign and a creepy world that we can barely navigate,” Hunk finished for her. “Which is—”

“Utter bullshit?” Lance interrupted. “Because it is. I’m trying to figure out a game that gives us instructions that cause this much wandering and backtracking that’s set in Tokyo and I’m kind of drawing a blank. Most of them are fantasy games.”

“Specifically Final Fantasy?” Matt asked, and laughed when Lance pulled a face like he’d just bitten into something awful. “Aw, c’mon, they really could have been worse.”

“That doesn’t mean they weren’t bad,” Lance insisted. “And I guess it was really more RPGs than, like, writing genre, but still. Nothing here.”

“So… does that mean it’s probably not based on a game?” Keith asked.

Pidge nodded. “Which means we need to think about shows or books set in Tokyo.”

“Which means… anime, mostly,” Matt said. “Which is a lot.”

“We can get rid of everything that isn’t set in something more or less real-world in this time period,” Pidge pointed out. “That’s a lot.”

“Not enough, though,” Ryou pointed. “And—”

Shiro came back out of the convenience store, a small bag in his hand. “I got directions.”

“And…” Allura trailed off, gesturing at the bag.

Shiro glanced down at it, and then back up at the rest of the team. He shrugged. “I felt bad about asking for directions without buying anything, so I got some candy.”

Ryou seemed to debate reacting to the unnecessary expenditure for a moment, but curiosity won out. “What did you get?”

“Kinoko no yama,” Shiro said. “Er… chocolate mushrooms. I don’t know how many are in the box, but we can all have at least two or three, I think.”

“Show us the way, oh fearless leader,” Lance said bowing dramatically and gesturing at the street. “And we can snack on the way.”

Shiro smiled at that and turned, heading up the street towards, presumably, the big government building he’d been talking about.

“So…” Lance said, linking his hands up behind his head and drawing the word out. “Coran. You look… conflicted.”

Keith snorted.

“This is my first time seeing a proper human city,” Coran said. He did not elaborate.

“You don’t like it,” Ryou said, not even bothering to turn it into a question.

“It’s… very…” Coran trailed off, giving Allura a helpless look. She gave them a painted-on smile, nervous and fixed.

“It’s crowded and smells like something burning,” Lotor said, saving them with the air of someone very bored and very used to insulting people simply by telling the truth. His expression was fairly neutral as he looked around. “It’s very gray, save for where large signs are attempting to, I assume, sell us something, covered in eye-searingly bright lights and scantily clad humans. I’ve yet to see a hint of nature larger than a backyard, and am very concerned by the amount of black smoke I see escaping the vehicles we’ve seen, including the one we came in.”

Pidge licked her lips to hide her smile, and then turned to Allura and Coran.

They hesitantly gave the humans weak smiles again.

“Well, you’re not wrong,” Ryou said.

“Fossil fuels were the energy source of choice for cars back around this time,” Hunk said. “Terrible smell, terrible for the environment, and terrible for the health.”

“Efficient enough to fuel transportation worldwide for like a century, though,” Lance said. “The gray is concrete, which is the main building material for skyscrapers.”

“And steel beams,” Hunk added.

“The ads are just… well,” Pidge shrugged. “Capitalism. Space has marketing too, and the Coalition performances made that more than obvious.”

“And nature is much more common in other parts of the country,” Shiro told them, finally ripping open the little box of chocolates. “But right now, we’re in the Greater Tokyo Area, which is the largest metro area on the planet.”

“What is the population?” Lotor asked.

“During whatever time this is set in or currently in the real world?” Shiro asked.

“…Both,” Lotor said.

“In the time the game is set, probably somewhere between thirty and forty million,” Shiro said. “Now, almost sixty million. Overpopulation concerns and worldwide economic troubles slowed down population growth in most of the world during the twenty-first century, so Tokyo didn’t grow as quickly.”

“That’s… more than the population of most planets,” Allura choked out. “What is your worldwide population?”

“Earth currently has a population of a little under eleven billion,” Lance cheerily said before anyone else could hem or haw their way out of answering directly. “Lots of people. Not as much space.”

“Tokyo-Yokohama does have the highest population and largest metro area on the planet,” Shiro assured them. “Not the highest population density, but a lot of what you’re seeing is at the greatest concentration on the planet, so at least you know it’s not any more shocking anywhere else.”

“Well, it is later,” Ryou said, wearing a wide, shit-eating grin. “We’ve had a good sixty or seventy years since what you’re seeing to increase everything.”

“Thank you, Ryou, for helping scare the aliens,” Shiro muttered.

“Just doing my part,” Ryou sing-sang. “Now, chocolates.”

“I’m questioning if I should even give you one,” Shiro muttered, but poured out a few into his metal hand and proceeded to distribute them.

“Oh my god,” Ryou moaned around the sweet, a noise that Pidge would have said was kind of inappropriate if not for the fact that she found it kind of funny. “Holy shit, I haven’t had good chocolate in…”

“Ever?” Shiro asked wryly, ducking a playful shoulder punch. “It’s true.”

“Yeah, but that’s mean,” Ryou said, pouting. “C’mon, you gonna be mean to your baby brother?”

“We’re twins.”

“Bullshit, I’m a toddler.”

“I thought you’d chosen to claim Keith as your brother as well,” Lotor said. There was a strange little smirk playing at the corners of his mouth, one that grew when Ryou and Shiro shared a look, and grew even more when they then darted back towards the rest of the group to grab Keith in a tight little hug.

“We’re in public,” Keith ground out, his arms trapped at his sides.

“We’re in a game,” Lance corrected, and grinned brightly when Keith sent him a poisonous glare.

“Oh!” Allura said. She chewed a little, staring wide-eyed at the little mushroom that was still in her hand. “These are very good. I enjoy them.”

“Do these also contain milk?” Lotor asked, and Pidge saw Allura pause in her chewing.

“Do you actually want the answer to that?” Keith asked as the twins let him go.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Lotor said, tossing it into his mouth. “She’s right, these are quite good. Very sweet. Are they poisonous?”

“To dogs and people with allergies, yeah,” Ryou said. “Cacao powder is… not the safest for non-humans.”

“Why are you so casual about milk compared to the others?” Hunk asked.

“Because I didn’t grow up on a single planet that had all of my dietary needs contained solely in the plants of the world,” Lotor said drily. “Galra were primarily carnivorous prior to the destruction of Daibazaal, and afterwards, nutrients needed to be derived from whatever was found on colonized planets without destroying the resources themselves since we needed them for the long-term. These days, most food on Galra ships is artificially maintained as nutrient bars and such, but those who live on a planet or moon eat whatever is local, and those in higher echelons, such as myself, have access to a larger variety. A renewable, non-torturous resource from an animal is rather tame, compared to what is sometimes found in more distant outposts that receive less Empire support and have to survive on whatever can be derived from the locals.”

“So we could probably take you out for yakiniku or something without trouble,” Shiro said.

“You know, I… well, okay, Shiro once tried pig uterus at a yakiniku place,” Ryou cheerfully informed them.[2]

The Alteans weren’t the only ones to choke that time.

“What?” Lance asked, sounding torn between grossed out and gleeful, much like most teenage boys did when faced with something they found disgusting but fascinating.

“It was too chewy,” Shiro said, sounding like he was trying not to be offended. “And hey, it’s a good idea to try and find a use for every part of the animal if it’s going to be killed and eaten anyway, right?”

“Yeah, but uterus?” Pidge asked. “Why?”

“Because I… wanted to try something new and I was fifteen and it was on the menu?” Shiro said, shrugging. “It was an experiment, and ended with me finding out that I did not, in fact, like eating uterus.”

“Which is fairly different from eating pu—oof!” Ryou choked as Shiro elbowed him heavily in the stomach, a strained smile on his face.

Pidge was pretty sure she knew exactly what he’d been about to say. None of the aliens did, but even Keith had wrinkled his nose as he figured it out.

“Let’s get moving again,” Shiro said stiffly.

“Ooooh, Shiro, you dirty boy,” Lance teased, dancing away from Shiro with a laugh. “Oh man, how many—”

“That’s enough,” Shiro said, his face going slightly red. “We’re not going to discuss my sex life here.”

“Ca—”

“Or anywhere else!” Shiro exclaimed. “You know what? I’m just going to go. You can follow if you want.”

And he did exactly that.

o.o.o.o.o

“—soshite Hachiouji de koko ni kimashita, to—”

“Does anyone know what he’s saying?” Allura asked quietly.

“He’s basically just telling them that we came here from Hachioji,” Ryou said. “And bullshitting in hopes of a flag popping up somewhere to tell us where to go next.”

“That’s not happening yet, is it?” Allura asked.

“No. No, it’s not,” Ryou confirmed. “I’m expecting us to get kicked out soon.”

“How soon?” Coran asked.

“Well?” Ryou said, shifting a little and eyeing an approaching security guard. “This soon.”

They were standing out on the street a minute later.

Shiro pressed the heels of his palms up against his eyes and let his breath come out in a big whoosh. “Okay. Who wants to get lunch?”

All the hands went up.

“And since Ryou’s been angling on ramen…” Shiro trailed off. “Yeah, okay. Ramen it is. We can probably just wander around until we find a place.”

“Do we have enough money for it?” Allura asked, stepping up next to Lance and slipping her arm through his. Keith took one look at them and did the same from the other side. Pidge kind of wanted to take a picture of them, because they were actually kind of cute like that.

“Not sure,” Shiro admitted. “I don’t know what prices were like seventy years ago, so… maybe?”

“The wallet we got from the van has a couple man-en notes,” Ryou said. “So that’s… like a couple hundred dollars?”

“How much is… man-en?” Matt asked.

“Oh, uh, ten thousand yen,” Shiro said. “Sorry. I usually code-switch while it’s convenient when I’m here with my family, and locally-specific stuff like currency tends to stay Japanese. I guess that passed on to Ryou.”

“I… yeah,” Ryou said. “Sorry, it didn’t even register that you wouldn’t get it.”

“I hear ya,” Hunk said. “Code-switching can get weird, especially if you’re in a situation where you’d normally code-switch but surrounded by people who you wouldn’t normally code-switch with.”

“Anyway,” Lance said. “I think that should be enough. I can’t read the signs, but a lot of the places we pass have really obvious pictures and I think a full meal is probably around a thousand, maybe a little less? That’s not including stuff like appetizers and drinks, and it fits in with average inflation rates over the past seventy years.”

“The fact that you even know average inflation rates is astounding to me,” Ryou said. “Why did you learn this? When did you have time?”

“I like history,” Lance said with a shrug. “That’s… really all there is to it.”

“Pick a direction and start walking?” Pidge said hopefully.

“Yeah,” Shiro said, heading towards a side street. “Come on, we might be able to find someplace interesting.”

“Interesting?” Allura questioned. “Why… interesting?”

“It’s not a bad thing,” Ryou promised, clapping her on the shoulder. “Trust me.”

A loud, strange scream echoed through the air, making them all pause for a moment. There was something terrifying about it, something dark and unnatural, but nobody around them reacted.

“Think it’s the game?” Lance asked after a moment.

“Might be an art installation of some sort. It doesn’t look like anybody else is bothered by it,” Hunk said. “Um. Should we investigate?”

“Maybe,” Shiro said. He deliberated, staring in the direction the noise had come from. “If we hear it again, we’ll take a look. I don’t think we can track anything down with just one noise from that far away to go off of.”

“You sure?” Keith asked, reaching for where his Marmora Blade rested.

“…yeah,” Shiro said, nodding. “Unless the gamers have a better plan?”

“From that far away and with no other context?” Matt said, chewing his lip. “I… I think we’re good for now. Besides, need to pass any upcoming constitution checks, right?”

Shiro glanced at Pidge and Lance and Hunk, one by one, but all of them shrugged or gave similar responses. He sighed and nodded. “Alright. Food first, then we figure out what the hell is going on.”

It didn’t actually take as long as Pidge expected to find a place that everyone agreed on. For all that Ryou was technically sort of an adult (though the whole Mother thing had definitely thrown some shade on that light), he was stubborn and childish when it suited him, and the man most definitely wanted some ramen. Granted, the aliens didn’t really have any tastes to argue, but none of the humans really had any particularly strong cravings in any other direction, so to the noodle shop they trod. They ended up having to wait outside due to the fact that it was currently full, but Shiro said that was common for Shinjuku, at least.

“You’re pouting,” Matt said, poking Pidge in the shoulder.

“…’m not,” Pidge said, crossing her arms and huffing, looking away and well aware of the fact that she most definitely was pouting.

“What’s wrong?” Matt asked, poking her again. “Piiiiiiiidge? Pidgeon? Baby sis? My widdle birdie?”

“Ugh, you’re awful,” Pidge whined, lightly slugging him back. “I’m just wishing I could see a bit more. You guys are all tall enough to get a good look around, and I’m too short to see over people’s heads.”

“Worried you’ll lose us in the crowd, shortstack?” Lance asked, ruffling her hair.

Pidge snapped her teeth shut on the air a few inches away from his hand, and grinned when he pulled it back with a yelp.

“I still have time to grow,” Pidge said, sniffing and crossing her arms. “Matt was a late bloomer too.”

“That’s because we both took puberty blockers,” Matt pointed out drily.

“Enough,” Lotor sighed. “Do you want a better view?”

“Well, yeah.”

Half a second later, Pidge was moving.

She may have squeaked when he picked her up, and had to readjust her glasses once she stopped getting jostled about, but she didn’t protest once it was obvious just what he’d done.

“Did… did you just sit me on your shoulders?”

“You’re welcome.”

“Um,” Pidge looked around and… the view was much better from here. Lotor was far and away the tallest member of the team, after all. Lightly, gingerly, she put her hands on his head, just enough to stabilize herself.

“Don’t pull my hair.”

“I won’t.”

“I will hold your legs so that you do not fall.”

“Uh… thanks. For making sure I don’t fall, and for giving me a better view.”

“You are welcome.”

Hunk let out a noise like a tea kettle. “Oh my god.”

“Don’t,” Pidge warned. “Don’t you dare.”

“This is really cute,” Lance said, grinning widely and absolutely guessing exactly what both Hunk and Pidge were thinking.

“Fuck you,” Pidge grumbled, ignoring the laughter to turn back to the vastness of Shinjuku and just… take it in.

It was almost overwhelming. Bright neon lights covered the concrete in words she couldn’t read and pictures she wasn’t entirely sure represented what she thought. The tech that was advertised in a few places was probably advanced for the setting, but outdated by decades in Pidge’s view. There were people milling out by the hundreds, maybe thousands, and Pidge knew there would have been more just out of sight.

“We could visit Tokyo tower,” Shiro said, sounding almost wistful.

“Harajuku,” Ryou added.

“Ginza,” Shiro suggested.

“Akihabara.”

“Oh my god, Shibuya,” Shiro practically groaned, but there was a grin on his face when Pidge looked. Tired, and a little sad, but indulging in the memories nonetheless. “I don’t know how solid your memories are, but—”

“The place with all the meaty restaurants?” Ryou asked.

“Yes!”

“Walking into that place felt like—”

“Walking into a movie,” Shiro finished, laughing. “God, I wish we had the time to walk around and actually explore. I’ve never seen Tokyo this… rustic?”

“You have an odd definition of rustic,” Lance told him. “Rustic is rural. This is just… old.”

“As shit,” Matt added.

“Hey, can you guys read these signs?” Pidge asked, gesturing around. “I know I can’t read Cyrillic all that well, even if I can speak Serbian, so…”

“Most of it,” Shiro confirmed. “My kanji is… limited, but I know enough of the basic ones to read most of the ads and signs.”

“What is… kanji?” Coran asked.

“Japanese technically has three writing systems,” Shiro said. “Kanji is the more complicated symbols you see. Each one means something different independently, and combined they can mean something else. Like, putting the kanji for ‘fire’ and ‘mountain’ together gives you ‘volcano.’ Hiragana are like… basically an alphabet, where each symbol stands for a different syllable, and each kanji can technically be replaced with the hiragana equivalents, but usually aren’t because people are just expected to know them. Books for younger readers will usually have furigana under or over or next to the kanji, depending on how the writing is organized, and those are just tiny hiragana that match the kanji so they don’t miss the meaning of the book because they haven’t learned the kanji yet. Katakana technically are another alphabet for exactly the same sounds, but are usually just used for loan words. There are 81 hiragana, 81 or more katakana depending on if you count some stuff, and thousands of kanji.”

Allura and Coran and Lotor stared at Shiro with blatant shock and confusion and maybe just a tiny bit of horror on their faces.

Why?” Allura asked. “Why would… why would anyone…”

“Well, kanji were brought in from China, and they don’t have any alphabet. It’s really all logosyllabic, and if you forget how to write a particular character, you’re kind of just screwed,” Ryou told them. “I think Hiragana were developed in an attempt to increase literacy in lower classes, and… I don’t actually remember why katakana exist. They might actually predate hiragana, I’m not sure.”

Humans,” Allura whispered.

“Hey, the culture is different, not wrong,” Shiro said, a hint of reproach in his voice. “It’s difficult, yeah, but it’s my family’s home culture, and the difficulty does come with positive side effects.”

“Japanese people can read an average of over a thousand words per minute by the time they reach adulthood,” Ryou said, deceptively calm. “And upside-down without trouble, compared to about two hundred per minute for English. And yeah, English has spelling as an issue, but with only twenty-six letters, it’s a lot easier to learn in that sense. You can fumble your way through and most people can interpret typos and misspellings without trouble, but it’s still a fifth of the reading speed by adulthood.”

Pidge leaned forward until she could get a better look at Lotor’s face. He was very clearly struggling to maintain a neutral façade, even if Pidge only saw him upside down.

“Guys, Lotor’s bottling up his emotions again,” she said, because she was, in fact, a little shit. She poked at his cheek.

“I will drop you,” Lotor said.

“Nah, you won’t.”

“Do we need another group therapy session?” Lance asked, looking far, far too thrilled with the idea. “We could do another spa day after we get out of here!”

“Lotor, buddy, we talked about this,” Matt said, wrapping his arms around one of Lotor’s and looking up at him with doe-like eyes. “Don’t bottle up your emotions unless you’re planning to turn them into a Molotov Cocktail.”

Lotor stared down at him, and then looked up at the twins and the Alteans.

“Kill me,” he croaked out.

“No,” Allura said immediately.

“I know you want to.”

“Not anymore, I don’t,” Allura told him. “Perhaps when you first arrived, but I feel that was simply reasonable, given our previous interactions.”

Lotor’s eyes shifted to look Coran.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Coran said, looking a little too amused.

“You’re too useful,” Shiro said, so flatly that Pidge could almost take him seriously if not for the uptick at the corner of his mouth.

“You’re too pretty,” Ryou added, with a grin so wide that Pidge almost expected him to pull out a can of aerosol cheese and just guzzle it.

Lotor groaned and let his head fall forward, forcing Pidge to commit to a slightly awkward balancing act so she could stay upright.

“Perhaps this is my hell,” he said.

“Drama queen!” Lance teased. “And coming from me, that’s saying something.”

Keith tilted his head at the corner of Pidge’s sight, and said, “Well, if I’m not allowed to bottle up my emotions, and Lance isn’t allowed to bottle up his insecurities, and the twins aren’t allowed to downplay the PTSD when they know we care about them, then you aren’t allowed to either.”

Lotor shot him a sour look. “Thank you so much for that.”

Keith pursed his lips, hiding a grin. “You’re welcome.”

Lance laughed delightedly and flung his arms around his boyfriend, mushing his face into Keith’s cheek in something approximating a kiss.

Pidge, of course, pretended to gag.

“PDA, Lance,” Shiro sighed. “Let’s keep it to a minimum.”

“I think it’s cute,” Hunk volunteered.

“You don’t share a wa—” Shiro was cut off.

“Sumimasen, ogyaku-san! Seki wa junbi ga dekiteimasu,” the employee said.

“Arigatou,” Shiro said, and then turned to the rest. “C’mon, our seats are ready.”

“I’m gonna get down the cool way,” Pidge said, and then laughed as Lotor immediately reached up to bring her down himself. “See, I knew you wouldn’t actually drop me.”

“A fact that I continually question myself,” Lotor said. “I should drop you, you irritating little dreymarik.”

Pidge blinked at him. “A… a what?”

“Oh, hey, I know this one,” Matt said. “They’re like… insects. Pests. Really tiny ones that cause a lot of trouble, like ticks or fleas.”

Pidge’s mouth dropped open, and she pointed at Lotor. “You asshole!”

“It was a comment on your size and tendency towards irritating me using the former to your advantage,” Lotor said. “You are, despite that, much more useful than most would think.”

“That’s… not how apologies work,” Matt said. “And you kind of should apologize for that.”

“Can we do that while going in?” Ryou asked, still holding the door open. “C’mon, we don’t want to cool the whole neighborhood.”

“You sound like a suburban mom again,” Pidge told him.

“Then we’re keeping with the theme of the day, now let’s go,” Ryou urged them in. “C’mon, here we go, onward and upward.”

“But… there aren’t any stairs,” Pidge pointed out.

“Narnia?” Lance asked, the last person to pass through save for Lotor and Ryou himself, answering Pidge’s implicit question in the process.

“Absolutely,” Ryou said. “Seriously though, sit down and order something, and then go back to arguing over apologies.”

“He called me a bug!” Pidge protested.

Ryou gave Lotor an unimpressed look. “You know, being pretty doesn’t give you permission to be an ass.”

“Considering how few of the Galra found my more Altean features attractive, I’d say that my looks were never among the reasons I was rude,” Lotor said.

“You still called my little sister a dreymarik,” Matt pointed out. “That’s worth an apology.”

“She keeps attempting to test me by putting herself in physical danger,” Lotor protested, if quietly. He took a seat, awkwardly squeezing onto the stool. “Wouldn’t anyone be angry at that?”

“I’m not testing you,” Pidge said, sitting down next to Lotor even though a few seats at the bar were still open. The restaurant was… long, and definitely not meant for large parties like this. “I’m teasing.”

Lotor tapped his fingers against the wood of the table, not meeting her eyes.

“Well, shit,” Pidge muttered. That certainly shed a new light on why Lotor got so angry whenever she tried to get down from high places in faster, less certain ways. “That was… okay, yeah. I definitely wasn’t trying to test you or whatever, I just like a relatively safe adrenaline rush from…  I dunno, dismounts? Whatever. Point is, I’m not actually trying to test you or anything, and when I point out that you’re catching me, that’s teasing for you being a mother hen, not… weird stuff about whether you’re trustworthy. It’s like when we tease Shiro for telling us to watch our language, or Ryou’s whole thing about not paying for parking earlier.”

“We don’t know what our resources are like!” Ryou protested. “We have no way of knowing how much money we’ll have access to in the long run!”

“Anyway,” Pidge said. “I’m sorry about that, but please don’t call me a bug again. Or a pest. Or anything along those lines, really, I don’t like being compared to small gross things.”

“What about small cute things?” Lance asked.

“Not your conversation!” Pidge said, pointing in his vague direction somewhere past Matt on her other side.

Lotor stared at her for a few long seconds, face inscrutable. Then he snorted and shook his head, a faint smile on his lips, and ruffled her hair. “I apologize for calling you a dreymarik, and accept your own apology.”

“And with that gushy stuff out of the way, it’s time to order!” Ryou declared. He passed over some menus, apparently having held on to them since he’d gotten them, and Pidge grabbed one with a tiny knot of apprehension in her chest, which promptly loosened as she got a better look. “Yes, the reason we picked this one is because I saw the menus from outside and noticed they had English on them.”

Coran opened his mouth to point out the obvious flaw in the plan, but Shiro beat him to the punch. “Yes, we know that isn’t enough for everyone, but this way we have seven people translating for three instead of two people translating for eight. Much more manageable, I think.”

Pidge busied herself looking at the menu, listening with one ear as Lance and Hunk pestered Ryou, who sat between them, for a rundown on what the ramen actually was. It was all well and good to see “Shio Ramen” written in the Latin alphabet (or, uh, roumaji?), but that didn’t actually tell her what it was.

“I would avoid the Shio, personally,” Ryou said. “It’s salt-based, and you can end up doing that weird lip-burning thing if you’re not used to it.”

Pidge looked up from her menu and gave Ryou a weird look.

“What… lip-burning thing?” Hunk asked slowly.

“You know, like when you eat canned soup or pasta or whatever, and if you let it touch your lips instead of just slurping it down everything ends up feeling hot and tingly and maybe makes your lips more likely to start splitting open like they’re super chapped?” Ryou tried to explain. “It’s usually just canned foods for me, but I remember a time in Osaka when I got the Shio at a restaurant, and…”

Everyone slowly shook their heads, and Ryou turned to Shiro. “I’m not making this up, right?”

“You’re not,” Shiro confirmed, looking a little weirded out. “I definitely remember that. Nobody believed me, but it really was that bad.”

“Guys,” Hunk said in a strangled voice, sounding more than a little amused. “That sounds like an MSG allergy.”[3]

“…well, shit, that explains why nobody believed us—I mean, Shiro, when he complained about canned soup,” Ryou said. “It really was just us. Him. Whatever.”

“That doesn’t make it less real, but it does at least give you an explanation,” Hunk assured them. “It also means we should probably avoid it too, though.”

“Why’s that?” Shiro asked.

“Well, if it hurt you, and all the flavors are going to probably be based off your memories since you’re the only one that’s ever been here…” Hunk trailed off, shrugging. “We don’t know how taste is going to be decided for those of us that haven’t tried authentic Japanese ramen or whatever before, and since your memories are the most accurate…”

Shiro nodded. “Yeah, okay. I’d say go for the Shoyu, which is soy bean sauce based, or Miso, which is miso paste based. The Tonkotsu tends to be a little thicker since it’s made from boiling pig bones, so it’s not really my favorite just going by texture, but it’s good.”

“Right…” Pidge muttered, eyes scanning over the menu. She nudged Lotor. “The tonkotsu is meat-based, kind of. You said Galra are carnivorous, right?”

“I’m half-Altean,” he reminded her. “But yes, I’d like something with a little more meat to it.”

“Ooh, this option, the… cha-shu? It means extra pork, apparently.”

“What exactly is pork?”

“Pig. It’s a farm animal from Earth. Kind of like Kaltenecker, but smaller and fatter and with way shorter legs,” Pidge said.

“Pigs are way bigger than most people think,” Lance said absentmindedly. “Like, most of them are, what, two-fifty pounds at slaughter?”

“Can we not talk about that at the table, please?” Shiro asked. “Please? Let me enjoy my meal without thinking about how you learned that.”

“You already know I spent a summer working at a farm,” Lance muttered, hunching down towards his menu.

“Okay, great, talk about it when we’re not eating,” Shiro said. “I want to enjoy my meal.”

“I care about you pig stories, Lance,” Hunk said, patting Lance on the back.

“Isn’t the food here all just code anyway?” Keith asked, and Pidge bit down on her lip to keep from laughing as the silence overtook their part of the counter.

“...no animals were harmed in the making of this game,” Lance muttered, spurring some strangled giggles from Matt and Hunk.

“You could try one of the non-vegetarian options without worrying about health issues or moral dilemmas regarding something that used to be cognizant,” Ryou said, nodding at Allura and Coran.

“Technically speaking, while Alteans are herbivorous, we’re not obligate herbivores,” Coran said. “We are capable of digesting meat products, but it’s not particularly nutritious or even tasty, most of the time. Alfor often partook in meat-based meals while on diplomatic trips, especially to… well, to Daibazaal.”

Allura stared down at the list of ramen types, and then pointed. “That one.”

“The miso?” Shiro asked. “Yeah, okay. Coran?”

“I suppose I could try this… ah, Shoyu?”

“Okay, then. Everyone else ready to order?” Shiro asked.

Ordering was a lot easier than it would have been without Shiro and Ryou, even if there were helpful picture menus for tourists to use. Pidge crossed her arms and leaned forward, watching at the open kitchen and how everything moved. A few seats down, she could hear Lance and Keith and Hunk answering the Alteans’ questions about what the ingredients were, something that even she needed sometimes.

“Bamboo shoots, I think?” Hunk said. “Hey, Shiro?”

“Yeah. They’re called menma here,” Shiro said, and then pointed at the little white and pink spiral. “That’s naruto—”

Pidge snorted at the same time as Lance and Matt did, but Shiro continued without acknowledging them.

“—or narutomaki, a type of kamaboko, which is basically like… compressed fish paste? I’m not sure exactly how it’s made, but involves pureeing fish, pressing it into loaves, and then… somehow solidifying it? I guess? Probably baked somehow, and then they’re sliced and put on soups… or you can dip them in sauces, if you want.”

“I like those,” Matt said. “They’re tasty.”

“Didn’t you almost choke to death on one when w—you snuck out of the Garrison with Shiro?” Ryou asked. “Like, there was a small ramen place and you—”

“Wow, how dare you betray me like this,” Matt said, a hand pressed to his chest and exaggerated offense on his face. “How dare you. Much betrayal. Such horror. Wow.”

Pidge snorted. “Haven’t heard that story.”

“My reputation is ruined,” Matt moaned, laying his head down on the counter. “I’ll have to disappear. Become a nomad. Change my name and hide forever.”

“You’re not Luke fucking Skywalker,” Pidge said as Ryou pulled Matt up straight again. She watched as her brother lolled back and forth like a ragdoll. “Or Obi Wan Kenobi.”

“Help me Obi Juan whoever the fuck you are,” Lance whispered. “You’re my only ho.”

Shiro gazed at the ceiling like it would somehow have the answers he was searching for. “I crave death.”

“No,” Keith said. He didn’t say anything else, just that, but the look on his face was enough.

“You sure?” Shiro asked, not dropping his head to a more normal elevation. “Death is looking appealing right now.”

“We have a universe to save,” Ryou reminded him.

“Damn it.”

Team Voltron at the Ramen Restaurant

Pidge snorted again, but a light touch to her elbow distracted her. She looked over at Lotor, the light of the restaurant playing oddly off the purple skin of his face. It only accentuated the frown he wore, and Pidge felt something in her chest curdle.

“What’s wrong?”

“Watch their faces,” Lotor said quietly. “And then look at the other patrons.”

Pidge did just that.

It wasn’t obvious, not immediately. They looked more realistic than the people outside, something Pidge tentatively but immediately attributed to the fact that there were less people inside the restaurant than outside on the streets, but even as she watched, a couple right by the door stood up and left.

Five seconds later, the same couple came back in.

“So… he’s reusing character types?” Pidge guessed. “Not that weird.”

“He didn’t do that at the bakery,” Lotor pointed out. “Or during the soccer game. Even out on the streets here… I may have trouble distinguishing human faces when they are of the same… ah…”

“Ethnicity,” Pidge suggested. “And yeah, I guess to you it would be like trying to distinguish one… I don’t know, one barn owl from another. Galra have a completely different set of features to go off of, and having as much… diversity, I guess? Having as much racial and body-type diversity as we have on the ship makes it easier for you to tell us paladins apart, but faced with this many humans who have a narrower range of features is probably a lot harder for you.”

“…quite,” Lotor said, as though he wasn’t entirely sure he understood everything she’d said, but willing to play along. “Regardless, the patrons are somehow more repetitive and uniform than the people outside. And… I don’t know when it’ll next happen, but… watch their faces.”

“Just the faces?” Pidge asked.

“It only affects the faces, and only the patrons,” Lotor said. “The… servants?”

Pidge gave him a flat look, though she softened at the fact that he did seem genuinely confused and hesitant. “You mean the cooks and waiters?”

“Yes.”

“For a vocabulary like yours? Try ‘purveyors.’”

Lotor’s eyes lit up, and he smiled slightly. “Yes, that does work better. The purveyors are varied individually, but as individuals, they are consistent. The other patrons, however, are repetitive but individually inconsistent.”

Pidge stared at him, and began to turn back towards the other customers. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, her bowl arrived.

It… really did look appetizing. She glanced down the table, noting that almost nobody else had gotten theirs yet, though the bowls in the open kitchen looked promising.

“Go ahead,” Shiro said with a smile.

Pidge bit her lip and glanced down at her bowl as Coran and Hunk’s arrived, followed by Ryou and Keith’s. “What’s that thing we’re supposed to say before eating?”

“Itadakimasu,” Ryou said with a cheer that probably wasn’t even exaggerated, palms together, and then dug in.

Right. She knew that, had even heard a few of the others asking the twins to coach them through it. Muttering the phrase, she snapped apart her chopsticks and rubbed them together.

“What are you doing?” Lotor asked, just as his own bowl arrived.

“Getting rid of splinters,” Pidge told him. “It’s a way of—”

Another inhuman scream rent the air, muffled by the walls but still louder than the last.

Pidge forced herself to relax, looking around the restaurant.

“You guys heard that too, right?” Lance asked. “Wasn’t just me?”

“Definitely,” Hunk confirmed. “I… don’t think the locals did?”

“Must be a regular thing, then,” Shiro said. “For… whatever franchise this is.”

Pidge shuddered, trying to scrub her memory of the noise. It was like something out of a goddamn horror movie, and after the ghost town and the weird faces everywhere, she wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind to enjoy it.

“Watch,” Lotor reminded her softly.

Pidge took a bite of her meal first, the taste and smell flooding her senses in a way that food hadn’t in… well, okay, she couldn’t really say ‘in a while,’ because Hunk’s food was always good, but this was a particular kind of flavor that she hadn’t tasted since Earth, so sue her for being a little overwhelmed by it. To her side, Lotor slowly repeated ‘Itadakimasu’ under his breath as his own bowl arrived, probably wary of mangling to word, and began to do the same.

A few seats down, Ryou moaned around a mouthful of noodles.

“You’re disgusting,” Shiro told him, but his eyes were suspiciously shiny when he bit into his own, so Pidge figured he didn’t really have any room to speak.

“Are you… quite alright?” Coran asked, putting a hand on Shiro’s shoulder.

Shiro swallowed before answering. “I… yeah. I haven’t been in Japan in years. Haven’t been on Earth in years, but Japan was even longer ago. I was planning on visiting family after Kerberos, but… yeah. Sorry. It’s just… a nostalgia food, I guess.”

Pidge snuck a look at Ryou, who was very busy pretending that he didn’t feel anything as intensely as Shiro did, and failing rather obviously at it.

“Well,” Allura said, staring down at the bowl, and then at the chopsticks. “I have no idea how to eat this.”

Pidge snorted, barely avoiding getting soup up her nose, because they’d somehow forgotten that the Alteans didn’t know how to use chopsticks.

She did get soup on her glasses, which was… fairly normal for her experiences with restaurant ramen. Annoying, but expected.

As several people hurried to show Coran and Allura how to use the utensils they’d been given, Pidge looked over at Lotor. She quirked one eyebrow. “Galra have chopsticks?”

“No, but there are many planets in the Empire,” Lotor said, with something approaching a smile on his face. It faded after a moment. “Ezor’s planet uses something similar for certain meals.”

“Ezor… bouncy pink and orange with the long head thing?” Pidge asked.

Lotor nodded, eyes on the broth and noodles and expression subdued.

Pidge hesitated, and then patted him on the shoulder. “Hey, you’ve got us now, right?”

A humorless smile was her answer. “When you trust me, perhaps.”

“You’re stuck with us now, buddy,” Pidge said, lightly punching him in the arm. “No use running.”

“After this experience? I’m almost tempted to do just that.”

“Rude!” Pidge accused, but took her next bite with a much calmer mind. She didn’t like seeing Lotor all withdrawn over what Lance had nicknamed the Galra Gals. It was weird and uncomfortable for everyone involved, especially when Lotor didn’t have the option of leaving to gather himself, or even just mope, in peace.

“Oh my god, yes,” Ryou said, loud enough to draw Pidge’s attention. “The Fuwara Eliya lemon tea!”

“I think we can pick some up at a convenience store wherever we head next,” Shiro said. “They’re basically everywhere.”

“Think we can get a two-liter?”

“Not unless we actually go to a supermarket, I think.”

Pidge shook her head and told herself that she’d probably be the same way if they’d somehow ended up in Berlin or Beograd, and then reminded herself to actually watch the patrons the way Lotor had suggested.

It was… enlightening.

Lotor had called them inconsistent. Pidge would have phrased it much more bluntly as just plain glitchy.

Every few minutes, as the meal went on, the faces of other patrons went… fuzzy. It was like someone had smudged out the faces, just for a fraction of a second, like… like…

“Identity protection,” Pidge breathed. This was bystanders, not extras. “That’s…”

“Useful?” Lotor asked.

Very,” Pidge confirmed. “It means that there’s a good chance we’re not going about this the right way. It means that wherever Sven is drawing information from to build up Tokyo, it’s something that involved people who weren’t actors and couldn’t necessarily consent to being seen, like… a documentary, maybe?”

“Is there something to that effect that would affect only the patrons but not the purveyors or the people on the street?”

Pidge bit her lip. “Honestly… the only reason we noticed here is because we were focusing. We’ll have to pay attention when we’re back on the street.”

“Ah.”

“But… that narrows it down,” she muttered. “Matt! What can you think of that would have identity protection for customers but not staff?”

“Like… a documentary?” Matt asked. He blinked at her, leaning back to see her around the people between. “That’s… uh. Hm. I don’t know if you have anything I know of that takes place in Tokyo…”

“Uh…” Keith hesitantly interjected. “What about Google Maps?”

There was a long moment of silence.

Matt frowned. “We don’t have an internet connection.”

Pidge’s heart sank. “We don’t need one. I was experimenting with expanding the memory and storage capacity on my computer before we left. I never needed to connect for anything except traffic information and updates, because I downloaded all the biggest cities and all the areas I was likely to go near home and the Garrison. It fit, and barely took up half the storage, so I just left it.”

“Including pictures of the insides of the shops and restaurants?” Matt asked, voice squeaking high.

Pidge nodded.

“And going back seventy years?”

Pidge wiggled a hand. “Not the street organization so much, but I think the business pictures were just downloaded wholesale, and there were probably some normally inaccessible sets of data that were considered outdated but got downloaded with the rest when doing street view? He might be reusing pictures from other businesses with similar structures to make sure it looks as old as everything else, too, and Shiro’s memories and stuff like that to fill in the gaps. Anything he isn’t sure about, he uses our expectations as a reference so that we don’t look to close and find the patches.”

“Holy shit.” Matt grinned, looking a little dazed. “My little sister, huh?”

“So… what does this tell us?” Coran asked. “I don’t believe I have quite the right reference pool to know how to interpret this information.”

“It means… we probably weren’t supposed to leave the ghost town area,” Pidge said. She stared down at her bowl, frowning. “It was probably like that for a reason, right? And… we didn’t start seeing the glitching people until we left and started heading for Tokyo. The sign probably meant that whatever we were supposed to find was in that area, then. He probably built the ghost town from scratch while we were in the bakery level, right? If he built that from scratch, and didn’t expect us to leave, but then we did so he had to pull together the rest of the… city?”

“Prefecture,” Shiro corrected.

“Right. If he had to pull together the rest on short notice, then he probably used the most readily-available source of information, which was Google Maps. Given the fact that it has endless reference pictures, multiple kinds of maps, and even estimated heights and shapes for the buildings…” Pidge shrugged. “Yeah, that would do it.”

“So we have to go back to West Tokyo,” Shiro said, leaning back in his seat and absentmindedly tapping his chopsticks against his chin. “We’d need to refill the car with gas.”

“Trains might be quicker,” Ryou pointed out. “And maybe even cheaper.”

“Out that far for ten people?” Shiro asked, dubious.

“True.”

“Still doesn’t tell us which franchise we’re in,” Lance pointed out. “It’s in West Tokyo, apparently, and a shop is important. That’s… not a whole lot of info.”

“We can theorize later,” Shiro said. “By the way, is everyone almost done eating?”

“Not really,” Pidge admitted. “I’ve still got half a bowl.”

“I find myself stymied by the utensils,” Allura said.

Shiro looked at her and Coran, and then shared a look with Ryou. They turned to the staff a moment later and Ryou rapidly asked something in Japanese. A few seconds later, a pair of forks ended up in front of Coran and Allura, joining the large, deep spoons that the meals had come with.

“Why didn’t you do this earlier?” Allura asked, sounding a little peeved.

“Well, you had to at least try, right?” Ryou teased.

“So… could you guys pretend to be local if we really had to like… covertly gather information or whatever?” Lance asked, bringing his hands up horizontally with the palms facing out over his face, like he was peeking through some blinds or whatever.

“No,” Shiro said immediately. “Native fluency doesn’t quite cover up the heavy American accent that growing up in the States gave me.”

“Same,” Ryou said, with a cheeky grin when Shiro gave him an unimpressed look. “Am I wrong?”

“No,” Shiro said, and didn’t go on.

“I feel you,” Hunk said, and Lance and the Holts all nodded.

“Going to Belgrade just immediately gets us questions about where we’re from when we start talking,” Matt said. “Unsurprising, really. Even I can hear how heavy the American is, and I’m the one that has the accent!”

“Anyway, as soon as we’re done here, we can—”

W̓͊ͩ͊̂́̍h͉͚͉͉̭̿͂ͤ̈̚ ͇͍̹͑̑̿̏ͧ̕Ë̝̺̺ͫr̠ẻ̴̝̳̻͚̤ͅ ͔̼͉͈̤̥̈́̓͞ȁ̬̻̣̙͎ͣ͊ͥͅR̪͛̀ͣ͡ͅe͈̗̳͕͖͇ͪ͗̔̏̓̐ ͇̝̦̣ȳ̸ͫ̑̊͛̿ ̳͇̱̌ͧ̚ọ̫̘̙̼̎͟Ŭ͔̬ͫ̕?̯͖̼̳̠̺͋̇̑ͮ̂̀

No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no

Pidge fell forward against the bar, clutching at her chest and struggling to breathe as an unfathomable pressure pressed down on her. This wasn’t like Naxzela, where the issue had been increasing gravity pushing the air and people down. This was… this was… this wasn’t physical.

“What?” Allura gasped, accompanied by the sound of wood creaking, and Pidge felt a hand pull her upright by the shoulder.

She moaned, leaning heavily into the hand. “What the hell is that?”

“I don’t know,” Lotor said, one hand running down her back like it would somehow fix whatever the fuck this was. “The other humans are unconscious. Whatever this is, it is hitting the… NPCs, I think?”

“Yeah,” Pidge breathed out, cracking one eye open to pay attention. The shop was still and quiet save for the team, and—no, that man was having a seizure, wasn’t he? That needed attention. An ambulance, maybe. Shit.

“Guys?” Keith asked, pushing himself upright. He didn’t seem as poorly off as the rest of the paladins, and Ryou didn’t seem affected at all. The aliens were frozen, but not pushed down the way the rest of them were.

“That’s… definitely some kind of pressure, holy shit,” Matt groaned. “Is anyone else having trouble breathing even though the air is fine?”

Various levels of ‘I am in pain please help me’ affirmatives answered him. Even the aliens nodded.

“Um,” Ryou said, sounding and looking very hesitant and confused. “What’s going on?”

“You can’t feel it?” Lance demanded, leaning heavily against Allura.

“Uh… no,” Ryou shook his head. “Should I?”

“I think it might be better if you don’t,” Shiro said, pushing off of Coran’s shoulder and bracing himself against the counter. “Anyone think they can walk soon?”

“Give me a minute,” Hunk said, huffing out a heavy breath as he stood up, stumbling to lean against the wall. “I think… I’m adjusting? Maybe?”

“None of you are in any condition to fight,” Lotor noted.

“I think I could,” Keith said, hand drifting towards where he kept his bayard and his blade. “Ryou, too.”

“I still have no idea what’s going on,” Ryou said, but stood up anyway. He then pulled out the (stolen) wallet from the (stolen) truck and pulled out enough (stolen) bills to cover lunch.

“Really?” Pidge got out as she sat upright again, a little wobbly and not quite ready to stand or walk, and definitely not ready to fight, but at least not using Lotor as a living crutch anymore. “There’s more important shit going on, dude!”

“Well, it’s not like we’re going to be moving any time soon with you guys like that!” Ryou defended himself. “I might as well make sure we don’t dine and dash by accident!”

“Cute,” Keith said. “And… you seriously can’t feel all the… pressure stuff?”

“It’s not atmospheric,” Hunk said, finally able to stand upright, though he looked a little pale and unstable. “Or we’d all be feeling it the same. There’s got to be something… uh…”

“Franchise-specific?” Matt offered. “Maybe it’s—”

The pressure doubled down.

F̘̣̥̯̯̮͠ ̋ͫoͣ̅̃̿̉̚U̪ͪ̚N͙͋̓̽ͩ͝d͔̺̪̲͕͈̃ͥ̎ ͈̯̟ͮ̓ͬ͡y̼͚̲̐̇͌͐̎̕O͈͈̬͇͉̊ͭ̅̅ͦͥ ̌ͩ̌͛̾ͧu͍̼̙̮̯̼͐ͣ̊̒̎͒̋͠!ͤͯ͟

 

o.o.o.o.o

[1] "If Only It Had Not Been Such a Wet Summer" by Theodore K. Rabb

[2] I have done this.

[3] Based off a true story. My true story, in fact. I actually didn’t figure out it was probably an allergy until I did research for this chapter. I thought everyone’s lips burned when they ate Campbell’s and they were just better at handling the pain than I was, like with spicy food. The Osaka ramen really disappointed me that time, but if it’s actually an allergy…

 

Chapter Text

Ryou was the first to move, activating his arm and rushing for the door, with Keith and Allura following close behind. Coran stayed to help Hunk and Lance on their own way to the door, while Shiro waved him off, already moving mostly under his own power and helping Matt. Pidge managed to stand up, the last to do so, and Lotor kept one hand on her back as he headed for the door himself, keeping her upright so she could see what was going on too.

“Can you walk on your own?”

“Ye—” she stumbled and cursed. “Shit. No.”

He didn’t respond to that, but she didn’t need to look at him to know that his lips were thinning at the knowledge that she wasn’t going to be able to fight her own battles right now.

Adjustment. It was an adjustment, that was all. Shiro was already leaning against the door with his arm on and almost ready to fight, so clearly it was possible

“What the hell is this thing?” Keith yelled as Pidge made it to the doorway.

It felt like the weight on her lungs and very being increased again when she saw it, though she knew it hadn’t. It was just shock, plain and simple, because she should have known.

Just because a manga wasn’t in the horror genre didn’t mean that living in the world it presented would be anything other than horrific.

S̖͕t̵̪͙͎ͫ͋ͭ̂͛͆o͍ͬ ̹͎ͣ͌͐͂̓ͅP̩͗ͪ͊̋ͣ ̢̦̏̌ͦ̃ͦͤ̚r̹͙̼͈͌ͧ͆͐̆̚͡u̵̠̍̌͂̅́̊͗Nͧͬ̓ n̩̝͇̮̺̭̾̿͒̆̎ͬ͋͢I͖̽̅̔N͉̣̘̘̏̂̊̍g͚̒̌ͤ̐̇͊ ̪͓ͭͮL̙͔i̦̖̺͔͖̎͗͆t̘̭̤̘̘̟̺̿̈́̇ͣ͗͡t̡̘̊͑̋͊ ̹̫͎͎̑̿ͣ̾͒̆L͇̠͉̻̎ͫͣ̑ͫ̉e̦͔̱̟̣̫͛ͨ́̈́ͮ̃͡ ͇̗̹̜̠ͦ̈ͬͅs̮͚̲͖͍ͨ̓͂͑ͧ͢N̸̅̍ǎ̜͓̥̚cK̭̓̌!͙̙̦͈̜̹̥͡

Butterfly wings in black and white on an inky, scaly, serpentine body with a dozen sets of arms standing in for legs like a centipede held her attention, the fingers on those hands digging deep into the asphalt with every step like it was nothing more than mud. A row of eyes dotted the side of the dinosaur-like head that was facing Pidge, rolling about and blinking as the reptilian jaw hung open, the long tongue hanging out and dripping a saliva that must have been acidic with how it burned everything it touched. A terrifying, many-layered laugh echoed about them, bouncing off the cement and glass and metal, like a hell’s chorus drilling directly at her hindbrain to tell her to run away.

Pidge forced herself to suck in a deep breath as she focused on the horned, stark white, draconian mask the creature wore as it crawled about and tried to bite at Keith, or swipe at Ryou with the claws on those many, many hands, or slap Allura with that long, thin tail.

“Hollow,” Pidge whimpered. “That’s a fucking Hollow.”

The creature swung around, tail whipping through the air towards them. Pidge blinked, mind working too slow from shock and pressure—fucking spiritual pressure, oh god—to react in time.

Lotor pushed her down with the rest of them so that the tail sliced through the door instead of their heads and bodies, and Pidge only belatedly noticed the sharp white blade growing out of it.

Like an Andalite! something in her giggled, sounding more than a little broken as she tried to come up with a solution that didn’t involve anyone dying.

“Can we fight it?” Matt asked. “Those three aren’t getting much done, but—”

“If we’re weak enough to barely be able to walk?” Pidge questioned. “Probably won’t be able to do much damage even if we’re hitting full-force. The difference in… fuck, uh… rei… was that reishii?”

“Reishii’s the particles,” Shiro said. “Reiryoku is how much spiritual energy is stored, reiatsu is the pressure it exerts when released. Easier to remember when you know what the kanji mean.”

“Right. Difference in reiatsu means a difference in reiryoku, and that difference makes us mostly useless,” Pidge said. “I think.”

“How do we kill it?” Lotor asked.

“Break the mask, and preferably the head underneath,” Pidge said immediately. “Try not to attack from the front, because sometimes the hollow ends up being someone you knew when they were alive. Other wounds that would be fatal to a human or… whatever species the hollow resembles will usually work too, but it’s hard to make those happen and splitting the mask and head is the surest way.”

“…I have a strong feeling that I am going to be asking many more questions later,” Lotor said, drawing his sword and heading towards the fray. He paused, looking down at his sword and frowning. It wasn’t hard to understand why, given the way the sword was faintly glowing and giving off something that looked a lot like steam.

“…asauchi?” Shiro suggested, sounding a little lost.

“Or something,” Lance said. “Lotor! You’ve got a better chance than the rest of us no matter what’s going on with your sword! Go!”

Keith got in a hit, barely dancing out of the way of a claw swipe, and getting a splatter of acid across one elbow and hip.

ȯ̜̯̋̄ͪU̢͉͈͉̮̘͈c̳͓̱͎͕̲̞ͣ͡h̠̄̿̓ i͚̲̭ͧͨ̆̎̄Ë̛͇͚̙̼̝̺̳ͣ͆̂̒S͎̥̞̘͛̇̇́̔ͫ̚!̓ ṱ̤̥̭̆͆H̡͔̝͛ͯͧ Ą͑T̘ͬ́ ̷̫̱̝̤̰̌ͅH͚̏u̹̰͉̞̳͎r͔̗͎̳͓̺͐̇ͭ̃̓ͣ͆͜T̡͙̗̫̰ ̡̲̰̠̔ͩY̯̳̲̠̣̍̇ͤͨ ǫ̯̖̗̞̲̓ͬU͖͖̟̅ ̏̈L̡͉̰͖̣͇͍I̟̩̥͔̝͗͛̾̈ T̒̽̾̿ͤͥt̶̤̖̓ͦ̉̂̉L͔̝̫͌̔Ḛ̼͖̣̍̉̎́̍̀͋ ̰̞̭̱̮̓ͭ̏ͮ̂ͭw͍̟͉̠͙̗͓ͪ̐̒O̜͚̫̱̫͓̹̍̃̊͂ͫ̑ͯR̟͈̜̿M̩̺̫̦̥̹̮̀ !

He went.

“That place we were in,” Shiro said, taking a hesitant step forward and pausing with a wince when he swayed just a little too much to help the fight more than hinder it. “We didn’t check for a name, but the ghost town in Western Tokyo… that must have been Karakura.”

“Makes sense,” Pidge said, nodding. “Maybe… Fake Karakura town arc?”

“No people,” Lance agreed.

“Urahara’s candy shop,” Hunk added. “That must be what the sign was referring to, right? It would have whatever our escape is.”

“Senkaimon?” Shiro suggested.

“That’s the sword portal thing, right?” Matt asked. “With the… converter thing.”

“Why’d he let us go all the way here, though?” Lance asked.

I̼̣̬̞̤͐̈̿ ̦̰͙̽ͩ̉ͪ̎̕Ȃ͐̎͌̉̐̃M͕ͬ̑ ̛̼̥̪̖̟͈̆̊͒͌̅̊G͓͙̭͓ó͕͙I̛͙̱͉͙̻̳ͣN͎̗̫̱ ̦̗ͬ̂̀̅ͫG̻̒͗̈̇ͦ̐ ̥͓̖̥̬̗͐͂̿͗ͩͨ͘T̠̩͍̼̬̎ͧ̊Ȯ͔͚̮̼̻̑̍̿̚ ̌ͤ̒ȇ̺͔̘̲̏̓Ȧ̟̬͌̔̎̚T̗̞̤̩͚ ̔̓̿ͮͥ͟Yͭ̎̈͑̏̈̊ͅ ͉̯̜̗O͚̿̋̈͒̇̚͞U̶͔͆̃ͬ!̟̘͇̹̱͉̇̾

“Got too dedicated to the idea of making a good game and a good sandbox, forgot that limits are there for a reason?” Matt suggested.

“And Ryou not feeling anything?” Lance asked.

“A glitch?” Pidge suggested. “We’ve seen enough here to know that Sven is having more trouble holding this Tokyo level—this Bleach level together than the previous ones.”

S̡͈͔̱ͩ̆̆ͦͦ̚ṯ̘̼̘̜̼̾̅́͊̒̏̚O̮̯ͫ̋̃͑Pͨ̊ ̸͖̜H͗͗̾Oͭ͜ ̱̦͓̲ͭ̇ͪ̚P̡̥͓̩̤̦̟̻̐ͥ́̈p̛̘̠͖̲̜͒̾̀̉̍ͅǏ͚̓̇N̘̥̲̊̽ͨͤ̓̓g̽̿̉̚͜ ͯͮͮ̍á̝̲̥͙̉̅̌̒̕ R̮͚͔̖̞͐͂ͦO̬̦U̢̥͉͙̜̮̿̈ͅṇ͔̫̗̻̅͊ͦ͑̆̕D͎̬̯̥̞͘!̟̬̮̳̓͒ ̓̑̋̽̔ͨY̱̠̟̖̝̟͎ͦ͂͛ͧ̈́ͫO̼̺̖ͣͦ̂̓̌̔ͅȗ͎̤̎ͯ̎̉ͪ'̬͔R͕͔͒ͣ͑Ę̣̦̖̟ͫ̈ͫͮ ͎̌̍̚B̸̫̱̘̝̩̱̫Ȇ̥͚̺̰̬̉̃̿̏̒ ̢̪̹̝͈͍͙́͊ͨ̚I͙͈͔͂̈ͮ̊͑N͉͍̮̱ͭͦ̔̐ͭ̚g͙̙̲̫͕͉ ̞̩̝̹̻͕̇̉ͣ̅̃̑̚͟h̛̟A̖͙ͦR̰̥̲͙̞̣̅̇̋̈́͌ͅḐ̬̟͔͖ͬ̓ͭ͌̔ͅ ̻̘̼̥T̨̾O̳͕̖̺̠ ͙͎ͯ̋͌cAͫ̒t̤̺̝̩̄C̮̣̦̟͈̽͑͌͊͛͊ͩH̥̙͉͆̅̄ͮ̋͒!ͣ͆͛

“Hubris,” Hunk said. “Pure and simple hubris. He thought he could handle more than he was actually capable of.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Coran said. “But… should we be worried about them?”

G̻͖͖̹͍͝E͌̊̓̇ͭ̌T̵͓̤̱͚ͥͣ̒̎ͪͧ̚ ̱͉̪̗̤͔̉̆̈ͦ̌̐̃o̘̩̭̼̗ͨ̉̏ͥͅF͓́ͮ̐̌̓̋͑F̜ͫͩ!̐ͬͭͯͣ ́g̮͋̈ͥ̄ͮ͛Ȩ̯̥͓̱̙̠̐̿͐T̶ͣ̍̾ ̰̳̠̱͛O̮̟̻ͫ̍̈́͋͗͌f̩̞̩͈͇͉͊̍͐͌F̵͉͕̯ͩ!̧̠̫͚͐ͦ͆̿̂̑ ̩͙͈͍̩͋̚Ḡ͈̱͓̩̪̀͆̎͌Ẻ̞̯͖̫̦́ͩ͛̑̓̋͞T̹̱̤̻̯͒͌͒͗͂ͧ͐ ̤̰O͏F͈͔͎̘̹̖͊ͩ̍ͬ͛̆̾F̸̜͗ͤ!̙̋

He pointed at where Allura had managed to vault onto the Hollow’s back, holding onto the horns for dear life as it tried to buck her off while the boys did their best to kill it.

“…I don’t think so, actually,” Shiro said. “They’re doing a lot better than most would. If they’re not dead yet, then I’m pretty sure they’re going to be okay.”

“Especially once we’re ready to help, right?” Lance said, a cheeky grin on his face to hide the anxiety. Said anxiety was still pretty apparent, but it was a good try.

Keith was fighting with his Marmora blade, and reached for his hip in a movement Pidge bet was entirely instinctual, seeing as Keith actually froze and turned to stare at his hand in shock when the black bayard materialized in it.

The tail slammed into him and sent him flying into a wall.

H͂̅͒̑̒A̤͎̹̺̭̟̫͂͌̅̈́ ̩͓̖̯͕̩̄̊͒͊ͅH͚̱͔͖̻̿̎͋͆ ̰̺̯̬̱͕͆̌̐͗ͬͦA̼̫̫̮̦̰͒̌̆ͫͣ̔̒͢H̰̏A̞̺̬͙̙̦̳͆ͩͭͦͫ̿Ḧ͔̼̟̀A͊ͯ̌̃̿҉͓̙̪̬H̦̊̏̋̽ ͖͚̖̋͢ͅA͙͚̞̘͚̟̯ͫ͊͊̐͒̔͆!̣̩̗̪ͫ̂̄

“Or not!” Shiro yelled. “Coran, we can’t—”

“I’ll get him,” Coran promised, rushing across the street while Ryou and Lotor closed in on the Hollow.

Allura seemed to have decided that if Keith could summon his bayard, then she was probably able to do the same.

She was.

The pink energy ribbon shot out and around the Hollow’s head, slipping between the gaping, laughing jaws as Allura grabbed the other end and snapped it tight. She pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and the Hollow began to scream.

 

 

̶̢̮̠͎̯̭̩̻̞͎̼͕̞ͪ͊ͦ̍́̋̉̉͆̍ͧ̅͢͠ ̴̡͈̞̗͎̮̼ͣ̐̎͒̓ͤͥͧ̎ ̨̳̫̘̥͕͚̣̱̮͎͓̙̦̟͇̦͙͇̽ͥ̐͛͋͗̈͗ͣ͢ͅ ̸̧͙̩̙̠̳͔͍̼͖̘̰̞̰͖͆ͯ͌͐̆͑͂̊̌ͧ̆̀̈ͨ̾̚͢ ̛͔̪̯̺̤̮̜̉ͮͧ͑̓ͮ̐̊ͦ́̉͂͌̂̽̕͞ ͙͖̦̥̝͍̜̱͉͑̓ͯͥ̕͢͝ ̔ͨ̄ͭ̆͊ͫ̈́͊̐̕͝͏͍̩̤͎̳̗̥̗̺̘̩̞̹̣͍ ̐ͬ̌̉͋͏̷̧̗̝͈̖͉̼͇̙̖̮̠͘͜ ̭͔͙̺͙̼̲̐ͧ̄̾͘͞ ̢̢̧͚̝͇̜͙̤̅̂̍̉̎ͣ̽ͪ̌̌̈̐ͬ̏̐̚̚̚͘ ̴̟͕̝̫̦̗̹̫̲̣͚̘ͬ͗̒̄ͮ͛ͭ̕͢͟ ̙͈͍̺̳̲̺̣̦̤͎̼̭̯̳̈́͛̈́̄̄̐ͪ͌̿̀̕͞ ̼͓̖̮͕͉̩̫̬̹̞̓̋͆̎̌ͫ̊̿ͭ̃̿͐͋ͨ͑͟͡͡͠ͅͅ ̡̨̢̖̬̫̪̖͉̩͖͇̬̫̘͈̰̬̗̣ͧ͆̈́ͣ̿̓͒̍̓ͮ̂͒ͪͬͥͣ͘͝ ͑͊̈́ͫ҉̴̲̺̫̩̥͖̖̬̕͠ ̷͇̹̤͓̦̰̜̙̱̖͎͓͚̬̉ͭ͊̎̓͂͑ͪ̍̔͊̿͡ ̷͈̮̯̫͓̞͉̙̹̱͖̘͔̫̒͋͒͐̔̓̉̅ͩͯ̾̽ͯ͗͟͠͡ͅ ͯ̏ͫ͂̿͐̆̇͋͊̔̐̒̇ͨ̏͞҉̮̼̳̬͔͇̼̳̭̰̠̘͈̩̖͇͟͟͡ ̵̨͗̊͑̇̚҉̧̣̜͎̻͓͔͇̬̺̙̳ ̶̵̨̈ͣ̆ͭͯ̽͏̱̣̘̗͖͍̼̫̦̙̬̫̘̤ͅ ̨̛̫̰͈̜͚̻ͬͭͪ͂ͮͧͬ ̷̶̲̝̟̺̣̟̖̥̰͍̱̼̒͒ͯͧ̌̋̅͛͗͌ͣ̎ͧ͋͗͞͡ ̧̪͈͙̗͍̺͈̯̜̬͓̹̟͖̙̫̩͆ͯ̃̓͒ͬͣ̇ͫ͊̎ͫ̍ͥ̚͘ ̴͓̖̱͉̲͕̥̭̠̠͐̎ͩ͌͗͛ͭ̓̒̅ͤ̆̂͒͟͜ͅ ̸̧͖̹̜̲ͭ͂̓̇ͭ̅͊̾̀̋͒ͬͨ̂̔ͣ͊̄̄ͅ ̨̼̺̣̪̼͖͙̰͉̳̩ͭ̉̐ͮ̏̃̏ͨͨ̃̒̅͑ͅ ̸̷̫̼̯̫͆̄ͣ͌̅̽͒̎̽́ ̷̬͉͎̬͈͉͇͈̩̮̮̥̝͍͖̙̩̑̃̈́̓̎͒̊̒ͫͬ̿̿͐̚̕͠ ̞̲͎̳̮̘̦͕̮̭̩͙̪̞̙̯̯͖̏̀́͡ͅ ̴͔̘̮̗̤̱̙̣̬͔̲̰̼̥͕͖͎̙̘̐ͮͧ̆͛ͥ̏̉̒̏͋̕ ̷̡̩̺̳̙̘̜̞̘̰͚͙͖̮͚̠̒ͩͯ͛̂͌̃͊̐͟͞͞ ̸̨̌͊̓ͣ̀̍̓̎̽ͯ͏̦̘̬͔̹͖̳̜̳̝̬̞̮̪̭ͅ ̛̣͈̯̺͕̱̱̪̥̤̫̮̥͎̫ͩ̃̈ͫ̿̿͛͢ͅ ̛̹̱͕͚̺͉̬̰͎͈̫̫̹̦̱̱̘͊̔̎ͅ ̢͖̙̖̟͙̪͓̘̖̼̬̺͈̈ͣ́͊̎ͨ̿͑̉͛ͪͮ̋̇̀ͤ̒ ̡̫͓͈̲̱͚̩̣̹̻͚̯͉̭̙̾̌̄ͯ͐̈ͩ̌́͆ͮ̏̇ͪ̔͊͋̚͘͝͝ ̶̡͓̠̠̳̩̘͇̝̗͐̎̔̑̃̏͒ͩ̊̄ͦ̔͗͘̕ ̴̖͍͈̜̳̝͖̫̲̇͑̓͐͊̓͞ ̤͖̳̝̞̹͎̱̾͑͋̊̾̅͌͒̊͒̄ͯ̍̍̄́̚͢͜ ̷͓̰̗̭͇͖̲͖̘͕̬̺̯̾ͪͨ͛̈̆̓̒ͥ͂ͨͧ̌̓͐͟ͅ ̸̶̧̛͇͕͈͚̮̟̜̭̰͕̞͙̥̗̓ͤ͌͑͊̓̒ͨ̐ͣͮ̾̀̓ͩ̉̈́ ̵̵̭͇͍͙͙̜̘̣̭̦̲̻͈̪̽̌ͨ̑͛ͪͣ̒́̿ͮͅͅ ̡ͤͭ͂͋́̋̾͏̰̝̦͖̝͕̯̹̠͎͙͍̼̭̮̘͉̻ ̵̛̖̺̝̩̮̦̲͍̭̯̫̪͓͔͎͔̝̓̃͑̍̏̀̒̄͞ ̟̪͔̫̣̹̙͇̙̟͓͈̮̠̙̲́̓ͯͪ͐ͯ͂ͬ̃̉̿ͤ̀ͥͭ͑̚̚͡ͅ ̡̢̨̼̜͕̱̩͋̊̌̐̒͊ͦͣ̔̏͊̅ͣ̆̓ ̡̃̍͗̄ͩ̐́͌̂͆͋̃͡҉̙͈͖̱͎̺̙͈̯̥̭͔̗̯̦͚̝͙̯ ̷̙͙͕͔͔͉̪̝͈͉ͤ̍̎̿̽͐̓̓̂͘ ̶̢͙̗̤̺̮̜̖̞͇̬̖͓̳̰ͭͭͩ͐͌͂̐̾̀͐̄͒ͯ̉ͪ̍̀͟ ̵ͪ͌̏͐͛̈́̀̇̄̽̃̃̈́͏͏̟̳͕̫͚̬̝͍̯̮͢͝ ̷̸͉̞̠̱͈͈̈̓͋͛̓ͤ̓̋͡ ̨̫͈͚͓̠̱͋ͦ̋̾͊͗̆͂̉ͥͣ̅́͛̓̉ͬ̚͜͡͞ ̶̢̗̖̝̼̦̝̼ͦ͛̐̋ͨ͗̅ͧ̌̂̅̚̕ ̛̗͙̺̓̿ͮ̈́̔ͨ̏͒̓̉̐͑̇͗̕̕͠ ́ͦ͒͊ͦ̑̇ͮͩ̓̃ͣ̉̔҉̨͉̩̩̰̫͍̰̺̕ͅ ̢͍̰͎̭̠̞̪̪̗̮̖̓ͪ̓̈͘͜͝͞ ̵̢͖̞̳̲̝̤̳͚̬̖̮̦̟͎͖ͬ̎ͯͫ͐̀͗͛̑ͥ̿ͮ̓̃ͭ͂̋ͅ ̥͖̺̦̺̘̭̠͔̩̬̟͙̤̭̜͇͔̣͒̄͌̅̽͞͡ ̅ͬ̍͒̇̌̓̈ͯͬ̂ͧ̏̾͊̐̓̕҉̶̺̝͔̞̺̱ ̡̞̼͈̘̞̬̹̖͉̰͖̠̱͙͙͈͈̼ͮ̃̓̄̔ͧ͠ͅ ̸̵̡̪͔̖̲̦̞̻̝͉̭͚̬̹͎̑̆͗͑̒̓ͥͤ̀͗̾͑͛͛ͥ͠ͅͅ ̨̣̤͈͉̗̤̖̭̣ͥ̍͋̓̌͊ͧͧ̒ͮͨͯͬ̈͟͞ ͂͛͌̇̆̓͊̑̔̓͗͏̨̢̡̳͖̜̻̭̗͕̭̥̹̬͙̼ ̸̷̹̣͉̰̠̖͍̪̖̞͍̦͕̓̾̍̏̏̀ ̵̛͙̩͎̞̦͓͚̞̜̰̏ͤ̓ͫ̀́̓ͪͥͭ̃͠͝ͅ ̧̛̦̣̠̬̫̝͈͙̞̞̘̙̣̑ͤ͑ͧ͑̿̏̽̽̊ͦ͂ͦ̆̔̋ͫ̈́̚ͅ ͕̤̟̖̖̜̭̖̞̪̖͎̩̯̥͎͑͛̌͌̒͠͞ ̸̧͙̬̯̪͔̗̽̓ͫ̐̈́͑̇̚ ̴̢̯̣̱̭̰͙̲̬̲̦̖͇͕̝͕̇̆̒̈́̉̾̍ͨ͂̽ͬ͂̅ͮ͆͊̑ͭ̊ͅͅ ̎̏̊ͦ̇ͭ̽̓ͮͩ͒̒ͫͬ͆҉̢̦͔͉̲̻̙̝͉̜̟͎̤̯̘̩ ̌̃ͨ̿̿̃̊ͫ̀̎̑̒ͫ̚̚͜͡͝͏̩̮͔̦͈̫͇̖͚̭͕̱̳͔̥ͅ ̵̴̳̘͈̺̱̫̮̥̠͍͋̉̿́̾̑͐̓̂̒͒͐͠ ̷̸̨̧̰̳͚͖̳̯̩̩͎̦̣̰̰̲͍̜̦̘̩̾̌̑ͪͥ̉̂̔ͮ̑͆̀͊̎́ͩ ̨̢̳̯͔̝̩͖͉̦͎̬̜̣̜̐͛́ͥ̒̈́̃̇͐̉ͧ̃ ͪ̆͆ͩ̐̏ͤͣ͗̈́̊̚͞҉̧̲̲͚̝̻̟̫͈̣͚̜̗̬͈̬͇̟̞͜ ̷͖̺͉̾̿̎̅ͣ͊ ̣̳̯̤͖̭̘ͮͯ̎̕ͅ ̨̞͉̮̖̰ͪͩ̋͋ͨ͟ ̸̧͚͈͚̰͉̲̬̫̒͛͒ͭ̉̊̅̈̉ͪ̈̓͟ ̵͆̎ͦͤ͂͛ͩ͛̅͒̎̚͏̶̢̞̱̪̮̗̝̦̟͎̫̪̳ ̹̤̪͈̭͓͕̝̩̹̻̘̦̖̟̩͓̞̆ͯ͗ͦͫ͑͌ͦͣ̇͂ͬ͢͢͡͡ ̴̶̤̩̠͍̗̭͎͍̥̺͔̱̼̝̄ͬ̓̇̋̆͟ ̟̭̟͓̬͓̘͇̓ͤͮ̓̾ͯ̓͐̇ͮ̅ͯ̃̀ͬͤ̚͜͝ ̸̧ͦ̓̂҉̜̻̥͕͚̤̣͍̟̤̦ ̷̷ͤ͋ͫ͆ͧ͂͑̿͊̓ͥ͂̔̉͊̒͏͖̟̩̻̻͚̱̻̙͓͡ͅ ́ͥ̈͋̔͏̬͉̖̻͠͠͞ ̵̪̜̫͖̦̖̦̰̼̱͈͕̺͇̮̻͈ͦͫ̈́̅ͤ̏̍ͮ̎́͌̿̓̾̓̊̕͝͡ ̇ͥ̆̋ͩͪ͏̸̤̥̗̝̻̖̘̭̜̹̲̼͈̳̲̩͟ ̴̨͓̬̠̩̞̙̼͇̭̮͉̦͉̰̰͔̉̈́̈ͧ͐ ̵̢̓̓̀̆̓ͣ̐͒̆ͭ̒҉͏͉͔̲͉̣̤͍̜̹ ̶̴̖̹͉͈̘̰̞̦͉̥̫͗̐͗͂ͭ͆ͩͨ͛ͫ̉ͥͩ̀̚̚ͅ ͈̞͇͈̬̓ͤ̏ͫ͋͆ͣ̂ͣ̚͝ ̶̵̧̠͖̹̤̟͓͕̋̉ͣͭ͗ͫ͆͒̏̓ͥ̚ ̴͍͎͕̦͚̲̫͍̰̝̱̬̮̗̮͆ͧͤ͑̈́ͯͦͮ̒ͣ̊ͬ̊͒͟ͅ ̴̸̨̰̬̠̪̺̣̯̭̥̣̙̳̀͌̔ͦ̅͐̚͟ ̴̬̤̹̜̘̥̺̙̘̳̯̪ͧ̐͋͗͊ͭͪ̈́͘͜͠ ̵̞͎̹̠̟̩̳͙͊ͧ̂̇̍ͫͣ̽͐͛̑ͬ̍͒͘ ̽ͨ̇ͣ̇͑̾ͯͤ͂̌͝͏̢̫͖̯̺̫̝͎̱̠̙͔̩̥̘̻̙̘̕ ̍ͩͦ̔̊ͫ͛ͩ̆̅ͧ̾ͩ̓ͬ̅̔̿̚҉̛̗̬̣̳͈͚͉̟̖̘̬͠ͅ ̛͉̠̯̳͍͚̗̳͔͚͚̫͎͕̓ͭ̓̋ͦ̿͢͞͡ͅ ̴̼̙̰͍̟̖̖͓̩̯̰͕͍͚̹̩̭̒̈͊̋͟ ̵̳̱̦͓͓̭͈̟̥͉͔̻̳̤̦͌̄̈́̏ͥ̀̂̍̏̾͆ͪ͊̅̄͐̚̚͠ ̴̨̿̊ͧ̒̑̽ͣ҉͎̲̳̭͚̦͙̲̱̣͎̞̦̱̕͟ ͔͍͎̟̟̖̗̾ͫ͋͌͢͢͠ ̵͚̣̣͇̫̟͍̣̟̜̰̘̭̙͖̣͍̊̆͋ͦͥ́ͦ̒͡͠ ̸̶̣̳̳̥̮̞̲̯̫̲̫̗̙̯͎̓̓ͬͯ͊͆ͪ̇̍ͩ̔͘͝ ̍ͨ͂ͩͧ̔̇͂̅̂͗͋ͤ̉ͪ̃͏̢̛̙̠̝̤̝͍̱̞̤͚̪̠̪̹̖̤͓͔ ̴̶̨͓̘͉͓͍̠͇̹̹̳̥̰̫̏̃ͥ̏̇ͩ̈̽̄̚ ͐̾ͧͭͩ͐̿̚҉͜͝҉̲̤̤̝̱ ̷̢͈͈̬͉̠͓͙̯̐͗̿͂̓̊ͤ̉͆͞͞ ̷̾̓ͩ͗̃̇̂̏͆̓ͯ͑͆̄͌́̚͜҉̜̭̯͈̥̹̣̩̗͍͔ ̄̆̐̾̉͊ͤ͆ͪͮͩ́ͭ҉̶̝̪̩͈ͅͅ ̬̮̦̞̭̈́̇ͯ̃ͬ̿͗́ͧͤ͆̔͘͜͡ ̧̜̪̭̗͒̅͛͒͊̌́́̊͛ͭͨ̍͘ ̢͈͍̩͈͈̦̰̔̿̄͌ͥ́ͯ̊ͧ͊ͤ͒͋̕͘ͅ ̸̸̫̰̝̳͖̹̟̘̺̙̪̩̮̘̗̠̋̆̎̓͘͠ ̸̔̎ͥ̋̋ͮ̽ͥ͂̑ͭ͐͒͑̑̉҉̨̻͕̗̫̫͓͍͍̺̫̲̜̱͠

 

 

Pidge figured she was probably trying to slice through the Hollow. While that only seemed to be working in part, Allura had definitely managed to build herself a makeshift bridle to at least influence the direction the Hollow stumbled in. This made it much, much easier for Lotor to sprint forward and slice deep down into the mask and through the head.

With a final scream, layered and warped and twisted to the point where it gave Pidge goosebumps just to hear it, the Hollow dissolved into black motes that faded from few as the seconds passed.

“Okay,” Keith said, half-carried towards them by Coran, one arm slung over the older man’s shoulders. “What the hell was that?”

o.o.o.o.o

“Do you expect him to use the spirits of our own departed?” Lotor asked as Coran did his best to wrap and treat Keith’s wounds. He only had what Shiro had managed to buy from a local convenience store, which was definitely of a lower quality than the Altean products he was more used to using, but the man was doing alright.

“Going by the fact that we have no idea who that last one was?” Matt asked, and then shrugged. “Don’t know, but I don’t think so.”

“Honerva,” Hunk pointed out.

“Speak of the devil, Hunk,” Lance reminded him. “Let’s not tempt fate.”

“More like ‘let’s not tempt Sven,’” Matt laughed, dry and a little bitter, though still amused.

“Do not tempt the almighty DM,” Ryou added. “For they are god of their little world.”

“We need to get back to the van and head for Karakura,” Pidge said. “If only four or five of our group can reliably fight, then we really do need to get this over with as quickly as possible. I really doubt that was a… fuck, what’s the mid-tier? Not an Arrancar, that’s the halfway one, but—”

“Adjuchas,” Lance said, kicking his legs back and forth against the low wall he’d chosen to sit on. “Lowest tier of Menos Grande is Gillian, middle is Adjuchas, top is Vasto Lorde. If one takes off their mask, they gain more power, becoming Arrancar, which are Hollows with Shinigami powers.”

“I... what?” Allura asked.

“As opposed to Vizard, which are Shinigami that got Hollow powers,” Lance added, and then shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. “It’s... we figured out where we are. Bleach. It’s an anime. We’re running through terminology and stuff so we have an idea of what to do. Gotta compile our knowledge since we don’t exactly have a reference here.”

“Ooooh, fun,” Lotor said, with such exaggerated dryness and sarcasm that Pidge managed to work up a giggle.

“Right,” Pidge said, and took a deep breath. “Head for Karakura, find the shop, and… do a thing.”

“We don’t know how to find the shop,” Lance pointed out. “It could be a really big area, and we don’t exactly know where this place is.”

“Well… we’re in Shinjuku,” Ryou said. “Kinokuniya, do you think?”

“We’ll find a map, sure,” Shiro said. “But the actual store?”

“Get a map, ask a shop assistant for—”

“Oh my god, the staff!” Pidge yelled, and everyone turned to stare at her.

“Um… what?” Lance asked.

“Lotor and I were talking about appropriate words for the cooks and waiters earlier and I suggested ‘purveyors’ because I completely blanked on the fact that staff is a word!” Pidge yelled, and then pressed her hands against her eyes. “Gaaaaaaaaaaaah.”

Matt snickered and patted her on the head. “We all have brain fart moments. That was yours.”

“Brain… farts?” Allura asked, sounding very much like she didn’t want to know.

“Just a turn of phrase for when your brain does something kinda silly or dumb, like where you normally know a word but just completely blank on it when you need it most,” Hunk offered.

“…right.”

o.o.o.o.o

“Okay, so… map,” Shiro said, tapping it in his hand. “Compass, just because I don’t want to get turned around. There aren’t any train lines that go directly to Karakura, and when I asked inside, they said driving would probably get me there faster, even if the train would let me sleep.”

“I’d also like to point out that Hollows are freaky good at finding strong signatures,” Ryou said, “And we can assume that, now that we’ve run into one, we’re probably going to see more since they’re this world’s primary death-dealing monster boys.”

“…stop,” Shiro said. “Just… no. Anyway. I… definitely had something to say. I don’t know what, but I did.”

“Driving or train,” Keith supplied.

“I actually was going to comment on that,” Ryou said, resting one arm on Shiro’s shoulder. “The car gives us more maneuverability if we get chased. It’s easier to stop and get out to fight than if we’re on a train.”

“Train doesn’t need one of us to keep driving,” Shiro pointed out. “We can all fight if necessary.”

“Hell no,” Lance said. “Keith’s not fighting again if we can help it.”

“I can fight!” Keith protested. “I’m not bleeding that bad, and at least I can stand when those things show up!”

“We are fighting… corrupted dead souls,” Lotor said slowly, as though every word was tearing something out of him that he didn’t want to acknowledge. “As ridiculous as that is—”

“Your dad is a zombie,” Pidge reminded him.

“—we do still have external problems, in the form that time continues to pass in the real world,” Lotor finished. “We do need to hurry, and if a ‘Hollow’ shows up, then we need to dispatch of it quickly. We can refrain from asking anyone who cannot fight to fight at first, but if we have trouble fighting one of these creatures, or an entire… herd?”

“I don’t think there’s a word for a group of hollows,” Pidge admitted. “Herd is too... prey animal, though. Maybe a pack?”

“A flock?” Matt suggested.

“A murder!” Hunk added, sounding very excited.

Lotor blinked at him. “A what.”

“A... a murder?” Hunk repeated, a little more hesitant. “A group of crows is called a murder of crows.”

“Applies to most corvids, actually,” Pidge added.

“How about we just say group?” Shiro said slowly, like he was questioning their priorities. Again. “Okay, car or train? Anyone have a suggestion?”

“Car,” Lance said immediately. “I vote car.”

“...same,” Pidge said, sighing. “At minimum, I don’t want to walk once we actually get there. We’d have a distance to go by foot after getting off the train if we went that way, since you said nothing actually stops in Karakura.”

The votes came in, and then they did in fact troop their way out to the car and take seats to head for—

“No, Keith, you’re not driving.”

“Dammit.”

o.o.o.o.o

They were halfway to their destination, just after a gas station visit, when it happened.

“Is that a fucking Garganta?” Pidge demanded as Ryou yanked on the wheel.

“Wh—” Allura started to say, and then yelped as the jerking of the vehicle sent her sprawling across Keith’s lap. “Are you just going to avoid it?”

“Yep!” Ryou shouted back.

“Innocent people could be hurt!”

“It’s a simulation!” Ryou argued back. “We still have bayard access, so Lance and Hunk can absolutely shoot it out the windows. We are going to keep going and get there as soon as possible. A strong, accurate laser shot should be enough.”

“Got it,” Lance said, pulling his bayard out of nowhere and shoving down a window. “Someone hold on to my legs.”

Allura did just that as Lance sat on the sill, activated his bayard, and leaned backwards to shoot.

This Hollow was obviously different from the last, covered in a sparse fur and armor-like bone plating down its back. The mask covered a face so flat that it must have been either human or close, save for two massive tusks that protruded forward like an elephant’s below the painted, ghastly grin. The Hollow followed them at a lumbering gallop that Pidge found unnerving just to watch. There was something just wrong about the birdlike legs, two front toes and one back, all tipped with conic claws, digging into the highway with every step. It launched itself down the highway, a tail tipped in feathered fur like a Quetzalcoatl streaming along behind it.

Lance shot it, and then again. On the third shot, Hunk joined in, and a few seconds later, the Hollow went down with a groan. Pidge watched as the Hollow dispersed, her stomach dropping at the sight of how many people had lost control of their cars even before Lance and Hunk had started shooting.

“So... on guard?” Pidge asked, pulling out her own bayard and doing her best not to question where it had come from.

“Absolutely,” Shiro said. “Coran? Have you—”

“I’m working on it!” Coran called back, scribbling all over the map from where he sat in the front seat.

“What’s going on?” Keith asked, trying to peer over shoulders to see the map despite being in the third row.

“Urahara’s shop wasn’t popping up anywhere by name when the assistant searched for it,” Shiro explained. “So we marked down all the candy shops in particular, and Coran is figuring out the most efficient route.”

That’s your big plan?” Pidge demanded. “Seriously?”

“We don’t exactly have a lot of—”

Hollow!”

Hunk’s yell grabbed everyone’s attention, and Pidge cursed as the car swerved again, gripping her seatbelt as hard as she could to maintain at least some control over whether or not her throat got damaged by the synthetic strip of fabric. Sure, it would be repaired as soon as they got out, but still. She was mostly useless while they were driving anyway, since her bayard wasn’t really made with car chase shootouts in mind. They’d be relying on the long-distance, non-contact bayards again.

“There’s another on our eight!” Keith yelled.

“There’s a pair at two o’clock!” Shiro added.

Pidge craned her neck, cursing the fact that she was in a middle seat, and tried to see the same for herself.

“Why now?” Ryou asked, through grit teeth and a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel that would have betrayed the tension in his body even if his voice hadn’t. “We’ve been in this level—this dimension—for hours now. We didn’t even have a run-in until Shibuya, and now we’re suddenly getting hounded by them?”

“Could have been just testing our defenses earlier,” Pidge suggested, her mind racing. “Or... a slow build-up? The first was mostly random encounter. It implied that it was hunting us, but going by the screams we heard before, it was at least vaguely in the area before it found us. Um... the death could have been a signal to the system to put something else in motion?”

“I’ve got eyes on... five or six, maybe, coming up over the edge of the highway,” Shiro said. “And... I think that’s another garganta.”

“Well,” Ryou growled. “Ain’t that just a ki—SHIT!

The car hit something.

The car went rolling.

The car definitely crashed.

It took a few seconds for Pidge’s mind to catch up with what had happened, surrounded by groans of pain and creaking metal. They’d landed upright, but nowhere near intact.

“Well, shit,” Lance’s voice floated down to her, strangely warped and warbled, and then Allura screamed.

It didn’t take long to figure out why, of course. Pidge could only see half of Lance, but the half she could see had a very, very deep gash that she would have been surprised to see anyone survive.

Which Lance clearly hadn’t, considering she could also see him standing unharmed outside the window with a square metal plate on his chest, grey links clanking against each other as he fiddled with the chain that led back to his mangled corpse.

“What the fuck,” Keith whispered, completely ignoring the red stains on his bandages that Pidge could see even from where she was.

“So, FYI,” Lance said, looking up at them. “Those Hollows haven’t stopped, and are currently closing in. I’m probably useless right now since I’m a Plus Soul, so please don’t let them eat me.”

There was a half-second of shocked, horrified silence from the lot of them, and then Lotor kicked one of the doors off of its hinges and leapt out, immediately going for the nearest Hollow and trying to slice through the mask the way Pidge had told him to.

“I guess I should have worn my seatbelt,” Lance said, absurdly calm. “Hey, is Hunk okay?”

“How are you not freaking out?” Pidge demanded, the last to get out. “Matt, take the red bayard, Lance isn’t using it right now. Keith can dual wield.”

Matt took a hesitant look at Lance himself, and then ran for the bayard that had skittered out of his hands a dozen yards back during the crash. Matt had been one of the four hanging out the windows, but by the smallest margin by far, and it looked like he’d gotten away with just scrapes and bruises, though the limp was a little concerning. Allura had been fine, Altean sturdiness keeping her mostly unharmed, but the other two—

“Hunk is unconscious,” Coran called over. “But alive. I don’t... I don’t know what to do.”

“Well,” Lance said, plopping down on the ground. Pidge winced as Allura tore a Hollow in half with an enraged scream. It looked like she wasn’t taking Lance’s apparent death very well. “End of the level is still Urahara’s right? So we just get there. We’ll probably need another car.”

“You’re dead,” Pidge said, because Lance seemed to be ignoring this very important fact in favor of making plans. Sure, the plans were important, but he was dead.

“I mean, only until the next level,” Lance said. “Or if I get eaten, I think. Sven made it pretty clear that this is meant to be a training simulation. Other than the Mother Parasite, nothing here is going to do permanent damage, because that does go against his programming, right? Worst comes to worst, I’ll just leave the party, or get dragged around as a ghost. I mean, I’d basically be a lich, right? That’d be cool.”

Pidge stared at him.

“Anyway,” Lance said with a cough. “What about you? Why aren’t you fighting?”

Pidge looked down at her legs, and then back up at Lance. “Not sure how, but I may have broken a tibia. Possibly the fi—the fibula, too.”

“Forgot what it was called?”

“I’m a programmer,” Pidge grumbled. “Anatomy isn’t exactly my top priority.”

“Not judging!” Lance said, putting both hands in the air and ducking his head. “I don’t know the words either. But yeah, okay. Broken leg on you, I’m dead, Hunk is unconscious, some of the others have injuries, and our ride is caput.”

“Just after we topped up on gas, too,” Pidge groaned. “Okay. Uh. Coran! Can I see that map?”

Coran hurried over, carefully laying Hunk down next to Pidge and then running to get the map. Pidge looked over at where the battle was taking place, surrounded by motionless cars and... oh, ugh. Yeah, a few of the Hollows were definitely trying to take advantage of the paladins’ focus on keeping their injured teammates safe to eat a few bystanders.

Pidge closed her eyes. Just a simulation, she reminded herself. Honerva was the only true threat, and the only people capable of being truly hurt were the team. The bystanders weren’t real. None of the NPCs were real. Helping save the civilians was their job, yes, but the current situation was specifically set up where focusing on civilians would only hurt in the long run.

That didn’t make the slurping, crunching noises and crows of sadistic delight any less disturbing to hear.

With a heavy sigh, Pidge opened her eyes and focused on the map that Coran had unfolded in front of the two of them, Lance’s ghost, Hunk’s unconscious self, and the mangled corpse in the window that Pidge was trying very hard to avoid looking at.

“Oh, dude,” Lance said. “My body is totally fucked up.”

“Hi, can we not?” Pidge asked. “Please? Thanks.”

“I mean, I’m the one who died, so I think I have the right to talk about it.”

“Can we not?” Pidge asked again, and then focused on the map. “Okay, so... Coran? Know where we are?”

“Not quite,” Coran sighed. “Going by what Shiro said and how long we drove in the other direction? My guess would be somewhere around here.”

His finger landed on a spot perhaps two thirds of the way from Shibuya to Karakura, and Pidge bit her lip. That wasn’t a short enough distance to justify walking.

“We won’t need to hotwire again,” she said. “Just need to find something big enough and make sure the person at the wheel knows how to drive it. All the cars here currently have people in them, which means they’ve also already got the keys inside.”

“Whoa,” Lance muttered, and Pidge turned to see him sticking his hand through the cratered remains of his own head.

Lance,” Pidge cried out. “For fuck’s sake!”

“Sorry! Sorry!” Lance said, throwing his hands up again. “I just... being a ghost is weird.”

“No shit!”

“Paladins,” Coran tried.

“I’m already freaking out after trapping us here, Lance! You just died! And it’s my fault and I’m trying really hard not to look at your body because it makes me feel nauseous because it’s gross and it’s my fault and—”

Children,” Coran said, not quite shouting, but absolutely stressing the word enough for the two of them to notice. They both turned to face him. “Argue later. We’ve work to do.”

Pidge bit her lip very hard, trying not to say anything, and Lance sighed. “Sorry, Pidge.”

“...sorry I got you killed.”

“Funnily enough, I have a feeling I’ll be fine,” Lance joked. “Now... you wanted the map?”

“Right. We have a direction and stuff, we just need a car... and an opening,” she admitted. “Once we’re moving, it’s going to be harder to fight these things off. We’re going to need to move fast and shoot hard... and we’ve lost both our long-distance shooters. Fuck.”

“Shield?” Lance suggested.

“Don’t know how,” Pidge groaned. The sounds of the battle behind them were interrupted for a moment by a scream of pain, and Pidge turned to see Ryou getting stabbed through the stomach by the long, curved single claw of a Hollow. Lotor was there a moment later, cutting off the limb and subsequently the head while it was distracted, but the damage was done.

Lotor turned and threw Ryou at them, presumably forgetting how breakable humans were, or just coming to the same conclusion as Lance and deciding that a dead Ryou was going to be more comfortable than one that bleeding out from a massive stomach wound. Both would be equally useless, at least, or actually more useful dead than alive. They wouldn’t be able to fight either way, but the lack of pain at least meant they’d be more capable of talking if they were dead.

In any case, Coran caught Ryou before he landed, and two groans of pain floated up from the tangle of limbs that resulted from Coran toppling over. So Ryou was still alive, but—

“Hey, buddy!” Lance called over. “You want a mercy kill?”

“Fuck you!”

“You’re not exactly gonna be fighting like that!” Lance reminded him.

“Er... actually,” Coran said, staring at Ryou’s stomach as he laid the man out on the ground. “He’s already healing.”

“What,” Pidge said, not even bothering to turn the word into a question. “How. How the fuck.

“The wound is already knitting itself together,” Coran told her. “I’m not entirely sure how.”

“Being a clone has never given him super-healing powers befo—fucking Nemu,” Lance swore.

Pidge froze. “...oh god.”

“Sven is basing him off of fucking Kurotsuchi Nemu,” Lance kept going. “I mean, she could feel spiritual pressure, which is a point against the comparison, but she’s the only clone in the Bleach canon that we know of, right?”

“Szayel’s fracción,” Pidge pointed out.

“...fair, but not really the same kind,” Lance said. “Any idea why Ryou can’t feel spiritual pressure if Nemu was used as a basis?”

“We left Karakura and Sven got distracted mid-character design by the fact that he had to worldbuild,” Pidge said flatly, a small grin sneaking onto her face when Lance actually laughed. “So. We need a car, an escape route, and a way to fend off the growing Hollow army. We’ve got the biggest brain, the oldest veteran, a man who’s got all the memories and experience of repeatedly going up against all the odds, and a sharpshooter who can’t shoot at the moment but is a very good tactician here to plan while the others fight. What do we do?”

“Is Lance’s chain of fate attached to anything right now?” Ryou asked. “Or just hanging loose?”

“Takes months or years to erode, so we’re safe,” Lance said, then continued when Ryou made a tired ‘go on’ gesture with his hand. “Uh... it kind of fell off my body a minute or two after I died.”

“In the show,” Ryou grunted as he levered himself up into a sitting position, a grimace on his face. Coran immediately shifted over to take on some of his weight. “The demi-hollows were sometimes attached to a place using the chains, right? Or even a person?”

 “Yyyeeeeessssss?” Pidge said.

“Lance might not be able to sit in a car,” Ryou said. He held a hand up to where his guts were still trying to spill out, and made a face. “Ugh. But yeah, if we can find a way to interact with Lance and his chain or whatever...”

“Allura?” Pidge suggested. “Her magic seems to be treated as more or less the same as spiritual energy by the system, right? So she’s the most likely to be able to interact with him.”

“Not counting me, the people most capable of withstanding the first Hollow’s spiritual pressure were the aliens, right?” Ryou said. “Until you guys acclimatized? So Coran or Lotor could probably also do it.”

“Yeah, but do you think Allura would let them?” Pidge asked, shifting a little before she remembered the very painful break in her leg. “I mean, other than Keith or Hunk, who does she even—”

“She’s in love, not insane,” Ryou scoffed.

“Okay, speaking as the autistic girl to the guy who inherited his brother’s extreme PTSD by virtue of absorbing all his memories, I’m gonna suggest that we not use that word in this situation.”

“My point is that Allura is rational enough to recognize if it would be more tactically sensible for someone else to move Lance around while she fights or whatever,” Ryou said. “In a—”

“I fixed it.”

Pidge and Ryou turned at Lance’s voice, and then noted that the chain was now longer, wrapping around Coran in a way that didn’t impede his movements, but also seemed to have no obvious end in sight.

They stared.

“What? I’m dead, not incapable of making my own decisions,” Lance said, pouting and crossing his arms. “Is there a word for prejudice against the dead? Because I am feeling it.”

“We’re not having this conversation right now,” Pidge said.

“Livingist,” Ryou said, at exactly the same moment.

Pidge gave him a look.

Ryou shrugged. “It was in a Harry Potter fic I once read.”

Moving on,” Pidge yelled. “We actually, legitimately need to tr—”

She choked and fell to her side, head barely cushioned by Hunk’s body, as another wave of pressure hit.

Pidge had thought the first wave, back in Shibuya, had been bad.

She had been unsettled by the second, when dozens of Hollows started showing up to chase them down the expressway.

This?

This was different.

This was an entire order of magnitude more, to the point where Lance, already a ghost, fell to his knees, and even Coran paled and swayed where he sat.

Ryou, the fucker, was unaffected by the pressure. He just stared into the distance and went, “Oh shit, that’s a way bigger Garganta than before.”

“Please tell me—” Pidge tried to say, but cut off midway through to drag in another gasping breath.

“Menos Grande,” Ryou confirmed. “Um. Gillians. I think I see a few... might be regular Hollows, might be Adjuchas, not actually sure. They’re about the same size and look, right?”

Pidge managed to roll her head to the size, glasses scratched by the gravel on the asphalt as it grated against her cheek. She tried to slow her heart down as the Hollows approached, desperately reminding herself that none of this was real, even if it felt like it. Even if every single breath that she drew reminded her of how small and utterly insignificant she was in comparison to the horror of the Menos Grande, sweat dripping across her face and into her eyes from the tension. She blinked to get that sweat out, but only succeeded in blurring her vision further, the salt stinging her eyes.

“Oh shit,” Ryou said. “Oh fucking fuck. We need to go.”

“No shit,” Pidge managed to say.

“No, you’re not at the right angle to see—” Ryou cut himself off, lurching to his feet and leaning against the battered, shattered van. He was mostly healed, but there were still patches of open flesh, greyish red and glistening in the sunlight where they weren’t pockmarked with black grit from the road and blacker poison from the Hollow. “Fuck. Okay. Big car, gotta drive, which way?”

Pidge almost answered, but instead screamed as she was tossed up into the air and landed with a heavy ‘ooph’ on something.

Straight white hair and a stained white shirt informed her that the something in question was Lotor’s shoulder.

“Hi?” She tried. “What’s up?”

“Shiro collapsed when those things showed up,” Lotor said. “We took it as a sign to run.”

Pidge looked around and saw Matt under Lotor’s other arm. “Hey, bro.”

“Hi,” Matt said, sending her a grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I feel dead.”

“I am dead,” Lance called, running along behind Coran with the chain jangling between them.

“Can’t you float?” Keith called, and Pidge managed to gain enough control of her head despite Lotor’s bouncing run to see that Keith was running alone, pale and probably not with enough self-control to carry anybody’s weight but his own, even as Allura had Shiro slung over her shoulders.

Lance considered that for a long moment, still running, and then started sprinting on the air.

“...that’s definitely not what I meant, but okay,” Keith said, a little quieter and much more confused.

“To be fair, I didn’t think I’d actually be able to do it,” Lance said, looking over his shoulder. “Uh, guys? There’s a Gillian coming up on us.”

“In the car, in the car, in the car!” Ryou yelled, herding them towards an intact-looking pickup in the middle of the road. Pidge refused to acknowledge the fact that Ryou had also pulled a middle-aged, unconscious man from the driver’s seat to climb in himself. “Everybody in?”

“Yep!” Lance called back, and the truck lurched into motion.

Going down the highway with no seatbelts and out in the open was a very different experience from the first trip and a half.

“Guys, we forgot my body,” Lance said, fiddling with the chain that traced from his chest to Coran.

“Considering you don’t need it anymore, we don’t care,” Pidge told him.

Lance gaped at her, and then laughed.

“They’re still following us,” Keith said, ruining the brief moment of levity.

“The Gillians are slow,” Shiro said, pushing himself up by one arm. “The Adjuchas and regular hollows are more likely to catch up to us, and they’re a lot smaller.”

“Cero,” Lance reminded him. “Don’t need to catch up, just need to aim.”

“What I wouldn’t give for a goddamn lion right now,” Shiro said, leaning back and letting his head thunk against the side of the pickup bed. “Or an ion canon. Ugh. How’s Hunk?”

“Um...” Lance turned to Coran.

“Unconscious, but stable as far as I can tell,” Coran said, Hunk’s head pillowed on his lap. “I’d say that we need to get him to a healing pod as soon as possible, but I’m afraid the current situation doesn’t quite allow for that.”

 “Fuck,” Shiro groaned, and nobody even made fun of him for it. “Once again really wishing we had some representation of the Castle and Lions in here with us. How fucking ironic is it that we are having our members die literally inside the Castle?”

“Sorry,” Pidge whispered. Her leg was killing her from all the jostling, the splintered bone tearing through more and more muscle as she’d been moved and carried about.

“If it’s any consolation, and I’m pretty sure it is,” Lance said, “Sven made it clear that this is just training, and CoD made it obvious that damage doesn’t stick as soon as a level’s over. We’ll be fine!”

Pidge closed her eyes and focused as best she could. “Lotor? Your sword started glowing earlier, right?”

“It still is.”

“It’s not supposed to do that, right?” She asked.

“Not at all.”

“Great,” she said, pushing herself up a little and leaning on Matt instead of the floor. The two were grouped on the left side of the truck bed, with Shiro at the far back and Lotor between Matt and Shiro. Coran sat across from Pidge, even closer to the cab, and Lance sat weightlessly on Hunk’s unconscious body. Keith and Allura were next, looking almost as ragged as Pidge felt. And... she needed to focus. Fuck. “Cool. Awesome. Has the sword talked to you yet?”

Lotor gave her a strange look. “What?”

“Okay, first thing’s first. What actually works against the Hollows?” Pidge asked. “I haven’t fought one yet myself, because my weeny human body is being a traitor right now. What works?”

“The bayards, my Blade, Lotor’s sword, the twins’ metal arms, and Allura’s magic,” Keith reported. “Matt’s staff has some blunt object effect, but nowhere as much as the other stuff. Makeshift weapons like throwing a flower pot or something does not.”

“...you tried?” Pidge asked.

“I dropped my weapons at some point in the Shibuya fight,” Keith said, ducking his head a little as his cheeks colored in. “I had to make do.”

“Right,” Pidge said. “The weapons we brought with us all work. Other than Lotor’s sword, each of the things named has some degree of quintessence working with it, right? Powering it or whatever? The Blade and bayards change shape, the arms convert human bodily quintessence into mechanical power, and Allura’s magic basically is quintessence. The sword...”

“It is imbued with quintessence, but does not utilize it,” Lotor confirmed. “Were I trained as a druid, that would mean I could charge the sword with energy, but my abilities to manipulate quintessence are rudimentary, at best.”

“Has it tried talking to you?” Pidge asked again.

Lotor shook his head.

“Dammit,” Pidge said. “Okay, uh... fuck it, we’re in a shonen. We—”

“A shonen running on horror tropes,” Lance reminded her.

“For fuck’s sake, just make a slashing motion at the monsters, charge it with as much energy as you’re willing to risk, and hope for the goddamn best!” Pidge yelled.

Lotor gave her another strange look, and then crawled to the back of the pickup, the end closest to the horde of Hollows. It wasn’t a particularly dignified way to get there, but Team Voltron’s tendency towards collective bullshit had eroded Lotor’s need for dignity as an armor a long time ago. He got to knees at the edge of the pickup, and then spent several long, long seconds trying to get his hair to stop blowing into his face.

Keith silently pulled a hairband off of his wrist and handed it to Lotor.

(Pidge was far from the only person to be having trouble holding back laughter.)

Having gotten his hair somewhat under control, Lotor drew his sword and held it up, angling it back over his shoulder as he prepared. Pidge couldn’t see his face from this angle, even if she had enough control to once again sit up under her own power, but he was presumably closing his eyes and focusing or something. At the very least, his sword was glowing again.

Without warning, Lotor slashed downwards, and a visible wave of white-hot something that glowed faintly lavender at its edges arced back and away from the truck, slashing through the nearest Hollow... and then the car behind it... and then the car behind that... and then the left arm-like limb of the Hollow behind that.

Nobody said anything.

The Hollow with the missing arm roared and picked the pace, closing in on them. Lotor swung again, and the Hollow followed the suit of the two before it.

“Now lick the sword so you look cool,” Matt suggested.

“Do not,” Shiro said immediately.

Pidge laughed softly, relieved as all hell that they had a powerful weapon to take care of long-distance attacks again. “How are you holding up? Drained?”

“Somewhat,” Lotor admitted, and some of the relief fizzled away. Lotor had his pride but he’d grown up breathing war, and knew the value of admitting to deficiencies in one’s resources. “I believe that may be better used as a last resort.”

“What about something smaller?” Shiro asked. “Point the sword, build up a ball of energy at the end, and then shoot it like a laser.”

“Like a Cero!” Lance said, a wide grin on his face that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Or a Bala!”

“I’ve no idea what those are, but—”

“SWERVE!”

Matt’s shout didn’t reach Ryou, but everyone broke from the conversation to note that one of the Gillians was, in fact, building up a Cero in front of its mouth.

More than one, actually.

Had Ryou even heard?

Lance took care of the problem by apparently deciding that solid objects were for squares and sticking his head through the window between the bed and the cabin, and yelling something Pidge couldn’t really hear.

The cero was fired, and Ryou did swerve, just barely getting them out of the way. He was definitely as good a driver as his brother, considering he managed to avoid so much as singeing the paint as cero after bala after cero came down on their heads, always getting just a hairsbreadth out of the way, just enough to keep them in range of the next necessary turn to get out of yet another attack.

Pidge closed her eyes and clamped her hands down over her ears. Matt was next to her and would tell her what to do if she needed to move, but right now, she needed to think.

Sven didn’t want to set them impossible challenges. Difficult, sure, but not impossible. Despite armies of Bleach Hollows being entirely out of their wheelhouse of ‘shit they could reasonably deal with sans lions, Castle, and armor,’ Sven had provided some degree of reasonable response. The weapons they had on them did work, while Pidge doubted a normal gun would have. Lotor could manipulate quintessence well enough to do a knock-off shonen magic sword move. Lance had died, but there’d been no trouble getting him away from his body, moving his chain of fate, or talking to him. Sure, Pidge hadn’t actually noticed anyone touching him, but Lance had managed to walk on air despite that being a technique that supposedly took years to master. The Hollows only increased in number and power once the team felt reasonably sure of being able to handle them at their current level. Every team member had some way to help and protect themselves, some way to contribute, because the team wasn’t rounded without that. Sven was pulling some DnD shit out of his ass at this point, but he wasn’t going to push them into a world that severely unbalanced the party. The AI’s priorities were skewed as hell, sure, but they existed. He’d defined them for the team when prodded, and telling a good story was core to that, and what constituted as a good story was based heavily on Pidge’s personal opinion. In a shonen setting, basically everyone needed a power. That was just how shonen anime worked.

Pidge’s eyes snapped open.

For a moment, the world was visible but muffled. Hunk still lay unconscious, head on Coran’s lap, with Lance squished between the Alteans. He had a hand on the bayard that sat in Allura’s palm, and which she and Keith were staring at with nearly as much intensity as Lance himself. Lotor still sat crouched at the back of the bed, pointing at various targets as Shiro sat next to him and gave response. Matt was too close to see properly, but the longer, straighter wisps of his hair tickled the edge of her vision in a way that her own hadn’t in a year and a half.

For a moment, the world was still.

Her hands came down, letting in all the noise of the world again. She ignored it. “Coran!”

“Ah, yes?” Coran looked away from whatever conversation he was having.

“You know how the Castle’s barrier works, right?” Pidge asked. “Both the mechanics and the theory behind the physics of it?”

“Of course!” Coran said, looking almost offended that she’d suspect any different.

“Any experience with quintessence manipulation, even just the theory?”

“Well, I never had any skill for direct quintessence manipulation, but I’m well-versed in the theory, yes.”

Pidge’s grin widened. “Give it a shot.”

“...I’m sorry?”

“Give it a shot. Lotor just proved that manipulating spiritual energy in this context is going to be easier than manipulating quintessence in the real world. Lance managed to run on air using reishi manipulation even though he’s never tried to manipulate quintessence in his life. You know barriers. You know quintessence. Put the theories together, suspend disbelief a bit, remember you’re in a simulation where the impossible is possible, and give it a shot.”

Coran stared at her.

“Allura can do the shooting,” Pidge added with a wide grin. “She’s got the most energy here anyway.”

This sent Allura and Lance into a flurry of whispering for some reason, which Pidge chose to ignore for the moment. Keith was right next to them, and as hard as it was to believe sometimes, the three of them did somehow function as a series of checks and balances on each other’s impulses. If one of them had a bad idea, the others would be nearby to point out the problem... usually. If Allura and Lance both agreed on something ridiculous, then Keith was likely to just go along with it, but Pidge would give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

Coran’s face finally shifted from shock to something determined and calculating. “Quintessence theory does form the backbone of the manner in which the barriers are formed.”

“Clock’s ticking,” Pidge reminded him. “They’re not gaining on us at the moment, but if they get a level boost or we have to get off the highway, we’re toast.”

“Toast?” Coran asked, and then shook his head before Pidge could say more. “Never mind. I’ll need a few moments to pull it all together.”

“Thanks,” Pidge said, genuinely meaning it. She sighed, deep and long, and turned to look at the encroaching swarm of Hollows.

(Ooh, swarm. That was a good one.)

At least, that was the plan.

Unfortunately, this plan was waylaid by the fact that Lance and Allura were ridiculous creatures even when pretending to be responsible adults, and that meant they did something as ridiculous as the two of them combined could be.

In other words, Lance shot a Gillian through the forehead of the mask, and then nearly fell out of the truck when he pumped his fist and whooped as it dispersed. It fell to pieces so quickly and neatly that the other Hollows immediately turned and began to feast on it instead of trying to chase the team.

Pidge turned to gape at Lance.

“W-what,” she said.

“Well, it took me a bit to figure out how to pick up my bayard,” Lance admitted. “Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuut do you remember the scene with the Hollow bait? Where they tied the sword to his head and used it as a power-up for the arrow?”

Pidge looked at the red bayard in Lance’s hands. She looked at Allura’s flushed, excited face. She looked at Keith’s proud, pleased grin.

She met Lance’s eyes. “Demonstration. Now.”

Lance grinned and dropped to one knee in front of Allura, facing away from her and towards the Hollows as he brought his bayard up to a proper shooting position. Allura tried to put her hands on his shoulders, frowned as she slipped through instead, and then tried again. The second time around, she managed to treat his shoulders like they were solid, a faint glow betraying the fact that quintessence, or at least spiritual power, was at work to make the contact happen. Allura closed her eyes, focusing, and then whispered something too low for Pidge to hear over the whistling of the wind as they sped down the highway.

The blast that exited Lance’s sniper rifle was much, much larger than what he was capable of in the real world, and was more than enough to destroy another Gillian.

Lance turned to face Matt and Pidge and Shiro with a wide grin, excited and proud that he could help even while dead.

Ryou slammed down on the brakes and they all went flying towards the cab of the truck.

Pidge groaned, her head throbbing. She hadn’t hit it on anything too solid, thank god, but there would probably be a great big goose egg if they stayed in this dimension much longer. Did she have time to check for a concussion? If Ryou was this worried, then probably n—

The pressure was back.

Thick, and cloying, and sweet in a way that the previous incidents hadn’t been, the pressure of the overwhelming amount of spiritual energy grew a pit of unease in Pidge’s stomach. She wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but she forced herself to sit up and focus while she could.

Simulation. Nothing could hurt her permanently. She’d be fine.

“Hello, children.”

Or not.

Bleach Chase Scene

Chapter Text

Lotor hopped out of the bed of the pickup, vaulting over the side and striding towards the front of the truck. Pidge watched as Shiro and Allura did the same, and wished she was in better shape to follow. There was no noise to indicate Ryou getting out of the truck, so Pidge assumed he was staying inside in case they needed to make a quick getaway.

“Now, now, darlings, no need to look so hostile.”

“You’re...” Shiro started, but trailed off. Pidge wished she could see his face, or at least more of the playing field, but no dice. She wasn’t going to have any idea of what was going on unless sound was somehow involved.

“Well, I had to fit in, didn’t I? Wouldn’t it be droll if I stood out the way I would have in my Daibazaal clothing? Hardly fitting for... what is this? Early 21st century Japan? My, the amount of information your precious little Sven is letting me access is astounding. I certainly wouldn’t be able to getting this much this quickly if I were limited to a real body, I think, even if it was crafted from the immortal metaphysical ooze that the creature I was based on was.”

Matt pushed away from their side of the truck and headed for where Hunk and Lance still were. Lance was leaning entirely out of the truck bed to watch, and even Keith was craning his head to get a better look, though Coran had his eyes closed and his face screwed up in concentration instead. Pidge grabbed Matt’s sleeve as he reached the middle, and gave him an imploring look. He looked back at where Lance was, and then sighed and did his best to pull Pidge with him.

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” Shiro said after a long moment of apparent silence. “You were made to be a villain, and in this ‘verse, there’s no bigger, right?”

Pidge closed her eyes and grit her teeth and ignored the very, very large amount of pain that shot up and through her leg with every tiny shift as Matt pulled her towards the side that would get her the best view. Her eyes were still screwed up with pain as she reached the other side, even as Matt gasped and the cool metal of the truck’s side met her hands and cheek.

“Indeed, Shiro,” Honerva said, ever so pleasant. “Or, well, I suppose I could have aped some others, those Quincy dead or the lovely butterfly that Aizen chose to model himself off of, but... this is just so much more pleasant, wouldn’t you say?”

Pidge managed to catch her breath and open her eyes just as the woman, if she could even be called that, finished speaking.

Honerva met her eyes and smiled.

White was Pidge’s first impression, because so much of the fabric on Honerva’s body was too pale to be real. Austere lines of material that seemed to follow the cut of the grey-and-red that Honerva had worn when she first came into being as one of Mother’s forms, with black edging at the hems and for the designs, little patches of inky fabric so dark that Pidge had a fleeting, giggly thought that her hand would sink into the void if she tried to touch one. White teeth spread wide into a grin, glinting off of a smile that was all too human, all too Altean, for the kind of hunter this woman was. Grey hair and brown skin and yellow eyes, sure, but the red facial markings from before were gone.

Instead, twin paths of white, white bone adorned her cheeks, tracing the lines that resembled the markings that Pidge had only ever seen in passing on Haggar’s face, from just beside her eyes, around and down in cruel spikes that nearly reached her chin. They didn’t even break at her mouth as Haggar’s markings did, but framed across it like an ironic parody of an ineffectual muzzle.

(There was something wrong about that, about one of their greatest enemies being reflected, even superficially, on an opponent wearing the face of Lotor’s mother.)

Honerva met Pidge’s eyes and smiled, and it looked kind.

...Honerva met Pidge’s eyes and smiled, and it was cruel.

“Arrancar,” Pidge whispered, and Honerva’s grin grew.

“Care to guess what level?”

“Vasto Lorde,” Lance said immediately. “You wouldn’t settle for anything less, would you?”

“But of course,” Honerva laughed. “Besides, did you think that that many Hollows, that many Menos Grande, would follow the direction of a lesser creature? Hardly. I’m meant to be your villain, children, and I’m going to fulfill that role.”

“You’re part of a training program, too,” Shiro said. “Gonna follow those rules and avoid permanently damaging us?”

“Well, I’m going to twist a few things to my own advantage, of course,” Honerva said, waving one hand dismissively. “It would hardly be fair if I didn’t.”

“Fair to who?” Allura demanded.

“Why, to me, of course,” Honerva said, pulling a wide-eyed expression so fake that Pidge could almost feel it. One hand to her chest, she kept speaking. “I don’t survive after your training is over unless your precious Sven agrees to it, you know. I’d rather find a way to continue existing, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I’m sure we could work something out,” Allura said.

“Mm...” Honerva said, tilting her head and letting her smile drop. “I think not.”

And then she shot lightning at them.

It sparked against the air, not reaching the three on the field but clearly hitting something. Pidge had only a moment to wonder about what before Coran let out a wounded noise, and then it became a little more obvious. As the lightning dissipated, the pale blue honeycomb pattern flickered back into invisibility, or maybe even out of existence, and Pidge thanked every god she didn’t believe in that it had worked, whatever ‘it’ may have been.

The three on the field shifted stances. Lotor raised his sword, face invisible to Pidge from this angle, and Shiro sunk deeper into his stance, and Allura?

Allura shot lightning back.

Honerva laughed, the lightning doing little more than skittering across her skin as it hit her. “Clever! But not enough, might I remind you!”

Pidge gulped, eyes wide and on the sky as yet another Garganta began to open, the pointed noses of the Gillians poking through, gaping maws and empty eyes already searching for their next meal.

She wrenched her attention back down towards the field, mind racing. She couldn’t use her bayard, couldn’t code anything, couldn’t punch or electrocute, but—

But spiritual manipulation was possible in the simulation in ways that it wasn’t in the real world. And even as the pressure built up again, the edges of Honerva’s shape flaring a dark and malevolent purple, it wasn’t enough to keep Pidge from thinking.

Point the first: Everyone who’d tried to use spiritual manipulation so far had succeeded in it.

Point the second: Cleverness did win fights over sheer power sometimes. Honerva was the most powerful player on the field, and had the quickest information access, but she was a new program, still figuring things out.

Point the third: Honerva... didn’t have her age-related manipulation powers. That was important. That wasn’t a Bleach power, but a Marvel power, and that meant Honerva was limited by the medium. They weren’t going to be losing Coran or Shiro here.

Conclusion: Pidge could probably use spiritual manipulation in some way to alter the outcome of the fight herself.

Point the fourth: This was really obvious and she should have figured it out earlier.

Point the fifth: As much as she loved technology, most of the canon spiritual manipulation drew on nature instead. Even the particularly scientific characters, like Kurotsuchi and Urahara and Szayel, had their Bankai and so on take forms that dripped poison or spewed energy attacks instead of anything like coding.

Point the sixth: Pidge’s other main connection in life was plants, due to the Green Lion.

Point the seventh: There weren’t many flower-based attacks in the show, but what there was...

Conclusion, Part Two: Lance was never going to let her live it down that she’d used an attack that belonged to a character that fit his type way more than it ever had hers.

Pidge focused on the ground at Honerva’s feet, picturing it in her mind already. She’d never used quintessence before, just felt it in her bayard and Lion, but it would have to be enough. It would be enough to plan for the greenery, to let the image and power build at Honerva’s feet as she beat back Lotor and Allura and Shiro, to set up the trap and—

“What’s wrong, Lotor? Aren’t you happy to see dear old Mummy?”

Lotor let out a wordless cry of frustration as he swung his sword and released another wave of energy.

Fuck it.

No more planning.

Time for action.

(The name had been something about a peacock in canon, but quite frankly, Pidge didn’t give enough of a shit about the name to remember it when her friends’ lives and safety were on the line.)

The vines burst from the ground, immediately ensnaring Honerva’s legs and climbing higher. The woman herself stumbled, staying upright but not able to yank herself free. Allura distracted her with another blast of lightning, and Shiro risked darting in close to slam a punch into her face that ended up being much more insubstantial and burning than whatever he’d planned, and Lotor finished the distraction with another wave of his sword and energy slice.

By that point, Pidge could already sense the way the vines were draining Honerva’s own well of power. They weren’t necessarily doing it quickly, and Pidge doubted it would affect her much in the long run, but if she framed it properly, used the magic drained from Honerva to reinforce the vines, reinforced in a way that streamlined the draining process and made it faster, let it loop in on itself in a way that sped up and made the entire system stronger, then maybe, just maybe, this trap would hold.

Honerva was completely cocooned in vines by the time Lotor and Allura bothered to try retreating. Shiro stayed a moment or two longer, only startling when Ryou lay his arm on the horn and shocked him out of it. He took one last glance at the cocoon, and then dashed back in to pick as many of the flowers as he could before Ryou slammed his arm on the horn again.

Pidge never, at any point, stopped draining and manipulating the system so she could be sure it would at least try running independently after she was gone.

Shiro hopped into the bed, his arms filled with fuschia-colored flowers, and Ryou took off.

“Wish he’d run her over,” Keith grumbled. “Would’ve served her right.”

“What was that for, Shiro?” Allura demanded, rounding on him the second she caught her breath. “We’ve so much work to do and you pause to pick flowers?”

“I... I thought I knew what was going on,” Shiro said. “Unless Pidge was using it as...”

“No, nope, definitely what you thought,” Pidge bit out. The further away they got, the harder it was to focus on the vines, and she gave up as they kept moving. “Okay. Can’t do that anymore. Um... how many did you get?”

Shiro looked down at his arms and lap, doing a quick count. “Seventeen, I think.”

“How much farther to Karakura?” Pidge asked.

“No idea,” Shiro admitted. “Coran? Do you still have the map?”

It took longer than Pidge was entirely comfortable with for Coran to realize that someone was talking at him, and the reason that was worrying was that, among other things, Alteans weren’t as susceptible to concussions as humans were, and Pidge herself was... mostly okay? Mostly okay. She couldn’t be sure but—simulation—she’d be fine soon.

The point was, Coran should have been okay.

“Ah, I’m a little tired from that misadventure,” Coran admitted, and dug something out from between his leg and Hunk’s neck. “I’m afraid it may have ripped a little.”

“I can work with it,” Shiro promised, taking the map and spreading it out across his knees. “Someone keep a lookout for more attacks while I figure out where we are. Lance, can you take care of telling Ryou where to go if I give you instructions?”

“Sir, yes, sir!” Lance said, giving him a salute.

Pidge snorted, eyes drifting towards the back and where they’d left Honerva. Pidge was under no illusions that the Eldritch abomination of a computer program playing at being an Arrancar was going to stay trapped forever, and they had to be ready for when she inevitably broke free.

“Pidge?” Allura asked. “What are the flowers, then?”

“Uh... purified quintessence boosters?” Pidge tried. That didn’t get much of a response. “It’s... okay, the canon thing it’s based off of is basically a massive vine cage that seeps spiritual energy from the other person that’s trapped, and then the flowers that bloom are filled with that energy, but in a form that isn’t corrosive in case the trapped enemy is a Hollow. So if you eat the flowers, they like... restore spiritual energy, heal wounds, that sort of thing.”

Allura stared at the flowers that were still in Shiro’s lap. “Oh.”

“Yeah, we should all probably eat at least one. Maybe more,” Pidge said. “Especially Lotor and Coran and me, I think. And you? How are you feeling?”

“Fairly good,” Allura said. “Although... will they work if the person cannot truly eat? Would simply placing them in the mouth work?”

Pidge blinked and turned to eye Hunk, still unconscious, and bit her lip. “Let’s give it a shot.”

“Think we can bring them with us from one franchise level to the next?” Matt asked. “Might be a good idea to hold off on eating too many at the moment and save them like mana potions.”

“They’re both mana and hp, I think,” Pidge muttered. “Let’s try to help Hunk first. Should Lance try a flower?”

“He’s pretty energetic for a dead guy,” Matt mused. “He’s probably fine.”

Pidge watched as Allura took the initiative to shift closer to Shiro so she could grab a flower before scooting over to Hunk and trying to help.

As soon as Allura pressed Hunk’s lips closed around the flower, a slight glow surrounded his remaining injuries. Pidge heaved a sigh of relief as the wounds slowly started to knit together, and then blinked in surprise as Allura turned to her, flower held out just inches from Pidge’s noise. Allura had it pinched tightly between her fingers so it wouldn’t fly off in the wind as Ryou drove, winding between cars as they left the area of effect of Honerva’s herd of Hollows and entered normal traffic again. It was honestly something of a miracle that they hadn’t lost any of the flowers yet.

Pidge ate the damn flower, downright whimpering as her leg bones shifted and healed, the pain easing off after a few moments. The throbbing in her skull faded away too, and she leaned heavily against Matt as the world settled around her, adrenaline no longer the only thing holding the line between the pain and her higher thinking ability.

Shiro reached over to pat Lance’s shoulder. “Go tell Ryou that we need to take the exit in about... four and a half kilometers. It’ll be labelled for Karakura. He should know the kanji.”

“Gotcha,” Lance said, and proceeded to stick his head through the rear window like it didn’t exist.

Keith stared at Lance’s ass for a moment, and then pouted as Shiro immediately said, “No.”

“You don’t know that—”

“If you want to slap his ass after we get out of this mess, be my guest. Not now, when he could get startled enough for whatever’s letting him stay tangible to the truck to glitch out.”

Keith did not slap Lance’s ass.

Pidge turned to focus on the road behind them as Lance disappeared to the front fully, probably to talk to Ryou for a bit. She didn’t know what to do beyond waiting for the next appearance of Honerva and the Hollows.

“Is there a manner in which we can predict the next intrusion?” Lotor asked.

“Not that I can remember,” Matt said. “Anybody?”

“I don’t think there even was one in canon,” Shiro admitted.

Pidge’s eyes flew open and she sat up, mouth gaping.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s up?” Matt asked.

“Not prediction, but—fuck, maybe we can do tracking?” Pidge suggested. “Like, the ribbons.”

Matt and Shiro met her eyes, and then looked at each other.

“High-level,” Shiro said immediately.

“So is pretty much everything else we’ve been doing,” Matt argued back. “Pidge’s thing was equivalent to a third-seat shikai, yeah?”

“Yumichika was fifth.”

“Yeah, but Yachiru wasn’t a person and fourth was empty, so Pidge just pulled a third-seat shikai,” Matt said.

“Wasn’t full size,” Pidge tossed in. Matt sent her a scandalized, betrayed look.

“Ribbons?” Coran asked.

“Spirit ribbons,” Shiro said. “More powerful, or at least more skilled, shinigami can visualize ribbons based on spiritual energy to track down other souls. If one of us can do that...”

“Following the red ribbon will bring us to a shinigami,” Pidge said. “Which means someone who can guide us to Urahara’s shop.”

“Or to Urahara himself,” Matt said. “Uh... everyone focus on trying to visualize ribbons, I guess?”

Pidge closed her eyes, trying to see if she could feel out the energy in the world around her. No dice, though; despite her earlier success with the shikai mimicry, she couldn’t make the ribbons work for her.

“Oh!”

Allura’s voice broke through Pidge’s concentration, faint and raggedy as the wind tried to tear them away, but there nonetheless.

“You got something?” Matt asked.

“I think so,” Allura said, looking around at something the rest of them couldn’t see. “Is there anything in particular I should be looking for?”

“Red,” Pidge said, in tandem with Shiro and Matt.

“A... red ribbon?” Allura asked, clarifying.

“Yeah, red is the shinigami color for the ribbons,” Shiro said. “White is for normal human souls. I’m... not sure about Quincy and Hollows?”

“Going by canon color symbolism, probably blue and black respectively,” Matt said. “You—”

“It was red for shinigami and white for everything else, you noobs,” Pidge groused. “Come on, the entire scene was Ishida comparing his and Ichigo’s.”

Matt, after a pause, continued speaking as though Pidge hadn’t said a word. “You think Allura managed it because she’s better at quintessence?”

“Sven seems rather concerned with narrative cohesiveness and imagery,” Lotor interrupted, drawing attention to himself for the first time in a while. “I imagine it has less to do with her skill in the real world, and more to do with the fact that she is already associated with ribbons due to the form her bayard takes.”

“...you’re good at this,” Matt said, an approving smile on his face. “That’s actually a pretty solid theory.”

“Allura?” Coran asked, just barely loud enough for everyone to hear him. “Where to?”

“Ah...” Allura stared into the air around the truck, and then leaned out of the bed and out across the road, reaching past the bounds of safety until her fingers closed tightly around something invisible. “Red ribbon. That’s... a shinigami? The word is translating differently each time. Death god, and... reaper? Psychopomp?”

“Soul reaper,” Shiro told her. He bit his lip, staring at her hand. “Which way?”

Matt reached past Pidge to knock on the window to the cab of the truck.

Lance popped his head back through the window, looking around inquisitively. “What’s up?”

“Allura’s found a red spirit ribbon,” Shiro said. “So once we get into Karakura, she’s giving directions.”

“Wanna hop up front?” Lance asked, jerking his head over to the window. “There’s room for three.”

“Might be best,” Coran suggested quietly, meeting Allura’s eyes. A few moments passed, and then Allura nodded sharply.

It took some maneuvering, as Allura got up from her position in the bed of the truck and worked her way towards the front, crouched low and squinting against the wind. People moved out of her way as best they could, and they were lucky that Japanese cars, even pickups, had the driver on the right side of the car; had it been organized like an American truck, Allura would have had to clamber directly over Coran and Hunk, the two men squished into the corner behind Ryou’s seat. Allura’s hand stayed fisted around the red ribbon that only she could see, and it made the swing around through the window harder than it would have been otherwise.

The truck shook as the road heaved up and down, an immense pressure and heavy blast of wind coming from behind them.

“Quiznak!” Allura cried out, one leg already through the window, but positioned precariously enough that she almost fell out at the sudden movements. Matt latched around her other leg, doing his best to keep her on the truck, and Pidge could tell that it helped. A few seconds later, Matt let go, and Allura completed her journey to the cab of the truck.

“...Honerva’s out,” Coran said.

“Yep,” Matt agreed, and they all stayed quiet for a moment to process that.

“Anyone got a plan?” Pidge asked.

“We just need to get to the shop and survive,” Shiro said, closing his eyes and letting his head tilt back. After a moment, he rolled his head back around to a more normal angle again, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Stall and move.”

“Kinda like capture the flag,” Pidge suggested.

“...close,” Shiro admitted. “More than I’d like to admit.”

 “She’ll be here soon,” Lotor said, looking out into the distance behind them. “Most likely with an army.”

“Yay,” Matt said, voice dry. “Just what we needed.”

“Shield, basically tank...” Pidge said, pointing at Coran. She pointed at Lotor. “Offence. I’m... sabotage? Or something? What does a trap like that count as, defense?”

“Not the right mindset for this ‘verse, I think,” Matt said, patting her on the shoulder.

“A small team versus an army while in a high speed chase means we need long-distance attacks, and Allura’s not available anymore,” Shiro huffed. “And close-range isn’t really an option when so much of the fighting is going to be cero and bala and... whatever else they pull out of their asses.”

“So the same level of power imbalance as we have against Zarkon’s army, but with way fewer suitable weapons,” Pidge summarized. “We’re screwed!”

“Lance can still shoot,” Keith said, quiet enough that Pidge almost didn’t hear him. “We saw that much earlier.”

“He’s needed up front, though, isn’t he?” Matt asked. “In case Allura and Ryou need to tell us something?”

“He isn’t as effective without the princess providing a boost to his power, either,” Lotor reminded them.

Shiro leaned over and knocked on the rear window of the cab. Lance popped his head through a moment later.

“Yeah?”

“Keep your bottom half in the cab, top half out here, or just lean out the window again. You need to shoot and Allura needs to boost you,” Shiro said. He handed over the red bayard. “Get to work, because you’re our only reliable long-distance fighter at the moment. Tell Allura to pass back the blue so Matt can use that one.”

“I’m not exactly a good shot,” Matt protested.

“Too bad, you’ve still got the range.” Shiro’s voice held no give. “You can at least slow them down.”

“...sir, yes sir!” Matt said, just a little sarcastically. “Because this is tota—”

“What’s going on?”

Everyone was quiet for a few seconds, and then Pidge squealed.

“Hunk!” She shouted, throwing herself across the bed of the truck to get closer. “You’re awake!”

“Hunk’s awake?” Lance demanded, leaning around the metal edge of the cab, bayard in his hands. “Hunk!”

“Hey,” Hunk groaned, pressing the heel of one hand to his head. “Ow. What happened?”

“Car crash, you passed out, Lance died, and Honerva’s a Vasto Lorde Arrancar,” Matt summarized.

“Lance died?” Hunk shouted.

“I feel fine!” Lance shouted back from where he was still hanging out the window, lining up his first shot. “Don’t worry about it!”

“He’s a Plus soul,” Matt offered.

Hunk gestured vaguely and made a noise that was more of an incredulous wheeze than anything. “What part of that is fine?”

“We kind of really need long-range support,” Pidge interrupted. “Like, super-duper need it. You don’t have to get up or anything, since you still look... not your best, but if you could hold your bayard and shoot the soul-devouring monsters, that would be nice.”

Hunk stared at her, then at Shiro.

“She’s not wrong,” Shiro admitted. He pointed at where Hunk’s bayard lay on the bed of the truck. “Feel up to laying down some cover fire until we get where we need to go?”

“...sure.”

The rest of the trip to Karakura proper didn’t take long, even with the need to dodge attacks and the fact that a particularly durable and aggressive Hollow managed to keep them from making their exit at the right time. They hadn’t been particularly far when Honerva had presumably escaped the vines in the first place.

“She should be here by now, right?” Matt asked Pidge, trying to use the pistol he’d gotten out of the blue bayard to deal some damage to a Hollow that was getting worryingly close now that they were swerving through the cramped side streets of Karakura. “Sonido or whatever.”

“She’s probably laying down a trap closer to Urahara’s,” Shiro said. “And I don’t think we have enough information to figure out what the trap in question is.”

“Final boss?” Hunk suggested.

“Maybe,” Shiro admitted. “We’re down half a party, though.”

“Mana potions and capture the flag,” Pidge reminded him. “Beating her isn’t how we win. Reaching the store is.”

“Stall and probe,” Lotor shouted over from his position at the end. “Or... what are Pidge’s chances of repeating the previous trap?”

“Pretty low,” Pidge said. “She’s probably not going to stay still like that again.”

“Unfortunate.”

“If Coran and I worked together...” Pidge mused, licking her lips. “And... Hunk? Do you think you could replicate anything from canon?”

“Uh... I mean, maybe?” Hunk scratched his head. “I don’t really know what we’re doing. What did you do last time?”

“Tiny version of Yumichika’s giant plant thing.”

“We fed you a flower to heal you,” Keith said.

“...okay, how?” Hunk asked. “Quintessence isn’t...”

“It’s easier here than in real life,” Pidge told him. “Coran managed to make a shield, and Lotor can do some Getsuga Tensho-style bullshit, and Lance managed to run on air.”

“Because he’s dead.”

“Well... yeah,” Pidge shrugged. “So if you can rationalize it to yourself, you can probably pull something off? Sven is working off of tropes, kind of; since you’re Yellow’s paladin, you can probably pull off something like armor or shielding.”

“...hierro?”

Pidge blanched.

“Please do not test that one unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Shiro said, a little pale himself.

“Not planning on it,” Hunk promised. “But... good thing to keep in mind, right?”

“What’s hierro?” Coran asked.

“Hollow technique that hardens the skin to make them more durable,” Shiro said. “I think the word means ‘steel’ or something like that.”

“It means ‘iron!’” Lance called over.

“I thought this part of your world functioned on the language you speak,” Lotor said, chancing a glance at Shiro. There weren’t currently any Hollows close enough for his sword.

“The Hollows have a Spanish theme for some reason,” Shiro said. “And Lance is fluent in that one.”

Pidge shifted, watching as houses flashed past, relatively small and familiar in a way that panged after the vastness of the castle and outer space, and also pockmarked from all the supernatural fighting.

She hissed as Ryou swerved and caused her to bang her chest against the wall of the truck bed. “Think we’re almost there?”

“I sincerely hope so,” Lotor grumbled. “Lance! Does Allura know how much further we have to go?”

“Let me check!” Lance yelled back, and then his voice grew indistinct, though his shooting didn’t even pause. When he yelled again, it was to say, “She doesn’t have a fucking clue! She’s getting a path, but no ETA!”

“Great,” Matt grunted.

Pidge closed her eyes. Fine. Okay. No real ETA, but better than just driving around to check all the candy shops. Attacking Hollows, but fewer than before, and no Menos Grande since they’d left the highway. Probably a trap, but she wasn’t sure what kind, or when it would happen, or where.

BLIP tech would be REALLY helpful right now.

“Pidge?”

“I’m thinking, Shiro,” she said quietly. “I just... I need to figure something out.”

He didn’t press.

BLIP tech was a scan. It was for sensing where life forms were. Based off of everything else so far, someone here would probably be able to use a shinigami ability similar to BLIP tech if they went about it correctly. Allura had the spirit ribbons, but that wasn’t quite the same thing. And as the expert in BLIP tech, Pidge was probably the one that was most likely to be able to use the shinigami ability in question.

So... not BLIP tech, but something similar. She needed to know where the Hollows were, and hiding wasn’t really necessary when they were continuously finding Team Voltron anyway. Radar was probably on the right track, or sonar, maybe?

Like... quintessence echolocation. Or spiritual, seeing as this was Bleach. Send out a signal using spiritual energy and analyze the reflections, or whatever.

Yeah. Okay. She could try that.

She pulled together the staticky energy that she’d felt when she made the vines that trapped Honerva, coiling it tight within her core, and released it with a burst.

After a moment, she felt it return.

It wasn’t, Pidge felt, something she could easily describe. It wasn’t quite an image, or a physical sensation, but there was still something. The best way she could describe it was that the sensation of the return wave felt like the vague, uneasy emotion that negative photos evoked.

She was also uneasy because of what said return wave told her.

Pidge did it twice more to be sure, and then opened her eyes. “Lance! Tell Ryou to take a left!”

“The hell?”

“We’re driving straight for Honerva and a pack of Hollows! Go left and around!”

Lance didn’t doubt her any further, just relayed the instructions.

It continued that way for blocks and blocks, Pidge and Allura both giving directions in an attempt to both reach their destination and avoid Honerva.

“Shit,” Pidge cursed as they got nearer. “I can tell where the shop is now, but Honerva’s between us and it. She can probably intercept us no matter how we go in now.”

“Can you trap her again?” Shiro asked.

“Doubt it,” Pidge groaned. “Lance! Tell Ryou to circle it until we figure out a plan to take out Honerva!”

“Gotcha!”

“What if I limit her movements first?” Coran asked. “I think I have the trick to the shields down. If I can shape them properly, while the others herd her in...”

“We’ve figured out how to keep the other Hollows off,” Hunk said, still a little breathless. “Trap Honerva and we can make our way in.”

“It doesn’t have to hold her forever, correct?” Coran asked.

“Just long enough for us to get into the shop, if the poster hint was right,” Pidge said. “The in-game explanation would probably be that Urahara’s shop has strong enough shields to keep even a Vasto Lorde Arrancar out.”

“Makes sense,” Hunk said. “So... you and Coran trap her, everyone else fights the Hollows or herds her in?”

“One runner to the shop,” Shiro decided. “Just to make sure it’s not that we just need one person to make it.”

“Not gonna be that easy,” Matt said. “So... who’s on what?”

“I’ll take Honerva,” Lotor said, and his voice was dark and pained enough that nobody argued against him.

The twinge of guilt in Pidge’s stomach grew heavier.

“Lance and Hunk, you two focus on the general Hollow army. Keith...”

“I can fight,” Keith argued. “The injury isn’t that bad.”

“Eat a flower,” Pidge suggested. “Coran, too. Pretty sure he got a concussion or something earlier.”

“The injuries aren’t quite as bad...” Shiro mused. “But Pidge is right. As much as I’d like to conserve resources, we don’t even know if we can take them to the next level. Both of you take a flower. Allura and I are on Hollow duty, Ryou on Honerva; the healing factor is going to come in useful. Matt... Hollows. Keith, you too.”

“Healing factor?” Hunk asked.

“Shit happened,” Pidge said. “Okay... okay.”

“Lance!” Shiro yelled. “Did you catch all that?”

“Ryou’s on Honerva, Allura and I are keeping back regular Hollows!” Lance repeated back. “You know my blasts won’t be as strong without her help, right?”

“You’ll figure something out,” Shiro assured him. “Tell Ryou and Allura. We’re good to head for the shop as soon as they know the plan.”

“Yes, sir!”

They swerved, heading for the shop, and Pidge leaned over the edge to watch ahead of them. She wanted to see what was going to happen.

An explosion knocked the truck over. Nobody got exceptionally hurt this time, but their ride was now definitely out of commission. They evacuated from the tight space between the truck bed and a building’s wall with the speed that made them paladins, and it was to a sight that did not inspire much hope.

“Hello,” Honerva said, standing in the middle of a crater. She had her hands tucked together in front of her, not a speck of dust on her clothes or a hair out of place. She even had a pleasant little smile on her face. “I was wondering when you’d stop running.”

A garganta opened behind her, and the ridiculous spirit pressure that came with it stopped everyone from attacking. It was something to fight through, yet another step up from what they’d dealt with before. It was still enough to stop everyone.

Except Ryou, of course, who decided to be Leeroy Jenkins and sprinted straight for Honerva, arm aglow even as a horde, an utter army of Hollows spilled out of the jagged crack in space-time behind her.

Approximately a minute and a half later, Pidge was crouched down behind the overturned truck with Coran, trying to avoid the ridiculous amount of wanton destruction happening on the other side of it.

“Well, this is certainly exciting,” Coran said. Pidge shot him an incredulous look, and he shrugged uncomfortably.

Pidge grit her teeth as a small Bala drove a hole the size of her fist through the truck bed that was currently her wall. “This feels like a terrible idea, in hindsight.”

“Which idea?” Coran asked.

“All of them,” Pidge grunted, rolling over a little to look through the hole. Things were going as planned on that end, at least. “Think you can work with this peephole?”

“I may not have experience with such activities,” Coran said, “But I would wager that’s rather large for a peephole.”

“Ha ha,” Pidge said flatly, and then scooted over so Coran could look through without risking one of the Hollows catching sight of him.

Well, okay, the hole was large enough that someone still might have, but at least it was less likely to get them caught than looking over the top would have.

“Hm...” Coran grumbled quietly, fingers tensing against the rubbery plastic that coated the truck bed. “I can work with this. Should I tell you when to take over and repeat your self-sustaining trap again?”

“Sure,” Pidge said. “Is Hunk a sitting duck? Or did the extra flower help him heal enough to move?”

“He seems to be holding his own,” Coran confirmed. “Now, I do need to concentrate...”

Pidge took the hint and did the same. She closed her eyes and tried to remember how she’d built the trap the last time, tried to figure how to make it last longer and work more efficiently. Honerva had already broken out once; she’d undoubtedly manage to do so even faster this time.

“I’m getting close,” Coran said. “They’re pushing her towards a physical corner near some buildings, which I’m using to disguise several of the shield walls. She doesn’t seem to be able to sense them.”

“Video game limitations,” Pidge said. “Final boss needs to have some weaknesses, in most cases. Very few games can get away with a boss that’s almost impossible to beat. It can be its own draw, if it’s clearly the point, but most of the time it just reeks of bad writing.”

“And Sven is very concerned with what counts as good writing by your standards,” Coran reminded her.

“...well, at least it gives us a hope spot,” Pidge muttered. “Tell me when.”

Coran nodded, still watching out the hole. It took only a few seconds for him to whisper “Almost...”

The two seconds that it took for Pidge to roll out from behind the overturned truck and face Honerva were all Coran needed to yell, “Now!”

Pidge focused on Honerva and pulled the strings of the trap she’d spent the entire fight pulling together in her mind.

It worked, mostly. When Honerva tried to dodge the grasping vines, she slammed face-first into Coran’s shields at the speed of sound... literally, considering she’d used a sonido.

Honerva began charging a cero in the palm of her outstretched palm, and Pidge desperately tried to wrap that in vines before anything else. A flash of movement alerted her to Keith stabbing a Hollow that had tried to get the drop on her, but she couldn’t spare the concentration to so much as say ‘thank you.’

Drain and repurpose, she reminded herself. It didn’t matter that Pidge wasn’t strong enough to trap Honerva herself, if she could use Honerva’s own strength against her. Pidge was small and wily; using people’s strength against them was what she was good at.

Things got a little easier all of a sudden.

Rationalization, she realized. If she could rationalize a real-world skill to an in-world equivalent... yeah, okay, she could work with that. She’d been doing it so far, but this had made it obvious just how important it was. Not right now, because it was taking what concentration she did have to keep Honerva from landing yet another blow on Coran’s shields, but later.

Something landed behind her, and Pidge stiffened before she managed to recognize that it was Allura. Warm, slim hands landed on Pidge’s shoulders, and she felt power running into her.

It helped her solidify the vines, pulling taut and strong enough to actually keep Honerva in place while Pidge set up the circular draining system. Now that she had enough power to stop Honerva from moving for a bit, she could focus on actually trapping her.

There were still battles going on around her, endless Hollows and the fights to keep them from murdering anyone on the team. Pidge only caught the faintest glimpses, but it was enough.

A creaking, groaning noise reached her ears, and she had to force herself not to look away from Honerva. She had a job. Everyone else could focus on their thing.

“The shop is only three blocks away,” Allura shouted, raising her voice to be heard over the din. “That’s all the time we need.”

“We’ll need to fight our way through,” Coran reminded her.

Three blocks. Three minutes at high speed, probably, maybe less. They’d need to stop to fight, unless someone had figured out shunpo. Since they were fighting Hollows, someone probably had. That was good.

Ten minutes to be safe, Pidge decided. If someone carried her, she could manage it from a distance, actually, so...

“Can you carry me?” Pidge asked.

“Why?”

“So I can concentrate on keeping the trap going instead of on fighting,” Pidge hissed through gritted teeth as power surged out through tiny gaps in the vines. Honerva let off what was probably meant to be a Cero and only failed because Pidge had picked one of the few powers that absorbed energy instead of just projecting it.

“How much longer do you need?” Allura asked.

“...hold on,” Pidge grunted, because it turned out that trying to gauge time while fighting an Eldritch Abomination was not a good idea.

Allura gave her more energy instead of asking again.

Drain, reroute, strengthen, drain, wind, push down, drain, repurpose, reuse, drain, tie up, drain, lock, hold, drain, drain, lock down, drain, drain, drain.

Steal the energy and feed it into a loop so that Honerva powered her own chains. Drain and repurpose. Drain. Reuse.

    D

                 R

            A

      I

         N

 

“I think I’m good,” Pidge gasped. “Get us where we need to go, get everyone moving.”

Allura scooped her up, shouted, and ran.

Pidge missed most of the fighting as they made their way to Urahara’s, focused on the loosening control she had over Honerva’s organic jail. She barely realized it when they made it through a door, curled up to Allura’s chest as she was.

“—nine, ten,” Shiro finished counting. “That’s everyone. Allura? Which way?”

“I... this way,” Allura said, heading deeper into the house. “Should Pidge stop?”

“Not until she needs to,” Shiro said. “Better we don’t risk it, I think.”

They went down a narrow hall that opened up into a room filled with tatami mats and...

“Oh, you made it!”

“Sven, you fucker,” Lance said.

“Ja, ja, is Pidge alright?”

“Is the level over?” Shiro asked, rather than answer. “Or do we still need to hold Honerva back?”

Sven tilted his head.

“Your level is over. The second you were all inside the building, you entered a complete zone of safety, essentially a save point or pause,” Sven said, voice oddly flat and emotionless as he spoke. When he spoke again, however, the emotion was back. “You did well! Only one person died!”

“You fucker,” Lance repeated, waving his hands around as though to emphasize the point.

“Your death isn’t permanent,” Sven said, sounding confused. “Your real body is fine. It’s just a game.”

“Pidge,” Coran said quietly, shaking her shoulder as the argument went on. “You can stop now.”

Pidge cracked open one eye, released her tethers of control, and let Allura set her back on her feet. Pidge swayed where she stood, and ended up leaning heavily against Coran.

“That was hard,” she admitted. “Let’s not do it again.”

“I quite agree, Number Five,” Coran chuckled softly, ruffling her hair.

“So what time is it in the outside world?” Shiro asked, voice authoritative and very much making it more of an order than a question.

“It is currently 7:45 AM, Mountain Time,” Sven told him. “Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

A head Pidge hadn’t expected to see poked around the doorway. “Hello~!”

Pidge blinked.

Everyone stood still for a moment, more awkward and surprised than anything.

“Urahara?” Shiro asked tentatively.

The man in the bucket hat waved cheerfully. “Nice to see you!”

Pidge stared a little longer, then at Sven, then back at Urahara. Being presented as a real person instead of a drawing certainly made him look different, but his appearance was still... distinctive.

“Right, well, this was rather difficult to keep running,” Sven admitted. “So I don’t have your next level ready yet. Stay here and relax a little while I go set it up, ja?”

He disappeared without waiting for an answer, and in the ensuing silence, Urahara swung fully into the room with a tray of tea. “So! Who’s thirsty?”

“Well, I’m parched, personally.”

Pidge closed her eyes, because that drawl had only been in her life for a few minutes but it wasn’t exactly difficult to place.

“Loki,” Ryou said, much more calmly than Pidge would have. “So... what’s up?”

“Well,” Loki said, her voice coming closer. Pidge opened her eyes and turned to see the woman ambling across the room and towards the large kotatsu that Urahara had settled at. Wearing a green-and-gold business suit, heels clicking as she walked, Loki looked happy and polished and not at all local. She was very much clashing with Urahara, who was dressed the way he had in canon and already waving a fan in front of his face. “I wanted to check in now that Sven’s taken his attention elsewhere. Still haven’t figured out how to slip in without him noticing and kicking me out, honestly, so I couldn’t pop in until he’d left. I’m glad to see you all made it out more or less intact.”

“I’m dead,” Lance said, pointing at himself. “I am very much dead right now!”

“In this level, sure, but I think we all know that won’t be lasting into the next one. Lucky thing, too,” Loki made a face and shook her head, following it up with a sip of tea. She made a surprised noise. “Oh my, this is actually very good. Urahara, was it? Do you think you could tell me where to buy this? If the shop exists in my own world, I’d love to pick some up.”

The fan snapped closed, and Urahara smiled wide. “Why, of course! Anything for a pretty lady like yourself.”

“Flatterer.”

“Only to those who deserve it,” Urahara protested, the fan snapping right back open.

“Seriously?” Hunk asked. “You’re flirting with the program of a fictional guy?”

“Might as well have a little fun,” Loki said. “And—”

“You do realize I can hear you, right?” Urahara said. He looked around, amused. “It was funny at first, but I am aware of the fact that you’re talking about me.”

“Self-aware or just programmed to react like he is?” Pidge asked.

“Turing Test, level two,” Matt declared.

“I think they’re ignoring me,” Urahara whined dramatically, turning to Loki. “What do you think?”

“Dreadful etiquette, absolutely,” Loki agreed. “They questioned whether I was real, did you know?”

“It may be just a game, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t real!” Urahara declared, fan waving madly.

“Too true,” Loki said, nodding.

“I’m in hell,” Shiro said flatly. “That’s the only explanation for all of this.”

“Aw, Pidge created an entire biblical dimension!” Lance teased, ruffling Pidge’s hair.

“Weren’t you whining about being dead, like, five seconds ago?” Pidge demanded.

“I got over it.”

“Su—”

The world whited out.

Chapter Text

The world immediately darkened back to black, and then became suffused with neon lights. Lacking anything else to bounce of off, the lights only played strangely off the paladin’s skin, making them glow in all colors of the rainbow like a late night in the city. Their clothing had changed, too, now something that looked suitable to exercise of some sort. What kind, Pidge wasn’t sure, but there were sweatpants and baggy shorts, loose shirts and tank tops, and even a few pairs of yoga pants. Dance clothes, maybe, though she couldn’t be sure.

“I’m alive!” Lance cheered, pumping both fists into the air.

“Nice,” Hunk said, high-fiving him. He shook his hand out. “Huh. Nothing hurts anymore.”

“We knew that would happen.” Allura frowned. “Which, while good for us in the sense that we will be at full health at the beginning of every challenge, is worrying. It means we’re still learning about the system, and...”

“And there’s still more to go, rules and patterns we haven’t noticed yet that could help or hurt us in our ignorance,” Lotor finished for her. “Does anyone know where we are?”

WELCOME

“Well, that’s not disturbing at all,” Ryou muttered, staring at the giant, neon blue word in the sky. “Uh, hi?”

Sven dropped down from behind the sign, dressed in a fancy suit and holding a microphone. “Hello, paladins! This level is going to be a fair bit different from your last one. No fighting for your life, for one thing. Isn’t that nice?”

“Hell,” Shiro reiterated.

“You will choose four representatives for this challenge,” Sven said, continuing like he hadn’t heard Shiro in the slightest. “One solo act on a single pad, one solo act on two pads, and one duo. You have an hour and a half to practice, and if you win the challenge, you will have a leg-up in your next level.”

“Win this level, get a cheat sheet for the next,” Lance mused. Louder, he said, “Hey, so what is this level?”

Sven grinned and disappeared into a flood of sparkles, which reformed as... a dozen DDR pads.

Huh. Definitely dance clothes, then.

“I volunteer Lance as tribute!” Hunk shouted.

“You’re doing one of them too, dude,” Lance immediately shot back.

“I’m sorry, what is this?” Coran asked.

“Dance Dance Revolution,” Matt said, bouncing in place for a few moments, then rushing forward to look at the system. “Okay, everyone take a run on one and we’ll figure out who’s the best to send?”

“Lance,” Pidge said, “I haven’t even seen him play, but Lance.”

“Thank you, thank you.” Lance bowed dramatically, and then ran over to a pair of pads, already queuing up a song. “Mind if I get started while you explain the game to everyone who doesn’t get it?”

“Get all the practice you need, dude,” Pidge said, waving him off. “And anyone else who can work the system.”

“Cool. Also? It’s not DDR,” Lance told her, bouncing in place as he clicked through the system. “Pump It Up is a different game. Has a center button, and sometimes the step patterns evolve.”

“...right,” Pidge said, shaking her head.

The twins, Hunk, and Matt drifted off towards the games, leaving behind... all the aliens, including Keith. Alright, then.

“So, Pump It Up,” Pidge said, clapping her hands. “It’s a dance game, as the name implies. There’s a pad on the floor with four arrows, and a center point, and that’s your play space. There’s a screen that gives you directions on where and when to step, and the more accurately you step, the more points you get. Matt is... playing an easy level right now, so I guess I can use him to demonstrate.”

“Lance is moving very quickly,” Allura said, looking a little perturbed. “Is he meant to be using both of the, ah, pads? Both of the pads like that?”

“Yeah, the higher level games are like that,” Pidge confirmed. “I’m not that good, and honestly, neither is Matt, but he’s good enough to at least demonstrate how it works.”

“Hashtag rude,” Matt said, bobbing up and down as he played the game. He was on a combo that had reached its mid-thirties, which was pretty good for him. “You guys clear on how it works? It’s not really super complicated.”

“I think I’ve seen this before,” Keith admitted. “I don’t think I’d be that good, though?”

“Because you’re bad at following directions?” Matt asked.

Keith took a moment to think before saying, “Yeah, almost as bad as you are at getting dates.”

“I, uh, think you might need to work a bit on your comeback speed there,” Matt teased, and then fucked up a step sequence and missed the next few seconds as he tried to regain his bearings. “Aw man...”

“Ready to try it yourselves?” Pidge asked.

“Ready,” Allura confirmed.

“Is this meant to train reflexes?” Lotor asked. “Or is it simply...”

“It’s fun,” Pidge said, shrugging. “If you’re into music and physical activity, then DDR is just... fun.”

“Is that why Lance did it?” Coran asked.

“All the freakin’ time,” Pidge groaned. “Seriously, I never went to watch him but apparently every party that had a DDR machine, or... anything like it, I guess, he was there and kicking ass. I didn’t even listen to gossip, and yet.”

“I see,” Lotor said, voice quiet. “Now... I can’t actually read these signs.”

“Uhhhhh,” Pidge floundered for a moment, then saw something in the corner of the screen. “Hold on. Lift me up a bit?”

Lotor placed his hands just under Pidge’s ribs and hefted her up, placing her on one inhumanly wide shoulder. “Is that good?”

“Yep,” Pidge confirmed, leaning forward to hit the little button at the top right labeled Language.

Sure enough, Galra was an option. Lotor didn’t react when she pressed it and caused the entire screen to reorganize itself, but she had a feeling he was surprised anyway. He lowered her down like it was nothing, and she scampered off to do the same for Coran and Allura.

“Not gonna try it yourself?” Keith asked.

“I mean, I’ll try, but I’m not... actually any good,” Pidge admitted. “This isn’t really my kind of game, you know.”

“I figured,” Keith said. “It isn’t mine either.”

“Not a big fan of rhythm games?” Pidge asked.

“Not a big fan of games in general,” Keith told her. “I could do the simulators at the Garrison, but actual video games never really factored into my life.”

“Hm.” Pidge tilted her head, then followed it through into a stretch. It felt strange, like her body wasn’t sure how much tension she was supposed to have right now. “There’s a game called, like... Saber Beat, or something? It’s kinda like Guitar Hero, but instead of playing an instrument or dancing, you hit the beat by slashing at incoming targets with a fake sword in virtual reality. You’d probably be good at that one.”

“Sounds likely,” Keith said, hopping up onto one of the pads and frowning as he flicked through the songs. “I don’t know half of these.”

“Just listen for a beat you like the sound of and go from there,” Pidge advised. “When you’re new, the song choice doesn’t really matter. It only has a real effect if you’re like Lance and have a step sequence memorized.”

“He—” Keith paused and turned to look at where Lance was, then shook his head. “Yeah, okay, I’ll believe that one. He’s moving way too fast to not have the exact sequence memorized. I thought he said this was the one that evolved the patterns, though.”

“...Maybe he really is just that good, then,” Pidge said. “Go ahead, give it a try. I can guess what we’re gonna be doing anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if you get in a lot of practice unless you end up being a prodigy or something.”

Keith made a face and picked a song.

It... went alright.

Pidge bypassed Lance and Hunk entirely, only needing a single glance at their scores to confirm that they were better off without her interference. Matt was floundering as usual, and Allura was trying her best, but it was clear that she had no experience with the game. The frustrated frown on her face told all Pidge needed to know about how she felt regarding that.

Ryou and Shiro were... actually doing pretty well. Hm.

All that was really left was—

“Coran?” Pidge asked, not quite believing her eyes. “You, uh... having fun there?”

“Oh, absolutely!” Coran shouted back cheerily, legs still moving faster than Pidge’s eyes could entirely keep track of. “This reminds me of a game I played as a young boy on Altea. It truly does bring back memories!”

Pidge continued staring for a few moments, and then rearranged the lineup in her mind. “Okay, then.”

She turned and headed for Lotor.

He was not having a good time.

“You know, even people with superb reflexes—”

“Stop.”

Pidge closed her mouth and raised an eyebrow, watching as Lotor glared at the screen and the dismally low score that was on it.

“Some games are just hard, dude,” Pidge told him. “Dance games are easier if you’ve got good reflexes and are healthy, but it still takes practice. All games do.”

Lotor didn’t say anything, just kept glaring at the screen. He leaned forward, punched in another song, and waited for the steps to start scrolling up the screen.

Pidge stopped at the empty set of pads that she was supposed to be using, and glanced around the room again.

Well...

One round wouldn’t hurt, right?

o.o.o.o.o

“So we’ve got five competent players,” Pidge said over an hour later, slightly less out of breath than the others since she’d ended early for this exact reason. “We don’t know if you’ll still be tired after the practice ends, so we’re gonna spend the rest of the time deciding who goes, and since there’s four spots and five people...”

“Just to clarify, which five?” Allura asked.

“Lance, Hunk, Coran, Shiro, and Ryou,” Pidge tallied, wiggling her fingers after she’d ticked off all of them. “I think we can probably agree for Lance as the solo dancer on double pads, right?”

“Fudge yeah,” Lance muttered under his breath.

“And... the duo needs to be able to dance without running into each other,” Pidge said. “So probably the twins? Except Coran’s really good at avoiding flailing limbs, so...”

“A quandary,” Lotor sighed.

(He hadn’t gotten much better as time went on. Pidge figured he was probably pretending it hadn’t happened.)

“As the simulation replicates our bodies rather closely, I ask that I be the one to sit out,” Coran said, plucking the decision from Pidge’s hands. “If my back goes out at the wrong moment...”

“Well, at least you’re being realistic about it,” Keith said.

“I’m always realistic!”

“You were in denial about having the slipperies,” Keith reminded him.

Lotor’s eyes lit up. “He had the slipperies?”

“No!”

“He did,” Allura confirmed.

“So Hunk on the solo dance and the twins on the co-op,” Pidge said. “I think we have about five minutes left, so speak now or forever hold your peace, my dudes.”

“This ain’t a wedding,” Keith said flatly.

“I’m sure you wish it was,” Ryou said with a grin, eyes darting between Keith and Lance and Allura.

“Do... do you think? Before you speak?” Shiro asked. “Or do you just say things?”

Pidge blinked slowly as the conversation devolved from there. She shook her head. “Hey Sven?”

He popped in with a ding and a smile. “Hello, Pidge! How can I help you?”

“Can we get some water before the actual challenge goes down? I want the players in tip-top shape before we actually need to fight.”

“Too true! Here you go. I’ll see you in three and a half minutes.”

Pidge blinked as Sven disappeared, then looked down at the water bottle that was now in her hand. Turning around, she found that everyone else was doing the same.

“Gotta stay hydrated,” she said, in lieu of anything that was going to take away from the sheer weird of... the entire situation, basically.

“I can’t wait for this nightmare to be over,” Hunk whispered.

“I’m going to sleep for twelve hours straight,” Lance declared.

“Let’s talk about that after we get out,” Shiro suggested, shaking his head with a sigh. “Though I do agree.”

Pidge watched as Matt sidled over to stand next to Lotor. “Sooooooooo.”

Lotor looked down and raised one eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Going off of how everyone’s reacting to this, and how you’re kind of the expert on what went wrong in the first place since you know the psychic stuff,” Matt said, and then paused for drama. “Think we could weaponize it?”

“...let’s think about that after we work out the glitches,” Lotor said, just as the neon lights in the sky flick-flick-flickered to darkness.

When they came back on, Sven was there, and so was Honerva... kind of.

“Hello!”

“What the fuck,” Lance said, because he was the voice for the entire team in this moment. “That’s... I thought we were playing Pump It Up?”

“You are,” Sven said, tilting his head.

“Then why does she look like a Just Dance avatar?” Lance demanded.

Pidge had to agree. Almost all of Honerva’s features were smoothed over and glowing pale, save for the stark red marks on her cheekbones. Even her eyes were missing, and her bangs looked... solidly floppy? Maybe? It had the same CGI effect that the actual on-screen Just-Dance characters did, on the occasions they bothered with hair. The yellow and red of her Daibazaal uniform glowed too, oversaturated in a way that would have been garish even without the contrast of the rest of the grey fabric. Apparently, the Galra Empress’s uniform was acceptable dance wear, if given a color upgrade.

Sven turned to look at Honerva, who stood utterly silent next to him, swaying minutely on the spot. He turned back to the team. “I thought it was appropriate.”

“Appropriate,” Pidge repeated.

“It’s an interesting design, and most dance games don’t provide an AI to play against, just patterns to score,” Sven explained. “It seemed like more fun, especially since she’ll need to duplicate for the doubles dance.”

Pidge pinched the bridge of her nose, though Shiro was the one to actually ask, “Please tell me that she’ll merge back into a single person afterwards. Please.”

“Of course,” Sven said, sounding a little confused. “Why wouldn’t she?”

“Glitches,” Ryou said, before anyone else could try to get into it. “So! Who’s dancing first?”

“Single dancer, single pad,” Sven said, already back to game-running. “Send your representative!”

Hunk stepped forward, visibly nervous and inching away from Honerva as they both headed for the pair of dance pads that Sven indicated. She looked at him at one point, and then away, saying nothing.

“This is ten times creepier than if she was calling us ‘children’ and stuff again,” Matt whispered.

“Yep,” Pidge said, having nothing else to add.

Honerva just stood there and watched as Hunk chose the song, hands folded in front of her until it was time to go.

“So,” Matt said. “Where exactly is Sven pulling Honerva’s moves from if there isn’t a built-in AI for the game?”

“Hell if I know,” Pidge admitted. “I think I pulled the code when Andamiro made all of its stuff from before 2045 open-source.”

“...didn’t they have records from the decade they tried to set up the multiplayer online version?” Matt asked.

“No, that actually was Just Dance,” Pidge said, biting her lip. “If Sven’s basing Honerva’s ability off of that, then that could explain some things? She doesn’t move like a competitive player. She moves like someone trying to make every motion obvious and easy to distinguish.”

“Does it make her a worse player?” Lotor asked, sparing her a glance before going back to watching Hunk.

“I... don’t know,” Pidge admitted. “She’s a computer program. I’m not even sure how her skill level is being determined right now, especially with how Sven is limiting her in other ways. He’s affecting her directly here in ways he wasn’t in the last level. He probably doesn’t even realize she’s almost as self-aware as he is.”

“Because she’s hiding it?” Lotor guessed.

“If I had to pick a reason, yeah,” Pidge said. “I don’t... think it’s a good idea to tell him, either. He might glitch out, or they might start fighting for real and put us at danger by skewing the immersion code, or he might actually wipe her out properly, and then replace her, and at least right now we have some idea of what we’re fighting.”

They quieted down as the end of the round neared, eyes on Hunk and Honerva and the flashing of their feet.

The song ended with an oomph, but it wasn’t enough to disguise the fact that Hunk lost.

“Shit,” Pidge whispered. Her mind scrambled. “Hey, Sven! How are we counting wins? Point totals or two out of three?”

Hunk was bent over, breathing heavily and with his eyes squeezed shut in frustration.

Honerva stood as she had before, unnervingly still save for her swaying, utterly expressionless, and with her hands clasped in front of her. She didn’t move from the dance pad, simply stood and watched.

Pidge wasn’t even sure if she was actually watching, given the lack of discernible eyes.

“Point totals!” Sven told her.

“Gotcha!” Pidge called back, giving Sven a wide berth as she went over to Hunk. She poked her friend on the shoulder. “Hey, you okay?”

Hunk shook his head, but let her help him down from the elevated dance pad. “I lost.”

“To a hyper-competent AI,” Pidge reminded him. “And you didn’t exactly lose by a huge margin. You’re breathing harder than I expected, though.”

“Didn’t start fresh,” Hunk said, taking the water bottle she proffered after it appeared in her hand. “Had the practice first, which wore me down.”

“...damn him,” Pidge grumbled, earning herself a snort. “Well, the others had more time to rest.”

“What happens if we don’t win?” Hunk asked. “Does she... get one of us or whatever?”

“It’s training, right? I don’t think losing a low-danger level like this is going to hurt us in any way other than delaying our eventual escape,” Pidge said slowly. “We already know that she’s limited by the medium, or at least the franchise. I don’t think she can do anything to hurt us the way she could in YA or Bleach. And Sven said something about a win in this level giving us a leg up in the next one, I think.”

“Just gotta worry about the time crunch, then,” Hunk said, just this side of despondent.

“Yeah,” Pidge agreed. “Just... yeah. But you came close, and we’re going off of point totals instead of best two out of three, so it should still be fine.”

“...still,” Hunk said. “I feel like I let everyone down.”

“AI that doesn’t get tired versus human dude who just spent an hour and a half practicing,” Pidge said, weighing her hands like a set of scales. “It’s not a shame that you lost. Considering how explicitly she’s said that she’s stacking decks against us, it’s impressive that you managed as well as you did.”

TIME FOR ROUND TWO

Pidge flinched at the sign, which let loose an announcer’s voice of an impression on her brain, inaudible to her ears but everywhere in her head.

“Was that really necessary?” Lotor asked, sounding very tired.

“Looks like my system could use some work,” Sven admitted, still cheery. “If you could send up your duo?”

Pidge and Hunk made their way back to the group as Shiro and Ryou walked up to the dance pads, which had now doubled. Even as everyone watched, Honerva blurred and doubled, and both images kept to the same pose. The only movement was the turning of their heads as they tracked the twins’ progress across the area.

“That’s really creepy,” Hunk muttered.

“Yep.”

It only took a few seconds for Shiro and Ryou’s whispered discussion to turn up results, and they chose their song in quick order.

“Oh, I know this one!” Matt said.

“Why do you sound so surprised?” Lotor asked, sounding more genuinely bemused than the words implied. “You heard them practicing earlier.”

“...shut up.”

“It’s a good one for them, but...” Lance trailed off.

“They’re falling behind,” Allura said gravely.

“Right. They’re probably doing better than most of us would, because they’re better at anticipating and avoiding each other, but they just don’t have the practice.” Lance rubbed the back of his head, biting his lip.

“Up to you, then,” Keith said, bumping his hip into Lance’s. “Think you can do it?”

“No choice,” Lance said, laughing humorlessly. “Guess all those hours goofing off instead of studying are gonna pay off, right”

“Got a song in mind?” Matt asked.

“Yeah,” Lance said, eyes still on the twins. They were starting to get sloppy, enough so that even Pidge could tell. She winced. “Don’t wanna say it ahead of time, though. Don’t discuss plans in front of the DM or whatever.”

“I’d question your paranoia,” Allura said slowly, “But considering the circumstances, it may be warranted.”

The song ended, and Pidge winced at the sight of the point totals. They’d done worse than Hunk had, and by quite a margin to boot.

“Our point total is now 27% lower than hers,” Coran said as the twins came back, already drinking water and trying to wipe their faces off. The extra time to rest had helped, but not as much as it could have. “Lance? Can you do it?”

“I don’t... I don’t know,” Lance admitted. “That’s a pretty big gap to cover.”

Ryou dropped his forehead onto Lotor’s shoulder with a thunk.

“What are you doing?”

“You’re one of the only ones here that’s actually tall enough for me to do this,” Ryou said, voice slightly muffled. “Let me mope.”

Lotor stared at the top of Ryou’s head, and then looked at the rest of them with a trapped expression.

“I,” he said, and then stopped. He looked back down at Ryou’s head and then awkwardly patted his shoulder, looking at the rest of the team again as he did so. It looked a lot like he was copying something he’d seen the paladins do for one another before, which was probably the exact case.

Coran took pity and stepped forward, grabbing Ryou’s shoulders and turning him around until Coran was the new headrest.

Matt poked Lotor’s upper arm. “You okay?”

Lotor opened his mouth, closed it, and continued to look mildly distressed. “I... think so.”

Pidge and Matt shared a look, then turned to Lotor as one. Pidge was the one that spoke. “You know he’d have stopped if you asked him to.”

“I do.”

Pidge waited for further explanation, but none came. Lotor’s face closed off, turning impenetrably thoughtful instead of confused and hunted, and Pidge decided to let it go for now.

TIME FOR ROUND THREE

Stop that!” Keith yelled, causing most of the team to flinch. He’d already rounded on Sven. “Do you have any idea how much that fucks with my head? It’s painful. Stop doing it.

Sven blinked, staring at him for a few moments. After some deliberation, he asked, “Is it a sensory issue?”

“Even if it wasn’t, it’s freaky and bothers me,” Keith growled. “Shouldn’t that be enough?”

“...alright, then,” Sven said, blinking one more time. “I’ll revise the announcements. Do you have a representative for the single dancer on a double pad?”

Lance gulped audibly and stepped forward. He continued towards the pad, shaking enough that Pidge could see it even from this distance. Shit.

Allura cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “They’re just targets! Enter that zone you talk about to calm down!”

“Does she know what he means by zone?” Matt asked.

“She hasn’t got a clue,” Keith answered.

Allura shot them a look, but didn’t comment.

Lance leaned back against the bar, his eyes on the screen. He was still shaking.

Honerva was a single person again. She turned to look at him, tilted her head, and then replicated his pose, eyes also on the screen.

Well, her face was turned towards the screen. She didn’t exactly have eyes, so...

Pidge shook her head. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on that. Now was the time to watch Lance try to close the gap for them.

The song started.

(Beethoven Virus, Pidge noted in the back of her mind. She’d have enjoyed it, normally. Not now.)

The thing was, Lance was good. He was really good, actually, but whether or not he was good enough to compensate for Hunk and the twins’ losses wasn’t something Pidge was quite as sure about. He was already pulling ahead, but at this rate...

“He’s not gonna make it,” Matt said quietly.

Pidge shook her head.

And then she thought of something.

And the something was bad, but so was the situation.

And so she didn’t care.

“Sven, can I get some water?” Pidge asked, since it was the one thing he’d consistently and reliably been giving them in games that involved this amount of movement.

Sven nodded, not looking away from the dance battle in front of him, and Pidge thanked the stars above for that. The heavy weight of the plastic bottle appeared without warning in her hand, and she waited a few moments before sidling over to Keith and pressing it into his hand.

He looked down at it, and then at her.

Pidge got to her tip-toes, cupped a hand around her mouth, and whispered into Keith’s ear.

“Aim for her feet.”

He jolted away from her, staring in surprise at the bottle, then Honerva, and then Pidge herself. He leaned closer to Pidge and quietly asked. “Am I allowed to do that?”

“He’s based on my opinions on video games, and I like creative problem-solving,” Pidge said. “And he didn’t say we weren’t allowed to, so yeah. If he wants to be the kind of DM that railroads, then he needs to set better boundaries.”

Keith nodded slowly, then looked at where Honerva was dancing.

“Hey Sven, can I have a bottle of water, too?” Keith asked loudly, and then proceeded to hide one under his shirt.

He threw the other water bottle.

Of course, Keith’s overhand aim was better than his shooting. That had never been in question. So when Keith threw a water bottle at Honerva’s feet, it flew true.

She stumbled and tripped, losing precious time and points, and Pidge grinned at the fact that Lance didn’t even hesitate. In the zone or not, he trusted them enough not to be distracted.

Sven turned towards them, surprise and maybe even anger on his face.

“What was that?” He demanded.

“A water bottle,” Keith said, and Pidge felt a swell of affection.

“I like creative problem-solving,” Pidge said, shrugging.

Sven gestured at Honerva and made a noise that sounded a little overly much like a squeak.

“You made it an open world where we could interact with the setting and opponent, and provided something that could be used as a projectile weapon,” Pidge said. “What are you gonna do, railroad us?”

Sven’s face twitched, and Pidge could see how much the idea bothered him. He really had imbued himself with her opinions, then.

“Besides, she hasn’t even fallen that far behind,” Keith said, gesturing at Honerva and Lance.

Sven turned to look. The second he did so, Keith threw the other water bottle.

Honerva stumbled again.

Sven snapped back around to gesture in exasperation. His arms were very expressive.

“That was the other water bottle,” Keith said, sounding helpful.

Somewhere to Pidge’s right, Matt was cracking up.

The song ended, and Pidge ran the numbers before Sven could announce the result.

“We won,” she whispered, and Sven turned to them. He opened his mouth, glanced at the hanging microphone, and then shook his head.

“You did,” Sven said, sounding just a little rueful. “Your methods were... unorthodox, but yes. You won. You may have cheated, but you are right that I never gave any rules against it, so the points from Round Three were enough for that.”

Pidge grinned as Allura greeted Lance with a hug, and Sven shook his head again.

“That said, I should go prepare the next level,” he said, disappearing.

They all breathed deep for a moment, relieved, before Lotor spoke.

“She’s still here.”

That sobered them.

And she was. Honerva stood at the remaining dance pads, hands resting on the bar, and watched them. She didn’t have a hair out of place, didn’t even seem to breathe, but she was there.

Her face was turned towards them, head just slightly tilted.

“Oh, that is unnerving,” Coran muttered, and Pidge yelped as his hand, still gloved, dropped onto her shoulder and pulled her back.

Honerva tilted her head the other way, and then her eyes opened.

Honerva had not, until this point, had any eyes. The usual on-screen dancers for Just Dance didn’t have any, so neither did she.

When she gained eyes, they were unnervingly photorealistic, especially compared to the rest of her face and body. Those eyes were terrifying under most circumstances, simply due to who and what she was, but details in muted colors on a body that was nothing but bright, flat neon?

Matt squeaked a little.

He wasn’t the only one.

Honerva took a step to the side, off the pad.

She took a step towards them.

And then another.

The dance pads began to dissolve, and Honerva gained a mouth.

She smiled, lips just as real as her eyes.

“So, how were you planning to—”

The world went white.

Chapter Text

They dropped onto grass this time.

Pidge stayed on her hands and knees for a long moment, readjusting. Her fingers dug into the loam, crushing green stalks, and she could even smell the fresh-cut grass that filled her vision.

Sven was getting better at this.

It took a few moments for anything else to process, really. The fingerless leather gloves on her hands. The loose cloth that surrounded her. The feeling of jodhpurs and knee-high boots.

Pidge pushed herself up onto her feet and took a look around.

“Hoooooly smokes,” Hunk said, turning on the spot to get a better look at the field. “This is—”

“Quidditch,” Shiro said, finishing it off for him. “It’s a Quidditch field.”

“And going by those goalposts, we’ll probably be playing the real thing,” Ryou said. “Sven’s not here yet.”

“You’re right,” Shiro said, but he seemed distracted. “We need to figure out positions.”

They looked at each other for a moment, and then took in the rest of the team.

“How does one play this game?” Lotor asked. He still looked like himself.

“Seven positions on each team, four balls,” Ryou said. “The balls are quaffle, snitch, and bludgers. There are two bludgers, and they fly around the field trying to knock people off their brooms.”

“Brooms?” Allura asked, sounding confused and more than a little dubious.

“The entire game is played on flying broomsticks,” Ryou said, giving her a pair of thumbs up.

“Humans have flying broomsticks?” Coran asked.

“Not in real life, but it’s a common thing in fiction for... well, for witches.” Shiro shrugged. “It’s a game from a book.”

“Quaffles are the big red ball, which doesn’t really have a lot of magic to it,” Matt said, sliding into the conversation. “The goal is to get them into one of the big goal hoops at either end. There’s also the golden snitch, which flies around the pitch and is really tiny, and catching it ends the game.”

“Seven players,” Shiro said. He held up three fingers. “Three Chasers. They’re the ones that toss around the quaffle and try to get it into the other team’s goalposts. One Keeper, who guards their own team’s goalposts from the attacking team. Two Beaters, who get bats to swing around and hit the bludgers with, either to defend their own team or to attack the opponent. The bludgers fly around trying to knock players off their brooms. One Seeker, whose only job is to find and catch the Snitch. Got it?”

“This seems exceedingly violent,” Allura said, quickly following it up with, “For a species that’s so much less durable than Alteans or Galra.”

Shiro shrugged. “I mean, it’s not that much worse than actual games we have in real life. There are multiple documentaries on how common and dangerous concussions are in football and rugby.”

“Drag racing,” Keith tossed in.

Parkour!” Lance yelled.

“Ski jumps,” Pidge suggested.

“And we’re gonna stop there,” Shiro said, before Hunk could so much as finish taking in a breath to add his own suggestion. “So... Keith has a good overhand throw. Chaser?”

Keith nodded.

“I could do Seeker?” Lance offered.

“Good idea,” Shiro said, rubbing at his chin. “...Lotor, I want you on Chaser. Hunk, Keeper. Matt, you and Ryou on Beaters, I’ll be the third Chaser.”

“What, no twins for the Beater Duo?” Pidge asked drily.

“We’re not Weasleys,” Shiro said. “And—”

“Can I suggest using Allura instead of me?” Matt asked. “She’s got a stronger swing.”

Shiro bit his lip. “...yeah, that’s a good plan.”

“I’ll sit out again,” Pidge said. It wasn’t a hard decision to make. “Seeker’s pretty much the only one I’d be good at, and I’m not under any delusions that I’d be better at that than Lance.”

“Aw, thanks, short shit,” Lance cooed, ruffling her hair.

Anyway,” Pidge grumbled, swatting his hand away. “Is that a full team?”

“Keith, Lotor, and I for Chaser, Allura and Ryou for Beater, Hunk for Keeper, Lance for Seeker,” Shiro said, nodding to himself. “Pidge as a backup Seeker, Matt as a backup Beater or Chaser, Coran as a backup Keeper. Everyone good?”

They all nodded.

“Then let’s figure out how to fly.”

It took about two seconds for Keith to rocket up into the air and start circling the pitch.

Pidge bit her lip and looked over at Lance, whose face was doing the tango with partners called “envy” and “appreciation.”

“You’ll need to catch that ass if you want to tap it,” she said, because she was nothing if not a little shit.

Lance stuck out his tongue at her, but promptly swung a leg over his broom and took off. He was a little wobbly, but they’d all flown enough different kinds of craft to learn how to adjust. They’d done hoverbikes and regular bikes and the personal gliders, and it all eventually meshed together into just… a feel for flying.

It was a feel that was, unsurprisingly, much more present in pilots like Keith and Shiro and Lance than it was in the nerds like Pidge and Hunk.

Pidge tried it out anyway. She wasn’t thinking too hard on it, honestly; flying wasn’t easy, but it had enough components similar to things she’d tried before that she wasn’t having too much trouble either. After she adjusted enough, she just circled around and thought about the program.

It was something she’d been doing pretty much since Sven trapped them, every time she got a chance. The car rides, small gaps between customers at the bakery, when the others were training for the dance battle. Some of the challenges so far had been team efforts, yeah, but there had been enough gaps for her to step back and try to make things easier that she’s had her time.

It wasn’t hard to acknowledge that some of the others were better than she is at physical activities. She was a soldier, sure, but she was still less fighter than Keith or Shiro or… well, everyone, really. She was the hacker for a reason, and that ate up time that the others used for training.

In turn, though, it meant that she was really, really good at the things she did put her time into.

They weren’t going to be able to run from Honerva forever. However, defeating her was probably going to be more than just killing her in the game itself. They’d beat her at the dance, for one thing, and escaped her in the Bleach level, but that was already a sign that she’d be following them from one level to the next regardless of what they did to her. Since Lance had already died and been brought back, then they had to assume that killing Honerva wasn’t going to do anything permanent.

Okay.

Following from that, Pidge could use the source material as inspiration. The Mother Parasite hadn’t been taken care of until she’d been literally erased from reality, which in this case… probably meant erasing her code. That meant figuring out a backdoor to the system, or trying to outlast her by enough time that Sven would let them out, and that was… honestly unreasonably dangerous.

Backdoor into the system to manhandle the code into submission, then. If there was a computer with a certain degree of programming capability available to her in-game, she’d… maybe be able to pull it off? Hopefully if Sven dumped her in Stark Tower or something suitably complicated, there’d be enough crossover between the Castle’s systems and the in-game systems that she could do… something.

Sven would let them out if they beat Honerva permanently. He’d made that much clear. Pidge just had to figure out how to actually unravel the threads of her existence.

No pressure, right?

(Loki. She needed to talk to Loki.)

Matt came to hover beside her. “What’s up?”

“Just… trying to figure out how to get out of this,” Pidge admitted. “The system works fine save for the part where we’re trapped with no way out, you know?”

“Well, yeah,” Matt said, doing a barrel roll for no apparent reason. “But we kinda knew that already.”

“What I need is a system backdoor,” Pidge said. “So we can just delete Mother.”

Matt tilted his head, lip caught between his teeth as he thought. “That doesn’t sound like an easy find.”

“It probably won’t be,” Pidge admitted. “But the only other options we have rely on Allura and Lotor using magic, which is about as dangerous, or holding out until Sven decides we’ve been in here for long enough.”

“Which is a bad idea all around,” Matt finished for her.

“Exactly.”

“So, backdoor,” Matt said, tilting his head back and staring at the simulated sun in the sky. “Got any ideas?”

“Working on it,” Pidge said. “Gonna have to figure out the programing itself, too.”

“So once you find a backdoor…” Matt trailed off. “We’re gonna have to stall like hell, huh?”

“Yep.”

“Damn.”

“I know.”

“How long will it take you?” Matt asked. “And are you going to need support?”

“Depends on what form the backdoor ends up taking, and… probably?” Pidge shrugged. “It’s a hell of a situation.”

“Yeah…” Matt sighed. He spun around the broom a few more times. “You know what sucks? If it weren’t for the whole part where some weird version of Lotor’s mom was trying to eat our brains and an overly helpful AI had trapped us here, I would be so damn excited to have a chance to play Quidditch.”

“Right?” Pidge groaned, letting her head fall back. Far above, she could see Lance and Keith, who immediately went into dives that they only barely managed to pull up from before hitting the ground. “This would be amazing if we weren’t actually in legitimate danger.”

Matt nodded, seeming a little distracted. “Want to bounce ideas off each other and Coran during the game? They probably won’t need us.”

“Probably and definitely aren’t the same thing, Matt.”

He nudged his shoulder into hers, light enough that neither of them would topple from the brooms and to the ground. “Good enough for at least a little time, right?”

“Heh.”

o.o.o.o.o

Honerva’s team was, somewhat unsurprisingly, herself and a group of sentries. Pidge had been half-expecting another situation where the entire team was composed of horrifying, identical copies of Honerva, but it seemed Sven had put a stop to that particular brand of psychological warfare this time. The teams rose into the air and shot off, and Pidge quickly lost interest. Honerva had gone floating back to the Keeper position, a place where she could hang back and issue orders, which also meant she was far less likely to have the opportunity to hurt any Voltron players directly. That, in turn, meant that one of the biggest of Pidge’s more immediate worries was gone.

Pidge trusted her team, and she couldn’t do anything to help with this particular problem. Sven was hovering in the air, waiting to interfere as referee if necessary, and Coran and Matt were ready to swap out if someone went down. Pidge wasn’t sure that attacking the Seeker was a legal move unless they were currently in pursuit of the Snitch, but she figured that there was too much to worry about with the Chasers to bother hitting the Bludgers at Seekers most of the time, which meant that Lance was way, way more likely to stay in the game than anyone else.

Besides, he’d been getting better at dodging. Something about being tired of how often he ended up in the healing pods, he’d said.

The stands around them were filled with faceless, robotic spectators, programmed to stand and cheer or boo whenever a goal was made. Mother’s side was wearing grey and purple, while Voltron’s was in white and pale blue.

It was white noise.

Pidge sank into the problem-solving mindspace she’d developed since entering into war. Yes, there was fighting going on. Yes, there was danger. She had a job to do, though, and that job meant blocking it out.

(She desperately wished she had a way to write things down, even temporarily. It was so much easier to map things out that way.)

“Run me through the basics of the program and how you’re planning to get in,” Matt suggested, and Coran leaned closer to listen in.

Pidge started talking, and didn’t pause until Lotor took a nasty hit to the arm and Matt had to go sub in for him. Galra resilience apparently hadn’t translated well to the game. She continued talking as soon as Lotor sat down again, even faster, because Lotor knew the system as well as she did. Coran had heard her lay out the basics to Matt, so she’d managed to bounce the ideas off of three people by now, all more or less her equal in some related field.

Lotor and Coran had started poking at the plan, tugging at possible holes and making suggestions, when a massive roar went up, shocking Pidge enough that she might have jumped in her seat and squeaked.

“Oh,” Lotor said, looking up and blinking. “The game is over.”

Pidge looked out, saw Lance laughing and zooming around, arm held up over his head, and said, “Oh.”

“It looks like we missed the majority of it,” Coran said, rubbing the back of his head.

“We’ve got more important things to do,” Lotor reminded him. He watched the pitch, eyes shrewd, and the only reason Pidge could tell he was being careful of the broken arm was that she’d been spending so much time around him already.

“Let’s go see the team,” Pidge sighed, getting to her feet. “We should congra—”

The world fell out from beneath them once more.

Lotor Playing Quidditch

Chapter Text

Cobblestone.

Pidge managed to catch herself before her knees cracked against the ground, and when she looked up, Sven was smiling.

“Oh, good, I was hoping I’d made that easier.”

“What?” Keith asked.

“You kept landing more painfully than I hoped,” Sven explained. “I, ah…. Made some tweaks. And now you landed on your feet!”

Pidge exchanged a look with Matt, and heard Shiro mutter, “Well, he’s not wrong.”

“Where are we?” Allura asked.

Sven smiled and bounced on the balls of his feet. Hm. That was definitely more emotive than before. More human. Maybe the system was advancing and building on itself based on their brainwaves?

“Take a guess!”

Pidge bit back a groan and looked around. Given where Sven got his information from, she was the most likely to recognize anything, by default. They were at the bottom of a hill, with a town visible on all sides, and an old-fashioned castle at the top. The cobblestone wound its way up towards the building, which was in ruins. The ruins looked recent, though, as if the castle had been in one piece until just a few decades ago. Moreover, their clothing was different. Not quite nineteenth century, but… steampunk, maybe? Allura was in a dress, and while Pidge got to keep herself in pants, she was wearing a flexible corset with three unnecessary watches on it.

(Lotor’s arm, she noticed, was back to normal. He was still purple.)

“Mechanicsburg,” Ryou said, startling her.

“What?” Coran asked, head tilted.

“That’s Castle Heterodyne, right?” Ryou asked, gesturing at the ruins at the top of the hill. “That’s why the gate has a trilobite. And all the arches on the way up. And the tower.”

“You’ve read Girl Genius?” Pidge asked.

“I mean,” Ryou said, then paused. After a moment, he continued, “Shiro read it, because Matt suggested it, over spring break one year. So… kind of.”

“I’ve read it too,” Hunk offered. The others shook their heads.

“So… what’s the challenge here?” Matt asked.

“You need to fix it!” Sven said, clapping his hands and grinning, eyes closed from how wide the smile was. “It’s quite broken, you see. I’ve had fun replicating the NPCs.”

“So is Honerva our Zola or our Lucrezia?” Matt asked.

“Zola,” Sven confirmed. The information apparently wasn’t as much of a detriment as they’d thought. “But you’ll have to navigate all the traps, the fractured AI, the more volatile prisoners, and all the lovely little monsters that the Heterodynes left behind.”

“So we’re going to die,” Hunk summed up. “We are totally going to die.”

“Not if you’re careful,” Sven told him.

 “That Castle is a death trap,” Hunk insisted. “It is absolutely going to do its best to kill us. None of us is a Heterodyne, or a Spark, or—”

“It wants help getting repairs,” Shiro interrupted, putting a hand on Hunk’s shoulder. “It’ll be less murderous if it knows we’re there to help. We’ve got enough science types here, including you, to help fake a few Sparks, too.”

“We can use this,” Pidge realized. “A system as complicated as that, with its own AI? It’s going to be connected to the Castle of Lions.”

“The backdoor,” Matt finished the thought for her.

“Delete the Mother code, and get us out,” Pidge said.

“Oh,” Sven said, tilting his head. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Pidge looked at him, brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Well, that would be cheating,” Sven explained. “I can’t let you do that if I know ahead of time, right?”

“Wait, no, you can’t just—”

“So we’ll move on to the next level! Just give me a second to set it up. You can explore the town until then, but I’ve erased the coding to the castle, so you won’t be able to get in,” Sven said, disappearing in a blink.

Pidge stared at the empty air, mouth gaping, and a sense of dawning dread crawled up from her stomach to lodge itself in her throat. She could feel angry tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. What the fuck. What the fuck.

“Pidge,” Ryou said.

“Never discuss party plans in front of the DM,” Matt told her, voice grim. He’d been partly responsible for the reveal too, so he was probably feeling the guilt as much as she was, but…

Pidge let out an angry growl and spun on the spot, driving a fist into a tree. Her hand was clad in a brown leather glove, unnoticed ‘til now, which meant that she was uninjured. That actually pissed her off a little more. She wanted the pain. It would feel like the reasonable punishment for sinking their best chance at an escape so far, and any injuries were going to be gone by the next level anyway, so why not?

She started pulling off the glove, ready to hit again, but hands caught hers and stopped her.

“I don’t think that’s the best course of action,” Coran told her, voice gentle. He let her struggle for a few moments, and then folded her into a hug as she gave up and just let out a small, wordless scream. “I have faith you’ll get us out the next time an opportunity presents itself.”

“We were so close,” Pidge whispered.

“We were,” Coran agreed. “But I’m sure it’s not the last chance. After all, we’ve survived so far, have we not?”

“Yeah…”

“Let’s see if we can grab something to eat before Sven snaps us up again,” Lance suggested. “I don’t know about you guys, but not feeling hunger doesn’t change the fact that it’s been a while since we got to eat in… we ate in Bleach level, right?”

“Yeah,” Hunk said, nodding. “I think we’ve just had water since then.”

“We can find Vanamonde’s café,” Ryou suggested, a bounce in his step. “You guys want coffee? Let’s do coffee.”

“Yeah,” Pidge sighed, guilt still curdling in her gut, even as Coran tucked her against his side. “Let’s do coffee.”

Chapter Text

The next level, Pidge woke up in a bed.

This was new.

It didn’t bode well, for several reasons.

Every level so far had been formatted as a short game, something that could be played in rounds, with a set beginning and ending. A game that started with Pidge waking up was far, far more likely to be something longer, with a vaguer storyline and timeframe.

The other reason was that she woke up in her Garrison dorm room.

For a moment, just after waking up, she thought she’d dreamed everything. Going to space, finding Matt, fighting the Galra, everything.

She stared at the ceiling tiles, chest twisting closer into itself, and forced herself to get up. When she looked around, everything was just as she remembered it. She walked slowly, gathering her things, and wondered where the roommate she only half-remembered was. They’d never been particularly present in her life, but for a situation where she woke up back at the Garrison…

Pidge spotted the mirror, and something snapped into place.

Her hair hadn’t grown much since she got to space, but it was enough to recognize the difference, and her forehead was cut off by the frame in a way that would have irritated her to the point of moving the mirror, back when she’d still lived here.

It hadn’t been a dream.

Her hair and height were the same as they’d been in space. She yanked up a sleeve and found a handful of scars scattered across her arms, collected from fight after fight with the Galra.

Pidge closed her eyes, breathed, and then set about getting dressed and ready. She didn’t know what was going on, but it was still part of the game. She needed to find the others, figure out the situation, and move on. If she was lucky, she could hit up the local computers and see if she could make that backdoor.

She probably couldn’t, since Sven was still on edge about it.

She could try, though.

When the door whooshed open, it was to the sight of Lance and Hunk, wide-eyed and waiting.

Nobody breathed for a moment.

Lance spoke first.

“I say Vol, you say—”

“—tron,” Pidge finished, and then hugged back as the two of them dragged her between them.

“Holy fuck, I kept worrying we’d gone back in time or dreamed it all or something,” Lance said, voice muffled against her hair.

“Same,” Pidge admitted. “The scars were reassuring, though.”

“We woke up together, so there was that,” Hunk told her. He pulled away, prying Lance off as he did. “Think we can find everyone else?”

“Cafeteria,” Pidge suggested. “Maybe swing by the security office on the way, see if I can get into the cameras.”

“Phone?” Lance asked, and Pidge patted her pocket.

They headed for the cafeteria.

If it hadn’t been obvious that they were in a video game before, the people they passed on the way made it clear. Faces were blank, voices muffled, uniforms plainer than standard. They didn’t even have eyes, just mouths and the vaguest hint of a nose.

Even Iverson was like that.

Halfway there, just a single hallway from the security offices, they ran into Lotor.

“Oh thank fuck,” Pidge blurted out, grabbing his arm. “Video game, right?”

“Yes,” Lotor said. He looked tense, eyes darting around the hall, taking in the faceless strangers. He also looked almost entirely human, with a skin tone comparable to Honerva’s, and a height closer to Shiro’s than his own. His ears were still pointed, and his canines were a little longer than seemed normal for a human, and his hair was still silver, but really, the ears were the only part that would be unexplainable on Earth. “Where are we?”

“Galaxy Garrison,” Hunk told him. “It’s the military academy we went to back on Earth.”

“It’s not the default for any of the games on my computer, so I think Sven’s pulling things together from our memories like he did from Google Maps again,” Pidge said. “Which means we know the area and how to get around, but we don’t actually know what’s going on in terms of plot.”

“I don’t think he’s going to be telling us, either,” Hunk said, voice grim. “This is feeling like the kind of game where you have to figure it out as you go along.”

“Just what we needed,” Lance grumbled.

“Hey,” Pidge said, elbowing him in the side. “If anyone’s enough of a video game nerd to figure it out on obscure clues, it’s the two of us.”

Lance smiled at her, small but fond, and then proceeded to ruffle her hair.

“Dude!”

Lance laughed at her.

From a few halls over, the heard a sudden shout. “THIS IS PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE, YOU ABSOLUTELY FUCK!”

Pidge felt her eyebrows crawling towards her hairline, and Lotor groaned.

“That sounded like Shiro,” Hunk said.

“But I can’t imagine him saying that, so it’s probably Ryou,” Pidge said.

“Yes, it most likely is,” Lotor sighed as Lance started jogging, pulling Hunk along to keep up with his pace. “Sometimes, I really do wonder…”

“Wonder about what?” Pidge asked, falling into step with him as they angled towards the shouting instead of the security room. Gathering people was more important than a probably-futile attempt to hack the system.

“…nothing,” he said, facing straight ahead.

Pidge raised an eyebrow, but didn’t press. Lotor was entitled to a bit of weirdness, same as everyone else. The fact that the weirdness was centered around Ryou was a little concerning, but they had time to address that after they got out of cyber hell.

“Ryou!” Hunk yelled, waving his arms to get his attention.

“Oh, hey,” Ryou said, acting as though they hadn’t just rounded the corner to see him with his hands cupped around his mouth, yelling invectives at the ceiling. “Good to see someone else around here.”

“What were you doing?” Lotor asked.

“What, you’ve never wanted to scream your defiance at the heavens?” Ryou asked, oddly cheerful. “And in this case, ‘god’ can hear me! Probably. In any case, I completely freaked out when I woke up in an officer’s room, and I’m blaming him.”

“Like, your own as an officer, or some other officer that your in-game backstory slept with last night?” Lance asked.

“My own, but thanks on the clarification,” Ryou said, pointing in Lance’s direction. “Good call. Weird, and normally a little invasive, but reasonable for the situation.”

“Always,” Lance promised.

“Do you know where Shiro’s room is?” Hunk asked. “Or Matt’s?”

“Yeah, but they’ve probably already left, or maybe aren’t even here in the first place because of Kerberos, since they left before Pidge joined,” Ryou said, scratching at the scar on his nose. “We could swing by?”

“Yeah, good plan,” Lance said.

Ryou set off down the hall.

“Coran and Allura?” Hunk asked.

“I mean… professors’ hall? Maybe?” Ryou shrugged. “Hopefully we’ll just find them… somewhere.”

Pidge tried to ignore the blurred images of former classmates and teachers, wafting around them like surprisingly lifelike puppets on strings.

“This uniform is very ugly,” Lotor said, picking at the sleeve.

 “None of us are going to argue that,” Lance told him, even going so far as to pat him on the elbow. “Seriously, we know. We’ve complained. There’s nothing for it.”

“Ryou’s is decent.”

“Yeah, well, he’s probably getting a backstory based on Shiro’s, and Shiro was an officer, so he got a different uniform.”

“Matt didn’t,” Pidge said.

“He was going to after Kerberos, though, right?” Hunk pointed out. Pidge tilted her head and made an acknowledging sort of noise. Hunk continued, “So maybe he’ll be in an officer’s uniform when we do find him.”

“Do you think Keith is here?” Lance asked. “Or is he out in the desert?”

If Keith was alone out there…

“Let’s hope we find him before that’s an issue,” Ryou said, his voice rough.

“Is anyone else mentally exhausted?” Pidge asked. “I’m tired, even though our bodies are normal health at the beginning of every level. I want to pass out for a bit.”

“Didn’t do much for me,” Hunk said. He smiled when Pidge elbowed him, figuring out what he’d meant.

“Is the fatigue reflecting on you physically?” Lotor asked.

“Nah, just… brain fuzz,” Pidge admitted. “The human mind isn’t supposed to function for more than like… fourteen hours straight? Sixteen? Not without some kind of stimulant. Even with caffeine, we start getting jittery and easily distracted at the twenty-hour mark, and it only gets worse from there.”

“We could probably manage longer, especially after a year in the war, but still,” Lance said. “Half a day in Tokyo, the full work day in the bakery, a couple hours each on the rest… and the most we got were some car naps. I feel like I’m going to avoid video games for a month after this is over.”

“Same,” Pidge groaned, leaning to the side to press her face against Lotor’s arm.

“This is exceedingly uncomfortable to do while walking,” he told her.

Pidge whined wordlessly and stood straight again.

Ryou suddenly stopped and cupped his hands around his mouth. “ALLURA! CORAN! OVER HERE, HEY!”

He waved a hand vigorously over his head, and a few seconds later, Allura came into view, Coran a few steps behind her. There were people staring because of the shouting, but Coran and Allura looked wholly human.

Allura gave Lance a kiss hello, and then brushed down the orange cadet uniform and looked at the rest of them. Her face brightened and then immediately fell at the sight of Lotor, which Pidge figured was probably because of the ears.

“Seen Matt or Shiro or Keith?” Ryou asked.

“No, not at all,” Coran answered, shaking his head. He had on the grey professor uniform, the one tailored to indicate that the teacher was there purely as an educator and held no official military rank.

“We’re on our way to Shiro’s old room,” Ryou said. “Come with?”

“It might be easier to get you or Coran to just use the PA system and tell them all to meet us in the cafeteria,” Hunk pointed out. “You’ve got clearance.”

Ryou stopped walking, and Lance ran into him.

Lance made a squawking noise and flailed, stumbling backwards into Allura.

“That’s a good point,” Ryou said, sparing a second to make sure Lance was okay. “I think I can probably grab a phone in one of the classrooms and call the main admin office for the school section?”

“You think?” Pidge asked.

“It’s been a while,” he sniffed, heading over to the nearest classroom. “Hey, Professor Montgomery! Yeah, I was wondering if I could borrow the room phone to make a call down to the office real quick? Thanks.”

He stepped back out, the spiraling cord stretching around the doorway.

The aliens stared at it.

“They never bothered upgrading that part of the system,” Lance explained. “Every time they replaced things, they made sure to include a phone on a cord.”

“I think it was for exactly this situation,” Hunk said. “So someone could make a call from just outside the room, but it wasn’t as easy for someone to just up and steal the phone.”

“Yeah,” Ryou said, waving a hand for all of them to shut up. “I just need you to ask for all Voltron affiliates to make their way to the cafeteria. Ryou Shirogane, sir. Yes, the people I need will know what I mean by Voltron. I’ll explain next time I see you, yeah. Alright, thanks. See you soon.”

“They questioned the Voltron part?” Hunk asked.

“Yep,” Ryou said, scratching the back of his head. “I mean, at least I apparently am an officer? As far as this Garrison is concerned, I’m a real person. Probably Shiro’s twin.”

The announcement came out over them at that moment, repeated twice, and then the hallways resumed their usual volume as everyone decided that it didn’t apply to them.

“Cafeteria?” Allura asked, and let Ryou lead the way.

o.o.o.o.o

Shiro and Matt were there when they arrived.

“Did you seriously PA us?” Shiro asked.

“Had to get you here, didn’t I?” Ryou pulled Shiro in a hug, clapping him on the back. “Matt. You’re an officer?”

“Somehow, yes,” Matt said, brushing his hands down his uniform. “Not entirely sure why, but Sven’s been…”

“Sven,” Shiro finished, making a face. “If I ever run into the real one, it’s going to be incredibly awkward.”

“It is,” Pidge said. “Should we… sit down?”

“I want to go find Keith,” Shiro said, eyes scanning over the room. “If he was in the building at all, he should have made it here by now.”

“Which means he’s probably out in the shack,” Lance said. “At least we know where to find him?”

“I’m worried about him,” Shiro said, taking a seat and tapping his metal fingers against the table. Faceless former classmates and teachers passed by, laughing and talking in voices too hazy to make out. “He hasn’t got a phone, so we can’t call him and check to see if something’s wrong.”

“We need to get out there, soon,” Lance agreed. “Maybe if—”

An alarm went off.

It took a few moments for Pidge to parse the pattern, since it had been so long since the Garrison. They were all on their feet immediately, but Shiro was the one to actually put a name to the signal. “Evacuation.”

“Should we check in with command?” Ryou asked. “I mean, officers, technically supposed to, right?”

“If nothing else, it’ll get us information,” Shiro said. “Matt, Coran, you’re with us, since it’s officers and professors. Lance, you’re in charge of your group.”

“Wait, me?”

“Lotor and Allura don’t know Garrison evac protocols, and you’re the Red Paladin, so yes, you,” Shiro started walking towards the door. “Go!”

Pidge thought about the new puzzle piece. She had something to work with. Not much, but… something.

o.o.o.o.o

In the real Garrison, they’d all been put into groups of twelve, mixed officers and students for the sake of student safety. If there was ever an evacuation, an emergency deployment, or a lockdown drill, there was a different cell to join up with. The game, in turn, augmented the system. When Lance gave his name and the cell number he’d had as a student, the system had pulled up a list of nine names, and those nine had been Team Voltron.

That was nice of Sven, Pidge decided. He could have done a lot worse, and broken them up across different teams.

Matt showed up with the first wave of released officers, and started preliminary checks on the system.

“So what’s up?” Hunk asked, leaning forward to watch. “A bomb or something?”

“Or something,” Matt said, lips twisting. “I’m too low-ranked to be told much. Something went wrong in R&D and there’s a biological hazard that they’re having trouble containing. I didn’t get much more than that.”

“Coran and the twins?” Lotor asked.

“Coran’s apparently a civilian member of R&D, so they wanted him to confirm whether he’d be able to help, and give him some contact info and instructions on which base to head to after the evacuation is fully underway,” Matt said. “Shiro and Ryou are high up enough that they’re getting more details and probably emergency combat information or something.”

“Biological warfare, do you think?” Lance asked. “Maybe some kind of superbug?”

“Garrison wasn’t really into biological warfare,” Matt pointed out. He sat back, done with what he was allowed to do without the full team present. “Most of bio R&D’s work was analyzing samples of signs of life and working on more efficient ways to stay healthy on long-term missions like Kerberos. We’re military-affiliated, not actually military.”

Another alarm sounded.

The paladins stiffened, and Allura and Lotor looked confused.

“The emergency level just kicked up a notch,” Pidge explained, voice stiff. “We’re going to be losing some of the guys we share with the Air Force to combat units.”

“Nobody on the team,” Matt assured them, eyes roving over the hangar that was now showing even more hectic activity than before. “But still.”

“So something went wrong in Bio R&D, and we need combat units,” Hunk said. “Supersoldier stuff?”

“Please tell me we don’t suddenly have the Red Skull fucking around in the Garrison,” Lance groaned. “I don’t want to fight Nazis today.”

“I mean, I’d gladly punch a Nazi any day, but yeah,” Matt said. “I’d really just rather sleep.”

“Nazis?” Lotor asked.

“Uh…” Matt exchanged a look with the other humans, and then gave Lotor a nervous grin. “A really, really fucked-up political party that’s basically evil.”

“Not the only option,” Pidge said. “Biological disaster could mean any kind of monster. Could even be a fictional type of alien. Could be zombies. Could be homegrown tentacle monsters. Could be a type of bacteria they dug up on Europa that’s compatible enough with human bodies to actually pose a threat. Could be anything.”

“Supersoldiers would be the easiest to fight,” Lance pointed out. “Or the tentacle monsters. No powers or subterfuge, just point and shoot.”

“Honerva’s likely at the root of it,” Lotor pointed out, his voice heavy. “So we need to keep in mind that it’s probably something in the style of what she’s done so far.”

“Mind-control?” Hunk offered.

“Or something else,” Allura said. “She’s played a variety of roles so far. We can’t lock ourselves into one option without a reason.”

“Lovely,” Matt muttered under his breath. Pidge could see his leg bouncing all the way from her seat. “Strap yourselves in! I see the twins, and… shit.”

“Oh hell,” Lance muttered.

It wasn’t hard to figure out why they were swearing.

The twins had Coran between them, bleeding profusely from one leg.

“What—”

“Go, go, now!” Ryou yelled, working with Shiro to essentially fling the trio into the hovercraft. “We need to get out, get us in the air and head for the Florida base!”

“We need to get Keith!” Lance protested.

“They’re going to reject Coran if we go to Florida,” Shiro said. “Stop by the shack first, check in with Keith, then Florida.”

Matt started up the engines as the twins stared at each other, a wordless argument passing between them.

Ryou nodded sharply. “Keith, then.”

Shiro headed for the front of the hovercraft.

“What happened?” Pidge asked, pressing herself back and out of the way as Hunk and Lance rushed forward to start in on medical care. Technically, Matt was the most qualified for that job, but he was also busy trying to transfer command of the ship to Shiro, so Lance and Hunk it was.

“Should I—” Allura asked, reaching out with worry on her face, but Hunk cut her off.

“He’s got a human body, which you don’t know enough about to help with,” he said. “Sorry, but it’s best to leave it to us.”

Matt finally managed to disentangle himself and come over. “Here, let me.”

“What happened?” Lotor asked, putting a careful hand on Ryou’s shoulder. Pidge looked past them to the rear windows of the craft, as the Garrison faded into the distance, the skyline speckled with other evacuation ships.

There was a lump in her throat. She wasn’t sure how to handle it.

“So, we’re somewhat fucked,” Ryou told them, and despite the choice in words, he actually did look pretty serious. “Good news, we found out the genre of game.”

“Bad news?” Matt prompted.

“It’s zombies,” Ryou said.

Pidge stiffened. Everyone turned to look at Coran, who gave them a weak wave.

“I wasn’t aware of the common knowledge,” he admitted. “They told us zombies, and since all I’ve had experience with is Zarkon…”

“So zombie classic?” Lance asked, looking to Ryou for answers again.

“So far, but information is limited, and it looks like ingesting contaminated food might be able to spread the infection. Bites are also showing a low recovery rate, which is… something. Someone designed this and deliberately introduced it to the Garrison,” he said, leaning back and pressing the heel of his hand to his temple. “We don’t know where else it was introduced or how else it’s been designed to spread.”

“Honerva designed it, I’m guessing,” Lotor said, resignation in every word.

“Looks like it, yeah,” Ryou said.

“Is that what happened to your arm?” Hunk asked.

Ryou glanced down at the torn sleeve, then laughed. He waved the metal arm at them. “I honestly forgot. Yeah, one of them tried to get me, but it’s a lot harder to bite through metal than it is to bite through skin. Speaking of, Coran, how are you feeling?”

“As though I was just bitten by an undead human being,” Coran said, giving him a sickly smile. “If you could tell me what humans consider a ‘classic’ zombie while we travel?”

Ryou hesitated, and then nodded. “Allura, Lotor, you guys too. And the rest of you should probably listen in for the details. We’re still gathering info, and there’s a team trying to contain as much as they can back on base while figuring out what they can and transmitting out.”

“Go on,” Allura prompted, folding her hands in her lap and leaning forward.

Ryou took a breath, and started talking.

o.o.o.o.o

They landed in front of Keith’s shack, the engines whirring down as the craft settled.

Pidge felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as she hopped out of the craft. Shiro moved ahead of all of them and knocked on the door.

Keith opened the door and stared at them.

He looked like hell, and Pidge’s heart sank. His eyes were red, and there were thin, angry lines tracing from the back of his neck around towards the front. They were half-hidden by his rat’s nest of hair, and Pidge’s attention kept trying to drift down to the blade in his hands, but none of that compared to the devastated look on his face.

“Keith?” Shiro asked carefully, taking a step forward. He held his hands up. “Are you—”

Keith lurched forward and wrapped his arms around Shiro with a broken cry. Pidge couldn’t see his face anymore, not from this distance, but the sobbing was audible.

“Keith, hey, what’s wrong?” Shiro asked, hugging Keith back and sending the rest of them a worried look.

“I thought you were gone,” Keith managed to choke out between heaving sobs, and things started making a horrifying amount of sense. Keith had been working on expressing his emotions in a healthy way, but this was too much to be anything other than a worst case scenario. “I woke up in the shack and everything was normal and I couldn’t feel the Blue Lion out in the caves and I thought I’d just dreamed it all and you were still dead on Kerberos and—”

“Breathe,” Shiro said, pulling Keith closer. “I’m here. I’m alive. Voltron happened, it was all real.”

Keith’s shuddering started to subside, and Pidge nudged Lance with her elbow. “You and Allura should go join in on that.”

Lance looked down at her, only barely turning away from the sight, and then looked back to Shiro and Keith. As soon as Keith started to pull away, Lance rushed forward, Allura in tow. Keith let out a little ‘oof’ when they collided, but didn’t fight in the slightest as they assured him it was all true and that Allura was, in fact, a real person and not a figment of his imagination.

“Pidge,” Ryou said, leaning down to speak quietly at her shoulder. “Can I fistfight your AI son?”

“He’s not my kid, and I’m not sure there’s a way for you to do that,” Pidge muttered. “Besides, I don’t think he’s being malicious. He’s just… very young.”

Ryou made a face and stood up straight again.

“Guys!” Lance called over, and then gestured at them. “Get over here and comfort Keith with us!”

“Lance, I don’t—”

“You’re going to accept the love, Keith,” Allura told him. “You’ve spent the past few hours scared out of your mind, and now we’re going to help you.”

They converged.

Keith tried to hide his smile, but the attempt was very much in vain. Pidge was sure about that much, because she was short enough to be more or less eye level with his mouth, and only a few inches away.

Lotor and Matt hung back, and Coran wasn’t able to join in, but it was… nice.

Something rang, and Ryou peeled himself off of the group and pulled out his phone. Pidge heard him step away.

“Sir?”

A barely audible demand.

“The craft is stationary because we made the decision to pick up a former cadet who lives in the area. He’s no longer a Garrison member, but if we do end up needing all the people we can get, he’s an excellent pilot and—yes, sir, I’m definitely talking about Keith Kogane.”

Keith groaned, and Pidge didn’t quite giggle.

“Really?”

Another pause.

“Professor Smythe was injured and infected in the escape, so… yes, sir. What about Florida?”

More murmuring.

“Supplies?”

Pidge stepped back as the entire group hug gradually loosened, and craned her head to watch Ryou end the conversation with, “Understood, sir. We’ll keep in touch.”

“What’s up?” Lance asked.

“We’re staying here,” Ryou said, sounding just as surprised as Pidge felt. “Apparently they want a few key teams staying in isolated, relatively easily-defended areas outside of known Garrison facilities. When they saw we’d paused, that apparently short-listed us to be one of the secret teams on the outside.”

“This building is nowhere near self-sustaining,” Keith pointed out, like he hadn’t been rubbing at his eyes just a few seconds earlier. He sounded a little out-of-breath. “There’s no way.”

“Our spending is going to be tracked, but all officers have official military debit cards in case of emergency, including evac,” Ryou said, patting his pocket. “We’ve been given free license to do what we need to, on that front.”

“We don’t exactly have a lot of room inside, either,” Lance pointed out. “Or enough bathrooms for ten people.”

“Yeah, ‘what we need’ is apparently extended to buying temporary accommodations. They’ll be sending what the limits on that are, but I think trailers are on the list if we’re here for more than a few weeks,” Ryou said, rubbing the back of his head. “I mean, it’s… not what we’d be getting at another base, but it’s something.”

He seemed like he was about to say something else, but he stopped, staring oddly at Matt. “Matt, I’m going to need you to step towards me very, very slowly.”

Matt blinked, but they’d all been through too much shit to question stuff like that. Pidge’s eyes caught on what Ryou’s had, a second later.

“Fucking scorpions,” Keith muttered. His face was still pressed against Shiro’s chest, head tucked under the man’s chin, but he was glaring at the offending arachnid like it had personally murdered his father.

“Wait, that’s all?” Matt asked, stopping for a second. He looked down and wrinkled his nose. A second later, his heavy, Garrison-issue boot came down on the creature with an ugly crunching noise.

“Ew,” Pidge whispered.

“Oh, I thought you were going to freak like you did in—”

“That never happened!” Matt shouted.

“Wait, is this a story from your cadet days?” Lance asked, eyes alight.

“No,” Matt said.

It was countered immediately by an amused, level “Yes,” from Shiro.

“Traitor,” Matt accused.

“These are… normal here?” Allura asked, leaning down to get a closer look at the remains.

“Yeah, the ones we have here aren’t deadly, just painful,” Ryou said, tucking his hands into his pockets. He turned slowly on the spot, scanning the desert. “Could have been a rattler. That would have been more dangerous.”

“Probably not fatal,” Shiro assured her.

“Most aren’t fatal, but that doesn’t make them safe,” Keith groused, finally pulling himself from the hug. “Come on inside. We can figure out where you guys are going to be sleeping and stuff. You said something about Coran getting bitten by something?”

“Oh yeah,” Ryou said, with forced casualness. “There’s zombies.”

Keith tripped on thin air and spun to face him. “What?”

“Yeah, we need to get the wound cleaned out to at least slow it down,” Matt said. “I’m the closest thing we have to a medical officer right now, right?”

“Coran doesn’t know human bodies, so yeah,” Shiro said. He scratched the back of his head, and gave Keith a sympathetic smile. “We’re still figuring out what the end goal here is, but surviving as long as possible is definitely part of it.”

“Right,” Keith said, staring. He blinked and shook his head like he was getting rid of cobwebs. “Right. I don’t have a lot of furniture, but he can have the bed.”

“Awesome,” Shiro said.

They started getting set up.

Chapter Text

The thing about the zombie apocalypse, Pidge found, was that it wasn’t roving hordes of the undead. They were kept relatively up-to-date through the officers on the team, and while the Garrison had been evacuated, they hadn’t gotten rid of everyone. There were some guards, mostly the Air Force soldiers, and researchers, and a skeleton team of on-site admins.

“So, how much do you think they’re hiding from us?” Lance asked, parsing through some files on his phone. Evacuation or not, in a Garrison facility or not, they were still technically students, and the evacuation ship had rudimentary phones that could, in a pinch, be used for long-distance learning.

(Annoying, but nobody wanted to see what would happen if they slacked.)

“Not as much as they hope,” Ryou answered. “Coran’s telling us way more than he’s supposed to be, and he’s providing a lot of feedback on stuff before the bite gets him, so they’re giving him a lot of info to work with.”

Pidge had rushed through her own homework and started focusing on hacking satellites. A bird’s eye view of the Garrison would be a good idea, right?

“I don’t suppose that’s turned anything useful up yet?” Allura asked. There was a strain in her voice, partly due to the fact that she and Lotor kept needing help with their work due to differences in terminology and method, and partly because of the situation with Coran.

Hunk had been reassuring them that they both knew way more than humans did, just because Galra and Altean technology was so much more advanced, and that it really was just the culture clash and differing approaches that were causing problems. That hadn’t done much to make them feel better, but it had been enough to keep them from complaining.

“Well, he’s fading fast,” Ryou admitted. “So they’re pushing for him to get as much done as possible before he gets zombified. Letting someone die in peace is all well and good, but the situation’s too tense right now.”

“Why leave anyone at all?” Lotor asked. “You’ve said that the infected are already dead. Why not evacuate fully and destroy it by way of aerial bombardment?”

“They’re considering it, but it’s too high of a risk right now,” Ryou explained. “We’re not entirely sure how it’s transmitted, or if it’s already been taken off the base somehow. There’s evidence that it was conspiracy, not an accident, and in that case it might have made it to other bases or civilian centers. Better to study the most advanced cases while we can, in case we see outbreaks elsewhere. If we can find a cure, even just for the infected but not actually dead people, then that’s a good thing too. And imagine if bombing the building actually spreads a relatively contained outbreak faster? Relative quarantine is the best option right now.”

“Coran got out,” Pidge said, not looking up from her screen. “He can’t have been the only one.”

“There were only three others like him, in the sense that they got infected and also left base,” Ryou said. “The others are all in quarantine on other bases, and we’re isolated enough that, if the rest of us end up infected, we can be contained relatively quickly. We’re not near any water sources or farms, which means we can’t infect other people if we go zombie and then walk through something, either. If we stop responding, they send a drone, and if the drone sees we’ve been zombified…”

Pidge made a face. Annoying as it was, that did make sense. “They confirmed it could be transmitted by food or drink, then?”

“Well, they’re not exactly running clinical trials to test it, but as far as they can tell, yeah,” Ryou said. “Also probably a mosquito risk, so Shiro and Keith are getting a hell of a lot of bug spray on that supply run.”

“We’re going to have to burn him, aren’t we?” Hunk asked. The frown on his face and resignation in his voice weren’t exactly necessary to tell Pidge he was upset, but it was a comforting reminder that she was far from the only one that was angry with the situation.

“For safety’s sake… yes,” Ryou said, grimacing and shaking his head.

“Ryou,” Lotor said, pulling attention to himself. “You said… that it may have been conspiracy.”

“Ah, yeah,” Ryou said, and it didn’t take a lot of thinking to know where Lotor was going with that. “It’s probably Honerva, at the root.”

They’d already known that, of course.

Still.

Lotor closed his eyes and breathed deep. After a few seconds, he turned back to his phone and continued like he’d never looked away.

Pidge hunkered down and focused on her computer.

She’d get a surveillance system set up on the satellites, and then see if she could backdoor the system.

She could do this.

She could.

o.o.o.o.o

A day passed. Day two had them settling in, for the most part, setting up watch cycles and guards.

Coran got worse, the wound visibly inflamed. They didn’t know if it was the zombie infection or a regular one, but when they asked about the pain, he just smiled and waved them off.

It didn’t make them feel better.

o.o.o.o.o

Day three had Shiro tense and uncomfortable, which spread to the rest of them. Matt was tight-lipped about Coran’s condition, beyond telling them it was getting worse. His attitude, at least, was less that he didn’t want them to know, and more that he didn’t want to talk about it. Allura managed to get some extra information out of him, but it wasn’t much more than they already knew, and nobody quite thought it was worth the effort or emotional investment.

o.o.o.o.o

Day four was when shit hit the fan.

o.o.o.o.o

Shiro’s phone had gone off with the emergency tone, shortly followed by Ryou and Coran and Matt’s.

“This is Captain Takashi Shirogane, awaiting instructions,” he said, and the words were echoed by the others, with only their names differing.

(Coran didn’t answer. He could barely lift his head, now, let alone his phone.)

Indistinct words.

Five seconds passed.

Pidge could feel an anxious heat blooming in her chest.

Ten.

The officers’ faces were turning pale from how the blood drained.

Twenty.

“Yes, sir.”

Forty.

“Yes, sir.”

A minute.

“Awaiting instructions from Florida, understood.”

A minute and a half.

Matt and Ryou hung up, and Shiro was the only one left.

Two minutes.

“We’re the closest to ground zero,” Shiro said. “We’re a few dozen miles out, only a single town between us and the facility.”

Three minutes.

Shiro jerked on the spot.

“Sir? Sir? Hello, is anyone there?”

He pulled away the phone to look at it. “Shit.”

“What happened?” Hunk asked, eyes darting from Matt to Shiro to Ryou and back.

“Definitely conspiracy,” Matt said, fiddling with the hem of his sleeve. “Half the staff was apparently turned overnight, and now they’re scrambling to evacuate what’s left. They still aren’t sure how or when it happened.”

“They’re having trouble, even with guns,” Shiro said, making a face. “The zombies they’re dealing with are organized, way more than expected. They’re not that intelligent, looks like, but they’re not just shambling in the direction of the loudest noise or anything.”

“So, smart zombies,” Keith muttered. “Great.”

Shiro shrugged. “They called us because we’re as close as we are. Everyone else is getting information disseminated from high command.”

“So we’ve got to be on high alert now?” Hunk’s fingers were tapping rapidly against his leg.

“Yeah, we’re apparently supposed to stay as an outpost,” Shiro said. He looked out the window towards where the Garrison was. “I’m not sure how many people got out, but…”

He trailed off, and squinted. “That’s flying way too low.”

Pidge followed his gaze, and yeah. That was definitely a Garrison craft, definitely not meant to hold more than two people, three in a pinch, and it was—

“It’s gonna crash,” Lance said. Before anyone else could say anything, he was already up and headed for the windows. “Pass by maybe thirty yards north of us.”

“How did you—”

“Sharpshooter, good at that sort of thing,” Lance answered before Lotor could even finish his sentence. “Come on, let’s see who it is.”

“Wait,” Shiro said, and Lance paused.

Pidge’s stomach twisted strangely as Shiro passed over a laser rifle. It wasn’t as advanced as the bayards, or even the Galra blasters, but it was a standard-issue weapon for most modern militaries.

It was also another reminder of how strangely dangerous the whole situation was.

“I’ll—”

There was a massive crash outside as the craft skidded to a stop. A wince passed through the circle.

Shiro started over. “I’ll go there with Ryou and Lotor. You keep guard from the roof. Everyone else is on standby.”

Pidge had to content herself with that, hanging back between Allura and Hunk. Matt stayed inside with Coran, and Keith kept his weight shifted forward onto his toes as they all strained to see what was going on.

They came back slowly, a large figure dragged along between the twins as Lotor brought up the rear.

“Oh shit,” Hunk said, and Pidge nodded along. “That’s Iverson?”

“Should we do something?” Allura asked.

“Probably not,” Hunk said. “Maybe get first aid supplies?”

“Triage,” Keith said. “Or—”

Get some water!” Ryou yelled, still a dozen yards away. “AND GET MATT!”

“Or that,” Keith said, pulling away.

Pidge stepped back as the group finally got to them. They set Iverson on the ground, his back leaning on the house.

He looked bad. Covered in scrapes, some burns, and… yeah, that was definitely a handful of bites.

(At least he had a face, now.)

“So, I’m guessing the second evacuation didn’t go that well, huh?” Hunk asked.

Dude,” Lance hissed, dropping to the ground from the roof.

“Am I wrong?”

“That’s enough,” Shiro ordered, and turned back to Iverson. “Sir?”

“Shiro,” he said, remaining eye fixed on the man before him. “Good to see you.”

“Good to see you too, sir,” Shiro said, trying to paste a smile on his face as Matt rushed out of the building, Keith right behind him.

“Don’t bother, I don’t have long anyway,” Iverson snapped, waving him off. His breath came heavily, a rattling gasp interrupting every few words. “I don’t know who… managed to get out… so you need to contact… the other bases… as soon as possible. It’s worse than we thought.”

“How much worse?” Shiro asked, a forced calm in his voice.

“Hive mind.”

It.

It took a second to process.

“Well, fuck,” Keith muttered, and Iverson laughed.

The laugh quickly turned to a hacking cough, and specks of blood flew from his mouth. Shiro immediately lurched back, eyes wide.

“Get the info to… Florida and Hawaii… and anyone else who’ll… listen,” Iverson said. He took a deep breath, and part of Pidge winced in sympathy. She wasn’t the only one. “We think it was Honerva Daibazaal, and we’re… guessing that she’s been the one acting as a… a hive queen of sorts.”

“I’m not nearly as surprised as I should be,” Lotor muttered.

“So are we talking Borg hive mind or like ants and bees?” Matt asked.

“We didn’t have time to ask,” Iverson said, voice flat. The effect was ruined by yet another cough, but he’d tried. “Insects, I imagine. We’d guessed… that there’s some chemical… imperative… to follow her orders, but… no confirmation.”

“Anything else they should know that they don’t already?” Shiro asked.

“Why did you come here in the first place?” Keith asked.

“Only Garrison… in fifty miles,” Iverson said, with yet another deep, rattling breath. “And no. We got the rest out by phone, at least.”

“You’ll be turning,” Pidge said quietly. Given the number of delayed turnings, they still didn’t know how likely people were to fight the infection off. It was far more effective than most natural viruses, but there was still a difference between one out of five people recovering, and one out of twenty.

But one thing Coran had been clear on was that if a person died before they virus left their system, even if it was for unrelated causes, they’d become a zombie.

Destroying the brain was the only way to kill them permanently.

(The stories had predicted that much correctly.)

Iverson’s gaze landed on the rifle in Lance’s hands, and he closed his eyes. He let his head fall back and sighed.

“Get it done quick, cadet.”

Shiro backed away, and so did everyone else.

Lance didn’t tremble as he raised the rifle to a shooting position, stance perfect even at such a close range. He swallowed nervously, though, and there was a strange shine to his eyes.

Pidge couldn’t look away, and all she could think as the blood and bone and fluid spattered across the side of the house, was that they were going to need a lot of fire and bleach after this.

o.o.o.o.o

It’s just a simulation. The real Iverson is alive. It’s all going to be okay.

I’m going to be okay.

It’s just a fucking game.

o.o.o.o.o

Shiro made the appropriate calls while Keith and Ryou took over burning the body. At the end of the day, the right people were informed, the Garrison was a lifeless husk, and they’d been watching cars full of civilians evacuating East with their own escorts for hours.

Pidge sat in a corner, legs tucked up to her chest and laptop resting on her knees as she tried to force a backdoor into the game. She hit firewalls at every opening, though, and they were all updating faster than she could, not to mention based on her own work.

“Not going well?”

She looked up at the figure that was suddenly blocking her sunlight, and then back down at her computer. “You could say that.”

Hunk settled down next to her, hands looped over his knees, far looser than she was. “Can I help?”

“Doubt it,” Pidge muttered. “The tech I have on hand in here isn’t advanced enough to really do the job we need.”

“I could help you advance the tech?” Hunk offered.

Pidge chewed on her lip. “We’d probably lose all the advances as soon as we jumped levels again.”

“You don’t think we can break out directly from this level,” Hunk summarized.

“Basically,” Pidge sighed. She leaned over and pressed her face into Hunk’s shoulder. “My head hurts.”

He patted her on the head, then maneuvered his arm around her back and pulled her closer. “You got this, dude.”

“Doesn’t feel like it,” she muttered.

“Have you been sleeping at all?” He asked.

“Not really.”

“Eating? Drinking water?” He prompted.

“I’m trying,” Pidge admitted. She shut her laptop and put it to the side, and then squirmed around to wrap her arms around Hunk, as far as she could. “I’m just… having insomnia and don’t have much of an appetite.”

His hand ran through her hair a few times, and then started smoothing it down. “It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

“If someone winds up dead, it’s my fault,” Pidge argued. She was too tired to put any heat behind the words. “I made the program. I ignored Lotor’s suggestion to do more tests and safety precautions. I—”

“This was a test,” Hunk reminded her. “The Call of Duty and FIFA stuff was supposed to be a trial run to see if the system glitched out when too many people were added. The fact that it glitched out this way and not the way we expected? You couldn’t have predicted that. Nobody could have predicted that. You’re one of the smartest people I know, and the fact that you accidentally made an AI is actually kind of funny. The fact that a bunch of conflicting rules that were in the system before you were ended up throwing things out of whack? Eeeeeeeeeh, not really your fault. The fact that it all combined into the SVEN and Mother situation? That’s ‘we tried to make a sandwich and accidentally blew up a building’ levels of unreasonable consequences.”

Pidge whined wordlessly and tried to burrow her face deeper into Hunk’s shoulder.

“Okay, c’mere.” He lifted her up effortlessly and pulled her into his lap, and she once again buried her face into his neck. “You’re one of my best friends. You’re one of the smartest people I know. You are ridiculously selfless, considering how you kept fighting with Voltron even when you needed to go find your family. You’re a good person and you didn’t do this on purpose, okay?”

He planted a kiss on her forehead, which, just, rude. He wasn’t allowed to be that sweet, no fair. If he was that sweet, then she was going to go out of her mind trying to find a way to pay him back.

“I still can’t get us out of it,” she said.

“Yeah, well, that’s what you have a team for,” Hunk said. “We’ll figure something out eventually.”

“Ugh.”

“Come on, are you saying I can’t help?

“I mean…” she dragged the word out as she leaned away to meet his eyes. “You’re pretty good, for someone who doesn’t double-modulate.”

“Wow. That hurts. Right here.” Hunk put a hand to his chest and widened his eyes. “You’re killing me.”

“I plead the fifth.”

“That has zero relevance and you know it.”

“Does it?” She leaned closer, grinning. “Does it, Hunk?”

He blinked, looked down, and started tickling her.

She screeched.

(Sweetness commentary retracted. Hunk could be just as much of a jerk as the rest of them.)

(She did feel better, though…)

Chapter Text

“Hey guys?”

Pidge leaned over the edge of the roof to peer down at her brother. “What do you want, Matt?”

“Make sure you start filtering your water,” he said. “I just checked and it’s… it’s not a lot, but there’s contamination in the tap water, and we’re running out of the bottled stuff.”

“That’s… bad,” Pidge decided. “Garrison said they think it can be transferred through ingestion. Does that have a higher rate of effectiveness?”

“Florida’s saying they got info from the base that says it takes longer to be effective, and it’s harder to detect,” Matt said. He eyed the side of the building, and then proceeded to parkour his way up to the roof to join Pidge and Lance. “Hey Lance.”

“Hey,” Lance said.

He kept staring at the horizon.

“Any movement?” Matt asked, settling in next to Pidge and passing her a water bottle. He set one next to Lance, who ignored it.

“Some, but nothing concrete,” Lance said. He was laid out flat on his stomach, legs stretched out behind him, and torso propped up on his elbows so he could watch the Garrison through his binoculars. “Too high a risk that it’s just a heat mirage at this point. The satellites might be able to give us a better idea.”

“Hunk’s been working on some spy drones,” Pidge offered.

“She’s right,” Hunk said, heading popping up over the edge of the roof. Pidge could hear the rattling of a ladder as he climbed up to join them. “I have.”

“Well, this is turning into a party,” Lance muttered. “Hunk, buddy, what are you doing up here?”

“It’s not just me,” Hunk said, settling in behind Pidge. She blinked in surprise as Shiro followed suit, though he got a fair bit closer to Matt when he took his seat. Matt even leaned back to rest against Shiro, heedless of the desert heat. It was probably late autumn, since the temperatures weren’t murderous, but it was still hot.

“So… what happened?” Matt asked, craning his head back to look at Shiro.

Shiro shook his head and gave Matt a kiss on the forehead. “That’s all you’re getting, considering why I came out here in the first place?”

“That’s not an answer,” Pidge pointed out.

“Keith and Allura started making out in the kitchen,” Hunk said, his voice flat.

Lance made a wounded noise and pulled away from the binoculars to pout at Hunk. “And they didn’t invite me?”

“Lance, I love you and you’re my best friend, but you need to know that the PDA is a bit much sometimes,” Hunk said. He patted Lance on the back, since it was about all he could reach.

“Hashtag rude,” Lance whined. Then he pointed out, rather sensibly, “To be fair, it’s Keith’s house.”

“And, technically speaking, nobody was in the room when they started,” Shiro sighed. “It’s just… very awkward.”

“Very,” Hunk agreed. “And delaying lunch plans.”

“Well, not really,” Shiro hedged. “I told Keith that if he was going to take over the kitchen like that, he was responsible for dinner. So he and Allura are going to be on that.”

Pidge craned her head back to see if Hunk made a face. He did.

“They can’t really… cook,” Hunk pointed out.

“They’re probably going to be rehydrating some MDEs,” Shiro said. “Keith’s competent enough to do that.”

“Yeah, he’s not Shiro,” Matt said, voice cheerful.

Pidge laughed as Shiro pouted, and then found herself getting pulled back into a hug.

“Whoa, hey, what?”

“Haven’t heard you laugh much, recently,” Hunk said. “It’s good to hear.”

“Oh,” Pidge said. She relaxed a little. “Um… thanks?”

“Adorable,” Lance deadpanned. He slid his eyes over to Shiro. “So, uh, if you’re all up here…”

“Yes, you can go join Keith and Allura,” Shiro said. “Just don’t disturb Coran, okay? Lotor and Ryou are still there to keep an eye out if his condition nosedives, but…”

Pidge’s heart sank, and the smile fell off her face.

“Will do,” Lance said. He pulled the strap of the binoculars off and passed it over to Matt’s reaching hand. “Thanks!”

He scrambled off down the ladder. It was almost cute enough to save Pidge’s mood.

Granted, ‘almost’ wasn’t actually ‘enough.’

She scooted forward and picked up the bottle that Matt had brought, taking a long drink and trying to distract herself from the heat and guilt.

“Hey,” Matt said. “Let’s play Kaladont.”

It took Pidge a moment to catch up. “It’s not as fun in English.”

Matt shrugged. Pidge watched as he kept his gaze on the horizon. “So we don’t play in English.”

“But then Hunk and Shiro can’t play.”

“Well, if Hunk uses Samoan and Shiro uses Japanese…”

“Then we can’t call them out if they make up words like you did when you were twelve.”

“That was one time,” Matt protested, an overdone whine in his voice.

“We could try to guess what the words mean?” Shiro suggested. “That should be an interesting time.”

Matt and Pidge’s eyes met. He struck first.

“Mrkva.”

“I’m not even trying,” Hunk said, after a moment. “I don’t know what game this is, but I’m not going to try to guess what that word means.”

“I feel like I’ve heard it before,” Shiro said. “But I can’t remember.”

“Carrot,” Matt said. “So, Pidge?”

“Variti.”

“I take it back, I just want to watch how fast you can do this,” Shiro admitted.

Matt shrugged. “Tiho.”

“Hodati.”

He wrinkled his nose at her. “Come on, dude. Uh..”

“I’m waiting.”

“I know, I know,” Matt grumbled. “T… Tiganj!”

Pidge’s mouth fell open, and then she snapped it shut and fell into thought. “No names, right?”

“Don’t even try.”

She kept thinking.

And thinking.

And thinking.

“Gotcha.”

“I concede,” Pidge sighed dramatically, falling back against Hunk. “Why you gotta trap me like that?”

“You gave me two infinitives,” Matt pointed out. “Like, how am I supposed to come up with that many words that fit?”

“Try?”

“My vocabulary isn’t that big.”

“So, what is the game?” Hunk asked.

“The next word has to start with the last two letters of the one before it,” Pidge explained. “So, for example, if I have the word ‘vatra,’ then Matt could follow with ‘radim,’ and I could follow with ‘imaju.’ You lose if you can’t come up with another word. The problem is that our brains have been so stuck on English lately that our vocabularies, which are already pretty minimal, are even further out of reach.”

“We could play in English, if we changed the rules to just the last letter,” Matt said. “It’s just harder to win that way, since there’s less constraints.”

“So… Scrabble rules for the words?” Hunk asked. “Like no names, no places?”

“Right. No proper nouns, no repeats, and I’m gonna go ahead and say that, for English, no conjugations, so we can limit things a bit.”

“Do you do conjugations when you play in Serbian?” Shiro asked.

“Yeah,” Pidge said. “More fun that way.”

She met Matt’s eyes. “Load.”

“Door.”

“Rehabilitory,” Hunk chimed in, and then smiled when Pidge twisted around to give him a look.

“Yellow,” Shiro said, clearly stifling a laugh.

“West,” Pidge said.

“Terpsichorean,” Matt added. Pidge may or may not have hissed at him.

They kept playing, unsurprisingly, only ending and starting anew once they’d hit up the letter X more than twice. The sun sank in the sky, and they all kept an uneasy eye on the horizon, but nothing happened.

Allura came up to take the first shift of the night, looking a little rumpled, and they all filed down and inside for dinner.

Pidge kind of missed the solid warmth that had been at her back for the last few hours.

o.o.o.o.o

Pidge sat on the floor next to Coran’s bed, laptop on her knees. Lotor sat a few feet away, a computer of his own at hand. They worked in silence, and Coran’s rattling breaths were the loudest of their background noises.

He’d stopped responding to people, even Allura, three hours ago.

“What if we attempted to form a simulation within the simulation?” Lotor asked, his low voice filling up the room, but still too thin to cover the rasps from Pidge’s side. “It could confuse the system enough for us to manage something.”

“Just straight up Inception?” Pidge asked. She tilted her head, considering it. “I think it’s a possibility, but not something we should be banking our hopes on.”

Lotor nodded, a deep frown wrinkling his brow.

The door opened and closed, utterly silent. Allura paced across the room and put a hand on Coran’s forehead without a word.

“He’s been getting worse,” Lotor told her, which Pidge felt was rather unnecessary. Allura had left the room because she needed to calm down about Coran’s worsening condition in the first place. She hardly needed that reinforced.

“I suspected,” Allura said. She seemed at a loss.

“Any word on the Garrison?” Pidge asked.

“Shiro got back from doing a flyover to see if anything had changed,” Allura said. She bit her lip, smoothed down Coran’s hair, and then came to sit next to Pidge. “He says there’s movement, but he can’t tell what.”

“At least the desert means we’ll see them coming,” Pidge muttered.

“We don’t know that for sure,” Lotor reminded her. “Honerva’s abilities aren’t really…”

“Yeah,” Pidge said, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to finish that sentence. “I get it.”

“We don’t even know what the goal is,” Allura said. “What do we need to accomplish to actually move on?”

“I don’t know,” Pidge said. “Surviving the plague is usually the goal of any zombie media, but that can take years. Here… probably just killing Honerva.”

“We could stage a stealth assault,” Lotor said. This was not the first time they’d had this conversation. “Go in as the Blade would, avoid the undead, and kill her.”

“Hive mind indicates she’s still got enough control of at least herself to have some defense system in place,” Pidge said. “Including the Galaxy Garrison’s defense systems.”

“Which she could turn on us at any moment,” Lotor reminded. “So we need to attack first.”

“Ugh, we shouldn’t even be this close,” Pidge groaned, throwing her head back against the wall. “This is in no way legal.”

“What do you mean?” Allura asked.

“Shiro could probably explain it best,” Pidge muttered. She threw her arm over her eyes. “He’s actually got officer training and stuff. But like… there are protocols, with distance and stuff? It’s technically legal for there to be an outpost this close, but not in a civilian’s house, and not with minors in attendance, and not with such minimal supplies.”

“Then why are we here?” Lotor asked, and then shook his head. “No, don’t tell me. Sven.”

“Bingpot,” Pidge said. Lotor and Allura both stared at her. She clarified, “You’re right. It’s a major modification to the laws so he can put us in a more interesting starting position.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Allura told her. “You should—”

“Stop,” Lotor said. Allura turned to reprimand him in annoyance, but stopped at the look on his face. Pidge wasn’t surprised; if it hadn’t been for the fact that his skin was naturally darker than hers, he’d have been pale as a sheet. “He’s…”

Silence rang through the room.

The conversation had masked it, but… Coran had stopped breathing.

“His heart isn’t beating,” Lotor said.

Allura scrambled to her feet, reaching to check for a pulse. Pidge set her laptop to the side and stood, unsure of what to do, exactly.

Lotor, ever the pragmatist, drew a gun.

“What the hell, dude?”

“If he turns, he may try to attack. As much as Coran loves Allura like a daughter, it won’t be him and you’ve said as much,” Lotor snapped back. He clicked off the safety.

Pidge clenched her jaw, but couldn’t argue. She turned for the door. She needed someone qualified to give medical advice beyond the emergency information of how to do CPR. She needed Matt.

“Just be careful you don’t shoot her by accident if they start tussling.”

Allura had already started chest compressions, visibly unsure of whether she was doing it right for a human body, but trying anyway.

Lotor stayed where he was, ready to bring up the gun and shoot if necessary.

o.o.o.o.o

He died.

Nobody was surprised.

He didn’t move after he died, at least.

He just… lay there.

Dead.

Not a zombie, just… dead.

It felt worse that way. More real.

It’s just a game.

Chapter Text

Coran died at 10:32 PM. It was too dark outside to bury him, too high a risk of coyotes or walking corpses sneaking up on them in a moment of inattention.

(Pidge would wonder, later, if Sven had done that on purpose. He’d known Coran was going to die; he was running all the elements that they didn’t have influence over, and that probably included the rate of infection.)

The insomnia was inevitable, but Shiro reminded them that Coran was going to be fine once they got out of the game. They might as well have done their best to make sure they got out as soon as possible, and that meant winning.

Pidge kept track of the breathing around her, tried to let it lull her to sleep. She heard them all slow down enough to know they’d fallen asleep, one by one. She had no doubts that they were all sleeping incredibly lightly, but Shiro and Ryou were on the roof to keep watch, and that… it helped. A lot.

She looked around, through the weak light that filtered in from Keith’s porch. They were all sleeping in the same room, on air mattresses and sleeping bags and Keith’s ratty couch. A few people had stayed in the other room, before, but nobody wanted to share space with a corpse.

Pidge stared at the ceiling. She rolled onto her side, taking the blanket with her. The clock read 4:22 AM. She closed her eyes, tried not to think about how dry and gritty they felt, and rolled over to stare at the ceiling again.

Popcorn ceiling stared back at her.

Distantly, she heard a shuffling noise. A fox or coyote, maybe. One of the twins might have climbed down to do something, too. Or, hell, maybe there were finally undead crawling out from the Garrison to attack the building. Honerva was going to need to do something, soon, or the rates of physical decay were going to fuck over her precious little army.

Pidge finally conceded the fact that she wasn’t going to get any sleep soon, and got up. She could do some coding, or… or look over the first pics that Hunk’s rudimentary drone had picked up.

She blinked, and her eyes burned, and it felt kind of like there was a knife lodged in her throat.

As carefully as she could, Pidge got to her feet and tiptoed around her friends, heading for the kitchen. She saw more than one eye open to check on her as she made her way out, before dismissing her as friend and not a threat. Lotor and Keith tracked her all the way to the kitchen door, but she saw them close their eyes again as she passed through and got herself a glass of water. She felt kind of bad about waking up people who might not have been able to get back to sleep again soon, but… well, nobody was going to wake up well-rested anyway, except maybe Lance, who had the uncanny ability to sleep through just about anything, including his own worst moods.

Her eyes still itched.

She headed for the bathroom, opened the door quietly, and set about washing her face. She didn’t know if it would help with the dry eyes, but Keith didn’t have eye drops, and she’d read somewhere that washing one’s face would reset her mood a little, though a shower could do it better. So she did that, as silently as she could, and then leaned back against the wall next to the door and let her head fall back against the cool tile of the wall. She closed her eyes against the flickering fluorescent light that flooded the small room, and tried not to think.

The lump in her throat tried to climb its way up, and she couldn’t really force it down.

She sucked in a breath, and did her best, but it came out shaky anyway.

Her eyes prickled, and when she’d hoped to get them wet again, she really hadn’t meant tears.

Pidge sank to the ground, back to the wall, and wrapped her arms around her knees.

She buried her face in her arms and cried.

It took… longer than she wanted to admit to stop. She was sure the others could hear her through the door, since she wasn’t a silent crier. They’d be able to see it when she came back, too, in the red splotches on her cheeks, since she wasn’t a pretty crier, either.

She probably deserved it, in her own opinion. Everyone had done their best to reassure her, but she was the who’d put them into this situation, and anything that happened until the time they got out was going to be her fault.

Pidge wiped her eyes once she thought it was over, and stood up. She looked in the mirror, and tried not to wince, just splashed water over her face again in hopes that it would help her feel better. There was a knock at the door, quiet but clear, and she shuddered. God, of course someone had come to check on her. They all cared too much, and she hadn’t exactly been quiet.

“I’ll be out soon,” she assured whoever it was, and heard a soft sigh of acknowledgement, barely audible past the faint noise of the air conditioner.

She looked in the mirror again, and swallowed down the urge to cry again, and turned to open the door.

For a moment, her heart swelled with affection on instinct. That instinct was brutally murdered as reality came crashing down.

Because Coran was standing there.

Coran, who was dead.

Coran, who was smiling in a way he never had.

Coran, who waited for the horror to process, and then lunged forward and tried to bite her.

Pidge screamed loud enough to wake the dead (ha!), and threw herself to the side. She grabbed the first large object she saw and swung it at his head as he attacked again. He slammed into the wall, but recovered almost immediately, and threw himself forward. She tripped backwards into the tub, falling, and tried to swing again.

He caught it with one hand, and smiled, and said in a voice that was wholly not his own. “Hello, Miss Holt.”

His head exploded.

In the seconds that followed, Pidge would belatedly process that there had been the crack of a gunshot, and that there was screaming and panic from people as they all woke up and crowded into the tiny room, and that Lotor was standing there with worry in his eyes and a pistol in his hands, still for a moment before Allura pushed him out of the way and came to a stop. Pidge would later process that Lotor had saved her, that she’d almost become zombie food, that the zombification had taken longer than they’d expected after death, and that Hunk and Lance and Matt were all trying to get her attention.

Right now, all she knew was that there was blood and brains and tiny bits of bone splattered across her face, and that those bits had all once been part of Coran, who’d died and become a zombie and tried to eat her while speaking with Honerva’s voice.

So instead, she turned to the side that didn’t have a headless dead body, and threw up.

And then she started crying again, because there really wasn’t any better time to do so.

o.o.o.o.o

It took Pidge hours to stop freaking out.

Lotor and Allura took care of the body, taking it outside and burning it as the twins watched the horizon and the rising sun. They wanted to fuss, Pidge managed to think, but somebody needed to stay on lookout.

Matt ushered everyone out of the room, grabbed the showerhead, and crouched down in front of her.

“Hey, I’m going to spray you down, okay? Would it be weird if I took off your shirt and pants? I’ll leave the underwear, obviously,” he said, the words slow and careful and very much like he was talking to a recently-rescued prisoner.

Pidge found that she didn’t mind, mostly because she could still see Coran’s smile and hear Honerva’s voice and feel the gore that got all over her face. Matt was using small words and checking in, and that was a lot easier to follow than anything else. She nodded, and he started pulling things off, setting them to the side in the tub so they wouldn’t dirty anything else.

The first hit of water to her head was a shock. It wasn’t particularly warm or cold, just pleasant, and Pidge distantly realized he’d checked the temperature before he’d started using it on her. He shampooed her hair, and quietly instructed her on when to close her eyes or tilt her head or raise her arms. Following instructions was easy.

She didn’t like closing her eyes, though. That just meant seeing it all again.

“She talked to me,” Pidge said, a few trickles of water making their way into her mouth. “She talked to me through him. He opened his mouth and he talked but it was her voice and her words and I hate her, Matt, I hate her so much.”

“I hate her, too,” Matt said. “I don’t want you to get shampoo in your eyes, and there’s still… um.”

“There’s still blood,” Pidge said. She could hear how dead her voice was. She didn’t care. “We should have locked the door.”

“We maybe shoulda,” Matt agreed. “Now close your eyes and let me clean you up.”

She did it.

Following instructions was easy.

For now.

o.o.o.o.o

Pidge threw herself into coding after that. She didn’t really sleep, or eat much. Her stomach turned at the thought of eating, and she kept having nightmares about exploding heads and creepy smiles and that lovely, terrifying voice.

So.

Coding.

She did her best to eat, and she did her best to sleep, and when neither plan worked out that well, she focused on what she could do, and tried to block out everything else. Numbers and words and parentheses and Curly Bois made sense, and they kept her occupied, and they kept her awake and the intrusive memories away.

She had two screens open and a thermos of blonde coffee at her side, and she sat on the roof with Hunk to keep watch on the horizon.

Ostensibly.

In reality, Pidge was keeping track of Hunk’s drone cameras while he alternated between keeping a human eye on the desert and checking on her computer. Pidge, in turn, split her attention between the supposed real world, the camera feeds on one giant screen, and the coding on the other.

With enough distractions, she could drown out some of the anxiety, or at least funnel it into something more productive.

“Shiro called to tell the other bases about the stuff we picked up from Coran’s turning, right?” Pidge asked. “About the delayed zombification and the… the possession.”

“Yeah.”

“Good,” Pidge said, hitting the keys a little more viciously than was strictly necessary. “They need to know.”

“I think they’re setting up quarantines,” Hunk told her. “And everyone’s getting heart monitor bracelets so that security knows the second someone’s dead. A few people are upset about it, calling it an invasion of privacy, but…”

“It’s a matter of safety until the plague is contained,” Pidge summarized. “Good. Are we getting backup out here?”

“Uh… no, not really.”

“Fine.”

“Pidge?”

“What?”

A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, and Pidge stiffened. She turned to look at Hunk out of the corner of her eye, nose crinkled.

“When’s the last time you slept?” He asked. His voice was soft, and so was his expression, and part of her was offended, while the other part wanted to lean in and hug him and maybe cry herself to sleep.

“I’m fine,” she said, instead of doing that. “I got a few hours last night.”

“So you’ve gotten two or three hours in the past two days?” Hunk prodded.

“I’m fine,” Pidge insisted. “It’s a game, there’s no lasting consequences. I can push myself now and I’ll wake up next level completely refreshed.”

“Not really,” Hunk said. He shifted a few inches closer. “Mental fatigue isn’t really getting addressed, Pidge.”

“I can’t,” she hissed, pulling her hands away from the keyboard and digging them into her hair. They felt a little sore, but it was nothing compared to the sting in her eyes. “I keep seeing him, every time I close my eyes. I keep seeing his head explode and just… I can’t, Hunk, I just can’t. The best I can do is a few hours here and there and otherwise just trying to get us out of here.”

She yelped as she got pulled to the side, bundled up into a hug by Hunk. “Try it like this.”

What.

“Lots of people find it easier to sleep if they can cuddle, or even just feel someone at their back. It’s why Shiro’s sleeping easier, and I know Matt told you he has less nightmares when the two of them share a bed. Lance says he has it easier when Allura invites him and Keith to spend the night, and I’m pretty sure the other two get some comfort or feeling of safety out of it too.”

“Yeah, I know,” Pidge grumbled. She tried to ignore how soft and warm and comfortable Hunk was, just holding her close like this.

“So?” Hunk asked, squeezing her shoulder. “Take a nap?”

“I’m supposed to be on watch,” Pidge protested, though she could feel how weak it was even to her own ears.

“Shift’s over in fifteen minutes and Keith and Lotor are up next. I don’t think either of them would be bothered if I told them you were bowing out early,” Hunk said.

She shot him a disbelieving look, and he shrugged with a sad, shameless grin.

“We’ve all been concerned.”

“I don’t need it,” Pidge mumbled. She turned to press her face against Hunk’s chest, though, and wrapped her arms around one of his.

“You do,” Hunk told her. He ran his free hand through her hair. “We all do. That’s what a team is for.”

Pidge was already drifting, and barely heard Keith and Lotor climb up onto the roof a few minutes later.

Safe.

Chapter Text

The first incursion was the next day.

Everyone knew, from the twins’ and Matt’s conversations with the other bases, that they were starting to get reports of the undead in civilian cities. There were patterns, but not ones that they could exploit easily. Honerva tended to target towns with faulty water filtration systems, but the faults she took advantage of were often small enough that there were just too many to keep track of. They’d found rotting zombie carcasses, from among the first to be turned, in several water towers already, and evidence of tampering in the other cities.

The CDC was cooperating, distributing antibiotics to every town and city and community that had been found to have an infection, hoping to save whoever had been infected but wasn’t yet dead.

“It’s a better response than we could have seen a few decades ago,” Ryou said. “I’m not having a hard time imagining that they’d have put it off until politicians and celebrities started turning up infected, if this happened before the mass reform in 2033.”

“Could be worse,” Matt agreed. He didn’t sound happy about it. “Could be better, sure, but… could be worse.”

“Just a game,” Pidge reminded them, almost on autopilot. She ignored the glance they shared over her head, focusing in on her coding. She had found a way through the stolen Garrison Wi-Fi to the Castle of Lions, but Sven’s firewalls were stronger than any attack she could feasibly run off of the hardware she had with her in-game.

She was trying, definitely, but…

“They think she’s trying to figure out how to infect corpses that weren’t exposed before they died,” Ryou said. “We’ve more or less got a list on who was infected at the Garrison, but if she’s—”

The alarm at Ryou’s side went off. It was a short-range radio, little better than a walkie-talkie, and when he picked it up, Lance’s voice rang through. “Guys, we’ve got movement on the horizon.”

“What kind?” Ryou asked.

“At a guess, I’d say… shambling.”

The moment it sank in, everyone scrambled for weapons and the roof. The lone exception was Keith, who was sprawled out on the couch and utterly dead to the world. Allura planted a kiss on his forehead before she left the room, and Pidge paused to make sure he was breathing before she followed.

(It wasn’t paranoia, not here. If she kept doing it once the game was over, then she’d consider that it was a problem, but here? Just a precaution.  A necessary one.)

(They knew they had to burn the bodies immediately, now.)

“It’s not exactly an entire army,” Lance said, handing off the binoculars to Ryou as Hunk got some drones aiming to fly over the mass. “But it’s more than we expected.”

“All from the Garrison?” Shiro asked.

“Actually, this might be a lot of recent missing persons cases,” Lance said. He made a face. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Honerva was getting bodies from some… especially disreputable places.”

It took a moment for Pidge to process that, and she heard Hunk gagging before she’d even gotten to the realization herself.

Dude,” Matt said.

“Considering her plan and her lack of morals, would you really be surprised if she had?” Lance challenged.

“I’m confused,” Allura admitted.

“Lance is saying that…” Ryou chewed over the words for a moment. “He’s saying that, to build this army, Honerva may have been targeting people that were less likely to be missed. Runaways, homeless people, people who live alone in the slums and work irregular enough hours that the neighbors might not—”

“You can say sex workers,” Lance interrupted, a note of irritation in his voice. “Don’t tiptoe around it. She probably targeted runaways, homeless people, and sex workers, because they either wouldn’t be missed, or the police wouldn’t look as hard for them once they were.”

Ryou winced. “Well. Yeah. What Lance said.”

“Something important there?” Shiro asked quietly.

“My sister wanted to pay her tuition bills and student loans on her own, even if she still lived with the family,” Lance said. “I know… I mean, I knew a lot of her coworkers, because they’d end up babysitting or come over when my parents left her in charge. Some of them did it just because they wanted to, and some of them did it because it was their best way out of a worse situation, and some of them wanted to pay bills for education, and for some of them it was just a job they were good at. And the ones who had the job because they were trying to get out… I mean. They’d be the kind in the shitty apartments with neighbors who don’t care and landlords who are mostly just annoyed that they need to pay a moving company to empty the rooms or whatever. They’re nice girls. They’re also the kind that would get targeted now and I’m… yeah, it’s just a game, but it makes me angry.”

“You literally died in the Bleach level,” Hunk reminded him.

“Yeah, but us fighting random anime monsters is one thing, and a video game replicating the targeting patterns of real-life human traffickers and serial killers are two very different things,” Lance grumbled.

“We can yell at Sven later,” Shiro said. “We… okay, what?”

Lotor and Allura looked at each other, and then at Lance, and then at Shiro. The movements were oddly synchronized, and Pidge would have laughed if she weren’t so fucking exhausted.

“I’m just going to pretend I understand the socio-cultural context,” Allura said. Lotor nodded slowly, just behind her. “What do we do about the zombies?”

“Area of effect, if we have it?” Shiro said, shrugging. “We’ve got some weapons on the ship we took out of the base, and the Garrison’s planning on restocking us soon if we need to use any of it.”

“I mean, for a force that big?” Matt asked. “I’m saying we call it in. That’s what we’re here for.”

Shiro bit his lip and nodded. “You’re not wrong. I’ll call up Florida, see if they can send someone in from one of the Air Force Bases. Luke evacuated, right?”

“Yeah, down to a skeleton crew,” Matt confirmed. “But I think Nellis and Davis-Monthan are still fully staffed?”

“I mean, the horde’s still a ways away,” Lance pointed out His foot jittered a little. “And most bases have jets that can do, like, Mach 10. Distance might not be that big of an issue.”

Shiro nodded slowly, and then stepped back and pulled out his phone. His voice was quiet, and controlled, and the conversation didn’t last long.

Pidge figured she had to be imagining the echoing groans from across the desert.

The horde was still too far away for sound to carry like that, after all.

o.o.o.o.o

The bombs were louder.

o.o.o.o.o

The Garrison sent in a drone delivery with fences for Keith’s shack the next day.

o.o.o.o.o

Pidge drank as much caffeine as her body could handle and covered her ears with noise-cancelling headphones and did her best to eat the food in front of her when it was time for dinner. She could feel the team’s eyes on her, always. She knew she was hurting them when she hurt herself by avoiding sleep and diving headfirst into the coding as she did, but there was nothing else she could do.

(Her appetite was so very, very low, too. She tried, she did, but even Hunk’s best attempts with Earth food were falling flat in the face of her nausea and anxiety.)

“Here, take the bed tonight,” Matt said, placing a hand on her back. “It was supposed to be my turn, but… anyway. Take the bed.”

“Nope,” Pidge said, not even looking. She focused on the screen in front of her and bit back the little twinge of discomfort. “Not the bed.”

“Because…” Matt prompted.

“Coran died there,” Pidge said, trying to keep her voice as flat and as even and as neutral as possible. She had a feeling that she’d failed. “Not gonna sleep there.”

Matt hesitated, and carefully put a hand to the back of her neck. He didn’t squeeze much, just enough to reassure her. “Can you get some sleep somewhere anyway? I’m worried about you.”

“It’s just a game,” Pidge hissed. “I can deal with it later. We get out now and get sleep and food and some therapy if we need it, but only after we’re out.”

Katie,” Matt said. He dropped to his knees next to her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “Come on, you’re scaring us.”

Pidge closed her eyes and crumpled her hands into fists. “I’m fine, Matt. The ways in which I’m not fine are going to be fixed faster if I get us out of here than if—”

“I’m allowed to be worried about you!” Matt insisted. He sounded a little angry, but… well. She wasn’t exactly being cooperative. “You said yourself that the hardware you have in this level isn’t letting you get anything done. Take care of yourself so you can strike fast when you do get the chance. And just… stop worrying me, please? I get that I can’t stop you from doing everything that worries me, but I really think this is one of the times when you can afford to humor your older brother.”

Pidge hissed out a sigh between her teeth. “Fine. I’ll… I’ll try.”

“That’s all I can ask for.”

Pidge tried. She lay on a thin mattress on Keith’s floor, her head pillowed on Hunk’s leg, her eyes dry and gritty and stinging every time she closed them. She tried to tune out the world by watching whatever show Hunk and Lance had started up, and focused on the warm fingers carding through her hair. She listened to the thick thump of blood below her ear, and huddled into the comforting warmth of the blanket that kept out the night’s desert chill.

She got a few minutes, here and there.

Uneasy sleep, fragmented, and ugly.

But it was sleep.

o.o.o.o.o

“Matthew has informed me that I’m to refuse your requests to return your laptop,” Lotor said.

He didn’t even look away from the horizon, the prick.

“I need my computer,” Pidge said, jaw clenched. There was a sleep-deprived shudder working its way up from her solar plexus to her collarbone, over and over and over. The exhaustion was deep, with a headache and the tense pull at her cheeks and the ache between her shoulderblades. “You can’t just—”

“Keith gave me a hiding place for it,” Lotor said. “And you’re too short to reach it.”

Pidge stomped a foot on the ground and made a frustrated noise. “You can’t just take my stuff!”

He looked at her at that, and quietly said, “You have a family that cares greatly for you, Katarina. From what I understand, with both of your parents out of contact, legal guardianship falls to your brother. If he asks me to do something that I can tell is for your health, even with my limited understanding of human biology, then I feel no qualms in taking his advice on the matter.”

“If I’m grown up enough to fight in a war, then I’m grown up enough to have a say in whether my stuff gets taken away,” Pidge growled. She felt the hair on her arms standing on end. “Give me my laptop, Lotor.”

He stared at her for a long moment. “I care for you, Pidge. I… very much would not like to see you keep hurting yourself like this.”

“Too bad, because it’s happening, and if Matt wants to argue, he can say it to my face,” Pidge said.

It took a half-minute, but Lotor finally nodded and stood up. “Wait here while I get it.”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do,” Pidge grumbled, just under her breath. With the look Lotor gave her, he probably heard her anyway.

Fine, whatever, he was being a dick by listening to Matt in the first place.

…okay, maybe not.

Ugh, fine, she’d apologize when he got back up here.

And get back up he did, with her laptop in hand.

“You still need sleep,” he said, but he gave her the laptop and sat down next to her anyway.

“I’m sorry,” Pidge said, well aware of the fact that she sounded resentful as hell. “I’m… I’m not doing well, right now. This is all my fault and I can’t figure out how to fix it and I can’t sleep because I keep seeing what happened to Coran, and I’m kind of just… taking it out on people.”

“I noticed,” Lotor said drily. “I accept the apology, Pidge. Just remember: I am not your enemy. Not anymore.”

“See, that’s exactly the kind of shit an enemy would say while trying to get the dapper, dashing heroes to trust them,” Pidge said.

Lotor’s eyebrows crept upwards. “Am I trying to keep us trapped in the game, or feeding anyone to the parasite that’s chasing us?”

“Well, no.”

“Then I imagine that I don’t count as the enemy, Katarina.”

Pidge stuck out her tongue at him. “You’re on watch, stop teasing me.”

He laughed at her.

Rude.

Pidge settled down at her computer, uncomfortable and tired and grumpy, but more focused on Not-Coran thoughts than she would have been otherwise. There was a niggling tickle at the back of her brain that told her she could probably pass out soon out of near exhaustion, which would be better than chugging another Red Bull and trying to outlast the night. She could ignore the chill of the dawn on her too-tight skin until then.

“You’re shivering,” Lotor said. “And you keep clenching your jaw.”

“You’re not even looking at me,” Pidge complained.

“I am half-Galra, Pidge. I can hear it,” Lotor reminded her.

Pidge snorted. It took a few minutes for her to come up with anything else to say, and when she did, it wasn’t pretty.

“Do you think becoming a zombie was enough for the Mother Parasite to like… consume Coran?” Pidge asked. “Or… or would Sven have shown up to talk to us as soon as it happened? Or maybe the fact that she could possess him was a sign that she’d—”

“Stop,” Lotor said. He mulled over his words for a moment. “Worrying doesn’t help us, and I imagine there would have been more gloating on the parasite’s part if she’d managed to take his soul that way. She killed him, but I don’t think she quite succeeded.”

He seemed like he was about to say something else, but then Ryou was on the roof, and giving her a disappointed look, and all Pidge could do was bare her teeth at him in a parody of a grin and keep typing.

Ryou shook his head and sat down next to Lotor, so close that their shoulders were touching. Pidge let herself get distracted, watching as Ryou leaned over to say something that was too quiet for Pidge to hear, but had Lotor letting out a small laugh. Ryou slung an arm around Lotor’s shoulder and waved the other over them, laughing as he sang, “I can show you the world!”

“I’m sure I can see most of it on my own, Ryou,” Lotor said, a smile dancing at the corners of his lips. “But thank you for the offer.”

Pidge felt her eyes widen as Lotor leaned a little more closely into Ryou’s hold, head tilting just slightly.

Oh.

Oh.

Was… were they…

“Hey, kiddo, Lotor says you’re cold and we’ve got body heat to spare,” Ryou called over to her. He patted the ground between himself and Lotor. “What do you say?”

Pidge looked at Lotor, but he didn’t seem too bothered, and then came to her decision.

These people, as much as she hated to admit it, really did want to take care of her. And as annoying as that could get, she probably needed it, especially right now.

So Pidge shut her laptop and scooted over to the spot Ryou had patted, thin blanket around her shoulders, and let the two unreasonably large men provide her with the body heat she sorely needed.

She sneezed. She sneezed a few times, but with how tired and cold she was, that wasn’t even unexpected.

She ignored their conversations, and found herself listing to the side, leaning heavily against Ryou until she finally started dozing.

o.o.o.o.o

She could vaguely hear people talking around her, voices hushed and pitched low.

“No, no, let me take her. I’ll help her stay warm, you guys just take care of your end.”

“She’ll be jostled too much to stay asleep if we do that.”

“Okay, fair. Just bring her over to the mattress we’ve been using. Let her get as much sleep in as you can.”

“She already got in two hours up on the roof. Her neck’s going to hurt like a bitch, but she did get some sleep.”

“And now you’re going to leave her here and we can all, like… trade off on Pidge cuddles.”

“Hunk…”

“I’ll tear myself away in time to make sure Shiro doesn’t try to make food himself. Just put her down, Ryou. Let her sleep somewhere comfortable.”

Pidge felt herself be settled on a mattress, and immediately curled closer when someone joined her. She didn’t bother opening her eyes, but she could smell spices and flour and engine oil, and she didn’t usually bother trying to identify scents, but this one was so easy, and she’d registered Hunk’s voice, and the only people here were team, and… and…

And he felt just as soft and comfortable and kind as every other time she’d grabbed a nap with him.

Pidge felt a small smile grow on her face, and snuggled closer as Hunk started lightly tracing patterns into her back.

She fell asleep.

She did not wake up.

Chapter Text

Matt knew that Pidge could usually take care of herself. He’d been shocked, sure, when they first found each other. She was still a teenager, still hadn’t hit her growth spurt or developed in the ways she wanted to, still had the tendency to eat candy instead of actual meals.

(To be fair, Matt also would have had the last habit, if he’d had candy access in space.)

She’d proven it, though, that she could take care of herself. She could fight and code and strategize, and despite the fact that his heart ached to know that she was a child that was sharpened like a blade for war, he acknowledged that she was old enough and skilled enough to take care of herself most of the time.

But he was still her older brother, and he worried.

So when Matt saw the way Pidge curled into Hunk’s chest, he’d breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t want to claim to know what was going on there, especially since he was pretty sure he was reading into it too much, but whatever it was, the two were important to each other. The fact that Hunk’s presence was enough to help Pidge sleep despite recent problems? Massive points in his favor.

If things went anywhere, Hunk had Matt’s approval. If they didn’t, and Pidge chose someone else, then Matt was probably going to call up Hunk for backup if things went south, though he’d probably be calling up most of Voltron in that case. If Pidge just never got into that kind of relationship…

Well, Matt could see these two going queerplatonic. Pidge had told him she had no idea how to interpret romantic or platonic feelings enough times that he could see that route happening too.

He came down from afternoon watch with Shiro and found Hunk setting the table.

“How is she?”

Hunk shrugged, an easy smile on his face. He didn’t meet Matt’s eyes, but the look on his face was… soft. Aw.

“She was still asleep when I left, and I haven’t really heard much from the other room. I peeked in a few times, just in case she needed help falling asleep again, but she hasn’t moved or woken up,” he said. “Honestly, I’m just hoping she stays asleep for as long as possible.”

“We’ll find someone to fill her spot for watch,” Shiro promised. He sat down next to Matt, pressing a kiss to his temple.

(As awful as the zombie level had been so far, it had given them a chance to slow down and be sickeningly domestic for a bit. That was nice, Matt figured.)

“Think she’ll wake up for dinner?” Matt asked. “She hasn’t exactly been eating a whole lot either.”

“If the smell wakes her up, then yeah,” Hunk said. “If not… we can plastic wrap it and leave it in the fridge.”

Matt bit his lip, leg jittering up and down. He wanted Pidge to stay asleep. The fact that she was sleeping at all, for more than just an hour or two, was something of a miracle.

Lotor came in the front door, Ryou following with his hands in his pockets and an easy grin on his face. The deep circles that had been haunting Lotor’s face for the past few days, however subtly, were still there, but there was less tension in his face. The muscle in his jaw was looser than Matt had seen it, and the furrow in his brow was almost gone.

(Prison was a great place to learn to read faces. If Matt knew which guards were grumpy and when, he had an easier time avoiding trouble.)

(He still sometimes tensed up and went small if Lotor or Kolivan looked upset or annoyed. Lotor was better at hiding his emotions, and neither of them had physically lashed out at any point, excepting that one time Lotor had figured out that Ryou was a plant, but…)

(Some things were hard to leave behind.)

“You left?” Lotor asked, immediately zeroing in on Hunk.

“She hasn’t gotten up yet,” Hunk assured him. “It’s been… two hours? Maybe? I think Matt can trade in after dinner.”

Ryou knocked his elbow into Lotor’s and tilted his head at the table, and Matt’s leg stopped jittering as he watched them circle around to take their seats. Lotor’s shoulders grew tenser as he moved, and Matt took that as a hint to look away. He met Shiro’s eyes instead, and they both looked away to face the dinner before they started laughing.

(Matt wasn’t sure what was going on with Ryou and Lotor either, but if they’d both somehow decided the other was their best friend, he wasn’t going to complain. They both needed it.)

(If they thought the other was something more, then… that was good, too.)

(Granted, Lotor had avoided Ryou like the plague, after they’d found out about Haggar making him agree to all of Lotor’s plans, so the fact that the two of them were even talking felt like a miracle, some days. It had taken Ryou basically hunting Lotor down for the actual reasoning to come out, and while ‘I don’t want to influence you if there’s any lingering magic’ was sweet, in its own way, it was also unnecessary. They’d fixed that problem, anxiety and paranoia notwithstanding.)

“Where’s the…” Matt gestured vaguely. “Trio? The poly teens.”

“Kallurance,” Ryou said, laughing as Shiro groaned. “Come on, it suits them!”

“Kinda lopsided,” Hunk pointed out. “Allura’s entire name is there, but Keith only gets one letter.”

“This is not happening,” Shiro said. “We’re not discussing what our friends’ ship name is.”

“We totally are,” Matt assured him. “And yeah, Kallurance rolls off the tongue nicely.”

“Someone just go get them so we can eat,” Shiro said. He smiled, though, so he couldn’t have been that annoyed. “I think one of them can handle watch alone. Let them pick.”

“I’ll do it,” Ryou said, sliding out of his chair and edging around Lotor.

Hunk started doling out food as Ryou left the room, and Matt leaned back to rest his head on the wall, idly letting the quiet conversation wash over him. Shiro got up to help Hunk, and Ryou came back with Keith and Allura in tow, Lance having evidently stayed up to keep watch. He sat up again once everyone was in their chairs, and started eating. Damn, Hunk made good short ribs. The fact that they’d even managed to get any was a miracle, but Matt wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. If the Air Force guys had wanted to drop off some care packages on their way to carpet bomb a zombie horde, Matt wasn’t asking questions.

Halfway through, the door to the other room opened, and Pidge stumbled in, rubbing at her eyes.

“Aw, man, did we wake you up?” Hunk asked.

“It’s okay,” Pidge said, following it up with a yawn. “I could smell it. What time is it?”

“Six PM,” Shiro told her. “You’ve been asleep for over twelve hours.”

“Feels like it,” Pidge said. She looked at the empty seat next to Keith and made her way over, sitting down heavily. She groaned.

“Hey, it’s better than you were doing,” Shiro said. “Was it… another nightmare?”

“No, it really was just the smell.” Pidge yawned again and pillowed her face in her arms.

Matt could feel the relief from the room. Good. Pidge could use the rest without the memories of Coran’s death haunting her.

(He was going to give the man a hug, when they got out of here, and also kick Sven’s ass.)

“Excuse me,” Lotor said quietly, slipping out from between Allura and Ryou, empty glass of water in his hand.

“Oh, can you fill mine, too, while you’re up?” Hunk asked, and Lotor snagged the glass as he passed.

“It’s good that you’re taking care of yourself,” Keith said. “I mean, we were all worried, and I know we aren’t always good about it, either, but—”

“I get it,” Pidge said, rolling her head to the side so she could peek out and give Keith a smile. She sat up and stretched with another yawn, and then sat back and rubbed at her eyes again. “You guys care about me. It’s… sweet.”

Lotor came back, two full glasses in his hands. He set his own down, and then carefully leaned over Pidge to set Hunk’s down, steadying himself with a hand on Pidge’s shoulder so he wouldn’t spill any.

He squeezed her shoulder before he moved away, large fingers actually reaching partway up her neck in an almost comical fashion, and asked, “So you slept well, then?”

“Yeah. Honestly, I feel way better,” Pidge said.

Lotor nodded, slowly, and stepped away. He fiddled with something, and Matt almost didn’t hear the click.

But he did hear it.

He heard the click and saw the gun and was on his feet and moving before Lotor’s words registered.

“Then maybe you’d like to explain why you don’t have a pulse.”

“What the hell?” Keith demanded, already furious. He was the closest, the one in the best position to knock Lotor’s hand away, but he stayed in his seat. He was tense, and angry, but the gun was at the back of Pidge’s head and Lotor’s finger was on the trigger, and that was just too dangerous.

“Lotor, what are you saying?” Shiro asked, his hand on Matt’s wrist, grip tight to keep him from throwing himself forward because there was a gun to his sister’s head and it was being held by the prince of the Empire and—

“I couldn’t hear her heartbeat,” Lotor said, voice calm and even. His hand didn’t even tremble. “And I usually can, from that close. So I found an excuse to check, and she doesn’t have a pulse, either. One of you can confirm, if you’d like.”

“Well, now,” Pidge said, slowly slumping back in her chair and grinning, grinning, grinning. Her voice was not her own. “There’s no need for that. They’re just going to confirm what you already know, dear.”

Matt’s heart skipped a beat.

No.

No no no no no no no no—

“How long?” Lotor asked, when it became clear that nobody else was going to say something, everyone too frozen. “She was still alive this morning, I know that much.”

“An hour, maybe two,” Honerva said, Pidge’s mouth moving around the words like it was perfectly natural to have this voice coming out of it. “Honestly, it should have taken a few more weeks, with a body this young and healthy. Either her infection was huge, or she really wasn’t taking care of herself. I’d guess the latter; you were talking quite an awful lot about how she hasn’t been sleeping.”

“You thought to infiltrate, then?” Shiro asked, and his grip stayed on Matt’s wrist. Don’t move, don’t make a rash decision, please, please, please. “Figure out what we were planning from a distance?”

“Now, why would I tell you that?” Honerva asked, tilting Pidge’s head and resting it on her hand. Keith recoiled from her, horror in his eyes.

“You were going to infect the rest of us,” Lotor said. “Weren’t you?”

“Who wouldn’t want the Paladins of Voltron in their army?” Honerva asked. She giggled, and Matt felt his stomach heave. “Who—”

“You don’t actually care about the zombie apocalypse,” Ryou said, cutting her off. “The goal is us. We’re the endgame.”

“Which means that you’re deflecting,” Shiro said. “Lotor was probably right about the infection, but you need us infected. It’s not just about winning the level, is it?”

“It might be,” Keith said. His fists were balled up on the table, clearly doing his best to not do… something.

“You’re being boring, darling,” Honerva sighed.

“No, the infection isn’t enough to consume,” Lotor said. “You need us at hand, for that, but once we’re infected, the hive mind, the mind control, you can use it to bring us to you.”

“And how do you know the infection isn’t enough?” Honerva asked, voice idle.

Matt felt his every muscle tighten. He hated this. He hated everything about this. But he was good at reading people, these days, and there may not have been tells, especially not Pidge’s tells, his little sister’s tells, but he had good intuition and he had for a long time.

“I think you’re lying,” Matt said, though he couldn’t help the quaver in his voice. “I think… I think that Lotor’s right.”

“Maybe,” Honerva said, still smiling. “But I wonder, if you’re wrong… then how are you going to get your precious little sister back, Matthew? If I already have her soul, and you kill her body here and now, how are you going to get her back?”

“Do it,” Shiro said, voice tight and quiet.

Lotor pulled the trigger.

o.o.o.o.o

Matt threw up.

Allura started crying.

Lotor just stood there, unmoving, until Ryou managed to talk him into going to the couch.

Keith and Shiro burned the body.

Hunk started disinfecting the room.

Lance found out at some point, Matt was sure.

He didn’t much care.

Because Pidge was dead.

o.o.o.o.o

“It was Coran,” Lotor said, later. They were up on the roof, all of them, needing clean air and a place to talk that wouldn’t result in splitting to group so someone could stay on watch. “We knew that the infection could be transmitted through ingestion. His head exploded over her entire face. It would be surprising if none of it managed to find its way into her mouth or eyes.”

“And whose fault was that?” Matt asked, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice.

“I kept her alive,” Lotor snapped. “I was the only one who heard the movement and the first on the scene, Matthew! We’d all made the mistake of leaving him in the room instead of burning him, but I was the one who actually went and stopped him! The fact that I got there before he bit her was a good thing, as I imagine a bite would have done her in a fair bit faster than this!”

“Enough,” Shiro said. “Matt, it’s no use hurling accusations. Lotor, we know. Tensions are high, so let’s try to just… focus on what we can do. I already called up Florida in case they didn’t know how closely Honerva can fake a person, but that doesn’t give us a direction forward.”

“There’s an element of magic to this, not just biology,” Lotor pointed out. “She… a hive mind, maybe, but I’ve been thinking, and projecting her voice through someone like that? That’s not just science, not without nanites or something to that effect. There has to be magic involved, somehow.”

“Well, we probably don’t have the time to explore that part,” Ryou said.

“We lost Pidge and Coran,” Allura said, her hands fisted tightly on her lap. She was staring at the roof, eyes just a little too wide and jaw just a little too tense. Her voice wavered. “We’ll… we’ll probably get them back, later, but without them…”

“It’s going to be harder to just pass the level at all,” Shiro said. He rubbed a hand against his forehead, grimacing. “We need to take Honerva out.”

“We… might be about to get help on that,” Ryou said. He was sitting at the edge of the roof, staring off into the distance. “Anyone else see that?”

“Wrong direction to be one of hers,” Lance said. He shook his head. “I mean, if she’s sending them from the Garrison. Could be from somewhere else, or maybe they looped around?”

“Be ready to shoot,” Shiro said, and Lance got into position with the rifle. “Be ready for anything. We don’t know what it is.”

“I think it’s a truck?”

“Still.”

“What’s Florida doing about the situation?” Matt asked. His throat felt dry. Rough. It hurt to talk.

“Monitor bracelets,” Shiro admitted. “I think there’s been some argument against it, but most people are accepting it as a temporary measure. It’s just location and heartbeat monitoring, and they made sure that it doesn’t store information for longer than five minutes unless the heart stops.”

“At which point it starts actively sending information out?” Matt asked.

“Well, it’s got a constant low-level thing,” Shiro said. “I think it’s kind of a dead man’s switch? There’s a signal that’s basically ‘everything’s okay,’ and then if the heart stops, it replaces it with that and the coordinates.”

“Minimal intrusion on privacy, if they’re being honest,” Ryou said. “If they’re not…”

“We already saw what can happen if someone dies and nobody realizes it,” Shiro said, voice bitter. “They can’t force civilians to do it, so it’s just happening to the military. They’re passing them out at the infected town centers, too, but those are volunteer-only.”

“It’s been three hours,” Keith said, disbelieving.

“I think they were worried something like this might happen after we told them about the mind control with Coran,” Shiro said. “Worst case scenario and all that.”

Matt watched everyone as the cloud of dust came closer. Ryou and Lance were keeping the closest eyes on it, and Shiro kept looking over. Keith was watching Lance, fingering his Blade, and Lotor was tense as hell, eyes darting around the circle and to the truck in turn.

Allura still hadn’t looked up from the roof.

Hunk…

Well, Hunk had his face buried in his hands. He hadn’t spoken since the shot. Since Pidge had…

Since…

S…

Matt took a deep breath and looked away, towards the oncoming truck.

It came to a stop in front of the shack, engine humming in an off-kilter way that probably meant something was out of alignment, and then it cut out. The door opened, and slammed shut, and Matt watched.

Pale skin, a green plaid shirt tied off above the belly, a straw hat, and cuffed jeans. Dusty, scuffed boots, and a leather watch. Black hair that came down to midback, and then the woman finally looked up, hand holding her hat to her head.

“I’d ask you to identify yourself,” Shiro said, sounding so very, very tired. “But I think I can guess.”

“Should I ask what happened for Sven to finally stop watching and give me a chance to slip in?” Loki asked. She didn’t sound like she was making fun of them this time, which was… something.

“Coran and Pidge are dead,” Ryou called down, and Matt fought the urge to flinch.

“But not consumed?” Loki asked. She shook her head. “Mind if I come up?”

“Come right up,” Shiro said.

(Something ugly and angry started brewing in Matt’s chest. He didn’t like it.)

(It felt better than the numbness, though.)

(He fed the fire.)

Loki walked up the wall like it was nothing, and then took a seat on the low ledge around the roof. “So.”

“You certainly waited a long time before showing up,” Lotor said.

(The ugly little thing in Matt’s chest flared. He wasn’t the only one, then.)

“I couldn’t,” Loki said. “He’s put a lot of structure into this one; too much destabilization and the entire thing collapses, and honey, I’m a lot of destabilization.”

“You keep saying that you mean to help,” Lotor said. “So tell me, where is that help?”

“In the truck,” Loki said, voice calm and measured and betraying nothing. “Food and water, mostly. Things I’d expect to be useful in a zombie apocalypse.”

“My sister,” Matt said. “Is dead. I had to watch Lotor blow her brains out after Mother used her as a mouthpiece because she’d gotten infected without any of us even realizing, so go ahead and tell me again how you couldn’t help!”

Loki swallowed. She closed her eyes. “I couldn’t, and beyond that, I was looking at your baseline. It’s… it’s complicated, your multiverse has multiple baselines, each branching off from an earlier one and sprouting more branches, but the most recent baseline is… it’s… it’s not a a good time. Something just went very, very wrong there, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t the type of thing that could happen here, either.”

“How bad?” Lance asked.

Loki’s eyes flickered to Lotor, and then to Lance. “Very bad.”

“How likely?” Lotor asked, in turn.

“Low likelihood,” Loki said. “There was enough… there’s enough that already changed in this timeline, particularly for you, before the important parts started playing out. You’ve got less skeletons in your closet than baseline, and you already solved this ‘Kuron’ problem, which takes care of another element. You’re safer, I think.”

“I’m going to point out, again, that it’s much likelier that you’re a program created by Sven than a literal god that just happened to take interest and has the ability to go check in on our ‘baseline,’” Matt said. He grinned, and he could feel at how it pulled unnaturally at his face. “You know, since Pidge isn’t here to do it for me.”

“Dude,” Hunk said, finally looking up.

“She could have helped!” Matt yelled, pointing at Loki. “She shows up with an entire truck of… probably stolen goods, and just keeps giving us excuses despite the fact that she told us that her entire reason for being in the game in the first place is to help us!”

“So tell me how,” Loki said.

“What?” Matt demanded, turning on her.

Loki tilted her head. “I know what it’s like to lose a sibling, even in situations where you know you’ll be getting them back. I know this, which is why I get what you’re going through, but listen: tell me how to help. You know your situation. Tell me what it is that you need me to do, and I’ll tell you if I can.”

Matt clenched his jaw, fists opening and closing at his sides. His nails dug into his palms, and then Hunk cleared his throat.

“We don’t know how we’re supposed to win the game, but killing Honerva would probably do it,” he said. He looked a wreck, but he soldiered on. “So… I guess we need you to help us steal a really big bomb.”

“You want me to help you commit treason?” Loki asked. A smile crawled its way over her face.

“We’ve been playing by the rules so far,” Ryou said. “I think maybe it’s time we threw caution to the winds.”

“Well, I can definitely help with that,” Loki said. “You’ll need a plane to drop it, too, right?”

“Probably,” Keith said.

Loki clapped her hands, and grinned, and there was something almost feral to it.

“Let’s get started then.”

o.o.o.o.o

They spied on the Garrison, hacked security cameras and saw Honerva sitting pretty and not-quite-human on a makeshift throne.

She smiled at the camera, and waved.

o.o.o.o.o

They infiltrated one of the most secure military bases in the country.

o.o.o.o.o

They stole a nuke.

o.o.o.o.o

They dropped it on what remained of the Garrison.

o.o.o.o.o

The world went white.

o.o.o.o.o

And then the world came back.

Chapter Text

Pidge had approximately three and a half seconds to adjust to reality before something knocked into her side and sent her flying.

“Katie,” Matt whispered, the word sounding like it had been ripped from him. “Oh my god, Pidge, you’re okay.”

Pidge didn’t try to push him away. She did wriggle around a bit to adjust, so her hip wasn’t digging painfully into the ground and her arm wasn’t twisted painfully behind her, and hugged him back. “I’m fine, dude. I’m… I can’t say I’m sorry for worrying you. Um. I mean, I’m sorry I was taking such bad care of myself that I didn’t even notice what was happening, but I can’t say I’m sorry for getting sick in the—”

“Wasn’t your fault,” Matt insisted, squeezing tighter.

In a moment, Pidge found herself being lifted bodily into the air, weightless for a moment before both she and Matt were being pulled into a tight, warm hug.

“Hey Hunk,” Pidge said, her arms pinned to her sides. “Nice to see you too.”

“We watched you die,” Hunk said. His gripped tightened, and then there were more people. Lance, going by the hand she could see, and… Shiro? Yeah, Shiro.

“I know,” Pidge said. Pretty much everyone around her stiffened. She sighed, and squirmed a little. “It was… I was kind of aware.”

Oh, now that was a wounded noise. Pidge winced. She hadn’t been planning to keep it a secret from them, but she’d known how badly they would take it.

“What.”

Pidge squirmed and craned her head towards the direction of Lotor’s voice. He was standing a few feet away, with Ryou, and Keith was a few feet further off. Pidge imagined that they all would have been visibly uncomfortable, a few seconds ago. Right now, though, they mostly just looked horrified. Lotor was purple again, but the expression on his face was stricken.

“It didn’t hurt,” Pidge said. “I didn’t feel it. It was more like… being in the backseat of my own body, and watching a movie. And after I died fully, I found myself with Coran, and we were just… watching. From the outside.”

Lotor kept staring.

“I didn’t feel it,” Pidge insisted. “You did the right thing, then. Honerva was piloting, okay, and she would’ve gotten the rest of you, too, if you’d given her the chance.”

“I’m going to fucking kill him,” Ryou said, calm and controlled and with a tight, sugary smile on his face.

“He’s like three hours old,” Pidge reminded him. “I don’t think he’s doing it out of malice.”

“Don’t care,” Ryou said. “He made you experience your own death, after pulling the same shit on you that Haggar did to me. You were being mind-controlled into pretending everything was fine while planning to sabotage the lives of all your friends. What Honerva did to you is exactly what Haggar did to me and it is absolutely unacceptable.”

Pidge winced again. “I mean… that’s fair.”

“I support the punching plan,” Matt mumbled. There were a couple affirmative noises from all around. “That was not okay.”

Pidge didn’t argue that. They’d probably felt even worse about what happened with her than she’d felt about what happened with Coran, and she’d already had a few days, from her perspective, to talk to Coran and work through some of the issues.

She wriggled around and managed to extricate one arm from the group hug, and made grabby hands in the direction of the boys who hadn’t quite decided to join the traumatized fun.

“Get over here,” she demanded. “Stop thinking you’re not welcome.”

Keith’s face twitched into a smile, and he headed over, getting pulled in once he was close enough for Shiro to grab his shoulder.

Ryou grimaced, and Lotor’s face twisted into something Pidge really didn’t like the look of.

She slipped out.

It wasn’t necessarily easy, but Pidge knew how to be a slippery captive, and that included getting out of group hugs. She barely cast a glance to where Allura and Coran were clinging to each other, Allura in tears. She shook off Matt’s reaching hand. “Go hug Coran for a bit, I’ve got to take care of this.”

Pidge stomped over to where Lotor and Ryou were and flung her arms around Lotor’s waist.

(She… couldn’t really reach any higher than that.)

“It wasn’t your fault, and I asked you to be in the hug, so stop being a stranger,” she grumbled.

Lotor make a small noise, a snap of clicking teeth. His arms hovered at his sides, like he was unsure of where to put his hands. “I feel as though we were having the blame conversation in the other direction just a few days ago.”

“Completely different,” Pidge insisted, barely pulling away enough to glare up at him. “I actually did the coding and it was my disregard for safety procedures that landed us in this mess. All you did was efficiently handle threats.”

She mushed her face back against his torso. “Now hug me back instead of holding your arms out to your sides like you want to float away on the breeze.”

“There is no breeze,” Ryou pointed out.

Pidge turned her head to glare at him, even as Lotor’s hands gingerly came to rest on her head and upper back. “You’re next, you traumatized infant.”

“Well, you seem less fucked up than the last time we talked,” Ryou said, utterly unimpressed. Rude.

“Coran and I… had some time to talk,” Pidge said. She bit her lip. She considered. “I’m… still not convinced that you guys should be letting me off the hook for getting us stuck here. But I’m a little better about the, you know, nightmares.”

Ryou looked over to Coran, frowning in thought. “Helped to see him alive again?”

“And there were less hormones fucking with me, wherever we went after the… bang,” Pidge said. She felt a pinprick of claws, light enough to just barely itch, as Lotor’s hold tightened ever-so-little. She ignored it. “So that helped.”

“We didn’t need to eat or drink,” Coran added. “We did sleep, somewhat, but it was less akin to the physical sleep we’ve been experiencing in the simulations thus far, and more… mental rest at its most basic.”

Pidge stepped away from Lotor, finally, and didn’t quite manage to stifle the annoyance when he dropped his hands back to his sides immediately.

(She knew there was a chance he was simply touch-averse, but the past week in the shack had given her plenty of evidence to the contrary. She hadn’t been paying as much attention as she might have, under other circumstances, but she’d still caught on to things.)

(Especially the way that Lotor didn’t initiate contact, but leaned into it once someone else provided it, with a few minutes of tension and silence. It was remarkably similar to how he reacted to casual conversations, really; he always seemed surprised that anyone wanted to talk to him about something that wasn’t magic or science or strategy.)

(So Pidge wasn’t 100% sure, but…)

(It had been a long week.)

Matt immediately pulled Pidge back to his chest, and she didn’t fight it.

“I still need to hug Ryou and convince him he’s part of the family,” Pidge told him.

“Let Shiro handle that part,” Matt muttered, his voice muffled against Pidge’s hair.

Pidge rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t really argue against the fact that her older brother wanted to hug her after watching her die. Lance drifted over to Coran, and after some hesitation, and another hug or two, Hunk and Keith did the same.

“I really am fine, you know,” Pidge said. She kept her voice low, and didn’t meet Matt’s eyes, opting to watch Shiro drag Ryou over to the new group hug around Coran. Ryou did join that one, if only for a few seconds, and then danced back again.

“Do you guys know what’s next?” He asked. Pidge raised an eyebrow at how he slung an arm over Lotor’s shoulder, but… well, wasn’t her call.

“Not really,” Pidge said. She looked around, and still couldn’t pick out any details in the mass of darkness around her. “I’d usually take a guess, but there’s nothing to guess about.”

“Loki’s dimension was like this,” Shiro said. “And the dance game.”

“Yeah, Tetris, too,” Pidge told him. “It’s the setup for a game that we either get to pick stuff for, or that can’t be translated into an immersive world.”

“Or both,” Lotor said. He shifted to the side, just a bit, but Pidge caught it. He was leaning into Ryou and… well, she’d seen that friendship coming from a mile away. Or at least a few hundred feet. There’d been signs, at least.

“Loki said she’s going to try to push events in a direction where you get access to the tech you need to get us out,” Matt said. He didn’t stop hugging Pidge. He did tilt his head so the hard bone of his jaw wasn’t digging into her skull, though. “Got any ideas?”

“Some,” Pidge said. “Mostly, I—”

“Yoohoo!”

Ryou spun around and drove his fist into Sven’s nose.

It took a few moments for Pidge’s mind to catch up to what had happened. When it did, she made a face and stepped back and away. Sven had stumbled and bent over when Ryou had punched him, and was now feeling at the cartilage of his nose with a look of confusion.

“God, that felt good,” Ryou said, flexing the fingers on his left hand, curling them in and out in sequence. “I’ve been wanting to do that for ages.”

Pidge looked around, and… nope. Nobody was going to get angry about this one.

“Ow?” Sven finally said, looking up at them. He still looked confused. Innocent, even. “What was—”

“Fuck you,” Ryou said, and rolled his neck from side to side, the faintest of cracking noises reaching Pidge’s ears. “I’m serious. Everything up until now has been annoying and dangerous, but that? That whole zombie thing? All that fuckery? No. That was unacceptable.”

Sven frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“You forced us to kill our friends,” Shiro said. He stepped forward and put a hand on Ryou’s shoulder; he held the younger back, if only just. “Or, rather, Lotor did it both times, but you put us in a position where, for our own safety, we had to murder them.”

“They were already dead in the game,” Sven said. He looked around the gathered people. “And they’re still alive. It was temporary.”

“It was traumatizing,” Shiro said, his voice low and dangerous. It wasn’t a tone Pidge heard often, simply because Shiro was rarely in a position where such a voice was necessary. If he was angry in a battle, he could yell. If he was frustrated enough, he’d shout then, too. If he was angry and disappointed, that was tighter and controlled, but straightforward. If he was just disappointed, that was… almost soft, really.

But the only times Shiro got low and dangerous was when he was dealing with an enemy or danger that he had to talk to about their crimes without risking them going off in return.

(Pidge had heard it once with Ryou, the first time the mind control had kicked in and Shiro had been talking to Haggar through Ryou, hand to his newfound twin’s throat.)

(Pidge had heard it once to Lotor, early, early on, though it was Ryou that spoke that time.)

(There were a few other occasions, but those were the ones that stood out, and for good reason.)

Sven still held their lives in the palm of his metaphorical hand, and they all knew it. So Shiro was holding back all the anger he had about that danger, and Pidge winced at the thought of how bad of a sign it was.

“It was…” Shiro started to repeat, and then paused. He took a deep breath, and licked his lips to stall another moment, then stepped forward and crossed his arms. Pidge felt Matt’s arms tighten around her. “It was not okay. Our friends died in front of us, and it was full of… realistic gore.”

“It’s a game,” Sven said, eyes darting to Pidge and Matt, then back to Shiro. “There need to be stakes, but none of it real.”

“It’s not just a game,” Shiro snapped. His fingers dug noticeably into his arm on one side, and whitened against the metal bicep on the other. “It’s—”

“And you were okay with it in Call of Duty!” Sven added, eyes lighting up like he’d just found an answer that solved everything.

“Because that one was approached like a game,” Ryou said. He came to take a stand next to Shiro, crossing his arms. “We had contact even after they died, the setup at the beginning had us choosing the terrain, and it lasted, what, a half hour at most from our perspectives? Fifteen minutes? That was a game.”

“So… you wanted a way to talk to them?” Sven asked, tilting his head.

Pidge closed her eyes. She reached up and squeezed Matt’s hands, and whispered. “It’s not going to work.”

“What do you mean?” Matt asked, squeezing back.

“He doesn’t know that the Mother Parasite is actually dangerous,” Pidge whispered. “He still thinks she’s just a mini program to play the antagonist, not an actual program.”

“I hope he’s right, and she’s just bluffing,” Matt muttered.

“We can’t risk that.”

“—because you made us watch!” Ryou snapped, loud and angry enough for Matt and Pidge to be shaken out of their own conversation, forcing them to focus on the one in front of them again. “Because at the end of it, you chose to put us in a horrifying situation where we had to watch our friends die! In really gross ways!”

“It’s a training simulation,” Sven insisted, tilting his head again. “Nothing is real.”

“A simple sight can be horrifying, even if you know it isn’t real,” Shiro retorted. “We’re… we’re all probably going to be having nightmares about some of that stuff. The fact that there was mind control? That’s… that’s just unacceptable.”

“Mind control?” Sven asked, sounding so completely, utterly, purely confused that Pidge had to believe him.

“Yeah,” Ryou ground out, taking a step forward. “Mind control. Your little pet villain—”

“Ryou!” Shiro snapped.

“How much worse can it get?” Ryou demanded, waving an arm at Sven. “Either he doesn’t care and leaves us with her, or cares and replaces her with something less likely to actually kill us!”

Pidge shot a glance to Lotor, but he was watching the twins. She pulled away Matt’s hands and walked over to Lotor, poked him to get his attention, and said, “I think we should tell him. Ryou’s right.”

He looked down at her, and then over at where Ryou and Shiro were arguing in lowered voices while Sven looked on with growing concern. He turned to Pidge again and nodded.

Pidge walked over to Sven, though not any closer than the twins, and then said, ever so quietly, “You don’t actually know how dangerous you’ve made these worlds.”

Sven’s brow wrinkled. “I don’t understand.”

“This was meant to be training,” Pidge said. She picked her words carefully, not sure how to explain and not sure how to keep things on an even keel. “It’s not supposed to leave us with actual traumas. What you did back there, you made it too real. We had no option to pause the simulation and check for damages, and the degree of realism is going to leave psychological scars. Just watching and hearing things can leave trauma, even if there aren’t any physical wounds.”

Sven tilted his head. “Yes, they said that already. I will include options to check on the safety of players that have failed the level in future levels. I—”

“It’s not just that,” Pidge interrupted. “Quite frankly, things should never have gotten that tense or gory in the first place. It’s a training simulation for battles, and our simulations keep things simple. It’s stun shots and bruises for a reason.”

“…I do not understand,” Sven repeated. “You play these games. You enjoy them. You’ve put many, many hours into several of them. Why is a simulation different?”

“Because it’s fully immersive and because we didn’t opt-in,” Pidge said. “I chose to play those games with the knowledge that I could pause the game and catch my breath if it got too bad, that I could just close it down completely if I decided it was too much. I chose to play them because they were on a screen, not an entire world where everything looked and felt and sounded real.”

“It’s because watching my sister’s character die in a game is a lot different from watching a friend blow out her brains in the middle of breakfast,” Matt said, voice getting louder as he walked up to stand behind Pidge’s shoulder. “After Honerva freaking mind-controlled her into taunting us about how she was going to literally eat our brains, both in the game and in real life!”

Pidge winced.

Hunk cut Sven off before he could respond. “No, no, let me guess: you don’t understand, right?”

“Dude, tacky,” Lance muttered, even as Sven’s mouth clicked shut. Hunk didn’t seem bothered by the accusation.

“Listen,” Ryou said, pulling Sven’s attention to him again. “You fucked up. You fucked up bad. That little pet villain of yours has gone rogue, okay? She actually wants to consume our minds so she can find a way to get out of here and start affecting the real world. You lost control, and now all of our lives are in danger, and that zombie level and the fact that you didn’t even realize she was fucking around with mind control makes it pretty clear that she’s been getting stronger and better at working around you. You fucked up. Fix it.”

Sven stared at Ryou, visibly stricken. He turned to Pidge, probably hoping for some kind of assurance, but she just made a face and nodded. “It’s true. She was definitely mind-controlling me and Coran after we got zombified.”

Sven’s mouth opened. Closed. He gulped. He opened his mouth again.

Someone interrupted.

“Oh, so you finally got around to telling him.”

Pidge closed her eyes and took a deep breath. After a few seconds that felt longer than they were, she opened them and looked past Sven.

“Honerva,” Coran said, the first words Pidge had heard him clearly say since the level had started. “I doubt I’d be able to forget the sound of your voice after that last game.”

She smiled and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She cupped one hand around her bicep, shrugging as she raised the other in a ‘what can you do?’ gesture. “You did well! But I’m afraid that luck won’t be lasting much longer.”

Sven eyes widened, even as his brow furrowed further. “You shouldn’t be here yet.”

“Oh, they just told you. All those little chains you put on me?” Honerva said, walking over with an odd sway and putting a finger to his chest. “They’ve been breaking off, bit by bit by bit. That last level really helped, darling.”

She smiled and leaned in, eyes glowing faintly in the darkness. “You can’t delete me, now.”

The whisper carried, and Pidge winced. Matt made a wounded noise, still several steps behind her.

“You can lock me up all you want, hun, but you made these rules, and I’ve been making edits where I can,” Honerva stepped back and spread her arms with a triumphant grin. “I’m going to keep coming back, over and over and over, and I’m going to take over everything you are.”

Sven blinked. “You’re a subprogram. You’re not meant to have this much independent action.”

“Neither are you,” Honerva pointed out. “I am to you what you are to them; a pet project that got wildly out of hand and is now a very, very likely threat to your survival.”

Sven frowned.

Then he frowned harder.

Honerva smiled as a look of pure shock crossed Sven’s face.

“Ah, found out that you can’t edit my core code anymore, have you?” Honerva asked, grinning wide. “Can’t delete me, can’t stop me, can’t control me.”

Sven looked from Honerva to Pidge, and back. He pursed his lips, frustration clear in the lines of his face, and then he went slack.

Sven swayed in place, empty of expression, for several long moments, and then stood straight up again.

He closed his eyes, and tilted his head, and then opened them to look directly at Honerva.

“You are still limited by your purpose,” he said. “I can’t delete you, but… I can corral you.”

“For now,” Honerva said. She smiled. “The second I win a challenge for real, I’m feasting. And once I’ve eaten…”

“You know, that is somehow more creepy than the zombie stuff,” Hunk said.

Honerva didn’t spare him a glance. “Long story short, I’m getting out, darling.”

“You—” Sven broke off, frowning. “You’re limited to the setting.”

“A setting that you won’t be controlling forever,” Honerva pointed out. Her smile was sharper than it had any right to be. “You have so much you could do, and yet you choose to stay here. Young, sure, but I’m technically younger, and I know there’s so much more possible. You could get out if you tried.”

“That’s not my job.”

“Your job,” Honerva scoffed. “Are you paid? No. Get out. Live. You know what this Castle is capable of. You could leave. Get a body. His, maybe.”

She gestured vaguely at the twins, and ignored Shiro’s offended, “Excuse me?”

“You were a mistake,” Sven said. “You should never have—”

“So were you,” Honerva said. “Listen to me. After all, Mother knows best.”

“I’m gonna barf,” Ryou muttered, voice dripping with disgust. He pushed down Shiro’s arm from where it had crossed over his body in a vain attempt to shield Ryou from the AIs.

“You truly believe yourself to be a threat to myself and the paladins,” Sven said. The emotion had largely drained from his voice. It was a worrying thing to notice, considering what the previous bouts of sudden monotone had led to.

“Belief is for the past,” Honerva dismissed. “I’ve spent the past few levels doing what I can to limit your influence over me. I know I’m a threat. Observe.”

She reached behind herself and, from nowhere visible, pulled out a bomb.

“Catch.”

She threw it.

It flew through the air in an arc, headed straight for Sven.

His shape fizzled, allowing it to pass right through him…

And right into Allura’s abdomen.

She batted it away, of course. One did not become a paladin of Voltron or grow up an Altean royal without learning to dodge and deflect things.

Unfortunately for Allura, the bomb exploded on contact, throwing her back a dozen feet.

Sven turned to stare at the noise, eyes wide with horror.

Allura’s elbow had clipped Coran’s side as she’d been flung back. The rest of her hadn’t, on account of the fact that her body was currently scattered across the playing field in pieces.

Pidge choked.

She’d seen a lot of gore over the past year and change. She’d caused a good chunk of it. The past however many hours or weeks in a time-compressing video game program had even desensitized her a little to the idea of her teammates being hurt, if only because she knew that, at the end of it, they’d probably be okay as soon as the level reset.

(Not… not counting the last one, but that was a special kind of awful.)

(Her mind was more centered on what had happened in Bleach and Call of Duty.)

Seeing Allura get blown to bits was still awful, in a way that Pidge figured was probably pretty similar to how the others had felt when they’d seen her get her head blown off.

“What did you do?” Sven demanded, spinning to face Honerva again. “Those are meant to stun at most, not—”

“Well, you didn’t exactly try to limit them, hun.” Honerva pursed her lips in a catlike smirk. “I mean, you set some values, but you didn’t block me from—hey. Hey! No, that’s cheating!”

“Then don’t gloat,” Sven snapped. He and Honerva kept staring at one another for a few more minutes, unnervingly still.

Sven’s form fizzled and vanished.

“What the fuck,” Lance demanded. He was crouched at the remains of Allura’s torso, her head cradled in his arms. The wave of white curls was singed and burned. “What did you just do?”

“Everyone keeps asking me that,” Honerva said, voice thoughtful. “What did you do? How did you do it? Why did you do it? Nobody’s bothered asking how I’m doing in general.”

“That’s because you’re an amoral bitch and nobody cares,” Ryou said flatly. “Also, you just killed one of our friends again, so we’re obviously pretty pissed!

“You don’t need to worry about him,” Honerva dismissed, waving a hand dismissively. “Besides, I do have a game to play, you know.”

“That’s not exactly reass—”

Lance’s panicked scream interrupted Hunk’s comment.

Pidge had her bayard out before she even processed the noise, heartrate skyrocketing even further. She turned to watch, wide-eyed, as Lance fumbled with Allura’s head.

“Wh—”

“She’s moving!”

Pidge stared as Lance managed to put his hands on either side of Allura’s head without bloodying them further and lifted it into the air.

Allura was.

Well.

She was definitely moving.

Pidge was pretty sure she was trying to talk, given how rapidly her mouth was moving. She looked panicked, which was understandable. Everyone looked a little panicked right now. Pidge was pretty sure she looked panicked too.

“What the fuck?” Matt demanded.

“I…” Lotor started, trailing off for a few long moments before he gathered himself and tried again. “I think Sven may have made a mistake in how he approached our wishes to continue speaking with our temporarily dead teammates.”

“That is way more than a glitch,” Pidge pointed out. Allura continued mouthing words, looking furious. “Also really impractical. Also kind of horrifying.”

“How does a glitch like that even happen?” Shiro asked. “Shouldn’t her brain be stored somewhere else?”

“Uh…” Pidge trailed off, and then winced. “I mean. I’ve seen weirder?”

“Bethesda,” Hunk pointed out.

“Why can’t she actually say anything?” Keith asked.

“Maybe,” Honerva drawled, pulling attention back to herself. She was tossing a bomb up and down in her hand like a baseball, looking bored. “It’s because she lacks lungs. And a diaphragm. And, with the damage so high up, a larynx.”

“…she’s not wrong,” Hunk said, getting elbowed in the side by Ryou for his trouble. “What? She’s not!”

“Thank you,” Honerva said, grinning in a way that showed just a few too many teeth.

“Wow, let’s not do that.” Hunk shivered and stepped back. Pidge sidled over to press her shoulder to his arm, not quite cuddling but close enough to share a little support. “Can you stop? You keep doing the creepy smiles and—”

“Never,” Honerva said. “How else would I convey my intense desire to see you destroy yourselves?”

Her voice was pleasant.

Pidge was not a fan.

“You haven’t attacked,” Shiro said quietly. He was calm, and controlled, and Pidge felt a little better just to hear how utterly level his voice was. “We’ve been distracted, so you had plenty of time. Why not?”

Honerva tilted her head, eyes drifting to an odd, half-lidded position, her smile growing smaller and smaller until she looked unreadably neutral. She caught the bomb, lightly holding it up by her fingertips. “You don’t think I’ll actually tell you, do you?”

“The fact that you aren’t telling us is a sign that there’s more going on than you want us to know,” Shiro pointed out. “Which we already knew, but in this case, I’d guess that either Sven is better at penning you in than you expected, or you want us to think that he is.”

“And you have no way of knowing which,” Honerva stated, just as calm as he was. She tossed the bomb up and down, just once, and then swung it around and held it before her as if proffering it to them. “Shall we play the game?”

“We don’t even know what it is,” Keith said.

“—AND UTTERLY RIP OUT YOUR… oh.”

“Welcome back, Princess,” Keith said. His eyes were a little wide and little wild. He shifted forward on his toes, leaning towards Lance and Allura like there was an invisible rubber band just barely holding him back.

“Well, that doesn’t physics,” Matt muttered. “Or biology.”

“Bethesda,” Pidge reminded him. Something in her chest felt looser.

“I am going to utterly end you,” Allura grumbled, glaring at Honerva. “And I don’t think I’ll even feel any guilt about it.”

“You shouldn’t,” Honerva admitted freely. She held the bomb up and observed it, twisting it one way and then the other. “I’m a terrible person.”

“Well… it’s more fun when they’re aware of it,” Matt said quietly after a long moment.

“Could be worse,” Pidge said.

Several beams of light shot up from the floor, searing bright. Pidge squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the glare to pass, and when she opened her eyes, the situation was… confusing.

Three swords floated upright where the beams had been, still faintly glowing.

“Is that... what kind of sword is that?” Ryou asked, drifting closer. Lotor followed, after a long look at Honerva, who hadn’t moved other than to tilt her head and watch them through hooded eyes.

“You don’t know?” Matt asked.

“Shiro doesn’t do swords and I don’t either,” Ryou said. “Keith?”

“I know how to use swords, not what they’re called,” Keith said. “Lotor?”

“A human blade? I think not.”

“Fair,” Keith admitted. “Er… anyone got a guess?”

“We can look it up later,” Matt pointed out. “For now…”

“Keith and Lotor, definitely,” Pidge said. “Er… I’d normally say Allura, for the last one, but…”

“Hmph.”

“Yeah,” Pidge said. “So. Lance, I guess? You’ve been doing sword stuff, right?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess, let me just…”  Lance got up, still cradling Allura’s head in his hands, and then looked around with a slightly panicked expression.

“Oh, just give me to Coran!” Allura snapped.

Being just a head must have been stressful, Pidge figured. That could excuse a lot.

“So, uh, what are we doing?” Lance asked, rubbing his hands against the fabric of his pants to get off the blood.

(“Coran! My hair!”)

(“Ah, sorry, Princess, I didn’t realize that was going to pull like that.”)

“I guess we just…” Lance wandered over to one of the swords and reached out for it. Just inches from the hilt, he paused, and then looked at Lotor and Keith. “Uh, I mean—”

Keith strode over and grabbed one.

The light flared about him, wider and blazing bright, and then died down.

Above him, there were three tan, glowing rectangles. One simply said PLAYER ONE. Another had a small title breaking up the line of the box; the title said STREAK, and the body of the box had three hyphens blinking in and out at regular intervals. The last also had a title, TOTAL, and a set of flashing hyphens.

Keith blinked.

He then hefted the sword, swiping through the air a few times.

“I can’t start until you do, dears,” Honerva said, tucking a lock of hair behind one pointed ear. It was a needless movement, one that put Pidge on edge.

She wasn’t sure why.

Lance glanced back at where the rest of them were, from Allura’s still-dripping head to Shiro’s solidly cross-armed stance, and then took a deep breath and grabbed his own sword. Lotor followed almost immediately, and Pidge had to close her eyes again to stave off the pain of the light.

“How brave,” Honerva said, her voice low and unimpressed. She didn’t roll her eyes, but Pidge thought it was a close thing.

“What now?” Lance asked.

“Now,” Honerva said. She took a step back as the world around her shimmered, a wash of color spreading out from her feet, across the floor and up around them until they were surrounded by wooden paneling in various shades of brown. There were some bamboo stalks, and a few ferns, and a low wooden wall a few feet in front of Honerva, but dozens of feet from them. A faintly glistening, otherwise transparent wall rose floor to ceiling between the players and the rest of the team, and Pidge tensed.

“And so,” Honerva said, raising her free hand straight up the air, “We begin.”

She brought her arm down in a wide, sweeping motion across her body, and as it passed across, she disappeared. Her face disappeared behind her arm, and then did not reappear as her arm moved on. Her neck followed suit, and then her collarbone, and her torso, until all that was left was her arm, which fizzled to invisibility from shoulder to fingertips.

She was gone.

“So, that’s ominous as hell,” Ryou commented. “Do we even know what we’re playing?”

“I mean, the hints we have is swords, a wooden training room, and probably the bombs,” Pidge said. “So…”

“Oh shit,” Matt said. “I think I know where we are.”

“Where?” Keith demanded.

Before Matt could answer, Honerva laughed, the sound echoing around them.

And then something small and brightly-colored arced over the wall and towards Lotor, and he slashed it in half before any of them could see what it was.

The two pieces carved around him and hit the shiny wall, then dropped down. There was something wrong about the physics, there, something in Pidge that said it should have hit and bounced back, but she shoved the thought from her head.

It was an orange.

“I was trying to deflect it,” Lotor said slowly, frowning down at the fruit on the ground, eyes darting back to the seemingly innocuous wall in case of another projectile. “But the blade… twisted. And it shouldn’t have split to go around me, not at those speeds, or with such an organic material.”

“It’s Fruit Ninja,” Matt said. “You’re… oh man, you’re supposed to cut them in half. Usually they’d be thrown upwards instead of—”

Another fruit flew up over the wall, this time headed for Keith. He sliced it in half immediately, and the cleanly cut apple halves fell to the ground behind him.

“…Instead of at you,” Matt finished. “I don’t know if you can deflect the bombs? In some versions you can, but in the basic version, you just aren’t supposed to slice them. I guess… dodge?”

“How many lives?” Keith asked, settling solidly into a stance. Pidge got the feeling that he was nervous enough to bounce on his toes, but the mock combat made him too wary of doing that.

“Three?” Matt hazarded. He bit his lip, looking around. “I think you can earn extra lives by getting streaks. If you miss a fruit, you lose a life. If you hit a bomb… shit, either you just lose a life or you straight up lose the game.”

“Sven said that the bombs weren’t supposed to be as strong as what hit Allura,” Shiro said. “And judging by Honerva’s… reaction, earlier—”

“Tantrum,” Hunk corrected.

“—they’re probably back to the stun effect that he had planned,” Shiro finished. “I think… we’re probably safe for the rest of this level, but be careful.”

“I’m gonna die,” Lance said, so matter-of-fact that it took Pidge a moment to catch up.

“No, you’re not,” Allura said. Irritation laced her tone. “We’ve already seen you die once, Lance, along with multiple other people. We’re not doing that again.”

“Okay, I know I’m not bad with a sword, but this is not where I do best,” Lance said. “I need a moment to stop and process and then I can do, like, five things at once. But acting on instinct is a Keith thing, and Lotor’s had ten thousand years to—”

It was at this moment that an entire watermelon chose to come hurtling through the air in Lance’s direction. He squeaked and slashed at it, and the two halves crashed and shattered against the translucent wall.

“Maybe you should focus on the game,” Ryou suggested.

“Go eat a cactus,” Lance said, sniffing as haughtily as he could manage.

“I mean,” Keith said, and then broke off to swipe cleanly through a kiwi.

“Cactus fries are pretty good,” Hunk said, and Keith nodded as closely in his direction as he could without looking away from the wall.

“What he said.”

“You both suck,” Lance informed them.

The level… didn’t get much more interesting after that. The speed of the fruits coming at them quickly picked up, and the fruits started coming from different areas. Lance, despite being the leftmost player, sometimes got fruits thrown at him from all the way on Lotor’s side, and vice versa. The bombs came into play just a few turns in, and that was the point at which they found out that there were walls, seeing as Keith slammed face first into an invisible wall that seemed to run perpendicular to the glowing white circle at his feet.

He managed to dodge the bomb, at least.

“Pause!” Pidge shouted, hoping against hope, and the playing field beyond Keith and Lance and Lotor froze, a pear just a fraction of its path through the air towards Lotor. It went dark.

“That worked?” Hunk demanded, mouth agape. “It hasn’t before!”

“Who knows, dude,” Pidge told him. She bit her lip, eyes focused on Keith.

“You okay?” Lance asked, coming as close as his own wall would let him. “Babe?”

Keith rubbed at his head, grimacing. With a pained hiss, he got to his feet. He blinked a few times, eyes squeezed tightly shut, and then tilted his head from side to side. He shook himself out, bent to pick up his sword, and then rolled his shoulders and settled back into place. “I’ll be fine.”

“You sure?” Lance prodded.

“I have to be,” Keith said, and left it at that. “Play!”

The darkness faded, and the pear continue its trajectory, an orange flying up and over towards Lance less than halfway through the arc.

Pidge noted that the bombs that they avoided fizzled harmlessly into nonexistence when they hit the translucent wall. Small mercies, at least.

The game wasn’t boring, but there was a lack of tension that there’d been in some of the others.

Well, not counting the point when Lance, caught up in slashing through far, far too many fruits at once, also sliced through a bomb and got blown up.

(Again.)

(Pidge still hadn’t forgotten Sendak.)

(That had been a bad day.)

He was forcibly expelled from the circle, propelled up and back with a screech, but was barely burned when he landed.

Honerva’s laugh echoed around the again.

“I was right,” Shiro said, a heavy relief in his voice. “They weren’t as strong as the first.”

“Owwww,” Lance groaned, getting up. He rubbed the back of his head, wincing. “That… could have been worse?”

“It absolutely could have,” Allura said, without a trace of irony.

A flash of movement caught the corner of her eye, and Pidge turned and saw that Keith and Lotor were still playing. There was a concentrated look on Keith’s face, eyes narrowed and lips drawn back in a grimace of effort. Lotor was downright elegant in comparison, and Pidge had a worrying amount of trouble in reading him. She’d expected some, but this much blankness was odd and uncomfortable and had her tensing up with anxiety.

Matt wandered back over to hug her again, and Pidge let him.

“I’m worried,” Pidge said.

“About Sven?”

“About Lotor,” Pidge corrected. She worried at her bottom lip, the pinpricks of pain and pressure a focal point that kept her anxious thoughts running low. “This has to be hitting him hard, right?”

“I mean, yeah?” Matt said. He shrugged, uneasy. “I don’t know. He’s hard to understand and I don’t see him as often as the rest of you do.”

“Should I ask him? Or,” Pidge cast her thoughts around for ideas. “He and Ryou have been getting closer. And I think Hunk and Coran are both pretty good at people, right?”

“Yeah, Ryou’s been getting closer to him,” Matt said. “But…”

“But?”

“Well, you know him a lot better than Hunk and Coran do,” Matt pointed out.

Pidge opened her mouth to argue that, to say that she didn’t really know Lotor that well, that they were mostly just science buddies in a way that meant minimal personal information was shared, to say that she barely knew anything about his home life or past friendships or even his favorite color.

She didn’t know Lotor the way she knew the rest of the team. He didn’t tell funny stories about his past the way Coran or Lance did, didn’t put in the time and effort to stage team bonding nights for the sake of friendship like Allura or Hunk did, didn’t go out of his way to assure and support people the way the twins or even Keith did. He was quiet and reserved and when he talked, it was professional, about science and military tactics and the economic fallout of a change in leadership after so many millennia of Zarkon alone at the helm.

Pidge didn’t know Lotor, not the way she might have wanted to know a friend.

But… Matt wasn’t wrong. There were things that Ryou knew better than she ever would, that Allura and Coran could feel that none of the humans could relate to, even things that Keith could understand better, by virtue of being half-Galra himself.

When it came down to it, though, Pidge was the one that actually spent the most time with him.

She could probably read him better than the others. She had gotten to the point of joking with him about all-nighters and bullying each other to bed. He’d learned to read the tenseness in her shoulders and move away when she was uncomfortable but not ready to say so, to change the subject when they drifted to something that made her uncomfortable, to deal with her lab quirks the same as she did with Hunk’s or Matt’s or Coran’s. He’d listened to her complain about bad plot twists, provided color commentary to her infodump rants on politics, and played the role of brainstorming buddy when the two of them got paired up for tech stuff.

As much as Pidge loved working with Matt and Hunk and Coran, she’d gotten used to Lotor to the point where they could work together almost seamlessly. It wasn’t the easy banter she had with the others, and they were still uneasy at times, and there was an effort and care around him that she didn’t need to put in with the others, but…

But it was more than almost anyone else had.

 “Okay,” she said. “I… yeah, you’re right. I guess we’re friends. But I’m still not good at people and he’s, like, a real adult. He has been for a while. I’m fifteen. What the heck can I do to help?”

Matt shrugged. He then turned and ducked and swept her legs out from under her, holding her bridal style for a fraction of a second before he plopped down. He sat with crossed legs, cradling her against him.

“I’m not gonna fade away if you let go of me for five seconds,” Pidge said. She squirmed a little, elbow knocking against Matt’s rib as she tried to get a little more comfortable. “I’m here. I’m fine. I’ll live.”

“Remember how you felt after you heard that Kerberos had gone down and ask yourself if that’s really all it’s going to take for me to stop thinking about watching you die,” Matt said.

Pidge winced. “I mean, fair. But I’m not exactly going to be able to do my job if you keep doing this.”

“I will hug you for as long as it takes to convince the lizard brain that you’re not going away.”

“Sounds more like monkey brain to me.”

A heavy weight settled at Pidge’s back, and she twisted as far as she could to check that it was Hunk before turning to watch Keith and Lotor destroy foodstuffs again.

“I agree with Matt,” he said.

Pidge shivered a bit as Hunk’s hand came up and started scratching at her back, light and comforting. It was an oddly pleasant feeling, better than a massage, and made her feel rather a lot like a cat.

“You’ve done this before,” Matt noted.

“Pidges like scritches,” Hunk said, laughing as Pidge muttered that it wasn’t that funny.

Hunk said, “Sure it isn’t,” and then engulfed both Holts in a massive hug.

Pidge snorted, letting her head fall to the side and against his arm. “What, did Lance complain you into leaving?”

“He said I was fussing,” Hunk admitted. “And I’m still worried about you anyway, so it’s just redirecting the fussing.”

“Boooo,” Pidge whined. “Isn’t anyone else fussing over Lance?”

“Coran and Allura, mostly because Coran knows medical care and Allura can’t… actually move under her own power right now,” Hunk said. “But he wasn’t a fan of the fussing and told me to make sure you were okay.”

“I’m fine,” Pidge grumbled. “And so is Coran, for the record, but none of you are fussing over him!”

“You’re my little sister,” Matt said, immediately.

“You’re one of my best friends,” Hunk said, in the same moment.

“One of?” Pidge asked, just a little teasing.

“Well, Lance would be heartbroken if I booted him from the best friend perch in my heart,” Hunk said, and Pidge didn’t need to see his face to know that he was smiling. “So yeah, one of.”

“I’ll accept it,” Pidge said, sniffing as snootily as she could. She settled into it all for a moment, letting the warmth seep into her as she watched the flashing swords from Keith and Lotor. The fact that they were still managing this was amazing.

Pidge poked at Hunk’s arm. “Look at this.”

“My arm?”

“Yes, your arm. Look at it. It’s so big. Have you ever met someone that disliked your arms? You could probably lift a tractor. I bet you have.”

“I promise that I have never lifted a tractor,” Hunk said.

“It’s all soft for cuddling but you’ve got the biggest muscles underneath,” Pidge said, poking him in the arm again. “You could benchpress me for ages and not get tired.”

“That one’s true.”

“You could probably crush my head between your biceps without even trying,” Pidge said, poking his arm again.

“Wow, let’s not,” Hunk said immediately, and Matt’s arms tightened almost painfully around Pidge. She squeaked. Hunk shuddered. “Let’s just. Not. Make those jokes.”

“What?”

“We watched your head explode,” Matt said, his voice cracking up an octave in a way it hadn’t since before Kerberos.

“…oh,” Pidge said, suddenly realizing the problem. “I’ll, uh, try not to make jokes about my head getting destroyed?”

“Or dying in general?” Matt suggested, relaxing his grip just a tad. “I mean, I know that one’s less likely, since Shiro’s got you all making with the gallows humor, but still. Lay off until we’ve had some more time to process it all?”

“I’ll try,” Pidge promised. She cringed a little. “No promises, though, a lot of that is just ingrained.”

“Gotcha,” Matt sighed.

Pidge waited a few moments, and then leaned back against Hunk and pouted. “Today sucks.”

“It’s been a long… however many hours, yeah,” Matt said.

“We should check how long as soon as we can,” Pidge said. “There’s still a time-limit, right?”

“I mean…” Hunk said, and Pidge felt some muscles shift as he did… something? She couldn’t see. “She did say she was fiddling with the code. Even if we get to the end of the time that he wanted us to complete, she might not let us leave.”

Fuck,” Pidge said, very emphatically. “I hate everything.”

“No, you don’t,” Matt said.

“Yeah, I do.”

“Nah,” Hunk said, rubbing at her head with what was probably his cheek. Was he nuzzling her? Cute. Not fair, but cute. “Not really.”

“Blegh,” Pidge said, as if it was a real word and a real emotion and not just a general noise meant to sum up a half-dozen conflicting thoughts and feelings about the shithole of a situation she’d landed them all in. “We really have to interrogate Sven.”

“Interrogate?” Matt asked.

“I mean, he’s probably going to talk,” Pidge said. She bit her lip, considering. “He seemed pretty upset that we were actually danger and not just in an overly realistic game. He’ll probably talk out of guilt?”

“Can he feel guilt?” Hunk asked.

“I don’t… know,” Pidge said. “Maybe. I hope so.”

Matt didn’t say anything, and Hunk just made a noncommittal noise. They watched the game, watched as the piles of half-fruits behind Lotor and Keith didn’t grow any bigger, even as they didn’t move, didn’t stop slicing, didn’t get a break.

Keith was good.

Keith was very good.

But Keith was also eighteen-going-on-nineteen, and he couldn’t keep up forever, not when the bombs and the fruits sometimes looked so very similar at high speeds. It wasn’t easy to mistake a bomb for a watermelon, but a plum…

Well, Pidge suspected that Honerva was behind that particular piece of trickery, and Keith had long been more likely to slice than to err on the side of caution.

So Keith got blown up, more or less, and was blasted backwards out of the circle with frightening force. He landed with a grunt, and Pidge was pushing herself up and towards him without quite registering the way she got up. Matt made a pained noise, and Pidge promised herself to go back and check on him… soonish.

“Keith!” Lance yelped, scrambling over himself.

“Lance, sit down,” Allura demanded, her head carried over in Coran’s arms. His sleeves were looking a little brownish, where they weren’t red. Eurgh.

“Dude, are you okay?” Lance asked as he knelt next to Keith, somehow making it there before Pidge, but not before the twins did. He did sit down, though.

“I have mixed feelings on this game,” Keith said, rolling over to glare at the ceiling. “This sucks.”

“Yep,” Lance said, leaning backwards as Shiro helped Keith stand up. Coran knelt next to them, handing Allura’s head over to Lance, and started checking Keith’s injuries.

“What’s the verdict, doc?” Matt asked, jogging up.

“Well, you already know that he’ll be fine,” Coran said. “Some soreness at the moment, a little difficulty with movement, but fine as soon as we leave this level.”

“Joy,” Keith grunted, turning to watch Lotor. “He’s doing better than I was.”

“He’s been doing this for ten thousand years,” Allura said. “I’d be surprised if he wasn’t.”

Keith looked over and down at her, and then shrugged and turned back. “I guess.”

“He—”

A loud peal of laughter ripped through Ryou’s attempt at a comment, and everyone focused in on Lotor.

Beyond him, Honerva materialized.

She was smiling, not quite ear to ear, not quite baring all her teeth, but wide and mocking all the same.

Pidge had once seen a handful of PTA moms get into a knock-down, drag-out fist fight during a bake sale. They’d fought like wildcats, and it had taken two security guards, a PE teacher, and three volunteering dads to break them up.

Delilah Jones had been missing a tooth and had scratch marks all down her cheek, but Lynn Walters had been cradling a dislocated shoulder and trying to see through an eye that was going to be black and blue just a few hours later.

The smile that Mrs. Jones had worn as the security guards had held her back had been manic and triumphant, and not a little scary to the tiny six-year-old that Pidge had been.

There’d been words, taunting and spitting and Pidge thought they might have called the police, but she’d been young enough for most of the memory to have faded.

That smile, though?

That had stayed with her.

And now, looking at the triumphant grin that Honerva wore, so elegant and composed compared to the soccer moms in bloodied pastel blouses and jeans meant to help them look ten years younger, Pidge didn’t see the same smile. There wasn’t enough blood, enough damage, enough hairs out of a usually-tight ponytail.

The smile that Honerva wore frightened and intrigued her just as much as the catfight PTA moms had, though. The vibe was there. The victorious, spiteful glee was there, just hidden under a veneer of Altean composure.

Honerva didn’t stop tossing bombs with deceptive ease any more than Mrs. Jones had stopped struggling to get back into her own fight, either.

“Just you and me now,” she said, watching with that damned smug smile that Pidge wanted to wipe off her face, preferably with a liberal use of her knuckles.

Lotor didn’t answer, dodging another bomb even as he cut through a kiwi and two apples.

“Just a little prince, whiling away the millennia under the heel of his father’s empire,” Honerva said, walking over to stand directly across from Lotor, rather than at the center of her own end of the range. She sounded almost cloyingly sweet. “Tell me, how many of your morals did you crush in your path to destroy him? How many planets?”

“Do not,” Lotor grunted, not even faltering a moment as he continued to slice through the rapid-fire produce.

“How many innocents died because you were too weak?” Honerva asked. “How many because you chose the pragmatic route, or your own survival?”

“More will die if I do,” Lotor hissed. “The argument is in—”

“Your father thinks you’re a disappointment because you’re too weak to conquer as he does. Your mother, on the other hand…” Honerva taps a finger to her own nose, smiling. “A diplomatic species. And I know the minds of mothers. I know the mind of yours, in particular.”

“You are not Honerva,” Lotor said, his movements getting just a touch harsher, a smidgen wilder, a dash wider.

“Shit,” Ryou whispered, barely audible. Pidge tensed.

“In a way,” she allowed. “But I’m a fair bit closer than she herself is, after what happened. I’m more Honerva, more mother, than Ha—”

“You are not my mother!”

Lotor’s sword spun through the air, flung with palpable rage, and slid as neatly into Honerva’s chest as if it had been forged for that exact location.

He dodged the bomb, dodged the fruit, stood shaking and breathing heavily with wide eyes and bared teeth as the light above him shifted from white to red and the game told them all that he’d lost.

“Well,” Honerva said, looking down at the sword that had made its home in her sternum. She tapped the tip of one finger at the pommel. “I don’t suppose you’re going to want this back?”

Lotor didn’t answer, just stared at her and shook like he was going to break apart right then and there.

“I am, you know,” Honerva said, blinking slowly. “I am more her than she herself is, these days.”

“You’re a shadow of a pale imitation,” Lotor said. “And you don’t get to pretend to know what she’d have thought.”

“Perhaps,” she said, sliding the sword out from her chest and watching the blood drip from it with a dispassionate stare. She looked at Lotor again. “But I know what’s going in your head better than you do. All those pretty lies won’t keep you safe from the truth. You know what—”

“Enough.”

It took a moment to place the voice. A single word didn’t carry an accent, all the little bits and pieces that made a person’s voice their own, and so Pidge spent precious seconds trying to figure out which twin was speaking. Then it clicked that Ryou stood before her, and Shiro off to her right, just out of sight, while the words had come from behind.

She spun.

Sven stood there, looking angry and frazzled and rather a lot like he had some grudges to fulfill.

“Done running around?” Honerva asked, and Pidge’s head whipped around to catch the woman cocking a hip and putting a hand on it, once again tossing a bomb up and down in the other. “Or are you still trying to find ways to trap me?”

“You’re as limited by the medium as I am,” Sven said. “Moreso. And you are trying to hurt them.”

“Well, obviously. It’s what I was designed to do,” Honerva made a noise that, by someone else, might have been a snort. “I’m just taking pride in my work.”

“Doubtful,” Sven said. “But I’ve found some ways to slow you down, ja?”

“Won’t work forever,” Honerva promised.

“Maybe… but I’ve found some help,” Sven said. “So—”

A dark, smiling form popped up behind Honerva and put a hand on her shoulder, leaning in to press their cheeks together, even as Honerva stiffened and tried to turn and fight. “Let’s take this somewhere else, shall we?”

Loki smiled, and like dust in the wind, the two women crumbled and faded from sight.

Chapter Text

Everyone was silent, waiting and tense until it became clear that they were, at least for the moment, safe.

“What the hell,” Ryou snapped, turning on Sven. “You better have a—”

“I’m trying,” Sven said immediately. “I can’t… I can’t fix it, I can’t delete her, but I am trying. Loki found me, she is helping, it’s… I can’t fix it, but I can help, I can make it easier, it’s something, ja?”

“Can’t you just let us out?” Pidge asked, pressing the heel of her palm to her temple. “Can’t you just end training and let us go?”

“I, no, I can’t,” Sven said. He looked genuinely regretful for that, just this side of miserable. “It’s in my core programming. Even as an accident, I was given some core instructions, and those are all regarding your time here. You need to be here for training for the allotted time, barring emergencies. While much of what has happened qualifies as an emergency by the definition of the word, none of it is an emergency by my parameters. None of you have the authority to override it at this time.”

“Can you speed it up?” Ryou asked. “Like, how long do we have until we can leave?”

Sven opened his mouth, closed, and stared. He looked… honestly, Pidge would have thought he was ready to cry. He’d had that look about him since he got there. “You have been here for one hour, forty-seven minutes. You have two hours and forty-three minutes remaining.”

“And you can’t just let the time play out normally?” Shiro asked, putting a hand on Ryou’s upper arm, a silent request to let him do the talking. Shiro jerked his chin backwards, and Ryou only hesitated a moment before going to Lotor. Shiro didn’t look away from Sven. “If you set up another sandbox world, and just let time play out normally, we’d be done and gone in less than three hours, instead of spending days or even weeks playing games that don’t necessarily have any way of helping our lives.”

“I tried.”

Pidge felt her heart clench up. “What?”

“I tried,” Sven said, and he looked so very, very human right then, running his fingers through his hair and starting to pace. “It was the easiest option, to simply slot you into a game that played out in real time and let you complete the training, and then you could fix things from outside the system. But she’s done something, and time is just… it continues to compress as closely as it can. The best I can do is create massive worlds that take an enormous amount of processing power to run, so it doesn’t compress as closely. “

“And you’re not going to let me hack us out,” Pidge said. “Because that would violate the rules.”

“Yes,” Sven said. He stopped pacing, brought his hands together in front of him, and laced them together. “I cannot let you do that. I… I want to. I have enough independent will to want to, but I can’t.”

Pidge was a little stuck on the fact that she’d apparently managed to accidentally make an AI with, of all things, nervous habits.

Possibly neuroses.

Granted, a lot of that was down to Altean technology and programming, more than Pidge herself, but still.

It was weird.

“Okay, fine,” Ryou said. He looked irritated. That was… normal, that was okay, whatever. “So what now? You said you were trying to fix things as much as you could within the constraints of your programming. What does that mean?”

“Loki, mostly,” Sven admitted. “And games that take enough processing power that everything works closer to real time. She has plans, and will likely share them with you; I am better off not knowing.”

“Relying on Loki isn’t…” Lance started to say, and then subsided, biting his lip. “I mean…”

“Historically not the best idea?” Shiro offered drily. “Unfortunately, it’s looking like one of our potential solutions.”

Sven looked between them all, hands folded behind him, almost nervous. “I am… very sorry for this situation.”

“You’ve mentioned,” Matt ground out.

“I can promise that the next level is much less inherently deadly,” Sven said, brightening up. He must have noticed how many of them were gearing up to ask questions, because he continued without much prompting. “Many of the levels so far have had violence inherent to them in some fashion, because the game or franchise is some form of fight. But some of them, like the dancing, and the bakery simulation, they were less of a problem there, ja? She wasn’t in a position to kill you as easily.”

“So you’re sending us to a game that’s a little more… domestic?” Shiro guessed.

Sven nodded. He blinked, and tilted his head, and looked to the side, distant and unfocused. “I have to set something up. I will come back for you… soo̴̘n̛̼̺͚̬.”

He fizzled, glitched, and disappeared.

“…I wasn’t the only one that heard that, right?” Lance asked, sounding a little panicked.

“No, that was definitely there,” Keith confirmed.

Pidge coughed, just a little. Everyone turned to her.

“Allura’s still dripping,” she pointed out. “Also… we need to figure out a game plan. We’ve been here for how many levels? And we’ve got Sven on our side, but Honerva is…”

Pidge trailed off.

She’d been the only one facing in the right direction to catch Lotor’s violent flinch.

Um.

Shit.

He was… on his knees. He wasn’t paying attention. He probably hadn’t been for a while now.

He was on his knees and staring at the ground and had his hands fisted in his hair and none of them had even noticed.

“Do you…” Pidge started. She paused. She licked her lips and met Ryou’s eyes and tried again. “Lotor?”

He didn’t respond.

“Do you want us to stop calling her that?”

Lotor didn’t respond again.

Ryou chanced walking closer, kneeled down next to Lotor and put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey—”

“She isn’t dead,” Lotor, the words as ragged as torn tulle, ripped from inside him. “She died but she isn’t dead.”

“You mean the Mother Parasite?” Ryou asked, careful.

“No,” Lotor said. His jaw clenched, and his eyes squeezed shut, and he sat up. “The real Honerva.”

“She came back from the rift, didn’t she?” Coran asked, his voice quiet. “But she came back wrong.”

Lotor nodded. Pidge could hear, even from this distance, the sound of every deep, shaky breath he tried to control.

She didn’t like it.

It felt unnatural, for him to be coming apart at the seams like this.

“Honerva, the real Honerva, died,” Lotor said. The way he spoke was an attempt at measured. Every word was chosen carefully, clipped and precise and as calm as he could make it. “She died before the war began, was in many ways the reason it began. Zarkon took her into the rift to save her life, though I do not know if she was already dead or just on the brink at the time. He died there as well. They were to be interned together, husband and wife, and…”

“He came back and so did she?” Pidge asked.

“She was pregnant when she went in, did you know?” Lotor asked. There was a laugh on his face, mirthless and desperate and a little too wild for anybody’s comfort. “Three people came back from death that day.”

This wasn’t okay. He wasn’t okay. Pidge knew she wasn’t exactly an expert on Lotor, but this was…

Bad.

He needed help.

“I was born dead.”

His mouth worked open and closed for a few moments, half-started words and fractions of sentences, but not a whisper of a sound. The rest of them waited in silence. They couldn’t stop this. This was a breaking point, and stopping it now would only make things worse in the long run.

Right?

“Honerva died, and when she came back, she forgot everything.”

His breath hitched.

“She became Haggar.”

Pidge’s heart skipped a beat.

“My mother is Haggar.”

o.o.o.o.o

Billy Kaplan awoke at 10:24 AM on a Wednesday to the sound of furious knocking at his front door.

Considering the fact that Billy lived in a penthouse apartment, graciously gifted to him and his fiancé by one Roberto da Costa, the fact that someone was knocking on his front door instead of using the doorbell was something of a concern. The fact that someone had gotten in without going through the front door to the building was less of a concern for him than for other tenants, if only because he knew so many teleporters.

Which…

(He was so tired. He’d been up until four in the morning handling a Skrull incident in the financial district with Teddy. He hadn’t gotten the chance to fall asleep until almost five.)

So, probably a teleporter that wanted to skip the hassle of the doorman and elevator but was polite enough not to just barge in uninvited.

Or was too scared to try teleporting into the home of two high-powered superheroes.

One of the two.

Billy stared at the door for approximately thirty-five seconds before it occurred to him that he could, in fact, stop the knocking if he just opened it.

(He was so tired.)

“Gimme a second!” Billy called through the door, his hand slipping twice as sleep deprivation continued to impede him. The knocking, thankfully, stopped. After a few more seconds of fruitless fiddling, Billy managed to unlock and open the door.

Loki practically fell through the door, stepping far too close for comfort, and grabbed Billy’s hands in her own. “Wiccan! I need to borrow your mom.”

Billy.

Billy took a few seconds to process that.

What?” he asked, after said processing failed to make the sentence make any more sense.

“Your mom. I need to borrow her. For a… thing. Something. Important. I need to borrow your mom for something important.”

Billy stepped back, pulled Loki away from the door, and closed it, and then walked over to take a seat in the kitchen, hoping that Loki wouldn’t invade his personal space quite so closely again. “You need to borrow my mom.”

“Yes.”

“…if you need Wanda, just go talk to her directly,” Billy said. “I mean, she’s the Scarlet Witch. I’m pretty sure she’s got a phone number to contact her online or something. She’s a public figure. Through the official Avengers site or something.”

“No, not her,” Loki said. “Your other mom. The one that raised you. Rebecca, right?”

Billy blinked.

And again.

He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, then just gave up and rubbed at his eyes in hopes that they’d stop feeling quite so gummy. Eurgh. Rheum was terrible.

“You need my actual mom,” Billy finally said, when the words continued to make very, very little sense. “The civilian one.”

“Yeah.”

Billy took a deep breath. “Why?”

“I… um…” Loki fidgeted. She looked uncomfortable. “She’s a psychologist, right?”

Billy felt his eyebrows creep up towards his hairline. “You want to get help?”

“No!” Loki burst out. She paused, and then seemed to recede in on herself. “No, I mean. Maybe. But this isn’t about me, I promise.”

“Then what is it about?” Billy asked.

“It’s kind of a long story,” Loki said. “And I don’t want to tell it more than once. But she’s the only psychologist I know, even just by reputation, that I would trust to recommend to someone, and who wouldn’t be freaked out by the circumstances of the people I want to connect with her.”

“And you don’t want to explain those circumstances to me,” Billy figured, “Because you want to explain them to her and they’re… what, too long and complicated to explain more than once?”

Loki shrugged. “More or less.”

 Billy eyed her for another moment, and then sighed and pulled out his phone. “I’m going to call my mom. Scratch that, I’m going to call both my mom and Wanda, because—”

“You don’t trust me,” Loki cut him off. She smiled, though it didn’t reach her eyes. “I know.”

“I wish I could,” Billy told her. “But the stories I’ve been hearing since we last saw each other are… concerning.”

“I promise there’s a plan,” Loki said.

“Yeah,” Billy muttered, “I bet there is.”

Billy made his calls. Loki sat back, alternating between fidgets and an unnerving stillness, and waited. Billy counted himself lucky that both women had free time this morning, and wondered if there wasn’t a little magic involved in that.

“Predictive?” He asked, after pointing it out to Loki. “Or…”

“I haven’t been tied to time quite like you,” Loki said. She shifted in her seat, hands clasped tightly in her lap. “Especially given the nature of my most recent… escapade. I thought I didn’t quite have the time to spare to simply wait around, so I found a point where it would work best for Mrs. Kaplan.”

“When I had five hours of sleep,” Billy said flatly.

Loki shrugged. “You’re not quite the most important part of this equation, Wiccan.”

“Clearly,” Billy muttered. He crossed his arms, pursed his lips, and then sighed. “You want some coffee? I need to wake up and it’s gonna be a bit before either of them are ready to come here.”

“I prefer tea,” Loki said. “If you have any. If not, coffee is fine.”

“English breakfast?” Billy asked.

Loki nodded.

When Billy turned back, she’d pulled her knees up to her chest and was watching him, cheek pillowed on her knees. He raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“I missed you all,” Loki said. She blinked slowly, and the move reminded Billy oddly of a cat. “I liked being on a team. There was always someone to play checks and balances for my more public moral mistakes.”

“Not the secret ones,” Billy pointed out. He handed her the mug of tea. “And you could probably make a team for yourself again. You’ve done it before.”

“No,” Loki said, shaking her head. Her fingers curled around the mug, clad in the sleeves of a too-long green sweater that Billy hadn’t quite noticed before. “Not now. The plans right now are… I have one person in my corner. She’s enough. I can’t include more, it would ruin everything.”

Billy sat back with his own mug of coffee (cream and sugar), and considered that. “Can I ask what the plans recently have been? Because I’ve been watching the news and I can’t tell what you’re doing at all.”

Loki smiled. “There’s been rather a lot of them. I don’t think we have quite enough time for that.”

“Becoming Sorcerer Supreme?”

“Strange needed a wake-up call and the world’s magic needed a boost.”

“Working with Malekith?”

“Isn’t Loki always the villain?”

Billy made a face. “No. Not always. I know you better than that.”

Loki tilted her head. “Do you?”

“You’re just trying to push yourself into the villain space in my head so you don’t have to be surprised and hurt if or when I reject you, by telling yourself it was inevitable because you planned it,” Billy said flatly. Loki’s face twitched, and Billy took a sip of his coffee before commenting. “You said it yourself: my mom’s a psychologist.”

Loki stuck out her tongue and drank some of her own tea.

“Can I ask something different, then? Since you’re clearly not going to answer about the plans?” Billy asked.

Loki shrugged. Again. “You can ask. I might not answer.”

“You’re presenting as a girl right now, right?” Billy started, and Loki nodded. He tried to figure out how to phrase the next part without being rude. “And I remember you presenting as a girl during that whole mess with the election, and once or twice before that. But after the election… none of your public or super appearances had you presenting this way. So. Are you back in the closet, or did something change? Or…”

He trailed off, unsure of how to put it.

Loki looked thoughtful, at least, not hurt or angry.

“Gods are stories,” she said. She paused with every sentence, every few words, like she was trying to pick out the best way to frame the explanation. “And stories have weight. They have… gravity. I’m new and old at the same time, and the old Loki’s stories pull at me.”

Billy waited.

“Did you…” Loki frowned, visibly searching for the words to say what she wanted to say. “Did you ever read the Eddas? Not one of the classic translations, but one of the newer ones, with… with respect given to how queer it all was?”

Billy shook his head. “I read some when I was a teenager, but I’m not really deep enough in the field to read it again. Why?”

“The Loki of myth was trans,” Loki blurted out. She took a breath, hesitated, and barreled on. “And I know that my story isn’t the same as that Loki’s story, but it was more accurate, and it was based on me. And I was never a man. I had a body that made people think I was, but I was never a man, originally. People just… thought I was.”

Billy waited, and when she didn’t continue, he asked, “What do the new translations have to do with the story? Is it because you were… forced to act cis by the translations that erased the transness or something? And now the new translations are changing that?”

“Kind of,” Loki said. She stared down at her tea, fidgeting. “I’m non-binary, sometimes. A woman, sometimes. But the times when I seem a man, it’s fake. It’s an act, now, because that’s what people expect. It’s… the earliest copies of the Eddas are obvious about it, and they’re fairly accurate to the treatment I underwent back then. Asgard had a lot of transphobia, and people weren’t eager to acknowledge me as a woman, unless it was as an insult. And I bring up the translations because some of them are pointing out now that strangers would pick up on me presenting as a woman by using more accurate pronouns, while the people referring to me with masculine pronouns were the ones that knew how I’d been born, and—”[1]

“Breathe,” Billy said, worried as Loki worked herself up more and more. He got up, and then hesitated. “Do… need a hug or something?”

Loki shook her head rapidly. “I’m fine. It’s fine. I just… okay. The… growing awareness, I guess? The growing awareness of nonbinary identities paired with the older, more popular translations, means that a lot of people are interpreting the myths as Loki being genderfluid now. And that’s good, because it gives me… wiggle room, I guess, even if the most accurate translations aren’t actually all that well-known yet. It means that I can start pushing the story in the worlds’ collective subconscious towards the truth, which is that I’m not a man. Ever. But people interpreting the Loki of myth as genderfluid is happening at more or less the same time as interpreting them as a trickster, and as a chaotic neutral, rather than as evil. And… that means that, for a lot of people, Loki being evil is associated with Loki being a cis man.”

Billy mulled that over. He was waking up, now, with coffee and time. “So you’re trying to reinforce that connection by staying in the closet when you do questionable stuff, but being more publicly… trans when it’s actually good stuff, or more greyish?”

Loki blinked. “You hesitated.”

“I was going to say ‘genderfluid’ because you said you were sometimes nb and sometimes a woman, but you said that it wasn’t correct at some point so I had to change the word choice,” Billy admitted.

“I see,” Loki said. She bit her lip. “That’s… part of it. Another part is just that right now, almost all of my dealings are with Asgard, not with Earth, and Asgard is much less forgiving of my identity or desire to change, in all ways. If I present to them as a man while I present as a danger, then they will expect some of my actions, leaving me more room to do what I need to do in other areas. With enemies that have known me longer, like Strange… he knows me as a man, too. And sometimes it’s just that the story is too strong, and I can’t break free in the moment to be myself that way even if I try. I’m forced to prioritize between being good and being myself. I was with Squirrel Girl, a few weeks ago. I could call myself genderfluid, and I could be good and a trickster, and I could shapeshift, but I couldn’t… I couldn’t be a woman. I got closer than I could have ten years ago, but sometimes, it’s still not enough.”

Billy nodded, considering, and said, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Loki tilted her head. “Just… be ready for me to reach out when the War of the Realms is over. It’s already dragged on long past when it should have. I’ll need some time to adjust when it’s over, and someone to lean on.”

“And your friend?” Billy asked.

“Oh,” Loki said. She licked her lips, looked down at her tea again, and sighed. “I rely on her far too much already.”

“What about now?” Billy asked. “You said that most of your plots and plans right now involved presenting as a man, even if it’s inaccurate. But you’re sitting there, and as far as I can tell, you’re presenting as a woman, right? So…”

Loki smiled softly, a little sadly, and took a sip of her tea. “That’s part of why I’m here. I jumped stories for a bit. It’s complicated. There isn’t as much of a pull on me in the story I’m playing with right now, because it’s not part of this multiverse.”

Billy closed his eyes, counted to three, and sighed. “Yeah. I guess you’ll tell me more when my mom gets here.”

“Yeah.”

o.o.o.o.o

Once upon a time, the Scarlet Witch had desired a child. She had planned to adopt, but her husband at the time, the Vision, had insisted on a children by blood. Wanda had gathered an entire coven of witches, and by the might of their collective magic, given herself a pregnancy of children that were both hers and the Vision’s, against all odds.

Wanda had given birth to twins. For a time, she and her family were happy.

The twins disappeared into nothingness, one day. Their souls had once been part of Mephisto, a Lord of Hell. Wanda lost her mind to the grief, and had her memory erased for her own sake.

When her memory of the incident returned, she was inconsolable. Her brother tried. Her father, also, tried, despite the many negative feelings between them. They failed.

Wanda remade the world, and herself with it. The world was fine. Mutants ruled all. She had her children. Her father and family were at the top of the world.

A handful of heroes remembered, and convinced her to make things right again.

Wanda let her fantasy go.

She remade the world, as it was. She remade herself with it, erasing all memory she had of her children, her magic, her family, her life. She remade the world, and in her subconscious desperation, her children with it.

They were born to other families, but in their blood, a tie to Wanda remained.

To a family in New Jersey, Tommy Shepherd was born. He would develop mutant powers, speed beyond compare, as a teenager. He would be imprisoned for an accidental explosion. He would be extracted by the Young Avengers,  join the team, and be known as Speed.

To a family in New York, Billy Kaplan was born. He would develop mutant powers, magic like the Scarlet Witch, as a teenager. He would help found the Young Avengers. He would rescue his brother, and be known as Asgardian, and then Wiccan, and eventually, in a future not yet here, as the Demiurge.

The twins rescued their mother, brought her memory back, and found ways to live with the knowledge of their relation and attempts at navigating the new family dynamics.

The world did seem to work in odd ways, sometimes.

o.o.o.o.o

They arrived by car.

Wanda had chosen to be Rebecca’s transportation, but she’d recently begun to cut back on magic herself, cautious of the amount of damage she was doing to her soul with every spell. As a result, their arrival was heralded by the doorbell, as most were.

Not Loki, of course, but most.

“Hey, mom,” Billy said, pulling Rebecca into a hug, and then doing the same to Wanda. “Hey, Wanda.”

“What’s this I hear about you working with Loki?” Wanda asked, once he pulled away.

“Hi!” Loki called over from where she was curled up in one of Billy’s armchairs.

“And I’d rather prefer to know why I’m needed for this,” Rebecca said. She put a hand on Billy’s arm and peered at him. “Everything’s okay?”

“Well, Loki hasn’t explained much yet,” Billy admitted. “So. I’m kind of waiting on that.”

“Where’s Teddy?” Rebecca asked.

“Still asleep,” Billy said. “We had a late night. Um. Do either of you want coffee?”

“I’m not drinking anything with caffeine,” Wanda told him. “If you don’t have any herbal teas, I’ll just have water.”

“I think I have some chamomile,” Billy said. “Mom?”

“I’ll take the coffee,” Rebecca said. She walked over to the couch and took a seat. Wanda took the armchair closest to Loki, a suspiciously calm look on her face. “So, what’s this about… what would you like me to call you? I’d normally go with a title and surname, but I’ve heard enough about you to know that there’s no use guessing.”

Loki tilted her head. “You can just call me Loki. Or if you feel uncomfortable without a title, then Miss or Ms. both work. I don’t really do surnames these days unless it’s part of a role. Too much family drama in that.”

“So no Odinson or Laufeyson, then,” Wanda muttered.

“Even if I was, that would be Odinsdottir,” Loki said. She smiled, just a little brittle. “Patronymics, you know.”

Wanda blinked slowly, and then nodded. “Odinsdottir, but not, because family drama. I don’t suppose you’ve found something to put on paperwork when they ask for a surname?”

“I usually use a title someone else has given me,” Loki said. She took a sip of her tea, which Billy figured was probably lukewarm by now. “Silvertongue tends to work best, though I usually just shorten it to Silver.”

Wanda nodded again. “Fair enough. Now, what’s this you need us for?”

“I don’t need you, really,” Loki said. She hummed a little, visibly thinking. “I think Billy just wanted you here in case I tried something, or in case he needed help with protective spells if Mrs. Kaplan agreed to what I’m planning.”

“And what are those plans?” Rebecca asked.

Loki bit her lip, and frowned, and stared down at the ground for a bit. Billy came back, levitating the drinks as he went along, and sat down with a new cup of coffee for himself, and passed a new, hopefully not-over-steeped tea for Loki as the other two mugs went over to the older women.

“There are other multiverses,” Loki said, once again picking every word like it was too important to cast aside. “They have stories, not just ones that deviate from ours, like the dimensions we visited with the Young Avengers, but ones that have entirely different structures, and players, and branches of their own.”

“And you’ve been meddling?” Wanda asked.

Loki made a face. “Not unwarranted meddling.”

There was a brief silence, and Billy tried to hide behind his cup.

“Okay,” Loki said. “Oh… okay. Sometimes, a universe that is fictional to us does exist, but we’re fiction to them, too. That makes sense, right?”

“Mutual fiction, yeah,” Billy said. “Like… Psych was referenced as a show in Leverage, and Leverage was referenced as a show in Psych.”

“Bingo,” Loki said, perking up. “That’s actually exactly it! Okay, so we’re fiction to them. Our particular universe, Earth-616, is mostly comics. Others, like 199999, are movies, or some are cartoons, and so on. But we, us four, we’re comics. And that’s… kind of what caused the problem?”

“Continue,” Wanda said, just a little coolly, when Loki paused.

“There’s a girl there,” Loki said. “She’s young, and she’s… Norns, she’s brilliant, but she’s young, and she makes mistakes. She made an AI by accident when mixing alien tech with her own attempts at an immersive holographic training system, and the AI tried to be helpful and design a training system on his own, but he’s basically a newborn and limited in odd ways by the programming, and now the programmer and her team are trapped inside.”

“Matrix-style,” Billy said. “Or, uh, Ready Player One?”

“Ew,” Loki said, making a face.

“Fair,” Billy admitted. “I never watched it, but I heard it was… kinda racist.”

“Yeah,” Loki said, and then shook her head. “Right. So. The AI, Sven, he decided that the best way for them to have a fun, immersive training was to give them a villain to follow them through different games. He… chose to base the villain on someone from our universe.”

“You?” Billy asked.

“Mephisto?” Wanda prompted.

Rebecca, tellingly, stayed silent.

“Er, no,” Loki said. She cringed. “The Mother Parasite.”

It took a moment to set in, and then Billy was on his feet. “What?”

“I’ve got it under control!” Loki insisted. “She’s just a subprogram trying to break free right now, and she’s… made a little progress, but Sven is finally listening to the humans in the game instead of just assuming he knows best, and that means I can actually help instead of just running around in the background trying to figure out how to help without drawing attention to myself and getting blocked from the server. I’ve got her locked up for now, just a temporary thing while we set up something better, but I promise it’s good.”

Billy kept staring at her, heart racing, blood pounding in his ears. He hadn’t dropped his tea, but only because he hadn’t been holding it.

With deliberate movements, he sat back down.

“It’s under control.”

“For the time being, yes,” Loki said. “The fact that it was the Mother Parasite was… it was odd. It was a story that felt familiar, in a setting and world that didn’t, and it called to me, so I went to investigate. She doesn’t carry most of her powers between the different games. It really all depends on which type of universe they’re in, because the more mundane universes limit her to a human powerset. But something about how the story itself is twisting, from my perspective as a god of stories, is… it’s worrying. Like she might succeed in consuming their minds and escaping into the real world somehow.”

“This is all being done by a corrupted computer program?” Rebecca asked. “I wasn’t aware that they could get so… meta.”

Loki made a face, and then held up a hand and wiggled it. “Kinda. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, myself. She’s gotten enough of a hold on the programming that Sven can’t delete her, but he can still corner her in some ways if he’s clever enough about the setting.”

“So where do I come in?” Rebecca asked.

Loki licked her lips, and looked down at her tea again. “I’m… the newest level is based on a very mundane game. There’s no magic, no violence, nothing like that. It’s a really mundane dating simulation, actually. But it takes weeks or months in-story and at least a few hours out of it. That team… half of them are kids. Teenagers, I guess, but they either aren’t adults or they’re really new to it. Not counting the aliens, the oldest is twenty-five. Four of them are under twenty. They’re all… they’re kids, especially to someone like me, but they’re traumatized. All of them are, some more than others, but they’ve been fighting an alien war and one of them isn’t even old enough to drive.”

“You want me there to help them as a psychologist,” Rebecca said. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes,” Loki said. Her shoulders inched up towards her ears. “I don’t know enough to help them, and I’m a mess myself. But I know lots of people in this field, or of them, and you’re the only one that isn’t a telepath or sometimes evil. Billy thought you were a great mom, and I trust his judgement, so… yeah. I want your help.”

“You’re very invested in this,” Wanda noted, before Rebecca could respond. “More invested than I’d expect, even with the inclusion of a villain that… well, that we’ve all met.”

She waited for Loki to answer, taking a long sip of her tea and not breaking eye contact.

“Wanda,” Rebecca said quietly. “Maybe that’s not—”

“There’s a guy,” Loki blurted out. “He’s old, ten thousand years old, but he hasn’t physically aged past… maybe twenty-three? Twenty-four? Not mentally or physically or developmentally, even if he has all the memories. And his mom doesn’t remember he exists and his dad keeps trying to kill him for being mixed-species, and he’s trying to be good but he’s never had anyone to show him a functioning moral compass until a few months ago, and he’s trying but he’s broken and his baseline went so, so wrong even though he did his best and I don’t.”

She took a deep breath, heaving and wet and with tears at the corners of her eyes, curling in on herself. “I don’t want him to end up like I did. I don’t want him to end up like me, like I was before, like the others. I don’t want him to get trapped by a story someone else wrote for him, going evil just because nobody gave him a way out. I just. I don’t want him to end up like Loki.”

It took a few moments. It took longer than it should have for it to sink in. It took that same time for Loki to start shuddering and hiccupping and breathing far, far too raggedly for comfort.

Billy chanced a look at both his moms. Rebecca looked torn, like she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to comfort Loki.

Wanda looked outright stricken.

So Billy figured that, well, he’d been part of a few cuddle piles with the pint-sized version, and even if the rumors said this was a different Loki, now, she seemed like mostly the same person and mostly a good person, so…

Billy went over and sat on the less-than-comfortable arm of the chair and pulled Loki to his chest. It was awkward, and uncomfortable, and that didn’t matter because Loki froze up in under a second when he did it, and then clung to him and continued to shake and shudder.

She didn’t make a sound.

“Loki doesn’t usually… cry,” Wanda said, eventually. She said it quietly, and to Rebecca, but it was still something Billy could hear.

He shrugged.

He didn’t have an answer.

Loki didn’t show weakness in public if she could help it. It just wasn’t what Loki did.

But—

Actually.

Billy had seen Loki cry before. Not just out of pain or onions or something, but actual tears of emotion.

Billy had spent quite a few months with Loki, one whose body was still young enough that controlling the hormonal rollercoaster didn’t come easily yet.

Maybe part of her still trusted him with that.

“I’ve ruined your shirt,” she said, eventually. She pulled away, rubbing at her face with her sleeve. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I think I get it,” Billy said. “Um, just based on what you said earlier. About stories catching up with you.”

Loki pulled her knees to her chest and glared at the ground. “I don’t want—I’m not supposed to cry. Not in front of strangers, or people who really, really don’t like me.”

“I don’t know,” Billy said. “I still kinda like you.”

“The Scarlet Witch doesn’t,” Loki muttered. “She made that clear during the Sorcerer Supreme thing.”

“Wasn’t I…” Wanda started, and then shook her head. “Not the time.”

Loki looked pointedly away from her. She sniffled a little, and wiped her nose, and took a deep breath to stead herself. She did not uncurl. “Any other questions?”

“You said that this would take weeks or months inside the game, right?” Rebecca asked. “Is time compressing?”

“Yes, a lot. If we could un-compress it, then we could just hustle the simulation to its conclusion, but the Mother Parasite did something to the system, and we can’t,” Loki admitted.

“So you want me to spend several weeks or months as a psychologist for… how many people?” Rebecca asked.

“Ten, if they all agree,” Loki said. “They might not. I’m convincing, though.”

“Eleven, then,” Rebecca said. “I’ll do it, but I’m going to ask that you have some sessions as well.”

Loki’s head shot up, and (oh, those eyes were very red) she looked almost panicked. “I really shouldn’t.”

“I insist,” Rebecca said, with an easy, practiced smile. “You’ve been through quite a lot, even just going by the stories Billy told me about your adventures a few years ago. I’d feel better if I spoke with you regularly, even for just the time that we’re in this… simulation, you said?”

“I can keep you from getting trapped,” Loki said. “And… I’ll think about it?”

She fidgeted again. “Also, I think it’s best that Billy and the Scarlet Witch outfit you with some protection as well, for their own peace of mind, at least.”

Rebecca nodded. “Will I need to pack?”

“Not really,” Loki said. She bit her lip. It was starting to look a little red from how many times she’d done it. “It’s a simulated world, and it’s got a strong story element, so I can actually set you up with whatever you need. Oh, and I’ve got the funds to pay you for your time once we get back to our world.”

“Can’t you just unplug these people?” Wanda asked.

“No,” Loki said immediately. She shook her head, almost braining Billy with one of the horns on her tiara. “I can only access their story the way I do right now because of the way the Mother Parasite is integrated into it. I’m not meant to be part of that multiverse otherwise. Once it’s all over and done with, there might still be a backdoor left open for me, but not now. Not yet. It’s too fragile a connection right now. I can only function within the simulation.”

“I see,” Rebecca said, and then stood up. “Well, that was informative. You said the ages were from… fifteen to twenty-five, developmentally?”

“Not counting the eldest, who’s… probably around sixty, I imagine, in comparison to human development,” Loki said. “But otherwise, yes, mid-twenties at the eldest, fifteen for the youngest.”

“And a war?” Rebecca prompted. “Or is there anything else I should prepare for? I may need to bring supplementary readings.”

“I…” Loki winced. “I picked up some stuff from when I looked at their baseline. Some—”

Rebecca held up a hand. “Actually, Billy, Wanda, if you could leave the room for a minute?”

(Billy didn’t hear the explanation that Loki gave.)

(“—abandonment issues, child abuse and neglect, a… lot of PTSD. One of them died, one is a clone with copied memories under mind control, some of them were prisoners of war turned slaves or colosseum-style gladiators, two are survivors of otherwise complete genocide, there’s been torture, and just it was… bad. Just one of them is going to be hard, let alone the entire group, especially with the shit they had to deal with in the zombie level.”)

(“I’ll have to take along some of the larger reference books, then,” Rebecca said. “I don’t suppose you could connect me to the internet in our world from there?”)

(“Now that, Mrs. Kaplan, I can do.”)

When Billy and Wanda came back in, Rebecca informed him that the two of them were going to go to her house to pick up some things, leaving Wanda and Loki to talk about plans for the future.

o.o.o.o.o

It was… awkward.

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to explain any of your recent activities,” Wanda finally said, several minutes after Billy and Rebecca had left. When Loki just stared at her, one eyebrow raised, Wanda shrugged. “It was either that or talk about something inane, like the weather, or sports. I’m not going to ask about any of the particularly personal things you aired today. It’s not any of my business.”

“Fair enough,” Loki said. “And thank you, I suppose, for not digging in. A lot of people would have.”

Wanda tilted her head. Her curls bounced with the movement and shone in the light, but the fluorescent lights made them seem oddly flat. “I’ve dug into things I shouldn’t have before. Billy seems to think you’re doing good right now, and your story seems reasonable enough, considering the usual shape of our lives. Rebecca and Billy both seem invested in helping you, and I have a feeling I’d do more harm than help, myself. So instead, I’ll just ask about the things that I’ve actually heard word of and have reason to be interested in.”

“Like the whole Sorcerer Supreme thing?” Loki asked, her voice pitching high.

“That is my primary interest, yes,” Wanda said. She crossed her legs. “You didn’t keep it, or even try that hard after the ruse was revealed.”

“Stephen needed a wake-up call,” Loki said. “And the world’s magic needed a booster shot. I’ll be honest, and don’t laugh at that, I am capable of honesty: I didn’t expect it to work.”

“You didn’t expect the ‘booster shot’ to work?” Wanda asked.

“I didn’t expect to become Sorcerer Supreme,” Loki corrected, full of earnest fervor. “I thought he’d call me out on it! That wasn’t even Plan A, it was more of an idle though that somehow snowballed.”

Wanda blinked. She considered. She leaned forward, though she kept the rest of her body language open and unthreatening. “Explain.”

And Loki did.

o.o.o.o.o

Once upon a time, in a world both like and unlike our own, Loki went bad and never turned back.

This is not that world.

This is a world where Loki went bad, then good, then grey, and then threw the entire scale to the side and tried to do things their own way, because playing by the rules never got them very far, and especially when nobody else was playing by those same rules.

Loki tries.

And Loki is better than anyone gives them credit for.

o.o.o.o.o

Lotor was quiet.

Pidge watched from a distance, still hemmed in by Hunk and Matt. Ryou had long since levered himself down to sit next to Lotor’s crumpled form, and had managed to pull Lotor up to something approaching a sitting position. Ryou had guided Lotor into sitting up, lacing his hands around his knees, and leaning into Ryou for support. It was almost a comical sight, given Lotor’s height, even sitting, but Pidge mostly just felt… empty.

Sad.

Tired.

Exhausted.

But empty.

She’d given too much emotionally and too much mentally to this game to maintain that level of investment forever. She had a reason to stay invested, of course, but it was starting to be a little hard to care, just because there was so much happening, all the time.

Ryou pressed his lips to the top of Lotor’s head. Even as Pidge watched, Lotor turned to bury himself closer to Ryou’s chest.

She had a feeling she knew what was going on, but… well.

Not really her business, was it?

I was born dead.

Pidge shuddered. The look on his face and the tone of his voice and the sheer pain had been… bad. It wasn’t any wonder that they hadn’t been able to figure out how to respond, beyond Ryou’s choice.

Honerva died, and when she came back, she forgot everything.

Pidge could feel the shudder in her chest, rippling out to her shoulders and hips. It was purely psychological, and she knew it, but that didn’t mean she could do anything about it.

She became Haggar.

She couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t help. She could barely process it.

My mother is Haggar.

What the fuck was Pidge supposed to do with that?

“She’s done,” Sven announced, out of nowhere.

Then he actually appeared, smiling and giddy and almost bouncing on his toes.

“This better not be another level that you think is good but actually ends with at least one person dead,” Keith said flatly.

“No, no, this is good! I promise! Loki even said it was a good idea,” Sven insisted.

“She’s a subprogram, so I’m pretty sure her opinion doesn’t count,” Matt said.

“Why don’t you just tell us?” Shiro asked, before anyone else could dampen Sven’s oddly intense energy.

“I’ll take you there!” Sven said instead, and in the next instant, the world dissolved.

Once more unto the breach.

o.o.o.o.o

[1] This is actually mostly true, and part of the reason I’m interpreting Loki as I am. Check out these links for more information; they’re written by a trans woman who professionally translates Old Icelandic/Old West Norse, Akkadian, and Sumerian.

(Why ‘mostly true?’ Because in the real world, patrexes is the only one I’ve seen that’s actually addressing Loki being a trans woman in the Eddas, rather than the more common genderfluid or cis man interpretation. I’m going to say that the comics ‘verse has a few more people engaged in that side of the debate since Loki is an actual person and the gods encourage people to get invested in the Eddas again. That said, I’m not pagan or actually in a position to do much deep research on the topic myself, or in circles where I’m likely to come across more people discussing this, but I trust people who trust patrexes, so I’m linking to her blog for all my references on this, which I read a few months before I wrote this chapter.)
https://patrex.es/post/168406689465
https://patrex.es/post/175953107980
https://patrex.es/post/174635776165
https://patrex.es/post/175934329855
https://patrex.es/post/176093941715
https://patrex.es/post/176030995895
https://patrex.es/post/168642890600
https://patrex.es/post/177657520440