There was a big guy hovering right at the edge of the group, watching and listening to all the other freshmen chatter, brag and laugh before orientation started. He looked decent enough, friendly, but Lance knew people well enough to recognize that this dude wasn’t going to just jump into a conversation with strangers unless he was either given an in or the talk moved on to a topic he found too exciting to hold back on.
Lance hadn’t ever met the guy before, so he had no idea what that topic would be. He offered an in instead.
“Hey,” he said, sidling over and offering a grin and an open hand, “name’s Lance.”
“Hunk,” said the other guy, taking the offered shake, and wow, either that was a nickname he’d done full adoption on or his parents had interesting ideas for baby names. Either way, Hunk didn’t elaborate and Lance didn’t ask.
“Cool. So, Hunk, what’s your thing?”
“What? Oh, you mean my--” Hunk waved a hand, apparently searching for a word that didn’t sound ridiculous in his head.
Lance had no compunctions.
“Superpower, yeah,” he said. “The thing we’re all going to this fancy new training school for.”
“Stuff that hits me tends to break before I do,” Hunk said with a slightly awkward shrug, as if to underscore his statement with the feeling behind ‘it’s nothing.’
“Invincibility? Dude, that’s awesome!”
“Well, I wouldn’t say invincibility. I fell out of a tree next to the sidewalk when I was a kid once, and the concrete broke but so did my arm. Well, a fracture at least. Basically I hit my limit once you get to stuff like solid rock-hard ground at high speed.”
“So what about, like, bullets?”
Hunk laughed, a touch nervously, like he was hoping the universe hadn’t overheard and decided that this sounded like a good idea.
“Never tested it,” he said. “What about you?”
“Me? Oh I’m just the coolest guy around!” Lance winked, snapped his fingers, and caught the misshapen shard of ice that formed from thin air in his palm. “Literally.”
“Whoa, that’s pretty sweet! So are you pulling water molecules from the air around you and lowering their temperature to below freezing? The energy involved should be enormous - where does the heat go?”
“I don’t know. I just want to make things cold, and it happens. I’ve never really thought about how.”
“It is a pretty recent field,” Hunk said, nodding as if in agreement or at least understanding. His expression opened and he began to gesture and speak more freely. “It’s only been about fifty years since the first hypermutations were recorded and studies began, and we’re still not really sure how most of it works - I mean, some hypers regularly defy what we used to think were absolute laws of physics routinely and with what seems to be little more than force of will…”
Lance rocked back on his heels and listened with an easy grin on his face. Superhero sciences weren’t exactly his thing, but it was pretty cool to hear Hunk go on about it, even if some of the technical stuff went a bit over Lance’s head.
He had the feeling that this would be the start of a pretty great friendship.
Lance thought he was a friendly guy, cool and fun and pretty easy to get along with overall. He liked people in general. The problem was that sometimes persons in particular didn’t seem to want to be liked.
The dude with the mullet was turning out to be one of those persons.
It wasn’t Lance’s fault. He’d tried. But this guy - Keith - kept brushing him off, like being at the top of the class somehow made him too good to just be one of the guys. Like Lance, and everybody else for that matter, wasn’t worth his notice. He was cold, which was ironic considering the guy regularly set stuff - himself included - on fire.
Basically, as far as Lance was concerned, opposing powers meant you were either destined to become an unstoppable superhero tag team and the best of friends, or eternal rivals if not outright enemies. He wasn’t quite ready to pull the ‘enemy’ switch just yet, not without Keith pulling something really unforgiveable, but ‘rival’ was a foregone conclusion by now.
“What’s your beef with him anyway?” Hunk asked once at the start of lunch.
Too many things sprung to mind; Lance didn’t know where to start, and no idea how long it would take him to finish once he did. He had to settle for an answer which encompassed everything while explaining nothing:
“He just really rubs me the wrong way.”
“Is it the fire? You know, heat and flame, mortal enemy of all things frozen?”
“No, it’s the way the instructors just fawn over him and then look at the rest of us like we’re just not good enough! Mister perfect fighter, mister oh-so-powerful, mister never takes a hit, mister everybody thinks he’s gonna be the next Champion…”
“Oh, you’re jealous. Okay.”
Lance’s voice rises to an embarrassing squawk.
“I am not!”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of; everybody goes through stuff like this,” Hunk assured him, blithely stuffing soggy cafeteria fries into his thin cafeteria burger. Lance wrestled his voicebox back under control.
“Yeah, it wouldn’t be if I was jealous, which I’m not. Seriously. The guy’s a rude, arrogant asshole. Why would I be jealous of that? I bet he goes villain someday, and when he does I’ll probably have to step up and stop him from, I don’t know, burning the whole world down or something. Which means I seriously need to learn how to match him now, before we all really get out there.”
Lance never got the opportunity to beat Keith in training; the next day, Cerberos Research Facility was destroyed, its top scientists killed along with Champion in what should have been a routine visit. Keith’s attitude soured. Within a month, he was expelled from Garrison. Lance didn’t actually see him go, but he heard about it on the grapevine, and while he severely doubted that Keith had actually set fire to Morrison on his way out, he could believe there might have been heated words at the least.
“We’ll see him again out there,” he assured Hunk. “Just wait. I guarantee it.”
Rivalries didn’t just end, after all.
Lance’s second year at Garrison brought with it a highly-welcome entrance to the upper-tier hero class, his first set of standard-issue tech equipment, and Pidge Gunderson.
“I’m you guys’ technical support and communications officer,” he said, shaking Lance’s hand briefly. He was short - positively tiny in fact - and looked suspiciously young. In fact…
“I don’t remember seeing you in any of last year’s classes. You actually a freshman or something?”
“Sort of.” Pidge adjusted his glasses. “This is technically my first year here, but I tested ahead so I’m in the sophomore class like you.”
“Okay, so you’re just really smart then. Is that your superpower? Computer-fast brain or photographic memory?”
“Mild technomancy,” Pidge said. “And a photographic memory isn’t actually a superpower.”
“What, really?” Lance frowned. “I could’ve sworn it was.”
“They’ve been going back and forth on the classification for a while,” Hunk put in. “There’s a lot of argument out there saying that it could be considered a form of enhanced mental ability, but on the other hand there have been cases of perfect recall reported way before anything else we’ve classed as hypermutations started to show up so it could just be something that’s rare but still well within the bounds of what is historically considered ‘normal’ for human ability.”
“So either not a superpower or the first superpower ever by a long shot. Got it. Anyhow, Pidge - right? - I was thinking that since you and me and Hunk are a training team now we should get to know each other. There’s this great pizza place just off campus grounds which also just so happens to be the favorite spot for some of the local schools’ all-girl sports teams to meet up on, like, a weekly basis. Still haven’t managed to get Hunk to talk to any of them but I’ve gotten pretty close to scoring a date at least twice now; I could show you the ropes, maybe even get your foot in the door. If you don’t mind taller girls, at least. I don’t remember any of them being your size, but it’s a new year, so you never know…”
It occurred to Lance then that Pidge didn’t really seem to be paying any attention. Instead, he was staring off down the hallway, completely zoned out.
“Sorry,” he said abruptly, “I don’t have time to fool around with you guys.”
And then he was around the corner and gone.
Hunk shifted a little.
“Uh, please don’t tell me you’re going to make this one your new rival now. He’s on our team, man. I’d rather this didn’t get awkward.”
“Oh no, no I’m not, not this quick. Keith got several strikes before I gave up. Besides, at least the new kid didn’t call me an idiot outright, so he’s already got one up on Mulletman. Still taking points for rudeness and refusing a team bonding exercise, though.”
“Well, that’s something at least. And who knows, maybe he’ll come around after a few exercises.”
“Now, about that pizza…”
“Okay, you bottomless black hole. We deserve it for making top class anyhow - let’s go.”
In retrospect, Lance could hardly believe everything that had happened in the last hour, tops. Tonight was supposed to just be an emergency team bonding exercise after the day’s disaster in the simulations - just the three of them sneaking out for a little time on the town and then back in again after a few hours of fun, relaxation, and getting to know each other.
Instead there had been Pidge “crazy conspiracy theorist” Gunderson and his talk about massive underground supervillain networks and ultimate weapons, then a street explosion which could have been an old gas main or something except for the immediate civilian lockdown alert, then it turned out that Champion was alive - not entirely whole and definitely in a panic, but alive - and for some weird reason he was almost being treated more like a potential liability or threat than as a lost and found hero, and then Keith had turned up and…
And now Lance was clinging to the backside of an oversized red hoverbike as they tore through the streets, trying to shake off the superhero instructors chasing them.
“Do you even know where we’re going?” he shouted over the roar and screech of heavily taxed repulsors.
“Somewhere safe!” Keith yelled back. They cut way harder around a corner than Lance thought safe, then zig-zagged down a narrow alleyway. His knuckles were beginning to ache.
“And where’s that exactly?”
“I don’t know!”
They swerved around another corner onto a new street, narrowly dodged some parked vehicles, and roared straight through a half-constructed building, taking gaps in between some of the scaffolding which tore years from Lance’s life.
“That really inspires confidence!” he croaked.
“Just hold on! And trust me!”
Before Lance could think of a witty comeback, they cut toward the bridge over the river, and then, with a pulse of the engines and a horrible hop of the stomach, they jumped the railing.
Lance screamed all the way down.
He’d thought that single hour between trying to sneak off campus and running from certified heroes was hectic. He hadn’t imagined the day that was to follow.
“Someplace safe” turned out to be an entire hidden fortress somewhere underneath and possibly even integrated into the city, with a concealed entrance at the edge of the river. Keith claimed he’d never been there before, never even knew it existed before now, but nobody just tossed themselves and the person they were rescuing over the side of a bridge on a whim. Lance had still been suspecting this lair as a sign of budding vengeful villainy on his rival’s part when they found the only other two people in the place.
The girl was gorgeous. Lance had barely managed to get a line out before she’d twisted him into a painful armlock and demanded to know what they were doing in her base.
“Ask him! The one in the red jacket!” Lance complained, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes as she pulled his ear, wondering if attacking a civilian with powers actually counted against you when said civilian had you pinned. “He’s the one talking about weird psychic energy!”
Luckily, she let him go at that. He scrambled away to stand with the group, rubbing the ear she’d been yanking.
“Is this true?” she asked Keith, which Lance thought was a little unfair - he’d gotten attacked first, questioned after.
“I…yes. We were being chased, and I felt this draw to come here.”
The girl stepped back and looked over them as though she hadn’t before - not properly at least. Lance wasn’t sure what she was seeing, but it made her expression lighten with dawning realization and hope.
“There are five of you,” she said, her tone reflecting the look on her face.
“The castle did let them in,” said the older man behind her, also casting a bright eye over the group. His moustache lifted at the corners.
“Will someone who knows what’s going on please explain now?” Lance complained.
“And maybe give us somewhere better than the ground to put this guy, at least until he wakes up?” Hunk added from the back. Champion was draped over his back, limp-limbed and still out of it thanks to whatever sedative had been used on him before their impromptu rescue mission.
“Yes, of course, I’m sorry,” said the girl. “My name is Allura, and this is Coran. We’ll take you to some rooms for the night. They won’t exactly be prepared, but I’m sure we can figure something out.
“We’ll explain everything we can in the morning.”
Lance didn’t sleep well. Something nagged at him all night; he practically itched with the desire to get up, wander the halls, go…somewhere. To something. He didn’t know. He counted sheep, recited the alphabet forwards and backwards, got up and paced the unfamiliar bounds of his borrowed room, found an eyemask in one of the armoire’s drawers, stared at the darkness inside his eyelids. The bed was soft, the sheets warm, the pillows fluffed, but he did little more than doze.
Something is calling, he thought once, only half-awake and possibly a little delirious. It’s waiting for me. I should go to it.
He woke at five sitting on the edge of the bed, his feet on the floor, and gave up any chance of sleep for good. Five in the morning was, in his personal opinion, too early for anybody to be awake, but he had to pick his battles. This one had already been lost.
“Hello?” he called quietly, poking his head out the door. Low, soft lights near the ground illuminated the hallway just enough for an o-dark-hundred excursion to the bathroom. He looked one way, then the other, but all the other doors were shut and silent and dark around the frames. “Anybody awake?”
No answer, but the nagging feeling was back. Lance blamed it on the hollow in his stomach - how long had it been since evening meal at the Garrison? He hadn’t exactly eaten his fill, either, planning on a night of off-campus food and fun. The more he thought of it, the hungrier he felt.
They’d forgive him for poking around in search of a kitchen, right? No sense in starving, and heck, maybe he’d be nice and make something up for everybody else at the same time. He might not be on Hunk’s level, but he could at least scramble up some eggs and make toast without burning it to charcoal.
Going left down the hallway felt right. Lance decided he’d follow his stomach. It always seemed to work for Hunk, after all.
Five minutes later he was lost and regretted ever setting foot outside of his room. He should’ve stayed put and suffered until somebody else was awake, or maybe he should’ve tried to figure out where Hunk was sleeping and gotten him up. Hunk would’ve led him to food. He had some kind of sixth sense for finding edibles and the equipment to cook them with. You could stick him on an alien planet and he’d probably be able to figure out the local forage within maybe a day.
Lance’s feet stopped in front of a huge set of doors carved with rampant lionesses. They didn’t look like kitchen doors, but he kind of wanted to go in there. It wouldn’t hurt checking out. Who knows, maybe a place this big required a kitchen with lots of space and a wide, ornate entryway. He turned the handle on one door and slipped inside.
The moment he saw it, everything else ceased to exist. He forgot his hunger. He barely noticed anything else in the room. All of his attention was focused on the blue and white suit inside the illuminated pod. It was empty, hanging on display, but the helmet almost seemed to be looking at him. He raised a hand to rest his fingertips on the glass surrounding it. He didn’t remember walking across the room, but here he was.
It was…well. Thinking somewhat clearly, it wasn’t the flashiest or most impressive costume he’d ever seen. Compared to the colors and patterns he’d dreamed up for his own someday suit, it was plain. Practical. Serviceable. Clean.
It was the best, most wonderful thing he’d ever laid eyes on.
It was probably some kind of heirloom, a treasured remnant of whoever had owned or lived in this hidden lair in the past. It would probably be all sorts of wrong to ask if he could touch it, try it on, give it a little test run, but Lance’s brain was already whirring through hypothetical ways to broach the subject with Allura or maybe Coran (which one would be more lenient, more amenable to persuasion and promises of care? He didn’t know yet.)
He stared into the helmet’s clear faceplate, and something in his head snapped into place. Four others - there were four others, brothers, sisters, family, separate parts of a whole and they were empty for now but they were here, they would be filled soon…
“I had a feeling,” said someone behind him. Lance turned to see Allura standing there, fully dressed and alert despite the hour. It took him a moment to realize where he was standing, that his hand was still pressed against the glass. He snatched it away and scrambled for an explanation.
“I was looking for breakfast,” he babbled.
Allura shook her head.
“You were called here. I suspect the others were as well.”
“What, like…weird psychic stuff?”
“Like fate. But, yes, perhaps there was also a little bit of ‘weird psychic stuff’ involved. I might not know all the technical details of the VOLTRON Lion Suits, but I’m at least generally aware of how they work. They have wills of their own. They choose their Paladins, call to and bond with them. It seems the Blue has chosen you.”
“Wait, so are you saying this is…mine?”
“Call back. See if it opens to you.”
Lance had no idea what she meant by that. He knew that some people had all kinds of crazy psychic powers, but communing with partially sentient hero suits was beyond bizarre. Not knowing what else to do, he raised a hand and knocked twice on the glass.
It pulsed blue and disappeared.
“Whoa!” Lance jerked his hand back, hesitated, and reached carefully through, setting his fingers against the woven armor and protective padding inside. A grin stretched his face. He still had little to no idea what was going on, but something about this was perfect.
“Where did all this come from?” he asked, lifting the helmet down and turning it in his hands. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to be just his size.
“My grandmother was a genius beyond her time,” Allura said. Lance tried the helmet on. Perfect fit. He couldn’t even begin to guess how. “It was at the start of our current age, when people were beginning to show signs of supernatural abilities - the beginning of widespread hypermutations. She and my grandfather wanted to create a way to support those with powers and noble intentions in protecting the people against those who were…less noble. So with his help, she created VOLTRON, a set of five artificially intelligent form-morphic suits and paired weapons, psychically linked to each other and to a Paladin of their choosing.”
“Your grandma was epic,” Lance concluded, pulling down the suit and holding it up against himself. It looked like another perfect fit. Morphic equipment - that was top-notch stuff, almost legendary, and these had been made by some lady…well, he wasn’t sure about the exact timeline, but he’d bet it was around half a century ago at a guess.
It wasn’t a word so much as a sensation at the back of his head - warmth and connectedness, arms around shoulders and backs set against each other, holding and being held at once. Lance swung around and looked to the door. Hunk stood there, bleary eyed and confused, Pidge ducking around his side to peer through.
“Huh,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “This isn’t the kiiiii--”
Hunk trailed off, eyes fixed on another suit pod - the yellow one. He tottered toward it like a sleepwalker. Pidge was faster. Jaw dropped and eyes wide, he zipped toward the green suit hanging on the side wall, plastering himself against the glass.
Suddenly Lance was aware of them in a way he never had been before. He could have closed his eyes, spun in circles, and then pointed unerringly at each of them - big, warm, golden as sun-warmed stone; small, secretive, enclosed as a shade-dappled thicket. He caught wisps of emotion, only the faintest of echoes without conscious thought to give them form: awe, wishful desire, curiosity, things he couldn’t place or name at the moment.
“What’s going on here?” Keith said, appearing in the door. Unlike Lance or his teammates, he was fully dressed, not in borrowed pajamas. “What’s…”
Lance saw the moment the red Lion Suit caught his attention. He didn’t rush like Pidge, nor was he as vacantly drawn as Hunk, but his faint frown loosened into a look of wonder, and he seemed less tense and guarded as he walked across the room to stand in front of the display pod.
Champion arrived last, quiet and wearing something better than the rags they had found him in. He took in the room first, a little confused and wary, his prosthetic fingers flexing at his side. Then he caught sight of the final suit, and his eyes widened.
“I’m glad you’re all here,” Allura said from her corner by the door. Half the people in the room jumped, having missed her when they arrived. “I promised an explanation last night. Come and sit with me; Coran’s making us all breakfast.
“In the meantime, I’ll tell you all about VOLTRON.”