…I’d sit for hours
Staring into open flames
Something in it had a power
Could barely tear my eyes away
Some of the few memories Keith had from his childhood were of fire. Curling up by the firepit out back of the house in the cool of the desert night, wrapping his arms around his knees, watching the flames dance and listening to them crackle and feeling their heat on his face and smelling the smoke. Sometimes the crackling was joined by music, by singing and guitars plucked by calloused hands or crackling in its own way over the vintage radio.
Sometimes the crackling covered screaming and fighting from adult voices he couldn’t (never wanted to) place.
The wind would change and blow the smoke in his face, and he could tell himself that that was why he was tearing up and that it was the desert night on his back that made him feel so cold, that it was the heat of the fire on his face that made him feel like something inside him was burning away to ash. If he stared into the fire long enough, he could turn the crackles and his heartbeats and his not-sobs into drumbeats, and the sparks flying up into tiny dancing fairies. If he watched it long enough, sat with it until the heat on his face felt nearly unbearable and then stayed even beyond that, if he stared into the white heart of it, then he could let it breathe for him, let it run through him and burn everything else away, and he could bury just enough of it in his heart to keep himself warm when they pulled him away, when his dad sent him to his room, when other kids asked about his mom and grownups who thought he couldn’t hear gossiped about her and his dad never answered any of his questions, ever.
On his eighth birthday, Keith had woken up to find a wrapped present on the table and his dad gone. The present had been a sharp knife with a strange glowing stone. It had been nearly the length of his arm then, and while it was awesome it struck him as a weird eighth birthday present. The card with it had said his dad was sorry (it had said that several times, which he’d thought was weird) but that he’d had to go (it hadn’t said where) and the fridge was stocked. It had also had some money, which was cool.
After a few days, when he’d ran out of bread and peanut butter, he’d gone to the Gutierrezes’ house next door to ask for a ride to the store. Mrs. Gutierrez hadn’t let him leave after he’d explained why, and then she’d made him stay the night, and then she’d told him to stay over until his dad came back, talking to him in a sugary sweet voice that made him scowl. Mr. Gutierrez had driven him back home to pack some stuff up to bring with. He’d hidden the knife in a roll of clothes, guessing Mr. Gutierrez wouldn’t let him keep it. It was much too big a knife for a kid. But it had been his dad’s, and his dad had given it to him, so he was going to bring it with him so that his dad could teach him to use it as soon as he got back.
Of course, he hadn’t come back.
The Gutierrezes didn’t have a fire pit behind their house. The first few times he’d asked, Mr. Gutierrez had set up a fire in the fireplace. But after a few nights he could tell he was bothering him, so Keith took the box of matches and the kerosene tried to do it himself. Mateo tattled on him before he could really get it started, though, and he’d been lifted up (he was not a kid, they didn’t need to pick him up like a baby!) and scolded for hours before they banished him to the room he and Mateo and Luis were sharing. Luis and Isabel had teased him for ages afterwards, had gotten the whole school to call him “firebug.” Mateo, who was older, just started speaking to him like he was stupid, or like his dad was dead, which he wasn’t, he was just on a trip, and he would be back any day.
Keith was sure he would be.
But in the mean time he was surrounded by people almost all the time. Five people constantly talking over each other, shouting to be heard, arguing and laughing and talking and talking and talking. Five people who weren’t sure what to do with a sixth whose Dad had left (on a trip, he reminded himself, he’d be back), five people who were their own family already.
Make Dad proud, he whispered to himself as they clattered around him.
Make Dad proud, he whispered to himself as Luis complained about having yet another person in the room.
Make Dad proud, he whispered to himself as the days turned into weeks turned into months and still his dad hadn’t come back.
When it got to be too much he’d sneak outside to where he’d hidden his knife and a new box of matches he’d stolen and burn his shaking fingers trying to make them last long enough to breathe for him and keep him warm. And then one night in the summer Luis noticed he was missing and came to find him and startled him and he dropped the match he was holding and then the house was burning and everyone was shouting. They managed to put the fire out before it could do too much damage, but Luis said he’d done it on purpose and everyone remembered his nickname and someone said something about his dad and a few days later Mr. Gutierrez told him to pack up his bag and drove him to the nearest orphanage.
By the time he met Shiro he’d been in and out of several foster homes in different states, and had grown into a sullen and quiet loner wreathed in the smell of smoke, with hands covered in healed burns. Shiro, almost sixteen and already sure of his path in life, had found him in a hidden corner of the schoolyard, twirling a matchstick between his fingers as he watched a small bundle of grass burn. A boy scout, a popular kid, a teacher’s pet, he hadn’t gone and gotten the adults. He hadn’t freaked out and run. He’d plopped down beside Keith and scolded him on improper fire safety and started showing him how to make a firepit out of rocks. “Oh,” he’d said belatedly, holding out a hand. “I’m Takeshi Shirogane. But you can call me Shiro.”
Keith had just stared at him, completely speechless.
“What’s your name?” Shiro had prompted.
“Keith. I’m Keith.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Keith.”
And somehow, that had been that. Keith hadn’t wanted to get attached again—why bother, when everyone left?—but Shiro didn’t push, didn’t yell, didn’t make him feel like he was stupid or wrong or useless. He figured out when Keith wanted to be alone, and when he really didn’t. He was willing to just sit near him without talking, or talk without needing him to respond. It was…nice. Warm.
The first time Shiro had clasped an arm around his shoulders, pulled him close, and introduced him as “My friend, Keith,” he’d frozen up (someone grabbing him around the shoulders—someone not picking a fight—what the fuck—friend??—what exactly did people do in these situations—what the fuck—what the fuck) and Shiro had been so apologetic afterwards that he’d felt bad, even if he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d done wrong. (Shiro had assured him that he’d done nothing wrong, and then gone into Boy Scout Mode and given him a speech on Consent In All Contexts and Asking And Not Assuming that he’d tuned out halfway through.) But Shiro was so careful after that that before he knew it Keith was letting his guard down entirely around him, letting them bump into each other casually or brush against each other, sitting close enough that they were touching, leaning against him and being leaned against. When Shiro’s brother died in some sort of accident, he hesitantly reached his arms around his friend (???) and squeezed him into an awkward hug, grumbling something or other when Shiro asked if he was really sure. And then Shiro was hugging him like he was a life preserver and sobbing and all Keith could think of was the fire and the desert night and, well, if he could be the fire Shiro needed then maybe he could tolerate the touching, he guessed.
Of course, when Shiro went to the Garrison, Keith assumed that’d be the end of it, and went back to the fire. Sure, Shiro’d promised that he’d keep in touch, but he’d make other friends and forget about him quickly enough.
He called at least once a week, always asking how Keith was doing between telling him all about his training. And he kept calling, even as months went by and he made other friends. As foster homes got rarer and rarer and the orphanage became less and less friendly, Keith would curl up with the phone once a week and listen to Shiro’s steady voice and the crackle of the fire and let them take away the pain of bruises and fights and shouting.
(Burn it, burn it, burn it all down whispered a voice like fire and fury, but then Shiro would be disappointed in him and might not call anymore)
And then, one night—
“I wish you were here too.”
Ridiculous. The firebug joining the Galaxy Garrison? They’d never let him past the front gate, let alone into space.
(Sitting with Shiro by a fire in a tin barrel in a city lot, staring at the sky and learning the constellations and the planets and stories of astronauts exploring the far reaches of the universe)
Besides, he hated taking orders.
As soon as he was old enough he took the entry test and passed with flying colors. They called him “a prodigy” and “the best pilot of his generation.” (Congrats said Shiro, and Keith grinned.) He threw himself into the classes, and aced nearly every one of them. Being able to drive a hoverbike, to do a simulator and soar through space—God, it was like freedom. Like burning high and bright as a signal flare, like tearing away from everything that had hurt him, letting the flames burn through his veins and burn out everything but the adrenaline.
Shiro graduated and flew and became famous and still talked to Keith. (“Everyone’s always talking about how cool you are,” Keith told him. “Imagine if they knew what a dork you are.”) (Shiro punched him.) It was no surprise that he was picked to pilot the Kerberos Mission, given the chance to fly farther than anyone else ever had. Before he left he gave Keith a hug and said, “Make sure you don’t forget to eat real food while I’m gone,” and Keith scoffed and smiled and said, “Don’t fly into an asteroid,” and he left and then—
“The Galaxy Garrison mission to the distant moon of Kerberos is missing, and all crew members are believed to be dead. The Galaxy Garrison has said the crash was presumably caused by pilot error. It is, indeed, a sad day for all humanity.”
And Keith burned.
He knew Shiro. He knew he’d never make some stupid mistake and crash, and now they were slandering him, lying about him, making it seem like he’d killed his crew and himself making an error like he was some kind of rookie instead of the best pilot the Garrison had and if Iverson made one more comment about being careful and not making a mistake and no one being above error—
Keith set fire to the Commander’s room in the barracks and blew up his car. (No, the Commander hadn’t been inside) (No, Keith didn’t regret that he hadn’t been.) (Shiro would be disappointed said a tiny voice in his head, and he retorted Well then he shouldn’t have left and wanted to be sick.) They hadn’t been able to prove that it was him, so he wasn’t arrested, but circumstances and the fights he’d been getting into and past history pointed to him, and they’d kicked him out of the program. “Disciplinary issues,” they said. He wished he’d made a bet with someone before he’d enlisted, he’d have won big.
He left ashes in his wake and went out into the desert, took what money he’d saved and started looking for something (purpose said the nasty voice in the back of his head), told himself he wasn’t becoming obsessed, wasn’t desperately trying to distract himself. He bought a small house and out back he built a firepit like Shiro had taught him, and every night he curled up by it with his arms wrapped around his knees, watching the flames dance and listening to them crackle and feeling their heat on his face and smelling the smoke. The wind would change and blow the smoke in his face, and he could tell himself that that was why he was tearing up and that it was the desert night on his back that made him feel so cold, that it was the heat of the fire on his face that made him feel like something inside him was burning away to ash. But no matter how long he stared into it, no matter how long he watched it twist and wind, he couldn’t turn the crackles and his heartbeats and his not-sobs into drumbeats, nor the sparks flying up into tiny dancers. He watched it and sat with it until the heat on his face felt nearly unbearable and then stayed even beyond that, stared into the white heart of it, tried to let it breathe for him, let it run through him and burn everything else away—but no matter how much buried in his heart to keep himself warm when he finally fell asleep alone by the embers, the ache was always there.
The ruins said something would be coming from space in a few months, and the Garrison was sure to get to it before he could.
Mom gone. Dad gone. Shiro gone.
All he could depend on was himself and the fire. Time to use them.
All you have is your fire
And the place you need to reach
Don’t you ever tame your demons
But always keep them on a leash.