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Like Desert Rain

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After years of the cold crush of space, Keith’s not so sure what to make of home.

Of course, it’s not home, not really: home was a twin bed with a handmade chili pepper quilt; home was the crack and pop of bacon frying in a pan over the sounds of the morning weather report; home was his father on the front porch swing, staring up at the night sky.

But Keith’s been away from home for far longer than he’s been away from Earth, and nowadays, he supposes the creaky desert shack that’s been in his family for decades is about as close to a home as he’s going to get.

The place is sand-caked and dusty from lack of use, and Keith fumbles at an apology when Allura first steps foot in the place. She waves him off with a tight smile. At least her “It’s not like I expected you to get here early and clean up,” sounds genuine. He tests the faucets and, through some miraculous luck, the pipes have held up. He offers her the first shower, with no promise of warm water or towel, and takes the time that she’s in the bathroom to sweep as much of the sand as he can out the front door. He discovers the busted glass panel in the living room window - the primary suspect in the sand-flooding case - and patches it up the best he can with duct tape.

After that, he runs through the motions his father taught him all those years ago. The cistern is given a once-over, and the tarp is pulled off the solar panels on the southern side of the roof. The bed is stripped and linens replaced with the only other set in the shack. The mexican blanket is rearranged on the couch. The kettle is filled with water, and set to boil. He doesn’t reflect on how easy it is to fall back into that old routine. That was the purpose of a routine, wasn’t it?

The water in the bathroom stops running as he’s fishing out two MREs from the pantry. A minute or so later, Keith hears the door creak open.

“Keith?” Allura calls. There’s a note of hesitation in her voice. He hopes hard that there’s not another scorpion in the bathroom. Knowing Allura, she’d probably try and pick it up.

“Yeah?”

“Would you happen to have any spare clothes? I… may have been in such a hurry to leave that I forgot my bag on the Castle.”

“Yeah, hold on and I’ll check.”

He finishes sticking the MREs in their heating packets and leaves them on the counter to cook. The little bedroom is just off the side of the living room. Like everything else, the small dresser creaks as he tries to wiggle it open.

Though he wouldn’t admit it to Allura, Keith hadn’t even thought to pack a bag. They’d all been running around the Castle like frantic, headless chickens, trying to coordinate how the team would be splitting up and where they could best hide themselves, the Lions, and the Castle. While working through the code on one of the Castle’s atmospheric recovery programs, Pidge had discovered a tracker bug embedded deep in the system: an answer to the question of how Zarkon had been able to send a near-endless stream of warships and fighter drones to harass them for the last seven Spicolian movements. Coran and Pidge had figured out how to throw a temporary patch over the tracker, but Pidge warned it’d be ‘about as good as hobbit-sized blindfold over the Eye of Sauron’. Since Lance, Hunk, and Shiro apparently knew what that meant, they’d insisted on the need to vacate as soon as possible. Allura had fought hard against leaving Coran and the Castle, barely shielded, on the dark side of an abandoned moon, but the insistence of Coran and the others had won out.

So they’d split up with little more than a semblance of a plan: Pidge and Lance would be gather intel on a seedy swap moon rumored to host one of the universe’s largest and most advanced living servers; Hunk and Shiro would be tracking down Shay and the rest of Unoccupied Balmera to ask for the crystalline materials needed to rebuild the infected system; and Coran would be left, as long ago, to defend the last remaining territory of Altea. And him and Allura?

Keith scowls down at the petulant dresser drawer. He doesn’t remember it being jam-packed with clothes before he left, and it hasn’t been damp enough for the joints to swell or warp. He yanks at the handle with all his strength. The handle comes off and the dresser comes out, pulling off of its metal track and hitting the ground with a rattling clunk. The clothes tip out and all over the floor, and he doesn’t bother to swallow his loud curse.

“If it’s too much trouble, I’ll just put back on my battlesuit,” Allura calls from the bathroom. Her voice sounds amused, as if she’d witnessed his entire struggle, but when he looks back out the open door of the bedroom to the bathroom, there’s no sign of her.

“ ‘s fine,” Keith grumbles, “I’ve got it now. One sec.”

Dresser issues aside, he’s relieved to see that there even are spare clothes left over. He pokes through them with a toe, wary of nestled scorpions, and then begins picking the garments up once they seem clear. It’s a precaution borne of more than one first-days-of-winter-break, when he and his father would come out for a week. More than once they’d found the arachnids laying low in the shaggy area rugs his father used to keep in the house, or scampering under the furniture when they first plodded in. His father would laugh and tell Keith to keep to the edges of the room, then sweep or catch and toss them out the back door.

There’s a numb throbbing in his chest, not unlike the aftermath of a scorpion’s sting on skin. Keith gathers up the rest of the clothes in his arms and dumps them on the bed, ignoring the sensation. Thankfully, the clothes all appear to be his, though it makes for a questionable selection in terms of size. Allura was a little taller than him, and he’d grown since leaving Earth. He picks out an old NASA tee-shirt and the largest pair of sweatpants he has, which still have a chance of being too short.

The bathroom door is closed, though a little light shines out from underneath it. He can hear Allura rustling around inside. He knocks.

“I found some clothes.”

The door cracks open, and it hits Keith that it might be bad form for him to be staring directly at Allura as she pokes her head out. He catches a glimpse of loose, silvery hair curling over a bare shoulder before he averts his gaze. The floor makes a fine place to stare until her foot comes into view. She’s opened the door wider, and he’s dodged a propriety bullet. Although, from what Pidge and Lance have said about some unexpected crossing of paths in the training deck showers, the Altean version propriety may have a much looser definition.

Keith shoves more than passes the clothes in the general direction of where he hopes her arms will be. She takes them from him. Her toes flex against the wood floor. A small puddle of water has formed under her foot, and he sees the shine of the last rivulets still clinging to her calf. Which means his eyes had been wandering rebelliously upwards, sliding along the lean muscle of her leg. By no means is this the first time such an insurrection has occurred, but it seems inappropriate given their current circumstances. They were on a mission with a dangerous deadline, not lounging around the Castle after a bit of sparring.

So he now forces himself to look up at the ceiling. Allura hasn’t closed the door.

“Hopefully they fit,” Keith says, aiming for casual and missing the mark by a mile. “Most of the leftover clothes were mine.”

“I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

There’s a beat of silence. Clothes delivered, Keith commands his legs to turn him around and head back to the kitchen, but like everything else about him, they’re stubborn and insubordinate. He continues his examination of the ceiling and definitely does not take notice of how the bathroom door opens wider rather than closing.

“Is there something up there?” she asks.

There’s a loud creak and, startled, Keith looks down. Allura’s leaning against the door and peering up at the same spot he was.

“What?” he asks, baffled.

She jerks her chin up towards the ceiling. “You were staring at the ceiling. Is there something up there?” She squints to see what he could have possibly been looking at up in the shadowed rafters.

Keith feels warm again. Being in space really had done a number on his body’s acclimatization. He forces himself to look at her in the face.

“No, it’s just that you’re, uh, naked,” he says, trying to keep his voice cool. Maybe if he were lucky, she wouldn’t notice the slight warble in his words, or the heat in his cheeks.

Her lips twitch. No luck. “Well, that’s because I haven’t put clothes on yet.”

It’s such an Allura response that he can’t help but roll his eyes. “Plan on doing that anytime soon, Princess?”

“I would have already, if you hadn’t distracted me.”

The curl at the corners of her mouth becomes a full smile. He knows that smile well, the one she wore in the ticks after she’d swept his legs out from under him on the training deck. Keith feels a little like she’s done that now. Just like he does when she’s bested him, he purses his lips into a pout.

“My apologies,” he says, “I’ll try to stare at ceilings less often.”

“Sure, it was the ceiling,” she replies.

The door closes before he’s able to muster a response. For a moment, he’d almost felt like they were back on the Castle, falling into that familiar post-workout banter. The hallway feels decidedly cooler without her. He glances into the kitchen and sees the steam dwindling from the MREs. They must almost be done.

There aren’t many places for him to go - the two of them in line with their arms outstretched would be close to spanning the house from living room to front door - so he shoves his hands in his pockets and analyzes the ancient scuffs on the wood floor. More than one sweltering summer morning had been spent sprawled out across that very floor, trying to eke every bit of the night’s remnant cool. It had been years since then. The whorls and scrapes in the wood are a language Keith knows he used to be able to read, but now, like a stranger, the meaning scuttles away from him. Being a foreigner in the house he’s known since childhood does little to soothe the sawtooth edges of his worry.

“Better?” Allura asks as she steps out of the bathroom.

He answers without thinking. “Than what?”

“Than the ceiling.”

There’s not much room between them in the small hall, but Allura raises her arms and fans out her hands in display, looking like she’s about to own the catwalk. The ragged tee-shirt fits her well, if not a little tightly, and as expected the sweatpants are about an inch too short. She must not mind, though; Keith knows she’s capable of altering her size when the whim suits her. If anyone can pull off years-old hand-me-downs with a kind of casual grace, it’s Allura. A smirk perches on her face, crown-like.

That wave of familiar ease hits again, and Keith lets it wash over him. He shrugs and looks her over, as if he hadn’t already.

“Fewer spiderwebs than the ceiling,” he observes, and then, as an afterthought adds, “Probably.”

The expression falls off of her face, leaving blank confusion. She shifts her gaze back up to the rafters of the ceiling. It’s been long enough now that he can follow the signs of her thought process: the faintest wrinkle along her forehead, the slightest flare of her nose. This time, he follows her stare, and hones in on a dusty cluster of spiderwebs tucked between two beams.
Her eyes narrow. Her jaw clenches. Belatedly, he knows he’s dead.

Allura’s syllables are slow and measured. She fixes him with a blazing glower. “Is that… an Earth joke… in relation to my age?”

“Wha- no?” comes his strangled reply. His heart gives one last farewell thud as he measures the wrath growing in Allura’s features.

“I’ll have you know,” she starts, voice indignant, “that just because I spent ten thousand years in cryosleep-”

Keith puts his hands up, placating, and curses Lance and Pidge for ever teaching Allura about Earth things like Halloween and antiquing. Of all of the stupid, stupid ways he could insult her without realizing it-

“That’s not what I meant, I promise!” he insists, but Allura slams her fists to her hips and puffs her chest out.

“Alteans hold their looks exceptionally well,” she continues, “and I guarantee that by the time you’re all old and wrinkly, I’ll just be-”

There are a few memorable occasions when Keith has been on the wrong end of Allura’s wrath. Some were more deserved than others, but in every case, there’d always been Shiro to talk him down, or a training simulation to run to. But now they’re stuck on Earth, just the two of them, on a tech recovery mission that’s going to last at least a week, and he’d rather not have Allura mad at him for all of that time. He’s going to have to channel his inner Hunk, and fast.

“Allura, I really didn’t mean it, I swear,” he starts, “This whole thing’s got me rattled and I didn’t think before I spoke, I would never joke about your age.”

The anger evaporates from her features and is replaced with amusement, but now Keith’s fight-or-flight response has him torn between making amends and throwing himself out the front door and letting the coyotes eat him. He stands his ground against his better instincts, the ones that remind him that he’s watched Allura tear a Sentinel apart limb by limb with her bare hands.

“Obviously being in cryosleep doesn’t mean you actually aged any,” Keith continues.

Allura bites her bottom lip, then cuts him off with a, “Keith, it’s fine, I was just teasing-”

“And you look beautiful regardless of how much time you spent in one of those tubes, so-”

As immersed as he is in his apology, his words don’t register until Allura’s eyes go wide. He hadn’t meant to say that out loud. He looks away.

“Oh,” she breathes.

Keith remembers in vivid color all of the ways Allura responded to Lance’s attentions over the past three years. He waits for the inevitable tirade, but nothing comes. He glances over at her, but she’s as still as he is. At least she doesn’t seem like she’s going to dismember him.

“I… please just forget that I said anything,” Keith manages. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Allura levels him with her gaze, expression unreadable, like she was still deciding how to react. A tick later, she quirks an eyebrow. “Shame,” she says, “I was rather hoping you did.”

He flounders for a moment before settling on an articulate, “Oh,” an echo of her own sentiments. “Okay.”

She crosses her arms over her chest, but the motion seems defensive. He’d like to assure her that he did, in fact, mean it like that, though he hadn’t actually meant to tell her that, but he’s not sure it would make anything better. The silence laps between them. He looks down at the floor.

“What now?” she finally asks.

“Dinner’s ready. I’ll bring it out if you want to sit on the couch or whatever,” he says, eyes still fixed on the seam between the wooden floor slats.

“How very courteous of you, Keith,” Allura replies, voice rich with amusement. He glances up, and catches a glimpse of a small smile and two flush-darkened cheeks.

Awareness washes over him like a frigid bath. Sure, they’ve been together alone before - in the pods, in Red, in the black void of space. But there’s something, well, alien about being with her like this. They’re on Earth, in his family home. She’s got her hair tied back in low ponytail, and is wearing his old clothes. He’s made her dinner.

It’s like they’ve been transplanted into the scene of a movie he’s only ever seen the beginning of, but has now walked into the middle: he’s familiar with the actors, but never seen them like this, and still hasn’t figured out how it ends. Allura stares at him, brows furrowing a bit in confusion. He’s forgotten his line, so he exits stage left.

There’s no reason for the kitchen to feel as warm as it does. The kettle is electric, and the MREs self-heating. They’ve finished steaming and have cooled down enough to touch, but Keith blames them nonetheless. He empties the cupboard by grabbing two grimy bowls from the shelves, and pours some water out from the kettle until they’ve reached tolerable sanitation. Without a towel, he’s left to dry the dishes out with his shirt, and is glad for the half-wall blocking him from Allura’s view.

Maybe it was being back in the desert after so long that’s making him feel like he’s about to break out in a sweat. It’s certainly not the prospect of serving Allura food meant to withstand nuclear winter from a bowl he’d cleaned with his shirt.

He tears open the first MRE and dumps what looks like beef stroganoff if it’d been left in the Garrison canteen trays for a few days past regulation. Even after years of space goo and the occasional non-Hunk created paladin lunch, the meal looks as soggy and repulsive as it did to him when he was a kid. It’s with brittle hope that he opens the second MRE. Out comes a more passable, though sort of in a wearing-the-same-socks-for-the-third-day-in-a-row way, helping of cheese ravioli.

Sighing, Keith opens the silverware drawer. There’s one spoon. Belatedly, he remembers melting down the rest of the utensils to try and repair a part of one of his dad’s leftover transmitters. He’d been alone in the cabin for months on end and getting closer and closer to figuring out the source of the massive energy spikes and strange dreams, and proper cutlery just hadn’t seemed all that important. He sticks the spoon in the ravioli, sends the stroganoff a forlorn look, and hopes that Allura will find nothing unusual about the meal.

He pads back into the small living room, bowls in hand. Allura’s seated on the couch, but her glassy gaze far beyond the opposite wall tells him that she’s light years away. She’s propped her elbow on her knee and chews absently at her thumbnail. She startles when he leans over and places the bowl of ravioli on the coffee table in front of her.

Allura blinks. She bends over and peers into the bowl. “What’s this?”

He sits down on the other end of the couch - a misnomer, really, given that the size of the furniture puts him right next to her anyway. Keith gives her a half-shrug.

“It's Earth food,” and then, feeling as though he shouldn’t give her any more misconceptions about Earth, “Well, sorta.”

She picks up the bowl and spoons at the small pasta squares, then glances over at his food. As far as Keith can tell, she doesn’t look impressed… though she doesn’t look repulsed, either.

“Ah, so the myth is real,” she teases. “Though I must ask, is it Earth food by Hunk's standards, or your standards?”

“Okay, look, it would have been a waste to throw out the food goo just because it was burned,” Keith huffs. While he had plenty of inglorious memories to relive, that one was particularly embarrassing. “Hunk just doesn't get the need to conserve resources when it comes to food!”

She raises an eyebrow and waits. He tries glaring at her, but ends up glaring at the wall.

“... This stuff would definitely not meet Hunk's standards.”

Laughter fills the cramped living room. A genuine laugh from Allura is a rich, rare sound - not unlike him, she’s more inclined towards a surprised guffaw or a side-eye snicker - and the rosy fullness of it settles on Keith’s shoulders and prods at his lips until he, too, smiles.

Her next question is interspersed with giggles. “But it meets yours?”

Keith looks over the MREs. Warm, carb-and-protein dense, recognizable as sustenance. He nods. “Yeah.”

“Then it's more than good enough,” she declares.

The normal thing to do would be to turn to his own food and attempt to eat it before it got cold. But they’re not sitting around the long table in the dining room, about to partake in their customary food goo, and to be frank, there’s next to nothing normal about the situation anyway, so instead he reclines a bit on the couch and watches her take try to take her first bite of Earth food. Slippery and more than a little mushy, the ravioli slides off of her spoon twice. A delicate pout dips onto her face as she spoon chases the pasta around the bowl. With a grumble, she spears the ravioli with the tapered end of her spoon, chopping it into pieces but managing to get some of it on.

“Is Earth food always this elusive?”

“Some of it,” he replies. “You guys had the right idea with the sporks.”

She hits him with a half grin and then tries the bite on her spoon. Her eyes drift to the ceiling as she chews on the ravioli. It’s clear she’s taking in each sensation from the little flickers of emotion that cross her face, too quick for him to register. She gives a thoughtful hum, then swallows.

Pleasure blooms on her face. Her eyes widen.

“Oh Quiznak,” she hisses. “This is amazing.”

She shovels two or three more spoonfuls into her mouth and chews like she hasn’t eaten in weeks. Her eyes flutter shut. Soft noises of contentment escape her throat. She swallows hard.

“It’s so- the sort of salty, savory flavor-” she starts.

“The cheese, probably.”

“You all have told me about cheese before!” Allura says, sounding excited. “I thought you were all being ludicrous when Pidge and Hunk first explained what someone could do with Kaltenecker. If I’d only known…”

Like laughter, true delight is something seldom seen to cross Allura’s expression. Pride, sure. Uncertainty, occasionally. But Keith thinks he could count all of the times Allura’s looked truly happy on one short hand: the first time Coran mentioned the space mall (she’d looked almost like a petulant teen when Coran vetoed her trip; Keith supposes she was, though); seeing the AI of her father (joy soon smashed by the overwhelming reality that he was gone); and after the first time they’d formed Voltron with her piloting the Red Lion (it was the first reprieve from worry over Shiro any of them had experienced). The last one had them all so overwhelmed, relieved, that he’d thrown his arms around her and they’d done a dizzy spin around Red. With the way she looks now, he feels the urge to do the same again.

“If you like this, you’d lose it at an Olive Garden,” Keith says with a chuckle.

“What’s that?” Allura asks. Her words are muffled by the food in her mouth.

“A restaurant where they serve ravioli and stuff like that.”

“And that’s what this is?” she follows up, pointing at the pasta with her spoon. “Ravioli?” She tastes the syllables as carefully as she had her first bite.

“Yeah,” he says. He lets his head rest on the back of the couch, and looks over at her out of the corner of his eye. “If we weren’t supposed to be keeping a low profile, we could go into town and have a real meal.” He sighs a bit. Funny, how he’d overlooked the comforts of things like food that didn’t come out of a packet when he’d spent all those months here on his own.

“I suppose that settles things then,” Allura says, face screwing up. “We need to defeat Zarkon immediately so we can come back and you can take me to one of these 'Love Gardens’ for ravioli.”

The high wheeze of his voice matches the sudden tightness in his chest. “It’s ‘Olive Garden’,” he manages.

“Oh, I can hear the difference now,” Allura says. She scoops up another bite of ravioli like she hasn't just obliterated all remaining vestiges of his composure.

They eat in contented silence, Allura slowing down between each bite, likely to savor the sensation, and Keith doing his best to slurp up the beef stroganoff without it seeming strange. He must not do a convincing enough job, for she offers to share the spoon with him not long after. He protests, but she insists, and as was often the way, her resolve won out. He takes two of three bites of his dinner, passes the spoon back to her, and stares so hard at the bowl that he’s surprised it doesn’t crack. He’s not sure how he keeps a neutral expression through it all.

Once they’re done, Allura stands up and gently tugs Keith’s bowl from his hands. She stacks in on his, and heads towards the kitchen. He scrambles up to follow her.

“You don’t have to do that, Allura, you’re-”

“A guest?” she asks, turning back. One side of her mouth curls into a grin.

“Yeah?” he replies, stopping short. Her voice is amused, he can hear that much, but there’s something about the situation he can just tell he hasn’t gotten a read on.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says, stepping into the kitchen. “It’s the least I can do - you flew us all the way out here. Besides, it would have been mine and Pidge’s night on cleaning rotation back in the Castle, and it just…” Allura hesitates. He leans up against the door to the kitchen and looks in, but her back is turned to him. She places the bowls in the sink. Her shoulders slump. “It would feel out of place not helping.”

Keith gets that. He’d fought hard not to question why Shiro had sent him and Allura to Earth instead of going on one of the other, clearly more useful missions. Pidge had wanted a team to go back to Earth and investigate the cave where they’d found Blue, which was understandable to be sure: Blue had managed to avoid Zarkon’s notice for millennia, meaning there had to be some significant shielding technology within the cavern - something they were currently in desperate need of. But why Shiro had picked Keith - who was better with a knife than a computer screen on his worst days - and Allura - whose chameleon-like ability to change her appearance and deadly hand-to-hand combat skills would have come in handy anywhere but a desert devoid of life - to travel to Earth is a mystery to him. Maybe that, he thinks, is the source of the nagging strangeness he’s felt ever since they left the Castle. The sense of being useless from so far away.
Allura runs some water in the bowls, using her hands to clean out any clinging bits of food. She doesn’t seem perturbed by the lack of soap or other form of sanitization, and if halfway through drying off the first bowl with the edge of her shirt when she jerks and looks up at Keith.

“I should have asked before I started, is this all right?” she says, gesturing at the bowl and shirt with a dip of her chin.

“Oh, yeah, of course,” he says. He steps into the kitchen. “I did the exact same thing. Pass them here and I’ll put them up.”

Keith takes the bowl from her and shuffles to the left of the sink to stick it back up in its otherwise empty cabinet. With as small as the kitchen is, it’s an effort not to brush shoulders with her as he reaches up and places the bowl on the shelf.

“I guess you do a lot of cooking here,” Allura says, humor sharp in her voice as she dries the second bowl. “This is always what I pictured when I imagined Hunk’s dream kitchen.”

He chuckles and turns to lean against the short counter. This time, their shoulders do brush. Once again Keith can’t help but notice how warm the kitchen has gotten. If he had the time he’d need to do a thorough once-over of the place and look for more cracks or structural damage. The place had lasted decades; it wouldn’t be on his watch that it fell to total shambles.

“To be fair, we weren’t exactly the hosting type. Most of the time, we cooked and ate over a fire anyway.”

“We?”

“Me and my dad.”

Keith takes the second bowl she offers without looking at her and puts it up. He crosses his arms over his chest when he leans back against the counter. As if it hadn’t been years, the images race back in an instant: dragging the large stewpot and a cooler full of vegetables out to the back of the cabin; his father distracting Keith with stories of the constellations as he skinned a rabbit caught in one of the traps near the cabin’s foundation; the tang of smoke and fat curling in his nostrils.

He knows he doesn’t quite keep the twisting grief off of his face, so he looks away from her, fixating on the wall. No doubt she’s been well aware of his past; he can picture Shiro briefing her on it, reporting “no mother” and “father disappeared when he was fourteen” with the sort of gentle neutrality that only he seemed able to pull off. Keith’s stomach lurches at the thought of what he might see in Allura’s expression if he were to turn. They’re here on a mission. He doesn’t have time to navigate her pity.

She stirs beside him. There’s the clink of the bowl as she sets it on the counter. A moment later, he feels the soft pressure of her hand on his arm.

“Thank you,” she says. Her voice is low and clear, and despite himself, he looks over.

Allura’s lips press together in a tight line, and she gazes down at him with serious eyes. There’s an undeniable regality to the way she holds herself taut.

She looks sad.

An unspoken understanding surges between them. He is, after all, not alone in the loss of a father, of a home. Keith reaches up and settles his hand over hers. He stares back at her, into the crystalline stillness of her eyes. The silence is marred by the steady pick up in his pulse, loud enough now to be a low thrum in his ears.

“It’s fine,” he says after a beat. She gives him a small smile. He doesn’t let go of her hand. “We should probably go set up the low-frequency transmitter Pidge stuck in Red. With us being out in the desert, we won’t have to worry much about weather interference, but we’re going to have to find the right place to set it up so it’s unobstructed, since the signal’s different.”

Allura’s small smile grows into a grin, and she squeezes his arm. “Roof?”

Keith nods, unable to hold back a chuckle. “Yes, we’ll climb the roof.”