In their early days they tore down the torn-up streets, heels cocked on the pedals of their polished motorbikes, both brimming with a peculiar sheen of radiance as they zipped through the dirt.
For a while it seemed like it could last forever: one minute extending into the next like a seamless dream – the two of them, just like this. The city had sunk into a quiet so profound, encircled in a limbo so thick that one time, they rolled their bikes up to city hall, dismounted, and laid themselves side by side on the road.
Shiro let his shoulders slack, his head striking the asphalt with a thud. In his ears, Keith could hear nothing but the distant ring of his engine committed to memory.
When the clouds cleared it was not the moon that broke through, but a blue glow, a beacon in the night sky.
It swells and tips over the precipice a day later. Earth makes contact with the object in the sky: a space-castle from Altea. Keith hears about it on the radio that morning, turning it up so that even Shiro can hear from bed. The Alteans warn about an impending invasion by the Galra, foreign words on foreign tongue.
Earth remains poised in anticipation, because, after all, aliens, but the descent starts when they realize the castle, innocuously parked in a cornfield, was a nuclear-powered machine that could blow Earth to bits.
And humans – they're stubborn. They fight, even against what’s good for them.
“Whose side are you on?” Shiro asks at night, staring at a spot on the ceiling.
Keith shifts in bed and weighs his options, but falls asleep before he can finish deliberating. There are, obviously, better things to believe in.
Within a month, circumstances force Keith to choose.
When the Alteans make a friendly appearance in their city, of all cities, the Garrison takes it as a threat. There are casualties, he hears, but disaster filtered through the radio is rendered distant. It’s thirty minutes after the time Shiro usually passes through the front door when Keith gets a call on the landline.
The voice is weary, as though she’d been running through names on a list.
That day, Shiro loses an arm, pinned under a delivery truck.
These are two completely separate events, but Keith needs someone to blame. In a mad flush everything burns blue.
Things change after Shiro returns. Keith is a little helpless when it comes to comforting others, and he’d seen Shiro in the hospital since the accident, but the sight of him preparing coffee in the morning, teaspoon clanging erratically against the wall of his mug, has Keith running into the bathroom, a clenched fist to his teeth, a plug to the throat.
Still, he presses up against Shiro at night, gulping back the guilt when he stretches an arm across Shiro’s side and he flinches.
“I’m getting better,” Shiro announces the second time, over the sound of a passing firetruck. The second time for Keith to hear, but also for himself.
Keith catches Shiro in the garage another day, polishing the black plates of his bike with his fingertips coated in grime. They’re living precariously now. Every so often they relapse into old habits, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes willfully, like a planet running in retrograde, desperate to bask, just for a moment longer, in yesterday’s memory.
He knows he has to do something. Insurance does what they can, but Keith knows all too well how quickly payouts run dry. So when he’s back home he retrieves his father’s old gold watch and takes it to the pawnshop downtown, passing rows of blue banners hanging from ledges and a group of Garrison soldiers taking a break outside the cigar store. He’d been saving the watch for something important; he’d figured that it would buy them some time.
The boy behind the counter looks up from his paperback when Keith pushes the door open like he’s the first customer in weeks.
He’s examining the watch when his sister bursts through the doors, arms cradling salvaged scraps of metal – wires and coils that spilled out and left, in her path, a line of entrails.
“You wouldn’t believe what I found!” She speaks over the heap. There’s a whole box she’s keeping balanced with the side of her face. “Think of the things you could build with that technology, Matt!”
The box topples in her excitement. Her eyes meet Keith’s then, mouth pinching tight as though she’s said something shameful.
“I’m not on anyone’s side,” Keith says quickly, thinking that the assurance would remedy the situation, and it does. She casts a questioning glance over to her brother, who returns a clueless shrug.
Keith bends down to collect the spilled parts: several loose bolts, charred wires, and perhaps most importantly, a mangled robotic arm, severed from its body.
“What are you going to do with these?” Keith asks her when she’s come back around, part curious, part hinging on the hope of a favor.
Keith finds himself outside one of the Garrison’s bases, the closest one from the city. They had pieced together some intelligence that the Garrison had commandeered several Altean machines.
Matt had offered him a hundred dollars for the watch. Pidge offered him an arm, on the condition that he gather the materials she needed and let her keep what remained.
Never in a million years did he think he’d step into the Garrison; only once, maybe, in a long forgotten dream. He doesn’t linger too long while the cameras are watching, as much as he wants to stare and will them into remembering his face, a childish show of defiance for no one to see.
It’s only when he’s a few feet away from the door when someone tackles him from behind. It's just a minor tussle, a couple of punches thrown at his face, and it ends with the soldier in a neck lock.
“Whose side are you even on?” The man gasps weakly, staring right through Keith.
For the longest time, I have been standing alone. But now I have someone with me.
By the time Keith returns home his split lip has stopped bleeding. In its place, a deep purple bloomed across the curve of his cheekbone. Shiro stirs awake from the sound of the door opening, almost falling out of bed when Keith comes into view. Gently dragging his palm over Keith’s swollen cheek, he pulls back his lips. Keith’s gums are dark with blood.
“Jesus, Keith,” his voice cracks open.
Shiro patches him up, the same way he’s always had. Fights at twelve and twenty hurt the same.
Keith bites down on the sting of antiseptic. “I had to do it,” he justifies when Shiro asks him why. “I just had to.”
It takes a week for Pidge to partially decipher Altean code. That’s around the time when she calls Keith up to tell him the news.
“The prosthetic arm is going to happen. I can’t give you an estimate but it’s going to happen, I know it. Soon I’m going to need you to bring him in for measurements and all sorts of stuff,” her voice is jittering in excitement. And right before Keith hangs up, she adds haltingly, “And the Alteans were right... I don’t know if you want to hear this, but that’s the truth.”
Keith leans his back against the doorframe, letting his hand fall to his side as soon as he’s hung up. In the living room, Shiro has fallen asleep with his hand still on the TV remote.
Keith wonders how Shiro would react if he told him that, behind his back, he’d gone and got him a new arm.
For the rest of the night, he watches Shiro sleep, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest with humble deference. The day they need to talk would come. But for now…
“Do you want to go on a ride with me?” Keith asks in the middle of dinner.
Shiro pauses mid-bite into his food.
They leave the unwashed dishes in the sink and gallop down the stairs with a speed that reminded them of school nights past curfew. When, to escape the wrath of the groundskeeper, they had sprinted across the whole length of the field, wind whipping against their skin.
Shiro settles in snug against Keith’s back, his hot breath fanning across the back of Keith’s neck like a fever. Just then, the shrill cry of metal pierces through the air, and the circle of light around them is replaced by a blue glow. Without a doubt they can already picture it: a blue whale slowly ploughing through the sky.
Keith’s engine starts with a loud roar, one he’d heard so many times he’d already committed it to memory.
For them, it’s simple where they must go. So they take it back to where it all began – right before the peak – to relive the swell, the break, and the fall.