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The Camel's Back

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From the moment he woke up that morning, Hunk had a sinking feeling that it wasn’t going to be a very good day.

Of course, the second he identified that sinking feeling, he hastily brushed it off, because “bad attitudes can only lead to bad outcomes”, to quote his mom, and “staying positive is paramount to success”, to quote his tina. Both of his moms always insisted that being scared or sad was fine, but being surly was just asking for disaster, and this philosophy hadn’t led Hunk astray yet, so he brushed off his vague feeling of foreboding and swung his feet over the side of his bunk, stretching his arms above his head.

Somehow, despite having slept in this bed for weeks now, he managed to misjudge both the distance to the floor and the distance to the top of the bunk. It was almost impressive how his hand and foot simultaneously rammed into the unforgiving metal, as if they’d been planning this for days. With a hiss of pain, Hunk quickly reeled both limbs in ― only to very nearly smack himself in the face and, in his haste to withdraw his leg, become hopelessly entangled in his blanket, trip, and topple face-first onto the floor.


So it was gonna be one of those days.

It was considerably harder to ignore his gut instinct to just stay in bed after that fiasco, but Hunk managed. After freshening up as best he could ― he was out of both toothpaste and soap ― and getting dressed ― it took him a solid twenty-five minutes to locate his left pauldron ― he pried open the door, which refused to open more than a crack automatically, and started down the hall. Assuming the castle wasn’t attacking them again, he had to make breakfast soon, unless he wanted to let Coran have a go. Which ― not to be rude ― he really didn’t.

By the time he got there, everyone but Lance was already seated, and ― uh oh. Keith and Pidge were seated on opposite ends of the table, both looking pointedly away from each other; Keith was cleaning that knife of his, his movements much sharper than usual; Pidge was typing away on her laptop, each click of her fingers on the keyboard somehow sounding accusatory. Shiro was halfway between them, looking ― well, more tired than usual, at least.

Hunk slowly cleared his throat, but nothing happened. After a moment, he shifted his weight and tried again, louder this time. Still nothing. Wonderful.

Taking a moment to actually clear his throat, he applied the most sincere smile he could. “Good morning,” he called, perhaps softer than he usually might for fear of igniting some of the residual rage clearly lingering between those two.

Shiro glanced over his shoulder for a moment, blinked twice, then turned right back around. No reaction from Keith or Pidge.

Alright, then. “Who’s feeling some space goo stew?” he tried with what he hoped was a casual, goofy grin. It quickly faded when he was met with only three identical grunts of vague assent, which ― dang it, that shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did. He swallowed thickly. “I mean, I know that’s more of a dinner food than a breakfast food, but I figure we… might as…”

He trailed off. No point in finishing; all three couldn’t have been more clearly paying no attention to him. Pidge was typing more aggressively, practically slamming her whole hand into the space bar each time she ended a word. Keith was rubbing a cloth across the flat of his knife so harshly that it must have been scratching the blade up. Shiro had gone back to silently regretting his entire existence.

Wow. Amazing. Thanks, guys.

Smiling uncertainly at Shiro, but not speaking ― it wasn’t worth the risk of setting those two off ― Hunk skirted around the room, giving the two sullen Paladins a wide berth. He pretended not to catch the long-suffering look Shiro shot his way, because he had no idea how to respond. Instead, he got straight to work on breakfast, determined not to acknowledge the elephant in the room until he could get a better look at it.

As he worked, fumbling with the equipment and dropping utensils left and right as if he were new to the kitchen, Lance apparently decided to grace them all with his presence. With a languid sigh, he ambled up to the table and plopped himself down next to Keith, seemingly oblivious to the tense atmosphere.

By now, everyone was used to Lance showing up late to everything, unless in case of extreme emergency ― and even sometimes then. They’d long since given up trying to rehabilitate the habitual late-riser. But tempers were already running high, and Hunk felt his shoulders stiffen as Keith jerked his head around, leveling Lance with a fierce glare. “So nice of you to finally join us,” he snapped, uncharacteristically aggressive ― or, well, uncharacteristic when it came to Lance’s harmless shenanigans, at least.

Startled, Lance turned to meet his glower with a confused stare. “Uh,” he replied succinctly.

Keith bristled. “What, did you not even notice, Mr. Ace Pilot? You’re thirty minutes late. Do the rules mean anything to you? Or were you just too dense to bother listening to them, like you were with all of those flying lessons you got at the Garrison?”

Yikes. Hunk winced, slowly scooping the first serving of breakfast out into Shiro’s bowl. A large portion of it ended up splattered down the front of his armor, but he was too busy watching the situation unfold (or, more accurately, devolve) to care. “I ― what?” Lance sputtered after a moment, his face shifting from stunned uncertainty to incredulous anger. “Dude, we’re not even gonna start for, like, another hour.”

Hunk cleared his throat for the thousandth time in the past five minutes. Lance, blessedly, turned to face him. “Ah ― Lance, I’m probably gonna make some stew, unless you ―?”

“Yeah, Keith,” Pidge interrupted (what the heck, Pidge?) from the other side of the table, her voice flat and glacial. “Get a grip. Allura’s already said that, as long as he’s ready to begin training at the same time as everyone else, it’s fine.” She was mostly hidden behind her laptop, but Hunk could guess from past experience that she was shooting him an intense sidelong glare, her fists clenched and resting lightly on her keyboard. “Maybe you should try following the spirit of the law more carefully if you’re gonna be so upset about the letter of it.”

Yikes times two. Hunk wasn’t sure he wanted to know what Pidge and Keith had been arguing about, but it sounded like a doozy. And, unfortunately, that was so blatant that even Lance had picked up on the obvious double meaning lurking behind her words. “Seriously, what the hell, Keith?” he demanded, cutting Hunk off before he could even get a word in edgewise. “I dunno what you and Pidge are arguing about, but leave me out of this!” Then, under his breath: “No wonder you got booted for badmouthing Iverson, sheesh.”

Yikes times three ― there was that insult. Hunk pinched the bridge of his nose against the headache beginning to bloom behind his eyelids. That was sure to go over well.

Predictably, it took maybe ten more seconds for the fight to escalate to the point of no return. By this point, Keith and Lance were both on their feet, leaning into each other’s space, and yelling; their words were lost in an incomprehensible jumble of shouts. A cursory glance at Shiro saw him wearily rising to his feet as well, starting to raise his voice even though they all knew that it was too late.

With a sigh, Hunk grabbed the two bowls he’d managed to ladle out, hoping those would be more placating than his outstretched hands, and slowly started towards them. “C’mon, guys, this is a silly argument; let’s just eat,” he tried, but neither one gave any indication that they’d heard him. They had started to shove each other lightly instead; not nearly enough to topple either, but a clear show of aggression ― and an even clearer sign that things were about to get pear-shaped fast. Infinite yikes.

Hunk glanced over at Shiro pleadingly, but he was already bracing himself to break them up physically, stepping forward to pry them apart, and ― no; didn’t he see that just forcing them to stop squabbling was never going to make them stop hating each other? ― Hunk hastily stepped forward, extending the bowls as peace offerings ― “Guys, stop, let’s everybody simmer down and ―”

Keith and Lance rammed into each other like goats butting heads, their arms flailing artlessly, and, in unintended unison, both Paladins slapped Hunk’s hands away ― effectively coating Hunk’s entire front in food and sending both dishes hurtling to the floor, where they shattered immediately.

Instantly, there was silence.

Hunk didn’t bother pausing to enjoy the sudden quiet. He didn’t even wonder how on Earth ― rather, how in space ― Shiro had gotten them to shut up so efficiently. He just stared at the spectacular mess he’d made on the floor, face utterly blank. It was a stomach-turning mix of green ooze and chunks of insufficiently-cooked food and shards of broken porcelain, or whatever those dishes were made out of, and ― crap, no, his eyes were starting to burn, and it was ridiculous; it was literally just spilled food ― barely a step above spilled milk ― but he reached up to scrub furiously at his damp eyelids, and there was half-congealed space goo splattered across both his face and his arm, so he only managed to smear the stuff all over himself, and ― no no no, now he was really crying―

It was stupid, and it was petty, but ― dang it, he’d just been trying to help, although, obviously, he’d failed miserably; only managed to make things worse, really ― and now he had a headache, and his armor was gonna need to be washed before they could train, and he wasn’t excited to pitch that one to Allura ― hey, Miss Princess Her Royal Majesty, I tried and failed to break up a fight and now I need to postpone our daily session because I got covered in the food I couldn’t even make right ― and the stew was oozing down his boots; the bowls were completely shattered, too; no hope of putting them back together or anything ― but, heck, that stew probably wasn’t safe to eat anyway since he somehow couldn’t manage to work the most basic of appliances now, so maybe this was a blessing in disguise ― (he almost thought he heard someone say his name, but that was probably wishful thinking) ― and maybe Allura just wouldn’t notice if he showed up to training covered in inedible stew, or if he showed up late to training, or if he never showed up at all; he was just silly, cowardly, sentimental, overly-emotional Hunk, and surely they could find someone else to pilot Yellow ― even Coran would be better; he, at least, could make food that wasn’t actually dangerous to eat, and get out of bed without stubbing his toe, and take less than thirty minutes to put on the Paladin armor, and fly without puking, and save the universe without needing constant backup, and Coran certainly wouldn’t have had to leave Shay behind or failed to stop Nyma and Rolo from stealing the Red Lion or dropped the stupid fucking bowls.

Yeah, that was definitely more than just a little mist welling up, and he felt himself step back without really making himself move, still rubbing his eyes as if he could stave the tears off with force. Some part of him wanted to let it out; just start wailing and latch onto Keith or Lance or Shiro, whoever was closest ― but that would just rekindle everyone’s anger, and that was ― he was the last thing they all needed right now.

Logically, he knew that none of them were probably looking at him ― why would they; he just dropped the bowls and got a bit messy, no big deal ― but he could still swear he felt the weight of their eyes on him. It was humiliating, and he felt himself swallow lead; heard himself mutter a wavering “Aw, jeez,” and follow it up with a self-deprecating chuckle that sounded more like a sob than anything.

It was still dead silent; a fact that he’d find remarkable only later. Now, he needed to get out of here ― away from the eyes that he knew weren’t watching him; he knew they weren’t looking but that didn’t make it any better, because of course they weren’t looking; he was just stupid, whiny, crying Hunk ― and, with a quiet, shuddering inhale that he knew they all could hear but they wouldn’t hear because they weren’t listening, naturally, Hunk stepped out of the mess he’d made and awkwardly shuffled out the door, his limbs leaden and his pace painstakingly slow.

They didn’t stop him. It was a huge relief. It also confirmed his sinking suspicions, and Hunk fought another sob as the automatic door slid shut behind him. Only when he was out of their sight did he dare to accelerate to a power walk, finally peeling his arm off of his face to see where he was going.

For the first time in his life, Hunk wished he would just start crying already. Because, as humiliating as it seemed in hindsight, Hunk cried a lot. When he was scared; when he was upset; when he was happy ― Hunk just spent a lot of his time crying. It wasn’t a big thing anymore. But this ― this barely-there moisture; this persistent burn; this grumble of shame churning hot and heavy in the pit of his stomach ― this was far less familiar.

Hunk stumbled into the first bathroom he came across, suddenly all-too-aware that he was dripping green goo all over the floor and that someone was gonna have to clean that up. Both palms braced against the sink, he hunched over and waited for the tears to come in earnest ― please just fall already; he knew what to do with tears; he could react to them ― but they never did. A glob of stew slid off his face and landed in the sink with a plop.

Taking a deep breath, Hunk reached for the knob and turned the faucet on. The sound of running water briefly met his ears, but barely a trickle came out before the tap gave up altogether with a weak sputter.

Hunk coughed out a dry laugh, because “Sometimes,” his mom would say, “there’s nothing to do but laugh.” It really didn’t help. After a moment, he hunched over further, grasping weakly at the roots of his bangs and tugging.

Please. Please, just cry already.

The door slid open.

Lance reached him first. He practically flung himself between Hunk and the sink; ended up halfway sprawled across the porcelain or whatever-it-was with the faucet digging uncomfortably into his back ― reckless as always ― and then he was grabbing Hunk’s face with both hands, tilting it so their eyes met, and ― wow, Lance looked like an absolute wreck, which shouldn’t have made Hunk feel better about himself, but, well―

“Hunk,” Lance choked out, his eyes wide, “Hunk, dude ― I’m so sorry, oh my God, I didn’t even ― I mean, I didn’t even realize it; I wasn’t thinking ― !” He paused to swipe his hand (holding a towel, Hunk only now realized) across Hunk’s face, wiping off most of the goop in one go.

“None of us were thinking,” Shiro said as Lance became preoccupied with trying valiantly to clean off every bit of food he could see. Blinking, Hunk started to turn around, and Lance moved with him, sliding off the edge of the sink and scurrying around to stay at Hunk’s front.

The bathroom was a bit smaller than most of the rooms, and Shiro looked awkward and out of place with his broad shoulders and muscles, hulking in doorway with several clean towels in his arms and a contrite expression on his face. He looked ― well, not nearly as horrified as Lance, but that wasn’t saying much; Lance was on a different level entirely.

He opened his mouth, probably to offer a more direct apology, but then a flash of armor darted around him and latched onto Hunk’s midsection, arms wrapping as far around as they could go. With a mix of process of elimination and logic, Hunk identified the very small Paladin as Pidge.

Sure enough, she shifted closer after a moment, and he could spot a head of light brown hair and a flash of green accents. Tilting her head, she said something very quickly and quietly, half-muffled by Hunk’s armor, that he could only identify as “something-something-something really sorry something-something interrupt something-something inexcusable something forgiveness something.” Which was ― yeah, a lot of somethings, but a lot of somethings was better than nothing, and Hunk decided he’d have to forgive her― only to realize, oh yeah, he already had, when did that happen? Which left him with nothing more to say, so he just wrapped one arm around her instead; he couldn’t manage the other, because Lance was still scrubbing frantically at his armor.

And ― oh yeah times two, he was covered in goo; Pidge shouldn’t be hugging him, or she’d get it on her, too ― but, before he could say anything, Keith’s hand landed tentatively on his arm, and, okay, when did he get here? “I, uh,” he began as Hunk jerked his head to the side, surprised to find him right there at his side. “I don’t really…” He swallowed, glancing down at his feet. “...know how to say this, but…”

Steeling himself with a deep breath, he looked back up, meeting Hunk’s eyes. “I’m… really sorry? For ignoring you earlier, and for…” His face went red, and he again averted his gaze. “, hitting the bowl out of your hand and stuff. That was… really shitty.” Which ― okay, he could’ve chosen cleaner language, but it was an apology that Hunk hadn’t dared hope for, and ― and ―

Very suddenly, Hunk sniffled once, then burst into tears. Squeezing his eyes shut, he threw his arms out and then pulled back in, crushing everyone within arm’s distance to his chest in a tight embrace. Judging by the surprised noises from either side, he’d gotten both Keith and Lance, and Pidge was still hugging him from the front, and it wasn’t everybody, but it was a majority. Hunk sobbed grossly, blubbering out something that could’ve been anything, really; even he wasn’t sure.

After a moment, Lance-probably and Keith-probably returned the hug in kind, and he fought the urge to make another embarrassing sound. Then he remembered “Hunk, dude, I’m so sorry,” and “none of us were thinking,” and “that was… really shitty,” and “something-something forgiveness something,” and ― heck with it ― he made the noise anyway, pulling everyone in closer.

“It’s ― it’s been,” he wailed, the sudden influx of emotion making his tongue clumsy in his mouth, “a r-really ― cra-crappy day.”

Lance ― or maybe Keith ― huffed out a quiet laugh. “It hasn’t even been an hour,” said ― Keith, definitely Keith ― and Hunk echoed the laugh, although his was a strangled half-sob hybrid.

Somewhere, fabric rustled, and then there were footsteps, and then ― gingerly; tentatively; so awkwardly that it was almost tangible ― Shiro slowly slipped an arm (warm; his flesh arm) around Hunk’s shoulders, joining the group hug. “I’m sorry,” Shiro said, as if he hadn’t already made the point clear, and Hunk choked, tugging him closer; he obliged, although a bit more stiffly, perhaps, than the rest.

Hunk ducked his head, tears streaming down both cheeks. A fractured smile stuttered across his face.

Today was gonna be alright.