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Spinning in Daffodils

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there's no one here except for us
the tomb you always craved
where even gods will take their lives--
divinity depraved
how often did i strangle you
and then caress your head
how often did you stab my back
and resurrect me from the dead?
(Isle of Bones - Mountain Witch)


Keith was no fool. He'd been called many things; hid truth behind glass evil-eyes wrapped around his wrist and black tourmaline tucked into his pocket; knew enough of the occult to scare the living (and maybe summon the dead); frequently walked the line between here and elsewhere--but he was far from a fool. The spread scattered on his sun-kissed mauve carpet thought otherwise, an upside-down Major Arcana 0 walking its merry little ass off a cliff and into the claws of Scarlet, who sat on the card to remove the scandal from Keith's screwed up eyes--he was squinting at it, a curse between his teeth and his tongue.

"You get it, right?" Keith scratched under Scarlet's chin. The sleek, roan stray who climbed the fire escape to catch bugs on his windowsill had settled with him years ago, privy to his magic. She blinked, owlish yellow eyes feigning innocence.

Lined up beside The Fool, which rested in the taunting position of outcome, was the Eight of Swords. An ugly card with a sweet tooth and a penchant for misery. A swan swam in sewage, wings trapped by brambled blades casting the shadow of a cage. A full moon swung loose between winged clouds and laughed.

It sat, calm in the center of advice. Lastly--and the beginning of what spurred his foray downstairs into the liquor store below his attic apartment--was the card in charge of current situation: The Tower. Son-of-a-bitch got struck by the lightning of revelation right before the shit hit the fan. In this particular deck, The Tower was a beehive and the lightning had split open its honeycombs as bees poured out into the rain to drown and die.

When he'd asked, the reading slapped him across the face. It answered his question of what, why, how and raised him a rhetorical who? Which was the usual way of a snarky tarot kept by a cynical, unappreciative diviner. The spread left him a coarse reminder that You are shit, Life is shit, And then you die.

Scarlet was licking her genitals on top of the three cards when he returned with a fifth of whiskey and a pack of classic American Spirits. She'd knocked over the stack of remaining cards and sent one in particular half-bent under her clean asshole. He pulled it free and smoothed it out.

The Hanged Man. Once maybe a sage or a Smart Person, now content in spiritual platitude by letting all the blood drain to his head. Some self-sacrifice.

"Well fuck you too." Keith allowed himself to plummet face first onto his futon and welcome the dark suffocation of a silenced groan. The creak of his bed-frame startled Scarlet and she jumped--further disrupting the offensive tarot--and booked a smooth weave through his line of carnivorous plants, out the open window, and into the dust-bowl valley of Silver City.

Keith had met the person The Hanged Man represented two days ago. In fact, it had been the uncomfortable needle in the haystack of bullshit that prompted Keith to finally dig out his deck and wind them up for a clarity call he'd been avoiding for way, way too long. Three years too long.

And no, drawing The Fool wasn't adding insult to injury; the analogy was too gentle. It was dousing salt on an open wound before cauterizing it with bottom-shelf alcohol. The Fool suggested he pull his head out of his ass before Something Bad™ opened up its mercurial maw and swallowed him whole while he was dizzy from a dozen twirls, chasing a bone tied to his tail. Fair warning, he supposed, and rude as hell even for an overdue reality check.

Unscrewing the cap of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey, Keith took a long, ruthless swig. He rolled over to the bedside table and turned the dial on his boombox to full volume, letting Them Crooked Vultures remind him why he hated the hand life had dealt him.


S P I N N I N G . I N . D A F F O D I L S

Chapter One: 《 wise are the fools who can take what they're dealt

It had not been in his forecast to greet the dirt with his face that morning. Nor had he predicted the weather--but that took a special kind of divination--and nor had he prepared himself for the handsome kindness that helped him to his feet with laughing eyes masking a genuine concern. It had been in the cards that he should pay attention to his surroundings and it had said in his horoscope that he might come across a bump in the road. It was a figure of speech supposed to rule out making hasty decisions since Mercury was in retrograde and all that bullshit. Keith could spit into the dirt and it'd spell out blind as a bat, dumbass and he still would have scoffed at the fresh press astrology hack and any dig the energies of the vast universe threw at him to spurn his half-harnessed ego.

It was just that. He was hot blooded and skeptical despite the title of practicing witch--entirely secular, mind--and today all the hooks had lined up to prove him wrong in the most spectacular and unflattering ways they could.

His name was Takashi Shirogane "just Shiro is fine" and he was the last stop on Keith's paper route, his least favorite for many reasons, and probably a nice guy who didn't deserve his passive aggressive delivery methods.

He was so much more than that, and it was obvious with just a glimpse. A prosthetic arm made of carved wood and fine machinery told Keith he was likely ex-military; the expansive apiary nestled amidst the Southwestern deserts spelled out Gone With the Wind; and the pile of angular scrap metal sticking out from under a tarp suggested he was clearly a strange, multi-faceted man. Far from the average Joe.

Keith had a knack for observation, but really all it boiled down to was a gut feeling that Mr. Shirogane on 222 Alabaster Lane was definitely the dark stranger he'd dreamt about ever since he first started noticing the strange purple light hovering over the horizon every day at the witching hour. Now there were too many coincidences to ignore that something was up and it wasn't just his stomach doing flips from crashing or from the 1,000-watt smile Shiro beamed down at him after Keith stuffed his face with free breakfast (as an apology, he'd said, about the bees).



There was a peculiar balance Shiro lived by. The tightrope was a wire sharp enough to cut any lustrous chemical element in nature--assuming their origin was of earth. Currently dull and lined with clothes on plastic hangers, it halved part of his world behind a fresh pressed suit and a split-pea Hotel rug dripping water to mildew on unpolished wood paneling. When the light struck dawn, through the crack in dusty curtains shards of polished gleam reflected a dirty secret.

It was long ago, it seems like yesterday
I saw you standing in the rain
Then I heard you say
I want to love, but it comes out wrong
I want to live, but I don't belong
I close my eyes...

5:59 AM sparked Coyote 102.5 FM onto the radio, Blood and Roses by the Smithereens spilling grainy classic rock into the stagnant household. He'd just propped the screendoor and hipped open the wooden door beyond it, carrying a bucket of honeycomb in one hand and a roll of soggy newspaper in the other.

"How does he manage to land it in the pond every time?" Shiro let the screen swing shut with a slam behind him. A solid chunk of muscular black cat peered through his makeshift clothesline, yawning as it hopped to the floor and came to wind between his legs in hope of tripping him. "Good morning, Sootface."

He pushed through the doorbeads separating the hallway from the kitchen and set the bucket down on the counter, humming along to the radio as he backtracked into the foyer to step out of his mesh suit and hang it on a nail in the door. Sootface meowled at him for food, which he poured with the paper under his arm, then settled onto a chair at the table and unrolled the damp press before the ink bled too much to read.

It was a small borough, Silver City, and rather backwards despite harboring a university. The local farmer's markets, Albuquerque roadie savagery, Las Cruses crises', and historical site copper mine drama were the highlights of the season. But generally, this was the kind of place where oddities such as giant vegetables, orange orbs in the sky, and mutilated cows were treated as Big Deals in the weekly tabloid.

One such anomaly hadn't reached the news despite the irony of who it was about. The paperboy wheeled by once a week on Monday mornings, biking to the end of the bumpy dirt road where Shiro lived, several blocks separated from the rest of society. As soon as he turned down the lane a small cloud of bees would congregate to greet him, buzzing pleasantly while he waved his arms about with impeccable balance. He wasn't afraid, maybe annoyed, and in return for his frustration he made sure to perfect his aim for the small reflecting pool in Shiro's front yard.

It was a strange day in and of itself when he formally met the boy loved by bees. The weather was thick with heat before the sun rose. The air smelled like static. It wasn’t quite time for the morning commute when dark clouds started rolling in over the distant plains. He suited up and pulled the mesh visor over his head regardless, winding his way through a short, familiar hedge maze decorating his front yard. Its exit was wreathed in night-sky petunias, already curling in on themselves in preparation for the storm.

Usually the bees would already be cognizant of the brontide and stay safe at home in the hives. Today they were still navigating the gardens crescenting from the side of his property. The breeze was picking up. A few brave ones here and there was normal, but dozens were hovering warily about in off-putting anticipation.

Since it was summer, the sunrise was late--and so was the paperboy. Shiro's cottage, built in the mid 1800's and rather quaint, was the last and farthest stop on the southwest route. He wouldn’t be surprised if the kid didn’t show up at all. But he did, pedaling furiously and shrouded by bees; hawing while covering his face with one arm.

It was an incredible acrobatic feat. Shiro hadn't realized how captivated he was until the short, catastrophic eternity ended. The paperboy bumped and swerved with sturdy grace but nothing could save him from the mailbox he had blocked from his view. His front wheel slammed into it full force, flipping him up, over, and dispensing him back on the ground mostly with his face. The bees followed his arch and circled around him in a slow, eerie figure eight.

Shiro leapt into action as soon as he saw the bike punt upwards, hopping the hedge and helping the paperboy onto his knees while he groaned in complaint, already struggling to push himself up. "You okay?" He asked, hit by a vague wave of déjà vu.

"Never better." When the paperboy looked up at Shiro he tensed, swallowing a startled gasp that revealed itself in his widened eyes and reminding Shiro that he was still in his bee-keeping garb. He pulled off the mesh covering, eyeing the insects still buzzing around, albeit at a more polite distance.

"That's quite the tumble you took there." Shiro bit back a chuckle, saving him his pride. He helped the paperboy stand only to have his arm shaken off as he went to retrieve his bike, spokes still spinning. He was younger by a few years, trim for someone his size. And he was bleeding. It was a small cut under a disheveled mess of dark hair, but it avalanched down his face as soon as gravity hit.

The wind had picked up enough to force Shiro to raise his voice; the bees making a hasty retreat into the apiary. In all the commotion he hadn't noticed how black the sky became. "Let's get inside for now," Shiro took the bike from the boy's grasp, wheeling it around the maze and towards the porch. "I don't think you could beat the storm, and I'll patch you up."

The paperboy picked up his bag and swung it over his shoulder, rolling it irritably and swiping the blood out of his eyes. "Uh," he followed after Shiro without complaint, "Thanks."

"Don't worry about it. It's my property you got hurt on after all." Shiro parked the bike and led him through the maze and under the awning just as the first few pelts of rain struck the ground. “I’m Takashi Shirogane, by the way. Just Shiro is fine.” He held out a gloved hand to shake.

The paperboy stared at it for a hesitant second before taking the proffered palm. “Keith.”

"Make yourself comfortable in the kitchen, Keith." Shiro motioned down the hall. "I'll be right back."

The foyer of Shiro's humble abode was crowded. A side table full to the brim of caked-together newspapers (strike one for guilt on Keith's behalf) and piles of unopened mail sat to the left of the door and blocked it from opening all the way. A few pairs of shoes lined the other side, smelling of old leather grease. Above them was a coat-wrack. Keith toed off his own worn down docs, shrugging his black denim jacket off stiff shoulders as he did so. He wandered to the kitchen in his socks, blood still running down his face in an itchy drip, and took a seat on one of the two wicker chairs tucked into a hardwood table finished with a cherry sheen.

He checked his cellphone. Low bars--bad reception out here. Not surprising. When Shiro returned he was carrying a basket full of random medical supplies, a towel, a shirt, and a thick black cat nestled among them looking pleased with itself.

"She thinks she owns the world." Shiro chuckled, setting the basket down and handing Keith the towel after dampening it in the sink. He lit a match and brought to life several dangling lanterns and an array of candles whose wax dripped down the window sills. They were all mismatched widths and heights, different levels of used. A few aluminum pans were catching the excess drip to be remade again.

When Keith went to pet the cat she hissed and jumped to the floor, weaving between Shiro's legs. He took the towel and wiped down his face as Shiro unearthed some Neosporin and promptly invaded Keith's personal space. "Sit still," he instructed, "This might sting a little."

Keith squeezed his eyes shut and tilted his head, allowing the brush of prosthetic fingers lifting his bangs. It felt nice, and then it throbbed when Shiro dabbed the antiseptic into his cut and rubbed it in. "Were you hurt anywhere else?"

He knew he probably had scraped knees and one of his elbows was burning, but he shook his head. He felt oddly docile around this stranger, despite his fearsome build and mechanical arm. "Sorry for the trouble."

The storm swirled outside, crackling and lighting the kitchen. For a split second Keith caught glimpse of a lonely pantry. One set of china, a baby blue fridge probably from the sixties, and a display of very expensive looking cookware knives. They stood out a little amidst the drying flowers hanging in the scaffold ceiling's every nook and cranny.

"Did you get stung at all?" Shiro's brow laced downward, a tinge of distaste in his voice.

"No." Keith said, surprised himself.

"They don't normally act like that, even if they do torment you. Might've been the weather." Shiro answered his question before he could ask it and Keith stood and turned around, shrugging out of his bloodied shirt and pulling on the fresh one. It hung on his frame, consuming him in long-sleeved matte gray. "I’ve never seen them swarm like that, not even when they've been bothered. You're a strange one."

Says him. "They just sort of... do that."

"Maybe it's something in your blood?" Shiro stood up. "Want some water?" He poured him a glass anyway. "You ever been to the farmer's market?"

Keith took the glass and had a moment to ponder. He did read the papers he delivered, and he remembered a frequent advertisement for fresh honey on the Connections page. Strange placement for it, selling honey in the personals. It had a comedic charm, though. "Who hasn't?" He took a sip. "So you're the honey guy."

Shiro turned bashful, rubbing the back of his neck. "Clever marketing, right? But a little true too. It's a full time job maintaining the property. I keep the bees and harvest the honey, comb, and wax. I also have to take care of the gardens."

Keith was going to re-read that ad later. The rain had eased up but lightning still struck nearby, shaking the house to remind them of its presence. "So it's just you out here?"

"Me, Sootface, and the bees." Shiro tapped the cat with his foot and she purred compliantly. "I go into town every weekend though, but other than that the only humans I see during the week are, well, you. The paperboy."

For some reason, that made Keith choke on his water and almost laugh. "Sootface? No wonder your cat is grumpy." As soon as he'd said it, his cheeks reddened in realization that he'd been kind of rude.

Maybe it was because Shiro didn't get out much. He laughed in turn, more amused by Keith's stuttered apology than the blatant truth. "I found her in the chimney when she was a kitten, so."

"Oh," Keith got to his feet, grabbing his bag and handing Shiro a fresh, dry roll of news. "I'm, uh, sorry for always tossing your paper in the pond. It was--" apologizing was hard. Doing it several times in a row was worse. "--lame of me."

"Nah." Shiro smiled, taking the paper. "I'm inconvenient to get to and I can see how the bees would be annoying."

That had Keith blinking furiously, incredulous. Was there no end to this man's tolerance? Part of him wanted to test it out. "It's not that bad, really." He failed miserably.

Keith finished his glass of water and set the cup down, launching forward from the chair. "Anyway, I should get going. My boss is probably worried and I'm gonna be late to clock out. And, er, thank you for your hospitality."

"Do you wanna catch a ride with me? Into town." Shiro asked him. "I can toss your bike in the back."

"Is it really okay?" Keith sidestepped Sootface and grabbed his jacket, wadding his dirty shirt and shoving it into the newsboy bag.

"Making you bike in this rain would just be mean." Shiro was enjoying how flustered Keith was, neither embarrassed nor nervous. Just unprepared. Confused as if he wasn't used to being shown kindness. "Wait on the porch and I'll pull my truck around."

It was an old-timey Ford Ranger pick-up. His father had owned a similar model once, a '77 hatchback, but they'd had to sell it when he got sick. It was a nostalgic feeling that encased Keith as he sat in the front seat after Shiro had secured his bike in the bed.

He started the windshield wipers and turned up the volume as a CD swirled into motion. It picked up in the middle of Aerosmith's Jaded.

"It's been ages since I heard this song."

"You a fan of classic rock?" Shiro turned onto the main road. "That's my jam."

Keith chuckled despite himself. "You're a bit weird, you know?"

Shiro raised a brow, playing along. "Am I?"

They drove the thirteen minute stretch of desert field into town exchanging typical acquainting pleasantries. Keith didn't know why he felt he could relax his guard around Shiro (not that he did, not completely anyway). Something about him was familiar, in an off-kilter sort of manner.

"Will you be on the bike route next week?" Shiro asked, pulling up to idle at the central bus station. He parked behind another van retrieving a trio of bakers treacherously carrying a cake designed as a detailed rocket from their small shop.

"I can't say for sure." He didn't have a say in the matter and until now hadn't cared. Keith watched the three cake mongers argue over how to secure it for transport as he opened the door. A few pedestrians pulled out their phones to try and sneak a shot. Something was seriously off with today.

"Tell me about it." Shiro replied. Had he said that out loud? The beekeeper cringed when the young baker--tall, dark-skinned, and beautiful despite her frazzled hair and floury smop--grabbed the ears of her hefty consort and yelled, "This is life or death, Hunk!" While the gallant, red-headed owner beside them--who had solved the problem himself--inferred, "I've got it settled! Let's get going, shall we?"

Keith knew these people but he pretended not to. If Allura caught sight of him now, with the mood she was clearly in he'd never hear the end of it. They had an entire skeleton of bones to pick with each other. Hunk would probably make moony eyes in hope of rescue and Coran--the manager of Starflour Patisserie--he'd just lapse into one of thousands of stories relatable to the situation at hand at the expense of everyone's time and sanity. Luckily they were already piling into the van.

After retrieving his bike from the truckbed Keith ducked down to peer at Shiro. "Thanks again for everything. I'll return the shirt tomorrow after I wash it."

"Oh yeah." Shiro's eyes sparked. "It's no rush, but if you want, next time you come over you should sample the honey. It's my pride and joy, after all."

His smile was contagious. Keith waved off the possibility Shiro was flirting with him; though he was just as guilty of that crime. "A real businessman, aren't you?"

Shiro made a casual salute and swept back into the lane as Keith waved. The Starflour van had made its exit as well. The ground smelled like wet dirt and dog, damp and warming up as the sun cut its rays through the thinning thunderheads.

When he would look back on it later, it was one of those moments where the atmosphere and the circumstances far outweighed the norm for first meetings and almost seemed a bit like misplaced fate. The cards would tell, or his dreams, or any other divine option he chose to medium with later that evening.

Keith's mind was turning faster than the earth's 1,600 kilometer-per-hour rotation. He turned his bike around and headed home. The craft was calling him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: 《 don't ask for sympathy, beg to differ

Keith lived alone in the warehouse attic of ShortSpirits, squished between a mini-mart and an automobile repair office. It was actually quite tall.

The space he rented was cramped and musty but liveable. There was running water, a toilet and, because it was impossible to move without tearing out the floor, an antique claw-footed bathtub from who-knows-when. He didn't have a fridge or a kitchen, but the market next door made up for it; microwave and all. The old woman who ran the liquor store, Granny Shorts, was slightly senile and always told Keith how much he reminded her of her old amour.

"Just up and disappeared one day. Saw it with my own two eyes. Up and gone just like that." She'd tell him with a distant glimmer, gazing at the sunset.

He had a pretty good view of it through the oblong window lining the slanted loft. Beneath it--giving him the perfect height to rest his elbows on the plant-addled sill--was a simple, unmade bed. The rest of the tiny room was utilized by a coffee table cluttered with CDs and an ancient boombox, a tussah pillow covered in cat hairs, a single bookshelf harboring more rocks and crystals than its own namesake, and two mountains of clothes: one dirty, the other clean. His floor was a sea of trash, mostly empty cup ramen and beer bottles. It was time to clean up shop.

Keith clambered to his feet, sore from his row with the mailbox, and cranked open the window to let the breeze cull the smell of old incense. Carried in turns was the distant whistling of a child. From the back of the shop he could see open farmlands with scattered Ponderosas and a rusting playground. The kid was probably out there but the sun was reflecting at just the right angle that he couldn't see much of anything.

He meandered down the spiral staircase into the liquor store and asked to borrow the vacuum cleaner. Granny Shorts went wide-eyed in her spectacles and said, "You? Cleaning?" In her sweet-natured sarcasm, "Have I jumped dimensions again?"

He lugged it back up, gathered his trash into a bag and glass into the recycling crate outside. All the while 1000mods was blasting over the noise of mechanical drills tinkering with cars and the loud TV Granny Shorts occupied herself with during slow business.

Tell me something
Are you lost when you've found your way?
I've been there man
So beware of what I say

Scarlet shot him a scathing glare from her perch between his Venus fly trap and wandering Rhododendron vines, ready to flee as soon as he turned the thing on. He plugged it in and flipped the switch and one blink later, her tail was swishing over the edge of the fire escape outside his window.

Keith was belting out the lyrics unabashedly when the vacuum hiccuped where he shoved it under his bed. A tarot card was caught between the bristles, the suction hacking in abuse. He yanked it free.

Five of Pentacles stared back at him, disenchanted lovers holding one another with eyes downcast to the barren land at their feet and blind to the sun peaking out of a promising heaven. This card hit where it hurt most--in insecurities, doubts, and despairs. But it was also a fated tie or meeting, maybe a beam of hope. Even reversed, there was still light that caused the shadow to be cast in the first place.

Keith knew a sign when he saw one. He placed the card with the rest of its deck: into a wooden box carved with the Sirius constellation and resolutely, absolutely did not attribute the message to Shiro. He would, later, when its relevancy decided to make sense. They were not lovers, he was not in love with a man he just met, he did not believe in love at first sight (or love at all, really) and he certainly was not about hooking up with the dark stranger haunting his dreams.

Instead Keith gathered his dirty clothes into a collapsible hamper. He kept the borrowed gray sweater folded politely on top his heap, dragging it down the narrow stairwell into the storeroom and out the backdoor. He wound around the building, headed down the block.

The local laundromat was nestled on the corner of the downtown strip beside an ancient gelato shop that never had customers and never went under.

A familiar face greeted him at the entrance. Lance ticked a brow and whistled. "What's with the shiner?" He'd just slammed the door of the only massive washing machine and started it up, crunching the remainder of a Chupa Chup off its stick and chewing it loudly.

Lance popped up in his life a lot. They'd been classmates since middle school, coworkers at several jobs (Admittedly, Lance had gotten him the gigs), and they lived two blocks away from each other. There was no avoiding him. He was a flirt with a flawless smile and perfect skin; the kind of guy who put effort into his appearance but retained a soft-spoken heart of gold and love for his family.

That being said, "If your mom knew you threw everyone's clothes together into the industrial washer she'd hang you by your balls." Keith dumped his hamper into the nearest open machine.

Lance sized him up, probably deciding whether to play nice or pick a fight. "Oh, she knows. She just pretends she doesn't. It all gets cleaned in the end and I can save a few more bucks for a new ride. Two months on budget and I'll be sailing out of here in a classic Mustang with a chick at my side, hair curling in the wind--"

Keith poured the detergent into its slot and dug the quarters out his pocket, cutting off Lance's wet dream with deadpan. "Yeah, that sounds like something you'd do."

Lance threw his soggy lollipop stick at Keith who swiped it out of the way, and the twang of live music drifted through the propped open doors to serenade his pathetic life. The brick intersection was a popular spot for street urchins because cars had to crawl over slower than three-legged Betsy, who walked the whole strip with her cane four times a day and tripped up kids rattling by on skateboards. This week it was a man and his acoustic guitar sat on a plastic beer crate, his instrument case open to catch coins as he strummed and sang in Spanish about cowards in love and infidelity. A handful of pedestrians understood his lyrics. They were the only ones who didn't toss some change and eyed the empty bottle of vodka he rolled with his sandaled foot as he warbled.

Lance, who had painstakingly translated every line for Keith no matter how many times he asked him to shut his damn mouth, was currently seated on top of one of the empty washing machines and had turned his attention to a personality quiz in an outdated issue of Cosmopolitan someone left behind.

"First question," He said, hitching his legs into a pretzel and making himself comfortable. "You're going to a party. What are you gonna wear?"

"I'm not answering." Keith huffed, leaned against the jammed open door while he smoked. His clothes were swishing away after eating six quarters in the broken machine beside it, which he'd kicked and cursed until it spat them back out much to Lance's disappointment.

Lance being Lance, read on in a titillating voice, "A. A sexy black dress, of course! B. Booty shorts and a tank top, simple is better sometimes. C. Classy denim and a low-cut shirt; it's the accessories that really count. D. Whatever I'm already wearing should be fine." He scoffed, "You're definitely C, with all that mojo-jo-jo shit you're always wearing." He marked it down with a leaking pen he'd probably found on the floor.

Keith exhaled smoke from his lungs instead of explaining for the umpteenth time that tiger's eye promised safety on the road, evil-eyes cracked when they did their job protecting (two of the seven had already gone), and snowflake obsidian kept him from wanting to kill idiots like Lance. The charmed bracelets never came off lest he was charging or cleansing them, and the moonstone necklace he wore tucked under his shirt aided his leverage from mundanity. The ring on his right index belonged to his mother, an iridescent opal set in silver; the copper on his left thumb was worn from worrying; his grounding and sparking talisman. They were an extension of his self, as normal as the hair on the back of his neck.

"Question two," Lance continued over Keith's annoyed groan. "You're hanging with your girlfriends at a bar. What's your drink of choice? A. Something sweet or fruity, maybe a mimosa. B. Wine if they have any and shame if they don't!, C. Anything is fine as long as it's alcoholic, D. What's on tap?" He squinted at Keith over the rim of the magazine, contemplating his choice. "I'm torn between C and D."

Keith replied before he could stop himself, eyes honing in on the bottle rolling under the singing man's foot. "I hate vodka." He hated Lance's shit-eating grin more.

Keith watched a group of middle-schoolers pool money for a dub, congregating around the dumpster just behind the sighing musician as he took a sip from his water bottle--in which the vodka had been secretly transferred to. The buzz of the machines was intermittent between an over-worked mom revoking fidget spinner privileges from her two children until they finished folding their clothes and an indiscriminately aged man asleep in a foldable chair with arms crossed and white shirt picking mold off the walls. Lance went through three more questions about swimming ("D again, you'd just jump in because you're a heathen."), whether or not to break up a friend's dispute ("A. Definitely A. I don't even need to read the rest." Keith had caved and asked, "What was it?" and Lance winked at him. "Don't do anything and enjoy your view of the chaos." to which Keith had replied, stunted, "Yeah, sounds about right."), and lastly what to do when a hot man was chatting you up ("B for BONE HIM.")

"You made that up." Keith scoffed.

Lance slid off the machine and shook the magazine in his face, jamming his finger at the text. "It's right here, tight-ass." It was. And again, Lance had chosen wisely.

Keith stubbed out his cigarette underfoot and read over Lance's shoulder as he announced the last question. "It's the end of the night, what are your plans?"

A. Go home with that gorgeous looker you hooked up with.
B. You're down for the count, it's time to go home and curl up with a good book and some tea.
C. Take a drive with new friends, the party's not over til the sun comes up!
D. Keep drinking alone.

Lance waited for Keith to answer it himself. He sighed. "I don't know, it depends."

"Really, Keith?" Lance scoffed.

He snagged the magazine out of Keith's reach when he demanded, "What is this quiz even for anyway?"

"That's for me to know and you to find out. Your choice?"

"Fine. D."

Lance flipped the magazine upside down and close to his face to read the tiny text for the answers before turning the page. He broke out into laughter. "Hah, you're a fucking cosmic diva."

"Give me that--"

Lance spun from his grab, reading the description. "You're a bonafide party connessouir. Nothing phases you anymore, you're just that cool. Easily the eye of the party, everyone knows your name--but that doesn't mean you know theirs. You're not afraid to do what you want even if it's a little crazy, and you know how to have a good time when you're in the right mood. Just make sure no one gets on your bad side--especially after you've been drinking--'cuz you're a force to be reckoned with. People aren't sure how to feel about you--" And to add icing to the cake he read the last line in a high-pitched bellow, "Because you're out of this world!"

"You know how I hate you, right?" Keith crossed his arms, waiting for Lance to finish his delighted kick-jig over how accurate the quiz's outcome was. "I take it back, I abhor you."

"Comme ci comme ça." Lance shrugged, yelping when Keith took his opportunity to snatch the magazine from Lance's loose hold. He rolled it up and tossed it in the bin. "The truth hurts, am I right?"

The only way to curb Lance was to deflect the topic back onto him. "You take the quiz and tell me you don't get fuckin' astronomical busy-body or some shit."

Lance pressed a hand to his chest, feigning insult. "What's that supposed to mean? You looking down on me, mister penniless drop-out?"

"I've got a handful of quarters right here." Keith opened his palm, half-wishing it was empty so he could slap Lance with it. "And the ability to get you in big trouble at work."

Lance scrunched his eyes almost shut, daring Keith to continue. "Do you now?"

"The bee-keeper. You don't deliver to his house. I met him today." Keith knew he had Lance in the bag when he dragged his hands down his face with a dreadful, "Oh," followed by, "But you've been protesting by tossing the paper into his pond!"

Keith shrugged. "At least I deliver it."

"C'mon, Keith. You wouldn't treat a friend that way."

"So we're friends now?" Keith pivoted and leaned against the row of dryers. "I won't tell if you make me a deal." Lance clasped his hands together and raised them above his head in empty prayer, a gesture for Keith to continue and an admittance of defeat. "I want the southwest route permanently, no more switching."

"Really? That's it?" Lance had been expecting much worse. Keith considered upping the ante, but he didn't actually dislike Lance. He just greatly irked him. "Fine by me."

"Good." Keith nodded, satisfied with their exchange.

"Why though? It's a total pain in the ass and the pay doesn't change." Lance asked and then he gasped, jumping to conclusions. "You dig him."

Keith shoved his hand into his pocket for another cigarette, ready to end the conversation. "Remember when I called you a busy-body? Not even five minutes ago?"

"Naaaah," Lance was quick to bounce back and find new ammo to pester Keith with; it was like his fucking hobby or something. "After all, what're friends for? You can tell me, I can keep a secret."

"No." Keith lit, inhaled, exhaled. The man on the corner had gotten up and gathered what money he'd made, pocketing it before zipping up his guitar for the evening. The kids behind him had already dispersed. "Just, no."

"You say that for now. Oh yeah, did Hunk message you about the bakery crash yet?" Lance changed subjects faster than whiplash. "This morning Starflour was delivering a commissioned cake to the folks at that new air force base 'cross Macbeth Mesa. They drove into the storm, since it was moving that way, and got something strange on camera. Coran was so distracted they hit the curb and got a flat."

Lance was infatuated with the young heir of the shop, Allura, and followed Starflour's Twitter religiously. She'd posted a grainy video about twenty-eight seconds long. He pulled it up and showed Keith.

The eye of the storm had that kind of bright gray light to it. She had rolled down the window so the wind speed was loud. Directly in front of them, hovering in the sky, was an orbicular aircraft.

"Maybe a balloon?" Allura questioned.

"No way, no way. Look at that thing! It's huge!" Hunk exclaimed off camera.

Coran attempted to reason. "Well, if it tries anything we can just give them the cake."

"Over my dead bod--shit, it's moving!"

The UFO banked, shifting upward and slowly ascending before it blinked straight up and out of existence.

"Friends," Hunk again. "Was that an encounter of the first kind?"

The video ended with Allura laughing, concern laced in her tone. Her caption on the tweet had been: Macbeth AFB is scotch free, they just ate the cake.

Keith hadn't realized how incredulous his expression had become until Lance mimicked him. "You think it was aliens?"

"You don't?" Keith shot back. "Or are you claiming you don't trust Allura?"

"Nonsense. She's the alien. Her beauty is not of this earth..."

Keith was too distracted to hear any more of Lance's habitual worship of the pretty patissier. He knew her true colors well enough, anyway. The back of his neck prickled, eyes growing dry and then misting. From across the street, sitting in a plastic pink chair at the gelato front, Keith was being watched.

His laundry had four minutes left on the dryer, but he stopped the cycle early and began shoving his clothes into the hamper. Shiro's shirt he took and folded neatly on top again. Lance was finishing up as well, still chattering on with or without Keith's input. He glimpsed the observer still there, unmoving with a white Styrofoam cup sitting on the table and casting the whole scene like a peculiar stock image. "Your mom picking you up with the van?"

"Yep, you need a ride home?"

"No, just be careful." Instinct told him to part ways. "It's been a strange day."

As if on cue, Lance's mother pulled up and blocked their view. Keith gathered his hamper. He couldn't go out the backdoor; they might assume he'd entered the vehicle. So he stood and waited. "See you later."

"The party next weekend!" Lance tossed a wave over his shoulder, climbing into the sedan after the clothes. His mother turned back into traffic. The figure across the street was gone. Keith opened the door with his foot and started down the street. No one followed him home, and when he texted Lance later that night he was told he was too paranoid.

The problem was that this wasn't the first time; not the second either. It had started about two months ago. Just unsettling figures here and there making their presence known; not noticed by fellow pedestrians. Frankly, it was creepy as hell.

Allura had guessed it was the dark stranger phenomenon, perspicacious as she was without him having to say much at all. She'd told him it was much more dark and strange to have a stalker in real life than a mystery man in one's dreams. Keith couldn't exactly disagree. Regardless, he handled it the way he handled pretty much everything: he'd deal with it when it became a real threat. Otherwise, he couldn't be assed.

But Keith dreamed every night. Sometimes over meaningless or mundane matters and others intense, sublime revelations that startled him out of sleep disarrayed and grumpy. Often his dark stranger would be on the curtails, right against his peripheral. Even if he rolled out of bed to pull some cards on the matter, what was left to interpretation usually went null after time or crop-dusted his waking life with the cruel stink of vindication.

One of the latter type of dreams had him launching from his mattress and stumbling over his blanket to greet the wall with his hands, nearly his face. Scarlet was poised on the headboard observing his flailing with what could only be described as feline amusement.

He took a deep breath, barring his weight on the palms pressed against his Dio poster, ripped a little off the pins, and recounted.

It was mostly gauze doused fields of bloody baby's breath next to a lavender ocean, a foggy pastel galaxy cutting the sky. The rush had ripped the dream from his memory--a nightmare, judging by his shortness of breath and the catapult into reality. Talk about waking up on the wrong side of bed; he was several feet away from his.

His alarm blared seconds later like gunshots ricocheting through his groggy, sensitive ears. He smashed the snooze with the heel of his foot. 4:20 am. Tuesday morning, his precious day off. He'd clocked about three hours of sleep, wired and half-dead, reminiscing the one time he'd slammed back several Jaeger-bombs in a row. And not in the good way.

The sun was kissing the flat desert horizon behind his apartment when Keith unlocked his bike from the rack he'd nailed into the ground and set off towards Shiro's house. A small buzz of bees were already gathered to greet him when he skirted down Alabaster Lane. This time he picked up speed, standing on the pedals and leaning forward. They spiraled in a migratory cloud as he went but didn't touch him, and only when he rolled up to the front yard and dropped his bike did they begin to disperse.

Shiro was sitting on the rocking chair in his front porch with a cup of steaming coffee and wide eyes. "Warm welcome, huh? Didn't expect to see you again so soon."

"You have... friendly bees." Keith wove his way through the maze, hitting a dead end and just stepping carefully over the hedge. Lingering bees trailed after him, forming a wave in the sky above his head.

"You know, there's a theory that bees are attracted to royalty." Shiro got up from his chair.

"I've also heard it's aliens." Keith played along, rounding the pond to the front steps.

"Alien royalty, maybe." Shiro held the door open for him. "Have you had breakfast yet? I was thinking of fixing up some pancakes."

Keith grinned. "I won't stand on ceremony then." Once they were inside he pulled Shiro's shirt out of his backpack and handed it to him.

"Keep it. It doesn't fit me well anyway." The point of their unspoken rendezvous was not the shirt of course, and it remained tacit between them.

As Shiro prepared the ingredients, Keith befriended his judgmental cat and offered to help. Shiro had him juicing a bucket of oranges he'd received from his distant neighbors.

"How's your head? You've got a bit of a black-eye forming, I see."

"A bit sore, but I'm okay." His stomach grumbled loudly.

"You..." Shiro drifted off, flipping the fourth pancake. "Are you getting enough to eat?"

"Yeah." It was a blatant lie. "I live by a grocery mart, so..."

Shiro stacked the pancakes and went to his fridge. "Will you grab the large frying pan on the wall over there?" He pulled out some eggs and sausage.

Keith obeyed, but under protest. "You don't have to."

"I want to." Shiro replied. "I'm no psychic but I can tell when someone is lying. Do you not have family you can rely on?" The way Keith shrunk into himself at the query was answer enough. "That was too blunt, sorry."

"No, it's not like that. Besides, you're right." Keith poured the fresh juice into the pitcher Shiro supplied him. It was a bit early both literally and figuratively to be having this conversation, but fuck it. Shiro was... a special case. "My dad died when I was sixteen. Never met my mom, but he always said she'd come back one day. I think it was just a promise to calm a rowdy kid. I don't have any other family, so I've been on my own for awhile now. I'm used to it, though."

"That's a tough lot." Shiro frowned at the bacon popping and spitting smoke in the pan. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened?"

Keith divvied up the pancakes from the large plate to two smaller ones. His father's last words, lying frail in the hospital bed and clutching Keith's hand with a weak hold, "Your mom wanted you to live a normal life. I couldn't give that to you--I can't--and I'm so sorry for that. Promise me you'll do the right thing. Promise me you'll wait." He was doomed to this hell hole over a dying oath he couldn't bear to break.

"He got sick. Lung rot, from the mines." Keith sighed, "We put all our savings into keeping him comfortable. After that, I was given social security until I turned eighteen, not really enough. But I started working to support myself way before that."

For some reason Keith felt lighter for getting it all off his chest. He'd lived most of his life somewhere slightly screwy and to the left, choosing to be never quite all there as a survival mechanism. His high school counselor told him that was called dissociating, but he was used to it. Coming down to face the world without looking at it through a funhouse mirror made him sick; gave him a notion he wasn't supposed to be here, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Shiro winced a little, completing a stack of six pancakes and shifting around the eggs and bacon. "If it's any condolence, you're pretty impressive."

"Anyone would do the same in that situation." Keith tipped a shoulder.

"Don't sell yourself short." Shiro scraped more than half the eggs and bacon slices onto Keith's plate. "I lost my parents when I was a teenager too. They died in a car accident. My extended family wanted nothing to do with me, since my mother was a die-hard alcoholic and my dad had ties with some bad people. Well, I wasn't a great kid either. I had no other choice but to enlist since I couldn't keep the house. Instead I ran away and followed my dad's footsteps for awhile. You're much stronger than I was." He caught Keith glimpsing his arm again and smiled, reaching out to muss his hair. It was a natural movement, and Keith swatted it away, ducking to hide the curl of his lips. "I got my shit together eventually, only because they threatened to raze the house. This place has always been important to me."

"Have you always lived here?" Keith had a dozen questions on the tip of his tongue, especially about the arm, but that one escaped without permission.

Shiro shook his head. "Moved around a lot, but I missed home too much."

"I can tell you take good care of the place." They sat down to eat, Shiro handing him a spare set of silverware and pouring him a glass of OJ.

"Its a demanding job, but worth it." Shiro handed him the honey jar instead of syrup for the hotcakes, "Taught me humility real fast."

"Did you always keep bees?" Keith dug in, savoring the taste of fresh food that didn't come out of BPA plastic trying to kill him slowly.

"No, actually, I started up the practice two years ago. Something felt right about it..." Shiro shooed Sootface off the table, adjusting his thought. "Had to figure out how to make an honest living."

"Just what did you do before this?" He'd spoken without thinking again.

Shiro locked eyes with Keith, considered, and then shrugged. "That's a story for another day."

Keith finished his entire plate, filing away the Freudian slip for another time. Shiro was a fascinating person living a modestly unique life on the surface. However, his mysterious background was both enticing and concerning.

Keith had a photographic memory and thought in images, colors, lines, shades and lightings. What he could rarely put into words he could paint onto the canvas of his mind: the loud, annoying grocery market noons; the stoic and meditative solitude of late night walks downtown, lonely laundromat visits; a sunset through a narrow window overlooking clumps of cacti and broken down playgrounds; a storming road crackling with a cut of lightning. Shiro's existence was a sketch of secret garden velvet and metal scraps and delicious home cooked meals in a quaint house delved in the scent of honey. But lurking just behind that cozy scheme Keith saw a darkness licked by one hundred flames and casting dangerous shadows.

He found himself smiling despite the vision, with Shiro returning the expression, humored. "Earth to Keith? Sometimes you look like you're lost in space."

He got that a lot, but from Shiro it was genuine and appreciated. "It happens. Uh, thanks for breakfast. The honey is delicious, by the way."

"Any time." Shiro leaned forward. "And I mean that."

His phone rang. It was a landline hanging on the wall and probably as old as the house. Shiro excused himself to answer it and pulled the cord around, into the living room. Keith peeked through the wooden doorbeads hanging in the entryway. It was a mess. Dusty and with moth-eaten curtains filtering pale light. Stacks of papers and cracked CD cases crowded the coffeetable and had slipped off to slide around on the floor, wooden and carpeted with a once beautifully woven rug-turned-cat-scratcher. The couch still had a ghostly cover, and lying atop it was some strange mechanical looking object hidden under a shag. Shiro had disappeared round the corner.

"Hello?" A pause. "Yeah, I figured it might... well, for the parts to be of any value they'd have to be refurbished... I can take it in. No? Alright... Call me again if there's an issue... Got it, thanks."

From what Keith could gather it wasn't a motor vehicle he was talking about. Maybe that thing on the couch. Keith's eyes drifted over the dining table and caught on a file underneath the week's smudged news. He pulled it closer to examine it. PROJECT GESTALT, NASA 009222.

He shoved it back where he found it when Shiro returned, apologizing. "Business call," was the only information he divulged, smoothing over the topic with ease. "This might be out of the blue, but you seem familiar--past seeing you from a distance on Sunday mornings. Are you sure you haven't been to the farmer's market? Maybe the harvest festival last year?"

"I haven't, I was working. I've had a lot of part time jobs all over town, though." Keith hesitated to admit he felt the same about Shiro. It was a small town, but not small enough to chock it up to coincidence. The book was nagging at him, the skeletal machine in his living room hard to ignore once he'd spotted it. "I'm," he got up and placed his dishes in the sink. "I've gotta head out. I promised a friend I'd help her with... a project." It wasn't a lie, but stumbling over his words made it sound like one.

Shiro gave him the benefit of the doubt, lips marred by the slightest frown. "Need a ride back into town?"

"No." Too clipped. Keith headed toward the hallway. "Thanks, though." He added a little too late.

Shiro walked him to the door and held the screen partition open. "Feel free to drop by whenever." He smiled at Keith, eyes dragging lazily down his body without trying to hide it. "It's lonely out here by myself."

Keith felt the urge to roll his eyes, fighting the heat creeping up the back of his neck. "Get a cow. Or a goat." He suggested, and maybe it was a little too mean but Shiro laughed anyway.

"Ride safe."

Keith saluted. "Never do."

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: 《 good fences make good neighbors

Starflour was the only bakery in town and it was absolutely flourishing. Every morning at eight, a smart queue would form to snatch up the freshest loaves before they sold out. Seniors came by the afternoon for scones or tea cookies and teenagers seeking an aesthetic sugar high argued over the expense of French macarons. In between the store was a ghost until local business lunch rush.

Keith wheeled up to the glass walls painted in sun-baked floral print. He didn't bother to chain his bike--once he'd had it stolen as a senior prank in high school. To this day they have no idea how he hunted them down, but rumors spread and they weren't far from the truth. He'd beat the snot out of the asshole who'd been trying him his entire school career, gotten suspended two weeks before graduation, and never lived it down since. Keith didn't mind the reputation, if anything it empowered him.

When he entered the shop bells jingled and Allura looked up from where she was checking food temperature behind the pastry display. "Coran, Keith's here. I'm going on my break!" She bellowed into the kitchen, pulling off her apron.

"Don't do anything I would do!" He bellowed back.

Allura rolled her eyes at Keith. "Had a dream about you last night."

"Did you."

They weren't exactly friends, but they weren't mortal enemies either. They'd grown up together, their fathers working the same industry until Alfor retired to pursue his dream of opening a patisserie; but he'd also given in to disease a few years before Keith's dad, and his step brother Coran returned from his backpacking adventures to help out in the shop until Allura could handle it on her own.

She was like Keith--empathically gifted and in her preferred terms, "Woke AF".

"You and your dark stranger." She explained, hooking her arm through his and dragging him back out the door. "Pillars of fire, a dead-man-walking to the edge of the ocean. The sand was drenched in blood. You're an edgelord."

"Who said it was mine?" Keith shot back, tugging his arm free and picking up his bike. Once he'd balanced it she stood on the spokes, digging her pointy black manicure into Keith's shoulders.

"Who else would it be?" She slapped his back like he was a mule as he heaved on the pedals to gain momentum. "Unless you've met him."

Allura certainly was multi-talented but her most profound ability was getting on Keith's nerves. "He was right under my nose this whole time."

"Who is it?" She asked as they banked around the corner and towards Elemental Arts & Antiques, one of several independently owned boutiques scattered throughout Silver's scant downtown strip.

"Figure it out yourself." He grumbled.

Allura hopped off the bike with a skipping step before he slowed to a stop, scoffing in pretend dismay. "I intend to. By the way, what's with the situation?" She mimed a circle around her eye.

Keith pressed the pads of his fingers against the slight bruising on his own face. "Karma's a bitch."

"And you were just resisting?"

"I have bad credit." He argued, "It's part of being skeptical."

Allura tried to hold in a laugh and failed. "Please, Keith." She was, of course, referring to his lies. He was hot-blooded and impulsive but the transmundane--the more of the equation revealed--the less in control he felt. Keith had grown adept at dropping the ball. If it was important enough, it would try harder; if he really wanted it, he'd lock and pursue. Trouble was Keith had never really found anything worth the chase. He could feel it lurking in his bones, but he didn't like that, so he chose to ignore it.

They entered the tiny shop with their noses turned away from each other. Elemental masqueraded as a modern art front, but the waltz of a practiced eye would sniff pagan influences lining its pristine glass shelves. It was a small paradise of pretty blown glass and air plants, cut crystal refracting prisms off the high sun, trinket boxes, local art obscure and bizarre, oils and teas. It supplied their proverbial broom closets--especially with entheogens that flew beneath the legal radar. Hell, Hal even sold them weed under the table. It was a good gig.

They went once or twice a month, always together out of habitual routine. Today Keith's shopping list consisted mostly of refills.

Hal was fiddling with a new tablet register on his stool by the encased fine jewelry. While Allura went to greet him, Keith browsed the hand dipped incenses. Lavender, rosemary, sandalwood. Those were his usuals. He picked up a handful of each and noted a honey scent. He grabbed a few of those as well, entirely out of impulse, of course.

"It finally came in!" Allura chimed in delight. "So, what's the damage?"

Hal unwrapped a quartz mortar and pestle. "I can't changing the price, love." He remained resolute. "Most of my customers are here for art, not work, and that's what I bank on."

"Yes, an absolute conversation piece." Allura wasn't buying it. "How many weeks do I have to wait til you discount it this time?"

She was deadly serious and she had a sound point. Hal sighed, but a chuckle came with it. "Same price. I'll cancel that front you owed me, how's that?"

Allura smiled, having learned from the best (Coran was an ace bargainer). "Throw in 2.5 ounces of essential mugwort oil and we have a deal."

"You know that's already on the house." Hal laughed, fallen for her charm, and dipped into the back of the shop. Allura grinned over at Keith where he was contemplating a fancy copper goblet encrusted with agates.

He wasn't much of a materials kind of guy. He collected rocks, usually from the annual gem faire in Las Cruses, sometimes by pure luck down at river-mouths near the Black Range. He had his deck of tarot cards Allura had given him years ago. Candles and bottles of mini-mart seasonings (salt, always, and cinnamon was his favorite--it spiced up literally any intention) made daily living a tad less miserable. Today, nevertheless, something caught his eye: a concave black disc sitting on a gold leaf stand. A scrying mirror.

It was a pretty penny but Keith bought it with the wad of tip money thickening his wallet from the weekend. Then he biked Allura back to Starflour, swinging down the alley where they loitered by the cardboard compressor, sitting on flattened boxes.

Allura fished her bag out of the bike basket along with Keith's copy of the weekly tabloid. "Got a smoke?"

Keith dug into his pack, tossed one over, placed another between his lips. He flicked his zippo and held it with a grimace while Allura lit hers and unrolled the paper.

She opened up to the horoscopes as he lit his. "Aquarius. This week will be advantageous for you so long as you stay faithful to yourself. Check." She exhaled smoke and continued, "With Mercury Retrograde in its final week, be careful of making promises. You can't keep your feet on the ground with your head in the clouds. As always, keep your friends close, your enemies closer." She nudged Keith. "Scoot here."

"Haha, very funny."

Allura adjusted her cut-off Levi shorts, hosiery beneath them already torn and powdered with flour, and skimmed to his. "Scorpio. With Venus transiting the eighth house, take note of any financial interests popping up on your radar. Be wary of your temper, Scorpio, as the retrograde will test your patience in the relationship sector. Perhaps there is a light shining under the horizon."

Allura was making a queer face at him, half shrouded in the cloud of smoke between them. "Tell me I'm wrong." She didn't have to elaborate. Keith's own words had been: bad company.

"Something's off." Keith tried to deflect, but Allura wasn't having it.

"Like what? What were you expecting?"

"So, uh..." Keith let smoke drift from his lips in hopes she'd drop the subject.

Allura pulled her hair down to re-do her bun. "Aren't you a little freaked out?"

"Well, yeah."

"Okay." Allura seemed to relax. "I know we don't do mushy stuff but I care about you, Keith. Something is off about this, I feel it to. So just be careful, I guess."

Keith accepted her side hug with an embarrassed thanks and got to his feet after snubbing his cigarette butt on the asphalt. "I'll see you around."

"The party this weekend." Allura reminded him.

"Lance said it was next weekend."

"It's this Friday." She reassured. "No more excuses. There's still time to take a day off, right?"

"We'll see." Keith angled his bike and hopped the curb before she could wrangle him any more.

She still called after him, "Don't think I've forgotten about Mr. Dark and Strange! I'm on to you!"

He waved a hand and kept pedaling.

There was a feeling that struck Shiro from time to time: a disturbance in the force. Normally, the daily shift of energies went unnoticed and undisturbed--especially if they were from a foreign body. It wasn't that Shiro had a gift, but that his land was gifted.

His house was smack in the middle of a ley-line crossroads; a powerhouse in the universal grid; a rift in space-time... it went by many names and had many mysterious properties. The most notable was his ability to pick up on trespassers. And of those, Shiro had overstock. They were not always organic, often consisting of bladed wings, metallic bones, radio frequency voices.

The ley-lines sucked them in like magnets from hell knows where. Sometimes local hobbiests and their tiny crafts (last week, a father and his daughter tracked their model rocket to where it exploded on his property); other times more expensive rigs with no one to claim them, like the antique model airplane he found half buried in the dirt like it'd been there for years when he'd just walked the trail yesterday.

Today what fell from his sky was ominous.

No, no. No no no. No.

Shiro watched the drone spiral over his property, trailing smoke and fumes in its descent. He'd pulled his phone cord as far as it could go.

It rang and rang. He was just about to give up and take the risk thundering in his head when the receiver clicked. "This is Holt's Hobby and Workshop, how may I help you?"

"It's Shiro." He craned his neck to follow a failed swoop when the drone tried to gain more altitude. "Uh, I have a problem."

There was rustling on the other line for a moment and Matt cursed. "Sorry, what's the problem?"

"I'm pretty sure one of Macbeth's drones is gonna crash on my property. I'm watching it, it's suffering."

Matt snorted. "Think they're doing it on purpose?"

It was supposed to be a joke but Shiro was currently witnessing a bad premonition first hand, and it painted him in a surreal mood. "Either way, if it lands they're going to have an excuse to trespass."

"You're not thinking of..." Shiro could hear Matt audibly shaking his head. "Let them have this one. Or call your superior."

"Not the right department." The drone took a nosedive and adjusted, barely skimming the ground. "I knew they'd come out here eventually, but..."

"But what?" Matt urged him. "What are you gonna do if it lands?"

"I need somewhere to hide it." They both knew the "it" he referred to was different. "Not your place, but I'll need your help."

"Where then?"

"Are you free tomorrow evening?"

"Yeah, and you know I'll help you. But are you sure this is a good idea?"

And his phone light turned red. There was the risk of being overheard, he realized. "I'll pick you up at ten."

Keith worked the graveyard shift at the only 24-hour diner in town during the week. It was a decaying Denny's and an absolute liminal space. The moon always looked warped out the wavy glass squares bricking the wall and the entire restaurant sat just outside of the convenient urban stretch of Silver; squat in the middle of an oversized, underlit parking lot crowded by poorly planned palm trees always sagging from thirst. It'd never changed since its erection in the late seventies and probably never would.

There were always people here. Always. Drunk and stoned teenagers, elderly folk with insomnia, locals in need of a pick-me-up, usually the garbage men and gas station clerks. The regulars were the oil miners. When they were off shift they were at Denny's and Keith would swear they never really left.

They'd pushed together four tables and made a Last Supper spectacle of themselves, swigging out of flasks hidden in inner pockets or just straight pouring liquor over ice in their plastic jewel-case cups.

"I've been working the mesa since I was twenty-two." Said one, beard braided to stay clean. His fingers were stained black. "Seen my fair share of weird shit."

"Glowing shafts top your list?" Bellowed another, jovially rotund despite his employment. "Fall into one too many and hurt your head?"

"Might be volcanic." Suggested a younger fellow, digging into his scrambled eggs. "We went too deep and shook the earth."

"Listen to this kid!" A miner in his forties chuckled, "The mines're dead and the glow's just our tired eyes playing tricks on us."

"How many folk have died down there?" Keith knew this one, Frank, ancient but made of muscle and will. He did his rounds topping off coffees while he eavesdropped. "Probably just haunted."

"I do hear voices when I'm alone sometimes." Braided-beard chimed in again. "Can't understand a thing they say."

"It's a warning, I tell ya. The kid might be onto something."

"Yeah, imminent death." Muttered the young one under his breath.

Keith passed by to refill his neighbor's mug. Another middle-aged man with no outstanding features except a windbreaker that smelled like mildew. He eyed Keith as he poured the coffee, which spilt when he felt a hand on the small of his back.

Keith jerked away with a leer just as a customer entered the lobby: a familiar crew cut sporting a white streak and a scarred nose.

He'd probably had Shiro as a customer before, but they'd been strangers none the wiser and never committed each other's faces to memory. Even though he stood out, strangely, and--even now Shiro seemed a stranger. Keith was used to the sideline Shiro he'd glimpse when delivering papers: hard-working, grimy, in cover-alls. The person sitting at the table before him was preoccupied. His hair was slicked back from sweat and he had a leather jacket over a plain but dusty white shirt, greaser style, and ripped jeans--dirty in proof they weren't stressed that way to be sold. He was just as surprised at Keith, it showed in his arched brow.

"Small world!" Shiro exclaimed, "How many jobs do you have?"

"Three." Keith set down the coffee mug and its accompanying pot, fighting the small smile trying the corners of his mouth. Instead he wiped his hands on his grubby apron. His uniform was always a mess: fraying dickies, a loathful mustard Peter pan shirt, unshined nametag, and hair pulled back in a tiny ponytail. "The third one is a secret."

"I hope it's not anything shady." Shiro was half-joking, half deadly serious.

"You're the one looking shady." Keith opened his checkbook. "What're you doing here at four in the morning looking like that?"

"I've got secrets too." Shiro grinned at him. "If I find you at your third job, then I'll tell you."

"Suspicious." Keith narrowed his eyes. There was a throb aside from the heady thrill of meeting unexpectedly; it lingered like a dense fog. His instinct was never wrong. Dark, he reminded himself, and strange.

"It's nothing illegal." Shiro reassured him, glancing aside. "So to speak." He could tell Keith was unsettled. He opened his mouth and closed it, deciding not to add insult to injury, and opened the menu instead. "What time are you off?" At the same time one of the mining apostles yelled, "Y'all sell pizza here!?"

"Six." Keith sighed. "I'll be right back to take your order."

But Keith never came back, and after ten minutes Shiro got up to ask about him. The waitress wrapping silverware shrugged. "I saw him go out back, maybe his break. You need something, hon?"

"Nah, I'll just pay for my coffee and be on my way." Once he'd paid he circled the store. He had seen the way Keith's shoulders rose like an angry cat's when he went to address the customer, who had gotten up, vanishing himself, and was now concerned. Keith's bike was still chained up to the dumpster and not a soul was around.

He stood in the parking lot and closed his eyes, listening. The buzz of lamps and the hum of distant cars. The sound of scraping, struggle; a hitched cough. Shiro crossed the street towards the crumbling brick wall barring a train track and found Keith spitting blood and saliva, uniform disheveled. The miner was on the ground eating dirt, grunting curses under his breath. Keith kicked him in the ribs and stomped on his dick for good measure before Shiro yanked him back as the man wheezed in agony.

"I bet you want to lick my balls, you old prick!" Keith shouted at him, yanking out of Shiro's grip but making no move to retaliate.

The miner shrugged his over-all straps back on his shoulders and spat, limping to his truck.

"I'm going to lose my job." Keith just sat on the dirt, legs splayed in a half-assed pretzel, and unpocketed his crushed pack of cigarettes, digging for one that hadn't been snapped. He didn't even bother to rip off his apron, torn at the pockets from grappling.

"I can vouch for you as a witness." Shiro crouched to inspect the damage with a small flashlight attached to his keyring. There was blood at the corner of Keith's mouth from biting the inside of his cheek, and already the beginnings of a rose-colored bruise. "You're prone to injury, aren't you?"

Keith huffed out smoke. "I've been told I often ask for it." It surprised Shiro and made Keith realize just how little they knew about each other. Funny how it didn't feel that way at all though, like there was nothing secret between them. "That fuckface has been harassing me for weeks. I know the crowd pretty well, mostly grumpy old men and a few summer workers looking for extra cash."

"What happened?" Shiro squatted against the crumbling brick.

"Not much." Keith shrugged. "But when he grabbed my ass I told him to meet me outside and he got the wrong idea."

That made Shiro snort. "Sorry--"

Keith smiled between plumes of smoke, amused at his own expense. "It's fine." He winced when Shiro reached out to thumb the caking blood at the corner of his mouth, instinctively leaning into the touch before realizing what he was doing. He snubbed out his cigarette and got to his feet. "Time to go get fired."

Shiro's hand lingered in the now empty space and then dropped to his knee to stand up. "Let me talk to your manager. Wait here."

Shiro swiped the blood on his thumb off on his jeans and crossed the street while Keith peaked over the brick wall, watching blurred figures beyond the glass. He licked his lips, stinging, not expecting much. But he really couldn't afford to lose this job. Granny Shorts barely made enough to keep her strore up and running and Keith refused to let her lower his rent and utilities. Saving up for school was a pipe dream he puffed on from time to time, but really with his three small hours jobs he barely made enough to survive, let alone plan for a future.

He'd come to terms with that. Blue collar work, a few days to himself, maybe some extra cash here and there for his vices. That was enough. But he would break the bank without soul-sucking Denny's. It was his main source of income.

He'd turned his back on the shithole diner and leaned against the brick, lighting another cigarette and squinting at the green star hovering on the horizon when Shiro returned. "You're good." He wore a wide grin. "I spun the truth a little, but a few of the miners stood up for you. They said the new guy's a cuck. Also, you're good to go for the night. Your tips are yours when you come in tomorrow, and you'll have to write a statement."

Keith guffawed, almost choking on the smoke in his lungs. "Damn," He schooled himself, somewhat embarrassed. "Thank you, Shiro. I owe you one."

"Don't sweat it." Shiro was still beaming; it wasn't affection but something awfully close.

He caught a ride with Shiro after shoving his bike in the truck bed next to a folded tarp. He didn't really want to go home but he was covered in food, grease, and dirt.

Shiro didn't seem to mind though. "Do you want to come over? Have some coffee while I fix you up?"

"I'm okay." Keith's pride got in the way. "The other guy had it worse."

"I saw." Shiro's chuckle was a tenor like fine wine. Keith found himself smiling along, amused, as Shiro turned up the radio playing Alice in Chains' Man in the Box.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: 《 bad omens around the eyes

Shiro had nightmares often; daily even. Sometimes the crash, sometimes mundane anxieties; but most of the time it was traumas from another life. Some other world, some other person wearing his face. Maybe it was chaos created in his image, with his own breath speaking the disaster to follow. Maybe that was his curse.

He stood within a sand storm, painful clouds whipping around him. The ground at his feet crumbled away into pyramidal shapes branching out in roots: as above, so below. His eyes were scratched and bleeding; blinding him to the iridescent glow descending from the heavens, parting the fiery funnels dead-man-walking in consummation around him. It was rumbling louder and louder, gaining on him--

He woke to Sootface kneading sharp claws on his chest. Sun streamed from the broken blinds, highlighting planes of dust particles. He'd fallen asleep on the couch again; a crick in his neck and a charlie horse in one leg.

His alarm clicked onto the radio, spouting the bridge from The Rolling Stones' Paint it Black.

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not foresee this thing happening to you
If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes...

While he let his eyes adjust and Sootface hopped off his chest to perch by her food bowl, he thought of Keith--ever so briefly--like he'd been hiding in the brontide of his dream just beyond the pale light. Blood was on his lips and he was dragging, pulling, forcing Shiro to go, run, get away.

But from what?

Do you want to do it again?

He rose, wiping sweat off his brow, feeding Sootface before picking up scattered mechanical parts and wires, stacking them into a padded box. After storing it in his garage and draping a shag back over the now empty couch, Shiro began his morning routine. He ground coffee beans before setting them to drip and placed a pan over the fryer, flipping the flame and oiling it.

Shiro was a man of cluttered organization. He followed a set pattern in his day to day that to an outsider probably seemed monotonously chaotic.

He cracked two eggs, tossed two cuts of bacon into the pan, and returned to his coffee: steaming warm and black as void. After dumping the grounds in the shed outback where he composted, he returned to slightly burnt bacon and well-done eggs.

It was Monday morning. Hazy, like it had something to hide. He considered making a second batch, eating straight from the pan without seasoning his breakfast. Instead he stepped onto the porch, sipping his wake-me-up, and waited.

Keith was running late. The bees were already buzzing about collecting pollen, hovering around the hedge maze in anticipation. "You can sense it too, huh?" He muttered as one fussed about his coffee. He'd almost finished the cup when he heard the familiar creaking of strained tires. Keith peddled down his driveway, no longer swiping the hoard away but yelling, "I need to see where I'm going!"

He careened to an abrupt halt before the hedges and let his bike drop to the ground. It was only the third time since they'd been acquainted, but a habit had already formed.

The bees wove in lazy circles around Keith, delighted with his presence, until he spotted Shiro on his rocking chair and waved with the paper, hopping the maze to hand deliver it.

"Good morning." Shiro greeted.

"Kinda." Keith gave him the roll of news. "A freight train was stuck in the intersection at 135th and Fresno because it hit a cow."

"A cow?" Shiro stood, beckoning Keith inside. He followed him through the open screen door and into the kitchen, where Shiro prepared a fresh pot of coffee.

"Yeah," Keith was already comfortable enough to lean against the counter and watch as Shiro ground the beans. "It was already dead, though. And mutilated, apparently. Gossip is some kids thought it'd be a funny prank. I had to bike a mile out of my way to get around the pile up."

A thin layer of perspiration glistened on Keith's forehead as he swiped his bangs back with a sigh. His clothes were dusty since they were in a dry spell currently; coating his dark jeans and bleached Nirvana shirt in tan musk. Shiro set the dripper over the new mug he'd purchased just for Keith--picked it up on impulse at an antique store last weekend. It was a handmade clay masterpiece painted the colors of the New Mexican sunset and dotted with tiny hot air balloons. "There's been more of those lately. Last week's paper said three were found in Cooper's field just outside the abandoned Maltese mine shaft."

"Granny Shorts is convinced it was aliens." It was a recurring topic with Keith. "She said that kind of thing used to happen so often in her time that there was no way local kids after shits and giggles could be the cause of it." At Shiro's huff of amusement he added, flustered, "Her words, not mine." He was thankful when Shiro handed him the warm cup, sniffing the brew with a sigh of contentment. "This mug is cute."

Just like you, Shiro refrained from saying; though Keith's reaction might have been worth it. "I figured having an extra one around might be useful." He said instead.

The red tinting Keith's cheeks could have been from the steam, but the demure downcast of his eyes promised otherwise. "This is the best coffee in town." He kicked back from his lean on the counter and took the honey jar Shiro held out to him, stirring some into the mug.

"It's nothing special." Shiro smiled as Keith puffed to cool the liquid, cradling the mug in his hands like a vice. "Drip coffee just isn't really a thing in the boonies."

"It should be." Keith set down his mug, trailing his hands over the line of candles waxed into the kitchen window-frame. It overlooked the garden and the apiary, ripe with summer annuals and colorful despite the heatwave. "Is it fun?"

"Hmm?" Shiro strode to stand beside him and take in the view. The sun was risen and blaring hot across the yardside.

"Making honey and wax and stuff."

"And stuff is an understatement." Shiro chuckled, "I'm trying out something new. It's a secret, you wanna see?"

Curiosity piqued, Keith scooped up his mug and followed Shiro into the backyard. He'd taken the grounds with him and added it to the compost where worms and beetles did their job in a giant plastic container, shaded by the shed overhang. Inside was where Shiro did most of his work. Comb collecting buckets were stacked by the entrance and a long table was filled with scrapers, an extraction centrifuge, and bottles to dump honey into. Behind that was a giant keg. Shiro lifted the metal lid and let Keith peer in.

The vat was full of a golden liquid and, "It smells like liquor."

"I'm making mead." Shiro replaced the cover. "If this batch comes out well, I'll start bottling and selling it."

"I've never had mead, always wanted to try it though." Keith was impressed. He took another sip of coffee before turning on his heels to take in the workshop. "What else do you make?"

This wide-eyed, unguarded Keith had a childlike demeanor that Shiro almost took for granted. He'd noticed Keith's reticence and stand-offish disposition but it seemed a farce. The young man awed before him now was full of soul and wonder beyond his time, more in tune with nature than most of their dazed and confused generation. Shiro decided to play show and tell. "Want to help me out for the day? I'll make you lunch."

Keith released a small snort in spite of himself. "I just thought, that would be the bees knees."

Yeah, Shiro was smitten.

He didn't have an extra beesuit, but he figured Keith didn't need one--and he was right. The bees came out to greet him when they approached the apiary, moved out of his way as Shiro showed him the technique for pulling comb without disturbing the hives. Once they'd collected everything, they brought the buckets back into the shed.

"This is the extractor." He guided Keith to a slotted centrifuge. "You take the comb blocks and fit them in here." Keith did as instructed. "It runs through a cycle and gets out the grit and broken comb. Some people prefer it unrefined, but most of my income is from this."

They scraped the honey fresh and moved it to the table. "I'm working on getting a bottler but for now I do it by hand." There was a siphon where the honey was poured, then capped, labeled, and set into a crate. Shiro stood behind Keith as he worked, leaning over him to keep him from dribbling the honey on the jar. "Hold on, you've got to tilt it a little--"

The way Keith tensed where he was pressed against Shiro's back distracted him, and Keith fumbled the siphon, spilling honey over his hand. "Shit, sorry."

"It's okay," Shiro stayed where he was, testing the waters. It was the suddenness that surprised Keith, not the proximity. He didn't lean away from the warm press of contact, nor did he lean into it. But he did turn slightly, hip bumping Shiro's groin, to wring his sticky hand with a trite smile. It was an innocently evil gesture, watching the golden honey slide down keith's fingers--until Shiro realized it wasn't all that innocent and Keith was bringing his hand up to his mouth, content to be cornered between Shiro and the table as he licked the honey off his thumb. His violet eyes flicked to Shiro, lips still curled up at the edges. "It's sweet." The pitch of his voice had dropped just the slightest, "Tastes kinda like sage."

Shiro cleared his throat and slid a step back, hoping it was as smooth as he was trying to be. "The pick of the season." He almost stuttered, busying himself with rinsing off the siphon to kill the boner trying to rise in his pants. Luckily his suit was draped over his hips where he wore it half-on, bulky enough to hide the pressing issue. "Sometimes when there's a lot of something in bloom, the honey can take on that taste." Right now Keith would probably taste like honey and coffee. Fuck, that did not help his downstairs situation.

He licked his lips as if reading Shiro's mind. "Huh, you learn something new everyday."

He'd flipped a switch in Keith it seemed. When they moved on to making wax, he went out of his way to ask questions that required tactile help: leaving his hand on the centrifuge's crank so that Shiro had to place his over it, canting on his tiptoes to reach the shelved jars so that his shirt rode up just so, revealing a pale sliver of skin.

It was nearing noon when they finished and cleaned up shop, and Shiro was exhausted not from the hard work, but from keeping the hard work in his pants. Keith was washing up in the kitchen sink, splashing water on his face. He took the hand-towel Shiro offered him with a lingering touch Shiro couldn't and wouldn't shy from, drying his face and a tad miffed when he said, "So are you going to kiss me or not?"

Shiro didn't need a second invitation. He closed the distance that had been dwindling between them all morning, tilting Keith's chin already raised in a mask of defiant confidence, and kissed him. He did taste like honey and coffee and something distinctly Keith. It made him ask for more, licking against teeth. Keith opened up instantly, brushing his tongue along Shiro's and releasing the tiniest hum of approval. He all but melted in Shiro's hold, his hand sliding from Keith's face to cup his head, fingers threading through soft hair slightly damp with sweat.

Then the phone rang. He pulled away reluctantly, Keith just as much as he bit onto Shiro's bottom lip, dragging it out with an annoyed whine. "I've got to take this," Shiro said by means of apology. Keith crossed his arms and didn't pout, but by the line drawn in his brow he really wanted to.

Shiro picked up the receiver and placed it on his ear. "Hello,"

"Hey, it's Matt." Shiro was at a stand-off. Not answering the phone to make out with Keith would have meant a voicemail; it was good he didn't take the risk. But now he had to take the damage. Matt continued, "It's about you know what."

"Can it wait?" Shiro glimpsed over his shoulder. Keith was rinsing out their mugs in the sink and setting them to dry.

"Had some air force cats come in today." Matt cut straight to the case, so no, it couldn't. "They... commented."

"About time." Shiro had to choose his words carefully. He didn't want Keith knowing about this--not yet, at least. The drone had crashed in the ditch behind his house and he'd left it there. "Let me guess, they didn't find anything."

Keith went on washing the dishes without a reaction.

Matt picked up on his curtness and responded full force. "If you want a lawsuit on your hands, then--"

Shiro pinched the bridge of his nose. "What's the verdict?"

"You're fucked, Shirogane." Matt went off. "Some lady from the DOE was with them, and she looked pissed. But nothing out of the ordinary, just inquiring what kind of business you do with us. They're coming to you next."

The deal had been upheld; Matt had no choice but to answer to the authorities. He dropped the bomb with a lengthy sigh drawling after it. "I tried asking some questions but she kept saying it was classified. If you won't settle, they're going to find a way to pin you, Shiro. I don't think it's about your land this time."

Shiro resisted the urge to unleash a string of curses. "Got it, thanks for the heads up."

"Your balls on the line? They'll never find it."

"Ha, ha." Shiro barked out a fake laugh. "I'll stay in touch."

"You better. Pidge is glaring at me. She told me to tell you to stop shoving your proverbial middle finger to the government. They'll fuck you in the ass with it."

Shiro winced a little. "Tell her thanks, but I know what I'm doing."

"Will do." Matt said and then hung up. Shiro set down the receiver with more force than necessary. He'd become so engrossed in the conversation he hadn't noticed Keith disappear.

He found him in the hallway crouched to play with Sootface. He already had his jacket back over his shoulders. When he heard Shiro shuffle up he stood and adjusted the black denim more comfortably on his svelte frame. "Sounded like serious business."

Shiro wanted Keith to stay, but right now that was an impossibility. "Yeah, I've got company headed this way."

"Guess it's time for me to go then." Keith placed his hand on the doorknob, but Shiro boxed him in.

"Thanks for your help today."

Keith leaned his head back to smirk up at him. "Don't get cocky, big guy." He slipped from Shiro's grasp and out the door in one fluid motion. "But it was my pleasure."

"When will I see you again?" Shiro called after him as he hopped the hedges toward his bike.

Keith picked it up, a swarm of bees already congregating around him. "That depends. You have my number."

Before Shiro could disagree, Keith was peddling down the lane and back towards the main road. When Shiro returned inside he found that Keith had indeed scribbled his number on a post-it note and left it stuck to the drying mug Shiro had bought for him. He had a difficult time wiping the stupid grin off his face until he remembered why he'd had to let Keith go in the first place. The time to make his choice was coming much faster than he'd anticipated.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: 《 you manifest, you bring things to be, yeah, your mojo witchcraft, honey, it's working on me

Not even fifteen minutes after Keith had left, Shiro heard a car rumbling up his driveway. It was a sleek black Mazda without plates. A woman in a crisp business suit stepped out, adjusting her perfectly slicked hair as she set her sunglasses atop. She clacked her way in modest heels to his front door and rang the bell.

He answered, keeping the screen shut between them.

"Hello," She was every inch the picture of a big problem. "My name is Acxa Thorne." The woman removed a business card and pressed it against the screen. "I am a representative of the DOE and I am here about a surveillance drone that went missing on your property."

Shiro squinted at the business card like he might give a fuck. "That's great." He said, "It's in my backyard."

Acsa shoved the card into the wire frame of the screen, unfettered. "Tampering with government property can result in fines up to $200,000 and twenty years in prison."

"I left it where it landed, ma'am." Shiro remained resolute. "And I'd like to take issue with why it was flying over my property in the first place."

The woman regarded him with inimical distaste. "I think we both know why this happened, Mr. Shirogane."

"I just live here." He wasn't going to buy into her hand. "And I'd prefer to keep living here, in peace."

Acxa ticked a brow. "You're fortunate I did not have you immediately incarcerated. Now we can have a civil discussion about this matter or I can make one phone call and undo that kindness."

Shiro let her in; not because of her threat, but because the more wound up she got standing outside in the dry heat wearing that get-up the more difficult it would be to deal with her. He pulled out a seat at the dining table but did not offer her a drink, and sat across.

She didn't waste any time. "On December 22, 2012, you were court-martialed for theft. What it was you stole became the biggest mystery. No one knew. There were too many different versions of the same lie. It was a debacle. Then you were released, honorably discharged. And you lost that arm in the process. I'm very aware of who you are and what you've been through, Mr. Shirogane. Very aware." Her last words were sharp as knives. "There is no need to keep secrets with me."

Acxa was judging his audacity to augment a suspicious person's words. She wasn't fucking around.

Shiro shook his head, folding his own hand. "What's your point?"

"This would be a lot easier if you would cooperate."

"I have nothing to hide." Not anymore, at least. He'd already hidden it. "If you're here to search my property, get a warrant and some good boots. And I've already explicitly reminded you folks at Macbeth that my land is not for sale." He knew why they were so relentless. Electromagnetic energy did wacky things not easily explained and meant big bucks for researchers hellbent on sciencing the magic out of it.

Acxa blinked, a moment breaking that cold, practiced shell of hers. "I think there's been a misunderstanding." She removed a manila file from her briefcase and slid it across the table. "You'll find the warrant for the extraction of the drone and the pick-up date included."

He caught it with his prosthetic and flipped the file open. Boldly printed was a familiar insignia in red and blue.

"What is this?"

"An option." Acxa snapped up her briefcase and stood. "You have two weeks to consider the proposal. Another agent will reach out to you concerning the pick-up. I'll see myself out, Mr. Shirogane. You have my card." And she went, slamming the screen door shut behind her as a curt reminder.

Shiro sunk back in his chair, tossing the folder back onto the table. He drug his hands down his face and let out a long, drawn out, "Fuuuuuuuck."

He'd been wondering why the Department of Energy would show up at his door. It wasn't just the Macbeth Air Force Base breathing down his neck--now it was NASA. And they had a multi-billion dollar idea that he wouldn't put up a fight.

When he dialed the Holt's, Matt picked up immediately. "So what's the scoop?"

"Uh, well," Shiro scratched Sootface under the chin when she hopped up on the counter and batted at his prosthetic arm. "In short I've been given the noose."

He heard Pidge shout into the line, "I WARNED HIM BUT DID HE LISTEN? NO." Matt audibly grimaced. "What are you gonna do?"

"I'm still waiting." Shiro closed his eyes. "It won't be much longer. I just have to hold them off til then."

"I'd say you're running out of time, Shiro. And out of reason. Whatever it is you've been looking for, maybe it doesn't exist. This has been haunting you for years." Matt was only voicing his concern, but it set Shiro's jaw on edge.

What if you've already found it?

"After what you helped me move last week?"

There was a long pause over the line before Matt spoke again, quieter this time. "It's not that I don't believe you..."

"You don't have to." Shiro meant it; Matt was only privy because of their relationship. Shiro had been taking the shit apparating on his property to Holt's Hobby for years, conducting a freelance lost and found. Eventually Matt was curious enough to ask him why so much junk wound up on his land, and Shiro, having trusted Matt and his younger sister to handle the somewhat metaphysical angle of the issue, decided to be frank with them. Pidge had eaten it up like candy but Matt, a through and through guard man, had a laundry list of doubts.

It's not that aliens weren't real and it wasn't that UFOs were almost always military tech unreleased to the public; but the jump from suspicion to physical reality was not an easy pill for most to swallow and the terminology used to describe it was weak at best.

"I need to be here to receive it. That's all I know." Shiro told him. "And if it's not my land anymore when it comes, it'll fall into the wrong hands. It's a tug-of-war over who gets it."

"You really are resolute." Matt sighed. "Well, when the time comes don't hesitate to ask for help. We'll do what we can. Within human limitations," he added with a humorous tone.

"I appreciate it." Shiro meant it. They said their farewells and hung up.

He could feel a crispness in the atmosphere when he stepped outside to tend the garden. The dry spell had come to its three week end and in its place the sulfuric scent of a storm was brewing. It had to be soon, he reassured himself. The timing was bad. Or maybe it wasn't; maybe he wasn't seeing the forest for the trees.

Shiro didn't know what he was waiting for. He didn't know why he waited. But he couldn't shake the feeling that a part of it had already arrived and lived and breathed just like he did. Aside from the nightmares and the nonsensical knowing, that was the eeriest part of it all.

He didn't tend to the gardens that day, instead he gathered a pair of iron rods and a shotgun and trekked out into the wilderness of his 45 acre property, just daring the universe to try him again.

There had been signs. The dreams. The bees. Only a few pieces were missing. If there were any doubts lingering in Shiro's mind they existed far from the present; instead swirling in a nonlinear past and always threatening to overshadow him.

Shiro walked his property line with the dousing rods loosely gripped in his hands and guiding his path. He was almost a mile out into the spark fields when wind picked up, dragging the sensation of intensity with it. Shiro thought himself acquainted with every inch of his land; he'd criss-crossed the grid enough times to know what rock was where, the homes of the rattlesnakes and prairie dogs, the felled and rotten flesh of trees struck down by lightning. Once he lapsed out past the acre gardens it was flatlands and cracked, dusty ground scattered with cacti and dried up brush.

Shiro left markers on some flora and spay-painted large X's on future spots with strong lodes. Right now he was standing over a circular indent in the ground, about three inches deep. The dousers twisted in his hands enough to create friction so he set them aside, kneeling to survey the topsoil. Just a bit of digging revealed a rusty dog tag, frayed on the ends and scratched beyond recovery--but still visible was the last three digits of its serial code: 222.

He'd find things like this from time to time; pocket them to go in a box for the Holt's or throw them away; leave them to become a part of the biomass. This time, he'd struck gold.

Shiro glimpsed up at the dark clouds bubbling over the horizon. "Weather control's been pretty bad." He muttered with a satisfied chuckle, tossing the tag in his hand and snatching it midair. He collected his dousing rods and started the trek back to his house; a small speck of green amongst lonely desert.

What was it again?

Ask and you shall receive.

"Hey, Keith?"


"It's Shiro. Er, well, y'know... I don't have a cellphone so I can't text and stuff, so..."

A chuckle. "Smooth."

Now there was relief, a release of tension. "Thought I'd give you a call."

"Yeah," Even Keith's voice was smiling. "What's up?"

"I meant to ask, and I can't stop thinking about it. The other night when you came over after Denny's, what was it that you said again? When you were leaving, I didn't catch it," a nervous huff, "It's been haunting me all week."

"When I left? I guess I mentioned wishing we had more time..." He coughed, a tad embarrassed. "I can't really remember though."

He didn't remember it like this.


"Hi Keith, it's Shiro."

"Oh, hey." Anticipation zipped through the wires. "What's up?"

"I know this is the first time I calling you, but don't freak out okay?"

"Uh, okay?" He was freaked out already, a little, anyway.

"What did we do the other night? Didn't you come over?"

"No, you dropped me off." Concerned, now.

"At your place?"

"On the corner of the block." Keith exhaled harshly, coughing out an ironic, "Are you okay?"

"Weird." Shiro's laugh was empty. "Must have been a dream. A very realistic one."

Keith chuckled hoarsely. "Smooth."

"Might have had a bit to drink that night." Shiro admitted.

"Hmm, me too."

A pause.




"Hey Keith. This is Shiro."

"Took you long enough." Even Keith's voice was smiling. "What's up?"

"This is so strange, I'm having déjà vu right now."

"Even though this is the first time we've talked on the phone?" An amused guffaw. "I've heard that déjà vu is just experiencing a memory as it's happening."

"Does that mean it's fate?" Shiro reached.

Keith's laugh was like windchimes. "Smooth."

"Maybe it's changed because I noticed it."

"I don't think that's how déjà vu works."

"Is it just me?"

Do you want to try again?

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: 《 you accept what you don't understand, the sun and the illness of man

Last Tuesday, 9pm, once a month, their stupid "UFO club" held a meeting at Square Chair Pizza. It's what brought them together besides unpleasant circumstances (read: highschool). UFOs, aliens, astronomy, NASA, Space X, starweeds, conspiracies. It all fell under the scope of a solid, lasting friendship.

Square Chair Pizza was a shack with a dingy bar that didn't ID where an equally dingy woman who was neither old nor young poured heavy drinks and got her white hairs in everything like she was feeding them magic. Keith often wondered if it might be the other way around.

Usually they'd discuss any sightings or discoveries they'd made over the month, and then talk about fuck all whatever. Their topic for the night had been plaguing them for quite some time--since its recent completion almost four months ago.

"I'm still saying we check it out. At least drive around the premises."

"This is an air force base we're talking about."

"We can scope somewhere farther out to keep an eye on the runways. I mean, it's pretty close to Macbeth Canyon. If we climb up there we can see over the walls."

"I like that idea better. Much safer."

Keith sipped at his PBR, "I still don't get what we're expecting to see. This isn't Roswell 2.0 and we aren't working with Area 51 or whatever."

"Leave it to Keith to drain all the fun out of everything." Lance droned. "And isn't it Area 52 in Nevada? Nowhere near Roswell?"

"I got intel over ham that NASA might be building an outpost nearby." Pidge was always creeping on any frequencies she could get her ears on. It was extremely illegal, but she'd been doing it for so long the shock had dulled. "It was in code of course, but I deciphered it."

"Yeah, but that's not the base." Hunk remained the voice of reason.

"Close enough. I happen to know exactly where they want to plant it."

Allura raised her hand. "Are you going to share that information, Pidge?"

"Not yet. It's not happening, anyway."

"Again," Keith fiddled with the lemon slice he'd knicked from Lance. "Then what's the point?"

"Bro, the point is spying on the military, bro!" Lance wailed. "Am I the only one who thinks we should kick Keith out? All he's into is astrology and we all know that's--" He stopped himself when not just Keith, but Allura shot him a dirty look.

"I'm fine with setting up the telescope on Macbeth like we usually do." Allura smoothed over Lance's misstep with ease. "And if we so happen to point it a little lower than usual, whoops."

"With all the light pollution over there now it's not like we'll see much in the sky." Pidge shrugged.

"Speaking of which, did you three see the video I posted on Twitter?"

A chorus of excited "oh yeah!"s circled the table. "I watched it a couple more times." Pidge noted, "I can't really explain the zippy phenomena--"

"You mean how it fucking vanished in thin air?" Keith corrected.

"Yes, to put it politely. Its shape isn't too different from a weather balloon. The quality was too grainy to really tell if it didn't just get blocked behind some clouds."

"But, like, it was really low." Hunk said, "You couldn't tell much from the video but it was also humming. Buzzing, almost."

"And purple." Keith said. "And in the eye of the storm."

"Captain obvious." Allura rolled her eyes. "It was suspiciously ET in nature. Do you think it has anything to do with that star we've been seeing sometimes?"

Sometimes? Maybe because Keith was a night owl, or maybe he just looked more often. But he saw it every day.

"Could be." They were too jaded to be over-excited. This kind of thing happened in Silver City relatively often; they grew up seeing orbs flying in parabolas and hushed by superstitious parents. It was a close call to normal for them. "That's why we should check out the base."

"It's decided then." Allura clapped her hands on the table. "Next Thursday we set up base camp on Macbeth. Pidge, bring your telescope. Hunk, we'll pool money for gas. Keith, you provide the drinks."

"What about me?" Lance pointed at himself.

Keith grinned. "Who's the one we should kick out?"

"Excuse me but liquor has nothing to do with dilettante espionage." Lance shot back.

"Do you have binoculars?" Pidge asked him, "Night vision preferably."

"Uh..." Lance was considering his bluff but made it anyway. "Yeah, yeah I got those."

"We sell them at Radioshack. I'll give you my discount." Pidge added anyway.

Meeting adjourned and stomachs full of PBR and greasy pizza, they parted ways for the night. Allura caught Keith at the bike-rack before he could kick off.

"You're in a mood." She observed. "What's going on?"

Keith had a list of complaints on the tip of his tongue but when he opened his mouth to speak them, only one remained. "Remember when for a while all you were seeing was the number 11:11? And you told me it was one of those synchronicity things?"

"Yeah..." there was a knit in Allura's brow like she was wary of where he was going.

"I've been seeing 222 a lot. But only when it has something to do with the dark stranger."

Shiro's order number at Denny's had been 222. His house number was 222. That weird NASA file number had 222 in it. Keith had checked the clock at 2:22pm when Shiro first called him from his land-line phone. If he even dared to think about Shiro he'd cross paths with two hundred and fucking twenty-two and maybe he was just paranoid but the sheer amount of recurring numbers he was seeing shook him.

Allura crossed her arms, more from the cold than contemplation. She was clad only in cuffed shorts and a lace shawl over her tank top--all black, of course. "Oh my god," she exclaimed, "Takashi Shirogane on 222 Alabaster Lane!?"

Keith leaned his forehead on the handles of his bike. "How."

"What, my psychic prowess isn't enough for you?" Allura slapped him when he was down, literally, on the shoulder. "It's a small town. Ish. He's one of Starflour's vendors. Chums with Coran, too. You've got to have seen him before!" One of her insights was sharpening its claws to dig in and Keith could do nothing to stop it.

He sat up on his bike and lit a cigarette instead, offering one to Allura before she could ask. She needed that breath. "The stars had to align, I guess."

"Into a middle finger."

"Screw you, whispered the universe."

It was an old joke between them. Allura attempted a smile that came out more as a grimace. "222 is a balancing act. It's a grid number. Progress. Togetherness. It presents a choice, something to change your fate. You have to decide what you want, and make really sure of it. I guess it's kind of like a crossroads, but you can manifest more turning points." She exhaled smoke, head tilted towards the speckled night sky. "I won't lecture you, but I wouldn't call this great news. Shiro's kinda weird."

"So are we." But Keith had felt it the instant he first saw those arsenic eyes behind the mesh netting of Shiro's beekeeping visor. "He seems... nice enough."

"Bad company is suddenly nice enough?" Allura reminded him of his own words.

"You know him better than I do." Keith deflected.

She scoffed. "I know you. The one raising their fist to punch the universe in the face is you, Keith. And it's going to turn 'round and whip you real fast one day."

"I can take it." Keith snubbed his cigarette and flicked the butt into the ashtray by the door. It bounced off the wall and toppled in.

"Disgusting." But the turn of her eyes was sparkling. "That settles it. I'm keeping an eye on you."

"You already invade my dreams."

"Not on purpose. You just dream loudly. Consider turning down the volume."

Keith threw his arms up. "I didn't ask for this. I'm not gonna stop-drop-and-roll for some 'karmic soul' BS. It'll just run its course, like it always does, so don't worry about it."

"I am." She showed it by biting her lip. "Even though you've put all the hours in, you're so reluctant. Ever consider letting the universe help you instead of resisting it?"

Keith groaned. She knew he hated that shit, fate be damned. "I'm not 'available' for quid pro quo spirituality. This is my game. Don't righteous path me, you know I'm a liberal."

"Don't pretend you're some clean cut left walker either, Kogane. It's messy in the middle." Allura flipped him off to make a point, "I'm just giving you advice."

She was right, bitter as he was to admit it. "I'll ride the wave, same as always."

"How many times have you almost drowned?" Allura stomped over to the ashtray and crushed her cigarette. "Give me a ride home."

"Since you asked so nicely."

"You can be such a prick sometimes."

"Don't play The High Priestess card and I won't have to be."

Allura huffed, standing on the back spokes of his bike as he cast off down the parking lot towards Market Street. "Then don't play The Magician if you can't own up to it. Besides you're the one in need of number two's wisdom; not me."

That's right. II. The High Priestess.; the second card (not counting 0. The Fool) from the Major Arcana. She was wisdom and the expression of divinity--creation. The true self, the true path, and the inner light. She whispered, trust your intuition, weave your magic, and you shall manifest your desires.

It was the end of their talking until he wheeled up to her modest duplex. "I hope you realize you're being a giant fucking idiot."

"Is this about Shiro? Or is this just the usual witching and bitching."

Allura winced when he spoke the name, unaccustomed to the dark stranger's long awaited reveal. "I have a Bad Feeling about this."

"Me too." Keith finally caved in. "I'll be careful."

"Don't lie to me." Allura unlocked the door and stopped halfway through it. "And just... keep me updated."

"Thanks, Allura. And sorry for being a dick." He would take her advice. Some of it, at least. "I won't go too crazy, okay?"

There was a moment of uncharacteristic hesitation in Allura, pausing at the concrete steps with a downcast gaze. She'd recovered in an instant and Keith dismissed it; uncharacteristically.

It was a heavy tension that followed, even after she waved and locked the door behind her, flipping off the entry light. Heavy like static. What if something goes wrong? What could go wrong? Anything.

Keith pivoted in the driveway and headed home, but he couldn't sleep yet; there was work to do.

Candy was sweeter than this feeling. It was more gritty, gauzy around the edges: a dream awoken from with a sense of dismay and disappointment that it would never return and never be the same.

It had been awhile since Keith went sidewalking. The right mood was necessary, weather permitting, and the shadow work either pinpointed with meditation or disastrously unplanned. There was no inbetween. Except for him. He was inbetween, balanced precariously on the precipice of a concrete wall that raised in height as he walked it like a balancing beam. He kept his arms out, eyes focused on the flickering street lamps lining his path. The world fell away into simple shapes and colors until he jumped to the pavement and sneaked between a telephone pole and the wall.

He entered into a realm. It was the fastest method to get somewhere in his mind. For some reason, walking the earth was like traveling in his head. Dangerous since his body would be where he left it somewhere on the sidewalk itself; but it was three in the morning and the town was dead asleep.

The darkness always came first, questioning his integrity. He separated the murk and located his destination, legs folded to overlook a pool of celestial water detailing the blueprint of his life. Pluto opposing his sun created iridescent complications. They fluctuated like silver screen lines and meant tough love all around, but that heart beat with Venus in the eighth house; home of his Scorpio Sun and side-by-side in a deathly dance for dominance. So he had issues. But he also had potential.

It would help if he knew who Shiro really was. Most of the time, Keith wouldn't care. But the dark stranger was dark and strange because of his mystery. Keith didn't know enough without his birthday, let alone where he was born and at what time. He breathed out a gust of mist over the stygian water and let it rearrange with the known constants; unknown variables filling up a likely scenario. Instinct would guide him as it always did. And then later, when he was digging for a notebook with empty pages and wherever he put his damn calculator... he dismissed those thoughts before they dismissed him and breathed back into focus.

Behind his inner voice, a simple phrase spoke in the whispering of lustrous reeds, wrapping around his hands to warn him of delving to far. Keith knew better than to press deeper when he was involved with another soul.

Star-crossed, object permanence, resistance, timing, regret, release, repeat. Star-crossed, object--

He was jerked to his mundane senses. Keith never really knew where his body gave out and his consciousness continued. He'd rolled off the concrete wall and hit the ground beneath with a painful thud, scuffing his knees and hands to break the fall. He grunted and pushed himself up, wincing as blood started to sting the scrapes.

Careful what you're looking for, his own mind supplied him in sour aftertaste, If you seek it, it will find you.

That was kind of the plan. He stayed where he was on the ground and leaned against the wall, head thumping as he glimpsed the sky. Sweat prickled his skin to cool it, and when he dug for a smoke he found his pack crushed and empty. With a sigh he heaved himself to his feet, dusted off his ass, and made for the short trek back home. It was lonely and cold, a typical dead-of-night manner, and he left none the wiser about the dirt he was digging for.

The old fashioned way, then. Keith's suspicion that Shiro might be in the same craft had gained premise. A wandering desire plagued him, sauntering alongside his anxiety over Shiro's motivation like a desperate stray dog. This wasn't a simple meeting, wasn't a fated roundabout to settle with ups and downs on love and partnership. It was a prison sentence he would willingly commit the crime to be done in for--over and over again--and that's what scared him.

Keith didn't do fear. He didn't do love either. He'd resigned himself to waiting, convinced he'd been born for it. The dark stranger was supposed to be a challenge to overcome. A thing to avoid. Anything else but Shiro. Shiro, who was shrouded by a cone of uncertainty--and Keith, who was in the eye of his storm. He'd yet to see the full picture.

Grandma Shorts was closing up the liquor shop when he pushed the door open with his foot and squatted to help her move the heavy boxes she'd left for him to handle when he had a chance.

"You're a doll, Keith." She was dusting the rows of glass bottles. "Where do you go this late at night? I worry sometimes, I don't want you disappearing like my old sweetheart."

Keith smiled, stacking the crates in the small storeroom. "I'm not going anywhere. Just for walks sometimes, the quiet clears my head." It couldn't be farther from the truth, which is why he had a drinking problem.

"The night is the loudest," she was old, but her mind was still sharp. This was the same woman, of course, who spoke of aliens like fond, old neighbors. "You're just not always here, Keith, that's why I worry for you."

"Thanks, Gran." Keith locked the door and closed the metal grate. "You know me too well."

"Get some sleep." She let herself out the back door, flipping the lights and setting the alarm.

"I'll walk you home."

"It's right down the street. I might be old but I can fend for myself." She cracked her neck in proof and went on her way.

His phone was vibrating madly when he wound up the stairs to his room: a series of texts from Pidge.

[3:27 am] I found something you need to see.

[3:33 am] Hey!! Are you awake? I know you are. Get over here ASAP

[3:46 am] Dude you're missing out. Idk how long this will be. It's a broadcast! Reply me!

[3:52 am] You're the only one awake so wtf are you doing rn!?

[4:01 am] I

[4:01 am] KNOW

[4:02 am] UR

[4:02 am] AWAKE

[4:02 am] !!!

He called her. She answered before half a ring, voice raised with excitement. "Get over here right now! I'm picking up alien signals!"

Keith was already climbing down the fire escape. "Your definition of alien is questionable Pidge. Last time you stumbled upon a fake numbers station in Scandinavian. Didn't that guy get busted? And I stayed up all night on a work day for that."

"I can hear you getting on your bike." Pidge wasn't going to take no for an answer. "This isn't ham radio. This is satellite reception. You're the only other person awake right now and that obviously means you need to be here."

"I'll be there in twenty." He'd have to book it. "You owe me breakfast."

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: 《 light as a candle; heavy like a witch

In-stance, Nomen--, Abradine? ... work of, Found the Lost... time to... Let the festivities begin!

In between shhhhs of static, sure enough, voices bled through. It certainly wasn't all English--whatever it was--but parts of it made sense to Keith's ears.

Pidge had been scribbling for hours, apparently. Her list consisted of fragmented phrases, real words, and made up ones.

"It's local." She'd shoved an extra set of headphones over his head and plugged it into the duel auxiliary adapter, so they were loudly whispering at each other. All of this was set up on the roof edge outside her room, which was basically one giant grounding hub within the second floor of an otherwise plain house. Pidge even had an amateur radio tower stapled firmly outside her window. "As in," she enunciated very carefully, "Within orbit, at least."

"This isn't the first time you've picked up something like this, though. I can name a few. An Alaskan RnB station playing ads? A Really Emotional Spanish sermon. That guy was pissed for the Lord."

"This time it's a little different." Pidge tapped the edge of her satellite dish. "I got an upgrade."

Keith couldn't really tell the difference. "So that means?"

"Better reception and farther reach!" She exclaimed. "I've set up to only ping outside of the stratosphere and then grab when it finds something, so whatever we're getting has to be really, really high up there. It's probably satellite chatter, like picking up stations as they're transmitted around the world and stuff. But it's creepy, isn't it?"

"You said these were alien signals." Keith sighed, stretching his legs over the roof shingles.

"Well, that's what's weird about it. Before you came I kept getting just this one phrase in like six different langu--here it is now!" Je suis ici pour voir ce que tu vois. Before Keith could question anything, Pidge explained. "I already looked up the translation. It means, I'm here to see what you see." And then she was hushing him again. "Shh, just listen."

The purple light was on the horizon, almost gone beyond the stretch of distant mountains. The unknown languages spitting out in bursts started to re-arrange themselves and before he realized he was catching longer phrases.

"You hear that?" He asked Pidge.

"Hear what?"

"It sounded like..." Keith was already second guessing himself. "It sounded like someone said my name."

Pidge stared at Keith, moving her glasses down her face to let him really see how unnerved she was. "Nope, still gibberish to me, mostly." She tapped her notebook with the chewed butt of her pencil.

"Are you recording this?"

"You bet your ass." Pidge scoffed. "I got you being freaky too."

He'd also heard, Your sentence is death, but he conveniently left that part out. And what was it about the 'seeing what you see' again? When the sound of the morning doves disrupted their session, his tired mind let that thought go.

Breakfast was at Starflour, of course, allowed in an hour before they opened. Allura was halfway through her first cup of tea and still had a vague air of raising the dead about her. She pulled her fuzzy black cardigan around herself and leaned over the counter. "Why're you two so early? Suspicious."

Pidge was grinning ear to ear. "Maybe we just wanted to pay you a visit."

"I'd rather be sleeping." Keith meant it, but he wasn't going to turn down free food, either.

"You two were up to something last night, weren't you?" Allura sniffed, withdrawing from the countertop. Keith ordered a cheese and egg croissant with green tea while Pidge explained their satellite eavesdropping.

"And I'll take blueberry waffles and orange juice." Pidge concluded, "I've got the whole thing recorded, it's pretty good."

Allura locked eyes with Keith, taking the cash from Pidge. A playfully dull smile graced her lips. "Hear something weird?"

"Oh yeah, we did." Pidge answered for him, ignoring their tacit exchange.

It was an expression explaining the bags under Allura's eyes, not even accentuated by kohl lining, and how few fucks she had to give about whatever she knew he'd gone and done last night. Because Keith knew she knew. It was one of those kinds of looks. "We're both idiots."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Pidge caught the spark between them and spasmed her hands above her head. "No fighting this early in the morning!"

"What did you do last night?" Keith spoke through Pidge's attempt to quell them.

"Horrible sleep." Allura yawned, but her nervous tick--brushing hair behind the ear--gave her away, even after turning to give the ticket to Coran and the line cook prepping in the kitchen. "Pidge," she turned her gaze and tweaked the subject, "You ever have a dream so real, you couldn't tell it wasn't?"

Pidge had quickly come to realize this was a conversation above her head, but curious nonetheless, she answered and took a seat at the bar beside Keith, who'd made his way over while Allura questioned her. "When I was a kid. I saw a tornado once and I thought it was real until I remembered it and just realized it... wasn't."

"That's the kind of headspace I'm stuck in right now." Allura confessed, busying herself in making Keith's tea. "I'm not sure how much of this is gonna be real. Anymore, or ever."

"I feel like I'm missing out on something." Pidge sipped at her orange juice.

"Me too, Pidge." Keith was just as lost.

Judging by the looks of it, so was Allura. It happened, sometimes, didn't it?

It did.

Keith slept for most of the day, waking up around two to the sound of a racket downstairs. The bell kept jingling and Granny Shorts was laughing loudly about something said in a low, pleasant voice. Keith rolled out of bed, still fully dressed, and tousled his hair a little before stepping into his shoes and climbing out the window for a smoke.

No dreams, but Keith felt heavier than he would if he had. Lugging laundry down and through the backdoor to avoid unsettling the customers, Keith crossed the street and headed through the block. The party was tonight and he should probably be getting ready for work.

It was one of those moments, inexplicable but pronounced. While Keith's laundry swirled and he laxed outside, the owner of his helixing thoughts appeared.

"Hey, Keith."

Keith kicked off from his lean on the plastered wall, caught by surprise. Shiro was carrying a crate of beer over his shoulder, heading to his pick-up parked on the curb a block down. "Doing laundry?"

"Yeah." Keith crushed his cigarette underfoot. Speak of the devil and he appears. After the warning signs all was left was to act. So why was he hesitating? It wasn't like him. "You?"

That was when Lance spotted them, jogging across the street after screeching and pointing. Probably unable to ignore such prime invasion of Keith's real estate. "I knew you'd fucking be here, Keith." He was going to play it off cool, like he always did. "Hey. You're Shiro, right? I've heard about you. Good things, scout's honor. Keith here has straightened up his ga--"

Keith shut him down with a threatening glare. Shiro adjusted his weight, one brow raised. "That's me."

"What's the beer for?" Lance went on, swinging an arm over Keith's shoulder and latching when Keith tried to shrug him free.

"A friend's throwing a party tonight." Shiro was aware of Keith's discomfort, and if he was amused he hid it well.

"Huh, that's funny." Lance patted Keith, who was currently pinching the skin on his wrist and twisting until Lance yielded, wincing. "We're going to a party tonight too, at Hunk's place."

"That is funny." Shiro glanced at Keith, but he was busy watching ants cart off crumbs to their mound. "That's the party this is for."

"Oho," Lance flicked his eyes to Keith. "You hear that?"

"I'm standing right here." Keith reminded him.

Shiro seemed pleased with the news. When he finally caught Keith's attention--which was an awkward flick of lashes up and then held in startlement, he added, "When Allura asked me to pick up some beer, she mentioned you. Said to convince you to come round. I didn't know you two were friends. It really is a small world, huh." He watched the way Keith's shoulders went taut and then dropped, intrigued. "I actually have two more crates to load up, would you mind helping me?"

"You know Allura?" Lance's eyes had gone wide and then narrowed despite himself. "That's, uh, wow. How do you know her? I mean, we're friends too. Strange we never met."

It took all of Keith's willpower not to drag his hands down his face. Lance was a terrible wingman and an even worse liar.

"Yeah," Shiro nodded, "Her uncle is one of my best customers."

"Oh right, for the bakery. Cuz you sell honey and stuff." Lance was relieved. "Anyway, Keith, came here to RSVP your attendance--"

"Lance. Watch my clothes for a bit." Keith unarmed himself from Lance's sudden iron grip. "I'll help."

Shiro offered Lance a somewhat confused smile as Keith followed him down the road to his truck; hands tucked into the pockets of his worn black jeans and decidedly more broody than usual. They made their way back to the liquor shop Keith lived above and picked up the crates. "You live downtown, huh? Allura seemed to know I'd run into you."

Keith shrugged, rattling the glass racks of Corona. He wasn't keen on revealing the fact he lived in an attic. "It's pretty convenient."

"How do you two know each other?" Shiro meant for the question to make small talk, but it set Keith's teeth on edge. He gave a clipped response.

"We've known each other awhile."

Shiro picked up on it as they passed the laundromat again, glimpsing Lance as he pilfered through clothes from the dryer. "You, er," His brows shot up when he watched sequined shorts and a few pair of g-strings flop to the floor. "Are you going to the party?"

"I would." Keith remained oblivious, glaring at dead grass between the sidewalk lines and thinking of lying. "I have work tonight."


There was a chance Shiro might try to visit. No dice. "No, my other job."

"You should come by after." Shiro suggested.

He was digging himself a grave he wasn't prepared to lie down in. "It's in Las Cruses. I won't be back til morning."

"That's," with Shiro's back to him Keith couldn't get a good read on his face. "Pretty far away. How often do you work?"

"Just weekends. Friday, Saturday, Sunday sometimes." They'd made it to his truck and secured the crates in place. Shiro didn't press him on the issue, but he could tell by the twist of his lips he was curious. Keith let the notion stroke his ego a bit, hoping that the disappointment he felt was because he wouldn't be attending the party.

Shiro walked him back to the laundromat where Lance had decided to be helpful and dumped all of Keith's clothes into his hamper, leaving it by the door for easy access. Of course he had an ulterior motive; he'd left a pair of suspiciously revealing garments on top. Keith leapt into action before Shiro could get a real eyeful and shoved them into unseen depths. He was going to rip Lance a new one later. "Uh, I'll see you around?"

"Yeah," Shiro waved to Lance through the window, who was now engaged on the phone. He peeked his head out.

"Hey Keith, your phone dead?"

"Left it at home."

"Thace said you don't need to come in this weekend." It just got worse as he went. "I told you so. I warned him in advance last time we visited, too. 'Sides, football's more important than--"

Keith lost his composure in a matter of seconds. "So help me Lord, if you don't shut up right now I will end you in this laundromat and mop the floors with your blood. Lance, I know where you live."

Lance stared at him. Shiro blinked. Then Lance said into the phone, "He's okay with it, Thace...Thanks. Bye." He hung up, eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You're welcome."

"I'm going home." Keith felt the back of his neck burning; with both anger and embarrassment.

"You should come tonight." Shiro renewed the invitation, hoping to resolve the tension. "I'll give you a ride, if you want."

"Yeah, give him the ride so he can't back out." Lance cheered.

"I'm cool with it." Again, smoothing the waters.

"Fine." Keith gave in. It was easy to do for Shiro, and while he didn't feel comfortable, he couldn't deny the ease he felt in this simple surrender. But. "Don't worry about giving me a ride. I'll be there." If the only part of this situation he could control was the going, then he'd take it.

Once Shiro was down the block and turning the engine of his truck Keith shoved Lance hard in the shoulder.

"He doesn't know, you dumb fuck."

"I figured that out." Lance patted his shoulder and pouted. "You're a mess, bro."

"And it's none of your business, so stay out of it." Keith snapped, and then left dragging his laundry basket down the sidewalk.

Lance called after him, "You won't regret it!"

Keith flipped him off before turning the corner. He didn't need to tell everything to a dark stranger he barely knew and who barely knew him.

Everyone had their secrets.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8:《 today we are the light that travels into space

Keith passed four cats on his way home, including Scarlet. The Holt's tabby Sage, a stray fond of Lance nicknamed Foam for her blue eyes, and an orange cat fixated on the birdshop near Starflour a few blocks over. The four of them appeared to be in some kind of ritual meeting atop a crossing of two brick walls.

Something about it struck Keith as odd in and of itself, but a tingling sensation was grabbing at his neck and he kept walking with his laundry; feeling simultaneously weightless and gravity-stricken and--that's right--the party. The curve of his life was going topsy turvy but he kind of liked the view.

Dancing around the fire pit wouldn't be enough. Staring at the flame would question his perception. If he wanted results, he had to fuck himself up and hope he didn't remember in the morning. Tonight was going to burn.

Keith reserved his Kawasaki cruiser for commuting to and from Las Cruses and fantasies of solitary escapism. Anywhere in Silver was a pain in the ass for biking, but Hunk's house was behind the Hills off 180 so he justified untarping his worn and true Vulcan classic. It was the one thing he hadn't lost to debt. Keith shoved a bottle of whiskey into his saddlebag and straddled the seat, stirring the engine. Then he was off, pivoting into the dirt road behind Hov's Autobody garage and picking up speed before he merged onto the main road.

Traffic had petered out by the time he hit the causeway so he could enjoy the wind rushing against his leather jacket, the kickback of turning the throttle for more speed. At a dead intersection a few miles down he came upon a giant Harley grumbling around a rundown gas station, unoccupied and neon open sign flashing questionably. They were the only two on the deserted road.

Keith revved his engine and matched the rider's pace when he turned into his lane, lowering his hand in comrade's salute. The Harley did the same, after a moment of idling, then kicked gears and challenged Keith to a race. It seemed they were headed the same direction, into the suburbs full of nothing but motor homes and crackerhouses.

Keith accepted, jerking forward. They spread out into both lanes and maintained an even speed, creeping up to tease and falling back to taunt. Sure Keith's bike was smaller, but it packed more cc's. He pressed his weight into the stirrups and leaned down, breezing into the lead.

While the sun chased them down the horizon and cast the sparse desert in long, dramatic shadows, the bulky black Harley caught up to him and roared, inching ahead. Keith wove into the upcoming turn and took it tight, feeling the bump of unsmooth gravel. They were neck and neck. But he had to slow soon, Hunk's house was just a couple blocks down. The Harley cut back as well, trailing after him. When Keith lifted a hand as he puttered up the driveway he was surprised to see the Harley do the same. He parked beside Keith, who just set down the kick, and removed his visored helmet.

Keith ripped his off to express his surprise. "Shiro?"

"Didn't know you rode." Shiro replied, a huge grin on his face. "That thing can run."

"She's probably the only thing I take good care of." Keith hooked his helmet on the handle lovingly. Shiro was still beaming at him, pride or awe hidden behind his teeth. Keith dismounted, grabbing the bottle of whiskey to mask his suddenly stuttering nerves.

"The black rebel motorcycle club is here!" Pidge howled, leaning out the kitchen window with a beer in her hand. A screen had been there once but someone decided it was a good idea to headdive out and now the remnants hung and gathered cobweb. Hunk's house was a masterpiece in its own way, creaking floorboards and spider infestation be damned. It was the party house for anyone cool enough to know about it, and over time a lot of people did. "Fashionably late."

When Shiro cut his engine the sound of heavy bass pilfered from the cracked windows. Lance kicked down the front door to welcome them in, two cracked beers already in hand.

Keith was soaring after the adrenaline rush from his discovery on the road. With Shiro's hand resting mid-back, a gesture inbetween flirtatious and friendly, he casually dismissed any need for awkwardness between them.

Hunk was fanning smoke and grumbling about old ovens. Pidge was pouring moonshine and koolaid into a cauldron, stirring in a bag of ice and sipping from the serving spoon to check its taste. There was already a smattering of the acquainted hanging around the living room, uncapping beers or pouring water into red solo cups. Matt was amongst them, quarreling over robotics with a few of his university friends.

Hunk beamed when he spotted them. "'Ay! Keith, Shiro--did you two know each other? Anyway, glad you could make it. Can you get the fire pit going outside?" Hunk handed Keith a bag of Doritos. "You know the drill."

Keith took the chips and stole the whiskey back from Lance. Shiro made a concerned face.

"You'll see." Keith stepped out the open sliding door to the barren yard.

Lance snagged Shiro aside before he could witness this strange ritual lighting of fire. Instead he glimpsed Allura hanging a new windchime she'd picked up for the dead tree already littered with dozens of them.

"Two things you need to know about Keith motherfucking Kogane when he's drinking. First he gets super sweet, then he gets real mean."

Shiro eased out from under Lance's shoulder, eyes wary of the drink sloshing in his hand. "Thanks for the advice."

"You're welcome. Cuz it'll be like whiplash so buckle your seatbelt."

Keith was crouched before the pit when Shiro caught up with him, arranging the wood. Shiro handed over some smaller strips when he asked, "And just how are you going to start a fire with Spicy Nacho Cheese Doritos?"

"Watch and learn. They don't teach you this at boy scouts." Keith snapped his Zippo open with a flick and held it under a perfectly triangular chip until it caught. He'd already tossed most of the bag between the logs and set the burning Dorito within the chaos. In less than a minute the kindling flickered and popped and the bottom of the wood panels began to drag up taller flames.

Shiro's eyebrows shot to his crown. "What kind of witchcraft?"

Keith snorted. "It's cuz the fat content in chips makes them burn just long enough."

"Thank you, science!" Pidge yodeled from the patio, already tipsy. She snatched the bag from Keith and sampled the left over Doritos. "Tastes like fire."

As parties tend to progress, it wasn't long before groups were breaking off and the wanderers spirited between them with loud comments or more to drink. Shiro was one of them, drifting to join Matt and a few familiar undergraduates.

Keith spent a lot of time alone at things like these, often voluntarily. He'd just occupied the creaky loveseat with a plate of Hunk's slightly burnt (Lance's Fault) green chili enchiladas when the chef himself joined him, leaning over the couch back. "Soooooo. Been awhile, Keith." As in one day. "How's it hanging? And how do you know Shiro?"

Keith squinted somewhere distant. Hunk knew him because of university, apparently, (not like Keith was watching Shiro or anything), and from Starflour.

"Long story." And it's not over yet.

Before Hunk could interrogate him further, Lance trudged in and threw himself onto the ancient couch kitty corner to the loveseat, which was in only slightly better condition. "I'm hurting. Comfort me. Emotionally, preferably, but I'm open to other options."

"What happened this time?" Keith unpretzeled his legs when Shiro hopped the back to plop down besise him on the loveseat, somehow without spilling his drink.

"Why is Allura so cold to me? My soul feels like ice. Maybe I'm dying. That must be it." Waxing dramatic, it seemed. And Allura had just approached from behind the couch with Pidge trying and failing to contain her snickering.

"Allura's a lover not a hater, but she might hate Lance." Hunk was always quick to save the day.

"It's not like that." Allura sat on the edge of the couch and threw her arm around Lance's shoulder. "I can tolerate you."

He released a nervous laugh. "I guess that's an improvement."

"You are all so deceived." Keith joined in, pleasantly. Shiro's thigh was touching his where they sat on the loveseat. He almost inhaled his whiskey when he realized what they were sitting on.

"You sure you're not just the one she's hating on?" Lance jabbed.

"Someone's jealous." Shiro kept his voice low enough so that only Keith could catch it over the classic rock blasting from Hunk's impressive sound system.

"What was that?" Lance read his lips. "I couldn't hear you over the sound of betrayal. I had your back man. Remember? Sweet then mean?"

Pidge narrowed her eyes, putting two and two together. "You're totally talking about Keith."

"What?" Keith took a sip from his cup.

Allura grinned from her repose on the couch arm. "Keith, come on, you know you're a bipolar drunk."

"Isn't everybody?"

Hunk snorted, placing a hand to his chest. "I, for one, am a funny drunk. You're only funny in the unintentional, mostly cringe, way."

"Thanks, Hunk. Touches my heart." Keith lifted his now empty cup in cheers, as deadpan as could be.

"Oooh," cooed Pidge, "It begins."

"Something tells me," Shiro swirled the gin-tonic in his own cup before taking a swig. "Pidge loses her filter when drunk."

"You mean what little filter I have?" Pidge pushed away from the couchtop. "That reminds me, I haven't punched Matt yet today."

"He's here?" Lance leapt up, following after her. There was no joy on his face and Keith's giggle sobered all of them. It was an unspoken that Matt and Lance had some wrinkles to iron out.

"Wanna move to the firepit?" Shiro asked Keith as the others dispersed. Hunk joined in on the beer pong marathon happening in the kitchen and Allura had been swept away by Shay.

"'Kay." Keith slapped a hand on Shiro's leg before hauling up, winding through the kitchen to grab his whiskey. Shiro didn't stop him when Keith flicked his eyes up, waiting for him to.

"We can share."

Shiro laughed. "What a privilege."

Keith sent him a half-assed glare, but the grin creeping over his lips was hard to suppress. He'd planned on playing it cool tonight; maybe a little game of tag. He was quickly learning that every time he thought one thing around Shiro he usually ended up doing the opposite. And he knew he was doing it, and still did it anyway. Hell, he was doing it right now.

Okay, so getting drunk just made it worse. Whatever "it" was that Shiro was doing to him, intentionally or not.

Time sneezed, and when Keith had thought just he and Shiro were watching the dancing green lasers ricochet into the clear night sky, there was a short bout of rough wind and panicking about the flying embers.

"So midnight was just me yelling at the moths burning themselves on the lamp." Keith explained, forgetting the origin of his point entirely.

Lance was leaned in from the side of the ottoman, half-listening half-watching Allura and Hunk talk about suspicious stuff on the back patio. "I bet you collect them. Weirdo."

Keith didn't deny it, but he did punch Lance in the arm.

"That actually hurt, bro." Lance winced, rubbing at the tender spot.

"All I'm trying to say," Keith drifted off for a moment. Shiro approached after Hunk and Allura had nabbed him. "Is that handling a fifth by myself... is easy." That didn't quite come out right.

"My shelf?" Lance burst into laughter, "Buddy, my man--"

"Make room for me?" Shiro questioned Keith, who scooted over on the couch as Allura squeezed next to Pidge on the recliner. Hunk sat on Lance until he moved, complaining.

Keith was concentrating on staying at a slight distance--for his own currently unstable concentration--while Hunk uncapped a bottle of homemade rumchata. "I hope you saved room for desert."

"Hell yeah, pass that here." Lance all but snagged it from Hunk and took a gulp. "Bless your gifted soul, Hunk."

Keith was next in line, downing a bit, stoic to no surprise except maybe Shiro, who took it from him bemusedly.

"Do you guys throw parties often?" Shiro asked after taking a drink.

Allura reached over for the bottle. "We mostly hang out in the boonies."

Keith snorted under Pidge's protest. "For fringe science." She clarified.

"Majority vote says so." Allura took a long gulp and pushed it onto Pidge.

"The first rule is that you don't talk about it." Hunk was next, grinning as he drank.

"How about, space freaks?" Keith suggested.

Lance mouthed "rude" very obviously so everyone could see.

"Astronomy club?" Pidge was reaching.

Shiro laughed, sinking farther into the dip at the middle of the couch. It was inevitable, really. "It sounds like fun to me."

"Don't you keep bees or something?" Lance targeted Shiro, already sending the rumchata for a second round.

"That's me."

"Shiro is an excellent vendor." Allura attested.

"Where do you find the time to get it all done?" Pidge's question wasn't meant for an answer. It was another glitch where everything was happening exactly how it had happened already. Wasn't this the second time around?

"--without worrying about it much."

"Dude, you don't have a cellphone?"

Keith tuned back in, got up, and bee-lined straight outside for a cigarette. The ground wasn't solid anymore and he was walking on a wake up call, halfway through his smoke when Shiro slipped outside to join him, leaning against the side of the house cast in shadow. "You come and go like a ghost some times."

"Mass has nothing against me." Keith shot back.

"I should come around more often."

"Wish I could. My weekends aren't free."

"Same here."

Keith snubbed out his cigarette with a harsh laugh of smoke. "What's the deal here, Shiro?"

"Deal?" There was confusion, promise, concern.

Keith was drunk enough that his rationality had vanished and Shiro wasn't the picture of sobriety either. The train had derailed. "Stop following me around."

Shiro blinked. "Then stop running." It was a dangerous joke.

"You have no idea what you're asking me to do." And that wasn't sarcasm.

The lilt in Shiro's voice faded, "I guess I don't."

It could have been monumental but the tidal wave just crashed over his shoulders. Shiro leaned in and kissed him into stupored surprise. "I'm just drawn to you."

And Keith yielded in that stupor, lips curling at the edges. "Like the bees?"

"Maybe worse."

"Yeah," Keith huffed. "Me too."

It was the longest wave of déjà vécu he'd ever surfed and it cast the entire moment in a sudden web of uncertainty; veiling whatever resolution he could make. The dark stranger had him in the shadows, but he was so, so bright--and Keith was the moth willing to burn himself in that flame.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: 《 Tryn'a take a picture of the sun and it won't help you to see the light 》

The stars at night don't love the same way as the sun; they don't move fast enough to be seen where they cross and fall apart into the atmosphere. It's almost disgusting how drunk Keith is. A candle might tip over and set the house on fire at any moment--that house being his sanity--but harsh vibes carried the moment farther than circumstance. He watched an airplane streak across the night sky before belatedly realizing it was one of many thousand visible satellites watching their every move. Of course it wasn't interesting enough, nothing was. And the laser light show accompanying it (courtesy of Shay) refracted off of anything it could reach, even if it was quite some distance.

There were too many lights, all in a pattern in the sky. No one was looking. And as the spinning of the world caught up with him, gravity took him down.

"Keith, whoa, you okay?" A blur of shadows were hunched over him.

"I'm fine." Keith pushed Lance away, sitting up and wiping dirt off himself. He'd really seen that, hadn't he? When he looked for Shiro, his eyes caught a moment too long on the green streaks flashing. Their extraterrestrial partners were long gone and Shiro was making his way across the yard.

"Had too much to drink?" Keith took Shiro's arm when he offered it and allowed himself to be dragged to his feet, ignoring Lance's jab at playing favorites.

"I think I just saw the world pass me by." Keith leaned into Shiro more than necessary, reluctant to let go of his hand.

"I'm lucky mine's right here." Shiro's voice was so quiet Keith wasn't sure if he really heard it or not.

He pushed away then, heart thumping in his chest fast enough he couldn't breathe. That and he needed to puke. He stumbled his way to the bathroom.

Stars don't sway. The ocean does. And the ocean wasn't anywhere close by. But Shiro's shadow was just over his shoulder by the light of the moon, no matter how far away he was.

When he found Allura rolling a joint on the front porch with a glass of water, he sat on the step beside her and chugged the whole thing without an apology.

"Keys." Allura held out her hand. Only once Keith handed them over did she stick the joint in his mouth and light it. "Who would have thought," a soft giggle, neither of them were sober, "It's really Shiro."

"And you're surprised?" The sarcasm fell empty between them as he passed the joint.

Allura puffed on it, contemplative. "It suits him. Dark and strange. Maybe too much."

"I don't think I'm ready for this..." Keith leaned his elbows back on the higher step. "I feel possessed in the moment, like everything is coalescing into a giant mess."

"Coalescing. That's a good word. Maybe it won't be a mess this time." Allura hummed. "You gonna run away?"

"Have I ever?" Didn't he always?

Allura laughed. "I never know with you."

It wasn't long til Lance kicked through the door again and sandwiched himself between them; Hunk peeking out the screen with a whining Pidge at his side. "I know my freedom's yet to come," she warbled, "But I bet I'm smarter than all of you combined!"

"Wouldn't doubt it, Pidge." Keith coughed out smoke.

"That has nothing to do with when you should stop drinking." Hunk reminded her, taking the dying joint with gratitude.

Allura nudged Keith to his feet. "Get me another, will you?"

It was an excuse for him to retreat. He took it and wove back through the house and into the kitchen, eyeing the beer pong where Matt and his university friends were embroiled in war. Shiro was beaming at something Matt had said, clashing solo cups before taking hefty sips.

Matt was someone Keith knew but never really talked too. He'd befriended Pidge in high school, but her brother had graduated before he was even a freshman. They'd met maybe three times, exchanged pleasantries, and that was it. But Hunk was in his robotics club at college, so he was always around. How exactly he and Shiro knew each other was what piqued Keith's interest.

"Keith, wanna join in?" Matt invited him rather tactilely, pulling him away from the counter.

"I'm good." He slipped free, glaring a little more than he'd intended.

"I'm gonna get another drink." Shiro broke the split second of tension, passing Keith with a subtle wink.

Matt also happened to be courting Allura, and probably suspicious of Keith because of it. She'd told him so herself, and also that he was an Aquarius so there was no point in trying to get along.

While Keith was pouring two drinks, Shiro ticked a brow. "You passed out on two feet, Keith. Then you disappeared."

"One of these isn't for me." Keith chuckled, amused by Shiro's earnesty. "And I'd explain it if you'd believe me."

"Try me." Shiro watched as he poured some coke into one of the two whiskeys and shuffled it around.

"Maybe later." Keith circled the counter and made for the back yard, where a drunk hoard had loudly shuffled seconds before. Allura had been at the forefront, dropping him a two-fingered "I'm watching you," as she passed.

The bonfire was at its most spectacular, interfering with the green lasers. Now, they just erased the green star's rising light; any moment now it would disappear. Keith trudged up to Allura and shoved the straight whiskey into her hands. He made a point not to sit beside her, instead pulling Shiro to the stacked crates under the windchimes. Earlier in the night, even right beneath the branches, the music pumping from the house was loud enough to drown them out. But Hunk had toned it down and brought out his guitar, strumming into tune while stragglers not passed out or about to bounce settled in for the long haul around the fire.

"I have a request." Pidge raised her hand, spilling a bit of her tequila in the fire. The liquor buzzed and people ooed, wide-eyed.

"You know my repertoire," Hunk would allow it.

"I wasn't expecting to be here all night." Shiro sighed, but there was no regret in his tone.

"I don't know what I was expecting." Keith was probably a solid in the middle. It made Shiro laugh.

"Split this with me and we'll sober up faster." Keith hoisted the drink into Shiro's hands.

"At least one of us will." Shiro took a swig anyway.

"Are you even drunk?"

"Are you?"

"I'm super crossfaded." Keith huffed. Hunk was playing Nirvana's Heart Shaped Box while Lance fed solo cups into the fire, turning the flames purple and green as they burnt.

"What did you see in the sky?" Shiro's question was delivered with such precision, it struck Keith in a moment of clarity--like The Tower card, tumbling down--

"A UFO, maybe?" Keith kept his guard up, even if he told the truth.

"Are you okay?" It was the last response Keith had been expecting in return. A sudden image of the file in Shiro's mail on the table and the machine on his couch tapped on his nerves.

"Are you working for NASA?" Keith dealt into the discussion with just as much force. There hadn't been any need for warm ups.

Shiro's gaze snapped to him, gray eyes clear and sobered. "Where'd you get that idea?"

"What?" Keith let him look. "I saw the file on your table the first time I came over, I think. The day I graced the ground with my presence, two weeks ago, now? I dunno. Project Gestalt. I've got a photographic memory."

Shiro grew reticent, turning his eyes to the crackling fire.


"I'm not sure what you're talking about, to be honest." And he was. Keith could see the confusion lining his brow and goosebumps on his human arm. Suddenly Keith felt a shiver too, magnetized. "Maybe it was a vision?"

And maybe he really did need to dance around that fire. Instead he settled his head on Shiro's lap, stretching out best he could across the crates. Shiro lifted his hands, unable and unwilling to stop him. He hadn't planned to fall asleep, but it took him swiftly, body relaxed against his dark stranger.

He dreamt.

He was a falling star, gaining heat and bursting into flames upon contact with the atmosphere. A pair of eyes followed him, piercing the veil of reality like the familiar cover of a brilliant novel. Then right before he crashed he was standing in the middle of an empty field. He could see fifty versions of his shadow circling him, pinned at his feet.

"How many did you see?"

"You saw them too?"

"There was more than one, right? More like hundreds of them. Just there suddenly and gone the next second?"

"What just happened?"

"I don't know." Shiro said, "But I feel like we've had this conversation already."

"We were sitting by the fire. Just you and me." Keith thought that was what he'd remembered, but it was gauzy.

"Weird." Shiro breathed out a sigh, giving it up to the unknowable. "Déjà vu?"

"Just a bit."

"How many times do you think this has happened?"

When Keith woke up, he'd somehow made it to the couch. The sun peeked in through drawn curtains and Pidge snorted in her sleep, sprawled out on the loveseat.

"Smells amazing." Keith croaked into the kitchen, scratching at his stomach as he sat up and searched for his cigarettes.

"You and Pidge were the only crashers so I figured I'd be a good host." Hunk chimed where he was folding omelettes. "Wake her up. It'll be done in ten."

Keith shook Pidge, getting a mumbled, "five more minutes" and retreated out back for a smoke. Hunk's backyard was scattered in trash and bright wind chimes shining in his tired eyes.

He crouched, hands shoved in his pockets. "I've got to be insane."

When Keith strolled back inside, he found his keys on the counter in a sharpied solo cup from Allura: The Fool.

He unpocketed his phone, texting her: [10:08 am] 3 of swords

She quickly responded with, [10:08 am] bitch! 5 of cups

The Hangover card. Sometimes it was almost easier to communicate their moods through tarot.

Hunk was setting their portions on the table crammed into the breakfast niche when Pidge finally sauntered into the kitchen.

"I want to die." She slid into the chair and began eating listlessly, practically inhaling her glass of water.

"How you feeling?" Hunk turned to Keith instead, giving Pidge her space. "That black out wasn't like you, not gonna lie."

That's why he was sore and feeling bruised in weird places. Normally, Keith would share his experience from last night. These were his friends. And everyone in Silver City, whether they liked it or not, had Seen Some Shit. But something about it had been personal, hunted by invisible horror. Hadn't Shiro seen it too?

He repressed a shudder and shrugged instead, shoveling food into his mouth before he could answer.

"You're awfully friendly with Shiro, Keith." Pidge had honed her dark-circled eyes on him, chewing thoughtfully on her toast.

"Yeah, I noticed that too." Hunk was grinning.

"Can this not be interrogate Keith hour? You know I hate that shit."

"Guess it makes finding out more interesting." Pidge was undeterred. That's how they'd become friends in the first place, after all.

"Where'd you even meet him?" Hunk barreled forward, heedless of Keith's distress.

"Uh, work?"

"Which one?" Pidge and Hunk said in unison.

Keith rolled his eyes. "Paper route."

"You know him from school, Hunk?" Asked Pidge.

Hunk nodded. "I've seen him at Starflour a couple times too. He's an alum."

"Wasn't he in the military for awhile?" Pidge got up to rummage in Hunk's fridge for orange juice.

"Air force, I heard." Hunk replied. "Also heard he doesn't like to talk about it. Mostly from Matt, not gonna lie."

"Oh." Pidge poured herself a glass, realizing her error. "Well, he's weird."

"Aren't we all?" Keith noticed the way Pidge went mum, sobered into pensiveness. "Thanks for breakfast, Hunk. I'll help you clean up."

Hunk brought out his Bluetooth speaker and blasted The Black Angels as the three of them shoveled garbage into black bags and settled dishes, wiping up any spills. Keith cleaned the toilet too, even though he hadn't been the only one to greet the porcelain gods last night.

It was nearing noon when they finished and Keith mounted his bike with Pidge clutching behind him after begging for a ride home. He dropped her off at Holt's Hobby where Matt was manning the register with the countenance of a zombie, staring up at the ceiling listlessly.

Pidge entered the shop shrieking, "How could you leave your sister behind, jerk?"

Matt's reply was clipped by the door clanging shut, but he looked apologetic. Pidge was just bullying him out of love, she was good at that.

When he puttered past the intersection he noticed a familiar Ford Ranger half backed into the Holt's garage.

Keith didn't stick around to see if its owner was present. He turned left and went straight home, climbing through his window, and parted the curtains halving his room from the clawfoot bathtub, drawing hot water.

He dumped the entire jar of sea salt he'd been using sparingly into the tub, watching the steam rise from the faucet. Scarlet scaled the edge as he foraged his shelf for anything else he could use. Citrine, check. Yellow candles would work, he had two of those. Orange peel. Thyme. Perfect. He lit the candles and balanced them on a plate, rested amongst the citrine on a small stool beside the bathtub.

It was just the cleansing he needed. More sun. He was too cryptic. Keith felt the urge to shed a second skin, something was seething within him and it was dark and unfamiliar but he still recognized the push and pull, tidal gravitation rushing through his veins.

The citrus and the solar energy would pull out the shadows gathering at his feet--and enhance them. Keith sank into the hot water with a groan, delving head first under before resurfacing to glare at the flames.

He knew if he did a tarot reading on Shiro he wouldn't like the results, so he wouldn't do it. Not yet, at least, because he was unfriendly with fear and rather good at beating it away with a stick.

Something in Shiro scared him, enticing and electric. The scales could tip any moment--Keith was always prepared for that. His life was an endless cycle of bullshit and the small things that made it worthwhile in the end. It was The Tower and The Star on endless rinse and repeat.

The way he met Shiro was a little like The Tower; catapulting off his bike and into the bee's nest. And the way Shiro had picked him up and put him back together was The Star: a healing, guiding light. That's where it didn't make any sense. Shiro was supposed to be his dark stranger. And that was no small thing.

With the dark stranger came bad tidings, that much had been obvious from the start--the real beginning two years ago when his father died and left him to rot; shouldn't it have been the other way around?

The water warmed his body, relaxing his muscles as he sighed.

"I'm sorry, son, I'm sorry." His father had been hysterical at the end, out of touch with reality. "Promise me you'll wait." Just what was he supposed to be waiting for? "Your mom wanted you to live a normal life. You'll do the right thing, won't you?" Promise me.

Then came the dreams; like his promise had been Pandora's Box and he'd carelessly opened the lid. His father's death had marked the beginning of a spiral into chaos that had been barely contained even when he was a child. And his mother, eternally absent, still somehow managed to keep him grounded here--in this place--for a dying oath.

What a joke. Something wasn't right. Enter the dark stranger.

He didn't have control--that's what scared him. And he was clueless on how to get it back. Keith rose from the bath refreshed but pensive, packing his duffel bag for work before getting changed.

Pidge had texted him, [4:49 pm] Tune in to 145.17000 around 2 am

She'd probably be broadcasting something. [5:54 pm] If I'm off work

[5:55 pm] Loser. Thanks for the ride btw

[5:57 pm] I want a discount next time I go to Radioshack

[5:57 pm] I don't actually like you that much

He stuffed his belongings into the saddlebag and started up his Kawasaki, puttering out towards the highway and into the distant city nightlife.

2:22 AM, Sunday morning.

This is Pidge, still broadcasting on frequency 145.17000. I have a message for anyone tuning in.... Yeah, fuck you.


I journey through the desert
Of the mind
With no hope
I found you

I drift along the ocean
Dead lifeboats in the sun
And come undone